Editor’s Notes: The following article is a part of our coverage for the 13th Annual deadCENTER Film Festival in Oklahoma City. For more information on deadCentre visit http://www.deadcenterfilm.org/ and follow the deadCENTER Film Festival on Twitter at @deadCENTER.
Immediately after watching the comedy shorts at deadCenter (you can see my review of those here), I stuck around for a showing of the “Cutting Edge” short films, a group of more experimental films. As the name suggests, these films take risks, both narrative and visual, that a standard film would not dream of taking. The nature of risk taking, of course, entails opening yourself up for failure as well as success. That’s the sort of mixed bag the Cutting Edge shorts presented. On the whole it was a weaker group of films than the comedy shorts, with a wild variation in quality and lacking a true standout film. Still, even the failures here were for the most part interesting failures. It is good to have a venue for filmmakers to show off their experiments, even when those experiments blow up in their faces.
Oh Willy…, Directed by Emma De Swaef, Marc James Roels
Clearly the deadCenter programmers knew what they were doing: much like the comedy shorts, the Cutting Edge program featured strong opening and closing films. The opener here, Oh Willy…, is a stop motion film from Europe. Unlike, say, Wallace and Gromit, however, the medium is not clay but felt and fabric. This unique visual style works really well, creating a warm world for the characters to inhabit.
Also unlike Wallace and Gromit, the film features distinctly adult subject matter. It follows Willy, a man who returns to his home when his mother dies. Which would not be too strange, except that his mother lives in a naturalist colony. The audience definitely experiences cognitive dissonance on first seeing penises and breasts made out of felt, but the film is not after titillation. Instead it uses clothing (and the lack thereof) as a metaphor for confidence and being comfortable with one’s self. Willy spends most of the film fully clothed as a way of covering up past scars. As he makes peace with his past, he frees himself of his cotton chains.
The film drags just a bit in parts (it has some - please forgive me - fluff), but presents a strange world for Willy to explore that holds the audience’s attention. The end is truly bizarre (two words: breastfeeding Sasquatch), but captures the whimsical spirit of the film quite well.
I’ll Be Your Mirror, Directed by Vita Weichen Hsu
More than any of the other films in the collection, I’ll Be Your Mirror feels like a true experiment. It eschews any narrative in favor of a simple concept. The audience sees pages in a book flipping. On top are charcoal drawings which morph as the pages turn. The figures seems to be at war, then at peace, then at war again.
Short and sweet, I’ll Be Your Mirror works because it offers more than just an interesting technique. The flipbook feel belies a depth of theme truly impressive for a 2 minute film. It touches on the nature of history (the books involved are The Annals of Tacitus and The Histories - did not catch which one, and there are many Greco-Roman books with that title) and the inevitability of conflict in human society. Not bad for the film equivalent of an amuse bouche.
Thinking About You, Harrison Atkins
There is a kernel of a great film buried at the center of Harrison Atkins’ Thinking About You, but it lies underneath a pile of unsuccessful aesthetic choices. The tale of two telepathic teens who connect in the days before they undergo corrective surgery to silence the words in their head, the film fits snugly into the “teens discovering themselves” category of films. Sexuality, freedom from parents, fitting into society: the two characters’ struggles with these troubles is as obvious as the giant helmets they wear to keep the dangerous brain waves in.
Mr. Atkins, who attended the viewing, stated after that he sought to portray telepathy through the filmed image. That is certainly an interesting goal, and the film succeeds at doing this to an extent. The use of whispered voices, though obvious, does a good job at peeking into the inner noise of someone with telepathy. Unfortunately many of the other choices fall short: grinding music, epileptic cuts with distorted images, lines of dialogue that read like bad goth poetry. I get that the film wants to convey a sense of chaos and decontextualization, but the result is disorienting in a dull, not a dizzy, way.
Parasite Choi, Directed by Damien Steck
Then again, Thinking About You looks like Un Chien Andalou next to Parasite Choi, a worthless piece of Euro trash. There was only one film I saw in both sets of shorts that I flat out hated, and it was this. The story of the last human on earth, Parasite Choi spends its wordless 10 minutes following a writhing Hae-Keun Choi in the desert as he battles the… parasite within him? Aliens attacking his body? That black stuff from Shadow of the Colossus? I could not quite figure it out, not that I felt compelled to do so.
The film exhibits the worst excesses of “artsy” experimental films. Quick, nonsensical cuts. Ear splitting metal/techno soundtrack. A sense of self importance. Equating of obfuscation with art. Some of the CGI was alright, I guess, but mostly the film was a morass. Sartre famously wrote “Hell is other people.” Parasite Choi does its best to make that singular. Hell is watching one person flail around in the desert for what seems like an eternity.
Grade: D- (The Gentleman’s F)
Coma, Directed by K. Edward Van Osdol
After the quagmire of Parasite Choi, Coma’s adherence to, you know, having a narrative, felt downright refreshing. The story of a writer who struggles to finish a story, the film has a very meta-fictional feel to it. The writer takes pills to help with his insomnia, and as a result is able to enter his own dreams and help himself write the story.
Again, an interesting premise, and the film does a decent job delivering on it. The mise en scene is charmingly lo-fi (it reminds me in some ways of the brilliant Primer), and the actors do a good job with the material. At 21 minutes, the film drags quite a bit, even with as much plot as it tries to cram in. Perhaps I’ve simply read and seen too much meta-fiction, but the story also felt a little derivative of films like 12 Monkeys, the aforementioned Primer, and even Stranger Than Fiction. Going meta-fictional requires a filmmaker to really think out what will happen and try to add a fresh perspective as the film folds in on itself. Coma does not quite get there, but it still provides an enjoyable ride along the way.
The Darkroom, Directed by Cheri Gaulke
Though several of the shorts at deadCenter certainly felt like student films, the only one to bear that title proudly is The Darkroom, a pleasing little exercise in photograph manipulation by some high school students. The film is slight, to be sure - not much more than images cut up, colored on, and moved around in stop motion. However it has enough whimsy and sense of play to avoid feeling like a mere exercise. It also avoids the overbearing weight of pretentiousness. It is a small film, but it embraces that fact and is the better for it.
#PostModem, Directed by Jillian Mayer, Lucas Levya
Ahh, now that’s more like it. #PostModem is an experimental film done right, using its techniques in ways that make sense and provide a coherent vision. The film does not have a narrative per se, but centers on the struggle to live on after death, particularly the attempt to live virtually through the eternal memory of the Internet. It explores these themes through numerous segments, including YouTube-like music videos, an infomercial, and a segment that can only be described as reminiscent of the mid-90’s film adaptation of Mortal Kombat.
By equal measures surreal, provocative, and funny, #PostModem provides a whirlwind look at life and death under the shadow of virtual life. It also speaks to the deeply ingrained human desire to hope for eternity and immortality. That it does a good job with these meditations in 12 minutes is impressive. That it does so while also featuring jetpacks and Tamagotchi pets is downright astounding.