For an emerging filmmaker, the Sundance Film Festival provides a starting point for the life span of a feature-length work. There's a far greater sense of immediacy, however, for the filmmakers involved in the shorts program, where a wide variety of material tends to begin circulating the festival world before fading into complete obscurity. That's why the short films that screened yesterday as part of the third annual Sundance Institute at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) signified the most important aspect of the two-week event: With few exceptions, the films on display received the kind of exposure that helped validate this frequently neglected format. While some of the titles are available on iTunes, many that were shown to a packed house finally got the long-delayed reception they deserved.
Animated efforts almost always offer the best ingredients in any shorts program, since it's here that you'll find a combination of inspired side projects from gainfully employed studio animators and the works of struggling independent artists. The latest program couldn't beat the sheer brilliance of cult animator Don Hertzfeldt's short Everything Will Be Ok in last year's showcase, but two particularly memorable films left distinct impressions this time around.
Madame Tutli-Putli, a mesmerizing, wordless story about one woman's encounter with creepy misogynists and late night robbers on a nightmarish train ride through gothic landscapes, unfolds with remarkably accomplished stop-motion effects. The movie, justly nominated for an Academy Award earlier this year (when it unjustly lost to Peter and the Wolf), would be a marvel to behold even without the gripping plot; with it, Montreal-based filmmakers Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski have crafted a seventeen-minute masterpiece that bridges the gap between the styles of Edward Gorey and Tim Burton by combining a creepy aura with narrative fluidity. On the other side of the spectrum, New York-based animator Signe Baumane's Teat Beat of Sex humorously chronicles her diverse sexual escapades, many of which culminated in embarrassing circumstances. Part of a multi-chapter saga Bauman plans to keep developing, Teat Beat lost its chance for mass exposure when it was unfairly omitted from iTunes' collection of Sundance shorts on the basis of its subject matter. That's unfortunate, because Bauman works on such a small scale that she deserves all the attention she can get. Her explicit slapstick style combines the raunchiness of 1960s Zap! comics with the autobiographical tone of a stand-up routine.
Live action shorts generally serve one of two possible purposes: They're either calling cards for features or singular demonstrations of filmmakers looking to prove their skills. The most impressive accomplishments stuff original concepts into the short format without coming across as needlessly truncated. I was especially impressed by W, from German filmmaking team The Vikings, which won an Honorable Mention at the festival in January. A delightful two minute metaphor for humanity's relationship to its ever-present environment, W. might suck if it ran any longer. As it stands, however, it remains a witty portrait of a certain natural resource I dare not reveal (because that would ruin the punchline). You can watch the whole thing here.
The unofficial award for the cutest short of the bunch (which isn't to say there was much competition) goes to Force 1TD, Randy Tallman's sweet portrait of three urban teenagers on a mission to find sneakers for a guide horse, the lovably petite equine servant who helps the blind member of the trio find his way. Combining deadpan comedy with the original angle that an ever-present guide horse allows, Force 1TD functions as a nifty snapshot of an unlikely partnership.
Another teen-centered entry in the program only felt funny on the surface: The shopping spree documentary kids + money, photographer Lauren Greenfield's detailed portrait of Los Angeles youth discussing the way finances influence their lifestyles. Poorer high schoolers highlight the pressures they encounter when wandering the hallways surrounded by rich kids, whose spoiled views about the importance of wearing pricey clothes provide a stunning contrast. Greenfield strikes a jovial tone in her depiction of the shallow qualities of style-obsessed teens, but the laughter she stirs up has a nervous backdrop. HBO Films has purchased kids + money, but it screams for a feature-length treatment.
Other promising short films in the program had the opposite impact: They resemble long form cinema, but wouldn't necessarily work as full-blown features. Australian director Spencer Susser's zombie drama I Love Sarah Jane, for example, spends fourteen genre-soaked minutes with an all-child cast in a world overrun by the undead, and delivers a bittersweet coming-of-age snippet that you won't find in the entire George A. Romero canon (not even in Diary of the Dead). The dopey comedy FCU: Fact Checkers Unit, meanwhile, carries its one-joke premise as far as it'll go before arriving at an amazing finish: Two devout magazine fact checkers invade Bill Murray's home to confirm a detail about his private life, and the man himself shows up, one-upping his brief role in Coffee and Cigarettes with a few blank stares. In a short film, genius resides in fleeting moments.
For more, check out Erik's report from the opening night American Teen premiere.
For tickets and more information on this year's Sundance Institute at BAM, check out their official website.
Top: Sundance short 'I Love You Sarah Jane.' Middle: Oscar-nominated Canadian film 'Madame Tutli-Putli.' Bottom: Bill Murray and friends in 'FCU: Fact Checkers Unit.' Photos courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival.