Mad about shorts

Mad about shorts

Two directors with vastly different approaches to the short form

By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: Gabrielle Union and Alfre Woodard in the Miu Miu short by director Ava DuVernay, “The Door”
Less than two years ago, I was a critic at odds with the declining state of our communal film experiences. Everything pointed to audience fragmentation, which I hastily concluded meant that we were falling out of love with filmed narratives. Now, I’ve come to realize that we, as an audience, are simply finding different screening venues for more personal appreciation, so that means it’s incumbent upon me to seek out the best stories and outlets in order to provide ongoing coverage.

This week, I’m tracking the short form on YouTube.

Writer-director Ava DuVernay garnered attention at last year’s Sundance Film Festival when she won the Directing Award for “Middle of Nowhere,” her second feature about a woman (Emayatzy Corinealdi) who puts her dreams of attending med school and becoming a doctor on hold – along with almost all of the personal pleasure of life itself – when her husband winds up in prison. DuVernay became the first African American female director to take the top prize at Sundance. “Nowhere” is striking not only for its visually and emotionally detailed rendering of a life deferred but it also contains quietly forceful performances that nearly swept through the acting categories at this year’s Independent Spirit Awards – Corinealdi for lead actress, Lorraine Toussaint for supporting female and David Oyelowo for supporting male. The film also captured a nomination for the John Cassavetes Award.

While celebrating and taking part in the film’s national release, DuVernay seized the opportunity to direct a commercial short for Miu Miu entitled “The Door.” At approximately ten minutes, “The Door” – with no dialogue – traces the redemptive awakening of a woman, played by Gabrielle Union, who finds herself in deep mourning following the disastrous end of her marriage. What saves this woman? High fashion and the loving presence of sisterhood, good friends who appear at her door, dress her up and take her away from the lockdown of depression.

Befitting a “commercial” for fashion, the frames are decked out with daring apparel – that still feels oddly accessible – and artful contrasts of hue and tone, although these are merely expressive accents next to perfectly realized characters. Union, in particular, shines here like never before. Working outside the confines of romantic comedy, she gets the chance to explore uncharted performance territory under the watchful gaze of DuVernay, a master surveyor of this stark dramatic landscape.

DuVernay transforms this commercial short into a visual mix-tape of mood suffused with the rhythms and the blues of grief and the road to recovery. It dances elegantly and with stylish grace along the fine line between commerce and resonant, moving art for contemporary audiences.

Somewhere else along the short spectrum lies the work of Nash Edgerton. Brother of Joel (a rising presence from “Warrior,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming take on “The Great Gatsby”), Nash traffics in dark, neo-noirish features like “The Square” that ride along bleak back road sensibilities likely borne from his roots down under. His shorts, though, display a puckishly punk sense of humor.

VICE Shorts (vice.com/shorts) recently released a Nash Edgerton one-two punch (“Spider” and “Bear”) that spotlight Jack (Edgerton), a hapless lad who comes across like a live action Wile E. Coyote who can’t help but chase the perfect joke in order to bring a smile or a laugh to the ones he loves. In each short, Jack has a different girlfriend struggling with frustration over some perceived insensitivity on Jack’s part, which forces the hopeless romantic in him to strive to make amends.

A signature theme runs through these films, voiced by the girlfriend in “Spider.” Jack, she says, always “take things too far by one step” and the fascinating notion is that we watch that precarious step too far, caught up in suspense that rivals Hitchcock’s simple formula. We see the set-up and know exactly how things will end, but the payoff is still shocking.

Edgerton’s shorts are all about punking and being punked, but nothing like we’ve come to expect from MTV shows like “Punk’d” or “Jackass.” Here, the joke feels exponentially more real – maybe because Jack, as a character, is so much more than a celebrity punk.

DuVernay and Edgerton offer, in these quick takes, a dizzying degree of narrative and character like more recent purveyors of short fiction (Joyce Carol Oates and Raymond Carver). What better way to get a quick fix from the madness of the multiplexes?

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com


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