Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Heart of the World

directed by Guy Maddin
2000
length: 6 minutes



Guy Maddin has made a career out of tirelessly plumbing the depths of a niche so specific that most people would be surprised to know that it even exists. Since the late 1980s, Maddin has been making highly stylized films cut from the mold of early silent cinema. His most recent releases have been Brand Upon the Brain! and My Winnipeg, both of which are terrific experiments in autobiography and human memory. The most obvious visual references in his work come from classic German Expressionist films by directors like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, but he has said he's also heavily indebted to the works of Carl Dreyer and the surrealist collaborations between Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. Maddin is perhaps one of the most polarizing figures in modern cinema. His detractors cite him as a textbook example of style-over-substance filmmaking and tend to throw around that damnable expression "art for art's sake." But Maddin lovers (myself included) see him as a unique visionary in a world where films increasingly lack courage, creativity and any sort of factor that makes them exciting and, in turn, worth watching at all.

The plot of the film makes it sound more like an absurdist epic than a six-minute short: two brothers (Nikolai is a mortician and Osip an actor who plays Jesus in passion plays) fall in love with the same woman, Anna, a scientist studying the biology of the earth's core, "the very hear tof the world." One day, Anna discovers that the world is about to suffer heart failure. Unable to choose between the two brothers, she marries a rich entrepreneur, which sends the ailing world into an even more drastic tailspin. Anna realizes that she must make the ultimate self-sacrifice to save the world: she must travel to the earth's core and replace the heart of the world with her own. Once she does this, the word "Kino" (which means "cinema" in German) appears repeatedly on the screen, and then the credits roll.

The Heart of the World is my favorite of the Maddin shorts I've seen. Not only is it a visually dazzling little piece, it is also a clever commentary of the inherent brevity of short films themselves. The themes that Maddin tackles in Heart of the World (apocalypse, jealousy, self-sacrifice, salvation through art, etc.) are larger than life, the kind of themes usually only found in feature-length films. By touching on these themes so lightly here, Maddin coyly mocks the thematic limitations of short films and then flies in the face of them by making such an "epic" short. He also scoffs at filmic conventions like exposition or well-developed character arcs here. In a feature film, Osip's career as an actor playing Jesus would be a goldmine of intriguing exposition in which other filmmakers would gladly find all sorts of symbolism and religious commentary. But Maddin introduces Osip with a simple intertitle that reads, "An actor, playing Christ in the passion play." With its quick cuts and dismissal of filmic conventions, Heart of the World races through to its dramatic conclusion at light speed.

The critical reaction to Heart of the World fascinates me. It still remains one of Maddin's most acclaimed films (it received awards at the San Francisco International Film Festival and the National Society of Film Critics Awards), and it has the highest rating of any of his films on IMDB (a whopping 8.2!). Not that IMDB is any sort of scientific barometer of things like this, but very few short films on the site have as lively a discussion board as Heart of the World (one of the threads is entitled, "Favorite part?", something that most users would not think to ask about a film that only runs six minutes.) Even people who find Maddin's style grating seem to enjoy this film. So my question is this: WHY? For those of you familiar with Maddin's feature-length work, do you find that his films are easier to "stomach" in a compact form like this? And for those of you who have never seen a Guy Maddin film before, do you think you could deal with 90 minutes of this, or is "novelty" of his style more suitable for shorts?

Physical Pinball

Physical Pinball
Directed by David Gordon Green, USA, 1998, 21 minutes
Source: George Washington, Criterion Collection 152

Like most collegians, I saw Pineapple Express last month with high expectations. Unlike those who were pumped because of promises of bong hits and car chases (okay, I was slightly excited), I was more so interested in seeing how a mainstream comedy would turn out when directed by an independent-minded individual known far more for drama than laughs. The director, David Gordon Green, has made five feature films this decade alone, and is nearly as critically revered as similar-aged peers like Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson, although he has flown under the radar compared to the aforementioned Andersons. He first garnered attention for his handling of African-American children in the rural South with George Washington, which was nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards, a rarity for a debut feature. His 2003 work All The Real Girls is, in my opinion, one of the most overlooked films of the decade, and he has since shot two indie dramas, Undertow and Snow Angels that have received mostly critical acclaim, especially for what many would deem unflashy independent features. 
The plot has a very loose structure, similar to George Washington, that seems to focus much more on scattered moments in life rather than a cohesive narrative. The film highlights young Penelope, who has just had her first period, and her widower father Skillman, who not only is coping with the loss of his wife but also his daughter growing up. Skillfully, Green doesn't explicitly reference the first loss, because although it's evident that the father and daughter are all each other have, the only reference to the deceased mother is when Skillman reminisces about how "Momma had some ugly feet." The father uses his daughter's age and gaming talents to hustle locals at pinball, unaware that his daughter is losing interest in these escapades. Instead, she is beginning to center her attention around her budding womanhood, and there's an awkward episode involving buying tampons at the grocery store that sums up the gap between Skillman and Penelope subtly but sublimely. By the end of the short, Penelope has told her father that she's "not his little boy anymore," and Skillman is left to watch his daughter grow up through the window of a schoolbus in the junkyard beside their house. 
David Gordon Green is most often compared to maverick director Terrence Malick, due to his emphasis of visuals over story and usage of setting as its own character, but this film has less reliance on setting then his Southern small-town based features. However, there are lines of dialogue that are similar to the trademark "poetic commoner" speak in Malick's films, like when Skillman tells his daughter that "God doesn't like characters running around who too perfect." The opening scene of the film is in a junkyard overrun by young children, who play and fight amongst dilapidated homes and trashed cars, something that not only calls to mind poor children playing with their apocalyptic environment in Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, but also the lower class imagery in George Washington. When Skillman asks his daughter if she wrestled today, it encompasses the world these characters live in far better than any excessive lines of expository dialogue.
And yet, it's still a student film, with some moments that show off what a 23-year-old Green had in his bag of cinematic tricks. At times, it's a graphical editing match that's a little too contrived, and the cinematography isn't as refined or notable as his features, but these are tiny instances of amateur filmmaking. On the whole though, it's amazing how confident Green is with his idiosyncratic method of storytelling, in which a scene of Penelope getting her nails done for the first time by her cousin is a beautiful rite of passage, not so far off from a bat mitzvah or first kiss. 
As a student filmmaker myself, I find myself writing stories about people my age, not only because I lack creativity but also because it seems much easier to cut my teeth directing actors my age than children or those of the Baby Boomer/Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuit generation. However, Green eschewed this common tendency and worked with younger actors not only in George Washington but also in his student shorts. Even more impressive, the performances he attains from his young actors never feel like a forced caricature of what an adult thinks a kid acts like. This rare ability to capture innocence so well is what makes George Washington so compelling, but it was first on display in Physical Pinball, such as when Penelope tells her cousin that when she starts dating, "probably in the year 2000," she wants her boyfriend to treat her well. 

