Saturday, April 25, 2009

Nashville Film Festival 2009: Best of the Live Action Shorts

Here they are, in alphabetical order. Seek them out, and show them love:

Bravo: Instead of Abracadabra
(22 min., Sweden; IMDB)
While hunkered in our festival hotel this week, Nathaniel and I read a published estimate that 40% of the nation's college seniors expect to move back in with their parents after their imminent graduations, with no particular plan for their next forward maneuver. The Swedish delight Instead of Abracadabra suggests that becoming the village magician is not the ideal advance, except insofar as 25-year-old Thomas (Simon J. Berger) delights us as much with his flamboyant, slightly self-deluding treading of water as he flusters his father and worries his beaming, defensive mother for the very same reason. Thomas has cobbled together an act that he describes, in a foray into English, as "upclose gothic death and mayhem," and if you translate this out of his preferred Napoleon Dynamite dialect, this basically involves exploding some hamsters (or seeming to), lighting his own thumb on fire (or seeming to), and spearing his mother in the side with a machete (oops). Thomas finally has the will to raise his game when a beautiful new neighbor commissions him as entertainment at his son's birthday party, and though the comic dynamics of the pooh-poohing Dad and the rose-spectacled Mom are nothing new for indie cinema, the viewer's oddly mingled investment in Thomas surpassing himself and/or making a spectacular shambolic failure of himself provided a perky high-point of belly laughs and undemanding entertainment that is always welcome at any point in a heavy-hitting festival. I wouldn't be surprised if Oscar got excited about Abracadabra (which is almost entirely a compliment) or if, in certain film-nut circles, the enthusiastic refrain "Chimay!" graduated to the plane of "Vote for Pedro" or the Moldy Peaches. A delicious sugarcube of Scandinavian quirk.

Bravo: Love You More
(15 min., U.K.; IMDB)
This debut short by the acclaimed English artist Sam Taylor-Wood delivers a comparable adrenalin-rush of giddy entertainment as Abracadabra but with higher-key energy, more aggressive colors and edits, and a nimbly managed structure pivoting on the triple repetition of the eponymous track by the Buzzcocks. These three encores of the song correlate to a jubilant erotic encounter between two punk-era teenagers who have barely clocked each other before reaching for the same album in the record store. Taylor-Wood arrives into her first directing gig with extraordinary prestige and a bevy of connections on her side; as an innocent of the gallery-art world, I had frankly never heard of her, but it's not every short film that logs the late Anthony Minghella (producer), Nina Gold (casting), Seamus McGarvey (cinematography), and Patrick Marber (screenplay) on its credit sheet. And yet it isn't the air of celebrity or the availability of money that lifted Love You More above so many worthy competitors to earn our Honorable Mention prize for the whole live-action division. Taylor-Wood, McGarvey, the production designer, the sound-mixing team, and the two lead actors all have the knack for evoking a specific cultural moment as a personal watershed without glopping around in nostalgia or self-congratulation, and the libidinal velocity of shopping, flirting, listening, coupling, recoupling, parting, and looking forward to tomorrow have rarely been captured with such unfluffy authenticity and such verve.

