Aspen Shortsfest Provides a Brilliant Peak Into Oft-Overlooked Art Form
by Marlowe Fawcett
I've been back home from Aspen Shortsfest for a week now and I'm only getting my feet back on the ground. Nothing to do with the rarified air at 8,000 feet, nor the insanely early, caffeine-injected drive back to Boulder after the closing night's celebrations (damn, that hurt). No, I think it has to do with the brilliance -- yes, I said, "brilliance" -- of the films that festival directors, Laura Thielen and George Eldred gathered together there.
Sure there were a few duds, but as an upstanding member of The Un-Professional Film Critics Guild (UFCG), I can't allow myself to love every film I see. At the same time, the 60-odd shorts at this 13th annual Aspen Shortsfest were whittled down by the selecting committee from 1500 entries, so they ought to be pretty good, and we were blessed with quite a few of the winners from the film world's more press-tigious festivals. We had Cannes's "Cracker Bag," Sundance's "Bathtime at Clerkenwell," and -- the piece de resistance -- the Academy Award winner "Harvie Krumpet."
Not that these were chosen for their palm fronds or golden statues. Those films, and most of the films at Aspen, truly represent the overlooked art of the short film, an art which is, in its simplicity, more varied and multiple than its big brother, the feature film. You can make a short that is like throwing a dart at a board: direct, unwavering and, hopefully, accurate; or one that meanders ("Gowanus, Brooklyn"), one that bludgeons ("Dad's Dead"), or one that floats effortlessly over head ("Coming Home").
Fortunately, most of the films avoided the need for low-payoff final twists, notable exceptions being "Le Cheval 2.1" and "Underground." "Cheval," galloping in at 90 seconds, barely has time to establish a plot line long enough to measure let alone twist yet we still find ourselves grinning in masochistic pleasure at the punch line. "Underground," which got a special jury mention for genius in the suspense genre, flips us so neatly on our heads that we're still working out how we feel about it long into the night.
And there definitely were some long nights, despite the average price for a mixed drink in Aspen pushing double figures. The 39° Bar was an appropriate setting for most late night tete-a-tetes during the Aspen Shortsfest, not least because it was right across the street from the "Harvey Krumpet" condo, where the hordes of Australian and British filmmakers who had taken over the festival could polish off the contents of several mini-bars. If I counted right, those two island nations had 10 films each and most of those were represented, which meant a lot of "All right, mate?" and "Do you fancy a quick two hundred pints?" Good thing the festival organizers had each day starting at noon, otherwise I would have had to make the tough decision, in the interests of journalistic integrity, of skipping out on the hotel's buffet breakfast. A dip in the pool and a lounge in the hot tub would have been unthinkable. (Note to self: next time bring bathing suit.)
Either way, the two noon "CineCafes" and the Saturday "Masterworks Panel" were well worth the effort. Never delving too deep into the hoarier questions, like "How long is short?," the CineCafes succeeded in breaking down the usual film maker/audience barrier. Thielen and Eldred made sure that serious questions were asked and less serious ones diverted. Though no vote was taken, it was generally agreed that making a short is better than making a feature for one striking reason: money. No one in their right mind expects a short to break even. Short filmmakers, like dolphins, do it for the love of it -- though, for the animators, that love tilts suspiciously towards pain. With a short, at least a "live" one, the crew is more directly involved in the creative process and, as Jane Liscombe, producer of "Cracker Bag," says, that makes everyone feel more like a family than a piece of a puzzle.
Which is just what Thielen and Eldred want you to feel. They have made a point, since taking over as directors in 1996, of keeping the festival small by not seeking big sponsors. Its growing fame and popularity is due to the organizers hard work at balancing local tastes (and thus ticket receipts) with artistic integrity. Afternoon screenings are more "family" oriented, the evening shows stray towards the polemical, the experimental and the confrontational, but these aren't rules exactly, they are more like guidelines. There were plenty of good gags and love stories at 9 p.m., and plenty of mixed-media and unanswered questions at 5:30. Aspen also enjoys a healthy mix of seasoned industry veterans, blossoming talent, and enthusiastic punters: local high schools are treated to workshops with some of the filmmakers (who were all really impressed with the students), and this year's Masterworks Panel on screenwriting was probably the best and liveliest panel discussion I've ever had the pleasure of sitting through.
Which is all why Aspen Shortsfest is rapidly becoming the film festival circuit's worst kept secret, especially among Aussies. Every filmmaker from Down Under (and let's include the Kiwis while we're at it) has Aspen at the top of their list. This is partly due to the fact that the Australian government does a good job paying for its filmmakers to travel with their film, and partly due to the success of "Krumpet" director Adam Elliot. As Katrina Mathers, director of "The Referees," pointed out, "The fact that [Australia] has the Oscar and the Palm d'Or has made my life legitimate in the eyes of my father."
Elliot, in his dazzling shirts and tight pants, is another Aussie following in the glorious Oscar-winning footsteps of Nicole and Russell. His first three animated shorts ("Uncle," "Cousin," and "Brother") screened at Aspen '98 through '00. This year, Thielen and Ehbers decided to honor him with Sunday's "Director's Spotlight," screening all three along with "Harvie Krumpet." Elliot was unanimously elected film-star-in-residence, a role he played with panache and aplomb, as well as generous humility.
"Krumpet" is quite spectacular but wasn't in competition. Awards were handed out on Sunday afternoon by the judges themselves in a ceremony that went by so fast the winners weren't quite sure what they had won. Almost all were deserving, but especially the winner for best comedy, Daniel O'Hara's "My Name is Yu Ming," about a young Chinese man who yearns to travel the world. Randomly choosing Ireland as his destination he prepares himself by learning Gaelic, that country's official language, which leads to all sorts of fun when he actually arrives in Dublin.
So, which film was my fave? Who gets the UFCG Award for mesmeric and vicarious glory? Hmmmm... There was "Bombay Summer" by Raaghav Dar which blended an international narrative style with a rich and sexy cinematography; there was Annemarie Jacir's haunting "Like Twenty Impossibles," a fictional documentary about a Palestinian film crew attempting to pass through a lonely West Bank checkpoint; and I can't help but mention the hilarious "Thank You," a perfect little explosion of a film inspired by, according to the credits, "the person who laughed on the metro." But, objectivity aside, the winner has to be "Wasp," a film about the loneliness and desperation of being a single mother. Being a childless boyfriend and a two-parent child, I wasn't necessarily in a position to empathize with the protagonists (mother and four kids) but that I did is a testament to this film's actors, director, and crew. I tried to steal a screener tape, but none could be found, and the director, Andrea Arnold, was unable to attend.
(Note to self: come back next year)