REVERBERATIONS; 'Strindberg and Helium,' a Sweet Flowering of Youthful Creativity
By JOHN ROCKWELL
Published: May 28, 2004
Strindberg looks rather like photos of that morose, visionary late-19th-century Swedish playwright and novelist, as rendered by somebody paying homage to the campily creepy cartoons of Edward Gorey. Helium is a little pink round floating balloon, with eyes and eyebrows and a red mouth with little teeth when she smiles and flipper-like wings and tiny feet tucked away like those of a bird in flight.
are the protagonists of four miniature animated films viewable on the Internet
under the title ''Strindberg and Helium.'' In ''Absinthe and Women,''
Strindberg tries to pick up a woman in an opera box; she flees. In ''The Park''
Strindberg wanders among dead leaves, Helium floating helpfully nearby. In the
third, ''At Home with the Kids,'' Strindberg finds the cheerful cries and
intrusions of children upsetting. In the last, ''
Each film begins with little Helium floating up to Strindberg's cheek and planting a kiss on it, accompanied by the sucking pop sound familiar from all cartoon kisses. Thereafter, Strindberg intones funereal pronouncements like ''the fallen leaves are rotting'' or ''the whole of nature stinks of decomposition and decay'' or ''we are already in hell'' or ''the agony becomes intolerable.'' Cheerful Helium echoes the ends of his sentences, several squeaky octaves up: ''rotting,'' ''hell,'' ''decay, decay.''
find these films, which can be seen and heard free on
www.strindbergandhelium.com, funny and sweet and adorable. They were conceived
by two members of a
Some reasonable (if humorless) people might find ''Strindberg and Helium'' trivial. For me, these films represent a delicious skewering, affectionate and satirical, of European dead-white-male pretensions by American pop culture by way of Japanese anime (its not far from Helium to Kitty, as in Hello, Kitty), with no slight, and all due deference, to Europe, Japan or the United States.
They also seem to encapsulate a lovely image of male-female characteristics and relationships (no matter that Helium might be interpreted in some scholarly quarters as Strindberg's own basso voice jacked up to stratospheric levels by that very gas). It's probably no accident that Ms. Bradley and Mr. Bewley have a comedy act called ''The Man/Woman Show.'' These films contrast male moroseness with chirpy female supportiveness from a decidedly female perspective.
also love them because they represent something rather wonderful among the
Youth of America. This country has a penchant for sweet silliness, like the new
sport of extreme ironing. People tend to cling most closely to the art and
entertainment of their generation. It's nice to be reminded occasionally, and
forcefully, that young creativity is bubbling up all over the map, and not just
A lot of this new art is abetted by the Internet, which is both a curse and a blessing, mostly a blessing. It's a curse because people create lovely things like ''Strindberg and Helium,'' post them on a Web site and then -- what? They could get lost.
Except insofar as they may serve as calling cards for commercial work, be it in film or television or rock videos, they don't make much, or any, money. Ms. Paek said on the telephone the other day that while the three creators have vague plans for ''Strindberg and Helium'' sequels, they're too busy with other, presumably more remunerative, projects. At least their site has links to a merchandising arm: you can purchase T-shirts and thong underwear and baby bibs and mugs and mousepads and lunchboxes and Frisbees, all with Strindberg or the cuter Helium or both emblazoned upon them.
In terms of mainstream media attention, these films have been pretty much ignored. There have been short mentions in USA Today and Entertainment Weekly, and that seems to be about it, along with appearances, among many other entries, in a couple of film festivals and museum shows.
But the Internet is a blessing because this kind of work can reach a whole new constituency, on its own terms and its own timetable. It is passed from hand to hand, like a prized secret. Secret sharing. These films came out two years ago but are still percolating through the Web. Google lists almost a thousand sites, 33 pages' worth, nearly all blogs and personal online exchanges. People love these little films and want their friends to know about them. And if newcomers respond to them as I have done, they think kindly of the friends who called the films to their attention.
The Internet (like radio and television before it) has been lamented as a force encouraging the grim atomization of society. Before, legend has it, we happily congregated in cafes and theaters, building communal solidarity. Now, we sit forlornly in front of our monitors, logging on to nastiness. For me, it's just the opposite. Reading books is a solitary activity, and few lament that. The Internet reinforces community; it builds new communities. Just as e-mail has led to a rebirth of the epistolary impulse, the Internet creates new bonds between people who share their passions. Of course, those passions may include darker impulses as well as the utterly innocent ''Strindberg and Helium.'' But that's democracy, the kind we're trying to build worldwide.
one more thing: It's been sometimes difficult in recent months to feel good