Short Rounds is a biweekly 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.
Well, thank heaven that’s over. Regardless of how you feel about last night’s election results, I think we can agree as a nation that our lives will be better without the incessant campaigning. Voters in swing states got blasted with tens of thousands of ads, in record numbers. Countless wonky articles have been written about “campaign fatigue,” and NPR even made that poor girl cry with all of its coverage. The first Republican presidential primary debate was in May of 2011, and the ensuing 18 months have been a gauntlet of speeches, fundraising e-mails, robocalls and an unforgiving 24-hour news cycle. Words, words, words.
Now it’s all over! We won’t be able to get total peace and quiet, of course – this is the 21st century, after all. Cable news will keep on going strong, and while we won’t be getting hit with any more political ads for now, there will always be noise coming from somewhere. So, let’s take a little time and step away from language. Here are five short films, compelling and meditative, that use not a single spoken word to express themselves. They each build from the ephemeral beauty of silence, knowing that cinema has the great luxury of being able to avoid speech altogether. If only politics worked the same way. This one’s for you, Ohio.
La Bohème, by Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog was hired, at the last minute, to produce this short film celebrating the English National Opera and its sponsorship by Sky Arts TV. He was given the selection of music, the love duet from the first act of Puccini’s La Bohème. However, he wasn’t asked to take the whole production to a small village in Ethiopia. That was pure, original Herzog. The film features four young couples who, one after the other, simply stare at the camera and then walk away. Their expressions are enigmatic, yet hints of boredom and defiance occasionally break through. Is Herzog making a judgment on the supposed universality of Western music or is he saying something else entirely, perhaps about the role of young love in different cultures? As always with this troublesome director, it is best to mull it over for a while.
Eclipse, by Mark Lapwood
Mark Lapwood is a cinematographer who went to Mumbai, India to work. What he found was a city of contradictions, rich with natural beauty but also darkened by the difficult lives of its inhabitants. Eclipse is his take on this dichotomy, a stunning collection of images gathered during his stay. Yet, as with La Bohème, it’s important to not forget that this is a Western filmmaker bringing his camera into another, drastically different culture. Europeans have been going to India to make films for years, and the danger of fetishizing, Orientalizing, or simply misrepresenting the nation is always at the edge of the camera. Louis Malle, Richard Attenborough, and Danny Boyle have all made missteps in the past. Does Lapwood, with his bare-bones approach, do a better job? I think he might, but you be the judge.
The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Stan Brakhage
While Lapwood seeks to make a distinction between natural beauty and human suffering, Brakhage’s goal with this film is to proclaim the opposite. It is inspired by the Hieronymus Bosch painting of the same name, to which the experimental director objected. The people in Bosch’s triptych are tormented, but the world around them is lush and peaceful. Seeking to show that nature experiences pain as well, Brakhage pasted plants onto strips of clear film leader. The result is an exploration of green life and brown decay, with death always present as a constant component of the natural world. The speed is at times overwhelming, yet it leaves a lasting impression.
We Have Decided Not to Die, by Daniel Askill
Speaking of death, here is Daniel Askill’s three-part short film on the subject. We Have Decided Not to Die is a trio of elemental creations, a distillation of birth, life and death into the starkest of cinematic frames. “Birth” takes place in a lonely swimming pool. “Between,” life itself, is a dangerous dance in an abandoned parking lot. “Rebirth” is a stand-in for death and suicide, a conclusion towards the top of a towering skyscraper. Askill’s cast of skinny hipster-model types stand in for all of human life, a decision that rests somewhere between inspired and hokey. On the whole, however, this is a striking experiment.
Tramway, by Krzysztof Kieslowski
It’s probably appropriate to finish things off with a bit of fun, after all of that mortality. Tramway was made by legendary filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski when he was still attending the Lódz Film School, in 1966. The plot is simple. A boy catches a tram and sees a beautiful girl. They exchange glances, but she falls asleep soon after. When they reach his stop, he’s not sure whether to get off or try again. Kieslowski gives his young man a very ‘60s combination of shaky awkwardness and endearing gusto, contrasting him with the older passengers and stern conductor. This is a short that would fit in quite well with its contemporaries in the U.K. and France, where youth culture was having its renaissance. Yet where many of those films thrive on their lingo and political gabbing, Kieslowski does it without a single sound.