Directed by James W. Horne, United States, 1929, 19 minutes
Source: Big Business, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Hal Roach Studios (VHS 3981)
The comic duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy did wonders for the popularity of the short film in the 1920’s and 30’s. In all, the pair appeared in over 70 shorts (silent and talkie). Of these, the silent Big Business and talkie The Music Box received the most official recognition (see final paragraph for more details). To watch Big Business (with Christmas-themed music), go here.
Big Business sets its comic tone early. A title card announces that the film is “A story of a man who turned the other cheek - and got punched in the nose.” We then get our first view of the back of (Stan) Laurel and (Oliver) Hardy’s car, packed with several Christmas trees, and after this, a face shot of the two in the front seat, in thick wintertime coats, looking about for customers in sunny California. Already, we know they’re facing an uphill battle.
This tightly-structured film takes us to three houses. At the first house, Stan aggravates an unmarried female customer by asking her “if you had a husband, would he buy a Christmas tree?” At the second house, Oliver pushes Stan aside, ignores a sign that says “no solicitors” by declaring “it’s personality that wins!” and then gets promptly whacked on the head with a hammer. The two will obviously have to combine their efforts.
At the third house, they try their luck with a particularly grumpy homeowner (common Laurel and Hardy foil James Finlayson) and end up getting into more trouble than they bargained for. Here, the movie switches into high gear “escalation and retaliation” comedy. Finlayson gets annoyed with Laurel after he appears for the umpteenth time at the door and lops off pieces of the Christmas tree. The pair retaliates by hacking off the numbers on his house, and the war is on. The rest of the film then becomes a tit for tat “You did what? Well, what if I do this?” raising-of-the-stakes between the two sides, which results in the total destruction of both Finlayson’s house and Laurel and Hardy’s car. Neighbors come to watch the battle, and bemused policeman sits and writes out a ticket before interrupting things.
In the end, Laurel and Hardy persuade everyone that they’re sorry when they break down crying. Finlayson starts to weep and Laurel hands him a cigar, saying “Merry Christmas.” When the policeman steps away, thinking all is done, he glances back and sees Laurel and Hardy laughing, knows they were not serious in their contriteness, and chases them down the street. Finlayson, who “turned the other cheek” at first, sits back to light up his victory cigar, only to have it blow up in his face (which takes us back to the beginning title card).
The film feels structurally perfect (with its three-house format) and is still very funny despite the passage of time (and has probably inspired more than a few imitators). The juxtaposition of these disparate elements (Christmas trees and California, good will and property destruction) works perfectly as a short comedy, and the deliberate manner in which both sides go about their childish war of one-upmanship is well-orchestrated and fascinating for the level of property destruction achieved (there were even rumors going around for some time that the crew destroyed the wrong house in the process of filming).
And the official recognition? Big Business was the first of only two Laurel and Hardy films (the other being the Oscar-winning The Music Box) to be selected for the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry (which recognizes films that are culturally, historically, and/or aesthetically significant). Not bad for 19 minutes of film.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Friday, September 19, 2008
Directed by Paul Zinder
Showcase 2 of the DC Short Films Festival
Uno Degli Ultimi (“One of the Last”) is a 12-minute long documentary directed by Paul Zinder (who, interestingly enough, is a professor at The American University of Rome. Holla!). This film was part of the Showcase 2’s block of awesomeness: PATH, One of the Last, and The Replacement Child. The lone documentary in the showcase, its warm tone allowed the audience’s emotions to slowly adapt from the humor of PATH to the dark but touching tone of The Replacement Child.
The film profiles Mauro Selvetti, an elderly Italian farmer who is as ripe as the produce he cultivates. We see the farmer crouched down, scooping up cherries and grapes from a farm he very clearly takes pride in. This subject piece works well because Selvetti looks at life through his work as a farmer. Most of us view farm work as dreaded manual labor. Selvetti wonders how he could do anything besides it.
The camerawork picks up on this, making the Italian countryside the backdrop of the film. As Selvetti relays his views of the world, Zinder shows us close-ups of the farmer picking potatoes from the ground and climbing tree to shake out mass amounts of olives. There are long, panning shots as well, but they always have Selvetti in them. This element works particularly well considering how much the film is about its subject. I found myself fascinated by Selvetti and his work. I couldn’t help but think of my great grandfather, an Italian farmer from Fardella, Italy, enjoying himself the same way Selvetti does.
As the credits rolled, I questioned whether or not the film would work as a feature. It probably wouldn’t, as it is so subject-intensive and involves no action or conflict. To me, that says a lot about the strengths and abilities of shorts over features.
Showcase 5 had some memorable shorts - but for me, "Surrendering Seamen" stuck out the most. At under two minutes long, the director managed to use a simple setting of one man in a boat helping a stranded man in his boat. While this seems like a straightforward premise, the film team's editing skills is really where the genius behind this film came forward. Through editing and a narrator, a new story and plot came forward. It reminded me of those Japanese obstacle course shows that are aired stateside, with English voice overs that completely mock and turn each act into hilarity, even though its far from what the original intention of the video is.
Through this genius editing, "Surrendering Seamen" begins with one man approaching a stranded man, each man in a boat. The narrator, well, narrates the exchange, indicating that as one man is mocking the other for being in a broken boat, the other man rants about how big of a slut the man's sister is, and it just implodes afterwards. In the end, they each help eachother, and all seems to be forgiven between these two seamen.
