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Hundreds Of Beavers

Hundreds of Beavers: Keystone Comedy

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“[Hundreds of Beavers] is not a real movie,” declared director Mike Cheslik at the start of The Frida Cinema’s members-only Q&A screening of his enrapturing new non-film, sounding more and more like Connor O’Malley with every increasing decibel. “It is a home video made by drunks in Wisconsin, so lower your expectations!” 

This distinction, while playfully preempting the perceived quality of his mysterious new comedy (returning to The Frida on Friday, May 31st), was also an invitation for the audience to join the film on its own idiosyncratic level. Hundreds of Beavers has a strikingly lo-fi, handmade quality that may read, at first glance, as blemish but is actually a primary component of the film’s transcendent DIY art philosophy. Even extending to the film’s theatrical distribution, a truly viral word-of-mouth sensation, which sees Cheslik and the film’s star, Ryland Tews, out pounding pavement, almost literally hand-delivering the film to theaters in a vaudevillian roadshow that is sweeping the country.

Not a “real movie,” sure, but perhaps something entirely new unto itself.

And Cheslik’s not the only one exploring this contradiction. At a time when the role of cinema is becoming increasingly diminished, both Hundreds of Beavers and Harmony Korine’s latest, AGGRO DR1FT, arrive to movie theaters as defiant repudiations of the modern entertainment status quo. More informed by video games and computer-generated effects than conventional narrative cinema, both films offer a similar “anti-movie” movie ethos to theatergoers during this new cultural sea change. Explicit defiance of tradition as cinema seeks to accommodate the burgeoning 21st century.

“The way John McCracken would make sculptures,” Korine told a Los Angeles crowd from under a neon yellow balaclava, “he would kind of try to carve color, turn them into like, totems; I was trying to carve color. [AGGRO DR1FT] is more of a vibe, I don’t even know if it’s a movie.” A cinema without movies. Film atomized into pure sensuality. Art secondary to the raw experience of its creation.

Despite superficial differences, very little separates the independent self-funded spirit of Hundreds of Beavers from the multimedia experimentation found throughout Korine’s body of work. His infamously unreleased (now, lost) end-of-millennium ode to the slapstick of Buster Keaton, Fight Harm, is perhaps the strongest antecedent. “I wanted to make the Great American Comedy,” Korine said of the project in 2000.”And I wanted it to be a cross between something like Buster Keaton and a snuff film, where I would go up to people and I would do whatever I had to, to make them hit me. Basically, to make them fight me.” While the footage Korine shot for Fight Harm burned in a house fire, an approximation of its comic study in violent repetition can be felt in more contemporary works, like Jackass, but also in Cheslik’s Hundreds of Beavers, a new candidate for the title of “The Great American Comedy.”

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Beavers just combines everything we’ve liked for a long time,” recalled Cheslik during an interview for Wisconsin radio. “Like the fact that the Mario camera and the Buster Keaton camera are one and the same, and I sorta wanted to make a film to prove that little cinematic thesis.”

At once an amalgam of its influences and also beyond definition, Hundreds of Beavers is a black and white comedy of beavers bent, broken, and beaten through the indifference of cartoonish bedlam. Out on the wintry Midwest frontier (actually shot in northern Wisconsin), an applejack salesman battles with a local enclave of beavers to earn a fair maiden’s hand in marriage — but the real story of Beavers lay in its championing of slapstick storytelling. Buster Keaton and Mario. Guy Maddin and Jerry Lewis. “Slapstick had to be brought back. It’s a great American genre and tradition that needed to return and was dormant for no reason,” says Cheslik, inadvertently echoing Korine’s objectives with Fight Harm.

Recalling these early cinema styles, the cartoonish kineticism of Hundreds of Beavers is equal parts hilarious, thrilling, and confounding. At its most imaginative, Beavers is predicated on a squishy, malleable logic that underscores the possibility of cinema as an art form now just as it did over 100 years ago. The interplay between seeing and understanding. The phenomenon of the edit as a means for both story- and joke-telling. Wordless, the film is replete with sound effects and music that interlock as pure cinema, every step, bonk, smash, and fall delightfully mixed to yield maximum absurdity. Sound designer Bobb Barito, who Cheslik affectionately refers to as “a real adult that was on the project,” was responsible for most of what is audible in this essentially silent film. The rest was handled by Cheslik himself, an editor by trade, who took to doing all the visual effects on his own. As he often likes to boast during the film’s press tour, “I don’t know, 1500 After Effects shots. Took a while, so…”

Using consumer grade DSLRs, Cheslik and his team produce images that are as lush and visionary as any large-scale studio production, an extraordinary demonstration of resource allocation. Bang for beavers. Amidst the current wasteland of prepackaged CGI and artificially intelligent screenwriting, Hundreds of Beavers’ bespoke pop cinema buzzes with the vitality of thoughtful artistic creation. The tangibility of human hands holding lens and camera, the look of real bodies moving through snow swept earth. That such things are no longer a given anymore only serves to amplify Hundreds of Beavers’ astonishingly detailed unreality. A celebration of the potential in human beings making art unencumbered by algorithmic mandates, what’s possible when no one is watching.

After splashy, large format action-adventure films and chilling tales of horror, audiences will always return to movie theaters to laugh. Even in the most unforgiving winters, laughter keeps us warm, keeps us content. A dam to fortify against unfriendly tides. Like the North American beaver, the Comedy is a keystone species of a healthy film ecosystem — without them, all else suffers. No swans without beavers. No drama without comedy.

A “real movie” or not, Hundreds of Beavers will continue to exist in the communal laughter of any audience caught within its presence. It will exist in the wonder conjured out its surreal imagery, and it will exist in the drunken, late-night whispers between friends about their screwball dreams to make a film one day. And that will always have a more profound impact on art than any financial milestone ever could.

Hundreds of Beavers is a dream come to life, and Cheslik is proving himself to be a dreamer worth following into the unconscious, and beyond.

Hundreds of Beavers screens Friday, May 31st.
Friday, May 31st – 10:30pm
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