[29 November 2007]
Like all anthologies, Cinema 16: European Short Films is marked by unevenness. Differences in tone, style, interests, and skill between the contributors gives rise to this variability, but it is also unlikely that any two (or three, or four, or five, etc.) viewers/ readers will have the same reaction to the collected films in the two-disc set.
As with most anthologies unified by geography, little holds the short works compiled by producers Luke Morris and Ben Lederman together beyond their regionality, and given that six of the 16 films are British in origin, arguably the least “European” of the EU states, the significance of even that tie is questionable.
Not that the unevenness of the collection detracts from its worth or the value of individual films. However, the value of each work is likely to be in the eyes of the beholder, more so because all of the films in the anthology can fairly be called “experimental”, at least in the sense that each seems grounded in one or more ideas or techniques that its makers wanted to play with.
In some cases, the experiment is more visual in nature (Juan Solanas’ The Man without a Head, Jan Svankmajer’s Jabberwocky), in others more thematic (Roy Andersson’s World of Glory, Nanni Moretti’s The Opening Day of Close-Up), while others are more character or narrative driven (Anders Thomas Jensen’s Election Night, Martin McDonagh’s Six Shooter). Of course, these distinctions are mostly a matter of emphasis rather than being absolute. The salient point is that the films are likely to appeal to viewers in different ways by virtue of their varying purposes and strengths.
In addition to the UK, the places represented in the collection are: France (two films), Sweden, Czechoslovakia (from 1971), Austria, Denmark (two films), Hungary, Ireland, and Italy. The oldest work is from 1958, Ridley Scott’s Boy and Bicycle, and the most recent are from 2005, Run Wrake’s Rabbit and Bálint Kenyeres Before Dawn. There are two animated films, Rabbit and “abberwocky, the latter stop-motion, while one, The Man without a Head, uses visual effects to create a hybrid world of animation and live-action.
The remaining titles are live action, all but four in color. In spite of the national range of the collection, of the non-English language titles, only Election Night and The Opening Day of Close-Up are truly dialogue heavy. The remaining selections are either virtually wordless, such as Before Dawn, or feature dialogue that seems more perfunctory than necessary, as in The Man without a Head.
If the English-language titles weren’t among the most dialogue driven in the collection, it would be tempting to say that the producers were attempting to make a statement about the international language of cinema, or some such thing, but instead it would seem that the collection has been tailored for a British and North American audience. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this choice, and it does help to make the collection accessible to viewers in the target markets, but it is worth noting that language seems to have been a limiter applied to the selections.
Few of the directors highlighted in European Short Films have mainstream recognition, although some, Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar, 2002), Nanni Moretti (The Son’s Room, 2002), may ring bells with hardcore cinephiles. The collection is, however, leavened with early works from three “name” directors: besides Scott’s Boy and Bicycle, the set also includes Christopher Nolan’s Doodlebug (1997) and Lars Von Trier’s Nocturne (1980). Of these three, only Von Trier’s fragmentary exploration of a woman’s fear of the light reads as immediately characteristic of the director’s later work.
Boy and Bicycle, a rambling slice-of-life film narrated by the protagonist’s internal monologue, seems far removed from the epic films for which Scott is best known. On the other hand, the main character is played by a very young Tony Scott, marking the film as an important starting point for two notable film careers. Nolan’s Doodlebug is an amusing trifle, and, at three minutes, also the shortest film in the anthology.
My personal favorites from the collection are as follows.
Juan Solanas’ The Man without a Head (2003) is, indeed, about a man without a head. The film follows our hero as he tries to find a proper “top” to zip on as he prepares for a much anticipated night out. Part experiment in digital cinema and part exploration of self-image and self-identity, The Man without a Head is weirdly romantic, with a look and feel that evokes Paris in the 1930s, but also one of the more accessible selections in the collection.
Wasp‘s (2003) big moment, an image of a wasp entering a baby’s mouth, is overwrought and roughly rendered, but by the time it appears, writer-director Andrea Arnold has already spun a story of such complexity and conflicting emotion that its failure hardly matters. The film is grounded by Nathalie Press’ performance as “Zoë,” an all too young, poor, and unworldly mother of four. Wasp‘s narrative turns on Zoë‘s chance meeting with an ex, “Dave” (Danny Dyer), which leads to a date later that day. Unable to secure care for her children, but not wanting Dave to know the full details of her life since they last knew each other (or maybe wanting to return to a time when she could just be young), Zoë stashes her kids outside of the pub while she hooks up with the guy.
