Thursday, June 26, 2008

My short(s) attention span

Going through my Annecy notes again last night, I was surprised at how my opinion on some of the short films differs now from what I jotted down during or right after the screenings. Temporal distance certainly helps seeing things in perspective. [if you are just interested in a few reviews, please scroll down]

Of course, the succession of films in a 90 minute selection is very important to how I perceive each individual film because it dictates overall pacing as well as variety of subjects and styles. This becomes especially evident when a two-minute gag cartoon serves as welcome relief from sitting through 13 minutes of experimental slowness. These relief films tend to arouse more excitement than they actually deserve due to pure contrast in programming.

Other paramount factors that affect the viewing experience are my personal state of mind and outer circumstances such as high temperature or a highly responsive audience.
While by switching TV channels and surfing the internet we have learned to perceive a lot of different information in a very short period of time, this ultimately results in glancing at a lot of things but only superficially. What works perfectly for music videos, for example, is at odds with animated shorts.

I still find it quite exhausting to see 15 shorts in a row though, because I have to attune to new characters and stories every five to ten minutes. I even think that a whole DVD of (great) Looney Tunes (where I already know the characters) is more exhausting to sit through than, say, Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour Hamlet (1996).

Different from narrative live action films you have to get acquainted with and accept the visual style of an animated film first (shorts or features). It happens every so often that I reject a film on the basis of its style that is not to my taste. So I let my mind wander only to find out later that I may have missed a great story when I finally see the reason for this particular style.

Also short films fortunately are not confined exclusively to the classical three act structure, so there are endless possibilities for artists. On the other hand, as spectators we always have to adjust to the way a story is told (e.g. episodic, associative or experimental).

As I certainly love to discover new ways of storytelling, it’s still much easier for me to follow characters through a story with dramatic arcs and development. Part of the success of Peur(s) du noir (Blutch et al., 2007) as a feature – in my opinion at least – is the splitting and parallel editing of heterogeneous episodes that keeps the viewer’s interest awake even during weaker segments.

Now to come back to Annecy: in previous years there have been certain techniques (After Effects travellings, cut-out) that prevailed in competition films. Maybe things are more balanced now or I’m too close to see it, but this year I haven’t found such an overall trend.

Marina Rosset’s gentle student film la main de l’ours (CH 2008) reminded me of how little animation is necessary to make a beautiful story work (I have already seen it once before and therefore had a closer look at it). A voice-over narrator recounts the tale of three brothers living in a house in the middle of a glade. Much of its charm lies in the narrator’s sharing the youngest brother’s naïve point of view as he befriends a bear. The simple but delicate drawings suit the unprejudiced tone of the narrative.

Landing lights (Graham Young, UK 2007), a “realistic” looking experimental CGI film, managed to create a haunting atmosphere through total absence of human characters and expected sound effects. In a series of impressively lit framings an empty passenger airplane floats ghostlike through an equally empty skyscraper. Although there was no aircraft noise it reminded me of the penetrating experience of a landing plane and not of 9/11 as you might expect. This could have been one of my favourite shorts had it stopped after the first plane. But then there were three more flying through the same building which kind of ruined the initial impact for me.

When I saw the very last film in the very last competition reel I instantly knew this was going to be a strong contender for the audience award: Skhizein (Jérémy Clapin, F 2007). This short about a man who’s literally beside himself (by 91cm, to be precise) manages to incorporate 2D looking cut-out characters into a bleak 3D environment reminiscent of kitchen sink realism. All filmic devices are combined to tell a story that works on several levels. Of course, it is far from unconventional or daring, but it draws you in even after more than an hour of mixed short films.

There were two shorts that I got actively upset about. One of them was the Polish Kizi Mizi (Mariusz Wilczynski, PL 2007). But as much as I hated it during the screening – partly for it’s shameless re-use of scenes that already annoyed me the first time they came up – I have to admit that there were some formal aspects that somehow intrigued me. It is the love story “between a mouse and a cat, and the betrayal that steals into their relationship” as the press release said. Drawn in a crude black and white style one associates with Eastern European animation, every shot was framed in a different aspect ratio that suited the composition best, so the pictures never filled the screen. This permitted unimposing rhythmical play on the edges of the framing which sometimes worked in sync with the ticking of a clock on the soundtrack. There was also a lot of blurring separate layers throughout (like a multiplane camera going berserk) and a disgustingly beautiful French kiss scene. But the most audacious and striking element was a song by Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac that got played twice in full length! By the way, the end credits came two thirds in, with a lot of “story” going on afterwards. It made me really feel the 20 minutes it took…

To end this on a more positive note, I’d like to mention Passe-Vite (Ben Verschooris, Bert Dombrecht, Korneel Detailleur, 2006), a Belgian student film that made the most of its two minutes and classic stop motion setup. In a dark factory (made of rusty pipes) bananas and tangerines get assembled until increased production speed produces a squishy mess. You could read consumer criticism into it, but you don’t have to to fully enjoy it.

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