I had the chance to see the Autumn season of Future Shorts in the basement of Insomnia cafe in the university district of Taipei, where thirty or so of us sat among mismatched chairs and couches, watching the festival and discussing the films after. There’s very little else like it in Taipei, and it’s always fun to talk movies and meet new film lovers. Also as always, the films compelled me to think about film art and filmmaking, and I was struck that these films, as superficially different as they are, seem to express a similar gritty realism – and, likewise, a similar empty competence.
Even though these films are dissimilar, dealing with everything from sex and love to voyeurism and violence, short film festivals like Future Shorts are particularly interesting because it’s impossible to see the films completely separately from each other. The films, watched in sequence, bleeding into each other, give a feeling that is sometimes completely separate from any one film taken by itself.
Squished together, the films present a reality that is shadowy and ambivalent, where a father can simultaneously assault a bystander in the bathroom of a sports bar and gracefully accept his son’s homosexuality; where a humble security guard can fall in love with a woman – as he watches her over a bookstore’s CCTV. The Autumn Season of Future Shorts was about the everyman – the balding, unhappy and increasingly desperate man trying to make his way in the universe. Overweight, with deep bags under his eyes, he struggles to manage his powerful emotions and survive in a society that is leaving him behind. I remember the most striking imagery – a son trying to escape his father by crossing an empty freeway overpass, a black balloon emerging from a dump, covered in dirt and refuse, a security guard hunched over in a dark booth, watching security cameras. These are dark images.
Optimism and beauty, while present in these films, is reflected out of messy, dirty life, beautiful moments shrouded in sadness and guilt. These are what you might call “gritty,” a popular tone found these days in everything from comedies (like Funny People), to science fiction (like Prometheus), to action movies and comic book movies (The Bourne movies and The Amazing Spider Man).
These films were well-made, and each was effective at telling its own story, to be sure, but I’m simply a little tired of grittiness. I ask myself, why not make a beautiful film? Why not make an adventure? Why not make something pure?
Take for comparison a film like Spirited Away, so colorful and lush, with the deep blue of the sky, the green of the trees, and the deep Chinese red of the buildings, with dragons, stink spirits, a giant baby and a hideous crone. Or take a film like the Chinatown, where Jack Nicholson plays a detective who is intelligent and driven; his nose slit by gangsters, he continues to investigate, undeterred. Films can create amazing worlds, can give us characters with powerful personalities. Films can show us any reality.
I want to watch a film like that!
The ambivalence that is characteristic of gritty films can be a weakening force. For example, look at Coffee Regular, Cairo, one of the standout films of the evening. In no more than four setups and almost no cuts, a woman and her boyfriend discussing sex is completely transfixing. Paraphrasing slightly, the woman tells her boyfriend, “I heard some foreigners speaking frankly on the train about sex, and I’ve decided that we should make love.” She lays down her requirements – that she wear her headscarf, that he buy roses to scatter over the bed (“Aren’t you worried about the thorns!” he retorts). They discuss it, and she convinces her boyfriend to sleep with her. But then, in the end, she loses her nerve and changes her mind.
The film, perhaps, is arguing that no respectable, conservative Egyptian woman would stick to such a plan for more than a couple of hours. So the film ends, nothing different, enjoyable and funny but not particularly challenging. The film could easily be called “realistic.”
But imagine, what if the ending were different? What if the couple left the cafe, planning to make love that coming Friday? The film would be much more provocative, and, I would argue, stronger.
The films fall into another common trap of gritty realism, in that they are overly male-oriented. The masculine focus of the films is clear from a quick application of the Bechdel test. To pass the Bechdel test, a film must:
- Include at least two women
- Who talk to each other
- About something other than a man
All five of the short films failed this test. To be fair, a huge portion of modern cinema somehow manages to fail it as well, but it’s sad that our industry continues to neglect half of the stories out there.
As a filmmaker and a amateur critic, these films entertained me and made me think, offering high production values, top-quality acting, drama and humor. Still, I find myself thinking of the stories that art film continues to miss out on. Women interacting with each other, adventure and joy, unconditional love, science fiction, optimism, beauty. Where is the fun? Where is the adventure? Is life really so dark? But then, I remind myself of my eternal recourse: if you’re not satisfied with the films out there, make a film yourself!