Zoë‘s choices here are appalling, verging on neglect, but Arnold never lets the audience simply judge her at a distance. As bad as Zoë ‘s parenting is at this moment, it is also easy to understand why she does what she does. It helps that earlier in the film you get to see her bonding with her children. She does seem to be doing the best she can, even if her best isn’t very good. The weight of class bears down heavily on Zoë, but while this helps to explain her life situation, it is never intimated that her immediate choices are anything but her own. In twenty-three minutes, Press and Arnold achieve a level of complexity that few narrative features reach in two hours. Of all the films in the set, this is the one that I found myself thinking about the most days after having viewed for the first time.
Roy Andersson’s ”World of Glory (1991) is a cool, but hardly bloodless, cautionary tale about the dangers of complacency in comfortable, affluent, and bureaucratic societies. The film begins with a scene out of Nazi Germany, naked people being loaded onto a truck and gassed in transit, and then shifts to a biographical narrative from an unnamed protagonist. This narrative culminates in the narrator’s emotional break down in a restaurant. No one quite knows how to deal with him in this moment, and most simply try to remain “normal” in the face of the narrator’s suffering. The implication is that self-satisfaction, conformity, and a desire that life run smoothly and efficiently takes its toll on our ability to deal with difference. When the narrator’s break down is considered in light of the opening scene, at which the main character is present, the film seems to be asking not only how we will deal with those who disturb us, but how we will deal with our “solution” for such people.
Je t’aime John Wayne (2000) is both a send up and an homage to the cool romance of the French New Wave starring Kris Marshall (Love Actually, 2003, The Merchant of Venice, 2004), a Londoner obsessed with both French cinema and American pop culture (not unlike many of the New Wave directors). Director Toby MacDonald and writer Luc Ponte’s offering is light as air, but visually clever, stylish, and, for me, the most purely pleasurable piece in European Short Films.
Run Wrake’s animated Rabbit is a twisted morality tale about greed. Inspired by a set of educational stickers from the 1950s, Rabbit has the look of an illustrated children’s book but features bloody and strange imagery, including children hacking apart farm animals and a magical “Idol” that emerges from a rabbit’s stomach. The Idol can turn everyday objects into valuable goods. The children decide to turn this discovery to their advantage, but, ultimately, are unable to control events and suffer for their grasping ways. Dark and whimsical, Rabbit is among the most inventive and transfixing films in the anthology.
Before Dawn is composed entirely of one long take shot from wide and medium-wide angles (save for one close-up). The scene unfolds at dawn in a wheat-filled valley. A truck appears, and as its horn is honked, people, clearly in violation of some law, emerge in the field. They are loaded onto the truck. As they take off, police vehicles appear, including a helicopter.
Of those in the collection, Bálint Kenyeres’ film arguably takes best advantage of the short form, as the choice to shoot not only in a single-take, but also at a distance would, in most cases, be unsustainable at a longer length. In a thirteen minute film, however, these choices create tension. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself squinting at the screen, trying to get a better view of the scene unfolding in front of you.
Thirteen of the 16 films on European Short Films come with commentary tracks. All but one of these features the director (the one exception is Jabberwocky, which has commentary from film scholar Peter Hames. The track for “Je t’aime John Wayne” includes not only director MacDonald, but also writer Ponte and producer Luke Morris).
Perhaps due to the concentrated nature of the films or the fact that their origins lie in very specific ideas or purposes, as a group, the commentaries included with the collection are remarkably focused and substantive. These are complemented by a booklet included with the discs, which provides background on the filmmakers, as well as excerpts from interviews and the commentary tracks. Ultimately, though, whether one takes advantage of the included extras will likely depend on the extent to which one is drawn to the films. The unevenness of the selections themselves, particularly from the viewer’s perspective, is likely to be even more pronounced when it comes to listening to the commentaries.
Even in the YouTube age, when tens of thousands of short videos, many of which are original works of one kind or another, are made available online every day, the short film remains a marginal form in the world of cinema. The works collected on Cinema 16: European Short Films are too long and many are too esoteric too appear and thrive on a service like YouTube. On the other hand, they are too short and, again, too esoteric to be featured at the local multiplex, or even, in most locations in the US, at the art house. Short film nonetheless remains the form through which many filmmakers find their voice and on which they cut their creative teeth. For some, it remains the medium of choice for most of their careers.
The Cinema 16 collections are welcome opportunities for a wider public to see works that would normally only be made available at festivals and in specialized screenings, and few at locations outside of major cities. From the vantage point of experience, the unevenness of the European Short Films collection is part of its appeal, for it allows viewers to expose themselves to works that they would otherwise avoid or miss. You may not like everything you see, but you can learn something from each selection.