A special edition of SOS in honor of Adam Yauch, aka MCA of the Beastie Boys. Yauch’s passing is a monumental loss to the worlds of music, film, politics and the texture and beauty of life as a whole. One of the true voices of a generation, Yauch was a pillar of independent art and freedom of expression. He will be missed, but his legacy will live forever. Today we honor him.
Adam Yauch, August 5, 1964 – May 4, 2012.
Movies:Beastie Boys Video Anthology, directed by Various Artists , 1981-2000, United States.
Adam Yauch was far more than a visionary musician in a pioneering band, he was also an exceptionally talented director, creating music videos and feature films under the pseudonym of Nathanial Hörnblowér. Yauch, along with directors like Evan Bernard, Adam Bernstein, Tamra Davis, Spike Jonze, Ari Marcopoulos, and David Perez crafted a canon of work that redefined the music video as we know it, combining cinephilia with a sharp and intelligent sense of humor. This canon was immortalized by the Criterion Collection, the only music videos to be in the library. Essential viewing.
This was the second hip-hop album I ever owned, and it remains in my Top 10 Albums of all time. With sample-heavy production by The Dust Brothers, Paul’s Boutique represents a watershed moment in hip-hop, a collision of texture and density that was started by pioneers like Hank Shocklee and DJ Premiere. But the album is where all of these ideas came together brilliantly, and the rhymes match the brilliance of the production. I’ve gone through four copies of this record and it refuses to age, in fact with each consecutive listen it still sounds like the future of music. The crown gem of the Beastie’s body of work, and easily one of the greatest records ever made.
You can buy the entire album here. Trust me, if you haven’t experienced this album before, you will not be disappointed and your life will forever be changed for the better.
Adam Yauch was a Buddhist who followed the most beautiful tenets of the religion with authenticity and heart, and he used his fame and influence to spread the word of peace and mutual respect. An ardent supporter of the freedom of the people of Tibet, Yauch tirelessly campaigned for the end of the brutal Chinese occupation of the territory. It was because of Yauch’s advocacy that I joined the cause almost ten years ago, and when I can’t attend demonstrations I make an annual financial donation to the Free Tibet organization. I ask that we all make a contribution in Yauch’s honor and ensure that his efforts did not go in vain.
Trailers:Wuthering Heights, directed by Andrea Arnold.
Adam Yauch and the Beasties’ love of cinema was channeled into a passion project called Oscilloscope Laboratories, an upstart film distribution and production company that has, for the past few years of its existence, championed the art of independent cinema and arthouse film. The company has released some of the most bold films that others wouldn’t dare to touch, films like Monogamy, Meek’s Cutoff, We Need to Talk About Kevin and Bellflower. Upcoming from Oscilloscope is one of my most anticipated films of 2012, an absolutely breathtakingly gorgeous adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. I had the great fortune of meeting some of the executives from Oscilloscope at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and I know that they all share the same passion for cinema as Yauch, and the company will continue to expand his bold vision of cinema and his legacy to the artform.
Blogs / websites worth checking out (with Twitter links, if available):
Chuck D beautifully encapsulates what the Beasties mean to the hip-hop and music overall, beautifully calling them “a shot of Jackie Robinson in reverse.” Adam Yauch lives up to his beliefs by addressing what was, at the time, the first public denouncement of America’s war on Islam, spoken without vitriol or an ounce of self-servicing, but rather a heartfelt and genuine call for mutual respect and understanding. Amazing.
Remember, if you want to get a shout out, you gotta let me know!
Let listmania continue on! It occurred to me that in my posts regarding my Top 30 Greatest Films (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) I had promised to put together a list of my top short films. Since there are so many, I’ve truncated it down to ten films.
I had written some time ago on the importance of short films, and why we need to continue making them. It is without a doubt that the short film is one of the ideal forums for experimentation. I derive tremendous inspiration from shorts - they expand the narrative by working with less, they are often visually stunning because energies and resources are committed to a shorter time span. They can be the gateway to further career success - the Academy Awards for Best Short Film is a reality for many.
