Zone is a powerful, stylistic fusion of classic German minimalist cinema, the New American Independent esthetic, Buddhist philosophy, and vintage stop-motion animation techniques. It approaches deep, introspective themes with both a subtle beauty and a genuinely whimsical sense of itself. In light of how risky being so true to one's art really is, fearless is the only fitting adjective, which is good, since 'Pygmalian Drops Acid' with the 'Vampire in Wonderland' as performed by the Buster Keaton Players is nowhere near as snappy or dramatic sounding.
The film makes the most of a mixed bag of low-budget, high-impact special effects, expertly chosen scoring and nuanced, high-theatrical performances. Bringing together these elements to highlight an otherwise very sparse, mostly black & white, silent production, the mad coven at Reel Groovy films present a truly affecting and enjoyable Odyssey of oddity. Hartman and Co. craft a psychedelic epic beyond the frontiers of the individual mind, through the interwoven fringes of our shared consciousness, across the assumed boundaries of what is ‘real,’ into the very heart of the human experience.
We embark on this journey along with the Toymaker (Hartman) a cursed, dimensionally displaced hermit. His only companions are his lovingly crafted, creepily human toys. When his beloved creations, Groovy Girl and Bean Pole, are lost and stumble into the Reel-Illusionary Zone, the mystical border between the land of toys and the ‘real’ world, the saga begins. First, the Toymaker builds replacement toys, including a disturbing, faceless creature and 2.0 versions of Groovy Girl and Bean Pole. The Toymaker charges these creations with finding their predecessors, and they, too, get lost in the mysterious landscape.
The two sets of toys have a variety of misadventures, my favorite of which involves a beautiful homage to the gold standard of German minimalist film, Nosferatu, complete with gothic European castle and buck-toothed vampire. Eventually, the toys each emerge into the ‘real’ world, attaining humanity as they do so. With all the new knowledge, and needs of humanity, the toys attempt to make their way in our world. Their travels leave them (in succession and ultimately mistaken for each other) at a movie set, where the story has its conclusive epiphany.
The Toymaker, for his part, has gone in search of his ‘children’ himself. Following the advice of a supernatural princess, he retraces the steps of his creations. His path is advanced by super-trippy visions, transcendental trances, saints, and sorcerers. He is challenged with his own fears, misconceptions, and prejudices of perspective. It is only by facing and overcoming these inner limitations, including his attachments to a lost love and his toys, that he is able to navigate the Zone and find his way back to his rightful dimension. When all the players are reunited on the movie set for the climax, the development and depth of the characters is fulfilled.
The Reel-Illusionary Zone is a deep meditation cleverly disguised as whimsical, art-house experimentation. Hartman and, indeed, all the talented creators and performers who bring this delightful fantasy to life can be proud. It’s a visual treat, a true work of art, full of thought and emotion that really shows off excellent mastery of classic minimalist film-making.
Written by Joseph James Bellamy
Editor: Deb Bellamy