Art and Experimentation in “The Vandal”

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December 13, 2021

A camera closes in on a preened suburban town, where shrubs and plump trees fill the gaps between pleasant houses. But, in the background, shrill string instruments create the high-pitched unease of a thriller; all is not well in this neighborhood, despite its tidy appearance. The camera zooms in on one of the houses; this is the home of an older couple, Eva and Harold. In the dining room, a doctor examines Harold, whose head is smooth and whose features are round and drooping—even his skin looks tired. Harold slumps in his seat. Throughout the examination, he answers questions wordlessly, with nods or shakes of his head. The doctor finishes up, hands Harold a bottle of pills, and then pulls Eva aside to tell her not to worry: “Many people have benefitted from a lobotomy.”

Such is the opening scene of “The Vandal,” a short film by Eddie Alcazar. Later, Eva passes away, and Harold—suffering from grief, the traumatic surgery, and mind-warping medication that the doctor has prescribed him—begins defacing a museum’s art works, scalding portraits with sulfuric acid and sometimes tearing at paintings with his fingernails. In his turbid mental state, he believes that this will allow him to see Eva again. The criminal-justice system responds by dragging Harold in and out of jail. When he returns home, he sees that the house which he and Eva shared has endured its own sort of vandalism; graffiti emblazons its exterior, and the wood has begun to blacken with rot. On the inside, light bulbs burst.

Throughout the film, Alcazar experiments with a style that he refers to as “meta-scope”—a constant, delicate shifting between live action and stop-motion. The technique is most notable in the first museum scene: a tiled hallway slides into view with a colossal, shadowy statue of a male figure. Then, Harold, played by a flesh-and-blood actor, steps into the frame. Except his movements look a bit jerkier than usual—a slight and unnatural rigidness characteristic of Claymation. When did the stop-motion begin? Is it only Harold that’s rendered in clay? Or is the statue—the entire hallway—also tricking the eye? Many of the meta-scope shifts in “The Vandal” are sly like this one; the film’s artists crafted the Claymation in such precise detail that it takes a few moments for the brain to catch up with the eye. The result is a constant feeling of disorientation: “Stop motion is real and yet it isn’t, which creates this uncertainty in the mind,” Alcazar told me, in an e-mail. “I really tried to enhance that feeling as much as possible.” The instability that the audience endures mimics the instability that Harold himself must be feeling. He mourns, hallucinates, and finds himself in places he doesn’t remember walking to—mental states that can be hard to capture on film.

Alcazar told me that part of the inspiration for “The Vandal” came from his interest in the ways in which, in the medical field, humans are, to some degree, “a huge science experiment.” “Everything’s constantly being tested,” he said. He decided to include a lobotomy in his film because he was fascinated by the work of Walter Freeman. In the nineteen-forties, Freeman pioneered the transorbital lobotomy, a ten-minute outpatient procedure that he often carried out in his office, with a slim mallet shaped like an ice pick, despite the fact that he was not a neurosurgeon. He touted the procedure as a cure for all sorts of behavioral difficulties, even ones that did not constitute real medical problems. In his research, Alcazar read about Howard Dully, who received a lobotomy from Freeman when he was only twelve years old. Dully’s father and stepmother complained about their son’s defiance, his lying and stealing, and how he whined about not wanting to go to bed but would then sleep soundly; such issues were sufficient to warrant the procedure. In Alcazar’s words, Freeman and other practitioners took an opportunistic approach and recommended lobotomies for “whatever it may be—loud children, loud people, people that are different.” Harold’s foggy, discomfited journey is how Alcazar imagines the aftermath of such an operation, which was billed in the mid-century as an “easy, quick fix.”

“The Vandal,” like much of Alcazar’s other work, seems to linger on questions and contradictions, reflecting his interest in, as he put it, “the unexplainable.” The film’s movements in and out of live action are both eerie and strangely comforting. There’s something about the use of its clay figures that feels almost whimsical, and recalls children's films such as “Coraline" and the “Wallace and Gromit” series. The stop-motion imbues macabre, depressing, and even horrific moments with a sense of playfulness, and tinges them with nostalgia. At the film’s core is another contradiction: Harold’s movement between destruction and creation. The film closes with a shot that imagines Harold’s newfound creativity. He is in a different role now; his relationship to art has been transformed.

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