I find it interesting though that so many of my short film choices are animated films. I find that animation thrives in the short film format. Again this may be due to expense - it’s better to produce high-quality animation for ten minutes than stretch that out to 90 minutes at a mediocre quality level. But in the end it boils down to the story, which has to always capture the imagination. These are the films which have enthralled me the most, and to which I return over and over again.
Most of the films are presented in their entirety on this page. Take your time to view them. Watching them all will probably take an hour or so, so think of it as a free feature film.
10) La Jetée, Chris Marker, France, 1962.
As you might tell from my previous feature films I’ve loved, I really shine to films that are able to execute high concepts through low budgets, applying the tools of screenwriting, performance and in-camera effects. Perhaps the king of this methodology is Chris Marker’s La Jetée (The Jetty), which famously was the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s wonderful 12 Monkeys. Marker tackles time-travel and future dystopia through the use of photo-roman, which is a fancy way of saying he used still photographs set over a narration. I was so inspired by this method that I used it in my thesis film, Abstract Origins, where I used still photographs of a lonely man wandering the barren streets of New York City. It is a technique that is startlingly effective, and I’m shocked why more filmmakers don’t use it more often.
Andrea Arnold has inherited the throne of British socio-realism from Ken Loach, and has emerged as one of the UK’s most bold and daring filmmakers. Her films - Red Road, Fish Tank, and the upcoming Wuthering Heights - have already been given the title of a “canon,” and her subjects all universally revolve around young women trying to find meaning and liberation (both spiritual, sexual and financial) from the dregs.
All of these roots can be found in her Academy Award-winning short, Wasp. Brutal and unflinching, this is Arnold at her most raw and angry, and the double-edged title mirrors the scathing sociological criticism and environmental horror of the British tenement. Ferociously performed and effortlessly photographed, the film is about as subtle as a baseball bat to the neck.
I’ve written about Mothight before, and it was the first film I dissected when I was in undergrad, where I was fortunate enough to learn and be mentored under the late Stan Brakhage, widely considered one of the greatest avant-garde filmmakers of all time. Brakhage was an amazing teacher but he was also a stubborn, curmudgeonly old shit, and perhaps it his his defiance and bitterness with the norm that led him to create such astoundingly original and groundbreaking works of art. Mothlight was the first time I had ever heard of the concept of making a film without a camera - Brakhage assembled the remains of actual moths and sandwiched them inbetween two pieces of perforated tape, which was then run through a projector. The film is a marvel not only in its engineering, but in also its commentary on cinema and art - the living creature sacrificed in its attraction to light, literal death/ suffering for art. It is a remarkable milestone in our understanding of film as a medium, and is relentlessly beautiful.
7) Rubber Johnny, Chris Cunningham, UK, 2005.
A long-form music video (music videos are shorts, in my books) set to a delirious Aphex Twin track, Chris Cunningham’s short is a retina-searing explosion of body horror. Assaulting us with mutilated flesh and sexual vulgarity, the film is repulsively gorgeous, pushing us away with fetid grossness, and yet drawing us in with fascinating details of the human body. The film is the dangling carrot to Cunningham’s career - after a stunning collection of music videos and commercials, capped by Rubber Johnny, the world awaits his feature debut, which has been in the on-and-off works for more than a decade. I suspect when it does happen, it will be well worth the wait.
6) Paris Je t’aime, 14 Arrondissement, Alexander Payne, USA, 2006.
In the wildly uneven collection of shorts Paris, Je T’Aime, Alexander Payne’s contribution is the one that stands head-and-shoulders above the rest, a film that is deserving of its own feature greater than being in the one it is a part of. Payne has long been the king of the miserable and rudderless, but in this portrait of Carol, a mail-carrier holidaying in Paris, Payne perhaps gives us his most enigmatic character since Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick in his brilliant Election.
Carol, who speaks in a nauseating American-inflected French, narrates her emotional experience of being in Paris, presumably to a French class or club. Her droll enthusiasm captures perfectly what it means to be an American abroad - delightfully embarrassing and yet endearingly complete and authentic. Payne shows the love affair between a mind discovering itself and the environment that catalyzed such a profound event. The film is dichotomous in multiple layers - it is shot simplistically and yet its compositions are highly calculated, its delivery is banal and yet its content is esoteric and complex, and the character of Carol is on the surface the epitome of mediocrity, and yet her grasp of the French language and her own psychological awakening suggests a woman of tremendous depth, compassion and curiosity. An absolute gem, and one of my favorite characters in all of cinema.
5) Ryan, Chris Landreth, Canada, 2004.
Canada is the gold-mine for the animated short. The Canadian Film Board’s progressive program of developing home-grown animators of limitless imagination and artistry is legendary. From classics like The Cat Came Back to modern marvels like Madame Tutli-Putli, there is simply no shortage of great animated shorts from Canada, two of which made this list. The first is Chris Landreth’s Ryan, an animated documetary that combines live interview with CGI and archived cell animation. Ryan is the real-life story of Ryan Larkin, a down-on-his luck animator who was nominated for an Oscar in 1969 for his CFB film En Marchant. Larkin, interviewed by Landreth, has been beset with chemical addictions that have rotted and fractured his brilliant mind, a condition that is literally etched into the faces and bodies of the CGI characters. The film is a fascinating exposition on addiction, celebrity, and the desires of the artist to be both anonymous and recognized. Heartbreaking and perfectly executed, Ryan ironically won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short.
4) When the Day Breaks, Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, Canada, 1999.
The other animated Canadian short to make my list, When the Day Breaks was nominated for an Oscar in 1999. It is a true work of fine art, as each frame of the film was meticulously hand-painted. Pause on any frame and you will see a painting worth hanging in any fine art gallery. The film takes on an Orwellian-tone with its allusion to Animal Farm, but rather than a political omniscience, the film emphasizes the connections that all creatures share, bound by events and phenomena both mundane and galactic. A gorgeous meditation on mortality and happiness.
3) An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Robert Enrico, USA, 1962.
"Lynchian" before David Lynch even got into film, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is perhaps the most chilling and macabre short film I’ve ever seen. Plastered faces with permagrin smiles, tortured and manipulated audio, and a dream logic that served to plant the seeds for future classics like Carnival of Souls, The Others and even The Sixth Sense.
Based on a short story by Ambrose Pierce, the film begins on the lynching of a civilian spy by the Confederate Army off a bridge suspended over a river. The man is pushed off the bridge, the noose firmly around his neck. What happens thereafter is a journey through the surreal, particularly a chilly and horrifyingly odd reunion between the man and his regal wife. The scene still haunts me to this date, and I don’t think anything creepier has ever been captured on film. The film won an Oscar in 1962, and was later featured on on both The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
2) everything will be ok, Don Hertzfeldt, USA, 2006.
Don Hertzfeldt is the Walt Disney of his generation, except that he’s not a Nazi-sympathizing asshole. He’s in fact one of the notoriously most soft-spoken and kindest filmmakers working today, and his short film everything will be ok embodies his sensitivity, humor and candor perfectly. While one might think that animating a bunch of stick figures would be a piece of cake, closer examination of Hertzfeldt’s technique reveals an insane meticulousness. There are minuscule movements in the characters that take them from being simple caricatures to almost life-like people, and it is in this link to humanity where Hertzfeldt’s genius resides. The story, like so many other films in this list is a meditation upon mortality, but Hertzfeldt’s wry humor - based primarily through observation of small insouciant details of humanity’s fuck-ups and perplexities - is what separates this work from the rest. There is an endearing sense of humility in this film and the rest of Hertzfelt’s work, something which has become exceedingly rare for any film made in the aughts. Of note too is the film’s gorgeous use of music, especially in the ending. A special, beautiful film.
1) The Street of Crocodiles, The Brothers Quay, USA, 1987.
