Throughout the years when I truly harbored an Oscar obsession, I seldom had an opportunity to see any of the nominees for best live action short or even the winner. Recently, I happened to have been contacted by representatives of three short films that have all qualified to be a potential nominee for the 2011 award, though we have no idea if any or all of the shorts will even make the preliminary cut let alone the final list at this point. Rather by coincidence or something in the air, the three films share some common traits: each features an Oscar-nominated performer (in one case, a winner), each deals, to some extent, with ways people escape and all three feature piers and bodies of water, even if only in passing. What fascinated me the most was the huge differences in running times. To qualify in the category, you have to be less than 40 minutes long. These films clock times that run about a half-hour, 18 minutes and six minutes in length. I'm reviewing them alphabetically, which happens to coincide from shortest to longest.
Six minutes wouldn't seem like much time to tell a story or create a character, but writer-director Brent Roske more or less accomplishes this through the use of the third skill he employs on his short African Chelsea: editing. (He filmed it as well.) In that brief amount of time, Roske manages to tell his complete story through the judicious cutting of quick shots whose juxtaposition and order let us know what we need to about the character of Chelsea (Corinne Becker), a young woman who fled her dysfunctional homelife to live alone and work as an exotic dancer.
The home she ran away from is headed by her overbearing mother Anna (Sally Kirkland, 1987 best actress nominee for a completely unrelated Anna). Playing the third character who carries any significance is Tosa Oghbagado as Tosa, the bodyguard for the dancers at the club in which Chelsea works. Kirkland also wrote and sings the short's recurring song "Indian Man."
While you might expect the editing to be frenetic from beginning to end, African Chelsea contains frequent slow, sometimes moving passages. The short played at Cannes and has earned praise from a wide-range of sources, including none other television pioneer Norman Lear (All in the Family), who hailed it as a "wonderful film" and called Baker "a lovely actress."
Roske received a Daytime Emmy nomination in 2006 with director Chuck Bowman in the category of outstanding achievement in video content for nontraditional delivery platforms for Sophie Chase. Anyone who would like to watch African Chelsea can see it for free at IMDb here.
While writer-director Elfar Adalsteins' Sailcloth might be nearly three times as long as African Chelsea, the six-minute short could contain about 300 times as much dialogue. Actually, I'm not being mathematically truthful with that statement for there isn't any dialogue in Sailcloth. Then again, when your film focuses on the wonderfully expressive face of the actor John Hurt, who needs words anyway?
The 71-year-old two-time Oscar nominee (for best supporting actor in Alan Parker's 1978 film Midnight Express and for best actor in David Lynch's 1980 take on The Elephant Man) plays an unnamed resident of a nursing home in Sailcloth. Our first glimpse of him pans on his aged hand as a nurse checks his pulse while he lies in bed. Her simple action awakens the man to a fully vibrant state and soon he's out of bed, shaving, dressing and doing some other things I best not share because part of the short's joy comes from deciphering the man's motives and the movie's direction.
Granted, eventually what the man has in mind becomes clear, but until we get there, Adalsteins steers us between moments of humor as well as poignancy, all played pitch perfectly through Hurt's masterful facial expressions. He never utters a word, though he does let out a laugh at one point. Adalsteins' writing and direction couldn't be better served than they are by Hurt. The filmmaker also gets help from Karl Oskarsson's cinematography.
If Sailcloth contains any element that works against it, that would be the original score by Richard Cottle, which has a tendency to underline the mood of every moment in which its music plays. Sailcloth would work just as well — if not better — if its score were less obvious or not noticeable at all. In one of the film's best sequences involving Hurt, a bathroom, a cigar and an umbrella, the score isn't used at all and by using solely the natural sounds of the environs, the sequence delights even further.
