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Movie Review: 2001 NYUFF: Day 6: Short Films

By Mike Everleth ⋅ March 12, 2001

One of the things I did at the fest this year that I didn’t like, albeit without my own or the 2001 New York Underground Film Festival‘s intention, was that the first 4 days I saw nothing but features and the last 2 days I saw nothing but shorts. I’d rather have broken things up with a mix of both. It’s just better that way. Can’t really explain why.

So, I started my night with a batch called “Harsh Realm”. The first flick, Spit by Jeremy Drummond, was so harsh I couldn’t even watch it. The entire film consisted of 2 and a half minutes of a giant mouth spitting on a camera lens, or a piece of glass on the top of the lens I would suppose, and sucking it back up. As I stared at the floor as the film played, just listening to the sound effects was enough to make me want to vomit.

Spit was followed by a German film, Scrotum Maximum by Derk Gerbode, Jan Braren & Rickmer Braren. Scrotum had the best special effect of any film in the fest this year, in which a fountain of flame spews forth from a hole cut into a cadaver’s ball sack. The cadaver then promptly jumps up off the autopsy table, running around the room screaming while a doctor and his student engage in a deep philosophical debate.

Philip Michael Thomas in front of a music video background

The harshness of “Harsh Realm” then switched from the grotesque to the annoying as Whack by Kent Lambert, a painful ode to cheezeball actor Philip Michael Thomas embarrassing himself in a ’70s anti-drug film and accompanying public service announcement. Starting out with a painful “Hello, I’m Philip Michael Thomas” loop, Whack eventually developed a groovy rhythm. I just kinda wish the stolen video was of a better quality, but that’s just me.

Watch Whack:

One of the best films at last year’s NYUFF was Deep Africa, a hilarious short about blow-up dolls rescuing an extraterrestrial. It’s director, Steve Hall, has followed up that effort with the less ambitious Joystick. All I can really say about Joystick, or rather ask, is: Did film star Cathee Wilkins play that video game with her own vagina or was a rubber stunt vagina used?

With such an awesome title of Kukla Fran + Adolf, I was severely let down by the actual film directed by Monroe Bardot. Simply alternating footage of a ’50s kiddie dance show with a Nazi rally, Kukla could have mixed the footage better and developed a better rhythm ala Whack.

The only documentary in the bunch, Scary Larry by Ron Beck, I couldn’t figure out the titular character. Is middle-aged hairdresser mentally impaired or is he just an extreme eccentric? Either way, he’s completely loveable and utterly irresistible. Claiming to be an internationally ranked hairdresser – whatever the fuck that means – Larry cuts the hair of the elderly inmates of a retirement community and buys beer for the underage kids in whose basement he lives. And he loves karaoke. Folk don’t come no better than Mr. Larry.

I totally didn’t understand the animated Sub! By Jesse Schmal. I don’t understand what it was doing in “Harsh Realm” or even in the fest. It seemed kind of standard. But, once again, that’s just me.

Last year, I gave a less than flattering review to Carey Burtt’s The Death of Sex. However, Carey was back this year with the absolutely brilliant Mind Control Made Easy. Purported to be a “How to” film about starting your own cult ala David Koresh, etc., Mind Control lulled me into the kind of trance the film was parodying with its soft-spoken, peaceful narrator and droning but horrifyingly pleasant background music. Extremely well crafted and acted as a new recruit is indoctrinated into an ambiguous cult, Mind Control actually is a dead-on perfect manual for becoming a revered spiritual leader. (Watch this underground movie online.)

Concluding “Harsh Realm” was the poignant The Tumultuous Tears of Dorothy Dolittle by Derek Curl. The audience, including myself, was laughing as a pathetic crackhead ruins the 50th birthday celebration of his heavyset older girlfriend, the eponymous Dorothy. All she wants is a meal at IHOP and all he wants is to smoke the rock he bought her as a gift. However, it became apparent that the film wasn’t a comedy at all but a pathetic tragedy, an odd departure from the light-hearted flicks that preceded and which would account for my initial laughing at it. Ultimately, it was a really great and moving flick, tho’.

Then, from the “Harsh Realm” I was immediately catapulted “Out of Bounds”. How’s that for a crappy segue? Anyway, the next shorts collection started out innocently enough with a good ol’ fashioned experimental flick – from Austria no less. For Mountain Trip, director Siegfried A. Fruhauf slides a gazillion picturesque postcards of his country in front of his camera for an abstract Sound of Music without the cheezy songs or Julie Andrews and those wailing little brats.

Many short experimental films seem to drone on forever, but not Monday With the Martins by Jeffrey Erbach, which was practically over just as I was about to get into it. Great hazy cinematography of images frozen in time, I wish I could have spent a week with the Martins, a rather kinky couple, rather than one brief day.

From the too short to the vaguely too long came The Lost Bundefjord Expedition directed by Matt Holm. Having the feel of a whacked-out educational film, I couldn’t figure out if this was a humorous interpretation of a true story of 3 deranged, frostbitten explorers crossing a several mile long frozen lake or if it was all a pure work of fiction. Either way, I was getting cold and claustrophobic just watching the darn thing. And tho’ I thought it dragged a little, despite being extremely funny, that opinion may have been caused by me being frustrated by the previous film. And I can’t imagine filming on the ice like that. Holm’s got some balls and gets some extra credit just for his choice of location to shoot.

