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Movie Review: 2010 ATA Film & Video Festival: Short Film Reviews (Part One)

ATA Film and Video Festival

For the fourth year in a row, Isabel Fondevila of the ATA Film & Video Festival has sent me a complimentary screener of all the short experimental films playing at this year’s fest. Below are reviews for all the films being shown on the festival’s first night, which takes place on Oct. 21.

The individual films are all grouped under the heading “Human Nature,” which they all explore in their own unique ways. Each film could be characterized by how their characters communicate both to each other and to the audience. Viewers are typically pulled into the middle of intimate situations, even though that intimacy is sometimes being related through hearsay and anecdotal evidence.

Human interaction is sometimes a messy, complicated and sometimes downright ugly business and these films don’t spare us the grim details:

Union, dir. Paul Clipson. This is the fourth experimental film I’ve ever seen by Clipson — all of them courtesy of ATA Festival screeners — and it’s the first one I’ve seen that included an actress (Anya Kamenskaya) and had some semblance of a “plot,” as whispery as it is here. It’s also his most epic film to date, taking the viewer on a 15-minute ride from unbearable tension to complete ennui and back. Union features Clipson’s trademark double exposures, zooms, unfocused bright lights and hypnotic pacing. But this time there’s a vague story as the camera follows a woman running through the woods.

At times, the woman appears to be in a complete panic, running from something fearsome — or perhaps just from the camera that is trailing her every move. I wouldn’t quite call this a suspense picture or a horror movie, but the camera hanging out behind trees in the deep woods just a few feet from the woman, I couldn’t help but recall the standard serial killer POV shots of every single Friday the 13th movie. Then, suddenly the woman passes more casually through the same woods and takes time out to dip her hand into a lake.

As the film appears to be winding down to an ending at this point, instead Clipson cuts from the woods to the out-of-focus and blurred out urban scenarios of his previous films, such as Echo Park, for an entirely unexpected climax. During the final moments of the film, a recurring motif is the woman now being confined by a tiny window set in a door that she does not pass through. With the blurry red neon swirling around the woman in the window recalls a more hallucinatory horror, such as perhaps Dario Argento’s Suspiria.

This is a really fascinating, complex film that really inspires interpretation. With my own personal affinity for horror movies, I couldn’t help reading the film as an experimental exercise into that genre, although Clipson may have been going for something completely different.

Reduction, dir. Sam Barnett. This is another minimalist animation by Barnett that continues his interest (obsession?) with systems and how units within those systems enjoy symbiotic and parasitic relationships. The film begins with a mobile tree with a man’s face shooting spores into another underground-growing tree that then shoots its own spores that is then swallowed by a man. The simple line drawings and globular shapes that dominate the first two-thirds of the film eventually give way to rotoscoped male and female figures. While the amorphous blobs that go on to infect those figures are transformed into clearly-defined squares, thus bringing order through human interaction, that interaction has a painful effect upon the human figures. Thus, I can only conclude the message of the film is that man’s need to create order out of natural chaos has deliberating and disastrous effects on his own well-being.

Chicago Corner, dir. Bill Brown. This is a documentary of sorts detailing what happens after certain urban neighborhoods die. On Lake St. on the outskirts of the Windy City, Brown captures a city worker shutting off the electricity and sewage to nearby abandoned structures. Brown doesn’t interact with the worker. Instead we see the man descending into a manhole through dissolving photographs and the information of what we’re looking at is conveyed via subtitles. Following the worker’s disappearance underground, Brown also shows us towering, abandoned apartment complexes that are slowly being demolished, while another city worker removes graffiti from a wall perhaps in an act of gentrification. Aside from the workers, there are no other people to be seen, as if residents of any neighborhood are just an afterthought and inconsequential data for city engineers who plan out where and how people should live. (Watch this underground movie online)

Found: Nothing Missing, dir. Patricia McInroy. McInroy brings up a very good point, one that has disturbed me myself. You know how you always see those “Lost Pet” posters stapled to telephone poles all the time? But you never get to see a follow-up poster saying if any of those animals are ever found. Do “Lost” posters ever really help? Do pet owners ever get their beloved companions back? I never know and it always makes me sad. Plus, McInroy includes a segment about the “Lost” posters that are written in the first person by the missing pets that totally made me laugh out loud.

All That Sheltering Emptiness, dir. Gina Carducci & Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. Unfolding like a slow nightmare, this film features bland, washed out images of hotel lobby chandeliers, ones that looked like they went out of date in the ’70s. Along with these images, there is the slowly and deliberately delivered monologue of an obviously flamboyant gay man who dishes about all the poorly designed hotel lobbies he’s seen. But, this isn’t a travelogue or a film about interior decoration. Eventually, the narrator gets to his point: He is gay hustler and he relates one particularly horrific encounter with a trick in a hotel. The graphic sex being described quickly becomes ultra-violent and borders on rape. Yet, the hustler, in his own lazy way, semi-indicates that the incident really wasn’t all that unpleasant. Just another mildly uncomfortable situation that a hustler has to deal with and absorb into his psyche until he’s left with no emotion at all. This is an incredibly sad and provocative piece of work.

Untitled (Perlman Pl.), dir. Vera Brunner-Sung. Speaking to the vacuousness of neighborly relationships, Brunner-Sung shoots a couple shots of empty apartment complex streets while a woman on the soundtrack relates a story about overhearing a male neighbor complaining about his woes with the opposite sex to another neighbor.  This was a real brief film that hit its point, but feels like it could have gone deeper to explore the loneliness people feel even when crammed in like sardines in a row of townhouses.

Disconnected, dir. Karl Lind. Like a parody of cheesy ’80s music videos, Disconnected features a cute girl (Grace Carter) sitting next to a baby blue phone while the irritating chorus to Lionel Ritchie’s sappy love song Hello skips, chirps and repeats faintly in the background. To make things even more ’80s-tastic, tiny animated hearts float over the phone line and around the girl’s head. Although one might think that women in movies don’t sit by telephones waiting for boys to call anymore, it’s actually a bad movie cliché that will never die and deserves continual mocking. I recently saw it happen in the atrocious romantic comedy He’s Just Not That Into You.

Who’s Afraid, dir. John Palmer. Palmer boxes himself in while reciting dialogue from Mike Nichol’s film version of the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? His head appears in four tiny boxes surrounded by black. In each box, he performs as each of the four characters in the play. While the heads are talking to each other, Palmer is actually looking into the camera. Thus he’s staring right at the viewer, as if each little head is yelling or making uncomfortable statements directly to every person watching this film, heightening the tension already established by the film. Palmer’s timing is impeccable, capturing the exact delivery and inflections of each character. From what I understand, this is just a short excerpt from a much longer piece in which Palmer re-enacts the entire film from beginning to end. That’s quite an achievement as his four-prong performance in this excerpt is very impressive enough.

Oh, How Sad, dir. Maite Abella. The eternal struggle between mothers and daughters is dramatized in this fairly vicious little film. An older woman and her middle-aged daughter wrestle in the sand on the beach. Their hair-pulling, wrestling holds and smacking around sincerely looks like it would have hurt during the making of the film. The tussle is given even more dramatic weight from the opera sung on the soundtrack. The music eventually stops, though, and we hear the women grunting and groaning through their performances, making the fight seem even more real. At last, the Greek chorus — made up of Spanish women — sings the chorus to The Cardigans’ “Lovefool’ (“love me love me / pretend that you love me”). In families, all’s fair in love and war.

Read Part Two of ATA Film & Video Festival Reviews!


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