Thursday, October 16, 2008


Directed by Kiri Davis, United States, 2005, approx. 7 minutes.

A Girl Like Me begins with a simple premise: the director seeks to recreate Dr. Kenneth Clark's famous 1940 doll experiment, in which black children were shown to prefer playing with white dolls. The experiment was a landmark study of the overwhelming effects of internalized racism, and were incorporated into the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.

But the director, a high school student named Kiri Davis who received funding from HBO to make the film via the Reel Works Teen Filmmaking Program in New York City, includes the doll experiment as part of a larger examination of beauty standards for black women in the United States. The film begins with a series of interviews with young black women discussing the stigmas surrounding everything from natural hair to darker skin. The interviews are shot as close-ups, which both increases the intimacy of the girls' stories as well as serving as a way of reminding the viewer of the racialization of beauty; when looking at each girl's face, the injustice of being deemed unattractive based on something as fundamental and immutable as skin color is painstakingly evident.

After her montage of interviews, Davis narrates the segment that recreates the doll experiment. Again, even though she's making a low-cost production on a handheld camera, her keen eye for perspective and portraiture in film comes through as she captures the reactions of the children in her study. She places the camera directly across the table from the children so that every nuance of their responses is captured. In a particularly tragic moment, a four-year-old girl is given two baby dolls, one black and one white, and is asked which is the "good" doll. In accordance with Dr. Clark's study, she picks the white doll, and designates the black doll as "bad." Then, Davis asks the child which doll looks like her, she pauses for a moment as if realizing the implications of her words, and then somberly picks up the black doll she had just referred to as "bad."

The film was debuted as part of the Media That Matters Film Festival, which highlights short films about issues of social, cultural, and political importance. I first came across it shortly after it was released in 2006, when it was discussed on Debunking White, a Livejournal commmunity that examines anti-racist activism and white privilege. Since then, it's been shown in two of my classes at AU, and my reaction is always somewhat paradoxical. On one hand, it's a great piece of documentary filmmaking, especially coming from a student filmmaker who had not yet graduated high school. At the same time, its subject matter is so disheartening that I find it difficult to watch, especially the segment involving the young children. But my guilt aside, I think it's an incredibly important issue, and I'm glad that Kiri Davis handled it so artfully. In fact, I hope to run into her sometime now that she's studying at Howard.

Family Values

Family Values
By Eva Saks USA, 2002
22 Minutes, Source: Full frame: documentary shorts Vol. 1, DVD 902

Family Values is a documentary of a lesbian couple, Becky and Donna, who own their own business, which happens to be "Trauma Scene Restoration" as they delicately put it. A more descriptive name would be cleaning brains off walls. The idea for their business came from compassion. Becky is a cop who works crime scenes and one day Donna asks who cleans up after murders. Becky replies that that is "not in her job description" so it is up to the families of the deceased to figure it out. Donna naturally has a lot of sympathy for someone who might be cleaning up the guts of their mother, so she decides to make a business of it to save someone the hassle and the documentary goes on to show the business as well as their lives.

That description is a little blunt, but the documentary is blunt, reflecting the people within it. Donna has no problems describing some of the nastier things she has cleaned up. An eyeball spooked her a bit and she gives a graphic description of a body exploding from the expanded gases. We also get to see some of the work she does. It is just blood so it is a little tamer and it is also in black and white, thankfully.

This documentary is about normal people doing an abnormal job. We do hear a little about their past. Becky was married twice before she married Donna, once to a man and once to a woman, and while that is not typical, it is not completely radical. The director also handles their preferences well. She does not beat us over the head, she just informs. In fact, they are almost boring.

I liked the documentary, but I thought it could be a little shorter. The last 5 minutes drag a little which raises some questions about the documentary in a short form. When looking for a documentary, I found many of them to be pretty boring since they were a half hour and just felt too long. Documentary shorts that are 15 minutes or less seem about right to me. I think the reason might be because it is difficult to build a narrative that can really be explored in the way it deserves without going over an hour. It is not the topic, because I have been entertained by films like Air Guitar Nation and The King of Kong, which seeming would be impossible to sustain for long. But I think documentaries are particularly dependent on story because the spectacle wears off fairly quickly.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Please Vote for Me

Please Vote for Me
(trailer available above)
Directed by Weijun Chen, China/South Africa, 2007
32 minutes (excerpt); 58 minutes (full-length)

I watched "Please Vote for Me" on Wholphin no. 6 (a DVD magazine of rare and unseen short films, if anyone is unfamiliar) and only just now saw that the version I saw is in fact an excerpt of the full-length version. However, I remembered from one of the readings that one person's definition of a short film was a film under 70 minutes long, a criterion which this film's full-length version fits. Also, I thought it might be interesting to probe into the notion of the presentation of a short film: can an excerpt of a longer film be considered a short in and of itself, or is it inextricably tied to the longer version? Can a film's excerpt be a stand-alone short film just because it has been presented as such by, in this case, Wholphin's compilers? Just something to think about. In this post, I'm going to discuss the 32-minute version of "Please Vote for Me" as a stand-alone film since I have not seen the longer version.

"Please Vote for Me" is about a third-grade class in Wuhan, China, who are about to have their first democratic election of Class Monitor. The essence of the film can pretty much be summed up in the first 30 seconds or so. The text "Who would you vote for as President of the World?" appears on the screen, and this is followed by an interview of two young girls, one of whom is asked "what is democracy?" and the other of whom is asked "what does it mean to vote?" Both girls seem completely unfamiliar with these terms, the first responding, "I don't know. What does it mean?" and the other repeating, "To vote?" with a perplexed look.

The film focuses on the children in the class through the course of the election, but it's not only about them: it's also about their parents. In China, where families are only allowed to have one child, that child more or less becomes the center of their world. We are shown the home lives of all three candidates for Class Monitor, and each one shows overbearing parents who are completely and utterly emotionally invested in the Class Monitor race. When Cheng Cheng tells his parents he wants to drop out of the race, for example, his mother's response is, "Quit? No, you can't! Don't you want to be like President Hu Jingtao? Class Monitor is only the first step. Are you out of your mind?"

Here's where the "Who would you vote for as President of the World?" opening becomes relevant. For the kids in the class, the Class Monitor election might as well be the President of the World election. As third-graders, their class is their only world outside of the home, and they take the election incredibly seriously. The candidates buy off supporters with promises to appoint them to other class positions; they conspire to sabotage opponents' speeches, as when Cheng Cheng pressures a classmate to yell "It's terrible!" when Xiaofei gives her speech; they mobilize voters to stand up to the incumbent candidate's unjust treatment of them, such as Luo Lei's penchant for beating disobedient classmates; they employ negative campaign tactics, as when each candidate compiles lists of the other candidates' faults to use against them. But we laugh when we watch "Please Vote for Me." Why is this? For third-graders, these kids are surprisingly astute politicians, and their tactics pretty much mirror those of real (adult) politicians; maybe herein lies the humor. Chen seems to treat the adults and the kids in the film with an equal amount of respect, which makes this more like a true political documentary than a cutesy documentary about children.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

I Have Tourette's but Tourette's Doesn't Have Me

I Have Tourette's but Tourette's Doesn't Have Me (2005)
Director: Ellen Goosenberg Kent
USA, 27 minutes

Tourette's Syndrome is probably the most commonly misunderstood mental disorder (thanks in part to the animated potty-mouth on the right). No, we don't all curse uncontrollably. Only about 10 percent of Tourette's sufferers exhibit the symptom, also known as Coprolalia. No, we can't stop it. Yes, some of us can control it if we really need to, but being cast out socially does not help.

I Have Tourette's but Tourette's Doesn't Have Me is composed of studio interviews with about a dozen elementary and middle school kids who suffer from Tourette's Syndrome and a few short pieces that focus on what a few of them do to cope or combat their tics. If you look at it as a documentary that highlights the effects of a mental disorder on a child's social growth, it is devastating and depressing. During Julian's segment, one of his friends says, "They treat you differently, not like everyone else. I think that's all he really wants, is to be like everyone else." That just about sums up the feelings of everyone who suffers from Tourette's, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or one of the many attention or behavior-related mental disorders. A lot of physically deformed or limited people probably feel the same way.

