Category Archives: Highly Recommended

Gowanus, Brooklyn (2004, Ryan Fleck)

Gowanus, Brooklyn is quite possibly the best you could hope for early aughts digital video short. Director Fleck and cinematographer Chris Scarafile know the limitations of the medium. Some of those limitations are seemingly self-imposed—if a scene isn’t obviously handheld, it’s because Scarafile was standing really still that shot. Since the short is so traditional—it’s basically a legit after-school special, like something “Sesame Street Junior High” would do—only with a complicated ending.

Tween Shareeka Epps catches her coach and something or other teacher Matt Kerr smoking crack in the girls locker room after he’s closed up for the night. She gets a ride home and a burger and fries out of it. Director Fleck and co-writer (and producer and editor) Anna Boden take a hands off approach to a lot of the story. It’s one of those “oh, the answer’s from a better world” moments. Only they don’t end on that positive sentiment, they go about fifty percent on it just so Epps never seems in danger and use it all the time. All the time. There’s also a message in the short about gentrification and it’s very hard not to see it as a perspective on Epps and not from her. The short is very much the story of this girl and this weird time in her life but it’s not the girl’s story. Gowanus examines Epps. It describes her, instead of her informing it. The narrative distance is inverted and leveraging the heck out of 2004 digital video verisimilitude; the short never exploits Epps—going out of its way to never do so (it’s so safe, so safe—but in a good way)—but sometimes it seems like the scenes are constructed more for that purpose than ever to do actual character development. Gowanus is comfortable throwing things in Epps’s way and watching her get through them… but refusing to examine her reaction to them. Everything in the short is tailored around Epps’s performance, which is great—she’s excellent—but it’s also a bit too safe. Fleck’s not willing to try anything. He never wants it to look too video, just video enough.

Kerr’s good as the teacher. Fleck’s not willing to take any chances with him either. Everything’s so controlled. And it’s masterfully executed. I’m reluctantly enthusiastic about Gowanus, Brooklyn because it’s got such a strange feel to it: the hyper reality of the video, the pseudo-intrusive nature of the narrative distance. It’s as perfectly made a short 2004 digital video could a 2004 digital video short be, positive proof a short video could hold up for twenty minutes.

I’m so glad it didn’t catch on.

But Fleck knows how to get it to work. Epps, Kerr, everyone; they give serious performances, even when the direction’s framed around not showcasing that performance because video is so flat. Boden knows when to cut away from that flat too; the cuts seem based on when the lack of depth becomes distracting. Because you’re usually wondering if it just looked better, how much better would it be. Fleck’s ambitiously strict to reliable techniques with no interest in exploring. Gowanus is very constrained.

Which just makes Epps’s performance more impressive. Her performance is enthusiastically ambitious while the short itself isn’t.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Ryan Fleck; written by Anna Boden and Fleck; director of photography, Chris Scarafile; edited by Boden; music by Ronit Kirchman; produced by Boden for Gowanus Projections.

Starring Shareeka Epps (Drey), Matt Kerr (teacher), Karen Chilton (mother), Timothy Nesbith (brother), and Regina Milligan (friend).


24 Hours in the Life of a Clown (1946, Jean-Pierre Melville)

Per 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown, those twenty-four hours go from sad to happy. Well, wait; they actually go from narrating man in the shadows, face in said shadows, only the brim of his fedora visible—because l’inconnu fantôme wants to tell you all about Beby the clown.

Once the short gets past that opening narration, which is way too much for what the short turns out to be. It’s a look at the life of a clown—Beby—in his late sixties as the world and the place of the circus in it are changing. It’s never clear how much of the film is Beby, outside his keepsakes (but was it his idea to showcase the keepsakes), and how much of it is director Melville. Most of the dialogue in the film is the narrator paraphrasing the actors’ muted dialogue. Even when Beby is speaking, it’s not matched with the image. Clown obviously took some putting together and Melville doesn’t address how that process affects the narrative distance.

So while Beby’s “performance” looking through his old photographs isn’t amazing, the sequence itself becomes amazing thanks to the story told through those photographs. It’s also the first time the short addresses Beby being “real.” If you weren’t familiar with him going in, there’s no indicator Clown is documentary not fiction.

There’s also a cute dog and the suffering wife or maid or daughter person. She doesn’t even get credited. Neither does the dog, which just makes things fair, I suppose.

The next day—the twenty-four hours are from after one night’s show through the next night’s show, which is a great framing—Beby meets up with partner Maïss (who was in the beginning) and they go about doing their research. They just watch life. As they watch life, Melville finds the calm beauty of humanity, even when it’s being a little slapstick.

Then the evening’s performance is excellent and the twenty-four hours are up.

The Phantom Stranger comes back, unfortunately, to tell us so. Because film noir tough guys are all about the circus clowns.

But even with that unfortunate flourish, Clown’s a great little film.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville; directors of photography, Gustave Raulet and André Villard; edited by Monique Bonnot; music by Henri Cassel.

