4/14/04:

My girlfriend Sarah joined me at all three of my movies today, and all three were screening at the same place--the International House. This was good in that I didn't have to do any frantic travelling between movies, but it was bad in that the International House is probably the most uncomfortable venue in the entire festival.

I took the trolley over into West Philly and got to my first movie nice and early, but due to a miscommunication, Sarah arrived late and upset, not to mention a bit wet (it rained again today). To make matters worse, our first screening (a collection of shorts) was pretty bad. Luckily (or unluckily, depending on how you look at it) we managed to get into the theater before any movies started playing.

Films I saw today: When All Else Is Lost (including Obsolete, Mother Divine, Bacon, Jack's Garden, Bad Blood, Loneliness, and Bet Herut: The End of the Beginning), Source, Proteus, Art Comes to Life (including Destino, Maanvis, Sieviete (Woman), Guard Dog, OiO, Mt. Head, The Fall, Requiem, I'm a Star, Inside/Outside, Free Run, Islet, Colour Keys, Nibbles, and It Could Be Worse)

When All Else Is Lost

A collection of shorts about loss. Most of the films included in this collection were quite bad, although there were a few diamonds in the rough. The crowd was apparently made up mainly of friends and relations of the filmmakers, since they applauded vigorously even for the worst of the films. Speaking of the crowd, there were a strange couple of people behind us who made the experience even more annoying. One of them was constantly explaining and describing everything that was happening in the movies to the other person. I feel kind of bad that this annoyed me so much, as I assume the person who was being given these explanations must have been disabled in one way or another. But still!

Obsolete

This utterly cliche, trite, lame, dull, and boring high school film class reject is set in a future in which robots are in charge and human society is a quaint historical artifact, to be seen now only in museums. (Apparently we blew ourselves up with our own weapons. Where have I heard that story before? Oh, yeah: every other science fiction story ever.) We look into one such museum of human history and find a robot mother and her little robot boy perusing the exhibits. The robots are depicted with completely unimaginative anthropomorphism, which makes little to no sense in the context of this story, wherein the robots are supposed to be fascinated and confused by the alien nature of human society--it doesn't seem like it'd be very alien to them when they are exactly like humans themselves!!! Not to mention the obvious facts that robots would have no need of genders and wouldn't have to grow from little boy-robots into man-robots. Anyway, the little robot kid touches stuff he's not supposed to (robot boys will be robot boys, I suppose) and breaks the exhibit on the human eye. So after the little robot family leaves, the janitor robots come out to clean things up. One particular janitor robot decides to replace his mechanical eye with the human one (which conveniently plugs right into his eye socket and links right into his circuitry somehow) and begins seeing the world in a whole new way--looking over at Vangogh's famous painting, Starry Night, which is exhibited nearby, he now realizes that it is hanging upside down and rights it. Having experienced this epiphany, he puts his now discarded mechanical eye in place of the human eye in the exhibit (oh the irony! I'm choking here) and leaves, presumably to tell other robots about his amazing revelations.

Like I said, garbage. It's not even animated well--it looks like the kind of primitive 3D computer animation that you'd see in cartoons that were made when this technology was just being developed. Obsolete is an all-too-accurate title for this film, with its tired old story and bland, hackneyed techniques. It's kind of like the last, wretched minutes of Spielberg's A.I., but even worse.

Mother Divine

Another awful film. A woman goes into a run-down old hotel and takes a room. She seems very upset about something. She calls her mother on the phone and tries to apologize for something--apparently she's going somewhere soon and wants forgiveness before she leaves. Her mother is apparently unwilling to offer forgiveness, however. The woman doesn't react well to this. She takes a bunch of pills and hallucinates that she's on a stage, then collapses. I assume she is meant to have killed herself.

Watching this film was one of the longest fifteen minutes of my life. It moves incredibly slowly and is loaded with plenty of terrible, stilted acting (which is kind of impressive, given that there are only two actors in the film). It's so melodramatic, unimaginative and trite that it made me want to vomit. I tried to sleep through it, but I've never mastered the art of napping. Ah, well.

Bacon

This is a very short animated film about some anthropomorphic food. A couple of pieces of bacon are frying in a pan. They realize they're being cooked and freak out (understandably). The fruit nearby comment, and then the film ends. Unfortunately, the sound on this film was so poor that I wasn't able to hear most of the dialogue. I got the sense that I didn't miss much, though--it looked like a pretty silly little movie.

Jack's Garden

This live action documentary/memoir by Amy Olk was easily the best of the shorts in this collection, and is possibly my favorite short in the festival this year. It's about the suicide of the director's father and her memories of him, and is composed of fictional reenactments and actual home video footage. Jack was a bit of a prankster (he loved plastic dog turds and rubber roaches), and possibly a manic depressive. Despite his simple last wishes (a party instead of a funeral; his ashes used as fertilizer in the yard he loved), and the fact that his most religious saying in life was, "I hope God grades on a curve," his wife holds a very religious funeral service for him, during which the preacher describes Jack as having "a sick mind." But Olk remembers him as a simple, lovable man, only as flawed as the rest of us. It's a very personal film, but through this personal introspection, Olk hits upon universal feelings and truths that we all understand. Jack's Garden is moving and funny and smart and totally excellent.

