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  • Brandon MacMurray

Palm Springs International Shortfest Review Roundup Part 2

Is This Now the Time I Should Let You Go?, dir. Tsai Yi-Chin

Memories are beautiful, blurry and always changing, too slippery and imprecise to be held onto forever. In the excellent and enigmatic experimental animated documentary Is This Now the Time I Should Let You Go?, director Tsai Yi-Chin mixes video footage and analog film with animation techniques, and brings an intimate, diary-like atmosphere which immerses the audience in her memories of her father, and the unspeakable feelings that come after his death. “Am I too obsessed with forever?” the elegiac voiceover wonders, “I want to keep you but am I trying too hard?”

By combining her experiments in rostrum camera animation, mixed media, and analog film, Tsai creates an abstract steam of melancholy visuals which explore the possibilities of expressing her unspeakable emotions about losing her father. Tsai uses digital video home movies to introduce her handsomely charming father; the soft focus, free ranging movement of the handheld camera, and jump cuts between settings give the video the feeling of a richly detailed memory. The dated timestamps on the bottom of the frame switch with each cut, 1993-1995-1996, skipping back and forth, unmoored from linear time in the way that we experience our own memories of the past: “remember that time when Dad… and remember when we went with Dad…and remember how Dad…”

To keep from losing her father again, as she hold him in her mind, Tsai makes his memory into the physical object of 16mm film, sprockets on the edge of the frame attesting to the corporality of the hand processed film. Tsai literally and figuratively colours the memories of her father by painting on top of the home movies, and the soft-focused, faded colours of the film become vibrant with bright paint daubed all around the figures. In this section of the film, which evokes Gerhard Richter’s series of overpainted family photographs, Tsai makes images of her father bright and happy, a rose-coloured glaze over the long dormant memories. Is This Now the Time I Should Let You Go? is an artifact of how Tsai faced, processed and communicated with her sorrow and fear, and the disconnect between her past and present.

Other passages of the film use different techniques to convey the deep well of suppressed emotion. In the first years after he passed away, a profound depression came to Tsai, represented as somber pools of black and white with an unsettling, rumbling sound. Later, hoping to dream of her father, frames of oneiric, colour washed film covered in scratches lend a surreal feeling reminiscent of the film experiments of Stan Brakhage. “You didn’t disappear, and you won’t disappear. You are right there, right there in my past. So really, it’s ok,” Tsai finally says. In making a film that preserves the memory of her father, Is This Now the Time I Should Let You Go? helps Tsai to accept his death and embrace the possibilities of the future.

Review by: Joshua Hunt

Speed Queen 51, dir. Sarah Nocquet

If you met a person you knew you would never see again, would you tell them your deepest, darkest secret?

Speed Queen 51 asks us this poignant question in a tense short. Set in a laundromat, the camera gazes out from the inside of a washing machine and through the open washing machine door. Director Sarah Nocquet uses unique shots and powerfully utilizes this environment to introduce us to our two protagonists, Cory and June.

As Cory approaches June there is something almost sinister about the way he singles her out and heads towards her, almost as if he has a purpose in mind. Cory and June soon realize they are the only two left in the laundromat, with no cameras or staff to be seen. As they start small talk about June leaving in just hours on a faraway trip, hopefully to never return, there is a slow tension that is continually builds throughout their conversation, aided by the excellent sound design. The huming of washing machines and clunking of shoes and clothes going around and around, mixed with the splashes of suds against glass set the soundtrack for an otherwise quiet room.

After mentioning he heard a story about a hitchhiker that would exchange secrets with the people who picked him up, Cory suggests they tell each other a secret they've never told anyone before. It’s almost as if he specifically came over with only this idea in mind, eager to get something off his chest. June seems, although slightly cautious, down to play his game. June’s secret is innocent enough, as she explains and Cory very attentively listens. I love the intentional choice to focus the camera on June’s hands as she speaks; you can almost see the vulnerability she exudes in the way she interlocks her fingers. The camera then flashes over to Cory’s hands in a way that shows he is responsive and accepting of what June is saying as she opens up to him. The advice he gives her in return is solid and June thanks him. The conversation turns and becomes awkward when it's time for Cory to tell his secret and his hesitation is tangible. This is only further aided by the anxiety of the shots and sound design as the washing sounds become louder and perspiration drips down the side of a machine. The short culminates in Cory confessing the secret he's never told anyone - and an ending that will make your head spin with shock.

I guess what happens in a laundromat stays in a laundromat...?

Review: Brandon MacMurray

How Can I Help You, dir. Eliza Scanlen

It's one of my favourite opening scenes from any short this year. In the first few seconds of How Can I Help You we meet Nina, played by Thomasin McKenzie (Last Night in Soho, Eileen, JoJo Rabbit). She's a call centre agent for an energy drink company, and as she picks up a call from an upset customer, you don’t even have to hear both sides of the conversation to know what's happening. Thomasin’s physical acting and facial expressions say it all. We then flash to a recording of the conversation being played back to her by her unhappy manager, who isn’t pleased with Nina’s knack for always giving in to the customers demands and her penchant for offering refunds.

