Monday, September 15, 2008

DC Shorts/Harold and Burns

Harold and Burns (2007)
Directed by Colin Theys

I have never been to a showcase of short films in a theatre before, and I believe I came out of the DC Shorts film festival with a new experience under my belt and a better understanding of how short showcases are put together. As we’ve previously discussed in class, the orchestration of the short showcase is entirely problematic. What shorts should be shown in synchronization? What lengths are acceptable? Should a binding theme be present, or should the shorts flow freely?

After our class discussion of Paris Je’Taime, I made the comment that I felt shorts should be ordered like an album. Good records, the ones we remember, have a track listing that just work, things flow freely, themes are present but the feeling is what counts. I’m not saying songs (short films) need to have a running plot to be sandwiched together, but sequences of pictures should extend a certain aura, a glazy haze that knits the works patchwork. Short films need to work well together, and this is where I felt Showcase #5 of the DC Shorts Film Festival went wrong.

Rather than dedicating each presentation of short films to a certain theme, element, feeling, whatever, the people behind DC Shorts decided to lump certain pieces here and other pieces there. The hodgepodge mess started feeling bloated about 45 minutes into the screening, leaving me checking me watch often. Dramatic works were pushed to close to laugh riots, light comedies tucked neatly beside heavy experiments. What’s worse though, is that some shorts were just plain awful.

The showcase opened up with DC short #5179, Through the Lens, a two minute piece of cheese composed of a young boy (shot in black and white), looking through a camera lens, and seeing (you guessed it, in color) his future as a director. A nice little action montage of clapboards, boom mics, and makeup ladies, and we’re back to the black and white boy. Titles fade into the screen, and any sense of dignity drops from the film. “When a dream begins...who says it has to end?”. You might as well put up a picture of a kitten holding onto a tree subtitled, “Hang in there!”. I think it is wrong for short films to make up for their lack of time by throwing in title cards to help us understand the message. The audience is not dumb, contrary to what Hollywood seems to think, and it’s aggravating to see a piece of artwork, a film, be reduced to junior high math room inspiration posters. That warm fuzzy feeling? That’s the grown up in me screaming for substance.

DC short #5597, The Spinach Inquisition, was also utterly cringe-able. While short and independent filmmakers are often lacking in an essential department - budget - I still feel the need for technical skill to be present. With a good understanding of your equipment, even the lowest budget films can look and sound like a few dollars. The Spinach Inquisition had cinematography straight out of textbook, and poor use of zoom ruined the visual aspect of the film. But what I found absolutely ridiculous about The Spinach Inquisition was its script, which, incidentally, won a screenwriting award from the DC Shorts Fest. Inquisition is built on a simple concept: a businessman has just given a long speech to prospective clients that he feels went incredibly well, only to find out he’s had a piece of spinach in his teeth for the last two hours. After questioning everyone he’s talked to in the last few hours about why they didn’t inform him of his spinach problem, he meets up with his client - and here’s the clincher - only to realize his client ALSO has a piece of spinach in his teeth!

Okay, so it’s a novel concept, but the joke - the reason this movie exists - is completely predictable, and it falls flat. Very, very, very flat. And it won a screenwriting award? Why didn’t this award go to short #5033 Day’s Work, a 14-minute black and white opus about a Czech woman’s long, arduous day that wrenched heartache and soul into every frame? Or what about #5502, Tough Crowd, an FSU comedy about a female muslim comedian named Jihad who has a stand-up battle with the other school comedian, a snarky Jew? This film managed to get the words “comedy holy war” into the auditorium, and that itself is wonderful.

Maybe it’s not that some of the films were so bad, maybe it’s that the people behind DC Shorts didn’t put enough effort into really encapsulating the spirit of the short film into the showcase. Too often it felt like high school talent night - one that even the parents don’t want to attend.

This asshole aside though, I did enjoy DC short #5064, Harold and Burns immensely. The story of Harold babysitting a rabbit named Burns that has a (very big, very nasty, very monstrous) secret was hilarious. On top of being well written, Harold and Burns was also technology stimulating, innovative, and fun. The edits, chock full of motion and close up shots, capitalized the comedy, urging visual laughs and big responses. Burns also featured some very well rendered CGI work, a feat for any film, particularly a short, independent film.

I believe the key to proper filmmaking is learning how to edit out. This is key particularly with regards to short films. How can you tell the story quicker? How can you streamline the plot? Keep things moving and keep me interested. Maximize your screen time by cutting quickly, keeping your camera moving, and get me into the action.

Harold and Burns was really successful because it contained itself well. The story was nothing epic, and its subject matter was very suitable for short story territory, making it ideal for adaption as a short film. Time was maximized through creative editing that fell just short of montage, which is a good thing, because a fourteen minute film that’s six minutes of montage is really nothing at all. I was continually impressed by the camera work; cinematographer Matt Wankonen (that’s an approximation, folks) kept his camera moving, allowing for some wonderful tracking shots, a POV of an hilarious nature, and an off screen rampage that really flushed the audience. It was a great film, and the picture really stood out from the otherwise humdrum Showcase #5.

Other notable films from this showcase include #5287 No Parking and #5446, CU@ED’S.

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