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Aspen Shortsfest short on stars, big on talent

Stewart Oksenhorn

Aspen Shortsfest usually features a tiny smattering of big names.

In past years, such stars as Sandra Bullock and Rachel Griffiths have emerged as directors of short films. Directors who have made their name in feature films – Richard Linklater, Todd Field and Robert Luketic – have tried their hand in the short form. And actors Helena Bonham Carter, Tilda Swinton and Treat Williams have shown their faces in Shortsfest films.

This year’s 13th annual Shortsfest, a production of Aspen Filmfest, is short of big names. No big-name actors turned directors; no recognizable faces. If you’re looking for star power, better to check out the local googolplex.

Which is probably a good thing for Shortsfest, which opens today and runs through Sunday, April 4, with programs in Aspen and Carbondale. Absent big names – and the big budgets and big pressures that come with them – the short-film world is free to be the offbeat alternative to feature films that independent films used to be.

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“In independent filmmaking 15 years ago, you had directors nobody ever heard of, actors you never heard of, in places you never thought of visiting,” said Laura Thielen who, in her nine years as executive director of Aspen Filmfest, has pushed Shortsfest into one of the most prestigious festivals devoted to the short form. “Now, you have to have a Mark Ruffalo, a Laura Linney, because of the pressures of the box office.”

Directors of short films don’t have box office pressures, since nobody makes or backs a short with the expectation of making money. And using little-known actors relieves another kind of pressure for the directors of short film, who tend to be little known themselves.

“If you’re an emerging director working with emerging talent,” said Thielen, “the playing field is level. This gives everybody a chance to shine and do their best. As opposed to an emerging director working with known talent.”

Among the 60 shorts from 20 countries – out of some 1,500 submissions from more than 40 countries – in the Aspen Shortsfest International Competition, there is a stunning variety in

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style, polish, subject, mood and length.

But quality can be found in all packages, from the amusing three-minute “Mating Call,” created in one day by Mexican director Patricio Serna, to the immaculately produced, 11-minute thriller “Underground,” directed by Aimee Lagos and Kristin Dehnert.

Other emerging filmmakers whose names are perhaps worth remembering include American Sharat Raju, whose “American Made” weaves family dynamics, one-liners and cultural clashes into an enjoyable mini-drama, and Britain’s Andrea Arnold, director of “WASP,” a raw but well-acted and emotionally powerful film about parenthood.

While Shortsfest 2004 lacks big stars, there are a few names, or at least styles, that should be familiar to film fans.

Adam Elliot has become a star of the shorts universe – and Aspen Shortsfest – with his series of short claymation films, “Uncle,” “Cousin” and “Brother.” This year, the Australian director rose even higher, earning an Academy Award for his extravagant, uplifting 23-minute “Harvie Krumpet.” Elliot falls under Shortsfest’s Director Spotlight, in an event Sunday, April 4, at the Wheeler Opera House.

Animator and director Bob Sabiston has had his shorts “Roadhead” and “Snack and Drink” screened at Shortsfests past. His distinctive rotoscoping style of computer animation is best known from the 2001 feature film “Waking Life,” directed by Richard Linklater. Sabiston returns to Shortsfest with his “Grasshopper,” an animated, park bench interview with a street corner philosopher whose views are worth hearing.

David LaChapelle is best known as a fashion and portrait photographer; he had a show of his works at the Baldwin Gallery several years ago. LaChapelle’s “Krumped,” a 24-minute documentary of Los Angeles’ dancing clown “gangs,” will be screened at Shortsfest.

Andrew Jarecki was nominated for an Academy Award this year for “Capturing the Friedmans,” an investigatory documentary that cast light and doubt on a family of alleged child molesters. But in a story that has become well known among film enthusiasts, Jarecki stumbled upon the Friedman story when he began shooting a documentary about the clowns who entertain at upper-crust New York children’s parties. The central character in that film was Silly Billy, aka David Friedman. Jarecki’s “Just a Clown,” the film he set out to make, shows at Shortsfest, and further reveals the director’s filmmaking skills.

Away from the screen, the Master Works: Storytelling discussion (Saturday, April 3, at the Wheeler) will have director Paul Mazursky (“Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” “Enemies: A Love Story”) and screenwriters Frank Pierson (“Dog Day Afternoon,” “Cool Hand Luke”), Audrey Wells (“Under the Tuscan Sun”) and Jim Taylor (“About Schmidt,” “Election”) talking about the craft of storytelling.

Shortsfest kicks off today with a collection of films that should be recognizable to local folks. The Local Filmmakers Showcase, a free program (noon at the Wheeler), features films by local residents, including competition winners Diane Nystrom and Teal Hoffman, and Terry Glasenapp.

Shortsfest 2004 has daily screening programs at the Wheeler today through Saturday, April 3. Shortsfest will also present screenings at Carbondale’s Crystal Theatre Friday through Sunday, April 2-4.

ScreenPlay! a program of films for children age 8-10, is set for Sunday, April 4, at the Wheeler.

Away from the screen, Shortsfest presents the Planet Cinema program UPA: The Studio that Jived in the 50s (today at 5:30 p.m. at the Wheeler), about the trailblazing animation house. There are also events centered around low-cost filmmaking and how to maximize exposure for a short film.

For a full Shortsfest schedule, go to http://www.aspenfilm.org.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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