Bad Blood

Bad Blood is an animated documentary (directed by Jonathan Etkins) about an outrageous medical study that began in 1932 and finally ended in 1972 when its existence was made known through the press. 400 African Americans living in and around Tuskegee, Alabama were allowed to progress into the last stages of syphilis so the progress of the illness could be studied. (I want to note here that the festival website erroneously connects the study to the Tuskegee Airmen; this is the same Tuskegee, Alabama but, as far as I can determine, the Airmen were not involved in the study.) I'm ashamed to admit that I had not heard about this episode in American history until I saw this film. Bad Blood is little more than a straightforward narration of what occurred, accompanied by some stylized animation depicting the events described in a series of black-and-white, constantly transforming drawings. The film ends by telling us that these tests went on for 40 years, but it took 25 more years before the subjects received an official apology. An internet encyclopedia informs me that some describe the initial stages of the trial as ethically defensible, given the lax medical ethics of the time, and the fact that the treatments for syphilis were largely ineffective and had drastic side effects. But the continuation of the study, after an effective, simple treatment was developed in 1947, and after standards for medical ethics came into use, was obviously unacceptable.

I can't call this a great film, as it tells its story with little art or subtlety. The purpose of art is certainly to communicate a message, but that is not its only purpose; if it were, then novelists would just tell people the moral of their stories and omit the stories. Art should obscure its message and enfold it in beautiful veils. If all you want to do is make a speech about something, then make a speech about it--but don't call it art. I'm thinking here of some of the early, folksy protest songs of Bob Dylan--they're great as angry calls for social reform, but as songs they're awful.

That being said, Bad Blood is ultimately very moving and disturbing, and if it can make more people aware of this atrocity then it is certainly an important film.

Loneliness

You can already tell from the title this one's going to be pretty bad. And then it starts, and you see on the screen not one, but two epigrams, one of them a quote from Shakespeare, and you know you're in for some real pain. In fact, the movie is divided into sections, each one with at least one epigram, and most of the epigrams are quotes from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. A short digression on quoting Shakespeare: don't do it. He's really been over-quoted, and if your movie's as bad as this one is, referencing such excellent source material will just make your film look even worse by comparison.

Anyway, to get back to the movie: if I could use only one word to describe Loneliness that word would be pretentious. But since I can use more than one word, I'll add to that corny, cheap, lame, slow, and dull. Loneliness looks like a really bad student film and, in fact, that's almost certainly what it is. It's kind of like that ridiculously awful poetry that we all write in high school (and, in fact, the festival website informs me that the film is based on a poem by V. Ulea--although I don't know how much I can trust the website, as the page for this shorts collection has various factual errors and typos, and even describes this film as "visionary"). The story is some garbage about a bunch of lonely losers who hang out in the local bar in a small town. The main character is the undertaker, Mr. Ashburn. But to call him, or anyone else in the film, a "character" is being generous--most of them are merely stereotypes of one sort or another, with bad puns for names. There's the faded starlet, for instance, named Courtie Zaan. I really choked on that one. I think the esteemed director of this mess, Michael Zubarev, was going for a kind of Edward Gorey kind of atmosphere here, but he utterly failed. He also included some computer effects to fill in for scenes that apparently would have been too expensive and difficult to actually film (like, for instance, a sign with some words on it), and to flesh out the lengthy and ridiculous nightmare sequence at the end of the film. These graphics are just as poorly done as everything else. They're ugly, and they just serve to underline the cheap quality of the film overall.

Did I mention that this is a silent film? That's how pretentious it is. I'd already seen a really pretentious and awful silent film short in this year's festival, and now I hope to see no more, ever.

Bet Herut: The End of the Beginning

This was the longest of the shorts in this collection, clocking in at 53 minutes--just under an hour. It's a documentary about a moshav (a kind of collective, cooperative town that exists in Israel) called Bet Herut. The filmmaker, Eran Preis, lived in this community for most of his early life. The founder of the community, and Eran's hero and father figure, was an idealistic man named Nachi Ariel. He believed in the idea of the moshav, in a community working together and helping each other to survive. Eran talks about his ideal man--a man of the land, who is of and by and for the land, who lives for it and loves it. It's clear that Nachi was the closest to his ideal. Eran's actual father was anything but a man of the land--he was a self-taught accountant. Eran always felt like the moshav could have done more for his family, and finally he left and began a life in America. He learned later of Nachi's death and the strange circumstances surrounding it--how Nachi killed his retarded son Daniel, and Daniel's retarded wife, and then himself. One interpretation of these actions is that Nachi didn't believe he could leave his disabled son and daughter-in-law to the charity of the moshav. He didn't trust the community to help and support them. Eran wanted to know more about this, and finally he decided, many years later, to go back with a film crew and make a documentary about Nachi and his death.

But when Eran arrived at Bet Herut, he found the moshav in the midst of falling apart, and realized that he had a different story to tell--the story of the moshav itself; its people, its life, its death, its rebirth. He finds that the moshav has changed a great deal from its idealistic beginnings. It is losing its form as a socialist commune and turning into a tiny capitalist America--it's moving away from cooperative to individualistic. "We don't have any dreams anymore," one of the leading members of the community says. But Eran looks at this dying community and sees hope. He came here thinking that the moshav had failed his hero Nachi, but seeing the community faltering, he finds he wants it to live again. As he delves into the history of the moshav and of Nachi, he discovers what Bet Herut really is, and that he always had unrealistic expectations of it. It is an imperfect, living, changing community. It, like Nachi, is not and could never be an ideal given form. It is as flawed and as subject to transformation as a human being. By the end of the film, Eran has made his peace with Bet Herut, and has found that its people do indeed have a strong connection to the land, and to each other.

Bet Herut is quite a long film, especially when placed at the end of a shorts collection, and sometimes it was hard to sit through. Also, I don't if this was just a problem with the particular print I saw, or if this is a problem with the way the film was put together, but most of it looked overexposed, and at a few points in the film, a few of them rather pivotal, the screen was so bright white and washed-out that it was impossible to read the subtitles. That aside, the film was quite moving and involving--a multi-layered portrait of a community and an individual.

My Poll Rating: Fair

Intermission

As we filed outside after the rather disappointing grab bag of films that was When All Else Is Lost, we discovered that there was already a line outside the theater for the next film, and we hurried to get into it. Here we met a friend, Alex, and had a short conversation with her about movies and such. We realized that people were already going into the theater, and I ran ahead to make use of my all-access pass and grab seats for us. I'm not even sure the festival people set up a separate line for the all-access people at this screening. I'm constantly amazed at how disorganized the festival is. Anyway, I grabbed us some good seats and we settled in. The woman who introduced this screening told us that Proteus was her favorite film in the festival this year, so I was pretty excited to see it. It was preceded by yet another short film.

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Source

When I heard there was going to be a short in front of Proteus, I have to say, I wasn't looking forward to seeing it. Maybe it was because of the poor quality of the shorts I've seen so far in this festival (especially the shorts I've seen with Sarah for some reason), but I just had a bad feeling about this one. Happily, I had nothing to worry about. Source (the festival website indicates that the title of this film is Annotate, but that doesn't make any sense as a title for this film, and it's not the title that I wrote down in my notes, so I'm sticking with Source) is about electricity--what it is, what it does, the methods we have for obtaining it, and how those methods work. The film provides the commentary of adult experts on these subjects, but it also provides the perspective of a child--how she sees and understands electricity and how it reaches us and powers our devices. Interviews with these various people are intercut with, and augmented by, animated sequences--actual books, maps and diagrams flash past, then become living pop-up books as cut-outs jump forth from the pages and point us on to the next page, the next idea. The soundtrack crackles and pops with the noises of the things being described. The film moves forward quickly and lightly, leaping from one idea to the next, from one image to the next, constantly connecting onward in a flowing chain of motion and similarities. I have to admit I didn't come out of it knowing much more about electricity than I did when I went in (the only ideas that stuck with me were the ones I was already familiar with--electricity is very important and runs many things; renewable energy is very important), but even if the content of the film didn't wow me, I did enjoy myself quite a bit, and I found the techniques, the style, the structure, and the format of the film very impressive and quite memorable. A nice, slick little movie.

Proteus

The title of this documentary (directed by David Lebrun) refers to an old man of the sea in Greek mythology who could change himself into any shape he wished. But the real subject of the film is a different old man of the sea--a famous and influential scientist and artist named Ernst Haeckel. Like many men of science in his day (the late nineteenth century), he was a bit of a renaissance man, dabbling in medical science and marine biology (before there was such a thing), and expressing opinions and theories on psychology and evolution, among other things. For most of his career, his official subject of study was comparative anatomy. The film focuses mainly on his interest in art and in a particular single-celled sea creature called the radiolarian.

In telling the story of Haeckel, Proteus takes on other, far larger stories, such as the history of late nineteenth century science as a whole; and it makes constant metaphors and allusions to sources and subjects as diverse as Faust, Coleridge's famous poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Goethe, Jung, Darwin, evolution, Nietzsche, Lenin, mythology, Freud, religion, D. H. Lawrence, and alchemy. It speaks of many opposing pairs of forces that were clashing at the time, and discusses how they were embodied in the figure of Haeckel--Enlightenment and Romanticism; science and religion (Christianity, to be more precise); science and materialism; science and art; spirit and matter; stasis and change; external and internal worlds; reality and dream; mind and heart; precision and passion; inorganic and organic. It posits that the world, and Haeckel himself personally, was divided between these various powerful forces, but that Haeckel found a way to bridge the gap and unite them--and that way led through the radiolarian.

