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TIFF Reviews From a Hat: Short Cuts Canada Programme 1, or Why I Don't Get Art

Teleporting Chinese tourists. Masturbating astronauts. Death by duct tape. Semen-filled puppets. Possible time travel. That one guy from Corner Gas. I was at a loss for words, and kept looking around to see if someone, anyone, was as confused and enraged as I was, but they were speechless in the face of True Art. I call bullshit.

I am not a smart man.

This is important to establish up front. It will explain situations like when I tried to enter the Bell Lightbox via the celebrity red carpet entrance (twice) only to be gently pushed away by one of Ron Howard's bodyguards (twice), or when I stood in the wrong line for 15 minutes because I thought my chosen film programme -- a selection of Canadian short films -- was called Made In America.

The fact that I am a Bear of Very Little Brain also explains one of my longest-running struggles (as long as we're willing to define "mild social neuroses" as "struggles"): I don't get Art. I understand the concept of artistic creation, and I think I could do a run through the Louvre and absolutely appreciate what I saw inside. But it's a certain type of modern, if-you-need-it-explained-you'll-never-get-it art, that I can't seem to grasp. I have gone to Nuit Blanche for years in a vain attempt to add layers of distinction to my character while having a socially agreed upon excuse to drink for an entire night straight, and I always end up feeling a mix of confusion and anger.

"Did I just watch a guy sit on a step ladder for 15 minutes?" I'd ask myself, while absolutely stroking my chin in an appreciative and not-at-all-fake-as-hell manner. "In what way is a giant inflatable ant on a soccer field 'Art'? What about the room that was full of garbage and sawdust? That can't be art, because that's my bedroom."

My feeling that I've been duped by the art world is never stronger than when I read the little plaques explaining each installation. There's always something about the mix of superfluous adjectives and vague declarative statements that seems deeply familiar to me, and then it hits me: I've read these before. Hell, I've written these before. Art installation descriptions are every last-minute assignment I've ever thrown together for school.

The same hasty, lazy reasoning that connects the majority of my English essays lives on in every artist who claims their installation (two women screaming at each other in front of a strobe light while Rammstein plays on loop) is a clear representation of female disempowerment in South Asia. If it was clear, would you need a to spend a paragraph explaining what your audience is looking at? Wouldn't the value and intent of good art make itself even slightly apparent on its own?

My struggle between "What is art?" and "What is bullshit?" was alive and well as I waited in line for the Short Cuts Canada 1 Programme, a collection of six short films (which did not include Noah, the eventual winner of best short film at the festival). Once I figured out that the line for my movie on the second floor was gathering on the main floor instead of beside the theatre it was screening at, I was good to go. I wanted to go into this with an open mind, because hey; I was about to see a bunch of artistic short films at the best film festival in the world. If I couldn't enjoy that, then I just wasn't meant to like nice things. A lifetime of Storage Wars and NCIS reruns would await me.

The show was delayed by half an hour due to technical difficulties, as told to us by a string of stressed out TIFF volunteers while we waited in the increasingly busy Lightbox lobby. I had the distinct impression that we -- as in, the normal people who were there to see new and exciting movies -- were an inconvenience to the flow of TIFF as a whole. A few metres away from me, Ron Howard chatted casually to a phalanx of cameras while paparazzi literally stacked on top of each other to get thousands of functionally-identical pictures of Ron Howard Standing In Front Of A Wall. Their job would have been way easier without all these pesky people milling about, waiting in line for the movies they paid to see like they owned the place. As my line was eventually guided upstairs to our theatre, baby duck style, that feeling was compounded; we were getting in the way of the Main Attractions.

When we arrived at the main doors, we were informed that the first four out of the six short films would be screened in 3D, and were handed fancy-ass goggles in preparation. The glasses were elegant in their construction; too bulky for me to steal, too cool for me to not consider stealing. Picture a cross between Geordi LaForge's headgear and Bret Hart's wraparounds and you've got the right idea.

The curator of the Short Cuts Canada programme took the stage once we were all seated, and after apologizing for the delay, he brought the director of each film except the first one (who was at another film festival) onstage to say a few words. It was a nice personal touch, and really drove home the fact that what we were about to see is the final product of Actual People working very hard for a very long time. With introductions out of the way, we slipped on our 3D goggles and started the show.

So began one of the most confusing hours of my life.

There were times where I looked around the audience to see if anyone felt as lost as I did. The curator said in his opening speech that short films allowed creators to take risks with new formats that wouldn't work in feature-length films. That made sense to me, but it didn't help shake the feeling that the majority of the short films seemed unfinished in some critical way.

The programme opened with Gloria Victoria by Theodore Ushev, which came across as a mix of Fantasia and Russian abstract art. The entire experience played like a stylized music video, and it took good advantage of the 3D. I worked to find meaning behind the cavalcade of images (I think it's a history of the 20th century), but I was no worse for wear on the other side of the screening.

Next up was Subconscious Password, a joint venture between animation students and Chris Landreth. The film primarily takes place in the mind of a guy struggling to remember the name of a long-lost friend at a party, and his memory retrieval plays out as a trippy game show. The concept was one everyone has experienced at some point, although the references became increasingly pretentious; after cameo appearances by William Burroughs and Yoko Ono, the main character's mother turns into Ayn Rand, and he turns into a giant CGI baby. But at its core, it was a story I could follow. I can't say the same for the threeshortfilms that followed.

Teleporting Chinese tourists. Masturbating astronauts. Death by duct tape. Semen-filled puppets. Possible time travel. That one guy from Corner Gas. I was at a loss for words, and kept looking around to see if someone, anyone, was as confused and enraged as I was. "Did we seriously just spend a minute watching tears float towards the screen.. in 3D?" I wanted to scream, but everyone around me seemed to be caught in the blissful glow of True Art.

I call bullshit.

Nobody knew what was happening, and to openly admit that you didn't get the short film would serve as a litmus test for your own inadequacy. What's that? I thought one of the films was a cheap excuse to show naked sexualized women and extremely specific fetishes under the guise of art (rather than what anyone else would call it: Kinky French Space Porn)? That's the failing of the viewer to not "get it".

One of the films, Pilgrims, was allegedly about the plight of First Nations people, and presented a sort of hazing scenario of a white man into their culture. I only came to this conclusion because the director literally had to tell us what the film was about during the post-screening Q+A. We've established that I'm not the ideal viewing audience for high art films, but there was a palpable silence after each of these movies screened, a very forced quality to the applause during each credits sequence: it's the sound of a room of people thinking "What? That's it?"

That's how I knew the final film, Remember Me, actually got through to people. Directed by Jean-Francois Asselin, it told the story of a man who realized that unless someone in the world was thinking of him at all times, he would literally fade into nothing. It's one of the most funny and mean-spirited things I've ever seen. It was graphic, subtle, and daring. It made a commentary on modern social networking culture without the director having to step onstage and tell us that. During the screening, there were gasps, there were screams, there was legitimate, sustained laughter. It had the arc and structure of a feature length film, but it was shorter. Almost like it was some sort of "short film."

Remember Me won a partially-standing ovation, and it single-handedly redeemed the entire Short Cuts Programme for me that night. I recommend it without exception, both as an example of why independent Canadian filmmaking deserves your attention, and as a counterpoint to anyone who believes that good art needs to be prohibitively confusing and vague.

Sometimes it just needs to be good.

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