Bryan Boyce directed last year’s most excellent Special Report, in which he manipulated the mouths of modern-day news anchors to mimic the dialogue from ’50s sci-fi & horror B-movies. This year Bryan was back with the same concept, except he altered an Al Gore & George W. Bush presidential debate to transform them into hucksters for a home shopping channel hawking kitchy election collectibles, which also happened to be the name of the movie — Election Collectibles. Somehow perfectly selecting footage of the buffoonish candidates to match the thoroughly obnoxious audio, Collectibles is another dynamite hit for Mr. Boyce.

This brilliant short was then followed by the unfortunate Drink Me by Lisa Barnstone. Essentially a music video for the Butthole Surfers’ twisted remake of “Hurdy-Gurdy Man” and utilizing a technique borrowed from other films – an actor is shot a frame at a time after jumping into the air so that she appears to be hovering over the ground — Drink Me did feature some exquisite B&W cinematography, so the film wasn’t a total loss.

Oddly enough, this was followed by an Oscar nominated short, Rejected by Don Hertzfeldt. It didn’t win. Is there anything the Academy Awards don’t suck at? This was one of my favorite types of animation, starting out deceptively simple and then slowly turning ever more technically complex. The film is actually a collection of shorts, mock “bumpers” for a fictitious cable network, the Family Learning Channel, and phony advertising cartoons that grow more surreal as each piece is supposedly rejected by Don’s clients and the animator descends into a massive depression. Very ingenious little flick.

To check out more of Mr. Hertzfeldt’s work, go to his official site Bitter Films.

“Out of Bounds” concluded with the second best documentary of the fest, the first being Plaster Caster and the next Receiver by Jon Leone, which could also somewhat be a companion piece to …An Incredible Simulation. Apparently, not only is the American Midwest oddly obsessed with tribute bands, but the younger generation is so starved for entertainment that they put on “backyard wrestling” events. These yahoos build amateur rings literally in their backyards and pummel each other senselessly as if they were auditioning for the WWF. The “wrestlers” even adopt personas like the pros, but unlike the pros these events are way more intensely violent, such as when they roll around in piles of thumbtacks, have barbed wire matches in real barbed wire entanglements or, my personal favorite, jump off of roofs onto each other, slamming their elbows into victims’ chests and stomachs.

Receiver is brutal, bloody, fascinating and, like Plaster Caster, brilliantly constructed. Starring an equally charismatic character, some moronic kid whose name (both real and wrestling persona I forget), for the first half we get to see him solely in action in the ring with some limited voiceover narration from him. It’s then a slow progression as we see more of this idiot’s insightful ruminations of his “career”, as if getting thrown into a barbed wire patch for his backwater friends is a meaningful activity.

The last collection of the evening was titled “Fast Food Fuck”, I suppose because 3 of the films are titled after food, 2 are “fast” and one has “fuck” in the title.

Things started off with an epileptic fit inducing Jerks, Don’t Say “Fuck” directed by Zhao Liang and featuring mostly totalitarian images of China zooming by at a hyper-rapid clip set to music evocative of Atari Teenage Riot. I thought it was overkill. I don’t mind fast flipping films, but this kinda gave me a headache, which was probably its intention.

However, I thoroughly enjoyed The Most Dangerous Game by Stephen Marshall. Great post-modern documentary about American government mind control experiments after WWII and possibly involving Nazis legally smuggled into this country. The film had a nice pace, evocative imagery and covered a ton of information in a very clear, concise and organized, not to mention entertaining, way. Game is also supposedly a short piece, about 9 minutes, from a longer film still in development. If so, I eagerly look forward to the final work.

From the stylishly complex to the ridiculously simple, Helium, directed by Patty Chang, is a basic porn movie parody. A woman has water poured out of a balloon into her mouth and all over her face. Grating & annoying, which, again, was probably the video’s intent.

Xan Price‘s Nitwit Predelick was a NYUFF favorite last year, but by others, not me. I’m pretty sure it was awarded Best Short. I loved moments of it, but a lot of the film lost me. Xan was back this year with Pikkulzz, another minimalist work like the preceding Helium. A pair of anonymous hands smears what looks like a mixture of lint & peanut butter on some pickles and the jar they rest in. I have a thing about food, so I was thoroughly grossed out and could barely watch.

I couldn’t figure out if the altered footage in Shawn P. Morrissey’s Automatic Meat Probe originated from an authentic cheapo ’70s action movie or if it was new footage made to look that way. Regardless, it was a very well designed, grungy experimental flick, which I really have no idea how to explain it. 2 guys, cut out of said footage, beat the crap out of each other on a beach amid abstract swirls and lines and such.

The Last Olive, directed by Alicia Scherson, seemed like it belonged more to the “Out of Towners” collection, except it involves food a little bit so it’s lumped in with these I guess. A couple, on the run from the Mob with some stolen jewels, hide out in a decrepit motel where they have sex, smoke and eat (olives, of course). The film’s laconic pace got on my nerves somewhat and the ending a little cliché, but not unlike early short films from Goddard.

My evening then ended with Route Master: Theatre of the Motor, a dazzling 35mm experimental flick from Finland by Ilppo Pohjola. I did think it ran a bit too long at 17 minutes, but the B&W cinematography and manipulation of images was simply hypnotic. Maybe I just wanted to go home at this point and I was annoyed by the last 2 films being longer than I wanted them to. But as I said for The Residual Artifacts of Communication, there’s something to be said about an experimental film being in 35mm. Route Master would also kick ass in an Imax theater, but they would probably have to issue barf bags at the screening.

Continue on to 2001 NYUFF: Day 7: Vanessa Renwick & Friends.

Go back to 2001 NYUFF: Day 5: George Kuchar & Friends.