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Animated Shorts Fall Short In 2017 Oscar Picks


The world of short films can seem like an afterthought. People make them. A lot are student exercises, but many are not. Short films play at festivals and get good audiences. The short films nominated for Oscars are collected into programs that play at art house theaters in many cities and sometimes on campuses. They’re received enthusiastically, but they don’t show in mainstream theaters, and for the most part short films don’t figure in the scheme of things. They rarely get beyond being curiosities.

The animated Oscar-nominated shorts this year are a waste of time. They look like they’ve been made by highly skilled adults with juvenile minds. You can see that somebody put money into them, and a significant level of technical skill, but as to a one they’re empty-headed and remarkably insignificant. Borrowed Time is something of a western that tries to pull sentiment out of cliché – a broken down old cowboy remembers a moment of failure with his father, and that’s the explanation for his withered condition now. But the great moment is contrived nonsense, and with lifeless, trite drawings, there’s not much to see and nothing to feel.

Another animation, Blind Vaysha at least has lively figures and swirly drawings. But its story pretends to a level of metaphor that it has no chance to achieve. A woman has two eyes of different colors. One sees the past, the other the future, so she can never live in a present. The film is tied together with narration that is awkward, inarticulate – and tone-deaf.

Pear Cider and Cigarettes reeks of late-night bragging in a fraternity house. It’s about a guy called Techno Styles, which I guess is supposed to be evocative of something, but it comes off like a 21st century version of the old Readers Digest feature “The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Ever Met. “ Techno Styles, though, is thoroughly forgettable – a kind of adolescent description of a really wild guy. Techno drinks and smokes and swears, and when you get down to it – which is not very far down – it’s a story full of lifeless exaggerations about a liver transplant.

But then I turned to the live action shorts, where the story is different this year. At first, the Swiss film, La Femme et la TGV, or “The Woman and the Fast Train,” seems saccharine and precious, but that feeling doesn’t last. In the story, an older woman, played by the enduring French/British actress Jane Birken, leans out her window twice a day and waves a Swiss flag at the train that rushes by her home beside the railroad tracks. It’s a stretch, but the engineer tosses a note to her one day, and a correspondence begins between them.

Writer/director Timo von Gunten finds a serious longing and desire in the film You forget how improbable it is in favor of a raw feeling in the woman, which is something like the amour fou – the crazy love – that the surrealists celebrated. I found myself waiting for that train right along with her, and the correspondence between the two characters goes deep and urgent, even though the engineer is unseen.

A French short, Enemies Within centers on a citizenship interview between a French official – a fresh-faced young man – and a middle-aged Algerian who has lived in France all his life, but is just now applying for citizenship. The conversation reeks of inequality – the young official treats the applicant with smiling contempt. He asks about why the man’s father never applied to be a citizen and other questions the French-Algerian man has no way to answer. And the two sit across a bare table that begins to look like an uncrossable barrier. Eventually, it’s not a citizenship interview, it’s an interrogation and the French official – who has no name – is simply out to get this man. Like the best short fictions, Enemies Within and La Femme et la TGV pack a wallop.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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