Cinema 16: American Short Films


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Varied and expansive, this exemplary collection serves as an excellent introduction to American short film."

Varied and expansive, this exemplary collection serves as an excellent introduction to American short film. Part of the Cinema 16 series, showcasing short works from different regions of the world, it stands up well against its counterparts and demonstrates that there is a strong, though often underrated, capacity for genuinely imaginative and inventive work within the United States.

Viewers will already be familiar with some of the contributors from their longer films. Tim Burton's Vincent, though made very early in his career, is one of his more elegant pieces, showcasing the diligent animation skills and dark sense of humour which he was later to bring to the big screen, with films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride.

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Gus Van Sant's adaptation of William Burroughs' story The Discipline of D E represents a perfect meshing of talents. Staid at first, this documentary-like tale of a man learning to approach everything he does in the easiest possible way soon descends into a graceful sort of madness.

Todd Solondz's Feelings, a very short piece set to music, is deliberately crude, but nonetheless affecting, exploring the kind of socially displaced characters and relationships which were to become central to his later films. Also included are a number of older films with which viewers may be less familiar but whose influence they will probably have observed in other things.

The creepily atmospheric Meshes Of The Afternoon laid the foundations of ideas later explored by the likes of David Lynch. George Lucas' Freiheit, though very different from his later work, establishes his passion for ideals,, central to his continuing career.

If a collection like this sounds heavy going, fear not. The selected films are very well balanced, with plenty of comedy, from the slapstick of Terry Tate: Office Linebacker to the gentle, engaging silliness of Joe Nussbaum's cult George Lucas in Love, and musical numbers - Duke Ellington accompanying the luxurious visuals of Daybreak Express - thrown in. Arranged as they are, all 16 films can be watched straight through and enjoyed as they are, though in total they're rather lengthy, providing an interesting commentary, not only on American cinema, but also on American life.

Stefan Nadelman's Terminal Bar, brilliantly edited into a series of still photographs, portrays the uglier side of New York, with an affection far more moving than those films which attempt to conceal, or glamorise, it.

Five Feet High And Rising shows life in the black ghettos of the city's schemes, where boys and girls struggle to assert their identity and gradually drift into romantic entanglements which will perpetuate the situation. Counterbalancing this is Mike Mills' acclaimed documentary Paperboys, which shows us several teenagers attempting to engage with adult responsibilities, middle-class kids hoping to make something of their lives. It's so full of goodwill that one wonders what happens to these people when they grow up. Optimism for older people is provided by The Lunch Date, which takes an ancient story, usually told cynically, and makes it truly heart warming.

Cinema 16: American Short Films does have a few weak links. Though it builds up to a great idea, Standish Lawder's Necrology takes far too long to do so. Similarly, many viewers will be left cold by Andy Warhol's contribution, though it's much more watchable as a closing comment in this context than as a stand-alone piece.

The biggest problem with the collection is its sound quality. There's really no excuse for not having bothered to balance the levels. In some, the quality is so poor that it's hard to make much out of what is being said - in Five Feet High And Rising, this is doubtless the result of filming with poor quality equipment and yet contributes positively to the atmosphere of the piece.

This aside, the standard of work is very high and this collection is a must for film buffs everywhere.

Reviewed on: 21 Jun 2006
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Cinema 16: American Short Films packshot
A collection of early shorts from renowned American directors
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