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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 22, 2018

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Oscar Shorts, Eternal Campaign Contributions

Most of my life, the Oscars for short films were about as mysterious (and boring) as the Oscars for editing and cinematography, because I had no idea what they were.

When it comes to film editing, now that I know what editors do, I still have no idea how anybody nominates or votes in that category, because you can't possibly judge what the editor's contribution to a film might have been without knowing what footage ended up on the cutting room floor.

The only movie that I've known much about was, in my opinion, semi-saved by the editor, who cut out some shockingly destructive scenes that should never have been written, let alone shot.

But the editor could only semi-save it, because there were some almost-as-appalling scenes that could not be cut without interfering with the audience's ability to understand the story, such as it was. The editor, you see, can't splice in footage that wasn't shot.

If the studio isn't willing to spend the money to reshoot a scene, or shoot a new scene, when the film was supposedly wrapped, then the editor can only work with whatever garbage the director shot, trying to salvage something out of it.

So the Oscar nominees for best editing should, by rights, be for films that aren't very good, but they're infinitely better than they would have been if a good editor hadn't taken them in hand.

Instead, what gets nominated are the same movies that are nominated for best picture or best cinematography. I guess the editing is judged like this: Since the film was really good, the editor must not have screwed it up, so ... here goes.

The only time you notice the editing is if it's eccentric and annoying.

As for cinematography, most people don't know where the director leaves off and the cinematographer begins. Some directors basically leave the lighting and shooting up to the cinematographer; other directors spend most of their time looking over the cinematographer's shoulder, so the cinematographer isn't actually free to make any choices.

Most of the directors who pretty much do their own cinematography spend all their time on the camera, and the actors are on their own. This is fine if they're experienced actors with a good script; but if the actors are out of their depth, the camera-hugging director isn't there to give them any help. He thinks his job is shoot whatever the actors happen to do.

So how can Oscar nominators even guess what the cinematographer did or didn't do? I suspect that nominations in these categories are based entirely on reputation, not on the particular film in question. Since cinematographers nominate cinematographers, some will know and most will have heard which cinematographers pretty much directed the camera, and which were only carrying water for the director.

But the audience is out of the loop. So astute wagerers simply note that cinematography and editing awards often go to the sweep-everything winner. Some years, though, people can hardly make up their minds between two good movies, so they finally choose one as their best-picture vote, and then vote for the other in the cinematography or editing category as a consolation prize.

As a kid and, for many years, as an adult (or whatever I was, being a full-size person but not really all that mature), the short films were complete mysteries. When reading the nominations, they would sometimes show clips from the short films, but never anything long enough for us to get a feel for the movie. And just as often, all they showed was a still picture.

I always wondered how people actually got to see these films in order to nominate them or vote for them. Was there a secret room somewhere in Hollywood where they were showing dozens or hundreds of short films, and Academy members could stop in and watch? Very mysterious.

So I loved it when, a few years back, I got a chance to watch a screener of the Oscar nominees in the short film categories: live action, animated, and documentary. And it was even better the next year when the Academy released the short films as feature-length compilations, so people could pay to see them.

As I understand it, the revenue from the theaters is shared with the nominated filmmakers, which is cool.

Why do filmmakers create these short films, knowing that they'll probably be seen at only a few festivals or, in many cases, never at all? I can think of several reasons:

1. They have a story to tell, but it is only able to fill ten or fifteen or twenty minutes of running time. Instead of padding it with nonsense in order to get it up to feature length, they just tell the story in its simplicity and then try to get it seen.

2. They can get funding for a short film, while a feature film is way out of their financial reach.

3. They regard the short film as an audition for potential jobs with feature-length films. Because it can be watched in a short time, the odds of a studio executive actually watching a significant percentage of it rise substantially.

What I've never seen is an Oscar short that looked like they were going to make a longer movie, but they ran out of money. I only saw that happen once, with Ralph Bakshi's sad attempt to film Lord of the Rings back in 1978. It got a theatrical release, for which audiences paid the regular prices; what they got was an unfinished film, because they couldn't afford to finish the post-production effects.

