Wednesday, September 08, 2010

A Short Survey: Microcinema from RSA, Harmony Korine, and Maxence Cyrin

Up until the digital age, the forum for short video and film has been pretty emaciated. MTV provided a market for the very small commercially-viable subgenre of music videos, and there were a couple shows for the experimental animated shorts... MTV's Liquid Television, and Sci-Fi Channel's Exposure... but generally, you could only see shorts at the film festivals, along with independent films and niche cinema. This is comparable to the short story, which could only get an audience through small periodicals and specialized anthologies.

But now, it's the age of Vimeo and YouTube, and there are new gatekeepers: blogs like Motionographer and Shape+Color (Vimeo channel here), funneling traffic into the most interesting and ambitious work. Of course, the music video is still a dominant subgenre, especially now that publicity has cemented the alignment between free entertainment and brand recognition. However, the new media environment is also creating some strange sinews between the worlds of cinema and advertising (Wong Kar Wai's Philips short film), and fashion (Lynch's short for Dior). These films are aesthetic collisions: fragments of these distinctive and studied directors in all their boldness and idiosyncracy, repurposed to reinforce the calculated and focus-tested images of these branded companies.

The short-form film/video space is vast and versatile, covering a lot of ground. Below are a few interesting instances I've discovered in the past week or so, with a little commentary on each of them.

1. RSA's shorts for Agent Provocateur and Quatre

These two shorts are contracted for intimate fashion companies; they're sufficiently erotic and risque to remind us of the fashion spreads we often see in designer magazines, which are famous for focusing heavily on the shape and sleekness of the body, in all its suggestive capacity. What makes them interesting is that they transcend the basic advertising paradigm, which pretty much always focuses the viewer's attention on a gimmick, a catch-phrase, or a pure product image; commercial narratives are always constructed to advance these product punchlines. These two shorts, on the other hand, are structured around opaque and elliptical narratives, skeletons of storylines abstracted into motifs of power and indulgence and objectification. Unlike the common commercial, it's hard to tell exactly what these pieces are trying to say, and for a certain breed of viewer, this is a powerful technique.

The two shorts offer a case study in empowering versus objectifying sexuality. In the Agent Provocateur short, the traditional gender power dynamics are reversed, with the male playing a role as object to the dominant female. He ends up working as a diminished embodiment of male desire: easy to satisfy, easy to manipulate, and often adolescent and self-involved. The film both highlights and critiques the traditional gender roles by reversing the gaze and subjecting male sexuality to its withering power. This is in stark contrast to the short for Wallpaper, which is a case study in male dominance and female submission, by way of the wandering eye and the closed door. It's possible that RSA literally decided to make the most self-consciously sexist erotic film possible: female sexuality overturned and activated purely for the panoptical eye of the male, looking out of a closed door; the eventual possession of the various women by the male Casanova, who is apparently absolutely justified in thinking he's entitled to this sexual indulgence.

And both are beautifully shot, of course... a common effect of having a short duration to fill, and a large budget and a lot of freedom to fill it.

2. Act Da Fool - Harmony Korine's short for Proenza Schouler

Korine is a bastard child of the video age of filmmaking, a reckless skateboarding maverick who's famous for his challenging films about degenerate outsider America. Act Da Fool is a microcosm of Korine's style, focusing on urban environments and filtered through mutilated film effects, with a stream of consciousness voiceover. It sounds disjointed and raw, but as it goes, you'll discover a flow, through defiance and crassness and into subtle, angst-ridden meditation on the cold reassurance of the indifferent universe. The visuals feel like they were shot with an amateur's hand, but they're too consistent and rhythmic to be dismissed as amateurish; it's really a handcrafted dusting of grime and distortion to distance us just enough from the subjects that we have to make an effort to approach them.

This seems even less goal-driven than the previous shorts. Korine's style is infamously off-putting, even to avant-garde viewers, and it's not going to sell any fashion by making it look sleek and sexy. Luckily, we finally live in a time when being challenging and unpredictable can be profitable, which allows Korine's brutal style to be a valid marketing point. All Harmony Korine has to do is be interesting, and use opportunities as they come... as he used this one, a chance to express his uncompromising view on the beauty and frustration of idle urban life.

3. Maxence Cyrin's film/pop remixes

Here is an interesting project: Maxence Cyrin recomposes pop songs on the piano, and then uses them as a score for re-edited film sequences from classic films. My favorite so far is The Cocteau Twins' Ivo cut with scenes from L'Atlante; there's also Where is My Mind (The Pixies) + The Mysterious Lady, Crazy (Beyonce) + Last Year at Marienband, Around the World (Daft Punk) + 1930's synchronized swimming footage, and D.A.N.C.E. (Justice) + Burlesque footage.

If (somewhat like me) you've always found really old, primitive film footage interesting in theory, but not necessarily for watching, these might appeal strongly to you. Maxence's compositions both defamiliarize and refamiliarize the footage, stripping away the camp and the old-fashioned pacing and the bad dialogue and voiceovers, and creating a more melodic and fluid space for these old images to occupy. The songs, which are recognizable, but still adapted enough to evoke a certain state of mind, are able to transform this footage into something hypnotic and hazily enchanting. Within the listless and disconnect aural space of a solo piano playing melancholy pop tunes, the sentimentality reemerges from this outdated footage, converted into video and reborn for modern eyes.

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