Some Short Movies from Avinu Films
Today, the Bear would like to share a couple of short films from Avinu Films. That is the film company of the Maltese-American polymath Marcelle-Abela who is the publisher of the Bear's novels and apparently as sleepless as the Bear.
The two films the Bear wants to share this time have been chosen as very different examples. He thinks one is better, and will say why. You may be surprised to learn how much there is to unpack from such short films.
Rather than just link to them, the Bear would like to use them in a broader conversation about filmmaking basics to aid in appreciation for those who are interested. You can skip directly to the short features at the next blue text, or accompany the Bear as he stalks his subject with the deliberateness that has tried the patience of readers for almost million-and-a-half page views.
Intro with Bear's Two-Minute Trailer: Montage, Quick Edits & Use of Score
The Bear's trailer for Judging Angels cost the price of a royalty-free music clip and whatever a pack of construction paper and small bottle of Elmer's Glue runs. It is offered as an introduction to the basics of editing, montage, pacing, and how editing can make the images and score work together. For example, note how the "snip" - cutting Alice out of George's life - is done on the beat. It is a fair representation of the story and its mordant humor.
We will be looking at these same elements in the two Avinu films. They are basic to any filmmaking.
"I Cried When I Wrote This Song, So Sue Me If I Play Too Long"
Readers know the Bear must own the awful-sounding title of "film buff." You probably imagine him wearing a black turtleneck and smoking Gauloises between features at the local arthouse while discussing French New Wave Cinema with his feminist friends.
Like buffs of every stripe, he is no doubt boring to normal people when he talks about his peculiar enthusiasm. The Bear promises he would paste on a polite smile and listen to you drone on about your stamp collection for ten minutes, then start tearing up your kayak.
Lady, the Bear hopes you were on an island and
that kayak was your only means of
returning to civilization.
The Bear has the insight to realize all that, though, which makes his film blogging all the more inexcusable.
Half the time the Bear feels like he's singing Steely Dan's Deacon Blues: "I cried when I wrote this song, so, sue me if I sing too long." The story of Carnival of Souls does indeed move him, which is why he wrote the previous piece and mentions it again now. As for the Post-Mortem on the West and chronicles of Pope Francis, he'll gladly trade traffic for a mental/spiritual health break.
The Amazing Medium of Film
Film is an art we share as a culture like no other. We read different books and watch different shows, but nearly all of us share memories of great films.
If you've ever learned to play the piano because you wanted to, you know it helps you appreciate recordings or concerts, even if you never got any good at it. In the same way, learning about what makes films good or bad helps you gain a deeper appreciation than "I liked it" or not. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that. It's a personal option.
The stories behind films are often as interesting as the films themselves, and teach a lot about the craft.
For example, the last article on Carnival of Souls is an inspirational story disguised as a B-movie horror film review. It's for anyone who aspires to rise above their workaday world and do something remarkable, even if it doesn't quite work out and the only thing that keeps them from sinking back into obscurity is that they never rose above it in the first place.
And Carnival of Souls itself is worth more than one viewing as a horror movie that relies on psychology and atmosphere instead of grossness or weird-for-weird's sake. It is also a clinic in guerilla filmmaking.
Echoes can be found in the later work of George (Night of the Living Dead) Romero and David (Twin Peaks) Lynch. The former admits it but if the latter has, Bear missed it. Carnival is worth any three of M. Night Shyalaman's movies, especially if the trio includes the similarly-themed Sixth Sense.
Filmmaking is Necessarily a Cooperative Exercise
Writing is a solitary exercise. Kurt Vonnegut said, "Writers have one break, at least. They get to treat their mental illnesses every day." Movie folk may be mentally ill, too, for all Bear knows, but they at least have to be able to refrain from assault and battery long enough to complete a project, although in 1947 Henry Fonda beat the crap out of Jimmy Stewart over the McCarthy hearings. And the feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford was epic.
Filmmaking is a cooperative process. Part of the allure of Hollywood's Golden Age is the sheer improbability that a star factory like MGM (still less a near-Poverty Row RKO) could crank out wonderful features as a business despite egomaniacal directors, dipsomaniacal stars, dictatorial management and budget-conscious producers.
And fistfights between Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda.
There is no movie so devoid of artistic merit that it does not command at least a little respect from the Bear. No one wakes up and says, "I'm going to make a bad movie." All of them, even Ed Wood's pathetic efforts, represent a cooperative effort that at least made it to a distributor. Some of them remain our personal treasures as long as we live.
Today, talented filmmakers can do quite a lot with sophisticated consumer resources and direct distribution, operating outside of any system.
And, Now, the Short Films.