Come to think of it, the alien craft that rose up out of the water at the end of The Abyss had all the earmarks of having run out of money, too -- after all the gorgeous water effects (which later showed up in Terminator movies), they could not have meant to end the movie with a model that looked like a fiberglass pool toy. Again, the budget might have been exhausted, so it couldn't be brought up to the quality of the rest of the film.

But, as I said, that is never the case with the Oscar shorts. These are complete, finished films, and some of them are excellent. If you can't see them in the theater (this year Red Cinema has them in a small stadium-seating theater instead of the uncomfortable and tatty lounge), then starting 27 February they can be downloaded or streamed online. Just google "Oscar Shorts 2018 online" and you'll get this: https://shorts.tv/theoscarshorts/online-and-vod/

Are they worth watching this year? I mean, just because a film is nominated for an Oscar doesn't mean it won't turn out to be a bit of elitist showing off or some sermon that they decide the American audience needs to watch so we can become better people (i.e., acquire correct opinions).

So I'm happy to tell you that both the animated and live action shorts are all interesting, and some are very moving and/or funny. Or, in the case of Pixar's entry, both.

I'm not going to dwell on any of the films for long (he said hopefully), because it would be absurd if it took longer to read the review than to watch the film. So let me lead with my favorite among the animated shorts, Negative Space. Using a kind of animated puppetry, the film is about a young boy who is taught, by his father, The Correct Way to pack a suitcase.

It really is the correct way to pack. And the boy learns to do it so well that his father trusts him to pack his bag for him whenever he has to travel. Believe me, that's trust!

The style is often like a demonstration rather than a story: When we're seeing how to pack, there are no people; the items to be packed simply roll or fold themselves and hop into the suitcase. Yet I was surprised at how touching the story was. So it gets points for being creative in the way it was done, and humane in the story that it told.

It's also very short.

The weakest of the animated shorts was also (as usual) the longest. Revolting Rhymes is an English film based on a work by Roald Dahl, in which the big bad wolf sits in a 20th-century diner across the table from a nanny and tells her his version of several fairy tales, all rolled up into one continuous story.

The problem is that we've seen so many different spins on fairy tales that this retelling is pretty lame. When Roald Dahl wrote it, maybe it was fresh and surprising, but I've read and seen much better reimaginings of these fairy tales, and so my wife and I both found ourselves checking our watches. Or dozing off.

My other favorite -- the one I liked best at the time -- was Pixar's Lou. If you saw Cars 3 last summer, you also saw this short film in the theater before the feature. This is one of Pixar's best, I think, as we see Lou picking up all the items lost or discarded on a playground after the children go inside.

Only we begin to understand that Lou actually is the lost items. His name comes from the tacked-on letters on the front of the Lost and Found crate: The L, O, and U have fallen off, so the lighter-colored space where they were now makes those letters stand out.

When the children come back out to play, Lou leaves the box and surreptitiously picks up after the kids. We see that many "lost" items are actually taken by a bully who doesn't really want them -- he just wants the owners not to have them.

Lou teaches the bully a lesson, but not in a mean way. He simply won't give the bully his "lost" bag until he returns everything he's taken to their owners. It's a sweet film, as we've come to expect from Pixar, and it has many laugh-out-loud moments.

This is far and away the most professional and effective of the shorts, and it's every bit as creative as the best of the others. But I don't expect it to win because I'm betting the Oscar voters will perceive the Pixar offering as having big-studio money behind it, while the others were all done with far more limited resources.

And I'm fine with that, because once a short is nominated these days, it will be available for everybody who wants to to watch it. So even if Lou doesn't win, we can win by watching it.

I don't know anything about the NBA these days, and I know nothing about Kobe Bryant except that his name is familiar and some kind of scandal is attached to him. So I was prepared to be bored by Dear Basketball, Kobe Bryant's thank-you letter to the sport that made him rich and famous.

The animation style is only a step above PowerPoint; there's a lot of panning across still pictures, and only a few places where anything actually moves.

But the words are quite lovely, and the style is so simple that nothing interferes with the meaning. Of course, while Kobe Bryant is talking about all the wonderful things basketball did for him, I was flashing back to all the horrible things that happened to me because, unlike Bryant, I was not immediately good at the sport.