With his body of work, one could call David Gordon Green an auteur, as his features are wholly his own and not just a reflection of his influences. Seeing Physical Pinball supports this idea, as the groundwork for his style is laid down in twenty minutes, even if it isn't perfected yet. Interestingly enough, even the atypical Pineapple Express has some origins here, as the film features moments of humor and flashy style that don't seem so out of place anymore in his body of work. Sadly, there are no bong hits involved.  

Physical Pinball is available —shock!— not on youtube or google video, but here, at NYMag.com. The Criterion edition of George Washington also features this short, as well as his George Washington-inspiring short Pleasant Grove. 

Friday, September 05, 2008

The Tapes of My Father

video
The Tapes of My Father
Directed by Robert Parrish

“In a way that familiar feeling of disappointment makes your new house a home.” Such are the documented words of a man whose life has been nothing short of miserable. And thus is the tone for this dark, inventive gem of a short film.


Robert Parrish’s The Tapes of My Father is (on paper) a man’s sympathetic tribute to his deceased father. We learn through archival footage that his dad worked as a newscaster for a television station. Later we are introduced to traces of his father’s troubled past through archived tapes. The tapes feature historically ambiguous black and white photos and video narrated by an artificially deepened voice assumed to be his father.


After a tongue-in-cheek, laughably cheesy opening homage to his father, Parrish immediately yanks our hearts from our bodies and corners us into a futile world of bitterness and extreme depression. The compilation of his father’s tapes begins with: “Statues make me depressed…because I’ll never do anything good enough to merit my own statue.” After spending a few seconds with his father we aren’t sure whether to cringe, laugh or cry.


But as time continues to pass…and his father’s grief remains constant…there is no longer any alternative but to submit to your gut, which is inevitably rooting for a belly laugh.


And if you’re not laughing then the joke’s on you. Parrish brilliantly utilizes seemingly random archived footage to construct a story without actually having any true-to-life characters. The dramatic contrast between the intensely melodramatic approach at the beginning of the film and the morbid second half which follows effectively positions the viewer in an emotionally uncomfortable position. And yet the uncompromising nature of the filmmaking makes it easy to acknowledge those who are indeed buying into the legitimacy of this piece.


Tapes of My Father was an official selection for the DC Shorts Film Festival and Rosebud Film & Video Festival. Its success stems from its original, experimental style of storytelling and brilliant execution in manipulating the hearts and minds of its viewers.


--Charlie Wachtel

An Insult with a Lesson in Diplomacy


Por que no te callas (Why don't you shut up!)
Source: youtube.com

Translation of the short: President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela would not back down during the speaking time of the Spanish delegation. He kept insulting the Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, with regards to his predecessor Jose Maria Aznar. In a response to Chavez's behavior, the King of Spain, Juan Carlos I, YELLED at Chavez, "why don't you just shut up!" The video continues by saying "Wanna keep talking? Don't worry, Suncom wireless has all types of plans for you including call waiting." The exchange of words between King Carlos and President Hugo Chavez took place ON November 10, 2007 at the Ibero- American Summit in Santiago, Chile.

