One of the more common modes of making a short film is a simple formula—take an existing audio recording and add animation to it. Some would argue that it's lazy, and I've seen a number of these short films of this type that fail to engage on a visual level. But spoken word performance has grown in popularity over the years, as anyone who listens to NPR on a regular basis can attest. So, it should come as no surprise that I see many films of this kind as I wade through all the short films every year in hopes of finding one that truly stands out. This formula is only lazy if the filmmakers clearly depend on the audio content to make it interesting.
One such successful film that I watch every year at around this time is Nick Donkin and Melodie McDaniel’s “The Junky’s Christmas,” based on the short story by William S. Burroughs. The audio comes from a 1993 album by the hip-hop group The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprasy called “William S. Burroughs: Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales,” a collaboration between them and Burroughs which resulted in fifteen tracks of Burroughs’ prose mixed with an urban beat. Like Burroughs himself, DHOH existed on the fringes of their artform, existing more as cultural anthropologists rather than succumbing to the gangsta mentality that was more prevalent at the time. The mixture of these two artists was potent and made for a compelling, if slightly disjointed album. And it must be said that its enjoyment depends greatly on how long you can stand listening to Burroughs’ unique delivery, itself an acquired taste (maybe the spoken word equivalent to Tom Waits).
“The Junky’s Christmas” remains a stand-out track, as it combines the urban hip-hop sound with the traditional "Nutcracker" Suites and other Christmas favorites. It tells the story of Danny the car wiper, a drug addict who has just been released from prison. On a cold Christmas day, he yearns for a hit to take the edge off. He goes to his physician who gives him nothing but painkillers. He talks to one of his friends at a diner, who is also of little help. When he returns to his apartment, he meets a man who is suffering from severe kidney stone pain and it is in this situation where Danny finds the true meaning of Christmas.
Donkin and McDaniel paired up Burroughs’ story with beautiful black-and-white stop-motion animation in which the characters have distinguished, well-rounded faces. Their mouths have a crookedness when they speak and one figure barely moves his mouth at all. Just the movement of the cigarette in his mouth is seen. When they walk, their legs resemble the Muppets in their puppeteered awkwardness. Simon Higgins and Wyatt Troll’s cinematography stays in the dark more often than not, but the emptiness of Danny’s day is felt in the wide shots of barren city streets and parks. And while Burroughs’ tale is populated with derelicts and drug addicts, the humor of the piece never gets lost.
Lest you think a short story from Burroughs might not be to your liking during the holiday season, Donkin and McDaniel have bookended the film with shots of the author reading in front of a warm fire and then being surrounded by loved ones at a Christmas dinner table, perhaps an ironic nod to Norman Rockwell. It is an odd, yet welcome image of the celebrated beat poet known for writing “Naked Lunch” and it works wonderfully as a coda. “The Junky’s Christmas” is one of those short films that needs to be preserved and watched by future generations of those who like their Christmas movies on the cult-ish side. This is for fans of “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale,” the Flaming Lips epic “Christmas On Mars” and, of course, last year’s Short Film in Focus for December, “Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life.”
“William S. Burrough’s The Junky’s Christmas” is available on DVD from Koch Vision on Amazon, but supplies are limited, so you better hurry.