Even in church basketball, where sportsmanship is supposed to prevail, I found that in order to "include" me, I would get pressed into playing; but then, because nobody had ever trained me, I would get yelled at -- no, screamed at -- for not knowing when to pass the ball, or to whom.

And they started screaming at me the moment I got the ball. There wasn't even a hesitation to see whether I would do something stupid. I didn't even have a chance to inhale. It was like when somebody behind you at an intersection honks just before the light turns green.

I reasoned that since I never got yelled at for reading a book, I would go do that rather than ever play church basketball again. And since the church program for teenage boys at that time consisted entirely of badly refereed basketball games, my parents gave me permission to stop attending those midweek "church meetings."

The odd thing is that when I was younger -- fifth grade, for instance -- I used to love playing the game. I learned the rules easily, and I spent many hours shooting the ball alone until I got my percentage up to about one in five. My actual playing came in pickup games after school, and very soon the other boys got so serious and competitive that this "non-contact" sport became more like a melee, with elbows as the weapons of choice. It stopped being fun.

So it wasn't just that I was bad at it. It's that the other kids were bad at it, too -- at least when it came to the rules about not physically assaulting other players. I had hoped that refereed games would be better, but they weren't.

I admired the Kobe Bryant short, then; but my own experience with basketball appeared even more awful to me when compared to Bryant's lovely, sentimental memories.

I tried to imagine anybody making an animated film of my thank-you letter to Mark Twain and Jane Austen, for writing the best of the books that made me an avid reader before fifth grade. Not happening.

The most appalling animated short is Garden Party, which consists entirely of very lifelike animations of frogs. Gradually we realize they're hopping around and scavenging among the detritus of a garden party at a mansion. And then we notice bullet holes here and there, and we realize that this party didn't end well. When the frogs hit the swimming pool, they roil the water enough to bring a dead human body to the surface. Icky but not gory. And it's hard to see the point.

Also, I was a bit weirded out by the fact that the frogs never used their tongues to grab flies out of the air or off of perches. What were they going to do with leftover party food? Frogs aren't mice or rats; they don't scavenge, as far as I know.

So it seemed to me that the frogs looked great, but they never did anything particularly authentic. This gave the short even less of a point. But it didn't get worst-of-show because it was really short, just seven minutes long, so the audience doesn't have time to start thinking about where they're going to go for dinner after the show.

Because the animated shorts were all so brief that the nominees didn't run long enough for a feature-length showing in the theater, they added three honorable mentions to the mix. I didn't care for a moment about the sneezy Chinese dragon in Achoo, and Weeds looked like an early Disney television cartoon about dandelions struggling to survive. Only three minutes long, with nothing disgusting, so ... innocuous.

The best of the add-ons was Lost Property Office, about a guy who works for the public transit system of some city, and because nobody ever claims any of the lost items, his job is adjudged to be redundant, and it's eliminated.

The main reason to enjoy Lost Property Office is the odd but rather lovely style of animation. Instead of describing it, let me simply say that the look of it is fresh and sometimes beautiful.

The story leads us to think the man is desperate and, jobless now, is going to kill himself. He doesn't. That's the only bit of suspense in the film, and when we see what all the materials he assembled for his nonsuicide, it's a pleasant ending. For me, it was all about the art rather than the story.

I'll try to be briefer with the live-action shorts.

My Nephew Emmett is the story of the killing of 14-year-old Emmett Till because, visiting relatives in the South, he didn't know the rules about never looking at a white woman, let alone whistling at her.

It's told from the point of view of his uncle, and the film doesn't make us watch anything that happens to Emmett after he is taken out of his uncle's home. In fact, the storytelling is simple, non-preachy, and so beautifully acted and filmed that even if you didn't know it was based on a true story, it would be moving and powerful.

Best of all, I didn't feel preached at. Since this one will probably win, it's worth recognizing that it's far more than a politically correct message movie. It's good cinematic art.

The first short they showed, DeKalb Elementary, felt weird because I saw it only a day or so after the Florida school shooting, and that was the topic of this film: A young man with a gun and, as he himself says, mental problems comes into an elementary school office and threatens an office worker with his gun.

