LAIFF: Shorts Parade in LA, Super 8 Testimonials to Hi-Tech Music Videos
by Jessica Hundley
(indieWIRE/4.20.2000) -- With Internet distribution companies ravenous for content and the rapid growth of independent programming on our television sets, the short film has experienced a resurgence that has lent fresh respectability to a too often under-appreciated form. Not since the days of travel reels and singing cowboy episodics has the medium been so easily accessible to a broad audience.
Within the cinematic utopia of the independent film festival, however, shorts have never lost their allure. For years now, compilation programs and pre-feature slots have showcased some of the best work of both independent and experimental filmmakers and the cream of the university crops. This tradition was carried on strongly last week at the LA Independent Film Festival where the schedule included four compilation programs (one focused solely on experimental work) and two screenings of music videos, as well as a short screening prior to nearly every feature.
The participants of the LAIFF had the added benefit of screening their shorts on Hollywood home turf for an industry heavy audience. Despite the short format's accessibility, there were very few films that utilized digital video, technology's newest and most effective tool in bringing filmmaking to the masses. Instead the programs were monopolized by sumptuously filmed 35mm and 16mm prints, such as Bill Brown's "Confederation Park" a gorgeous meditation on the Canadian landscape, Jeff Orgill's "Thaw," or Ellie Lee's deftly shot "Dog Days" which uses a rich black and white stock to convey the decay of an American suburb in the midst of war.
Super 8, with its the richness of color and grain, lent a sense of nostalgia to several confessional films and documentary shorts. These sort of personal testimonials, which included Jay Rosenblatt's fantastic "King of the Jews" and Sadia Shepard's touching "Reinvention," seemed a favorite of the LAIFF programmers and for good reason. The short format is particularly suited to this genre in that it allows filmmakers to explore a fragmentary moment of their lives (or another's) without the self-indulgence such an endeavor would require for a feature. Milton Moses Ginsberg (who's "Coming Apart" is considered a 1960's masterwork) contributed one of the rare video pieces, "City Below the Line," a cinema vérité midlife crisis filmed on good old-fashioned Hi-8. The animated shorts were also few and far between, but those that were programmed were strong, particularly Jose Javier Martinez' haunting "Luz," the cruelly humorous "Billy's Balloon" and the incredibly endearing "Indescribable Nth."
The big moments of the festival were, not surprisingly, fueled by celebrity involvement. Steven Wright's second foray into directing, "One Soldier" (his first; "The Appointments of Dennis Jennings" won him an Oscar) was a black and white period piece with a healthy dose of its director's deadpan existentialism. Canadian star Sarah Polley's first directorial effort "Don't Think Twice" had the good fortune of screening before the sold out showing of "Beat." Written and produced as well as directed by the Canadian actress, the film is a wonderfully disturbing and beautiful orchestrated debut.
Unique to LAIFF are its fantastic music video programs, which this year showcased the work of several incredibly talented directors. The medium gets little respect within the film community, but one forgets that directors such as Scorsese and Coppola have created small masterpieces within the medium (most of them for Michael Jackson). The format has launched the career of more than one young filmmaker and most recently, Spike Jonze has parlayed his video and commercial experience into phenomenal feature success.
This year's LAIFF programs were heavy on the work of the medium's newest darling, Mike Mills (his short "The Architecture of Reassurance" screened at NYFF). Mills has a style that is as eclectic as they come. Each of the director's videos were uniquely varied, from his playful ping-pong themed piece for Air's "Kelly Watch the Stars," to the disturbing time-lapsed "day in the life" of a teen-aged actress he created for Everything But the Girl. Mills' style is marked by his fearlessness in using film language and by his utter abandonment of traditional music video techniques. At times he utilizes subtitles or title cards to accompany the visual narration and in his video for Air's "All I Need" the song becomes secondary to documentary style interviews with a teenage couple. The piece works more as a narrative than a music video, with the music serving as a subtle and cohesive soundtrack.
With more and more bands integrating film imagery into their live shows and the willingness of labels to spend exorbitant sums on promotional videos, the form has subsequently become a showcase for filmmakers whose style is rarely defined by Hollywood technique. The LAIFF showcase featured some fantastic experiments with animation (The Squirrel Nut Zippers' "Ghost of Steven Foster" and "Une Very Stylish Fille" for Dimitri of Paris) and breath-taking innovations in editing and digital effect techniques. The new visual advancements which are simply too prohibitive in cost for most feature length productions were on hand in many of the works. Floria Sigismondi's video for Amel Larrieux was just this sort of eye candy, showcasing high-end tricks with spectacular results. Other highlights were Blood Of Abraham's "EyedollarTree" a black and white exploration of conspiracy and control that uses AfterEffects to its full potential. Matt Amato's 14 minute epic for Tipsy was a wonderfully hypnotic piece which stood on its own as an experimental film narrative, using archival footage, computer animation and Super 8 to accompany the group's eclectic sound.
At each Q&A session there was much talk about the further growth of short format distribution options, with filmmakers hoping that perhaps, instead of commercials before our movies, we'll see films instead. Already standard programming in most European and Canadian theaters, it seems these small masterpieces should be able find a place at American cineplexes. Like a short story or a poem, the short film, at its best, is uniquely beautiful, with the ability to contain poignancy made only more resonant by its limitations.
[Jessica Hundley is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles.]