One would think that in today’s micro-attention-span modernity, the short film would be the perfect creative delivery module. Truncated enough to fit between commercials, and (normally) standalone entertainments, the short film would seem ideal for an environment in which most people find diving headfirst into a trough of reality TV via DVR is just, well, easier than committing to one of the few remaining long-arc series out there. Even the most jaded channel-hopper would seem an easy candidate for taking in a self-contained 13-minute film, no matter how artsy.
So why is it that every year, when the nominees for that year’s Best Live Action Short Film are announced, you can practically hear the nation’s collective, “Huh?” This isn’t because citizens of the US are critically unfamiliar with cinema; we’ll leave the question of how undereducated the citizenry are in the works of Marcel Ophuls for another time. Nobody knows what these shorts films are because nobody has seen them, and nobody has seen them because they’re rarely if ever screened on their own merits, such as before a feature, like theaters used to do in decades past.
2009 Oscar Nominated Live Action Short Films
(Shorts International; US theatrical: 6 Feb 2009 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 21 Feb 2009 (Limited release); 2009)
Now to see such films, viewers have to decide to head to the local arthouse and take in the annual bundling of nominated shorts all at once, effectively condemning themselves to seeing at least a bomb or two; it’s like cinematic Russian roulette. And this is the Oscar nominees we’re talking about, to say nothing of the run-of-the-mill shorts that get made every year by the iPod-full.
So the good news about the films nominated for best live action shorts this year is that it’s a thoroughly worthwhile series, whether you’re making a night at the theater of it, or just wanted to get the lot of them from iTunes. Unlike most like-minded compilations, the Oscar Nominated Short Films 2009 program is a uniformly solid one, with only one entry of generally mediocre effect, and at least a couple that qualify as truly excellent. Unlike self-impressed Oscar-bait features like The Reader or even the wildly uneven Curious Case of Benjamin Button, this one is pretty much a risk-free venture.
Unlike the Hollywood-centric features Oscars, the shorts selection admirably casts its eye on distant shores. Unfortunately, like the feature foreign film listing, it’s a particularly Western European-centric gathering, with the only nod to anywhere south of Switzerland or west of Germany coming as part of the Irish-set New Boy (11 min.), also the weakest of the lot. Based on a Roddy Doyle short story about an African boy who gets tossed into the mildly Hobbesian world of an Irish primary school classroom, writer/director Steph Green’s film has a pleasingly easy-to-watch tone that still utterly misses the magic and flow of Doyle’s crackerjack prose. Mostly shorn of Doyle’s lyricism, New Boy has to rely on the expressive faces of its child actors and the warm sense of relief that the genial climax brings to its tragic cascade of flashbacks. It’s not quite enough, in the end.
A much more focused take on childhood trauma comes in the form of Jochen Alexander Freydank’s Spielbeugland (Toyland; 14 min.), set in a German apartment building during World War II. A young boy who made friends with the Jewish boy in the next apartment is confused when he finds out that his friend’s family is about to be shipped away to the camps. As a way of explaining the unexplainable, his mother tells him that in fact they are going to a place called “Toyland”, unintentionally piquing his interest to go along. Freydank’s bleak and austere take on the story, taken mostly from the boy’s benignly uncomprehending point of view, brings a powerful honesty to what could have been a sentimental mess in the manner of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
Manon Sur Le Bitume (Manon on the Asphalt)
All the films in the program are in some sense haunted by death. The one possible exception to that rule is the one that is seemingly most about death. Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont’s Manon Sur Le Bitume (Manon on the Asphalt; 15 min.) is like a postcard flipbook of a beautiful Parisian life, viewed through the hazy mind’s eye of a traffic victim prone on the city street. The fresh-faced Manon spends the film surrounded by anxious onlookers while she imagines what her friends and family will do, think, and say, as a result of what she assumes is her impending death. As Manon muses in short, semi-theatrical vignettes, she sketches a warm cameo of each person, her way of saying goodbye. Accented by that lilting type of narration that only French filmmakers seem able to pull off, Marre and Pont’s film is simultaneously a hard-eyed look at tragic reality (life goes on without me) and one of the most romantic farewells ever filmed.
Auf Der Strecke (On the Line)
As grim in tone and look as Manon is bright and springlike, Reto Caffi’s Auf Der Strecke (On the Line; 30 min.) takes somewhat the opposite approach. Caffi’s take is not so much that life is a ephemeral thing mixed of equal parts tears and laughter, but that it’s overall a miserable enterprise, shot full of grey. In the film, a baggy-eyed and slouchy hulk of a department store security guard carries on a quiet and (he hopes) unnoticed crush on a girl who works in the bookshop. He makes sure to catch her eye on the evening train, and—in the classic manner of all 21st century romantics—watches her on the store security cameras. It’s a quiet and borderline-queasy experience, one that Caffi ratchets up considerably once the guard first is angered seeing his love on the train with a man he takes to be her suitor, and then makes a critically wrong decision once a fight breaks out. The thorny and fluorescent-lit morality tale that follows is stripped clean of answers that soothe, or even resolve the question.
Grisen (The Pig)
An entirely different morality tale is Dorte Høgh’s Grisen (The Pig; 22 min.), which might be simpler in subject matter but seems in the end to hold just as much importance as the more morbid concerns of Toyland and On the Line. Asbjorn arrives at a hospital for a surgery. Left alone in a broad and bleak room, he has one thing that keeps him going through his dispiriting ordeal. Facing Asbjorn on the opposite wall is an odd painting of a smiling pig taking a free-spirited leap over a small pond; its expression tugs a smile out of the old man’s saggy, life-beaten face. Then, one day the painting is gone. When he finds out that it was taken down by the son of the man who just moved into the next bed, Asbjorn becomes infuriated and calls in his lawyer daughter.
The battle of wills over the fate of the painting is handled by Høgh in a refreshingly positive and honest manner, particularly in how the old mens’ offspring trade talking points without ever resolving much. Høgh’s film might be short in length but this wry fable holds more truth than most feature films on offer today.