As most fans of the genre know, shorts films typically get little or no respect in the medium. It's not just the lack of a viable outlet or their abridged aspects. Unless you're an established filmmaker with a fanbase desperate to see your earlier works, these mini-movies often act as nothing more than professional portfolios, examples of their talent and artistry, but never really stand-alone entertainment entities. Now, thanks to the efforts of American festivals like Full Frame, and UK producer Luke Morris, these often brilliant cinematic sight-bites are getting some much needed attention. The Cinema 16 series, which currently offers three DVDs worth of short films from Europe, Britain and America, illustrates the innovation and imagination inherent in the format, and functions as a watershed for some of today's most important directors. The American selection offers 16 divergent narratives, covering topics ranging from surrealism to the spark of sexual awakening. Together, they tell us more about our Western worldview than any sociological treatise and expose many of the tricks and tendencies relied upon by some future famous filmmakers.
Viewed individually, each one of the 16 films here finds its own set of aesthetic values and argues for/against its overall oeuvre importance. Let's begin with:
The Lunch Date (11 mins – 1990)
Directed by: Adam Davidson
Synopsis: A bigoted white lady gets her metaphorical comeuppance when she misses her train and must spend some time in Grand Central Station.
Review: Sixteen years ago, this must have seemed like cutting edge social commentary. Kicking a callous Caucasian matron down a couple of intolerant notches is all this film has going for it, and the simple, sloppy manner in which it is done suggests a sermon, not a sly character study. The moments when our lead butts heads with men of color are comic, since she balks like a child at the suggestion of bath time, but the ending makes no real sense. Her relief seems snide, not satisfied, and it undercuts the lessons she is supposed to have learned. How this won an Oscar is still an Academy mystery. (Score: **)
Five Feet High and Rising (29 mins – 1999)
Directed by: Peter Sollett
Synopsis: A young boy from the Lower East Side discovers lust, and manhood, as part of a steamy summer in New York City.
Review: A little too long (it could lose 10 minutes and not be affected) and fearlessly unfocused, Peter Sollett's coming of age essay is too slapdash to make an initial impression. Once we get to the telling conclusion however, and that fabulous final shot of a lonely kid losing another playmate, the director's desires become crystal clear. We are supposed to view Victor's endless ambling through the Lower East Side as a kind of hormonal pilgrim's progress. In addition, the various characters and confrontations are supposed to act as life lesson tools, molding and shaping the lad as he seeks out his first pseudo-sexual experience. Since we are dealing with 12 year olds here, the notion of such a discovery may be too much for some to bear. But Sollett is not out to be salacious. He is subtle, making his movie more emotional than exploitative. (Score: ***1/2)
Freiheit (3 mins – 1966)
Directed by: George Lucas
Synopsis: A student tries to escape over the border between East and West Germany.
Review: Back before he was a fanboy phenom and a cinematic joke, George Lucas strove for something original in his filmmaking. Here, he attempts a political statement, using the phraseology "Freedom is worth fighting for. Freedom is worth dying for" as a literal illustration of his visual point. With future director Randal Kleiser as the escapee and the California woods as a Germany stand-in we get the feeling of desperation and hopelessness that Lucas was striving for. With a startling final image, this is actually an excellent short. (Score: ***1/2)
Daybreak Express (5 mins – 1953)
Directed by: D. A. Pennebaker
Synopsis: A visual trip through the New York subway system, from the first stop to the end of the line.
Review: New York is the supermodel of movie locations. Filmed properly, it shines like a diamond in a museum display. Though the '50s feeling and facades will feel foreign to those who know the city today, Pennebaker's trippy travelogue presents Manhattan in a visually stunning and cinematically original light. Combining techniques (slow/fast motion) and lens (fish eye), this dedicated documentarian obviously wants to skew our metropolitan view and see the skyline as a series of breathtaking sketches. With motion as a metaphor for the rapidly changing times, Daybreak Express does more than compress sunrise to sunset in the Big Apple. It illustrates the history of humanity in five simple minutes. (Score: ****)
Vincent (6 mins – 1982)
Directed by: Tim Burton
Synopsis: Young Vincent Malloy wants to be Vincent Price.
Review: BY now, most fans of the Goth goof director have seen this amiable short subject. Before, when Disney was holding it hostage, it took on the aura of an unobtainable holy grail. Now, with numerous releases under its belt, we can see it for what it truly is – a clever little tone poem perfectly captured in Burton's Edward Gorey inspired stop motion work. While the story seems to spiral out of control at the end, the visual finesse in which the director realizes Vincent's world is wonderful, and you really can't miss when you have the Master himself, Mr. Price, reading your rhymes. (Score: ****1/2)
Terminal Bar (22 mins – 2002)
Directed by: Stefan Nadelman
Synopsis: On the eve of the notorious NYC tavern's closing, last owner Sheldon Nadelman shares his collection of patron photos taken over the years.
