Friday, July 15, 2022

A Few Brief Thoughts on Some (More) Interesting Short Films

A scene from Ottó Foky’s Scenes with Beans (1976).

It’s been a year and a half since my last shorts roundup, and the pandemic is still ongoing; the only difference is that people are starting to not care anymore. I wonder if it has something to do with how the internet has diminished our attention spans and memories. In any case, here in chronological order of premiere date are the shorts I watched that engaged me enough to want to finish them and write about them. If I don’t provide a link, I saw it on MUBI.

Many of the films on this list are experimental, but American Yvonne Rainer’s Volleyball (Foot Film) (1967) has the least narrative. A woman is shown from the knees down lightly kicking a volleyball against a corner wall, and the camera follows the ball until it stops. Sometimes, the woman lightly taps or obstructs it if it threatens to roll off camera. Lather, rinse, repeat, for ten minutes, in black and white, no less. For anyone who’s been entranced by running water or a yule log, the attraction of such a film will be familiar. Less expected may be the annoyance of the ball’s being not exactly spherical and so, like a bouncing rugby ball, never going exactly where you expect or stopping exactly when you expect. Feel free to tune out when the annoyance finally outweighs the fascination.

Hungarian Ottó Foky’s Scenes with Beans (1976), written by József Nepp, demonstrates the pathetic fallacy on a massive scale. Exactly as its title suggests, the film uses long-lens stop motion to put on vignettes from the daily lives of urbanites – but in this case, the urbanites are beans. It’s frankly amazing just how much pathos can be generated by arranging beans of different colors (and sometimes in various tiny hats) in meaningful combinations that suggest situations and narratives, such as being in a traffic accident and then carried away in an ambulance (a lot of vignettes feature injuries for some reason), or being on vacation at the beach with the family. These are the cutest little legumes you ever did see. The only drawback is the premise for these vignettes: an alien viewing a bean-shaped world with a telescope from space, whom the beans eventually manage to shoot and drive away.

A scene from István Orosz’s Mind the Steps! (1989).

István Orosz’s Mind the Steps! (1989) is another Hungarian animation of vignettes, but instead of humanizing colorful inanimate stop-motion objects, this black-and-white film defamiliarizes the hand-drawn people living in an apartment complex. The trick here is that the apartment complex is in the style of M. C. Escher, and perspective shifts that morph one person/thing into another serve as segues between vignettes. It’s twisty, surprising, and delightful, but the wonder turns sinister when the police enter to arrest some undesirables (that is, anyone lazing around and not working). They appear in between morphs to drag people (and things) away. Turns out the film is a metaphor for the logic of totalitarian control. No one can escape the (here literal) long arm of the law.

Swedes Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjärne Nilsson’s Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers (2001) later birthed their full-length feature, The Sound of Noise (2010), the most chaotic and deranged comedy musical I’ve ever seen. In the short, no narrative baggage weighs down the insanity at its core: six unnamed drummers (played by five real-life drummers and actress Sanna Persson) have cased an apartment beforehand, and in the morning, when the residents go walk the dog, they break in to . . . percuss on things. You know the STOMP people? This is like that, but on steroids, and each percussed object gets its own close-up. For a wordless nine minutes, the titular drummers stop at nothing to achieve their rhythmic sounds, with one performance per room (including the bathroom), leaving messy destruction in their wake. It’s innovative and catchy (music by Ola Simonsson), and the abandon is exhilarating, but if you, like me, are one of those people who compulsively return things to their place after using them (even the library books they tell you not to reshelve yourself), the film will also be anxiety-generating.

American Laida Lertxundi’s debut, Footnotes to a House of Love (2007), is exactly that: a wonderfully oblique and fragmented yet fulfilling evocation of the feeling of a lived-in space, without at any point giving us a clear picture of anything. In the middle of the California desert, we watch what a man and a woman (but actually played by several people) move around a deteriorating cabin – or is it just a lean-to with a wooden frame? They use the space, adjust curtains (or plastic tarp), put things in places, play the radio, and sunbathe. The static camera is intentionally devoid of intention: it never focuses on anything, and no rules of composition are evinced. One scene features the ambiguous shadows of the couple just off-camera (we can see a foot and an elbow), and only gradually do we realize that they’re having sex. For the fantasy of romance, no specific thing is as important as the general atmosphere of love. (Bonus: Lertxundi’s work is more like installations than film; check out her conceptual Words, Planets [2018], constructed around “the six principles for composition delineated in ‘Opinions on Painting by the Monk of the Green Pumpkin,’ written by the eighteenth-century Chinese painter Shih-T’ao and referenced in Raúl Ruíz’s essay ‘For a Shamanic Cinema,’” according to Lertxundi’s official synopsis.)

