Each month, dozens of new films are added to the Criterion Channel. While the rich selection of feature-length classic and independent films obviously gets a lot of well-deserved attention, I wanted to shine a little light on some of the short films. I believe that shorts should get a lot more attention than they typically do—they are breeding grounds of experimentation and non-traditional storytelling, and often are important outlets for marginalized voices.
October’s lineup on Criterion Channel features just nine new short films under 40 minutes, five of which were experimental documentaries by director Lynne Sachs. Also added to the channel this month were narrative shorts by Mariana Saffon, Brandon Cronenberg, and Chloë Sevigny, as well as a documentary short by Arthur Dong. Since it was a lighter month, I’m only going to profile three films this time around.
While this article is exclusively focusing on short films that are on Criterion Channel, I’m also keeping track of all of the short films I watch in monthly Letterboxd lists, whether on Criterion Channel or elsewhere. I’ve listed the streaming service that I watched them on, with the films that I talk about in this article marked in the notes with two asterisks. Feel free to follow me and the lists on Letterboxd and feel free to reach out to me on Twitter if you want to discuss any of the short films. Without further ado, let’s get into the films!
Please Speak Continuously and Describe Your Experiences as They Come to You (2019, 10 minutes), dir. by Brandon Cronenberg
While it’s already the short film with the longest name of any I’ve covered in this column, it’s also one of the most unsettling. Directed by Brandon Cronenberg, son of body horror legend David Cronenberg and director of the 2020 feature film Possessor, the short portrays a woman describing the waking dreams she is experiencing as the result of a device that has been implanted into her brain. The device is typically covered by a wig because it otherwise grotesquely sticks out from the top of her head. As she describes the dreams, we see them with her through a bright, colorful filter that changes colors as different parts of her brain are stimulated.
The dreams are, of course, nightmarish and surreal. Much like a real dream, the dreams operate with a logic that is all their own. Sometimes the images and the words describing them don’t align. Non-sequiturs abound. Perhaps most importantly, there are also recurring elements, like the test subject repeatedly using the same phrases to describe what she is seeing—she says that each one is “a dream I used to have” and that “eventually I realize that I am in a kind of hell.” The recurring motifs mimic the recurring nature of the dreams (“a dream I used to have” implying, of course, that they are dreams that she has had on many occasions) and induce a similar dream-state disorientation in the viewer. The short also begins to blur “reality” with the dream state, as one of the dreams essentially describes the plot of the short.
One thing that I found surprising was some small moments of humor in the short. The moment that sticks out the most to me is in the third dream when the main character, Emily, imagines everyone having the device implanted into their brains under wigs and says that “Eventually I realize I’m in a kind of hell, because it seems impossible that the wig industry can manufacture enough units to cover everyone.” Another line that I found humorous (although I’m not positive that this one is intended to be), is when Emily describes a dream where she is “the best boxer in the world” in a world where boxing doesn’t exist. This moment is brief, however, and the scene immediately shifts to a more terrifyingly existential territory (“Eventually I realize I’m in a kind of hell, because my worth is based entirely on a nonsense idea”). The dark science fiction, surreal blurring of dream and reality, and stylized imagery made this short film my favorite of the month.
Sewing Woman (1982, 14 minutes), dir. by Arthur Dong
The last two films in the Criterion Channel column this month are documentaries that share similarly intimate and personal approaches to themes of immigration in the mid-20th century. The first is Sewing Woman, which tells the story of the filmmaker’s mother Zem Ping Dong. The understated nature of the short film is epitomized by the final line: “I’m just a sewing woman.”
Despite Dong’s protestations to not exaggerate her life, the documentary is a mini-epic. Dong’s life from child bride in an arranged marriage in rural China, giving birth while her husband was in America, to surviving the Second Sino-Japanese War, and disowning her son to emigrate to America. It is both an extraordinary story and one that is also incredibly common coming out of the strife of the mid-twentieth century.
The Last Happy Day (2009, 38 minutes), dir. by Lynne Sachs
The subject of The Last Happy Day, Sandor Lenard, is from the other side of the world from Sewing Woman. Distantly related to filmmaker Lynne Sachs, Lenard came to her attention after an uncle gave her and her brother a copy of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh that Lenard had translated into Latin.
The short intersperses readings of Sandor’s letters with interviews with his relatives, readings by Sachs’ children, and abstract images. Secretly Jewish during World War II, Lenard found work recovering bodies of Allied forces. He hid prisoners of war in his Rome apartment. He spoke over a dozen languages and spent time studying in the Vatican library. He lost a brother in the Holocaust, and never truly seemed to recover from all the horrors he experienced.
There are a few moments that stand out that point to why Sandor may have decided to translate Winnie the Pooh, the “Latin is not a dead language, believe me. If only for this moment. It is with Latin that I am best able to invent a way to speak of dread. The second moment comes from Sandor’s second wife, Andrietta. In her advanced age, Andrietta struggles to remember the order of events, and whether they even happened as she remembers them. “There are things so old that I am not sure of the truth. Sometimes, you don’t know anymore what’s real and what’s fantasy. Sandor never could forget.” The “fantasy” part of the quote is not exactly in the same context, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Sandor tried to find truth in the fantasy of Winnie the Pooh. He emigrated to Brazil to live somewhere “big and green and quiet and far away.” The refuges from reality that he found in Winnie the Pooh and Brazil seem to be what he chased the rest of his life, and what are presented so eloquently in this short film.
This is just a taste of the short films on Criterion Channel! What were some of your favorites? Was there a filmmaker whose filmography you’re excited to dive deeper into? Let me know in the comments what stuck out to you, or reach out to me on Twitter, and I’ll be back next month to look at some more Criterion Channel short films!