June 27, 2012

BAMcinemaFest '12: Critic's Notebook

by Steve Dollar

The Black Balloon

Shorts—as in short films—have become a peculiar manifestation of film festival culture. Almost any festival you go to will have multiple shorts programs on the schedule. And guaranteed, the filmmaker you meet who wins the short-film prize will be back soon with something special, whether it's the guy who made Hesher (see the Down Under zombie mash note I Love Sarah Jane) or the guy who made Beasts of the Southern Wild (anticipated by Glory at Sea). I don't really know under what circumstances they are exhibited anywhere else outside the institutional/museum/repertory world. Nonetheless, YouTube and Vimeo appear to be terrific bounties for short-film surfing and many an auteur's DVD bonus features would be sorely lacking if they didn't include available and relevant short exercises that laid the groundwork for the masterpiece at hand.

Josh and Benny Safdie had the bright idea of packaging their recent short The Black Balloon (a prize-winner at Sundance) with The Red Balloon, Albert Lamorisse's 1956 classic to which it pays homage, along with Buster Keaton's The Balloonatic and the animated 1935 Balloon Land (The Pincushion Man) and circulating the whole shebang under the title: "Take Me to the Balloony Bin!" It's touring the United States now, through the agency of the CInema Conservancy, and just screened as part of BAMcinemaFest—now in its fourth year at Brooklyn's BAMcinematek.

The Meaning of Robots

The Black Balloon is another one of the Safdies' wisely and colorfully drawn New York stories, a balloon's-eye view, if you will, of human nature in its fullest expression on the streets of the city, where the sheer abundance of out-of-control randomness asserts patterns and logics of its own. In this episode, the titular runaway resurrects itself from the junkyard to rescue a hapless Ratso Sloman from recent catastrophic events in his life as a broadcaster. Well, at least it gives him hope that he can persuade former protégé (Eléonore Hendricks) to help him get his job back. The frazzled, fast-talking Ratso feels like an archetypal Safdie character, and the Howard Stern biographer plays it to the hilt. Soon enough, the restless balloon finds other adventures, floating through the sun-drenched smog to the psychedelic airs of vintage Gong—a soundtrack that, like so much else, evokes a kind of idyllic 1970s vibe.

Speaking of New York characters, Michael Sullivan is not lying when he says, "It's hard to imagine a life not making robots all the time." The shaggy-headed inventor rocks his mad-scientist style, looking like a cross between stage magician Ricky Jay and Christopher Lloyd's Dr. Emmett Brown in Back to the Future, as he reveals The Meaning of Robots to filmmaker Matt Lenski. The four-minute documentary seems far too short for the vastness of Sullivan's obsession but then where exactly would he stop? You see, this man has spent the last 15 years working on a stop-motion robot sex epic. His apartment is stacked with apparently hundreds of scale-model-sized robots, staring hard with angry eyes and erect nipples (and, er, robot boners), their anatomically correct physiques ready for their close-ups in the ultimate automaton porn flick.

Brute Force

The element of surprise is not diminished by reading the above paragraph. I've watched this movie five or six times and my jaw drops just as far at every glimpse. The brevity makes perfect sense, leaving minds blown and offering little in the way of deep psychological reasonings. By the time Sullivan proudly offers a gander at a robot horse butt, the WTF?-meter has officially imploded.

Extravagant and idiosyncratic personalities lend themselves well to the doc-short format, which is long enough to be intriguing and short enough not to turn sadistic. It's easy to imagine that a full 90 minutes of Brute Force might feel a tad excessive, but for 15 minutes or so its title subject—71-year-old singer-songwriter Stephen Friedland, whose stage name is Brute Force—captivates as one of New York City's most singular living legends, albeit one whose brief shining moment on the cultural radar came and went more than 30 years ago.

Although he wrote songs for Del Shannon, The Cyrkle and the Chiffons, Friedland achieved something special when he released his first solo album, I, Brute Force – Confections of Love in 1967. The satiric material and deadpan performance style won the hearts of John Lennon and George Harrison, who signed him to Apple. But the failure of his ballad "The Fuh King" (you do the math) to pass muster with corporate censors in the US appeared to signal a swan song by the mid-1970s. Ben Steinbauer's intimate portrait of the artist as an eternal teenager captures Friedland in the midst of a 2010 comeback of sorts, and chronicles the cranky/affectionate give and take with his loyal daughter Lilah (aka Daughter of Force). It's one of those "only in New York, kids" New York stories that would have to be made up if it wasn't already true.

The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke

I can only begin to imagine what The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke must be, as it wasn't available for pre-screening. According to advance billing, it's something like a NSFW live-action cartoon remake of Le Jetée transposed from the life of 2 Live Crew founder and First Amendment champion Luther Campbell, aka Luke Skyywalker. If it's not completely horrible, it's the movie of the year. Still, as imaginative biographical statements go, it's hard to top A Short History of John Baldessari. Using extremely speedy, staccato edits, a whimsical tone inspired by its subject—the 80-year-old conceptual artist—and the storytelling gravitas of Tom Waits, who narrates, filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish) impressively tell you everything you need to know about JB in the time it takes to brew some coffee. Even better: You can watch it here.

Inspirational line: "John Baldessari's studio door has two peepholes: Regular height and Baldessari height."

[BAMcinemaFest's short film programs Mixed Shorts and All-City Shorts screen Saturday at 2 and 4:30 p.m. at BAMcinematek, 30 Lafayette Ave. Brooklyn. For more information, click here.]

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Posted by maian at June 27, 2012 11:19 PM