Monday, May 29, 2006


Unknown director, USA, 2006, >1 minute.

This is a commercial first introduced at the Super Bowl 2006, It showed a caveman throwing a bone (presumably the mail). A flying dinosaur picks it off simulating unseen circumstances. The frustrated caveman reports to his boss who is not sympathetic. The despairing employee kicks a small dinosaur immediately before being stomped upon by a larger one.

This short film is actually a commercial, but I thought it was so effective because it was memorable. When the first frame shows a caveman, it plants the thought in the minds of women, which is half the audience, that men, especially men watching football, are like caveman. Women also have sympathy for him with the unforeseen circumstances and the boss’ insensitive response. I think his response resonates more strongly with women than men. However, unreasonable bosses have a mainstay of humor for everyone for decades, or millions of years.

By the employer asking his underling the reason for not using FedEx despite the fact that it didn’t exist highlighted this scenario of the impossible managers in every person’s experience. The illusion that the boss recognizes the importance of Fedex millions of years ago congratulates his forethought thus massaging his ego making the commercial memorable in his mind.

I thought this short does its job effectively. The employee can identify with the character, the employer is congratulated and those people not interested in the game are entertained. The proof for a commercialis its longetivity. When I asked friends about the caveman ad, they knew it was for Fedex. Success!

(submitted by Debbie Zukas)

First Date by Gary Huggins

Directed by Gary Huggins, USA, 2006, 20minutes
Source: First Date on Sundance

The black void of the film screen is interrupted with the all too familiar sound of an AOL instant message. The unique lexicon of the Internet rises onto the screen one line at a time.

kcmuscle: asl?
LuvOlder: 16 m KCK
Kcmuscle: cool
Kcmuscle: me 38yo 5’9” 160 7.5 uncut

Fade In. As the voiceless dialogue continues to flood the screen, the audience is made aware that we have entered in the middle of a sexual proposition between an older man, kcmuscle, and an underage boy. As the online discussion continues, the audience is privy to the distinction between kcmuscle’s reality and the one he weaves online. He claims to be at his office job, busy with paper work, yet through an overlapping montage we find him wandering aimlessly through the streets and playing arcade games. More important to the plot, kcmuscle claims to have a car that will surprise his young admirer, yet the next 15 minutes of the film finds kcmuscle desperately seeking, through any means possible, a vehicle to pick up his young conquest. Eventually, desperation drives kcmuscle to steal a car after his pleas to borrow a car from friends does not work.

Once he meets LuvOlder, the second and more impressive storyline of the short begins. Unlike the first half, which is overacted and overwritten, the second half delves into psychological realism as we understand what drives this predator, identify with his sexual identity crisis, and discover his troubled past. However, at the same time his actions, his lying, and his misguided reasoning repulse us. This, along with LuvOlder’s slow realization of what he has gotten himself into, is what is interesting to me.

The best scenes of the film are not the action packed sequences, but the subtle moments where kcmuscle’s authentic, disturbing character shines through and we are allowed to see the truth even when he does not. A great example of this is the awkward car ride when kcmuscle and LuvOlder meet in person. Through an extended close up of kcmuscle as he talks and drives, we somehow get into his psyche. The longer he talks, the more the audience is able to see through his lies and deceptions. Further, through LuvOlder’s quiet responses, we witness how the absence of dialogue and what is not said is just as crucial to our understanding of character’s inner thoughts. Again, this is echoed near the end of the piece when kcmuscle escorts LuvOlder back to his front steps yet neither mentions the cop beating. Instead, kcmuscle reiterates he’ll call, they’ll get together again soon, and he knows where LuvOlder lives now. These lines are delivered with an ambiguous tone that displays heartache, longing, and yet is still threatening. As LuvOlder awkwardly scuffles inside, avoiding eye contact with his lover, he delivers few lines of dialogue, yet his thoughts and feelings are apparent.

This movie climaxes with kcmuscle beating a policeman unconscious after the cop discovers him having sex in the stolen car with the kidnapped boy. Gary Huggins then treats his audience to an unexpected and subdued ending that is as intriguing as the novelty of the online banter at the onset of the film. This is a truly fascinating film, and a very timely one as well during an era of television news magazines’ intense focus on online predators.

Hess's "Peluca"

Name of film: PELUCA
Director/Writer: Jared Hess & Jerusha Hess
Country: USA
Year of production: 2002
Length: 9 minutes
Source: NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (DVD Special Features)

This short film is about Seth on one of his better days. Beleaguered Seth offers his high school bullies a lot of ammunition, all owing to an unawareness that endears him to the film’s audience. Errant hair, ungainly glasses, a slack jaw and sleepy eyes compound Seth’s lack of fashion and his interest in the nerdier aspects of teenage life, like numchucks.

