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San Diego’s Premier Short Film Showcase is Back

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Aired 8/28/09

San Diego's premier short film showcase is back for its seventh year. The evening promises a fresh selection of smart and provocative short films screened throughout the galleries of downtown's Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

A self-portrait of artist Bill Plympton whose film "Hot Dog" will show at the Alt. Picture Shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.
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Above: A self-portrait of artist Bill Plympton whose film "Hot Dog" will show at the Alt. Picture Shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Movies short enough and good enough to enjoy watching while you're standing up will be screened tonight at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. This is the seventh year the downtown museum will present a showcase of short films playing throughout the galleries. The films themselves range from animation to documentaries, from real life adventure to cringing satire. They are independent and alternative and always provocative. Here to tell us more about tonight's Alt. Picture Shows event are my guests Neil Kendricks, film curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and creator of Alt. Picture Shows. Neil, welcome to These Days.

NEIL KENDRICKS (Film Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego): Oh, thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And David Mollering is a San Diego filmmaker. His short documentary called "Tandem" will be screened at Alt. Picture Shows tonight. David, welcome.

DAVID MOLLERING (Filmmaker): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Neil, this is the seventh year for this short film festival. Explain how it's different from your typical film festival.

KENDRICKS: Well, when I originally conceived of Alt. Picture Shows I didn't really even see it as a film festival but more as an installation that involved a kind of multifaceted format in terms of having multiple short films playing simultaneously in different areas. And I actually came up with the idea while I was still a grad student at San Diego State University. And I had gotten approached by the museum to show some of my work and I saw that as a perfect opportunity to pitch this larger project that would actually loop in a lot of filmmakers from around San Diego. And then it became a very popular event. We actually debuted it at the downtown space back in 2003 and then eventually when I was approached about being the film curator in 2005, they made the transition to moving Alt. Picture Shows and transplanting it to La Jolla. What people can expect is a cinematic funhouse in a lot of ways. The idea is that you have the control in terms of moving to a different space at will to see what you want to watch. Each viewer will be given a map of the museum and a list of films that are playing in specific exhibition spaces. So, in a lot of respects, you have to make very wise choices in terms of what you want to watch because the event's only three hours long and you can't see everything.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, you know, a lot of people say that short stories aren't given enough credit in the literary world. Do short films get overlooked, do you think, Neil?

KENDRICKS: I think they get overlooked quite a bit. Usually there's no venue for them other than film festivals. Now you have the Sundance Channel and the Independent Film Channel and venues like that on television that will oftentimes show short films or more accessible short films, I should say. But the kind of work that I've been programming for Alt. Picture Shows over the past seven years, I would say there's a strong emphasis on experimental work and this is work that really isn't going to get shown outside of a festival setting or in a museum like this.

CAVANAUGH: Now, David, you – your short film, which may become a longer film, is going to be shown tonight at Alt. Picture Shows. Tell us a little bit about "Tandem."

MOLLERING: Well, I think primarily the reason I did this was these two women live nearby and the last couple of years I've been doing a lot of traveling and I'd heard about them through my brother and I live in the Ocean Beach/Point Loma area and I had a fascination with working moms and I heard these two women were going to attempt to swim Catalina, the 22 miles, side by side. And so I spent maybe a month following them before they did their actual swim. And someone had told me that it was like watching paint dry, and it was fascinating. I – Someone said, you know, when you get on this boat, it'll be boring. And it wasn't boring at all, it was fascinating.

CAVANAUGH: Why did they want to do this?

MOLLERING: You know, it's only been done a couple of times, a tandem. You know, they were friends and they'd been practicing for two years by themselves sort of off Sunset Cliffs and swimming and it was sort of a social event to get away from the kids and the husbands, and they'd – They'd swim for an hour and they decided to swim a little further and they got to where they were swimming seven, eight hours, and they decided to do the Catalina swim. They met some other swimmers and that was what they decided to do.

CAVANAUGH: I mean, this is a very difficult thing to attempt, though. I mean, this isn't just something like going out to lunch and getting a new pair of shoes. I mean, this is swimming against the current at night. Tell us a little bit about that.

MOLLERING: I think that's sort of what they ran up against. They were just inexperienced and I think, you know, they'd been meeting at Sunset Cliffs and doing yoga together and talking and having tea and getting in the water and, you know, you get on this boat at nine o'clock at night and you've been up all day and you have something to eat and you arrive at Catalina at 11:30, and it's pretty regimented. People are waiting for you. The boat captain says get in the water, and you go to Catalina, you swim the 100 yards to the beach and you're out of the water, you raise your hands and that's it. And it starts and you start swimming. It's totally black. It's like swimming inside a closet. I mean, there is nothing, it's just black.

CAVANAUGH: Wow, let's hear a scene from the short film "Tandem." Here are Nicki and Sabrina. They're talking about their tandem swim and their relationship. We also hear Carol Little, another local swimmer, talk about the difficulties of swimming tandem.

(audio clip from the short film "Tandem")

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, I like that. What we say in the water, stays in the water. And I misspoke. That was Carol Sing, the other local swimmer talking about the difficulties of swimming tandem. Now you really knew, David, you had a story when the swim actually took place. What happened?

