Adrian Dalen’s Baby fingers – just watch and learn! I’ve already said too much!
P. Stuart Robinson (b. 1958) is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.
Movies on War 2021: How on Earth to write a review of the year’s greatest 5-minute film without committing the cardinal sin? There can be no excuse for plot-spoiling but what a choice! Speak in dry, pointless abstractions or ruin the film experience for ‘all ye who enter here?’ Well, don’t abandon hope just yet…
Even my dilemma is a plot-spoiler! You’ve doubtless already deduced that Baby fingers is heavy on shock-value, that most exhilarating yet fragile of all poetic devices, already all but ruined by my ill-advised chatter. So, please! Before I make matters any worse, just follow this link and watch the movie. In the time it takes to smoke a cigarette! I promise you won’t (spoiler alert!) regret it!
Then you’ll be so high on pure, concentrated movie goodness, you’ll be ready to discuss it with me for a few moments more. Sadly, this will be a strictly one-way discussion, aka monologue, but please remember there’s a comments section at the bottom. The comments activation protocol, by the way, is soon to be featured as a fantastic new brain-teasing ‘solitaire’ game…
I’m starting to realise that Baby fingers has had a strange effect on me, the sure sign of a good film. I’ve adopted a preternaturally flippant style, as if trying to emulate the work itself. So, let’s be crystal clear about my ‘discussion:’ This is not the best (5-minute) movie in the world – no – it’s just a tribute! (Apologies to Jack Black!)
Let’s start on the level of pure experience: The film just flew by – and not just because it’s great fun. It’s also just plain short, a regular festivalgoer might even say mercifully so. Nevertheless, this is no passing fancy, soon forgotten. It made an impression and – in Movies-on-War-time – for all the right reasons. Moreover, as Adrian Dalen himself reminded me when I met him in Elverum, animations may be short, but they take forever to make!
It’s a metaphor. A lot of stuff does take time, away from the deceptively instant magic of the movie theatre itself. Rome wasn’t built in a day, let alone five minutes. Therefore, you’ll have to be patient, for example, as you wait for movies to change the world. Dalen himself has no illusions about the social role – if any – of the filmmaker, ‘It’s this slow and ungratifying process. It’s like grinding them down with humanity.’
On another level when you have five minutes to play with, there’s no time to lose. Hence, we drop instantly, unceremoniously, into Dalen’s fictional universe. It’s a sudden onslaught of contradictions, an audio-visual wall of conflicting and confounding information. You hit that wall you’re bound to be dazed; an initial confusion is virtually inescapable. The tone is jolly; the title is catchy and playful; a child is giggling… Oh, and there’s a guillotine set up on a sort of gallows – and fingers will roll! It’s all fun and games, in other words, until somebody loses…a digit.
The beauty of this work is that for all its brevity it has considerable depth, for all its flippancy, it is deadly serious. It won the Nordic short-film competition in Elverum, squeezing out plenty of longer and more ‘weighty’ rivals, because – to paraphrase the jury’s announcement – it has the capacity to make us think and even to see ourselves with new eyes.
The traditional modus operandi of the field of social anthropology is to come from some place outside and beyond in order to really interrogate and comprehend a culture. Though its denizens understand better than anyone the minutiae of the everyday, they lack the capacity to stand back and really grasp what it all means. They are just too deeply imbricated and indoctrinated in its values and norms to see the big picture. In this respect, Baby fingers is a social anthropologist’s dream.
The jury were themselves anthropological enough to praise, in particular, the element of the ‘macabre.’ The film introduces us to something unheard of (though not completely, I gather) that we readily find grotesque – here the customary amputation of fingers. The shock of the unfamiliar exposes the core mechanisms of prejudice, gives us the tools to unmask the grotesque in our own lives and values, and unleash that true handmaiden of comprehension: the shock of recognition.
Maybe later, if we’re lucky, we’ll even feel a little stupid. This will be nothing new for me at any rate (I can see you nodding in agreement) because once upon a time I did stray outside and catch a glimpse back in. Years ago, I had the good fortune to emigrate from Britain to Canada. Then, one day I found myself trying to explain my country’s annual Guy Fawkes Night ritual to someone else. I’d never put it into words before, never thought about it per se, except in the detail and the fun: the fireworks, the bonfire, the baked potatoes, the roast chestnuts… ‘Every year, we make an effigy of this same figure from history we despise,’ I explain, ‘And then ritually burn him on a bonfire.’ Macabre!
It’s fitting that Baby fingers won a prize at Movies on War. Too often the violence is hidden, encoded into our lives, disguised as something natural and benign. Our Western culture is probably one of the worst culprits in this regard. We ostentatiously deride conspicuous acts of violence, like corporal punishment, but think nothing, for example, of locking someone in a tiny cell till they are driven from their wits. Look: No visible marks or signs of violence! No problem! Long live human rights!
Some of the best comic moments (and there are many in the course of five short minutes) revolve around the explanations and ‘good reasons’ people provide for severing their fingers. These, for my money, are the perfect metaphor for Western capitalist society, and not only in the way some pat theory about the benefits of being fingerless (‘It prevents autism!’) is sure to be found someplace where all the ‘industrial’ drones live these days – on the internet. You do what you must – cut off your fingers – and then, to add insult to injury, you must also explain this as the exercise of your very own rational free will. Thus the schizophrenic values and power relations of our society are reproduced.
We need films like these, which disturb our pat habits and the pat values they mask. All the better if they perform their task with a Swiftian brevity and wit. There’s a time-honoured acerbic-absurdist craftmanship here in the finely observed and destabilising satiric detail: the archetypal child’s speech, read precociously yet stumblingly from their own semi-literate notes; the impatient top surgeon at once imperious and useless in his dependency on the ever-dependable nurse; the subtitles-turned-anarchic-commentary; the faux-inept DIY closing music.
The enduring value of Baby fingers nonetheless lies above all in its substance. Craft alone is never enough and sometimes the best craft is the anti-craft. What really affects us is what reaches us stripped bare of any sanitary trappings of convention, but rather unfiltered and even slightly dangerous. These are the roads less travelled because they can be hard to find, three parts overgrown, as they may well be, with the virulent weeds of affectation. They’re the dank, dirty channels of the pure idea, the unmoderated sentiment, the genuine feeling and, not least, the personality.
How many films have real personality? This one at any rate figures among that elite cohort. Interestingly, Dalen himself was surprised by the positive reception of the film and thus impelled to consider why: ‘I think it’s because I didn’t filter it,’ because it’s ‘raw, direct, human.’ I believe he has a point.
Dalen is inescapably in Baby fingers. Dare I say his fingers are all over it? He speaks to us directly somehow, and with no little urgency. Indeed, I believe he makes a brave attempt to wake us up from what James Joyce once called ‘the nightmare of history.’ What awful, troubled slumber must it be that can only be disturbed by a question like: ‘Why do we cut off our fingers?’