Seth’s reputation precedes him, giving the viewer a greater sense of sympathy and interest in Seth and the day-to-day life of a misfit. The film opens onto grainy Idaho flatland and Seth, looming over a low-angle shot, waiting for a rural school bus to make its stop. He takes the rear-most seat next to two primary school boys who ask him what he’s going to do today. “Whatever I want to, gosh!” is Seth’s reply, made famous in the cult-hit NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, which is based on PELUCA. NAPOLEON DYNAMITE takes more than the idea of telling a rural misfit’s story from the short. Along with the premise it takes Seth, with a name change, elements of the plot, and even the director/writer, Jared Hess, and a couple of actors from the short, including Jon Heder, who lived next door to me our sophomore year at BYU. (There it is, only one degree from Kevin Bacon.) Both the short and the feature were shot on location in Preston Idaho using local actors (cashier, high schoolers), props (the same manikin) and locations (the same thrift shop).

But not the same budget. After seeing the student film PELUCA at the Slamdance Film Festival in Utah, Fox Searchlight Pictures retained Jared Hess to make the feature film, NAPOLEON DYNAMITE. That in itself was one moment to celebrate for the writer/producer, who made the short for a college class on a $500 budget in two days. The second celebratory moment can be tallied in dollar signs after the feature grossed millions in ticket and DVD sales (not to mention sales of action figures, t-shirts—“Vote for Pedro”—and other paraphernalia). If all of this were not enough, the Idaho State legislature drafted and accepted a resolution “to recognize and commend Jared and Jerusha Hess for their cinematic talents by which they have increased the nation’s awareness of Idaho.”

They should also receive praise for increasing the nation’s awareness in general of the geek in all of us. After seeing this film for the first time I kept my date waiting in the lobby as I screened myself for chinks in my exterior that might betray the chinks of my interior. I wrote above that Seth’s vulnerability to bullying derived from a nascent unawareness of what’s cool, and that our sympathy originates from that very unselfconscious carriage, but I amend that statement to suggest that it’s not Seth’s unawareness that makes him interesting to us as a character but rather the kind of hyperconsciousness that kept my date waiting in the lobby while I struggled to make the thin line between cool and uncool darker, thicker, impervious.

The Most Beautiful Man in the World

Directed by Alicia Duffy, UK, 2002, 6 minutes.

With her loyal dog at her side, a young girl struggles against the pains of boredom. She yawns. She stares. She lies on the ground and seems barely awake. In short (pun intended) nothing much is going on. After a series of quick glimpses into her extremely boring life, we get a longer shot of the girl riding her bike in bored circles outside the house. Her dog watches on. Finally, the girl drifts into a field of tall brown grass in pursuit of said dog and happens upon a shirtless and sweaty man who is petting her wandering pooch. "That's my dog," she tells the man, which is consequently her only line in the short. The man spots a beetle crawling beneath the strap of the girl's thin tank top and carefully removes it with his fingers, presenting it to her in his cupped hands. Enter evil mother, who stands forbiddingly in the doorway of the house. The girl runs back, leaving the most beautiful man in the world behind. The short ends with a last glimpse of the young girl hypnotised by the blue glow of the television.

With almost no dialogue and very few sounds (only a few ambient noises) this short appealed to me because of the emotion that comes from the sparseness. The initial set up is quick to deliver a series of strange camera shots-- extreme closes ups as well as shots from high above and directly below. These angles give a clear perspective of the girl's looming boredom. The lack of sounds create a frustrating silence--noise would at least provide something to listen to, but alas, this girl doesn't even have the luxury of arguing neighbors.

What's truly intriguing about the film is the sensual meeting between a girl who can't be older than 10 and a man who isn't any younger than 30. She is immediately enamored with his glistening body. It's almost a set up for a trashy romance novel, except the age difference sent chills up my spine. The situation was both sexy and completely inappropriate at the same time. Does the man feel a physical attraction to the girl? Is he a pervert? Some kind of child molester?? Probably not. He's probably just a nice guy picking a bug off of a little girl. But the scene begs to differ and every movement is soft and loving.

The Most Beautiful Man on the World represents how a film can use perspective to skew what's actually going on in the scene. A close up on a girl's shirt strap and the touch of an older man goes from helpful to sexual. The sensual nature of this film is entirely wrapped up in its direction. Had the scene been filled with music and wide camera angles, it would have represented just another boring episode in the girl's boring day.

Enrico's An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Directed by Robert Enrico, U.S.A., 1962, 24 minutes
Source: Treasures of the Twilight Zone: A Collection of Special Episodes and Rare Footage, VHS 1806

Enrico's short film is adapted from the 1891 short story of the same name by Ambrose Bierce. I had originally viewed this short film years ago in an undergrad course. I found it presently as part of a collection of Twilight Zone segments, since it had originally aired as an episode in 1964. The film’s original premiere was at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the short film Palm D’Or in 1962. It also won the 1963 Academy Award for best short film.