Review: The reason Terminal Bar is one of the best fact films ever made is because it doesn't try to do too many things. This is not an overview of the famed NYC saloon's history, nor is it an attempt to uncover the reasons behind its demise. Instead, this amazing documentary is an appreciation of people – drunks, winos, hopheads, junkies and the mentally unstable – but individuals nonetheless. Thanks to Sheldon's unusual habit of photographing his clientele, we get incredible portraits of men on the skids, and many others further down into the dregs. The images tell unforgettable stories, and with Sheldon's occasional quips ("he was CRAZY!") we vicariously experience this heretofore unknown world of addiction and personal poverty. (Score: ****1/2)
Terry Tate: Office Linebacker (4 mins – 2003)
Directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Synopsis: A football player is hired to keep employees in line as the ultimate 'hands on' office manager.
Review: A big hit during the 2003 Super Bowl, the obvious Madison Avenue aspects of the entire Terry Tate experience is a bit much for this collection. We expect more subtle forms of storytelling, not this in your face spoof of an obvious athletic parody. While the four minute mash up of commercials and new content looks good, one can't shake the shilling going on here. Since there is no backstory, no attempt at making anything other than an instantly recognizable set of cultural Cliffs Notes, we don't feel fulfilled, cinematically. Indeed, this entry belongs on a Best of Commercials compilation, not a collection of short form cinema. (Score: **)
Necrology (12 mins – 1969-70)
Directed by: Standish Lawder
Synopsis: Anonymous commuters take the escalator inside Grand Central Station.
Review: It's a stupidly simple idea: position your camera so that you catch a final glimpse of rush hour patrons as they take the escalator down into the bowels of Grand Central Station. Then reverse the film and watch as the people float magically to the top of the frame, disappearing in the shadows of the buildings many dark archways. It's an amazing visual stunt, and turns Necrology from a gimmick into a grand statement on transience. As we watch the faces of these unknowing commuters ascend into "the afterlife" we reflect on their familiarity, their fate, and our own sense of fatality. As a mirror on mortality, Lawder delivers an accomplished work of art. (Score: ****)
The Discipline of D. E. (13 mins – 1982)
Directed by: Gus Van Zant
Synopsis: A visual manual on how to obtain the discipline of D. E. – "Do Easy"
Review: With literary loon Williams Burroughs for inspiration and the occasionally amazing Mr. Van Zant behind the lens, we have a 'can't loose' combination – and indeed, The Discipline of D. E. is a masterpiece. Combining Burroughs' insane instruction manual for making life as 'easy' as possible with Van Zant's creative visuals, we have a classic comedy of manners combined with a biting observation of human happenstance. With obvious nods to 2001 and the classic Westerns from Hollywood's Golden Age, this illustrated advisory is a jocular joy to behold. (Score: *****)
The Wraith of Cobble Hill (15 mins – 2005)
Directed by: Adam Parrish King
Synopsis: A young man is asked by a storeowner to watch over his establishment, and his dog, while he takes a "vacation".
Review: When done right, stop motion animation illustrates the pure magic in movement. When it's bad, it's really terrible. Luckily, director King creates a remarkably original take on the whole life on the impoverished fringes of society storyline. With his graceful, gliding characters (the animation is smooth and incredibly polished) we get a narrative that's both moving and meaningful. Felix's home life is horrid, and his daily visits to Mr. H's market act as a soothing balm to the mercilessness of slum existence. Seeing this character escape an obvious last act ethical quandary is touching and truthful. (Score: ****)
George Lucas in Love (8 mins – 1999)
Directed by: Joe Nussbaum
Synopsis: The young Star Wars creator flounders in college – that is, until he meets a comely coed with the ability to inspire his insular imagination.
Review: By now, most of the world has seen this satire, and one has to admire Nussbaum for seamlessly working in the various character references all across the ersatz USC campus. But with the pathetic prequels indelibly staining Lucas's reputation, this comedic crack on his youthful incompetence plays more like a prophecy than a parody. You'll laugh, but the joke is no longer on the famed filmmaker. It's on us as well. (Score: ***)
Meshes in the Afternoon (15 mins – 1943)
Directed by: Maya Deren
Synopsis: Haunted by visions of death, knives and other selves, our heroine hallucinates enemies and lovers, her fatal future and her passionate past.
