Underground Film Journal

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Movie Review: 2006 Austin Underground Film Festival: Shorts Review

When I started covering news about and lineups of underground film festivals on the Underground Film Journal, I decided to just concentrate on writing up the features at the fests and to ignore the short films, just like I did in my schedule listing of this year’s Chicago Underground Film Festival. This was a decision made just out of time considerations, especially since I don’t have the opportunity to work on this site full time. Blog entries like that one for CUFF 2006 actually take quite a lot of time to create, from compiling the info, formatting it properly and writing up my own film descriptions.

This is especially a shame since I love short films and I think they’re a truly under appreciated art form. Between going to film school for four years, attending festivals like CUFF and NYUFF and because of my current full-time professional job, I roughly calculate that I’ve seen thousands of short films. And thank God there are sites out there like IFILM committed to showing short films. Otherwise, how would one see them? Cable movie channels, with the exception of IFC and the Sundance Channel, rarely show them and it’s not the shorts that are the main draws at festivals. How often do you read about film festivals and hear buzzing about really great shorts? Practically never.

But since I started doing this festival thing on the Underground Film Journal in March of this year, I’ve seen that there are a helluva lotta short films being made and a couple of the underground fests show nothing but shorts. The New Haven Underground, the BeFilm Underground, Hi/Lo, Hi Mom! and San Francisco are all fests that come to mind and, of course, the Austin Underground Film Festival. So, I am thrilled that festival director Andy Gately has given me this opportunity now to review for you now all of the films that played at this year’s AUFF.

And before I get into the specific film reviews, I’d like to say that overall AUFF had a great mix of shorts. Most of them have a leftist political bent, but these aren’t heavy-handed polemics and are mostly in just good fun. One short is extremely serious, but that was befitting of the subject matter, while a few are thrown in just for their general goofiness. The following reviews, too, are in no particular order:

The Old Negro Space Program, dir. Andy Bobrow: This is a terrific parody of those deadly serious Ken Burns documentary programs. It chronicles the rise and fall of the first all-negro astronaut league. The film features some fantastic faked old-timey images, but the real success of the piece is that it doesn’t push the jokes too far. The tone of the film is very consistent throughout and it’s never too goofy or jokey. Just perfect.

Could This Be Real?, dir. Mike Z. Another successful piece of low-tech agitprop designed to get audiences all worked up over… Well, I’d rather not say. Mike’s films usually work best when you don’t know they’re his work, otherwise you end up just looking at the technique than the content. And his technique is spot on once again. Pulling off a one-camera/one actor stunt is tough. You need a great actor and some great writing, which he’s got here.

Re*Code Commercial and I’m Not Stealing, Don’t Put Me Behind Bars, dir. The Carbon Defense League. To be honest, I don’t get it. The CDL guys make claims that their call to have people replace bar codes on store products is obviously a parody because their video is so hilarious. One problem: The Re*Code Commercial isn’t funny at all and is played so straight as to appear to be the real deal, i.e. encouraging people to steal. I didn’t realize it was supposed to be a satire until the commercial’s final text screen. I’m also not clear on their point as to why the ubiquity of bar codes is such a horrible thing anyway. Social satire is a tough gig to pull off and this doesn’t work.

A Meditation on the Speed Limit, dir. Andy Medlin. Ok, I didn’t quite get this one either. This is a documentary about a group of college-age kids pulling a stunt on the Atlanta highway. They jump into four different cars, then line up in four lanes of the highway and then they all drive just 55 miles per hour so that traffic piles up behind them. While the actual stunt is neat to watch, I’m not exactly sure what these kids are trying to prove and the only result is that the drivers behind them wreck their cars trying to get around. Yes, we all know nobody drives 55. But there’s no intro as to why these kids are so mad about the speed limit and then they don’t do anything after they pull off the stunt. So what then?

Portrait of the Artist at 16, dir. Jay Stern. This is yet another beguiling documentary. (I’m starting to see a trend here.) Stern conducts some brief sit-down interviews with teenage artist Cole Lanter who talks about his “art” only in terms of getting girls. Cole, like most hetero teen guys, is constantly devising ways to get women and thinks he can do it by being creative. Yet, singing Slipknot songs and painting abortions doesn’t end up helping him much at scoring. What I can’t figure out is Stern’s interest in his subject. The director doesn’t talk on camera and all we know about Cole is what he tells us himself. But, is he putting us on with his oddball tales, i.e. are these interviews some sort of performance piece? Or is everything he says sincere? I don’t think I’ll ever know.

How to Start a Revolution in America, dir. Mike Z. One of my favorite Mike Z. films, so I was happy it got a chance at another public screening at AUFF. I’ve seen the film several times now and it really holds up after repeated viewings, plus it strikes some new chords in this new post-9/11 world. I think one of the great weapons we can wield while “defeating” terrorists is to mercilessly mock them, which this film certainly does even if the stars of the film are bored suburbanites and not the stereotypical brown-skinned Muslim boogeymen.

An Apple a Day, dir. Kevin Maher. This is one of those “goofy for goofy’s sake” shorts that I mentioned above. The same skit is re-enacted several times by the same puppets in a parody of all those “extra scene” shit they throw on DVDs these days. Still, the first telling of the joke is the best.

