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METAMERICANA: How Eoin Duffy’s Animated Short THE MISSING SCARF Forecasts Our Adorable, Inescapable Apocalypse

METAMERICANA: How Eoin Duffy's THE MISSING SCARF Forecasts Our Adorable, Inescapable Apocalypse

For
many decades, the secret to making a
highly successful and thoroughly educational children’s film has really
been no secret at all: simply give a live-action, hand-puppet, or
animated avatar (all stand-ins for the child herself) an embarrassingly
simple dilemma, and then detail the tyke’s increasingly hilarious
attempts to navigate it. The last of these efforts will, of course, be
successful. The Missing Scarf,
an Academy Award-nominated animated short written by Eoin Duffy and
narrated by cult icon George Takei, now widely viewable for the first time, at first seems to check all these
boxes. In fact, it ultimately turns each of them on its head. The result
is a superlative and resoundingly educational adult film that’s every bit as abstract and harrowing as the average Sesame Street short is tactile and comforting.
The
plot: Albert the Squirrel has lost his scarf, which seems like a
consequential mishap until we meet Albert’s friends, who are
considerably worse off. Cecil the Owl is terrified of the dark, despite being nocturnal; Conrad the Beaver worries that he is incompetent at the only thing his species is known for (building dams); Edwin the Fox, despite the natural charisma of his species, believes that
his friends are plotting to kill him; and Frederick the Bear, poor
gentle brute, daily stares into the abyss of not just his own but the
entire universe’s (relatively speaking) impending self-annihilation—a
fear of individual and collective death that is, we must
concede, entirely rational. 
Albert’s
friends, in other words, are facing the adult equivalent of not being
able to tie your own shoes: they’re finding it impossible to function as
members of a civil society. Cecil can’t meet his responsibilities
because he’s temperamentally incapable of facing them; Conrad accepts
his responsibilities but has no aptitude for them; Edwin has aptitude
for his responsibilities but takes no pleasure in their
fruits; and Frederick is capable, successful, and reasonably
well-adjusted—all of which gives him the time and space to realize that
absolutely nothing any of us does matters in the slightest.
Albert
offers gems of wisdom to each friend, for which service he receives no
direct compensation—as his friends haven’t seen his missing accessory.
Cecil is shown the illuminating wonders of the dark (though all he
ultimately finds is, quite literally, a steaming pile of manure); Conrad
is shown the utility of failure (though all he ultimately experiences
is the terror of drowning, as his
dam does indeed break, killing him); Edwin is shown that isolation is
often self-imposed (though when Edwin ends his self-imposed isolation
and opens his heart to his friends, they do in fact kill him); and
Frederick is shown that nature is more resilient than he suspects—a possibility he doubts, but is willing to ponder further. Throughout these
lectures, Albert is revealed to be such a wise old soul that it seems impossible that he was ever so careless as to misplace an article of
clothing in the first place. Albert, that is, is a fully formed and
fully evolved entity, one whose foibles and follies are adorable
primarily because they’re the only things that distinguish him from a
god.
But it’s at this point in the narrative of The Missing Scarf
that the genre into which Albert’s escapades have been encoded catches
up to him—and his friends—for in educational children’s films, there
is always some surprising event toward the end of the narrative that
either solves the hero’s dilemma or renders it irrelevant. In Albert’s
case, it’s the young squirrel’s sudden realization that the arrival of
spring means his scarf is no longer necessary.
This, in the world of The Missing Scarf,
is exactly when the world ends. Literally. Frederick and Albert are
both killed then and there, horribly and graphically, as is all life on
Earth. Their final moments alive are filled with confusion, terror, and
abject despair.
It’s
not entirely clear what the takeaway is here. It may have
something to do with the fact that all creative invention—for instance,
an animated short—relies on the illusion of control, indeed
the abiding artifice of what we politely call free will. To say that we
live in a world in which we may truly “create” is to assume we have
the time, space, energy, means, and culture into which a novel creation
may be put. But even if we have all these things, they just as surely
are temporary: they can be taken away from us at any time, by anyone or
anything. We could suddenly be maimed, imprisoned, or even murdered; we
could lose our ambitions, lose our will, or even lose our minds; the
world could shift all its relations beneath our feet by the time we wake
tomorrow, or instead be destroyed utterly (and just as unexpectedly) by
some outside force we can’t presently foresee. This last tragedy is
exactly what we find in the final seconds of The Missing Scarf, reminding us that our colossally sincere commitment to creation
can in half an instant be thwarted by the equally colossal irony of all
matter’s inevitable destruction.
The Missing Scarf
is equal parts funny and scary; heart-warming and heart-rending;
allegorical and desperately literal. Arguments could be made for it
to reside at any point on these (or other) polar spectra. But what’s
certain is that the film as a whole—however brief it is; indeed, it
clocks in at under seven minutes—is not just a riveting but an entirely
necessary bit of viewing for any adult who wants to understand our
cultural moment. We are suffused, today, with a sense that
while we can’t know exactly when the world as we know it will end, we do
know for reasonably certain that we are presently doing our level best
to hasten that end with (for instance) our over-use of
environment-killing fossil fuels. Similarly, we can’t know exactly what
daily obstacles and long-term tribulations we have it in us to overcome,
but we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that, right up until the moment
of our species’ annihilation, answering that question will always fall
solely to each of us as individuals. 
Postmodernists
like to say that we’re at the end of history, but in fact it is far
more correct to say that we are living in the shadow of history—with an
emphasis on the word living.
Whatever fate befalls us singly, collectively, or (as to Albert and
company) in our separate and/or communal manifestation(s) as multimedia-driven,
allegorical avatars, we are compelled to rush toward that fate with as much
grace, courage, and wisdom as we can muster. 
Albert starts out missing a scarf, and ends up missing his head. Too often we start out our adult lives
without our wits about us, and therefore spend many wasted years searching for things we don’t really need. The Missing Scarf
urges us to get ourselves back on track with the same alternately
optimistic and cynical urgency of a public-television clip in which
Cookie Monster learns how to avoid indigestion or Elmo learns how to
share a skateboard. The only question is, are we listening? The Missing Scarf
pulls out all the stops to get us to listen—everything from adorable cartoon
animals to a voiceover by our favorite YouTube celebrity—and for that
it deserves commendation as one of the best short films of the last
decade, animated or otherwise.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for
The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.

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