It wasn't until after the short ended that it dawned on me that this video was quite possibly just a scene with no planning. What I mean by this is if it hadn't been for the editing technique, this would just be an everyday scene, something that would be equally exciting as watching someone change a tire or load groceries into their car. It's an interesting idea that many film makers toy with - extracting artistic practicality from everyday scenes. I felt caught up in the relationship between the two seamen through the passion behind the narrator's exchange. It gave life to this everyday event that was worth remembering.
Plus, it was hilarious.
Showcase #8 at the DC Short Film Festival didn’t seem to have a consistent theme amongst the films. Each film was a surprise as to whether it would be funny, dramatic, political, or even a musical. At first it was an offsetting blend of films but seemingly random nature of each film brought a little more curiosity as to the contents of the next piece. However, there were only a couple standouts in the whole showcase, one of them being a documentary entitled The Third Parent.
The Third Parent is a seemingly low-key documentary about the relationship between an 11 year-old girl, Ariana, and her 5 year-old autistic brother, Marcello. The film centers around Ariana as she found it her obligation to raise her little brother with little help from her parents. It’s never clearly stated as to where the parents are but Ariana consistently alludes to the notion that they’re rarely around, whether it be at work or just “staying out late.” Ariana’s a girl whose childhood ended with the birth of her brother and she was forced to grow up too fast.
Ariana seems to have accepted her role as the “third parent” but there’s still sadness in her voice when she speaks of her absence from sleepovers, parties, and other activities kids her age participated. She shows nothing but love for Marcello but there is still resentment for the situation. We witness Ariana dealing with her brother’s tantrums and violent outbursts but we’re also let into some of the more endearing moments between the two siblings.
The Third Parent was an effective documentary because the filmmaker never showed anyone besides Ariana and her brother. In one scene we could hear their father, frustrated, yelling at Marcello while Ariana sits on her bed reading but then Marcello enters the room because he’d much rather be with his sister than his parents. It’s a tragic situation and the parents’ absence in their children’s lives is magnified by a world that consist solely of young girl and her little brother.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
“7:25 de la Manana” or in English, “7:35 in the Morning” is a short film basically about a guy who is trying to impress a girl, but fails epically. First of all, he goes about it entirely the wrong way. Every guy should know that dreaming up a hostage situation in order to get a girls attention is a big no-no.
From the opening scene of the black and white film, the viewer gets that something in the café is a little off. The silent and unusually cold greeting between the object of the psychopath’s affections and the café owner is only the first tip off. The story progresses when a random man breaks out into song and the customers are forced to sing their part with their lines taped into the palm of their hands. The woman’s suspicions are raised further when she spots a stack of cell phones under the counter and the waiter gives her a wary look. The short film continues on with a song and dance number which reveals the man is wearing a bomb, and ends with a blow-up finale complete with confetti.
“7:35 de la Manana” was nominated for an Oscar in 2004. The whole way through the short film I was laughing. I found the situation, music, and stiff dancing ingenious. After seeing it for the first time, I immediately went home and tried to show it to all my friends (but unfortunately I had scarred all of my friends by showing them “Spider” from two weeks ago, and most of them refused to watch). While watching this short I definitely had one of those, “why didn’t I think of that?” moments. Out of the rest of this films showed during the Spanish Short Films screening, this one definitely stayed with me. I found it to be the most enjoyable film of that viewing (“Wavelength” coming in a close second).
Directed by Edward Feldman
Midway through the uneven collection that was Showcase 5 at DC Shorts, one film really put the audience in a stranglehold: the Czech short "A Day's Work." Shot in high contrast black and white, the film unravels with the slow, languid pace of a dream. It's beautiful, moving, and strangely funny. Based on the audience's reaction, it was clear by the end that almost everyone in the audience had found themselves under its unique spell.
The plot is as follows: A young woman is having a terrible day. Her babysitter bails out on her at the last minute so she must take her son to work, and then on top of that she misses her bus. When she arrives at work, we find that she has been hired for a one-time voiceover gig for an American film (the woman is Czech). A pompous director and his assistant (this humorous moment was certainly not lost on the industry-types in the audience) attempt to give her her motivation for the scene, but their efforts at communication are lost on the woman. When the men in the booth finally hit the record button, we see that the scene calls for the Czech woman to provide the voiceover for a woman who is crying hysterically. And then, in a haunting medium shot that lasts for an uncomfortably long amount of time, we watch the Czech woman let out all of her frustrations (many of which we have not seen in the digesis of the film and can only assume) and cry her eyes out. At the close of the film, she and her son begin their walk back home in the cold evening.
When compared with "A Day's Work", most of the other short in Showcase 5 felt like one-note films. This short has such a peculiar and unforgettable tone: it's simultaneously both funny and sad, and it's incredibly relatable. I had an incredible feeling of catharsis once the credits began to roll. Though it only spans about 13 minutes, the viewer has been on what feels like a much longer emotional journey with this woman, and once she has let her pain out through crying, we feel a release as well. The film is structured very effectively; it withholds information from the viewer (we never know where she's going or why she's going where she is until she gets there), but it pulls you by the hand and commands you to follow it wherever it's going, no questions asked.
Written and Directed by Jen Kleiner, USA, 2007, 23 min
Source: DC Shorts Showcase 1
Afternoon, Mexico, somewhere near the US border; Lucena and her “loving and caring” boyfriend Tomas are planning to run away. Evening, Lucena on her way to out to meet Tomas has an argument with her dad because her clothes are inappropriate. Still evening, the couple meets Robert an American who has fake passports for them; the three cross the border. Morning, Lucena wakes up alone and naked in a dingy room, Tomas’ is nowhere to be found; instead Melinda her “owner” tells Lucena that she paid a lot for her, so she better get to work.
