Why aren't short films more celebrated? It would seem that in our ADD-oriented, ultra-hurried popular culture, the small cinematic snippet would be a much more favored form of entertainment. With critics and crowds complaining about runaway film lengths, the mini-movie should be all the rage. Yet look at the recent box office champions: Titanic, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Heck, DVD fanatics line up to buy multi-disc extended cuts of films that are already three plus hours in theater time. But then these same aficionados turn their noses up at the slightest suggestion of a short film. Used to be a time when a short subject gave you your full nickel's worth at the local Bijou. Now, crass commercials pushing everything from soft drinks to automobiles have taken the place of the small-portioned preview attraction. Indeed, the short film has retreated to the college campus, the festival and the organized competition to get the rewards it so justly deserves. And even then, these welcome way stations for the cinema of the small can treat the petite production like their category on Oscar night – briefly mentioned, with little fanfare and relegated to representation by a has been or industry idiot. So what can be done to save short films? How can the makers of these movies get them in front of an audience that may actually appreciate them? DVD still seems to be the answer. Recently, the premiere festival for small films, Full Frame, released a collection of their "greatest hits" to much cinematic fanfare. Now it's a chance for that stalwart of the upstart filmmaker, the American Film Institute to do the same. You'd think with the wealth of talent they have to choose from, their compendium would be filled with faultless masterworks. Sadly, like the fate of the mini-movie itself, the offerings here are a scattershot lot.
Offered in a no fuss, menu only presentation, Celebrating AFI purports to provide six of the most outstanding examples of small cinema the organization has to display. And coming from the American Film Institute, those are some mighty powerful words. AFI championed a young David Lynch, resulting in a couple of his own short films and that modern masterpiece of dream interpretation known as Eraserhead. They have also mentored such Hollywood notables as Amy Heckerling and Ed Zwick. So the expectations for this DVD release are and should be high. This is the cream of the future crop here, the best of the new filmmakers. Unfortunately, the potential is not met by the output. While the six films represented in this collection all have interesting things to say about the human condition, some are far more successful at it than the others. The best way to address them is to focus on each individually, to provide a small amount of plot and then discuss the cinematic effectiveness of each offering. We begin with:
Short #1: Family Attraction (1998)
Chris Penn, Martin Sheen, Corrine Bohrer
Directed by: Brian Hecker
18 mins, Full Screen
In the future, the nuclear family is close to extinction. The National Fish and Wildlife service rounds up the rare species and places them in zoos for people to gawk it. Bill and his brood are such an "attraction". But after years representing marital/familial bliss, Bill wants out. And when one day his white picket fence is accidentally left open, he sees his chance to escape.
At the core of Family Attraction is an obvious point: the nuclear family is rapidly disappearing. And director Hecker has some very clever and satirical things to say about our present "love 'em and divorce 'em" mentality. But Family Attraction feels very underdeveloped. Perhaps its the short format that cheats the clever conceit. Or maybe it's that this premise is really only one or two joke at best and unable to fit even an eighteen-minute arrangement. For every excellent bit of wit (the posse out to capture Bill is made out of...marriage counselors) there are scenes that don't advance the hypothesis. Maybe if it was expanded to 90 or 120 minutes and allowed to really address the dissolving state of matrimony, to concentrate on why husbands and wives stray, it would be able to satisfy more fully. And Hecker is a fine director, giving shape and a sense of style to the film. But with his actors having mostly nothing to do except recite their lines and a far to abrupt ending, this mini-movie is only marginally engaging.
Short #2: The Chili Con Carne Club (1998)
John Philbin, Kristy Swanson, Mel Gibson
Directed by: Jonathan Kahn
30 mins, Full Screen
Peter thinks that his relationship with girlfriend Julie will last forever. So imagine his surprise when she dumps him. Without warning, Peter is thrown in "The Cooler" a maybe imaginary prison for pathetic losers in love. This macho holding pen features all the he-man amenities: beer, gambling, sports, questionable personal hygiene and belch-inducing bachelor chow. Peter wants to escape this Hellhole as soon as possible. He wants his Julie back. But getting out of "The Cooler" is not as easy as he thinks.
