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BAMcinématek Presents: The World According to Shorts

Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece

The World According to Shorts this year offered punchy films organized so their rhythms meld into a syncopated pulse.

Ward 13


A rhythm, a build, an unrelenting momentum -- these characteristics, so rare in full-length features, represent the three-fold structure of a successful short film. The immensely satisfying The World According to Shorts series, which just finished its fifth year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's BAMcinématek, weaves films from around the world into a multi-hued tapestry of excellence in filmmaking. In creating and sustaining a particular cadence and a pointed trajectory, many of the pieces reveal a mastery of the short form.

Spread over two evenings, the two programs ("Cartoons and Conundrums" and "Facts and Fictions") were best viewed back-to-back. Curator Jonathan Howell, who displays in his selections a terrific eye for tempo and universal appeal, chose the films from this year's Festivals du Court Métrage in Clermont-Ferrand and Brest. Specializing in unusual animation, experimental live-action, and tweaks on traditional dramatic forms, The World According to Shorts this year offered punchy films organized so their rhythms meld into a syncopated pulse.

Howell certainly knows how to open a program -- blazingly. Barreling along like "The Ride of the Valkyries," the series' first film, Ward 13 (Peter Cornwell, Australia 2003), was a clever stop-motion piece, about a man trapped in a very surreal hospital. As he races through the hallways, avoiding homicidal doctors, chainsaw-wielding surgeons, and fellow patients transformed into Lovecraftian monsters, the film pokes fun at action and horror movie conventions. From a hilarious wheelchair battle down twisty hospital corridors to a final cane-fencing standoff invoking Bruce Lee, Ward 13 shows a tongue-in-cheek grasp of the absurdity of action and horror films, as well as a love for and understanding of the maniacal rhythm necessary for heightening an audience's adrenaline.

The frenetic Ward 13 provides a juxtaposition of tempo when viewed in tandem with the next piece, All in All (Torbjorn Skarild, Norway 2003). In it, man (Knut Reinertsen) jumps up and down on a diving board from multiple angles, creating a symphony of bounce and repetition thanks to taut, seamless picture and sound editing. All in All gains its particular cadence not from a forceful rush towards a summary ending, but from momentum gathered through a dissection of motion. The rhythm in All in All stems specifically from its build-up towards the fractured rather than the holistic -- as the parts of the dive are absorbed separately, they formulate a peculiar, disjointed tempo all their own, a tempo impossible to discover without breaking the whole (the dive) into segments (different camera angles, sounds, and small movements making up the dive). The parts, viewed both separately and in inverted sequences, are greater than the whole.

Similarly, Touch Me Now (Craig Marshall, Canada 2003) illustrates how, in the wilds of the internet, one's words (as "parts)" might add up to a totally unexpected whole. The film reworks the lyrics to Samantha Fox's 1980s hit, here recited in monotone by a crudely computer-animated man "touched" by a cursor, ingeniously ridiculing both the impersonality of communicating over the internet and the utter silliness of pop music.

In Save the Children (Terje Rangnes, Norway 2002), tow-headed siblings (Luis Engebrigtsen Bye and Rosa Engebrigtsen Bye) sell lottery tickets at a gas station, ostensibly to benefit blind children in Africa. Inspired by "Fremskrittspartiet," a far-right Norwegian political party, Save the Children was originally part of Utopia -- Nobody is Perfect in the Perfect Country, a feature-length film by several young Norwegian directors telling allegorical stories about political affiliations. These children use the story about selling lottery tickets for African children to trick people into giving them money, then spend the funds (mostly) on candy. Arguing that 453 kroner won't do much good divided up among the millions of blind African children ("Do the math!"), the girl takes a pragmatic isolationist standpoint that is both frustrating and, in its circuitous logic, difficult to dispute. In just six minutes, Rangnes does a bang-up job in showing how childish drives can form the basis of political ideology.

The series' two show-stoppers, We Have Decided Not To Die (Daniel Askill, Australia 2003) and Antichrist (Adam Guzinski, Poland 2002), attempt to re-envision a global cinematic language. Three "modern ritual" sequences form the heart of We Have Decided Not To Die, rituals linked by their references to three elements (evidently Askill recorded the element of fire in the first sequence, but cut it for continuity reasons). In "Birth," a woman (Kasia Werstak) rises from the depths of a swimming pool to hover lengthwise above the water. In "Between," a man (Daniel Askill) leaps from the dirt above two crashing cars and hangs there amid twisting, convulsing metal. And in "Rebirth," a man (Jordan Askill) smashes through a window of a skyscraper but does not plummet to the ground, instead floating in the air in a splendid freefall with splintered glass.

The film's sequences of incredible special effects complicate its point, detailing transcendence as some sort of physical spectacle, as though to be spiritually reborn one must perform some heart-stopping feat. In fact, the rhythm of each part is broken when shots are edited together at the conclusion. While the artistry is indeed breathtaking, the point isn't clear; We Have Decided Not To Die is built primarily on beautiful and crystalline but ultimately empty images.

One of the series' strongest films (a worthy accomplishment in such a distinguished group), Antichrist ended the series on a primal drumbeat and a long, slow scream. Kacper (Dariusz Maciuk), Koko (Adam Witkowski), Usza (Tomasz Szczesniak), and their leader, the terrifying, charismatic Szafran (Marcin Zaluski), are four pre-adolescent boys in grubby clothes, playing increasingly dangerous power games in a desolate, post-apocalyptic environment. Szafran insists he is the Antichrist, and demands weirder and weirder rituals (eating live fish, burying him to his neck and smearing his face with mud) from his makeshift acolytes. Like other films in the series, Antichrist creates its own kind of tempo, one punctuated by yells, bomb blasts, splashes of water, and, eventually, almost total silence. In shooting the film as a hazy, muddy, black mythology, Guzinski places his story between fairy tale and allegory. While Antichrist is, on one hand, a cautionary fable about followers of religion or politics, it also succeeds as a more general look at loss of innocence.

The absence of femininity makes the last shots, of rolling clouds of smoke accompanied by a female voice singing a dirge-like melody, into a final twist. The boys, effectively, are being mourned by their nonexistent mothers. Salvation might have been possible with a maternal influence. In this case, Szafran's refusal of all that is good includes a denial of women's influence. Yet Antichrist's refusal to state this or any other thesis outright is a great part of its unsettling appeal. Like its main characters, the film appears to wander without an obvious purpose or structure (though, assuredly, it has both). Forcing the audience to accept fragments of clues as to setting, motivation, and conclusion, Antichrist creates a space in which meaning is delineated not by its own presence, but by a way of talking around it. A dark poetry unfolds onscreen, wrapping its characters and audience in murky metaphor.

Creating its own rhythm by fitting disparate parts together to form a cacaphonic, entrancing whole, The World According to Shorts was both greater and lesser than the sum of its parts, and its elusive, evocative filmmaking left elation and excitement in its wake.

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