Saturday, March 20, 2021

A Few Brief Thoughts on Some Interesting Short Films

James Baldwin in Terence Dixon’s Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris (1970).

It’s been a year now since the pandemic officially began, and from the rate of vaccination it looks like it’ll be another year yet before it’s under control. Taiwan, from where I’m writing, wasn’t hit as hard, but we still had our moments, and in any case the fragmentation of time and attention span seems to be one of those things that are in the air (or the zeitgeist). For this reason, and others – I finally got my PhD in English – I saw vastly fewer films these 366 days than the last 365, despite being recently added to Rotten Tomatoes; and I saw more short films than I’ve seen in the previous years combined. The coronavirus death tally has also impressed upon me the fleetingness of life and the value of time, so I declined to finish films that didn’t engage me (“engage” is of course different from “entertain”). From the short films I did finish, here are those I think most noteworthy, in chronological order of premiere date, with one exception that I will explain below. If I don’t provide a YouTube link, I saw it on MUBI

White Brit Terence Dixon’s Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris (1970) is a chaotic and enlightening half-hour documentary. The observer always ends up participating in the phenomenon observed, and Baldwin uses this, in more ways than one, to prove his point that the sheer fact and terms of the Black struggle are inconceivable to the white man (intersectionality is noticeably absent). The first twenty minutes tries to grapple with Baldwin’s attitude toward the filming as he and a friend continually Signify on Dixon and the crew. Baldwin, always the performer, pulls faces, and makes melodramatic statements followed by assurances that the statements are not melodramatic at all. He repeats the refrain that he is there because “I know something” and is trying to say it. But for this pioneer of postwar racial thought, truly interracial communication doesn’t come easy. And he’s proven right in the last ten minutes, an interview in which Dixon asks one inane question after another, including the absolute howler, “So you don’t agree with those who say you’ve escaped?” Baldwin’s response, “Where can a Black man escape to?” seems riddled with despair, and it seems fitting for the film to end on this question, for no matter how much Baldwin professes a mission and purpose, his Cheshire grin and the diabolical laugh that never reaches his eyes betray the weight of the burden he has taken on for himself, that of representing his race. We’ve come a long way in our ability to discourse about the Black experience, but this grappling with reality is just the first step of the long journey toward racial justice.

A short film that does one thing well is par for the course – if it can’t even do that, then why bother? – so I decided not to include those shorts. Except for this entry. West German Helke Sander’s black-and-white From the Reports of Security Guards & Patrol Services No. 1 (1985) is only ten minutes long, but most of it is spent on one incredible long shot (or maybe I blinked and missed a cut). A woman and her toddler and infant are about to be evicted. With nowhere to turn, she climbs to a high place with the kids and tosses down fliers threatening to jump unless something is done. That high place, incidentally, is atop a skyscraper construction crane, and the camera cranes up to follow her every slow step. I’m not quite sure how Sander does it, as it’s very clearly a crane shot, but it’s all in one long take, and the construction crane is very high. It’s not by using a long lens either, for after they reach the top and climb outward we get a long lens shot that looks completely different. And as far as I could tell, the actress was really climbing outward on a construction crane halfway up the sky with no stunt double or harness. This short gave me more vertigo than Free Solo (2018) did.

An image from Peter Tscherkassky’s Manufraktur (1985).

Even shorter is Austrian modernist master Peter Tscherkassky’s Manufraktur (1985). Like most of his work, this three-minute piece distorts and distresses physical film of silent black-and-white found footage to achieve its effects. Here, he takes footage of an early model sports car racing down a dirt road and, by adding jumpy images, flipping images, quickly intercutting the legs of people walking to and fro on an urban street, and creating audiovisual static, all often lasting for just a few frames at a time, he gives the footage a dynamic rapid pacing and imbues the sports car with all the Italian Futurism that it can handle. The method behind his madness can perhaps be better understood from another of his works, the shorter still The Arrival (1999), in which he similarly manipulates footage of a passenger train easing into the station and reuniting a woman with her waiting lover. The harder the train brakes, the more distortions come into play. If you’ve ever heard a train braking, you’ll get that the distortions are an audiovisual analogue of the sensation of hearing that screech. The distortions are a direct cinematic expression of the flux of sensation, a stream of not consciousness but affect.