The radiolarian is a tiny, tiny animal that comes in thousands of forms and species, many of which were discovered and classified by Haeckel himself. Their tiny skeletons take the form of perfect geometric shapes. They look like strange, fragile, lattice-work constructions--globes with holes in them and spikes sticking out, elongated oval forms, bells, spider webs. The film has many musical interludes consisting of nothing but picture after picture of beautiful radiolarians. As the shifting forms flash by one after another, it becomes like some kind of mesmerizing dance or parade.

When the film is not busy showing us radiolarians, it is telling us the history of Haeckel's life, and of 19th century science. Haeckel was to be a medical doctor, but he never developed a taste for the work. Instead, he went to the seaside, got into painting, and considered dropping the science gig altogether in favor of art. But then something came along that allowed him to fuse both of his passions--the radiolarian. He discovered them and their beauty, and began to not only examine and classify them scientifically, but also to paint them. Much of what he discovered were the fossilized remains of radiolarians, some over 500 million years old. It was as if (the movie poetically states) the ancient sea were dreaming all combinations of shapes. The artist, it was believed, could heal the split between man and nature. Perhaps, the film suggests, Haeckel was that artist.

As I said, the film touches on many other subjects, as well, telling us about how the attempt to lay telegraph cables across the ocean helped advance our knowledge of deep sea life, and about the expedition of The Challenger, a converted war ship sent on a three year mission to explore the depths of all the oceans (I have to say, I very much enjoyed the description of The Challenger being stripped of its guns and weapons and fitted with tools of the new science). All of these stories are interesting and rather well told. But the film jumps about a lot in time, telling us a bit of one story, then leaping back to tell us more about something else, then flipping forward again to carry on a previous story. This jumping seems a bit awkward, especially when the narrator is forced to explain that the bit she's about to talk about takes place after that one bit she's already mentioned, but before that other bit.

Some of the film's many allusions and comparisons seem a bit awkward, as well, not to mention forced and a bit pretentious. It will not give up on its "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" comparison, and keeps returning to the poem again and again. This didn't bother me too much, as it's a good poem, and the metaphor is interesting, if a little melodramatic. But the film has many allusions and metaphors of which it is a little too fond. And it attempts to elevate and idealize its material a bit too much. Take its portrayal of Haeckel. The film touches only briefly on the fact that he was rather disliked in the scientific community. It doesn't mention that his theories were extremely speculative, lacked empirical evidence, and were pretty much all wrong, and that he is now thought to have used falsified data in some of his experiments. The film points out that Haeckel's work was banned and burned by the Nazis, but it doesn't mention that the Nazis also used quotes from his work to support their eugenics programs, among other things. Haeckel thought of evolution as a process of refinement on life forms, and believed that man--specifically, the white European scientist--was the pinnacle and grand end result of evolution's work. The movie, to its credit, does point out that prideful ideas like these were the deepest flaw of the men of this era. "They questioned everything," the narrator quips, "except their own superiority."

Despite its flaws, Proteus tells a good story, shows us some beautiful images, makes some lovely allusions and metaphors (even if it does take some of them a bit far), and provides us with an interesting (if a bit jumbled and one-sided) history lesson. I was and am impressed by its visuals, its music, its clever narration. But, having consulted an encyclopedia or two, I am a bit disappointed in it as a documentary and a purveyor of truth. Anyway, it's a nice story.

My Poll Rating: Very Good

Intermission

We had a short discussion with Alex after the film, and then she was on her way, and we sat down to some dinner, which Sarah had graciously prepared and brought with her. Luckily we had a little while until our next film (Proteus wasn't very long, even with the short up front) and we had time to enjoy it. But soon enough it was time to head into the theater for Art Comes to Life.

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Art Comes to Life

I was pretty excited about this program of shorts, as it was described in the festival program as a collection of museum-quality animated films, and includes an unlikely collaboration between the surrealist painter Dalí and everyone's favorite wholesome family animation studio, Disney. Unfortunately, the much-hyped centerpiece of the collection (which was, to my surprise, shown first) is a bit of an anti-climax, and the other films are uneven in quality, as usual. Also as usual, the description of the program is mostly misleading--only Destino makes me think of a painting in a gallery come alive. I'd really like Michael Enright removed as a programmer for the festival. Besides the fact that he's a terrible speaker and a poor writer whose descriptions are tantamount to fraud, he's just not good at putting together a cohesive collection of high quality films. I know there are lots of short films out there; it doesn't seem like it should be that hard to get together a group of really good ones that all express a similar theme. Ah, well.

Destino

This film, which is basically an attempt by Disney animators to bring Dalí's paintings to life, was started about 58 years ago and only completed last year in France, with help from Dominique Monfery and, I assume, a bunch of French animators (reminds me of the story behind Harryhausen's The Tortoise and the Hare from last year's festival). I like Dalí and his work, and though there are things about Disney I don't like, their films have always entertained me. I was fascinated to see such giants of the worlds of art and entertainment working together.