Bravo: Next Floor
(12 min., Canada; IMDB)
"Are we sure we want to confer our two top prizes on our two best-connected artists?" my jury asked ourselves before finalizing our decisions. We can't be accused of privileging the films for this reason: again, I didn't know who Sam Taylor-Wood was, and my co-conspirators had never heard of Denis Villeneuve, whose debut feature Maelstrom, narrated by a lamprey eel awaiting death on a butcher's block (seriously) I had enjoyed some years ago at a campus cinema. Plus, if we really wanted to reward celebrity, we could have anointed any of the unspeakable affairs helmed by Courteney Cox, Chiwetel Ejiofor, or Demi Moore, about which I universally refuse comment. As actors are always intoning on interview shows, with perfect integrity and a little self-righteousness, it's about the work, and the work didn't get more ambitious, impressive, insinuating, or accomplished than Villeneuve's Matthew Barney-meets-Peter Greenaway parable of a gastronomic orgy held silently by some swannish aristocrats in some baroque mansion lit—or, as it were, not lit—as though it were the bottom of the ocean. From the opening shot, the hawk-eyed servants handing out the oil-slickened meats and the effulgent canapés and vegetables make a habit of staring severely at each other and at the viewer, suggesting some kind of malign conspiracy or foreknowledge... but that doesn't forestall our surprise when the floor collapses under the weight of this stabbing, slathering meal, and the anonymous over-eaters gather their wits amid the spilled wine, the debris, and the plaster dust. What happens next, and next, and next, may be predictable to some viewers and jaw-dropping to some, but even the coolest onlookers in the film start to look increasingly perturbed, maybe even frightened by what they witness. Villeneuve is holding out a big, unembarrassed, topical indictment of largesee and consumption for anyone who wants to see one, but the aural and visual atmosphere of the piece are too boldly overwhelming to recapitulate as one-dimensional dogma, and the sheer scale of the architecture and choreography that went into this bitter little passion-play are enough to strike you with awe. Even in a crowded and ornately impressive field, Next Floor didn't struggle too much to amass our Grand Jury Prize into its swelling cache of awards.

Bravo: Omelette
(7 min., Bulgaria; IMDB)
I'm sure there are wise programmers at the BFI or at Lincoln Center who know better, but from my vantage, Bulgaria hasn't made the kind of move toward global vitality as a cinematic culture (much less global recognition as such) that Romania and Hungary and the Czech Republic and several of the formal Yugoslav republics have in recent decades. All the same, Omelette, excerpted from an omnibus project of 15 short films encapsulating each of the 15 years of Bulgaria's political transition out of communism, is strong, distilled, confident, and resonant enough that one wonders about the surprises and provocations in store from film artists in that country. Omelette is so tightly shot and narratively proscribed that it would work perfectly within the anthology format for which it has been conceived, but as in those superior Romanian films we've all been so excited about, the candor and lack of pretention in the filmmaking belie strong and layered conceptions underneath. Three eggs break or almost break over the brief course of Omelette, and the source of the damage—external actor, personal error, ferocious frustration—tell their own crystallized history of domestic anxiety as it spills into self-destructive behavior, but not on such a grand scale that it can't, we hope, be curbed. A short short film is probably harder to knock out of the park than a medium- or large-scale short film, but Omelette's striking economy of means and expression demonstrate a talent at the very skill that the narrative laments: the necessity of doing a lot with a little. Well played, Nadejda Koseva.

Bravo: Terminus - watch it in full!
(8 min., Canada; IMDB)
Director Trevor Cawood's incorporation of tactile, fanciful visual effects into a general idiom of sallow urban realism (dank subway stations, greenish medical examining rooms, beige-on-yellow conference rooms) is a feat in itself, classing him in that Michel Gondry league of filmmakers who, at their peaks, can harmonize the mundane with the cheekily impossible in ways that resonate brightly with their audiences. I stand by that sentiment even if "brightly" isn't always the first word you reach for while watching Terminus, in which the stoop-shouldered residents of a composited Canadian city—Terminus was shot in Montréal and Vancouver—are individually stalked by ever more startling, abstracted forms: a tap-dancing man made of floating stones, a stretch of mean-spirited airport conveyer belt, a crouching statue in the vein of Henry Moore. There's no accounting for how these sculptural phantasms came to be, or whether the humans they pursue can perceive each other's specters, or what each particular, dogged form has to do with the individual it is trailing. Nor is there any diegetic explanation for the film's appearance of taking place sometime in the 1970s, or maybe everyone in fantasy-Canada takes their vintage shopping really seriously. Terminus makes such affective sense, goofy but unnerving, that these questions seem either like the wrong ones or like excitingly open-ended riddles. The film takes a tonal and narrative risk toward the end, accented by a quick insert of the front wheels of a bus, that recalibrates the stakes of the film just when it threatens to come across as an exceptionally weird and well-directed TV spot. There's no punchline to Terminus and no tying off of its enigmatic threads; the strange world that Cawood has envisioned keeps shuffling forward, one soft-shoe, one stony alter ego, and one sleepless night at a time.

