Thursday, April 23, 2009

Nashville Film Festival 2009: Live Action Shorts, Part 1

Continuing my coverage of the Nashville Film Festival, it's time to start broaching the live-action shorts, which constituted the bulk of the 60-odd short films that I've seen since I arrived here. Ensuing entries will cover my ten favorites among these live-action shorts, including three prizewinners from the jury I served on with Nathaniel and Jett. For starters, though, I want to imply some "Honorable Mentions" for three short films that I didn't adore on the whole, but for one reason or another I feel compelled to pay tribute to the aspects that most impressed me.

The Dirty Ones
(11 min., USA; IMDB)
At least one of my fellow jurors really detested this Harmony Korine-produced short about two Mennonite sisters who get stranded along a busy highway when their truck breaks down. They then have to check into a seedy hotel and comfort their worried parents over the phone. The Dirty Ones forecasts an arc into Vacancy territory in more than one way (addled concierges, a creepy tenant in the neighboring suite), but mimicking the anti-dramatic convictions of Korine, writer-director Brent Stewart obstinately refuses to develop the scenario or deepen the characterization. It's a truncated, rather perversely obtuse record of a moment that may have a scary afterlife, a pleasant afterlife, or no afterlife, but without making any great claims for the piece—the photography really pushes the envelope of no-budget, low-contrast smudginess, and the two leads cannot be credited with any sense of what to do in front of the camera—I somehow liked the anti-narrative and anti-pretty impudence of this odd little object. The tension in some of the edits is potent and credible, even if it's generated in some frankly easy ways. The framings, at least, need no apology for their taut communication of the girls' extremely low-key distress and of the possibility of menace in an environment defined by its own doldrumy dullness. For these reasons, and for who knows what peccadillo of personal taste, The Dirty Ones—a film that probably wouldn't have been booked if not for the quasi-famous names behind it and the fact of its Volunteer State production—is more memorable and intriguing to me than a lot of other fuller or "better" movies I saw alongside it.

(14 min., Canada; IMDB)
I'm even more surprised to be sticking up even fractionally for Gilles than I am to be semi-stumping for The Dirty Ones; Constant Mentzas' severe Québecois drama features 1) an overbearing representation of an adult with mental disabilities, and 2) one of those portentous, lethargic, deep-shadowed mise-en-scènes that neutralize all the oxygen in the screening room. In cinematic form as in visual topography, we really aren't far from the soul-killer that was A Lake back at the London Film Festival in October, and I never wanted to be reminded of A Lake again. But I have to say this for film festivals, for short films, and for Gilles: sometimes a single, engaging moment can be enough to make a short film memorable and to lift it above the middle-ground latitudes of a wide-ranging festival, and Gilles incorporates one gesture that redeems it at least in this qualified way. As the camera zooms slowly, slowly, slowly into the face of the elderly mother in this two-character micro-drama, while her forlorn son is pouting and tramping about in the icy tundra, a peculiar, almost Lynchian form of dumbfounded dread starts beating inside the film. This is hardly Nicole Kidman in Birth, but when you're willing to give up almost two minutes of your 14-minute film (including credits) to such a protracted, slow, enigmatic close-up, which can have any number of implications for what's happening during and afterward, I have to tip my hat. Now if only there were a real film built around this potent, discomfiting choice.

I'm in Away from Here
(22 min., UK; IMDB)
I'm making a slight exception here for my rule about only writing up the films that impressed me, since the Scots entry I'm in Away from Here frankly left me cold. It stars yet another actor offering a florid, buggy version of Mental Illness, and though the editing and camerawork tighten up for a brief episode at the beginning that implies he is sexually aroused by the sound and feel of rushing water—not a stunning conceit, necessarily, but perhaps the groundwork for a weirder, more specific movie than the one that has been communicated up to that point—things quickly deflate into some forced, hiccupy dramaturgy as this lead figure, Archie (Garry Collins) is reluctantly driven by his mother to a sort of daycare center for the disabled. After a compulsory scene of forced cheer from the supervisors and of bland sportsmanship from the wards ("Let's have a game of Whoosh!"), Archie shuffles out with wheelchair-bound Bruno (Robert Softley) and into a mini-plot that involves a pinball machine, a working girl, a fight about money, and a fussy sound mix pushing in and out of the musical tracks that Archie is hearing on his headphones, which he wears and guards as though they're a protective shield. All very film school, and pallid at that: the internal rules about how this day-group works and about who the characters are need a lot of clarifying. The film only makes sense as a first-draft but unpersuasive imitation of nervier movies like The Idiots, which often feel limited and arrogant even in the best of cases. I mention I'm in Away from Here only because it had strong enough support among other quarters of the jury to take the Honorable Mention prize in the Student Filmmaking division; it also bowled over one of the highest-level curators of the festival and played in competition at the Venice Film Festival, so even if the film was mostly lost on me, it has obviously sparked a lot of other imaginations. Check it out and see what you think. I still wish it had been the film that Nathaniel thought it was from a fleeting glimpse at the title; he thought it said I'm in 'Away from Her', which might have promised a diverting A&E Biography of Olympia Dukakis, or one of the extras playing a nurse.

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