Review: A perfect example of dream logic and the power in individual images, Meshes in the Afternoon deserves its legacy as the founding film of the American experimental/avant-garde movement of the '40s/'50s. Gorgeously photographed, unexpectedly erotic (Ms. Deren is quite fetching in her Earth Mother mannerisms) and playfully perplexing, this moviemaking milestone demands multiple viewings. While it may not offer up any easy answers, this is the kind of cinematic artwork that haunts you for days afterward. (Score: ****)
Carmen (18 mins – 1970)
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Synopsis: A retarded gas station attendant falls for a bewitching femme fatale, with tragic-comedy results.
Review: About five minutes too long and four decades too late, this slapstick spoof of the classic opera is not endemic of Payne's present cinematic mastery. Anyone looking for a link between Sideways, About Schmidt, Election and this film will be searching a very long time. The overall narrative is erratic, shifting from moments of high comedy to sequences of silly self-indulgence. In the end, the entire production feels like an inside joke aimed at everyone other than the audience. This is a major disappointment. (Score: **)
Feelings (3 mins – 1984)
Directed by: Todd Solondz
Synopsis: A young man contemplates suicide while singing the noxious hit song.
Review: Solondz, known for his difficult films (Welcome to the Doll House, Happiness, Palindromes) offers this mini-music video that combines intriguing images with an off-key rendition of that aural abomination by Morris Albert, all in an attempt to make a semi-serious point about emotions. Though the ending is more camp than cutting, we do feel for our obviously upset nebbish (played by Solondz himself) and we appreciate the monochrome magic of the visuals. (Score **1/2)
Paperboys (41 mins – 2001)
Directed by: Mike Mills
Synopsis: A documentary following the last of a dying breed – local neighborhood paperboys.
Review: Like the milkman, the telegram and full service gas stations, paperboys seem passé, remnants of a much less cynical, far more open American vista. Here, Mills introduces us to a half-dozen Minnesota lads who still earn pocket money by biking around neighborhoods with a news sack around their neck. While the visuals are stunning (small town USA never looked so lush) the individual stories never mesh into something meaningful. Instead of being revelatory, it's all just so routine and retro. (Score: **)
Screen Test: Helmut (5 mins - 1964)
Directed by: Andy Warhol
Synopsis: Five minutes of a young man staring at the camera.
Review: Warhol loved to push the limits of audience attention spans (his Sleep lasted 321 mins while Empire, about the famous NYC landmark lasted a whooping 645 mins). Like those stagnant opuses, his Screen Tests were immovable moving portraits of potential (and current) stars. While there is definitely an aura of invention to the conceit (stillness is a completely subjective state of mind and body) this is really nothing more than a good looking guy staring at the camera. No major artistic ground is being broken here. (Score: *1/2)
Using original prints that varying in visual clarity from good (Lucas in Love) to fair (Vincent, Necrology) to bad (Carmen), Cinema 16 can be forgiven for less than stellar transfers. After all, the rarity of some of this material mandates the use of lesser quality stock elements. All are presented in a 1.33:1 image, with only George Lucas in Love and Paperboys given the non-anamorphic, letterboxed approach. In general, the colors are sharp, the details crisp, and the occasional black and white photography a little on the muddy monochrome side. As for sound, the Dolby Digital Stereo offers a fine selection of hiss, blips, buzz and distortion. Again, this comes from the films themselves, and not the distributor's digital remastering.
Along with a wonderful booklet that illustrates and explains each film, the highlight here is a collection of commentary tracks. Sadly, not every filmmaker is featured. Tim Burton and Gus Van Zant do not appear, while the late greats Maya Deren and Andy Warhol can be forgiven for not participating. For the most part, these alternate narrative tracks run the gamut from informative to self-congratulatory. Still, for the amount of hands-on advice they provide, and the down to earth perspective of life in the film business given, this supplemental added content is superb. It makes the Cinema 16 collection all that more impressive.
While it definitely trails off toward the end, the vast majority of these shorts deserve a chance to be seen. With more hits than misses, and a level of artistry unmatched by other such collections, the Cinema 16 presentation of American Short Films easily earns its Highly Recommended rating. One of the consistent comments made by the filmmakers featured is that anyone who wants to get started in making motion pictures should begin by creating shorts. They are favored on the festival circuit, provide proof of your ability as an artist, and argue for your persistence as someone desperate to create. You don't have to start on a big screen blockbuster or a solemn indie drama. The short film format easily encompasses dreams of all shapes and sizes, and as the Cinema 16 presentation shows us, sometimes, these efforts can be more inspiring than the feature length efforts of the directors involved. Because of the accessibility of DVD, the short film is getting more veneration in cinematic circles. Thanks to the efforts of organizations like Cinema 16, we too can celebrate the specialness found in these truncated treasures.
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