Except for an ending that cheats a bit, this is an excellent film. The premise is sound and very original, and director Kahn knows how to make it come alive. Unlike other flicks that focus on the strange convolution of male-female relationships, Kahn boils the battle down to its most basic parts. Woman want change and total commitment or it's time to hit the road. And men? Well, men are just swine, more than happy to wallow in their own scuzzy fantasy world of lax laundry habits and greasy food. In John Philbin, Kahn has found the perfect male model mook to personify this complete schmuck persona. And Kristy Swanson handles her underwritten part well. The presence of Mel Gibson is, however, an anomaly that doesn't help the movie much. He is just acting insane for the sake of what is a glorified cameo. He has no character and no real purpose in the film except to increase the chances it would get made. At thirty minutes, the story also feels a little cyclical. One or two of the return trips to "The Cooler" could have been cut out or at least trimmed and the narrative would still have been sound. Still, there are minor quibbles for what is one of the best short films on this DVD.
Short #3: The Shangri-La Cafe (1999)
Montana Tsai, Joanne Takahashi, Sam Anderson
Directed by: Lily Mariye
19 mins, Digital, 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic Widescreen
The Takashi family owns a prosperous Chinese restaurant in late 50's Las Vegas. Even though they themselves are Japanese, they hide their ethnicity to avoid trouble. But danger finally finds them when a mysterious man threatens them. He demands they place a "whites only" sign in their window, or face the "consequences". Suddenly, the Takashis find themselves turning away customers and hiding their black friends in back rooms simply to serve them. When The Man discovers they are still allowing minorities into their establishment, the threats become far more real... and personal.
Sometimes, a subject is just too big to address completely and successfully in 19 minutes. Racism has got to be one of those far too broad themes. So kudos to Lily Mariye for trying to do so. Her story of Japanese Americans denying their heritage to save their skins is sometimes powerful and occasionally quite moving. But Mariye also employs far too many archetypal ideas to save her narrative from being nothing more than generic. Indeed, the minute the "preacher" from "the city" shows up, screeching about Martin Luther King and "overcoming" prejudice, his heartfelt sermonizing stops the story dead in its tracks. The epic scope of the struggle for civil rights cannot be summed up in a few stray catchphrases. Yet The Shangri-La Cafe wants to invoke the late, great man to make sure we get the prejudicial point (further forcing the issue by making the city preacher a closet bigot when it comes to the handicapped is unnecessary). Even making the white threat, the gun-toting tough into a iconographic statement by referring to him as "the man" is way too obvious. The Shangri-La Cafe works best when it lets its characters speak like human beings, not propaganda pamphlets. There is a very compelling story here about an Asian family (who must have faced internment in the camps of WWII) who want to hide inside another race's "acceptable" skin. But burdened with the bias it feels compelled to address, this short film feels simultaneously overworked and half-finished.
Short #4: Bar Time (2001)
Anthony Russell, Josh Gillman, Shelly Kurtz
Directed by: Ernst Gossner
12 mins, 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic Widescreen
A bleary eyed businessman can't sleep. He drives downtown and stops off at a bar. As he takes his seat on the stool, the bartender tells him they're closed. He manages, somehow, to get a scotch out of the angry employee. Suddenly, a young kid bursts into the dive. He asks to use the toilet, but both men know better. Soon a gun is brandished and now it's a robbery. But the businessman intervenes. He wants to take this opportunity to turn this juvenile away from a life of crime...something he just might know a thing or two about.