Ballade des Animaux
Our first one stars A Bear, although not The Bear, since it is just a little Black Bear, not a magnificent brown Ursus Arctos. Let's watch! Running time 3:08.
First of all, the Bear loves the title. Frederic Chopin wrote some distinctive one-movement pieces with the title "Ballade." They are, in the opinion of the Bear, the crown jewels of piano music (and considered among the most difficult pieces to master). The Bear has posted an old Alfred Cortot recording of Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23 at the end because everyone should experience that piece, and he loves how Cortot interprets Chopin.
Let's talk about immersion.
This looks like a nature documentary, but is shot on location at a zoo. The Terry Devine-King score is very nice: energetic and cheerful, and goes perfectly with the scenes of different animals, some more active than others, which makes a nice variety. There is a technique called "Mickey Mousing" where the score is matched to the action to comical effect. That's old hat and the Bear is glad she has avoided that.
The film is "for children." The Bear thinks they would enjoy it; he did. The editing is mostly brisk and well done. It made the Bear smile. Even though it really starred baboons.
His quibbles here involve post-production, i.e. the stuff that happens after the shooting. It's a fact: moviemaking happens during editing. Before the magic of post-production in a feature, all you've got is hours of raw fim. Even a short film depends on good post-production work.
The Bear assumes the sort of golden tone in the opening shots of baboons and, later, the lion drinking, is a post-production effect. It's quite pretty, but calls attention to itself and does not quite fit with the rest.
Any time a person appreciating art is taken out of that moment, it's probably not a good thing.
We've all experienced being immersed in a film and suddenly thinking, "that's some bad acting," but also, "that's some good acting," or "there's a great piece of dialogue." Of course, we want good acting and memorable dialogue, but we don't want to be thinking about it while we're watching the movie. That's for later, when we're savoring the film on our own or discussing it.
Then there's the dead otter.
One of the hardest parts of any artistic endeavor is putting yourself in the place of every reader or viewer and looking for off-the-wall reactions. The scene of the otters or whatever disturbed Bear since one of them is clearly dead. (Okay, looks like it, since it is lying motionless and unblinking.) Bear found himself watching only the dead-looking otter to see if he ever blinked. (He doesn't.)
Maybe you never noticed.
Finally, and most importantly, the Bear believes it would be a better short film if it were shorter, or had more animals with a consistently brisk pace. This is about editing. It used to be done by physically cutting raw footage and splicing pieces together. Now, some very good editing can be done with iMovie on your MacBook, or more sophisticated programs.
Some of the scenes go on a bit too long, making the pacing seem a little off. The composition of the three penguins is admirable, but everything comes to a halt as we watch them standing around before they begin walking. There are not only more scenes of baboons than anything else, too much time is spent on the one eating the apple.
These may sound like nit-picky points, and they are. And maybe baboons are your favorite animal in the whole world. The film is enjoyable. The Bear can only see through his eyes and offer a few little illustrations. Short films, like short stories, are very unforgiving.
But, other than some editing and color issues children would not notice, this is a very nice little film whose score is exceptional.
The next one runs 2:29. It is much different in tone. As a by-the-way, the Bear recommends removing the explanation on the Avinu Film site. The film stands on its own, and I think Marcelle should trust the viewer to experience the story and make of it what he or she will. Let's watch and see what you think the story is.
The Importance of the Musical Score
The score by Paul Mottram is perfect, and features a simple repeating plucked theme over a brooding river of a composition that never reaches a resolution. Richard Wagner shook the musical world with his famous "Tristan Chord" at the beginning of Tristan und Isolde:
F, B, D♯, and G♯
Here, the composition is much less dramatic, but the sense of an aching lack of resolution is the same, with an added sense of restlessness,
We often forget just how important a score is to a film. Even silent films weren't silent. They were accompanied by live music. Can you think of Star Wars without hearing John Williams' stirring theme? Or how about a Fellini film without Nino Rota? A Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western without Ennio Morricone's sort of loopy scores with that chanting? Avinu Films are noteworthy for consistently excellent music.
Indeed, the score largely tells the story. Imagine a different score, maybe something like the one in the previous film. It would be a completely different story, wouldn't it?
Telling a Story Economically
It opens with a scene of traffic in a city. The visuals don't seem to go with the music, but that's on purpose and creates a sort of expectant, almost uncomfortable tone. The traffic is coming at the viewer, passing close by from the point of view of an empty bicycle lane. The feeling is edgy.
Then the location changes to the country. We see some beautifully shot scenes of an odd, but wonderful house (where is that?) surrounded by birds of different sorts. (Are those Guinea hens?) The border collie is pretty, but he seems to be waiting for something, even as he snaps at gnats. The pacing of the editing is better, in Bear's opinion, setting a slow and consistent rhythm that goes with the story. Note how the shots change close to the changes in the music. Not precisely, but Bear thinks, whether by accident or design, the slight lack of precision in that regard adds to the unsettled tone.
