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Movie Review: 2009 ATA Film And Video Festival: Short Film Reviews (Part One)

ATA Film and Video Festival

Since it’s inception in 2006, the ATA Film and Video Festival has been held in mid-October. For all but the first year, I’ve been lucky enough to receive an advance screener DVD of each year’s short films. In both 2007 and 2008, the time of year the festival is held never felt like it had any bearing on the selections. That’s changed in 2009.

Although not entirely pervasive nor overbearing, there is a haunting quality to many of the short films this year that lends the fest an overall spooky feel. Sometimes the haunting is especially overt, such as in Kerry Laitala’s experimental horror tinged Spectrology or the audio ghost hunters in Carl Diehl’s documentary Patrolling the Ether. However, feelings of dread and unease are conjured up in many films through their droning, abstract soundtracks, such as the low hum that drives Paul Clipson‘s Chorus.

Plus, many of the films take perfectly ordinary situations; like a nude woman sleeping, a European vacation, retirees exercising; and through repetition of action and/or bass-heavy hums, makes these situations unsettling. Repetition has long been a staple of experimental and avant-garde short films, particularly since the Structuralist movement of the early ’70s, but here repetition seems especially focused on highlighting the drudgery of modern life. That includes repetition of the exact same footage or similar motifs and movements being repeated in multiple scenes.

Below is the rundown of the individual short films playing on the first night in the order found on the official ATA Film and Video Festival website. I can’t say with certainty, but assume, this is the order in which they are screened.

First night (Oct. 22): “Specters and Machines”

The Salariat in Parts, dir. Zachary Epcar. “Salariat” I have learned is defined as the class of workers that receives a salary, which makes me think that his film’s title is a pun of sorts. Picking on office drones is a film staple, but here Epcar has made a deconstructed office comedy that goes through a typical, but exaggerated, workday in mostly close-ups, i.e. the title’s parts. It’s an easy target made interesting, particularly through the extremely amplified sound design. The running motif is of running water: Vomiting, spilled Pepto-Bismol bottle dripping, water cooler bubbling; but it’s the irritating CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK of the metal stamp-machine that really sends one’s hair on end.

Diatribe, dir. Ben Popp. This is a simple animation made up of mostly art-deco text with some simple creatures chasing people. Through his text, Popp praises the use of nonsense in the avant-garde and complains about the humorlessness of post-modernism, which I don’t follow art trends too closely, so I’m not sure if Popp is hitting his mark or not. But, this is a short, fun little piece, so if Popp wants to claim his own film is nonsense, then nonsense definitely is good.

Breathe, dir. Sam Barnett. Through a minimal green-line animation and an electronic soundtrack of blips and blarts, Barnett continues to explore his themes of the impersonal person feeding the mechanical system. Lines grow and mutate to form boxes, human heads, grassy landscapes and electrical grids. Amidst the green lines on a plain white background, blobs of red occasionally fill in gaps, swirl and form a telephone. Through his minimalist art, Barnett shows that everything — people, the environment and technology — are all a part of the larger “machine.”

Up and About Again, dir. Maarit Suomi-Vaananen. Forget the Fast and the Furious, this is the slow and the mysterious. One of those mini European cars painted all in white — yep, that includes the windows being painted over — gently rolls into a gray rock quarry. Once down there, the car slowly dodges explosions and does donuts around an abandoned gas station while death metal blares on the soundtrack. This could be a commentary on the blind directionless-ness of life or theĀ  bleakness of car culture, but on it’s surface, it’s just really cool to watch and try to figure out why somebody drove around with a painted windshield.

Passage Briare, dir. Friedl vom Groller. This is a brief B&W portrait film of vom Groller (aka Friedl Kubelka) filming herself sitting next to a man in an alleyway. The film is silent with vom Groller continually entering and exiting the frame. However, through a gauzy reflection behind the sitting man, we eventually realize she is adjusting the camera when she disappears. The film has a ghostly, found-footage feel to it through the muted gray cinematography. It has the feel of a very old film, but is in actuality recently made. Therefore, the film’s subjects are ghosts before they become ghosts in the real world.

Patrolling the Ether, dir. Carl Diehl. Is the death of analog TV signals in 2009 a good thing or a bad thing? Well, it’s a good thing for those researchers who listen for extraterrestrial and supernatural communications found in broadcast static. This is a brief journey into their world, looking at their equipment and how it is manipulated to find patterns in the sonic waves that pass through our atmosphere, but cannot be heard with the naked ear. Or is the complete lack of any patterns a pattern itself? The patience one needs to try and make sense out of senseless noise seems extraordinary, so this is a fascinating, albeit very brief, portrait.

Elro, dir. Ariel Diaz. The majority of this short film is an extended opening credit sequence that’s like a zero-budget combination of Saul Bass and Rube Goldberg. The camera glides across a canvas of garbage manipulated by a pair of hands so that ketchup squirts, spoons rotate and matches light. Then, a young girl’s body, through the magic of body paint, becomes a machine. Tap, tap, tap and she spits out a printout. With all the technology we need to exist in modern society, it’s only a matter of time when our flesh becomes fused with the machines.

Spectrology, dir. Kerry Laitala. Spectrology is an experimental horror film with the title a play on the idea of ghostly “specters” combined with the spectrum of projected light. Cliche scary images — witches, ghosts, skeletons and more — shimmy and waver before our eyes while accompanied by even more cliche haunted house sounds — winds blowing, doors creaking, etc. However, these images appear to be projected onto a loose black cloth that flaps around and was then re-filmed for the finished project. Laitala appears to be saying through example that the projection of any image is the projection of spirits.

Read Part Two of my review of the fourth annual ATA Film and Video Festival.