I’ve loved animation and graphic storytelling for as long as I can remember—things like classic Disney animation, or the old claymation holiday cartoons like Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Comic strips and comic books. And, especially, stop-motion adventure movies like Jason and the Argonauts and the series of Sinbad voyages that featured the special effects of the legendary Ray Harryhausen. A little clunky and laboriously time consuming, these efforts shaped my impressions of what I decided was cool when it came to entertainment.
Digital animation and CGI has largely left this kind of work obsolete. When done well — those first Pixar features like Toy Story, or Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy — this modern technology is as immersive and fun as anything from back in the day. Still, the relative ease of cranking stuff out on a computer versus laboring through it by hand has led to a lot of bad storytelling and bloated visuals (look no further than Jackson’s continued work with the Hobbit trilogy). Thankfully there remain artists and storytellers who seem to take an almost morbid pleasure in doing things the hard way. Missoula’s Andy Smetanka is one of those people.
Smetanka’s And We Were Young (AWWY) is the filmmaker’s creative adaptation of the book Doughboy War: The American Expeditionary Force in World War I by James H. Hallas. The book tells the story of Americans fighting in the war via their own words, crafted from journal entries, unit histories, diaries and personal narratives. The story unfolds linearly, from men talking about their eagerness to get into the war—“Here’s our one great chance for excitement and risk, we could not afford to pass it up”—through the journey overseas, training, delivery by train to the front, and ultimately the actual fighting and the horrors that ensue. Marching to fight, encountering men returning from there along the way, one soldier says, “As I came to learn more about how the war was being fought, I began to doubt my ever returning to the states.”
Smetanka enlists scores of voice actors to relay these quotes over his images, kind of in a Ken Burns documentary-style, with each voice taking on its own personality, race and degree of aged crustiness. Harrowing as the words are, though, AWWY is still a visual effort, and that is no doubt where the real elbow grease of this project was applied: three years of effort and 250,000 frames of Super 8 film, to be exact. It may not be Spielberg’s depiction of storming the beach at Normandy in Saving Private Ryan, but it will make your stomach churn, I guarantee it.
I don’t know that describing it gives the animation its due. These are images of soldiers, buildings, horses and airplanes, all hand-made silhouettes that move back and forth against solid backgrounds of red, yellow, blue and green. Things blow up. Bodies are torn apart. Blood spatters. Airplanes strafe and bombers bomb. Soldiers smoke cigarettes, affix bayonets to rifles, bury and mourn their dead, make love to women in foreign cities. The score, by Jason Staczek, is subdued and haunting, which fits the brooding pace of the film perfectly.
At first a little awkward, I was quickly pulled into the visual experience, completely immersed. The voiceovers are key, but it is amazing how just the tilt of a head, the set of a mouth—remember, all in silhouette!—can convey real emotion. I came to identify with these men so deeply, and felt real loss when they were shattered and torn apart in the midst of this horrible conflict. “I can’t even begin to describe my state of mind,” says one doughboy. “You’re just gonna have to imagine it.”
The effort, focus and artistry involved in pulling off this film staggers me. In the final hours of its completion, a mutual friend told me she was pretty sure “Andy has gone feral” and I don’t doubt it. Creatively, I’m all out to remain disciplined in the completion of a rock n’ roll song that crests the four minute mark. What it takes to pull off a feature-length film comprised of handmade visuals simply boggles my mind.
It’s probably not a perfect movie. Other people I discussed AWWY with said they like it but that it is too long. I suppose there is an argument to be made for that, as the film clocks in just shy of two hours. Some of the pacing can feel sluggish. Maybe the approach could have been more dynamic during scenes of action. Perhaps there could have been more excitement in the voices of the narrators, or shorter time between quotes. It is also, at times, quite gruesome, which may be off-putting to some viewers. Still, those are minor quibbles, and nothing that should keep one from viewing the film.
It is equal parts art and a re-telling of critical American history, particularly in this era when it seems too many people seem eager to take up the banners of war at any little threat. War ain’t glorious. All it produces is horror, haunted survivors and generations of post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers. Showing this on the screen is where And We Were Young really succeeds.
And We Were Young screens at the Crystal Theatre inside The Silk Road, 515 S. Higgins Ave, Fri. May 1, and Sat., May 2, at 6 and 9 PM nightly. $15/$12 advance. All 6 PM screening will be followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker.