PALM SPRINGS SHORTFEST 2011: Dominic Mercurio's Dispatch

[We would like to thank Evening Class intern Dominic Mercurio for his dispatch from the 2011 Palm Springs International ShortFest.]

When I travel to San Francisco from where I live in Redwood City, it's customary to bring a sweatshirt. You can just about count on it being 10 degrees colder in SF than its neighboring cities, complete with a good amount of cold breezes and unexplainable weather changes at the top of the hour. Perhaps instinctively, I packed that same sweatshirt when preparing for my journey to Palm Springs for the 17th annual Palm Springs International ShortFest. When I drove into Palm Springs to check into my hotel the night before the festival began, the temperature on my dashboard was telling me it was 97 degrees outside, even though it was already 11PM. I figured it couldn't be right, but about two blocks further I spotted a Starbucks on the corner of the busy downtown intersection with mist jets running for its outdoor customers who were dressed in short sleeve shirts and summer dresses. It became clear after getting out of my car at the hotel that the sweatshirt I packed would be collecting dust in my trunk for the next six days.

PS Shortfest 2011_logo.jpgHolding a short film festival in a desert city such as Palm Springs was simply meant to be. What a better way to spend your days in a city whose temperature rarely drops to double digits than to watch a bunch of fun-sized films in an air conditioned theater? For me--a recently graduated filmmaker who had yet to properly attend a film festival--it was an oasis.

This year's line-up featured 331 films from 50 countries around the world. A staggering amount of films. Even spread over five full days of programming, it proved impossible to see them all. Though I rarely breathed the outside air during ShortFest's programming hours (10AM-10PM), I only saw one third of this year's selection (106 short films).

The festival presents its short films in like-minded "packages" with anywhere from 5 to 10 short films usually running around 90 minutes. Each cleverly-titled package contains films with one programmatic theme: whether it be the stupidity of the protagonists ("Idiot's Delight"), a major plot twist in the final act ("Surprise!"), or the inclusion of a major contemporary actor ("Shooting Stars"). On average, showings start every 30 minutes across three theaters in the festival's venue The Camelot Theater located a short drive from downtown.

The Camelot was a great host for the festival. Providing reasonably priced food and drinks made their café a popular place to stop for filmmakers looking to get in a quick bite to eat between screenings. Camelot's main theater holds 539 people and sports a large screen at 58' x 25'. The other two theaters were significantly smaller (around 150 people each). It was clear the festival was doing its best to schedule shows which would most likely draw a larger crowd into the main "Camelot 1" theater; but, there were unfortunately a couple times where I was just barely able to get into a screening after waiting until five minutes before a film started for any last minute no-shows. One screening, "Twisted Tales"--which was to be a collection of dark and twisted stories (precisely my thing)--filled up nearly 45 minutes in advance and no one budged from their seat. I wished they had switched it over to the main theater to accommodate the enormous interest in the program. I wasn't the only pass holder to be forced to call it an early night that night.

There wouldn't be a festival without an audience and ShortFest 2011 drew an enthused crowd. Most screenings I attended were near capacity and several (especially on the weekend) sold out completely. What I found most interesting about observing this year's attendees is that anyone around my age (I'm 22) seemed to have a filmmaker badge displayed around their neck. On average, I was about 40 years younger than the supporting senior audience from the Palm Springs area. This age difference became most apparent during some of the festival's more twisted shorts. During the screening of the dark comedy Bad Dads (starring Michael Cera as a son who has the most fucked up dad ever), I overheard an older couple declaring out loud, "This is so stupid. This is not funny." Sure everyone has their own sense of humor, but this was during the package titled "Idiot's Delight". Perhaps a good time to lighten up for 90 minutes? They continued their blank stare-down of the remaining shorts, rarely letting out even a small laugh, whereas I ranged between being amused to crying from laughter. I probably looked insane sitting next to them.