MOLLERING: Well, about – Well, the whole way over they were both – I don't think Sabrina was throwing up but Sabrina felt horrible. It was kind of rough. And I know that Nicki was throwing up and – And so they jumped in the water at 12:30 and, you know, what we kept hearing from Kevin, who is the guy who paddles next to them, who accompanies them, that they were sick or she was sick. And at 4:30 in the morning, she got out. She couldn't take it. They – I don't know what really happened.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

MOLLERING: They had a little disagreement and she was – just became ill and she got out of the water.

CAVANAUGH: Which one got out of the water?

MOLLERING: Nicki did.

CAVANAUGH: Nicki, and…

MOLLERING: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: But Sabrina made it.

MOLLERING: Umm-hmm. Yeah, she did.

CAVANAUGH: What did that do to their relationship?

MOLLERING: I think it sort of ended their relationship, which is too bad. I think it's – I don't think anybody can anticipate what happens in the middle of the night in the middle of the ocean. And, you know, everybody's competitive and I think at the end of the film, they sort of tell you why – why they were very different people. They did this together but they're very different people, and they wanted it for different reasons.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with David Mollering. He is a San Diego filmmaker. We're talking about the short documentary film called "Tandem," which will be screened at Alt. Picture Shows tonight at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. And Nick (sic) Kendricks is curator. You have a number of short films going at the same time. And I'm wondering, one of the films you're showing is by a filmmaker called Justin Newell and it's called "Acting for Camera." If you could tell us about this movie.

KENDRICKS: What I loved about this film on multiple levels, the idea is so simple: putting a camera in a acting class and watching what goes on in terms of students having to open up a vein emotionally and perform in front of their classmates and their instructor. And this particular film kind of pushes the envelope in terms of these students and what their comfort zones are. It's very funny, kind of strangely poetic, and it really kind of goes in an area where you don't anticipate so I don't want to ruin it for people that might show up and see this film. But there's definitely a element of surprise that kind of goes – it goes somewhere where you don't think it's going to go.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we have a short clip from this short film, so let – It gives you a little window into the extreme teaching style in this acting class.

(audio of clip from filmmaker Justin Newell's "Acting for the Camera")

CAVANAUGH: Well, it's about time somebody skewered one of those sadistic acting teachers.

KENDRICKS: But you know what's kind of interesting, though, is the movie's very honest and it's – it really shows you something about what actors have to go through in terms of, in a way, kind of creating this illusion of life, and it's done in a very funny, sometimes shocking, way. But the film isn't like about shock value, it's really about something else. And that's one of the things, I think, that unites a lot of the short films that will be featured tonight, is they're all films that have something to say. They're all films that are relevant, and, I think, in touch with our particular time. That's one of the things with your earlier question about do these short films get their credit? Do they get the props that they deserve? And, oftentimes, they don't. One of the things I loved about David's film is that even though it's specific about these two women going on this very epic swim, it's a universal story and it's about anyone who's gone through any kind of relationship or how they deal with other people. They'll be able to connect to it. So one of the things I look for when I'm looking at films is films that resonate beyond just a storyline that they're trying to communicate. Some of the films in the festival don't have a story. They're really more of an experience. So short films can be almost like a poem, sometimes they can be an actual story with a beginning, middle and end, and so I think the nice thing about Alt. Picture Shows is that here's a forum where all of those things come together.

CAVANAUGH: And, Neil, I want to point out that not all the films are serious. I mean, you have a wonderful animation by Bill Plympton, "Hot Dog." That is really – I saw it and it's just really wonderful.

KENDRICKS: You know, I've always loved Bill Plympton's work and especially now when digital reigns everywhere and where, you know, it – the students, as well as fans of animation, tend to sort of gravitate only to work that's done in a computer. And Bill Plympton is a self-described pencil and paper guy. He draws his animations, cell by cell, page by page.

CAVANAUGH: You can tell.

KENDRICKS: You can tell. And there's something that's organic and ani – well, I don't want to say animated, of course it's animated. But there's something about it that has a kind of vividness that can only happen when an artist is sitting in front of the material and an idea travels down the length of their arm, through that pencil and onto a piece of paper. That's something fundamental that oftentimes gets lost. Again, the idea behind "Hot Dog" is very simple but the beauty of it is the passion that he obviously has for this particular character, the dog in question.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you one last question, Neil. This is such a popular event, Alt. Picture Shows. Why is it only one night?

KENDRICKS: Why is it one night? That's a good question.

CAVANAUGH: And you'll have to answer fast though.

KENDRICKS: You know, and we've – we've had discussions about maybe making it a weekend and so forth but just logistically it just seems like it works as a one night event. And in these particular times where money is tight, I don't think we're going to have…

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

KENDRICKS: …the ability to stretch it over more than one evening. But, again, I think it's got a little bit for everyone and then something in a little bit extra that – Expect the unexpected.

CAVANAUGH: Neil Kendricks, David Mollering, thank you so much for talking with us. And I want everyone to know Alt. Picture Shows takes place tonight at the downtown site of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. It runs from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m.

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