One of the genuinely good things about the Oscars having short film categories, in recent years, is that it presents the interested viewer with a chance to see these shorts theatrically, the way movies like to be seen. This year, I was able to attend all three of the short film slates presented in Chicago, as a result of which I’ve seen 14 of the 15 nominated films (more on that in a second), and I am pleased to share my thoughts with all of you
The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement (Gail Dolgin & Robin Fryday, USA)
A study of James Armstrong, octogenarian barber in Birmingham, Alabama, who was in the 1950s and 1960s an activist putting himself and his family (his children were among the first integrated into a white school in that state) right out on the frontlines where history was being made and brave men and women of color were standing up to demand their dignity and their rights. It is hard – real damn hard – to look at that material and say to yourself, “booor-ing! Next, please!”
But I have to say, the late Dolgin (to whom the film is dedicated) and Fryday do all they possibly can to fuck up such seemingly unimpeachable material. This mostly has to do with a lack of context, on both sides: at 25 minutes, the film isn’t nearly concerned enough with explaining what, precisely, Armstrong did during the height of the civil rights movement besides exist, while the filmmakers fail entirely to connect their material to the present day in anything resembling a sensible way.
This is partially because the project started life in mid-2008, around the time it became clear that the United States was about to elect its first black president; by using Armstrong’s feeling about Obama’s ascendancy as the framework for telling his life story, the filmmakers give The Barber of Birmingham a celebratory, even end-of-history feeling that it doesn’t deserve. For, of course, Obama’s election didn’t change everything – it certainly didn’t cure America’s institutional racism – and yet the film seems to take it for granted that it would. If it had been rushed out by the end of 2009, it might have seemed quite rosy and pleasant, but in 2011 and 2012, it smacks of unbridled naïveté that doesn’t understand nearly enough about the 1960s or the 2010s, beyond feel-good bromides.
God is the Bigger Elvis (Rachel Cammisa, USA)
…wasn’t screened with the others, at least not in Chicago. Anybody who knows where I can find it will be showered with thanks and praise .
Incident in New Baghdad (James Spione, USA)
In 2007, American armed forces attacking what they believed to be armed insurgents killed two Reuters reporters and a number of innocent civilians, and not any armed insurgents at all. This incident was kept largely out of the media until WikiLeaks got hold of the footage taken by the US surveillance teams at the time, and did as WikiLeaks do.
Incident in New Baghdad looks at this even largely through the eyes of Ethan McCord, a soldier who was on the scene in 2007, and who was thoroughly shaken by the experience not just of knowing that he’d been present for the murder of unarmed non-combatants, but also by the tattered and beaten bodies of the two children he pulled from a vehicle immediately after, both of them managing just barely to cling to life. Clearly, McCord is haunted by this event – he was unable to seek psychiatric treatment under the threat of being charged with, essentially, official unmanliness (it’s not called that, but apparently it’s a thing in the Army). He confesses to Spione late in the film – the shortest of the nominees, incidentally – that telling his story to a camera was his first real act of therapy in all those years.
So at least the movie served some purpose. Really, the only problem I have with Incident in New Baghdad is that it is precisely what it set out to be: the seedling from which Spione hopes to create a feature treating on the same subject. That certainly explains why the film, in its present state, is so appallingly light on context or depth of analysis; with only one perspective on the event, it ends up playing not as a study of the Iraq War or a condemnation of military sloppiness, but as a filmed memoir of one man recalling the worst day of his life, without anything meaty for us in the audience to latch onto.
Notwithstanding the huge number of Iraq docs that already exist, I hope Spione gets to make his feature; it seems like a subject worth exploring and discussing and laying out in the light. This project doesn’t do those things, though, and even at a wee 22 minutes, it was the only one of the docs that left me feeling a touch bored.
Saving Face (Daniel Junge & Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, USA / Pakistan)
And now for a rather abrupt jump in quality. Saving Face, the most overtly message-movie out of the docs, tells us of the epidemic of acid attacks plaguing the female population of Pakistan, a country where it has apparently become enough of a thing for abusive husbands to throw acid on their wives’ faces that there are support groups for it.
