DVD review: Cinema 16 – American Short Films

7 May

cinema-16Cinema16: American Short Films. Part of a series of short film compilations including European, World and British Cinema.

One of the presents I gave my  boyfriend for his birthday this year was a Fassbinder box set, as he had once remarked that he would like it if I gave him one of my favourite films as a gift (in this case, Martha). A week later he ordered each and every DVD in the newly released Cinema16 collection from JB HiFi, and all I could think was, ‘I wish I had given  you THAT for your birthday!’

I’ve just finished the American part of the collection, which I enjoyed thoroughly. What makes this set a particularly worthwhile purchase is the inclusion of illuminating and informative audio commentaries on each film. There are 16 great films included here so I have only gone into a few of them. There are also films by Maya Deren, Andy Warhol, Tim Burton and Mike Mills, to name a few. 


What really stood out to me was the essential simplicity of these evocative films. Mostly completed when the Directors were film students, they are often crudely made without professional use of sound or lighting, yet show a craftmanship and originality that overcomes technical and budget restrictions to create rich characters and stories. This is reinforced by the fact that many of the films feature non-actors such as the directors’ classmates to star in the films. Rather than giving the films an amateurish quality, this resourceful use of real people lends an unmistakable authenticity to the work. One last thing, there’s an overwhelming number of films set in NYC in this set. While it raises the question as to why there’s a distinct lack of  films included that were set in other parts of the USA, if you’re a fan of The Big Apple like me, you’re going to just love it! It’s all skyscrapers, Brooklyn street scenes, diners and Coney Island baby now.

Terminal Bar uses photos taken by the filmmaker Stefan Nadelman’s dad in his bartender days during the 1970s and early 80s. Using flash animation, Nadelman forms a unique narrative of the legendary New York bar’s regulars based on creative compositioning of black and white portraits and sound. 



Freiheit - George Lucas

Freiheit - George Lucas. In his first live action film Freiheit, the then student George Lucas deals with the meaning of freedom at the time of the Berlin Wall. The ghostly imagery of a young boy running through the forest to the sound of birds singing and machine guns firing gives a glimmer of insight into the early vision of a legendary filmmaker mastering the extremely simple means at his disposal.

Pennebaker with dylan on Don't Look Back

Pennebaker with dylan on Don't Look Back

D.A. Pennebaker’s Daybreak Express captures the beauty of the New York City subway in a free form visual poem whose life force is brought to the fore by the insistent locomotive rhythms of a Duke Ellington score and kaleidoscopic imagery that pulses with the beat of daily life in the big city. The result is a distillation of NYC’s transcendence of time through its continual trafficking of life and movement. This atmosphere is captured by one of the filmmaker’s influences, Ezra Pound’s two line poem, “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparation of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

(I’d love to see someone transform the slow and dull tedium of Melbourne’s tram system into such an enduring and dynamic piece!)

In Alexander Payne’s Carmen, a modern hicksville re- interpretation of silent film comedy, a Spanish siren assails a moronic console operator with her beauty and becomes the central figure of his operatic Bizetian dreamings. It’s all hand-held petrol bowser ejaculations and slow-motion running across sand until reality sets in at the trailer home where our modern day doofus lives. 


The Discipline of D.E. - Gus Van Sant

The Discipline of D.E. - Gus Van Sant

One of the stand outs (and there are many) from this set is Gus Van Sant’s kooky The Discipline of D.E, based on a William Burroughs story. In this narrated instructional film we learn the principles of D.E, or “Do Easy”:  “Doing whatever you do in the easiest most relaxed way you can manage”.  The art of practising efficiency in everything you do (“how can you pilot a spacecraft if you can’t find your way around your own apartment?”) is explored in a comically deadpan, off the wall take on self-discipline and its ultimate useability through abstract images that pay homage to sources as diverse as DIY videos and spaghetti westerns.

In The Wraith of Cobble Hill, a down and out teenager, Felix,  is given the keys to look after the neighbour’s dog while the convenience store manager is on hiatus. After raiding the shelves for spam roast tv dinners, he forms an unlikely connection that breaks away from his experience of domestic neglect. Director Adam Parrish King’s film is a great example of the power of stop-motion to create dramatic, self-contained worlds for its characters. While imitating reality with precise timing and authentic writing and voices, the film manages to transform the world of the story into a series of dreamlike moments that would be out of place beyond their original setting.

For fans of Todd Solondz, Feelings is a melancholy, awkward, kind of twee student film that Solondz made in 1984 during his student days at New York University. Set on the beach at Coney Island, this grainy black and white testament to a young man’s heartbreak features Solondz himself in the starring role. Did I mention that the song in the film, ‘Feelings’ by Morris Albert, is also sung by Solondz? What an angel. (Video Below)

Lunch Date - Adam Davidson

Lunch Date - Adam Davidson

Adam Davidson’s formidable The Lunch Date depicts a middle class white American woman’s confrontation  with her own prejudices  played out over a meal with a homeless person at Grand Central Station. The interesting thing about this film is that although it addresses class and racial issues, the woman does not seem to learn from her mistakes; in fact at the film’s end she appears unchanged. This complex and humane film uses minimal dialogue, with each scene and action contributing to the telling of the story. Just as in real life, we learn about the characters’ attitudes by how they react to the people around them. The screenplay’s clever twist and reversal lead to an unforgettable resolution.

The Director chose black and white film so he could  make use of available light at Grand Central, providing a timeless atmosphere to a film that doesn’t waste a single second of screen time. The film went on to win the 1991 Academy Award Oscar for Best Short Film.


Anna Sutton.


6 Responses to “DVD review: Cinema 16 – American Short Films”

  1. J.A. Walsh May 8, 2009 at 11:13 am #

    Great article Ms Sutton, I’m sold. This is exactly what I want. No prizes for guessing what my boyfriend will be getting for his birthday this year.

    Or… can I borrow it when your done?

  2. J.A. Walsh May 8, 2009 at 11:13 am #


  3. Tim Bishop May 14, 2009 at 10:52 am #

    I picked up a pirate version of the cinema 16 Britain in Cambodia a few years ago, not really knowing what it was, have loved and re-watched it ever since. Looking forward to seeing this one.

  4. Ronan Macewan May 14, 2009 at 11:32 am #

    I reckon we might have to show some at the next goonlight.

  5. Ronan Macewan May 14, 2009 at 11:33 am #

    Actually i remember being first inspired to run a little cinema in my lounge room just after watching Cinema 16 Britain. Kind of kicked the whole thing off.

  6. all about computers June 3, 2013 at 10:19 am #

    It’s not my first time to pay a quick visit this website, i am browsing this web site dailly and obtain fastidious facts from here everyday.

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