17 March 2003

Florida Film Fest Diary - Entry #8

Friday was another day to explore some of the goings-on at the festival outside the realms of strictly film and video. I headed down to Festival HQ to take in an Apple software demonstration. Since I'm well familiar with Apple and it's offerings, I was really there to see who was presenting, how good they were, to see if I could squeeze any tidbits out of them, and to hopefully get to play with a little new hardware. I also performed my usual function of making sure the presentation kept rolling by asking hopefully-intelligent questions when the audience went dry.

It went well, and the presenter was a good one. I learned a few things (which I always like), made a contact I hope to exploit later, soothed a ruffled feather and most importantly got to play around a little with the new 12" G4 Powerbook. Hubba hubba, you want one of these babies. Even hard-core IT people (the closest thing Microsoft has to "fans") drool at the sight of it, and the touch is amazing. It's much lighter than I expected (that full pound they shaved off the iBook's weight really makes a huge difference, but then it is a 25% reduction), yet the machine feels incredibly sturdy and keyboard is unlike anything you've felt in a laptop ever. Jaguar purrs like a kitten on it too. Argh, why can't I find $1799 in spare change under the couch cushions?!

I also took in the various digital installations and other art exhibits around the festival HQ. No offense to the people who worked hard to put NEXTART together, but most of the displays (and most of the NEXTART exhibits, and a fair few films as well) are centered around repurposed game engines and other uses of OpenGL textures. I can see where this would be interesting to the general public, but it's really not that revelatory to a computer geek -- we've been living with OpenGL and it's peculiar "texture" vision of reality for more than five years now. Admittedly there were some clever employments of it (such as the recreation of a Japanese interment camp and a later presentation integrating live motion), but it was nothing out of the ordinary to most gamers. We're seeing it in music videos and TV ads every day, people -- setting up a big joystick in the middle of the room to make it "interactive" isn't exactly novel.

Having killed the best part of the afternoon, I decided to rest until Heather came home, when we could both go to the Filmmaker's "Wrap" party (I swear these festivals will come up with any name to have an excuse for a soiree), which this year was held at Colonial Lanes, a bowling alley stuck forever in the very end moments of the Nixon administration. James Lileks would be downright proud of this place for many reasons, but the "regulars" -- who all look like they were forcibly shanghai'd from Chicago or Des Moines just before the Disco Era began -- are the crowning touch. They hate it when these durn young people with their fancy hair and their gum chewin' come a-rattlin' up their souped-up hot rods, which suits these juvenile delinquents just fine.

After sampling the mediocre bar-b-cue (ah, B's, come back all is forgiven!) and enjoying the camaraderie of the filmmakers (as well as watching the culture clash of white-trash bowling aficionados* and art-film sophisticates interacting awkwardly), we headed out for the first actual film of the day, the Animated Shorts program.

*not all bowlers are white trash of course; just these guys.

For those of you keeping score, we were sitting at 52 films seen as of the start of Friday. Add the 13 shorts and you get 65 so far.

We started off with The F.E.D.S, a hilarious short in the style of Waking Life -- that is to say painted and distorted animation overlaid on top of and based on actual footage of real people. In this case, the real people were those poor souls who demonstrate/give away food samples at your local supermarket. Oh the stories they tell!

Set Set Spike was described as "a poetic meditation on motherhood and volleyball." Mixing live action with animated scenes with bad poetry, it boasted good music (Yo La Tengo) and performances but was really kind of aimless.

It's extremely difficult to describe the black-and-white visual assault that was Bathtime in Clerkenwell. This film is actually a music video for an artist calling himself "(The Real) Tuesday Weld" (aka Stephen Coates) and the "plot" such as it is might be described as "cuckoos take over London and force people to live in cuckoo clocks." Imagine if Terry Gilliam did Heckle & Jeckle cartoons while on methamphetimine and you begin to get some idea of the riotous use of monochrome in this thing. It's only three minutes long and it's just great, but you're relieved when it's over. Used parts of my optic nerve that haven't been touched in long, long time.

