The Long and the Tall of It: Gerald Saul.
The Thousand and Twelve Faces of Shawn Fulton
I first met Shawn Fulton in my first term of teaching at the U of R. I don’t recall having him as a student but his presence, his energy, his humour, and particularly his laugh filled the halls and everyone was aware of him. His final student film, a brazen mixture of badly acted live action and crude animation was tied together by a voice-over that was certainly recorded in the edit room the night before the project was due. But through all of its flaws, or perhaps because of them, the project outshone everything around it. This was a person with a voice that would not be quieted.
Throughout most of the past decade, Fulton has been establishing himself within the film industry, his good nature and prowess with the cameras and film technology proving both to be assets. Fulton is a film school graduate that most graduates dream of being. He earns his living practicing his craft with the (usually) lucrative film industry, honing his skills, building up a social and professional network, and all the while he has a sliver of his mind working ferociously away on his next creative venture. More importantly, at least once per year he acts on that inspiration, devising incredible gems in the guise of simple super-8 films. These films are dreams made solid, reflections of his cleverness and of his laughter that I still hear resonating in the university hallways.
However, with such small films spread over such a long time period, it has been difficult to recognise patterns behind Fulton’s work. Eight of his twelve personal films that I want to address have been presented through the annual One Take Super 8 Events which originated and are run by Alex Rogalski. Prior to these, two of Fulton’s student videos are important to note. Anywhere But Here and Grand Opening are unconventional narratives in which Harold, played by Fulton himself, becomes unwittingly entangled in melodramatic stories involving aliens, robots, Satan, cloning, and the apocalypse. Numerous motifs that recur in later works can be traced to these two project including the montage of faces, the costumes, the disguised voices, and the blurring of dreams with reality with cinema. A pseudo-Harold character is featured in the more recent 30 Flowers, 30 Souls, where Fulton again appears wigged but nameless and seemingly miscast into his own genre picture. When I asked Fulton about Harold he told me that there was one more adventure planned and partially shot regarding a time capsule but that the reality component of the film, a real time capsule that was dug up by the fictional character, was disappointing and deflated the project. As I have found throughout his films, a documentary component of the real world is intrinsic to give us the illusion that we are grounded but in fact we are being swept into a realm of dream.
In Dogs, a super-8 film created for Rogalski’s inaugural event, featured images of dogs at a street festival, shot with a hand-held camera placed a foot or two from the ground. The soundtrack is extracted from an educational documentary discussing the history of dogs and attributes of a number of breeds. Contrary to Fulton’s own claims that the camera was not subjectively taking the position of a dog, his pans and semi-random movements in response to the dogs can be nothing but dog-like. In my view, the “doggy-ness” of the film and the intellectual/academic content on the soundtrack establishes an in-between space that might be emblematic of Fulton’s entire creative process. Perhaps Fulton is using a type of planned intuition, putting himself into a situation that is best suited to the film he is making and relying on his own ability to react to the situation in the most effective way. This creates unconscious metaphors throughout many of these films.
The following year, Fulton presented Lightmare, an array of distorted and manipulated images of popcorn popping, neon lights, time lapse coffee machines and sparkler dressed cupcakes. Constant zooming, the use of distorted panes of glass, and the calamity of a horror film influence soundtrack is counterpointed by a ridiculous image of Fulton, clad only in a cardboard kilt, coming down a kids playground slide. Tying the images together was light, the glinting and reflecting and movement and colours. Fulton tells me that he keeps a certain degree of distance between different parts of his life but this project, seemingly without direction or structure, perhaps comes closest to melting the disparate interests of his life together into an absolute celebration of light.
Self Mummification Made Quick and Easy returns to the use of an educational-style recording to counterpoint his image but this time returns full force to the mainstay of his student work, the absurd. As a lone man, apparently listening to analysis of Egyptian mummification secrets, attempts the process on himself with predictably gruesome results, a juvenile fantasy where the grotesque is the goal, not the deterrent. Fulton uses the mummy’s symbolic life/death/rebirth metaphor to illustrate his own rather contradictory philosophy that he regrets wasting time and not pursuing his adult goals when he was a youth.
It is with his 28 minute animated epic The Cat’s Pyjamas that Fulton takes his work to a more complex and mature level. Building on the convoluted plotlines from his student days, this film follows half a dozen characters whose lives intersect around the theme of personal loss. One woman is obsessed with perfecting a plant that would predict tragedy and does so too late to prevent the death of a wrinkled child she cares for. Her neighbour, an ADD challenged man, searches the city for his missing cat, the only thing that loves him unconditionally. An elderly woman lives a shattered life, haunted by memories of a sasquatch who stole her husband from her. The surrealistic nature of these melancholy stories is emphasised through Fulton’s use of rotoscoping techniques to convert the video into animation. This fusion yet separation of reality to fantasy leaves us on edge, unable to decide if the story unfolding is taking place in a real world or that of dreams.
