The World According to Shorts: Brooklyn Art Museum Short Film Festival
Hope for the future of filmmaking seems, this year at least, to reside not in epics but in short films.
To the Point
Too often short film is relegated to the realm of the film student or the struggling independent. It's a symbol of inexperience and/or poverty: lacking knowledge or funds for a full- length film, the novice filmmaker turns to the most cost-effective solution of creating a short. Most usually, a short will appear on a young director's reel to hopefully help secure funding for the most desirable (read: moneymaking) full-length project, and at the worst, if it's awful, at least the cash strapped, budding filmmaker has only wasted a couple rolls of film. Why else would anyone want to make a 20-minute film that has even less chance of being widely seen than, say, a three-hour 16th century allegorical melodrama starring Judi Dench?
But short filmmaking is an art separate and distinct from its full-length counterpart. The ability to tell a story or construct a tight metaphor in less than half an hour is nothing short of miraculous. Indeed, the best shorts make one wonder why, exactly, James Cameron takes up so much of our time and gives us so little reward. A good short can have all the impact of a feature length movie and the added bonus of a more concise, creative method of storytelling. Forced into a smaller space than normal, the films' creators must choose only the most important elements of a story, only the most telling shots to visualize. The results can be breathtaking.
Several of the short films in the Brooklyn Museum of Art's festival, "The World According to Shorts" (selected from France's Festival du Court Métrage 2002 and screened at screened at BAMcinématek), are indeed breathtaking. While Program One, composed entirely of French shorts and sadly projected on Beta, was disappointing, Programs Two and Three showcased some truly wonderful filmmaking from around the world and were nicely projected on 35 millimeter. And the best of these films played not as wannabe full-length films squashed into 20 minutes, but as films that require the short format to achieve atmosphere, terseness, and punch.
The French films overall fell prey to the main surefire means of killing a short -- offering narratives based mostly on set-up for some sort of ending trick. Squash, for all its cleverness and solid acting, is a perfect example of this mistake. An abusive boss and his mistreated employee play a heated game of squash, but at the end of the game, "surprisingly," the power balance shifts to the employee's favor. Because it plays almost like an episode of Twilight Zone due to its twist at the end, Squash feels like one of those shorts made to augment a novice director's reel. It's possible that the director, Lionel Bailliu, who makes good choices with actors and shot composition, has an important full-length film in his head just dying to get out, but let's hope it isn't a longer version of Squash.
The best of the French films, The Tale of the Floating World, uses computer animation paired with live-action to offer a metaphorical take on the atomic attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But while the beginning sequences unfurl like delicate Japanese scrolls, the film becomes bogged down in too obviously choreographed modern dance and by clumsy special effects that make its overall message muddy.
Program Two's standouts included Gustavo Salmerón's absurd and very sweet Salad Days, a love story from Spain involving a trout and a salad housed in the fridge of a neighborhood restaurant who seek to unite forever in a dish of eternal love. All of the foodstuff is played by people in elaborate costumes and makeup, and the film's many visual and verbal gags and puns are amusing, if a little obvious. When Rosemary, the salad, complains of physical pain to her doctor, the physician cures her by "tossing" her body with giant tongs to bring freshness to the surface. While this is little more than a "what would happen if food did human things" concept, the script, acting, and costumes are clever enough to make the humor buoyant instead of cheap. The foods accept their part in the natural cycle, Al Green plays over the credits, and the film comes to a nice close. Any more would be cutesy overkill.
Most notable in Program Two, however, was Belgium's Muno, directed by Bouli Lanners. In his depiction of a news radio reporter sent back to his small hometown to investigate an incident of possible racist violence, Lanners beautifully and subtly depicts a town so far in denial about its current climate that it has lost touch with reality. One main character, for instance, has lost his sense of humor and is frustrated with his doctor's inability to define his disease. He represents the failures of all of Muno, whose townspeople outright refuse to accept the possibility that, beneath a charming veneer, something deeply troubling festers like an unnoticed wound; of course, it's not the town's sense of humor that's missing, but rather its sense of compassion and justice. With grainy, rich black and white and a stunningly everyman lead character (the radioman), Lanners captures how sophistication and an outside perspective declare the absolute futility of returning home.
Program Three consisted of the overall best films in the festival; save the best for last, indeed. Canada's Soowitch, directed by Jean-François Rivard, depicts, in over- saturated splashy DV, the problems encountered by Cédrik and Karine when they switch bodies after they spend the night together. What could be heavy-handed just rewards for the slightly misogynistic but mostly just dense Cédrik instead works as a postmodern screwball comedy of manners: how does one avoid further contact with a one-night stand when that's her face in the mirror?
Bintou, directed by Burkina Faso's Fanta Régina Nacro, depicts the title character's struggles to put her daughter into school. When her husband refuses to pay, the uneducated Bintou turns sprouting millet, the only thing she knows how to do, into a relatively lucrative endeavor. Her ability to persist despite setbacks from her domineering husband and interfering debt collectors shows a sense of first-wave feminism that has long been missing in the postfeminist world. Bintou's story feels remarkably like actual, real-life women's work: the drive to achieve self-sufficiency and to right what wrongs you can.
The self-contained road-tripping family is the center of England's Home Road Movies, directed by Robert Bradbrook. Like a 1950s magazine ad come to life, Bradbrook's technicolor animation tells the story of a shy, dowdy father who buys a Peugot station wagon and takes the family on journeys around Europe. In just one example of Bradbrook's sweet, flip irony, the narrator (one of the sons) explains that the clan visited World War II landmarks and battle sites, appreciating the beauty of other European countries but "never letting them forget who won the war." Of course, the children, the car, and the father grow older, and when dad takes his last trip not in the station wagon but on a bus, childhood memories weigh like iron on the narrator's shoulders. Home Road Movies is a heartfelt and exquisitely made paean to family life, which always looks better in retrospect or in photographs of a smiling family in front of the Eiffel Tower.
Perhaps the most technically impressive film in the festival, Germany's Lurch, directed by Boris Hars-Tschachotin, tells the strange story of Kuno, who tops off the alcohol in jars of preserved amphibians in the depths of Berlin's natural history museum. The camera makes slow swoops and spins through aisles of green-tinted jars, examining lizards and snakes floating, dead but seeming not quite so, in their precious alcoholic/amniotic fluid. It is not long before Kuno succumbs to the human desire to catalogue; he begins tasting the alcohol and noting which creatures' essences flavor the finest spirits. Lurch questions the obsession with confining and labeling, the idea that things can best be studied if they are caged, measured, and, in the end, dead.
Hars-Tschachotin could well be a talent on the level of David Lynch or David Cronenberg; his penchant for moodiness and atmosphere coupled with a musty scientific aesthetic make Lurch a delightfully creepy experience. Like the best short films, Lurch is a one-two punch of a movie. It spins to a grand conclusion at a likely point: when the filmmaker decides the story is over.
That's really what makes for a fine piece of short filmmaking: knowing when to put the camera down. The World According to Shorts showcased blossoming talent from around the globe in films that, at least for the best of them, function as complete entities, not abbreviated full-length films. Hope for the future of filmmaking seems, this year at least, to reside not in epics but in short films that achieve more in 20 minutes than many movies do in three hours.