“It’s not your fault, you can’t make other people’s emotions your responsibility. The only person you are responsible for is you. “

The rest of this ten minute short very heavily leans on this quote as Nina battles with when to take responsibility for events in her daily life.

How Can I Help You is directed by Eliza Scanlen, best known for her roles in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Old, and The Starling Girl. At just 25 years old, Eliza shows an understanding beyond her years in the way she frames the scenes. It’s a joy to see a young and upcoming actress also diving into the depths of directing and showing off her other talents in storytelling. In one crucial scene in the dog park, I love the choice she made to play on the strength of Thomasin’s ability to convey the horror of the situation with her facial expressions alone (a talent shared by the likes of Audrey Hepburn) rather than directly showing the situation itself as it unfolds.

Overall, Eliza delivers a simple yet effective story about a character learning how and when to pick her battles, someone trying to bury her guilt and trying her best to navigate into a space where she controls the narrative.

Review by: Brandon MacMurray

The Red Sea Makes Me Wanna Cry, dir. Faris Alrjoob

The mountains won’t let you go. 

It is the last sentence in Faris Alrjoob's The Red Sea Makes Me Wanna Cry. In the first minutes, Ismail (Ahmed Shihab-Eldin) describes the town as the island of the dead near the Red Sea, destroyed by Black September. The Jordan civil war which occurred from September 1970 to July 1971. As the narrative evolves, it follows Ida (Clara Schwinning), who travels from Germany to Jordan to say a last goodbye to her partner, Ismail. After her arrival, the viewer learns at the police station that he suffered a horrific death when his car fell off a cliff in the mountains. Ida's journey to the Red Sea is a final goodbye to her loved one. 

The heavy tones of red present in the camera frames are noticeable from the very first seconds. Throughout its twenty minutes, Alrjoob spreads the red around in almost all of the production design, almost as a sign of the bloodbath caused by Black September, parallel to the internal bleeding Ida is going through. Her coat, swimsuit, register books, sofas, drinks, and scarves are all read. The director is constantly trying to symbolize a hemorrhage that surrounds that region. The mountains serve as a jail in a land that drags people and will not let them go anywhere. 

All this atmosphere of desolation, pain, and desperation has the support of outstanding cinematography by Mahmoud Belakhel. The 16mm footage provides a texture on the screen that complements the poetry designed by the director. The mountains, the sea, the restaurants, and the airplanes all inject a sense of isolation that Ida feels in that world. A world where she is foreign, not only in immigration status but also in her emotional state. The subtle performance by Clara Schwinning shows a character trying to move on. Her eyes show the deep suffering she is going through. 

When the camera circles through the city, it plays a score with harps in the background, almost mimicking a heaven-like reality. The beauty and force of the Red Sea matches the tone of the village which has an equal force that traps people there and doesn’t let them go. While waiting for the flight back, Ida contemplates the emptiness of her existence. And we meditate on a beautiful sensory experience that Faris Alrjoob delivers. 

Review by: Pedro Lima

Make Me a Pizza, dir. Talia Shea Levin

”This short plays like a low budget 80s snuff film” - while accurate, is certainly not a line I expected to type out in a review anytime soon. Complete with fuzzy low resolution, orange-yellow-ish tint and big hairdos, it pays homage to an era not often highlighted on the modern festival scene.

The byline for the film reads “bored housewife seduced hot pizza guy for free pizza, but is desire worth $29.99?”, which not unlike other entries in the genre which inspired the film is pretty much all you need to know going in. The cast consists of only two people, the bored housewife played by Sophie Neff and the hot pizza guy played by Woody Coyote, the latter of which is arguably the Wish version of Ron Jeremy (Google it, kids!)(Actually on second thought, definitely do not Google it, kids).

However, in a slow shift throughout the tale we go from asking whether sex or pizza is worth $29.99 and by extension if that makes the two equatable, to asking whether we as a society are worthy of pizza and if we can somehow become equatable to it. Along the way we touch on themes such as the labor that goes into making the food we put on our tables and the ingredients to make it, as well as the people behind the scenes who farm the land and refine the crops. We also see small remarks on the modern struggles with intimacy, the role sex has in society and how the two intertwine.

It felt a bit unclear to me whether the housewife is meant to be struggling with funds or with intimacy. Ultimately I do not think it matters much, because what is abundantly clear is how much fun this short is. Sure it somewhat runs past some important topics but at its core this is a comedic absurd take on a genre film we rarely see in these circles. Judging by the promotion done in the festival circuit I think the people behind this know exactly what they are doing and I applaud them for it. And when the credits roll you are left asking yourself, are we not all pizza one way or another?

Review by: Robin Hellgren



The short end of the stick: The inferior part, the worse side of an unequal deal

When it comes to cinema and the Oscars it always feels like short films and getting the short end of the stick. Lack of coverage, lack of predictions from experts and an afterthought in the conversation. With this site we hope to change that, highlighting shorts that stick with you, predictions, and news on what is happening in the world of shorts. 

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