European Short Films (Special US Edition), the latest DVD release from Cinema 16, offers a diverse and illuminating collection of cinematic work that, despite the regional specificity indicated by the title of the set, stands as a microcosmic look into many of the art form’s otherwise unexplored niches and corners. Even assuming the vast diversity of taste and viewing experience of potential viewers, the wealth of material here makes it unlikely that one won’t find something of value, whether in one or more of the individual films themselves, or in the bulk of material overall with its many fascinating comparisons and contrasts.
For cinephiles like myself who are generally unaccustomed to and unfamiliar with short films, the experience afforded by a collection of this sort demands something of a reexamination of one’s relationship to the medium. For the Woody Allen-esque types who prefer to watch everything from beginning to end without interruption (The Sorrow and the Pity included), it is a small revelation to find a wealth of material lending itself to more practical viewing habits. It goes without saying that this two-disc set is by no means definitive, and nor does it aspire to be. It instead lends itself to iPod-like cinematic playlisting, though consider this means of sampling a potentially added bonus for younger buffs yet unfamiliar with the joys existing outside of feature films. Given their similarities and differences, I have attempted to talk about the shorts in as logical a fashion as possible; as a rule of thumb, however, consider those discussed earliest to be those most preferred.
Roy Andersson’s ten-minute masterpiece World of Glory (1991)—its native title, Härlig är jorden, literally translates as Lovely is the earth—wastes no time in putting the audience into a stranglehold. Following a single man (pale, calm, unmotivated and generally unaware of his own existence) and broken up into fifteen static single takes (each of which is separated by a few paralyzing seconds of blackness), this ironically titled film mercilessly challenges our traditions and value systems. Its opening scene recalls the routinized methods of genocide utilized during WWII: A crying, naked girl is forced into the back of a truck full of other captives; the door is shut, and a tube funneling the exhaust fumes is locked onto the compartment’s air shaft. World of Glory deconstructs the corrosive nature of a purely functional society wherein human costs are unaccounted for and day-to-day demands roadblock any possibility of living an examined life.
I will admit to being initially defeated by Jan Svankmajer’s Jabberwocky (1971), if only for incidental reasons. A stop-motion virtuoso’s visual interpretation of themes explored in print by Lewis Carroll, the film meanders through the imaginative essences of childhood with its deliberately creepy animated dolls and toys—initially, a serious psychological hang-up for this critic. A second viewing yielded a moderately brilliant mélange of sight and sound, the film’s antiquated look and baroque accompaniments uncovering the dark corners of our formative but forgotten years, its mise en scène loaded with overtly Freudian gestures of creation and destruction.
Similarly does Run Wrake’s animated Rabbit (2005) deal with lessons of childhood. Created from a series of 50’s educational stickers found by its maker in an old junk shop, the film stages itself as something of a passive parable. Save for the prominent name tags floating above each character and object, Rabbit tells the wordless story of two children who discover an idol capable of transforming otherwise worthless items into diamonds and other riches. That their newfound greed ultimately gets the better of them goes without saying, but there’s a delectable, almost unique energy to the film’s jazzy combination of flurrying sights and sounds.
In stark contrast are Lars von Trier’s Nocturne (1980) and Bálint Kenyeres’ Before Dawn (2005), two experimental pieces that similarly employ mostly dialogue-deprived examinations of our inner natures. Von Trier’s film follows the hallucinatory happenings of a sunlight-phobic woman, at once establishing the filmmaker’s penchant for naturalist techniques while also foreshadowing his obsession with existentially afflicted females. Before Dawn, on the other hand, transpires entirely within a bravura single take as it bears witness to the attempted transportation of refugees from a secluded field to some unknown destination, the camera’s presence not unlike an all-seeing kino eye penetrating the hearts and minds of its anonymous subjects. Though lacking the same visceral impact, this stuff is just as impressive as those incredible action scenes from Children of Men.