The first time I ever saw this short was on television at my house in Puerto Rico. I had not watched television in Spanish in a long time so I had no idea that this event had even happened. My reaction at the end of the commercial was complete stupefaction and then just laughter and to ask my mother when this happened .I couldn't believe that I hadn't heard about this when it happened. My mother looked at me and her face communicated, "I pay an insane amount of money for you to study international relations, and this happened at an international relationsconvention. Where were you?". If she had actually asked this my answer wouldhave been simple: in the library, and specifically with a chemistry book. But thankfully she did not ask that and simply said that it happened a while ago and that it had made headlines all over the world and that they even wrote a song about it.
Afterwards, when I did some research about the incident I not only found out that it was turned into a song but also that the saying "why don't you just shut up" was made into a ring tone, a t-shirt and even a slogan for commercials like the one for Suncom in this short. Despite the fact that both parties have made peace with each other has not undermined the phrase from a pop icon in the most if not in all the Spanish speaking countries of the world.
Political satire in my opinion is something that is very important due to all the hostility that exists in the international arena. This short does a great job at capturing the obvious diplomatic tension between two countries (actually former conqueror and its colony). In thirty seconds , film viewers get the punchline of the whole event and then are told that if they want to be like Hugo Chavez and do not want to shut up, then they should go ahead and keep talking but remembering to do it with one of the many options Suncome wireless provides.
In other words to take an insult that will be
remembered for a lifetime and turn it into a great ironical cellphone campaign gives us not only an example of great advertising but also a great political satire short.







God

God (1998)
Director: John August
USA, 10 minutes
Source: DVD Bonus feature on The Nines (2007)

God is about a woman named Margaret (Melissa McCarthy) and her relationship with God. It's not the type of human-deity relationship with which any of us are (or are not) familiar. This God is obsessed with gossip and has found his soul mate in McCarthy's ditzy caricature. Of course, a relationship between two characters so flawed is bound to hit a rough patch, and that's the main plot of the film. While they avoid talking to each other, God uses his powers for evil and screws with Margaret's life. A plague here, a ruined breakfast there, and Margaret is annoyed. She wants to get God back. But who would know how to get revenge on GOD?

[church lady]Maybe.... SATAN?![/church lady]

With the devil's guidance, Margaret starts sinning, but before she runs off the cliff, she has a change of heart, she talks it over with God, and they get back together and move on. A happy ending! Yay!

God is a good example of how easily a director can put a personal stamp on a short film (as opposed to the intensely collaborative process of most features). "Really?" you may ask. "The cinematography seemed somewhat generic. The lighting was warm but not extraordinary. Not much imagination in angles." Exactly.

John August is not a director by trade. He is a screenwriter (who writes a killer blog that you should all be reading). His credits include Go, Big Fish, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In God, he played to his strengths: monologue and dialogue.

When you see a Spike Lee, Spike Jonze, or Michel Gondry short or music video, you can detect almost immediately that there's "something about" the film that tells you who made it. Usually it's something tangible that you don't articulate right away - maybe similar aesthetic sensibilities (Destino) or photography (The Follow). If you see an actor or character from their other films, that's a nice big clue (Camera). In God, it's a writing style. The film has its share of visual gags, but "You're like a stalker with super powers" is a line I'd expect out of a screenwriter.

John August doesn't have the most recognizable style. Another example: Consider the minute or so of Sin City that was directed by Quentin Tarantino. I knew beforehand that he had directed one scene, but I didn't know which one. When the scene arrived, I knew it was him. The dialogue was delivered in a self-confident Tarantino style. I recognized themes similar to what Tarantino usually features in films he's written by himself. That brings up one last point: It's a lot easier for a screenwriter to put a personal stamp on a film through dialogue because they so often fly solo. Directors almost always delegate. Screenwriters do not.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Cashback




Cashback
Directed by Sean Ellis
17 minutes

Sean Ellis’ Cashback, a 2006 Academy Award nominee for Best Live Action Short Film, is not unlike some feature films we’ve seen before. The film is seen through the eyes of Ben Willis, an art student who works graveyard shifts at a grocery store. The film, which was eventually turned into a feature-length film but received very mixed reviews, explores the ways Ben and his fellow employees cope with their ridiculously mundane jobs. These coping mechanisms happen to involve phallic deli meats and nudity. These small details made me think of movies like Clerks and Waiting, two feature-length films that feature characters battling the boredom that comes along with service and retail jobs. This short film is just as effective and entertaining as any feature-length film like it.

The film’s charm and story and character development all come out through these coping mechanisms. For instance, Sharon passes the time by ignoring it. While scanning a customer’s items, we are shown a close up of her watch, which has a small patch of paper taped over it. Ben narrates while she scans. He explains that the more you look at the clock, the slower time goes and the more you torture mind with ideas of everything else you could be doing besides scanning a box of Cornflakes or a French baguette. She then takes a box of Ritz crackers and places it atop the cash register monitor. Anything to avoid time. Barry and Matt use anything they can get their hands on to distract themselves from their real work, including the aforementioned deli meat. The products of the grocery store are used cleverly throughout the film. Whether it be the jug of milk Barry and Matt foolishly toss around or the perfectly aligned cartons of juice in the background, the store is as much a part of the film as anything else. There are a number of memorable scenes that are products of the products.

To Ben, all of this is art. Ben sees his 8-hour shifts in the way he views his school work and life. As he speaks of his studies in the fundamentals of still life, it cuts to a bag of spilled, frozen peas in the aisle. The shot lingers, meaning more than it should to the viewer. We later learn that Ben deals by freezing time. The music builds faster and faster as snapshots of the employees interacting with customers and each other flash by. Then it stops. Ben walks down the aisle, undressing the customers as he reveals his fascination with the female body. It could almost seem perverse? One might even judge Ben for this. But really, what would does anyone think about while they’re trying to pass the time? Usually it is nothing remarkable or important. Ben is a true artist, using his time to find the beauty in even the most dreadful supermarket in England. To me, that is what is most impressive.

