Sunday, November 04, 2007

In Praise of the Short Film
Film, when you break it down to its most basic, is a shorthand narrative for life. It captures moments never before seen, never to be seen again. It doesn’t matter if it’s a tintype from the 19th century, or the latest Hollywood blockbuster, film records that one moment, real or imagined, destined to be seared into our brains forever. Once it’s stored there, it joins our memories of sound, scent, touch, even taste, to create something unique to each individual. Ask three different people what a film’s about, and odds are you’ll get at least two different opinions. Ask the filmmaker, and you’re likely to get a completely different take. But sit the filmmaker down with one or two audience members, and you’ll end up with some sort of zeitgeist about the film’s real meaning.

Ideally, a film, not unlike a novel, should reflect the filmmaker’s viewpoint while making a universal statement about the human condition. It’s not a perfect world, though, and filmmaking is a largely collaborative effort. Feature films very rarely bear more than a passing resemblance to the writer’s, much less the director’s, original vision. It goes through too many hands for it to be otherwise.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s what makes cinema a unique art form. Still, to understand film, and the motivations of the filmmaker, it’s important to see works stripped of commercial expectations, to see ambitions and views on the screen for exposure to an audience beyond their basements. And that’s one reason the short film is the unsung backbone of the entire film community. It’s in the short film that any aspirations to art within the medium are readily apparent. Because they’re usually made on shoestring budgets, short films are often technically innovative. Above all else, though, the short film represents the filmmaker’s most creative efforts, unhampered by commercial expectations or studio bottom lines.

Cinema16: European Short Films, as its title suggests, is a compilation of sixteen short films from European filmmakers. Actually, Cinema16 compilations have been around in Europe since 2003, but were only available in Region 2 PAL formats, and thus incompatible with the American NTSC format. This volume is the “Special USA Edition,” and is sort of a “best of” of the UK releases “European Short Films” and “British Short Films”, and also includes material not seen on those releases.

It’s an extensive two-disc collection running over three hours that includes cult classics, first efforts, art films and international award winners, all held together by a universal thread of na├»ve dedication to craft. Beyond that, all sixteen of these little films ring of honesty rarely seen in mainstream productions. Individually, they speak in dialects ranging from satire to earnestness, from whimsical exuberance to bleak stoicism, but they all speak in some way to the human condition.

“The Man without a Head,” by Argentine director Juan Solanas, is the opening film in this collection, and sets the tone for what follows. It’s a parable about the faceless in society, told with humor and style. Andrea Arnold’s “Wasp” takes a decidedly more somber look at that theme with its tale of a single mother of four trapped in a cycle of poverty and despair. Both films have won numerous awards.

Cinema16 offers more than recent shorts, though. Ridley Scott’s first film, “Boy and Bicycle,” finished in 1958, and starring his brother Tony, is represented here. Although it’s a bit tedious, it offers early glimpses of the techniques the Scott brothers would employ in their films that later catapulted them to fame. “Doodlebug,” a three minute student film by Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins) is an amusing little piece that, according to Nolan, taught him what not to do.

Animation is showcased here, also. Czech surrealist Jan Swankmejer’s 1971 classic “Jabberwocky” is a particularly notable inclusion, given his influence on a number of filmmakers, such as Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam. His influence is felt in 2005’s “Rabbit,” by Run Wrake, a dreamlike fantasy about lost innocence, composed mostly with clip art from a second hand bookstore children’s book. Less obvious, but equally surreal is the Austrian “Copy Shop,” by Virgil Widrich, a wildly imaginative live-action, stop motion hybrid about a copy shop employee who copies himself until he eventually populates the whole world.

The films represented on the Cinema16 collection range in length from three minutes to 23 minutes, and all hit their mark with a precision rarely seen in mainstream film. The economics of independent filmmaking dictate such an approach. As a result, every frame, every word of dialogue propels the story. Nothing is wasted.

Outside of an available audio commentary on all but three of the sixteen films, there are no extras on Cinema16. I t doesn’t need any. It’s a celebration of the medium of film, told as it should be told—visually. For those looking for something with more substance than the Hollywood Hit of the Week, it’s essential viewing. Vastly entertaining, Cinema16 should be required viewing for anybody on either side of the Big Pond who claims to be a student of film technique.

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