Short Cuts

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

"You get into making films because you enjoy watching films. But, like, two years into the program, you realize they're completely different experiences." A fledgling director out of Minneapolis Community and Technology College, Wyatt McDill peers through his blocky black glasses and smiles wryly. "Watching films is passive; making films is totally proactive. You have to focus; you have to figure out how to speak in public; you have to learn how to promote yourself. It's such a strange activity. I don't think any one person can do all of it well.

"Unfortunately, you're too far along in the process to back out," McDill adds. "You owe big money." Knowing laughter erupts from the other MCTC student directors lounging in the college's third-floor studio in a building off Hennepin Avenue. They've gathered here to talk up the five short films they're showcasing under the banner "Sweet Emulsion" this Saturday at Intermedia Arts. At the same time, they're performing an immediate exercise in media manipulation no doubt appreciated by their film instructor, Bruce Mamer, who is present as well. Wit flares, tales of hardship are conveyed, earnest dedication is revealed, and, by the end of the hour, their designated mark--that's me--is nearly convinced: Yes, making these films was such a heroically demanding struggle that the finished products deserve a large, friendly audience. Or as second-year student Benno Nelson enthuses, only half-mockingly: "Hey, I just spent so much freakin' money and time on this, you gotta come and see it."

It should be said, of course, that the cash amounts they're talking are big only in a relative sense. And though McDill may have maxed out his credit cards, it wasn't all on Kodak stock: He just flew himself and his first-year film "Shortwave" out to Colorado for Slamdance '99, the cheeky festival that grew up in the shadow of the ever more glamorous Sundance. (Cost of sending film in for consideration: $30. Cost of attending: a bit more.) The eight-minute, whimsical yet biting short about a lonely farm kid who longs for meaningful connection drained McDill of a mere $1,000 to $1,500. Fortunately, MCTC's two-year film production program is one of the cheapest in the country ($303 per four-credit semester class) and a rare opportunity to boot--as McDill found out when he split for New York midway through and found, at best, random community college courses where "you had to shoot your film in the classroom," or NYU, which weighs in "at $25,000 a year."

MCTC's economical rates and short program attracted fellow screeners Hugh Jason Wallace and Matthew Bryant from South Dakota and Texas, respectively. "I really enjoy this format," their degree instructor says, "because I get a mix of students from all ages and all backgrounds--really a very wide variety of people." Between 14 and 20 people graduate from the film program yearly, Mamer estimates. Overall, from 300 to 400 people a year take a film class. The funky, shaggy-haired Mamer brought the film program to MCTC in 1988 after it had run for a decade at Inver Hills Community College in conjunction with the old Film in the Cities organization. Since then, he's helped start an MCTC video degree program, with teacher John Fillwalk, as well as launching degrees in sound arts (with Steve Solum) and screenwriting (with Hafed Bouassida).

When Mamer mentions Bouassida, whom he describes as "an excitable guy," the students hoot. "He's a hard-ass in the best possible way," Nelson explains. "It's like, 'Hey, you need to learn this form.' He's not a coddler. Bruce has a similar approach."

"I think I'm far too nice, really," Mamer responds to the snorts of the assembled. "We let you know what we think. We're old-world teachers."

MCTC has a reputation for stressing hands-on schooling and practical applications thereof. Students enrolled in Film 1 can check out cameras the second week of class. Besides teaching, Mamer has shot, edited, and done sound and lighting for commercials and other local productions. And MCTC film and video graduates litter Twin Cities production crews. That grounding in the real world was attractive to Nelson, who two years ago was exiting the indie rock realm (he played in National Dynamite). "You can be a mediocre guitarist and be in the Velvet Underground, making compelling music," he says with a grin. "But in my experience, you really need to know the basics of film before you can make a compelling image."

 

If you detect some subtle criticism in Nelson's point, you're not far off. Before he came to MCTC, the slight, straw-haired Nelson got a job as a janitor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, hoping to learn filmmaking by, as he puts it, "wrangling in on their free classes plan." He waits a beat, then drops the punch line: "Needless to say the job sucked so bad I couldn't stomach it." And, he hints, the odor of unfocused artiness at MCAD might have been a bit too strong.

Nelson's short, "Screwdrivers," certainly boasts a clear plot: Written and narrated by local comedian Colleen Kruse, it's basically a "My first drunken binge" story, complete with puke-up. Still, Hollywood doesn't often turn the screen over to 14-year-old working-class girls, and Nelson's colorful Alice in Wonderland treatment blurs the line between scary and sweet with high-flying confidence.

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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