The score does not change with the new location, and it doesn't go with the irenic scene any better than it did with the opening shot of the city. Why? Why are we uncomfortable? What's going to happen?
We see a male hand writing a note. We're not meant to know to whom the note is written, or what the character has to say. It's all left up to our imagination. "Hello, I just wanted to..." One nice trick is we are permitted to hear the scratch of the fountain pen on the paper. That is a very intimate touch; it collapses the distance between the viewer and the images-with-music.
What have we learned now?
There is a beautifully framed shot through a rustic door into a space occupied by a small table, It looks desolate, though. The wind stirs branches that are overgrown, and while the lake view is beautiful, a gray cloud hangs over everything. The Bear notices the wonderful textures in which Avinu films seem to luxuriate.
Even accounting for their differences, this is the better of the two films in the Bear's opinion.
Use of Archetypes
Near the end, in a beautifully composed shot using poppies that converge into the distance, we see a young man with a backpack walking away from us, the house, the birds, with the dog leading, like the dog in the book of Tobit, or, if the Bear may draw on another tradition, the dog who accompanies The Fool of the Tarot deck, who is also on a journey.
The young man setting out on a journey, perhaps leaving home, and the dog, are archetypes. The dog is in many a painting as a symbol of unquestioned loyalty.
Artists of all sorts use archetypes. Whether or not you want to go all Jungian, archetypes are cultural fixtures that seem to endure from age to age. They seem hardwired into us. Star Wars is full of them. It too, has a boy on the cusp of manhood who is stirred to leave his familiar home, although Luke has robots, instead of a dog. Luke meets the Wise Old Man who initiates him. The Bear could go on, but you get the idea.
Archetypes are different from tropes in that archetypes seem to have some deep and persistent presence in a culture, whereas tropes are just common (the connotation is overused) situations and characters that television and other writers use.
The film ends with the city, again.
The Bear is not going to tell you the story. This is a marvelous short film that tells a rich story very economically. It is a fine piece of work. What do you think the story is?
Two Minor Quibbles: Starring "Bird Feeder Bird," and the Title
The Bear has two quibbles.
First, "Bird Feeder Bird" would get top billing if this were a Golden Age Hollywood movie. Yes, it's nice, it's pretty, it establishes the bucolic setting, and represents one of the nice things the human character may be giving up. But, the Bear was taken out of the film a bit wondering "So, like, what's up with all the screen time for this bird in the feeder?"
Perhaps some other element of the peaceful country life could have taken the place of the second Bird Feeder Bird appearance. It was sort of like the baboons in the first one. The Bear would ever-so-gently suggest a finer sense of what elements might be getting overused during the editing when something different but similar might be serve just as well and maintain interest slightly better.
This is especially true since the photography is always so very good - we have only two or three minutes, and we want more examples of those luscious textures and beautiful compositions, not too much time spent on the same bird eating in a bird feeder.
In a short film, as in a short story, everything has to be there for a very good reason. There is no room for Bird Feeder Bird's two lengthy scenes unless it has some symbolic meaning Bear is missing. You can get a little sloppy in a novel. Less so in a short story. Even less in a poem. Then there's a Tweet. If you're going to do short, you must accept its unforgiving nature.
The other quibble carries slightly more weight: the title.
The word "Wanted" has a definite connotation in idiomatic English. A criminal is being hunted by police. In fact, it can hardly mean anything else standing alone. It's at the top of all those "wanted posters" in Westerns. It's hard to come up with a name for a film like this, that tells a story indirectly through score and images. You don't want to give it away. But "Wanted" is a jarring choice.
The Bear does not know what was intended by the title. Unfortunately, what he understood was that the human character was hunted, perhaps close to being discovered in his country hideout, and was having to flee from the sheriff to the anonymity of the city.
If that is the story, then "Wanted" is, of course, a great title. The Bear doubts it, however, and thinks something really vague like a name might be a better choice.
The two Avinu short films we looked at are both enjoyable and show tremendous strengths. The scores are fantastic and well-suited to the subjects. The photography is beautiful, especially in "Wanted," which is the better film.
They also show a little room for improvement in post-production, meaning a finer sense of what's "enough" of something, and, in Ballade des Animaux, a more consistently brisk editing pace. Finally, "Wanted" is an odd choice for a title, which is naturally going to be taken as descriptive. And the story stands alone. You did a good job on that one guys. Take the description down and trust your craft.
Here, as promised, for those who made it to the end, is Alfred Cortot's interpretation of Chopin's sublime Ballade No.1 in G Minor, Op. 23.