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THE HUNGER ARTIST

The art of stop motion animation is given a huge boost by this 2002 adaptation of Franz Kafka’s classic story. It’s both a first rate technical achievement and a surprisingly harmonious blending of form and content.

The Package
     Franz Kafka’s 1922 story “A Hunger Artist,” about a man who makes an art out of fasting, was previously adapted for the screen in a 1982 live action short by John Strysik. This 16-minute stop motion animation version arrived 20 years later.
     Its creator Tom Gibbons is better known as an animator (on JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH) and special effects supervisor (on STARSHIP TROOPERS, HOLLOW MAN and CLOVERFIELD), but you wouldn’t know that from this film, which ranks with the finest work of animation maestros like Jan Svankmajor, Patrick Bokanowski and the Quay Brothers.

The Story
     A Hunger Artist reports, suitcase in hand, to a cage in the midst of a vast, impersonal city. Alas, nobody’s interested in his brand of artistry, which involves fasting for the edification of large crowds. The Hunger Artist thinks back to his glory days, when a demonic barker enthusiastically paraded his unique talents and people appreciated them. He’d fast for 40 days at a time, and flowers thrown by the ecstatic crowds would fill his cage.
     Now, however, the Hunger Artist has been cast aside. He gets a glimpse of the attraction that has displaced him, an overpowering amalgam of light and sound that makes the Hunger Artist’s fasting seem wan and archaic. Yet he keeps at it, and eventually dies and rots in his cage.

The Direction
     I can’t imagine a more successful adaptation of Franz Kafka’s story, although it’s not entirely faithful. Director Tom Gibbons’ focus is on the Hunger Artist’s dogged determination to carry on with his craft in the face of overwhelming disinterest (Gibbons: “The artist, against all odds and better judgment, refuses to abandon his craft. I don’t think of him as a hero, and yet some crazy instinct or corner of myself does”). Gibbons largely ignores the story’s other noteworthy elements, such as the details of the Hunger Artist’s show (including the stagehands employed to make sure he doesn’t eat) and the final revelation of why he’s so good at fasting.
     Yet the film is a superb example of visual storytelling. Presented entirely without dialogue, it’s a flawless symphony of music and image. The stop motion animation is streamlined and thoroughly professional, from the crispness of the photography to the sophisticated detail of the characters. The tall and bony Hunger Artist is a wholly distinct and unforgettable creation, and his manager/barker, portrayed as a toothy monstrosity, is equally unforgettable. Other fascinating sights include the supporting characters, depicted as two dimensional cut-outs, and the highly expressionistic, distorted cityscapes. It’s not unlike a scaled-down redo of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, and Caligari and Kafka, it turns out, are an unbeatable match.
 

Vital Statistics

THE HUNGER ARTIST

Director/Producer/Screenwriter/Cinematographer/Editor: Tom Gibbons
(Based on a story by Franz Kafka)
Cast: Jason R. Husken, Rip Reed (voices)

     

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