The Films of Jim Trainor
By Fred Camper
In a 1987 column, Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman decried the state of avant-garde film, saying that much of the movement’s original spark and social activism was gone. Asserting that new energy would have to come from “marginal and excluded” filmmakers, he concluded that the source certainly would not be “straight suburban white boys transplanted to Avenue B.”
At that time filmmaker Jim Trainor was living in a dumpy upper Manhattan railroad flat, having long since moved from the east-coast suburbs where he grew up to New York City to attend Columbia University. Later he actually moved to Avenue B, the East Village street where he lives today. He meets every one of Hoberman’s racist, sexist, classist criteria for a filmmaker we don’t need. His films were largely unknown then: he was only a year into the 11 it took to complete his longest film–the 38-minute The Fetishist (1997)–supporting himself mostly with office jobs. By the time he moved to Avenue B, his close friend Lewis Klahr had lived there for years–another straight suburban white boy whose highly original cutout animations have won him considerable renown. Now it’s Trainor’s turn: his first one-person show here, Friday at Chicago Filmmakers, reveals a quirky, original vision of human and animal nature. (Later this summer he’ll leave his job bartending and move here to become a full-time animation professor at the School of the Art Institute.)
Trainor began making animated films when he was 13, working with a friend whose main role was filming and coloring in Trainor’s drawings. Trainor had a childhood interest in dinosaurs and birds, and today he collects insects, reads a variety of nature books, and has returned to birdwatching. His subjects are usually plants, animals, or the animal nature of humans, and he’s developed a uniquely expressive drawing style, an unquiet blend of disturbing physicality and gentle charm. Of the eight films at Chicago Filmmakers, five are silent. Some, he told me, were made as breaks from the 20,000 drawings he needed for The Fetishist (also on the program); though he originally saw these films as a way of expanding his vocabulary, he now shows them as completed works. A fine entree to his use of line, shape, and rhythm, the silent films allow the viewer to apprehend his style more clearly than the three sound films, which have narratives.
The earliest of Trainor’s silents, Torn Up (1994), isn’t drawn at all. Like all the films on the program, it’s in black and white; Trainor made it by gradually ripping away strips from a stack of colored construction paper. The rough tears and multiple shapes result in images like those in abstract paintings–but Trainor undercuts any effect of otherworldly purity. We’re always aware of the physical nature of the paper and the act of ripping it.
In The Bat and the Virgin (1997) a bat cut out of paper flits rapidly in front of white dots on a gray background representing the constellation Virgo. Trainor calls the title “a little bit of a joke” and says he tried to reproduce his childhood observation of bats: “They move so quickly you only see them for a fraction of a second.” The somewhat reflective paper he uses for the bat makes it stand out in relief against the gray sky, giving it a tangible, distinctly creepy presence.
Two of Trainor’s sound films, The Bats and The Moschops, not only depict animals but purport to be narrated by them. The Bats (1998) is a fiction about many different species of bats inhabiting a cave near a Mayan temple in the 14th century–long after Mayan civilization ended, as Trainor points out to me. He mentions as influences the Hollywood cartoons of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery as well as avant-garde animations by Robert Breer, Harry Smith, and the little-known Adam Beckett. Unlike a Disney animator, Trainor remains relentlessly true to bats’ physical lives, depicting these nocturnal creatures as white lines on black and sometimes showing the narrator defecating. That bat’s brother is said to have drowned on his first flight, and once the protagonist detects “the wonderful odor” of female bats, he has “sexual intercourse with 42 different girls…that spring.” Another bat says his mother licked his anus every time he defecated–a remark arguing for these creatures’ otherness.
Set 247 million years ago in what is now South Africa, The Moschops (2000) is a faux nature documentary focused on a genus long extinct. Saying that the film is “about the origin of compassion in the animal kingdom,” Trainor writes in a fanciful statement that “scientists believe the Moschops was capable of interior tenderness, which it expressed, ironically, through incessant fighting.” In the narration a female Moschops tells us, “We didn’t love each other exactly, but at night we all slept together in one big stupid pile.” The male protagonist is a bully, beating up on a smaller male as a way of impressing girls. The female narrator says, “When one of us died, we barely noticed it”–a comment followed by a scene of a corpse being consumed by bugs and carnivorous reptiles. Trainor contrasts the fighting among males with the tenderness the narrator feels for others of his sex but can’t express. “Suppose the origins of human love don’t evolve from the need for procreation,” Trainor says, “but out of this bittersweet homosexual attraction.”
The key to both films is Trainor’s drawing style. The smiles of the Moschops are significantly different from human smiles–warm but also goofy and half stupid, reminding us that this is a creature in the earliest stages of animal intelligence. Crude by traditional standards, Trainor’s drawings are made with the same Sharpies he used in junior high, ruling out precise control over the thickness of the lines. And he doesn’t “register” his drawings–most animators use paper with precisely punched holes to allow for identical positioning of each frame before the camera. So his forms jump around a bit in space: we’re never lost in the world of the Moschops–instead we observe Trainor making a film about them. His sometimes rough techniques represent a modernist acknowledgment of the nature of his materials, just as Robert Breer sometimes briefly shows the animator’s hand making an adjustment.
But Trainor’s lines and shapes don’t simply waver–they pulsate. Heads and bodies change shape as if they were ready to burst in some kind of growth spurt. Creatures appear always on the point of charging forward–or defecating, as they often do. Even a momentary change in the thickness of a line seems to signal a possible moment of growth, movement, or collapse. Just as the abstract lines in A Net (2000), another of the silent films, hover on the point of becoming rotating ribbons, so these schematically drawn creatures seem not only to have real weight and volume but to be full of the transformational possibilities of life and death.
The Fetishist tells the story of William Heirens, a Chicago teenager who murdered two women and one young girl before being caught in 1946. Trainor is a bit ambivalent about the film today, disliking the current “bratty hipster” interest in serial killers, though it grew out of his own interest in the tale after reading a number of true crime books in the early 80s. Today he thinks he’ll never get any closer to understanding serial killers, saying “they’re utterly removed from us. Heirens was a little more sympathetic, in the sense that it was clear that there was a moral struggle going on within him”–Heirens once left a note imploring the police to catch him.
Trainor used a 1947 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry as the basis for his film. When Heirens was nine he discovered a fetish for women’s underwear, eventually achieving a spontaneous orgasm when he wore them. Breaking into homes to find his fetish objects, he would also often defecate on the floor as part of the sexual experience. Killing was not his main motive–he seems to have killed only when discovered. Characteristically, Trainor shows us Heirens’s defecation but not the killings, which Trainor says “disgust” him. And he gives indirect voice to the victims by inserting photographs of three different women or girls in the brief scene of Heirens’s trial.
While it’s a bit strange to see a serial killer drawn in Trainor’s appealing sketchy style, The Fetishist is in some ways his richest work. For one thing, the changes in Heirens’s expressions, hair, and body convey his instability–in fact he blamed the killings on an alternate personality, “George.” Trainor also makes significant use of cutout photographs or drawings. A room that Heirens burglarizes is depicted in photographic fragments–a sofa, a rug, and so on–emphasizing his isolation from reality. When he defecates and we see a drawing of him openmouthed, with a medical-book drawing of a mouth between his lips, Heirens’s physicality becomes frighteningly vivid. And when Heirens holds a photographed key and uses it in a photographed lock, we’re reminded of the very real consequences of his actions, a point also brought home by the photographs representing the victims.
Trainor’s take on the killer is a variation on his bats and Moschops, an uneasy mixture of animal and human. And if the film leaves the viewer a bit baffled, so much the better–The Fetishist acknowledges what we cannot know.