Sunday, May 21, 2006

JFF 2006: "Lost in Space" and Interkosmos

My Saturday for JFF started with me as both viewer and participant.

I was asked by a coworker at the Main Library to be a judge for the "Lost in Space" short film competition. This contest, which is in it's fourth year now, is actually being counted as an official part of the JFF this year. Needless to say, this got us a lot more exposure than previous years and resulted in a very large turnout. Myself and two other judges watched a total of five shorts and chose the best three. Third and Second place went to "Invasion" and "The Princess vs. The Robot", respectively. Both were very cute, funny and well done.

First prize, however, went to a short called "Better in Here". I have to be honest, I didn't expect this high a quality in the entries when I first volunteered for this thing. Furthermore, when the chief filmmaker was asked for comments before his short was shown, all he said was, "Uh, we shot this on Tuesday".

The basic plot was about a quartet of post-apocalyptic survivors using some mental projection experiments to visit other worlds. It was shot in B&W and had no real special effects. It all rested on some set decoration, a few props, the actors and the dialogue. All four of these elements were superior. The speech was clear and natural. The timing of the actors was perfect. The camerawork was inventive. Costumes looked good. I honestly have no gripes about the film at all.

I know only a few people tune into this blog, but if any of the fellow Jacksonville natives who made this thing are reading this right now, allow me to restate my feelings: Outstanding work, folks.

Following on the theme of space equipment that looks patched together with bailing wire, we arrive at my only other film for today. Interkosmos is an odd film, and as with all the others I've watched so far, I did some reading up on it before going in. The following description comes from the review in Variety:
A delightfully tongue-in-cheek homage to a fictional East German space project, Jim Finn's "Interkosmos" uses recreated newsreels combined with musical interludes to resurrect the '70s in all its Brezhnev-era glory. Similar in its mockumentary approach to "First People on the Moon" but with a broader sense of wry fun, pic uncannily captures the self-glorifying hyperbole and straight-faced seriousness of the Communist bloc's attempts to make a splash in the race to space. Adventurous fest auds will best appreciate this genuine crowd-pleaser.
Now, maybe I read it wrong, but from this description and others I have read, I though going into this film that it would be a comedy.

This is not the case.

To be sure, what Jim Finn has created here is a technical marvel. His recreated footage of space capsules, East German countryside, Communist architecture and all the rest were all done within the vicinity of his home in Chicago on a minimum budget. In terms of this, the film is an accomplishment.

But it could have been much, much more. I'm not talking about a laugh-every-minute comedy. Hell, I would have settled for a laugh-every-ten-minutes comedy. And I'm not talking about the general goofiness of other mock documentaries such as Best in Show. In the end, the footage that is presented is all too real, from all the looong static shots of indiscernible nothing and looooooong stretches of subtitled German involving indecipherable technical speech.

What the film could have been was more charming. I know, I know. Films mimicking Communist propaganda aren't supposed to be charming, but bear with me here as I delve into a tangent.

About a month ago I rewatched a Woody Allen film called Zelig. For those who have never seen it, it's basically a faux-documentary about a man in the 1920's and 1930's who is said to have been as famous as Charles Lindbergh at the time but is today mostly forgotten. We see tons of old footage of Zelig and the sensation he created. Some of this is created out of whole cloth, other parts have Allen as Zelig inserted into footage, Forest Gump-style. There are also modern day interviews with experts on Zelig. The whole thing is tied together by a British-accented narrator recounting all the details.

Unlike some other films that I remember fondly from childhood and have rewatched, this one did not turn out to be a disappointment. Though Allen does some typical verbal and sight gags, I would not call Zelig a laugh-every-minute film, either. But I would most definitely call it charming. This not only comes from the painstakingly recreated footage which looks utterly convincing most of the time, but also the sweet love story that forms between Leonard Zelig and Dr. Eudora Fletcher.

Interkosmos is also supposed to contain a love story, in this case between two of the cosmonauts, but it is barely touched upon. It could have been the key to drawing the audience in to involve themselves with these characters, but not enough is done with them. By the time the tragic ending comes for these Stalin-worshipping lovebirds, we could really care less.

And there is so much more needing further work. One sequence involves the audio of two capsules discussing the "Trolley Song" while we view what appears to be a shot of curvature of one of the planets. This could have been vastly improved if they had cut several shots of space footage together to break up the visual monotony. It would have been a very simple thing, and it would at all have broken the illusion that we are watching real footage. Another scene shows a "Stress test" for a cosmonaut in training. There have been plenty of "Astronaut training" gags over the years, from The Right Stuff to Armageddon, but what we get here instead is a woman sitting next to the trainee reciting random numbers for what seems like two straight minutes.

I could go on with more examples, but I'll refrain from doing so. I'm sure if any fans of Interkosmos were to ever come across this review, they would judge me extremely unfair to compare it with a film like Zelig. "Apples and Oranges", they would say. But an old friend of mine would often thrash a film to pieces not because it was bad, but because it had the potential to be better than it was. That's where I'm coming from, here.

And with that, I'm off.

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