The Undertaker’s comin’.
The Backwater Gospel by Bo Mathorne has been one of my favorite animated shorts for a few years now, and I find it that much more impressive that he created this while still a student at The Animation Workshop. I love just about everything about the ten minutes that make up this film, but I’ll try to get into it a bit deeper, because it’d be easy for me to just say, Watch, and leave it at that because it’s just a very cool piece that you need to see.
The animation is brilliant and does so much for the atmosphere of the entire film. It creates a gritty, dirty feel, and many of the characters have almost a wooden texture to their skin. It feels both modern and a century old, making a rustic old west frontier aesthetic. And then there’s the darkness. Even in the daylight, there’s a consuming darkness to the film, layering it with tension and weight, with this ominous spectre: The Undertaker. Every scene is just so brilliantly animated and directed. It’s smooth yet dangerous, from the close-ups of hate and despair, to the long shots of the arid wasteland they live in, the way the townsfolk trudge through life, how they’re filled with fear, and how they erupt into chaos at simply the threat of Death.
Before we get to that, let’s look at what’s happening in the film.
It opens innocently enough, with a man working and another riding an ancient bike. Quickly, the working man dies at the feet of the man on the bike, the Undertaker, who simply measures the body for the coffin.
From there we move to Backwater, where the Tramp sings songs about the Undertaker and the Preacher strikes the fear of god into the citizens of Backwater, broken down and afraid as they are.
One bad apple. That’s all it takes! One bad apple and the whole barrel is spoiled. Do you want to save that barrel? Then throw out that apple! Cast it away!
But if you fail to destroy that apple, who will carry the blame? It is said that in the city of Seacome, every man was punished for the sins of one man. And the punishment was Death.
And then the Tramp interrupts the sermon, announcing the approach of the Undertaker.
From there, a dark pall falls over Backwater, with every citizen barricaded within their homes, hoping to save themselves from the Death they fear.
And perhaps that’s what drives deepest here: the fear of Death. The Undertaker is the embodiment of Death here, with his ravens and crows, the phantastic and evil shadow he casts, his complete silence and impassiveness in the face of despair, hate, violence, and life. He is the promise of Death, and his approach means that someone in Backwater will die.
No one wants to be dead. And like a spectre of the impenetrable darkness that is the absence of life, the Undertaker simply watches, bringing the storm.
For seven days we have been tormented because that son of perdition refuses to fear the Lord! How long must we suffer from his wicked ways? The Lord wants us to destroy the bad apple, and with his sword in my hand, I say: the blasphemer shall be stoned!
And the storm is chaos, is violence, is the Death of Backwater. The citizens turn against one another. Their fear of the unknown, of dying leads to the destruction of everything and everyone. And in the peace that follows the storm, the Undertaker just whistles them all to the grave. And then we finish with a song:
The Undertaker raises no hand
but I’ll fear him just the same.
His presence foretells both blood and Death
but his shoulder’s not to blame.
Like the shadow of the vultures
circling blackly overhead,
the Undertaker is drawn to Death like a knife is drawn to red.
It’s fear. Fear of the unknown, of dying, of the outsider, of the gods that leads to so much human misery, and it’s something I think about often: those who fear most are most frightening.
Surely it’s true in Backwater, but I think it goes well beyond this short film, casting its fearful shadow over all the world, over all humanity.
That’s not to say, however, that this film has a message or takeaway point meant to change your life. Rather, this is just an awesome work of art and entertainment. It’s dark and brooding and bursting with ominous rage, but I don’t consider it a parable for mankind. I don’t think art works that way.
I think art teaches us how to live, but the artist is rarely giving a lesson. We learn by pulling these images and stories into our own life, binding them to the fabric of our dreams and memories. I don’t believe Bo Mathorne is trying to make a statement about religion or Death or fear. I think he’s just making great animation.
But, as viewers, as people who experience what artists make, we get to assign meaning. That’s the whole point, yeah? To weave art into our life so fully that it’s like a second skin, and we no longer know where it ends or begins.
That’s how animation is for me. Though I can’t draw [the greatest disappointment of my life!], I feel animation so deeply, so powerfully that it’s all the way inside me, fused to my very bones and brainstem. It’s why I’m writing every week about animation, and why I’m choosing things short enough for you to experience all at once, without having to step away. Talking animation, for me, is like opening up my skull and letting you peer inside, sift through all the muck in there. It’s my whole life and it means everything to me, and I want to share that here.
The Backwater Gospel reminds me why I love animation and how it can effect me so deeply, get me thinking about a thousand implications and things that maybe have nothing to do with what I’m watching. They’re a starting point, and endless well of inspiration, and I’ve written about ten short stories influenced directly by this film here, and I’ll probably write many more. Maybe part of that is my obsession with Death and dying, with leaving life and the world behind, how I see Death everywhere, and how I stopped fearing it. The Backwater Gospel is, for me, a part of a journey that’s my whole life long, and it crystalises the way I see the world.
But, more than that, and probably most importantly: it’s animation and filmmaking at its finest, and so damn great to experience.