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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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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Nashville Film Festival 2009: Live Action Shorts, Part 2

Let's call these the "bronze medalists," numbers 8 through 10 on my list of the best short films I've seen while on duty here in Nashville:

#10: Round Trip (Ida y vuelta) - trailer
(11 min., USA/Spain; IMDB)
Eloy Azorín, the doomed son from All About My Mother, and the always welcome María Conchita Alonso propel this short, tough narrative in which they play a mother and son flying into the United States for a family wedding about which Alonso, at least, is none too excited. Trouble quickly brews from an unexpected direction, but in contrast to several festival shorts where ideological tensions between nations and cultures or between the power class and the most vulnerable subjects led to stilted or overstated drama, Round Trip keeps a vise-grip on nuanced character development. The ending arrives just a few narrative beats before I hoped it would, and the film doesn't excel conspicuously in any particular area of formal craftsmanship, but it's taut, persuasive, and well-acted, and it doesn't boil down to any takeaway moral.

#9: The Watch (El Reloj)
(15 min., Argentina; IMDB)
Almost conversely to David Martín-Porras' Round Trip, Marco Berger's The Watch resists the urge to crystallize an event and instead wends a purposefully coy, smirking path around an event that isn't happening, at least as far as we can tell. At the outset of the film, teenaged soccer player Juan Pablo (Nahuel Viale) appears successfully to cruise a handsome fellow athlete named Javier (Ariel Nuñez Di Croce) while they await a city bus that never arrives. The guys wind up at Juan Pablo's house, with Javier somewhat busily impersonating someone who has no idea where any of this is headed. What they find inside the house, beyond the dirty pink walls and a general dishevelment, is Juan Pablo's almost comically inert and narcotically dazed cousin, watching TV in his undies. Whether he's cognizant of the boys' libidinal errand marks another opacity in the film; Javier works hard to notice yet appear not to notice the cousin groping himself beneath his shorts while he lounges at the refrigerator door and sucks some yogurt off his finger. The Watch plays a little like Trick as directed by Harmony Korine: it's grotty and constipated, but it's winking beneath all the grub. The titular conceit about the watch doesn't quite come through, and the deliberately disjointed editing goes a bit above and beyond the call of confusing motives and rhythms. It's a wry, willful piece, mostly charming if subliminally a bit sad, and though a certain kind of audience expectation will be roundly thwarted, there's certainly an erotic charge to the film; it's just inextricable from a teasing joke.

#8: The Pig (Grisen)
(23 min., Denmark; IMDB)
Continuing our series of opposite tempers, Denmark's Oscar-nominated The Pig is as sweetly bourgeois and audience-flattering as The Watch is resistant to most forms of comfiness. You couldn't call The Pig subtle or unmechanical in the way it eases the audience into its grouchy-cute story about an elderly white surgery patient who grows swiftly attached to a painting in his recovery ward—and then protests mightily when the Muslim family of his convalescent roommate rejects the painting as subtly offensive. One of The Pig's many self-insulations from ruffling anyone's feathers is that this contest of wills is projected almost entirely onto the (broadly acted) children and relatives of the patients, clearing the way for Asbjørn and Aslam to achieve their own rapprochement once the ward clears out. All of this feels much more formulaic in retrospect, but the proficient set-up and plummy, winking tone are quite charming in the moment, and many films have pandered much, much more than this on their way to gratifying the generous range of audiences that The Pig leaves itself open to. The hero of the piece is production designer Mette Lindberg; whether she found or commissioned the porcine portrait of the title (and the improvised sketch of same that figures later in the comic accumulation), they are as beguilingly insipid as they possibly could be. The painting alone, of a pig leaping incongruously off a pier into a tree-lined lake, scores the movie's best joke, about how the most absurd objects can sometimes elicit profound emotional investments, even (or especially) when they're the only thing to cathect in a sterile environment at an uncomfortable time.