Surprisingly, the end result of their collaboration is not really all that exciting. It's pretty much exactly what you'd expect from this duo if you've seen their work before. All the familiar Dalí symbols and shapes are here--the melting clocks, the ants, the strange, organic landscapes. And the people who show up in the film have the familiar, clean, beautiful faces of Disney characters. It's a slightly incongruous mix, as you might expect from such a strange pairing of talents. But, well...it's as you might expect. It's Dalí stuff and Disney stuff, together.

It's not like I was utterly disappointed. It's a beautiful film, and true to Dalí's work and vision. It was amazing to see these paintings come to life and move and transform, one into the other. The only real problem with the film is the music, which is obvious, intrusive, and overly romantic--far worse than the usual Disney fare. It's just, I guess I was expecting more--something new and amazing. I enjoyed it well enough, but I think perhaps if I saw it again now, with my expectations lowered to a more reasonable level, I'd enjoy it even more.

Maanvis

A simple, quiet, meditative little film, Maanvis is a Belgian animated short from director Isabel Bouttens. It is the surreal story of a boy out fishing and the strange, magical fish he meets. The film is done with only rich blacks and glowing whites. The lines of its drawings are simple curves and straights. It plays with perspective, proportions, and reflections--a fish swims in the sky and eats the moon, then spits it out again. The film is, at 10 minutes, one of the longest in the collection, but it doesn't seem very long. There's just not much to it. It's nice, I suppose, but I like a little more meat on my films. Maanvis doesn't really tell a story, and it isn't really about anything--it has nothing to say. Perhaps it's meant to be merely an exercise in technique--a work of style and atmosphere, rather than of content--but its technique isn't all that exciting. It's a rather dull film, to tell the truth.

Sieviete

This film is referred to only as Woman on the festival website, even though the title displayed during the screening was the word you see above. I had to do a little research to discover that these two titles were referring to the same film. "Sieviete" is apparently the Latvian word for "woman," and the film is based on Latvian folk tales about the creation of woman and her first encounters with man. Unfortunately, this film comes to us from Signe Baumane, my most disliked filmmaker at the moment. My dislike of her is based entirely upon Five Fucking Fables, the worst film in the worst collection of the worst short films I've ever seen. So maybe I'm being unfair; you probably shouldn't judge a filmmaker on the basis of one film. But I can't say I enjoyed Sieviete very much, either, so she's pretty much 0 for 2 with me now.

Baumane must be a pretty messed up person, not just because her films are violent and full of sick, twisted depictions of sexuality, although those are certainly two of the reasons. I was certain Five Fucking Fables was made by some depraved misogynistic man. I was a bit shocked to discover that Baumane was a woman. Does she hate herself and all her sex? I mean, Sieviete is hardly complimentary of woman, either. She is depicted here as either totally passive or demonically seductive, and either way she is dangerous, and can lead others to their doom.

Is Baumane perhaps trying to subtly undermine these visions of women as only passive or destructive, of sex as a disgusting and violent act? If so, I see no sign of it in her films. Maybe she's being too subtle for me. I certainly found Sieviete a bit hard to follow. It begins with a woman being poured out of the moon, wrapped in bandages. Time goes by. Tiny red, penguin-like creatures show up, catch her as she falls, and carry her to the top of a mountain. The mountain transforms into a bull (with horns like the moon) and runs off. And suddenly we're watching a boy skipping stones on a pond. At least he seems to be a boy, but--is that a bear in his crotch? I guess the strange animal between the boy's legs is meant to be a metaphorical representation of his penis. Anyway, the woman shows up in the pond, now seemingly merged with the bull--she is read and horned, like a devil. She beckons to the boy. The boy and his bear are intrigued by her, and walk right into the pond, promptly drowning. Time passes, and we come back to the pond, but now the boy/bear creature has swapped its parts, and has become a large bear with a man between its legs. When the woman shows up this time, he's able to pull her out without drowning. Now the view widens out and we discover that the drama of the pond has occurred atop a huge cup, and bulls with bandaged women on their backs keep running into it and sticking by their horns.

All righty then.

Like I said, a little odd and confusing. But it's clearly, as I mentioned above, some kind of parable about the creation of woman, the birth of sexual desire, and stuff of that nature. The film has no dialogue, though some of the creatures do make sounds. The drawings are made with simple shapes and muted shades of primary colors. The characters don't have much expression--they just kind of stare and smile blankly in a vague and rather disturbing way. And Sieviete itself is vague and rather disturbing. I cannot say it pleased me or entertained me very much. Mainly it confused and annoyed me. And I've spent far too much time talking about it, so let's move on.