Less thematically weighty but just as aesthetically impressive is Juan Solanas’s The Man without a Head (L’Homme sans tête) (2003), which occupies a space somewhere between a post-industrialist fairy tale and the art-deco antithesis to David Lynch’s Eraserhead. A dreamy pontification on what defines our humanity, the film’s ravishing animated décor effectively compliments the fantastical nature indicated by its guileless title. Like its main character dancing around his tiny apartment after having secured a date with the object of his affection, so too does the film freely indulge in the spirits of life.
Toby MacDonald’s Je t’aime John Wayne (2000) goes down just as smoothly. Though its title indicates an infatuation with The Duke, the film is in actuality a love letter to all breeds of cinephilia, its main protagonist a cocky and self-absorbed young male so infatuated with French films he’s managed to transform his London surroundings into a delirious cinematic headspace. Black and white cinematography nicely compliments the sense of geeky postmodern romanticism; the short is juvenile but knowingly so, and its heart is hard to ignore.
In the opposite corner of seemingly lightweight fare is Martin McDonagh’s Six Shooter (2005), a film that begins with Donnelly (Brendan Gleeson) being informed of the death of his wife and ending with the same man sitting defeated in his dining room, cradling a headless bunny rabbit in his arms. Essentially this is the film the horrendous Smokin’ Aces wanted to be, and in ¼ of the time. It genuinely looks at the way people cope with death while also getting a rise out of the hilarity that often surrounds the bleakest of scenarios. Given its grim indulgences, it’s nothing short of amazing that the film won the 2006 Oscar for Best Short, and one can rightly assume that no previous winner in the Academy’s history featured an entire sequence concerning a cow with trapped wind.
Nanni Moretti’s pseudo-documentary The Opening Day of Close-Up (1996) is a film that, like the Kiarostami masterpiece invoked in its title, deliberately blurs the line between cinematic reality and fiction. Over the span of seven minutes, the unforceful camera observes the daily happenings of a theater owner (Moretti) about to showcase Kiarostami’s 1990 film in his art house theater in Rome, his own love of the work, like his adoration of the medium, generally lost on those who fail to share his passion. The film acknowledges the dominance of mainstream cinema without taking the route of unnecessary cynicism; films like The Lion King and Die Hard With a Vengeance will always make truckloads more than smaller fare, quality notwithstanding. What matters is that the films exist for those willing to seek them out in the first place, a fact that Moretti touchingly reinforces here.
Lynne Ramsay and Ridley Scott both continue the prominent theme of childhood experiences with Gasman (1997) and Boy and Bicycle (1965), respectively. The former is a challenging but assured and ruminative piece, following a group of children (all products of divorce) over the course of a single day through strongly influential events. Ramsay largely avoids facial contact with the adults, largely relegating the film to the perspective of the children. In the end, we have more questions then answers, but the sustained sense of personal discord is all the more unsettling because of our inability to truly comprehend it. Scott’s film, though, isn’t so oblique. The style-over-substance director’s first work is indicative of the heavy-handedness exhibited in many of his feature films, here following the adventures of a young boy who decides to play hooky as a respite from both overbearing parents and the educational system. The director’s younger sibling, Tony, plays the nameless title character and also provides the full-length narration. While the film’s meandering approach doesn’t lack for a sense of adolescent earnestness or spirit, its perpetual sense of self-satisfaction makes for an alienating experience.
A pair of concept-driven shorts also populate the set. Copy Shop (2001), comprised of several thousand photocopied film cels, ink toner errors and scratched, torn pages, follows an unnamed man who wakes up one morning and accidentally scans the palm of his hand in a problematic photocopying machine, an incident that creates seemingly infinite clones of himself. Although the concept doesn’t really go anywhere, it amusingly recalls the pantomime antics of Buster Keaton, and it’s somewhat brilliant to watch actor Johannes Silberschneider interacting with literal dozens of himself (an effect accomplished through a painstaking computer photo-editing process).
Doodlebug (1997), however, is less enjoyable despite the craft on display. The first film of Christopher Nolan, its establishment of mood and setting anticipates the black-and-white hotel room sequences of his breakout hit Memento. Within the first few shots, the film effectively establishes the parameters of a claustrophobic apartment, in which the unnamed occupant jumps around, shoe in hand, trying to kill some tiny, unseen creature. The camera itself evokes a conscious presence in the room (every shot of the film is a tracking shot), an effective stylistic foreshadowing of the obvious “twist,” which makes one wish such minimal resources could have been put to work on a script that didn’t rely on so empty a gimmick.
Similarly thudding is Andrea Arnold’s Oscar-winning Wasp (2003), though it takes some time until the film’s manipulations become apparent. Detailing a day in the life of the poverty-stricken Zoë (Nathalie Press), a single mother of four, it is a reminder that vérité aesthetics do not always result in a cinema of truth. The titular bug is first glimpsed during an understated scene in Zoë’s ramshackle apartment; while the youngest toddler cries after having dropped his pacifier onto the floor, the buzzing insect vainly attempts to pass through a closed window. In this way, the wasp comes to represent the poverty-stricken protagonists in their struggle against invisible social and financial structures. Unfortunately, Wasp ultimately sidesteps such readings. After running into an old flame on the street, Zoë hikes the kids down to a local pub, leaving the eldest to babysit them in the parking lot while she gets her groove on inside. The film sympathetically portrays the seemingly inescapable plight of these youngsters, but when the wasp returns to potentially choke one of the tykes (interrupting Zoë’s backseat fuck in the process), it reduces the morality play to one of mere incidence.
The two final shorts take a look at the cultural barriers of race and racism, although why, or to what purpose, are questions I find myself unable to answer given their reliance on shallow gimmickry. Anders Thomas Jensen’s Election Night (1998) amusingly follows Peter’s (Ulrich Thomsen) attempts to make it to the polls before the 10 p.m. deadline, his idealistic determination thwarted at every turn by the intolerably racist rants spouted by a series of embittered cab drivers. The film won the 1999 Oscar for Best Short—perhaps foreshadowing Crash’s headlining victory seven years later. Election Night doesn’t condescend, though, so much as it goes in circles; many have interpreted the ironic twist to be an implicit commentary in support of racist attitudes. I disagree, but given its almost complete weightlessness, it’s fairly easy to understand that misinterpretation.
Even more dunderheaded is Fierrot Le Pou (1990), Mathieu Kassovitz’s ode to the repressed African-American inside everyone who’s ever been described as white and nerdy. I’m not sure what’s harder to swallow here: the seemingly blind acceptance of white-men-can’t-jump stereotypes, or the climactic visual revelation that’s less offensive than I-can’t-believe-you-just-did-that stupid. My wannabe filmmaker self strives to value the creative initiative on display here, but really, I’ve seen Nike commercials more edifying than this. Such is an opinion completely manifest of my own idiosyncrasies and tastes, but even so, it is crucial to acknowledge the cultural and historical importance of this and other films I might be internally programmed to disparage. In an ideal world, all artistic work deserves to be readily available for those who wish to see or experience it, so don’t let my ragging on any of these titles preclude you from exploring the wealth of material offered here.
Image/Sound/Extras: Depending on which piece you’re watching, technical specs range from astonishing to severely wanting, unsurprising given the varying source materials Cinema 16 was forced to reckon with (the master copies for some of these titles appear to have been nothing more than old videotapes). Ultimately, it appears that the quality of each individual film is about as good as we can expect, while the sound mixing is warm and fluid throughout. Extras are limited to audio commentaries for every film (with the exceptions of Wasp, Fierrot Le Pou, and Six Shooter), the most rewarding of which is Peter Hames’ informative and warm explanation/deconstruction of Svankmajer’s heady Jabberwocky.