Film Review: Glitch in the Grid

Live-action and animated art film, a la the Quay Brothers, of a spiritually ungrounded young man and his friends.

The American economic recession is taking its toll on most everyone except, perhaps, the much-noted 1 percent who control 40 percent of the wealth, and possibly the top 20 percent who control a whopping 84 percent. But it's certainly having its effect on the rest of us, including avant-garde animator Eric Leiser and his writer-composer brother, Jeffrey, whose 2007 feature Imagination, while meeting with mixed reviews, showed an enormous amount of what the title promised. So does the fascinating and lyrical Glitch in the Grid, albeit with an overtly Christian bent in the latter half that feels, ironically, unimaginative.

Offering a rare look at avant-garde creators in the blunt and brutal real world—as opposed to the romanticized fairy tale of Basquiat (1996), in which the titular artist evidently never had a mundane moment—Glitch in the Grid makes the hardscrabble lives of its protagonists as heartbreaking as they are hopeful. A semi-fictionalized account of the Los Angeles-area Leiser brothers taking in their vaguely artistic cousin Jay as he tries and fails to step onto the bottom rung of acting, Glitch bravely examines the empty cupboards, basic housing and tin-can cars of artists on the outer circle.

Talent and hard work may be in abundance, but without contacts and networking, these struggling artists appear consigned to obscurity. Jay doesn't even display the talent-and-hard-work part—his idea of becoming an actor involves not classes or fledgling theater troupes or self-produced short-film showcases but perusing Craigslist and skateboarding. But Eric works diligently through the night on his animation models and Jeffrey, who provides the film's Philip Glass-like score, labors away at a veterinary clinic in order to earn a living.

Jay's "career" doesn't work out and he goes home. Eric inquires about his soul in a casual, low-key way until, in a clunky shift, he gets married in England, where he films a passion play and the annual Hastings Bonfire Society procession, then moves with his bride to Manhattan.

The live-action parts of the plot, however, are not the crux of the film. It's during the substantial yet leave-you-wanting-more animated portions that the movie becomes mesmerizing. Leiser's stop-action and time-lapse vignettes range from pixilated people, recalling the work of Zbigniew Rybczynski, to garish puppets that evoke the Quays as nineteenth-century carnies. In recurring motifs, a pixilated leaf scurries across forest floors, and a stop-motion-model white dove, the Christian symbol of the Holy Spirit, bridges nature and civilization. A white model hand carries a flower like a stigmata.

In those moments, Glitch is great. With its dream-like, wordless soliloquies and nightmarish visions of death and decay, it grapples with the ineffable, trying to define the verbally indefinable, and presenting us with a string of symbols like kinetic sculpture. Visually arresting in their tension between grace and doubt, the animated portions form a portrait of creators who, like the rest of us, may be looking up from the foreclosure-crisis detritus of hard work and hope in the American dream, and wondering just WTF.