Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Coming shortly to a theater near you

Just got back from watching all ten of the Academy Award nominated short features for the year - five animation and five live action. It's a decidedly mixed bag: some of the films (Even Pigeons Go To Heaven, Tanghi Argentini) are clearly 'shorts' - clever little pieces that make for amusing viewing, but would fall apart if they were stretched for another five minutes [1]; others are bizarre (Madame Tutli-Putli) or just plain silly (The Substitute); some (Mozart of the Pickpockets, My Love) are so delightful that I was disappointed they didn't go on for longer; while others (well, one, at least) may as well be full-length features for the emotional and visual impact they pack.

Among the animated shorts, I really loved Alexander Petrov's My Love. The story is a little cheesy (ok, so it's VERY cheesy) but the sheer visual exhilaration of the film more than makes up for it (see the opening scenes here - though Youtube doesn't do justice to the richness of the colors). Petrov's palette is drawn straight from the impressionists (Renoir, in particular, seems strongly suggested), except he marries it to the imagination of a surrealist, so that the result is a hazy, dream-like tone punctuated by glorious swirls of living color that will take your breath away. Frame after frame of this film seems like it should be hanging in some museum, and the nostalgic, fairy-tale quality this gives the film works well with the story itself - about the awkward combination of innocence, sexual desire, intensity and unfaithfulness that is adolescent love.

In dramatic contrast to the visual splendor of My Love is Josh Raskin's I Met the Walrus, which provides hilarious visual accompaniment to an audio recording of an interview with John Lennon (you can see the trailer here). I'm admittedly prejudiced (I mean, this is Lennon we're talking about) but I sat through the whole length of this feature with a big grin plastered over my face, and when it was over ,wanted desperately to go back and watch it again. Raskin's art work isn't much, but his inventiveness is breathtaking, and as he segues effortlessly from image to image, joke to joke, his witty, zany drawings blending perfectly with Lennon's words, you just sit there with your eyes glued to the screen, afraid that you're missing something. Great stuff.

Among the live action films, I'll confess to being utterly charmed by Phillippe Pollet-Villard's Mozart of the Pickpockets. The film tells the story of two petty thieves - Philippe and Richard - who end up taking in a deaf and dumb boy they meet in the streets one day, only to discover that he's twice the pickpocket that they could ever be. Again, the story isn't much, but the two main characters are so delightful to watch that it really doesn't matter: Philippe and Richard are the Bouvard and Pecuchet of crime - a couple of hapless, hopelessly incompetent crooks who like to imagine that they're genuine tough guys when really they're pushovers. Watching the deftness with which Pollet-Villard's film plays out, I was reminded of Bertrand Blier's Going Places - Mozart of the Pickpockets is a far sweeter, far more modest film, but it has the same comic lightness, the same sureness of touch, so that you can easily imagine spending a pleasant hour and a half watching the shenanigans of this unlikely trio, and can't help feeling let down when the film draws to its (fairly tame) end.

But my pick of all the films I saw was Christian E. Christiansen's At Night, a moving, superbly acted, brilliantly filmed piece that delivers an unflinching yet beautiful portrait of three inmates of a cancer ward. The 'Night' here is both literal and metaphoric - the three women gather after lights out, but the real gloom that surrounds them is the shadow of death. It is the knowledge of their own mortality - a knowledge whose anguish and isolation the film perfectly captures - that drives these three to seek a small measure of comfort in each other's company. There's is a bond created out of terror and loneliness - what they have in common is a way of dying - yet in their togetherness they are like convicts in a penitentiary ("Death Row" as one of the characters remarks - and what is death but the most existential of prisons), sympathetic to each other's suffering but jealous of each other's consolations.

As though to do justice to his character's despair, Christiansen's film is a study in starkness, awash in neon, its visual landscape leached of all color, even hope. In shot after loving shot, what you see staring back at you from those ravaged faces, from those pain-filled and terrified eyes, is a need for love and comfort that is achingly human, a vulnerability that cannot be named because it is mortal, but that demands to be seen. Nothing can quite match the sheer poetry of sickness that Bergman and Nykvist created in Cries and Whispers, but there are moments when At Night approaches that level of perfection. The result is an exquisite and captivating film, that, in a mere 39 minutes manages to take you deep into the emotional wastelands of its characters' minds, and delivers the kind of quality experience that many a full-length feature can only aspire to. If At Night is anything to go by, Christiansen is a director to watch out for.

[1] To see what this looks like, you have only to watch Daniel Barber's The Tonto Woman - based on a powerful enough short story by Elmore Leonard, the film takes about twice as long as it needs to, tries to substitute atmosphere for movement, and ends up so self-conscious that it comes perilously close to being a parody of itself.