Rooftop Films 2016 Review: "This is What We Mean By Short Films," A Wealth of Miniature Gems
Rooftop Films Summer Series 2016 got off to a great start with their opening night presentation, “This is What We Mean By Short Films,” an eclectic and incredibly accomplished selection of shorts, some of which had their New York premieres that night. Rooftop Films usually begins and ends with short film programs, and features a number of short programs throughout the festival. This was explained in the introduction given by Dan Nuxoll, program director of Rooftop Films. He remarked that as opposed to most festivals, who treat their short programs as marginal events, almost as afterthoughts, relegating them to poor second cousins of feature films, Rooftop Films gives their short films prominent place, devoting entire nights to them as well as pairing them with selected features. Nuxoll went on to say that Rooftop Films believes in the unique ability of the short film form to allow artists to experiment with various narrative and visual techniques. This programming philosophy certainly bore resonant and memorable fruit with the fine films that were on display in the program.
The program kicked off with Roddy Hyduk’s Stations, a two-minute city symphony of New York City’s subway system, rhythmically cutting together brief scenes shot at over 100 stations across all five boroughs. It’s a panoramic portrait of the city’s diversity, beautifully designed – with the names of all the stations printed across the screen in the familiar MTA font lettering – and wonderfully capturing the activity and drama of life underground, from commuters impatiently waiting for late trains, to buskers performing, to romantic spats.
Sprinkled throughout the program were a series of hilarious shorts by Steve Collins (one of the first filmmakers to screen at Rooftop) with the collective title Black Eye Symphony. These films all feature the actors John Merriman and Paul Gordon, themselves Rooftop alumni, having appeared in many films screened over the years. The collective title derives from the fact that in all the films, Paul Gordon’s character sports a prominent black eye, which is never explained. The shorts, which range from 3-5 minutes each, take a mundane situation and put an absurdist spin on it. In The Position, a job interview quickly turns into a variation on Milgram’s infamous experiment. Avant Garde sees a man finding an unusual way to gain entrance into a stranger’s home. In Thunder P., an IT technician called to fix someone’s computer is confronted with his client’s very colorful password. Finally, in Dr. Meertz, a man awaiting a psychotherapy session undergoes an unusual sort of session in the waiting room.
The documentary films in the program offered fascinating portraits of a diverse set of artists. Geoffrey Feinberg’s The Hanging follows Kirill, a 19-year old Moscow youth who rejects the path of university and what he sees as a boring workaday existence to pursue his passion for “roofing,” which consists of breaking into buildings and performing literally death-defying stunts on top of the city’s tallest structures. He enlists his friends to help him document his actions, resorting to do them himself when they balk at the dangers involved. His path of personal freedom, however, is threatened when he’s faced with the possibility of being drafted into military service, the unintended consequence of dropping out of school.
Callum Rice’s Mining Poems or Odes follows Robert Fullerton, a former shipyard welder from Glasgow, Scotland, whose traded his work tools for pen and paper in pursuit of a new life as a writer of poetry. The film itself finds some wonderful visual poetry in the images of heavy industry, sparks of burning metal, and masked workers, combined with Fullerton’s voiceover and its heavily accented Glaswegian brogue, as he parallels the act of mining for metal with mining the perfect words for his poetry.
John Wilson’s Temporary Color is a comic shadow version of Contemporary Color, the Ross Brothers’ documentary portrait of David Byrne’s concert featuring high school color guard performers, which had its grand finale at Brooklyn’s Barclay Center. The hilarious voiceover sees the filmmaker musing on his feelings of inadequacy in the face of the much more accomplished filmmakers overshadowing his efforts, as well as his anxiety over the escaped convicts Richard Matt and David Sweat, who at the time were still at large as the crew was following the tour near the U.S.-Canada border.
The weirdest short, hands-down, was Daniel Moshel’s MeTube 2: August Sings Carmina Burana (the source of the image for this review). Made to resemble a YouTube home video, this film features a man and his elderly mother staging an elaborate and bizarre performance of Carl Orff’s famous composition Carmina Burana at a carnival fairground.
Ja’Tovia Gary’s experimental film An Ecstatic Experience makes evocative use of found visual materials, combining a filmed play about slavery with contemporary footage of anti-police brutality protests. By scratching, coloring, and other manipulations of this footage, Gary both contrasts and finds parallels between both forms of protest against oppression: harmonized musical expression as opposed to more violent forms of resistance.
Finally two outstanding fictional shorts, Jim Cummings’ Thunder Road and Joanna Arnow’s Bad at Dancing, expertly employs humor to mine tragedy, sadness, and awkward human behavior. Thunder Road, audaciously filmed in a single take, features Arnaud (Jim Cummings), a police officer who gives an anguished eulogy to his mother in full uniform, full of regret over what a hard time he gave her, a eulogy which prominently involves the Bruce Springsteen song that lends the film its title, his mother’s favorite song.
Bad at Dancing features as its central character Joanna (Joanna Arnow), a young woman for whom the word and concept of “boundaries” seems not to exist. Her habit is to walk in on her roommate Isabel (Eleanore Pienta) and her boyfriend Matt (Keith Poulson) while they are in the act of intercourse, sitting next to them and conversing with Isabel as if there’s nothing at all unusual about this. Joanna’s anxieties, self-loathing, and jealousy over her more attractive and romantically successful roommate cause her to resort to ever more intrusive ways to gain attention. Filmed in striking black-and-white, nakedly intimate – in fact, literally so – Bad at Dancing features characters that may not be all that likable, especially its protagonist, but they are never less than sympathetic. In a mere 11 minutes, Arnow’s film has fascinating character arcs, and a sense of surprise and wonder that many full-length features struggle to achieve; think Todd Solondz, but even more comically awkward and despairing. A remarkable achievement, this was the capper to an excellent evening of programming.