Watch 'Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My' on Youtube. Oh, go on!
Each August I help to run a holiday camp for 14-18-year-olds, for the charity Scripture Union. This camp, 'Transformers', started out as a computer and electronics camp, but has departed from its electronics roots and now fills the body of its days with technical sessions in programming, 3D graphics, photography, video and music production. I co-ordinate the video activity, which is my main chance each year to be involved in the making of ten- or twenty-minute dramas of alarming intensity or especially eccentric comedy, depending on the whims of the campers.
This short motion picture, 'Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!' is one of three videos we put together in the Summer of 2011, and was devised, shot and edited in about five days, and though it's clearly cheating for me to look at a film that wasn't shot on film and in which I had a hand, this was at least shown on a big screen at the week's end to an audience larger than the cast - and that has to count for something.
So, there's a lion who lives in a conference centre and eats the guests, and who initially looks to be the hero. Elsewhere, there's an embittered former hunter who is called out of retirement to hunt the lion - with the promise of a string of sausages. He may be the hero, or perhaps the villain. At the time of shooting we really didn't know. Mr Lion has an entourage of tiny animal puppets, and Jeremy Farquad (the hunter) has a silent donkey, Little Jeremey. It's a true story, by the way.
Since the plot was never planned more than a scene in advance, this manages to be one of the least linear, and ultimately most enjoyable of the holiday's videos. The opening scene or two meander a little and run about 10% longer than needed, but the characters are introduced and each stakes their claim to be the main character. While properly I ought to praised the whole cast, and often do so, I feel I ought to make some particular mention of the actors behind these two central figures. Charlotte is a lion, and that's that - and Jeremy Farquad feels so real as to haunt my dream..
We didn't know, shooting those slightly awkward first scenes, what grand tragedy we would find ourselves producing for the story's close. The story unfolds in a variety of directions. Jeremy Farquad has a confusing meeting with a donkey identical to his own, during a run-in with a receptionist who's clearly in the midst of her own troubles, and for whom 'Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My' is just a part of an independently eventful day. Mr Lion disputes with Mr Tiger, prowling predators of equal stature, and the conference centre isn't big enough for the both of 'em. Elsewhere a cat is striving to become a bear. Everyone seems to be the centre of their own story, and more could be told about any of them - indeed, four characters from this story have since been spun off into further adventures.
Prowling predators posture past petty Pencilton
Somehow managing to sieze the limelight from this nest of strong candidates, and steal scenes from greater performers, is Pencilton the owl.
Let me tell you about Pencilton. When we were making this video, I came to hate the fluffy little owl. He was the worst kind of person, and I wished to see him get what he deserved. To all who saw his shrill fluffiness he seemed like the Fonz: the minor character who takes over, the epitome of cool and exciting. To me, he was despicable. Pencilton lingers with predators, glorying in their kills. He doesn't do the damage, but he hovers nearby, approving of it. He hangs around with bullies, to be cool. He's like Saul in Acts 7 - he doesn't join in with the atrocity, but he holds the coats of the murderers. He's the sort of owl who would make uniforms for concentration camps and be glad of the business. A boaster, a liar a casual supporter of ferocity.
Perhaps this is why he comes to such an unpleasant end - not death (of which this film bears a mite too much), but destruction of identity. The owl with too much regard for himself loses that self. It's a rather horrible oppression, and I wondered at the time whether the video had gone too far - both in this and in its scenes of firearm brutality. This is, if you'll recall, a Christian holiday camp, producing a video with a prodigious body-count and this dehumanisation (de-owlisation?) of a fluffy hand-puppet.
A requiem for Little Jeremey...
...or is it Little Miss Receptionist?
Two things, I think, pull this back from going too far. First, the story is ridiculous and the characters fluffy and bizarre, meaning it's quite possible to laugh your way through the absurdity of the horrific finale. Second, though Pencilton weeps most mightily, his final few close-ups (in which he is puppeteered by Mr Lion) see the fluffy young owl recalled from his grief by an evident joy at the new life he is to live: gold smelting, zebras, tandems and all. Had he wept on and on through this list of exciting excursions, I think it would have been one of the most distressing endings I'd ever encountered.
So much did this ending (perhaps, itself, a product of my widely expressed hatred of Pencilton) sadden me, that the day after the holiday came to its end I started my online search for a Pencilton hand-puppet, that I might tell the story of the owl's rescue, fostering and recuperation. I'll have you know, young Pencilton has come on a long way, has matured away (though not far away) from his selfishness and habitual churlishness, and has made his peace with Little Jeremey, whom he now counts as a brother. I held a special screening of this video for Pencilton, LJ and their panda friend Sebastian, and they seemed to find some delight in it, or perhaps I'm just going insane. I'll keep you posted.
I screened this video for some animal acquaintances
But this is not just the Pencilton show, so I shall try to pull back to the whole. The various factions meet - in an altercation which involves the most magnificent combination of pipe-smoking and reverse footage - before spinning off again into yet another strand, that of Mr Pump's Legacy (not to be confused with Hergé's 'Mr Pump's Legacy'), a particularly merry story-line cut off so suddenly and so alarmingly as to be frightning, rather bleak, and wholly ridiculous. Strong, excellently judged performances from the whole cast, who raise themselves to new heights for this tense final confrontation, make the whole thing work. It's funny, sad and horrific in quick succession. If the movie was longer, I think I'd find time to weep for everybody.
Of course, I've a massive natural bias here, by merit of being very close to the production. Ostensibly the whole thing is devised by the young people, but I fear that in this case more than usual I was being Patrick McGoohan, muttering lines and plot developments from off-camera and seeing the better ones picked up and developed. I'm quite content to hold myself guilty for anything in the video that went too far (though in some cases I might pass the blame onto Pencilton, that rapscallion). I do find this to be a highlight of the camp's fairly rich video tradition. While others may have been more innovative in camera placement or more ambitious in scope (we've set things in space and in 11th century Bavaria before now, and recently squeezed out 26 minutes of Shakespeare and got away with it), I hold this as the best original drama we've yet managed. The characters all have their own lives, reasons to like them and to despise them, and when they come together I care, and perhaps you will too if you'll cast your eye over this desperate adventure.
Miss Receptionist can't be doing with all these animals
The holiday camp happens every August, somewhere near Guildford, and if you or anyone you know are of the age and inclination to come along and be a camper, you'll find all the details you could possibly want on the holiday's website, and find a good many more camp videos on our Youtube channel.
P.S. I know fitting this eccentric amateur work into my catalogue of 100 cinematic films is cheating, but I'm content to let this stand for 2011 at least until somebody lends me 'The Artist', a film from this year that I'm keen to compare to the 'real' silent films I've been watching.
P.P.S. Pencilton the owl went on to have many wonderful adventures, and this blog is named after him. His birthday is August 24th and he collects finger-puppets, under the confused belief that they're real-live talking animals just like him.
P.P.P.S. Mr Socks Macguffin, who was almost-but-not-quite in this film (he was editing a different movie on the computer next door) has committed himself to a similar endeavour to this blog - so if you like this, you'll like his - he can be found here playing through two video-games a year from 1971 to the present day, and blogging about the experience. Be sure to check it out; it's currently only a statement of intent, but I'll be sure to direct you there again as its content grows.