February 21-27, 2007

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She'll Get Hers: The tables turn on an old woman (Sheila Flitton) in John Hayes' 'Venom.'

Shorts Story

Who likes short films? Suddenly, everybody likes short films. Let Cinequest show you the best.

By Steve Palopoli

I AM hooked on Unemployed Skeletor, and I am not proud of it. If you don't know what Unemployed Skeletor is—and good for you if you don't—it's a series of short films on the web by a guy who dresses up like Skeletor from the old Masters of the Universe show and pretends to live out the boring, slightly self-loathing life of an overweight former cartoon star who has a skull for a face and too much time on his hands. In between trying to keep busy with staring contests and the occasional guest appearance at nightclubs, he still plots the downfall of He-Man.

As far as online drama goes, lonelygirl15 it ain't. But hey, these days, everyone loves somebody's shorts. Whereas once you couldn't see short films anywhere outside of film festivals and college campuses, there is now practically nothing you can't see on YouTube (besides Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert). Anything between one and 20 minutes long that has been captured on some type of video-recording device has a potential worldwide audience.

This has led, naturally, to a remarkable Shorts Renaissance. It can ultimately probably be traced back to the late '90s, the age of the first wave of Star Wars-related shorts. People have been short-subjecting George Lucas' universe to parody since 1977's Hardware Wars, but cheaper, more advanced filmmaking technology and enormous pop-culture hype came together around the time of Episode 1—The Phantom Menace to inspire popular short films like Troops and George Lucas in Love.

If Star Wars was the drone that inseminated this short-film spawning, there could only be one queen: The Blair Witch Project. C'mon, you know you watched at least one of the 7 billion short-film parodies that people wouldn't stop making: The Blair Bitch Project, The Wicked Witch Project, The Bewitched Project, The Blair Witch Mountain Project, Da Hip Hop Witch, The Blair Warner Project, The Bogus Witch Project (actually a collection of Blair Witch parodies), The Blair Wtich Rejects, The Bare Wench Project, The Tony Blair Witch Project and on and on. The worst part was that except for Cartoon Network's The Scooby Doo Project, they were mostly awful.

But the movement they helped kick-start is far more interesting; broader in scope, unlimited in subject. Many of today's short films are practically viral, their visibility rising with each successive email forwarding. In such a democratic landscape, one has to wonder about the relevance of top-down festival offerings such as the ones that will return to Cinequest this year.

But I'll tell you one reason these Cinequest shorts programs (eight in all, most of them showing three times over the course of the festival) are likely to be more popular than ever: the filter factor. Cinequest committees have already done the hard work of insuring that festivalgoers only see the best ones they select from hundreds of entries submitted. This is tough work, people, but it guarantees you won't be subjected to the musings of old jobless Skelly.

Interestingly, though, this year's offerings demonstrate that the ghost of Blair Witch Project still hangs over short filmmaking even now. Not because there are anymore parodies of it, thank God, but because short films are now much more likely to be takeoffs of movies that are current in the public consciousness.

For instance, Shorts Program 6 ("Mindbenders") contains at least three films that could be said to be influenced by Saw and Hostel. They're not out-and-out parodies or even directly related, but consider Richard Gale's Criticized.

A film critic wakes up duct-taped to a fixture in a bathtub. Turns out a psycho film director whose film he ripped to shreds has kidnapped him for some unpleasant revenge. Or David Alcade's Y Que Cumplas Muchos Mas, where a social worker's connection to a mysterious boy leads to some grotesque Hostel-esque stuff.

The same program features Gabe Ibanez's haunting Maquina, a Mexican short that takes its cues from J-horror but pushes the envelope much further than The Ring or The Grudge. Another visually impressive showing is John Hayes' Venom, which adds a touch of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet to its tale of insect revenge.

Not everything is dark or filtered through the current taste for raw horror. There are short films of every genre and subject at Cinequest. And there are always pleasant surprises, like the program of docu-shorts.

Each minidoc races through its own little interesting world, but you may be surprised how moving you find Joe Kuehne's Relative Freedom, a painfully honest look at one family's heartbreaking inability to deal with their son's sexuality, or how captivating the story of Bolivian women wrestlers is in The Fighting Cholitas.

And hey, if there's really nothing you like in these 80-some short films, you have exactly one year to make a better one for next year's Cinequest. Unemployed Skeletor is waiting for your call.

Movie Times Cinequest runs Feb. 28-March 11 in downtown San Jose. For a schedule of Cinequest shorts, see Disclosure: Metro is a sponsor of Cinequest.

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