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Thumbs up to animated film's hallucinogenic hitchhiking tale

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In my own days of youthful folly, I have hitchhiked across huge stretches of Canada. I've had beer cans thrown at me by kids outside Nanaimo, B.C. I recall getting picked up by a couple of hunters bound for Thunder Bay, who actually placed their tumblers of rye right on the dashboard while driving. (If I had claims to long-haired rebelliousness, I had nothing on those guys.)

Then there was a curious old guy who drove me into Vancouver, sharing his theories on how the uptick in UFO sightings related to the Second Coming.

Asphalt Watches is an animated movie about hitchhiking across Canada. It was made in flash animation by visual artists Seth Scriver and Shayne Ehman, and resembles an unholy hybrid of Adventure Time and the 'toons of Ed (Big Daddy) Roth at his most gonzo.

But despite its bizarre underground comix esthetic, it pings with authenticity. Indeed, it may be one of the truest movies about hitchhiking ever made.

I buy its claim to being a true story. Except it's not really a "story" in the conventional sense. Asphalt Watches is more of a visual diary, where every character has been rendered into a cartoon hallucination. Maybe that was to protect the identities of the innocent. Or maybe because their often grotesque renderings are so much more fun.

Chief among these proxies is Scriver's stand-in, "Skeleton Hat," and Ehman's ephemeral "Bucktooth Cloud." The two pals start their journey outside Chilliwack, B.C., where we learn that the hitchhiker's most prevalent activity is waiting. (Plans to hop boxcars are scrapped due to sketchy, outdated train information.)

Among their early rides is a character who claims to be Santa Claus, asking the guys if they have ever been in prison and challenging them to name their favourite junk food fix out a field of Wendy's, Burger King and McDonald's. The correct answer is not difficult to guess, given the cups and french fry containers that litter Santa's car.

The rides get weirder, including a sailor-mouthed woman who offers invective-filled hospitality over the head of her child in the baby seat, and a couple of hosers on a desperate hunt for an open beer vendor.

Scriver and Ehman capture the fear and paranoia that inevitably accompany riding in the vehicles of strangers, but they also celebrate the camaraderie and benevolence one may find too, as with the friend who takes them to a karaoke bar and offers the apt toast: "Weird worlds in collision."

There is music, after a fashion. Authentic dialogue -- "Don't forget your Boston Pizzas, son" or "Come on over for some boiled hotdogs" are transformed into creepy rap riffs, although some music choices are more expedient: I'm guessing the filmmakers avoided paying music licensing fees for a karaoke bar scene by having a participant warble "Blue Helmet" instead of Blue Velvet.

That aside, this film's grand distortions feel paradoxically true to the hitchhiking experience... and that's from one who knows.

Shayne Ehman and Seth Scriver will introduce the Friday and Saturday screenings of Asphalt Watches at Cinematheque.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 21, 2014 D3

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