The Storekeeper

The Storekeeper
Directed by: Gavin Hood
South Africa, 22mins

*Sorry I don't have a clip of the film. It is part of the special features of Gavin Hood's 2005 Academy Award's Best Foreign Film, Tsotsi.

The Storekeeper follows an elderly man in South Africa who lives in isolation and happens to own a small store. This man encounters problems with a thief and as a result he sets up a trap with a shotgun, in hopes of stopping the thief.
Gavin Hood uses his film to comment on the escalating violence in South Africa and how people go about protecting themselves. What lengths are people willing to go to protect themselves in times of need? And what situations allow them to take this protection into their own hands. Is this man allowed to fight back against the thief in the ways he did? Could he have done something different and would that have helped?

I find this film particularly intriguing because of its use of zero dialogue. The only sounds are ambient with minimal music coming from the storekeeper’s radio. The film feels vacant without dialogue but does not subtract from the overall quality. The lack of dialogue enhances the man’s isolation at an elderly age and forces the audience to interpret his actions. Also, the lack of dialogue allows an audience of any language to view the film and have the full effect without loss during translation or obnoxious dubbing.

The Storekeeper also addresses the psychological affects violence has on humans. How does taking our protection into our own hands affect us psychologically? Especially the extreme measures that this man went to by rigging a shotgun. The gun is a very important symbol in this film. In some ways it speaks to the violence of South Africa but it also speaks to the man becoming desensitized to anger. By purchasing the gun the man is turning into the violence that he is trying to protect his store from. And in the end, without giving away the story, one can see the anguish on the man’s face when he realizes what he has actually done. One scene that is particularly important for this is when you see the man sleeping with the gun. The gun has become a part of him and he needs it near him to feel safe. That in it self is an “ugly” image that points to his transition of innocence to violence.

The lighting in this film is also phenomenal. Overall it has a very warm tone with lots of harsh shadows. The lighting makes every scene as important as the rest and allows the audience to focus on the characters because it illuminates their eyes. You can see into the characters souls, as they are the main focus of the shot. Another technique that is found in this film to help create its atmosphere is the editing. Hood takes the audience from wide angles to show the loneliness of the character and then jumps to extreme close-ups. These close-ups provide the audience the opportunity to witness the intensity of the characters emotion.

The thing that makes this film successful for me is the simplicity of it. Yes, the lighting editing, sound, and cinematography are all-important and add to the overall feel. But they are all simple things that when put together create a great film. I was assured of my feelings when reading Adrian Martin’s article “The Seconds Pile Up.” In this article Martin says, “One temptation is overkill, an excess of what I think of as ornamentation: every angle, sound effect, acting gesture cranked up to the max in a frenetic, blazing, five minute montage. I suspect that the real challenge of the short film is to know when not to throw in another cut . . . when to trust a certain understatement or minimalism.”

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

GASMAN

GASMAN
1997
DIR: Lynne Ramsay
14 minutes




Lynne Ramsay has crafted two amazing feature length films - Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar.
But before those she made three short films, Kill the Day, Small Deaths and Gasman.

Gasman won Best Short Film at the Cannes Film Fest (Jury Prize), the BAFTA Awards (Scotland), and the Atlantic Film Fest. It was also nominated for Best Short Film at the BAFTA Awards and the Cannes Film Fest (Golden Palm).

Gasman is a visually fascinating, turning the mundane into the beautiful. A fascination with the beautiful ugliness of the working class landscape and post industrial Scotland pervades her work. Here we are introduced to her unique way of viewing the world from the very beginning. The short begins in close ups. Everything fills the screen and there is little concentration on a central action. Through small visual clues we start to compose the story as we watch it. There is a little girl and a little boy. There is christmas music. The girl gets dressed. The boy 'snows' sugar on his toy car and plays with it. There is a mother, hurrying them along. Items and objects clue us into this setting as a working class (middle to lower?) home... ironing boards, kitchen counters, clothes, carpets, cooking ware. Never once do we see a face. We hear only voices. This likely small place is huge in our screen. The size things are to a child. Then a face, a little girl is pushed through the neck of a dress. Consequently, she is important to us. Her brother and her are rushed out to their father, who waits outside.

The approach in visuals almost reverses as they go to what we have now surmised is a function of some sort. The landscape is vast and littered with shapes of buildings in the background and train yards in the foreground. It is truely run down and though I know this is Scotland by the accents, it could easily be the Pennsylvanian post industrial wasteland I grew up in.

Along the way, they pick up two more children. We learn that this is the father's other family. Our main characters' dopplegangers. The brother and sister ask "who are they?" They obviously don't know or understand. Our little girl is not happy. She accepts her counterpart at first and a simple close up hints as to why. She's got the nicer clothes. These new children may be from an even lower rung of the social ladder.

We arrive at a Christmas party. The children are everywhere, the parents (mostly men... or all men?) are drinking, and the christmas decorations are secondary.
The fact that it's Christmas is only background, it almost doesn't matter. We watch the fun detached, like they're another species as the many children play and interact. We feel glimpses of our own childhood memories, warm indoors, christmas lights, children we haven't met before but are thrown into playing with them. Then, when daughter #2 decides to sit on daddy's lap, our girl becomes territorial. Pulling hair and arguing over Daddy.