Guard Dog

I was pretty excited to find a Bill Plympton cartoon amongst these shorts. His brand of manic, fun, goofy animation was a definite relief after the two quiet, slow, dull, thoughtful films I'd just seen. For those of you who don't know, Plympton is one of the great contemporary animators. His work is full of fantastically surreal and hilarious scenes of sex, violence, and transformation. They're kind of like naughty Looney Toons. His drawings are colored sketches full of motion and extreme sizes and shapes; his characters are usually round and bulging and prone to being twisted, stretched, sliced, and blown up. His work can be a bit uneven; sometimes his humor is a little too dirty and stupid, and he's really better at short films than he is at feature length projects--it's a bit hard to sustain a Looney Tune over a full two hours. But in general his films are entertaining and clever.

Luckily, Guard Dog is emblematic of his best work--short, clever, and funny. In it, a tiny, yapping, excited dog is taken on a walk by its owner. The dog is extremely protective of its owner and views every creature it comes across as a possible threat. The film depicts for us each of the dog's hilarious imaginings. A tiny bird becomes, in the dog's mind, a kung fu assassin, flinging its nest like a ninja star at the man. As the film continues, the violent attacks that the dog imagines become more and more extreme and hilarious. In the funniest and most complex of the dog's delusions, a mole digs a huge pit trap, covering it with camouflage. As the man falls in, he drops into a Ronald McDonald costume. At the bottom of the pit, he meets a cow that the mole has dropped in as well. The cow recognizes its enemy and, with raging vengeance, attacks unmercifully. (This scene was particularly funny to me, given the fact that I'd seen Super Size Me only a few days ago.) Ultimately, in a nasty little ironic conclusion, this "guard" dog's insane devotion to its master becomes the man's undoing.

Plympton's short films may not have any important messages to convey, but they're a ton of fun, and a great way to waste five minutes or so. Guard Dog is no exception.

OiO

I didn't see the title of this film during the screening; I had to deduce it later from the list of film titles on the festival program, using process of elimination. It was kind of a waste of my deductive powers, as the title seems pretty meaningless as far as I can tell. The film is a Canadian short that bills itself as a "cinepainting" by Simon Goulet. It consists pretty much entirely of streams of different colored paint flying through the air in slow motion on a black background. It is a study in movement, shape, and color. The various ribbons and streams of paint are accompanied by an interesting soundtrack that includes animal noises and lots of percussion, and slowly changes as the film continues. The music adds a lot of atmosphere and character to the film. At the end of the film, the paint's patterns of movement, which have hitherto seemed either random or merely geometrical and repetitive, form themselves together into a shape and a picture--for a little while we see a landscape of gardens, hills, and water. And then the paint falls away and is gone.

I'd call this film a translation of the act of painting into the cinematic medium--a use of the visual, kinetic, and here-and-then-gone qualities of film to examine paint in motion, and to then create a momentary painting out of that very motion. It's an interesting concept, and it is implemented here with some majesty and grace. I'm not sure what techniques were used--if the paint was computer generated, or if all the streams of paint were real, and they were filmed separately and then composited together using a computer. However it was done, there's a kind of beauty to it.

However, as with other films in this collection, I found myself not very excited by OiO. There's just not much to it. It's nine minutes of paint flying around. Don't get me wrong, the paint flies around very prettily, but after a while, it just gets a little bit boring.

Mt. Head

I must be going to too many film festivals, because when this film came on, I immediately recognized it as a short I'd already seen in a collection of cartoons called The Animation Show that was playing at the Prince Music Theater earlier this year. It's a surreal Japanese film directed by Koji Yamamura (whose name is misspelled on the festival webpage for this collection) which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film last year. It tells a strange story which, I've just discovered, is actually an adaptation of a traditional Japanese Rakugo story called "Atama-yama." As in a kabuki theater performance, the film is accompanied by chanted narration, as well as music from a stringed instrument called a shamisen (Takeharu Kunimoto provides--with great skill, I might add--both narration and music). In the film, we meet a stingy old man who doesn't believe in wasting anything. He uses an old clock for a plate, and his house is full of garbage. When he finds some cherries that have dropped from a cherry tree, not only does he eat them, he eats their hard seeds as well. Soon afterwards, a cherry tree begins growing on his head. He tries cutting it off, but it keeps growing back bigger and bigger. Finally, he gets tired of messing with it and lets it grow.

Spring comes, and the tree blooms. The working men and women, as the narrator tells us in one of the funnier sequences, also bloom, and they are attracted by the cherry tree. They come and have a wild picnic party under the tree. Using clever editing and perspective changes, the movie neatly avoids the impossibility of an entire group of people lounging on top of one man's head. After a shoe falls into his noodles, and someone can't hold it any longer and pees on the cherry tree, the stingy old man gets fed up with all of this and rips the tree out at the roots. Unfortunately, the hole that's left in his head fills with rain water and attracts a new group of people. The old man, really cracking now, wanders off and somehow finds his own pond, which he stares into, as an old man on his head stares into his head pond, and an old man on his head stares...and so forth, ad infinitum. In the surreal and darkly funny conclusion, the stingy man, apparently driven crazy by all of these strange events, leaps into his own head pond...and dies.

