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Movie Review: 2008 ATA Film & Video Festival: Short Film Reviews (Part 2)

If the theme of the first night of short films at this year’s ATA Film & Video Festival is all about an inability to deal with the modern world, then the theme of the second night is trying to make sense of the past by exploring life’s darker aspects, including mostly, but not always, death.

That’s not to say that this is a completely bleak collection of films. Yes, some of them aren’t the cheeriest films in the world, but others are really beautiful and some are very playful. But there’s a real meditative quality to them, allowing the audience to reflect on their own lives and memories, which is what I think really connects the work together nicely.

(And before I get to the reviews, one of the shorts screening at the fest wasn’t provided for review (Retrospectroscope), if you were to match up this post with the official lineup.)

Ghosts and Gravel Roads, dir. Mike Rollo. Featuring gorgeous cinematography, this short plays out like a horror movie without any ghosts, monsters, or even people really. Instead we get panoramic shots of dilapidated farm houses in remote locations, tracking shots of dirt roads, rusted out jalopies and barnyard animals. The “ghosts” are old black-and-white portrait photographs of folks from decades past that a hand — possibly the filmmaker’s — tacks on the walls of the abandoned structures, giving the impression that these are the people who used to live and work here whether they actually did or not. Meanwhile, on the soundtrack, we get disconnected noises, everything from children playing to subway rumblings. It’s a wistful and absolutely stunning film at the same time. This is the highlight film of the entire festival.

Nocturnal Transmission, dir. Carl Diehl. Ever fall asleep in front of the TV late at night and when you woke up the next morning you’ve had two or three movies and shows all jumbled in your head? That’s what watching Diehl’s film is like, a mixture of abstract televised images, old monster movies and, weirdly enough, a giant cardboard remote control stuck in empty fields and the middle of roads. Take that, you damn remote!

What for What, dir. John Davis. Davis mixes the audio recording of a public execution with faded, black-and-white images of amusement park attractions. The thing about the execution is — and this is real, not faked audio — is that the prisoner in the electric chair isn’t killed by the first jolt, so it goes on for a very long, disturbing time. Davis provides a detailed account of the execution and the crime the prisoner committed via title cards at the end of the film. At first I was thinking the combination of audio and video was a commentary on the sick “amusement” watching such a grisly death must be like, but I tend more to appreciate the film as a meditation on the sad loss of happier times for the original murder victim and even the murderer before falling into a life of crime. Either way, this is a powerful, moving film.

Visions of Wasted Time, dir. Neil Ira Needleman. This is a silent short, composed of just three or four static shots that Needleman explains what we’re watching via subtitling. Nevertheless, this is an extremely heartbreaking film. One of the shots is of Needleman’s father in the throes of involuntary spasms while the man lies brain dead in a hospital bed. The “wasted time” of the title is what Needleman’s dad used to call his son’s filming. The other shots in the film are from a project Needleman was working on that used the same shooting setup — 8mm film, stationary camera, filmed at the same height — during the time of his father’s death. Needleman inserts the tragic shot of his father into the landscape of whatever else he happened to catch on film, from which I infer the meaning to be that no moment of life is truly wasted if it’s viewed with eyes wide open. (Watch this underground film online.)

In Search of the Mystic Bar-Tone, dir. Mack McFarland. This film is exactly what the title says. McFarland manipulates a screen of traditional color bars and bar-tones in order to find the perfect one, which I would assume would be different for each viewer. Mine’s somewhere in the purple range.

Baird’s Beaked Whale, dir. Douglas Schultz. This is silent documentary footage captured by Schultz of the tragic death of a beached whale on a San Francisco beach. First we see the beast rolling in the surf, but after the tide recedes some scientists carve out pieces from the interior of the carcass, for what reason we have no idea. It’s kinda gross. Then we see the result of spraypainters having had their “fun” scrawling slogans on the corpse. How disrespectful! Finally, I had no idea what beaches did with beached whales. Now I do: They simply bury it under the sand where it died. I felt sorry for that whale. Hope it had a happy life before its ignominious end.

The Stalin That Was Played By Me, dir. Daya Cahen. The Stalin of the title is Joseph Stalin’s grandson, who even though he never met his grandfather or his father says he is very proud of both of them. We hear this man’s story via voice-over narration accompanied by old video of the ruler Stalin. Plus, we hear about how when Stalin’s son was captured by Hitler, Stalin refused to negotiate his release so as not to give up his hand in the war. But then we get another person’s story, a woman who is never identified, but she’s somehow connected to Stalin’s grandson, whom she paints as a not very great guy. She’s a bit horrified that he idolzes his grandfather so much and how terribly he and his friends talk about Jews in her presence. While it’s all rather puzzling on the one hand, it’s also very sad, particularly the sound of this woman’s voice who seems emotionally devastated.

Infection, dir. Esther Maria Probst. is death the infection of the title? Or is life? Decomposing bodies, Fidel Castro, high school biology films, prisoners at work and a woman who smears red paint on her face warn us of the march towards death we all face as soon as we’re born.

3×1, dir. Telemach Wiesinger. One bridge, three different visions of it. There’s nighttime cars crossing, ships passing by and pedestrians walking over it. Next time you go on a bridge, don’t take its presence for granted.

Click here to read Part 1 of my ATA Film & VideoFestival shorts reviews.


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