At first glance, the film is set to be yet another American Dream film, pretty-girl-and-loving-boyfriend-live-happily-ever-after-some-difficulties-in-USA. But, we start to get a different idea after Lucena argues with her dad. Things become a little more obvious through the cinematography and one shot specifically. When the trio is crossing the border, Lucena is sitting in the back seat, light is coming through the window-illuminating half of her face and shadows surround her. They get permission to pass and a few shots later we see Tomas gives her a pill. Next thing we know she’s been broken and the darkness that surrounded her in the car has completely fallen on her.
The scenes at the prostitution house/cock fighting range are indeed darker in mood and a little long. The short could, perhaps, be a little shorter and more poignant; maybe is just its theme makes us say here-we-go-again. While it does not give us a new and fresh view about child trafficking and prostitution; it does entice the audience visually and through less expected outcome and twists. Basically there are 3, first and least surprising twist, the already stated fact that Tomas used her. Second, when Lucena escapes from Melinda, she does not find a friendly Latin@ community and stays in the US. Third, she denounces Melinda, and we are left with the question of what would happen to her.
The last shot is of Lucena as she sits across the table from two detectives and the camera slowly zooms in to her. Fade to black, the credits begin to roll, and at the very end appears the AFI logo. Niña Quebrada is Kleiner’s graduate thesis film. It’s like that moment in the movie when Lucena asks a little girl at the prostitution house how is she and she responds 12. We as an audience want to know Lucena’s age but we don’t find that out until she’s at the police station. Personally, I think Niña Quebrada’s script is one of the few good ones in this showcase, and makes me wonder about the festival’s decision not to distinguish between the non-student films and the student ones.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Ya No Puede Caminar (Can't Walk Anymore)
Directed by Luis Berdejo, Spain, 2001. 13:07 minutes.
Ya No Puede Caminar tells the story of a young boy, Pacheco, who is apparently afraid of cockroaches. His father, eager to rid him of this fear, advises him to put a cockroach in a glass jar and keep it by his bed. By forcing himself to look at the cockroach before he went to sleep and after he woke up, he would grow used to the idea of not only this particular cockroach, but all cockroaches--and in time, his fear would be eliminated altogether. At first, Pacheco cannot overcome his fear, but eventually instead he develops an obsession. Soon Pacheco has acquired an impressive collection of jars, each one containing a different potentially frightening creature: birds, waterbugs, snakes, snails, etc. The end of the film shows the boy saying goodnight to his room full of creatures, which has now expanded to include his new classmate, Irene. In a particularly chilling scene, Pacheco yells down the manhole in which Irene is trapped, shivering and sniffling, "Good night, girl!" as he had done to each of his other creatures, throws a piece of bread down to her, and closes the manhole cover again.
I thought this film was shot beautifully. The muted greys, greens, and browns complement the sinister forested setting, while the shots of symmetrical rows and rows of identical shapes (for example, the scene where Pacheco is collecting snakes from the wall of cement blocks, or the rows of his jars) chillingly convey a rigid, sick obsession. The scene where Pacheco fervently scribbles out labels for his jars and carefully arranges them also contributes to this sense of consuming obsession, a frightening concept because it is inherently incomprehensible to all those except the person plagued by it.
One gets the sense that Pacheco's father's fear-eliminating technique had unexpectedly creepy consequences when we see Pacheco go to sleep not with the cockroach in the jar by his bed, but with the cockroach in his bed. One gets this sense again when Pacheco's response to his mother's demands to get his bugs out of the house is to feed his rat-in-a-jar a piece of his dinner under the table. But interestingly, the film teeters on the brink of "horror" and "just plain creepy" until the very end when Pacheco wishes his captive classmate goodnight. The ending pushes the movie over the horror threshold by showing the downright monstrous capacity of a child. It was helpful for me to consider this in terms of desensitization, which is a fairly talked-about concept, and is especially raised in the context of violent children's entertainment. The fear parents have is that their children will, after virtually slaying thousands of people in video games, become desensitized to violence, perhaps becoming more prone to actually commit acts of violence in real life. Pacheco, I'm sure, must have been predisposed to mental illness of some kind, but still, his father's campaign of systematic desensitization was what unleashed it. Maybe Berdejo is suggesting that it's healthy to have fears, because these fears are what make us human.
THE REPLACEMENT CHILD
Directed by Justin Lerner, United States, 2007, 25 minutes.
Source: DC Shorts Film Festival Showcase 2
The Replacement Child is a film defined in large part by ambiguity. The audience is introduced to a young man named Todd Turnbull who has been in reform school for violently attacking his stepfather, but the circumstances surrounding the fight are never revealed. We learn that Todd’s father has died, but the cause is unknown. And perhaps most importantly, we know that Todd and his family live in a devoutly religious rural community somewhere in America, but the exact state and denomination is unknown.
As these details fall away, the audience is left with an intensely impressionistic coming-of-age story. Todd (Travis Quentin Young) returns home to discover that the life he knew prior to incarceration no longer exists. His former girlfriend has married and is expecting her first child, and his stepfather has convinced his mother to throw him out of their house. But perhaps most devastating of all, Todd's best friend Michael (Matthew Fahey) is dying, but receives no medical care on the orders of his family and their pastor and chooses to instead rely on God for a cure.
Knowing that he will be sent to prison, Todd ultimately assaults two men, steals his stepfather’s squad car, and kidnaps Michael, all to ensure that his friend receives medical treatment and survives. If the movie wasn’t already rife with religious imagery, Todd comes to epitomize Christian self-sacrifice. Thus, the essential question of the story is established: who is godly, the family whose strict interpretation of the Bible has left their son on his deathbed, or Todd, who chose crime to ensure that Michael lives?