This ending comes quite abruptly, and the music which has been playing throughout halts suddenly. From my description, the film might seem a bit depressing and disturbing, but the thing is done with a light heart--the narrator especially adds a great deal of humor with his delivery--and is actually quite silly. It's moral is a simple one: don't be quite so stingy, and try to enjoy life. It's a cute little film, if a little goofy and airy. I enjoyed it even more on this second viewing.

The Fall

This was an incredibly short short (the festival website says two minutes, but I suspect it's even shorter than that) made in Turkey by Burak Sahin. It was presented in what appeared to be video format, and bad quality video, at that. Despite the poor quality copy, I could tell that the animation was detailed and quite excellent. The story goes like this: a man lassoes a wild horse. It drags him for a bit, then he loses it and falls off a cliff. As he falls, he transforms into a bird.

That's it. The end.

There's really hardly enough film here to even talk about. It seems to me if you're going to do a film this short, you've got to have something pretty stunning and amazing and different in it to make an impression before the film is over (see Soccer Time for an example of a truly excellent and imaginative extremely short film). Unfortunately, The Fall has nothing of the sort. The drawings are nice, but this film is otherwise thoroughly unimpressive and unremarkable.

Requiem

This is an American film that consists of narrated memories of WWII that come from an oral history of Japan. The stories come from regular Japanese citizens who stayed home during the war. They are stories of loss and pain. The moral of the film can be summed up by a simple quote: "We shouldn't make death into numbers."

I spoke above about my opinion of movies that simply state what they are trying to tell us with little or no subtlety, and this movie has a bit of a problem with subtlety. Its narration, though certainly authentic and occasionally moving, has no art to it whatsoever. Again, as with Bad Blood, I applaud the message and the purpose of this film, but I must criticize its method of conveying that message. We all know that WWII hurt and killed a lot of people, and it is important to remember that. But a film is meant to say things of this sort with more artistry and imagination. There's many a war film that powerfully conveys the drama and tragedy and horror of war. This is not one of them.

I'm a Star

This one (an American film directed by Stefan Stratil) is basically a music video for a dance/electronica song. And despite that, it's quite good. The visuals have a kind of pop art/comic strip kind of feel to them, and the story seems to be about the later years of Frank Sinatra, and the more embarrassing, scandalous parts of his life--the drinking, the smoking, the girls, the porn, the torrid love affairs. There isn't any dialogue, just an occasional phrase repeated many times on the soundtrack, a technique you will recognize from most dance/electronica. One of the phrases is, "If I could only get her out of my plasma." There's even a visual representation of this phrase--a series of bubbles float up a red background, each one with the same woman's head in it.

I'm a Star is about the sleazy later life of a man whose glory has passed. The title seems to be the rather desperate, pathetic cry of someone who only used to be a star. So the film has that fading hipster vibe--a cool, tragicomic, ironic kind of feeling. The comic strip and pop art visuals work together with the catchy dance music to add even more to the atmosphere of the piece. As I said, it really is a music video--the images and sound are well integrated and make for an enjoyable experience. It's certainly not an important film, but it's a fun way to spend six minutes.

Inside/Outside

More title hijinks--the festival website calls this one simply Outside, while in fact during the main-title sequence of the film, the title was displayed in a box thusly:

IN?SIDE
-------
OUTSIDE

So I have chosen to split the difference and go with Inside/Outside as a title. Anyway, the film is an American one by Seung-Won Choi and Ah-Young Jung, and it is fairly dull and unimaginative. It has one of those endings that's supposed to be really clever and mind-blowing, but since it's pretty much the ending I expected, given the title of the film, and since I'd seen that kind of ending before in a number of other films, I wasn't even remotely surprised or excited by it.

Anyway, here's the story--there's a guy imprisoned somewhere. He has a light bulb on his head for some reason, but that doesn't seem terribly important to the story. Maybe it's supposed to symbolize...something. He's got an idea? I don't know. Anyway, he runs around a large, mostly empty landscape, looking for a way out, and comes across various random people and things on his way--like a woman, a rather dispirited boxing match, and some crazy people. Eventually, he finds a high barb wire fence guarded by a man and a dog. The dog barks at him, but the guard doesn't seem to be paying attention, so our hero climbs the fence. He ends up breaking his head bulb on his way over the fence, but he makes it. On the other side, he meets another man, who looks remarkably like him, and is clearly trying to escape from this side of the fence to the other side.

So who's inside and who's outside?

Woah, I'm freaking out here.

The film is trying to talk about the difference between appearances and reality, and the relativity of terms like "outside" and "inside." You can feel imprisoned even when you're free, and free even when you're imprisoned. These could be interesting subjects, but they are discussed here with little imagination or insight. Most of the events of the film seem obscure and pointless until we reach the end, and I saw that ending coming about a mile off. So I spent the first half of the film confused, and the last half bored. To put it succinctly, Inside/Outside is not a good film.

Free Run

This was a weird little film from Katherine Brown. Basically it's just a series of black and white patterns of shapes that get more complex as the film goes on. There are dots and lines, then planes and bunnies and horses. Eventually sound gets added into the mix. And eventually the film ends.

