European Short Films: Special U.S. Edition
Reviewed by David Sterritt

Christopher Nolan's Doodlebug (1997)

Christopher Nolan's Doodlebug (1997)

A set of two DVDs including short films by Juan Solanas, Andrea Arnold, Christopher Nolan, Roy Andersson, Toby MacDonald, Lynne Ramsay, Jan Svankmajer, Mathieu Kassovitz, Run Wrake, Virgil Widrich, Ridley Scott, Lars Von Trier, Balint Kenyeres, Anders Thomas Jensen, Martin McDonagh and Nanni Moretti. Color and B&W, 218 mins., with English subtitles where appropriate, 1958-2005. A Cinema 16 release, www.cinema16.org.

Cinema is more than a century old, and people are just figuring out how short movies can get more of the respect they deserve. This is a tough problem, since even when short film curators put together adventurous programs, each movie has to scramble for space in the audience’s memory bank. It’s hard to remember Very Good Film #4 by the time Very Good Films #9-11 have come and gone, not to mention Very Bad Film #13 and REM-Sleep-Inducing Film #22.

DVD is the obvious answer to this problem, but progress has been slowed by uninspired and inconsistent programming, judging from examples that have come my way. Done well, however, the short film DVD is a tremendous boon. So all hail Cinema 16, a British distribution company that has been doing it well since 2003. Its collections of European, British, and American shorts have already appeared in the U.K., and now it’s entering the American market with European Short Films: Special U.S. Edition, a two-disc set containing sixteen movies made in nine countries between 1958 and 2005, most of them accompanied by optional commentary tracks. Running times range from a snappy three minutes to an epic twenty-seven. (Note: There’s no connection between this Cinema 16 and the legendary film program run in New York by Amos and Marcia Vogel from the late Forties to the early Sixties.)

The films likely to pique the most curiosity on these discs are the ones by famous directors who made shorts before entering the mainstream. Watching such early productions can be fun, but it’s not always very revealing. For an American example that’s not in this collection, the 1969 short Lanton Mills gives little indication of where Terrence Malick’s idiosyncratic talent would turn in subsequent years. Then again, a look at the 1967 fantasy THX 1138 4EB is a very strong clue to George Lucas’s future course, and it’s actually better (tighter, tougher) than the THX 1138 feature that grew out of it four years later. Turning to European Short Films, the Cinema 16 annotations acknowledge that Boy and Bicycle, celebrating the joie de vivre of a sixteen-year-old English lad, contains “few signs of what audiences could later expect from a Ridley Scott film.” True enough, but the 1958 production shows that the fledgling auteur had solid technical skills early on, plus a good grasp of the gritty Free Cinema esthetic that was revitalizing British film at the time. It also turns out that Tony Scott was a pretty decent actor in his middle teens, at least with his brother behind the camera.

There isn’t much indication of Christopher Nolan’s creative personality in his 1997 Doodlebug, either.  Nevertheless, despite its rudimentary special effects, this self-reflexive story about a miniature man who is hunted by a normal-sized man who’s hunted by… himself(?), hint that the future maker of Memento is starting to flex his muscles. A more impressive variation on the doppelgänger theme is Copyshop, by Austrian filmmaker Virgil Widrich, who printed out the short’s 18,000 digitally shot frames from a photocopier and then animated them like a flip-book. The results are striking. 

Ditto for Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson’s grimly surrealistic World of Glory, a marvelous example of the off-kilter inventiveness he showed in Songs from the Second Floor, his 2000 feature. Nocturne is a 1980 tone poem by Lars Von Trier, not yet at the peak of his powers but definitely on the way, and The Opening Day of Close-Up is vintage Nanni Moretti, starring Moretti as a movie-house owner who hopes his premiere of Abbas Kiarostami’s seminal movie will give The Lion King a run for its money. Gasman is an effectively dark glimpse into childhood by Lynne Ramsay, who went on to make Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar, but it’s overshadowed by Andrea Arnold’s riveting Wasp, a fiercely filmed and incisively acted look at the bleakest side of English family life. 

Another of my favorites is The Man without a Head, a French fantasy directed by Juan Solanas, who pulls off the rare feat of putting special effects entirely in the service of psychological and emotional truth. Set in a bleak-looking city where headlessness is common, it’s about a man who wants to impress the woman he’s dating; he goes to, um, a head shop and tries on a few, then purchases the one he likes best, only to feel buyer’s remorse later on. The premise made me expect a contrived and jokey film, but Solanas’s poetic treatment results in just the opposite.

For the collection’s best animation, go directly to Rabbit, by British filmmaker Run Wrake, about a boy and girl who kill the eponymous animal, find an idol in its entrails, and enter a hallucinatory vortex of pleasure and pain. Incorporating a wide array of elements—schoolroom labels from the fifties, paper-doll cutouts, reverse-printed photographic shots—this visually dazzling film is one of the DVD’s most brilliant attractions, far more interesting than Jabberwocky, the ambitious but meretricious 1971 opus by Czech animator Jan Svankmajer.

Back in the live-action department, a standout is Six Shooter, a half-hour Irish drama by playwright Martin McDonagh about a demented young man who harasses a group of strangers during a train ride, including a bereaved widower movingly played by Brendan Gleeson. There’s a gaping hole in the plot; if you were being bullied by a sociopath on a train, wouldn’t you move to another car, or at least change your seat? But that aside, Six Shooter is thoroughly engrossing.

Two offerings with a keen political edge are Election Night, a Danish comedy-drama by Anders Thomas Jensen that blends a sardonic attack on racism with a witty perspective on the pitfalls of democracy, and Before Dawn, a parable of oppression that unfolds in a virtuosic thirteen-minute shot filmed by director Balint Kenyeres in the Hungarian countryside.

In addition to its other contributions, European Short Films also provides a vivid reminder of an extremely important fact, that concocting winsome parodies of the French New Wave is never, ever a good idea. For unimaginable reasons, the generally clear-eyed folks at Cinema 16 have included two of these, both insufferable, as predicted by their titles: Fierrot le pou, by France’s egregiously overrated Mathieu Kassovitz, and Je t’aime John Wayne, by Toby MacDonald, a British filmmaker. Fortunately, the DVD format allows for effortless avoidance of merde like this; but here’s hoping that the next Cinema 16 release, World Short Films, skips it altogether.—David Sterritt

David Sterritt, Chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, is a film professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Copyright © 2008 by Cineaste, Inc.