I had an opportunity to see the Oscar-nominated live-action short films. Every year (except for the last two because of Covid), these films are shown at my local Spectrum Theater.
After the last time I saw the live-action shorts in 2019, I said I never wanted to go again. Each of those short films (there are usually five or six shown together) was so utterly depressing and tragic that I left the theater feeling tragically depressed—and I’m a fan of the sad story.
But then a friend recommended this year’s crop of nominees and so Harriet and I went the other night. The results weren’t much better. Again, I left feeling despondent.
While tragic stories can often illuminate through their art the dark side of the human condition and help us feel connected through shared adversity, loss, or heartbreak, too often such stories veer into the realm of “tragedy porn.”
Tragedy porn often features a protagonist who undergoes repeated, unrelenting, and brutal suffering, but without an underlying narrative purpose that leads to character change (knowledge, learning, growth, or even death). The suffering itself becomes the point of the story. There’s no rising and falling rhythm. It’s often a one-way trip to hell: “Things were bad, then they got worse.” In the eyes of the audience, the character becomes an object of pity or even revulsion.
Short films (this year the shortest was 16 minutes, the longest 42 minutes) allow for greater freedom from the constraints of a feature-length film, which generally follows a three-act structure of character goal, facing obstacles, and either reaching the goal or failing. Shorter films, because they don’t need to keep your attention for as long, have more leeway to break out of the structural box. Often, the film has a specific agenda to present, as you will see.
On to this year’s five nominees, ranked from worst to first, according to my subjective and often changing tastes:
“The Long Goodbye”
A Pakistani family in England is excitedly preparing for a daughter’s wedding when suddenly the police invade the neighborhood, round up the residents, shoot some and imprison others. It’s a huge shock and change of pace. One of the brothers, shot in the back in the street, gets up and recites a rap/poem about British racist nationalism. Verdict: unpleasant as being struck with a hammer.
A woman with dwarfism who works in a Polish roadside motel meets a truck driver who she hopes will become her first sexual encounter. With the help of her friend, she gets ready for her first real date, which devolves into degrading sexual violence. As a viewer, can I feel any more shame about not counting my own blessings enough? Verdict: Beautifully acted and well-paced, but disability porn is a painful sub-genre of tragedy porn.
This black satire from the U.S. is a send-up of the privatization of the prison system and the perils of artificial intelligence. A young man who works a menial job is arrested on the street by a police drone and imprisoned with only a screen and disembodied voice to interact with. The voice tries to sell him a prison cell upgrade and suggests copping a plea deal. There seems to be no reason for his arrest, no way to get help in prison, and when he’s finally released his life is ruined because he’s lost his job and his home. Verdict: an entertaining dystopia that plays a single, chilling note.
“Take and Run”
A beautiful young woman in rural Kyrgyzstan defies her parents and moves to the city to start an independent life, but she is kidnapped and forced into marriage, which apparently is a real problem in this part of the world. She fights against her fate and eventually escapes. At first, this was my favorite of the five: beautifully shot in an area totally unknown to me; a character to root for and empathize with; goals, conflict, and resolution. But in the end, the narrative arc was a little too familiar. Verdict: a quality film trying to fit a two-hour feature into 40 minutes.
“On My Mind”
In Denmark, a distraught man walks into a bar, gulps whiskey, and pleads with the proprietor to turn on the karaoke machine so he can record himself singing Willie Nelson’s “Always On My Mind.” The woman tending bar is sympathetic while the owner wants him to leave. There’s a mystery as to why this man is so desperate to record his song and the interaction between the three characters is compelling. It turns out he wants his brain-dead wife to hear the recording before the plug gets pulled, because that will release her soul. Verdict: a compelling central character whose mysterious motives and behavior keep our attention.
There you have it: three stories that turn on abductions, one on sexual violence, and one on grief and death. Given the state of the world when these films were made, none of this is surprising, but it may not be the experience you’re looking for on date night.