I don't really have much to say about this one. Nothing too exciting, nothing too horrible. It's only three minutes long and, as I mentioned above, it's hard to develop much of a feeling for a film so short.

Islet

A Canadian film from Nicolas Brault, Islet is a rather wonderful, surreal little cartoon about the chaos that ensues when some Eskimo attempt to do some ice fishing. The ice is, unfortunately, mighty fragile, and keeps breaking off into tiny islets of ice that float off into the ocean, carrying the ice fishermen away. Luckily, the Eskimo can simply grab a fish and inflate it like a balloon, and then float back to the main ice floe. One Eskimo produces a huge construction vehicle out of thin air, which he then uses to transport a whale that he has shot out of the sky. The film ends with each of the Eskimo floating on his/her own tiny ice islet, each holding his/her own fish-balloon.

The story follows the kind of magical, stream-of-consciousness flow of a Looney Toon. It is a chain of impossible but weirdly logical events that are supremely clever and funny. The animation--simple, stark, and excellent--is wonderfully appropriate to the setting and the spare, wordless story. Islet is a little gem. I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Colour Keys

That's the British spelling of color, and not a typo as you might think (although I'll note here another error in the festival webpage for this collection--"colour" is misspelled as "coulor" in the title of this film). This short was made by David Daniels, and is another film that I have very little to say about. It's basically an attempt to create a visual representation of music--in this case some really good piano music. The result is some blocky, pixellated, computer-generated animation. Nothing terribly exciting. I remember Disney doing something very similar in one of their first feature-length animated films--the classic Fantasia. And if Disney did it 60 some years ago in a well known film, why are you doing it again now?

Nibbles

An amusing, though also rather disgusting, film whose purpose seems to be to highlight the irony of the average fishing trip. It introduces itself as an animated documentary--a "documation," the titles helpfully explain--which is based on the true story of a fishing trip. The animation has an interesting primitive look to it that's actually quite neat. The story goes like this: A family gets up and drives out to a lake. On the way, they seem to stop at every single eating establishment there is. We see and hear them munching violently away on ice cream, donuts, pizza, and pretty much every other kind of food you can imagine. The stops, like most of the rest of the film, are edited together into quick little shots, so all we get is a flash of the place they've stopped at, and then a flash of their mouths moving up and down and food flying, and then it's on to the next place. They are forced also to stop for gas, so that their car can consume as well. When they finally get to the lake, they are chomped on by mosquitoes for a little while before a rather small fish bites a worm and they pull it up out of the water. Then it's back on the road, where they once again stop at every eating establishment along the way. And of course, once they get back, it's time to cook and eat the fish!

Obviously the theme here is consumption, and the irony is in the fact that although the family's express purpose in taking the trip is to catch a fish to eat, the trip itself is full of far more food than the tiny fish they acquire can possibly provide. The film can be read as an ironic comment on capitalistic, consumption-obsessed societies. Nibbles is a Canadian film, so I assume the director, Chris Hinton, is aiming his subtle humorous barbs at that nation, but they are just as on target, if not more so, when directed at America, consumption and obesity capital of the world.

But regardless of the target of the film, Nibbles is a fun little piece of documation that's worth a look.

It Could Be Worse

Before I begin talking about this film, my last comment on the festival website: this film isn't even listed on the page for this collection. Instead, there's a film called The Magic Kingdom which I am unfamiliar with and certainly wasn't included in this collection. Good one, Enright.

Anyway, It Could Be Worse (directed by Zach Horn) is a vaguely offensive retelling of an old Yiddish folk tale. In it, a woman can't sleep due to her husband's snoring. She drives to her therapist (who conveniently lives next door) and asks him what to do. He tells her to get a goat. She's confused, but does what he says. Now she's got her husband snoring in one ear and a goat screaming in the other. Angry, she returns to the therapist. But he only tells her to add a parrot. This goes on until the room is full of animals, all screaming and chirping and growling. At her wit's end, the wife returns to the therapist once more. He suggests that she get rid of all those animals. She does, and sleeps soundly. The husband, however, is now irritated by her snoring and, grumbling angrily, gets out of bed.

It's not a great joke. In fact, it's kind of dumb, and isn't told very well here. The film's animation is some kind of lame, computer-generated stuff. The only bit I like are the ridiculous and incongruous noises that the various animals make. Otherwise, the film is boring, irritating, and pointless. It Could Be Worse could indeed be worse, but it could be a lot better, too.

Epilogue

And finally, it was over. Whew! Art Comes to Life was a little over an hour and a half long--not even as long as your average feature film--but it felt extremely long. In fact, most collections seem to strike me this way for some reason. Probably it has to do with the fact that you're taking in so many stories, one after the other, and usually you're not aware of exactly how many there are going to be, so there always seems to be another and another. Also, it was already pretty late when this screening started, and I was pretty tired. Anyway, after the movie, Sarah and I took the trolley back across town and I began the preparations for another day of films...

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Jim Genzano





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