Apr 5, 2007

Aspen ShortsFest - Dispatch 2

At the midpoint of this year's Aspen ShortsFest the remarkable consistancy of this year's programming has made each block a place to discover a broad range of strong short films and videos. With crowds made up largely of local film fans, zero sales activity and industry involvement at a minimum, this quaint resort town provides an inclusive, celebratory atmosphere without the velvet rope hustle and bustle of larger, more market oriented festivals. In a year when stops on the fests like SXSW and Slamdance admitted no small number of clunkers into their shorts programs while continuing to grow in stature and prestige, Aspen has affirmed its reputation as one of the elite showcases of new and established short filmmaking talent with its remarkable, no non-sense selection.

Among the more noteworthy films on opening night were NYU Grad film student Philip Van's "High Maintenance". A winner at the Sundance, Boulder and Florida Film Festivals, Van's clever distopian sci-fi comedy, filmed in conjunction with the Berlinale's talent campus from a script by Simon Biggs, slyly introduces us to a thirtysomething German couple having a rather forced romantic dinner. Jane (Nicolette Krebitz) begins to seduce her imperfect, work obsessed boyfriend after a series or stilted attempts at conversation. As she embraces him she finds metal switch on his neck and turns him off, in preparation to trade him in for another model. But is he the only android in this relationship? Introducing each new comedic and technological conceit with a fresh sense of the absurd, Van clearly is a gifted ironist. He stages this chamber piece in a sterile modern apartment bathed is soft, warm amber hues, which works to counterpoint the subtle manipulations, manchanized responses and ribald dysfunctionality of his less than human characters and suggests a disturbing near future in which serial monogamy, already one of the minor scourges of our age, has been fully consumed by the forces of the market and the culture of infinite but unsatisfying choice.

Among the other gems from opening night we're Palestianian Cherien Dabis' "Make a Wish" and Marie-Josee Saint Pierre's "McLaren's Negatives", about the famed Scottish animator and experiemental filmmaker Norman McLaren. While working with documentary pioneer John Grierson at the National Film Board of Canada, McLaren founded the board's animation department and made over sixty formally audacious experiemental shorts. In his extremely unusual film portrait of the man, Saint-Pierre integrates his own animation of McLaren in the throws of artistic ferment, inspiration, and execution with archival footage, and audio interviews to erect an animated documentary that serves as both a grand homage to McLaren and a penetrating investigation of the man's methods and spirit. Dabis' film, about a Palestinian girl who spends the entirety of her deceased father's birthday hustling overpriced gum and other items in order to buy a birthday cake to commemorate her father amidst violence laden streets and a culture of destruction, is energetically mounted and cut, yet the naturalistic DV aesthetic screams of Sundance Institute orthodoxy. Dabis wisely witholds her protagonist's motives until the second the last shot, ending the film with a scene of startling power, in no small part due to the riveting lead performance by Iman Aoun.

Night two saw an even richer selection of shorts, including Radu Jude's terrific Romanian dramedy "The Tube With A Hat". A winner at Sundance this year, the film follows a father and son who must trek with their broken TV through the rural Romanian countryside to have it repaired in preparation for an unspecified 6 o'clock program, "Tougher Yet", a smart Antonioniesque relationship drama about a bohemian couple whose relationship is sinking under the weight of an unspoken infidelity and a desire for change, "Sniffer", a bizarre Norwegian comedy rife with societal metaphor about a conformed, overweight deodorant tester who transcends his bleak world in which gravity is no more and everyone must where metallic boots to keep from ascending to the heavens, and "Guide Dog" a sequel to Oscar nominated animator Bill Plympton's 2005 Aspen ShortsFest entry "Guard Dog".

Michael Dreher's "Fair Trade", winner of last year's Nola for short filmmaking, (Germany's equivalent to the Academy Awards) is perhaps the most affecting film during the festival's first half. It tells the story of a withdrawn German woman who travels to Morocco to adopt a child in order to skate by Germany's stringent adoption laws. However, when she comes into contact with the less than savory men involved in taking the child from a unwilling mother, she begins to have second thoughts, but not before tragedy strikes. Full of bitter irony, quiet pain and gentle lyricism, the film contains a clear eyed sensitivity to the wages of globalization. An utterly haunting set piece on a boat bound for Spain in which the most the most fragile of cargo is sacrificed in to avoid detection has been the festivals most harrowing moment thus far.

Another standout is "Salt Kiss", by recent Columbia grad Fellipe Gamarosa, which tells the story of two Brazilian friends on vacation in a lush forest, and the woman who comes between them. Rogerio, a free loving hedonist with a passionate sense of comraderie, invites his more grounded bourgoise friend and his friend's fiancee Luma to spend the weekend with him at his forest getaway. However, as sexual inhibitions disappear, the friends must confront their own insecurites and the roles that they can no longer inhabit. A delicate, sensually photographed film, Gamarosa fosters a rich chemistry between his two leads. Some people never grow up, but when in the company of one as sly, humorous and pathetic as non-actor Rogerio, you might not want to either.

Other notable films include a new short by Dreamworks animation team Cameron Hood & Kyle Jefferson ("First Flight") and actress Jennifer Aniston's directorial debut, a Glamour magazine sponsored short film co-directed Andrea Buchanan called "Room 10", that although featuring strong performances by Robin Wright Penn and Kris Kristofferson, doesn't transcend its schematic structure and obvious payoffs. Yet in its depict of one woman learning to cope with the impending failure of her marriage through the wise words of a man coping with his wife's imminent death, it opens the door for a rather personal reading of the material given Aniston's public split with Brad Pitt in the year before it was made.