The premise of the film is that a Southern aristocrat during the Civil War is about to be hanged by a group of Union soldiers on a bridge called Owl Creek Bridge. We watch the prisoner being tediously prepared by the soldiers for the execution. But something unexpected happens when the prisoner is pushed off the bridge to hang: the rope around his neck snaps, sending him splashing into the water below. He is able to free his bound hands and legs underwater, and rises to break the water’s surface, only to find the entire group of soldiers firing down on him. As he swims away, they continue to fire their rifles at him, in addition to firing a large cannon. Miraculously, he avoids getting hit, and eventually reaches a nearby shore. There, he regroups and rejoices, before a distant cannon report compels him to run again. He runs through a forest and eventually reaches the gate of his estate. His wife descends the porch of their house to welcome him, and they move toward one another. But at the moment of their embrace, the man suddenly lets out a scream and grabs his neck. The next shot is of the man dangling by the noose over Owl Creek Bridge. The rope had never snapped after all, making all that had transpired after the man was pushed off the bridge nothing more than a desperate fantasy.

The shocker ending is extremely clever, as is the technical execution of the film throughout. The film begins with slow, quiet tracking shots, showing the bridge and the soldiers from a distance. After our first shot of the protagonist—a close-up revealing his fear—we get several first-person perspective shots that establish his predicament, as he surveys his surroundings: a view to the left and right, respectively, showing soldiers guarding either side of the bridge; a view toward an elevated ridge, showing another soldier standing watch above; and, most memorably, a view below, showing the tips of his boots extended over the plank supporting him on the bridge, with the water rushing below. In an extension of this first-person “boot tips” perspective, the protagonist’s fall into the water is depicted in such a way, proving a high-velocity, harrowing shot. Then, as the protagonist hits the water, the camera follows him under water as he frees himself from his ropes and ascends toward the surface of the water. I found this all-terrain filming approach very impressive. The camera continues to follow the protagonist as he descends a waterfall and, later, makes a high-speed run through the forest (in a sequence reminiscent of some of the forest tracking shots in Rashomon). The camera is kinetic and extremely innovative in this short.

The most remarkable technical achievement of the film, though, is the way it infuses subtle elements of distortion into the “fantasy” sequence in order to paint these narrative events (the escape, the homecoming) in an askew light. This is something better appreciated on second viewing (once one knows what is real and what is fantasy). But even a first-time viewer may be able to detect from the technical cues of this sequence that there is something “off” about it, something that puts its events into question. When the protagonist emerges from the water after freeing his ropes, we launch into a highly lyrical sequence, wherein time seems to stand still, as the protagonist observes the world around him in the most minute of detail. We get a series of first person-perspective, extreme close-up shots of leaves, a worm, the dew on the grass, and a spider in his web, as a semi-corny, acoustic guitar-driven song entitled “A Living Man” (sample lyric: “I see each tree . . . I read each vein”), plays on the soundtrack. This sequence is then interrupted by the pronounced vocal distortion of the captain’s voice, which is slowed down drastically to sound monstrous, as he commands his men, “He must be hanged.” The accompanying shots of the soldiers, who are scrambling to take aim at the protagonist, are shown in slow motion, creating a trippy, warped scene. The most pronounced sequence of distortion, though, happens as the protagonist reunites with his wife. He is shown in long shot, running toward the camera with his arms outstretched. This is followed by a shot of his wife, emerging from their house (toward the camera) to greet him. These exact two shots are repeated four times, with the man and his wife never actually making progress toward one another; the respective starting points of their individual advances “reset” with each new cut. Here, just before the film’s “reveal,” is where it becomes most obvious that there is something fantastical about these narrative events.

As an adaptation, the film is extremely faithful to its source. It is probably one of the most literal adaptations of source material out there. The bridge and its surroundings are exactly as they are described in Bierce’s story. Specific shots in the film can even be traced to specific sentences in the text. For instance, the previously described first-person shot where the protagonist looks down at the water finds its correlary in the following sentence: “He looked a moment at his ‘unsteadfast footing,’ then let his gaze wander to the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet.” The only significant difference between the two texts is that the short story gives more background on the protagonist, in terms of the circumstances that had led to his hanging. But the short story has the same shocker of an ending, conveyed in a single, final sentence ("Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge"), in the same manner the film’s shocker “reveal” is conveyed in a single, final (long) shot of the protagonist dangling from the noose (pictured above). All in all, this is a fascinating study in short film as adaptation, in addition to being a fascinating study in short film as technical achievement.