Soon after the fight, we leave with our extended family. The boys still seem indifferent to each other, but our girl squeezes her opponent's hand too tightly, making her cry. Dad tries to console, but is barely effective. Perhaps showing us why he's got at least one family that is separated from him. They reunite with mother #2 and hand off the doppelgangers. And in one final moment, our girl holds up a rock and considers throwing it at them. This other, invading family, who wants to claim her Daddy. She looks back at her Dad and something inside changes, she throws her rock to the ground.

Normally I hate such a 'book report' approach to analyzing a film. But to me, this film merits it. It's all about the finely crafted tiny moments, created deliberately and with the purpose of enhancing this nostalgic, melancholic film in which nothing happens but yet so much happens. It's almost completely devoid of traditional shots and editing, not to mention dialogue. It's a child's world where the inconsequential is huge, the emotions are gigantic and we never really understand what the adults are up to.

Ramsay has an amazing ability to transport us to another world. A world grounded in social realism. It's foreign and familiar at the same time. I recommend seeing any of her works, including her music video for the Doves' Black and White Town, which is like a brief taste of her approach to filmmaking.

World Record


World Record
Directed by Takeshi Koike
Source: "The Animatrix", DVD, Warner Bros. 2003

In the wake of Usain Bolt's 100 meter world record, one must question how much further the human race can push the limits of our bodies and our minds. Takeshi Koike's "World Record" takes a look at the power of the human mind to break its bonds, even if that is not its main goal.

The majority of the film's narrative takes place over the course of 8.72 slow-motion seconds. Through flashbacks, it tells the story of Dan Davis, a world-record holding sprinter who is determined to regain his reputation after being caught doping. The film begins at the start of his record attempt. At the sound of the gun, the first flashback cuts in, explaining his past. Each successive flashback reveals a different element of the story, such as his intense training regiment and what racing feels like to him. All of this as the race itself unfolds in the background. I have always been fascinated by the challenge of making a film that takes place over a very short amount of time. I enjoyed the use of flashbacks to extend the temporal depth of the film while still staying within the constraints of a 8.72 second race.

The visual style of the film is remarkable for its exaggerated figures. Every muscle in Dan's body during the race is exaggerated and very closely examined. His face contorts and his muscles morph in a dynamic, visually expressive way. As his muscles begin to tighten and break down, their form becomes twisted creating a visual tension. When he breaks, his legs literally explode, which makes his recovery that much more dramatic. His face changes from twisted to intensely focused. His legs quickly reassemble and he explodes in with inhuman speed. The slow-motion nature of this sequence put me in Dan's shoes as the world seems to slow down around him.

Dan's ultimate triumph is not his race victory or his world record. Through intense concentration not only did he finish the race and win, he freed his own mind from the bonds of the Matrix. The power of the human mind is a recurring theme of the Matrix series and the Animatrix series, and Koike truly gives the viewer a visual illustration of what that feels like. As his mind begins to break free, the world slows to a standstill and dissolves to reveal the "real world" that lies beneath. The agents pursue in vain, but fail to reach him. He then gets a glimpse of the bleak truth that surrounds him.

Despite the fact he is reeled back in and taken back to the Matrix, Dan achieved the impossible, even if only for a brief moment. At the conclusion of the film, he remains defiant of his bonds, and nearly breaks free once more. "World Record" is an illustration of the human hunger for freedom, and the power of the human mind to achieve it, at all costs.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Tom's War on Terror


Directed by Cameron Fay, 2007, approximately 1:29
Source: American University's Library Media Services

As far as narrative goes for this film, although only a minute and a half is very interesting. There is Tom a man waitng fo a bus and spots a middle eastern woman standing with a heavy looking backpack. As a mild-mannered man, who supposedly watches the news and is aware of his surroundings, he decides to be a hero. He tackles the woman and tells everyone to get down. From there all the people fall silent and just stare at him, where introduces himself, apologizes and steps back on the bus.

What I found so intriguing about this film is how much of a narrative is revealed in such a short amount of time. The movie itself runs over a minute and thirty second, while the actual footage is under a minute. We only learn Tom's name from the title and after he introduces himself. And we know nobody else's name. But what is so interesting is how much we actually do know from the information given. Tom is society's every-day average Joe, he wakes up, puts on his suit, buys his coffee and takes the bus to work. But today after watching the new or reading the paper he is on the defensive about suicide bombings and people of middle east descent. From this recent knowledge gained, he goes to his everyday bus stop. At this bus stop he sees a middle eastern woman with a backpack. No dialogue is used but a sense of urgency is in the air, created by the music and the quick cuts.

The girl is another character that develops as the film elapses. She at first gives Tom a "funny look," by staring at him then looking down. Although the viewer already assumes she is not actually a suicide bomber, it's how Tom is seeing hte whole situation. So he see this and panics. Later on in the film after he throws her bag and books spill out. This makes her a innocent character, who becomes a victim of discrimination. Even though Tom becomes the enemy at that point, he still brushes himself off and continues on with his everyday routine. This goes to show how so much narrative and information can be in a film that is so short.

