A Wisconsin Film Festival shorts extravaganza!

Grant Phipps considers a plethora of short films included in a few 2021 Wisconsin Film Festival programs—”Birth And Rebirth,” “Do Not Adjust Your Sets,” and “Only The Lonely.”

Grant Phipps considers a plethora of short films included in a few of this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival programs—”Birth And Rebirth,” “Do Not Adjust Your Sets,” and “Only The Lonely.”

Collage (clockwise from top left): Kate Corby’s “West,” Gracie K Wallner’s “Blood Runs Out,” Dan Su and Aaron Granat’s “Erosion Project,” Young Min Choi’s “In Due Time”

Although the number of feature films for this year’s virtual Wisconsin Film Festival is slightly pared down (by about a quarter), the fest still boasts its usual striking array of Wisconsin-focused short films. There may be a reason for that. After surveying over a dozen shorts from returning and newly inducted filmmakers, it’s quite easy to make the blanket assessment that they rank among the fest’s most refreshing and essential viewing.

During an isolated year that has wreaked havoc on my attention span, watching a short film or two per week has become something of a cleansing ritual to the ever-present distractions of (and comforting interactions with) live-streamers, whether they are hosted on Le Cinema Club, Short of the Week, or even YouTube. The festival’s well-curated thematic collections—”Wisconsin’s Only The Lonely,” “Birth And Rebirth,” and “Do Not Adjust Your Sets“—can hopefully serve to reinvigorate those who may consider it a bit daunting to dig in to more extended fare and plan a whole festival itinerary before we all properly return to theatrical havens later this year.

All shorts are listed alphabetically. For their respective programs, please visit the accompanying links.

Blood Runs Out (2020)

The blood cravings of Gracie K Wallner’s film may make one reconsider the very idea of the vampire genre, perhaps in the same way Jenny Hval’s Blood Bitch does as an album cycle and sound collage. The subject matter may seem shockingly funny at first glance, as a young character (Wallner themself) checks a handwritten list of their friends’ menstrual cycles and prepares to dial them on a cordless landline phone. But there’s quite a bit of pathos and lustily eerie red and white imagery sewn into the latter half through inventive cuts (sometimes literally), as the nameless lead sinks deeper into desperation.

Cocoons (2021)

This poetically candid short from director Megan Zabel Holmes is a family affair and stars three-year-old Dottie Jean, who laments the loss of connection to friends through the past year of home isolation. But during that time, as Dottie narrates, she’s developed a fascination with caterpillars entering chrysalis and their hatching into butterflies. This sort of fantastical optimism carries through her free-form imagination for herself, which the director mirrors with the act of freeing butterflies from their netting. Cocoons is a sweetly innocent meditation on personal transformation amidst social stasis in quarantine.

Erosion Project (2020)

A collaboration between choreographer-musician Dan Su and festival veteran cinematographer-editor Aaron Granat is constructed as a waking brutalist hallucination. Scored by Su’s eerie minimalist techno that recalls Jing Lekker’s recent EPs (Adularescence or Psychiatric Population), Erosion Project draws the arching line from human body to stone body of the George L. Mosse Humanities Building on UW-Madison campus. Featuring an array of technical tricks, shifting aspect ratios, and washed-out visuals the color of concrete and lannon stone, the film’s cumulative effect is one of time distortion and hypnotic osmosis. A trippy triumph of sound and image.

A still from Exit Strategy #5.

A still from Exit Strategy #5.

Exit Strategy #5 (2020)

Taking direct inspiration from Layne Redmond’s novel When The Drummers Were Women: A Spiritual History Of Rhythm, Kym McDaniel crafts an experimental video diary that traces her anxiety about relationships to her birth and family. The film begins starkly, immediately juxtaposing the audio of a children’s choir with a montage of close-ups of the word “fuck” scrawled in notebooks strewn across a hardwood floor. While there is a bit of a disjointedness in its visual and aural meditations, Exit Strategy #5 also feels like an authentic document of self-interrogation. McDaniel collects the detritus in life and lets it spill over onto the screen, flaws and all, with a raw exuberance and skin-on-skin tactility.

Former Sinners Of The Future (2019)

Drew Durepos adopts the essay film format for this haunting meditation on friendship and memory. Shot on video and Super8, Durepos traces over a ten-year history between him and friend Braydon with a voiceover that could be characterized by its deliberate diction and menacing curiosity of Rod Serling prefacing a Twilight Zone episode. However, droll hyperbole aside, Former Sinners Of The Future is rather starkly grounded in the autobiographical. Its patient frames amalgamate digital and analogue technology with the lives of artist (Drew) and parent (Braydon), and they consider the sobering angles and web of associations that often lead us back to something innocuously reverent in a moment tinged with darker shades of drama.

Hannah’s Video (2020)

Rendered in shades of white, Julian Castronovo’s intriguing and minimalist narrative short is just about the antithesis of Edith D Rodriguez’s Ashes. Comprised more of silences and hesitance than resolute dialogue, Hannah’s Video thrives in ambiguity, as if something devastating is perpetually about to be revealed. Rather, the two actors (Marianna Scott and Katie Serra) pose open-ended questions to one another. They function in a state of eternal distraction, fixating on the screen as it interprets us. In Hannah (Scott)’s case, she is worried about completing an assignment that pays tribute to her old and now-passed music teacher Mr. James, while friend (Serra) lounges about, preoccupied with social vacuity beyond the silvery realm of their room.

A still from Hear Me Sometimes.

