I would like to take issue with Movies.com’s South by Southwest coverage. It’s making me jealous. Yes, it is great to know which docs, horror, sci-fi and fantasy films will be worth tracking down later in the year. Yes, those posters from the Mondo Gallery are really cool. And yes, I enjoyed David Ehrlich’s strange, physically taxing first diary entry. However, I am also spending far too much time wishing I were somehow magically transported to the Alamo Drafthouse by a mysteriously-powered carbon-neutral VW Bus (note: actually a dream I had this week).
Thankfully, the internet has come to the rescue! Only a handful of this year’s SXSW shorts may be available to watch online, but they are an excellent bunch. I’ve rounded up six, which hopefully represent the full range of 2012’s programming. From the crazed midnight section to the most promising of Texas student shorts, here’s the perfect antidote to your South by Jealousy.
But first, a little programming note. One of my growing pet peeves is when critics use the word “atmospheric” with little context. I’m guilty of it myself, especially on Twitter. What does that even mean? Don’t all films have an atmosphere? Maybe it’d be better to say “uniquely atmospheric,” or simply “well-crafted.” It would definitely be more effective to say what the atmosphere actually is. The shorts I’ve gathered together here make very different stylistic choices, but they are all expertly constructed works of impression. Some focus entirely on style while others use it as a strong basis for building a narrative, but they are all excellent examples of what critics are trying to express with “atmospheric.”
Syndromes, by Kristoffer Borgli & The Golden Filter
Atmosphere isn’t just music and cinematography writ large. It’s also the little things, like choosing to open a short film with a Furby bursting into a tower of flame. Watching Syndromes, I kept thinking back to Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty. They have the same drab color scheme and the same sense of eerie distance from the characters. Emma Aars’s enigmatic and almost expressionless performance is quite like Emily Browning’s turn in last year’s Australian art film, though the role itself is very different. There is even the same focus on the human body, and how it is used by those around it in unsettling and sanitized ways. Uncanny beauty with a hint of dread takes patience to build up in a film, and Syndromes is an excellent example of how to mold a unique cinematic atmosphere.
Little Boat, by Nelson Boles
Pacing can be everything. Little Boat is only four minutes long, and not a single second is wasted in its quietly poetic journey through the open seas. The title vessel sits at the center of the frame for the entire film, a focal point that keeps us anchored while we are transported across a mostly silent aquatic landscape. Birds fly past, a couple monkeys take a moment’s rest on the prow, and the water itself remains tranquil. Then halfway through this boat’s journey things begin to shift. We find ourselves in the midst of conflict, a dramatic turn of events that could change the entire trajectory of this dinghy to which we are now so emotionally attached. This is storytelling brought down to its fundamentals.
Boom¸ by Daniel Matyas
One of the least-discussed and most important aspects of SXSW is the festival’s encouragement of local, young Texas filmmakers. Admittedly, this lack of buzz is because student films are often terrible. But that’s why the festival only presents the very best, even in its “Texas High School Shorts” section. The first minute of Boom is likely just as good as any 60 seconds of film in the festival, professional features included. Complete silence is intriguing enough, but this is a dreadful and eerie silence. The opening shot is of an alarm clock that does not ring and it sets us of desperately waiting for sound, any little noise to ease the tension. Director Daniel Matyas is not quite so willing to let us relax.
Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared, by This Is It
The Midnight shorts section at this year’s festival is a little bit strange. There are viral videos that have already made their splash, like the video for Duck Soup’s “Big Bad Wolf” and the infectious I Am Your Grandma. Both are definitely worthy of being tossed on a big screen after dark, but there’s something special about this terrifying puppet short by This Is It. It’s eerie from the beginning, though it can be hard to place why. It probably has something to do with the opening few seconds, their total silence and the giant felt knives on the wall. Too earnest and exaggerated in its spoofing of children’s television, when everything goes wrong you will be caught between raucous laughter and a much darker place.
The Love Competition, by Brent Hoff
How much can you love, and can that quantity be measured? Neurologically that might actually be possible, by watching activity in a certain region of the brain. To test this theory, some doctors put together a study. The subjects would be put into an MRI machine and told to think about love, for five minutes. Fascinating on paper, documentarian Brent Hoff then turns it into a deeply empathetic short film. The interviews shine, as people young and old talk about who they love and how with a great deal of honest humanity. The Love Competition is a beautiful 15 minutes, and if you don’t finish with an enormous smile on your face there’s something wrong with you.
Alexander’s “A Million Years,” by Benjamin Kutsko
Almost all of the music videos featured by SXSW are available online, and they deserve a lot more attention than the one paragraph I’m about to write. Yet there are definitely a few larger trends to point out in the grand list of work. With puppets, stop-motion, split-screens and hand-drawn animation these films break down reality and introduce visually fantastical elements into an otherwise traditional live-action music video style. This is obviously not a new thing, and goes back at least to Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” in 1983. There’s never been quite so much of it, though. One of my favorites is the hypnotic “A Million Years” video, directed by Benjamin Kutsko. I love the concept, and the execution is smooth. It also kinda reminds me of that Futurama episode when Bender turns into a makeshift planet for a micro-species.