I saw Showcase 2 with the intention of blogging about Zombie Jesus. Unfortunately, that film was a disappointment to say the least. The Replacement Child, meanwhile, actually brought me to tears. The short accomplished more in terms of emotional impact than many films do in a full two hours. The acting was superb, especially on the part of Travis Quentin Young, whose success thus far appears to be limited to additional dialogue recording work for films including No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Hopefully he’ll get more screen time in the future, because his performance was one of the most impactful I’ve seen from a young actor in quite a long time. I was also impressed to learn that The Replacement Child was not the work of a seasoned director, but rather the MFA thesis of Justin Lerner, a recent UCLA grad. Though I certainly don’t want to reduce his directorial debut to a calling card, I would love to see a feature by Lerner based on the strength of this short.
The only question that lingers in my mind is meaning of the film’s title. Though Todd has certainly been replaced by his family and friends (though he proves to be essential in every way), who has Todd replaced?
Dir. Paul Olding
“Grandma’s Funeral,” which premiered last week, is a wonderful and touching film. A mother and her two daughters discuss a relative who just died. They remember happier times spent playing dress-up. One of the daughters mentioned that if you said you enjoyed a particular dish, she would then make it again and again, thinking it was a favorite. Trouble occurs when the mother cannot unzip her skirt. Numerous attempts are made in order to get the skirt on, one funnier than the next, however in the end, the mother is able to work the zipper, and they finish dressing. The moment of laughter is over, and there is nothing left for them to do but attend the funeral.
The film’s strength was its simplicity. It was a brief moment shared between a mother and her daughters. The piece could best be described as a cinematic snapshot. The short film contained many aspects that people, especially women could relate to. There have been times when I have had an inability to undo a zipper, right before an event. I vividly remember sharing family stories and laughing before a funeral. There was an emotional honesty to the piece-it did not come off as forced or sappy. I felt like a fly on the wall, observing a private family moment.
One aspect of the film, which I particularly enjoyed, was the dramatic music, which played when the mother was unable to unzip her skirt. The music was similar to what would play in a horror film, just before something awful happens. While the music was serious, it added levity to the situation, because having difficulty with a zipper and monster attack are two extremely different situations. While I saw 13 films at the showcase, “Grandma’s Funeral” was my favorite, and deserves recognition.
Directed by Crystal Liu
DC Shorts Film Festival Showcase 3
If audience response means anything, Speed Dating was definitely an audience favorite in showcase 3. It definitely received the most laughs and Crystal Liu had the privilege of being there for all of them, which I think is a great feeling for any filmmaker.
As for the film itself, I thought it was brilliantly put together and genuinely hilarious in its presentation. The film tells the story of an attractive young woman who is desperate to find companionship in a very lonely city. It begins with a run through of her typical day, starting with a long and arduous commute through California traffic. When she arrives at work, it seems as if none of her coworkers have time to talk to her. The desk receptionist is on the phone gossiping. The people in the break room are too engrossed in gossip to acknowledge her. Her answering machine sadly reports that she has no new messages. At this point, I wasn't sure if this film was going to leave me laughing or crying by the end.
When she gets home from work, she finds a message waiting for her on her answering machine. Her friends invite her out to a club to relieve her of her loneliness. When she goes however, she only gets more of the same. Her "friends" are absorbed in their own conversation, while she sits and drinks alone. I'm still wondering how this is going to end, by the way. She decides to leave after downing a few cocktails, and proceeds toward her car. (Gasp!) She starts it up and begins to back up, and BAM! She hits someone. Oops. The man turns out to be fine, in many senses of the word. After a soothing conversation with "Mr. Hot Super-Attentive guy" as he is called in the program's description, she is inspired to begin a new campaign to find a date.
This is where it gets good. The next morning, she buys a slew of first-aid supplies, gussies herself up, and gets in her car (with a fully stocked passenger area complete with champagne). Her mission: "Accidentally" hit guys on the street with her car to find her prince charming. Her plot is very revealed in a cleverly constructed freeze-frame sequence (as seen above) that felt almost like a video game in the way the icons appeared over the heads of the potential targets. In the Q&A session, Liu named this as her favorite part of the film, and I agree.
Who knew that vehicular battery could be so funny? In a montage fashion, the film runs through the myriad of encounters, each a little bit different but equally hilarious. One wails in pain and berates her the whole way to the hospital, another tries to walk it off, a third calls his mommy. This sequence definitely produced the most laughs from the audience (and me, clearly). The humor is non-stop and never gives you a break, which only makes the laughter in the theater grow more infectious with each cut.
In the end though, she doesn't find her prince charming. With a turn back to the depressing, she calls her friend and leaves a sobbing voice message about how hard it is to find a guy in the city and BAM! She disappears from the frame with a thud that sounds a lot like a body hitting car hood. The audience was in a quite state of shock at this point. The scene cuts to an upward shot of the sky, and mens' faces begin to appear.
"Are you alright, maam?" says the first.
"I'm a paramedic, are you alright?" says another.
"Well, I'm a doctor, are you alright?" says another.
"I'm a lawyer, are you alright, miss?" says another with a smirk and a wink.
Laying on the pavement, she smiles and whipsers "Thank you!" to the sky as the film ends.
Thank you, Crystal Liu, for making car accidents not only funny, but romantic and satisfying as well. Who knew?
Pismo (The Letter)
Directed by Matvei Zhivov, Canada/Russia, 2007, 17 minutes
DC Shorts Film Festival Showcase 2
The Letter, a short film set in World War II Russia, ranked among the most interesting of Showcase 2. I’m not sure that it was placed in the right slot or even the right showcase, but I thought it ranked as one of the most notable in terms of what it was trying to do.