The film’s relative expansive 40-minute running time (right at the edge of what the Academy considers “short”) is well-used to consider this subject from every angle: the plastic surgeon with a conscience who has thrown himself into doing what he can to fix these women’s faces, despite his background in breast augmentation; the halls of power, where anti-acid legislation is debated and ultimated passed. Mostly, it is about the lives of a handful of women who have been scarred, irrevocably, by the cold presumption of a patriarchal mindset that doesn’t even quite understand why disfiguring women with acid is an objectively evil thing to do.
It has a little bit of everything: ethnography of a culture most of the audience doesn’t much understand besides the nightly news, tremendous human interest and uplift (luckily for the filmmakers, things turned out relatively well for their subjects – “relatively”, on account of they are still permanently marred), and appealing human subjects, not just the victims, who are each individualised rather than asked to stand in for “The Pakistani Woman”, but also the surgeon, a robust humanist with a good sense of drama.
Perhaps inevitably, it feels a bit like we’re being given our medicine; but the filmmaker’s sense of pacing and social justice is strong enough that the medicine goes down easy. It’s not a cinematic masterpiece, but it is an important story well told, and fully deserves to have “best” floated around by its title.
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (Lucy Walker & Kira Carstensen, Japan)
This, on the other hand, is rather closer to being a masterpiece; or at least the opening four minutes are, showing us an interrupted strip of found footage of the March, 2011 tsunami striking a small Japanese community, in horrifyingly casual detail: at first we don’t see anything but smoke in the background, and then we see some of the foreground houses appear to be moving, and then we see that it’s because those houses are in fact being swept along on a massive block of water that is mere yards away from the camera’s perspective on a hilltop that, by rights, should not be anywhere near the surface of the water.
So begins a film that takes a snapshot of that community about one month later, just long enough to give the survivors a chance to take stock of what they have lost, and right before the springtime arrival of the cherry blossoms and their promise of beauty and consistency (we are told that the oldest cherry tree in Japan is right in this same community, and we see it in full bloom, having survived the waters). That sounds a hell of a lot like a smarmy, cloying story of endurance in the face of tragedy, but it’s not. Not smarmy or cloying, anyway; on the contrary, it’s one of the most genuinely moving and heartwrenching films of the year, from where I stand, not nearly optimistic enough to predict warm fuzzyies in the face of e.g. the impending nuclear hell that was even then starting to prove almost as big a problem as the tsunami itself; but open to the possibility of rebuilding and gathering strength in the face of loss.
Walker, who directed last year’s feature documentary nominee Waste Land, plays by an unusual rulebook that doesn’t ever let style overwhelm the film’s content, although it’s also different enough that you can’t help but notice it: the way that she never gets around to identifying any of her interview subjects, even though we get to know some of them very well, or the unexpected combination of image and sound that does so much to create a fuller sense of this place, what is lost and what has survived, or the score she commissioned from Moby, of all people; a powerfully effective score it is, too, emotionally rich without being emotionally leading.
Aware of contemporary life without trying too hard to preach at us in any way, it is wonderful little film that could not be any shorter nor any longer, and which puts to shame most feature length documentaries made with more resources and the luxury of time; it is visually gorgeous, exquisitely humane, and probes into its subject without seeming exploitative. From where I stand, it’s not just the best of these nominees, but possibly the best documentary of any length of 2011.
* * * * *
Dimanche/Sunday (Patrick Doyon, Canada)
This blog is historically pro-Canadian animation, though I will confess that the two Oscar-nominated shorts from that country are not representative of the reasons why. The lesser of them is this stylised fable of a bored little boy’s day at church and his grandparent’s house, elevated by his game of flattening coins on railroad tracks. Also, dead animals. A whole damn lot of dead animals.