I’ve written extensively on The Street of Crocodiles and it, along with La Haine, remains as the most influential film in my life, and not just in my career. In this film I discovered my taste and aesthetic, and it was one of those moments when several different ideas, schools of thought, and conflicting moral choices comes to a beautiful amalgamation and forms a cohesive whole. I was thirteen when I saw this film, and at the time I was processing Sartre and Camus (yes, I was a nerd), my love of Gothic and industrial music, the sexualization and contextualization of random objects and substances, and my leanings towards artists like Goya, Munch, Egon Schiele and Marcel Duchamp. There are elements of the Brothers Quay in everything that I do, and it is highly prevalent in Lilith. A classic that spawned a million imitators, and truly one-of-a-kind, never to be captured again.
With this, there’s only one more list to be made, my Things I Liked This Year segment. Happy viewing!
p.s. I couldn’t help but put a strong runner-up in this list, which is Le Grand Sommeil, one of the funniest short films you will EVER see.
It’s always been one of the most difficult questions to answer in filmmaking: do I make a feature or a short film? I find myself asking this question now as, in an epiphany of sorts at 3am last night, I came up with a lovely idea for a short film.
Why make short films? Everyone has their reasons. Some do it as a calling card, others do it as a lead-in to a greater feature. Some make short films because that is all the financing will allow, others make them as purely artistic, personal expressions.
But, like feature films, making a short film is no simple task. While the time frame is smaller (maybe a three-to-five day shoot at most), the work is just as arduous. It requires the same planning and attention to detail that a feature does. So with that in mind, if you’re going to go through all the trouble, why not just make a feature?
As aforementioned, it’s a tough call to make. We can look at it from two perspectives, short-term and long-term.
In the short-term, doing a quality short film (meaning more an amazing story as opposed to feature-level production values, although production value will go a long way), will grant the filmmaker access to film festivals and thereby networking opportunities. And if your short is truly exceptional, it can lead to greater opportunities. I have the good fortune to know two filmmakers who have been nominated for Best Live Action Short Oscars, and one of them, the fabulous Ms. Lexi Alexander, who made the brilliant Johnny Flynton, has gone on to direct some wonderful independent and Hollywood features. It has also worked for filmmakers like Andrea Arnold (Wasp) and Taylor Hackford (Teenage Father).
But with the democratization of filmmaking via digital cameras and desktop editing, the volume of short films being made today is immense. (Theoretically every clip posted on YouTube is a short film). So the number of films competing for festival slots can be overwhelming. In a sea of content, the quality of a short must be spectacular, as the format cannot rely upon star power for obvious reasons.
Quality shorts that get nominated for awards can cost anywhere between $500 to as much as $50k, which is a significant investment for any filmmaker. And yet despite the daunting odds, thousands of short films continue to be made. Why do we do it?
It’s because of the long-term ramifications. Making short films is where filmmakers develop their voices and their craft. They are absolutely necessary to the growth of the film artist, and without them, we can never gain the experience required to make a career out of filmmaking. If one immediately jumps in and makes a feature right off the bat, there’s the chance it may be polished, but there’s likely a higher chance that it will be rough and amateurish. Short films will iron out a lot of those problems.
But we also have to think practically. In today’s distribution market, there is virtually no home for short films save for a handful of DVD compilations and online production companies (e.g. Wholphin and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s absolutely ingenious HitRECord), so when we make a short film, we have to accept that there is a very, VERY high probability that we’ll never see a fiscal return on that investment. And because of these distribution prospects, finding outside investors for a short film can be a never ending process.
But we still need to make short films, which puts us in a pickle. What do we do? Here are some basic pointers that have been passed on to me from other filmmakers and industry vets that might be helpful in this current climate, and make short filmmaking as productive and valuable as can be:
1) Make sure your short is short.
The 15 to 20 minute short is in absolute limbo. It’s too long to programmed with other shorts at a festival, and it’s too short to be shown on its own. The rule is to keep a short film approximately between 1 and 10 minutes. This limitation will also benefit the filmmaker in the long run, because if you can tell a complete story in 6 minutes, you’re beginning to master the art of telling stories in cinema time, a quality that can get you high-paying work in advertising or music videos. Making a short short film also increases your chances of finding distribution for the film.
