The 2021 edition of the Slamdance Film Festival, like many other film festivals in recent months, has gone mostly online. For the nominal cost of a Festival Pass, interested viewers can enjoy until February 25, 2021 a mix of feature-length films and short films and episodics. Here are reviews of some of this year’s offerings:
Nir Berger’s “Dead End” offers post-apocalyptic animated dark comedy. The setting is an alternate Jerusalem that’s had nuclear weapons dropped on it to within a quarter-inch of its life. Teenagers Yarden and Kineret are siblings searching for missing younger brother Naftali.
In the episode “The Greatest Speech You’ll Never Hear,” starvation becomes an issue particularly for Kineret given that Yarden’s meals of scrounged roots and berries have gotten tiresome. Then they encounter a large healthy cow…that also turns out to be telepathic. But what happens when the debate goes from “meat is murder” to “meat is inciting murder?”
There are hints throughout the episode that the viewer should not take what they’re seeing as the literal truth. The siblings’ dog Kinley wanders around despite his ribs literally showing through. The “roots and berries” might not actually be plant-based food. Brevity (the episode’s only five minutes long) helps make the viewer go along with Berger’s set-up. But rapid back-and-forth patter among the characters effectively turn an admittedly grim situation into the stuff of absurd farce. The viewer may feel guilty laughing at the situation, but they will definitely be entertained.
“Taipei Suicide Story,” directed by KEFF, takes a potentially melodramatic story and turns it into a nonjudgmental musing on life and death.
Its setting is a Taipei hotel which has made a successful business out of providing a pleasant environment for people to commit suicide. Trouble erupts when guest Jun-Ting is found to have secretly stayed a week rather than leave one way or another after a night’s stay. Jun-Ting doesn’t see any reason to live, yet she lacks a reason to die now that she’s finally found a place where people share her degree of personal unhappiness. Front desk clerk Zhi-Hao gives the unhappy woman one more night to either kill herself or leave. How will his growing emotional interest in Jun-Ting affect her decision?
Lack of quality will not be the reason KEFF’s film can’t leave the festival circuit to receive American commercial distribution. The film’s failure to either ape the typical Hollywood stumping for life or to treat suicide as a tremendous tragedy will more likely prevent any favorable movie rating being given. Scenes of hotel workers checking their smartphones while riding down an elevator with a corpse or complaints about the extra work created by cleaning up one particularly messy form of suicide definitely won’t sit well with the censors.
KEFF’s drama shows that considering suicide opens the door to discussing the social pressures and life disappointments that prompt such a decision. On and off over the course of the evening, Zhi-Hao and Jun-Ting discuss the futility of dreaming, being forced to lower expectations in life, parental embarrassment, and the lack of finding meaning in life. The gentle guitar strumming heard during these conversations seems to acknowledge these feelings rather than judge them.
The film does end on an enigmatic note. While that enigma will not be spoiled, it can be said enjoyment of a store-bought bowl of instant noodles may be more significant than the viewer realizes.
Science fiction writers have frequently wrestled with the challenge of imagining what the thought processes of a non-human intelligence may be like. Chris Peters’ short film “24,483 Dreams Of Death” shows by example what one such intelligence may think like.
In Spring 2020, an artificial intelligence was shown the Mario Bava classic “La Maschera del Demonio” (“Black Sunday” to American viewers) for six days straight. This gothic horror film provided the intelligence’s sole database about the human world. The neural networks (essentially miniature brains) created by the A.I. in response to Bava’s film provided the footage seen in the film. These silent networks were later destroyed once their usefulness ended. The poetry read by actress Naomi Petit in the film’s narration turned out to be the product of another artificial intelligence, GPT-2 A.I., writing its own version of 19th century poetry after being immersed in actual poetry from the period. GPT-2 A.I. created the equivalent of nearly 100 books worth of poetry. All of the A.I.’s poems deal with the themes of death and destruction.
The lack of clear sharp imagery in Peters’ film should not be considered a bug. Rather the “images” created by the neural networks highlight humans’ unconscious biases. Human faces and figures were central points of interest in Bava’s film images. By contrast, the A.I.’s neural networks never distinguish the humans from their surroundings unless something about a human figure is emphasized, such as a closeup of a character’s face. Even then, the type of individuation that’s second nature to humans (e.g. noticing Barbara Steele’s beauty) is not information that the neural networks recorded. A mansion and a church’s details also become blobs of shadow and light except for such obvious features as an arched doorway or a church bell tower.
