Good things in little packages
by Jason Blair
Short films call for short introductions. Like short stories, short films reveal the momentous in the miniscule, the sudden, the accidental. Each of these 2008 Oscar nominees for Best Short Film, both live action and animated, finds significance in what might seem insignificant.
In “On the Line” (Germany), a security guard infatuated with a bookshop clerk allows the clerk’s companion to be beaten on a subway. When the perps claim their innocence, will the guard atone for his mistake by admitting he was a witness? A compassionate, complicated man, the guard is a beast to the clerk’s beauty; even when she takes him as her protector, he’s witnessed too much (and he’s far too moral) ever to enjoy her company.
“Newboy,” from Ireland, is the story of a black boy’s first day in a nearly all-white classroom overseen by arguably the least effective teacher in the world. Lines like “You’re definitely dead!” make this tale abrupt and melodramatic.
“Toyland” (Germany), winner of the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film, is about Heinrich, a young boy in Nazi Germany who believes that the Jews are going off to Toyland. Naturally, when his Jewish neighbors prepare to leave, he wants to join the adventure. The film’s premise, a knife-twist of ironic misunderstanding, is revealed immediately; the beauty of “Toyland” is its haunting score, which lulls you into thinking you know what’s happening. You don’t.
“The Pig” (Denmark) is about how Asbjoern, an elderly man recovering from rectal surgery, survives the indignities of his hospital stay by identifying with Diving Pig, the Michael Sowa painting of a pig leaping into a lake. When the painting suddenly is removed at the request of Asbjoern’s Muslim neighbor, Asbjoern reaches an important decision: He decides to hire a lawyer. What makes “The Pig” so enjoyable is the perfectly rational, even reasonable way Asbjoern goes about his case. What follows is a brief but intense debate about tolerance and freedom of expression. Fans of Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” will notice echoes of that classic story.
“Manon on the Asphalt” (France) is a thing apart. More Thomas Pynchon than Carver, “Manon” is a beautiful, sensual treatment of a bike accident that aims for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly but misses when it stretches too far. Manon, hit by a car, narrates the aftermath of her life as her final breaths slip away. But what starts off ethereal and bittersweet becomes, when Manon looks backwards for meaning, a brisk greatest-hits account of a life too short. Lovely but ineffective.
“Lavatory Lovestory” (Russia), the first animated feature, is about a drab lavatory attendant who dreams of finding love in her awkward workplace. “Oktapodi” (France), the shortest feature, is a three-minute frenzy of intense, Pixar-like pleasure. Speaking of Pixar, “Presto” (U.S.) ran in front of WALL-E if you happened to see it in theaters. “Presto” is a rambunctious tale about a magician, his rabbit and the carrot they both prize. If you watched the Oscars, “This Way Up” (U.K.) likely caught your eye with its shriveled pair of funeral directors on whom a massive boulder descends. “The House in Little Cubes” (Japan) is a fable about a bricklayer trying to survive the rising seas. It won the Oscar for its simplicity and gentle nostalgia, if not the importance of its message. The world has been submerged; his memory hasn’t. The film engulfs you in beauty, never succumbing to the misery of what could be our watery fate.
The 2008 Academy Award Nominated Short Films show over two weekends at DIVA. Live action: 5:15 pm & 7:10 pm Thursday, March 5; 5:15 pm & 9 pm Saturday, March 7; 7:10 pm Friday, March 13; 5:15 pm & 9 pm Saturday, March 14. Animated: 9 pm Thursday, March 5; 9 pm Friday, March 6; 7:10 pm Saturday, March 7; 5:15 pm & 9 pm Friday, March 13; 7:10 pm Saturday, March 14. $6 per screening.