The 50 or so entries on view at the sixth annual E.M.I.T. student film festival at the Cleveland Institute of Art place no great demands on sight-bite-stunted attention spans. Keeping pace with the season's hit-and-run political spots, almost all the video and films shown are between 10 minutes and - no foolin' - four seconds in length. Real-time boredom has little chance to take hold in the course of the two-hour program, which is essentially a show of vivid sketches highlighting the skills and obsessions of Cleveland Institute of Art students. Although these brief studies tend also to be short on depth, often sampling subject matter in movie trailer-like snippets, their quick attention alights on matters as diverse as flying beavers and the Blackwater controversy, matching an almost equally wide array of technical approaches. From Jeff Mancinetti's gladiatorial fragment, a monochromatic 2D semi-animated digital film sequence titled Sacrifice of Telemachus, to Lauren Sammon's documentary What I Saw in Ugandafeaturing victims of the notorious Lord's Resistance Army, contemporary mediums and issues are presented in rapid-fire succession.
Despite, or maybe because of, their brevity, viewers are likely to leave the Cinemathique with a hard-to-forget pocketful of strong images from a dozen or more sequences. Especially memorable is Brittany Campbell's Troubled Water. A brief on-screen text allusion to drowning introduces a number of headshots filmed as close-ups under gently rolling waves. Waterboarding and drowning in general as well as the sensuous pleasures of bathing and swimming are among the ambivalent evocations here, but in the course of the film's less than 10-minute run, the beauty and mystery of water as a unique kind of filter creates its own poetry of immersion. At one point a cloud of bubbles emerges from the tight corners and nostrils of a young man's face, as telling of life and limitation as a hundred tiny thought balloons.
Campbell isn't alone in her nuanced angst. Many of the artists at E.M.I.T. draw upon extreme or desperate states of mind, body and spirit. Kylea Kerg's The Walk, for instance, is just over a minute in length but manages to convey a lifetime of desolation. Composed of more than 300 separate, very spare line drawings, Kerg's animation shows a man falling down a flight of stairs into an underground realm; soon he passes through a wave-like boundary into a sudden, star-like burst of lines: It seems clear that this barely dimensional figure chooses to move through despair into death, or possibly an enlightenment we can only guess at. The multiple soft pencil lines offer a constant visual vibrato and, as counterpart, the sound of surf in the background echoes, as if in a cavern insulated from hope. In the end it's as if he's walked through a subterranean waterfall, abruptly released from his own mental landscape, translated to a condition line can't express.
At least beginning on a more carefree note, Space Beavers by Amy Gardiner is a colorful 3D animation featuring a beaver-protagonist who wants to learn to fly. Disconsolate and ambitious, he watches from the river bank as other members of his clan swoop high overhead, performing aerial acrobatics. Standing up, he pumps his stubby arms as hard as he can, but nothing happens. In a Disney cartoon he might meet a guru trainer-frog who could teach him the ropes, but we're not in Hollywood, nor watching your grandmother's film festival. This cartoon beaver climbs to the top of a cliff, jumps off - and splat, he dies. Then he flies, zipping about with all the other "space beavers" who presumably are just as dead as he is. Talk about closure.
Then there's Monster Hunter, a work in 3D animation by Justin Reed, where a cruel-looking beetle-browed troll-like character tiptoes through the woods. He doesn't turn to shush the audience and tell us he's hunting wabbitts, but we can tell he's an Elmer Fudd wannabe from his posture and his blunderbuss. Turns out he's not hunting bunnies, but monsters. After some serious rustling in the undergrowth by way of climax and denouement, Reed leaves us with Fudd-troll, the victim of his own hubris, spread-eagled and presumed dead in a clearing.
Two quick Hollywood spoofs are among the funniest entries. One lampoons the famous scene in Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror classic The Shining where the boy David (Danny Lloyd) encounters ghostly twin girls in the hotel hallway. In Lauren Hemphill's in-camera-edit video the girls' parts are played by two identical dolls; the boy is a wide-eyed little fantasyland-style pig. As in the movie segment, nothing much happens - the dolls get closer, the pig boy puts his little pink mittens in front of his big blue eyes, and the dolls disappear. An artfully suspenseful soundtrack helps this piece along, playfully underscoring its deadpan irony.
Amanda Cates' Shower Scene makes fun of Janet Leigh's iconic moments in Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 thriller Psycho. Like the original, Shower Scene is shot in black and white, and its subject is horror. But instead of stabbing and blood, we have here the auteur (who stands in for Leigh's character) opening her eyes to discover herself surrounded by her roommate's hair - stuck to the walls, the tub, swirling down the drain. Amanda screams in horror (dissolve).
In terms of sheer visual fascination, one of my own picks for best in show would be Josef Kraska'sLove Song. Kraska's video imitates the color and texture shifts of damaged film, jerking from frame to frame as it shows a singer belting out a much-distorted version of Karen Carpenter's 1970 hit Close To You. As beautiful and disturbing as a series of highly expressive paintings, each frame drags its fingernails across the membranes of romance and loss, separation and too-painful closeness. As elsewhere at E.M.I.T., the critical importance of sound design to the success and impact of such very short visual pieces is brought into clear focus.
Over the past six seasons, E.M.I.T. has been conceived, juried, directed and guided throughout by associate professor Kasumi, an internationally recognized experimental video and sound performer. With the help and cooperation of John Ewing, director of the Cleveland Cinemathique, and the sponsorship of CIA's TIME Digital Arts, E.M.I.T. should enjoy a long future, empowering students as it helps to fill the gap between big screen notoriety and the daily grind of in-camera edits and computer-screen viewings.
E.M.I.T. Student Film Festival: Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque, 11141 East Blvd., 216-421-7450, firstname.lastname@example.org.