Starring Beby (a clown) and Maïss (a clown).


RECENTLY

Veracity (2015, Seith Mann)

Veracity is exceedingly impressive, in its parts and how they make up the whole. On their own, the filmmaking, the writing, and KiKi Layne’s performance are enough for the short to impress. Each has a different, perfectly suited strength. Mann’s direction flows, moving the camera to catching the actors’ performances; the actors aren’t performing their scenes for the camera. Veracity always feels bigger than its story, which the film even addresses—there’s a wider world around, Layne and her friends are just a part of it. Mann’s direction and Janaya Greene’s script imply that world. Amanda Brinton’s production design is also very important for it, ditto Christopher Dillon’s editing. Mann wouldn’t have the same flow without Dillon’s infinitely graceful cuts between angles and scenes.

The short takes place mostly at Layne’s high school—though, again, there’s this implied, larger setting to it all—as Layne meets new girl Shea Vaughan-Gabor and tries to befriend her. Vaughan-Gabor’s polite and pleasant, though not overly enthusiastic about making a new friend. When Layne lets friend Christina D. Harper drag her to a party, which Layne wants to avoid because of creep ex-boyfriend Denzel Irby (who’s throwing the party), things get weird, wonderful, and then awful. Vaughan-Gabor is Irby’s cousin, who’s moved in with him to go to the high school. Layne and Vaughan-Gabor kiss, only to be interrupted by Irby, leading to Vaughan-Gabor not wanting to talk to Layne and Layne all of a sudden ostracized at school.

The personal turmoil weighs on Layne, knocking her down. If the second act ends when things are direst for the hero, Veracity manages to have two ends of second acts, but only one third act resolution. Greene was a high school senior when she wrote the script, which doesn’t matter exactly, but does just impress more. There’s so many moving layers, influencing each other at different points throughout and at different intensities. The script’s just so good.

As is Mann’s direction. As is Layne’s performance. They all work together so perfectly. Veracity is steady and assured, but also nimble and inventive. Sometimes it’s in Mann’s direction, sometimes in Greene’s script, sometimes in Layne’s performance. Vaughan-Gabor’s really good (all the acting is really good, Harper and Irby too and Aubrey Marquez in a single scene), but no one else has as many opportunities as Layne and she takes them all. Such a good lead performance.

Veracity is exceptional.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Seith Mann; written by Janaya Greene; director of photography, Tommy Maddox-Upshaw; edited by Christopher Dillon; music by Albert Chang; production designer, Amanda Brinton; produced by Rob York for Scenarios USA.

Starring KiKi Layne (Olivia), Shea Vaughan-Gabor (Imani), Christina D. Harper (Karolyn), Denzel Irby (James), Dominica Strong (Sage), Tai Davis (Ms. Gillian), and Aubrey Marquez (Joseph).


Love Exists (1960, Maurice Pialat)

With a title like Love Exists, it seems reasonable the short might turn around and stop being so intensely depressing, but no. The film, written and directed by Pialat with narration by Jean-Loup Reynold, starts with people leaving the city (Paris) proper for their night in the suburbs. It’s not clear yet what the narrator’s take on the workers’ commute is going to be but there’s some definition foreshadowing. Pialat does some visual foreshadowing throughout, but never as much as at the beginning.

Once the film arrives in the suburbs, the narrator talks about growing up there and how it used to be. Pialat juxtaposes the contemporary with the memories, using the sound effects to bind the two. Sound is very important in Love Exists, especially in the first half, as Pialat and Reynold take us through these neighborhoods, introduce us to the people living there. The mostly poor, the mostly uneducated, the workers. They spend their lives on the commute, hoping to survive to retirement age, their lives as unchanging as their ancestors, the fourteenth century farmers.

Contrasted with the plight of the working class is the build-up of Paris. The build-up of some suburbs. Next to the brutal new housing structures, where the children play amongst the concrete and steel, on their way to becoming good worker drones too, are the shanty towns. The debris isn’t from the war, it’s from the constructed. It’s not from the past, it’s from the future, which leaves out the workers.

Just when you think Pialat can’t get any more depressing, he looks at the situation of the older adults, the workers who made it to retirement, who exist in homes. Casted off once they’ve survived. The last moment manages to be even more devastating.

And Pialat and Reynold get to that devastation with the melancholic Georges Delerue score, which ought to work against Exists, but doesn’t. The music never overpowers the narration, the narration never overpowers the sound design. Nothing can approach Pialat and cinematographer Gilbert Sarthre’s shots either. Early on, it seems like the world can only exist in the black and white of the short, but by the end it’s hard to imagine the world actually existing in color.

Great editing from Kenout Peltier.

Love Exists is an extraordinary, rending twenty minutes.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Maurice Pialat; director of photography, Gilbert Sarthre; edited by Kenout Peltier; music by Georges Delerue; produced by Pierre Braunberger for Les Films de la Pléiade.

Narrated by Jean-Loup Reynold.