The story concerns Stepan, a partisan fighter who is wounded in battle against the Germans, and who, while recuperating in the hospital, hears a litany of sorrows from his fellow patients. One man recounts how he returned home to find his wife in bed with his neighbor. He then points out a man sitting alone at the other end of the room, and tells Stepan that the man was rejected by his wife after returning home with only one arm. All of this prompts Stepan, who hasn’t been home for three years, to write a letter to his wife, Shura, and in effect, test her, by telling her that he has lost both legs in battle and will be returning shortly.
The action switches to the homefront, where a malnourished Shura reads the letter, and tells her two sons to immediately prepare for their father’s homecoming by preparing a wagon for him to sit in (so they can roll him back to the station). As they prepare the wagon, Shura is surprised by the sudden and unexpected homecoming of Stepan, and is further surprised to see how ambulatory he is. When he reveals to her that he wrote the letter as a kind of test, she is crestfallen, and Stepan must engage in an emotional battle with her as bitter as the physical challenge he faces at the beginning of the film. I don't want to spoil the ending for those who still might want to see it, so I'll end the plot description there. Suffice it to say, things don't end well, and audience is left a bit stunned like they've been hit by an emotional freight train.
While the subject matter is heartbreaking, the film itself is a beautiful thing to look at, filled with vistas of the Russian countryside and a rather elaborate and intense battle scene (with what looked like historically authentic WWII armament). I was very impressed with the amount of money devoted to the project and the sweep itself of the story, which played out like a Russian novel in the space of only 15 minutes. I wasn’t surprised to see that it has won at least one festival award for cinematography. Perhaps Russian filmmakers are seeing the power and potentialities of short film?
I was also reminded of what Bill Nichols had to say of both festivals and Iranian cinema in his article, and the feeling of “losing oneself, temporarily, of ‘going native’ in the confines of a movie theater.” I felt this as I watched The Letter. The language, the visuals, the earnestness of the performances, and even the Russian score swept me completely into the world of WW II Russia. This piece of history, in which over 20 million Russians died, still reverberates strongly in the culture.
Lastly, I couldn't help but reflect on the ongoing situations in Iraq (and Georgia) as I watched The Letter. Like any good war film, it reminds us that the price of war is not only felt on the battlefield, but also reverberates in families and relationships when the soldier comes home.
I feel I must speak about the film, “Limpiado Sapos” (Chasing Rats) because it intrigues the idea of the purpose for creating short films. I truly believe that shorts exist and should be appreciated outside the sphere of an avenue to creating features. This being said, Chasing Rats is an interesting blend of two possibilities: it exists wholly and satisfyingly as a short, as well as screaming potential for a feature length film.
The short tells the story of a young brother and sister who join the guerrilla movement in Columbia. Anita’s goal is to protect her younger brother. She is put to the test when her brother is told to kill a boy his own age. When it becomes clear that this boy is going to be shot, Anita steps in and kills for her brother.
Just under 14 minutes, the story progresses at somewhat the same speed as you would imagine a feature to progress. There is character build-up and a pretty step-by-step account of what is progressing in the story. We see Anita’s character harden while her little brother stays guarded. The final scene pits Anita against her brother. Does she kill him to save her family? What happens to everyone if she doesn’t kill him? Do they all die?
This is what the viewer is left with at the final scene. There is no wrap-up, no resolution. We are left at this tense, high moment. The nature of plugging this film into a showcase left much to be desired. The short that followed was a comedy, and I felt completely disconnected, and even angry at the next film, simply because it should not have followed such an intense emotional high. When I was wrapped up in the end of Chasing Rats, I was literally grabbing the chair in anticipation. Then to have the screen go black was a mixture of resentment and intrigue.
When the screening ended, I was talking with people about their favorite short of the day. Interestingly, the common theme was Chasing Rats because, as one man said in the lobby (while I gave him a disapproving look), “I could easily see it as a feature.” This gets back to my original argument that I felt compelled to blog about this particular film because of filmmaking purpose. While I agree that the short could have been layered and expanded upon to create a feature, I also think that it is interesting that you can whittle-down a story and have it be even more powerful then if everything was spelled out for you and conclusions put in front of you.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
(Trailer - www.artreview.com)
Directed by Josephine Mackerras, France
Total Running Time: 7:15
Source: DC Short Film Festival 2008 Showcase 3
DC Short Film Festival 2008 was my first film festival experience. Since I have been in the States for about a month, I am not used to metros or streets. I was worried because I might get lost in the middle of nowhere while going to the film festival. The night before the film festival, I assumed there would be some signs to Landmark E Street Cinema that I can walk along without getting lost. However, when I arrived at Metro Center station, there was no sign at all. Even though I had the map from the DC Short Films Festival’s homepage, I was so confused and wandered about the streets near the station for 20 minutes. I asked four people the way to the theatre, and only the last person knew the exact direction of Landmark E Street Cinema. I was so relieved when I got there. I’ve never been to any film festivals in Korea, but I get to hear news about film festivals from their advertisement. And they have signs in the street or fliers so that people come to see films don’t get lost. People who are familiar with this area would have no trouble finding the cinema, but strangers like me would be grateful if there is direction to the theatre in the metro station or on the street. Once I was there, I enjoyed watching the short films with other people.
