Inside a film festival: Part 2

It is the second day of the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival in 2000 and I am one of six jurors looking at dozens of shorts, of varying degrees of eptness and ineptness. Four more days to go after this one. 

palm springs post card

August 2

Breakfast at 8:30 with my fellow jurors and Fred Linch. We are introduced to the “juror wranglers,” who will follow us around and make sure we do what we’re supposed to. They will make sure we don’t miss any of our films.

Because screenings began yesterday — we didn’t know it; we weren’t told — we had to catch up on a few films, so after lunch, we drove to the festival office to watch videos of them. When we got there, juror Jack Ofield was already watching. We went through a quick dozen of them and managed to finish in time to get to the 5 p.m. program at the theater.

I won’t go over the films individually here, but I should note a few trends. It seems that short films are for short people. Over and over, the films were about talented and sensitive children and their loutish parents. It seemed a film couldn’t go by without an adult punching, slapping or otherwise bruising a quiet, sensitive youngster. Some of these films were good, some middling, some bad. But the theme pervaded.

There was a lot of street begging, too.

Another thing I noticed is that short films are slower than features. Although they follow less action and their plots are more compact, the camera will follow an action endlessly, letting us savor every millimeter and moment. Where a mainstream film will cut from one significant action directly to another, avoiding the transitions as needless upholstery, the short film will pretty well pass up the important action — often too complex or expensive to film — and concentrate on the transition, letting the camera linger excruciatingly over the character rising from his chair and walking step by painful step all the way over to the door, grab the door handle, turn it a full 140 degrees, slowly, with every creak of metal, and open the door, finally walking into the next room, closing the door behind him. The main part of the scene, however, is likely to be played out elliptically.

We see a lot of waiting in the films, too. Rain falls and we wait. The elevator is paged and we wait. Life in short films is full of waiting. Pensive, portentous, meaningful waiting.

In general, the foreign entries are less trivial than the American ones. The American films tend to be about the peeves of young Americans, their boyfriends, girlfriends and parents, all miffed at each other. Or they are about nothing but rehashed feature film ideas: ghost stories, superheroes, action adventures, all concocted out of previously-owned plot material. Characterization is brief and sketchy, pretty much borrowing “types” familiar from other films.

The American films have a tendency to be flashy, slickly made and banal. The European and Latin American films seem to be more concerned with actual life, not life as learned from the TV screen.

As we left the theater to go and grab a quick bite for dinner we passed a man on a cell phone making a deal in the parking lot. He held his briefcase in the same hand as the phone and it wagged off one side of his head like a giant Dumbo ear.

“I welcome your energy,” he said.

Dinner was at a health food restaurant. Carole had the carrot shaving and alfalfa sprout burrito and I had the avacado and lettuce quesadilla. It was said to be quite nourishing.

Meanwhile, a man came in and looked at their magazine rack.

“Do you have the Yogurt News?” he asked.

Bergman DeathWe had to rush back to the theater for the 8 p.m. showing of Jewish documentaries, mostly involving the holocaust. Scary looking stuff, but the real winner was a film called King of the Jews, which took a very personal look at the image of Jesus as seen by a young Jewish boy who was deathly afraid of Jesus. It was all made up of clips of family films and old movies, set to the music of Bartok and Arvo Part. It made me cry. It gets my vote for best documentary. At least, so far.

There was also a Brazilian short about Bergman’s pasty-faced Death looking for his next appointment in a bar and having a drink with a suicide. It was a scream, with a paunchy Death and a couple of absurd deaths.

We got back to the hotel by about 11 p.m. in time to go to bed and wake up for the next day’s haul.

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