What, if any point this is all meant to drive at, I cannot begin to say: there’s too much evident symbolism for it to be as shallow as it comes off, but simply because symbolism is present does not also mean that the symbolism is effective. But however frustrating and difficult the film is to parse, at least it’s an easy, fun watch, with exaggerated cartoon characters, including some of the loopier rubber hose arms and legs that have graced our screens in recent years. The humor could certainly be sharper; even while watching the gags play out, it’s easy to see how they could be tightened and given more punch (there’s a bit involving a mounted bear head that starts out promising and then devolves as it stretches out). But nine minutes isn’t a very long time to spend in this weird-ass world, and while the freshness has worn off by the time it ends, I am sufficiently gratified by the pointedly old-school 2-D aesthetic (it resembles the aesthetic of a comic strip as much as anything, with unusually surrealistic perspective lines) to give it a passing grade, however unenthusiastic.
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (William Joyce & Brandon Oldenburg, USA)
So here’s the thing: anybody has the God-given right to use a major tragedy as the springboard for any narrative work of art, and so I do not have any moral authority to be offended by the simple fact that TFFBoMML opens with what can only possibly be a reference to Hurricane Katrina, as the titular Mr. Lessmore, writing in his diary of how much he has enjoyed his time in New Orleans, is blown right out of the city, along with all the words in his book. Admittedly, the film plainly doesn’t take place in 2005, so maybe it’s just one of the other highly destructive windstorms that devastated huge portions of the city.
But just because a thing can be done, doesn’t mean that it’s not still worth doing carefully; and Joyce & Oldenburg assuredly are not being at all careful when they use this windstorm as the material for a bunch of broad slapstick pieces; nor is in the best taste that this whole thread is used only to set up the actual plot of the movie,which finds Lessmore serving as the librarian of a magic collection of sentient books. It ill-disposed me to the film pretty much from the get-go, and 15 minutes just isn’t enough time to wipe away that kind of sour feeling.
Admittedly, some of the conceits in the movie are charming: a book that communicates using illustrations of Humpty Dumpty in various states of emotion is the clear stand-out element of the picture. Still and all, the plot is slight and the message (something something find yourself, and old-fashioned books are grrrrreat!) slighter, and the standard-issue CGI animation like you could find in any given American animated picture leaves it as the most visually uninteresting of the nominees.
La Luna (Enrico Casarosa, USA)
Pixar’s new short, set to open in front of Brave this summer, is a charmer all right, but not among the studio’s best shorts, not by a long shot. It doesn’t help matters that what could be heartbreakingly beautiful in its simple shapes with rounded edges happens to exist almost solely in a dichromatic palette, and the two colors involved maybe, just maybe, rhyme with “blorange” and “weal”.
Anyway, it’s an odd and hugely European little fable about a tiny boy learning from his crotchety father and grandfather about the family business of sweeping fallen stars off the surface of the moon, and it stretched my tolerance for whimsy about as far as it goes without breaking; the ending punchline certainly makes the rest of the project make a whole lot more sense than it does at first, but it only serves to make it cuter. And that it really is the first, last, and only goal the film appears to possess: be as adorable in appearance and story as is remotely possible, and make everybody feel delightful. It does nothing wrong in this regard, although only the Michael Giacchino score is particularly memorable for any reason other than its sweetness.
I will admit that it will probably look pretty freaking amazing in 3-D come this summer.
A Morning Stroll (Grant Orchard & Sue Goffe, UK)
A wobbly attempt at social commentary, built upon a supposedly-true story of a man who spots a chicken walking along the streets of New York, follows as the bird knocks on a door, and wanders inside. That’s a cute story, and as a one-off gag, it’s not unmemorable or unamusing.
The filmmakers elect to tell this story in three periods, using three different styles: first, in 1959, it is in black and white like a silent movie, with old-fashioned line drawing figures and artificial scratches and flickers. In 2009, it is in brightly colored and slightly chintzy computer animation, and here the walker is so easily distracted by his iPhone app that he forgets to record the chicken – see? It is social commentary! Do you get it? Then it’s 2059, in fully-rended CGI and the walker who spots the chicken is a zombie, and it goes where you would expect a gag about zombies in the post-apocalyptic future to go, basically.
