A Year in Shorts Day 59: "The Bead Game"
As regular readers of this blog have no doubt surmised, I’m not the most “artsy” of people. Oh sure, I can be pretentious with the best of them. I’ll gladly watch Cloud Atlas, Russian Ark or that creepy Czech stop motion version of Alice in Wonderland from the 80s. But at the end of the day, my tastes skew a little more mainstream than avant-garde. Why else would I run a blog dedicated to the Oscars? This is not something I particularly mind about myself, and mostly just serves as an explanation for why I’m not quite able to put into words why a short like The Bead Game is so great.
Released in 1977 by the National Film Board of Canada, Ishu Patel's The Bead Game is another anti-war animated short for us. But unlike Peace on Earth or Good Will to Men, this film does not use cute talking animals to get its point across. Instead it shows a brief history of violence over time as it uses multi-colored beads animated atop a black background to show animals, mythical creatures and warriors throughout the ages developing new ways to kill one another. All set to an excellent percussive score by Jnan Prakash Ghosh, The Bead Game is nothing short of hypnotic.
But how does one go about discussing it? It's undeniably a great short as far as I'm concerned, but its greatness can be a little hard to explain. I suppose one could argue that the film speaks for itself; indeed, if there was anything more that needed to be said, the short would contain dialogue. But that feels like a copout answer, so I'll try my best to talk about why the short is so great without just summarizing the whole thing.
Key to the short's success, of course, is the animation. Believe it or not, the images (inspired by the bead designs of the Inuit people) were all created via stop motion, which certainly helps adds to the visual wonder. I can only imagine how it must have looked on the big screen. I've only seen one short we've covered thus far in theaters (and I was so young when I first saw Geri's Game that I don't remember it), but no short has made me long for the big screen experience more than this one. The use of contrasting colors, morphing shapes and creative imagery makes for one of the most visually stunning films I've ever seen, short or otherwise.
And while it's certainly odd to discuss a more abstract short in terms of "plot", it must be said the film's story structure is impeccable. Starting with a couple of amorphous blobs devouring each other and moving up to scenes of nuclear destruction, The Bead Game perfectly understands the need for pacing and escalation. At only five and a half minutes, the short is the perfect length to make its point without belaboring it. And the score gives the whole short a great deal of energy which makes it feel as if you're being carried along with it. It reminds me strangely of Brian Reitzell's score to the Hannibal episode "Mizumono", with the incessantly beating drum calling to mind the ticking of a clock.
Even with all the words I've dedicated to it, I feel as if I'm not doing The Bead Game justice. One could probably write an entire book about it and not get to the heart of the thing. Ultimately, The Bead Game's greatness is self-evident, and nothing anyone can say about it can express that in a way that isn't better served by watching it. The Academy might not have agreed (the Oscar that year went to another NFBC short, The Sand Castle, currently unseen by me), but I say see for yourself. The NFBC was kind enough to put it online for free, so there's really no reason not to!
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