“I’ve never heard tell of a
small speck of dust that is able to yell.”
Three Short Films and Some Miscellaneous Thoughts
by Pablo D’Stair
I have been deeply in love with short films since my early teens, when my habit was to sleep at night as little as possible and to watch whatever stations my lousy television could get—a station that of course came through clear was PBS and it was on some weekly showcase of independent cinema (the name of which escapes me) I came across Salesman and Other Adventures by Hannah Weyer. It made something quite particular come alive in me—not a television episode, not a movie…but the most fascinating and affecting thing I had seen.
Short films—I never sought them out, but would always be knocked flat when I happened on them, either in singles or in larger scope, by Malle by Girard by Gondry…by anyone, it didn’t seem like it mattered (honestly I think I preferred them nameless, makerless, free roaming peculiarities). Over the years I’ve come to hold them and their cousins—music videos, television commercials etc.—in a kind of sanctified light, though still never hunting them out, even resisting when I see them collected. There is something important in keeping this image I have of them as “just wandering around out there” alive, my understanding perpetually layman.
Introduction over, I present three films that have crossed my path quite randomly in the last little while and some sundry thoughts of mine that have come from them:
A kind of giddy, hyper-focus can be presented in short film—not exactly a stunning observation, of course, but one I adore the format for, Adolf El Assal’s La Fameuse Route an example of precisely why. The incisive cut of the storytelling, the mode of expression on display here allows for a fullness that does not need to strike out at expansiveness—we as audience are not given an abbreviated version of a larger whole and we are not given a vignette meant to contain some crumb of atomic energy inside to be split by viewing, to outpour things more explosive than itself.
Sometimes, as in this film, the story (to call it that) the emotion, the nuance is all that there needs be, set against nothing else, even suggestively. Like the verve of a propulsive piece of music, this film indulges in the rhythms of a completely detached and wholly contained experience—the way an excursion out with friends needs no commentary, meaning, destination. The world turned surreal, intricate while at the same time terribly blasé and self-indulgent is what this cinema captures with immediacy—that splendid idiocy of friendship, that joie de vivre found in what even the most sympathetic outsider eye cannot exactly in good conscious call “life.”
There is in this film (and in short form cinema taken as a whole) a special and sincere magic of intimacy—no time for set-up, no time for establishing rules or consequence, audience has bought the ticket, are taking the ride and the tenacity of the filmmaker’s honest outpouring is there to either immediately infect or immediately be turned away from, no secret reason to spend time here, no revelation awaiting the viewer at the end. Like a catchy song one has never heard before and will never hear again coming over the radio while idling in a shop-line or through the wall from the party next door, the film is flat-fact-experience and the joy of cinema’s ability to colorize truth however it sees fit.
Me, yes, I find it funny, nuanced, feel a kinship immediately to this motely crew of rag-tags burping around in their vehicle along “the notorious road” to get to the whorehouse that simply does not matter. Yes yes, I adore the care and detail in the ticks of the cartoonishly bloated and horny-as-fuck backroad police, at once equally dedicated to the existential pointlessness of their work and to the fact that there are a million things out in the dark woods to hump each other up against, on top of, or under in unapologetic sexual regale.
This is a drama of neither heroes nor villains, a comedy of foreign, in-referenced and crystalized humor—just a slice cut from the animal of listless, boisterous, abandoned desire for something, anything, another world to step in and swallow us up a moment then gently let us slide back off of its tongue to no place.
Adolf El Assal so gracefully turns a meaningless juvenile outing into a rich textured cinematic love song that I am honestly saddened to know that this short tryst of a film is being re-imagined as a feature length piece, am earnestly fearful that something could get lost just from the paired exposure.
Ah the world post-apocalypse, just how are we to use you to express absence, out-and-out paranoid angst, the need to hold something dearer than our bodies which (pre-apocalypse but nonetheless) are inexorably moving toward dust—how to use you as a mirror to show us the most inward part of ourselves, as good old Hamlet might ask from his own special worldless Hell?
