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      From the Oscar-winning Australian animated film Harvie Krumpet. in Oscar shorts
      From the Oscar-winning Australian animated film "Harvie Krumpet."
    Short change

    Short films are no longer a nostalgia act — interest at festivals and the energy of talented young filmmakers are responsible for a resurgence of great short works, including some of the ones gathered in this program of Oscar nominees.


    Halfway through the last century, technology and the economics of the movie business more than anything else dictated the disappearance of short subjects from the big screen. In the Thirties and Forties — prior to the advent of television — it was common practice for exhibitors to book cartoons, newsreels, comedy shorts and/or adventure serials along with the main attractions. With TV's ascendancy, filmed newsreels were supplanted by live daily news broadcasts, and studios found they could wring more profits from shorts by syndicating them to TV: animation was increasingly relegated to Saturday mornings, and comedies and serials became fodder for after-school programming. When megahits "Jaws" and "Star Wars" set the stage for today's blockbuster production mindset, the imperative was to run as many theatrical showings back-to-back as possible. That left room for only coming attractions and the occasional public-service announcement for some star-sponsored charity.

    Includes individual films: "Harvie Krumpet" by Adam Elliot; "Nibbles" by Chris Hinton; "The Red Jacket" by Florian Baxmeyer; "Squash" by Lionel Bailliu; "(A) Torzija" by Stefan Arsenijevic

    Related links: Official site
    Cinema Village 22 E. 12th St. (212) 924-3363 Opens March 19, 2004

    Except in specialized venues, shorts got shortchanged. But, like so much else, what's old is new again.

    Shorts are re-emerging to a growing public awareness, for a number of reasons. The graduating classes of film schools each year unleash fresh troops in an assault on Hollywood; their projects are an integral part of film festivals — Sundance in particular showing some of the best. Shorts are the wannabe filmmaker's calling card to the industry; in 1995 George Clooney gave a boost to two then unknown animators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, by talking up their vignette, "The Spirit of Christmas," set in a fictional mountain town called South Park. "Saturday Night Live" had returned short films to late-night television; now cable became not only home to outrageous or politically provocative animation, but live-action shorts found room as interstitial material as well. The Internet has given a big grass-roots boost to the form, and shorts are also finding their way into DVD anthologies.

    And far from last is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which, via its Oscar awards, not only gives live-action and animated shorts an industry presence and global exposure, but has also in recent years, through its telecast's hilarious opening parodies of nominees all played by Billy Crystal, renewed interest in the comedic possibilities of the form. Bringing it all full-circle is the annual theatrical release in select markets of a program of several Oscar-nominated shorts: at last, a return to the big screen, if only for a limited run.

      From the Oscar-nominated German live-action film The Red Jacket. in Oscar shorts
      From the Oscar-nominated German live-action film "The Red Jacket."
    This year's Oscar shorts program consists of three live-action and three animation entries — only one, the 2003 Student Academy Award-winning animated short "Perpetual Motion," is from the U.S. Kimberly Miner packs a lot of laughs into just two minutes with her whimsical speculation about cats, gravity and jellied toast. It's a terrific example of less being more.

    Canadians have long been leaders in the field of animation, and Chris Hinton's "Nibbles" adds to their track record. What it lacks in dialog it more than makes up for in raucous sound effects and sight gags, as a family fishing trip turns into a culinary tour de force. Careening from one roadside restaurant to the next, father and son chow their way across the country — even their car gets into the feeding frenzy. This wicked send-up of Western consumerism goes a long way toward explaining why anyone goes fishing in the first place.

    The live-action short nominees on the program are each one way or another about war. In German director Florian Baxmeyer's "The Red Jacket," a Hamburg father loses his son in a car accident. Overcome by grief, he wanders to a park, clutching the boy's prized sports jacket, and then tosses it in a trash bin — where it's recovered and recycled for charity, eventually landing in the hands of a lad in Sarajevo. The garment, which couldn't save its original owner, proves to be a talisman for its new wearer. About midway through it becomes evident which way the story is going; nonetheless, the resolution is satisfying.

    The Slovenian entry, Stefan Arsenijevic's "(A) Torsion," is also set in Sarajevo: a choir huddles amidst grenade and bomb blasts awaiting the all-clear for passage underground to a foreign city, where they are due to perform. They take refuge in a barn, and suddenly are called upon by a farmer to help them rescue a frantic cow that's trying to give birth, but her calf is twisted inside. It's a cliche that music hath charms to soothe the wild beast — also that necessity is the mother of invention. The film suffers from an inadequate payoff after all the angst.

    One can't say that about the French nominee, "Squash," directed by Lionel Bailliu. A corporate boss and his junior colleague meet on a court and proceed to play one very mean game. But squash is just the form of the competition — the real game is cat and mouse, as the killer boss tries to entrap his protg into an admission of inappropriate sexual behavior. Their volleys become more charged and so do their words and actions, escalating into violence. If David Mamet were French, he'd make something like this.

    The other Academy Award winner of the bunch is the Australian animated short "Harvie Krumpet," directed by Adam Elliot and narrated by Geoffrey Rush. Sometimes droll, sometimes inspired in its lunacy, the movie is by turns bawdy and compassionate. Its goofy hero is a Polish-born bumpkin (with a trace of the idiot savant) whose family moves to Australia during World War II. Like a vulgar version of "Forrest Gump," Harvie manages to surf the currents of postwar culture and make his way through the world. Along the way THE great issues — love, death, the accidents of history and the meaning of life — are addressed, and if the movie doesn't quite have a happy ending, at least its title character finds contentment, and all in the space of 22 minutes.

    Most feature-length films don't even attempt that in five to six times as many minutes. And that may be the best case to make for viewing these shorts — there is great beauty and artistry to be found in small films that are made economically, even if the marketplace is still not sure how to exploit them.

    MARCH 27, 2004

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