Last Friday night, the San Francisco International Film Festival hosted the world premiere of “The Fourth Dimension,” a production born out of a partnership between Vice Films and Grolsch Film Works.
“The Fourth Dimension” consists of three short films (though requests itself be called a feature film) by three directors, Harmony Korine (“Trash Humpers,” “Gummo”), Aleksei Fedorchenko (“Silent Souls”) and new-comer Jan Kwiecinski, all sprung from an identical creative brief. The brief itself is a list of over 50 instructions as incalculable as “You must forget everything you know” or specific as “A stuffed animal needs to make an appearance.” Even if you wanted to skip the context of the film’s roots, you can’t, as the shorts are hitched together with a series of bumpers that recall a number of the brief’s commands.
As the through-line between the shorts isn’t narrative or character based, there’s a lot of work left to be done. Each story points at its own interpretation of what the fourth dimension might be, driving tone and themes in three separate directions. The films play well enough together but it helps to think of them as part of an exclusive and deliberate short film program as opposed to a single film.
With Val Kilmer starring in the leading role and director Harmony Korine (who was involved with the designing of the creative brief all three films must adhere to) at the helm, “Lotus Community Workshop” shows up first on screen to get things rolling. After establishing a modest roller rink full of even more modest-looking folks, the room comes alive with music and flashing lights. The patrons gather around for what they’ve been waiting for: a new age looking, exploding with energy Val Kilmer playing a guy that just so happens to be called Val. The gag of a celebrity showing up to play a comedic version of themselves has worn thin over the years, but there is such an uneasiness towards the reality of the short that Korine is able to steer away from any immediate skepticism at the tactic.
Val reveals himself to be a motivational speaker of the non-denominational spiritual variety who assures the room, “I’m a very well known entity.” He spouts off nonsense to a crowd moved by every word he speaks, as shock jock-style sound effects punctuate his major points. Brightly colored lights flash all around the room, heightening the energy to barely tolerable levels, as Val leads the crowd in repeated hypnotic chants such as, “Awesome secrets.” He looks and speaks directly into the camera’s lens, simultaneously breaking character and developing “character Val” a self-aware side. It’s a multi-camera shoot with the cameras falling into each other’s frames. It is intentionally disorientating and Korine keeps any of it from feeling accidental.
When Val finally reveals to his audience what the fourth dimension is, a sort of enlightenment he best relates to “cotton candy,” it doesn’t seem so ridiculous stacked next to the rest of his claims. Plus, there’s such a sense of exhaustion by his finale that it is hard to argue anyway.
Thankfully, Val’s roller rink activities are chopped up with a meandering post-performance night with his girlfriend Rach (Rachel Korine — real-life wife of Harmony). They bike around Nashville’s streets, disagree on what to grab from their local video store, chat with friendly strangers (“You recognize me from movies?” Val asks them), and play video games. This tame side story shows up whenever the chaos in the roller rink is getting out of hand, giving a much needed breath to the sensory overload.
“Lotus Community Workshop” stands out as the film most comically focused in Korine’s body of work and it commands laughter where his previous films might have just accepted nervous chuckles stemming from discomfort.
Next up is Russian director Aleksei Fedorchenko, whose short “Cronoeye” sees the fourth dimension not as some blissful enlightenment, but simply time. “Cronoeye” introduces Grigory Mikhailovich (Igor Sergeev) a brilliant scientist haunted by the past who believes he has discovered a way to trick time itself, at least visually. Using a small camera strapped to his head, Grigory is able to peer into specific moments in time on a video monitor, but never quite from the perspective that he’d like. After repeated failed attempts to call up satisfactory images of a mysterious woman playing a piano, he broadens his search through time to historical events, always to be granted brief and uninformative glimpses of the past.
