Two Dollar Bill (2016)
Written & Directed by Hannah Marks
Hannah Marks was born into the industry, the daughter of actors, granddaughter to a musician. She made her debut in 2006’s Accepted, a middling Justin Long vehicle. Along the way, she became interested in directing and has jumped into the deep end. After a series of successfully received shorts, she’s made a feature film with another in the pipeline.
Two Dollar Bill reminded me of Lena Dunham’s Girls and Broad City, a focus on female relationships with male characters existing out of the frame or in the periphery. When the story begins, we’re looking over Greta’s shoulder as she peruses a sugar daddy website. It’s a position a surprising number of young women find themselves in as wages stagnate, creating a bleak landscape for the newly graduated. It’s not a big deal for Greta, just another means to make rent at the end of the month.
When Frankie, a recovering junkie & friend to Greta, crashes at the apartment, it creates tension between Greta and her roomie Harper. What I loved most about this short is the way the audience is expected to infer what’s going on between these three women. The story is only 16 minutes long, but the scope is over weeks, possibly a month or two. The bonds and strains feel real and organic despite having such a short runtime. Marks has a great eye and a strong focus on relationships in stories.
The Architecture of Reassurance (2000)
Written & Directed by Mike Mills
You can immediately feel the MTV aesthetic of the late 1990s/early 2000s bleeding through the opening images of Mike Mills’ The Architecture of Reassurance. Mike Mills was a graphic designer who created album covers for artists like Sonic Youth and The Beastie Boys and directed a half dozen videos for French band Air. So it makes sense that this short would feel so much of its time as its director was central in creating the aesthetic of the era. For all its unpolished and sometimes stilted nature, every move in the film feels intentional, an artificial air that’s meant to be there.
The central character is Alice, who like the same girl that traveled to Wonderland, exits her home and enters a world unfamiliar to her. This is a suburb different from Alice’s house on the hill, and she believes everyone here must be happier than her family in their uniform and balanced homes. Mills intersperses some documentary interviews with his stylized story to contextualize what is going through Alice’s head. She encounters talking Precious Moments style figurines, a real estate agent with dual consciousness, and a teenage girl drowning herself in the angst of The Smiths.
Mills is definitely working in the same space as Spike Jonze, a peer who followed a similar career path. They are very interested in the landscapes of California, notably paved over suburbia. Mills continued to explore this aesthetic with his feature debut Thumbsucker. However, he shifted gears and has produced films that are more grounded in reality with Beginners and 20th Century Women, choosing to explore more autobiographical material.
La Jetée (1962)
Written & Directed by Chris Marker
If you haven’t seen La Jetee before you’ll be struck by its directorial choices, first the decision to make it a photo roman. Photo roman is traditionally used in print, where photos replace illustrations in a comic book. Here we have still photographs with narration and music. It’s a jarring aesthetic choice that completely works, transforming this science fiction story into something like a historical document of the future.
The story revolves around the theme of unavoidable fate. The film opens with a narration that recalls one man’s childhood memory of standing in the airport with his parents and witnessing a man get shot and killed in front of him. The image that lingers is a woman’s face sunken in torment and pain over this death. In the following years, a nuclear holocaust occurs that nearly wipes humanity out. A hierarchy forms among the survivors, and those in power decide to experiment on the ones at the bottom. Using a form of hypnosis, the main character is sent into his memories of life before the bomb, spending days in his mind. Eventually, he is manifested in the actual past and sets down a path that could allow him to escape the hell his own time has become.
La Jetee would become the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, a great film as well. The original, though, is such a unique and strange experience. This is helped with the addition of the music of Trevor Duncan, a composer who wrote and recorded a library of musical cues for the BBC. Director Chris Marker matches up his visuals with Duncan’s compositions in absolute perfection.