AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
VENICE 2013 – HOT PANTS
by Harlan Kennedy
You don’t expect hot pants at a film festival - except from an audience breathing hard during the latest arthouse erotica - but you always expect and get designer shorts.
What are they? They’re a fixture, a feature, a fashion, a sine qua non. Hundreds of short films pour into every international movie spree every year.
How do you program them, though? Few people, even in the addictive viewing world of a film festival, want to rush out and see them. Remember Woody Allen’s bank robbers in TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN? Sitting down for the heist instruction flick in the basement, they see the screen light up with the title TROUT FISHING IN QUEBEC? “There’s always a boring short,” they wail.
We can’t remove these things from movie culture, though, and wouldn’t want to. If we tried to remove them we’d kill the culture. They are an inoperable part of it. How many great directors started by making shorts? Quicker to ask, how many didn’t?
Many festivals used to show a short before each competition feature. It was a handy way to deal them out one by one, like hiding pills in spoonfuls of jam. But audiences got wise. They started arriving late, or, worse, not at all. The management shrugged. The management sighed. The management pulled the shorts.
More recently Cannes, Venice and Berlin have stuck the shorts together in one program, or sometimes two, and hoped people will come. At the Venice showing I attended of VENICE 70: FUTURE RELOADED – this year’s shorts anthology feature created by 70 international directors to celebrate 70 years of Mostra history – the auditorium was one-eighth full. That it was still one-eighth full two hours later is at least tribute to something.
Perhaps celebtrity appeal. When a single film spool boasts the names Bertolucci, Breillat, Hellman, Jia Zhangke, Kiarostami, Kim Ki-duk, Olmi, Edgar Reitz, Salles, Schrader, Seidl, Solondz and Straub – obviously the motherlode was hit with ‘S’ –sheer fascination may keep you seated, even it is morbid fascination. Yes, each auteur, or many of them, may take turns to bite the dust. They have been presented with an invitation to do something that sounds simple but turns out, here, to be Sisyphean.
Make a movie lasting between 60 and 90 seconds! That’s the deal. It’s an excruciating challenge. What ever can you put on film, that’s worth putting, in a minute and a half? Even Chopin’s Minute Waltz lasts longer than 60 seconds. (Much longer).
A dozen directors cheated and went over. The worst transgressor was Todd Solondz with a final cut lasting a marathon, Abel Gance-worthy 3 minutes 4 seconds. We expected an intermission. Here’s the rub, though. It was the most entertaining film. Doesn’t that prove something? That extreme brevity is more likely to be a bane than a boon?
Solondz’s 3013 is a funny spoof teaching syllabus, all spreadsheets and robot-like voiceovers, for film students of the far future. Sex has got into the director’s sci-fi vision, of course, as it would with the director of HAPPINESS and WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE. “Semen samples to be provided….” intones the robot-voice reading out the small print. “Anal penetration of data is optional…..” This is Todd the the scatological eschatologist, Todd the anthropological pessimist, gazing with ghastly grin into fourth-millennium avant-garde film scholarship.
Many directors in VENICE 70 FUTURE RELOADED took the pedagogue path for real. Lecture the viewer; give me 90 seconds and I can harangue the world. About cinema or kulcher to come. Paul Schrader, James Franco (THE FUTURE OF CINEMA, forsooth), Michele Placido and Africa’s Haile Gerima were among those donning the mortarboards.
Other directors did whimsical comedy. Abbas Kiarostami riffed on the Venice festival’s own riff on the Lumieres’ L’ARROSEUR ARROSE. For years this was the Mostra’s ‘logo short’ (like the MGM lion or Fox searchlights) preceding each competition film: a slapstick caprice with a gardener, a boy and a hose. Kiarostami doesn’t make it any pithier or more pointful, never mind funnier.
Other directors still (Benoit Jacquot, Rama Burshtein) focused on eyeballs, those windows of the cine-soul. This motif became once-seen, umpteen-times tiresome. Digital jiggery pokery was sometimes added – cine-optics compounding or confounding the theme of human optics. That didn’t help either. A colleague christened the section ‘I-balls.’
After each dud we hastened with hope to its successor short. Bernardo Bertolucci’s THE RED SHOES was the best in show. The head of this year’s Venice jury was a wheelchaired presence throughout the fest – B.B. became disabled recently after a failed back operation – and his film is a clever, poignant, ironic visual rondo. The downward-peering camera patters across cobblestones, its glimpse confined to the wayward, oddly beautiful arabesques of a wheelchair’s movement across undulant ground, and of course to the unseen disabled man’s ‘red shoes.’ It’s a ballet trouve. It lasts a short, perfect 100 seconds.
There is art too, not just fancy artistry, in Atom Egoyan’s BUTTERFLY – a filmmaker’s fritillary impromptu (84 seconds) on the memories and mini-lives stored in his I-phone – and in an untitled short from Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The Thai master projects the moving view through a rain-assailed car window. That’s it. That’s all. But somehow the film is ‘moving’ in all senses, not least as a metaphor for the movie experience. The windscreen wipers are the shutter that magic separated images into the persistence of vision! As filmgoers we are all like rainy-day drivers, wiping and re-wiping sequential snapshots into a spellbound continuity. At 97 seconds Apichatpong’s mini-movie, complete with mute soundtrack, is spellbinding itself.
So. Maybe shorts do give us something to think about. And to nourish our souls and sensibilities with. The best shorts, anyway.
The worst ones? Well, they are just the price we pay. There is no such thing, in cinema, as a free cornucopia.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved