Beneath the Earth Film Festival Revisited

The winners of this year’s Beneath the Earth Film Festival were announced on 10/31, and although I didn’t see completely eye to eye with my fellow jurors (or with the audience for that matter), the selections were generally solid. Here, then, are the winners of the 2011 festival:

Best Film – Photographs
Audience Award – After Ever After
Best Cinematography – #OMGIMTRENDING
Best Editing – It’s Natural to Be Afraid
Best Screenplay – Photographs
Best Soundtrack – Photographs

Congrats to all the winners!

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Photographs was a labor of love for co-directors Brendan Clogher and Christina “Kiki” Manrique. First, they had reams of painstaking preliminary work to do, which included meticulously planning each shot; making thousands of drawings; and constructing detailed storyboards. The animatics alone took several months to complete. Only then – when everything was just right – did the actual animation begin. To get a sense of the scope of the work involved, consider this: Clogher began the project when he was a student at Loyola Marymount University; by the time he finished it, a year and a half later, he had graduated and was working as a storyboard revisionist for the WB. The time and effort put into making this modest 6-minute film serve as a testament to C&M’s dedication to their craft; they must be tremendously satisfied to have all their hard work recognized here at the Beneath the Earth Film Festival.

If after watching Photographs you’re wondering why the film’s sole character inhabits a ghost town, here’s your answer: according to Clogher, “Kiki only wanted to have to animate one character”, which was a way for the young animators to simplify what promised to be a difficult and time-consuming project. Placing their lone character in an empty town not only spared C&M from having to animate the interactions of multiple characters but also allowed them to dispense with dialogue and thus completely eliminate the need for lip-synching and voice work. As a result, the soundtrack, like the visuals, is pared down to the bone, consisting only of a few basic sound effects, an original musical cue, and some ready-made library music. (Photographs won for Best Soundtrack, but I think that honor should have gone to Sharfik, whose fine original score and inventive sound design put most of the other films in the festival to shame.)

The film’s appeal obviously lies in its heartstring-yanking story centering on an elderly woman wandering around some post-apocalyptic wasteland. Rummaging through some garbage one day, said woman finds a camera and immediately starts snapping pictures of herself at various locations that hold a special place in her heart – a schoolyard playground, a restaurant, and, most meaningful of all, a hilltop gazebo. Her reason for doing so becomes apparent in the film’s tear-jerking conclusion: standing at a shrine dedicated to those from her irretrievably lost past, she tacks the new photos next to older ones that show her at those same places interacting with other people. Her pensive gaze is drawn above all to a wedding photo showing her younger self joyfully embracing her long lost lover by that hilltop gazebo.

The film should end there. The scene, which imparts a strong sense of what the Japanese call mono-no-aware (the wistful recognition of the transience of all things), is emotionally complete. The poignancy of the moment has peaked. No more needs to be said. The sentimental point has been made. Then Clogher nearly ruins the moment by unnecessarily underlining the sentiments: first the woman steps away from the shrine and forlornly looks at her wedding ring – yeah, we get it, she’s sad and lonely; then the camera pulls away from the house, travels up the hill to that oh-so-empty gazebo, and finally comes to rest smack-dab at the intersection where maudlin meets sentimentality.

Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m a heartless motherfucker.

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The Audience Award went to After Ever After, a drama about a recently dumped copywriter named Sidney. I liked the two-and-a-half minute opening montage sequence, which depicts the course of Sidney’s doomed relationship entirely through snippets of dialogue and flashes of imagery. But overall the film just wasn’t to my taste. In the opening scene, brokenhearted Sidney sits in a bar crying in his beer to the one person who’ll listen: the bartender. Not that the bartender wants to listen to his whining, mind you. She has to. She’s stuck there with him and tries to express her patent disinterest as politely as possible, telling Sidney “I’m not apathetic. I just hear this too often… Please realize that your situation isn’t so different.” Happily for the bartender Sidney soon goes away; we viewers aren’t so lucky. For the next 25 minutes we’re forced to step into the shoes of that I’ve-heard-it-all-before-and-if-I-hear-it-again-I’ll-yank-out your-tongue bartender and tag along with Sydney as he goes step by interminable step through the alleged four stages of heartbreak – or, as the film’s overwritten tagline puts it “the four phases of mental instability following an infatuated relationship’s breakup.”

So, yeah, it’s competently made, but the bottom line *for me* is that I just couldn’t muster much empathy for the insufferable protagonist. But what do I know? It won the Audience Award via Facebook votes, so it must be good.

