A Semi-Random "Short Attention Span" Film Festival

The coronavirus lockdown hasn't altered my life a smidge; I've worked long hours from home for years, and I never like leaving the house at the best of times.

So, unlike apparently hundreds of millions of others, I haven't been binge watching movies and TV shows — at least, any more than usual.

Some TV stations up here normally devote nightly blocks — and whole days and weeks — to, say, the original Star Trek series or The Office anyway. I wasted my post-op convalescence last November mainlining every episode of House (which I never saw in its original run) from morning to midnight, starting all over again the next day — and I didn't even like it that much.

But if you're one of those who've been marathoning Netflix or Disney+, consider what follows a palate cleanser:

A collection of short stuff.

It's true: I'm indulging in the lazy long-time columnist's equivalent to that much maligned mid-season writers' room "recess time" game: The midseason "clip show."

In my defense, think of this column as That's Entertainment! (1974) if That's Entertainment! had been only about an hour long, and made by a singular, very strange person.

Come to think of it: You could do worse than watching that venerable cinematic "scrapbook" if you're suffering from binge fatigue, since, while the movie itself is long, nothing in it lasts more than a few minutes, and all of it is great fun. (That's Entertainment! streams here.)

This column is the opposite.

I chose these clips not for their iconic, "greatest hits" familiarity, but for their novelty, quirkiness, artistry, and/or sheer "what the hell?!"-ness.

Some may prompt you to check out the whole film (or add it to your "must avoid at all costs" list) but first, here's a clip that can stand on its own.

While certainly not THE most famous scene in The Little Foxes (1941), this one, in which meek Aunt Bertie finally gets to speak without interruption, could easily be transcribed and passed off as a classic American short story, by Eudora Welty perhaps.

Speaking of famous scenes, I hold the unpopular opinion that this rarely-mentioned one is among Casablanca's top three.

I love Nicholas Cage — the Kirk Douglas of our time — and although director Brian De Palma is equally unfashionable these days, I don't care. People loathe Snake Eyes (1998) if they think about it at all, but I never get sick of it. Here's the bravura "one take" 12-minute opening sequence.

And this is one of the great yet criminally underrated finales.

I wanted so much to post the full "Born in a Trunk" sequence from 1954's A Star is Born (another unpopular opinion: it's superior to the "ballet" from An American in Paris) but couldn't source it. However, when I re-watched that Judy Garland vehicle last week out of the corner of my eye, I was so struck by her performance in this scene I dropped what I was doing. (Note that it, too, is one long take).

On the topic of "takes": I also accidentally got sucked into Zodiac (2007) over the weekend. One sequence in particular is a master class in editing, blocking and cinematography. (Roger Ebert agreed.)

It's so elementary — Creating Movie Tension: 101 — that this bit could almost pass as a clever film school parody of cinematic suspense "tricks." It shares DNA with Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs, but such "tricks" have been employed for a century precisely because they work.

All you need to know is that Jake Gyllenhaal's character is a newspaper cartoonist obsessed with unmasking the infamous Zodiac Killer, who sent encrypted letters to police, and seemed to be fixated on the 1932 movie The Most Dangerous Game.

After devoting himself to research to the point of losing his job and his family, the now ex-cartoonist — haggard, yet fairly jangling with raw energy — has at last winnowed his amateur investigation down to one suspect.

And Gyllenhaal believes he's found just the fellow to confirm his suspicions. Make that his certainties.

The gnomic owner of the old "rep" cinema where his prime suspect worked as a projectionist...

Have you exhaled yet?

(PS: For lightly-technical and enjoyable "autopsies" explaining what makes this scene so effective, watch here and here.)

As for a master class in acting, I present Meryl Streep and Viola Davis in 2008's Doubt, speaking John Patrick Shanley's award-winning words.

Now, for our intermission, here's James Cagney speaking Yiddish.

(He learned the language growing up on the Lower East Side, and claimed it came in handy when dealing with Warner's studio bosses.)

Let's fast forward a few decades, and watch Samuel Fuller turn the optimistic Warner Bros. "melting pot" vision of America inside out and upside down.

Fuller made a lot of way out movies. This... well, I don't know what to call it scene from Shock Corridor (1963) remains jarring.

Last year in this space, I presented examples of special effects and other cinematic sleights of hand created before the advent of CGI, and, to my shame, forgot all about the crap-your-pants plane crash in 1993's Alive.

On a much lighter note (that is also a bit of a cheat) let's talk about Documentary Now!, the TV series helmed by comedians Bill Hader and Fred Armisen which parodies a different famous theatrical-run documentary in every episode.

Hader and Armisen's talent for such spoofs came to light on SNL, with their mind blowing (if you're an old punk like me) mock-doc about a fictional British band. Mediocre fake documentaries leave no trope unturned. That's the easy part. But Hader and Armisen go all out: a lot of heart is threaded through the gags; they rope in cameos from famous straight-faced scenesters; and the very best include an out-of-left-field twist.

All that elevates their parodies to the level of art.

Since I've seen most of the classics they're paying homage to in Documentary Now!, I can't speak to whether or not these eye-wateringly accurate, lovingly crafted spoofs will amuse or impress viewers going in totally cold. Sorry.

All I know is that, having watched the original Grey Gardens multiple times, seeing Bill Hader wearing sweatpants on his head — it took me a second or two to notice, which is the hallmark of the perfect parodic detail — I smiled for three whole days.

How "lovingly crafted"? When filming their homage to Errol Morris' ground breaking doc The Thin Blue Line, they rented the same camera lenses Morris used, from the same small photo equipment supplier.

And if you told me that, in 1974, England Dan and John Ford Coley covered a Steely Dan song and it went to number one, well, thanks to the Documentary Now! biopic about The (fictional) Blue Jean Committee, I might have believed you.

Their creations are so respected that when Criterion released the Maysles brothers' historic Salesman (1969) last month, the many bonus features included a loving commentary by... Bill Hader, along with his parody — Globesman — made with DN! partner Fred Armisen, in full.

(At the risk of putting you back on the binge-watching bandwagon, you can watch complete episodes of Documentary Now! free at CBC Gem, or via Amazon Prime.)

However, as exquisitely crafted and well-observed as the Documentary Now! offerings are, none of them top what I believe is the greatest live action short film ever made, period.

I'll be honest: This whole column was kind of my excuse to tell you about it.

Because it was only released on YouTube and not theatrically, this little flick never won any fancy awards. (It was up for a Nebula, but was eliminated from the running on a technicality.)

No matter. This zero-budget 2003 Ken Burns parody written, produced and directed by (and co-starring) future sitcom writer Andy Bobrow remains the gold standard for this particular, peculiar genre.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present (with a strong language warning):

The Old Negro Space Program.

Mark Steyn Club members can let Kathy know what they think in the comments. If you want to join in on the fun, make sure to sign up for a membership for you or a loved one. To meet many of your fellow club members in person, join Mark along with John O'Sullivan, Michele Bachmann and several others aboard our upcoming Mark Steyn Cruise down the Mediterranean.