January 30, 2009

The Big Red Picture: Cornell Alums on Screen

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The Cornell in Hollywood Alumni Film Festival, a compilation of six short films made by Cornell alums, is put on by Cornell in Hollywood, an extension of the Cornell Club of Los Angeles. I had the opportunity to attend the festival while I was in L.A. last November, and I really enjoyed most of the films, so I figured I’d check it out again when it came to campus this past Tuesday.
The festival began with the new trailer for Cornell in Hollywood’s Internship Program, which places Cornell students in summer internships with Cornell alumni in the entertainment industry. The trailer posits itself as a cute historical satire about Ezra Cornell’s long-secret infatuation with Hollywood. Apparently the drunken stonemason who forged the original crest left off Ezra’s final line “… and make it big in Hollywood!” The trailer ended as a funny and informative introduction to the Cornell in Hollywood Internship Program, and then it was time for the six shorts.
The first film screened, The Beginning and The End, was written and directed by Josh Greenbaum ’01. The short utilizes a split screen to exhibit both halves of a narrative at the same time, with the left side of the screen starting at the beginning and telling the story forwards, and the right side of the screen starting at the end and telling its half of the story backwards. The short successfully reinforced this simultaneous storyline concept by using a song played both forwards and backwards at the same time as its score.
The film culminates in the middle, with a fitting resolution linking the disparate action that had been taking place on either sides of the screen. Without utilizing any dialogue whatsoever, Greenbaum manages to keep the viewer engaged and interested in what’s going to happen next on either side of the screen.
Next up was Mr. Popcorn, a series of two computer-animated shorts by Alexander Krivicich ’08 which depict a lovable, life-size kernel and his anger management issues. The first episode had Mr. Popcorn noticing a scratch on his shiny blue convertible and the disastrous results that his anger manages to precipitate. The second short depicted Mr. Popcorn watching television and getting the proverbial munchies from an almost-too-catchy commercial for “Tasty Snacks,” and ending up having a hard time handling the prep time for the only snack he could find in his house (hint: it goes in the microwave). The shorts each lasted about a minute or so, but both still deservedly earned rancorous laughter from the audience. Krivicich has won numerous awards for the first episode of Mr. Popcorn, including “National Finalist” at the 2008 Student Academy Awards.
Once you read the tagline for The Replacement Child by Justin Lerner ’02, “If God doesn’t answer your prayers, maybe Todd Turnbull (our protagonist) will,” you realize that the superhero allusion inherent in T.T.’s initials holds true. The film begins with a gritty, stylized shot of our protagonist staring up at a large crucifix while listening to “Must Jesus Bear This Cross Alone” by Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers. The film then manages to set up a perfect set of redneck characters chopping logs, driving pickup trucks, and … treating their children’s dangerous infections solely with prayer. We learn early on that Todd was sent away from home to a religious reform school for brutally beating his stepfather, and that he’s just been sent home for having served his tenure. It’s obvious to us that Todd is out of place in this backwards community, and that fact is solidified when he runs into the girl he left behind (his best friend’s sister) and finds a ring on her finger and a bump in her belly.
The film’s carefully planned and executed shots, lighting and slow-motion sequences make the film incredibly worthwhile, entertaining, and alluring. My favorite aspect of the film, however, was the repeated use of Sam Cooke & the Soul Stirrers’s soulful, moving rendition of “Touch the Hem of His Garment,” the lyrics of which closely mirror a number of circumstances and themes within the film. I found the film to be amongst my favorites, which isn’t surprising considering Lerner has won awards at 12 of the 30 festivals he’s screened it at, including a Student Emmy.
The last film shown at the festival, Deface, received the most hype out of all of this year’s submissions. The film focuses on the role of individualism and dissent in contemporary fascist North Korea, and was written and directed by John Arlotto ’94. The film’s protagonist, Sooyoung, lives and works on a government farm that seems more or less equivalent to slavery, save for the illusion of citizenship presented to the people by the Party. The film begins and ends with public executions of dissenters by firing squad, further exhibiting the struggle between fascism and individualism. You can clearly identify Mr. Arlotto’s painting background through his beautiful use of contrasting colors, as well as through his adept usage of both picturesque landscapes that resemble North Korea and ironic, iconic retro propaganda posters that depict positive slogans and happy North Korean citizens. Arlotto exemplifies an acute understanding of the shot-by-shot dynamic that it takes to fully express a complex range of themes and emotions through film, and won Best Narrative Short at the Austin Film Festival, qualifying Deface for Oscar consideration this past year.