OVER THE PAST 15 years, Seattle artist Clyde Petersen has built up a unique catalog of creations. Perhaps best known for his ever-evolving pop band Your Heart Breaks, Petersen has also made music videos for the likes of Deerhoof and Laura Veirs, hosted a television show on a rowboat (Boating with Clyde), and created a wide array of playfully singular art installations. And this fall—three years after he began work on it—he adds to this list an animated feature, Torrey Pines.
Based on Petersen’s life, the hour-long stop-motion film follows a gender-questioning, 12-year-old Clyde as he gets kidnapped—without realizing he’s being kidnapped—and taken on a cross-country road trip by his schizophrenic mother. Along the way, young Petersen comes up against restrictive gender norms, his mom’s reptilian hallucinations, and plenty of monotony—miles of cows and cacti seen from the car window, TVs that play endless episodes of Murder, She Wrote and Doogie Howser, M.D. Torrey Pines is a deceptively simple film, as much about the mundanity of the world as it is about gender identity and mental health.
“I wanted to create a series of events in the film that gave you the feeling you were seeing things for the first time,” Petersen says, “and just trying to interpret the world through the eyes of a kid.”
Heightening this sense of disorientation is the film’s complete absence of dialogue. Petersen did this “to make a film that would have no language barrier. That could go to many countries without any kind of translation issue.” When he began work on Torrey Pines, Petersen was studying American Sign Language and thinking in terms of visual storytelling. He went into the project aware of the limitations of words, wanting “to be as specific as possible with my visual imagery.”
“Language has a lot of room for misunderstandings,” Petersen adds. “Visual facts are a little bit harder to misinterpret.”
To build this visual world, Petersen and animator Chris Looney spent the first year-and-a-half of the project animating full-time with a team of production interns. Creating each scene out of hand-painted paper, they made the film in Petersen’s bedroom on a homemade multiplane camera built out of an Ikea clothing rack. The result is a surreal and arresting landscape, floating along to a soundscape as detailed as the visuals.
Recruiting from his pool of musical collaborators, Petersen split scoring responsibilities among members of Your Heart Breaks, Seattle a capella group the Beaconettes, folk songstress Kimya Dawson, Northwest sludge-rock icons Earth, and former Death Cab for Cutie member Chris Walla, who recorded all of the bands in his Seattle-area studio. The soundtrack is as sprawling as the vistas: Over the course of the film, the musicians recreate television show and video game background music, embody a high school garage band, give each state on the road trip a theme song, and—in what might be the film’s greatest moment—create a lyric-less Whitney Houston concert. (At the film’s screening this Monday, there’ll be a live score featuring cellist Lori Goldston and members of Your Heart Breaks, Iji, and Mega Bog.)
In some ways, Torrey Pines is a playful, understated film. But as its vignettes accumulate, it takes on a weight that belies its runtime, becoming an expansive queer coming-of-age tale. Instead of loudly announcing this, though, it builds in a subtle, curious way—never fully spelling out its plot or meaning, and leaving room for audience interpretation. “We’re used to being hand-fed everything from TV,” Petersen says. “I’m very happy to make a product that has mystery to it.”