Welcome to neo-Noir 101. And while you're at it, say 'hello' to annoying aural atrocities as well. Gossner's glorious, seedy cinematic short story will instantly recall the works of Jim Thompson and Mickey Spillane. But the god-awful echo effect that he plasters all over the soundtrack is appalling. Whenever a character speaks, a glass is placed on the bar or a sudden movement is made, the reverberation resonates and things get annoying instantly. There is really not much of a plot here. Gossner is obviously interested in mood, look and feel more so than narrative and character. Indeed, if we weren't so versed in the old Hollywood iconography being mirrored here, we might mistake Bar Time as a waste of said. But even with the ricocheting sonics and a real lack of human depth, this mini-movie still works fantastically. The way in which Gossner uses images and edits to tell his tale is excellent and the cast never once hits a false note. While it would have been nice to understand a little more about what is going on, both from a script and sonic standpoint, Bar Time still convincingly evokes the scent of cigarettes and liquor and paints its pictures in neon and asphalt.
Short #5: The Car Kid (2001)
James Franco, Brad Renfro, Meatloaf
Directed by: Tricia Brocks
15 mins, Digital, 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic Widescreen
As part of their community service, a group of juvenile delinquents play in a band that tours local churches. One day while on their way to a gig, they run across a kid pretending that he's driving a car. Group leader (and chief trouble maker) Wesley calls over to the boy and they quickly form a bond. Later, while laying down the Bible boogie for the old folks at the chapel, Wesley hears a heavenly noise. No, it is not Jesus calling, but the "car boy" playing the piano. And he's fantastic.
Why is the South so populated with mentally challenged eccentrics? Is it something in the peaches? The rolled Pecan logs? The desire to deep fat fry everything (what are you looking at Wisconsin?) Recently, the retarded lives of luck experienced by such fictional fallacies as Forrest Gump and the real-life Radio have made movie screens light up with lessons on how handi-capable the handicapped really are. So why shouldn't the short film celebrate the savant as well. Tricia Brocks mini motion picture is a pip to look at. She captures a small town temperament with every carefully controlled shot and setup. But her story is as overripe as a dead possum lying on the side of the road. Perhaps because this tale derives from a novel, it required the creators to cut corners and merely skim the surface of the characters to find single integer ways to make them fit within a 15-minute timeframe. Franco therefore is just the rebel, Meatloaf is only a monster (he is even called this in the credits) and Renfro is the skilled spaz. Add a little blues, some strange surrealistic comedy (the lady sheriff seems like a castoff from the Raising Arizona school of law enforcement) and an abrupt ending which comes just as the film starts soaring and you have a real disappointment on your hands. Without depth or clarity, you can feel the filmic fault lines failing.
Short #6: Fair Play (2000)
John Heard, Ed Asner, Cory Parravano
Directed by: Joannie Wread
16 mins, 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic Widescreen
Elliot loves baseball. He eats, sleeps, and drinks it twenty-four hours a day. The reason 'why' is simple. It is all he has to eat or drink and sleeping in the cramped home/van he and his father share is near impossible. Elliot wants to play with the other kids in the neighborhood, but he doesn't have a mitt. The "family" barely has coins for dad's cigarettes. When he wanders into a sporting good store with the intention of stealing one, something amazing happens to Elliot. The owner befriends him and asks him to help out. But he still wants that glove, and will try anything to get away with one for free. But he may not have to revert to robbery after all.
Unquestionable the best short of this collection, Fair Play lives up to its name astonishingly well. Young Cory Parravano is asked to carry this story about a near homeless child whose daily struggles to merely get by will have a lump in your throat before the real meat of the movie arrives. Director Joannie Wread understands the power of a skinny waifish child as an image of poverty and she handles the framing of Elliot with poetry and passion. You can sense her desire to have you experiencing his life in every held shot and visual cue. And the story doesn't overreach, trying to deal with ALL homeless issues or ALL children's dreams. Elliot's passion is simple and whole. Baseball means everything to him. Finding a match in Heard, who wisely underplays his role as a concerned citizen, the two have a nice casual chemistry that works well. And unlike other offerings on this disc, this short tells a complete story. We don't need to know more about the dad and his obviously addled circumstance. Elliot is an open book shrouded by his own privacy, so there is no real need to pursue that thread. And Heard's storeowner has understandable reasons for what he does with nothing more needing to be added. All in all, Fair Play invokes its emotions and agenda with skill, grace and confidence. It almost single-handedly makes Celebrating AFI a must-own.
