Dystopic. Dour. Despairing. Dark dark dark. And, to break from the alliteration, grim. Taken collectively, this year’s ten Oscar-nominated live action and animated shorts — save for a few that focus on individual loss and love and one extremely quirky and unsettling futuristic vision — revolve around culture clash. The “other” features prominently, and we don’t like them. Few of the messages offered are uplifting, hopeful, or ennobling; most agree that war is our natural state, negating any chance of lasting reconciliation on the basis of shared humanity.
As has become a much-anticipated annual ritual, we headed to the Asbury Showroom, our cozy walking-distance indie art house, for two chilly evenings of shorts. This year, the chill was not just due to a New Jersey February. Even though there are sparks of warmth generated by the unabashedly romantic Stutterer, the beyond-the-grave devotion of the boyhood friends in both Shok and We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, and the love of family that heartbreakingly permeates Bear Story and drives the action of Sanjay’s Super Team, most of the others point out man’s inability to live at peace with himself, his family, his neighbors, and the larger world. A sad message indeed, and all too evident in our present reality.
Two of the animation pieces particularly thrilled and stirred me. Bear Story, a dialogue-free Chilean CG masterpiece with undertones of political repression, moved me to tears with its story of tragic and senseless loss.
And World of Tomorrow, by the distinctive stylist Don Hertzfeldt (who did the brilliant and similarly discomfiting It’s Such a Beautiful Day) is staggering in its tone, style, and implications. It, like It’s Such a Beautiful Day, is available for streaming on Netflix and Videomeme, and I recommend it enthusiastically. What World of Tomorrow does is set a sterile, lonely, solipsistic future (its only characters are the child Emily and her strange visitor from the future, her third-generation self-reproduced clone) against the wide-eyed innocent wonder of a child; it cannot be a coincidence that the character is named after Thornton Wilder’s Our Town heroine.
Also worth noting of the animation pieces is Prologue.This was done by Richard Williams (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) and is apparently the beginning of a longer work. Its power too lies in juxtaposition: achingly beautiful hand-drawn illustrations of a glorious natural world against which four Greek warriors battle graphically and brutally to the death.
This is not to disparage the artistry or messages of the other two animated works. They just did not speak to me with the same passion as these three.
Of the live action pieces, two dealt explicitly, and one implicitly, with long-established conflicts between peoples: Albanians/Serbs, Afghanis/Americans, Israelis/Palestinians. A fourth dealt with another longstanding conflict: that between (ex-)spouses. Only the fifth, and our favorite, was an internal conflict. Stutterer dealt movingly and imaginatively with the inability to push out words from head and heart through the mouth. We heard his pain. And of course, I loved that he was a typographer. The filmmakers carefully showed how the protagonist could communicate through and with a broad range of media and methods — just not the one that comes so easily from most lips.
The one I think will win, however, is one of the war stories. Shok tells a tale of a boyhood friendship tested by cowardice, reinforced by self-sacrifice and bravery, and ended by an adult brutality that is as unreasoning and senseless as the children’s actions are thoughtful and sensitive. It’s a heartbreaker, and based on truth — which makes it even more heartbreaking.
Of the live action pieces, my least favorite was Ave Maria. Since viewing, I have gathered that this is a comedy, and may in fact be favored to win. The first-ever Palestinian movie nominated for an Oscar, it juxtaposes the inflexible religious traditions of Orthodox Jews with a sect of silence-bound Arab nuns, as they try jointly to resolve a problem. I found the depiction of the Jews difficult to get past: the characters came off as needlessly nasty, demanding, whiny, and nettlesome. I found no particular effort on the filmmakers’ part to bridge the divide between cultures they were apparently asking their subjects to do. Instead, and this is of course my perception, they laid stereotype in the way of understanding. And unfortunately, that reinforces the message of damned, doomed, and eternal strife these shorts collectively convey.