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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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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Nashville Film Festival 2009: Animated Shorts, Part 2

Picking up where I left off last night:

I Am So Proud of You
(22 min., USA; IMDB)
A young titan and cult hero in the field of modern animation, Don Hertzfeldt (interviewed here) was nonetheless a new name to me when I sat down for I Am So Proud of You, his 22-minute opus about the alternately blunt and phantasmagoric existential epiphanies of a mutely plaintive little stick-figure named Bill. Even the most cursory Googling will reveal that Bill starred in the earlier Hertzfeldt opus Everything Will Be OK, which racked up a mind-boggling number of awards in 2006 and 2007, but I Am So Proud of You was just as transfixing and giddily, outrageously, eccentrically compelling to me as an entering-blind experience as I'm guessing it is for folks in the know about its makers and pretexts. The opening anecdote recalls a day from Bill's childhood when his half-brother Randall, a stunted kid with a broken-comb mouth and aluminum meathooks where his arms should be, grew awestruck at the gulls gliding over the ocean and sprinted after them, right into the water, never to be recovered. The zany character conceits and plot incidents might suggest a more freakshow fracas than I Am So Proud of You is, but the mercury greys, the stark jolts of fright and regret, and Hertzfeldt's laconic, Crispin Glover-ish narration make this picaresque, decade-hopping fantasia more emotionally substantial than the arbitrary daisy-chain of outrageous moments that So Proud occasionally threatens to be.

Perhaps what's most invigorating about I Am So Proud of You, both because and in spite of its eerie color-flares and superimpositions, because and in spite of its mitosis-style spawning of multiple scenes of action within the same frames, is that it nonetheless holds together so potently as a sad, magnificent, jagged little life story. It's the movie I sort of wanted Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation to be, since Hertzfeldt's fleet, dangerous, electrified vision of life isn't just scapegoated onto other characters but concentrates primarily in a complexly freewheeling presentation of Bill. Hertzfeldt's seemingly trademark stick-figures share the layered and irised mise-en-scène with nature and interior location photography, Fountain-style tints and dyes, typed and handwritten text, and lime-white, red-rimmed sunspots and glares, as though the film is heating up. "Walking pneumonia" has a gloriously personified walk-on, and you meet a grandmother with lethal designs on Bill and a penchant for keeping herself young by using cat heads as facial sponges. I sometimes get a bit impatient with Unfettered Imagination™, because I often feel that imaginations can use a little bit of productive, coherent fettering, and it's hard to argue that I Am So Proud of You couldn't be just a bit tighter (and less besotted with railroad traumas). But the technical, narrative, and emotional ambition and reach of the movie are pretty irresistible, and despite a strong field of contenders, we didn't hem or haw too, too much before awarding it our Grand Jury Prize in Animation.

Sebastian's Voodoo - in full!
(4 min., USA; IMDB)
Randall in I Am So Proud of You, with the meathooks for arms, had it comparatively easy; the main character of Joaquin Baldwin's macabre little récit has one sticking into his back, as do the other, identical rough-cotton dolls that a dark, headless sorcerer is serially pricking with long, thin needles. Baldwin establishes mood and palette like a whiz: the texture of the dolls and the brutish bruisiness of the colors make a swift, punchy impression, and I was also quite impressed by the expressive physicality of our doll protagonist, who moves quickly to take the only action he can conceive to spare himself and his cohort from their barely glimpsed creator-destroyer. I wouldn't absolve the movie of a certain broody sensationalizing of voodoo and its shadowy, dark-skinner practitioners, and all of us on the jury felt the movie could have clarified its narrative logic just a bit, although I'm prepared to run with the idea that appropriating the master's tools for oneself, even the master's weapons against oneself, marks some modicum of progress from passive victimization. But Sebastian's Voodoo needs to be longer and more deft to make that dim rhetorical impression more substantial. It seems clear that the movie mostly exists to announce a new talent who has a compelling aesthetic in mind and an exciting knack for getting that aesthetic onto the screen. Baldwin certainly scores on both of those counts, and his film barely missed a prize in our Student Film category.