Indeed, while flawed and sometimes failing, this collection of short films is definitely worth your time. Many of the stories told, even if done so with some minor (or major) flaws, will still affect and move you. Some will make you laugh. A couple will have you thinking. And one or two will have you happy you spent time with this DVD. The feeling one experiences constantly while watching this disc is that we are seeing the basic kernels of future great movies being formed. Indeed, several spectacular films (Sling Blade, 12 Monkeys) have found their basis in the short subject. So here's hoping that the ethnic struggle of the Takashi family is fleshed out to do itself, and the subject matter, the justice they deserve. Here's thinking that the full length Car Kid would make much more of an endearing character study than the superfluous short version offered here. And maybe the story of a nuclear family kept as a zoo attraction can become that anomaly in major motion pictures: a satirical sci-fi film. The rest of the films offered on Celebrating AFI should simply be left alone. They stand on their own and reflect something lost in the art of cinema. They should be preserved as actual and cautionary examples for future filmmakers interested in making movies on how they can get by with a shortened, not an extended narrative. It may not be perfect, but this collection is very creative and almost always engrossing.
Like the collection of short films itself, the video presentation here is also a decidedly mixed bag. Aside from Bar Time, all the filmed entries have transfer issues. Family Attraction looks considerable older than the other prints here. Chili Con Carne is awash in grain. And Fair Play is faded. On the plus side, Bar Time evokes old Tinsel Town with its playful mixture of light and dark, garish and grave. The Video entries are much brighter and, for the most part, better. Shangri-La looks lovely, but Car Kid has a fuzzy, unfocused feel, as if the director had merely gotten a hold of the camera and shot without thinking. In combination, this DVD looks better than most compilations, but doesn't get anywhere near a perfect score (the lack of an anamorphic transfer for the letterboxed presentation also doesn't help matters much).
Bar Time aside again, the rest of the films have a very professional and clear soundtrack to them. Some are Dolby Digital Stereo. Others offer faux 5.1 presentations. Most were recorded with technicians and engineers to make sure the dialogue and effects are appropriate and audible. Only the trip to the tavern is a complete mess. The echo effect is annoying at first, then downright repulsive toward the end. It ruins a good film and destroys an otherwise acceptable aural offering.
None are offered and frankly, the only one that seems to make sense is a commentary track for each director. Small films are always under appreciated and it would have been nice for AFI to allow these novices a chance to narrate their films. One can only imagine the great war stories they have to tell (especially Kahn who worked with that lightning rod of randiness, Mel Gibson). Perhaps it was impossible to get them all to agree. Maybe it wasn't cost effective. Whatever the reason, the DVD producers missed a golden opportunity to let mini-movie makers speak for themselves for once.
An appreciation of the short film medium is imperative if one is to consider themselves a true film fan. Many of the great directors of our time, from Roman Polanski to Martin Scorsese have found unique and important voices in their mini-movie work. To ignore the miniature format as an underdeveloped fetal version of a film is to discount hundreds of evocative visual experiments and entertaining exercises in tight exposition. But Celebrating AFI may reinforce, not help you reconsider, your short film superstition. While more than half of the offerings here are at least worth a look, the overall cinematic value is shaken by some of the less successful entries. Also, the fact that none of the works here are documentaries (something that the Full Frame Festival revels in) excludes an entire, exciting subset within the genre. You will definitely be moved by the quiet dignity of Fair Play and recognize your fellow "man" in the Chili Con Carne Club. But occasionally, the overreaching in both subject matter and movie making mannerism keeps these examples of expositional economy from soaring to sensational heights - or even getting off the ground. The American Film Institute is an integral part of the history of modern filmmaking and any time it speaks up for itself, movie mavens should listen. But hopefully the next time they release a DVD collection of short films, they will be more consistently exceptional, instead of ordinary. Celebrating AFI probably won't alter your short film prejudice, but it will give you some valuable insight into the potential and the pitfalls in the genre.