Among the thirteen short films I saw in showcase 3, Diva is one of my favorites. The film goes on without lines except the phone call at the beginning. To be honest, I felt comfortable seeing the film because I did not have to struggle to listen to lines. I actually had trouble understanding when I was watching other films there. Although Diva does not have many lines like other films shown in showcase 3, I think it successfully expresses its message well without lines. The film plainly shows the progress silently: Vincent smiles when he is satisfied; he bursts into tears when he feels sad.
Diva starts with a phone call. Two men are fighting over the phone. One of the men is shouting at the other man who just quietly listens to him. And that quiet man, Vincent, tells the person on the phone that he is going to move to Paris. As Vincent arrives in Paris, he gets a room in a hotel and does something extraordinary: he shaves off his hair (even the hair in the chest!), puts on make-up, wears a wig, and dresses like a woman. At last, he puts the picture of him and the man he loves in his purse. After all the preparation, he goes outside. Vincent takes a walk in the park peacefully as if he were a woman. Suddenly, someone steals Vincent’s purse, which has the picture of his beloved in it. Vincent runs after the thief. He takes off his coat and his wig, and everyone in the street looks at him with amazement. He finally gets his bag from the thief in an alley, but Vincent is crying. He wanders the street crying and at last sits in a bench looking at the picture of his lover.
I felt depressed after seeing the film, especially when Vincent cries after he gets his purse back from the thief. He is exhausted emotionally. He is refused by the person he is in love with, and has to leave the town he used to live in to be entirely himself (or herself). And when he finally relaxes walking in the park, someone steals his purse that has his lover’s picture in it. Vincent is so serious to get the purse back. The people who sat by me in showcase 3 laughed at Vincent when he threw his wig, coat, shades, and heels. But I could not laugh. That action shows how desperate he is. He has to throw away the things that help him look like the real himself. Diva ends showing Vincent crying on the bench. I do not know what happens to him after that. I wish him all the happiness that he deserves.
Although there were a few films in showcase 5 that I didn't consider ...good, majority of the shorts kept me entertained and left me wanting more. For instance, A Day's Work (# 5033) featured a mother who relentlessly takes her son to work with her one day. The short is shot in black and white which perfectly sets the mood for the entire film which basically shows how much this overworked, single mother is struggling to keep herself together. She works at a studio as a voice over actress for English to Czech films or TV shows. Some of the short is humorous since the movie she is working on is an American film and she has trouble understanding the English speaking director as he tries to give her specific guidelines. However, it quickly gets serious when the scene that she is told to act accordingly with is an emotional scene where the woman is crying uncontrollably. The director was afraid Anna ( the mother) would not work for the part, when actually it came quite easily for Anna to pour out her emotions and cry. Anna's job is the only way she can really let out her frustration and unhappiness.
The last short in the showcase, C U @ Ed's, # 5502, is a much more light hearted short that features Tina and Taad, two awkward, single people in L.A. who have been talking to one another online for awhile and are finally going on their first date. The beginning of the short starts with a zoom shot of Tina as she puts lipstick on ( gets it all over her teeth) and then cuts to Taad as he is gargling mouthwash and spryaing cologne on himself. It's obvious the two are extremely nervous about the date and are unsure of how it will turn out. Tina waits anxiously at the coffee shop at 6 pm as Taad decides which flowers to buy her -- lillies or roses. At the coffee shop the two sit quietly and have awkward laughs and slight conversation, but nothing really happens. However, when they are given the check, things take a drastic turn. Taad stares at the check while Tina fidgets in her chair. Suddenly, Taad takes his coffee cup and whips it against the wall. As the cup shatters to pieces, Tina looks at Taad in pure astonishment, but then she throws her coffee cup against the same wall and shoots Taad a loving smile. The two are told to leave the shop and end up watching a movie together on Tina's computer,sitting on the curb outside the coffee shop.
Jefferey Long, USA, 2008. 6:00.
This short film was probably my favorite in the generally strong Showcase One. It is the story of a newly married couple who have a problem. The guy is all about Coca-Cola and the girl is all about Pepsi. The opening scene sets up the conflict, with the wife giving her husband a Pepsi which he promptly replaces with a Coke. The film goes on to show the discord in the marriage with heavy classical music (with no dialogue) and shots of the husband agonizing before he goes to bed. Eventually, the husband can stand the pain no longer so he fills up his bath tub with Pepsi and dives in to end his sorrows. His wife jumps in after him and we cut to her swimming underwater. She saves her husband and he is converted to the Pepsi cause, bringing happiness to the marriage. The short ends with the couple passing a young woman drinking Coke and giving the husband the eye.
This short is a very clever and well made film. The film succeeds in making a very minor difference between the couple into a wide chasm that can only be bridged through the heroic efforts of the wife. I liked how the epic music contrasted with the seemingly silly plot and set the tone nicely. Overall, the film explores relationships and how small differences can sometimes cause problems but in a humorous and light way.
Monday, September 15, 2008
Huey is about a paralyzed war veteran sitting by the water, painting a model of a US Army helicopter, and watching the people around him.
In the beginning, a bearded man is sitting on the ground staring at the water and painting a model helicopter. He is distracted to see various people walking by him. A couple meet up and hug. A kid skateboards by. A person on a bike rides through. The man's face remains solemn. He paints a strange version of the US flag on his model helicopter. Then, another bearded man rides by on his wheelchair. The man in the wheelchair stops and stares at the protagonist. They share a moment of quiet staring, and then the wheelchair man continues on. Finally, the twist is revealed: a long shot reveals a wheelchair next to the man on the ground. He leaves his helicopter on the ground and pulls himself up onto the wheelchair and wheels away.
The movie finally makes sense. I wish I could have watched it a second time (not only for better analysis for this post, but because I'd have a better context for each shot). Being that he can no longer walk, the shots of him staring sadly at the couple, the skateboarder, and the biker reveal his jealousy for those who can use their legs.
