They're a calling card, a vanity project, a graduate thesis, and a way to burn through the money of friends and family (not to mention your credit cards). And sometimes, they're great art. They're short films, and when they're done right, just like short stories, they are a breed apart. I've always mourned the fact that movies aren't preceded by short subjects any more. In our increasingly attention-span-challenged world, shorts would seem to be a great fit. And who needs to see 25 minutes of coming attractions?
But, alas, these days, short films are mostly a film-festival, connoisseur, under-the-radar activity. I salute the Tribeca Film Festival for giving so many of them (79 in all) such a prominent place. As I said, when they're right (I think of The Red Balloon, the incredible French Academy Award winner from a few years back, Omnibus, and even Buster Keaton's Cops or Laurel & Hardy's Music Box), film does not get better. But unfortunately, with the high stakes (every second counts, nothing is blurable) and relatively low cost of entry, with shorts, film does not get worse, either.
This first batch of shorts from this year's festival runs the gamut -- while not reaching Balloonesque heights, there are some winners -- and more than a few that lay the proverbial egg as well.
I'll start on a high. I Think I Thought by Matthew Modine (yes, that Matthew Modine) does a lot of things right. First of all, it has a concept that fits the form. It has the same kind of repetitious, one-note riffing you find in some of the best of Donald Barthelme's short stories, and some of the nuanced, happy-cynical tone you find in big Barthelme fan George Saunders's essays. It takes one gag and plays, stretches, teases it. Doesn't overstay its welcome. And, thankfully, since it was written by, directed by, and stars Modine, it's well acted. (This, as you'll see, is a problem with many of these shorts -- unfortunately, it's easier to shoot pretty pictures than to act or write.) Except for one pot shot at Bush (too easy???), I found it fun, gratifying, and about something.
Equally as compelling, and maybe even more so, is the serious, Eskimo (is that the politically correct term? Inuit?) based and made film Sikumi. This is minimalism in a serious, existential mode. But not depressing; eternally human. The acting here, by the way, is amazing. Understated, beautifully cast, and well-directed -- only the shots you need, for only as long as you need them. If the writer/director, Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, hasn't been watching some of the Coen's latest, they've been watching his. Truly moving.
Another compelling short that doesn't overstay its welcome and while, perhaps, a bit topical, but still, a really nicely turned one note gag, is Chad Maker's About Face (above). Ever use Facebook? Or think about what Facebook is doing to your brain and/or your life? You'll enjoy these (thankfully) five pristine, mostly well acted minutes.
As I said above, it's easier to shoot pretty pictures than it is to write stories. Where the rest of the shorts in this first batch fall down is just that. The stories, well, they're all about teens or misunderstood young adults. Not to say that YA isn't a great source of stories (Catcher in the Rye anyone? To Kill a Mockingbird?), but if it isn't about something more, it's just navel-gazing. There are nice moments in Sasie Sealy's The Elephant Garden, but they are surrounded by too many not so nice moments. And then there is the business of the acting. While the star, Kelly Mack, presents a wistful and beautifully psychologically aching eleven year old, she is surrounded by less-than-elegant characters. The story is slight, too slight. Or too slightly told. Yet there's a lot of talking and scenes. But some beautiful images.
Likewise, Takoma Park by David Andalman waffles in the short form. It has a great core idea -- a white kid, the great grandson of Al Jolson, who wants to be black. But it tries to do too much with too little. Eclipse a stunningly beautiful, moody journey to Mumbai, dispenses with any pretense of story at all. Maybe it's poetic? Maybe it's just a moving painting with sound. It's affecting and gorgeous, but, alas, you have to "be in the mood." To end this snapshot on a slightly higher note, Little Minx Exquisite Corpse: Rope a Dope, directed by Laurent Briet, has a charming energy and driving, dynamic music (by Black Strobe, Shining Bright Star) but ultimately, isn't set up tightly enough, in my opinion, to deliver on the delightful bout between a prize fighter and a teenage girl. Still, it has the decency to be short (two minutes and change) and in that world, as well as being well shot, leaves you with a smile. So, while the mega features have their charms, I'll keep looking at the shorts. Not just for coming attractions of stars to be, but for the delight of finding a beautiful tale, beautifully spun, in a nice, tight, unforgettable package. - Ken Krimstein
Mr. Krimstein is a writer, cartoonist, father, and grump who lives in New York City. So there.