The 2012 Sundance Film Festival's Perfectly Strange Shorts Program
"We made the entire film in CGI first, but didn’t like it. So we made it out of felt instead." -Joseph Pelling, Don't Hug Me, I'm Scared
"Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die"
-Hunter S. Thompson, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"
The Sundance Film Festival began showing short films in 1991. Among the selections that year was The Passion of Martin, a 49-minute "brilliantly-paced black comedy" (according to then shorts programmer John Cooper's catalog note) directed by a recent UCLA graduate named Alexander Payne. Six weeks after the Festival, Payne had an agent and a deal at a studio – an auspicious beginning to a career that would see him return to Sundance as both a director (1996's Citizen Ruth) and an advisor at the Institute's Feature Filmmaking Labs.
For the past twenty-one years, the Sundance Film Festival’s shorts programs have been a place for discovery and exploration. Industry professionals scour the titles in search of promising talent to populate movies and television, both behind and in front of the camera. Just as importantly, new and established filmmakers use the short form to experiment with technique, tone, and character. Anything and everything goes. In the evolutionary chain of Sundance, the shorts programs are the deep-sea, hydrothermal vents: a hotbed of wonderfully weird variations.
That is certainly true of this year's selections. Only 64 films were chosen from over 7600 submissions. With such staunch competition, the shorts that made the cut needed to possess something extra – an elusive, unique quality that separated them from the crowd. This year’s short filmmakers are distinguished not only by their willingness to take risks but also their skill to make those bets pay off.. Each year has its themes and if the 2012 Sundance Film Festival's program of shorts is anything, it's completely unexpected.
Indeed, some filmmakers in this year's program abandoned convention completely, resulting in a panoply of limit-pushing, genre-busting shorts. Jillian Mayer, a filmmaker and performance artist from Miami, teamed with screenwriter Lucas Leyva to create The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke, surely the only La Jetee Apocalypse/2 Live Crew mash-up in history. "Jillian seemed like the least likely filmmaker to team up with Luke," explained Leyva. "It was either going to create something really awesome or really awful." Meyer found she had a lot in common with the former rapper, resulting in a fruitful - and mind-shatteringly weird - collaboration. In fact, her lead's odd demeanor contributed to the unorthodox tone and visual aesthetic of the piece. As Meyer put it, "...with a lead character as eccentric and as determined as [Luke], how could anything be traditional?"
Just as wonderfully odd is Don’t Hug Me, I’m Scared, from the London collective This Is It. A 3 and a half minute freakout disguised as a low-fi kids' puppet show about 'creativity', the film was a viral hit online before its selection for Sundance. (You can see it here). Drawing on her extensive experience as a camp counselor, Becky Sloan and her co-director Joseph Pelling knew they wanted to do something about arts and crafts. Even though they weren't sure what form the final product would take - a book was discussed but ultimately rejected as "too boring" - Pelling knew it had to include some vital elements: "Googly eyes, glitter, and making silly portraits out of tissue paper." Sloan reveals that this free-form approach to planning even included a 'first draft' of the piece. "We made the entire film in CGI first, but didn’t like it. So we made it out of felt instead." The ultimate wisdom of their anti-strategy is evident; Don’t Hug Me, I’m Scared doesn't merely threaten to devolve into chaos, but gleefully flings itself over the edge.
Many other shorts at Sundance 2012 find great success in exploring terrain that is as risky as it is strange. Stop-motion animator Robert Morgan's Bobby Yeah boasts a heady mix of high and low, with phenomenally designed characters doing unbelievably disgusting things. Matt Lenski's Meaning of Robots, Daniel Zimmerman's Stick Climbing, and Dustin Guy Defa's Family Nightmare, all show just how expansive the definition of documentary can be, featuring robot sex, superhuman feats, and remixed memory, respectively. Johannes Nyholm visits paradise with patient puppets and one very drunk baby in Las Palmas, while Kyle Henry's Fourplay: Tampa is truly, as he puts it, a " Chaplinesque gang-bang farce."
Of course, surprise comes in a multitude of forms. Some of this year's short filmmakers employed more conventional techniques while examining new territory in terms of their subject matter or perspective. Russell Harbaugh's Rolling on the Floor Laughing and Todd Sklar's '92 Skybox Alonso Mourning Rookie Card find deep wells of humor and pain in the odd relationships between pairs of brothers. Jenée LaMarque's Spoonful discovers a heretofore unheard of way for three sisters to cement their bond. And Grzegorz Jaroszuk's Frozen Stories approaches the familiar misery of a bad job with a sense of humor that is singular in its bleakness. And even though Anna Frances Ewert's documentary Into the Middle of Nowhere employs a relatively traditional verite style, its immersive look at children at play is utterly unforgettable.
So in Park City this year be sure to make the time for some shorts. Not only will you see some of the most original - and gloriously weird - filmmaking at the festival. But you just might catch a glimpse of the future.