This Way Up
(8 min., UK; IMDB)
British animators Adam Foulkes and Alan Smith earned an Oscar nomination last season for This Way Up, losing to the Japanese fellow who thanked Mr. Roboto in his speech. I have read online respondents describing this as a miscarriage of justice, but for all the visual sheen and smart energy of This Way Up—a comic-macabre tale of two tuxedo'd undertakers and their escalating mishaps trying to bury the coffin of an old woman—I can't say I found it a very distinctive experience. The narrative logic fits snugly in line with that hijink-after-hijink template for those Ice Age trailers with the implacable, acorn-obsessed varmint, and the giddy flouting of good taste, as the woman's body winds up hanging from trees and floating in rivers, her hearse crushed by a boulder and her coffin toppling off a cliff, is rude enough to taste a little sour without being pointed enough to justify these episodes in the name of jubilant insolence. There's a fifth-act switcheroo in aesthetics, motivated by a narrative pivot, but the newly enlivened colors and the bouncing parade of odd and elongated characters feel derivative, too, of any number of 2-D and stop-motion carnivales from Dumbo's pink elephants to Jack Skellington's Halloween revue. A "good" piece of work, for sure, but Oscar stamp or no, it paled in comparison to several other submissions.

Western Spaghetti - in full!
(2 min., USA; IMDB)
The only film that gave I Am So Proud of You a serious run for its money for the top prize, Western Spaghetti is the structural obverse of Hertzfeldt's film: a flavorful, talk-free masterpiece of succinct recontextualizing of everyday objects, where So Proud offers a gamboling, gregarious spiral into the various planes of a personal history and metaphysical journey. Maybe PES, the monomial filmmaker behind Western Spaghetti, has that kind of bigger-canvas work somewhere up his magician's sleeve, but who cares, when he can offer such a piquantly concise and delightfully imaginative fantasy. In the opening moments, someone's hand lights the burner of a grubby-clay oven, but instead of a gasflame, four Halloween candy-corns leap up get cooking. What happens from there is a preparation of a simple meal made anything but simple by the conscription of julienned dollar bills, diced Rubik's cubes, boiled pickup sticks, and a grated ball of yarn as ingredients. If you had to intellectualize the spectacle, you might say something about PES' game reframing of pop-junk artifacts as nourishing; he makes them fresh, in more than one sense. But what made Western Spaghetti such an immediate sensation for all of us is its pure and somehow big-hearted embrace of visual pleasure and unexpected perspective. Who needs an idea, quite honestly, when you've got panache, creativity, and such a gift for the wordless, spontaneous, unjaded, and instantly digestible joke?

More to follow about the live-action shorts and the buffet of feature-length attractions at this year's still-unfolding Nashville Film Festival. If you live in the area, you can see several of these jewels in the "Award Winning Shorts" program that has been added at 3:00 on Thursday, including I Am So Proud of You, Western Spaghetti, and Slaves.

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Nashville Film Festival 2009: Animated Shorts, Part 1

Following on from my report about the documentary shorts, here are my thoughts about a few of the shining lights among the animated shorts programmed for this year's Nashville Film Festival, beyond Germans in the Woods and Slaves, briefly reviewed here.

Hot Dog
(6 min., USA; IMDB)
Two-time Oscar nominee Bill Plympton is something of a revered figure among filmgoers who track animation more avidly than I do; though I have seen stills and excerpts of his work in other places, Hot Dog is the first of his films that I have seen in full, and it's a pip. Neither the plot nor the low-contrast colored-pencil style of Hot Dog (a second sequel of sorts to the Academy-nominated Guard Dog and its follow-up Guide Dog) necessarily pushes the medium forward, but the energetic, farcical, agreeably perverse storytelling is a hoot. The star dog's maniacal yearning to be a fireman is nutty enough, even before he's saving a woman from a burning building by startling the shit out of her, at which point she and the crew of human firemen on the ground bounce into some saucily lurid fun. Only the dog sees that the flames haven't stopped, they've just migrated to new spots. Funny and unpretentious, with a spry twist followed by an even better one; wicked enough for adult enjoyment but accessible to viewers of all ages.