Roof Sex can only be called "Furniture Porn." It was fantastic. This is what people want to see from a shorts program -- something unexpected, mindblowing and extremely funny. More please.

Then we come to the incredibly well-done and funny film with the best title in the whole festival, The Man With the Smallest Penis in Existence and the Electron Microscope Technician Who Loved Him. Well, what more need be said after a title like that, eh? You already know if you have any interest in seeing it, don't you? I really enjoyed the rich, Adobe Illustrator-inspired style of the film and the main setting, the "Big Barn of Proctology." I could have done without the full-colour colonoscopy photos from both the celebrities (not really) and the director & crew (yes, really).

This was followed by Unearthed, a disturbing but rivetting look at a potato that gets an eye from a cat and uses it to see injustice. Too bizarre to describe properly, but you'll wince and then look again.

A Conversation with Haris is a six-minute piece illustrating an interview with an 11-year-old Bosnian immigrant talking about the war and how it affected him and his family. It's animated using a paint-on-glass technique which allows us to focus on Haris on an emotional level.

A trend I'm noticing more and more often in animation shorts is what I call the "illustrated dream" approach. That is to say that the films often don't have any "plot" per se but are more like visual representations of dreams, complete with nonsensical and abrupt starts and finishes, odd characters that may randomly return even after death, heavy use of symbolism or whimsy and usually a disjointed feel that often leaves the viewer confused unless they grasp the intent, which is not to inform as most "linear" story films do.

One such film in the program was Call of the Wild in which a bunch of weird animals do odd but familiar domestic things (in their own way -- for example a walrus flosses his teeth), all while talking away on their telephones. Point? None to be had, but as much as I complain about the lack of a point in some films, I'm actually okay with the concept as long as it's easy to understand that this is the filmmaker's intent.

A more linear story (actually more like a parable) could be found in See the Truth, a claymation short dealing with racism in a great and accessible way. It's a pity very few children will ever see this film, it's exactly the sort of thing they need to see, as it does a good job both in explaining why racism exists and how it keeps perpetuating itself without being even the tiniest bit preachy or condemning. I kept thinking how great it would be if this could be show in all the elementary schools in Alabama, Mississippi and the other hotbeds of racism. Sigh.

Pan With Us is simply an artistic interpretation of the Robert Frost poem, done very well but with nothing to make it really stand out. A better vocal performance might have made the difference.

Another claymation short, another parable (I don't know why claymation is the preferred style of choice for parables -- starting with Gumby and Pokey and continuing on today). The Box Man is actually inspired by a Kobo Abe novel but could easily (and uncannily) apply to the US these days and the culture of fear we both live in and created for ourselves.

Unlike last year where computer-animated stuff dominated and ended up overdone, The Freak is the first all-computer short we saw this year, and it's a good one almost, but not quite, worthy of Pixar (the director will no doubt be working there soon enough). If I had to boil it down, I might describe the story as "Alfred E. Neuman goes on an innocent rampage and the rest of the world freaks out." Fun but disposable.

The final film in the shorts program was also it's greatest. The harrowing, beautiful and depressing Eternal Gaze was a stunningly animated, "lit" and scored bit of computer animation that reminded me strongly of early works by Tim Burton/Henry Selick and the Brothers Quay. Based in a poetic sense on the life of groundbreaking artist Alberto Giacometti and his work, it brings to life (with an almost Herschfeldian design) the tortured artist and his struggles both internal and external. Carefully mimicking the stop-motion style, director Sam Chen brilliantly "hides" the computerishness completely and allows us to get totally involved in the story, which is told without dialogue. As a film, many may find it depressing and it's stark black-and-whiteness does nothing to relieve you of the impression that this is heavy going. As a work of art and as a technical achievement it surpasses expectations and, I think, does Giacometti and his artistic vision proud.

There -- see what you miss by sticking to boring old Hollywood/mainstream features? :)

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