Optic Nerve XIII, MOCA’s annual short film festival, screened Saturday night for a crowd of, say, 100 people. In a change from previous years, which exclusively featured Miami filmmakers, the festival’s hour-long program featured the work of filmmakers from 14 different cities, including Miami, Brooklyn, NYC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. One entry was to be purchased by MOCA and placed in the North Miami museum’s permanent collection.
The program began with “Pile of Demon Heads” by Sarada Rauch (Brooklyn), an endearingly silly tale of good-decapitating-evil that appears to take place in a second-grader’s diorama. The short got a chuckle from a still-warm crowd that didn’t realize this was as much story as Optic Nerve XIII had to offer.
Next up was Tara Nelson’s “Hull” (Jamaica Plains, Mass.), a visual poem shot in 16mm and deliberately paced to unnerve the restless. Despite its compelling imagery — a woman’s torso dissolving into the contours of a receding seashore, a pair of disembodied hands wrapped thick in dark turquoise latex — the five-minute film moves at the speed of dripping syrup (going so far as to include a shot of dripping syrup) and hobbled the festival too soon out of the gate.
Skipping ahead, the first film I enjoyed was “Hot Circuit”, mainly due to the ingenuity of San Francisco filmmaker Christina Corfield, who manages to fabricate a serviceable living room, classroom, diner, hot rod, and gas station out of mere paper.
In “Hot Circuit”, we have a skeleton storyline: Mid-century blonde heeds chauvinistic mores handed down by her mother, gets knocked up and subsequently abandoned by inexplicably silver-clad cad, ends up abandoning newborn and hitchhiking to hell (literally) along U.S. 121. But the kitsch narrative is basically a game of hopscotch that fails (assuming it is trying) to elicit the viewer’s empathy. As for its stated aim to raise “questions about our growing dependence on new technology and myths”, that’s just a string of artspeak pulled from the paragraphs of an undergraduate syllabus.
I know what you’re thinking: “That was the first film you enjoyed?” Well, I wouldn’t stick it in my Netflix queue, but at least it had charm. And it wasn’t my favorite short in the program. Before I bestow that distinction, here’s a brief take on a few other films in the Optic Nerve XIII lineup.
“I Am Your Grandma” by Jillian Mayer (Miami)
If you were seeing this video for the first time Saturday night — hard to believe, considering it has more than a million views on YouTube — then it might have seemed a bit out of place in the program. For one thing, it is essentially a music video and there were no others in the lineup. For another, it is a synth-and-drum-machine banger that features Mayer in an array of operatic costumes, i.e., it’s in your face and thus, to its credit, played the part of the bull in the china shop at MOCA Saturday night. (It worked better at Borscht 7, a festival far rowdier than Optic Nerve.)
“It’s Been A Long Day” by Brian Bress (Los Angeles)
This one starts with a close-up on a blood-spouting puncture in the middle of a makeup-caked forehead. “Ill!” the film’s mirror-gazing monologuist (played by Bress) says in a high-pitched voice. “Gross.” When the camera zooms out, Bress is touching the blood to the tip of his tongue. “Ew, nasty,” he says. “It’s Been A Long Day” is nasty, but it also manages to be funny (“I like to use paper towels and then let them dry and then reuse them! ‘Cause it’s the Depression.”) and endearing, which, considering the unpleasant imagery, is an accomplishment. (By the way, for those of you who attended the screening Saturday night, this film was not supposed to repeat.)
“Hold On” by Kasia Houlihan (Chicago)
Middle of a field. No sound. Girl in tweed riding jacket nods and begins to jump up and down as camera tries futilely to keep her in the frame. This one worked for me solely because, after a few seconds, it was impossible to tell whether the girl was actually jumping up and down or whether the camera was.
“Crossover” by Karlo Andrei Ibarra (Miami Beach)
A crowd favorite, this one was a montage of Puerto Ricans standing behind a music stand and singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in often hilariously incorrect ways. Lyrics get flubbed (“‘At the twilight’s glam gleaming’ … Oops, I messed up”), melodies mangled, the key lost and never found. According to its program description, “Crossover” points out a contradiction: Many Puerto Ricans “long for statehood” but “do not know the language of the country in which they wish to assimilate.” Setting aside the fact that the United States has no official language, that these people would publicly attempt to sing the National Anthem in a language that they don’t know seems at least circumstantial proof of their patriotism, not the opposite. That said, the film certainly is funny.
“Job Creation in a Bad Economy” by Ruben Millares and Antonia Wright (Coral Gables)
Here’s a snippet of the film’s program description: ” … a playful commentary on the somber issue of the devaluation of the arts and education in society.” Here’s my description: Two minutes and 15 seconds of guy and a girl throwing their bodies into stacks of books, and then giggling about it. The program description goes on: “The artists physically and metaphorically tackle the bureaucracy and walls that uphold these systems, leaving the viewer feeling sympathy for [them].” Call me selfish, but I was left feeling sympathy for myself. Self-indulgent in a high degree, “Job Creation” actually ends with the artists getting a round of applause and cheers. Bah.
“Her Slip Is Showing” by Jennifer Levonian (Philadelphia)
Program description: “This cut out watercolor animation of a suburban bridal shower explores the persistence of traditional gender roles, social awkwardness, and the way in which friendship has evolved over time.” Yes! It does! Finally, a film description that bears a semblance to what you will encounter in the film. What the description leaves out — and why “Her Slip Is Showing” got my vote in the Audience Choice Ballot — is the film’s humor and attention to detail (see the shower’s bra-and-panty sugar cookies). It also leaves out the rather out-of-place raccoon, but I don’t how to explain that one either.
“Her Slip Is Showing” is not perfect; it’s longer than it needs to be (the opening credits account for a fourth of the film) and it tries to capture too much (a bridal shower, the women’s lib movement, the antics of a curious raccoon). But it’s got technique, a sliver of story, focus, and humor, all of which distinguished it in the Optic Nerve XIII roster.
But what do I know? “Her Slip Is Showing” was not the film purchased for MOCA’s permanent collection. That honor went to “It’s Been A Long Day” by Brian Bress, the only filmmaker to have two films in the program. (His other, “Alone”, featured a totem pole of five singing heads — all belonging to Bress — superimposed over a desert photograph.)
Culled from 144 entries, the 18 films in the Optic Nerve XIII lineup offered little to move my heart, though quite a few set my foot impatiently a-tapping. I would have loved to experience at least one realized story in the bunch, but the festival’s curators evidently don’t believe short films can or should sustain a narrative.
That’s not to say the program isn’t worth an hour of your time. If you want to experience Optic Nerve XIII for yourself, it will be on view at the de la Cruz Collection from Sept. 10 – Oct. 8. For more details, visit mocanomi.org. You can also watch all of the entries and filmmaker interviews on uVu.