Saturday, February 7, 2015

Short and To the Point

Some things I came to accidentally, like short stories.

Despite being an avid reader my entire life, the only time I'd read short stories had been when they'd been assigned reading. All that changed about ten years ago when a bartender friend was also teaching English to middle school boys.

One night as I sat eating my dinner and reading a book at the bar, he pulled out "Enjoying Stories," a 1987 compilation he was then using to pull stories for his class. Flipping through it after I ate, I found myself drawn to story after story, author after author.

In some cases, I didn't even know the author had written short stories. There were other revelations, too. A D.H. Lawrence story was called "The Rocking Horse Winner." At that time, I'd just discovered a band by that name but had no clue about its origins.

I went home, ordered a used copy of the book online, promptly read all 974 pages' worth and a strong affection for short stories was born. What I discovered was the practically instant gratification of reading something so brief.

From there, I began scouring used book stores (Black Swan was particularly good) for short story collections and bought everything I could find: John O'Hara, Dorothy Parker, John Cheever, V.S. Pritchett, Jean Stafford.

All of this is a roundabout way of explaining how I fell into an affection for short films. Several local film groups screen shorts; one has an annual short film festival. The Black Maria film fest which stops by Richmond every year, is all shorts.

Like short stories, they deliver beginning, arc and denouement in a matter of minutes. And if one story line doesn't grab or interest you, there's a good chance the next one might. Or the one after that.

So as I'm looking for a reason to go out tonight after my fellow Gemini cancels on me, I spy the 2015 Oscar-nominated animated shorts being screened at Criterion. An international host of short animation sounds like just the ticket and I join a dozen other cinephiles in one of the smallest theaters for the screening of some very diverse shorts.

"Me and My Moulton" claims to be Norwegian/Canadian but it comes across as pure Norwegian, a tale of an eccentric family with three daughters in a small Norway town in 1965 and the girls' heartfelt desire to be more ordinary.

Among their burdens, their father is the only man in a town of 10,000 with a mustache and their grandmother pays them every week not to quarrel with each other.

Like good Scandinavian design, the lines of the animated story were clean and the colors bright and clear like a Marimekko fabric, which is exactly what the girls bedspreads and dresses resembled. Even the jokes were appropriate, with the girls always falling off their parents "modern" 3-legged chairs on the carpet-less floor.

When "Feast" began, the guy behind me spotted the Disney Animation Studio credit and said, "They always get one in every year." That may be true, but this year's was a sweet story of a puppy found by a single guy and fed all the junk food single guys eat.

Fries, nachos, pizza, after a while the pup just opens his gob and the processed food falls in.

That comes to a screeching halt when the guy starts dating and eating healthier (to the doggie's disgust) but when they break up, guess who brings them back together?

From the UK came "The Bigger Picture," the tale of two sons attending their dying mother (so a sad story) but executed in the most painterly way with a combination of oil painted animation and real objects in Claymation.

It also had the hilarious line by one of the brothers, "I thought about sex every minute of every day until I was 40. Since I turned 40, I think about death every minute." Dour Brits.

"A Single Life" was made in the Netherlands and very much had a Pixar look. In it, a girl gets a package with a record and when she plays it, her own life is affected, aging her late in the record and reverting her to a baby at the start.

As the record gets close to ending, she tries to hobble over in her walker to restart it but ends up an urn of ashes instead. Fast and funny at only two minutes long.

The longest short we saw was "The Dam Keeper," a US entry, at 18 minutes. It was the story of a little pig who was in charge of winding the mechanism for the village's windmill so clouds of ash didn't overtake the village. His father taught him how to do it and then died.

As if that wasn't enough responsibility for one little pig with a backpack, he also got bullied at school by all the other animals. This was another painterly style of animation that masterfully showed brilliant light (with pastel-colored rooves worthy of an Impressionist) and moody darkness as the sad story unfolded.

Since I don't see a lot of animated films, I haven't any idea which one might win the Academy Award.

We also saw four of the Honorable Mentions, my favorite being "Bus Story," a UK/Canada collaboration about a woman whose goal was to drive a school bus so she could wave at people.

She gets to eventually although she backs over a dog (killing it) and almost backs over a kid. I felt like these were plot points US filmmakers might think twice about including with our obsession with political correctness.

As far as I was concerned, the screening was over all too soon, my only consolation the tidy way each story had been tied up in minutes, like a short story.

It's not that I don't have a sustained attention span. I do. It's just that sometimes it's nice to read or see stories in condensed form. I can appreciate that sometimes brevity is the soul of wit.

No, really, despite my penchant for going on and on, I can. Just don't ask me to do it.

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