Tales of Mere Existence, dir. Lev. An ingenious animated film that consists solely of still drawings and voice-over narration. However, the drawings are created by Lev right as he describes the scene that he is illustrating. I’m assuming the film was shot from underneath a clear light table, which makes the drawings even more amazing since Lev must be drawing and writing backwards so we the audience see the illustrations in the correct perspective. My only complaint is that to keep the film moving, Zev’s narration is done rather hurredly to keep up with the pace of his drawing, making it real work to keep up with the stories while trying to digest a lot of information quickly. Otherwise, brilliantly done.

Excess Psilo, dir. Fathy Elsherif. I enjoyed Excess Psilo way more than I expeced I would. It’s a fairly simple tale shot in a pretty straightforward manner, all about a guy who drinks some ‘shroom tea and suffers paranoid delusions at a party. Now, I don’t know anything about the background of the film or the filmmaker, but just judging from the actors’ accents I’m assuming it was shot in Austin and the movie has the feel of being like a deleted scene from the classic film Slacker. Psilo has that same amiable quality as Richard Linklater’s first feature, so that even a jarring straight-to-the-camera narration eventually adds much to the short’s overall charm.

Information, Lullaby, dir. Andy Bond. Nightly and cable news montages have become quite a phenomenon on the Internet, especially with the recent boom in web video. Some of it is quite clever, some of it kind of childish and some of it really poorly done. Bond’s effort falls somewhere in the midst of all that. My main issue with the film is that it almost seems like two different shorts mashed together. The first half is a hyperkinetic mashup of various news programs, while the second half is a montage of extremely slowed down entertainment footage converted into grainy black and white. While I enjoyed each half on it’s own merits, watching them shoved next to each other I’m not sure what point Bond is making overall.

Texas Hospitality: Final Meal Requests, dir. Michael Pfaendtner. Texas Hospitality is a very short film based on a very simple premise, but endlessly fascinating. All it consists of is a series of text screens detailing the crimes of felons killed on death row and what they ordered as their last meals. You’d think the final meal would just be something like steak and lobster, but what some of these convicts ordered are just massive lists of outrageous food that most people would be hard pressed to finish off in an entire lifetime.

Rendezvous, dir. Claude Lelouch. This is the classic French driving film where the director strapped a camera to the front of a Formula 1 racing car and got a friend of his to race through the streets of Paris in the early morning. I saw this way, way back in film school and was very happy to get a chance to see it again. There’s not much to the film and while there are a few close calls with hitting other vehicles in narrow alleyways, there isn’t an extreme element of danger. Yet, there’s something about this short that just really sticks with you. Maybe because it actually fulfills a fantasy many people share. And I don’t even like cars or driving. But I would do this if I had the chance.

Don’t Call Me Crazy on the Fourth of July, dir. Richard Pell. Pell profiles a curious Pittsburgh resident, Robert Lansberry, who not only thought the CIA was broadcasting messages through his teeth and that the FBI was holding back his mail, but protested daily on the city streets about it for thirty years. But here’s the strange part: Pell discovers that the FBI did hold back Lansberry’s mail and that the CIA could have performed mind control tests on him back during the Korean War. American experiments into mind control, both government sponsored and not, have long interested me, so I found this a fascinating film. Lansberry doesn’t come across as your everyday nutcase ranting about dental fillings and radio waves and he seems quite lucid about the subject. Something strange was going on with Robert Lansberry whether his beliefs were just paranoid delusions or not.

Where There’s a Will, There Will Be a Living Wage, dir. Patrick Phillips. Finally, this is the deadly serious film that I mentioned way up there in the intro. It’s also the film that won the Audience Choice Award — and deservedly so. The film explores the way Texas A&M pays its janitorial staff and uses that as a window into the raging debate about raising the minimum wage. The film interviews several workers about how they survive on pay that’s well below the poverty level and asks the important question: If A&M pays so shittily why do workers stay there? The answer reveals a culture that encourages a heartfelt devotion to the very institution that refuses to financially compensate for those feelings. Plus, all of the workers seem to enjoy their jobs and like working on the campus. Yes, they could get better paying jobs, but it could be for doing loathsome work. Most shocking to me about this situation was the way raises were doled out, given only on a basis of “merit” that can be totally abused by the managerial team to reward friends or lackeys who may do substandard work over those who may work very hard, but are disliked personally. It was startling to see that despite the various lengths of time many had been at their jobs, most everyone received nearly the same amount in pay per hour. I do feel the film could have benefitted by giving screen time to the other side of the argument, i.e. those who don’t support A&M paying a living wage (or at least a title card saying those folks refused interview requests), but the final film isn’t heavy-handed nor does it crush you with tales of working class misery. Instead, all of the interview subjects are very personable and while many are angry at A&M, the film isn’t a rant fest. It lets these people lay out their situations to give a human face to an issue that’s usually all about numbers.

(P.S. You can follow all of those links above and watch those films online. Also, for more info about the fest, please visit the Austin Underground Film Festival’s extensive website.)