A still from Hear Me Sometimes.

Hear Me Sometimes (2020)

Watching Sofia Theodore-Pierce’s short film feels like a generous embrace, like being privy to a long-lost home movie’s private unearthing. In what would fit in quite nicely with MUBI’s recent experimental programming from Barbara Hammer and Jessica Sarah Rinland (plus Exit Strategy #5 in the same shorts program, Hear Me Sometimes is an abstract chronicle of parenthood and memento entangled with lepidopterology (preserved butterflies). Like McDaniel’s aforementioned film, Theodore-Pierce intensely hones in on the sense of touch and close-ups of hands, as still-lifes superimpose themselves on 16mm footage at home, on the beach, and in the forest. This film revels in and is the manifestation of the statement made explicit that parallels childbirth and acts of creativity.

I’ve Been Afraid (2020)

With a slice of Isaac Sherman’s smartly written art pop novelty that incorporates elements of hyperpop, Cecelia Condit’s I’ve Been Afraid is an exploratory animation collage that relays anxiety and the inexplicable forces in the universe. Fans of ALL’s former “Off The Wall” summer series will be at home in Condit’s ability to amalgamate a Facebook avatar with stock landscape photos and clip art GIFs; it doesn’t feel so removed from a Hitchhiker music video. The wildly colorful palate is an often funny intersection of utterly banal, meme-ish concerns (about burnt toast) and serious apprehensions about one’s identity and future.

In Due Time (2021)

Writer-director Young Min Choi crafts a proper lo-fi quarantine film that borders on the surreal in its cinematic citations and character study. Particularly striking is the honest representation of mundane, almost hermetic routine. That is further layered with intermittent voiceover from actor Kaylene Yong (sporting a yellow Wisconsin Film Fest tee), who suggests a loss of connection and relationship. With overt nods to Taxi Driver and The 400 Blows, In Due Time finds unique and even renewed interest in the study of isolation, which is shot and produced with an ingenuity during a winter that found so many of our lives “frozen in time.”

A still from The Messenger.

A still from The Messenger.

The Messenger (2021)

Emma Chang’s Duelle-esque and Meshes Of The Afternoon-inspired film is a fantastic technical accomplishment and mind-bending psychological dive into the duality of humanity. Gaze upon its skewed undulations, from the yin and yang of its twin characters (portrayed by Lahee Lee), posed about the frame dressed in black and white, to its seasonal cuts. Jinsook Lee’s expressive calligraphy not only serves as the film’s ostensive intertitles-as-proverbs, but they also manipulate the frame and become the frame. Beyond its hydrophilic visual palette and artificially augmented audio, The Messenger is often devoted to a Matryoshka doll aesthetic of stacking frames within the celluloid (or digital) frame itself.

Rah-Rah Riley (2021)

A self-promo and audition tape that becomes a self-interrogating video diary, Maya Castronovo’s Rah-Rah Riley shares the same warmth, sly humor, and pathos of Dylan Pasture and Lauren McCune’s Ready For Love (2019). Castronovo, whose Prom Night was featured in (and graced the header of) our round-up of Wisconsin’s Own films last year, has a certain knack for crafting moody, subtextually rich films. This one features actor Naomi Rubin as aspiring athlete Riley Bradford attempting to woo the coach of the Columbia University women’s basketball team by demonstrating her signature lay-up move, her can-do team spirit, and sisterly bond with teammates. The film’s subversive qualities shrewdly undercut her claims, but never in a way that really feels condescending towards its titular character, but rather a reflection on the complexities of self-image.

Way Upstate (2020)

Many of the films in the “Wisconsin’s Only The Lonely” program feature no dialogue, but perhaps none are more exemplary than Justin Newhouse and Beah Travis’ Way Upstate. Their assured six-minute film captures the essence of revisiting an old haunt in solitude, crisply articulating the sights and sounds that coalesce into a greater whole in our mind. Without uttering a word or even a character name, actor Audrey Pincus’ performance is exceptional, as her expressions shift from bemused to torn reminiscence in this waterlogged cabin. The lyrics of Panache’s “I’m Home” wistfully capture Pincus’ conflicting emotions; and despite not possessing the lucid details of her memory or re-dramatizing them in flashback, the vivid direction and cinematography lend an unmistakably familiar gravity to the excursion.

West (2019)

Kate Corby, whose prior work (and festival fare) includes the stunning time-skip of Hungars Beach (2016), channels a microcosmic heart of the Western genre here, which features interpretive dancer Katie Graves in black boots slinking her way through the picturesque outdoors. Rising and crossing scorched earth, Graves moves by and through a stream, a rising wall of rock, sun-streaks and shadows, crumbled brick structures and adorning ivy. The solo electric guitar twang of Tim Russell scores the duration of the film, as it grows evermore discordant. A beautifully choreographed, entirely wordless narrative emerges as a riff on dusty American myths. Be the cowboy, they may say.

A still from You’re Adorable.

A still from You’re Adorable.

You’re Adorable (2021)

Marissa Bode stars in and directs this student short, which puts a darkly comedic spin on a silent-era love story. The traditional swing-pop standard of “‘A’ You’re Adorable,” which paints an idealistic mental picture as it prances through the alphabet, is the perfect pairing for the young woman’s affections for a nameless boy, as she herself runs through a series of bullet points to ensnare his attention. While the film has a few technical hiccups in its former half, the sheer confidence of the narrative’s devices is altogether funny and compelling. And you’ll never consider taking homemade cookies from the apple of your eye again.

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