BIFF 2013 #19: Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (Canada 2012)

Jade Aspros as Esther and Igor as King Henry

Jade Aspros as Esther and Igor as King Henry

BIFF19logoI’ve watched quite a few of the shorts at BIFF this year, but most of them haven’t really caught my imagination. This one did. It has a genuine story – an incident with an outcome and recognisable characters. Esther Weary doesn’t enjoy her birthday, which falls on a schoolday that is also Halloween. She imagines herself being persecuted — and then she is. Her nose is too big according to a dreadful little princess. To her consternation her first period arrives on the same day . When she gets home her family are waiting for her. There’s King Henry the pug and her grandfather (played by the great Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent), who is kind and thoughtful but seemingly isn’t prepared for menstruation. All will be well because Esther isn’t ugly and her family love her. That’s it really, except that the story is told again through an animated pop-up picture book which forms the basis of the credits. It’s 14 mins long and director Stephen Dunn tells the story with real imagination and most of all through images. That’s what I want from a short – a whole story, told with imagination in as short a time as possible. I don’t mind a little sentimentalism thrown in as well if it’s tempered by the dark stuff.  Most of the other shorts I’ve seen in BIFF are either avant-garde formal experiments (fine in their own right but not always a good complement to a feature) or they are good ideas without a story or a story without good ideas.

Here’s the lovely trailer:

BIFF 2012 #14: Shorts

Morir cada dia (Dying Every Day)

Bradford International Film Festival has, for as long as I can remember, regularly included a short before each festival screening of a feature (unless the length of the feature makes this impractical). This is in addition to specific programmes of shorts, e.g. the Shine Short Film Competition. This inclusion of short films in the main festival is to be applauded but in the UK shorts have not been part of mainstream film culture for a very long time. There are certain cinemas that regularly show shorts as part of specific projects (e.g. the Virgin-sponsored shorts at Cornerhouse in Manchester) but as far as I’m aware, that is not the practice at most specialised cinemas. The upshot is that in the UK shorts remain primarily a festival experience or, since many domestic shorts receive some form of public funding they are shown at funders’ (or education institutions’) promotional events.

Shorts aren’t usually reviewed outside their own institutional context (i.e. by competition judges) and I confess that I’m not sure what criteria to use to discuss them. In the main shorts are produced by younger filmmakers as a form of ‘calling card’ and therefore perhaps we should be looking for evidence of good creative ideas, narrative control, good techniques etc. In some ways though this seems an almost impossible ask of young filmmakers. What makes a ‘good’ short? It might be a good idea that achieves its goal within its allotted time or it might be something very slight that is produced in a striking and original way.

There were nearly 40 shorts in the Bradford programme plus 18 short animations in the Chuck Jones Tribute. I saw just over a quarter of the shorts and two of the Chuck Jones animations. Two general observations: first it was clear that shorts were carefully chosen to complement the feature, either via subject matter or tone. Second, the overall quality of the shorts seemed higher than I remember from previous years. Certainly I never got that sense of squirming in my seat hoping that the short would end soon. I was intrigued by the way that ‘typical’ national filmmaking styles were so noticeable – the social realist aspects of several UK shorts, a beautiful traditional Japanese animation etc. Again there were noticeable differences in production values. The Spanish Morir cada dia (Dying Every Day) and the French Le passage were striking in this respect, the former a drama moment set at mealtime, the latter a fantasy narrative sequence – both of which could have been extracts from a feature production. By contrast, Those Who Can (UK) is clearly low budget but packs a powerful punch with its narrative derived, I think, from a real news report. I enjoyed each of these three shorts very much. It’s worth making the point here that festivals are now faced with a variety of digital formats on which submissions have been made – as well as the different formats on which they have been shot. (It isn’t always the case that the film on the highest quality original format arrives in the cinema on the best projection format.)

‘Chuck Jones by Wile-E-Coyote’ © Warner Bros, photo © Karsh

Formats were also an issue for the Chuck Jones Centenary Tribute (Part 1).  I was pleased to see this strand in the festival. The cartoons (as they would have been called on their original release) were scattered through the festival as well as being collected  together in four separate ‘Family Funday’ programmes over the two weekends of the festival. The festival brochure includes an essay by Paul Wells on Chuck Jones (1912-2002) which provides useful background detail. Jones worked for Warner Bros, home of ‘Looney Tunes’ between 1933 and 1962 and then for MGM from 1963-71, by which time the studios were in the process of ceasing production of cartoons as such.

I remember the 1950s experience of watching Bugs Bunny, Wile-E-Coyote and Roadrunner, how the first Hollywood cartoon characters transferred to mainstream children’s TV in the 1960s and then again how they provided the basis for new cable channels like Cartoon Network in the 1990s. The Bugs Bunny classic What’s Opera Doc? dates from 1957 but I suspect that I know it best from TV. It’s claimed as ‘the greatest cartoon short’ ever made. I can see why it is so highly thought of, but personally I prefer the earlier cartoons of Tex Avery – for both their drawing style and their subversive nature. This was one of just four of the cartoons screened from 35mm. The image looked fine on the big Pictureville screen, if a little scratchy. The Bear That Wasn’t is a 1967 production, the last cartoon short from MGM. Based on a story by Frank Tashlin this is a witty satire on contemporary US society and quite sad. I enjoyed it a lot (and the drawing style suited the material as well as evoking the period). However, like most of the cartoon shorts this had to be screened from Blu-Ray. I’ve seen Blu-Ray on a smaller screen looking fantastic, but on the big Pictureville screen it didn’t seem quite up to the job. It’s a shame that the studios aren’t releasing their cartoon archives as DCP prints – or perhaps they are but the distribution fees are extortionate? I know how difficult the studios can be about prints and indeed still images in giving permissions and charging high fees. I wish I’d had the time to watch more of the cartoons but if you feel that you have been missing out, Part 2 of the Chuck Jones tribute is promised for the Bradford Animation Festival later this year.