By Marilyn Ferdinand
If ever there was a category that seems almost entirely irrelevant to the Oscars, it is Live Action Short Film. These nominees have been the province primarily of first-time directors, perhaps even projects for graduation from film school. They don’t get general releases in theatres, at least, not here in the States. In fact, the only short I can remember seeing in conjunction with regular theatrical runs was The Heart of the World (2000) by Canadian director and cult favorite Guy Maddin. In fact, it got played over and over with various films until I was pretty damn sick of it.
However, the very first films ever made were live action shorts. An entire industry was built on these short stories of the screen, which may be one reason the Academy has been reluctant to eliminate this category from its Oscar ballot. The first year of Oscar, two awards in this category were given: Comedy and Novelty. Novelty seemed to have encompassed adventure/documentary films, like the 1933 winner Krakatoa, which I presume showed the volcano exploding. Mack Sennett and Hal Roach films were well represented in the Comedy division.
By 1935, big-name studios like Warner Bros, Paramount, RKO, and MGM were being nominated in three new divisions: Color, One-reel, and Two-reel. (The Color division was eliminated in 1938, presumably because the technology was now well-established and not worthy of special technical recognition.) A producer for Warner Bros named Gordon Hollingshead dominated nominations in these categories for some time, with Disney Studios poking up its head now and then.
In 1957, the award got its current title, and although well-known names such as Disney, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Ismael Merchant, Claude Berri, and Jim Henson could be found among the nominees, the category was headed toward obscurity. Today, the only short films we see at the movie theatres are commercials. I can tell you, after viewing the five nominees for the 2007 Live Action Short Film Oscar, I’m ready to start a movement to kick the commercial assault to our senses off the screen and replace it with the witty and often stunning works to be found among this neglected type of film. Here are the 2007 nominees for Best Short Film (Live Action):
Tanghi Argentini (Belgium)—Guido Thys (director) and Anja Daelemans (producer)
This 14-minute short set at Christmastime is about André (Dirk van Dijck), an officer worker who persuades his bah-humbug colleague Frans (Koen van Impe) to teach him to tango so that he can pursue an online romance with a woman who loves the dance. The characters are sketched quickly, but indelibly, with not a speech or movement wasted in telling this charming and surprising story. Director Thys has spent much of his time in television, so he’s got the experience to work this very short short for all its worth. A real crowd pleaser, it has won numerous international awards. It would be in keeping with the early history of this category to reward such a delightful comedy, but it may seem too slight to Academy voters, particularly against some of its competitors. (Very short clip here.)
Om Natten (At Night, Denmark)—Christian E. Christiansen (director) and Louise Vesth (producer)
Another Christmastime film, this 39-minute short has the kind of gravitas the Academy seems to like in its Best Pictures, but it’s a real downer that plays more like an Afterschool Special than a well-constructed short feature. Mette (Neel Rønholt), Sara (Laura Christiansen), and Stephanie (Julie Ølgaard) are three young women desperately ill with cancer who give each other companionship and strength on the hospital ward nicknamed Death Row. The women are types (the religious good girl, the woman allied with her divorced father against the world, and the troubled smoker/drinker/wearer of black nail polish who hasn’t seen her parents in five years). Christiansen, who has a couple of directing credits, has spent most of his film career as a production manager. He simply does not have a director’s touch, letting his actors flounder and his story meander and descend into cheap melodrama. The hubby was moved to tears, but then he spent a lot of time in a hospital and so identified with the characters. I, on the other hand, was bored to tears by this predictable, morose entry. Some people are picking it to win. They might be right, but if it does, it will show Oscar really has no taste whatsoever and is all about its image. (Trailer here.)
