11 films made by 11 directors from 11 different countries working with “complete artistic freedom” tackling contrasting experiences concerning the tragic event. A mouth full, but an admirable goal considering the circumstances. Amazingly, most of the films are a success, especially the three standouts – Samira Makhmalbaf’s opening breath of desert air about an Afghan school teacher attempting to relay the massive scope of the disaster to her students, Idrissa Ouedraogo’s charismatic comedy concerning a group of school boys who think they see Bin Laden in Burkino-Faso, and finally Mira Nair’s heartbreaking story of a Muslim mother whose son goes missing after the towers fall, only to watch the media and the F.B.I. call him a terrorist. Other directors like Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, and Amos Gitai also make an impact with vastly different points of view, using genre as a springboard for emblematic tensions ripe with drama. But there’s a stunning theme of displacement connecting each film, a relentless similarity running parallel to the tragedy unfolding in New York City. It’s not surprising that the American entry, directed to the cinematic edge by Sean Penn, tells of an elderly man (the great Ernest Borgnine) entrenched in darkness, whose sad revelation of loneliness only comes as the towers fall. Have American’s always been this isolationist? Possibly, but September 11 goes to great lengths to jar the viewer (no matter the country) from misjudgment and fear and toward something resembling global compassion.
Like a fleeting whiff of pungent perfume, Paris, je t’aime reeks of sweetness and artificiality. This collection of short films (made by some of the better Western directors, but where’s the Asian or African representation?) about love in Paris attempts to construct a whimsical and elaborate connection between the perception of the city as a romantic mecca and the sometimes brutal reality of heartache which follows. But this omnibus struts out one forgettable story after another, surprising considering the talent on both sides of the camera. Stars like Natalie Portman, Elijah Wood, Gena Rowlands, and a host of other well known actors wander through Paris, je t’aime with aimless wonder, fronting wordy snippets of unrequited desire, brewing anger, and false pretenses. There’s something tiresome about the whole experience, especially when so many filmmakers like the Coen brothers, Gus van Sant, and Alfonso Cuaron are working far below expectations. In retrospect, while many of the shorts produce a ho-hum response, only two segments make an impact. One, a heartbreaking ode to chance and disappointment entitled “Place des Fetes” by director Oliver Schmitz, follows an African man’s attempt to get the attention of a young woman, which sets off a devastating chain of events. The second (which thankfully ends the film), a transcendent piece about a lovely middle-aged American woman traveling alone in Paris, charts a personal and evolving relationship with a new environment via voice over and mise-en-scene. Directed by the brilliant Alexander Payne, this sunny travelogue boasts a charm and warmth none of the other segments can claim. Ironically, Payne’s piece doesn’t deal with human affection as all the other’s do, but a romance with the entire city. While flimsy and candy coated as a whole, the few bright highlights of Paris, je t’aime prove that in the greatest love story’s, actions speak louder than words.
The wonderful possibilities of improvisation and human compassion mesh together in this rhythmic short film by Charles Burnett. When it Rains follows Babu and his quest to raise rent money for a pleading woman and her child who’ve been put out on New Years Day. All the Burnett flourishes are present – the sense of helplessness, dread (a gangster threatens to kill the landlord!), and finally surprising hope found in the strangest places. Watch this gem multiple times and see how effortlessly voice over narration, music, and performance can meld when in the right hands.
Burnett’s second short film beautifully and ambiguously builds to a sharp freeze frame of sudden loss, possibly the moment when childhood shockingly ends and adulthood looms. The director stays wide in establishing the rural countryside (which I swear looks like somewhere east of the Bay Area) and a gathering outside a small farmhouse. The four white men gaze at a black horse and a small, African American boy grooming him. They’re all waiting, for something we can only guess. The Horse reflects a deceptive simplicity which resonates throughout Burnett’s feature work, a feeling of both progress and regression, action and stasis. A fine short film. Screened off Milestone’s brilliant new release of Killer of Sheep, a godsend for any film lover.
