The 2016 New York Film Festival Shorts Program
By Gary M. Kramer.
The New York Film Festival offers a range of fascinating short films, in five programs that showcase narrative shorts, international auteurs, genre stories, New York stories, and documentaries. The Narrative program is a mixed bag. The dark comedy Be Good for Rachel has Rachel (writer Rachel Sondag) having a really bad day. From job trouble, to car and parking trouble, to making frantic calls to her ex-boyfriend, Rachel experiences a series of humiliations. However, she learns her life may not be so bad after all. Sondag gives a strong performance, even though her character borders on irritating.
The Bosnia and Herzegovina/Mexico entry, Dobro has a woman realize that the only way to get rid of the gypsy on her front step may be to befriend her. This slight short, directed by Marta Hernaiz Pidal, boasts a strong sense of authenticity, but the narrative is too leisurely and unsurprising to deliver much in the way of a pay off. In contrast, And the Whole Sky Fit in the Dead Cow’s Eye, from Chile, is a wondrous, magical-realist tale about a farmer whose cows have all mysteriously died. However, a much worse fate is in store when a stranger—a ghost, in fact—visits his elderly mother, Emeteria (Shenda Román). Full of arresting images, and a dazzling tracking shot, this visually eloquent short is a moving fable about death.
Gabriel Abrantes’ witty A Brief History of Princess X, from the International Auteurs program, is one of the best shorts at the festival. The film traces the history of the titular Constantin Brancusi sculpture, which looks like a bronze phallus, from its inception to its reception. The recreations of both the artist and the model are cleverly done (with the actors playfully lip-synching Abrantes’ voice-over narration). Moreover, the facts recounted about Brancusi’s work or his model’s interest in female sexuality, as well as the censorship issues and scandals within the art world at the time, are insightful, creating a new appreciation to both the artist and the sculpture. This film is a naughty delight.
Bertrand Bonello’s Sarah Winchester, Phantom Opera is a curious mix of text and performance. This short captures the rehearsal of an opera/ballet about Sarah Winchester, a young woman in the 1860’s who married into the family of the inventor of the repeating rifle. Over three acts, Sarah loses her daughter to marasmus, gains a fortune, and never quite recovers from her sorrow. The music and dancing are compelling even if the film as a whole never quite gels. Nadav Lapid (The Kindergarten Teacher, Policeman) returns to NYFF with his short, From the Diary of a Wedding Photographer. Ohad Knoller plays the title character, Y, who claims the first wedding he shot, “a failed, fractured one,” was “the most genuine portrait of a marriage” he ever captured. As he films two pairs of brides and grooms, he becomes intimately involved in their lives. He employs a kind of magic to record a kiss, and pushes a bride who wants to be injured (to postpone the wedding). As Y goes about his job, his jaded expression speaks volumes. The film offers a jaundiced take on the ritual of wedding photography.
The Genre program features several suspenseful shorts. The Signalman, from Brazil, is a fantastic, wordless drama, adapted from a Dickens’ story, about the title character (Fernando Teixeira), routinely charting the night trains. One night, when an accident is reported, weird things start to happen, and his lonely situation grows more ominous. Writer/director Daniel Augusto uses simple things from dripping water to a flickering light and a jar full of bugs to create an eerie atmosphere. As Augusto elegantly films reflections in water or a row of matchstick men, he ratchets up the tension.
The Genre program includes two thrillers that depict mother/daughter relationships. The German entry, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You has a mother trying to connect with her teenage daughter, unaware there may be someone else in their house. The film, directed by Johannes Kizler and Nik Sentenza, features a hypnotic cinematography and some genuine suspense after a message on a mirror is discovered. Likewise, the unsettling Imposter, directed by Adam Goldhammer, depicts a young girl who believes her mother is dead and that woman in her house is not who she says she is. This is a well-acted two hander. In contrast, Quenottes (Pearlies) is a twisted short about a teeth-collecting mouse out to exact revenge on a father and son who stole his stash. The film is certainly inventive with mouse-cam shots scurrying along the walls and floors, and an elaborately designed trap the critter employs to extract a tooth. But the various shots of the mouse in the mouths of the characters make this short not for the squeamish.
Easily the best film in the Genre program is What Happened to Her, Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s short narrated by Danyi Deats (River’s Edge), in which a woman recounts her job playing nude corpses in films and TV. Featuring clips from Twin Peaks, Silence of the Lambs, True Detective, Six Feet Under and more, Deats’ voice-over explains the logistics of being rolled off a cliff, dragged across a field, and the hours it takes to apply “intimate death body makeup” as well as the mental capacity needed to disengage from the action and not move, blink, or breathe. Guevera-Flanagan captures it artfully, prompting much consideration on everything from the violence towards women to the erotic fetishization of female corpses.
Two shorts in the New York Stories program are interesting but also frustrating. I Turn to Jello follows the title character (Eleanore Pienta), a cellist, racing to an audition, only to encounter more trouble when she arrives. The film is intent on breaking down Jello until a bizarre ending. Likewise, Dustin Guy Defa, whose brilliant short Review played last year at NYFF, returns with Dramatic Relationships, a series of episodes about how male filmmakers and actors depict and present women in movies. The various encounters are discomfiting, which is precisely Defa’s point, but that doesn’t make his short any easier to watch.
Some of the highlights of the documentary shorts program are Rotatio, Legal Smuggling with Christine Choy, and Brillo Box (3¢ off). Rotatio is a 4-minute short about Shannon May Mackenzie’s effort to “bring solace to a weight she has carried.” She is creating a wall-sized art project, making tick marks and writing words on a wall to give her story “a new home.” As the piece reveals what transpired, the power of her work resonates. Legal Smuggling, which is “lived by, written by, and performed by” Choy, uses animation to depict how the filmmaker was able to support her addiction to Benson & Hedges 100’s cigarettes, which cost $14.00 a pack in New York City. The solution, which is as genius as it is risky, is best left for viewers to discover (though perhaps not emulate).
In Brillo Box (3¢ off), filmmaker Lisanne Skyler chronicles what happened the titular Andy Warhol sculpture her parents paid $1,000 for in the 1960s. The piece of art—1 of 17 of its kind made by the artist—was even signed in red crayon by Warhol on Lisanne’s father’s request. But after Skyler traded the Warhol for a Peter Young, the Brillo Box travelled to London and Los Angeles, gaining a provenance that ended in a fierce bidding war at Christie’s auction house 40 years later. Brill Box (3¢ off) is about far more than what the sculpture fetched—though that figure is staggering. It considers the aim, meaning, and collection of art. Skyler deftly weaves together photographs, interviews and observations about legacy and family, which makes her story (which is slightly heartbreaking) all the more poignant. For anyone who misses it at the fest, it will play on HBO in 2017.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.