Short and Bittersweet

Oscar-nominated shorts for 2004 deliver potent messages, quickly

The most unifying quality of the nominated films now being distributed as “2004 Oscar Shorts” is their sad quirkiness, a characteristic better suited to short treatment rather than feature-length storytelling, capturing sentiment that risks dilution over a longer viewing time.

The three live-action short films are Germany’s “Die Rote Jake” (“The Red Jacket”); Slovenia’s “(A) Torzija” (“A Torsion”); and France’s “Squash.” The two animated shorts are Australia’s “Harvie Krumpet” and “Nibbles” from Canada.

“Harvie Krumpet” tells the story of an immigrant Pole’s joys and woes Down Under, in claymation. The story of a mentally-challenged nudist working low-paying jobs might seem maudlin were it not for the emotional distance the clay animation provides. Almost anything seem comical in claymation.

Harvie, the title character, resembles Mr. Potato Head and is an Everyman. He lives with a metal plate in his head, gets married, and raises a daughter who suffers from the side effects of thalidomide. Joys come sporadically as Harvie moves through life collecting what he calls “fakts,” observations he scrawls into a book strung around his neck.

While everything is unsparingly shown, from the onslaught of bullying children during his school days up to the ravages of old age, Harvie manages to finish his days on an up note, brimming with a humanist optimism. Of these five films, only “Harvie” took home an Oscar.

Also optimistic, amid the horrors of war in the Balkans, are the films “(A) Torzija” and “Die Rote Jake.” The first is set in Sarajevo, where a group of singers await their turn at a tunnel that leads to the airport from which they will travel to Paris, while shells are lobbed toward them. One of the singers is a former veterinarian, and is appealed to by a local farmer whose pregnant cow is in distress because of the bombing. At the risk of missing the flight to Paris, the vet brings along the entire choral group, hoping their singing will distract the cow from the explosions. Despite some gritty, visceral scenes of war, the film’s message focuses on the good in the people––the singers imperil their own escape in order to help an underdog.

You’ll never forget the well-choreographed scene of a cow being serenaded by such beautiful voices.

“Die Jake Rote” follows the voyage of child’s red jacket, from the point where a distraught German father discards it when his son is hit and killed by a car to Sarajevo, where a young boy steals it from a supply truck. The boy discovers that parents and his dog have been slaughtered parents, and is almost left for dead himself. When German UN peacekeepers recognize a Bavarian team name emblazoned on his jacket, they air lift the boy back to Germany. While this film’s story is predictable, and meant to be a bit of a tear jerker, it still manages a powerful message of human dignity amidst tragic adversity. The average American viewer might have trouble discerning who are the victims and who the victimizers. The evil here is the war itself; participants on both sides seem to be the victims.

The Canadian film “Nibbles” successfully conveys the voracious quality of human food consumption in simple pen-and-ink animations, all in about five minutes or so. A father takes his sons on a fishing trip, and en route they make many food snacks. The sound of gnashing teeth choking down fast food might make you rethink your own eating habits.

The most personal and brutal film of the group is “Squash,” which takes place entirely in a racquetball court as Alexandre is belittled by his boss. As the taunts get worse, the boss makes Alexandre’s continued employment dependent on winning the game. The boss is a bully and ultimately a cry baby, so even though Alexandre is assailed for being weak and hesitant, he is able to land a few of his own punches. Keeping all the action in the claustrophobic squash court intensifies the conflict.

Perhaps as a bit of an antidote to the intensity of the five main works, a sixth, a very short cartoon, “Perpetual Motion,” is also presented. The cartoon reconciles the physics of two ironclad rules––“a cat always lands on its feet” and “the jellied side of the toast always hits the floor”––with great humor, even investigating the practical applications of this finding. The film won the 2003 Student Academy Award Winner for Animation.

Seeing shorts theatrically is a rare opportunity not to be missed. With their brevity, these films manage to explore difficult topics in just the right dosage. They are thought-provoking without beleaguering their viewers.

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