A filthy, confrontational, sophomoric animated feature from Hungary, Áron Gauder’s “The District!” (I prefer the less prosaic, more punctuative Hungarian title, “Nyócker!”) has a surplus of borrowed hip-hop attitude and proudly lowbrow ghetto texture. But it’s Gauder’s absolutely distinctive visual docket that is ceaselessly arresting. Call it a smash-up between faux 3-D digital fluidity and cutout cartooning and rotoscoped realism and Ralph Steadman-esque satiric caricature — the upshot is hypnotizing, even when the film’s wigger material tends toward the idiotic. Gauder captures his actors in a broad variety of facial poses and then animates the characters using these images (much as each character found expression via the interchange of dozens of different heads in the stop-motion “The Nightmare Before Christmas”). But he also embellishes them graphically, distorts them digitally, and then folds them into hectic, multilayered urban tableaux, all of it seething and brawling and swarming like a real city neighborhood as seen through the scrim of very strong microdots.
Which would all make only a scintillating short, not a feature, if Gauder’s timing and deftness with multiple action weren’t precise and hilarious; watching the background characters’ expressions change on the offbeat, from deadpan to rageful to joyous, is often more fascinating than the foreground business, which often devolves into Magyar hip-hop music videos (and accomplished farces of the form, at that). Seeing these 2-D digi-puppets meet gazes is alone funnier than the last five CGI penguin movies. The plot, which moves like a driverless car, involves a gang of Budapest street kids, many of them Rom, deciding to get rich by traveling back to the Stone Age, killing and burying mammoths where their city block will later be, returning and digging for oil. Which they do (they’re even inadvertently responsible for continental drift), and the consequences naturally spiral out into an international debacle that ropes in Osama bin Laden, the Pope and Bush II, all of them given a rightful satiric flogging in the process. “The District!” began as an Adult Swim-style series-within-a-series and might represent the most inventive use of digital animation anywhere, and certainly rules the hard drive work being done elsewhere in Europe.
One of the key films of the indie “new wave” that roiled through the 1980s and resulted in, among a great many other things, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith and IFC itself, Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s “Chameleon Street” (1989) fetched a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance before Sundance was Sundance (the soirée’s maiden name was the Utah/US Film Festival). It remains a troubling and pioneering piece of work, if somewhat less forgivable today for its grandstanding, its clumsy amateurish filmmaking and its fuzzy thematic hustle. Harris did all but hold his own boom for this micro-budgeted interrogation of American race relations, which in a desultory way biopics the story of one William Douglas Street Jr., a Detroit-born inveterate con man whose compulsion it was to pass himself off in professional identities he wasn’t qualified for: a surgeon, a corporate lawyer, a French-speaking exchange student at Yale (without actually knowing how to speak French), etc. (In fact, several players in Street’s real life play themselves, including Detroit mayor Coleman Young.) In Harris’ purview, Street was a hopeless self-aggrandizer as well as a low-rent autodidact, and his purple, rhyming, R & B narration belittles everyone he meets as relentlessly as it puffs up his own plumage as the smartest man for miles.
But taking the Harris/Street persona at face value — as an empathetic protagonist — is a mistake. Harris turns Street’s odyssey into a kind of arch, bohemian vaudeville as the rich-talking dude foolishly begins to consider himself a pretentious “artist” of identity and manipulation. Of course, the real subject is the black man’s need and desire, in late-century America, to adopt and swap out identities so he might fit within the white hierarchy; the sense of genuine self is a casualty of latent racism, while at the same time, Street can “pass” for anything as long as he occupies largely white environments where he is essentially as “invisible” as Ralph Ellison. The film’s crude, cheap visuals also wield a sharp double edge — take them either as botch work or as the opportunistic parody of blaxploitation filmmaking and those films’ disturbed sense of empowerment and social dynamics. Burdened by tons of Street’s seriously witless summary judgments and smooth romantic seduction-chat, “Chameleon Street” remains probing and singular, and perhaps, an opportunity for a less indulgent, more thoroughly conceived remake.
“The District!” (Atopia) will be available on January 15th; “Chameleon Street” (Home Vision) is now available on DVD.