A Darkened Room, A Reel of Film + Me
By Russ Bickerstaff
A group of virtual strangers meet in a small, darkened room every other week for two months to watch an endless parade of film shorts and then discuss them. It sounds like a weak premise for a particularly un-engaging reality show, but for better or worse, it’s the standard template for how the selection process works for film festivals everywhere.
I entered that tiny room on Milwaukee’s East Side with little idea of how I’d gotten there. I’d received a call in a caffeine haze on a morning that might have been an afternoon. The life of an impoverished writer/resident apartment manager is filled with half-conscious moments, and this was clearly one of them. I quite nearly recognized the voice on the other end of the phone, but fate would have it that the man was a complete stranger from the Milwaukee International Film Festival. The stranger said that I had been recommended to him as a panelist of some sort. He asked me to attend four-hour screenings every other week for a long time. It sounded weird. I told the stranger I was in.
The selection process for the Midwest Shorts competition was long and exhausting. The 24-plus hours of submitted entries had to be edited down to a much more manageable 90-minute show for attendees of the festival. Quite a few of the decisions were easy; there were obvious eliminations. Much to my surprise, the selection panel for a film festival isn’t required to sit through every entry from start to finish. We were brutally harsh to some of them, cutting off the tape or DVD after only a few minutes. This upset me at first. Actual people put real work into these entries and went to the trouble of paying an entry fee to have their work considered. As the weeks wore on though, I saw what awful stuff some people considered film and became just as blood-thirsty as the rest, calling a vote to cut off films after only a few minutes on numerous occasions.
Given what we had to contend with to put together a brief program from such extensive footage, it quickly became clear what we were looking for. Entries twenty minutes or longer, for example, had to be remarkably good to fit into a 90-minute shorts program.
In the final phase of the selection process, things got a bit more difficult. Perfectly good films got cut because they didn’t fit with the rest of the shorts on the program. In putting together a program, there has to be a balance between the best entries and what would flow well from one piece to the next. Here then, are those that ended up making the cut, listed in alphabetical order:
Algren’s Last Night: A bittersweet ode to Chicago inspired by one of its most bitter lovers and most acclaimed writers, the late Nelson Algren. Chicago writer/director/actor Warren Leming, who personally knew Algren, wrote and starred in the 6-minute short, directed by Carmine Cervi. It is brilliantly written in dark, gritty prose with the sound of Dave Maddox’s soulful sax to pull it all together.
Conception: Christopher Zahn, founder of the Funtup Film Festival, directs this soupy art film with dark, blurry tones and strange movements sifting out of the cinematic ether. Somewhere in the heart of it all, there’s the sound of a woman in agony or ecstasy, but it’s hard to tell in this brief, nearly-lucid piece. I wasn’t that impressed, but I was unanimously out-voted.
The Date: Christopher Irvin’s strange, wild ode to the idealized perfection of the ultimate date was released by a production house out of East Lansing, Michigan called Dream Orphans. It may drag on a bit too long, in spite of the excellent cinematography and stylishly off-beat comedy that moves it all. This piece, completed last year, was probably the single most discussed film of the selection process. Once the twist hits somewhere around the middle of the film, is there enough to keep it together? Perhaps. You can see it online in miniature postage-stamp-o-vision at www.dreamorphans.com.
Fever: Minneapolis animator Charlie Griak’s stylish eight-minute animation is based on some of the central conflicts in the heart of Raskolnikov, the central character in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It moves quickly for a short, simple film drawn from a long, complex novel and can be a bit hard to follow. But as deep as some of the concepts are, this short may be a bit too shiny for its own good. The visual style sharply polarizes light and darkness in a way eerily reminiscent of the dark, heavy-inking of comic-book artist and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. This piece (released last year by Killer Slant Pictures) is so slick that it has its own promotional website: www.feveranimation.com
Learn Self-Defense: Kansas City greeting card writer and animator Chris Harding entered this hilarious bit of animation that we on the panel unanimously accepted. It was released only one year ago and has already been featured in over 50 festivals worldwide. The five-minute film is a cynically humorous piece done in the style of 1950s educational films. The cleverness here is mirrored in Harding’s 2003 animated short, Make Mine Shoebox, which can be seen in all of its 5-minute glory online at www.chrisharding.net.
Lifelike: Madison Director John Besmer coughed this one up earlier this year and it’s already met with a warm reception elsewhere. It’s the touching, 19-minute story of a young writer who rolls into a breezy, rural town. There, he meets an old taxidermist with whom he runs into a bit of friction. In the end, they find respect for each other, realizing they are more alike than they originally thought. It was beautifully filmed entirely in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin. But the young writer’s character is written poorly and neither of the lead actors (both of whom have careers in the Chicago theatre, so they must be talented) pulls anything substantial out of the characters. In short, it’s weakly acted. Besmer did this as a study for a feature-length screenplay he’s trying to bring to life. Guess who was unanimously out-voted on this one.
Lifesavors: Ann Arbor animator Shaun Williams put together this clever little one-minute ad parody. Rolls of fruit candies march through a battlefield in this computer-animated parody of the Department of Homeland Security’s PR scheme.
Self-Important Empirical Film #3, with Voice-Over: Milwaukee filmmaker Dave Andrae’s six-minute film really lives up to its title. Andrae’s lifeless, comically-depressed voiceover accompanies dreary footage taken of and by Andrae. Its drab, out of focus charm feels like a much less technically-accomplished version of Steven Soderbergh’s depressed voice-over at the beginning of Schizopolis.
Texas Hospitality: Michael Pfaendtner’s captivating four-minute look at the death penalty was a big hit at last year’s Full Frame Documentary Festival in North Carolina. Pleasant music plays over head shots of Texas convicts on death row as white text appears against the black background explaining who each person was and what they did to get the death penalty. The text then blacks out to reveal what the convict’s last meal request was. It’s a morbidly funny look at the darker side of criminal justice.
Uso Justo: With this bold comedy, Minneapolis experimental filmmaker Coleman Miller proves that provocative, cutting-edge existential cinema can be refreshingly accessible. Miller took footage from an obscure 1955 Mexican hospital drama and garbled it up post-modern style into a 22-minute comedy. Entirely fabricated English subtitles and clever editing transform the snippets of film into the story of experimental filmmaker Coleman Miller going to the small village of Uso Justo (“fair use” in Spanish) to make a film. Slowly, the characters begin to make a horrifying discovery: they’re found footage. Uso Justo (a 2005 release) has already won awards at the Humboldt International and Ann Arbor Film Festivals. It should be a rather dizzying experience for anyone fluent in Spanish, as Miller’s subtitles have absolutely nothing to do with the spoken dialogue. VS