In Slow ‘N’ Steady Wins the Race, Fulton’s trademark approach to camp becomes fully matured. Rather than relying on single performers as in his previous short films, he draws from a collected ensemble cast that he developed with The Cat’s Pyjamas where each actor explors a different genre and acting style or, as is often the case, non-style since they are individuals drawn to Fulton’s films through friendship rather than an acting background. Zombies and dancers compete to eat watermelon with a plethora of pixilation, regurgitation, and over the top performances. Surprisingly, “camp” in its postmodern conscious-aesthetic-use-of-exaggerated-acting-or-design-for-humour-and-irony context, is not Fulton’s intention. Rather, he claims, the acting, costumes/disguises/wigs, and voice alteration/accents were introduced to cover up for problems in acting instead of as a political, social, or artistic statement. Regardless, the end effect is a continued exploration of the grotesque, the unreal, and the dream.
The meticulously planned improvisational The Wolf Rocks Regina created the next year continues this use of absurdism through performance and design. In what looks like an entirely improvised comic sketch, Fulton has prepared for every contingency. The primary character, a wolfman, is ushered into a fast food chicken restaurant by his publicity people and documentary crew who insist that there will be dire consequences if he does not eat right away. Shot in order and edit in-camera, the entire cast needed to be ready to stay in character and respond to any of a number of likely responses the chicken staff would have to this unorthodox event. The film uses a clever double system of recording in which the background noise of the super-8 camera is used to edit the audio to (hopefully) match the image that, until the time of screening of One Take Super 8 Event films, is not seen until the premiere. It has been these dualities, the looseness combined with the planning, the ingenuity combined with the technical simplicity, that makes Fulton’s modestly flamboyant work the star attraction each year at this event.
Lowlife features a no-holds-barred character so antithetical to an creative-thinking artist that one needs to wonder what dark forces might be at work in Fulton’s mind. The film focuses attacks against super-8 filmmakers with such humour that it could be used as recruitment to the craft. Fulton’s influences are close to home. He feels that all characters and events need to come from within himself and his dreams. Fulton also seems to want to flaunt his level of preparation to his audience who can see, through shifts in tone between the reality and the waking dreams and the use of images-within-the-images, that this small scale drama took multiple days of preparation and a skilled photographic eye to come to the screen. The Vaseline, the director’s apron-clad cameo in the kitchen, and the tree-hugging make this Fulton’s funniest work to date. Similarly, C6 H12 O6 confuses the acts of watching films, making films, living life, and dreaming. The line between each of these acts is not only blurred but entirely gone as characters from tv enter the protagonist’s dream until he awakens to find them invading his bedroom. Overindulgence, this time hot dogs rather than watermelon or chicken, connect this film to previous works and more clearly establishes a link between the main character as protagonist and as a stand-in for the audience as viewer/consumer of the work. If life is not, as the row row a boat rhyme suggests, a dream, then perhaps it is a movie.
The Changing Face of Cinema exhibits a new side to Fulton, that of a father. Beginning as a peculiar series of shots where Fulton pulls his rubbery face into comical contortions, the sequence climaxes with the image of Fulton’s son Roscoe. As suggested by the title, cinema, or at least the personal cinema in the world of Fulton’s life, not only has a new face but is irrevocably changed. Fulton is no longer putting on false faces to be a character but is putting on faces to become a father or, more specifically, to be Shawn Fulton. As his first true self portrait, we can see the fragmented nature to Fulton’s identity, the humour he strives for, and his urgent need to disguise who he is.
It is ironic that, through all of the disguises and twisted first person fictions, this body of work grants us many insights into the nature, if not the factual life, of this filmmaker. Fulton lives on the borderline of cinema, dreaming that he is a filmmaker and occasionally waking up to discover that he is one.
Shawn Fulton: Filmography
Anywhere But Here (student video, 2000)
Dogs (3 minutes, super-8, 2000)
Grand Opening (16 minutes, student video, 2001)
Light mare (3 minutes, super-8, 2002)
Self Mummification Made Quick and Easy (3 minutes, super-8, 2003)
Cat’s Pyjamas (28 minutes, 16mm, 2004)
Slow ‘N’ Steady Wins the Race (3 minutes, super-8, 2004)
The Wolf Rocks Regina (3 minutes, super-8, 2005)
Lowlife (3 minutes, super-8, 2006)
30 Flowers, 30 Souls (1 minute, 2007)
The Changing Face of Cinema (3 minutes, super-8, 2007)
C6 H12 O6 (3 minutes, super-8, 2008)
Shawn Fulton videos on Youtube.