I’m a bit old to dance the “Slam”, but I still like to keep tabs on what the young people are up to. Please join me as I dive headlong into the short-form cyberspace transmissions of SlamDance 2021. (The festival’s entire slate, shorts and features can be watched online through February 25 for a $10 pass, $5 for students). Some films may be online, in whole or in part, in other online venues; we’ve sprinkled in the occasional link or trailer.
For those who may be overwhelmed by my thoroughness, I can quickly (and highly) recommend the following for a 1/2-hour-or-so of programming: Opera (for awe), Passage (for weird), and The Danger in Front (for fun).
THE EXPERIMENTAL LOUNGE:
Letters from Your Far Off Country (dir. Suneil Sanzgiri; 18 min.)—It is doubtlessly mere coincidence that I watched this so soon after Hitler: a Film from Germany, but their parallel structure, and even general message, sync up uncannily. This movie explores “how history moves through us, and how we move through it”; and it asks, “What is one’s claim to the past?” It concludes “How we connect, how we comprehend, is up to us.” With a combination of contemporary news footage, 8mm-style home movies, song snippets, recorded speeches, and even what appears to be a Zoom conversation, Letters primarily addresses the Kashmir uprising in 1989, though the urgency of recent events is never far in the background. A thoughtful, moving video document, which I’m guessing will be banned by the local authorities.
Morning Sickness in the USA (dir. Cristine Brache; 3 min.)—Brache’s recorded phone conversation with her mother plays over a series of alternately odd and alarming images of pregnant women undergoing various observations. The mother’s anecdote about how she was sent to a mental institution for two weeks because doctors were unable to diagnose her strange nausea (“morning sickness”, as the title indicates) is amusingly related. The unsettling photo-video undercurrent… less so.
Passage (dir. Ann Oren; 13 min.)—An androgynous foley artist sonically morphs into the horse for which they’re creating effects, and grows a handsome tail. I can’t help but think of Berberian Sound Studio brought to its (il)logical conclusion. Passage examines obsession through observation, but also illustrates the importance of sound design for the art of illusion. After clomping softly into the “Passage” theater, our protagonist views the fruits of their labor before disappearing. What begins with human feet ends with a horse’s eye.
Rumi and his Roses (dir. Navid Sinaki; 5 min.)—Navid Sinaki tells the story of his first boyfriend using the unlikely medium of DVD menu screens as the back-drop. The reason? The boyfriend lived in Tehran, and felt it safer to send his love letters in this format because censors would be less likely to click through screens than peruse written words. Brief and somber, it touches on the difficulties of gay life, as well as bringing to the forefront a widely ignored art form that frames film art.
the gospel according to them (dir. Bury Leod; 11 min.)—We atRT OFF WITH “Welcome to ‘Prayer-on-the-Go’!,” but we end with the whir of a helicopter over slowly billowing smoke. Finger-snapping sound cues move the film from point to point as snippets of Black church services, baptisms, and spiritual men play in sequence. Two-thirds through, the visuals collapse into the abstract, not long after a radio preacher advises us to close our eyes and just listen. Described as “the phenomenology of faith and its relationship to the Black body,” the gospel is as compelling as it is cryptic.
Wild Heart 1981/2020 (dir. Zach Dorn; 7 min.)—Inspirational video of video? Strange shut-in noodling with a camcorder? Dorn talks us through some of his favorite videos (including one he considers the “greatest video on YouTube”, featuring Stevie Nicks). As he delves into this little clip, hints of the level of his obsession slowly emerge. Dorn’s media-philosophizing (where do videos go? who are their neighbors, either physically in some storage unit or digitally on “the cloud”?) makes this more worthwhile than it would be otherwise, if only briefly.
Desert Air (dir. ANDiLAND; 2 min.)—Words are failing me for this two-minute bombardment, so here’s the official description: “Exploiting 💉 the female ‘grotesque’ 👄 I examine the superficial 🌈 construct of reality 🍩 and play with the voluptuous 🔥 danger lurking beneath the sticky 💋 sweet surface 🍰.” This was quick and painful.
Mountain Lodge (dir. Jordan Wong; 8 min.)—The topic demands more research, but Jordan Wong’s short film about Yankee Candle’s ultimate offering has left me paralyzed with both wonder and desire. “Yes, the Yankee Candle Company has just eliminated the need for men” means I should probably shuffle on outta here. (But I’ve got more films to review before make my final bow.)