As for who the second man was? There are two ways to look at it: First, he was simply just another man in a wheelchair, and the two characters were silently bonding over their unfortunate similarity. Second, it's possible that the man was a veteran as well, and the stare was meant as a way of acknowledging that they were each in the same situation.
When it comes to the model helicopter, he paints an odd version of the US flag. This is a symbol for his loss in patriotism for his country, whose war has left him paralyzed. He leaves the helicopter on the ground and wheels away, meaning that he is attempting to move on from his past.
The film has no dialogue. The most prominent sound is the water he is near. You know you've made a good film when you can successfully tell a story based on the visuals alone. Each shot is carefully crafted to convey meaning. No dialogue is needed to reveal the man's pain, jealousy, and depression over his situation. The film is artistic and well made. Most of the shorts I saw in Showcase 6 were good, and I had trouble deciding which one to talk about. However, I realized had the most depth for only being 4 minutes long. The other films were either simple comedies or films that had a very pronounced obvious message that was practically yelled at the audience. This one was subtle and smart and allowed the viewer to make the connections himself/herself.
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.
Dir. Mikki Willis
5 min USA
Sometimes I find my favorite films are the ones with a very simple storyline and as few characters as possible. Recently I have seen, on accident, a number of films that take place with two characters in a single room or general location. It is true that I am normally hesitant when I come across a film like this, thinking I will get bored quickly or it will be dumb. (And I did feel that way about some I saw this weekend). However, Mikki Willis’ film, The List, was different.
A short film of five minutes in length, The List, takes place in a warehouse in the middle of who knows where. The outside world is irrelevant in this film. There are only two characters, which makes sense in a 5min movie in a warehouse. Although, the two character one location thing worked out very nicely in Steve Buscemi’s Interview (2007). Back to the topic. The List was visually interesting and kept my attention. It left unanswered questions and really didn’t tell you a whole lot. Except that this guy, played by Robert Machemer, who is supposed to be an “agent” of some sorts, wants a list from a girl name Lauren, Paris Tanaka (also writer and producer). And then they fight. And then its over.
It really was a small portion of a feature length espionage film. Even if it could be attached to a feature film, in its own way it stood its ground as a short film. When it was over I was still trying to figure out who the good guy was and who was the bad guy. And I liked that aspect of it. I don’t think all films, short or long, need to have an ending wrapped in a box with a bow tie on top. I like open-ended films because they allow the imagination to fill in the gaps. That is why I enjoyed this film. Also, it was visually pleasing to watch. I was happy to see the amount of shots they got in a five minute piece without it becoming too jumbled. And at the same time taking a moment to make sure every shot was the best it could be. No matter how short the film it should be visually pleasing (or at least interesting). The cinematography was one of the best I had seen at DC Shorts.
**PS I just looked at the awards after writing this, and The List won best cinematography. Go figure.
Directed by Jay Spears
Here is a short film about those “whacked out Christian fools” that were the inspiration for this racy, tongue-in-cheek musical created by Jay Spears. Smack Dem Christians Down premiered this past weekend at the DC Shorts Film Festival and was received with roaring laughter. Spears constructs a piece of modern-day satire filled with humor, hypocrisy, and a few historical reminders which all contribute to answering the question presented at the beginning of the film: “Who baptized Uncle Sam?”
The film essentially functions as a huge joke and manages to sustain our interest by treating and presenting the joke in continually absurd ways. The introduction portrays a Christian preacher as a perverted, money-laundering ideologue blindly supported by members of his church. By the time we get to the end of the film, these same Christians have now turned on the preacher and are smacking him down. Included in the beat-down are also some Founding Fathers like Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin.
Spears presents a factual and compelling historical argument that should nevertheless be taken seriously. His primary argument is that the United States was never intended to be a Christian country, that it was not created by Christians, and that Christians cannot justify any sort of theocratic law in the face of the US Constitution.
To highlight the idea that the United States is not a theocracy, Spears uses the court case Loving vs. Virginia which outlawed interracial marriage. The case was overturned by the Supreme Court. What Spears is trying to say is that since the Founding Fathers introduced the idea of separation of church and state, and since the Supreme Court has upheld this notion more often than not, that there is no legal reasoning with which religious extremists can impose their beliefs into law. And this concept is expressed later in the film as Abraham Lincoln beats the preacher with the US Constitution. This can easily be interpreted as a metaphor for Spears’ desire for law to continue to triumph over religion.
What makes this film universal to Americans is that there are so many types of religions within the US that it is an alarming concept for any religion to be subjugated to laws which may blatantly compromise their own religion or represent something they do not believe in.
Now because this song is so political and its point so “preachy,” it is valuable to ponder why the film was chosen as the mode of expression. The reason this film is not exclusively a song is because it benefits from the medium of film. Spears presents the judge’s ruling in Loving vs. Virginia as draconian enough to liken the KKK or the Nazis. He successfully produces shock-humor as the bailiffs beside the judge are transformed into KKK members and then swastika-flaunting Nazis with each refrain. Spears weaves these images subtly so that they stick with us long after the film. Other images include a preacher supporting a sign which states, “How would Jesus vote?,” dancing Supreme Court Justices, and a few Founding Fathers beating a preacher with the Constitution. These are all powerful satirical devices wrapped neatly into an historical lesson to remind all Americans where their country came from and why it became.