SIX SHOOTER


SIX SHOOTER
Directed by Martin McDonagh, Ireland, 2005, approx. 27 minutes.
Source: A Collection of 2005 Academy Award Nominated Short Films

If, as Freud famously asserted, everything in life is either about sex or death, Six Shooter is most certainly a meditation on the latter. The film follows Donnelly (Brendan Gleeson), a man whose wife has died unexpectedly, on an ill-fated train ride to Dublin. Donnelly finds himself in a cabin with a demented young man (Rúaidhrí Conroy) who taunts a couple mourning the loss of their infant son and expresses no sadness regarding the recent death of his own mother. Begrudgingly, Donnelly begins to take comfort in the boy’s detachment. But before the end of the journey, he makes a horrific discovery about his travel companion that propels the film towards a bloodbath of a conclusion.

Six Shooter is fundamentally a character study that focuses on the various ways people cope with death, especially when such a loss is so profound that life seems to lose all meaning. In addition to the intimacy of the set, frequent close-up shots of the character’s faces emphasize the importance of personal experience. The actors are seated close together on the cramped train, a physical representation of how psychologically involved they become in each other's grief. When one of the bereaved parents on the train angrily tells the unnamed, inquisitive young man to mind his own business, the audience senses the futility of the request: death, in a way, is everyone's business. Somehow, McDonagh manages to make such maudlin subject matter hilariously entertaining.

It is noteworthy that Six Shooter is not only Martin McDonagh’s directorial debut, but also his first foray into the medium of film. McDonagh is an award-winning playwright known for his proclivities for pitch-black humor and stage violence. In fact, I became interested in Six Shooter after seeing a fantastic staging of his play The Cripple of Inishmaan. I was especially interested in whether or not McDonagh’s background in theater would come across in his first film. In some respects, I believe it did: for instance, as in most modern dramatic works, the main action occurs in a single room, in this case a train cabin. But the film is certainly not “stagey,” and in fact won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short in 2005, validation that McDonagh’s transition from stage to screen has been seamless. In 2008 he released his first feature, the critically well-received In Bruges, which also starred Brendan Gleeson in addition to Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes.

WASP

WASP


Directed by Andrea Arnold, United Kingdom, 2003, approximately 26 minutes.


Source- Cinema 16: Short European Films. Call# DVD 4190


This short starts in medias res. Zoë, a poor single mother of four in Britain, is pounding her bare feet down a set of stairs while holding her baby son and dragging along her three unkempt daughters. She eventually gets outside the building and walks to a house. After knocking on the door, she promptly starts fighting with the woman who opened it, bringing the brawl to the small lawn in front of the house. As onlookers gawk, Zoë calls this woman a “bitch” and tells her to not touch her daughter ever again. The two yell some more at each other and the fights ends with the other woman making threats about “calling the social service” to have Zoë’s children taken away from her.


On the way home, Zoë meets an old love interest of hers, David. There is clearly something still between them as they talk and David invites Zoë out for a drink at a pub. Zoë lies about her children, telling David that they are not hers and promises to meet him at the pub later.


Unfortunately for Zoë, she is unable to get someone to baby sit for her night out and is forced to bring her children along with her. She leaves her children outside of the pub and buys her children some potato chips and a coke as their dinner. She then goes back inside to enjoy what must be her first night out in years. The night wears on and the attraction between David and Zoë intensifies, but the children are still outside and hungry. Eventually, the eldest daughter, Kelly, sees a man drop some spare ribs on the ground and brings them over to help feed them. The sauce from the spare ribs ends up covering the baby’s mouth, which attracts a wasp. The girls scream, bringing Zoë over. The wasp climbs in the mouth of the boy but luckily flies away without a sting. David then discovers the truth and takes everyone to eat at a Chinese place, and the short ends as the car drives away.


This film was particularly impressive because of how uncomfortable it makes the viewer feel. You get an extremely close view of these person’s lives which is accentuated by the camera work. It was filmed with a hand held camera and features many close ups, like the baby’s uncovered bottom and Zoë’s underwear (revealed by a skirt too short). The filmmaker also includes many other unflattering actions, like Zoë telling the girls to flick off the woman she was fighting. The intercutting of Zoë in the pub and the girls outside in particular highlight the dilemma she is in. The effect is that you really get a feel for how Zoë and her family live, for better or for worse. This is a short film that really benefits from being short because it intensifies the viewer’s experience of this woman’s everyday life while also not relying on some sort of gimmick as short films can sometime do.

The Girl and Her Trust


THE GIRL AND HER TRUST

Directed by D.W. Griffith, United States, 1912, approx. 15 minutes.

Source: The Movies Begin - A Treasury of Early Cinema 1894-1913


There really isn’t anywhere to begin but the beginning, so when examining any sort of film, short or otherwise, it’s probably a good idea to step back to one reelers, player pianos, and other silent shorts of the sort.  D.W. Griffith is always a name to look to, and his The Girl and Her Trust is quite unrelenting and narrative and temporal editing, creating a dazzling first-generation thriller.


Trust’s narrative is quite simple: $2000 is being transported on the No. 7 Train, and tramps are out to get it by any means, including assaulting Grace, the young telegraphist girl on duty at the local train station.  Clocking in right near 15 minutes, Trust even manages to garner the audience and love subplot, involving Grace and her beau.