Piz Regolith (dir. Yannick Mosimann; 20 min.)—My constant skirmish with the merits of written poetry came to mind after watching Mosimann’s poetical film about accents in the Tyrolean Alpine region (or so the website informed me). Intercut randomness, manipulated vocal snippets, and the occasional neat-o special effect all added up to… erm, probably more than I am able to appreciate. I liked the byline, “der mensch ist kein berg [sic]”, to which I flippantly rejoin, “dieses Werk ist keiner Spielfilm”.
Something To Touch That Is Not Corruption Or Ashes Or Dust (dir. Mike Stoltz; 7 min.)—Both an optically and aurally painful experience, StTtINCoAoD left me perplexed, and not just because of its ambiguity. Recurring shots of a double-fenced border (where?), some opening and closing shots of an apartment interior (where?), and a butt-ton of stroboscopic jitterings (where: on screen. A lot). Typing this now, I’m still blinking to try and clear residual flickering lights. I am doubtless supposed to remark more on how I was affected emotionally, but “kind of irked” doesn’t really qualify—or does it?
The Wind (dir. Miranda Javid; 4 min.)—A video-collage of text, cursors, cartoons, and more. The Wind feels at times like a powerpoint as imagined by Maya Deren. At other times, it feels saggy-clock Dalí designing a Hyperstudio project and becoming very frustrated with the interface. The four minutes I spent watching it are probably gone forever now, unless they slink back over my eyes while I sleep.
Bad Mood (dir. Loris Giusepe Nese; 12 min.)—A daughter narrates how her mother, a maid to the aged and infirm, is always anxious. Maximizing the effect of negative space, Nese’s film also adopts an interesting cycle of visuals (with variances, but images of a face peering left and right, disembodied feet, and horological motifs dominate), as well as incongruous opening and closing foley choices. It begins with lamentations about how “this neighborhood” has gone downhill once the wealthy started moving in. And, despite its generally matter-of-fact-to-somber tone, the closing credits wink out with a rather jaunty MIDI-style number. Hope, I suppose, that one day the bad mood will pass.
Friend of a Friend (dir. Zachary Zezima; 15 min.)—A young man learns about his sexuality the hard way: with an awkward, violent encounter at his own surprise birthday party. Leaning heavily on squiggle-mation and blacklight primary colors, Zezima shows how life’s complications and unpleasantness can lead to meaningful revelations. While it’s at heart just a mumblecore film exercise, Friend of a Friend looks as striking as the mysterious shooting star that crashes along its Earth-bound trajectory as the protagonist comes to terms with himself.
Knife Hanging from a Tree (dir. JiHee Nam; 3 min.)—Grosz-meets-Crumb somewhere in Seoul? This cryptic vignette has violence, conjoined entities, and several varieties of fruit. Neat to look at, but perhaps impossible to unpack. Definitely an odd one.
Lizard Ladder (dir. Ted Wiggin; 7 min.)—Stand aside, Arthur Clarke’s black monolith, there’s a new cosmic incomprehensibility in town in the form of a penta-blippet (not wholly dissimilar from the Windows quad-color). Snake gets egg, dog gets house, and sloth-lizard explores the edges of reality. I think I may have to pass this one along to our Saturday emcee.
Molly Dane (dir. Ida Lasic; 6 min.)—Black and white, primitive 3-D graphics, and the theme of a midnight party. This short hearkens back in a number of ways, which is to its credit. Small girl is (possibly) dosed with painkillers the evening her folks (?) host a soirée. Snap-photography sound cues delineate backgrounds for guests—who possibly get arrested? Thankfully there’s no serious crime other than child neglect (!), but the style and visuals don’t quite make up for the lack of coherency.
Opera (dir. Erick Oh; 9 min.)—I don’t like using the phrase “there’s too much going on” as a compliment, but I don’t know how else to describe this magnificent, ominous piece. A being fused into the top of a pyramid clicks a mechanism, spinning an hourglass, and the structure springs to life. Inside are dozens (hundreds?) of tiny people, living in luxury in the tip of the cone, with circumstances growing increasingly toilsome as the camera pans down toward the wide base; until at the foundation, violent carnage (and giant sea creatures) break out, destroying the tiny people until the being clicks the mechanism once more. Whatever the correct interpretation, Opera is a vivacious and somewhat unnerving nine-minute meditation.
Papa Sun (dir. Noah Gallagher; 7 min.)—Gallagher’s psychedelic animation tribute to his father is touching, but unfortunately I am not that audience of one. The music (by Gallagher, among others) is endearing, but little more can be said about it. I suppose there are far less worthwhile ways to spend seven minutes.
