As counterpoint to that last missive, I've been thinking about times when student film gets it right, and how cool that is. You may well never see these films - being far too demure to put any of my stuff on here (which, obviously, is the only thing stopping it ALL being here), these selections from the past 5 years' filmmaking are, for one reason or another, pretty hard to get hold of. (I've tried to restrict myself to one film per crew, excepting some other gems). But you're missing out...
Hellbent, Ryan Jackson
Many student filmmakers will lament that "if only they'd had longer": that their stories are so BIG they couldn't possibly be done justice in 5-12 minutes. Consequently these films end up feeling unsatisfying and half-formed, and offering this criticism to the tortured artist will only serve to vindicate their malformed self-image as Auteur Of The Huge.
Hellbent, though, is the only student film I can think of that actually manages to make good on this spirit. While completely self-sufficient and satisfying in and of itself, Hellbent is very clearly a small story set in a larger universe; and, more impressive yet, by the time the credits roll, you're desperate to go back.
Jackson (no relation) packs his breakneck dash to the 5min finish line with such a visceral charge, so much ugly, gutter-breathed life, you just can't wait to see what might be next. From the bravura opening shot (Jackson spent the summer before the shoot building his own crane, and the fact that he only used it once just adds to the film's singular charm) to the defiantly me-opposing end credits (thank you, Mr. Keenan), Jackson - aided and abetted by James McKnight's feverishly assiduous editing - makes every second count.
What immediately grabs - and what lasts - about Hellbent is that it's a surprising rarity in student film: not just the most unashamedly exploitative grindhouse b-pic to come out of its climate, but - I can't believe it myself - the only unashamedly exploitative grindhouse b-pic etc. Jackson knows what he likes, and he does nothing but. And in a climate of films that try to be so much and end up with so little, this sort of thing deserves to be celebrated.
If only he'd had longer...
[up] [up] [down] [down] [left] [right] [left] [right] A B A B Start, Kirawat Sahasewiyon
Documentaries about videogames are easy to come by. Watchable documentaries about videogames, somewhat less so; watchable documentaries about videogames by film students? You'd better ask Pope (his Thai given name) Sahasewiyon.
Starting as a densely packed tour through the medium, UUDDLRLRABABS soon evolves into Sahasewiyon, avid gamer, exploring the somewhat unchartable terrain of videogame violence, visiting along the way cases he feels to be emblematic of a growing insanity within the gaming populace. Now's probably a good time to mention that - as evidenced by his body of work - Kirawat Sahasewiyon is one of the most uniquely bizarre people you will ever meet. (I once had a conversation with Pope where I felt faced by a choice between clinging to sense, or abandoning myself to his way of thinking. I confessed this to him, and he told me, "I'll thow you how deep da wabbit hoe goeth". God bless that man).
The entire picture feels like the closest a mortal will ever get to taking an excursion into Sahasewiyon's deeply sane, deeply unique mindset. Brightly colored, frenetic, finding brilliance and genuineness within imperfection and artifice, and all tied together with an innate narrative cohesion, a collection of narratives - stories of obsession, of geeking and of violence - are played out using avatars from the games they reference. This masterstroke alone would make the film worth viewing; add the bonus of a one-time trip into a mind that's truly one in a million, and it's really too good to pass up.
Fever, Nicole Mony
A had a drama teacher who used to say: "first you try to make 'em laugh; then you try to scare 'em; then you get to the good stuff". Fever exists right on the cusp between those second and third options. Out of an archive full of mediocre slashers and paint-by-numbers serial killers (can we just have no more of these guys, please? Anywhere, ever??), Fever manages to define itself with a delicious, lyrical, pervading unease - only it's a sibling drama.
Making excellent use of her location, Wellington's Rose Gardens, Mony crafts a fearful excursion through landscapes both literal and narrative that are thorny, stormy and threatening. The meat of the plot plays out only in conversational reference: it's held together and relayed atmospherically, tonally, by darkening weather, thorny rose bushes, distant thunder.
It's as if our two protagonists - the performances suggest that Mony went out on a major student-film limb and actually paid attention to the acting - are at war not just with one another, but with the elements themselves, fighting darkness, rain and a hostile landscape to be queens of all they survey. It's scary. It's good stuff.
Au-To-Ma-Ton, Jason Howden
Visually in a class of its own, Au-To-Ma-Ton is the perfect example of a small story well told. Dialogue is minimal; indeed, of the two characters, one spends a third of the film played by a plaster statue.
There's a childlike simplicity to Howden's story and its telling: his preoccupation with fairytales and storybook tropes seems almost at odds with the sophisticated aesthetic of the picture, which takes its minimalist claustrophobia to baroque extremes. The penultimate shot may - debatably - be evidence of Howden biting off more than he can chew, but in a story of such artful excess within such admirable economy, this is more than forgivable.
Pivot/What Are You Gonna Do With That Axe, Jane?, You Jae Lee
Inscrutable, indecipherable, pretentious, and quite possibly misguided and stupid. This is a film nobody should have tried to make: like its subject matter, it's almost certainly the misbegotten child of too many self-indulgent forays into art theory. However, there exists the possibility that for all the Lynchian gameplaying Lee subjects us to, this machine is that rare exception that really does boast a God within.
Even the story confounds. Is it a musing on destructive art? Is it a simple story about a woman who misses her dog and/or is worried her boyfriend is having an affair? (Is he even her boyfriend?) Is someone, at some point, brutally murdered? Nothing is made clear; everything is irrelevant and yet seems like it might be vital in deciphering Lee's cryptic offering.
The trouble here is that Axe (or its vanity extended edit, Pivot, for thoughts on which notion see above) really, quite plainly, does not suck. It's visually daring, sometimes striking; the movie isn't pervaded by a recluctance to play by the rules, so much as an utter disregard for the idea that there might be rules. Sometimes this results in cliche; from time to time, it presents images that hit you right in the gut.
It's quite likely that Pivot/Axe is pretentious shit. Given the milieu from which it emerges, and some of Lee's other work, it's anyone's guess as to whether there is any point to this, or whether it's a joltingly visual slice of nothing; all fancy footwork covering a lack of substance.
But then again, it's possible that it's - go on, say it - frustratingly, misguidedly fantastic.