The Showroom in Asbury Park, like last year, is showing all the Oscar-nominated shorts: and this, like last year, is a wonderful thing, a privilege to be able to see something so elusive for so many years. Last night, we saw the live action shorts; we plan to see the animation shorts on Thursday. I think we’re going to give the documentary shorts a miss (it’s a long program for shorts).
I have to say that none of these five live action shorts appealed to me at all, and I was hard pressed to come up with one that I liked for rooting or voting purposes. As a group, I found them to be slight, a little repellant, difficult to identify with or draw messages from. Perhaps I am a curmudgeon; perhaps I am out of touch. But I didn’t think the funny ones (Pentecost and Time Freak) were that funny or original; I thought the one with a moral dilemma at its heart (Raju) was morally bankrupt; and the two that dealt with reconciliation (The Shore and Tuba Atlantic) fell flat for me.
And there were no strong female protagonists to be found; no blacks. Thematically — and I think this says more about the Oscar nominators than necessarily about the filmmakers, because there must be, what, hundreds of possible shorts to have selected? — there were no grand issues of hope or love or peace; no attempts to engage with contemporary problems of poverty, distrust, alienation (although possibly all of these last are reflected in the nominees).
Here are some random thoughts about each; there be spoilers.
Pentecost. This is cute, filled with a double helping of Irish concerns: religion and soccer. Neatly executed, and the two are cleverly intertwined; particularly, as the clip shows, in the priest’s pep talk. But, except to score that final punchline, I could not see the motivation for the boy’s last action, which made it sneakingly manipulative.
Raju. I had a lot of problems with this one. A young German couple travel to India to adopt a four-year-old orphan, Raju. He is adorable, lovable, they are warm and loving, and all seems just swell. Until the father, who owing to a transparently machinated (on the part of the filmmakers) illness of the mother, travels alone with the boy and — carelessly, inadvertently — loses him in a crowded market. We see a lot of street children, wretched poverty, teeming hordes through, I felt, a rather judgmental Western lens. He searches, is joined by his wife (who is conveniently over her illness, but now deep into the resentment that will keep her from being a sympathetic character or helpmeet to the husband), enlists an indifferent police force, and searches some more on his own. He stumbles on an NGO that tracks and cares for missing children (and I wonder how many American audiences know what that is) and finds out that Raju is no orphan but rather has been kidnapped from his family and sold to them. He confronts the “orphanage,” where he is bitterly taunted by the administrator with essentially, whaddya gonna do about it, huh? we’re crooks, but so are you by being party to it. Another machination: Raju has miraculously returned to the hotel. Play past that. The now-enlightened husband tells the wife; she rejects his proposal that they return the boy, saying they’ll give him a better chance (revealing the same callous selfishness of the other female in the piece, the administrator). So the husband waits till she’s asleep and then essentially kidnaps her child and returns Raju to his home, in a scene that we saw but didn’t understand at the beginning. Now I do believe his action was morally correct: the boy was not theirs, and he was right to return him. But the way in which he went about it, without troubling to talk this out with his wife, without guiding her out of selfishness and into a shared understanding, leads me to fear for his marriage and makes me doubt his nobility. The autonomy with which he implements his decision ultimately does not speak well for him. And the rather troubling, if unstated, conclusion that these foreigners are perhaps better off left to themselves to sort out their own problems without our getting involved bespeaks another kind of isolationist autonomy. Like I said, I had a lot of problems with this one.
The Shore. There was nothing particularly wrong with this one, and Steve liked this one more than I, for the music, for being young once, for being best friends, for ruing the passage of time and reaching out across it. So it was sentimental in a manly, Irish way. I thought the neatest thing about it was watching them hand harvest mussels (which you can see in this clip), and I guess the scenery is pretty. But the story did nothing for me, and I thought it went on a bit — and a bit clumsily, with a strange comic chase scene as the estranged friend attempts to reconnect with his boyhood chum. I guess Paddy’s misinterpretation of the reconciliation effort (he thinks the authorities are tracking him down for his illegal harvesting, when in reality Jim has sent a horse and rider across the marsh to reach him more quickly) is a parallel to the twenty-five years of misunderstanding that lay between the two men. I guess. But I couldn’t really work up much sympathy, empathy, or interest.
Time Freak. This is the U.S. entry, and the shortest, and the cutest, I thought. Although not brilliant and more than a little derivative of Groundhog Day. And again, if you want to push it for meaning, perhaps reading more into it than this slight confection deserves, another film with myopia and self-centeredness at its heart.
Tuba Atlantic. My God Norway looks dreary! But I liked that, getting to see where Edvard Munch and Ibsen lived; gives insight to their art. And I liked that the protagonist’s brother lived in New Jersey (I do love Jersey too; one lady in the back of the Showroom did give a little applause/shout-out when the crusty Oskar revealed his sibling’s current location). But for the rest, I can’t say that I really liked this. Mean, solitary old man is given six days to live, and a kind of ditzy teenage “Angel of Death” in training comes to stay with him to see him through the Kubler-Ross stages of grieving. Which is funny and improbable. And there are touches we are supposed to find funny, like the old man’s loathing of seagulls, which he determinedly machine guns out of the sky and whose nests he tromps on at every opportunity. I dunno; I didn’t particularly think that was funny. The movie’s conceit is that he, now on death’s door, slowly melts decades of bad feelings and jealousy in attempting to reach out to his long-estranged younger brother. When a single attempt at phoning him doesn’t work, he waits for the wind to change so he can implement the Atlantic Tuba he and his brother invented but never tested: soundwaves crashing from Norway to New Jersey. All ends well: the brother hears and knows, Oskar dies, no words are exchanged, only sound. Which in its transatlantic passing has caused innumerable incidents of damage (albeit of a comic sort: like a lost flock of sheep, a rainfall of dead gulls, etc.). Which proves — what exactly? That everything is worth the price of reaching out? I don’t know. And willing the ditzy teenager his machine gun to vigilantly strike down more gulls, I just didn’t think was funny.