As film is markedly concerned with time, being a medium where life is animated though reality suspended, it is impervious that shorts manage time with an absolute certainty, as an entire narrative must fit into the arc of only a few minutes.  Griffith manages to make Trust really spectacular in this case, giving us multiple plot points (Grace’s draw on the men around her, the infatuation her coworker has for her, the danger of railway work, the tramp business, etc) to mull around.  Griffith’s use of editing, particularly in the fireworks parade that is the train chase finale,  lend to the suspense.  The cuts are fast and move in and around the action, bringing the viewer from spectator to actor.  Close ups of Grace hammering bullets through the key-hole in the door and the terrified look in her bewildered eyes allow the audience to particpate in the action more directly, suspending the time and reality of the film.  


I think it would be safe to say that a good film is one that disregards reality yet initiates audiences in buying it.  Steven Spielberg is rumored to have said on the set of Jaws, during an argument with author Peter Benchley about the explosive ending of the film, “If I’ve held their attention for two hours, they’ll believe anything I tell them now.” (which, of course, is true.  Sharks don’t explode, but wow, what an ending!)  This is even more important when dealing with short films; viewers shouldn’t realize they are watching only a fifteen minute sprint, but the whole marathon from beginning to end should bleed reality.  


Griffith’s The Girl and Her Trust does this, for me at least.  I am drawn in from the first frame until the last.  Griffith’s use of a simple story (a ploy great directors like Hitchcock would use years later: Man thinks he sees murder.  Man investigates.  Man becomes entangled in a web of intrigue.  The catch?  He’s got a broken leg.  Or, men murder friend.  Men hold dinner party with the victims friends and family - and the body is in attendance as well!), along with his flair for editing action, immerse viewers into the stark black and white reality of the cinema, length remitted.  Griffith achieves the goal of narrative cinema, to tell a story wisely and well, and achieves a key goal in short cinema, to never let the audience realize they aren't watching a "movie".

Glen Gould Plays Bach

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This short film is a documentation of pianist Glen Gould. Gould (1932-1982) was a Canadian pianist who "disdained the early-Romantic and impressionistic works at the core of the standard piano repertoire" and " upset many pianistic conventions" by his interpretation of compositions performed by Bach, Beethoven, and other classical artists. (see http://www.glenngould.com/).



First and foremost, my appreciation of classical music was inspirational in choosing this short film. Radio and television are excellent mediums for classical music, so, often, when I need solace, or am studying for a class, or settling into my feather-soft bed I listen to classical compositions. However, to actually watch a composer practicing his talent is much more entertaining and makes me quiver with excitement. Glen Gould played the piano with such acceleration that his fingers seemed to be less of bone. Yet, he was candid and as graceful as the setting of the sun.



I must admit, however, the viability of my source for this film produced, within me, skepticism because, seemingly, the original source for this cinematic documentation is unknown. Thanks to vagifabilovor, who posted the documentation onto Youtube, sharing it was made possible. Nonetheless, there are several instances in this film when the camera becomes focused on objects of nature. It can be argued the film-director includes these objects because playing piano is natural to Glen Gould. Personally, I thought this association was successful -not original - but, successful. I further considered this film regarding its context and the source from which I obtained it. Possibly, anyone could have tampered with the original documentation of this film by simple use of a movie-maker (not certain if this is correct use of the terminology, but I have a movie-maker on my Toshiba laptop). Such tampering is referred to as plagarism and, as all college students know, plagarism is unacceptable. As a rule, if an original piece has been modified or utilized by another, its creator must acknowledge the original source. Subscribers to Youtube are at liberty to, basically, publish anything they desire. Though entertaining, this seems industrially unethical to the practice of creating short films. If feature film is the objective and, as some would argue, short film is the means to accomplishment it, would it be safe to assume that websites - notably, Youtube -are the drawing boards? Is this a safe practice for serious film-makers?

Sunday, August 31, 2008

EQUILIBRIUM











EQUILIBRIUM
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2004, approx. 27 minutes
Source: Eros (DVD)

The second short in the series of three that make up Eros, Steven Soderbergh's "Equilibrium" is by far the least erotic and most humorous.  Sandwiched between Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-Wai's brilliant "The Hand" and veteran trailblazer Michelangelo Antonioni's shockingly misguided "The Dangerous Thread of Things," this short film finds itself in an artistic middleground, approaching the uniting theme of eroticism from a wholly unexpected angle.  We follow Robert Downy Jr. as a clock designer suffering from an insurmountable creative block and a recurring sex dream that has placed additional stress on his marriage.  He visits his psychiatrist as played by Alan Arkin, in an extended scene that might just be a dream in itself.  While Downy seeks answers to his problem, we discover Arkin to be a distracted voyeur who spends the majority of the session differing his patient's attention so that he might signal a beautiful woman in a building across from his.

The ultimate deduction is that even in a setting where a professional is paid to listen to and even analyze someone's personal feelings, what one individual finds deeply erotic or exhilarating is likely be completely uninteresting to someone else.  While the depth of the explored thematic content doesn't stretch far beyond that single observation (Soderbergh doesn't quite approach the richness or prolonged melancholic regret of Wong Kar-Wai's segment, not does he wallow in cheap sexual exploitation like Antonioni's) much of this film's enjoyment comes from Soderbergh's signature storytelling tropes that bend perception and chronology.  In this case he develops a persistently surprising plot line culminating in the invention of the snooze-alarm and a fantastic punch line involving Alan Arkin in a bad toupee.

However, much can also be said about the lush visual craftsmanship of this particular section which rivals even that of Kar-Wai's.  The precise attention to period detail in the sets and costuming, along with inspired musical choices and sharp cinematography, make this a film from which I never want to deviate my eye in fear of missing a particularly stunning frame.  In fact, much about this picture reminds me of AMC's brilliant new series Mad Men which shares a similar aesthetic across the board.  The dream sequence specifically features a gorgeous saturated blue color palate and woozy handheld camera work that tricks you into feeling like you really are waking up from a deep sleep when the film shifts to the stark black and white used to film the therapy session.  The contrast between these two dominant visual motifs lends great weight to the subtext that one's fantasies are inherently more saturated, vibrant and appealing than the realities of everyday life.  It's a thread that's shared between all three segments here, and while Soderbergh might be the least acclaimed of the three talents on display in this collection, his film demonstrates the most acute control over these common visual aesthetics and over the short film medium as a whole.

The Legend Of Black Tom


Directed by Deron Albright, USA, 2005, 16 minutes.
Source: The journal of short film Vol. 5 (DVD 3715)


This sketch-animated film by Director Deron Albright delivers the true and delectable tale of renown bare-knuckle boxing champion Tom Molineaux. As a freed slave, Molineaux and his trainer Bill Richmond journeyed to England and eventually challenged British boxing champion Tom Cribb to a bout on December 10, 1810. During the bout, both Toms fought hard and long - reportedly, for more than 13 rounds - and it seemed Tom Molineaux would win. But, due to favoritism from the hometown referees towards the British champion Molineaux would never acquire the title of heavy weight champion.

There are several factors which make The Legend of Black Tom interesting, pleasurable, and exciting. The first of these being the films historical content or lack, thereof. The narrative voice, performed by You B Nounou, begins: "To all who will hear, please gather around, and i will tell you of a man who from the shore of American, took flight." Reportedly, Tom Molineaux was, unfortunately, a slave, but he was, also, arguably, a potentially great African-American boxing champion which, for some, raises immediate interest. However, as the mere topic of enslavement evokes, in many people, disheartening emotion, Albright's narrative, ratherly, capsizes the depression and inhumanity of conventional slave tales by forwardly emphasizing that Tom Molineaux was a free man.

The posture of this film is, further, exemplified by Albright's ingenious exclusion of monologue or dialogue and the, ratherly, incorporation of poetry to communicate the story. The effect of this inclusion was -perhaps, and if you enjoy poetry - the most pleasurable aspect of this film because of its complimentary implication to the films velocity. This was expecially true during the film's climax which depicted the bout between Molineaux and Cribb as extended, quickened, and vicious. The graphic detail of sketched-amimation highlighted these characteristics as they are crucial to the sport of boxing. Yet, while these depictions created a visual utopia, they were, unfortunately, impractical to deliver the historical experiences of Tom Molineaux's life. This was, however, modified by the rhymns and rhythms of poetic delivery.

OUR TIME IS UP


Directed by Rob Pearlstein, USA, 2004, 14 minutes


Source: Itunes- Shorts International

 Dr. Stern is an extremely organized and uptight psychiatrist who does his job every day with less than a smile on his face. His patients include a womanizer who can't form a connection with women, an anorexic,  a man who is in denial about his attraction towards men, a woman who is obsessed with cleanliness, a man who can't help but touch a woman's ass, a man who is deathly afraid of turtles, a man who is abused by his girlfriend and a man who is afraid of the dark. Dr. Stern doesn't do much of anything for these patients, that is, until he gets a call from his own doctor with pretty horrible news... he has only six weeks to live. Upon retrieving this information, Dr. Stern begins to care less about being professional and more about living his life. Along with this new appreciation for life, Dr. Stern also starts to actually give his patients advice. As brutally honest as he is in his delivery, Dr. Stern truly makes a remarkable difference in each of his patients' lives.

 I chose this film in particular to write about because it speaks the truth. People are in need of a rude awakening sometimes in order to make considerable changes in their lives and Dr. Stern finally gave them that chance. He truly did right by these people by telling them the facts instead of telling them what they think they want to hear. He helps them deal with their own peculiar, yet significant issues while simultaneously dealing with his ... 'issue'.

 I believe this film is extremely entertaining, especially in its delivery. Over the course of the film, it is easy to tell how Dr. Stern, played by the established actor, Kevin Pollak, has changed since retrieving news of his impending death. He no longer wakes up at 7 AM on the dot, he leaves the newspaper on the front porch, he goes to work in his robe and slippers; his life has a new meaning now that it has been, well, shortened. Some may find that sad under normal circumstances, but the director of this film meant for the viewer to be amused, not upset. Pearlstein wanted to tell the story of Dr. Leonard Stern and how it took one phone call saying that he only had six weeks to LIVE for him to actually start LIVING and enjoying his life. In the end, Dr. Stern finally started to relax, enjoy his work and  give his patients the advice that they were looking for all along, but didn't know they needed. Leonard Stern can die a happy, honest man.