Il Supplente (The Substitute, Italy)—Andrea Jublin (director)
This 15-minute film that seems to say that we never really grow up makes its point in a bizarrely original fashion. We are taken to a high school, meeting up with the various nerds, stuck-ups, and artsy types who war away among themselves. Into one rowdy classroom comes a man (Jublin), a substitute teacher who behaves just as savagely with the students as they do with each other. He confiscates a toy soccer ball that has been autographed by an Italian player, locates the class ass kisser and gives him a bad score on his imitation of an ass-kissing snake, is told “no” by a student when he tells her to give him a poem she is writing, and incites the class to rough up the soccer-ball kid. He is found out to be not who he was presumed to be, and ends up confronting the same challenges in the adult world he forced on the kids in the classroom. This is well executed, with energetic performances by all the players, but a philosophical voiceover by the man ruins the anarchic tone of the short and sets us up for a predictable ending. This will not win the Oscar, nor does it deserve to, but it shows the makings of an original talent in first-time director Jublin. (Very short clip here.)
Le Mozart des Pickpockets (The Mozart of Pickpockets, France)—Philippe Pollet-Villard (director)
Pollet-Villard wrote, directed, and costars in this 31-minute romp through Paris’ petty criminal world. Philippe (Pollet-Villard) and Richard (Richard Morgiève) are crime partners who live in a tiny pension and barely survive as part of a pickpocket ring that works the various street markets. The pair is dumb and inept, but gets lucky one day when they evade the police that round up their partners, partly because a young boy (Matteo Razzouki-Safardi) inexplicably goes up to Richard and holds his hand. The boy follows them home. He doesn’t speak or seem to understand them, so they assume he is deaf. But they incorporate him into a new pickpocket ring, which ends as quickly as it began with Philippe getting punched in the nose. Fortunately, the boy has ideas of his own about how to lift wallets. Richard exclaims to Philippe, “I’d never have thought of it in 10 years.” Yes, these sad sacks need this boy prodigy far more than he needs them. Pollet-Villard plays a wonderful blowhard and directs his actors with great skill. The film has a spritely pace and great situational comedy that never feels cheap. Young Razzouki-Safardi is so cute that he melts your heart, and his gigantic smile at the end of the film is more than winning. This film could be a contender, though I don’t think it will win. Again, it might be too slight for the Academy, and it has stiff competition. (Clips and a “making of” in unsubtitled French here.)
The Tonto Woman (United Kingdom)—Daniel Barker (director) and Matthew Brown (producer)
This 36-minute adaptation of an Elmore Leonard short story is the best of the bunch—easily one of the best films of any length in 2007—and the one that should take the Oscar if there is any justice in the world. It’s hard to believe that this assured, taut drama about the redemption of a Mexican cattle rustler named Ruben Vega (Francesco Quinn, Anthony Quinn’s son) is the film debut of director Daniel Barker. Certainly, he had a lot of help from veteran cinematographer Ben Davis (Layer Cake, Miranda, Imagine Me & You), whose compositions are spectacularly beautiful and evocative. Film scorer Dan Jones also provides a soaring score that is definitely influenced by Elmer Bernstein. The film opens in a confessional, then is told entirely in flashback from an omniscient point of view. Vega hides on a hillside and watches a beautiful woman walk topless to a tub and water pump outside a desert shack. She pumps water into the tub and starts to wash up. After she goes back inside, Vega comes to call on her, the picture of benign politeness. She stands in the shadows for a while, then confronts him, saying that she knows he was watching her—just like all the others. She has a startling tattoo on her chin, a remnant of the 11 years she spent as a slave to the Tonto-Mohave Indians. She is Sarah Isham (Charlotte Asprey), wife of the largest cattle rancher in the area. Her husband searched for her, but when he found her, he couldn’t keep a woman who had been defiled by the “red niggers” at home with him. She remains exiled in the desert, watched over by three thugs, hired by her husband, who act as drovers of his human piece of property. Vega’s actions for the rest of the picture to redeem her back into society are also his redemption. Every scene is packed with emotional truth and dignity, acted out by a top-flight cast.
All these films and the nominated animated shorts are touring in select cities courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. I would expect a DVD release sometime soon. Perhaps home viewers will embrace this unique and wonderful form of cinema that the big studios and distributors have all but forgotten. l