The Criterion Channel, in addition to hosting a plethora of feature films, also has a varied collection of short films--live action, animated, fiction, documentary; comedy and drama; silent and talkies.
Short cinema--just like short stories--is a unique art form unto itself, employing different conventions, and bringing with it different expectations, but these pieces are no less worthy of consideration than full-length films. From time to time, I will take a look at a selection of what’s on offer. You can read the previous columns here and here.
Neighbours (1952; Canada; 8 minutes): Two men with adjoining homes find their friendship disrupted by a flower growing on their property line. They argue, build fences, and try to take possession of the plant until the whole thing overwhelms them. Told without dialogue, and shot using stop-motion techniques, Neighbours is a whimsical, surreal parable. Director Norman McLaren was a wizard with the camera, and he says more about human greed and the futility of war in this abstract handful of minutes than many say with a full script and an extended running time.
Casus Belli (2010; Greece; 11 minutes): A clever construct. Director Yorgos Zois strings people together queue by queue, showing groups standing in line for groceries, a nightclub, confession, off-track betting, an art museum, and an ATM. We scroll past each gathering, and the first person in the line steps out of it and moves over to the next. Unfortunately, when Zois gets to his point, the turn is rather heavy handed, ending at a bread line and featuring an actor giving a disdainful look to the camera when the charity comes up short. I get the idea is to switch from the frivolous to the serious, but it’s a pretty obvious move and Casus Belli is less effective for it.
Skunk (2014; USA; 17 minutes): Writer and director Annie Silverstein creates an uncomfortable, but strangely comforting short tale of adolescence. When a Texas teen (Jenivieve Nugent) takes her dog down to the river to give him a bath after he ended up on the wrong end of a skunk, she meets an opportunistic boy (Sam Stinson) who toys with her emotions, promising her all kinds of things if she’ll hook up with him and let him use her pooch in a dogfight.
Stories like this come with a built-in tension, as we have seem the likes of this boy before, and we know his brand of interference rarely bodes well. One watches Skunk with a knot of worry. Just how bad will this go for Leila? Silverstein approaches the events with an unwavering honesty, she is not exploitative. While Criterion has smartly paired this with Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank [review], I’m perhaps reminded more of David Gordon Green’s George Washington [review]. What all three directors have in common is an empathy for their characters; their storytelling is observational, they never look down their noses at their protagonists, but rather try to put themselves into the situation to see where they come from.
The Acquaintances of a Lonely John (2008; USA; 12 minutes): A solo outing from Benny Safdie (one half of the team behind Good Time), this short follows one guy on his daily meanderings. Aimless by design, one I suppose should be prepared to forgive a lot, but only a few of the scenarios are charming. Likely Safdie--who also plays the titular John--is making best use of what he had available; the film mostly loses its way when it settles down at a gas station for some Clerks style antics. Ironically, The Acquaintances of a Lonely John is actually best when Safdie is alone and simply amusing himself.
John’s Gone (2010; USA; 22 minutes): Josh and Ben Safdie directing together, with Ben starring as John--perhaps the same John from Benny’s earlier effort, hard to say. The tone is similar to The Acquaintances of a Lonely John: a touch of comedy, a loose plot, episodic. Here John is hustling various goods out of his apartment, selling second-hand junk and pulling internet scams. The film itself puts focus on the strange customers, and John’s interactions with other people in his apartment building. He’s a guy who seems to try to have a hand in everything, and sometimes it gets him in trouble. Many narrative opportunities are missed here. The Safdies could go in deep on any number of the relationships, or even hold John’s feet to the fire when a one-night stand he was rude to comes back, but John’s Gone always stays on the superficial. Ultimately, there is no ending here, no conclusion to be drawn, the movie just fades out.
The Black Case (2014; Canada; 13 minutes): A mysterious, surreal drama with elements of horror, The Black Case causes the audience to question the nature of identity, voyeurism, and in a way, one’s own physicality. Set in a strange hospital scenario, we see two children locked away and the doctor and nurse that are meant to care for them. Just about everything isn’t what it seems, and though co-directors Caroline Monnet and Daniel Watchorn eschew all exposition--and hell, dialogue for the most part--they don’t obfuscate for the mere sake of it. Like Eraserhead but with one foot still in reality.
L’opera-mouffe (1958; France; 16 minutes): Also known as Diary of a Pregnant Woman, this black-and-white short from Agnès Varda, who was indeed pregnant at the time of the making and serves as her own model at the start of the picture, is more of a collage of the life cycle of a small French village than it is a look at the cycle of pregnancy. Set to a score by the great Georges Delerue (Jules et Jim), Varda details many aspects of existence, from sex and food to drunkenness and anxiety. The bits that do touch on the birth process tend to be more abstracted, including the surreal growth and eventual hatching of a chicken from a glass bowl. The result is whimsical and strange, but also kind of sobering. Also, a greater collection of real faces you aren’t likely to find in any cinematic era.
(This film is also available on the DVD of Cléo from 5 to 7.)
The Burden (2017; Sweden; 14 minutes): Another surreal musical, this time by director Niki Lindroth von Bahr, whose Tord and Tord I covered back in the first installment of this column.
Created via stop-motion animation, The Burden features fish in a motel, mice working in fast food, telemarketing monkeys, and a lone canine shopping in a mega-mart. In each scenario, the lonely animals are searching for some kind of connection and eventual release in an increasingly convenient world (or should that be “convenient” in quotes?).
Charming, unpredictable, and surprisingly joyous.