What I didn't know until later was that the script of this short was the transcription of the 911 call made by that office worker. So even though actors portrayed the people (superbly, I might add), the things they say and do are pretty faithful to reality.

This particular "school shooting" was remarkable because nobody got shot. The office worker instead talked to the young man with compassion and honesty, and she was able to keep anything bad from happening -- though several times it seemed to be escalating out of control.

Again, it was not preachy, it wasn't anti-gun-ownership, it was just a story of a human being facing death and acting with compassion toward the person who seemed likely to kill her. Like reality, it felt ambiguous and pointless until I found out that it was true. So now I've helped you enjoy it more by letting you know that before you see it.

The Silent Child is about a deaf girl in England who is visited by a worker assigned to help prepare her for entering school. Her family, especially her mother, is delusional, thinking that the girl is so good at lip-reading that "she understands everything we say."

We quickly learn that she is not and does not. But the young woman working with her introduces her to sign language and gives her the kind of love and friendship and communication that her family never offered.

Yet the film doesn't make anyone a monster. The mother is busy and definitely knows that she wants her daughter to pass for not-deaf by lip-reading instead of signing. "Nobody in our family can sign," she says, as if that's a reason for the deaf girl not to be taught sign language; the audience wants to scream at the screen that they might learn to sign with their daughter and sister, or that even if they chose not to, it wouldn't hurt for the girl to learn to sign so she could talk to the people who could understand her.

It feels tragic and sweet, because we can see that the young woman was not just doing her job; she cared, and the little girl loved her.

Naturally, whenever I see a depiction of a handicapped child, I flash on my memories of my own son, who was not deaf but was speechless -- and signing was beyond him. That beautiful little girl in the movie reminded me of how beautiful Charlie Ben was at that age.

And I could feel just a little smug because, unlike the family in the film, we didn't try to pretend that our little boy was "normal." Instead, we had the good fortune to live in Guilford County, where we could take part in the Gateway Education Center, the best facility for kids with cerebral palsy that I've ever seen or heard of. So when Charlie went to school, it was liberating for him, and he had the full support of his family along with the wonderful teachers and helpers at Gateway.

Yet I wept for that lonely little girl in the movie as I also wept for the memory of my son's frustration at all the things he saw his older brother and sister, and then his younger sister, do that remained out of his reach.

Then there's the Muslim-vs.-Christian tension at the Kenya-Somalia border. In Watu Wote (All of Us), we follow a Christian woman who boards a bus in Kenya that will take her to the town where she needs to go to visit her ailing mother. We learn that she is very hostile to the many Muslims on the bus because Muslim terrorists killed her husband and child; she makes sure that the bus will have a police escort inside Somalia before she buys her ticket.

When they reach the place where the police were supposed to meet them, they discover that the police car has broken down and the bus has to go on without the escort. Naturally, the bus is stopped by terrorists, who order all the passengers to leave the bus and sort themselves into Muslims and Christians.

The Muslim woman sitting next to the Christian woman immediately gives her a scarf to wear over her head, so she looks like a Muslim. But outside, when everyone is in the Muslim group and nobody is willing to admit they're Christian, the terrorists start testing the people's knowledge of Islam.

In answer, each Muslim recites a passage from the Quran that may be intended to shame the terrorists for what they're doing in the name of Islam. One man, a Muslim teacher who had a painful confrontation with the Christian woman earlier in the trip, faces down the terrorists, saying, "You make things harder for all of us by these terrible things you do."

Just then a military force arrives and the terrorists flee -- but not before shooting the teacher who confronted them. The movie ends very soon after -- with the declaration that this was incident really happened: the Muslim passengers on the bus concealing the Christians among them and protecting them from the terrorists long enough for help to arrive.

The real Muslim teacher was in fact shot, and died from his wound days later.

The film was sponsored at least in part by a Christian group, but it is one of the most powerful films I've seen on the theme of "We're all fellow humans." Yet it never felt preachy, just scary and then moving as people show compassion and courage. This was my favorite of the live-action shorts.