French-Belgian Rachel Lang’s half-hour White Turnips Make It Hard to Sleep (2011) stars Salomé Richard as Ana, a pairing that first appeared in the Lang short For You I Will Fight (2010). Turnips follows the venerable tradition of works about no single significant thing or event that take their names from the one thing that stands out, notwithstanding the thing’s insignificance. The sentence of the title crawls across an LED message board hung off Ana’s friend’s apartment’s balcony as an art project. Ana herself is a sculptor making plaster of Paris busts. She takes the train to visit her long-distance boyfriend (Julien Sigalas), though the distance seems short when she learns that her compartment mate on the train (Anna Franziska Jaeger) is visiting her boyfriend in the Congo. I noted in the introduction that I only finished films that engaged me; this film about seemingly nothing in particular is engaging because of the assurance of Lang’s direction. Every single image (cinematography by Fiona Braillon) is steady, clear, coherent, naturalistic, and expressive. But of course no film is actually about nothing (though a film may be be about nothingness itself), and this film is about Ana breaking up with her boyfriend, who she thinks a selfish douche. From her everyday melancholy, we see that her feelings about the relationship have seeped into the rest of her life, and so the break-up, which she frames as a confirmation of an existing state rather than a sudden irruption, becomes the closure of an entire phase of life. The filmmaking confidence is grounded in a singular vision: to depict how hard it can be to formally end a moribund phase of one’s life – the difficulty of necessary change. Lang reaffirms this difficulty by ending on a shot that pointedly replaces hope and renewal with uncertainty. Just because one thing ends doesn’t mean another will begin.

Matthias Schoenaerts in Tom Van Avermaet’s Death of a Shadow (2012).

Dutch-Belgian Tom Van Avermaet’s 20-minute Death of a Shadow (2012) is a paragon of economical world building. Through an early-twentieth-century aesthetic and glorious yellow lighting by Stijn Van der Veken, we quickly understand that Nathan Rijckx (Matthias Schoenaerts, and yes, I spelled the character’s name right), who is dead, is employed by some art collector out of time (Peter van den Eede) to photograph people at the moment of their death, and to deliver their shadow to him, whence they’re hung up like hunting trophies. To seek his next “work,” Nathan uses a machine that selects person, time, and means of death. His boss has a taste for the dramatic, and berates Nathan for being so boring as to give him a death by old age. It becomes clear that Nathan does this because he’s not just a time traveler capturing last moments; the machine decides the person’s means of death. The world presented to us is so lush and full of detail that I even missed a functional element until very late in the film. And the internal logic, once you accept the premise, makes perfect sense. There’s also a love story and tragic sacrifice with a lesson about how you can’t change fate, or to be careful what you wish for, or something, but that’s not important. Suffice it to say that all the actors play it straight and are earnest enough to keep the clichés more or less at bay. Richard Brody once wrote that good fantasy us hard because it has to feel real. This one feels real.

Another kind of film that’s hard to do well is animation, for the similar reason that its world has to have an internal consistency, a sense of reality (if not realism), a sense that a world that looks this way would of course feel and exist in this way, too. Chinese Lü Yue’s 1 Dimension (2013) pulls it off gloriously. Narratively styled as an ancient fable about a young prince’s moral training, and narrated by a child, it’s shot as a shadow play with breathtaking ink wash backgrounds. And then, in a key scene, we get an overhead shot that somehow doesn’t ruin the conceit. It’s technically not in black and white, and there’s a fourth wall-breaking interval somewhere in there, which keeps us on our toes. Finally, not only have you never seen anything like it, you’ve probably never heard this exact story either, though the archetypes will be familiar. Or at least seem familiar.

