Ian Samuels’ Myrna the Monster is finally online! This ecstatic introduction might seem like hyperbole to most, but for me it’s a big deal. It has been over eight years since the MTV-commissioned short played Sundance and SXSW in 2015, launching director Samuels’ career, as he went on to direct Sierra Burgees is a Loser for Netflix and the Amazon Prime Video released The Map of Tiny Perfect Things.
When we first heard that Myrna the Monster was getting an online release, after all these years, one of the first questions we had was how it holds up to current productions. A lot has changed in independent (short) filmmaking in the last decade, but the quality of Samuels’ film is timeless. One could even argue that it somehow benefits from the slightly nostalgic vibe that comes from seeing a short film that was made almost ten years ago, as it actually adds to the strange, otherworldly atmosphere of the film.
As you can already tell from the thumbnail, Myrna is not a normal person. In fact, she’s not even a person, but an alien stranded on earth, trying to make the most of her experience while she’s here. But isn’t that what life is basically about, anyway? Nobody asked to be born, but here we are on this strange planet, trying to connect with these other weird creatures we call humans. Like Myrna, aren’t we all wondering, “Why am I here?“, or “Is there anyone else out there like me?“ Myrna’s journey is about finding friends, looking for love, and trying to discover a purpose that gives her life joy and meaning. Sound familiar?
Admittedly, in Myrna’s case, it might be even more difficult. Her first interactions with members of the other…species are endearingly awkward. Her attempt at flirting with a guy is simply the phrase, “You look just like your picture,” because that’s what she overheard on a night out. When she says that she still thinks about her ex-boyfriend every single day, it invites us to reflect on similar behavioral patterns, only the end of Myrna’s relationship took a much darker turn than any break-ups we will have experienced.
A flashback in a retro 2D animation-style, by animator Ethan Clarke, provides us with Myrna’s backstory, as we witness her boyfriend killed by an astronaut, before she’s taken to earth and got locked up. After she was able to escape, with a pack of primates, she now wanders through sun-light California, trying to find spirituality and intention through yoga and acting – although her audition for a production of Step Up Raw turns out quite differently than she expected. But Myrna never loses hope and in discovering a sense of resolution, she finds a community of people who understand her.
To be honest, who hasn’t felt like Myrna at some point, at least to some degree? (And if not: what are you doing on a niche website about short films? Shouldn’t you be out playing team sports or something?) Myrna the Monster is a universal story about feeling like an outsider and how, maybe sometimes, you even see yourself as a monster. It is a story about loneliness, but it’s also about defying that feeling by putting yourself out there and looking for connections, even if it’s uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Being human can be hard, especially if you’re an alien.
This outsider perspective can be applied to all kinds of metaphors, from being an outcast in your immediate social circle to the implications of what it might mean to belong to an underrepresented group. The fact that Myrna was taken from her own planet against her will, and is forced to confront a culture she knows very little about, has inherently political implications, even if the short never chooses to confront this specific narrative thread head-on. But it’s still there for viewers to take in, without being explicitly on-the-nose about it. We can clearly see that Myrna looks different, but nobody even seems to acknowledge that fact, making her struggle for acceptance even more heartwarming, given the nonchalance with which the people around her confront Myrna’s very obvious, yet still taken-for-granted otherness.
It helps that we get to connect with Myrna on a deeper level through her thoughts, which we hear in the voice over. As terrifically charming as Myrna’s design and the puppetry are, the character wouldn’t be half as convincing if it wasn’t for the vulnerable yet defiant vocal work by punk rock singer and feminist activist Kathleen Hanna, whose voice elevates the believability of Myrna’s existence in this world to the necessary level for the film to work as well as it does.
Myrna the Monster came to fruition after Ian Samuel’s met the director of development of MTV (other), (which was a digital content studio run by MTV) at Park City, after screening his earlier short Caterwaul at Slamdance. It helped that Samuels was able to use his previous experiences and his time getting an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, which he explains (to Filmmaker Magazine when they named him one of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film in 2015) ”had a puppetry program” and led him to study “integrating puppetry with live action in a way that felt more modern”.
“Myrna faces the everyday choice to commit to her future, and let go of her past”
Samuels explains that his own experiences of moving to Los Angeles inspired the film, which to him “was actually a story about being in your twenties.“ As he further elaborates: “Myrna faces the everyday choice to commit to her future, and let go of her past. She can only relate to 20-something-year-olds going through the same transition in life. I hope people walk away feeling like they saw a kind of reality show about a Generation Z alien dreamer.“
Back in 2015, I was at the right age to still think of MTV as cool, so it felt like a particularly intriguing concept that a short film was produced by such an entity of hip legacy media. I still remember when I first heard about Myrna the Monster and the connotations I formed in my mind. Since I didn’t see the film at festivals, all I had to cling to for reassurance was the trailer on Vimeo, which I watched numerous times to build an image of the short in my head. Thankfully, by now most shorts are launched online sooner or later, and we at S/W are proud to be a part of that mission. But Myrna the Monster is a standout example of how long it can take. So while the anticipation was almost unbearable, which for me might have attributed to its cult-like status, you can judge for yourself if the film would have benefited from an earlier release, to fit more into the Zeitgeist of the time it was made.
My personal connection to the promise of the film was supported by the fact that it featured a puppet character set in a realistic world, with a visual design that is a quintessential reflection of its time, – a mixture of American independent film naturalism and the very particular, slightly washed-out but beautiful cinematography associated with Vimeo Staff-picked short films from the mid-2010s. This makes Myrna the Monster the perfect combination between my fondness for The Muppets and my decades-long fascination with the specific tradition of US indie filmmaking from the 1990s and 2000s. The former comparison is certainly no coincidence, given that Ian Samuels has worked for the Jim Henson Company and Sesame Street.
Since Myrna the Monster premiered at Sundance in 2015, one can’t help but see the parallels to a similarly titled short we featured a few years ago, Martha the Monster, which stars Rose Byrne and Bobby Canavale in life-sized monster costumes. One might argue how much the Hollywood actors took inspiration from Myrna, but in any case, the influence of Ian Samuels’ breakthrough short can’t be denied. At last, we can see it for ourselves in all its online glory.