The short form used to be the Rodney Dangerfield of the film world -- it couldn't get no respect. Nowadays shorts programs are amazingly popular, a reflection less of chronic ADD than the dawning realization that no other night at the movies offers so much concentrated creativity.
The newest entry among the myriad touring programs (Ann Arbor, Microcinema, The Animation Show, etc.) is CineVegas programmer Mike Plante's Lunchfilm: Film Before Food. Like so many marvelous ideas, it began as a fluke. A filmmaker pal was short of dough, so Plante picked up the bill. The other fellow offered the standard make-good -- he'd get the check next time -- but Plante had a brainstorm: Pay back the "debt" by making a film for the same cost. The concept soon turned into regular commissions, now topping 50, with the programmer scratching out terms and themes over a midday bite with the designated filmmaker.
Shorts used to be viewed as the province of students and amateurs, the apprentices who weren't ready for prime time (that is, features). The Lunchfilm lineup boasts several mid-career experimental and nonfiction filmmakers, so I wasn't expecting half-baked dreck but a cascade of no-budget, handmade work akin to scrapbook art: low on materials and high on inspiration. There are a few pieces like that, notably Kelly Sears's mysterious, moody Jean, which revisits movie star Jean Seberg's dismal end through newspaper-style snippets of text laid over tarot illustrations.
But most of the films are so ambitious and accomplished that they defy any sense of constraints, financial or otherwise. The pick of the litter might be Braden King's intimate black-and-white Home Movie, co-written with and starring Mimi Visser as an exhausted, devoted Swedish mother who may be facing the loss of her young sons in a custody battle. Another highlight is local filmmaker Sam Green's wonderful and strangely moving Clear Glasses, which amplifies the connection he made with political activist-turned-fugitive-turned teacher Mark Rudd in the course of making his Oscar-nominated documentary The Weather Underground.
Another S.F. icon, George Kuchar, contributes one of his deceptively complex video travelogues, The Celluloid Cavalcade, a seemingly random compilation that begins in Atlanta (where he was touted with a couple of shows at Emory University) and ends up flitting around more familiar environs from the S.F. Art Institute (or Art Asylum, as Kuchar refers to his teaching home in his hilariously deadpan narration) to the S.F. International Film Festival's opening night party to a show by one-time local Martha Colburn at the New Nothing Cinema. Kuchar's charming, generous work may seem tossed off to the uninitiated, but there's an undercurrent of Hollywood sendup and monster-movie surrealism on the soundtrack that nudges his films into unexpected psychological territory.
The aforementioned Martha Colburn is represented by a stunning piece of cut-out animation, Myth Wars, that conflates religion, drug addiction and colonial history into a dizzying diorama. A young filmmaker named Mike Gibisser turns in an artful split-screen, black-and-white vignette of his grandmother entitled Springtime Wound Motor, a reference to the spring-loaded camera he employed. Bobcat Goldthwait's Goldthwait Home Movies went even cheaper, adding tongue-in-cheek voice-over to his family's old films to satirize DVD commentary tracks, child stardom and sibling rivalries.
If it's not already clear, Lunchfilm: Film before Food draws on an incredible array of styles and genres, and (with only a couple of exceptions) is pure pleasure from start to finish. Jonathan Marlowe of San Francisco Cinematheque saw the program at Sundance in January and asked Plante if a touring program was in the works; it turns out the two-and-a-quarter-hour S.F. show will be the first stop. Plante will be on hand, as well as Green and Kuchar, perhaps. Show some respect.
Lunchfilm screens Sunday, March 22, 2009 at 7:30 p.m. at Yerba Buena Center For the Arts in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit www.ybca.org.