Lebanese Ely Dagher’s 14-minute animation Waves ’98 (2015) presents a different kind of stylistic innovation. One reason Japanese anime style has grown so popular is its clean and simplified yet evocative lines. They evoke the visual essentials and little more. Waves uses similar lines, and by including live footage from television and of real motor traffic, it emphasizes the eidetic presentation of the animated elements. This primes us for the plot development: a golden elephant appears in the middle of Beirut, and when the protagonist enters it, he discovers a fantastical world of Platonic forms. The ideal formalism creates evokes the utopian mature of this fantastical place. Of course, it all collapses in the end, but more remains than you might expect. Does any of it make sense? Not a whit. It’s brilliant.

A still from Ely Dagher’s Waves ’98 (2015).

Commissioned by fashion house Miu Miu as part of its Women’s Tales series, Japanese Naomi Kawase’s nine-minute-long Seed (2016) is technically a product placement commercial. It often feels like a music video, thanks to the whimsical plot and the euphoric electropop soundtrack by Sakanation. What it really is, though, is pure life-affirming joy. An androgynous teenage girl (Sakura Ando) plays in nature, imitating animals, wondering at a cherry blossom, dancing through a mountaintop field. When she’s offered an apple, she takes that as the new center of her movements. She frolics into the city, where she exchanges the apple for a homeless man’s long satin cloth, and they play together with the cloth fluttering in the wind. In line with the soundtrack, the imagery is filled with energy and dynamism, sometimes quickly cutting to reverse imagery (a waterfall running upward, for example). This enables the few lines of frankly non sequitur voiceover dialogue to fit right in, in a way that feels very Japanese. The one thing that didn’t appeal to me is how the girl’s dancing often incorporates contortionist movements. But that’s a purely subjective reaction; thematically, contortionism fits well with the film’s emphasis on the use and celebration of the body in space. The film left me feeling euphoric, much better than it could possibly feel to wear Miu Miu.

I’m torn over German Joschka Laukeninks’s eight-minute-long Backstory (2016), and the reason is that I’ve seen it become much better thanks to a fan edit. First, the original. Backstory tells the story of a man’s life from just behind his head. We see brief vignettes of him learning to walk, being held, attending school, and so on. Each vignette is explained by a narrator with a sentence that begins, “This is you . . . ” It’s a typical life, in that it’s mostly mundane yet contains its own specific tragedies. And just as in life, those tragedies occur with no foreshadowing. Just before he dies of old age on a park bench, he thinks back over his life, and we get to see the more important vignettes from the opposite angle, now including him as a participant rather than observer. Generally speaking, I’m very susceptible to the kind of story that encompasses an entire life over a brief duration, and the film is reasonably effective in that regard. But I had the misfortune (for Laukeninks) of seeing the fan edit first. Someone cut the film’s length in half, eliminated the narrator, set it to Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place,” and added two minutes of black nothingness to the end, thereby perfecting it. Somehow, the contour of this cut fits the contour of the song perfectly; there’s one vignette near the end that’s so perfect, I thought the film was supposed to be set to Radiohead. This raises a few questions. Why have narration at all? The events depicted are crystal clear, and viewing it from the back of the protagonist’s head automatically puts us in his place. And the fan cut’s elimination of the ending reverie (the new ending is that vignette I was just talking about) highlights another weakness of the original: the main film is participatory but the acting is observational, whereas the flashback is observational yet the acting there is participatory. It is, in fact, a jarring break from the film’s own logic. The original is good; the fan cut is revelatory.

