Power without punchlines

Simon Sellars

Micha Wold, Alice et Moi

Micha Wold, Alice et Moi

The St Kilda Film Festival did not get off to an auspicious start. Opening night was supposed to showcase the cream of Australia’s top 100 shorts but the session was characterised by tired scenarios and an almost total inability on the part of the filmmakers to fully examine the implications of their storylines. Soft writing, soft acting, the soft option—they all lessen the blow. We were also treated to ‘gimmick filmmaking’, whereby the demands of a sponsor shoehorn the content into lame outcomes, like the Micro Movie promotion. Sponsored by Siemens, this was really a promotion for their latest phone, which can shoot a minute or so of video. There was a competition for the best 90-second film made with it, and that can’t be healthy for Australian short-film making, already afflicted by the accursed punchline disease (call it the Tropfest Syndrome). Ninety-second films are all punchline and that’s sad.

But what do I know? I’m a critic. I’ve never made a film. I know what I like, though, and that’s why I was smitten by the festival’s International section, especially the Aspen and Interfilm components. The Aspen program, direct from Colorado, featured highlights from the 2004 and 2005 Aspen ShortsFest, and kicked off with Bill Plympton’s animation Guard Dog (2004). You can’t really go wrong with ‘Plymptoons’—the man has a singularly warped worldview that magnifies the most innocuous of details and turns them into outrageous, off-centre treatises on life and the universe. In Plympton’s world there are no beautiful people, just grotesque, pinched shells of human beings meeting extreme fates in very vivid fashion. Guard Dog was no exception—long live this man and his nasty sense of humour.

The best of the rest included Rob Pearlstein’s Our Time is Up (2004) in which a psychologist discovers he has 6 weeks to live. Life is literally too short for him to listen to his whining patients, and he watches in glee as one fruitloop after another implodes, driven batty by the rising bile of their neuroses. Underground (2004), by Aimee Lagos and Kristin Dehnert, was a rip-roaring cat-and-mouse tale played out in the dank subway of some unnamed city. Two heavies pursue a woman from train to train; she’s totally wound up—these men clearly mean her harm. This tense buildup results in a jaw-dropping finale, a punchline of sorts, but one that’s guaranteed to smack you about and leave you punch drunk.

The other Aspen notable was John Harden’s La Vie d’un Chien (The Life of a Dog; 2004), a silly homage to/parody of Chris Marker’s legendary time-travel photo-roman, La Jetee. Here, a scientist invents a potion that turns people into canines for 24 hours; human-dog cults subsequently spring up around the world. There were a few bestiality jokes but the real fun for the filmmaker seemed to lie in aping Marker’s style. But the grafting of a tacky sci fi storyline onto a source as sublime and metaphysical as Marker’s seems pretty indiscriminate and a tad disrespectful (as the director acknowledges in the credits; “To Chris Marker—sorry for all this.”). Still, you’d be hard pushed to find an Aussie filmmaker who’d dare to reference such a source, so my verdict is: tacky Marker is better than no Marker at all.

Interfilm Berlin was something else again, presenting explosive, affecting scenarios with maximum impact—fully integrated units that totally transcended the limitations of budget or the short-form medium. The Confrontations concept has been a feature of each Interfilm festival starting in 1999, when right-wing street violence was on the rise in Germany and the Yugoslavian civil war was peaking. The program invited filmmakers to essay their thoughts on the New World Mood—and it’s just as relevant today, with the War on Terror ensuring that we all continue to bite the bullet.

There was nary a punchline in the entire bunch. Some that stood out: Lara Foot-Newton’s And there in the dust (2004), detailing the growing malaise of child rape in South Africa but avoiding graphic sensationalism or empty sympathy with stunning use of stop motion and narration; Gabriela Monroy’s Un Viaje (A Trip; 2003), a Mexican film about a man taking his autistic son for a ride on the subway, resulting in a hallucinatory journey for all concerned; and Soyons Attentifs (Beware, 2003), by Thiery Sabban, which used a similar structure to the aforementioned Underground, heightening the tension inherent in the urban jungle, then defusing it with a goodly dose of humanism. Another highlight was Micha Wold’s Alice et Moi (2004), a Belgian film about a guy on a road trip with his nagging aunts, gradually losing the plot as he tries to cope with not only his overbearing, old-school relatives but also a split with his thoroughly modern girlfriend communicated via mobile phone. There were mad skills in this one—everything from acting to cinematography to writing, each crewmember at the absolute top of their game. Even the Interfilm shorts that didn’t quite work deserved applause for their willingness to innovate, like Pascal Lievre’s L’Axe Du Mal (Axis of Evil, 2003), featuring Dubya’s ‘Axis of Evil’ speech sung to the tune of a cheesy, 1980s Jermaine Jackson/Pia Zadora song.

After, I met some Aussie filmmakers and we were all bowled over by the quality of the Interfilm program. Everyone was inspired to make something of similar quality, and that’s the real value of the St Kilda Film Festival. Sharing the vision of filmmakers overseas is a golden opportunity—especially at the grassroots level of short-film making—and we can only hope it impacts on the increasingly insular, out-of-touch Australian filmmaking scene.

St Kilda Film Festival, May 24-29

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 24

© Simon Sellars; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2005
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