Several couples chat casually, surrounded mostly by empty red velvet seats inside Brookline, Massachusetts’s Coolidge Corner Theatre in early November. It’s 7:12 pm, exactly 12 minutes after the lights should have dimmed and about 11 after the projector should have whirred into action. The crowd starts to show signs of restlessness just as the screen flickers with the clear sign of an uncooperative DVD player. The manager steps forward to announce that the screening will be delayed yet another five minutes. One begins to feel that if this event intends to adopt the moniker of “film festival,” it will have given the concept an emphatically low-rent makeover.
The first night of the Chlotrudis Short Film Festival took place on November 1 with a second identically programmed evening on November 3. It’s only the festival’s fifth year, but it is already undergoing significant changes. Formerly a one-night affair at Coolidge, a second night has been added across the Charles River at Cambridge’s Brattle Theatre. Though the festival has traditionally been held in February as a lead-in to the annual Chlotrudis Awards, an anti-Oscars ceremony to recognize achievement in independent film, it has been moved to November to avoid schedule crowding and to give it stand-alone attention.
Even as the festival seeks to expand, it maintains an inviting small-scale charm. The 10-film lineup was introduced by the Chlotrudis Society’s president, Michael Colford with warm gratitude, and the festival incorporated a silent auction with the Coolidge event offering such prizes as handmade quilts and screening time at the theater. Of the two directors present to discuss their films, one admitted he was missing his bowling game to be there.
Unfortunately, this year’s festival encountered a number of problems—most notably, poor attendance. As the festival owners proudly proclaimed, the last incarnation of the festival, held in February earlier this year, sold out the Coolidge Corner Theatre, but on opening night, the venue was only at about one-quarter capacity. The second night also fared poorly, with only about 40 filmgoers evading post-election trauma to seek entertainment. The festival organizers quickly pointed to the occasion’s unfortunate scheduling as an explanation. Hilary Nieukirk, program director for the festival, said, “This time of year is tricky with the World Series and the election.”
The films in the 100-minute event were also disappointingly middling. Only 10 shorts made it through the screening process, a notch down from the previous festival’s 13. Of those 10, the ratio between the mundane and the memorable was damningly high. By the festival organizers’ own admission, this was not a particularly good year for submissions. Colford, also the festival’s founder, admitted that there were “a lot of bad films this year.” He attributed the dearth of quality films to the calendar shift, which allowed only nine months for new submissions between this and the last go-around. “There was just not enough lead time,” Colford says, so they “couldn’t get the call out earlier.”
Nevertheless, the collection of films did feature some vivid highlights and a particularly strong climax, that demonstrate several robust auteur talents at work. The first entry, Stray Heart, directed by Jason Di Rosso, is a heavily narrated character study of a church caretaker who gradually becomes obsessed with shoplifting. The film features effectively bleak black-and-white cinematography and some witty visual embellishments, as when the protagonist positions a Godzilla amidst a set of crosses. But the distractingly overt Pi cribbing results in a work in which dourness gets the better of it.
John Jameson’s Out and About tracks a couple as they simultaneously navigate the mazes of video store aisles and relationship woes. A good lead performance by Phil Van Hest and a handful of punchy one-liners can’t elevate the utterly banal, predictably gendered dialogue above cutting-room-floor Kevin Smith.
Tico Tico, a small delight by Nisa Rauschenberg, pairs a madcap rendition of the titular song as performed by Shooby “The Human Horn” Taylor with a dynamic construction paper collage. Rauschenberg’s attention to minutiae in the trembling and dancing of the images to the beat recalls some of the song visualization music videos of Michel Gondry, and its position in the program was a welcome respite amidst the festival’s grim first half.
The subsequent transition from Tico Tico to Kirill Davidoff’s The Cry was an inexplicably awkward one, juxtaposing a frothy sing-along with a wintry expose of post-tragedy Chernobyl. The grimy, Corbijn-informed photography obsesses over destroyed machinery and dying Ferris wheels, propelled by a muffled children’s choir that is ultimately besieged by the buzzing drone of radiation detectors. Hilary Nieukirk pointed to Davidoff’s short for its unique style and film stock, and indeed, the isolating effect of the oversaturated imagery is genuinely evocative, particularly in a horrifying scene where a majestic horse faces imminent death at the claws of a pack of wild dogs.
The most enlightened works arrived at the screening’s climax in the form of a trifecta of flawed but abundantly promising shorts. Once Upon a Time There Was a King, directed by Massimiliano Mauceri, depicts a couple in a heated row, then recreates it with the characters’ roles reversed. The set-up is gimmicky, but the tension in the film’s one-take approach, the flashes of color that emerge out of the black-and-white palette and the operatic musical interludes suggest a firm grasp of cinematic forms. The short also raises an interesting filmic possibility, likely unintentional, in the framing of the subtitles above the actors’ heads, evoking creative potential for interplay between subtitles and the on-screen action.
Next in the trifecta, the disquieting A Troublesome Desire, directed by Anna Sikorski, manifests the confused desires of a young girl for her older sister’s lover with startling edits and grotesque imagery. With almost no dialogue, the story of the girl’s sexual frustration is carved in the expressive faces of the three leads and represented with a series of bewildering symbols that include herring eyes bobbing in red soup and slender slits of rice gathering in the boyfriend’s palm.
The last in this small group, and this festival’s best, was Fault, a psychological battle of homoerotic hostility between a tennis instructor and his younger student. The opening composition fills the screen with “WAR,” until the camera pans out to reveal a tennis court “WARNING” sign and an anxious prepubescent boy lobbing tennis balls. Director Justin Swibel smears a polyester gloss over the vibrant cinematography, faithfully replicating the muted, bleached pastels of 70s cinema.
The festival concluded with three throwaway films of dubious quality. Though Colford touted his favorite entry at the festival as Justin Fielding’s Dwaine’s Big Game—a “perfect five-minute movie”—it’s ultimately an unremarkable vignette about a Bostonian’s dream to bowl a perfect game. Jane Doe, directed by Kramer O’Neill, seeks to deconstruct the mundane trappings of suburban and female existence, but relies too heavily on a nonsensical payoff for shock value. The final short, Ronnie Cramer’s Highway Amazon, a documentary about a female bodybuilder who engages in curiously non-sexual wrestling with customers in hotel rooms, merely hints at and fails to fully delve into the emotional depths of its subject.
After the 10 films shuffled offscreen, two of the directors emerged for a question-and-answer session that further emphasized the festival’s role as a haven for fledgling and often penniless filmmakers. Both Fielding (Dwaine’s Big Game) and Jameson (Out and About) shot on digital and credit the format’s affordability and proven mainstream appeal in films like Collateral, with Jameson noting “if Tom Cruise can do it, anyone can.”
Any festival can have an off year (just look at the spotty Cannes offerings of the past few years), and the best that Chlotrudis has to offer still shows that the potential of independent filmmakers continues to percolate.