You might have already noticed the first problem: in 1959, we already had sound cartoons and full color. Which isn’t a “flaw” so much as a really odd choice, but it starts to get at why A Morning Stroll doesn’t really work: its attempts at social satire are broad and sloppy at best, and really serve only to get in the way of the actual content. Which is fine; I am a fairly easy lay for cartoons that mix style, though I prefer that they be less programmatic about it, and the cheapness of the 2009 sequence, whether deliberate or not, is a tremendous disappointment.
Wild Life (Amanda Forbis & Wendy Tilby, Canada)
The second and better of the Canadian films might have had the most appealing visual style of the lot, to me anyway: it’s like an animated oil painting, halfway between impressionism and a comic strip. The slightly frivolous story tells of an Englishman who goes to the Canadian West in 1909 to make it as a rancher, only to have his unbending Englisheness get in the way; along the way, his neighbors comment with some gentle condescension on his struggles, talking right at the camera, documentary style.
There’s nothing at all wrong with the film, just as there’s nothing excessively right; honestly, the only real problem is the mismanagement of tone (it wants to be a comedy of manners, and succeeds about 80% of the time), and the far too clever use of quotes from a textbook about comets to give the film some measure of structure, though they really only serve to tells us, over and over again, that comets are going to show up as an ironic button at the very end.
At any rate, it’s fun too look at and modestly amusing to watch; stepping foot out of the theater, it was my favorite of the five, but I find that it is receding from my memory at an alarming rate, and had best be thought of as a pleasantly disposable, visually distinctive cartoon that nobody ever needs to seek out, but if it happens to be right there… you can do worse.
* * * * *
Pentecost (Peter McDonald, Ireland)
For no immediately obvious reason, featherweight films about Irish children have become a fixture in this category. This year’s representative is the story of Damien Lynch (Scott Graham), a preteen whose sole interest in life is football, though he has been grounded from watching the big match thanks to a terrible accident when he was serving as altar boy, and hit the priest in the head with the censer.Ah, but now he gets his chance to make good, when no better incense-specialist can be found on short notice to serve in a hugely important mass.
If this film were any more insubstantial, it would have crumbled into powder even as we were watching it. And that, of course, is exactly what some folk want from their charming fables about Irish country life. There’s one scene that stands out, which finds Father Quinn (Andrew Bennett) warming up the altar boys before the big mass in a scene scripted and shot just like the Big Inspirational Speech scene in a sports movie; but even this gesture is a bit spoilt on account of how obviously it’s coming before it hits.
Outside of that, it’s just a bit of fluff, taking place in 1977 for no reason, and treating everything as such a lark that it’s hard to figure out why we are supposed to care (were I a shit-stirrer, I’d be more put off by how it turns the Church’s treatment of altar boys into such trivial farce). It’s competent enough, I suppose, but don’t we ask more from Oscar-nominated films than mere competence?
Raju (Max Zähle & Stefan Gieren, Germany/India)
In a fairly light and even trivial category, this import stands out for being almost comically serious about Important Social Issues About Which You Know Nothing, and That Makes You a Bad Person. German couple Jan (Wotan Wilke Möhring) and Sarah (Julia Richter) have just arrived in India to adopt 4-year-old Raju (Krish Gupta) from an orphanage that came highly recommended to them; they’ve only had the boy for a day when Jan takes him to a market, and promptly loses his new son.
At this point, I expected it would be a heavy-handed message movie about how the West steals and abuses the lives of those in the Third World without caring even a little, and that would have actually been better than the movie it turned into: for during his search for Raju, Jan not only learns that in India, the police are completely awful and useless, but that highly recommended orphanage is actually a front for a kidnapping ring that sells children to wealthy Europeans. And here I expected a heavy-handed, racist message movie about how only the civilised whites could tame the lawless hell of India; but even that was expecting too much, Raju‘s theme turns out to not really exist beyond “life sucks in India”, though I am sure that we’re meant to get something meaningful and thrilling from the morality play hijinks that ensue. Perhaps some viewers will, and I envy them; for my part, this stylistically hackneyed (a European film set in the Third World with handheld cameras and grainy footage; ooh, what’s your next trick? Long takes?) and narratively bland film was the most boring, though not the worst of the lot.
