Saturday, August 30, 2008


Directed by Dominique Monfery, written by Salvador Dalí and
John Hench, USA, 2003, 6min

It was 1945 when Spanish painter Salvador Dali and Walt Disney began working on Destino; ten months later the Project stopped. Some said Destino’s production halted due to budget reasons, others said the film deviated from Disney’s original idea. It took 58 years for the film to finally premier at the Annecy International Animation Festival (June, 2003).

The plot of the animated short is very simple: the struggle of two lovers to be together. But it is told in a very unconventional –surreal– way. For six minutes a woman and a man-statue, who comes to life, dance and morph in a Dali style world. Dali’s paintings (think of Persistence of the Memory) always had rhythm and motion to them; Destino finally gives us that motion. But, that motion can be confusing for other people.

As in art, people can interpret Destino in many different ways. Some of the elements remind me of Un Chien Andalou, a moon rising from behind the clouds as they rapidly move let to right, a close-up of a hand with ants coming out of the palm, and French men in black suits riding bikes. In a way, Destino is less bizarre than Un Chien Andalou and “easier” to interpret. The scenario is ever changing and moving keeping the two apart. Dali’s signature limp watches seem to represent the pain the lovers live each minute they are separated and how eternal each of those minutes can feel.

Each of the 6min feel and look like Dali, not a frame of Disney, but only18sec of the short were created by him. A team 25 artists worked on the final piece for two years; they only had Dali’s story boards and paintings and his wife Gala’s journal. Monfrey’s team succeeded at recreating Dali’s style and designing the missing pieces. Since it’s premier in 2003 the short has been screened in museums but that year the short was screened before Disney’s feature Lady Killers*. In the screening I attended, the audience didn’t really know what to do with it, makes wonder would the reaction had been back in 1946.

*At least in Latin America, I don’t know about the US.
**Destino is expected to be released in DVD in November, 2008

Friday, August 29, 2008


D: Wong Kar-wai, USA, 2001, approx. 9 minutes
Source: BMW Films, no longer available

A driver is hired by a movie star's assistant to follow the star's girlfriend (wife? lover?), who he suspects of infidelity. He tracks her, and narrates the nature of such tailing as he chases her around Los Angeles. He tracks her to LAX, where she tries to catch a plane to Rio de Janeiro, which is delayed. In a visually poetic moment, the driver breaks his own rule ("don't get too close") for a moment, only to discover something about the nature of this woman's relationship.

The Follow is a gorgeous film, typical of Wong Kar-wai's moving work in features such as In the Mood for Love and 2046. Upon its web-only release in 2001, however, it was also part of a larger series of works: The Hire featured five short films produced by David Fincher and directed by different directions with only two common elements, the unnamed Driver (played by Clive Owen) and the cars, all BMWs. Indeed all five films were part of an interesting commercial campaign called BMW films where the "films" themselves used the cars in fascinating ways, often involving car chases (like in this one) and sometimes even causing the cars to crash. The clear, cool nature of both Owen and the car exuded from these films, and vice-versa. More than the other four in the series, Wong's film also directly related these shorts to the concept of the art film, which can allow us to consider the nature of the audience that these films -- and likewise the cars -- are marketed to. Do those of us who watch these kind of films want to buy BMWs? Can we afford them?

The Follow therefore walks a fascinatingly fine line between "film" and "commercial." The series as a whole could be accessed under the very name "film" and played at the Cannes Film Festival; all the players involved (actors, directors, etc.) are related to film as well, and the budgets for these pieces certainly was along similar lines with commercials. And yet, these "films" won CLIO awards for best commercial pieces which naturally showcase the ubiquitous cars which handle rather nicely. This invites us to consider the nature of the commercial at all: where does the concept of the "film" begin and end?

Thursday, August 28, 2008


D: Jessica Yu, USA, 1993, approx. 4 minutes.
Source: Wholphin Volume 2
Featured in the Telluride Film Festival 1993.

The premise of this film couldn’t get much simpler: director Yu offers candy to a variety of people and films their reactions – once they quickly discover that she has deceived them into trying the Asian “delicacy” Sour Death Balls. A series of head-shots in sepia-and-white accompanied by a jazzy score, the film seems almost too simple.