There are eight poems heard throughout “24,483 Dreams Of Death” to match the eight samples shown “on screen.” Sample 9520’s poem mentions “a cosmic war/between light and darkness,/between the myth of creation/and the myth of death.” There’s a vague image of a woman in bondage, who might be the character who’s supposedly burned at the stake before returning to life centuries later. Or Sample 8843’s images of what looks like a corpse with staring eyes on a bier is accompanied by the lines “There is no surprise in death, no surprise/In darkness, only a vague sense of distance.”
Bava’s original film was said to have inventively used light, shadow, and motion to create its disturbing effects. Yet in the samples seen in the film, such skillful manipulations are neither recognized nor noted by the A.I. The reasoning behind Bava’s choice of images gets treated as inessential information.
The ultimate question raised by Peters’ film is considering whether A.I.’s have developed the capacity to create art. Based on what’s seen here, the answer is probably verbally but not yet visually. But the situation can of course change drastically.
Maria Lorenzo’s short film “Urban Sphinx” includes a shot of a figure saying “Street art is f**king cool.” Watching the images of street art dance across the screen of Lorenzo’s short, it’s hard to disagree with that sentiment. The skillfully rendered images seen include abstract shapes, rabbits, a space aviatrix in flight helmet, classical sculptures, and literal four-eyed women. The last of these images is not that of a woman wearing glasses. It’s a woman with two pairs of eyes on her face.
The art in question was created by a variety of artists on the street of Valencia, Spain. Using animation and having a steel drum play on the film soundtrack, “Urban Sphinx” creates a breathtaking tour through the city’s unofficial public art. Readers angered by the GOP Senators’ recent refusal to hold the Orange Skull accountable for inciting the January 6 domestic terror attack will get a laugh out of an image of the Orange Skull with an arrow identifying his mouth as a “s**t hole.”
Aside from dazzling the viewer with these street artists’ creativity, Lorenzo’s short does spark a bit of viewer melancholy. Being able to go out and appreciate street art was one of the joys of pre-pandemic times. How long will it be before this bit of urban art appreciation can be resumed?
Laura Conway’s documentary short “The Length Of Day” straddles multiple genres. Its primary subjects, Conway’s long departed grandparents, make the film personal. The grandparents’ Communist activist past in mid-20th century America makes the short political. And the filmmaker’s musing on the long-term legacy of her grandparents’ political work makes Conway’s film philosophical as well. However, the collages and repurposed Michaelangelo Antonioni film excerpts used by Conway also make her short very much its own unique creature.
Conway’s grandparents, Shirley and David Bramhall, were leftist political organizers operating in the Rocky Mountain region. Over the years, the Bramhalls fought for the right of workers to form a union, establishing racial equality, and getting the U.S. out of Vietnam. A dizzying montage of the political buttons the grandparents once wore show just how politically active they were. Unsurprisingly, the Bramhalls eventually got subjected to a public inquisition by the House Un-American Activities Committee. It’s unclear whether the unamused HUAC chair slapped the Bramhalls with prison time.
But Conway’s grandparents are not defined solely by their political activism. A letter from grandfather to grandmother may have moments of linguistic stumbling, but the love and affection comes through quite clearly. The slides Shirley Bramhall debates keeping records a married life well lived despite social hardships.
It’s not clear if the Bramhalls were fans of Francois Truffaut’s “Jules And Jim” or some of the Antonioni films starring Monica Vitti. Yet clips from these films wind up becoming great ways of confronting “The Length Of Day”’s ultimate theme without descending into didacticism or sentimentality. For Conway has replaced the original subtitles for these excerpts with quotes from the Bramhalls’ HUAC appearance and the director’s musings with her late grandmother over the legacy of socialist struggle in America.
The existence of gross economic inequality and resurgent racism may make it seem that the Bramhalls’ struggles ultimately failed. Yet Shirley Bramhall doesn’t see her political fights that way. They were born out of a desire for a better future, but the details of that future she and her husband wanted were personal to them. What advice the grandmother ultimately gives her granddaughter regarding carrying on the socialist struggle may sound trite on one level. Yet on another level it frees Conway’s imagination to create the future she wants.
The pilot for Boise Esquerra’s dramedy “Blackwater” puts a refreshing spin on a familiar dramatic setup. The refreshing part comes from passing a Native American version of the Bechdel test with flying colors.
Alcoholism has wrecked Birdy Blackwater’s country music career. But her return to Parker, AZ, particularly her hometown Red Rock Indian Reservation, soon shows it’s possible for her life to sink lower. An unfortunate incident at a bar leads to her agreeing to undergo Wellness Group rehab. But if Blackwater thought she could just blow off the sessions, Randy the group facilitator has a surprise for her.