In Hotel Chevalier, Wes Anderson manages to uncomfortably stuff 12 minutes of screen time with his standard operating procedures – artifice and irony. Needless to say, after four films obsessed with this relentlessly quirky style, it’s gotten quite tiresome. Anderson arguably peaked with his masterpiece The Royal Tenenbaums and has been playing copycat ever since. This short film, which supposedly is the first part to his upcoming The Darjeeling Limited, represents a perfect example of Anderson’s patented slow motion tracking shots and pop music parallels to character development. Except here, as with the previous Life Aquatic, Anderson doesn’t inject any humanity into his writing or performances. As coldly played by Jason Schartzman and a naked Natalie Portman (something good I guess), the protagonist couple give clues to their love and breakup, but in a way so stylized and vague it resembles more a Noir than Anderson lite. The artificiality of his set design and directing places a stranglehold on the story, and in Hotel Chevalier, the Anderson aesthetic snuffs it out in style. It makes one long for Max Fischer and The Tenenbaums and wonder where this wunderkind went so wrong.
Until today, I hadn’t even heard of silent comedian and director Charley Chase or his collaboration with Hal Roach and Leo McCarey. TCM recently aired five of his shorts in a row, a festival in discovery of a talent according to host Robert Osborne, is unfairly obscure to most Americans. Chase’s lanky frame differs greatly from his more famous contemporaries like Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. His honorable smile enables these performances as mistreated, misunderstood, and misinformed every-men to gain a certain hypnotic sympathy, an X-factor which demands attention throughout each work. I found his style of comedy more oriented in story than in slapstick, although his shorts have plenty. Chase moves back and forth between unknowing dimwit and uncaring martyr and the result is a strange hybrid of bliss and melancholy. It’s not everyday you get to discover an important talent like Chase, and in this context I’ll offer a few passing follies on my initial impressions.April Fool (Ceder, 1924)A fun, passing romp which pits Chase against a office full of prankster journalists on the first of April. It’s tough for him to figure out which prank is real or not. Minor hilarity ensues, ending on a high note sequence at a fake house front.Innocent Husbands (McCarey, 1925)My favorite short of the bunch deals with Chase as the titular husband, hounded by his suspicious wife for absolutely no reason. Through chance and circumstance he ends up proving her right, accidentally and without malice of course. McCarey and Chase’s blocking is brilliant, allowing for a seamless glide through places of supposed safety. Great fun.Long Fliv the King (McCarey, 1926)More of a standard set-up than the rest. Chase plays a man about to be executed and agrees to marry a princess who is in need of a fast wedding to appease her evil uncle. Of course, Chase doesn’t get executed and goes after the girl and the crown. The sword fight scene is excellent and the ending pretty irresistible, but on the whole much more akin to regular slapstick.Mighty Like a Moose (McCarey, 1926)I swear I’d seen this hilarious short before. It starts with a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Moose who are both extremely ugly, but each in there own way. Mr. Moose (Chase) has terrible teeth, and his wife has the big nose. Each have successful plastic surgery unbeknownst to the other. In great fashion they meet outside, don’t recognize each other, begin flirting, and set a romantic interlude. The table is set for great sequences of mistaken identity, and ultimately reveals one’s lover can be both the dangerous suitor on the prowl and the sweet, adoring husband at the same time.Bromo and Juliet (McCarey, 1926)My least favorite of these shorts has a reckless and unemotional core, pitting Chase as the fiance of a girl playing Juliet in the play. She forces him to play Romeo and Chase inadvertently gets drunk beforehand, spending the rest of the short reliably and to ultimate cliche trouncing in an out of disasters. Uninspired.
A short that says more about human compassion and patience in 4 minutes and 11 seconds than any film of recent memory. All young filmmakers should look at this as a model for a successful short program – the combination of simple, one location set-ups, and purposeful, entertaining discourse with plenty to say in very little time. You can view it yourself by clicking on a link at the wonderful film website d-kaz.com in the screening log section under Kiarostami Shorts viewed March 11. You’ll see a link to the YouTube address and a rare treat awaits.