But it is even more important as an educational piece. These kids spill out everything you could ever want to know about Tourette's Syndrome: Why they tic, why they can't stop, what it feels like to be out of control. Of all the reasons to make a documentary - and this is coming from someone who shot a documentary last weekend about where to eat late at night in Adams Morgan - I find education to be the highest goal. Just to hammer the point home, when I received the DVD (order it here), I got a Teacher's Guide in the package.

It's not making a case for or against anything. It doesn't want to shame people with the kids' stories of being bullied and cast out. Those take up an extremely small percentage of the film. They are included in the first two or three minutes to shock the audience into opening their eyes and watching. Then comes the education. Ah ha! What you thought was a legitimate reason for making fun of someone (and thus stepping over them in the warped social hierarchy that permeates grade school) is actually out of our control. I have no experience in education, but I'm pretty sure that a good lesson starts by challenging what the students think they know. Yes, you're all wrong! Let's find out why! Robert Wuhl does this brilliantly in Assume the Position.

I Have Tourette's but Tourette's Doesn't Have Me demonstrates that a documentary's first order of business is to educate. It should open the audience's eyes to something they did not know. One of the best ways to do that is to play the professor, which makes a plan or a script for a documentary not unlike a lesson plan.

Even if I'm trying to teach you that Pizza Mart is the only place you should go in Adams Morgan to get your jumbo slice fix.

"C. Beck"

Directed by: Mike Hazard and Deb Wallwork

C. Beck is a short documentary on woodblock print artist, Charles Beck. The short explores his work in regard to technique and attitude, and ventures to make a statement about art in general.

This film was the PBS Independent Lens Grand Prize winner. The Independent Lens festival is a short films online submission festival that accepts films in the genre of animation, comedy, drama and documentary.

While there were some interesting visual techniques used in this short, for the most part I was distracted by flaws. One huge flaw occurred when the filmmaker was attempting to film Charles in his car. Apparently he fashioned a red flannel shirt against the car window to minimize glare. But then, in the middle of the shot the shirt fell. I was completely distracted by Charles’ attempt to re-hang the shirt that I fell out of the story.

Following typical documentary form, this piece attempted to make a narrative out of a real life event. This is an interesting idea. Documentaries claim to be true stories, or “documenting” real life events. But this begs the question, is simply documenting even possible? The mere construction of the narrative falsifies the content.

But back to the short film genre in particular: I have to wonder if an attempt to document the entirety of a man’s career in 7 minutes is a fair construction. On the flip side, I was ready for this film to end quickly after it started. I cannot yet determine whether it was the subject matter that bored me, or the lack of depth to the story. There was only so much time, and therefore, the short documentary did not delve into the heart of this man’s story. It simply skimmed the surface. It is this that brings me to the conclusion that I do not know that the short documentary is effective, as it does not allow for any depth, that possibly results in an unfair construction of a person’s story.

The Itchy and Scratchy Show: 500 Easy Pieces

"500 Easy Pieces"
15 Seconds

This advertisement for Butterfinger successfully combines the shock humor of The Itchy and Scratchy Show from The Simpsons with a clever and unique selling point for the candy bar itself: the loud crunch. Using the brand’s poster child, Bart Simpson to help sell the product Butterfinger makes the effort to tie in a relevant storyline from The Simpsons to give Bart’s laugh at the end more meaning. Thus, this “one-joke” short works on several comedic and particularly ironic levels once The Itchy and Scratchy Show is analyzed and understood.

The origins and inspiration of Itchy and Scratchy can be traced back to the ever popular cartoon, Tom and Jerry. Both shows involve a cat-and-mouse interplay (literally) in which the mice always seem to triumph and outsmart the former, often predatorial character. But the means of which this “outsmarting” occurs is often at the expense of excessive (and creative) violence. This violence is so preposterous and unjust in nature that it is hard for many Americans including The Simpsons Creator Matt Groening to contemplate how children were allowed to and even encouraged to watch such violence on their television sets. It’s no wonder that with short attention spans and an easy to follow plot that kids would fall victims to the older cartoons that made it okay to be violent.

