Notes on Short Film

Lengthy diatribe on brief cinematic experience.

Archive for the ‘Post-war cinema’ Category

The Man Without a Head (2003)

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Released on the Cinema 16 European Shorts DVD Collection, this film by Juan Solaris (son of Fernando Solaris) is a visually stunning piece. My favorite scene occurs at the beginning, when the man without a head is dancing gleefully around his apartment and thinking of his lover. Whatever movie wizardry they used to make the headless protagonist look so unique is one of the many examples of how superior the aesthetics of the film are. Here is the Short Films Blog review of the film, though I must disagree with them about the complexity of the story.

The film is set in an industrial future world, where new technologies and practices are obviously foreign to us if a man can walk the streets without a head and still live and, even more curiously, talk. When the protagonist visits the “head shop” to find himself a topper, we see that this future land commodifies body parts. He can purchase and switch out whatever head that suits him. Another woman at the shop is also trying on a new head, a practice that doesn’t seem new to her. In this society, we can buy our uniqueness or our conformity. In the end, the head the main character likes the most does not match him, and he realizes he need not match a face to love. There is plenty expression and feeling in his body. His love obviously does not mind the lack of head, lips, eyes, and therefore, neither should the protagonist or the viewer. That the director got us to feel for this character with no face on which to read his emotions is proof that this story is more than an excuse for exciting imagery.

Written by Alisa Hathaway

March 3, 2011 at 9:13 pm

The Most Beautiful Man in the World (2002)

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The beauty of this five-minute film by Alicia Duffy lies in its ambiguity, and I confess, that is also the reason that I felt compelled to research this film in order to better understand it. It is intentionally ambiguous. The director uses barely any dialogue, preferring to tell a story with imagery and atmosphere. Short of the Week blogger Jason Sondhi writes:

The outdoor scene is wonderful with the soft sounds of the wind, the birds and the bypassing cars. They help add to the lazy Sunday languor of the piece, yet rather than be mere background they draw you into an immediacy of the moment,  sharply attuning you to the vibrancy of a place and time. The care and attention to the details in both image and sound is not merely stylistic, it places us into the mind of the young girl, simultaneously oblivious and yet hyper-aware,  providing us with the vividness and romance which so often are the lasting hallmarks of momentous encounters for lives so young.

Duffy uses lingering shots, extreme close-ups, and glowing sunlight to pull the viewer into the moment this girl experiences with extreme delicacy. The girl obviously does not feel threatened, but her mother’s reaction sends her running back toward her house. The British Film Institute’s website offers some insight to the filmmaker and the production of the film. There is also a list of the awards the film was nominated for and won.

I don’t think it’s as important to know the “truth” of the film as it is to consider the “truth” for each character. The girl experiences a beautiful moment with a beautiful man. The mother experiences a moment of fear. We don’t know the truth of the moment for the man, whether he was innocently befriending a girl and her dog or if his intentions were more sinister. I prefer to consider this moment from the girl’s perspective, when on a boring summer day she came across the most beautiful man in the world.

Written by Alisa Hathaway

March 3, 2011 at 8:43 pm

The Discipline of D.E. (1982)

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My first experience with Gus Van Sant was Elephant (2003) and while this is a vastly different experience, The Discipline of D.E. (1982) makes me consider this filmmaker’s work in a while new way. Offering a stark contrast to cinema verite, this film playfully attempts to remove the truth and imperfections from everyday routines. Where the cinema verite movement wanted the raw feeling of spontaneous human action, Van Sant is instructing viewers how to remove the spontaneity and clumsiness from their lives. It is a comment on the artificiality of filmmaking. In a movie, an actor never trips unless the narrative calls for it. If the actor does trip, the director calls for another take and the action must happen all over again. Why do we allow this to be the case if cinema is meant to capture real life? Maybe because human imperfections would distract viewers from a carefully-crafted message? How much do we need to refine that message in order to transmit to an audience? On his own blog, Jason Kohl says this of Van Sant’s work:

Van Sant understands that filmmaking is the ultimate expression of D.E—you have to keep doing things until you get them right. After Mala Noche (1986), his first feature, he made three more shorts before rejoining Burroughs with Drugstore Cowboy (1989). With films like Elephant (Palme D’or Winner), Milk (Oscar Winner) and Last Days (basically just awesome) he seems to be onto something.

So which is more important in filmmaking, capturing truth or making art? Surely, each filmmaker has a different goal. Another blogger, Patrick Zimmerman, discusses the film and its example of the charade that Van Sant seems to make of human emotion.

Doing Easy yields neither an easy nor relaxed life, but rather an obsessive-compulsive pathology, most clearly manifested in a socially deadly form of isolation of affect.

Both of these are valid analyses, and helped me to better understand the goals of anti-Hollywood short filmmakers.

Written by Alisa Hathaway

March 2, 2011 at 11:32 pm

Daybreak Express (1953)

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This next example of cinema verite from the Cinema 16 American collection is directed by D.A. Pennebaker. While it includes the same aspects of cinema verite that O Dreamland exemplified, this film highlights a pleasant visual quality in truth rather than a depravity. In summary, the five-minute film is made up of images shot on a New York train at sunrise. It is set to a composition by Duke Ellington. The music starts slow, and because a day starts slowly, the images are slow and lingering. As the trains start to run and the New York City streets become more fast-paced, so do the music and the shooting. The colors Pennebaker captures also reflect the idea of daybreak, with cool blues alighting to warm yellows and intense oranges. Some of the visual effects made me wonder if Pennebaker accomplished this whole film on one handheld camera. The backlit silhouettes were particularly beautiful and, I’d imagine, challenging to shoot. I also thought the kaleidascope and wide-angle effects toward the end of the film must have been ground-breaking in 1953. All in all, one of my favorites so far, and a project so much more finessed than a “music video.” Find more information at

Written by Alisa Hathaway

March 1, 2011 at 9:43 pm

O Dreamland (1953)

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This short film is an example of the post-war cinema verite movement. A type of documentary filmmaking, cinema verite attempted to capture the truth of everyday life. It freed the content in films; there were no actors, no drama, and no studio to shoot in. These filmmakers hoped to make a point about human existence by selectively showing it happening. This film is set in the Dreamland Amusement Park in England, and the director is out to prove what a twisted and deprave place it is. The noises of the carnival coupled with the images of leering clown faces and unhappy, pleasure-seeking people intentionally makes the audience uncomfortable. A short summary on the film points out the comment the director makes by highlighting the “Torture Through the Ages” exhibit. We as a people are obviously sick if we’ll go to the carnival to see how we’ve tortured others throughout history. You can find more reviews and plenty of unsettling images from the film here.

Written by Alisa Hathaway

March 1, 2011 at 9:27 pm

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