Here’s how the structure of the Twillerama Animation Festival shakes out: we’re sitting with Jeff Twiller and Randy Johnson—as animated by Morgan Miller, they’re flattened out in-depth, but bear-sized in width—as they “webcast” their own animation program. They introduce the entries, credit the creators, and then the curated short films play out, until we throw it back to Twiller and Johnson. The latter makes a lewd joke, while the former, often slack-jawed, responds with something to the effect of “well… shit.” So they host the show in the same way they’re drawn: with a well-crafted crudeness.
With the right movie, the right audience—and maybe even the right program of trailers beforehand—the “After Midnight” program at the Coolidge Corner Theatre can feel like the product of a mad scientist. The disreputable images come at you in a haze, until they’ve got you so tizzied that you forget how you’re getting home afterwards. That’s a feature, not a bug. And it’s why the two volumes of Twillerama series fits into the midnight program as well as any after-hours genre picture: Twiller and Johnson are serving as movie-programming mad-scientists, too.
The shorts themselves play out the sorts of scenarios that you’d expect to find in old underground comics: drug-ingestion memoirs, gory stories, and instances regarding the intersection of the sexual and the surreal. One short by Bill Plympton (The Date,) catalogs all the things that enter a mouth over the course of a romantic evening. Another entry has a boy sneezing his insides all the way out. And we can’t forget the one about the talking penises. That organ is everywhere in this program: dicks walk, and talk, they’re too big, or too small. Some even form their own high society. Twillerama has more cocks than a Jackass movie. And as in that series, they’re integral to this movie’s soul—they poke out.
The whole thing starts feeling like a nightmare you might have after watching too much public-access television. And so you start interpreting it as you would a dream, searching for hidden symbols and associative links—how could you not, when a story about talking penises leads into a birth-imagery horror piece entitled Orifice? But like many other cinematic experiences, Twillerama bares its soul in the very first shot of its very first volume. Johnson is seen in the background, calmly urinating. And that’s what we’re watching: a piss-take.
So its been taken. But from who? The skeleton of the feature (and the fact that Johnson is always harping about awards—he wants to send lube in lieu of trophies,) recalls the random way that bunches of shorts are culled together to be shown, sans connective tissue, at film festivals. And the image of two men staring into the frame and snarking on the clips they play? That could be every talk show ever made. (Vol. 2, which features follow-up’s to many of the shorts in the first volume, swaps out Johnson for “security entrepreneur” Rod Holcomb—he puts on pseudo-pretentious airs, rather than defiantly-blue-collar ones—but the general setup remains the same.) Then there’s the vast expanse of the curation: some films are older than 40, and a wide range of the non-commercial animation scene is well represented. That’s a familiar experience too: here’s what happens when an animation fiend spends the day shooting up and down Youtube.
But those readings are riffs that you happen onto after the mad doctor’s experiments are over. The primary question is a simple one, no subtext needed: does Twillerama add up to more than the sum of its sexual organs? With a deceptively complex emotional throughline, it transcends those genital interests. The dick jokes and the banter among the fictional hosts has us yakking it up like frat brothers, but then suddenly we’re watching a short like Sidewalk (by Celia Bullwinkel,) which tracks the inner life of a woman via the fluctuating size of her bottom and her breasts. Or we’re watching Mountain Ash (by Jake Armstrong and Erin Kilkenny,) a terribly poignant ghost story about the curious place of humans in the natural food chain. To draw yuks is human. But to know how and when to stop them cold? Divine.