Poise (dir. Luis Soares; 8 min.)—Time twitches to a near stand-still after a man grabs a swarm of flies flitting above his face. Soares ratchets up the visual and auditory tension over the course of Poise as his figurines (drawn, for lack of a better term, “x-ray style”) cycle through micro-motions before possible projections of their future pan out. Will the jogger get run over? Will the derelict succumb to the temptation of a smash-and-grab? And will the person at the fly-fist-man’s bedside lose his placid expression when his head explodes? A small plant with red leaves provides the only color, and the name of the electronics shop provides the only hint of place.
Return to the Peach Blossom Wonderland (dir. Haomin Peng, Yue Huang, Yuchao Luo; 19 min.)—Winner of the coveted “Most subtly dead-pan animation of 2021” (my own invention), I tip my judge’s hat to the trio of directors behind Wonderland. Beginning with a quote explaining the fable of “Peach Blossom Spring“, Wonderland proceeds to show the modern, mundane life in China that it eerily parallels. Following the style of Chris Marker and of von Hindenburg’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, animating it all with what I can only describe as “Impressionist-rotoscoping,” in a narrow 9:2 screen ratio, this film seems such a poke in the eye of “ideal” modern urban China that I’m surprised the censors didn’t bring down the hammer.
Something to Treasure (dir. Annapurna Kumar; 3 min.)—Guy Maddin re-works a classic Stan Brakhage piece? The Residents find one of their childhood movies? The most oblique advertisement for a bathroom fixture ever made? The tag-line “Warm showers make me see stars” reveals everything that’s going on.
The Land of Whim (dir. Betina Bozek; 9 min.)—This is some ugly-ass animation. It’s great, though, I swear. With notes of Salvador Dalí and “Ren and Stimpy”, The Land of Whim exists in an ever-morphing plan of icky line twists and strange utterances. A techno score lends further vivacity to the organic unpleasantness while the neon-pastel color scheme entrances while it repulses. Its execution screams, “We made a weird one for ya!,” and Bozek ticks all the boxes you could want in this surrealist short.
Urges (dir. Angela Stempel; 2 min.)—”Mmm, lookin’ good”; “Take a bite”; “You love it”; “Nice… butts”. If that doesn’t say it all, I can elaborate by adding that Urges has perhaps the most tactile animation I’ve seen, with slithering curved lines, garish colours, and juicy psychedelia. “Come and get it.”
White Horse (dir. Yujie Xu; 8 min.)—A few decades ago, this could have been a more abstract entry in the “Long Ago and Far Away” children’s television series. Blue charcoal drawings come to life as a weary accordionist’s encounter with a mystical white horse morphs into a streetside performance. A cluster of small fires form a maze, angled rocks spar, and a man’s silhouette adopts the shape of a mare. Alternately playful and brooding, I don’t mind at all that its many potential meanings and allusions elude me.
BROUGHT TO MY TABLE
Bare Bones (dir. Meryem Lahlou; 9 min.)—Humanity’s future has rarely looked so bleak and hypnotic. Harnessing the alienating power of (*cough*) bare-bones 3-D animation, Meryem Lahlou meditates on tyranny, want, and progress. Perhaps it’s a bit heavy-handed seeing human meat processed while traveling from a white killing floor to a red carving room into a green airing chamber and finally a blue dining room, but Bare Bones is no less haunting for it. “You are so hungry. You are so grateful.” My mind was left blank with despair, all the more piercing for the film’s strange beauty.
Everything You Need To Know About Pierogi (dir. Jon Phillips; 4 min.)—Hoping for something lighter after the previous short, Phillips’ jaunty little toon seemed to fit the bill: a whimsical, informative look at the history of pierogi, and how to make them. And then came the crisis of existence and judgment by a malevolent higher power. Hereafter I shall refer to this food as “doom dumplings.”
Peter the Penguin (dir. Andrew Rutter; 10 min.)—Oh my God. Comedy horror, veering close to perfection. This made me certain I never want to watch The Human Centipede or Tusk. Nigel hopes to impress his girlfriend’s daughter on their first meeting, but the couple arrives at home to find that the daughter’s favorite stuffed animal (the titular “Peter”) has suffered a deadly injury. Worry not: the friendly ambulance men arrange a quick transplant despite Nigel being such a fast runner. Bleeerrgghh.
