High Marks for Short Subjects:
A Visit to the 7th Annual Maryland Film Festival

Since 1999, the Maryland Film Festival has been striving to find a unique niche in the crowded and often repetitive film festival circuit.  Every festival wants to establish a reputation as the one place to find films that can’t be found anywhere else, so it’s not always easy to make a new mark.  Nevertheless, the MFF has tried with innovations such as its Guest Host program, which offers local and sometimes national celebrities (outside of the film industry) a chance to screen their favorite movies.  The MFF has also challenged festival convention by shunning any sort of prizes or competition.  This year, however, the MFF really dared to be different by opening with a program of short subjects rather than a highly hyped feature film.   With this latest innovation the MFF may have found its niche.

Short subjects are perfect for film festivals because you can see a lot of new work in a 2-hour spacing, and if you don’t like something it will be over soon enough.  The Maryland Film Festival not only opened with a program of shorts, it offered a balanced diet of short subjects throughout the three days of screenings at the Charles Theater and Maryland Institute College of Art.  With Animated Shorts, Comedy Shorts, Connections shorts, Past, Present, Future Shorts, Documentary Shorts, Comic-Twist Shorts, Drama Shorts, Outside Looking In Shorts, Zombies, Demons, & Robots Shorts, the only thing missing from the MFF were Bermuda Shorts.   Perhaps they’ll be included next year.

The Animated Shorts are a personal favorite because the desktop video revolution has been particularly advantageous to animators since it removes the need for the camera altogether—a variable that has ended many a would-be animator’s career.  In the last decade, computer animation software has given anybody with a Mac and an imagination cost-effective tools that Walt Disney couldn't have dreamed would ever exist.  In response, this new generation of animators is redefining the medium by introducing concepts and images that wouldn’t be possible to explore in any other artistic form.

The Animated Shorts program screened twice at the MFF—once on Friday morning and again on Sunday evening.  An outstanding program in terms of quality, variety, and plentitude the Animated Shorts program offered fourteen films from across the US and Canada, and a rare opportunity to get inside the heads of a wide variety of filmmakers.  In some cases we literally see inside the head of the filmmaker, as in the 4 and a half-minute DVD film, Decision.  According to the MFF program, Decision filmmaker, Freddy Maskeroni, included cat scans of the filmmaker's own skull as part of the visuals in his sophisticated piece. 

The variety of this compilation included well-known filmmakers like Bill Plympton, whose Plymptoons were often seen as station IDs for MTV in the 1980s.  Plympton’s 7-minute piece, The Fan and the Flower, was one of the highlights of the set.  Narrated by Paul Giamatti, The Fan and the Flower shows plenty of Plympton's signature fluid line-work and morphing, with monochrome shading that seemed to deviate from much of Plympton’s earlier work. The Fan and the Flower’s chiaroscuro style establishes a mood of untenable balance, extremes of sacrifice and intense love that just happens to focus on the relationship between a ceiling fan and a potted plant.  

 Another film with plenty of name recognition is Chris Landreth's Academy Award winning, Ryan, a 14-minute animated documentary on renowned Canadian filmmaker Ryan Larkin.  The film achieves a perfect harmony of disturbing subject matter, surreal imagery, comic self-consciousness, and poignant revelation.  It’s easy to see why it got the Oscar, which, unfortunately is something the currently homeless Larkin never did achieve. 

Each of the 14 films in the MFF collection struck a different tone, distinct on its own merits, yet reverberating with other films in the set.  Awkward, Handshake, and A Buck'sWorth involve chance encounters, two or three people interacting in unique explorations of human behaviour.   Learn Self Defense is a satirical look at present day politics, while Bid ‘Em In satirizes the pro-slavery politics of the past through song.  Egg, 9, The Meaning of Life, and Surface look at this world or another through an imaginary lens, while Biopathy III and TZ120504 explore the visual possibilities of the medium.   

Those who didn't catch any of the Maryland Film Festival this year should definitely put it on the calendar for next year.  With its focus on shorts and inclusion of such a wide variety of quality new work, the MFF has now made its mark.

This article was originally published in my CineMatters column for The Baltimore View, May 2005. Joseph Christopher Schaub