The last of the live-action shorts was a very amusing comic film, The Eleven O'Clock. It begins with a psychiatrist coming to his office and finding that a temp is filling in for his regular receptionist. He asks her to check the appointment book and she reports that his eleven o'clock appointment is with a man whose mental problem is that he's absolutely convinced that he is a psychiatrist.

The man arrives, and he is convinced that not only is he a psychiatrist, but also this is his office and the psychiatrist is actually his delusional eleven o'clock patient. The film only runs thirteen minutes, but the confusion is delightful -- and far more sensible and believable than the "Who's on First" routine that it is being compared with. The actors are excellent, and it is a fine way to end the sequence, because after all the heavy lifting in the very serious shorts preceding it, it's a relief to be able to laugh.

If you miss these excellent nominated shorts in the theater, remember that as of the 27th of February, they'll be available online.

*

My wife was preparing our taxes (because they should always be prepared by a grownup who (a) keeps thorough records, (b) knows where they are, and (c) can do accurate arithmetic, so ... not me), and she came across several recurring donations on one of our credit cards, many of them from the same political-campaign support company.

Since the ongoing donations recurred every month, my wife and I realized that these were actually monthly donations left over from the 2016 presidential primary elections.

Now, those recurring donations are a good way for somebody to contribute a substantial amount by spreading it out across several months. But my assumption was that when the election was over, the campaigns would stop collecting the funds.

Ha ha. Why would I think that?

No, I had actually contributed far more after the election than before it, since none of them began until 2016, less than a year before the election, but they had all continued through the entirety of 2017 and the first two months of 2018.

I had other uses for that money. It was time for it to stop.

So I went to the site of the company that collected donations for several candidates. The website remembered me and immediately asked if I wanted to donate. I ignored that, and tried to log in so I could look at their listing of my donations, so I could see which of them I wanted to cancel and which should continue.

Surprise, surprise. They had logged me in and definitely knew my credit card information -- but there was no way to get a list of the campaigns I was being charged for. Nor was there any way, on the website, to discontinue all the contributions. There was no way to write to them. No way to phone them. I found only that if I wanted to drive to Alexandria, Virginia, I might be able to find somebody in their physical offices -- but I wasn't going to count on that.

We read a news story about a Hillary contributor in California who had the same problem -- there was no way to cancel her ongoing contribution. She ended up having to contact her credit card company and have them block the dunning.

We did the same. The credit card people told us that they could put a four-year block on that particular company, but it was quite possible that they would keep dunning our account every month until, after four years, money started flowing again.

Thus we were able to plug a serious drain on our finances that we hadn't really been aware of until my wife went over our credit card statements for the year and noticed the charges.

However, it is shameful that people who contribute to political campaigns in good faith should have those contributions continue to be drawn from their credit cards more than a year after the election was over.

Yes, sometimes candidates need contributions to help retire their campaign debts, and when asked, I have occasionally contributed to some candidates in that way.

What really annoys me is that I was forced to discontinue all the contributions, even though there were two candidates I might have kept contributing to, because I know they're going to face a reelection fight. But I had to kill them all, or keep paying all of them.

What can you do about this?

First, don't ever sign up for a recurring contribution unless there is a clear promise that the contributions will stop as of election day, and unless there is contact information on the website so you can actually talk to somebody.

Second, write to the candidates or groups you contributed to and point out to them that the collection service they hired is making it impossible to stop, and never asks whether the contributions should continue until, apparently, death. Suggest very strongly that if they ever want another dime of your money, they should drop that collection service and sign up with an honorable one.

Third, let's lobby our state legislature and our congresswights to pass a law requiring that all recurring contributions have an opt-in every six months (or sooner), so that they have to stop collecting from your credit card unless you explicitly authorize them to continue.

As far as I'm concerned, the current practice of continuing contributions past election day, and offering no way on the website to cancel or even see the contributions, is either fraud or theft. It's not an accident that they make it impossible to monitor your contributions or cancel them. It's just another scam.

And since most of the customers who hire this fraudulent service are the very politicians who get the money for their campaigns, it's their responsibility to clean up this criminal activity and make an enforceable law to prohibit such frauds in the future.

Eight Master Classes

on the art and business of science fiction writing.

Over five hours of insight and advice.

Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.

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