TAKING IT IN THE SHORTS
Two Thursdays ago, I had the honor to be a judge for the third annual Valley Art Cinematic Society Student Film Festival. In the company of fellow judges Jana Bommersbach, former New Times editor turned TV personality, and Steven Brain, new head of Fox Animation, I watched 43 short films by Arizona college students. The entries, which included narrative, experimental animation and documentary efforts, ran anywhere from 20 minutes to a quick 30 seconds--it amounted, in all, to around four hours of film and video.
Three selections were good, four others worthy of note. Most of the other works on the program were next to unwatchable--there were many excruciating five-minute stretches that felt longer to sit through than Gandhi. It could probably be asserted that, out of any 43 student films, finding seven that are even close to worthwhile isn't bad. What was disconcerting about the numbing majority of this festival, however, wasn't the ineptitude and sophistry with which most of its entries were made--that could be expected--but the lack of exuberance, the lack of youthful daring, the joylessness with which most of them were infused.
It's hard to say to what degree Arizona's college-level film programs are comparable to those around the country. If they're fairly typical, then, based on this festival, one would come to unhappy conclusions about the film students of our land. The interminable parade of dull, ugly violence--the shootings and stabbings, especially of women, the spattered brain offal, the martyr-playing, often accompanied by the drone of pretentious narration--would lead one to the belief that 90 percent of our current film students were morose, sexually frustrated white-boy weenies. The other 10 percent would seem to be either sweet-but-insipid New Agers or rock-climbing enthusiasts.
One might also conclude that these little dweebs listen to too much frigging music. Many of those most tiresome entries were music videos, in which some good song was abused by the banal and repetitive images pasted over it. Even when a film wasn't a music video, the lovingly chosen, carefully edited soundtracks were frequently so vivid that they shamed the paltry visuals. With similar irony, in some entries, the opening and/or closing credits were so painstakingly crafted that they were far stronger than what was sandwiched between them. It may seem unkind to come down on a bunch of poor college kids about pretension, self-indulgence and mindless violence when these are the meat and potatoes of commercial cinema. But what was distressing about this batch of student movies was precisely that so many of them seemed half-assed, slapdash treatments of workable ideas. It didn't seem like the best work that these filmmakers, themselves, could have done.
This leads to one more thought: Much has been said the last few years about what a boon video has been to novice filmmakers. No doubt this is true, but the boon hasn't been without price. Of the festival's best entries, all but one animated entry were shot on good, old-fashioned 16mm film stock, and the difficulty and expense that come with working in this medium clearly resulted in extra commitment from the directors. Maybe video is so easy and so cheap that it can make even potentially talented moviemakers get lazy.
A few of the selections were good enough to warrant mention. The three best were all among the longest--Remembrance, by Steve Lewis of Scottsdale Community College, a beautifully shot, dialogue-free narrative about a young man visiting his childhood home; Modem Mary, by Mitchell Morrison, also of SCC, a witty, well-structured thriller about a murder by e-mail; and Black & Blues, a graceful, interesting documentary by Kevin Jarvis of the University of Arizona about Tucson-based bluesman Sam Taylor. Also noteworthy were Venus by Luella White of SCC, a dance performance film; A Mouthful of Chaos by Steve Gompf of SCC, a visually arresting animation of nude photographs; and two cute blackout comedies, Death Pales by Ron Harvey and Kevin Camp of the UofA, and The Smile by Chris Sheridan of
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