Now playing: Sundance Institute 2011 shorts program | Bleader

Now playing: Sundance Institute 2011 shorts program

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Incident by a Bank
  • Incident by a Bank
If there’s one short film in this program (which plays through Thursday at the Music Box Theatre) that benefits from being seen on a big screen, it’s Incident by a Bank, a 12-minute, single take re-creation of a failed 2006 robbery. Director Ruben Östlund sets his camera above a public square that’s across the street from where the incident takes place, suggesting an entomologist’s perspective on the action or certain films by Michael Haneke (e.g., 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance). By emphasizing the non-actions of bystanders rather than the actions of the robbers, Östlund creates a potent illustration of Kitty Genovese Syndrome—something that wouldn’t register as sharply had the narrative focused on one character at a time. It’s a fine example of form meeting function.

After Incident, my favorite short in the program would be Zachary Treitz’s We’re Leaving, which also screened in the recent Chicago Filmmakers program Mad Love. The story of a mobile-home resident and his beloved pet alligator, it’s the sort of low-key regional filmmaking that tends to get upstaged by flashier independent films coming out of New York and Los Angeles (though the program also contains one of those: the sitcom-ish Worst Enemy, shot in L.A. by the actress Lake Bell). What makes We’re Leaving so enjoyable is that its humor seems to emerge naturally from the speech and behaviors of its Kentuckian non-actors: call it an ethnographic comedy.

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of short films: those that aim to be self-contained miniatures and those that feel like dry runs for features. The latter category tends to be more common, even though the greatest shorts usually belong to the former. Masterpieces of the form—like Roman Polanski’s Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958), Jane Campion’s An Exercise in Discipline - Peel (1982), or François Ozon’s A Summer Dress (1996)—are models of economy, in which every shot (or sound or actor’s gesture) communicates as much as possible. Ironically, this approach seems like better preparation for making feature films, as it requires a filmmaker to develop a concentrated vision that emerges at each moment. As proven by the careers of Polanski, Campion or Ozon, this background can be the foundation of richly expressive film art.

Yet bad shorts can be instructive, too. Sorry to keep harping on Lake Bell (whose name makes me think of a summer camp), but her structure of alternating jokes with pathos becomes repetitive at even 13 minutes. There’s little sense of development in Worst Enemy—though one can easily imagine another hour of exactly the same thing. Like some of America’s laziest and most successful comedy directors (e.g., Todd Phillips, Adam McKay), Bell relies on her actors for the movie’s humor and charm, hoping that nuances of setting, character and plot will simply fall into place. Her approach seems especially flaccid when compared to the focus of Incident at a Bank or the Canadian documentary The High Level Bridge, the two shorts that bookend Worst Enemy in this program.

Bell’s rapport with her cast (which includes Michaela Watkins of L.A.’s Groundlings Theater and Matt Walsh of Upright Citizens Brigade) leads me to believe she’s capable of making much better films—and herein lies another truism of the short film: it’s a lot easier to be forgiving of a filmmaker when her work is less than 15 minutes long.

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