PARK CITY 2000 INTERVIEW: With a Little Help from the Web, Short Films Take Sundance
by Tim LaTorre / indieWIRE
A gerbil in a microwave, talking fish heads, startroopers as 'COPS' . . . this past year has seen the short film format begin to blossom. This newfound attention is due largely to the development of streaming media on the Internet which has resulted in a new distribution market. "Next-generation" entertainment players like Atom Films, iFILM, and Mediatrip, who acquire films or partner with filmmakers, have created a significant presence at this year's festival, looking to find the next big (short) thing. Sundance 2000 marks the start of the short film program receiving as much acquisitions attention as the feature program. However, while filmmakers and press alike dream of bidding wars for short films, intense competition is still years away.
(l-r) Don't look for 'Titler' to perform on a stage near you.
What works best in the short film format? As in other short formats, music videos and commercials, experimentation with content, narrative structure, and visuals define the medium. Filmmakers seem more willing to take risks in the short film format. While this year's program had several 'traditional' narrative hits, the most vibrant successes come from the realm of animation, comedy, and the experimental.
In the dramatic narrative field, Peter Sollett's "Five Feet High and Rising" struck chords because of its tender honesty. Set in the streets of New York's Lower East Side, the film follows the sexual awakening of twelve-year-old Victor who, after meeting Amanda in a chance encounter at a neighborhood pool, sets out to find her the next day. The verite visual style and subdued pace complements the performances from the young non-actors, creating an entirely realistic tone. After an attempt at traditional casting, Sollett and co-producer Eva Vives posted flyers around the Lower East Side and attended school talent shows, where they found most of the talent. For the lead character, Victor, actor Victor Rasuk literally wandered into the audition room off the street, unscheduled and unannounced. It's a good thing too, for it's the performances that really make this piece tick.
In "Rick and Steve the Happiest Gay Couple in All the World," filmmaker Q. Allan Brocka has taken LEGO people and animated them in a PC tale focusing on a male gay couple that must deal with the prospect of becoming parents when a lesbian couple ask one of them to father a child. While the use of LEGOs evokes Todd Haynes use of Barbie dolls in the outlawed 'Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story', the innocence and bright colors of the LEGO people contrasts so severely with the subject matter that it results in some hilarious situations. Three words say it all: masturbating LEGO penis.
Michael Horowitz and Gareth Smith's "This Guy is Falling" mixes
After last year's mortuary doc "The Last Guy to Let You Down," Rolf Gibbs returns to Sundance with "G." This film demonstrates how experimental filmmaking, often times, can result in the most artistic use of the cinematic frame. Built around the idea of tossing a camera off an airplane at 30,000 feet and witnessing the sensation of freefall (the contraption was designed to keep the lens face down), the film is a one shot masterpiece. The result resembles a living painting -- the beautiful texture of the approaching surface changes every moment and increases until the abrupt crash that marks the end of the film. (See indieWIRE's On The Scene streaming video coverage to see and hear Gibbs speak about how the camera and the film survived the drop.)
Also evoking a painterly feel, Michael Horowitz and Gareth Smith's "This Guy Is Falling" (recently picked up for distribution on cable and online by Sundance Channel) is the best example of how digital effects and digital filmmaking are expanding the filmmaker's palette. The film centers around Warren, who, after the gravity of the world is accidentally turned off, must save Laura from floating into a jet engine. Combining painted sets, computer generated effects and live action footage of the actors, the film takes the viewer through a world of vibrant colors and insane visual compositions -- a strange pop descendent of the German Expressionist set design of the classic silent, "Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."
Far and away, in this writer's opinion, Jonathan Bekemeier's "Titler" (screening before "Psycho Beach Party") was the most shocking, entertaining, and hilarious entry of the festival. Set up as a series of brief musical interludes, the film focuses on an Adolf Hitler character in a perfectly-cut dress belting out show-stopping, acapella tunes with titles such as "Cocksucker", "Lesbian Love", and "Fat Girl." Filmed with effective black-and-white visuals and disintegrating locations of abandoned Met State hospital which evoke a bombed-out post-war Berlin, writer-performer Gregory Roman energizes the screen with a performance of brilliant comedic nuances and mannerisms that, while still manly, evoke the lonesome glamour of Marlene Dietrich.
"Titler" also embodies one of the most exciting developments that the Web brings to entertainment. Initially visualized a film, the filmmakers have also created a Web site (http://www.titler.com) that further evolves the character and tone established in the film.
Other highlights of this year's festival include: a follow-up to the subject matter of "The Farm" with Simeon Soffer's doc "The Wildest Show in the South: The Angola Prison Rodeo"; the well-acted, somber cancer drama , Jodie Gibson's "Friday"; Paul Charney's "Sunday Afternoon," a brief look at the nuances and underlying meanings of an argument; and the animated Australian short, "Slim Pickings" directed by Anthony Lucas (screening with aptly with "Chuck and Buck").
As the Web continues to gains its wings, look for short films and their distributors online to have a significant influence on the "next generation" of entertainment.