||Review by: Nathan Shumate
MY SKIN/ SCREAM FOR ME Double Feature DVD
Written and Directed by Christopher Alan Broadstone.
One of the problems with most short films is that they're made by people with features on their mind. Let's face it; almost everybody has seen a hundred times more features than they have shorts. And while it's easy to say that one understands the difference between a feature film and a short film (the standard comparison being the difference between a novel and a short story), the fact remains that most short filmmakers (or rather, most makers of short films -- Cold Fusion Video Reviews makes no judgments about directorial stature) have learned what they know about the visual language of cinema from watching movies.
Then consider some of the other common, though not universal, conditions which exist behind the production of most short films: The filmmakers are usually students or amateurs, largely because there isn't a profitable market for short films, and thus professionals spend their time making features. This means that these are people on the shallow end of the experience pool. Plus, they usually opt to make a short for one or both of the following reasons: (a) They don't have the budget or other resources to mount the production necessary for a feature-length film; or (b) they have a great idea for a scene or a situation, but they can't figure out how to flesh it out into a 90-minute narrative. Both of these reasons should be understood to be prefaced by the unspoken condition, "They want to make a feature, but..." Which means that most shorts are made by people who have watched mostly features, and who really would rather be making features, but are settling for making shorts. Is it any wonder, then, that most shorts seem like an outtake from, or a sketch for, a full-length movie? Is it any wonder that most shorts "speak" the language of cinema with a thick feature "accent".
I establish all of this not because it's the stick with which I intend to beat Christopher Alan Broadstone, but because I'm so impressed at how completely he avoids the pitfall of "the short that wanted to be a real movie when it grew up." All three of the shorts here inhabit the format to its fullest, each creating a bold and dense narrative which sucker-punches the viewer like few feature-length movies can do.
The headliner film, "My Skin!" (2002), is almost indescribable without giving away the meat of its impact. (That's one of the other reasons I rarely review shorts: It'd be nothing but a string of paragraphs in which I reveal that Vader is Luke's father.) A steady stream of images establish a tableau: A dead woman, bound and shot, with a plastic bag over her face. A bald, sepulchral man (Tony Simmons) whose meticulous movements bely a nature very much out of the ordinary. And a huge leather-bound tallybook, in which individuals and their dates of death are written. And a mask. The mask is really only set dressing -- it has nothing to do with the story that unfolds -- but I can almost believe that Broadstone dreamed of the mask one night and constructed it, or found it in the back of a backwater thrift store, and its presence spurred the creation of this story.
[Edit: Reader Mindy informs me that the mask is pretty obviously inspired by the getup used by "Plague Doctors" during the Black Death; more info and photos available at Wikipedia.]
And there is a phone call. A conversation between this disturbing, pallored figure, who becomes infinitely more disturbing when he contorts his face into a smile, and the significant other of the dead woman on the floor. And what you thought or guessed about the roles of these three characters in relation to each other has to be gutted and rebuilt in a hurry.
The meticulousness of Simmons' movements is reflected in every part of the film: The precise and thoughtful movement and editing of the visuals, the sharp turns of the dialogue. It's a story perfectly told, and I find it hard to believe that there was a better short to be seen at the 2003 Shriekfest, at which "My Skin!" won second place.
"Oh, believe me, it had better be here in 30 minutes, or it'll be a lot worse than free..."
The second short, "Scream For Me" (2000), shares much of the character of the first -- a single confined location, a contained cast, and the central casting of Tony Simmons -- but is a far more viscerally disturbing piece. A young man named Garrott (Gabriel Sigal) is an example of that kind of serial killer with which we've all become familiar: Tortured by loss, warped by pain, looking for redemption for his twisted inner child in all the wrong places. To be specific, he looks for the secrets of the afterlife in the screams of his victims, though the fact that strangling said victims prevents most screams seems to escape him. He's the weepy and volatile kind of killer, and we'd almost feel sorry for him if we didn't first meet him while he's throttling the life out of his nubile twenty-something victim (Lora Cunningham).
What dwarfs Garrott's demented pathos is the arrival of Tony Simmons again, another killer who had his eye on the same victim. And this killer makes Garrott look like Mother Teresa; he's a mirror-shaded redneck adept in the pinpoint application of brutal force, a single personification of every base and soulless animal instinct that lies in the evolutionary dregs of humanity. He's utterly confident and supremely capable, and a tortured soul like Garrott has no chance to be anything but his victim. He's there to satisfy his desires, and he's not about to accept the girl's death as a hindrance. Because there's things that a man can do to another man, involving duct tape and other tools...
"'In your eyes, the light the heat'... Sing along, dammit!"
I think the fear of emasculation lies in the backs of the minds of most men, which is what allows "Scream For Me" to build a sense of sickening anticipation for most of its 22-minute length with hints so subtle as to be almost there. By the time we get to the payoff, it's almost a relief when the moment of monstrous violence is done. In fact, the instance of greatest visual horror may be of a shirtless Tony Simmons, dancing sinuously around the room to the "mood music" he's chosen. And I'm only half-joking there.
Of the three shorts in this package, the third, "Human No More" (2004), is the one that comes closest to the standard mediocre short film. That's something like saying which Kurosawa film is most like an I Love Lucy rerun; it only looks bad in comparison to the other two. And it's not that it looks bad per se, but it seems more like a setup or concept sketch for a longer narrative than like a self-contained film. To tell it, it seems absurdly simple: World-weary Detective Nemo (Tony Simmons again) lets himself into his sanctum sanctorum in the basement of an abandoned building. There, as he unwinds and arranges furniture, he listens to the tape of his partner and himself interrogating a remorseless, boisterous baby murderer. Then he arranges a video camera and makes a statement into it before... well, before some weird surreal stuff happens.
What a feller can do t'another feller with duct tape... 'T'ain't right."
Aside from the voices on the interrogation tape, Simmons is the only cast member, and the whole latter half of the short is his soliloquy. That should be a recipe for disaster in a motion picture, but this picture keeps its motion thanks to some very inventive camera work. Except for what we see through the eye of Nemo's videocamera, everything is shot through a distorted lens, and the roving camera's-eye-view shoots fluidly from around corners and above ceiling conduits. The camera eye becomes a character with an energetic, almost feral viewpoint.
And the other redemptive feature here is Tony Simmons' performance. Hollywood, listen up: This is a talented, skilled, versatile actor waiting to be discovered. Each of the three roles he delivers is so fully formed and believable that it's shocking to see how well he then essays a wholly dissimilar part in the other two. He's got a very distinctive face, but he plays each of the roles so well that if you were to watch these three shorts on successive nights, you honestly wouldn't recognize him as the same actor. He's just that good.
Now, I have to close off with the standard rant about energy misplaced in making shorts: There's simply no market for them. By and large, the only people who watch shorts are other people who make shorts -- they're the cinematic equivalent of academic poetry. What I want to see is Christopher Alan Broadstone take the consummate control exhibited here and channel them into a feature-length film. He can obviously handle a sustained narrative; I haven't read his novel Puzzleman, but it's gotten good reviews from the right people. Now he just needs to bring his two passions together.
"Some days, I drink the coffee. Some days, the coffee drinks me."
And I'm eager to see the result... almost. I'll be honest with you: Even though all three shorts together take up barely more than 45 minutes, watching the three in a single sitting was an emotionally and psychically draining experience. The kind of intensity that is possible, even preferable, in a short film can brutalize an audience at feature length. Here's hoping that Broadstone's mastery of the short film stil leaves him able to work comfortably at the length of a feature.