The Short Side of the Oscars

At this year’s Academy Awards, there will be films that — believe it
or not — are actually judged on their artistic merit. No one will
remember them a year from now, or probably even a month from now, but
these reels contain imaginative innovations and emotional depths that
surpass those evoked by any nominee for Best Feature-Length Film. I’m
speaking of course (of course!) about the nominees for short films.

As every year, ten movies — five animated and five live-action — have been selected from around the world to vie for the golden
trophies in a lesser-known, lesser-cared-about subset of the Oscars.
None of these films was ever widely distributed; none took any sort of
cut from the box office; none will fetch big DVD sales. For the most
part they bounced around festival circuits, garnering praise and niche
attention. Still, they range from dreamy to lifelike, uplifting to
devastating — all of them (except one) mini-masterpieces.

By and large, the animated shorts were more creative than the
live action vignettes. This isn’t so strange — cartoons are inherently
more imaginative than life; one might say a photograph is a fact, a
painting an interpretation. And while all the animated shorts take
pains to tell a story, some of them seem more preoccupied with their
medium, and feel like odes to animation itself. Which is totally okay.
One of the great joys of these films is their cinematic lawlessness. There is
no obligation to plot, and no actors to placate. As such, the directors
and animators enjoy a freedom to do as they please. Not incidentally,
this is stuff that makes Persepolis and Ratatouille look like fare for Saturday morning television.

My Love, a Russian film by Alexandre Petrov, is
literally a breathing Impressionist painting. An October palette of
watercolors smears the screen as we watch a sixteen-year-old boy,
Anton, fall in love variously with his maid and his neighbor. "She
stepped out of the novel as if from a dream," Anton says of his current
infatuation, and indeed, the entire film seems to have sprung from
Petrov’s subconscious (and completely in tact). The story — a
straightforward tale of peasant courtship – runs too long, but this
seems deliberate, as if Petrov wanted to extend the movie just so he
could keep painting it.

The likely winner (or at least the most buzzed-about), Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf,
is another labor of love. A thirty-minute exhibition of stop-motion
animation, it allegedly took 100 artists, sculptors, and animators five
years to make. Can you imagine someone spending five years on Alien vs. Predator?
Clearly this is not art for the sake of entertainment. It’s a realm
where attention to detail is revered above all-every eyelash is molded
anew for each frame of the film. Set in modern-day Russia, (and thus
giving the story a fresh twist, as the scenery includes a heavily
graffiti’d urban center), we watch Peter as he tries to escape from his
grandfather’s backyard into the wilderness beyond. The interplay
between boy/duck/cat/wolf is as tense and intricate and heartfelt as
anything in No Country for Old Men.

Rounding out the animated nominees, Madame Tutli-Putli and Even Pigeons Go To Heaven
are exhibitions of computer effects. The figures look so human that at
times it’s easy to forget one is watching something animated. Which is
why, in the Canadian Tutli-Putli, one is so viscerally scared as we watch some beast of the night cut out a person’s kidney. I Met The Walrus,
a recorded interview between then-fourteen-year-old Jerry Levitan and
John Lennon finishes off the group. In it, every single word Lennon
speaks is turned into drawing, so the dialogue becomes this sort of
visual representation of itself.

Between each film, much whispering ensued amongst the
audience, as if there was a need for instant discussion and digestion.
And there’s a lot to be talked about. When one leaves the theater, the
emotional and intellectual impact really is the same as if having sat
through five features. The way a good short story is said to contain
the same elements and even the same depth as a novel, so these short
films imprint themselves upon the faculties.

What they lacked in visual imagination, the live action films
made up for in storytelling. Though the narratives were fairly linear,
they all worked to expose their characters’ emotions, stripping them
barer and barer until, in each short (save one) there was no more
sentiment to be squeezed. In these films, it’s as if the narrative is a
predator, its prey being emotion, and the narrative will not stop
hunting until it’s sure it has tracked down and strung up and tortured
and exposed its target.

At Night,
a Danish film, because apparently Danes make films now, is more morally
complex than all the feature-length nominees combined. Three young
women are in the oncology ward of a hospital, awaiting their imminent
deaths. There is Mette, who at this point can barely move anymore;
Sara, who is to undergo an operation that could either cure her or kill
her; and Stephanie, whose illness has made her suicidal. It is December
30th,
and together they celebrate the New Year because they are unsure
whether Sara will survive her surgery the next day. Here in the U.S.,
we take a sort of Mary Poppins approach to our dramas, wherein, for the
past few decades at least, the genre of ‘tragicomedy’ has emerged and
taken precedent. We temper our heartbreak with humor, and tell
ourselves it’s because the absurdity of pain is funny at times. Really,
though, it’s because we simply can’t stomach anguish without a sugar
coating.

Director Christian Christiansen (love that name) has done away with the patina. At Night
is kind of like a bruise you keep poking and it just gets bigger and
bigger and bigger, more painful, and finally you just know it’s going
to bust. Its very lack of levity may prevent it from taking the Oscar,
though in terms of affecting filmmaking, it certainly deserves to win.

All the other shorts, though, are just a tad too cute. Tanghi Argentini
is about a guy who meets a woman online and ostensibly wants to learn
the tango to impress her, but really he’s trying to hook up his lonely,
tango-savvy co-worker. Il Supplente presents us with a man who
poses for a few minutes as a substitute teacher and wreaks havoc on a
high school class, only to be belittled like a child when he goes into
his own office. Actually, these two in particular, though clever and
charming, feel a bit like extrapolated Super Bowl commercials.

The Mozart of Pickpockets is similarly cute, and goes
maybe a little deeper than the two films mentioned above. In it, a pair
of bumbling miscreants accidentally adopt a deaf-mute boy, who turns
out to be a master thief. He, the boy, scrambles under the seats at
movie theaters and steals purses from women caught in a cinematic daze.
The two men are apparently gay, which is artsy, and they really seem to
care for each other and the boy, which is also artsy. But at the end of
the film, I just don’t know what the message is, whereas after At Night, there is a haunting sensation that pervades for days.

Finally there’s The Tonto Woman.
For the life of me I can’t figure out how it picked up a nomination. It
is the only film with breasts in it — unnecessary breasts, I would
argue, which turns them into gimmicky breasts, which may have then been
enough for the nod. Or maybe there were only five short films made all
year, so they had to let it in the running.

Here’s how it goes: A woman was enslaved by a group of Mojave
Indians and they tattooed her chin, so that when she returned to
‘regular’ society she was an outcast. In comes Ruben Vega, who
immediately falls for her. One wonders what sort of psychological
condition Vega has that he should instantly become infatuated with the
town’s exile. Clearly he’s a sadist, too, as he parades her around town
to her obvious embarrassment. In the end nothing is really solved,
except for that the credits role and the next film comes on, which is a
good thing.

Remarkably, The Tonto Woman
was the only American output in the live action category. The others
hail from Denmark, Belgium, France, and Italy. If you include the
animated shorts, the country list includes Russia, Canada, and England,
too. Considering the heavy bias toward American films in the ‘regular’
categories, it’s kind of amazing how international this particular
group is. Especially if you’re of the mindset, as I am, that these are
the best films being judged in the entire ceremony. It shows, I think,
that cinematic artistry, and cinematic mastery, transcends the U.S.
border — is even rare within the U.S. border, the evidence would suggest.

In short (no pun intended…okay, yes it was), these films
function as the true artistic center of Academy Awards. Their very
existence lends Oscar night the legitimacy it needs to keep from
devolving into the mere popularity contest it so badly wants to be.

Written for realbuzz.com, by former Rake intern Max Ross.