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How the Oscar Shorts Deal with Aging and Generational Differences

How the Oscar Shorts Deal with Aging and Generational Differences

One of the big surprises of this year’s awards season has been the resurgence of “Amour,” a film with perhaps the most explicit depiction of the truths of aging. But beyond the full-length looks at how some characters deal with those perils, there are other nominated tales that offer briefer but no less piercing depictions of characters’ later years. They might not deal with the same subjects of loss or regret as directly as Michael Haneke’s film, but over the past two years, both the nominees and winners in the pair of short film categories at the Oscars have represented a noteworthy arena for showcasing the stories of past generations.

Those two categories provide an occasional respite for whimsy — just take this year’s “Fresh Guacamole,” a short in multiple senses of the word, more of a technical marvel than a deep illumination of the human condition. But there are also plenty of Oscar shorts that use the form as an opportunity to blend those abstractions with some keen observations on getting older. 

Many of these tales equate the issues of advanced age with physical isolation, placing their characters in remote locations in order to more closely examine their struggles. Last year’s “Tuba Atlantic” follows a character with just days to live. Rather than take that as an opportunity to go on a “Bucket List”-esque whirlwind of adventures, the man lives out the remainder of his existence at his solitary piece of the Norwegian coast. The main character’s last-moment attempts at reconciliation come from the comfort of that house; after his initial terminal diagnosis, we never see him stray more than a quarter mile from his own bed.

“Head Over Heels,” one of the animated shorts for this year, details one couple’s gravity-enhanced marital troubles. At various points, when one character walks on the ground, their spouse is pulled upward, strolling on the ceiling. Not only does director Timothy Reckart use the split reactions to basic physical forces as a way to separate the husband and wife, but he stages much of the ten minutes of screen time in a house floating away from civilization. At one point (in true “Up” fashion), the couple’s house lands on a deserted expanse of land, leaving the two to sort out their differences solely by themselves.

Some of these storytelling choices likely come from inherent structural and budgetary limitations of the short film process. The central tale of “Tuba Atlantic” benefits from the focus that comes with only having two main cast members. “Head Over Heels” gains extra emotional resonance despite the decision to only animate two characters. That specificity helps these tales avoid the pitfalls of an omnibus character actor film like “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” where there’s a natural disparity between the engagement of those multiple story threads. So, rather than the problem of distance with age getting short shrift or being used as merely a device to illuminate another character, the focus remains on those characters who need it most.

In addition to peers relating with each other, these shorts also provide the opportunity to showcase interactions between up-and-coming. “Pentecost,” one of 2012’s finalists, uses an amusing connection between Catholic altar servers and English soccer to turn church into a kind of competitive performance. But beyond the superficial connection lies an undercurrent visible in many of these shorts: the elders in their respective communities see their apprenticed youngsters as a means of self-preservation. There’s a small-c conservative streak to the attitudes of many of the older characters in these shorts. Religion in “Pentecost” is the means to protecting the old way just as one of the titular “Buzkashi Boys” is expected to continue the family blacksmith tradition. Where both films succeed is in the ambiguity of their endings. There’s a sense that both boys’ final actions carry out what is expected, but whether that pattern of behavior will continue beyond the credits rolling is left in doubt. 

Given the condensed time constraints that these films operate under, it seems only appropriate that so many of them center on memory as a way to give depth to their characters and convey so much of their journeys. The standout animated short from last year, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,” is a prime example of the way we use physical objects to connect to the past. Again in isolation, Lessmore is able to write his own story after serving as the caretaker of an enchanted library. From there, his contribution to library of flying books becomes a rite of passage for the building’s next inhabitant. As a result, his memories, in a physical form, don’t age. In “Henry,” part of this year’s live-action crop, those recollections from the past become recreations that take on a far more personal bent. It’s an inversion of “Amour” with a sprinkle of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” one man’s struggle to retain the knowledge of his past. Much like the child at the end of “Morris Lessmore,” Henry’s notion of his previous exploits is aided by someone from the next generation, someone able to sustain that information beyond the point when their elders are no longer able. 

For a look at how all three of these ideas are brought together in one film, Terry George’s “The Shore” provides a helpful case study. Joe (Ciarán Hinds) returns from America to Northern Ireland to visit the neighborhood and friends of his youth. His fractured relationship with a childhood mate comes in part from the distance that separates the two in the aftermath of the troubles. Upon his return, he brings along his daughter to introduce her to the life he left behind. By connecting Joe’s reunion to the next generation, we get the same example of shared memories. The daughter, Patricia (Kerry Condon) becomes the reason for the film’s existence, the character who learns a period of her father’s past that shapes every interaction we see before and after that reveal. Right before the film’s final reconnection, we see the daughter with camcorder poised, ready to preserve that moment and the lives of two men in the process.

Some of these short films, placed on the ultimate pedestal of visibility and qualitative endorsement, capture glimpses of a life as a way to highlight a specific point in time for a particular character. (2012’s “Time Freak” playfully uses time travel to extend that idea it to its repetitive extreme.) But for others, the goal is to encapsulate an entire life story in less than half an hour. Doing so requires a certain amount of compact relaying of information, but the result is a series of short films that distill those lives to their essence.

You can purchase last year’s nominees and winners in both categories through the iTunes store. This year’s nominees are now playing in selected theaters and will be available for on-demand purchase on February 19th.

Through February 2013, Indiewire is taking a closer look at how the over-60 audience is served by the movies made for them as well as profiling the actors and filmmakers who are their peers. It’s part of a partnership with Heineken, which is sponsoring the “Heineken 60+ Challenge” that reaches out to the creative community to film, photograph or write their observations on the lifestyles and preferences of the 60+ age group. The goal is to help Heineken create innovative products to suit this golden generation.

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