Sailcloth received the Grand Jury Prize as best short film at the Rhode Island Film Festival and was an official selection at the Raindance Film Festival in London. It has been named an official selection for the Brest European Short Film Festival to be held Nov. 8-13 in France. The short, which was filmed in the coastal village of St Mawes in Cornwall will return to the region for the Cornwall Film Festival this Friday-Sunday for a screening and Q&A. It also has been named an official selection of the St. Louis International Film Festival to be held Nov. 13-23.
The longest of the three shorts stars Melissa Leo, last year's Oscar winner for best supporting actress for The Fighter and an Emmy nominee this year for her work in the HBO miniseries adaptation of Mildred Pierce. (Of course, Leo was snubbed by the Emmys for the second year in a row for her best work — as Toni Bernette on the criminally neglected HBO drama Treme.)
Leo plays Sara, the primary caregiver for her daughter Angelina (Kelly Hutchinson), who is dying of an unspecified disease. Sara gets an unwelcome visit from her estranged fisherman husband Sonny (Peter Gerety). The Sea Is All I Know marks a reunion of sorts for Gerety and Leo as both were regulars on the NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street, though not at the same time. However, the story that introduced Gerety's Stu Gharty character did have Gerety as a guest interact with Leo's memorable Detective Kay Howard.
As if Sara and Sonny's relationship weren't already fraught with tension, a new debate and crisis arises as Angelina begs her parents to help her end her life. It not only sparks a new argument between the two over the issue of dying with dignity but ignites questions of faith and spirituality within each of them as well. Leo, as you would expect, turns in a solid performance, but for me Gerety ends up as the standout here. It especially comes out when he's discussing his problems with fellow fishermen Ghent (Michael Graves). Sonny says that it just isn't right for a child to die before the parent and Ghent comments, "Who are we to understand the reason for our suffering? Jesus suffered." This sets Sonny off and Gerety performs the speech masterfully. “Fuck that! Fuck that! I don’t want to hear about Jesus suffering. For how long? A couple of hours? Just for a few hours? You know what I think? Jesus suffered because his friends abandoned him. Jesus suffered because God abandoned him for a few hours. You look at my baby up there — suffering in that house for months. You look over, you see people eatin’ shit all their lives — that’s suffering. Jesus suffered — it ain’t natural to send your own son to the gallows.” Gerety’s speech, for me anyway, ends up being the film’s best moment.
The Sea Is All I Know was written, directed, co-produced and even partly scored by Jordan Bayne who, prior to turning to filmmaking, worked as an actress since the 1990s. Anyone who has read me on a regular basis knows how important a topic Death With Dignity is to me, being bedridden myself. While the short certainly has strong performances, I believe it has the misfortune of coming on the heels of two superior works that looked at the subject: You Don't Know Jack, the HBO biographical film about Jack Kevorkian starring Al Pacino and the superb HBO documentary How to Die in Oregon.
What separates the long-form biographical feature and the documentary and make them superior to The Sea Is All I Know while covering similar subject matter is that the other two films tackle the issue without getting bogged down in melodramatic flourishes. The short film does it to such an extent that the issue becomes a sidenote. Sara mentions Angelina's desire to Sonny once and he objects. The two then have separate theological moments, a confrontation about their own relationship, end up in bed together and then seem to be feeding her a fatal elixir. If there were a ccnversation between them settling the matter or even something that said explicitly what state they lived in or how they would obtain the lethal dose, the short omits that scene. There is no volunteer from any agency assisting them with their daughter's final exit as there would be in most states that have had the foresight to legalize Death With Dignity.
Perhaps The Sea Is All I Know plays differently to people who aren't as familiar with the issue as I am, but the distractions and discrepancies took me out of the short with the exception of that one great Gerety speech. When it premiered at the Palm Springs International ShortFest, it was awarded Best of Fest by the audience and Melissa Leo won the Grand Jury Prize for best actress at the Rhode Island Film Festival, the festival where Sailcloth won the Grand Jury Prize for best short. I believe those Rhode Island voters recognized the same things I did since of the two shorts (though I assume others I haven't seen also competed), the better short won.