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August 9-15, 2006

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SF Shorts Short Film Festival brings surprises in small packages Aug. 10-12

By Richard von Busack

NOTHING in the realm of cinema has as high a possibility of perfection as a short film. And considering the consistent high quality of the short film-laden Ann Arbor Film Festival, it's about time someone started a similar celebration in our area. This budding festival SF Shorts, running Aug. 10-12, which pre-screened five short films, fits the bill.

"Back to Life" by Samantha Reynolds reminded me of the time Werner Herzog ate his shoe. The story is local legend, a wager between documentary makers. Herzog had bet Errol Morris that he couldn't make a good film on the subject of a pet cemetery, saying he would eat his shoe if Morris succeeded. Morris came up with Gates of Heaven, and the next thing you know Herzog was chewing on cooked scraps of butter and garlic sautéed chukka boot, while Les Blank filmed it for posterity.

In profiling (among others) a grieving family during the taxiderming of their dead pet, USC film school student Reynolds transcended those concerns Herzog had when he made his ill-fated bet with Morris. That is, instead of becoming mawkish or intoxicated with grossness, she understood the underlying pain of her subjects.

Reynolds puts herself on camera—she's small, friendly, bespectacled and looks a lot like Bud Cort's Harold. Her agreeable personality helps warm up an already gregarious taxidermist for the camera. She does the tough thing, helping him take a bone saw to the cadaver of a skinned dog, almost vomiting in the process. Reynolds also interviews collector and taxidermist Tia Resleure, whose fascination with dead preserved animals seems related to her own unhappy childhood. (See for some of Resleure's pieces.)

Reynolds had the wit and the temperament to take on this unusual subject. Her empathy is commendable, but here's some unsolicited advice: a documentary maker who wants to take it to the highest level has to transcend mere empathy and find firmness and detachment—and that was Herzog's point.

Jim Starace, in connection with the band the Sad Little Stars, did the animated pop-up-book illustrations for the song "Don't Fuck With Love." Paper Edwardian figures come to life, court each other and get dispatched by various freak accidents. Quaint yet strangely cheerful.

"The One" by San Francisco's Dave Laden is a video diary by a guy who hopes to meet the girl of his dreams. It charts the rise and eventual fall, of the relationship occurring off screen. It's an inspired idea, but monotonous as it is carried out here. Laden is one of those people who has more appeal behind the camera than in front of it, which is nothing to be ashamed of—how many real stars are there?

"Coney Island, 1945" begins with the hooded eye of a man in his 60s and restages one of his earliest memories—his mixed feelings of safety and terror at an early dip in the water off Coney Island. It is a gentle little palate-cleanser for the last previewed film: Rory Bresniham and John Butler's "George."

"George" is a live-action cartoon, celebrating the ancestral human knowledge that disaster waits for us all. It's from Earth's most pessimistic island, Ireland. George—as Arlo Guthrie put it—is one of those people who doesn't have a street to lie in for a truck to run him over. Yet the truck finds him, anyway.

The wonky fairy tale opening suggests a happy ending to come. George is redeemed, living with the girl of his dreams in an estate in the mountains, shining in miniature golf-like rainbow colors. The short records the plight of a man "born without buttocks and allergic to music," losing bits and piece of himself though a series of misfortunes. The narrator, who is George's only fan, cheers the wretch on ("The hungrier y'are, the sweeter the pie") as every setback leads to another. The big whoop for me was George's visit to a dentist with terrible bedside manner: "Right! Let's harsh that toot' out of your fuckin' face and let me get on with me breakfast."

I'm describing five films out of 50, but that's all I got to see. Such a festival swarms with undiscovered work. And it goes without saying such a fest is your chance to meet someone on the way up, right when they're needing fans the most. And there's even a celeb: Richard Landon, of special-effects wizard Stan Winston's studio. The opening party is Aug. 9 at Dalva Bar, 3121 16th St., San Francisco. Screenings take place at the Roxie and the Victoria; save some energy for the afterparty at Ace's Auto Dismantling Yard on Saturday the 12th. For more info:

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