SpoutBlog – Glory at Sea Review

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SXSW 2008: Glory At Sea
By David Lowery

I’ve long been of the opinion that films should not be defined by their running time. Terms like ’short’ and ‘feature’ are handy for categorical purposes but have otherwise become unfairly exclusive, creating betwixt them a no-man’s land in which few filmmakers dare tread. I’ve heard enticing rumors of a theater in Paris that showcases films between forty five and sixty minutes and length, and I always admire those filmmakers that go against the advice of festival programmers who suggest that unless a short film is really, really great it shouldn’t run much longer than 10 minutes – just as I admire the programmers who select the 25 and 30 minute shorts that are, indeed, really really great, just like the 5 minute shorts they might be screening alongside of. It’s quality, not quantity, and I don’t care about the latter when there’s an abundance of the former. Suffice to say, I really love short form filmmaking, and I always make it a point at festivals to catch all of the short programs. I’ll be covering some of my favorite short selections from this year’s 2008 SXSW Film Festival in an upcoming article, but there was one film in particular that I felt warranted its own review.

If you were at SXSW this past week, you may have heard rumors about Glory At Sea, whose production and premiere both are almost as epic as the film itself. Directed by Ben Zeitlin and produced by the same folks behind last year’s festival favorite Death To Tinman, the film is a fable of such exorbitantly epic proportions that it could only be described as Herzogian. “Fitzcarraldo!” shouted one audience member, apparently too bowled over by the film to express himself in the form of a question, during the post-screening Q&A. Given that the film took six months to shoot (many of those spent out on open water), its Sisyphean qualities correlate quite well with Herzog’s effort. At the same time, Zeitlin’s vision seems quite a few degrees more ambitious – and even moreso removed from reality – than anything Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald might have dreamed up.

Set on the coast of an antediluvian New Orleans and narrated from the bottom of the ocean by a dead little girl, the film tells the tale of a group of shellshocked residents who rediscover a sense of hope after a man thought lost to the storm washes ashore and immediately sets about constructing a raft, with which he might return to sea on an Orphic quest to find his waterlogged love. For reasons as elemental as they are inexplicable, the townspeople decide to join him in this effort, and together they turn his driftwood dinghy into a grand patchwork vessel, hewn together out of old memories and keepsakes: a rusty automobile, a janky upright piano. A bathtub and a bed. Hints at former lives laid to waste by the hand of God. A new community forms there on the beach. Everyone brings something, everyone does their part, including the local preacher, who joins the crew after his church is accidentally torched during a rather Dionysian Mardi Gras parade.

At least, I think its the church that burns down; the film is so jam packed with incident that it occasionally steps on its own toes. I’ve seen it twice now and I’m still not sure what’s happening at a few points. That was also a problem in Death To Tinman, whose narrative form viewers may recognize here. Tinman’s director, Ray Tintori, produced this one, and helped write the story (in addition to providing production design). The hyperbolic storytelling, the flatly declarative dialog and madcap pace are the same, as is the ever insistent score, but gone is the absurdist irony and emotional detachment. Zeitlin’s after something bigger. This is a grand romance, an allegory, a story about, yes, post-Katrina New Orleans. Above all, this is a cinematic experience explicitly designed to move audiences, and as such it is explicitly, overtly manipulative; every little detail is designed to evoke a response; the strings always swell at all the right moments. It’ll hardly leave a dry eye in the house, and I’d cry foul if the filmmakers hadn’t achieved something so truly bizarre with their formal choices: because the film is what it is, and because it’s all crammed into a 25 minute running time, being bombastic and grandiose with every emotional gesture isn’t just appropriate but pretty much necessary. This isn’t traditional narrative. It’s an ancient myth racing at breakneck speeds to catch-up with the times.

All of this sound and fury didn’t win Glory At Sea the grand jury prize for short film at SXSW, and I actually think that’s appropriate. Those films that did win (more on them soon) are excellent works, and it’s hard to argue that they aren’t more mature or formally sound. Indeed, they’ve got just as much going on as Zeitlin’s film, but it’s all restrained beneath the surface. But I think Glory At Sea, for sheer ambition, deserved an award all its own, and that’s pretty much what it got: Brent Hoff and Emily Doe presented it with the Wholphin award for Best Short. As they announced the prize, Doe and Hoff stated that it was going to a film that demonstrated everything a short film can be. The key word is can; a short film doesn’t have to go this far to be great, nor should it. But it is possible, and Zeitlin and his cast and crew did it, and I’ll be darned if I’ve ever seen a film of any length with the same scope as this one. It may be less than half an hour, but it’s just as much a feature as anything else at the festival.

Now, I mentioned that the premiere here in Austin last Sunday had its own shares of ups and downs; word trickled out after the screening, and soon the film festival was abuzz with what had happened: it was a massively successful first screening, marred only by the fact that Zeitlin wasn’t actually there for it. He was in transit to the theater when he was involved in a terrible car accident that sent him straight to the hospital with a shattered pelvis. He’s been waylaid there all week, missing both his screenings and the award ceremony. Rooftop Films, which helped finance the picture, has set up a page with information on how to assist Zeitlin with his suddenly mounting medical bills. Benefit screenings are being set up in New York and Austin, and donations are being accepted. Help him out, so he can put that money towards making another film. Of whatever length.