The Michigan Theater is a beautiful venue at which to watch a film. It’s cavernous, it’s majestic and it’s the kind of theater that makes its visitors think whatever they’re about to see will be art of the highest intellectual order. In a museum like this, what else would the projector show? Lately the marquee outside the Michigan has read “A Town Called Panic.” It’s a Belgian film that screened at the Cannes Film Festival last May. By pedigree, it appears to be an appropriate feature for an opera house like the Michigan.

“A Town Called Panic”

At the Michigan
Zeitgeist

But a curious theater guest will buy his ticket and find his seat beneath the theater’s mighty chandelier and maybe he’ll notice the Apple corporate logo in the lower right corner of the otherwise blank screen. That’s odd. When did Apple start making 16 mm film projectors? Then he’ll see a DVD menu, in French, as an invisible hand scrolls through some French options. Lire. The screen goes dark.

When an image returns to the screen, it’s the beginning of something that is not quite a film, not quite a cartoon, not quite anything except perhaps a shrimp taco-fueled nightmare. It’s funny, at times, but mostly it’s just bizarre. More importantly, “A Town Called Panic” is everything it wants to be; no aspect of its production can be claimed as unsuccessful, because its only goal is quite clearly to be as weird as possible. The only question is whether a prospective viewer has ingested enough drugs to want to see it.

The absurdity of “A Town Called Panic” is matched only by its brevity. At barely an hour long, the film is digestible if nothing else. In that short span, the film tells the tale of housemates Horse, Cowboy and Indian. Those are their names. Their neighbors are farmer Steven, who can only scream; Madame Longray, a sexy piano teacher horse on whom Horse has a crush and, of course, Postman. Most of the voices are performed by auteurs Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, who also wrote, directed and animated the film by hand.

Today is Horse’s birthday, and his absent-minded friends want to get him a better present than last year. That is established within the film’s first ten minutes, maybe less. It’s also the last time that any semblance of linearity can be discerned. After that, it’s an incomprehensible menagerie of pig missiles, octopus drummers and the act of playing cards on a rock while plummeting to the center of the earth.

Where the film objectively dazzles is in its animation. Stop-motion animation is difficult and time-consuming, and though the movement of the characters is purposefully choppy and static, some effects — like Horse, Cowboy and Indian swimming to an upside-down underwater house where a family of sea monkeys are cooking waffles or Horse showering and brushing his teeth on a Rube Goldberg machine — are remarkable visual achievements, especially in this age of digital everything. Eccentricities like the green army men-style platforms beneath the feet of Cowboy and Indian that disappear when they climb steps are easy to miss but integral to the film’s charm, if it can even be called charm.

If you know someone who has seen “A Town Called Panic,” don’t ask for a criticism. You won’t get any response except shrugged shoulders and bugged eyeballs, or maybe a slow, mellow smile, depending on what your friend is doing when you ask. If you feel compelled to join him for a toke or two, consider lighting up outside the Michigan Theater and then watching “A Town Called Panic.” It would be right up your alley.

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