Svankmajer's The Fall of the House of Usher

The Fall of the House of Usher
Directed by Jan Svankmajer, Czechoslovakia, 1980, 15 minutes
Source: The Kimstim Collection, The Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer, Vol. 1
DVD 899

The film, in black and white, beings with creepy music and a series of close-ups that cut between a raven, some stones and ominous storm clouds. The nameless narrator begins Poe’s narrative in Czech. We do not see him; the camera instead focuses on the House of Usher, a mansion in the dark, blurry distance. His childhood friend, Roderick Usher, has written to him, beckoning him to visit. The camera moves through the house’s empty rooms and squeaking doors before settling on a lone chair, just as the narrator describes his initial encounter with the depressed Roderick. At this point we realize a curious fact: there will be no actors in this film. As the narrator describes Roderick’s sickly appearance, the camera traces the chair’s frame. The narrator learns that Roderick’s sister, Lady Madeline, is sick and the camera immediately cuts to a close-up of a single stone falling from the house into water and then focuses on animated gray matter stirring.

Roderick reveals his preoccupation with the house and death. Coincidentally, Madeline soon dies. A black coffin enters the scene, and then interestingly moves itself from the house, to a road outside, before sliding into a tomb. An unsettling “hammer” noise echoes in the background before the tomb door slams shut and locks itself. Roderick becomes even more depressed and agitated, and the camera repeatedly focuses on a table with trembling nails, a hammer and a key, much like the one that locked the tomb entrance..hmmm. A few days later there is a thunderstorm and the narrator decides to read “Mad Tryst” by Sir Lancelot Canning and distract Roderick. As the narrator reads, the camera cuts to the table with the nails, which are now moving, and then to the coffin, which explodes into splintered wood, mirroring the frame story’s parallel plot. Again, some gray clay shifts, the name “Madeline” flashes, and soon the entire coffin crumbles as lightening flashes and Roderick “the chair” begins to stir uneasily. The camera focuses on tearing walls, growing cracks, and creates a dizzying effect. Roderick admits he has been haunted by noises from Madeline’s tomb all week and is certain that she is on the other side of the door. The door opens and Roderick’s chair crumbles. The furniture, a wardrobe and other chairs, begins “running” from the shaking house, leaping out of windows and sinking into the muddied water below. The final image is that of the initial raven, who also crumbles into a pile of feathers at the end.

I thought this would be an interesting film to watch since we are reading about short stories in relation to short films. I was impressed by how this adaptation combines both elements of the familiar and unfamiliar to recreate the Poe’s unsettling story, while contributing some engaging new twists. Reading along with the English subtitles serves as a necessary revisit to the actual text (for those of us who haven’t read it in years), and listening to the Czech adds a literal foreign element that made me feel as though I, too, was moving into the unknown. I was most impressed with how Svankmajer really brings the house to life with these animate objects; they certainly aren’t the singing, accommodating furniture pieces of Beauty and the Beast. The house is truly a character alive with madness. The physical decay and the rush of flashes of animation clay and earth really captured the underlying human emotion of frenzied fear.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

D.W. Griffith's Enoch Arden

Directed by D.W. Griffith, USA, 1911, 33 minutes
Source: D.W. Griffith's Biograph Shorts Special Edition (DVD 644)

Based on the poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Two kind men, Enoch Arden and Phillip Ray vie for the love of Annie Lee. Enoch is the lucky man and the two get married and have kids. But money is short for the family so Enoch signs up to go on a voyage to China. Annie stands by the shores waiting for Enoch to return. Enoch is then shipwrecked and stranded on an island. Many years go by, the children have grown and Annie keeps looking out to sea for Enoch as Phillip Ray humbly looks after her children and continues to vie for Annie's love. Annie resisted for years until she gradually grows fond of Phillip. Old and gray, Enoch is finally rescued and quickly tries to find his family, but when he peeks into the window to see that Annie and his children are happy with Phillip, he decides that he will not let Annie know he is alive. Enoch leaves the happy family and goes to an inn where he dies.

I myself never read the long poem but a story like this one should be a prime example for a narrative short film. The story really gave a powerful emotion even at the time it was made. The melodrama started out as a genre of romance when in the end it felt more like a tragedy, Enoch keeping Annie happy by not informing her of his sudden existence. This story did what a narrative film is supposed to do, make you wonder what happens next. The story made me really hope that Enoch would finally see Annie again. With Phillip Ray being a very kind man however, I was more than understanding that Annie and her children would be fine with Phillip.

What really captured me was the music. The modern piano playing made me feel like this was a modern melodramatic film. And it just may be because of this music that I wanted to watch this film many times more. D.W. Griffith's use of parallel editing showed the expressions of both Annie and Enoch to heighten the melodrama, a feat like this is something I have never seen before in movies at this time period. This was considered the first feature film because it was presented in two reels. And while this is still considered, at least in this class, a short film, the film sure gives the emotion and technique of a narrative feature today.