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The lighter side of death: ‘Best If Used By’

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoThe short film "Best If Used By" shows at Aspen Shortsfest, Friday in Aspen and Sunday in Carbondale.
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ASPEN – Aemilia Scott seems to have no small attraction to death. When she told me there were three main experiences that went into her short film “Best If Used By,” I figured one would have to do with death; the film, which I had seen, is about a girl and a corpse. But when Scott recited the list, all three items had to do with the Grand Finale.

There was watching “Breaking the Waves,” Danish director Lars von Trier’s film about a woman who becomes a sexual deviant in the hope that it will keep her crippled husband alive. “During the credits, I went, ‘What if someone just did not let go [of a deceased beloved]? Wouldn’t that be interesting?'” Scott said.

There was the death of Scott’s own grandfather, and more significant, the reaction of Scott’s grandmother. “She’s stoic, but she had a hard time,” she said. “That sort of saying goodbye is the saddest thing I can imagine, sadder than the death itself.”



Component number three was a visit to a Victorian-era house in Chicago, where a friend informed her why the doorways were so wide. “So you can get a casket out of the living room,” Scott said. “I realized, Oh yeah, back then there was no coroner, no funeral parlor. The family prepares the body themselves – scary and repulsive. And anytime something’s scary and repulsive, that’s the most fertile ground to build on. Weirdly enough, that’s been my motto.”

(Later in the conversation, Scott came up with a fourth ingredient: her studying of medieval history at Columbia University. “To think the way a medieval person thought about death was totally different – people without a concept of science, without a medical industry. Decomposing? Bacterium? What is that?” Scott, who referred to herself as a “comedy scientist,” said.)




The attraction to death aside, Scott is a bright presence. More vivid than any necrophiliac tendencies is a sense of humor. Scott’s attraction to comedy is such that even a long string of acting classes in New York City failed to dissuade her. When she moved to Chicago, a year after graduating Columbia, she began studying in the city’s famed Second City training program. The techniques she learned there began to unlock the mysteries of psyche and character, and a month ago, after nine years in Chicago, Scott moved to Los Angeles, to pursue acting opportunities.

Death and comedy can seem like odd bedfellows, and indeed, the intersection of the two creates an unusual tone in “Best If Used By,” which shows in Friday’s 8:30 p.m. Aspen Shortsfest screening program. (It also shows Sunday in Carbondale, in the 7:30 program.) The 23-minute film stars Scott as Maggie, a young woman having a seriously difficult – and darkly humorous – time separating herself from her boyfriend’s dead body.

“Best If Used By” is no broad comedy; instead the humor comes in subtle expressions. One is the setting; much of the action takes place in the most ordinary of places, a supermarket. Then there is what might be the heart of the film – how everyone, including the dead man’s parents, shows a generous understanding for the fact that Maggie is toting around a frozen corpse.

And there is the language, mannered and deadpan. The film opens with the line, over the supermarket speakers: “There’s a broken jar of olives. It’s in the fourth aisle. Best of luck. Godspeed.” The dialogue sets a tone, and the film continues to use language in unexpected ways, with comic results.

“The things we say that aren’t really meant to be responded to,” Scott said, “I used those for moments of poignancy: ‘Can I help you?’ That’s a powerful thing to say. But it’s become what a greeter in a superstore says to you. What a sad thing for that phrase to become.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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