Such simplicity highlights each person’s face as the candy’s taste slowly registers – and the piece is just long enough for the viewer to simply break down and laugh along with these poor victims. The looks the kids give are particularly priceless and I love the little girl who spits it out only to put it back in her mouth (because, you know, it’s candy!). The score provides a wonderful guideline for editing as well, which remains brisk and buoyant. Here is a case where if the film had gone one for much longer, the impact would be dimished. Instead, Sour Death Balls remains pure fun.

There is a question as to whether this is a documentary. Certainly, with its lack of any discernable plot, this is a model experimental film – but, given its register of everyday life, could it also be a doc? Yu herself would gain great recognition for prowess in the form, winning the Best Documentary Short Oscar for Breathing Lessons. (She memorably said upon receiving the Award, “It’s a new reality when your dress cost more than your movie.”) I would venture to say that this isn’t a documentary, precisely because of intention: it seems that documentaries have a greater “purpose” behind them than this one intends (a statement which I hope doesn’t slight the movie at all). I open this question up to debate in the comments, however – how do you feel about the possibility of its status as a documentary?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


D: Chuck Jones, USA, 1953, approx. 7 minutes.

Duck Amuck is one of the great cinematic treasures of the United States. At face value, it is unadulterated fun (on a personal level, bringing me back instantly to memories of my youth watching Saturday morning cartoons). When I was in college, I had the pleasure of meeting the master, Chuck Jones, who said that he and his colleagues never made these films for kids, nor did they make them to satisfy anyone else: they did it to crack themselves up.

So it says something about the group at the Termite Terrace that many of these throwaway shorts shown in front of Warner Brothers movies should be so terribly sophisticated. Duck Amuck is hilarious chaos on screen -- and yet the very reasons why it is so hysterically funny come from how much we as viewers know about film. The short is about -- well, nothing. Literally. Poor Daffy Duck starts acting in what seems to be a send-up of
The Scarlet Pimpernel when all of a suddent the background changes. He seems confused, then shrugs and starts over as another character to fit the scene. Everything after this point pits Daffy's desperate attempts to get a story (any story!) going against an unseen illustrator/director, who keeps changing everything about the filming, seemingly at random. The sound disappears. The scene disappears. Daffy himself disappears, to return in a different form entirely. The art, however, makes the majority of the film appear as an uninterrupted single take (with several cuts toward the end). We laugh at what we see, because we recognize that this isn't supposed to be what we see. "This is a close-up??" Daffy screams for the far-off deserted island -- and we know it's not a close-up, but rather an iris-in, even if we aren't familiar with the cinematic terminology out of hand.

Towards the end of the film, Jones does something particularly radical with the screen image. While trying to reason with the illustrator, all of a suden the top of the screen caves in. This seems simple, but the effect is rather sophisticated: in effect, Jones eliminates the screen. By that, I mean the rectangle that allows us to comprehend everything that happens in movies to begin with. This both demonstrates the pliable power behind animation that would prove implausible in live action -- and that higher film theory can be demonstrated with wit beyond compare. In just over six minutes (as he did over and over again), Chuck Jones demonstrates his intelligent mastery of the form and how utterly effective the short film can be. Not to mention that such shorts can also be, well, fun. Think of how utterly disappointing the feature-length Looney Tunes films have been and you'll know what I mean.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


D: Octavio Cortázar, Cuba, 1968, approx. 9 minutes.
(Note: The embedded clip does not have subtitles.)

In the early 1960s, Fidel Castro placed a large emphasis on combating illiteracy in Cuba, particularly starting in 1961 during the "Year of Education." For Castro in particular, however, "literacy" did not only refer to the ability to read words in books, newspapers and magazines: the phrase also applied to audiovisual materials such as movies, radio and television. This forward-thinking vision led directly to the genesis of ICAIC, the Cuban Institute for Cinematographic Arts and Industry. Much as thousands of people from Havana and other cities went to the countryside to teach people how to read, so too did a fleet of cine-móviles bring movies to places that otherwise had no knowledge of cinema.

Por Primera Vez follows one cine-móvil crew to a very rural town in 1968. The idea is rather simple: interview some townspeople about what they think about this weird concept of "movies," then show them experiencing a movie. The novelty here naturally comes in large part from the subject itself: even Cubans would have been surprised to find people who knew absolutely nothing about the mere concept of cinema. Cortázar's documentary uniquely demonstrates a genuine tone toward his subjects that surprisingly does not exploit the subjects, even as we are allowed to laugh with (at?) their ignorance; perhaps this is because we quickly realize that, inexperienced with media as these people are, this particular situation will quickly be remedied. At first confirming whatever suspicions we have about the so-called "Third World," the end of the film goes beyond any political, economic or social statements to revel in the joy that cinema brings, a joy that (in our jaded age in 2008) we sometimes forget.

