To like weird fiction, is to seek out and share new experiences. That’s not a matter of choice. The weird is ironically good at keeping to the shadows, lingering in a thousand secret R’ylehs while the limelight is hogged by more accessible fare. But, then again, that’s all part of the fun. With the pleasure of the experience itself, magnified by how easily you could have missed it, there is no greater pleasure than an experience newly discovered. Unless of course, it’s the pleasure of sharing your weird treasure with everyone you possibly can. In that vein: guys, I have something good for you today. Check this out:
Watch it? You ought to: after all, it’s only 3 ½ minutes long, and now I’m about to spoil the crap out of it.
Ok done? Right, I imagine you’re feeling pretty freaked right about now. Don’t panic. This is normal. Don’t Hug Me, I’m Scared is a masterclass in messing with peoples’ heads and a ringing slap in the face of expectation. The bright colours, the puppets, the teaching of creativity, this is all Cbeebies stuff. It prods our brains into expecting childlike innocence, and like fools we believe it. It’s hard not to, when the expectation is backed by a happy, catchy tune, delightful animations, and silly voices. The short perfectly captures the feeling of children’s programming. And then the insane nightmare happens.
In cine-lingo, I’d call what happens a gradual tonal shift. It’s not a sudden change. There is an undercurrent of darkness running throughout the film, beginning with the lingering of the camera on the fake knives at the beginning. It is also present in the lack of the enthusiasm those at the table have for the Notepad’s ideas, and in the Notepad’s attempts to restrain creativity that doesn’t follow its specific guidelines. The descent into madness is nicely foreshadowed. However the fact that the descent happens so quickly, makes sure the tonal shift remains both dramatic and profoundly unsettling.
The most noticeable aspect of the shift is the descent of the happy, bouncy tune into screeching discord. More insidious however are the visual cues. The animated segment at the beginning of the shift, as a complete change of visual style, would be discomfiting on its own. However the fact that the segment also breaks the 4th wall literally shatters this imaginary world. What was at first an enclosed space is now potentially infinite. What was at first fantasy is now implied to bleed into reality.
Our discomfort is cemented by the switch from puppets to costumes, a change that takes us from something that comfortably imitates humanity, straight into the uncanny valley. The weird spasm-like dancing is just icing on the weird cake. Then, to seal the deal, we have the red, intestinal squishiness of the hearts and meat, a vile intrusion of disgusting reality into a space we believed to be so innocent. All of this and more flashes by, too fast for our brains to try to find sense in. We in the audience are thoroughly and comprehensively freaked and alienated.
And then suddenly, we are whipped back into the innocent, happy world we occupied before. Our expectations are shattered by the tonal whiplash. What we just saw fits no real narrative pattern. The closest we could come to defining it would be as a comedy, but Don’t Hug Me is too nightmarish to rest easy in that box. All we can be sure of, is that the short was really, really weird.
And it’s also something I might never have come across. Sure, the video has over 1.5 million views on Youtube. I saw it first featured one of the most prominent short film blogs on the web, and then at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s not exactly an unknown experience. But still, even that level of knowledge is not enough for this film. In the space of 3 minutes, this film displays intense visual creativity, provides at least a couple of laughs, and hints at some interesting Ayn Rand-style subtext (an implicit criticism of teaching creativity, because doing so restrains natural creativity). But most of all, Don’t Hug Me is all that weird fiction should be: a perfectly constructed rejection of expectation. It is therefore a film that has to be seen by as many goddamn people as possible. Share and Enjoy!