"They don't even understand the language, but they feel the energy."
Warner submits another installment of their short-film series, this time focusing on entries with an international flavor. As always, there are high points and low points, but there is enough fine work here to be worth a look.
As you have probably figured out by now, the Short series (as well as its companion music series, Circuit) is divided into sections. Let's examine the offerings on this disc:
Animation: Four shorts here. "The Fly" comes from Hungary (and won an Oscar in 1981) and shows the point-of-view of a fly buzzing through a house. The art style consists of ink sketches in shades of brown. "Tiny Sunbathers" is an quite intriguing entry from Belgium: a scratchy Chinese propaganda film about children learning to swim is touched up with suggestive colors and funny sound effects to create an "animated archive film/parody." "Der Rabe" is inspired by Poe's "The Raven," and appears here in both German and English. It alters the poem substantially. I can't say I care much for the director's interpretation (the narrator strangles the raven to death, then reveals that he killed Lenore as well), but the expressionistic wood-cut style animation was effective at heightening visual tension. Finally, there is an altogether too short claymation piece showing cultural "Images of Korea." The latter two shorts both contain director's commentary tracks, although neither manages to shed much light (especially the Korean short, which only clocks in at two minutes anyway, giving the director no time to explain any of the peculiarities of Korean culture).
Music: Muhammida el Muhajir presents a short (17 minute) version of her ongoing project entitled "Hip Hop: The New World Order." Filmed with a digital camera, often covertly (which results in consistently bad lighting and sound), the piece is an intriguing exploration of the cultural expansion of hip-hop music around the world. Segments from Japan, Cuba, London, Paris, Hamburg, and Amsterdam show how young people in each part of the world use music to reflect their own cultural interests. For instance, in Cuba, the underground hip-hop scene marks a widespread political resistance, not restricted to race. In London, it reflects the "cockney" street scene; while in Paris, several local musicians talk about how hip-hop promotes a sense of African unity and identity. "Hip Hop" feels like a promising first draft that deserves expanding into a feature. I hope some studio sees this short and sends some travel money Muhajir's way, so she collect more material. The other short in the Music section is a somewhat facetious interview with avant-garde dance-pop artists Arling and Cameron, who plug their album "Music for Imaginary Films." The album sounds quite entertaining (faux theme songs for non-existent movies like "Shiva's Daughters," a Bollywood Charlie's Angels, and "Hashi the Drug Sniffing Canine," a mix of Lassie and a '70s cop show), but the interview makes Arling and Cameron come across as some sort of mutant offspring of Henry Mancini and the Pet Shop Boys.
Interview: With all the recent buzz about Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark (you know, that movie with Björk in it that won at Cannes?), there has been increased interest in Von Trier's controversial "Dogma 95" film movement. "Lars From 1-10" puts together interview footage with Von Trier (filmed after the "Dogma" entry The Idiots and before Dancer) with film clips from his earlier work like Breaking the Waves and the cult-hit horror soap The Kingdom in an effort to both survey his work and explain the significance of the ten rules of "Dogma 95" (a sort of contemporary neorealism which insists on handheld cameras and "natural" effects). This short is both timely and interesting, and comes with two commentary tracks (by the director and producer, respectively).
Fiction: This section really seems to consist of two music videos. "Burnout," (which also appears on Short 10 and as the "secret" film on Circuit 7) comes from Australia. It offers a winding journey through a quiet truck-stop diner as a Tom Waits-style lounge singer intones a poem (written by the director) about lost love. A director's commentary track is included. "Superstition" is a fascinating, hallucinatory experiment from Mexico in which the world seems to transform into a crocodile infested jungle. The music can best be described as techno-mambo, and the visuals are playful and inventive (the entire image runs off center from the screen, like a film off its sprockets, as inserted text and images overlap) and probably have to be seen several times to get the full effect. An animated slide show and art sketches are included.
Documentary: "Du Côté de la Côte" is the real gem of this disc. Agnes Varda's 1958 travelogue of the French Riviera (acknowledged as a response to Jean Vigo's 1930 satirical classic "A propos de Nice") follows the format of a traditional tourist puff-piece, but manages give things a decidedly feminist edge. Typical images of beautiful sunbathers are replaced with chunky, ordinary people. Footage from a wacky street carnival contains disturbing images of women being mauled by groups of men during the celebration. The result is a satirical look at the idyllic world of the "vacation paradise." Next time you see E! run a special on how wonderful Cannes is, take a look at Varda's film and see what the tourist cameras miss.
The best part about Varda's film is its condition: it looks virtually perfect. I don't know if it has been recently restored, but its colors are wonderfully rich and the print is nearly free of defects. On the down side, due to some sort of restriction by the distributor, "Du Côté de la Côte" appears in French only, with no subtitles. But honestly, you don't need to understand the language to follow Varda's wonderfully suggestive imagery.
All of the pieces included on the disc come with informative production notes, and as noted above, many (even some very short ones) come with commentary tracks. Two trailers are also tacked on the disc, although inexplicably they are for A Star Is Born (the 1954 version with Judy Garland) and Annie Get Your Gun. Exactly what are they doing here?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When this disc is good, it is very good. The stand-out pieces are "Lars From 1-10," "Tiny Sunbathers," "Superstition," "Hip Hop," and "Du Côté de la Côte." That makes one strong entry per section. But like any anthology disc, Short: International Release has its duds. Obviously, what any individual will like on this disc is a matter of taste. But the mark of any good collection of shorts is how it makes you want to see more from each artist. And at least for the five pieces mentioned above, I do want to see more. And I might even pick up a copy of that Arling and Cameron album.
The bone I have to pick with this disc is in the area of commentary tracks. I am certainly glad they were included, but they are of inconsistent quality. Some directors have nothing particularly interesting to say about the content of their films, focusing instead on what sort of camera lenses they used or other technical information. For some shorts (where technique is important) this is relevant, but in such a brief time (most of these shorts run under 10 minutes) it would be helpful to steer the conversation toward content as well. A skillful sound editor might have assembled more tightly packed and informative commentaries for some of these shorts.
Other than that, I have little to complain about with this disc. The transfer is well handled, the menus contain nice graphics, and the content at its best leaves me hungry for more.
Short: International Release provides an intriguing glimpse into the state of experimental film around the world. You will not likely enjoy everything here, but there will be plenty to chew on among the films you do like. And at around $10 online ($15 retail), it is well worth a look.
All charges are dismissed against Warner Brothers for a solid anthology disc. The court suggests strongly that the producers of the Short series keep up the good work and perhaps release a collection of classic older shorts (like the Varda piece included here) for our viewing pleasure.
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