Sundance Shorts 2013

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What a lovely treat we had Sunday; we saw eight of the 2013 Sundance Shorts at Asbury’s Showroom art movie house. The program was by turns fascinating, sad, whimsical, arresting, shocking, and smart. The storytelling methods and techniques used were diverse and creative: one was animated, one told its story in still photos, one was an animated documentary, one a wordless music video. Here are some brief notes and impressions; where possible, I have linked to full versions of the shorts that are available online:

      • The Date (directed by Jenni Toivoniemi): Possibly the weakest of the group, and thus a good place to start. The date of the title is between two pure-bred Siamese cats, whose owners bring them together to mate. A light reflection on mating rituals, human and otherwise.
      • Whiplash (directed by Damien Chazelle): Relentlessly interesting, this is art meets boot camp, as a young student drummer joins a class of jazz musicians run by a quixotic, mercilessly demanding instructor played by familiar character actor J.K. Simmons (above right). He is chillingly effective, as when he berates a sloppy mess of a student for being off key until the poor boy leaves never to return—at which point he laconically informs another student that in fact it was he who was off, but that the departed hadn’t known the difference and so deserved to be cast out. Simmons’s swift changes from amiable to apoplectic shatter the viewer’s nerves as well as the students’. I wondered if art is really ever taught this brutally, and if art that does come from fear can still be art. I felt the piece unfinished, as if it were an excerpt, and it turns out that indeed it is, and will be a full film shortly. The characters and situation are absorbing; this should be interesting.
      • Skinningrove (directed by Michael Almereyda): This is perhaps the most intriguing of all the pieces. It is a fourteen-minute travelogue of a tiny, almost inaccessible, “fiercely independent” North Yorkshire fishing/mining community, told through some forty black and white still photographs taken over a period of several years by photographer Chris Killip. The film is essentially a slide show, with Killip speaking off to a camera with his profile to
        Photo by Chris Killip.

        us, and the slides displayed from a computer in front of him onto a screen facing us. A curiously distancing effect, keeping the subject curated and away and apart from us, while this coolly disengaged narrator talks dispassionately about the town, the people, the landscape, the history, the economy. Full disclosure: I did not know who Killip was, his reputation, his art. And so, based on nothing more than his tone and demeanor, I found myself resisting his explications. Not that he made interpretations or drew conclusions with which I disagreed. No: He is what Isherwood aspired to be—a camera. He records. He does not invest his images with emotion, and he does not discuss them with emotion. Perhaps that was what I was resisting: I saw people with bowed heads and averted glances and discerned unhappiness, discontent, sadness. Killip merely remarks on their style of clothing or the fact that one or another of them would die in a few years or that their manner indicated that they had grown comfortable with him there. I objected, I think, to his lack of personal engagement. On thinking about it afterwards, perhaps that is his art. And it was certainly extremely well served and intelligently preserved through this piece.

      • Until the Quiet Comes (directed by Kahlil Joseph): This sleek, slight, seductive music video leaves so much open to interpretation. Elegant and haunting.
      • Irish Folk Furniture (directed by Tony Donoghue): This was one of my top two favorites, and the first that brought tears to my eyes. This is a magical little stop-motion animated documentary about old furniture—castoff and workaday—given a little attention, a fresh coat of paint, and a new life. But it’s really about so much more. It’s about the sweet, humble touches that make up a home; it’s about the aging of the home and its inhabitants; it’s Our Town really, isn’t it? In an interview, the director noted, “We are permanently surrounded by things that in themselves are interesting but sometimes those same things have to be isolated out for us to see them properly.” That is true; true too is the fact that I wanted to come home and make things, create with my hands, build and smooth and fashion and fix. Inspiring. Charming. Click here for a trailer.
      • The Event (directed by Julia Pott). This is the other of my top two favorites, and the other that brought tears. As well as awe and wonder that so much could be packed in so short a time and so simple an animation. The event referenced is apocalyptic; but the storytelling is in reverse, so you get farther from the event as the short lengthens. A very unexpected—almost shocking—device, and very satisfactory. Interestingly, this was one of three shorts that used a reversing device to tell or underscore its story (“Jonah” and “Irish Folk Furniture” being the others), thus expressing a longing to undo and revert.
      • Jonah (directed by Kibwe Tavares): An appealing fable of two young men and a fish and what happens to a run-down Tanzanian coast community that relies on tourist dollars when the vision of this amazing fish is plastered across billboards and publicized for all it is worth. There is a moment in the movie when the growth is good, and the village and its people prosper, and the tourists are happy. That moment does not last, and decline, degradation, and degeneracy creep—and then rush—in, as the unsavory flip side of prosperity is revealed, seedy and reeking. And I thought, why can’t that moment of balance have continued? and that I realized, that’s the picture: it’s just a flash, just a moment, and then it changes into another moment. That might not have been the filmmakers’ message, but that’s what struck me. It is a beautifully filmed piece, filled with lovely vibrant colors and magic-seeming CGI.
      • K.I.T. (directed by Michelle Morgan): Not quite at the level of the preceding several (and I’m still not sure what the title means), this is about an overprivileged young woman who decides to act on her impulsive “we should get together” invitation to the checkout girl at the local market. It takes a bit too long to get to its punchline, but it’s not terrible (I know; damning with faint praise).

It was a pleasure and a privilege to get to see these: so thought provoking, clever, and beautiful. And so many women involved in the production and direction—another pleasure.

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