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Movie Review: 2001 CUFF: “Present Tense” (shorts)

By Mike Everleth ⋅ August 20, 2001

“Present Tense” was an eclectic collection of short films shown during the 2001 Chicago Underground Film Festival, seemingly not bound by any theme. I picked this batch to see because the last film in it, If Only I, sounded freakishly interesting.

But first up was the thankfully short No No Yes Yes by Sterling Ruby. I don’t say “thankfully” as an insult to the filmmaker, tho’. The brief film consists of 2 shots: 1) of a deer in its final death throes (shot by a hunter?), and 2) a coyote eating a deer’s corpse. Was it the same deer? I don’t know. These two shots were very disconnected, and set in a repeating loop — first the one, then the other. There was no blood seen in the film, but I was nonetheless repulsed and reminded of the best line in Larry Clark’s Bully: “Nature sucks!”

Now was an animated short by Christina Vantzos about a woman waking up and going about her daily chores — washing dishes, mopping the floor — while daydreaming about laying out under the sun getting a tan. Animated on what looked like tracing paper with ink and watercolors, Now was a very lyrical, fluid film with a poetic violin score. Classy and dreamlike, it reminded me a little bit of the animation of Emily Hubley, whose work I really like.

Another lyrical, but live-action and more plot-oriented, film was Bradley Quirk’s Clean, a film school thesis of an extremely high quality and sophistication. Tho’ the film is only 25 minutes long, I would have gladly liked to have seen this fleshed-out to feature length. As it is, Clean has a startlingly abrupt ending that made me feel cheated a little bit, but that may have only been because I really wanted the story to continue.

Clean is mostly about a young Bosnian woman who has come to America to make a go of things. She’s left behind a husband, child and teaching career to work for peanuts as a maid in a fancy hotel. At work, she befriends the doorman, a nice guy who has a side gig pimping for a prostitute who works the hotel’s guests.

Beautifully shot and structured without falling into any clichés, the best part of Clean is the actress playing the Bosnian maid. Very real and genuine, she never lets her character come across as pathetic no matter how dire her situation. The doorman was equally relaxed and realistic, but I did have some trouble with the woman playing the prostitute. I never did quite get a handle on her character, which is a minor quibble for such a great film.

The realistic Clean was followed by the experimental Objects Are Larger Than They Appear by the duo of Shawn Chappelle & Heather Frise, an abstract document of a desert road trip. The cinematography of Objects is simply gorgeous; with the desert sand a kaleidoscope of intensely bright reds, oranges and yellows and a deep blue and purple sky hovering above. The film’s soundtrack consists of a woman’s narration recorded as if it were over a distant radio station. I tried following the words, but couldn’t, so I just let myself fall into the dreamy landscape.

As I said at the beginning, I was anxious to see If Only I by Donigan Cumming, a documentary about a woman, Colleen, who has suffered an exceptionally hard life. The title of the film, I presume, refers to a scene in which Colleen recounts some of her life’s regrets, such as, “If only I hadn’t had sex with my father… If only I had stayed with my husband who used to beat me… If only I hadn’t fallen in love with a junkie… ”

Colleen obviously has some serious mental issues. Not that she’s necessarily “crazy,” but a visit to a therapist might help her out. But she’s somewhat a victim of “the system,” having been locked up in an asylum and unable to take care of herself after a nasty suicide attempt, or what may have well been a murder attempt. Colleen needs help, but she’s on the verge of becoming homeless and the only help she gets is from a possible conman named Colin.

Even though I felt sorry for Colleen and her predicament, I didn’t find her pathetic. I had trouble guessing her age, but she’s probably in her 40s or early 50s and a fairly cute and attractive woman; very sweet and genuine and open to discussing her life in great detail with the filmmaker.

But I have serious problems with If Only I because I’m not sure the intent of Mr. Cumming in making this film. The way it is shot, all in very intense close-ups, gives the film a very exploitative feel. Cumming shoots Colleen having a nervous breakdown on the phone begging someone for money and medication. He also asks her pointed questions that seem geared solely to make her cry on camera. Cumming also shoots Colleen and Colin sleeping in bed while shining a harsh white light in their faces and with Colleen in just her panties and a cut-off t-shirt that barely covers her breasts.

Cumming never reveals his connection to his subjects. How does he even know Colleen and Colin? Is he doing anything to help them? And what’s the point to the film? To show how the system fails to help people with genuine disabilities? Or is Cumming just exploiting these poor souls to make this film? If Only I gives no answers or insights. For that, Cumming has created a film that opens up all kinds of discussion, which is good for a film to do, but I’m not sure if this is the way to do it.

Continue on to 2001 CUFF: “Spells for All Your Troubles” (shorts)

Go back to 2001 CUFF: Plaster Caster

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