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POV: Shorts Program

Elegant, elegiac, and weirdly enthralling, Eva Weber's City of Cranes is one of four short documentaries featured in POV's "Shorts Program."

POV: Shorts Program

Airtime: Tuesday, 10pm ET
Network: PBS
Air date: 2006-08-18

"They are essential, but people don’t really think about them at all, because people don’t really look up, do they?" The subject is cranes -- the sort used to erect buildings -- and the speaker is a crane driver. As he speaks, City of Cranes shows shot after shot of cranes at work. Behind each, the sky is blue and wide, occasionally crisscrossed with scaffolding or even punctuated by tall buildings, already done. These images are at once abstract and contemplative, mundane and surprising.

Elegant, elegiac, and weirdly enthralling, Eva Weber's City of Cranes is one of four short documentaries featured in POV's "Shorts Program." Demonstrating the fine, close art of short-filmmaking, each film is acutely observant, evocative images telling taut, moving stories. Each takes up an unusual focus, not quirky or cute, but rather, something "people don't really think about." Like cranes.

The drivers who describe their machines in City of Cranes remain off-screen, yet they make clear that they appreciate the specificity of what they do, not only in terms of how they affect the skyline ("I'm actually seeing now buildings coming down that I helped to put up 20 years ago, which is a bit disconcerting," observes man), but also as the work affects their personal lives. "It's a funny sensation" when the crane begins to sway in wind, one notes, "It's like being on a boat on rough seas." A shot through a widow offers a warpy view of several cranes at work on the same project, seeming to bend and wave in the sky. "It's an almost really like a ballet," a driver offers, then admits he'd never say such a thing to his peers. "If you said it, you'd get a rude answer over the radio and fair enough." After all, he declares, his listeners would be thinking, "He's not a ballet dancer, he's a crane driver."

But if such exchanges might be imagined, what's most apparent here is just how solitary it is to drive a crane. Whether you're listening to the radio or watching life pass far below you on the sidewalk (as a couple of long overhead shots indicate), you are alone in the cab most of the day. "You’ve got to be happy with yourself. You've got to be happy to spend a lot of time with yourself."

This looks to be the case as well for workers in the world's largest mall, represented in Utopia, Pt. 3: The World's Largest Shopping Mall, a 13-minute film by Sam Green and Carrie Lozano. Similarly comprised of long shots and long looks at unpopulated spaces, it concerns the South China Mall, near Guangzhou, opened in 2005 and, measuring some 6.5 million square feet, overtaking the previous record-holder, Bloomington, Minnesota's Mall of America. But because the stores are mostly unrented, the workers in China's mall are lonely-looking indeed.

Despite a concerted promotional campaign and uncommon confidence on the part of the mastermind, Alex Hu, the mall is all but vacant. According to mall consultant Ted deSwart -- since called in to salvage the project -- "This really epitomizes the build-it-and-they-will-come scenario, but he built it and they didn’t come." Because Guangzhou is not near an airport or highways, deSwart submits, it's pretty much exactly the wrong place to situate a massive consumer site. Featuring carnival rides, fountains, and huge boardwalks and dusty parking lots, not to mention all manner of lackluster billboards, from KFC to Teletubbies -- the mall appears desolate now. Still, the film provides frankly gorgeous shots of all this emptiness, whether sales posters defaced or store clerks with heads down, asleep on their counters. In between these stark pictures, deSwart walks the floors, as if surveying damage: he suggests all may not be lost. It's an example, he says, "of not only how China is catching up with the West, but surpassing the West too." Based on what you see here, that might be surpassing waste and greed more than anything else.

A different sort of resentment against America is revealed in Nutkin's Last Stand. That would be Nutkin the red squirrel, star of one of Beatrix Potter's "tales" from 1902. Here the cute little creatures are caught up in a battle to the death, with red and grey squirrels set against one another. According to the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership of Northumberland, England, the greys were found in the U.S. by Victorian travelers and brought back to England. Since then, the invaders have multiplied and spread a disease against which they have anti-bodies, but that is fatal to reds.

The Protection Partnership members are adamant about their mission, encouraging neighbors to capture greys so they might be killed: there are two "advised ways" to accomplish this part, lectures one squirrel protector to an audience full of nodding heads, shooting or "getting them into a bit of sacking, and, I'm afraid to say, it's a bash over the head. It sounds horrible." Indeed, it does. But as Nicholas Berger's film reveals, the protectors have become used to the brutality, joking among themselves and handling little grey bodies -- bloodied and stiffening with rigor mortis -- with deft callousness.

Repeated shots of cute red squirrels illustrate the protectors' passion. The greys, however hapless and however not red, may be equally attractive, but they are the enemy, the object of diffuse wrath and good for use in squirrel pancakes. By observation and Nutkin's Last Stand reveals the translation of emotional investment into moral rightness. Children's book author Ernie Gordon traverses the woods, gun in hand. Having loved the red squirrel since he was a child, he says, he passes on his feelings to a next generation. "It's up to the youngsters," he says. "It's their future."

Next generations are also at stake in 34 x 25 x 36 as well. In Jesse Epstein’s third film (after The Guarantee and Wet Dreams and False Images) to consider body images, the focus is manikins, the ideal molded and repeated, displayed in window after window. "Most women hate when I say this," offers Norman Glazer, owner of the manikin-making factory Patina V, in City of Industry, CA. "There are no perfect bodies out there, we make the perfect body."

Whether fashioned after successful previous models ("Temptation" is an old line, but "People still buy this body") or newly discovered live girls (one young woman poses for an artist, her cheeks sucked in and her lips perfectly pouty), the figures are uniform, no matter the add-ons of color or hair. Surveying his work, Patina V designer George Martin contemplates the functions of such prefab beauty. Comparing his work to the religious statues of old Europe, he asks, "What is our salvation as a current society? Is it being looked at? Is it being photographed wherever you go? You know, to some people, it's very important." After all, he concludes, "People have to believe in something."


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