Matthew Burton, Dieter Wardetzky, and Sebastian Blomberg in Andrej Gontcharov’s Berlin Troika (2014).

German Andrej Gontcharov’s Berlin Troika (2014) may not be deep or experimental or even have a point, but one of its charms is precisely how it shows that even short films can be crowd-pleasers. An American (Matthew Burton, in a Southern accent and with a pistol in his belt) is in high-level peace talks with a Soviet Chairman (Dieter Wardetzky), with a neutral interpreter (Alexander Khuon) between them. As the film opens, the interpreter loses his shit, accidentally flings his pen and stabs the American in the eye, faints, and hits his head against a chair corner. Then we get the department-head opening titles, which appear beside a meticulously filmed sequence following a moving coffee tray from above. A replacement interpreter (Sebastian Blomberg) comes in, and the fun begins. The proceedings are a farce of language, physical acting, and a surprising canniness on the part of the two negotiators. Somehow, they come to an agreement, but not by saying things. The cherry on top is the closing quote by American politician Sam Rayburn, apparently a veritable quote machine: “No one has a finer command of language than the person who keeps his mouth shut.”

French Cosme Castro and Jeanne Frenkel’s Adieu Bohème (2017) plays a sci-fi conceit for laughs at first, but when the thing it says will happen actually happens, it’s romantic and nostalgic, just wonderful. Thibaut (Thibaut Evrard) wants to stop missing his beloved and dead wife, so he goes to see Professor Turrell (Richard Sammel), the eccentric clinician who promises closure with the help of a troupe of opera understudies who, underneath the Paris Opera, reenact farewell scenes involving the patient and an actor who has studied the patient’s beloved. The French whimsy and fantastical atmosphere are emphasized by the fact that most of this 25-minute film, the part that explains and realizes the conceit, is a one-shot, including multiple stages, large crowd scenes, and a 360-degree crane. We all know to be careful what we wish for, but the film circumvents creepy uncanniness with the magic of cinema: music (by Flavien Berger and Lou Rotzinger), color (cinematography by Balthazar Lab), montage (edited by Audrey Bauduin and Aymeric Schoens), rewinding, and an incredibly empathetic performance by Lucie Digout as the wife’s stand-in.

South African Tebogo Malebogo’s Heaven Reaches Down to Earth (2020), based on a story by Malebogo and Petrus van Staden, is one of the densest cinematic texts I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. I could easily give a two-hour lecture on this ten-minute film. Two Black men (Sizo Mahlangu and Thapelo Maropefela) climb a mountain and swim in a cold mountain pool in what looks like an initiation ritual. Then, by the light of a campfire, they discover their lust for each other. Already we have the themes of liminality (between youth and maturation, and between accepted and discovered sexuality), secluded nature as a locus of desire (going back all the way to Jean Renoir’s 1946 short, Partie de campagne, if not earlier), compressed time spent together igniting sexual desire (the core of the summer fling film), and fire as the symbol of that desire. Then, once you factor in the gorgeous shots of mountain clouds, and fire reflected in water (cinematography by Jason Prins); the Indigenous-sounding music (by Elu Eboka and Evan Roth); and the Zulu-speaking narrator (Balindile ka Ngcobo) – who in her deep voice says things like “The mountains watch,” “Along the mountain. We tried to put out the fire. The men . . . refused,” and “The first kindling often looks like the last, and this is given once only” – the film expands through history, the cosmos, and beyond. It’s all told in fragments (edited by van Staden), because a linear narrative would take a full feature and be unable to convey the simultaneity of the moment.

Sizo Mahlangu in Heaven Reaches Down to Earth (2020).

In Brit Natalia Andreadis’s How Can I Forget (2020), cowritten with Richard F. Russell, Connie (Genesis Lynea) and Joe (David O’Mahoney) go on a blind date with their friends, who are together. It’s pretty awkward, until they suddenly discover that they both have the same ability: they can see highlights of the future. In classic sci-fi fashion, they quickly work out ways to have fun with their combined foresight, including a romance that they know won’t go the distance but will be worth experiencing anyway – they’re essentially experiencing it as they speak. The fun is in the dialogue, which comes across as carrying the shared history of years spent together, even while the two actors interact as the new acquaintances that the characters are. And there’s a musical dance sequence in there, too (music by Ellie Seilern).

I thought long and hard about whether to review Vietnamese Phạm Ngọc Lân’s The Unseen River (2020), because I don’t really understand how it does what it does. Two non-intersecting stories are told over 23 minutes. In one, shot with a long lens (cinematography by Phạm Quang Minh and Nguyễn Vinh Phúc), an old fisherman (Nguyễn Hà Phong) checks his nets between the rocks and breakwaters of a river near a concrete modernist edifice while his mangy old dog (Gilmo) wanders the water, rocks, and breakwaters, trying to fend off boredom. They’re met by a woman in a magenta dress (Minh Châu) who greets them familiarly. This story has a few good tilt-shift shots that make the dog look like a model or toy, and the grass it runs across green felt. The other story follows a tatted young man (Hoàng Hà) and his girlfriend (Naomi) as they seek a cure for his insomnia from a Buddhist monk (Wean) at a monastery atop a sheer cliff overlooking the river. It turns out he’s plagued by anxiety over family pressure to marry, which neither man nor woman wants. The monk advises them to accept the fragility and uncertainty of life. The closing shot is of the young man at twilight, gazing at the river, as we see a boat pass by in the distance. The image grants him peace, and we viewers feel it, too. Maybe it’s the languorous editing (by Julie Béziau); maybe the message of accepting uncertainty makes us okay with not knowing what’s going on or why we should care. In any case, the writer-director is one to watch.

Ukrainian Sergei Loznitsa’s 30-minute documentary, Factory (2021), shows a day’s routine at some kind of smelting works. Each step in the process of whatever they’re making (the Russian title cards say “steel” and “plaster,” and at one point the process produces cinder blocks) is depicted neutrally and without comment. Yes, it’s depressing to watch people doing a single thing all day, and at one point we see some women try to catch some rest in the face of a never-ending conveyor belt. But at the same time, there’s something exciting about witnessing someone do that one thing so well, with such precision and focus; at another point, a man nonchalantly moves his feet out of the way of some rocks falling off a pile, not letting them break his rhythm one bit. And there’s also the element of collaboration, participating in a process that accomplishes what one person can’t. Perhaps I, the intellectual academic with his head in the clouds, am romanticizing manual labor. Ultimately, I think this kind of work is only alienating and demeaning when the worker has no other viable options.

Black Brit Mitch Kalisa’s Play It Safe (2021) starts off didactic. At a performing arts school, Jonathan (Jonathan Ajayi) is ostracized for being the only Black student in his class. During one practice, the teacher has each student randomly pick an animal out of a hat and imitate it. Of course, Jonathan picks a gorilla. The mood turns awkward very, very quickly, and the teacher lets him draw again, but he insists on going through with it. Given what we’ve seen so far, we expect his attempt at plunging into and owning the experience to go badly awry. What happens instead is astounding. With the aid of fragmented editing, partial closeups, dramatic lighting (cinematography by Jaime Ackroyd), and a visceral sound design (by Ravi Soni) filled with breathing and grunts, Jonathan stalks the audience space, reminding his classmates and us that “gorilla” isn’t just an insult; it’s a majestic and terrifyingly powerful animal unbeholden to human direction. You want to other this Black man? Fine, he’ll show you what it really means to be inhuman.

If you follow short films at all, you’ve probably heard of my last entry, Spaniard Alberto Mielgo’s animated The Windshield Wiper (2021), which deservedly won the Oscar earlier this year. A Black man (voiced by John Duffin) sitting at a café while smoking like a Left Bank philosopher, asks the camera, “What is love?” What follows is multiple intercut vignettes (edited by Mielgo) about all kinds of love: romantic, familial, love of self, love of friends, consummated, longed-for, lost, missed. Each vignette is painted in breathtaking color and photo-realistically animated. The additive combined effect has a deeply felt power, partly drawn from the use of colors that are rarely found in much contemporary cinema. And as the 15-minute film nears the end, a crescendo structure reveals itself; the denouement cools us off before, we return to the café guy, who repeats his question: “What is love?” It’s a long story.

– 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 @cj_sheu.

1 comment:

  1. Hi CJ.....Donald Brackett here, one of your fellow CAL writers.....Fabulous overview of some intriguing works you've done, brilliant short films don't get nearly enough attention. Thanks for sharing your insights.