Or is this not political? Truth be told, this documentary was released in 1968, a banner year for Cuban filmmaking with a number of landmark features, including Humbeto Solás Lucía and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's masterpiece Memorias del subdesarrollo. All of these films -- Por primera vez included -- were deliberately created around this time, however, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Cuban revolution; all of these films toured widely throughout Latin America and elsewhere. Each provided a complex glimpse at the Cuban reality of 1968, challenging the outside notion that independent thought was verboten under Communism. At the same time, as evidence of the above, these films could also be viewed as a type of propaganda. In this way, Por primera vez is perhaps the most subversive of all of these films, its "simple" message and happy ending masking -- or proving -- the very message the Cuban government wanted to portray.

Monday, August 25, 2008


D: David Cronenberg, Canada, 2000, approx. 7 minutes.
Source: Viderdrome (Criterion Collection version)

A narrator starts to tell a story off-camera: "One day, the children brought home a camera." It's a simple statement; it starts simply, with a man -- no, not a man: an actor. Images of the children with the camera are intercut with images of a nice gentleman with graying hair, shot with a video camera in medium shot. As he continues, however, the (video) camera starts to push forward, so that the man is in close-up when he announces something unexpected: "When you look at it in a cold light, photography is death."

Camera continues a fascinating interplay of images as the actor delivers a monologue about the "dangers" that the Camera proposes. The children matter-of-factly do all the tasks needed to make a movie: check lights, process film, measure the f-stop; these are all shot in a very matter-of-fact manner as well, with relatively "normal" lighting and camera distances. These are all in stark contrast to the images of the actor, who the video camera moves into shots so close that we as viewers feel uncomfortable. The actor appears unattractive, even sinister: the light from the windows appears too harsh, his eyebrows are thick and menacing. The actor is also edited in an odd manner: often, we are presented with jump cuts to sudden extreme close-ups of his eyes. The images are not necessarily horrific, yet the tone established throughout this piece is horrific.

In many ways, Camera is an interesting precursor to Cronenberg's 2005 feature film A History of Violence, which cannily comments on the movies in a similar way. In that film, scenes of violence and gore which would otherwise titillate the viewer are presented in a stark, cold manner than unnerves even the most seasoned viewers, making us question the very nature of the horror film genre. (One can argue he this is a common preoccupation for the director, also seen in eXistenZ, Naked Lunch and especially the brilliant Videodrome, which also featured Leslie Carlson, the actor featured here.) In Camera, Cronenberg does not present any gore and yet the whole film is structured to terrify. I particularly like this piece because the link between photography and death so clearly derives from Roland Barthes' tragically final work Camera Lucida. These ideas were not academic for Barthes: the work is inspired by his mother's death, and every photograph of her does not remind him of the joy that her life brought, but instead serves to mock him, reminding him that she is dead. Cronenberg highlights something very similar: the life captured by motion pictures only demonstrates that such moments cannot be repeated and taunt us with what once was and can never be again.

Camera becomes truly haunting in the last minute or so, when the children bring the large, old 35mm camera into the room with the actor. They apply make-up, change everything around and then a young boy (bespectacled, like Cronenberg) says, "Action." And suddenly, the image changes: it is warm, gorgeous, widescreen. And suddenly we realize that the harshness of everything that has come before is largely due to the use of video instead of film. (This section was actually filmed with the very camera seen throughout the short.) And yet, as soft and beautiful as this looks/sounds/feels, we are acutely aware of everything that the actor has noted before this. He repeats his initial line -- "One day, the children brought home a camera" -- but the line is changed, no longer innocent. And this time, the shot hangs on just a little too long. It catches the actor's face in a private moment: in the last seconds of the film, Carlson's face breaks for just a moment, his eyes watering and distant, filled with despair. The film cuts away to black -- and the effect is terrifying. Can we watch movies again the same way?

This entry is cross-posted as part of the Movies About Movies Blogathon hosted at GoatDogBlog -- please feel free to visit the other entries listed on that site. New entries on short films will appear here every day until December 11th, with students starting to post next weekend. Please visit here often -- and comment on the students' work, since they earn extra credit for more comments!