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Cartoonist Dash Shaw’s first animated feature, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, opens with abstractions that gradually slide into distinction. At first, the bottom of the screen is covered with blue flames laid over a multicolored background of concentric circles and vertical stripes. Black silhouettes of falling bodies tumble in front of this backdrop, eventually replaced by the cartoon forms of young adults doing the same.
The viewer is likely to ask, “What am I looking at?” — a feeling that persists, not unpleasantly, for the following 76 minutes. This opening shot is a microcosm for the film as a whole. Shaw skillfully applies lessons from the comics medium, moderating the level of detail in the animation to captivate his audience.
In an unnamed California town, sophomore Dash (Jason Schwartzman) thinks his classmates avoid him because of his acne, though their dislike more likely stems from the fact that he’s the type of arrogant young misanthrope that Schwartzman is so skilled at playing. When an earthquake rocks his high school, the building, which was inexplicably built on a cliff, falls into a nearby body of water and begins its gradual descent. In order to escape, Dash joins forces with best friend Assaf (Reggie Watts), newspaper editor Verti (Maya Rudolph), popular Mary (Lena Dunham), lunch lady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon), and hoodlum Drake (Alex Karpovsky). While the stakes may seem dire, the proceedings drift into the light-hearted, yielding laughs with raunchy situations and lines like, “I want you to think about what you’ve done by trash-talking your friend’s penis.”
Coming from the world of graphic novels, Shaw is familiar with the comic book medium’s ability to provide audience surrogates. In his classic Understanding Comics, cartoonist Scott McCloud discusses the typical cartoon drawing of a human as being nondescript: A basic sketch of two eyes, a nose, and a mouth on a face could feasibly represent any person. It is this indefinite nature that allows the reader to see his or her own face in the drawing. As McCloud says, “The cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled … an empty shell that we inhabit which enables us to travel in another realm.” By rendering his characters in a simple manner, Shaw invites the viewer to imagine him or herself fighting for survival alongside Dash’s motley crew.
The film’s character design is, accordingly, very simple. Eyes are dots hooded by arches; their blinking is one of the faces’ only movements, along with mouths and brows. Bodies move stiffly when they move at all. However, Shaw’s relatively thick line is always in motion, reminiscent of the Squigglevision of TV shows like Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist and Home Movies; this technique makes the figures appear malleable. These lines are mere suggestions to border the colors splashed haphazardly on the screen with noticeable strokes of paint of scribbles of colored pencil. The characters’ colors change independent of the situation. Generic appearances make Dash and company into everymen and everywomen.
Once the standard for the film’s bodies is established, Shaw expertly modulates the level of detail in their portrayal. Like the tumbling figures in the opening, characters are often shown in silhouette to decrease definition. When Dash and Assaf distribute newspapers to their classmates, their featureless forms tout headlines and scoops. At the opposite extreme, certain views of situations, places, and even people display finite specificity to increase detail. As the earthquakes arrives, we see a cross-section of the school and the land beneath it, showing layers of earth and the faultline responsible for the catastrophe. In one of many charming appropriations from video games, swimming sequences often cut to a view inside a character’s body, where the size of their lungs indicates the amount of oxygen remaining, in a style reminiscent of health meters. The sojourners obsess over the bliss of using cotton swabs until we get to witness one doing what it does deep within an ear canal. Whenever Shaw swings between the vague and the hyper-detailed, the audience craves the medium level of detail in the characters, along with the individual engagement that comes with it.
My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is uniquely excellent because it relies heavily on a resource that few other animated features have: a powerful visual grammar that has been finely honed in the trenches of comics storytelling. Shaw’s first film manipulates the blank canvas that animation provides in order to utterly engross its viewers. We care about these characters and their struggles because we can easily see ourselves in their shoes. This captivating film’s success offers a strong argument — and hopefully an encouragement — for more graphic novelists to apply their creativity to animation.
My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea opens at Metrograph (7 Ludlow Street, Lower East Side) on April 14. There will be Q&As with Dash Shaw, Jane Samborski, and Kyle Martin on April 14, 15, and 16.