Friday, April 30, 2010

SFIFF Short Films

As usual, some of the best things I've seen so far at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival have been in the shorts programs. I've watched three of the curated sets thus far: The High Line, Solitude Standing, and Pirate Utopias. Each of the three programs was well worth my time and attention. The cliché line about festival shorts programs is that if you don't like a particular film, don't worry, it'll soon be over and the next one is likely to be better. While this is a perfectly valid way of approaching these kinds of collections, I've been struck this year that two of the three groupings I've viewed so far have been so consistently strong even when presenting a highly diverse array of filmmaking approaches, subject matters, and international viewpoints, that it doesn't really apply.

Pirate Utopias, which has its final screening tomorrow (Saturday) at 9:15 PM, was simultaneously the most stylistically diverse and thematically unified. A being who had never witnessed a motion picture and wanted to absorb, in less than an hour and a half, the full range of possible ways to arrange moving images, could do much worse than to stumble into this program, which includes rapidly-cut surreal comedies and music video, fizzling hi-def, mock-documentary earnestness, various kinds of animation from Busby Berkeley-esque geometrical motion to pure abstraction, and more. Certain motifs did get repeated throughout the selections, however; I don't think there was a single entry in the set that didn't include mirrors/reflections, or accented phallic symbols (or phalluses), or in some cases both! I would never have guessed that filmmakers as varied as Guy Maddin, Max Hattler, the Zellner Brothers, etc. might all be tuned into a similar wavelength this year?

Somewhat typically, my favorite in the group must have been the one that created the most divisive reaction in the audience, judging from the vocal hissing emitted from the rows behind me. Called Release, it's the latest video piece by Bill Morrison, the found-footage re-architect behind Decasia, Light Is Calling, and a number of other previous SFIFF selections. It's very much a conceptual piece built around a piece of newsreel footage of an event that, for the sake of potential viewers of the film, I will not name. It's an incredible piece of footage however; a single shot that makes at least a 180-degree pan from one side of a city street to the other, on one side of the street a collection of onlookers awaiting the event, and on the other, the action of the event itself. Morrison repeats the shot at least thirty or forty times, each time adding a few frames of footage to either temporal end of the unit of image at hand. It is not until the final iteration of these repetitions that the last second or so of image is revealed, and along with it the full nature of the event. (Perhaps you can see why I'm being vague- who knew there were such things as spoilers for experimental films? If you really want to know a bit more check out Jay Blodgett's complete roundup of the festival's experimental shorts, and the Tribeca Film Festival has given away the surprise entirely.) Until that last repetition, the audience has more than the usual opportunity to ponder the image, the repetitions, and Morrison's intentions.

One is invited to look for clues everywhere: by trying to read the signage on the street, to scrutinize the makeup of the gathered crowd and the clothes they are wearing, etc. At first I was focused on the bits of new information being given at the beginning and ending of each repetition, but after perhaps a dozen of them I found I was more surprised by what details from the middle chunk of footage, which I had seen most frequently, I began noticing more carefully- the young boy running along the front of the crowd, for instance - where did he come from? I didn't remember seeing him at all the first several iterations. In this way, Release becomes Morrison's argument for the value in rewatching movies to see something new in it, or perhaps his way of pointing to the pointlessness of it when all we in the audience really want is that final narrative "release" at the end of a film, that telegraphs to us how to interpret all that we've seen before. It's probably worth mentioning the electronic music soundtrack (there, I mentioned it) and the fact that the director has affixed a digital mirror to the archival footage he's decided to use, so that the center line of the widescreen frame becomes a shape-distorting pair of reflected frame edges itself, somewhat reminiscent of a powerful gimmick favored by Nicholas Provost in several of his videoworks, including 2004 SFIFF Golden Gate Award-winner Papillon d'amour. I haven't teased out Morrison's reasoning behind this strategy, other than to simply make the piece even more visually interesting than it already is.

Release is up for a Golden Gate Award this year, and is probably the one I'd stump hardest for if I were on the jury. Although, any of the five in the New Visions category would be a worthy winner. I guess I slightly prefer the Pirate Utopias competitors (also including Martha Colburn's action-packed One And One Is Life and Félix Dufour-Laperrière's M) to Lewis Klahr's Wednesday Morning Two AM, featuring the Shangra-Las and Klahr's trademark comic-cut-out animation, or Kerry Laitala's digital 3D (sorry, Roger) Afterimage, though like just about everything in the The High Line program, I enjoyed them quite a bit. I'm not sure if it's purely coincidental that my favorites in this animated shorts program, playing again on the afternoon of Thursday May 6th, were the three projected in 35mm prints rather than digitally. Those were: Tussilago, by Jonas Odell, by now a SFIFF regular having contributed Never Like the First Time! and Lies to recent editions; Alma, a creepy not-really-Pixar confection that makes good use of the porcelain features of state-of-the-art human likenesses on the other side of the uncanny valley, and the latest Academy-Award-winner in the animated short category, the deliriously entertaining and even cathartic Logorama. A few notes on other shorts in The High Line: The Incident At Tower 37 slips in that zone of slick computer animation that's not quite slick enough to technically impress in 2010, but I appreciated its scenario's clever way of suggesting that humankind is wreaking so much destruction on other species, that some of them might evolve a means to take revenge. And is it just me, or was the "Operation Chatter" referred to in Kelly Sears's quasi-historical Voice On The Line a none-too-veiled reference to twitter? Either way, I approve.

Finally, there's only one film I really want to talk about from among the Solitude Standing set of SFIFF shorts, and I don't want to say much more than: See It! I speak of Jay Rosenblatt's latest collage of spectacular images culled from industrials and educational films, music, and brilliant voice-over narration: The Darkness of Day. Its heavy topic, suicide, has cropped up in a number of the feature-length films I've seen thus far at the festival, but this twenty-five-minute short treats it with far more probing sensitivity and emotional power than in the other films, which for all their merits shall for the moment remain nameless so as not to seem unfairly, rather glibly dismissed by my claim. The image at the top of this post is a screen capture from the film. Solitude Standing plays just once more, on Wednesday afternoon.