Blending Narrative and Experimental Film Forms:
An Analysis of Paul King’s Bunny and the Bull
By Madi Lyn
A delightful menagerie of nonsense and surrealism, Bunny and the Bull (2009) expertly uses subjective realities to tell the story of the confused emotions of a mind broken by trauma. Combining flashback structure and fantasy sets allows for the viewer to be taken entirely by the emotions of Edward Hogg’s incredible male lead. This kind of subjectivity paints a deeper picture of the essence of a person rather than the strict realist narrative truth. Using these experimental tactics allows for the story to be felt rather than simply understood.
Paul King builds a fantastic, surrealist world out of a reality his character has experienced and is telling from memory. This use of experimental form allows for one to empathize greatly with the characters from a visceral perspective rather than understanding the narrative logic of a situation. King takes logic completely out of the equation. Using animation, stop motion, and a world of milk crates, the viewer is left with the same mental associations that Stephen’s memory has built for him after experiencing trauma. While framed with a comedic mindset, this film transcends not only genre but film form itself, taking bits and pieces of different genres and forms and blending them into one masterpiece of mixed media. Susan Sontag pleads with viewers not to interpret, but with Bunny and the Bull interpretation is all we have. One must take meaning from the absurdity as the emotionality demands. The intricate drawings of the water beneath the ice or the delicate paper that create the snowy mountains shows the world that Stephen experiences rather than the world how it literally is. With a score by the Ralfe Band - wrought with emotional cues and intense folk plunking - the sound design encourages this interpretation from absurdity.
Each one of the places Stephen re-experiences is built with a different background, stylistically speaking. This forces the viewer to attempt to figure out why each place is built how it is. Understanding the visual language of the film is essential. It takes the indexical view of the image and turns it on its head, creating something entirely fantastic. In Bazin’s essay on the ontology of images, it is proposed that an image can capture a distinct reality unlike a painting does. It does this by simply capturing what is in front of the lens, mechanical in nature - taking away the bias of the creator. However, King creates a world unlike reality to photograph, creating an illusion and destroying the idea of an indexical image. What we see is not what is literally there. We see a Spanish carnival filled with games and lights, not several stacks of milk crates. We see a dangerous beast, not a menagerie of metal scraps. This allows an entirely different experience emotionally than the experience we’re seeing on screen. It creates a dynamic unlike standard narrative by indulging the viewer with what the milk crates or the cardboard in different scenes could mean as an emotional totem rather than a physical object.
This language of the image also creates a sense of whimsy that alleviates a lot of the dark story, creating a digestible piece with tremendous emotional impact. While this world seems silly and alien, one can immediately understand the emotional struggles of Hogg’s character. This, much like the animation in Waltz With Bashir (2008), allows the audience to create an barrier that allows for an easier emotional response while still covering the same storylines and plot points that the writers of both desired. This allows the filmmaker to cover deeper, more troubling subjects while still holding on to the reality of the spectrum of human emotions. Essentially, one must remove the walls of reality to experience the truest feelings of any given situation.
The form itself puts the viewer into the same subjective reality that the delusional lead experiences himself. This allows the viewer to gain a glimpse of how Stephen’s agoraphobia has caused him to relate to the world. The objects that he associates with Bunny and other memories from the trip that lead to his trauma work their way into the physical reality of the world. These objects gain new life, new meaning, with each memory that Stephen offers, another level is given to the objects. The bull that Bunny fights, a scrap metal monster on a plane of carpet, is made from varying objects - each something from Stephen’s apartment. This shows Stephen’s readiness to be fearful of the things around him because of the death of his closest friend. Bunny’s death has affected literally every aspect of Stephen’s life. This form has so rarely been done, although similar attempts were made in the creators previous work The Mighty Boosh (2003). The Mighty Boosh however used the surrealist scene setting to generate comedy from the absurdity where as Bunny and the Bull creates a litany of different emotions using the same tactics. This tangible unreality creates a distinct experience for the viewer, the blend of traditional narrative storytelling and experimental filmmaking.
The way in which King builds these worlds has a very theatrical essence. This emotive visualisation comes from associations and recall to tangible objects, setting the mood before even a word is said. Much like the use of authentic street signs from New York in the original theatrical production of HAIR, a distinct recall is built on the objects in each scene. These objects create an emotional response. We see objects as part of our collective memory, icons from a unifying culture. Bunny and the Bull uses these objects to intensify the emotional journey of the story, evoking a visceral body experience without having to speak a line of dialogue.
King is truly unique in crafting this world - the blend of forms working as a characterization of the narrator/protagonist. Using the sets and backgrounds to serve a narrative purpose is not uncommon in traditional cinema. However, King repurposes it entirely by creating a truly unrealland that real people must interact with. This allows for the form to speak on behalf of a character, creating a dynamic story with only a few actors and a world of possibilities.
Using this form, King expertly crafts a movie unlike any other, all by playing with the idea of the image and the way in which it is constructed. He builds a land entirely on his own. This makes a beautifully surreal experience that exists outside of reality but can still be captured on film. This dynamic questions Bazin’s main ideas of the ontology of image but challenging what exactly creates an image on film.
Paul King. Yorkshire, England: Warp X, 2009. DVD. Bunny and The Bull.
Folman, Ari, Serge Lalou, Roman Paul, Yael Nahlieli, Gerhard Meixner, David Polonsky, Yoni Goodman, et al. 2009. Waltz with Bashir.
Bazin, A. (1960). The Ontology of the Photographic Image. Film Quarterly, 13(4), pp.4-9.