I meant to watch the 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland on the big screen at BAM last night, but the heat chased me inside instead and onto my computer, where I watched Three-Minute Stories on SnagFilms.
You might wonder if the world really needs more short films these days, but Cinelan, the series’s producer, is trying to give gifted documentary filmmakers more visibility and a chance to make some money online by distributing their short films on the web. You have to sit through an ad before their movies start, but that’s over pretty soon and then you’re home free, watching a very short (the credits usually start before the three-minute mark) documentary. Some are better than others, of course, but the production values are always excellent and the subjects usually well chosen, and the length makes it hard not to keep going. I went through every one I could find on Snagfilms and then headed over to the Cinelan website, where I watched two more by Steve James.
The best felt surprisingly unhurried and dense with detail, considering how little time they had to work with. Blog Stalker is the dryly narrated story of how one high school girl’s obsession with another turned into an obsession for a whole office full of workers, including the two narrators, after they start following her online diary. There’s even a satisfying conclusion: The narrators get over their fixation after traveling more than 200 miles to see the blogger in a school play. “She was just, sort of like, a normal person,” says one.
Several of the shorts profile a visual artist. I guess that guarantees you something interesting to shoot, but the more you like the art being portrayed, the better these work. I happened to like Paul Houser’s work in Abigail Norris and Jerry Rothwell’s The Work’s the Thing, and he said some interesting things to say, such as “The notion of artists being special people is a bit misleading. If anything, they’re less than special. It’s almost something you’re missing rather than something extra you’ve got.” It was also interesting to follow him as he looked for objects to paint and explained that the ones he chooses all share “an element of strange defiance.” I was also drawn to Steve James’ Paradise Regained, in which a mural appears piece by piece on a wall as the artist, Milton Reed, tells a funny story about creating it for one of his neighbors in Chicago’s Robert Taylor homes.
There are some nice snapshots of elderly New Yorkers, like a conversation between longtime midnight-to-3-a.m. BAI DJ Bob Fass and one of his faithful listeners, a cabbie who calls in to report on traffic patterns and other news of the night. The elderly friends who get together in a classic diner on the Upper West Side in the R.O.M.E.O (Retired Old Men Eating Out) series are like non-showbiz brothers of the alter kockers in Broadway Danny Rose. Director Katy Chevigny and her crew don’t do anything fancy; they just watch and listen as the old friends talk about what was in that day’s Times, crack jokes about Jews and old people, or squabble over politics, history, and the bill.
Ahmad Zahir bills itself as a beginner’s introduction to “the Elvis of Afghanistan” but turns into a haunting snapshot of a wounded culture, as director Liz Mermin talks to Afghan emigrants around the world about the singer they adored. His sad songs about being separated from a beloved person or place are revealing, as is the apparently universal conviction of his fans that his death in a car crash was no accident. They’re all careful to say they don’t know what happened, but everyone Mermin talks to believes he was killed “by one of the kings of the regime,” as one puts it.
Thank goodness for the next film, a cheery look at the supple stars of Moscow Cat Theater.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.