I was lucky to go into Vimeo's second original film blind. I remember seeing some of my animation industry friends sharing the Kickstarter link for the short when it was live, even thinking of dropping a few bucks in myself though I eventually wouldn't. All I remembered was the aesthetic: glossy, digital, and glowing with hot electronic colors. From the outside, it gives the impression it might be some sort of disco throwback noir, the title and style suggesting something sexy and crime themed. The truth is, the short is less of a freshly waxed sports car and more a quiet reflective conversation in a corner booth in a nearly empty bar. The story, apparently at least somewhat autobiographical from the life of animator/graphic novelist Robert Valley, unfolds slowly as a somber portrait of rocky friendship and the incredible toll life leans on the living, carefully revealing itself all while framed with peerless aesthetic clarity.
Narrated from Valley's perspective, the short film concerns the life and early death of his friend Techno, a vibrant but self-destructive young man whose life of excitement is quickly and irreparably paralyzed by his devastated health and spiritual isolation. Valley's guide is one of regularly wounded affection, sacrificing for his friend but unable to avoid being a witness and recorder of Techno's eventually fatal personal flaws. While Techno's life of adventurous and bacchanalian excess is explored, the story suddenly and wisely cuts it short, giving you a picture of his electric peak before quickly pulling the rug out for a grueling look at his sudden but excruciatingly elongated decline. It's not a portrait of a party lifestyle and its consequences as the bow on the end of the narrative, it's the story of a man who loved life in a way that killed him as well as the other man who was held prisoner by friendship to watch him die.
Something I was unaware of when I agreed to review the short was that I was already quite familiar with Robert Valley as an artist, being the primary contributor to the character designs on the underrated and short-lived animated series Tron: Uprising. Valley's singular style is immediately apparent in his work, his figures designed with angular and exaggerated anatomy, at times equally grotesque as it is expressive caricature. In Pear Cider and Cigarettes, Valley is able to be even more free and stylized, adapting the pages of the graphic novel the short is based on with a look that comes off contradictively as both naturalistically gestural and glossily digital at the same time, using the book as storyboards for the art. One thing the viewer might notice is the short actually works more like a motion comic than a true animated film much of the time, with most shots being very subtly animated still images, full frame by frame animation shots being rare. While this might be seen as a handicap to the short, it never once took away from the film despite noticing this. The slight animation techniques used being expressive enough and intelligently utilized that it gives the "still images" more dimension and character than some fully animated flash cartoons. Valley's detail fleshing out the world and the careful attention to gesture delivered by the animation team sets the storytelling style beyond reproach, rich with surprise.
The audiowork rounds it out perfectly, with what looks like a very expensive catalog of licensed music to accompany the original contributions by Robert Trujillo. Smoky jazzy tracks from groups as disparate as Pink Floyd and Nightmares on Wax color the quiet rumble of the noir like narration, soothing and intimate, bringing you close to tell you previously unspoken secrets.
While a tough story to hear (and for Valley, I'd imagine, a tough story to tell), the short is a sad story, not a depressing one. There's a note of inevitability in Techno's eventual downfall and even his library of personal crimes along the way. A sense that for him, it would always end up this way somehow, a consequence of finding fulfillment in reckless and often selfish behavior. You don't hate him, even though you blame him. You don't mourn him, even though you feel the emptiness of his passing. While unflinching and presenting more flaws than admirable traits, Valley has crafted a beautiful, deeply felt tribute to his friend. One that invites you in to understand his friendship in a way that makes you feel his connection while only communicating in simple abstractions why he stayed so loyal to someone who only seemed to sacrifice when it was made biologically inescapable. It may have slick stylings, but the storytelling here results in one of the most real and grounded human stories I've experienced in quite a while.
[su_box title="Score: 5/5" style="glass" box_color="#8955ab" radius="6"]
Pear Cider & Cigarettes Creator: Robert Valley Price: $4.99 (Rent), $8.99 (Buy) Available Here!