Oscar shorts are making rounds of theaters in the U. S. Live action and animated shorts are screened separately, and judging from the trailers and publicity, they will run at least until the Awards event on Sunday. Shorts International, which has released these shorts in theaters will make them available for download in iTunes. The show is a treat, no doubt, as there is a variety in these shorts as much as narrative flexibility, ingenuity of form and a refreshing perspective on film making, especially after Slumdog, Ben Button, etc.
Program for live action shorts includes: Reto Caffi’s (Auf Dee Strecke), On the Line (Switzerland); Steph Green’s New Boy (Ireland); Tivi Magnusson and Dorte Høgh’ The Pig (Denmark); Jochen Alexander and Freydank’s (Spielzeugland) Toyland (Germany); and Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont’s Manon on the Asphalt (France).
When it comes to short films, Academy does not distinguish between American and “foreign” or “foreign language” films. And, there are no American productions this year.
Does that affirm our assumption that the film industry in the U. S. does not value short films or that they do not produce quality short films that stand out in competition to their world/European counterparts? This is what A. O. Scott says in The New York Times;
The nominees reflect the astonishing fact, barely acknowledged during the Academy’s annual ceremony of self-worship, that film is an international art form. The absurd rules and restrictions that govern the best-foreign-language film selections seem not to influence the selection of shorts, which hail from all over the globe, sometimes more than one to a country.
All five films are unique and quite brilliant. Each explores a different narrative form; each has a varied visual theme and all end up achieving much. There is energy in imagination, brevity and leaps in explorations of form in these films that is admirable. Shorts films are the most imaginative form in world cinema and as such, they deserve our attention.
Reto Caffi’s On the Line is the longest of the short films in this program. It is an open ended, unresolved narrative that shows you that the triviality of melodrama, the obvious endings of stories are inconsequential. It is a story of unrequited love of a security guard who spends much of his time on the electronic surveillance system watching his would be love interest. He also catches the same train with her after work and fails to protect the man accompanying her, who dies and causes irreparable harm to the worman. The two of them drift close to each other, as we realize that they both feel guilty for the loss. They are both complicit and the audience shares their lives, can look into their eyes and become the canny surveyors.
Steph Green’s New Boy is a story caught between the innocence of childhood and the weight that we put on children through abuse of their memory, the simplicity of their lives and the tolerance of immigration. An African boy joins an Irish school and must struggle between the two worlds, the one that is ahead of him and the one that he left behind. It is a film where words matter little, except as idle talk. There is much in his eyes as there is depth to the eyes of all kids. Each is trying to find innocence through mischief, playfulness and independence.
Tivi Magnusson and Dorte Høgh’ The Pig (Denmark) is the richest, most complex of all shorts in the competition and reaffirms the idea that Europe is in search of a new identity. It is struggling but it is also working hard; the “European imaginary” has changed, so to speak. The film begins in a taxi-cab as it drives an elderly, expressive Danish man to a hospital, with a song that laments the state of Denmark today (something like “Oh, Denmark, what has happened to you?). The patient arrives for a surgery in a lonely, bare room where he notices painting of a pig. It delights him, comforts him and offers him “friendship” in lonely hours. As the neighboring bed in that room is occupied by a Muslim patient, culture clash emerges. Through humor, half-serious but intense argument about tolerance, freedom and expression across cultural divide, the film show how Europe is now struggling within. The bringing of the “other” into the fold brings casual and not-so-casual intensity in everyday affairs. The scope of this short is to paint a picture with lightheartedness but the reach of the narrative is broad and full of depth. The film leaves you thinking of how indeed Denmark has changed and so has Europe.
Jochen Alexander and Freydank’s Toyland has a traditional narrative structure and the film does what short films aim for, a punch line in a short story and a closure that comes with crisp form of storytelling. It is Germany during the Holocaust and a child is missing. Mother’s frantic search takes us through an emotional back and forth about where her child is and what she would do when she goes to find him as Jews are boarding the train to their tragic fate. The film brings it all to a close, telling a story as Hollywood likes it. There are no ruminations on the larger event in the background, just a simple story of a family, a mother, her search and the life thereafter. Given the context that is so familiar to the audiences, the narrative draws on your emotional reserves. It offers little of its own and perhaps that is where it succeeds.
Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont’s Manon on the Asphalt begins and ends with a mellowful, rich voice of Madeleine Peyroux in her rendition of Bob Dylan’s You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go. It is a brief story of moments before death, when time exists in dimensions we don’t know; memories achieve a form as yet unknown to us. It is a moment that has beckoned philosophers and poets alike. Film enters into this moment and gives us a glimpse of that mysterious moment when life seems to end or literally ends. The film allows us to enter Manon’s moments on asphalt. We occupy that consciousness for a while. What passes remains only in fleeting images. Narratives can collapse in a moment and they can make moments grow richer.
Any of these shorts could take the Oscar and we ought to be glad. But competition is meant to kill all but one. Internet betting on Oscar odds for shorts is intense. Given what we know of the Oscars, it is likely that Toyland will take the honors but if the awards are given for how shorts open up new avenues of thinking, we may be better off expecting awards for any other short. Until this Sunday, let us assume that the honors for the top live action shorts will go to Tivi Magnusson and Dorte Høgh’ The Pig (Denmark).