On Wednesday November 14th, I attended Open Projector Night at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts. On the website, it describes the event as “a recurring cinematic event presenting the work of local, regional, and national filmmakers with a Michigan connection.” Needless to say, it felt like my obligation as a Michigander AND a film student to attend this short film screening.
I walked in alone and quietly took the “fashionably late” seat on the end of the nearest row. Dropping in on the middle of the first short Pretorious, I was immediately fascinated. On-screen was a man slow dancing with a decomposing skeleton in a red dress. This tense and wildly disturbing moment lasted for the rest of the film, then the credits rolled. Upon further investigation, I was filled with regret when I could not find the short itself online. I still yearn to know exactly what was going on at the start of the film.
The next short started out just as mysterious as the middle-to-end of the previous one. It began with no title card, just what appeared to be a pregnant housewife doing chores in her suburban home. The use of such soft, flattering lighting, to me, made it appear to be a commercial for some sort of cleaning product. Though, contrary to my expectations, the woman jumps at something rustling around upstairs and a very unsettling musical track begins to play in the background. She gets up and slowly makes her way up the stairs, wielding only a single knitting needle. The track begins to intensify as if something terrifying will be sitting at the top of the stairs. Reaching the top, the shot fixates on a door at the end of the hallway. There is a cut to the pregnant woman beginning to shiver with fear. As she opens the door, a little girl turns around with a doll in her hand and the pregnant woman lets out a blood-curdling scream. The film resolves with the pregnant woman waking up in a cold sweat next to her husband who jumps at the sound of her scream. He continues to ask her if she had “the human child dream again”. She looks at him, her vampire-like fangs now completely visible, and says “Yes, it was horrible!”. You can guess the rest. This short called V by D.M. Cunningham holds one of my favorite lines of the night: Thank Satan, it was only a dream.
I thoroughly enjoyed all ten of the films that I had the privilege of seeing. Yet, the one that found a special place in my heart is An Old Man’s Game by Karl L. Koelling. It is a short documentary about an old man and his admirable experiences in the Christmas tree business. I felt my eyes water through the entirety of the film because it reminded me of my childhood and how special a time Christmas once was. Up until I was about 14, my family had always set aside a day to go to the tree farm and pick out the perfect Christmas pine. The film follows the rigorous process of planting and growing pine trees and what it truly means to be passionate at your craft. The doc sums up with the Christmas tree farmer saying, “I’ve often thought that… this tree, that we’re spending so much time on, is going to be the center point of some celebration 1-2-3-4-5 years from now. It’s going to make a number of people very happy.”
Another short that stood out was Fuck You, Steve. Sadly, I searched the web countless times to find the director’s name, which I forgot to write down during the event. This short followed three alternative young girls in all of their punk rock glory. They ride around on their bikes collecting items in an effort to get revenge against a fellow student who broke the heart of one of the protagonists. This film exuded such a nostalgic, small town energy. It is clear that The Mitten definitely does not have a shortage of talented, young actors.
The short film that I ended up voting for at the end of the screening was titled Nail Polish and Pills and it was directed by Rachel Debolski (She ended up winning too!). The best way to describe this short is that it is an experimental narrative about teenage girls passing time in a psychiatric hospital. Through a very innovative way of using split-screen, Debolski guides us through various rumors that the girls have heard about each other. Among all the portrayals of teenagers and mental health in movies, this is one of the most authentic. They paint their nails, chew bubble gum, read magazines, and eat snacks like a day in psychiatric care is just another day. This registered so honestly with me. People with mental illness have to fight a constant battle while also carrying out daily tasks. The young ladies that acted in this film absolutely blew my expectations out of the water. Because they delivered such raw performances, I initially thought that Nail Polish and Pills was another short documentary. I hope to see more from this young filmmaker soon. Debolski, in my opinion, has the potential to create something that will resonate with women all around the world.
I was so excited when the lights went up and the Q&A began! Grand Valley’s own Joel Potrykus got up to moderate and some choice members from the films’ cast and crew filled up the stage. The first question asked was “What was your inspiration for creating the film V?” D.M. Cunningham spoke about his admiration for horror films and how appreciative he was for having horror auteur Wes Craven as a mentor (I know what you are thinking… WES CRAVEN? That is SO cool!). At some point, Potrykus told the cast of Fuck You, Steve to say the title of their film out loud. The youngest cast member, seeming a bit nervous, looked up at the director and asked, “Um… am I allowed to say it?” The filmmaker nodded and she proceeded to yell, “FUCK YOU, STEVE!” into the microphone. The audience just about died from laughter. The Director of Photography from An Old Man’s Game talked about how they had about 4-6 hours of interview footage to work with. He said, “The man used to be a Michigan State professor! So, obviously he can talk!” Rachel Debolski talked about working with her cast. She said she was insanely lucky to have such a wonderful group of girls, especially because some of the young actresses had done projects with one another prior to doing Nail Polish and Pills.The chemistry definitely translated onscreen.
In all honesty, I left with much more excitement than I came with. It was truly a beautiful experience to be in a room with people that love and care about the film culture in Michigan. It instilled me with the energy to keep creating. Before I arrived in Allendale to pursue the film/video major at GVSU, I did not do much research on the resources that the Grand Rapids area has to offer. At that point, I was just ready to get out and make something of myself. I am pleasantly surprised that I packed up, moved across the state, and touched down in a place with such a rich film background. I cannot wait to attend the next Open Projector Night at the UICA!
- Chloe LaMae Brown