As Grigory’s frustration with the limitations of his technology increases, so does the volume of the music and thuds of dancing coming from his upstairs neighbor’s apartment. When he marches upstairs to request quiet, we find a sprightly younger woman with a deep respect for Grigory. She apologizes with sincerity and then cluelessly explains that she put down some thick carpet sheets hoping to minimize the thundering sounds coming from her apartment.
From here things play out fairly obviously in terms of stories with protagonists stuck obsessing over the past. Grigory’s escalating brooding is matched by his neighbor’s cheerfulness in retaliation. There are a few surprises but none in the lesson the short wants Grigory to learn.
While the mood of Fedorchenko’s short is the most somber of the three in the film, it is not completely lacking a sense of humor. His peeks into the past have a subtle absurdity to them that lightens up the tone. There are also several instances of Grigory’s camera looking into it’s own display monitor, repeating the displayed image over and over, playing the visual feedback trick to great effect given the temporal themes of the short. When Grigory is finally fed up with his semi-failed experiment, the short crescendos into a dramatic moment with a twist that earns some big laughs. If Fedorchenko paced his whole story out to make this joke really play, then “Cronoeye” is a portrait of patient filmmaking. Otherwise, it is a overly familiar story with a handful of clever visuals that are too infrequently effective for the film to really succeed.
“The Fourth Dimension” wraps up with Polish director Jan Kwiecinski’s “Fawns,” a short film with characters searching for value in their world, once they get around to it. In Kwiecinski’s short, a group of four stylish 20-somethings roam the empty streets of a recently deserted town. They hijack cars, take over carnival rides, and generally wander around aimlessly. There is little concern expressed for the odd emptiness of the environment they inhabit. The camera only hints at the danger that lies ahead with stacks of sandbags in every direction.
After breaking into a shop to grab some snacks, they see a television program informing them that an enormous flood threatening the country (world? The severity of the flood is left somewhat mysterious) has risen to an extremely dangerous level, moving at inescapable speeds. For the first time there is a hint of concern in the group, as Pace (Tomasz Tyndyk) hurries his friends along.
Meanwhile, a love triangle has revealed itself with Koko (Justyana Wasilewska) flirting with Mickey (Pawel Tomaszewski) causing her boyfriend Philip (Pawel Smagala) to push Mickey to the outskirts of the group. Nevertheless, the crew keeps up their wandering, eventually breaking into a house and pilfering whatever they find momentarily entertaining. Inside the house, Philip discovers a book titled “The Fourth Dimension” and immediately dismisses it as worthless. Of all the directors, Kwiecinski most clearly adheres to the creative brief that the films are all supposed to relate to, but he takes the most obvious connection between them as an opportunity to express his character’s lack of direction.
After the discovery of the book, the short starts to transition into a more densely plotted piece. Koko and Philip start making out, causing Mickey to take off, while Pace starts to feel the pressure of the approaching flood. The sound of a gun shot gets the action started, activating the leader in Pace who decides they’ve all fooled around in this empty town long enough. Noting that Mickey has disappeared, Pace quickly tells the happily physically engaged couple to get dressed to go in search of their friend. The directionless group suddenly has a very clear goal and purpose, even if it is just survival.
What was a loosely floating, and necessarily purposeless, story suddenly takes a sharp turn into a situation that puts value and character into question. The shift amplifies the drama of the group’s actions into a realm that feels not quite real, but still engaging.
Throughout all the films, performances are on point. Val Kilmer’s “Val” explodes along with the chaos of the roller rink and Tomasz Tyndyk’s Pace proves to be the emotional catalyst essential to “Fawns” success. While Fedorchenko’s short registers lower on the energy meter than the other directors’ work, Igor Sergeev remains captivating in his reserved lead performance.
Regardless of the cohesion between shorts, “The Fourth Dimension” serves up a mostly stimulating collection of films with plenty of humor and solid visual concepts. The experience overcomes the box the films are designed to fit into, making for a satisfying survey of each directors’ unique interpretations of an identical instigating idea. [B]