The Shore (Terry George, UK)
More Ireland, though this one is set in Belfast, and hinges on middle-aged men, so it’s not half so clichéd. It’s also a decent enough film, buoyed up by three pretty fine performances: Conleth Hill as a crippled man who makes a pitiful living hunting shellfish when the tide goes down, Maggie Cronin as his sensible-minded wife, and Ciarán Hinds as his old best friend, and her ex-lover, back in the country for the first time in decades, looking to patch up old wounds.
This is not revolutionary stuff, and it’s played pretty broadly; not Waking Ned broadly, but it’s not terribly far off from that. At times, it’s only the performances that keep it moving forward; at times, it’s only Hinds and Cronin, particuarly in the case of a wacky chase sequence over the damp shore that goes on infinitely too long for a 29-minute film, which finds Hill overplaying like nobody’s business.
But when the film settles down and focuses on what these people feel and how they have been shaped by a 30-year-old betrayal, The Shore actually manages to work very nicely. It helps that unlike the other films here, it was directed by a filmmaker of considerable means and history; I am not the biggest Hotel Rwanda fan, but it’s more than sufficient practice for a half-hour study of Irish people and their sense of friendliness and camaraderie. It’s hard to imagine that this is one of the five best short films of 2011, but it’s certainly likable enough in its low-key way.
Time Freak (Andrew Bowler & Gigi Causey, USA)
A film right in line with last year’s winner, God of Love: a quirky US indie that’s half genre film and half hang-out movie. Another way to describe it would be, “Groundhog Day but a tenth as long, and stupid”.
There are two people here: Evan (John Conor Brooke), who is going to visit his buddy Stillman (Michael Nathanson) at the warehouse where Stillman is conducting his experiments in time travel. As it transpires, Stillman has succeeded at making a device that can teleport a person to exactly the place they were at any given time (which makes it hard to figure out how they intended to journey to the distant past, but the film is much too insubstantial to ding it for conceptual problems like that). Stillman has so far used it as a means to keep practicing various social mistakes he’s made in the last 48 hours until he gets them exactly right.
That’s the plot. No, at 10 minutes, I do not expect a grand epic, but surely something more deep and involving than “some people are so neurotic that they would use a time machine to practice talking to girls and shopkeepers!” That’s a sketch, not a film, even a short film. And it doesn’t help matters that the performances and production quality both suggest a movie that was assembled in about 12 hours because the director’s friend’s dad wasn’t using his storage unit for the weekend.
Tuba Atlantic (Hallvar Witzø, Norway)
The clear outlier of the five nominees; not quality-wise (it does happen to be my favorite, but this is not exactly a world-beating slate of movies in any respect), but certainly tonally. Even if it wasn’t in Norwegian, it would still be such an obviously Scandinavian film as to court self-parody, with its pushily warped sense of dark humor and bleak, salt-washed visuals.
Edvard Hægstad plays Oskar, a solitary old man given a very specific six days to live. He is told that he cannot, under the law, die without someone near him, and will need to come to the hospital if he has no loved ones; what he gets instead is Inger (Ingrid Viken), a member of a Christian charity group that seems to exist largely to send people out to watch old people die. Oskar immediately dislikes the girl – as would any of us, in the face of a bubbly teen calling herself an Angel of Death – but ropes her into helping him complete a device he and his estranged brother once conceived: a wind-driven tuba that will communicate all the way across the Atlantic to the United States, where that brother has lived for years and years.
There’s a lot to like about the film’s bent sensibility: Oskar takes almost religious pleasure in violently murdering the seagulls all around his seaside home, whether it’s using a Gatling gun or traps right out of a Warner Bros. cartoon, and he takes almost as much pleasure in making Inger freak out. There’s also very little to love, unless it’s the cinematography by Karl Erik Brøndbo, slightly overexposed and undersaturated to really dig into the depleted greys that make up most of Oskar’s world. It’s readily the most interesting looking of the nominees, anyway, and coupled with its crabby sensibility, that’s enough to make it a stand-out; I admire that it skirts sentiment at the end without caving in.