February 11, 2008

Mid-Winter Worthy

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It would be fair to say that mid-February is not the high point of this Hollywood year — we’re a long way from the summer blockbuster season, the writer’s strike has starved TV, and the slow run-up to the Academy Awards leaves much to be desired at the multiplex. Good thing, then, that this Friday and Saturday night Cornell Cinema is showing the year’s Oscar-nominated short films. Broken into the animated and live-action categories, the offerings, nearly all international (and largely Northern European), offer a refreshing break from the predictability of the big studio offerings.
First, the animation (don’t you dare call them cartoons): let it suffice to say that technical virtuosity abounds. My Love (Moya Lyubov, Russia) is animated with a combination of paint on glass and rotoscoping, the technique of drawing over live-action film that was featured in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. The result is stellar, although the heavy Russian melodrama is a bit much. Rather lighter is Même les pigeons vont au paradis (Even Pigeons Go to Heaven) (Samuel Tourneux and Simon Vanesse, France), a funny story about an old man and his purchase of a heaven-bound vehicle. I Met the Walrus (Josh Raskin, Canada) has a cool concept: it’s mostly black and white animation, reminds you of good artsy music videos, and is set against the recording of a fourteen year-old’s interview with John Lennon from 1969.
Peter and the Wolf (Suzie Templeton and Hugh Welchman, Britain and Poland) is great. Set against Prokofiev’s classic piece, it utilizes a style that’s half Christmas claymation, half Team America, but way better than both. Far above it, though, is Madame Tutli-Putli (Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski, Canada), which has a serious, sophisticated tone and is alternately scary and entertaining during the surreal train ride of its female protagonist.
Despite the merits of these animated pieces, though, the live-action nominees are decidedly more interesting. Their short running times (all under 40 minutes) mean the stakes are high: every line of dialogue, every change of shot, gains an added importance. As such, a couple of the works are no more than cute farces: Le Mozart des Pickpockets, by Phillipe Pollet-Villard of France, follows two bumbling criminals and their discovery of a young thieving prodigy; it’s entertaining, but rather vapid. Tanghi Argentini (Guido Thys and Anja Daelemans, Belgium) feels like a long concept commercial, with an awkward office minion trying to learn the tango in two weeks. Both are well-done, but forgettable.
Tonto Woman (Daniel Barber and Matthew Brown, Britain) is a horse of a different color. It goes for weightiness and meaning with a story about a pioneer woman in the old West who has been kidnapped and tattooed on the face by the Mojave. Her knight in shining armor, a cattle thief named Ruben Vega, comes along one day to lift her loneliness and fight society’s intolerance. The film is bad from the get-go: sloppy exposition, pretentious dialogue, crappy acting. It’s an example of a short film that thinks too much of itself; imitating the best techniques of modern Western classics like Open Range, it fails to capture any of their effective austerity.
If none of the above sounds too exciting, well, get your hopes up: two of the films are superb. The first is Il Supplente (The Substitute), a supremely charming work by Andrea Jublin of Italy. Brief but filled with surprises, it features one long, unbroken scene in which we’re treated to physical comedy, clever wordplay, and formidable acting. Basically, there’s a substitute teacher who’s too good at dealing with kids; the film is “dedicated to those with difficulties with conduct.” A twist in the middle proves how one simple idea, when done well, is sufficient for a short film.
And then there’s At Night — simply fantastic. First time Danish nominees Christian E. Christiansen and Louise Vesth present a couple of days in the life of three young women living (and dying) in a cancer ward. The film is too smart, too honest to simply ask for pity, or to try in some grandiose way to explain death; instead, it explores the various ways in which we face the inevitable end (bravery, indifference, fear), and our sometimes comical ignorance in doing so. Without over-simplifying the matter, it shows the utter boredom and loss of control that goes along with passing one’s last days in an ultra-hygienic by-station on the way to death. Everything is just right: the camerawork, the music, the acting and the writing combine in one of the saddest (yet unsentimental) works of film in recent memory.
So, in conclusion: these short films aren’t all perfect. Nonetheless, there’s enough that are damn close (Madame Tutli-Putli, At Night), as well as enough variety in the approaches taken by the directors, that now, Hollywood’s winter of discontent, is the perfect time to check them out. Do it.