You’ve probably never seen anything quite like Asphalt Watches, the trippy little adult cartoon that won Best Canadian First Feature at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. With its no-budget, ugly-and-loving-it aesthetic and its loopy, nonlinear structure, this surreal road trip from Ontario-based filmmakers Shayne Ehman and Seth Scriver is comically bizarre, darkly grotesque and, in the end, surprisingly sweet.
The non-story story is based on a cross-Canada journey the two men made in 2000. Two characters named Skeleton Hat and Bucktooth Cloud take a long, strange animated trip, starting from a 7-Eleven in Chilliwack, B.C. and heading east, mostly hitching rides along the Trans-Canada Highway.
There are landmarks, from Calgary’s Peters' Drive In to the Victoria Square Mall in Regina to Manitoba’s own White Horse statue. There are landscapes, from the Rockies to the Alberta oil fields to prairie farmland.
But running parallel is a consumerist wasteland, littered with satirically mangled global corporate logos. One of Scriver and Ehman’s repeated visual motifs is the fast-food hamburger.
There are also scenes based on the filmmakers’ true-life encounters with small-town Canadians, which range from harmlessly eccentric to eerily threatening. We meet a mother trash-talking over the head of her toddler, and a polite young man with a knife in his stomach who could really use a lift: “If you’re not too busy, maybe you’re on your way, passing by the hospital?”
Then there’s the melancholy collector who picks up the pair and quietly announces his intention to grab some shut-eye while driving “a long straight stretch.” There’s a ride in a pickup truck shadowed by aimless violence involving three idiot headbangers in desperate search of a beer store.
In one unsettling but hilarious sequence, a driver starts the small talk by asking the pair about their “deepest fears,” and follows up with a seemingly serious claim that he’s Santa Claus.
Ehman and Scriver’s eight-day journey eventually became an eight-year animation project. The artists use rudimentary hand-drawn Flash animation that rides a tilt-a-whirl of visual sources: some R. Crumb, maybe a little Ren & Stimpy, old 1980s video games, as well as high art sources like the Surrealists and the American painter Philip Guston.
There are unexpectedly lyrical fantasy sequences, in which the anarchistic impulses of animation allow the characters to swim in a hallucinogenic stream of cosmic consciousness.
There’s also a terrific minimalist synth soundtrack, interspersed with adorably depressive techno-raps. (Imagine repeated riffs on the phrase, “Come on over for some boiled hot dogs...”)
If you’re looking for a uniquely bizarre cross-Canada travelogue, you’ll want to check out Asphalt Watches. For the Friday, February 21st screening, filmmakers Seth Scriver and Shayne Ehman will be in attendance to introduce the film. (Hopefully they didn’t have to hitchhike here with a guy who thinks he’s St. Nick.)
Asphalt Watchers plays at Cinematheque Feb. 21- 23 and Feb. 26-27.