The knock on music video directors working outside the video arena is that their work tends to be all style and no substance. But what if the style is the substance? What if, for instance, you are adapting a piece of literature whose primary aim was to evoke a mood, to create a sensation? Well, then … being heavy on style is just what is necessary to create a masterpiece. This is the case with Charlie Deaux's Zoetrope, an eighteen minute short film based on Franz Kafka's In the Penal Colony. Collaborating with Lustmord's Brian Williams, cinematographer James Hawkinson and animator Robert Beebe, Deaux has created an impeccable, nightmarish vision of a man crushed and destroyed by the mechanistic devices of science, politics and bureaucracy.
As is the case with almost all of Kafka's short fiction – much of his long work, as well – Zoetrope is entirely a mood piece. There is no narrative to speak of. A man, naked, is held in a decaying cell for unspecified reasons and left to go mad as a man in military uniform spouts high sounding philosophy of nothingness while working his elaborate machinery. The machine is everything, the man nothing. It is an oppressive world, dank and soulless, entirely cold and uncaring. Not only does the prisoner not know why he is being held, he never will know and has only a life of isolation and torture to look forward to.
The world of Zoetrope is absolutely impeccable. Deaux works in sharply contrasted black and white and, along with his impressive list of collaborators, has created a sharply detailed world. The film is beautifully shot and edited, the sound design – I hesitate to call it a score – bolsters the mood perfectly, and Beebe's animation fuses flawlessly with the live action elements. The tech elements are built around found elements, a sort of retro-tech that will seem familiar to fans of Chris Marker's La Jetee or Mamoru Oshii's Avalon. Indeed, though Deaux quickly establishes a visual style purely his own fans of David Lynch or Shinya Tsukamoto will find a lot to love here.
Beautiful in its brutality, poetic despite being so unrelentingly grim, Zoetrope is a must see in the world of post-apocalyptic film that marks Deaux as a significant talent, a man who needs to be watched. The DVD – released by dark indie music label Soleilmoon – is sparse and non-anamorphic but it features a pristine transfer and gorgeous packaging. Simply stunning stuff.