Notes on Short Film

Lengthy diatribe on brief cinematic experience.

Archive for the ‘Auteur film’ Category

Boy and Bicycle (1965)

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Well-known director Ridley Scott of Alien (1979) and Bladerunner (1982) began his career with this short film while he studied at London’s Royal College of Art. Starring his brother, Tony Scott, and employing the musical proficiency of John Barry (celebrated composer of the James Bond theme), this film includes visions of the industrial landscape that he would later include in his famous feature films. Slant magazine blogger Rob Humanick says this of the film in a review of the Cinema 16 DVD:

The style-over-substance director’s first work is indicative of the heavy-handedness exhibited in many of his feature films, here following the adventures of a young boy who decides to play hooky as a respite from both overbearing parents and the educational system. The director’s younger sibling, Tony, plays the nameless title character and also provides the full-length narration. While the film’s meandering approach doesn’t lack for a sense of adolescent earnestness or spirit, its perpetual sense of self-satisfaction makes for an alienating experience.

While the reviewer doesn’t seem to love Scott’s work, he has a point. Indeed, the stream-of-consciousness voice-over, without any sort of narrative focus, is difficult to follow and leaves the viewer to write the protagonist off as, simply, a teenage boy. This is almost the unsuccessful version of J.D. Salinger’s immortal Holden Cauffield. You can find more information on Boy and Bicycle on blogs like Flickering Myth and the British Film Institute Online.

Doodlebug (1997)

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Director Christopher Nolan is known for pushing the boundaries of narrative form. (Need I mention Memento (2000)?) His recent, high-grossing, accomplished films – Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and Inception (2010), to name a few – are no exception. But before all that, there was this 3-minute short, shot on black and white 16-mm film while Nolan was studying English Literature in London. (The film was produced by Emma Thomas.) There are some notes on the production of the film at

Kristopher Tapley of writes of the short:

You could pull out themes of identity, or reality vs. perception, maybe.  There’s certainly an undercurrent of paranoia in his films that has roots here, too.

Rather than a message of identity, I see a message of violence and imperialism. I see Mr. Nolan saying, “Look, it’s no use dominating those who are smaller and weaker simply because you’re bigger and stronger and more impressive, because that weaker guy? You are him. We’re all the same. The only person you’re hurting with that violence and domination is yourself.” Sound a little political?


Three To Go: Michael (1969)

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From the director that brought us some of my favorite films, including Dead Poets’ Society (1989) and The Truman Show (1998), this Peter Weir film looks at the changing social tides in Australia during the Vietnam War. This is one experimental film that I thought could have benefited from a more structured narrative. It was hard to catch on the first view that the war scenes in the beginning are a film or possibly a fantasy of war and activism. The main character, Michael, befriends the activist, Grahame, and this influence contrasts with his conservative, middle-class family. Michael feels caught in between two worlds, two generations. I also thought the segments from YouthQuake were an interesting inclusion, but I wish their significance would have been more obvious. Still, I think this film helps to define the independent film movement, the birth of the anti-Hollywood avant garde in Australia. Michael won the Best Film Award at the 1970 Australian Film Institute Awards.

As far as further analysis from cinephiles smarter than me, I couldn’t find much. The Australian Broadcasting Company and both have short write-ups. From viewing this film, I can see similarities in themes with Dead Poets’ Society – feeling stuck between parental control and youthful rebellion, chasing nonconformity amidst social pressures. A bit confusing, but worth viewing.

Lessons of Darkness (1992)

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When your short film is garnering comparisons to Dante’s Inferno, you must be doing something right.

Our friend Werner Herzog’s chilling fifty-minute film uses real footage of the burning oil fields in Kuwait combined with sparse interviews and an uncomfortably detached voice-over to create a post-apocalyptic world out of reality. He splits the footage up into thirteen chapters that suggest a war on a cataclysmic scale. The film teeters off the cliff of documentary and falls into morose science fiction. Here is a fantastically succinct analysis written by Jeremy Heilman on

The ability of these images and juxtapositions to create awe is in no way reduced by the film’s basis in reality, perhaps because Herzog has always shaped the physical world to suit his storytelling needs, even in his fictional films. His tendency to find resonant metaphor in the world’s oddities is one of the prime elements of his genius, and by showing the scorched earth of Kuwaiti oil fields, he presents an almost literal, and unshakable, hell on earth.

The cinematography consists of mostly aerial shots, slowly moving through the barren wasteland humans themselves have destroyed. Fires rage, dotting the landscape almost like stars in the sky, and we see firemen working to put them out but we are removed from them. The scariest visual in the entire film, for me, were the lakes of oil reflecting the sky, acting so much like water. When we see them begin to boil, we know Herzog has brought us to hell.

Oil is so deceiving, so ugly and yet so close to being beautiful. Herzog plays with these illusions very carefully, as oil itself becomes evil, deceiving our eyes as it masks for water and blood. – Beyond the Valley of the Cinephiles

Written by Alisa Hathaway

March 14, 2011 at 10:11 am

The Grandmother (1970)

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If there’s any one filmmaker that could define auteur cinema for me, it would have to be David Lynch. I saw Eraserhead (1976) of course, a few years back, and now after having seen its predecessor in this film, perhaps I’m making a bit of progress as a film student. The similarities abound in theme, Spartan imagery, and most notably, that “creeping dread, that beautiful paranoia” (Coilhouse) that his films build slowly. The aesthetics of The Grandmother and Eraserhead are quite different, but the Lynchness of tone persists.

The story of how this movie was made is pretty incredible. Given $5000 to fund the project by the American Film Institute, Lynch painted the third floor of his Philadelphia house entirely black and used his friends as actors. He collaborated with Alan Splet, who would also work with him on Eraserhead and Blue Velvet (1986) for the sound effects, which take the place of any dialogue. His original allowance ran out before he had time to finish the film, but after screening what he had so far, the AFI agreed to fund its completion. The total cost was $7200. The Coilhouse blog writes this of the soundtrack:

The lack of dialogue, with everything conveyed through guttural noises, barking, and a score from a local group, Tractor, compliments the stylized, stripped down atmosphere that’s since become the Lynch standard.

For me, analyzing his style and themes felt like a recitation of various bodily fluids. The child’s parents abuse him for his incontinence, in response he uses his own ejaculation to grow a grandmother. While a grandmother’s love may be the only source of unconditional love and support the boy could come up with, for the audience I think the idea of that love and its birth on the boy’s bed is an intensely uncomfortable experience. From the write-up:

There’s something about a grandmother…It came from this particular character’s need – a need that that prototype can provide. Grandmothers get playful. And they relax a little, and they have unconditional love. And that’s what this kid, you know, conjured up.

All in all, I can appreciate David Lynch. Enjoyment is a separate issue.

Written by Alisa Hathaway

March 13, 2011 at 6:38 pm

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