There's a bloom on youth some of us never recapture, a spirit about beginner's films that's hard to match. The 10 short student films shown tonight at the Directors Guild are a good example: Made at the Los Angeles City College Radio-TV-Film Department, they have a zest and honesty that puts to shame much of the commercial product out now.
The school's film programs are populist products. Compared to many other college film programs, these students come from all ages, races, sexes and classes. It shows. All of these films have in common a devotion to storytelling craft and to ideas about the world.
Occasionally, they lack that surface panache that is often the only saving grace of a current commercial release. But each of them is a movie with a core, a heart and a brain. They range from a blackly comic cartoon about the price of good Samaritanism in the animal world (Brian Lee's "Frog Day Afternoon"), to a sympathetic examination of the plight of the aging (Mohammed Anvarizadeh's "Growing Again"), to a modern parable of religious mania (Ted Dewberry's "Second Coming"), to a satire on mind control (Rafaello Mazza's "Shock"), to two tour-de-force subjective portrayals of the horrors of childhood (Robert Chodak's comic "Come In, Johnny" and Michelle Johnson's painful "Silence").
Among my favorites: Nick Stamos' "Loose Ends," a tense, modern film noir about a recently paroled contract killer forced to redo the botched murder he left behind. Stamos tries for too wild a double-twist climax here, but he is good at evoking the disaffected mood of a rootless man in the city, the loneliness, dirt and squalor of small hotel rooms. His lead, Cletus Young, has a great, gnarled, cold-as-death gangster face, like Lino Ventura; he might have sprung form the bowels of Scorsese's mean streets. And Stamos' composer, Marjorie Poe, whose score is chilling and percussive, is a real find.
Carole Kravetz' "Taxi Dance" presents another slant on urban loneliness. It's a lyrical little film about dance, sex and the power of nocturnal body English, set on an abandoned stage where two strangers have a brief, blazing encounter. Saundra Sharp's "Picking Tribes," which I already had the pleasure of reviewing for the recent Black Talkies on Parade film competition (where it won first prize), is a marvelous autobiographical tale of a young girl coming gradually to terms with her mixed black and Native American heritages. It packs so much into its narration, music, animation and collage that you seem to experience half a lifetime in barely seven minutes.
Finally there is Rupert Nadeau's "Tracks," a nastily funny road picture in which a bearish, sweaty vacuum cleaner salesman (Carlo Michael Mancini) murders his lover and her boyfriend, then takes them along on a perverted parody of the usual love-on-the-run movie, from "Gun Crazy" to "Badlands." Nadeau seems to owe much of his attack to the Coen brothers ("Blood Simple" and "Raising Arizona"), but he adds some acrid spice and weird tricks of his own. In one virtuoso shot, the camera plays mirror games while the dead lovers spring to life in a desultory motel dance.
"Tracks" could easily be expanded into a full-length movie. So, with a better ending, could "Loose Ends." "Taxi Dance" and "Picking Tribes" are fine as they are. And, like the rest of the films, they are a breath of cinematic fresh air in the usual wasteland of crazed slashers, careening cars, deal-making and grosses-worship.