Hungu - watch it in full!
(9 min., Canada; IMDB)
I was completely enchanted by Hungu's distinctive, sand-derived look and its intoxicating sound, furnished primarily by the Brazilian Berimbau, a stringed instrument that makes low, twangy sounds which here amplify and embellish an intriguing, elemental story about traveling African hunters who jettison a straggling young mother from her party. This woman undergoes an astonishing transformation after her abandonment by her cohort, at which point Hungu's engrossingly direct fascination with sounds, forms, and human relationships are fused even more tightly than before. Along the way, animator Nicolas Brault evinces something like the American artist Kara Walker's interest in denaturalized outlines and stark silhouettes, although the closer we get to Brault's people and artifacts and wildebeests, the more ornately designed and textured they turn out to be. Extra points for the pale translucency of water and the motile magic of the fish. A real highlight for me, across all of the programs. (Learn more here about capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian amalgam of dance, music, and martial arts that inspired Hungu.)

Stay tuned for more write-ups on animation by Don Hertzfeldt, PES, Joaquin Baldwin, and Academy Award nominees Adam Foulkes & Alan Smith.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Nashville Film Festival 2009: Documentary Shorts

Hey, Y'all! Longtime readers know that I have a weakness for that locution anyway, but it's even more apropos while I'm ensconced down here in Music City, serving as a juror with my soul brother Nathaniel on the Competition Jury for Short Films at the Nashville Film Festival. With two grandparents, an uncle and his fabulous wife, and two of the most life-changing teachers I ever had all living in Nashville, I arrived here with an already overflowing fondness for the city. And don't get me started on Dolly Parton or barbecue or Southern accents: a warm xoxo, to all of the above.

All of that notwithstanding, I have to say that the remarkable breadth, depth, and professionalism of the festival—where almost everything has been shown on celluloid projection, despite the huge cost incentives to project from DVD—has endeared the city even more to me. Of course no film festival of any size can avoid a few clinkers, and a bad movie without the ameliorating polish of a high budget, even if it's less existentially offensive than a bankrupt blockbuster, can be a sadder affair to sit through. But that hasn't happened to me much, and what's more, I'm not much interested in writing about the movies that felt that way to me. Not everything is for everybody, and having taken in as many films as I have—along with Nathaniel and our fellow juror, Jett Loe of The Film Talk—I'm going to short-change the middle and the back of this diverse pack and tell you a little about the best films I've seen, making some room, too, for some shorts that I didn't love but that one or both of my fellow jurors got excited about. (As per usual, Nathaniel has more than gotten the jump on me with his whole series of NaFF-related posts, which you should definitely peruse.)

Let's start with the Documentary Shorts, where the clear front-runner for me was always our eventual Jury Prize winner:

The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306
(32 min., USA; IMDB)
Director Adam Petrofsky's film, which earned an Oscar nomination this winter and has been playing on rotation on HBO, chronicles much more than the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, TN. Centering on the testimony of the Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles, who was one of King's companions during the last, incongruously casual hour of his life and then stood by his side as he was gunned down, The Witness encompasses a rich, detailed evocation of the Sanitation Workers' strike playing out in Memphis at that time, and for which reason King had twice traveled to the city to lend public, moral, and rhetorical support. Kyles speaks directly to the audience (via an offscreen interviewer) but this footage is cross-cut with his sermonic delivery of the same tale, so that its alternate inflections as personal memory and public parable are both fused and subtly contrasted. Invaluable, corroborating impressions are registered by Maxine Smith and Dr. Benjamin Hooks of the NAACP leadership in Memphis and from striking garbage collector Taylor Rogers, all of whom impress upon the film's audience that King's vigilante execution had less to do with racial bigotry (though of course the two are perpetually bound up) than with his emergence as a critic of and agitator against economic disparity and the grotesquely uneven distribution of wealth in the U.S.A.

