Pack of Short Films Makes Rounds
April 1, 1993

David Sterritt

 

October Films releases a 79-minute collection of pithy, political, and humorous 'shorts'

Most moviegoers over a certain age remember that as late as the 1960s a trip to the movies usually meant a cartoon and a "short subject" as well as coming attractions and a main feature.

Few people lament the demise of newsreels, since we can learn more about world affairs from the television news programs that have taken over their job. Cartoons still thrive in feature-length form, as hits like "Aladdin" and "The Little Mermaid" attest.

But the departure of "shorts" from the wide screen has been a genuine loss for film culture. In literature, nobody questions the value of short stories and essays alongside novels and nonfiction books. In movies though, we insist that our stories last 90 minutes or more. If a film is much shorter that, we figure it must be the fledgling effort of a student, an amateur, or someone trying to break into the business. And that leads to the assumption that it doesn't belong in a real movie theater.

Still, shorts are a regular attraction at many film festivals, and occasionally, some brave distributor tries to break the feature film rule by stitching together a package of shorts and selling it to theaters. Although such programs don't usually make a big splash at the box office, they do allow a handful of efforts to gain more exposure.

The latest such package to go into commercial release, "Two Mikes Don't Make a Wright," has heavy-hitting credentials. It begins with a comedy that earned the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short in 1989. Then it continues with a sequel to the documentary "Roger & Me," and concludes with a one-person show directed by one of Europe's most respected filmmakers. The whole program is only 79 minutes long, but it packs a wallop out of proportion to its size.

"The Appointments of Dennis Jennings," directed by Dean Parisot, stars Steven Wright as a young man who constantly attends psychotherapy sessions to assuage his anxieties. This turns out to be a poor idea, since his anxieties are entirely justified -- including the nagging sense that his psychiatrist is carrying on with his girlfriend behind his back and telling uproarious stories about him in the neighborhood bar.

Not often has the modern-day obsession with therapy been as thoroughly roasted as in this smart and sardonic comedy, which features deliciously deadpan performances by Rowan Atkinsion and Laurie Metcalf as well as Mr. Wright, who couldn't be better as our anxious hero. It's a sharp and original movie.

"Roger & Me," one of the most popular documentaries in memory, chronicles the efforts of filmmaker Michael Moore to get an appointment with General Motors chief Roger Smith, in order to complain about GM plant-closings and layoffs. The movie was widely hailed for its concern over economic problems and also for the dizzying humor that Mr. Moore injected into what could have been a very grim picture.

"Pets or Meat: The Return to Flint" takes us back to the Michigan city most affected by GM policy, and updates us on residents made famous by Moore's first visit with them -- including the "bunny lady" who breeds rabbits for any purpose the buyer chooses.

It's her slogan that provides the title for Moore's new movie. In the world of big business, he says, working folks are treated as "pets or meat" depending on the needs of the moment.

Moore hasn't lost his penchant for hard-hitting social commentary, and parts of "Pets or Meat" are trenchant and incisive. Something else he hasn't lost is his weakness for ridiculing the foibles not only of wealthy capitalists, but also of the unassuming people he wants his audience to sympathize with. His new picture has the same strengths and weaknesses that catapulted "Roger & Me" to fame and controversy. It's worth seeing and discussing - but beware of the bunny-lady portion, since she now sells rabbits as snake food, and there's a graphic scene showing one of her serpentine customers having lunch.

"A Sense of History makes a marvelous ending to the program. British actor Jim Broadbent plays its only major character, the 23rd Earl of Leete - an old fashioned aristocrat who takes us on a tour of his estate and explains the measures he has taken to ensure its survival. Those measures turn out to include all kinds of skullduggery and violence, which the Earl sees as reasonable, given the necessity of preserving his heritage.

This makes for a withering satire of aristocratic attitudes, and also a hilarious portrait of a snobbish old reactionary who doesn't have the slightest realization that the time for his breed has long vanished. He is played to perfection by Mr. Broadbent, who's also onscreen this season in "The Crying Game" and "Enchanted April," and earned praise as the father in "Life Is Sweet" a couple of years ago. "A Sense of History" was directed by Mike Leigh, a comedy specialist with solid artistic instincts and a strong sense of social awareness. This brief but biting portrait stands with his best work.

"Two Mikes Don't Make a Wright" is distributed by October Films, a New York-based company that deserves credit for releasing such an unusual program. Two of the movies, "A Sense of History" and "Pets or Meat," were shown last year (along with "Seen From Elsewhere," a less interesting short by Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand) in the New York Film Festival, where they attracted wide attention. All three should make an excellent home video package when their theatrical life has run its course.

     

Copyright 1993 Christian Science Monitor

 

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