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My favorite film of the festival, #OMGIMTRENDING, deservedly won for Best Cinematography. I think it should have won for Best Editing too. (The elliptical editing of It’s Natural to Be Afraid struck me as showy and exhibitionistic, serving no discernible purpose other than to obscure a nonsensical story about a grieving man who moves on with his life after heroically taking a bullet egg for a damsel in distress.)

#OMGIMTRENDING was directed and edited by Jorge Enrique Ponce, who fully understands that good film comedy depends as much on the timing of the editing as it does on the timing of the performers. Take, for example, an amusing moment from the diner scene at the 6:25 minute point of the film. Fletch, Wanda, Dusty, Smooch and Murdoch are chatting in a booth when the conversation turns to the picture Fletch took of the pink unicorn that stole his beloved fixie:

Fletch: Did you see the pic I uploaded?

Wanda: That messy attempt at a picture?

Murdoch: Looks like a homeless Fredo.

At this point Smooch, whose eyes rarely stray from his iPhone, interjects to inform everyone that Fletch just got ten new Twitter followers because of that photo. The gang is incredulous:

Wanda: What?

Fletch: What?

Murdoch: What?

Ponce then gets a laugh by breaking the established pattern. We expect Dusty to follow suit by also saying “what” to Smooch, but instead Ponce reverses course and cuts to Dusty responding not to Smooch’s comment but to Murdoch’s earlier “homeless Fredo” comment.

Dusty: What’s a homeless Fredo?

The comic effect is achieved (partly) by the timing of the cutting – it’s funny because it surprises us, it violates our expectations. Compare that amusing bit to this one from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World:

Ramona is greeted by Scott as she enters the club:

Scott: “Hey, you totally came.”

Ramona: Yes, I did totally come.

A few seconds later Scott’s sister, Stacey, introduces herself to Ramona:

Stacey: Please excuse my brother, he’s chronically enfeebled. I’m Stacey.

Ramona: “Hey”

Stacey then introduces Ramona to Wallace, Scott’s gay roommate:

Stacey: This is Wallace, his roommate.

Wallace: “Hey”

Then she introduces Ramona to her boyfriend, Jimmy:

Stacey: This is my boyfriend, Jimmy.

We expect the established pattern to continue with Jimmy saying “Hey” to Ramona, but instead Wright cuts back to Wallace seductively saying “Hey” – to Jimmy!

The same comic principle – the element of surprise – is at work in both scenes, which rely on the timing of the editing to achieve the desired effect. I don’t know the extent to which Ponce consciously modeled his scene on this one from Scott Pilgrim, but consciously or not, he has learned his lessons well. At the very least he has the good sense to “borrow” from the best.

Now take a look at another moment from that same diner scene. To set this one up it’s important to note that Murdoch, Wanda, and Smooch sit on one side of the table and Fletch and Dusty sit on the other side. Ponce establishes a shot/reverse shot pattern and rigorously adheres to it throughout the scene, cutting back and forth between the characters as they talk to each other across the table. As the scene progresses, you’ll notice that, except in an early establishing shot, Murdoch, Wanda, and Smooch never appear together in the same frame. Instead, Ponce insistently employs only one-shots and two-shots (mostly two-shots) – a series of medium close-ups of Murdoch and Wanda, or Wanda and Smooch, or any one of the three alone, but never the three of them together in a shot.

But, again, Ponce breaks the pattern for comic effect. The pay-off comes at the 8:17 minute point of the film: a three-shot of Murdoch, Wanda, and Smooch – together at last after more than three minutes of persistent one-shots and two-shots. It occurs right after Fletch, now tragically without his fixie, broaches the subject of public transportation.

Fletch: Will you help me find my fixie?

Wanda: Sure. Are you riding your fixie?

Fletch (exasperated): My fixie got stolen!

Wanda: Right. So, are you, like, walking?

Fletch: I guess I’ll take…public trans…por…tation.

Now we cut to the aforementioned three-shot, showing the now-speechless hipster trio looking at Fletch with utter bewilderment, shocked that he would even consider suffering the indignity of travelling by public transportation. That, my friends, is imaginative editing.

The other two films in the festival I haven’t mentioned are:

2 Ambassadors – a “mockumentary” about two ignorant Dutch advertisers who plan to make a commercial about maternal death in Africa. Although little more than a series of sketches loosely connected by a plot involving one of the advertisers impregnating a local woman, the film is undeniably funny.

Chase, in Prose – a middling thriller about a horror writer whose in-progress novel undergoes a discernible softening when he falls in love – much to the chagrin of his greedy, diabolical agent. Tragedy predictably ensues.

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