Short Rounds: Beat the Heat with Some Icy Cinema

Short Rounds: Beat the Heat with Some Icy Cinema

Aug 17, 2011

Short Rounds is a bi-weekly column dedicated to spreading the love of short film. Every other Wednesday we'll curate a number of flicks around a theme, from current Film Festivals to whatever is in the air. You know you've got the time

It has been an incredibly hot summer. Granted, for some of us any weather above 85 degrees counts as remarkably unpleasant, but last month broke records in many parts of the country. That was just July, and there are murmurs about the end of August being even worse. What to do? You could go to the movies, but why spend 13 bucks for a ticket when you have A/C at home? You’d have to leave your cool house to get to the theater anyway. Instead, watch some wintry films right here to put yourself in a chilly mood. Trust me, it works.

The classic example is, of course, Dr. Zhivago. Yet most of us don’t have time to watch more than three hours of romantic Russians, no matter how gorgeously David Lean can frame them in the snow. The solution to this, as to most problems, is short film. Here are five ice-filled shorts to cool you down and transport you out of the summer, at least for a few minutes.

Tune for Two by Gunnar Järvstad

The short is the perfect cinematic form for dark comedy. There’s just enough time for a single brutal joke, extended to exactly the right amount of cynical punch. Tune for Two does it in less than three minutes and without a single word of dialogue. A desolate winter backdrop, a grizzly hit man and a simple ditty are all Swedish director Gunnar Järvstad needs to bring you to peals of confused and mildly sinister laughter. Whether it’s all about the “banality of evil,” as one YouTube commenter contends, I’m not entirely sure. It definitely belongs on any list of cold, bitter shorts.


Winter by Walt Disney

In many ways we owe the longevity of the American animated short to Disney above all others. Sure, the other studios produced plenty of cartoons during the Golden Age of Animation, but Walt and his artists used these films not only to entertain but also to experiment with technique and therefore push the art forward. The Silly Symphonies are a perfect example. Winter opens and closes under cover of snowfall, a trial run of animated layering that makes you feel the bitter chill. If you look closely at certain animals you can see that the studio is trying out character items as well. A moose emerges from a frozen stream at about 4:30, a clear forerunner of 1950’s Morris the Midget Moose. Plants bend and dance with a rubbery but unrefined skill as if practicing for Flowers and Trees two years later. The whole thing is a wonderfully frigid mood piece, and should get you shivering.


Snow by Geoffrey Jones

This Oscar-nominated documentary short, filmed in Britain during the Big Freeze of 1963, is a frosty example of pure cinema at its best. Initially conceived as a project about the British Railway Board, the lucky timing of the exceptionally bitter winter gave director Geoffrey Jones some stellar footage of workmen clearing up a rail system stricken by heaps of snow. The result is a marvelous tone poem built from the determination of the BRB to keep the trains running and some great wintry cinematography. It’s also oddly akin to the chilly Silly Symphony above with its constant use of bouncy music to keep the action going. Johnny Hawksworth’s re-recording of Sandy Nelson’s “Teen Beat” really holds it all together, setting an infectious ‘60s beat to this already compelling short.


The Silence Beneath the Bark by Joanna Lurie

This next one is a little bit strange. Like Snow and Winter it seems to be mostly about ambiance, following two toothy sausage-like figures through a peaceful forest landscape. Yet here the music is much more subtle and the primary affect is the quiet stillness of a light snowfall. The constant tumble of little white specks across the scene is a soothing reminder of light winter beauty. While the bare narrative of the film is a bit vague and inexplicable at times, the overall atmosphere of playful tranquility rings through with impressive clarity. The animation technique is also marvelous, a descendent of the wintry wonderlands of early Disney as well as an artful example of 21st century ingenuity.


Sikumi – (On the Ice) by Andrew Okpeaha MacLean

To conclude, here’s the longest and perhaps most visually stunning film on this list. The cinematography is by Cary Fukunaga, just one year before his break-out directorial debut Sin Nombre. A dark tale of moral compromise in the icy wilderness of the Arctic, this short contrasts breathtaking images with mundane and human tragedy. Sikumi follows a lone hunter as he witnesses a brawl and subsequent murder out in the empty snow-covered landscape. Knowing both men personally, he must decide whether to honor the dead man and destroy the life of the killer or give his living friend another chance. The gorgeous silent blue imagery only enhances the weighty ambiguity of his choice, emphasizing this almost mystical locale so far from the order of community and society.

Daniel Walber can be found on Twitter @DSWalber

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