Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger won't split hairs with Split Pillow.
The story of the past few days…
Has filmmaking grown stale? Film has always gone through cycles of conservatism and exploration. Hollywood continues to produce a host of by-the-numbers movies—along with a handful of the world's best films. Even so, the last few years have provided a serious alternative to Hollywood on a massive scale, the result of cheap computer post-production and affordable digital cameras. Anyone who wants to can find a way to make a movie these days.
In the face of such freedom, budding filmmakers might be intimidated into reliance on standard practices. But innovative approaches to filmmaking, like Split Pillow's Challenge, help break people out of the standard approach.
Facts of the Case
Eighteen teams of filmmakers gathered over Memorial Day weekend in Chicago to write, produce, and edit improvisational short films. These films were created in three days, with 24 hours allowed for each step. Each team was given a song, which was the inspiration for writing a script. The scripts were handed off to other teams, who cast, blocked, and filmed them (in what is loosely called the production stage). The footage was handed off to a third team, who edited it into a short film. The final results were screened at the Biograph Theater, where awards were given for Best Writing, Best Production, Best Editing, and Audience Choice.
Over the course of three days, the following 18 +1 films were created in answer to the Split Pillow Challenge:
• "The Showcase"—Introductory Video
The temptation in critiquing this two-disc set is to compare and contrast the films, pitting them against each other to see which fares best and which fares worst. I will not totally avoid that temptation, but it goes against the spirit of the event. No team really owns these movies, because each stage was handed off. The point of The Challenge 2.0 is collaborative, improvisational film making. In reaching that stated goal, The Challenge is successful.
No one will confuse these short films with big-budget productions, or even low-budget indie flicks that have the benefits of time and polish. The actors had no time to practice. The writers had no time to rewrite. The editors did not see the footage one day at a time; they were handed a whole bundle of footage and told to make a movie with it in 24 hours. If certain scenes lack a professional touch, be it through sleep-deprived giddiness, paused line delivery, occasional crackles in the sound, and the like, the oversights get a carte blanche pass. Instead, focus on the creative spirits displayed, the innovative approaches to problem solving, or the surprisingly artistic heights that these films manage to show.
The short films in this compilation are proof positive that innovation is alive. One is a musical. Another is a sardonic parody of military draft propaganda. There are comedies, dramas, romances, a slasher flick, and even a romantic comedy. They display a propensity for surrealism that is surprisingly effective. In "A Reason to Drink," a man sees a giant egg everywhere as his paranoia mounts. "Dead to You" twists the Love Potion Number Nine riff when a woman falls for an alternative partner. Perhaps the process builds in this surrealism, perhaps the writers all tapped into the same vibe…whatever, it works. Watching these films, even when I had scant minutes to absorb the setup, I experienced real apprehension, I laughed real belly laughs, I felt the flush of sensuality.
Though improvisational, the films collectively tap into a sophisticated cinematic language that moves beyond the one-dimensionality you'd expect. Don't get me wrong, some of the films never break out of a one-dimensional approach, but the ones that do come together with unexpected power. The best example of this cohesiveness (unsurprisingly) is the audience favorite, "Dodging le Draft." The film is heavily filtered in post-production to give it an aged, scratched, and worn appearance, like an old filmstrip on its last legs. A French-accented voiceover makes sardonic condemnations of America while a pretty young thing lives it up onscreen. "Dodging le Draft" shifts gears into an almost farcical how-to on avoiding the draft. It is politically relevant and funny, and it surpasses the expectations of The Challenge's format.
"Dodging le Draft" is not the only success, not by a long shot. "Dog" won for best writing—because it was freaking hilarious. A clueless cad tries to woo a lady with his self-produced song and macho posturing, interpreting her disdain as approval. This dichotomy is enhanced by the editing, which sharply contrasts the two viewpoints on the blind date. The four actors gave pleasing performances as the daters and their sympathetic friends.
Allow me a selfish moment of secret pride for "The Writing's on the Wall," which involves fellow DVD Verdict judge Michael Stailey. This thing plays like a British sitcom, with ludicrous characters trading absolutely wicked barbs. The mise en scène reminds me of François Ozon's Sitcom, with its absurd disconnect between subject matter and presentation.
It isn't just the winning entries that display finesse. "Calling All Supermodels" is chilling in its adherence to murder mystery tension. It almost felt like an episode of CSI. "Poop Where You Eat" had the gall to attempt a full musical (well, partial musical anyway) in 24 hours, and actually pulled it off. The lead actor is sunny and sweet, but she turns so very, very bad. Aside from "Dodging le Draft," "Dead to You" was my personal favorite film out of the bunch. The ladies in this film are quite sensual, and the cinematography evokes a strong aura of sexual tension and frustration. The plot is absurd, yet somehow more compelling for its absurdity. The twist ending had me laughing, and strangely enough feeling pity for the lead character.
Enough about the individual entries. The point is, these frantically executed films achieve something. They form cohesive presentations that manipulate our emotions and imaginations. More riffs than full-blown productions, they embrace the spirit of the singles that inspired them. They clearly convey a fun attitude, and they display creative solutions to a brief filmmaking window. The Challenge 2.0 films inspire optimism that innovative filmmaking is very much alive.
Incidentally, the music is effective in almost every film. Basing the shorts around songs was a great idea because it provides an anchor point to align the films. The music is high quality and sounds great in the movies.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As much as I'd love to leave it at that, there is one major problem with the The Challenge 2.0 DVD set. In the spirit of the Challenge, The Challenge 2.0 was independently mastered. It may be the result of misflagging or a conversion issue, but the DVD copy I reviewed had myriad problems. I view DVDs on a home theater computer, which is sensitive to mastering issues. The menu selections would not take unless you clicked them twice, and every short film crashed my DVD player upon conclusion. Chapters were mislabeled. The worst problem was that every film experienced severe stutter, many to the point where they would not play at all. In fact, I was only able to view the winners by going to the UPressPlay site and watching them online. I estimate that 40 percent of the films were completely unplayable in my setup, which is disappointing.
As I mentioned above, the acting doesn't feel polished. Though some efforts rise above, many of them suffer from a uniform unnatural pause syndrome:
Actor One: "Hey Buddy!"
None of the films is completely free of this effect, not even the lauded winner of Best Production. Again, they get a free pass because of the setup, but it does point toward the importance of practice, memorization, and down time in an actor's preparation for a performance. I have no doubt that, given better circumstances, most of these actors would deliver sterling performances. After all, many of the performances achieved real depths of tension or comedy despite The Challenge's format.
The opening film, though humorous, is the kind of thing that will appeal more to people who attended the event. It was nice of them to include it, but it doesn't fit the mold of the rest.
If you celebrate the new movement of independent, grassroots filmmaking, you owe it to yourself to view The Challenge 2.0. The concept is creative, and for the most part it was executed with style and humor. I will not be surprised when some of these filmmakers achieve greater success as their careers progress.
The DVD mastering is sentenced to life without parole. The content is found guilty of disturbing the peace: His honor commends your subversive spirit.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Split Pillow
• "The Showcase" -- Introductory Video
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