Source: DC Shorts Showcase 3
i would have posted this on saturday but between grading my classes, playing guitar hero and saving children from a burning orphanage, i forgot.
i've tried to find the director's name. no dice.
it's not on the dc shorts site (surprisingly high amount of entries on the site dont obviously list the director. i might be looking in the wrong place - but i shouldnt have to look. it should just be there up in my grill. non?)
surprisingly, if you punch Diva + Crossdressing + Paris into google or youtube you get a ton of results and none are this film. who'd have thunk there'd be so much material including all three words! le choc! lesson to filmmakers: consider if your title and content are going to make an interesting google or tag combination for searches in the age of web 2.0
in a showcase of relatively mediocre to bad pieces (not all. but most), Diva stuck out to me.
it was brave and honest and knew when it was over.
i'm predetermined to enjoy it, as it takes place in france - i have family there, studied there briefly and one of my degrees is in french. elle me manque beaucoup.
at first i was cynical, we start off with voice over of a phone conversation that was so blatant and unconversational exposition (can't blame the subtitles - the french was a bit too obviously written too), thank god the piece was in france or i might have gone to get another pretzel.
in this conversation we learn that a man has completely written off a close friend after an admission of love from him. the friend, our fabulous protagonist, has chosen to move to paris and get out of this 'shit town.'
the rest of the film is without dialogue (if memory serves - it's completely devoid of dialogue after the phone conversation) and follows our main character as he settles into his new digs, cries over a photo of the object of his affection, and dolls himself up in his flamboyant best.
the photography of him manscaping, applying make up and donning his outfit is well crafted and doesnt turn this into a joke. i like that. we see it with the appreciation he has for it. this is him, this is not a joke. he hits the town and has a great day at montmartre.
until a thief steals his purse.
well... heels, coat and wig begone, the chase is on.
the first moment of his pursuit, as he tears off his wig and bolts after the thief is the only funny moment in a piece that could have gone the usual way with cross dressing - making it a joke.
funny merely because it's funny to see a guy in a pink dress tearing off a wig with such a look of anger on his face.
but his face is what keeps us from laughing too long.
he runs, he runs and he runs. he catches the thief, pulls him down and pops him one.
but the man's face. everything that has worn on him is there. his day was ruined, his love denied, and this city of salvation kicked him when he needed it.
we leave him sitting with his recovered bag. beaten, but not broken. sad, but not crying. upset, but still upright. he'll recover, but for right now, we can all remember when we've felt the same way.
c'est la vie.
Sunday, September 14, 2008
The plot of the film follows Mary (you might recognize this name from such publications as the Bible) coming home to reconnect with her Priest father, whom the audience is aware from the opening scene is now a zombie, courtesy of Zombie Jesus. Unaware of this, Mary travels to her small Canadian town, where she runs over an elderly woman. In a joke eerily similar to one in Shaun of the Dead (truthfully, more of an antecedent than the aforementioned Eisenhower-era sci-fi flicks), Mary tries to help the senior citizen up, but to the shock of few, the old lady is actually a zombie. Luckily, Mary is saved by Isaac, who is described as the town's lone Jew (his parents have become Jews for Jesus/zombies), and he takes her back to his place to describe the situation in greater detail. Here, the film's methodology is explained, a scene found in any competent horror film, where the origin of Zombie Jesus is explicated. Now everyone knows that Jesus was crucified and came back three days later; what this movie presupposes is: "maybe he came back as a zombie." Deciding to take back the town from the undead, Mary and Isaac set off, crossbow and hammer in tow, to the town's church. There, they come to blows with brain-seeking churchgoers, and handle them with ease, before Zombie Jesus appears, in all of his holy evil glory. All of the townspeople transform back into humans, and Mary reconciles with her father. But after the denouement, Mary, back in her Toronto apartment takes a pregnancy test, and her worst fears are confirmed by testing positively for a cross, insinuating that the spawn of Zombie Jesus is in her stomach.
My first response to the film was "well, that was aimed directly at the heart(lands) of America." The rise of the Religious Right in the US has been one of the major social issues of the past decade, something that has troubled most liberals, mostly for the mob thinking inherent to the group. While a few films come to mind that touch on this issue (Jesus Camp), there's a surprising lack of material relating to this shift in religious/political climate, especially from US filmmakers. So when we, as Americans, can't look in the mirror long enough to find our flaws, the responsibility falls on our neighbors to the north. A Canadian production, the film avoids overt political reference to the Christian Right in the US, but instead makes a comment on the similar religious conservatism movement that has been growing in Canada since Prime Minister Stephen Harper took office in 2006. However, the metaphor at the center of the movie applies to any number of countries that have a vocal minority of conservative Christians. And that message is, of course, that faith is great, but blind faith turns you into a zombie, devoid of the ability to discuss your beliefs, only intent on changing those different into someone just like yourself, even if it takes a nibble on the cranium. The solution to the conservative Christian crisis is to believe again and not to follow everyone else, or at least that's the end result of the film's critique.
But what happens when a critique is flat and one-dimensional, instead of being multi-layered? Is there any actual new light shed on the state of America and the Religious Right? The film vaguely touches on Christian imagery (the crucifixion during the climax, the immaculate conception twist), but it becomes swept up in parodying horror films halfway through the film. Campy lines, gruesome action sequences, and a severe lack of time focused on the monstrosity that is Zombie Jesus leads to the viewer being somewhat perplexed by the non sequitur conclusion. Maybe it's because there's already been literature about Zombie Jesus before, but the film seems like it should be much more original and creative than it is. In the end, it aims for metaphorical filmmaking and entertains for moments here and there, but it instead falls into the trap of being a one-trick pony, where one joke that wasn't too funny to start with overextends its welcome by ten minutes, and forgets the punchline anyways.