The short nuggets of cinema that brought everyone in from the heatstroke-inducing temperatures outside came in all different shapes and sizes. Palm Springs considers a short film to be under 40 minutes; but the vast majority of the shorts on display here were around the 15-minute mark. Only a few crawled into the 30-minute range, and some were even a lean 3 minutes. I pointedly tried to watch films from genres I don't normally watch, and usually was pleasantly surprised by them. Drama, romance, comedy, horror, thriller, animation, documentary, sci-fi, and even a small handful of experimental work were showcased.

When it came down to it, most of the films were just ... good. There was perhaps only one program where I didn't see anything that stood out at all. The overheard buzz from fellow audience members seemed to largely support the value of short cinema. One woman told me she loves coming to ShortFest every year because for her the potential value is higher than seeing one long film that might suck. Seeing five, six or sometimes even ten films certainly does increase the chances of seeing something you might like.

For the most part the films were digitally projected off DVD compilations of each program. Admittedly, I wished the quality of these DVD projections were better. It often seemed like we were missing out on some detail in darker shots for several films, and it was clear these were SD DVDs. To my eye, it didn't appear they projected any blu-ray. This also meant 2.0 sound mixes were the norm and some films seemed to get a bit shafted by not being properly turned up. If I can clearly hear the person down the aisle from me chewing his popcorn, that means the film is not up loud enough. On more than a few occasions the projectionist changed the aspect ratio of the film by bringing up the DVD menu (while the film was playing to an audience) and once he even accidently switched the input entirely--leaving the audience groaning in the dark for 20 seconds of a film's Palm Springs ShortFest screening.

Such technical problems flew out the window for films submitted on 35mm. The Camelot's 35mm projectors displayed a gorgeous image complete with surround sound. Because of this, the handful of films projected in 35mm gained significant advantage on looks and sound alone. I quickly picked up which films would be projected in 35mm when the screen's curtain opened up to display a full widescreen image. It never failed to perk up my attention. In my opinion, the films shot on 35mm were generally of higher quality. Five of my personal top 10 were shot and displayed in 35mm, which suggests that it's less common for a filmmaker to go through the financial and technical hoops of working with 35mm over digital when their story sucks.

After each screening the filmmakers were invited up front for brief Q&A sessions and it was too bad that usually half the audience got up and left since several Q&A sessions provided insight into films that initially left me lukewarm. One particularly intense selection of films in the "Transitions" program resulted in an emotional Q&A with director Jordan Bayne. Bayne's film The Sea Is All I Know, which was having its world premiere at the festival, dealt with the difficult subject of parents pulling the plug on dying children. Jordan, watching her film being projected for the first time with an audience, held back tears answering provocative questions on the film's subject.

Throughout the festival I got a chance to talk with a couple of young filmmakers who created some of the films that made my top 10 list. My absolute favorite film of the festival Clear Blue, directed by Lindsay Mackay and shot on 35mm, was a beautifully paced unique story complete with a entrancing minimalist soundtrack. It evoked one of my all time favorite films Let The Right One In (I'm talking about the Swedish version, of course; I never saw the American remake). I spoke with Lindsay after the screening.

Lindsay was humbled by my adoration of her film and I was especially interested to learn of her inspirations. She named Lynne Ramsay, Michael Haneke and (I guessed it!) Let The Right One In as inspirations for Clear Blue and her work as a whole. I learned Clear Blue was her graduate project for the American Film Institute and--though she has completed many other shorts--her biggest project yet. As a filmmaker myself, I was particularly curious to know what it was like for her to tour with her film? She advised me not to expect to be treated like a feature director. In her experience, short filmmakers on tour still pay for their own transportation and lodging. She was quick to add that Palm Springs had been a really great experience so far.

By the end of my trip, I couldn't have agreed more. I am a short filmmaker who--before this year's Palm Springs ShortFest--had really only seen a handful of short films. The extent of my exposure were some "best of" collections from the Academy Awards and mostly the work of fellow classmates. Being at Palm Springs proved to be a great way to gain a broader sense of what is happening in the short film world. Seeing so many young filmmakers in attendance was encouraging and inspiring. The wide range of styles represented in the festival's diverse programs provided an honest assessment of the current state of short filmmaking. I hope to return to Palm Springs ShortFest, provided the films remain fun-sized and the theaters air conditioned.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.
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