Revelations (dir. Jack Dunphy; 9 min.)—The second “ode to a father” I’ve encountered this season, Jack Dunphy’s entry is far more sarcastic, bitter, and down-to-earth than Papa Sun, and is all the better for it. The bold title suggests a grand pay-off, à la the exciting book of the Bible of the same name. But no: the tragically mundane effects of drug addiction and lost love unspool before us via construction paper cut-outs and old home movies. I don’t often smile sadly, but Revelations hits the right notes; Dunphy’s father was definitely the chill guy we could all use in our lives from time to time.
Routine: the Prohibition (dir. Sam Orti; 9 min.)—You know when your nightmares have nightmares? They probably look like Routine. Bleak story (even for a burnt-out-earth dystopia), sickening looks (with characters that look too grotesque and unsettling even for a “Tool” music video), and a damning message about society. Sam Orti and writer Flora Cuevas Montes must believe that mankind is doomed, and they’ve unleashed a stop-motion Hell on Earth to warn us. A nasty and visionary nine minutes.
The Co-op (dir. Cameron S. Mitchell; 6 min.)—Punk-ass able-bodied robber gets more than he’s bargained for when he robs a grocery store whose customers are all disabled. A rare success: a humorous take on an incredibly sensitive issue, with bonus points for the sweet, gory finale. Whimsical, thought-provoking, and a bit bad-ass. Nice work.
Flying Eggs (dir. Sheldon Chau; 9 min.)—I don’t know if it’s just a thing for stories made in 2020, or if I’ve just hit an odd groove, but there seem to be a lot of shorts that crash from “jolly” into “deeply unsettling” here. Tony is out for a jog when he passes an apartment from whose third story window come flying many an egg. Furious at getting whacked with one, he storms up to meet the tenant and finds it’s Chris–an affable youth who’s home under nefarious circumstances. At least after the funny slid deeply into distressing, there was a happy ending, otherwise I’d have some difficulty shaking this one off.
24,483 Dreams of Death (dir. Chris Peters; 15min.)—When you cram a Mario Bava classic and reams of 19th-century poetry into an AI, you can expect some consistent themes. More precisely, a variant of one: death. In 2020, Chris Peters & Co. undertook the exercise described above, resulting in an altogether haunting series of interpretations of our world. Eerie poetry is paired with skittery imagery I haven’t seen since Begotten . Perhaps it might be more honest to attribute Dreams of Death to the artificial intelligence that spent six days watching La Maschera del Demonio, but I still tip my hat to Mr Peters for the premise, set-up, and execution.
Stilts (dir. Dylan Holmes Williams; 7 min.)—It was about time I saw a heartening dystopia during this festival. The premise is nuts: most of society is consigned to wearing (to quote the description) “ginormous stilts” all the time. Something of a lottery exists, wherein one might be able to have them surgically removed. (The nature of this process is both obvious and unclear, involving a circular saw and the suggestion that somehow these leg extensions house their own nerve endings.) Stilts is a perfect example of an absurd notion thoroughly and impeccably brought to life.
Others (dir. Grace Rex; 13 min.)—Grace Rex has put together a series of vignettes that exist at the intersection of prosaic, disturbing, and enigmatic. (I advise that you avoid this convergence during rush-hour.) In the world of Others, people are paired by an umbilicus, and that’s just the most obvious of their bizarre circumstances. Despite the proximity these cords enforce, miscommunication and alienation persist. Some questions about the background must be posed: what is Diane’s “partner” stacking far off in the background? And who’s that un-connected young man that appears after she daintily coughs up blood? Why are Sharon and Ted having such a hard time getting to the bottom of an office-related issue? And what’s up with the tactility junkies hovering nearby during their encounter? I’d have thought that by this point I might have grown tired of the countless questions posed by these SlamDance shorts, but Rex deftly illustrates the continuing allure of unsolved conundra.
The Danger In Front (dir. Alexis Chartrand; 18 min.)—How pleased I am to end my shorts immersion on a happy note. A barber’s plan to kill a man spirals out of control as he realizes there are several others he’d have to murder while en route to his victim. Or maybe he should just kill his witless brother-in-law, Stan. Better yet: just line up the whole world for execution. A dark soundstage, set-hands, cardboard guns & bombs, and a gloriously mustachioed barber descend into 3D cartoon lunacy as our hero tweaks into a psycho-existential crisis. Glorious black and white heightens the mood, but it’s Bruno Marcil’s bombastic collapse into prevengeful fantasticating that makes this hyper-violent comedy so darn endearing.
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To those of you who made it this far, congratulations—and thank you! If even a few of these titles sound interesting, I heartily recommend you shell out the ten bucks and have a look.
Statistics: 35 short films; 315 minutes