FESTIVALS: After the Dotcom Storm, Short Films Still Shine in Aspen
by Tim LaTorre
(indieWIRE/04.23.01) -- A year after being invaded by (now defunct) dotcoms with dollar signs in their eyes, the Aspen Shortsfest 2001 (April 10-14), continued to be one of the leading showcases of the incredibly vibrant world of short films. Celebrating a decade in existence, one could argue that the Aspen Shortsfest is one of the best-kept secrets of the festival world. On one hand, it's a gem that you enjoy so much you want to tell everyone about it; on the other, you don't want the personal quality you fell in love with to get ruined by increased popularity. The key to success is simple: put on display the quality of an often-overlooked art form in a venue where the community, both local and international (around 50 filmmakers from around the world attended), can comfortably interact.
Of the competition films, the strongest films of this year's dramatic selection all came from Germany: Florian Gallenberger's Academy Award winning and Aspen Audience favorite "Quiero Ser (I Want to Be)," Jophi Ries' "Always" and Oliver Dieckmann's "Ordinary Love." While all three are a bit traditional in their structure, they are crafted well enough to forget any sentimental misgivings. The definite highlight of the festival, Gallenberger's "Quiero Ser" follows the trials of two young Mexican brothers on the streets of Mexico City. Harkening back to Luis Bunuel's seminal "Los Olvidados," the performances of the two leads are as strong as the overall direction. "Always" and "Ordinary Love" cover similar territory: both showcase men who have grown tired of their marriages, but reconsider. While the old-aged protagonist of "Always" reconciles his feelings by losing his wife in a dance hall, the cop of "Ordinary Love" does the same by interrogating a man who has murdered his wife. Both films uncover an uncomfortable subject in honest, tender ways.
David Kartch's "Zen and the Art of Landscaping" (USA) -- Aspen's Best Comedy winner -- proves that you don't have to try to revolutionize the art form to have a great film. A traditional comedy, almost sitcom-like in its structure, "Zen" follows a landscaper's encounter with a suburban family's dark secrets. Writer/director/editor Kartch has deftly crafted a story that isn't predictable as he pushes the laughs farther and farther. Other comedic highlights included: Solvi A. Lindseth's lost jazz band film and other Audience Award winner "80 Degrees East of Birdland" (Norway), Peter Carstairs' dry outback comedy "Gate" (Australia), and Anthony Mullins' S&M-tinged "Rubber Gloves" (Australia).
On the documentary frontier, China Ahlander's Best Documentary winner "Close to the Soil" (Sweden) looks at an old, rural farmer who decided to stick to traditional, horse-driven methods of farming as the rest of the world moves on to tractors. Ahlander's simple doc demonstrates what a profound effect sound has on the dramatic intensity of a film. The viewer is acclimated to the sounds of a working horse farm -- hooves digging into the earth, the clinking chains of old plows -- before juxtaposing the grinding machinations of trucks when the farmer, Thure Anderson, has become too old to continue and must sell his horses.
Filed under just plain strange is Joern Utkilen's "My Job II" which follows the career exploits of a young cave explorer. Like last year's "My Job," which showcased a 'pilot' using a kitchen oven as his control panel, the film takes place completely within a suburban home where stacked pillows become a cave and a bathtub becomes a underground lake. The low-tech surroundings and the main character's gleeful conviction combine for hilarious results.
Finishing off the festival, and also in the strange category, would be Guy Maddin's "The Heart of the World," which went on to win a Best Cinematography award and $2500 in Kodak film stock. Originally commissioned to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Toronto Film Festival, Maddin combines a frenetic, marching musical pace with spooky early science fiction visuals (a la Melies or Fritz Lang) to create a film that stomps on your brain like a Soviet propaganda film. "The Heart of the World" was playing theatrically in a few cities before "Last Resort," the Shooting Gallery Film Series' spring season opener.
While the size of the competition program has largely remained the same (this year showcased 58 films), the festival continues to expand other programs that highlight the filmmaking community. This year's Director Spotlight focused on the animated team of Bob Sabiston and Tommy Pallotta (whose feature debut, the Richard Linklater-directed "Waking Life" was the toast of this year's Sundance). After screening their films, Sabiston demonstrated his innovative software by converting video shot hours earlier of the festival's Guest Services Coordinator, Georgia Lewis, to animation.
The MasterWorks symposium included world-class cinematographers Richard Crudo ("Raising Arizona"), Dean Cundey ("Jurassic Park"), Allen Daviau ("The Color Purple"), and Amy Vincent ("Eve's Bayou"). There was also Kidtoonfest, which showcased a selection of short films for children as well as gave aspiring Aspen kids a venue to exhibit their own works -- created that week with the help of the festival's education program.
The toughest task of any edition of the Aspen Shortsfest must be to choose films to single out with awards when the competition is so strong. There were a few surprises of the jury's choices, the biggest being the Best Drama winner Katerina Filiotou's "Listen . . . " (Greece). The film follows a young mother's moment of adulterous weakness, which she immediately discloses to her husband and daughter. While the film brought up interesting issues of lust, fidelity, and trust, the mystery behind the motivation of the mother's adultery was never dealt with: combined with some rather light performances, the dramatic effect was muted instead of profound. Another surprise was Julian Cautherly's "Blue Haven" (USA), which shared the festival's $1,500 Ellen Award. While the DV film showed much ingenuity in its pacing, visuals and editing, the story -- about a pair of skateboarders who stumble into money and use it to get a sex change operation for one of them -- wore thin.
Other Ellen winners were Karin Westerlund's "Helgoland" (Denmark) and Frederic Pelle's "Pieces of My Wife" (France). The animated Eye award went to James Cunningham's popular fest circuit entry, "Infection" (New Zealand), best experimental short went to Daniel Wiroth's "Erè Mèla Mèla" (France), best short short went to Jay Rosenblatt's "Nine Lives (The Eternal Moment of Now)" (USA), best student film was Cate Shortland's "Joy" (Australia) and special recognition was given to Aditya Assarat's "Motorcycle" (Thailand), Daniel Loflin's ""Delusions in Modern Primitivism" (USA), and David Ostry's "Eyes" (Canada).
While showcasing the best of this year's festival, the closing night awards ceremony also added a new dimension by inviting an established director, John Waters, to talk about his career. After screening two strange and quirky shorts that inspired him at a young age, Kenneth Anger's "Fireworks" and "Kustom Kar Kommandos," Waters delighted the audience with tales from his career, declaring that, "every filmmaker should have a standup act." And yes, the poo-eating scene at the end of "Pink Flamingos" was real!