Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Sundance shorts on YouTube

The Sundance Film Festival has done a lot this year to try to reach an audience beyond the streets of Park City. The program Sundance Film Festival U.S.A. puts Sundance movies in theaters in various American cities (not here in Las Vegas, unfortunately) for one night, this Thursday. I wrote a short piece for Las Vegas Weekly last week about Sundance Selects, a program that offers three Sundance features (all of which are kind of terrible, unfortunately) on demand via various cable systems for 30 days. And three other 2010 Sundance features (along with two from the 2009 festival) are part of a new initiative on YouTube to charge for rentals of certain films (check out Karina Longworth's extremely skeptical take on this plan).

Also on YouTube, and available for free, are 11 short films from the current festival (which runs through January 31), including narratives, documentaries and animation. All of the films are accessible via the Sundance YouTube channel, although you have to sift through various behind-the-scenes videos and filmmaker interviews to find them. While YouTube may be the wrong venue for $3.99 rentals of feature films, it's the perfect venue for shorts that clock in mostly under 10 minutes, since YouTube videos are generally just short films by another name anyway. There are people who create animated videos like the bizarre, creepy Please Say Something (left) and just post them online for exposure, and stripped of its "Sundance Official Selection" insignia, a piece like Please Say Something might get lost in the sea of weird online videos (and I think deservedly so; it's repetitive and completely baffling, and not in a good way).

The inexplicable documentary short Thompson (right) also looks like a typical YouTube video, but not a cool I-animated-this-in-my-basement one: It looks like someone's randomly edited home movies, featuring a couple of loser teenagers rambling inarticulately and messing around in their backyards. Maybe this is meant to be some sort of verite exploration of American teen alienation, but it's so indifferently shot and edited that it gives no sense of who its subjects are or why they do what they do (or even, entirely, what their relationship is to one another). Narrative films with this level of inarticulateness can be fascinating because they catch characters at their most intimate moments; Thompson mostly features disingenuous addresses to the camera.

But there are definite successes among these films as well. Two of my favorites are both documentaries profiling colorful senior citizens: Para Fuera is a slick, stylish portrait of Dr. Richard Bing, a 100-year-old doctor and composer, who's still lively and lucid at his advanced age. Mr. Okra is a more straightforward but still engaging look at a mobile fruit and vegetable salesman in post-Katrina New Orleans. Both manage to celebrate life while exploring hardship and setbacks.

I also liked the found-footage collage Voice on the Line (left), a sort of sci-fi/alternate-history take on the early days of the phone company, with suitably eerie narration and an effective manipulation of stock footage. And the quick, crudely animated Dock Ellis & the LSD No-No takes a very funny anecdote from a former major-league baseball player and illustrates it simply and entertainingly. Both of these prove that you can make an artistically satisfying, audience-pleasing film with simple techniques and limited resources. That's exactly the ethos that drives the best web videos.

The best of the selection is also simple, although it's the most conventional in terms of style and narrative structure: Can We Talk? (right) is a very funny back-and-forth featuring a couple having trouble deciding whether to break up. It has some unexpected turns, and even when it's vulgar it still exhibits a sweetness and vulnerability thanks to strong performances from the two actors. Writer-director Jim Owen will definitely be one to keep an eye on, if he can maintain this tone over the course of a feature and add in a little character development.

Gems like Can We Talk? are the reason it's worth seeking out shorts programs at film festivals, and even if you're reluctant to devote the time and money to renting Sundance features on cable or online, you should give the short films a chance before the festival ends this weekend, because it may very well be your only opportunity to see them.

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