Here was the challenge for the teams participating in the 48 Hour Film Project in Chicago: make a movie in which one character has to be a sales clerk named Duncan or Denise, one person has to utter the words “I am sure you are mistaken,” and one character has to do something with a coffee cup–drink from it, give it away, imbue it with evil spirits, whatever. And the crew has to write, shoot, and edit the film in 48 hours.
Considering I’m still working on an iMovie from my son’s birth six years ago, this seems like a daunting challenge. So I attended last night’s screening with low expectations, although still higher than I will have when I see Michael Bay’s Transformers 3, which was shooting in Chicago the same weekend. While the 48 Hour films had varying degrees of polish, they were serious efforts by talented filmmakers. The films felt hurried but never amateurish.
The films were all pleasant surprises. They were consistently entertaining and often funny. (The weekend of August 14-15, when the movies were made, was a nice one in Chicago, so that may have helped lighten the mood during the shoots.) They also offered interesting lessons in filmmaking technique. The compressed time frame meant the filmmakers had to dispense with many of the niceties of the classical Hollywood style. In the films that I saw, I don’t recall seeing a single match on action edit, although, admittedly, these cuts are designed to be overlooked. I recall only one eyeline match edit linking to the only establishing shot of the evening (in Googly Eye Production’s “The Grocer”). Only one crew had the time to construct dialogue sequences with proper shot/counter and two-shot setups (in Awesomonster’s “One Up”). As a result, transitions between scenes were sometimes rough, but never confusing for long.
The location shooting meant that the characters tended to be crammed together in small, dimly lit places. Most of the teams, though, had some fun with the limitations of the assignment. Tenderfoots staged some good visual jokes in their charming “Duncan’s Decora,” while the Walnuts wisely limited the action of their film “Back in Time” to a single parking space, occupied by the evening’s best prop: an impossibly dilapidated van serving as the office for a man selling time travel.
With a couple of exceptions, the films that I saw were all male-centered, but the men didn’t always have the best parts. The men appeared to be tense and ill at ease. The women, on the other hand, often had the best lines of the evening. A female character in Aisle 12’s “Everything Tastes Better,” a coffee-cup centered horror film, assures the hero, “I’m going to tell you what I told my husband on our second date: ‘You were great, buster! Now stop crying.'” An actress in “One Up” (I didn’t catch her name, unfortunately) relishes her role as a woman who can’t stop talking. At one point she describes a haiku she’s written about a treaty negotiated by the World Trade Organization without ever getting around to reciting the poem.
All of these films had at least one arresting moment like the garrulous poet, one inspired scene that pulled the whole film together: As one might expect, every film also had an element that would have been improved had this been a 72 hour film project. Even “One Up,” perhaps the most technically polished film I saw, opened with a montage sequence that sped by much too quickly. And yet, the 48 Hour Film Project entries demonstrated why independent film is so valuable. Even when independent filmmakers make mistakes, their work is consistently distinct and inventive. By contrast, the work of highly paid Hollywood hacks like Michael Bay seems slack and timid.
The 48 Hour Film Project 2010 tour continues into the fall, so be sure to catch it in your city.