Friday, April 24, 2009

Nashville Film Festival 2009: Live Action Shorts, Part 3

Moving up the ladder of quality, here's the middle of my more-or-less "Top Ten List" among the live-action shorts booked in Nashville. I keep seeing more of them every day, incidentally, and nothing's come close to challenging these:

#7: Walnut
(11 min., Australia; IMDB)
Rest assured, the conspicuous, capital-letters "Thank You" to Jane Campion did not in and of itself assure this film of our Grand Jury Prize in the student filmmaking category. Of course it didn't hurt, but it's a bit of a double-edged sword: you can see how Campion's example and a larger tradition at the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School might well have nourished writer-director Amy Gebhardt's unembarrassed embrace of bright color, her unusual blocking and visual angles, and her fluency at blending stifled or restless characters with images that are simultaneously expressive and beatifically soothing. She doesn't need all of her shots, and sometimes, as when a young woman's bare feet pad over the carpet surrounding a bed, they exist mostly to telegraph that Walnut has a fondness for unexpected impressions, whether or not they deepen the movie profoundly. And yet, many of these eccentric shots do deepen the movie and endow it with detail. It ain't Peel, but Gebhardt sidesteps so many of the sentimental pitfalls that a dying-dog movie inherently invites that you can't help noticing and admiring how she does it. And whether my fellow jurors thought I was kidding or not, I think the dog playing Walnut may have given the single best performance in any of the live-action shorts we screened—possibly best since the piggie(s) who played Babe. Look at that soul-searching gaze, and how pitifully, and yet with what dignity, he eases himself down during his last field trot! What are they feeding these Antipodean animals? How are they trained? The human actors aren't slouches, either: the lead actor gets enough out of a spontaneous but slightly embarrassed shrug when his mother reaches out to comfort him that we've got most of what we need to know about this relationship right off the bat. Doubtless some viewers will find the emotional pitch of the extreme close-ups on the animal's snuffling nose and the younger brother's lonely sorrow and the girlfriend's pleading, affectionate incomprehension. But Walnut got me, and I feel I was honestly gotten.

#6: Jerrycan - preview
(14 min., Australia; IMDB)
Another Australian triumph, and this one a prizewinner at Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, and the Australian Film Institute awards. With that track record, I doubt writer-director Julius Avery is bemoaning his prizeless tour through Nashville; does this make us laudable free-thinkers or comically out of synch with the world's experts? I really liked Jerrycan, obviously, and had I not felt even more strongly about another handful of films, I would have pushed harder to keep it in the jury conversation. Avery employs lots of the same basic techniques that we saw in lots of films: rack focusing, desaturated colors, significant foreground-background separation, inexorable build-ups to climactic crises. The scraped visual texture, detailed sound design, and prematurely solemn child's-eye view reminded me more of Scottish cinema than Australian work; Jerrycan could play side by side with Lynne Ramsay's shorts on the Ratcatcher DVD and there'd be few dead giveaways. Even if the climactic payoff is predictable entire minutes in advance, the film isn't as determined to be bleak as it would seem, and the shoving dynamics of rivalry and agitation among this gaggle of down-and-out schoolboys assumes more and more nuance right through the final moments. Almost every cut, framing, and audio accent makes the movie richer, going a long, long way toward revitalizing the earnest but non-distinctive core material.

I adore the top five live-action shorts that I've seen here, so rather than hop up one more rung, I'm ditching the rankings and saving them all for a final post. Stay tuned, but don't stay mum—talk to me, folks!

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