2) Story counts.
This one is a gimme for any film, really. But the inherent advantage of the short film format is that is allows for radical experimentation of technique and narrative. I think of great shorts like Matthew Barney’s Cremaster films (which had the luxury of corporate arts financing), but the risks that Barney took were astounding, and there’s no reason a non-corporate funded filmmaker cannot take such bold visual and narrative brush strokes. A short film is a place for a filmmaker to flex their creative muscles, so write with invention and conviction.
Short film budgets can be even more restrictive than low-budget features, so plan and prepare everything as much as possible. Storyboard, make performance notes, scout, the whole nine and then some. If one is a filmmaker that likes to capture the moment in a more spontaneous fashion, still prepare as aforementioned, but then throw away your preparation one it comes time to shoot. But regardless, the short film is an exercise in guerrilla filmmaking, and even though their actions appear spontaneous, even guerrillas prepare meticulously for every eventuality. You don’t ever lose money and time preparing on paper.
3) Don’t skimp on sound.
Cinematography and animation are subjective to aesthetic but sound never is. Bad sound is just bad, and it’ll sink a short faster than anything. Invest in a good sound mixer and boom operator. And if shooting digital on a prosumer camera, NEVER use the microphone supplied. It’ll be an expense, but it is always, always a worthwhile one.
4) Apply to the festival circuit, wisely.
Applying to film festivals, especially with the advent of Withoutabox.com, has become an easy and efficient process. But is also is expensive, as festival fees add up exponentially. But here’s a trick, and it usually works about 50% of the time. If you are interested in entering a festival, call the festival offices and ask for the fees to be waived. Let them know that honestly, you poured all your money into making the film and you just can’t afford the fee. Some of the major fests are generous enough to waive the fee. But use this wisely and sparingly.
If you are accepted to a festival, it never hurts to invest in good artwork for your postcards and posters. Remember, you are trying to make your short stand out from the sea of short films, and on the festival circuit, a good poster and postcard can be worth its weight in gold. Not an artist or a Photoshop wizard and don’t have the funds for an artist? Then be a creative producer. Go to DeviantArt.com or to art schools and look for young artists with the talent to bring your concept to life. Make it a mutually beneficial partnership - you get their art, and they get work for their resume and portfolio. Pay for their art supplies (but not software and hardware) and get a unique piece of painted or photographic art for your short.
5) Comedy goes a long way.
This is more an observation than anything, but right now the film industry is in a dearth of good comedy. Today is there is Judd Apatow and everyone else who is doing potty / stoner humor. So doing a very solid comedy short will take you very far. The problem with this is that out of all the film genres, comedy is one of the most impossibly difficult things to write. But just like with artwork, you don’t have to write a comedy script. Find a local comedy club or improv school (The Second City or Improv Olympic for example) and put a notice out for a writer needed for a comedy short. These are people who live, breathe and study comedy. Hire your first writer, and again, make it mutually beneficial. Pay them a small amount, give them writing credit, but in the end, stipulate in your agreement that as a producer, you own every word that is written for the project. It’s not being an asshole, it’s just being pragmatic.
And naturally, of course, there is an exception to every rule, but I think these are pretty solid. So despite the odds even I am planning a short film to shoot this December. It’s a small, stylish film about fashionable women who steal the youth of handsome young men. It’s my haute couture version of a vampire movie, but without the vampires. It’s an exercise of techniques and storytelling devices I’ve always wanted to try, and it should be great fun, as I plan on shooting it in Las Vegas. Will it amount to anything? Who knows. But it has to be made, at least for my own sake.
Sundance Institute trained, journeyman molecular biologist with bonus producing, writing, editing and directing skills. Amateur film historian, unapologetic liberal Tarkovskite with fierce cooking skills and a penchant for unusual stories. I hope you like my writing and find it useful.