CIFF: Film Shorts, by Aaron Pinkston

The Queen of My Dreams, Fawzia Mirza & Ryan Logan, US, 3 min.The shortest short film at the Chicago International Film Festival, The Queen of My Dreams shows a young woman’s struggle with her sexual identity through the lens of her love of Bollywood films as a child. Definitely the most experimental of the shorts I saw at the festival, it uses old-school Bollywood aesthetics while showing two young women getting made up in traditional Indian clothing. Though they often inhabit the same space, the trappings of their culture keep them apart — it is only when they appear as themselves can they make a connection.Through voice-over of one of the young women, she describes the pressures of being a racial minority and being a lesbian, balancing a number of lifestyle and cultural pressures. The film’s ideas of using popular culture to build your own identity are strong — the character admits to fantasizing with herself as her favorite Bollywood star, being seduced by the leading male hunk. Ultimately, though, she realizes that her dreams and desires have to be her own, not her family’s and certainly not popular culture’s.Mr. Christmas, Nick Palmer, US, 14 min.Mr. Christmas tells the story of Bruce Metz, a native of Concord, California, who has become a local celebrity because of his elaborate Christmas light display. He has put up Christmas lights for the past 31 years, continually adding more and more to the display, now up to over 51,000 lights. We see the painstaking detail he puts into his obsession and the great lengths it takes to top the year before — for example, he individually hand paints each of the tiny lights to ensure they won’t fade and spends hundreds of dollars during the season on his electricity bills. In all, it takes him three months to set up the display for their grand introduction each Thanksgiving. That’s a lot of work for something that will come down just after New Year’s Day.The film works like many of the offbeat biographical documents we’ve seen in recent years — it does well to give us a full representation of the subject, but isn’t afraid to show just how ridiculous this process can be. Like the better examples of the genre, however, it doesn’t needlessly poke fun at Mr. Christmas. In fact, the most interesting parts of the film are when we see how genuinely touched people in the community are to see the wonderful work.What Mr. Christmas has over other biodocs is it’s length, which is perfect for this story. Sure, the filmmaker could have gone into more detail on the background of Metz or better represent the amount of work he goes through each year by giving the audience a sense through time. I’m sure there was enough footage to make a feature length film, but by choice or necessity, Palmer probably did the right thing by trimming the story down and giving us the absolute essential information. We see too many like films that feel completely stretched out at 80 minutes.Cadaver, Jonah D. Ansell, US, 8 min.The animation of Cadaver is coarse and rugged, but surprisingly fluid, with a virtual camera that moves quickly and often. Unbelievably, the film was drawn using Sharpie markers, which gives the short its wonderful, yet dark style.The story isn’t bad, either. In the short, two young students are doing an anatomical study on a cadaver. When they take the heart of the body, the dead man springs to life, claiming that his heart belongs to only one person, his dear widow. We then go on an adventure to find the reanimated man’s love, which doesn’t end too well in a nice bit of melancholy.The story is built like a nursery rhyme, quick and sharp and fun in its narration. I always find it impressive when a piece of writing is able to maintain a rhyming structure throughout, and Cadaver never employs any lame rhymes. This mix of exhilarating adventure, spurred along by the quick, quipy narration, and nicely melancholic theme of leaving the living world behind work beautifully together.It’s also notable that Cadaver features the voices of Christopher Lloyd and Kathy Bates, with Lloyd in particular adding a good bit of sadness and depth to his zombified character. A majority of short films seen at film festivals don’t have the ability to using such known talent, and Cadaver uses the star voices without letting their known quality get in the way of the art and story.Bite of the Tail, Song E. Kim, US, 10 min.Bite of the Tail, another animated short shown at the festival, showcases a drastically different style than the dark, rugged Cadaver. Instead, this is a much simpler and quieter form of animation and storytelling.The short uses a really interesting technique of basically white-washing the screen – deciding only to colorize a few objects in each frame. The colors that do remain are faded to the point of almost being invisible. This animation effect leaves us with a dreary feeling that wonderfully plays on the film’s narrative.Overall, the short’s story isn’t as transparent as the animation style. The film shows us a young couple, potentially on the brink of splitting. The man is some sort of biological scientist who is altogether more interested in his work than the relationships in his life. His partner is a troubled woman who seems to only at ease at her doctor’s office. But still, this short really doesn’t seem too focused on the particulars of these characters, without giving us a lot of narrative information about their lives or internal states. The narrative flitters about, leaving us with a number of really interesting images that take time and a lot of thought to fully deduce.Voice Over, Martin Rosete, Spain, 10 min.Of the short films I saw, Voice Over was easily the most creative and invigorating. Told through voice over, partly as a survival guide and partly as a description of thoughts, we see three different dire situations — an astronaut on a desert planet, a stranded soldier during World War II, and a man on a sinking boat. Though we have these intense situations, the titular voice over stays calm, clinical, matter-of-fact, which strangely gives the film an even greater sense of urgency. As the film unfolds, it begins jumping between the three stages, further heightening and creating a wonderful link through time and space. It all comes to conclusion with a beautiful metaphor of a young boy advancing for his first kiss. With very little, it nicely puts together the extreme emotions that go through us all when we first encounter this common situation.Voice Over has perfect design, incredibly so for a short film that couldn’t have had much of a budget. The three worlds the film builds are wonderfully designed, but all simple. Rosete shows great grasp of film environment, editing and energy — I wouldn’t be shocked if he is a name he hear in the near future. The film is incredibly playful and beautiful, definitely one to see if it comes across online.

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