Short Cuts

A local showcase of short student films exposes the long road of working in celluloid

McDill's short and the other three showing Saturday are narrative-driven as well. Does MCTC's gritty program frighten the pretentious? Mamer leans his chair backward, and pushes up his round, gold-rimmed glasses. "I have a great love for the experimental films of my youth, the '60s and '70s," he admits. "Every once in a while I pull one out and subject these guys to it, with varying degrees of success. I love Hollywood films of all eras. Also European and Indian films. I'm a pluralist. But my basic teaching approach is very much a narrative one. It kind of evolved that way. Student interest shifted away from experimental films. Although there are still people who do very intriguing experimental work. One of our star pupils, Suporn Shooshongdej, won Best of Category in the Los Angeles Short Film Festival. He made a good, old-fashioned, could've-been-made-in-1968 experimental film. So we try to cover it all."

Thomas Troupe's short is, of all things, a mock doc about the creation of just such an experimental film. "I think one thing that's cool about this school is that the instructors are just like, 'Go make it!' Especially when you get to the upper-level classes," the Northeast Minneapolis native says with a smile. "The mother bird lets the little birds go test their wings." On a self-described 15-year graduation plan, Troupe confesses he is still finishing "The Making of Coef: At One With Art," two weeks before its debut screening. His next project, he vows, will be a simpler one.

Troupe, like all these beginning directors, does not deliberately adhere to any low-tech, low-budget approach. They're all choosing film over video, and they're all trying for the best image quality they can achieve on the money they can muster. They wouldn't turn down more; these guys have no time for any Sadie Benning-like, film-as-a-democratic-medium kind of message. The most ambivalent view comes from Bryant, who made "The Window," a beautifully filmed and sweepingly sentimental black-and-white portrait of a drifting, dying old man. "I would like to keep the grainy aesthetic," he asserts, "and the involvement of a cast and crew who are really passionate about being there. But I'd also love to have greater resources."

Still, learning filmmaking, these guys tell me, is a worthy discipline precisely because film is so frigging expensive and difficult to use. Nelson goes so far as to envision floodgates opening to waves of badness once, say, digital video camcorders get in the dirty hands of the cinematically undereducated. "What happens when you introduce video," describes Wallace more calmly, "is that you tend to use lots of it, because it's cheap. Whereas with film, every time you turn the camera on, it's a lot of money. So you want to get it right the first time. People are really conscientious about the lighting and the blocking. On this level, everybody--even the guy running around with light stands--knows that there's a lot of money being spent and that nobody on set has it. And I think that's a good place to be, actually.

"Unless you take the time with video," he continues, "you really see a difference in quality." A tall and composed 30-year-old, Wallace owned and ran a commercial and industrial video production company back in South Dakota before enlisting with MCTC. His first student film, "Escape Attempt," which recently aired on the Independent Film Channel, was edited on a home computer using digital video technology. It took only three days to complete a first sample cut, he reports, and then he was able to show the short around, get suggestions, and change it easily before creating a final cut. The other guys wince, seemingly torn between envy and disdain at this news. Film editing is supposed to be hard. But "Escape Attempt" plainly doesn't suffer from any video taint: Its disturbing tale--a man breaks up with his girlfriend, dies, and then finds himself reincarnated as their child--is relayed in sensual and at times strikingly abstract black-and-white images.

"Nobody in this room is going to make their living solely in film," Mamer offers--a reality check. "There's going to be digital video interface. And I do think video will take over. In maybe 15, 18 years. Once it starts, it'll be like sound--over in a day. It's just the tremendous cost of copying prints on film. It'll be very attractive to people to just send a signal up to a satellite and spread it across the country. But film is a good discipline to learn. Plus you end up with this wonderful project."

Ah, of course, the films themselves, which--more than any loose talk about exhaustion and just deserts--make the best argument for an attentive, sizeable audience.

"We've been calling this screening 'Men in the Director's Chair,'" Troupe jokes. "IFP [Independent Feature Project North, the evening's co-sponsor, with Radio K] has been frowning at us."

"White guys need their breaks too, you know!" Nelson cries with faux stridency. Everybody laughs. Okay, guys, here's a break. Wasn't that easy?


The "Sweet Emulsion" collection of Minnesota-made shorts screens at Intermedia Arts at 7 p.m. Saturday; for more information, call IFP/North at (612) 338-0871.

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