Graveyard Shift Shorts @ Nashville Film Festival
Nashville Film Festival coverage via Jason Sparks Our Man In Nashville
GRAVEYARD SHIFT SHORTS 1—FRAYED
In what Stephen King termed “The Land of Ago,” the feature film was not the only thing a viewer saw for the ticket price. There were also films called “short subjects,” and you’re actually familiar with a lot of them. The Looney Tunes that once filled Gen-X’s Saturday mornings, the misadventures of Messrs. Horovitz, Fienberg, and Horovitz, the ripping yarns of Alfalfa and company, the newsreels and serials—these were, for a long time, an expected part of the cinema experience.
Now, of course, the only “opening act” for most films is a series of commercials and trailers (and film festivals are no exception, but more on that later). That doesn’t mean, however, that short subjects have ceased to exist—they still do, they’re still made. They just aren’t shown as commonly. Film festivals screen them, and the Nashville Film Festival is no exception. The NFF’s Jason Shawhan, whose official title is “Graveyard Shift Curator” (another subject we’ll return to), has curated two separate nights’ worth of shorts—specifically “Graveyard Shift” shorts; the first set, he affectionately dubbed Frayed (which he insists is a pun on ‘fraid, as in afraid; see what he did there?).
The first film of the night was Ryan Worsley’s Good Girl, the press package for which simply describes it as follows: “The happiest dog in the world faces her worst nightmare when her favorite ball is stolen”. I took this to mean that the titular Girl (Princess The Dog, a lovely Golden Retriever and a fine actress) would lose her ball, and that the common visual language of horror films would serve here to turn a dog losing her ball into the stuff of terror, resulting in a funny/cute experience for the viewer. I…was incorrect. Oddly, I spent the first 3 of the movie’s 4 minutes thinking I was correct; we see GG and her human playing catch in extreme slo-mo, with intense string music playing behind. Then comes minute 4, which…well, remember, the press package says her ball “is stolen”. In minute 4, she responds accordingly.
Following Good Girl was Dan O’Brien’s Trick Or Treat: Healing Old Wounds, which imagines a therapist holding group sessions with Leatherface, Freddy Kreuger, Jigsaw, Pennywise, and other iconic horror characters (all played here by puppets). It’s a fun short, a goof on horror characters living day-to-day lives; in one scene, Leatherface offers the therapist a bowl of chili. If you’re familiar with his films, you’ll understand why, when the therapist takes a spoonful, Pinhead (late of the Hellraiser franchise) tells him, in his usual stentorian tone, “Um. I wouldn’t eat that, if I were you.” (Cut to Leatherface staring crossly at Mr. Head.)
The light comedy of Trick was followed by the atmospheric gloom of Esther. Set in Virginia in 1912, the titular Esther is the wife of a farmer—until, at least, said farmer murders her. This being a horror film (well, horror short film), the farmer does not simply get away with the murder, in that his wife has a capacity for returning from the dead. Or she may, at any rate. Director Montana Mann has a storyteller’s gift for creating a mood, and letting that mood do much of the heavy lifting; I wager she could remake Wuthering Heights like nobody’s business.
Following Esther was another tale of a relationship navigating issues, the darkly comic Mountain, by Alec Cohen & Davy Gardner. Erica Hernandez and Anthony Sneed are a young couple, watching Casablanca and sharing a bag of potato chips. Hernandez says to her beau, “don’t let me have any more of these”, and then she receives a phone call. The aftermath of that call, and of Sneed’s attempt to “be a good boyfriend” (which is a phrase he will ultimately deliver in a bloodcurdling scream), drive the picture from there, and foster laughs and horrified gasps from the audience.
The next film up was called Hunks, and I will again defer to the press package: Katie Kapunza and Hector Padilla describe their work as “an animated reaction to male stereotypes in rock culture”, about “the grueling institution of male posturing…and how difficult and demeaning it must be to insist that men live up to the macho, scumbag image of male culture”. All of which to say, it’s seven minutes of hand-drawn male genitalia…spinning.
Moving, in the immortal words of Kermit the Frog, right along, we come to R.J. Blake’s Tik Tok, about an app—no, not that one—which allows its users to rewind time itself and take a Mulligan on an unpleasant moment, which is exactly what Jon (J. Norman Riley) and Claudia (Maggie Mae Fish) do on their first date. In other words, they both do it, again and again, despite the app’s warning that overuse will damage the time-space continuum. This could go down one of two roads—sci-fi exploration or rom-com—and it essentially chooses the latter. It’s well-acted, funny, a breezy narrative.
The breezy mini-rom-com was followed by Will Bakke’s The Study, which is a short film made for a very specific purpose: as a test run at a longer film. Six strangers meet at a remote chalet in the forest, each participating in the titular study, their instructions very specific: Take one of the pills they’ve each been given, and then hang out, awaiting further instructions. They do so, allowing for ample character exposition, until one of them, fending off boredom, throws a beer can at a painting hanging over a fireplace. The can goes through the painting, and, despite the brick chimney from which the painting hangs, the can…keeps going. The feature film, if Bakke raises the funds with which to shoot it, will (we assume) tell us where the can went/what those pills do/what fate awaits the strangers. I hope that happens—this was easily the most intriguing of the films I saw at this screening, tightly edited, impressive effects, retro title credits worthy of a seventies TV movie. (Hey, I know what I like.)
Study was followed by Dan Hass’s Magic H8 Ball. At a clinic, a young gay man (Nathan Mohebbi) learns that his boyfriend has given him chlamydia; during this same clinic visit, he happens upon a Magic 8-Ball, the ersatz fortune-telling toy we all remember from childhood (“ANSWER UNCERTAIN TRY AGAIN LATER”, etc). This ball, however, seems to be truly Magic, in that it begins to answer direct questions asked by our protagonist—as well as encouraging him to steal a bicycle and kill his ex-boyfriend. Like Tik Tok, we have again a film at the crossroads of sci-fi and rom-com; this one, as it happens, is far funnier, and might be said to have a better ending.
Because Mr. Shawhan, the curator of these films, takes delight in stripping our gears, we go from the riotous Magic to I See You, by Aidan Moretti. And when I say “by Aidan Moretti,” no Dixie do I whistle: He wrote it, produced it, directed it, stars in it, and created his own digitally-rendered squirrels. (No, seriously.) It’s four minutes of stark meditation on watching and being watched, as experienced by a young man (Moretti) in an apartment with a pair of binoculars. Is he alone? Yes, in that he’s by himself; as for whether or not he’s the only one doing any watching, well…
The last film in the collection was Mac Cushing’s The Full Moon, which starts as an atmospheric thriller about a detective turning to Tarot cards for help with a murder investigation, and turns into something I’m fairly sure was written by a nine-year-old. I won’t say what, but Cushing pulls off a tonal shift here that is absolutely unforeseen, and as such, brilliant, if silly (again, written possibly by a nine-year-old). The entire evening was an entertaining deep-dive into the fringes of cinema, outside the boundaries of the conventional box-office.