Compare Backstory with a short film of similar conceit, the American Mike Mills’s I Am Easy to Find (2019), the visual companion to The National’s album of the same name, which serves as the film’s soundtrack. I ignored the premiere date chronology specifically to make this comparison. Backstory is about a man; Find is about a woman (Alicia Vikander). The former is eight minutes; the latter, half an hour. Instead of narrator voiceover, here we have subtitles. And rather than casting a series of actors, the film has Vikander taking on the mannerisms of each stage of life without changing her physical appearance. Vikander, who studied ballet before becoming an actor, is uncanny. And because she’s so spot-on, she’s able to capture the long, boring plateau of middle age, which suddenly ends with the shocking realization that one has grown old. In one scene she’s living comfortably on her own, doing adult things like reading, and the dishes; in the next, her contemporary friend is an old lady. If I may be so bold as to attempt to map a masculine/feminine binary onto these two films, Backstory is shorter and, like an arrow through the air, flies toward its ending with no detours or rest stops. Find, on the other hand, is like a museum tour, lingering at each exhibit before – all too soon – moving on to the next one. This difference can also be felt in the soundtrack (I’m speaking of the fan cut of Backstory now). Though both are woozy, Radiohead’s is one song and has a clear structure, albeit deeply buried. The National’s is a string of songs off the album, and each has a more atypical structure, so the overall throughline is less clear, the sonic journey more meandering. Backstory presents a life summed up; Find gives us a life to get lost in.

A still from Amit Dutta's Wittgenstein Plays Chess with Marcel Duchamp, or How Not to Do Philosophy (2020)

The shortest and most impressive film on this list is the Brit Rob Savage’s Salt (2017), a horror short he co-wrote with Jed Shepherd. This is basically an action sequence taken from a longer creature feature, but it’s done so well that we really don’t need the full movie. A sick girl (Beau Gadsdon) lies in bed, coughing. She’s held tight by her mother (Alice Lowe) and surrounded by empty pill bottles. To get more medicine, the mother has to go to the kitchen, downstairs. When she gets up, the daughter begs her not to go. We think it’s sad; it’s actually terrifying. You see, there’s a demon lurking about the house, and the only thing it’s afraid of is (you guessed it) salt. So the mother carries a spray can of it with her. But whatever line or shape she draws on the floor, the demon always somehow finds a way to erase it. The camera direction, lighting (by Sam Heasman), editing (by Savage), and chaotic-suburban production design (by Julia Grudnowska) are all perfect. Lowe’s acting is excellent, too.  She’s credibly scared and determined at the same time.  Also:  you know how it’s the biggest cliché for someone being chased to trip and fall over? She does it convincingly, twice. Of course, the production design helps a lot, by making the places where she trips convincing places to trip over. If there’s one downside to the film, it’s the ending. It feels unfinished, and I suspect that Savage and Shepherd wrote themselves into a corner.

Finally, we have Indian Amit Dutta’s 17-minute-long Wittgenstein Plays Chess with Marcel Duchamp, or How Not to Do Philosophy (2020). This is a film essay adaptation of Steven B. Gerrard’s 2003 philosophical essay of the same name, which argues that truth and meaning reside not only in propositions, as analytic philosophers have it, but also in perspectives. The title comes from his three main examples: a chess move, a Duchamp ready-made, and Wittgenstein’s later work. His essay is rather long-winded, as he’s speaking to analytic philosophers and so has to use their language. The film excerpts key passages and matches them with 2-D stop-motion paper cutout animation, like South Park by way of M. C. Escher, with no anthropomorphic figures. The imagery and its movements are a true delight and marvel. Their surprising and paradoxical nature conveys a subtle critique of the original essay: over and over and over again, in each “scene,” the film reveals a new perspective with a single movement, whereas the essay takes its sweet time guiding the reader to see just three new perspectives. (Analytic) philosophy may be the last bastion of logic and reason, but it’s also confined within reason’s prisonhouse. The filmmaking craft just adds to this idea of art as the king of thinking. Everything except the music was done by either Dutta or his wife, Ayswarya, and they collaborated on the sound. It’s as if they had an idea, and from that idea sprung forth the film entire, as if from the forehead of Zeus. This is pandemic lockdown film at its finest.

  CJ Sheu has a PhD in contemporary American fiction from National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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