Students of King's example and of his moment in world and American history will profit from this incisive formulation of his story, but the documentary is no less stirring for being so demythologizing and human-scaled in its presentation of King (as a friend who was congenitally late for dinner and a self-conscious figurehead who almost missed giving the extemporized but legendary "Mountaintop Speech") or for building our acquaintance with Kyles and with Smith so vividly. The editing avoids the kind of tenuous image-to-voiceover relationships that so many documentary reconstructions of history have fallen into recently, and I admire the film for compressing a layered, meaningful account of this tragic, terrible juncture in King's career into short form, rather than padding it out into feature length. You leave the film invigorated by its acute sense of history and national psychology, if also heartbroken all over again by the revoked promise of what King would have been in his 40s, 50s, 60s, and onward. Our jury wondered for a few minutes whether a film that hadn't already attracted the public laurels and top-flight broadcasting that The Witness has might derive more of a boost from our award or if we wanted to make a point of conferring our top laurels on a film that pushed the boundaries of classical nonfiction storytelling on film a bit further, but in the end, collectively if not unanimously, the force and craft and integrity of the work were impossible not to anoint.

Slaves (Slavar)
(15 min., Sweden; IMDB)
The other film with significant traction from our jury is this animated transcript of two interviews with two Sudanese children, one 9 and one 15, kidnapped by raiders and enslaved for considerable periods before their eventual rescue. The accounts given by these children are undeniably forceful, and the narrow color palette of blacks, indigos, and limey whites lend an appropriate severity to the visual experience. I confess that the halts, the tranquilities, the hiccups, and the details in both accounts made me eager to see these children as they recounted these terrible tales, and since the form and aesthetic of the film are so solemnly constrained, I was never sure that animation had really endowed the film with more power than it would have had as a radio piece or a vérité fragment. But the piece registered powerfully all the same, winning our Honorable Mention laurel in the Documentary division, and I am intrigued to see what other subjects co-directors David Aronowitsch and Hanna Heilborn might tackle, and how far they might flex or deepen their aesthetic approach.

Germans in the Woods
(3 min., U.S.A.; IMDB)
Speaking of fragments and testimonials, Tim Rauch's German in the Woods barely hits the two-minute mark as an offscreen interlocutor interviews his also offscreen father-in-law about a boy he killed during World War II's Battle of the Bulge, and how the sight of this armed but delicate innocent has haunted him more than any other image or event from his service years, now more than six decades in the past. The small scope of the film slaked our urge to confer a prize, but the emotional acuity of the recounted impression and of the fragile, silvery black-and-white animation were certainly potent, sobering, and impressive.

Steel Homes
(10 min., U.K.; IMDB)
I took some convincing about this rueful mood piece by director Eva Weber, planting her camera amid what seems onscreen like an endless cavern of low-tech storage facilities, a Kubrickian deadzone of iron cages, dull sheet metal, and amber, reflective linoleum. What bugs me about the film is that, as we hear multiple tenants describe in voiceover the experience of seeing their lives bouilloned down to a few cubic yards, the film never shows us what these lives look like; it can't detach itself from the sterilely sorrowful spectacle of the cavernous complex. One of my compatriots felt that Steel Homes, in posing the monolithic images against the individuated voices on the audio track, poses an interesting, ironic challenge to the film's sentimental surface; maybe our lives and our "stuff" aren't as personally distinctive as we, like these interview subjects, often pretend, and maybe Steel Homes subtly or subliminally knows this to be true. It's a dark but thought-provoking read on the film; I find it interesting and also a bit too generous. But both of my colleagues were more gripped than I was by the palpable melancholy of the piece, including its pearly colors and teary fluorescent lights, and days after screening the film in the Regal Green Hills Cinema, I feel more of the emotional pull than I did at first.

Stay tuned for more about the animated shorts, the live-action shorts, and the feature-length movies I've been gobbling up here in Opryland.

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Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Curious Case of the Criterion Collection

I'm sorry I haven't had time to post anything more substantial lately—stay tuned...—but for now, can anyone explain why or how this is happening? And they're usually so discerning. Best to emphasize the delightful news that Criterion is soon to bring us a forever-in-coming DVD of John Huston's Wise Blood and whole box sets of hard-to-find Kordas and (even better!) Imamuras, and thus ignore the unfortunate dignifying of Fincher's tech-happy and supplement-friendly white elephant.