This episode is obviously the “introduce the series characters” episode. But its meeting the Bechdel test criteria keeps viewer interest. There are half-a-dozen Native Americans in the group if Blackwater is included. They’re all there talking to each other about their personal problems. These characters include Charles, a man whose marital difficulties have left him a mental basket case; Helen, whose tongue is sharp enough to figuratively cut through a 2” X 4” plank; and some as yet unnamed guy who might be mentally unbalanced enough to talk to the spirits. None of these characters obsess over the white man. And Blackwater’s decidedly unconventional solution for helping Charles out of his funk definitely isn’t covered in the kumbaya manual.
The use of photographs of actual reservation life provide viewers unfamiliar with that milieu a beginning context for understanding the world these characters inhabit. They also create the feeling that this series offers street (or at least rez) credibility rather than Hollywood stereotypes. The next questions that Esquerra will need to answer for interested viewers is whether there are more episodes and whether future Wellness Group meetings will have crazier emotional fireworks.
The “Unstoppable” section of the Slamdance 2021 program is dedicated to films featuring disabled talent. Two of these shorts star actress, comedian, and activist Santina Muha in radically different roles.
“A$$ Level,” directed by Alison Becker, is Muha’s parody of 1990s music videos. The video, in which Muha both sings and performs a song she wrote, gives life in a wheelchair the sort of coolness music videos usually associate with conspicuous displays of wealth and/or sexiness. Muha slowly rolling across the screen in her wheelchair is a nice parody of the music video cliche of an expensive car slowly rolling down a street. The song beats and looks are so well done that it could have joined a Weird Al Yankovic video in MTV rotation in the days when the network did 24-hour music video programming.
Then again, Muha’s video has something far more serious in mind than the Weird Al model of laughing along with a popular song. Its tone may be light, but it stings with details about life in a wheelchair. The special handicapped parking card gets treated like a VIP pass. Needing help to get lifted out of a chair gets milked for the lechery benefits. And the song title makes fun of the reality that being in a wheelchair means you’re often stuck looking at people’s posteriors rather than their faces. Here’s hoping the video’s humor will get viewers to reflect on its more serious undertones.
In Jacob Reed’s documentary “Full Picture,” Muha takes on the role of a social experiment investigator. Social interaction in the age of coronavirus lockdown has meant communicating via video chat. Yet such chats also give a person the power to decide what other people see of you. Muha wondered how other people would interact with her if they didn’t know she was in a wheelchair. This film captured what happened when Muha had such conversations with a group of strangers.
The actress/comedian finds the major benefit of these initial conversations isn’t that she has made possible new friends. It’s the dispelling of her own doubts about possessing positive character attributes like charm and humor. There is frankly a very welcome difference between a person being told out of politeness that they have charm and drive and hearing a complete stranger confirm that person actually demonstrates those qualities. Seeing Muha’s reaction to the latter will lift a viewer’s spirits.
On the other hand, once it’s revealed that Muha is in a wheelchair, several of the people she talked to lived down to their ableist prejudices. A guy who used Muha’s mention of her acting background to riff on her being a possible “Law And Order” cast member revises his opinions of her “Law And Order” future downward. Another guy who talked of hanging out with Muha suddenly gets gun-shy even after she asks him about his experience being around disabled people. The supreme irony, though, turns out to be Muha discovering her own ableist prejudices when a woman she talked to turned out to also be in a wheelchair.
One of the ultimately interesting if unsettled aspects of Muha’s experiment is what conclusions she should draw to apply to future dealings with other people. Perhaps that uncertainty about overthinking prejudice in social interactions may very well be the point.
The Erick Oh-directed animated short “Opera” does not offer a formal story. Instead, it’s a chronicle of a society’s cycles and rhythms. The society’s identity matters less than the film’s capturing the power relationships and functions making that society work. This is obviously a hierarchical society, given the narrow triangular structure at the top for the rulers and other elites and a broader rectangular structure for everyone else. Within this rectangular structure, people get married, students get educated, and trade occurs in a cycle…among other things. But the order seen at the top of this social structure turns into something else by the time the film’s view reaches the social bottom.
Oh’s 8K animated installation is so incredibly detailed that several viewings will be needed to discern more details and interpret their meaning. “Opera” will tantalize and challenge the viewer willing to identify and interpret the incredible details put together by the animators working on this short. The only question the film declines to answer is when “Opera”’s machine-like social cycle will eventually run down.
(Slamdance 2021 is accessible to anyone who buys a Festival Pass. Said Pass is good for the duration of the festival. For further information, go to www.slamdance.com .)