Of course, cinema has many answers, usually being playful with formlessness as much as possible—from out-and-out-yowls a al Michael Haneke’s Time Of The Wolf to the (vaguely) socially conscious early zombie films of George Romero to the Trigger Effect to bloody The Postman to basically every fucking television series currently spilling out from American televisions—but nothing ever did it better than The Twilight Zone and the filmmakers behind Patricia’s Box seem to understand just that. As Serling, Matheson et al. were able to consistently showcase, twenty-five-or-six minutes at a time, cinema can be as direct as “Okay, here’s what happened, look” and as pervasive as “Now think about that for the rest of your life”—that book-lover breaking his glasses, the world not nearing the sun but drifting away from it, that poor man you saved actually being the howling Devil and your charity actually a mistake.
Patricia’s Box is the heart of long form, wide angled cinema stripped down to six minutes and close quartered angst and it shows just how powerfully the obstructions of budget and time can be used to paint a world impossibly large and long reaching. Working from a script by Darren Joe, shot and finalized in only days for the 72 Film Fest and produced on a budget of “Let’s film in our basement and down the street” this is a study in the limitless scope of the short form—things are not “left out” but instead shown just enough to hauntingly carry themselves outward, whole histories are not made faux-mythic by overwrought dialogue meant to force-feed a vastness with expository-pathos, instead a particularized exactness is allowed a naturalism, reminding us as viewers of the tenuousness of not only our own survival but of what it would mean for us, personally, to indeed survive into an endless hollow.
The film (from its start as a slow progression of desolate images to its end as an overlay of just enough doomsday siren to let audience know, fuck yes, it’s all really that bad) is a proclamation that what would be lost in mass catastrophe is the collective pile of intensely personal mementos, memories, experiences. Presenting death as all inclusive—exterior there is nothing, interior a friend’s corpse lays strewn and open eyed—this vision of our eventual end (apocalypse or no) resorts to no effects, no monsters, no societies-turned-militant-or-cannibal, just sets the stage for unsettled fears to show themselves and for each actor on screen to (almost with thanks) succumb to them, to finally be rid of the horror of living less loved than the contents of an empty box a little girl never did get to show to her mother.
There is something almost holy in films made for reasons no human could possibly discern, put together from the energy and having-a-day-to-fill of a group of friends with a camera handy—films not to be distributed, not to be entrants in contests, not to vie for any particular attention at all, just little crafted expressions of cinema that are as loved as an adolescent doodle on a notebook page, as labored over as the cover box of a mix-cassette not even given to anyone else. The world of today allows public life to such things via YouTube and any number of sharing methods and is, I will say, a better place for it.
Sherm is a felt and personal oddity, a boisterous mash-up of olde-tyme silent film dialogue cards and slapstick Looney Tune antics set in the sober world of the everyday. This is a film of the cartoon devil set free to prance, scribble-scrabble and murder with impunity, even those he victimizes left with nothing to do but turn a confused expression and shrug. And watching this little film, I can feel the perverse giddiness of the nonsensical and fevered minds that decided to take the time not only to put it together, but to do so motherfucking exquisitely.
I have, myself, been in possession of a camera and the desire to make even a lousy and hackneyed film come to fruition only to have plans waylaid by the fact that it is ever so much easier just to film inanity or the mugging faces of my friends, to explore effects buttons and let any actual ambition dribble away into the ease of “merely having a laugh with pals”—so in seeing so pristine an example of the unconsciously known truth I always felt (that yes yes if only we would go through with this it would be so beautiful in its self-referenced majesty, as sublime as it is meaningless, dear God let’s just do it!)—actually and fully committed to sound and image makes me long to get a camera and two friends together to waste some afternoons on our own bizarre kicks.
Films like this—not Indie or Dogme or…well not anything at all, really—are such a sanctuary for the intrinsic need for filmed expression, this ability which now that we possess we all, humanistically, need. There is something in the spirit of such Nihilo Cinema (I want to call it something and this seems appropriate…though honestly, perhaps I betray it by naming it even with this negation) that is as deserving of attention as the most sober minded art-house meditation or ridiculously-budgeted spectacular—the thing’s very lack of desire toward anything beyond itself (even audience, it seems, as this gem has sat more-or-less dormant in a kind of YouTube purgatory for almost a half-decade) but insistence on its own irreverent polish makes it as artful, immediate, and genuine a cinema as any I tend to happen across.
Pablo D’Stair is a novelist, essayist, and interviewer. Co-founder of the art house press KUBOA, he is also a regular contributor to the Montage: Cultural Paradigm (Sri Lanka). His book Four Self-Interviews About Cinema: the short films of director Norman Reedus will be re-releasing late in 2012 through Serenity House Publishing, International.