Intense Ideas in Compressed Time: Sundance's Short Offerings, From Magic Glasses to Murder
by Jonny Leahan
"There's a different cinematic language for shorts than there is for features," says Shawn Ku, whose "Pretty Dead Girl" was one of 88 short films screening at Sundance 2004. "We watch short films with more intensity because we know that it's going to be over." Ku's dark comedy, which he calls "a musical necromance," is anything but deadpan. The crisp look and smartly choreographed performances hold your attention from the first frame to the final production number, which had Park City audiences in stitches. "Oftentimes we want our shorts to be as grand as a feature length film, myself included," says Ku. "I think because we grow up in our culture watching feature-length films, it's hard for someone to know how shorts should be paced."
Hank Azaria certainly knows, and his 25-minute "Nobody's Perfect" (in Shorts Program 5) gave him a chance to show audiences his stuff as director and star. Azaria shot in 35mm with a sizeable cast and even bigger budget to create a slick and genuinely funny story about a man who is looking for Ms. Right, but makes the mistake of expecting Ms. Perfect. When he finally gets a hold of his grandfather's magic glasses, he's able to see how each relationship will end, and it ain't a pretty sight. In a surprisingly sweet final scene, Azaria's character throws caution (and the glasses) to the wind, embracing the unpredictability of love's roller coaster madness.
In a completely different love story, "Bobbycrush" (which screened before Christopher Munch's "Harry and Max") follows two adolescent boys through an awkward relationship, beautifully capturing the pain and pleasure of teenage sexual confusion that comes with the requisite rush of hormones and lack of self-understanding. "I really wanted to have something people could draw meaning from," says director Cam Archer, "without feeling like this was some sort of personal rant... It's just based on this idea of being disappointed in your adolescence but having to keep quiet about it."
Audience reaction in Park City was so positive that Archer plans to expand the film into a feature. "I have it all in my head, and in my head it's perfect," says Archer. "I want to get it out of me and onto pages and then onto screens. I think people are a lot more likely to pay attention to features [than shorts] even though funding is almost impossible."
Another audience favorite was "It's Okay to Drink Whiskey," directed by Paul Williams, which closed Shorts Program 5. Shot on 35mm in a laundromat, the 10-minute piece opens with what seems to be a few hard-drinking gals chatting it up while waiting for their clothes to get clean. As the film progresses, we realize the women are in some sort of purgatory, all victims of a violent serial killer who brutally attacked them and is still at large. The film's strange mix of folksy humor and brutal violence culminates in a surprisingly uplifting, almost spiritual conclusion.
The standout in Shorts Program 4 was undoubtedly Margaret Harris' "Exit 8A," an engaging 22-minute powerhouse of a film that, although shot on 16mm, had the look and feel of a big budget feature. Skillfully acted by a superb cast, it tells the story of an immigrant waitress who has to explain to her troubled skinhead-type boyfriend that she is pregnant. Little did she know the news would set off a chain of events that would lead to a hostage situation, and eventually to the heartless murder of her boyfriend's father. Harris, who demonstrates real talent here, is a director to watch.
Less impressive was "Are You Feeling Lonely?," directed by Rosario Garcia-Montero. Definitely original, it tells the story of a man working in a morgue who calls the lovers of the deceased in a desperate attempt to get a date. Although the atrocious performance of the director's lead actor was clearly a deliberate choice on her part, the film suffers from a clunky, amateurish feel that ultimately fails to satisfy.
There was no such faltering in famed photographer David LaChapelle's stylish doc short playing here, "Krumped." LaChapelle, too, hopes to soon make a feature-length film on his subject, Los Angeles kids who have developed a subculture devoted to a theatrical style of dancing.
Overall, most directors (many of them first-timers) seemed pleased with their Sundance experience. "It's been amazing," says Ku. "The crazy parties, the crowds, the frenzy of it all. It's been a great experience."