Groening used these 30-second snippets of satire in his show consistently because he knew that the themes which the show attempted to stand for would ironically contrast with Itchy and Scratchy. The mere concept of Bart Simpson constantly watching this whimsical violence and being amused by it while left by his parents unsupervised at the television is often taken for granted when we watch the show.

The animation style and story structure of Itchy and Scratchy are also deliberately stylized the same as Tom and Jerry. The animation is simple with the characters having simplified bodily and facial features and the settings generally kept lackluster in detail. Most effort in its animation is concentrated on the punch line which unfortunately is always when Itchy is killed. The only slight variation in story structure is that Jerry and Tom always seems to be provoking each other in Tom and Jerry while the mouse in Itchy and Scratchy seems to completely dominate the cat without the cat ever bothering him and blindly falling into his traps. And while both animations’ stories follow story causality, Itchy and Scratchy condenses the suspense by eliminating the cause and just having the reaction! Therefore, Scratchy’s obsession with ultra violence is never justified in the show and seems darkly random. And that’s what makes it work.

The film’s title, “500 Easy Pieces,” is of course a play on words with the film title “Five Easy Pieces.” Each of the Itchy and Scratchy shows are titled in the same form perhaps to signal older audiences that kids would never “get it.” The fun and catchy jingles that bookend the Itchy and Scratchy shorts also work to play up on this irony by sounding kid-friendly. And that’s what gives the show its loveable charm. We watch the show to experience the dramatic irony that Itchy is going to experience a horrible death. What better contrast to a domesticated but flawed all-American Simpsons family? Only in an episode of Itchy and Scratchy can characters be cremated and killed by the sound of a Butterfinger.

Monday, October 13, 2008


By Ryan McDougal, Canada, 2006, 2 minutes 35 seconds
Source: You Tube

Sonata is an animated short film about a man who is battling with himself to take a chance or not.

The music used in the short film above is actually from the soundtrack of Amelie. The Director notes that a different piece was composed for the final version of the film due to usage rights.

There is no dialogue in Sonata and yet I did not miss it. McDougal was able to convey the emotions of the man through facial expressions, body language, the music used, and I dare say his footsteps, without adding some kind of inner monologue. If the man was mumbling to himself about how he should "just go in and ask her out," I would have liked the film a great deal less. The simplicity of the film and the characters actions is in my opinion the point of Sonata.  

My personal favorite scene in Sonata is right after a random person walks by on the street coughing, and the man imagines himself walking down the street with the woman from the café. It looks as if they are ghosts walking away, and then they disappear. I love that part because it shows the pure intentions of this man and his lowly request. I felt a real sympathy with this character because he isn’t asking for the world. He isn’t some tragic hero with vaulting ambition. All he wants in this moment is to have a relationship with this woman, and I find that refreshing.

The ending of Sonata is very fitting. I love how the last shot is of the man opening the door to the café and then the screen turns white. The fact that the screen turns white rather than the usual black can have connotations of its own. Because most films end on a black screen, the white screen adds contrast and a “happier” ending. What I mean is that it signifies that the man successfully asks the woman out, and they live happily ever after (or something like it).

There are only two things I do not like about this film, both having to do with the animation. One being that at one point the man looks as if he has breasts. This took my mind away from the tension in his face and had me solely focused on his “man-boobs.” The other comment I have on the animation is that there seems to be no windows. It looked as if there was no glass between the windowpanes. Overall, those two critiques are very small on the grand scheme of a short film, but they caught my attention nonetheless.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


"Ode To Joy"
Credits Unknown or Unattributed (meepmeepmeepow)

There are a few things in life that I am a fool for. One of these things is Jim Henson's muppets. More than just a children's show (this is left to those who live on Sesame Street), The Muppets started out as very much adult entertainment, moonlighting on the first few seasons of Saturday Night Live and as their own variety show (oh, weren’t the seventies good for variety shows?). So as I’m searching out for animated films for this week’s blog posting, it was a pleasant surprise to stumble on the muppets, specifically Beaker, Dr. Bunson Honeydew’s assistant - the one who always manages to get blown up, beat to hell, or otherwise mangled.

This short is relatively (read extremely) simple, which is precisely why I’m drawn to it. The screen is split into six parts, each filled with a Beaker, who then performs Beethoven’s 9th, at first a cappella, then with his own accompaniment. In classic Beaker fashion, things explode, electricty flares, and I laugh.

I wanted to blog about this short for a few reasons. The first being the state of animation. Can muppets and puppets be considered animation? These are technically physical objects that exist in an entirely legitimate manner, so are they live-action? The trick is though, that puppets, though “real”, must be controlled or animated by a puppeteer to achieve life-life qualities. Is this legitimate animation?

The state of the animated film has certainly been turned on its head in the last decade, since the release of 1995’s Toy Story. Animated films are no longer just drawn, but digitized, computerized, or otherwise manipulated. For so long the animated film was considered the cartoon, but this no longer really holds true. Claymation, computer animation, and (I argue, yes) puppets, are all forms of legitimate animation. Because puppets often interact with human counterparts, we forget that they are not “not real”, but tend to think of them as a mere extension of live-action components. I don’t think this is true; I think Beaker is just as cartoony as Mickey. He certainly plays cartoon cliche well; the silhouetted skeleton near the end as he electrocutes himself is something that would fit right in on Saturday morning.

Another thing I found interesting about this film is the mystery of the production. I have hard the hardest time placing the film to a name. It is posted by YouTube user meepmeepmeepow, whose only subscriptions are to other muppets themed YouTube users (there’s some great Gonzo clips), and all these muppets-based users list their website as These clips in every sense seem to be directly from muppets headquarters. If this is so (and let’s face it, it pretty much is), then it looks like another legitimate production company (Disney owns The Muppets) is looking to new sources of distribution. YouTube may be for losers and hecklers, but it’s also now for the cinematic elite. What is the state of television and the movie theatre if Disney is posting YouTube videos?

In any case, it’s probably all well that we just sit back and laugh.

Luxo Jr.

Luxo Jr. (1986)
dir. John Lasseter

Many fans of Pixar’s latest work, “Wall-E,” were impressed with how much emotion the animators were able to convey without dialogue. For the first 20 minutes of the film, there is no dialogue, and then for the next 20, the only words spoken are “Wall-E,” “Eve,” “Eva,” “directive,” and “ta-da.” However, the viewer did not need dialogue in order to understand the story. Through facial expressions, and movement the audience was able to understand what emotions the characters were feeling, and what was occurring on-screen. However, this was nothing new for Pixar. They had been creating characters out of objects that audiences could identify with for two decades.

“Luxo Jr.” is a masterpiece, especially considering that it was Pixar’s first film. The plot is simple; a larger lamp sees a ball, and rolls it off screen, only to see the ball return. The viewer soon discovers that the ball has been rolled by a smaller lamp, which eagerly chases after the ball. The smaller lamp rolls it back. The larger one and the smaller one briefly roll it back and forth between the two of them. The little one stands on the ball, and it deflates. The smaller makes an attempt to roll what remains of the ball. Both lamps inspect the damage. The smaller lamp sinks down after realizing the ball is beyond repair. The smaller lamp leaves, only to roll a beach ball, with the larger lamp looking on in disbelief.

What is significant about this film is that makes the viewer believe these characters have emotions, without a single line of dialogue being spoken. The two lamps are either parent and child, or an older sibling and a younger sibling. The larger lamp shakes its head in an affirmative manner, to confirm to its younger counterpart that the ball is in fact dead. It is heartbreaking to watch the younger lamp shrink down due its guilt and grief over the demise of the ball. The viewer is tempted to make-up dialogue to accompany what is on-screen, which is possible due to the humanity the animators endowed the two lamps with. In under two minutes the animators were able to create two different characters, each with its own personality, as well as tell a story.