So the Academy Awards are on Sunday, and -- here's a rare doff of the cap to Coming Attractions Theatres -- we've had the opportunity to see nearly all the films nominated in major categories (not counting Foreign Language Film, which has the most lamebrained nominating system imaginable). Unfortunately, short films get short shrift in American movie culture, so of the 15 up for Oscars (five documentaries, five animated and five live-action), chances are you've seen either none or maybe one -- Pixar's frantic charmer Presto, which ran before the equally sublime Wall-E.
The 10 non-docs opened as a mini film-fest (with a cumulative run-time shorter than Benji Button's, by the way) in a couple dozen theaters nationwide, but alas, ours were not among the chosen. Which is a bummer because, really, what's not to love about short films? Like snack-size candy bars, they deliver all the flavor with less commitment and less fat.
A Swiss entry in the live-action category, Auf der Strecke (On the Line) is a morality tale that, time being limited, gets straight to it, opening smack-dab in the middle of a morality tale cliché: A man sits alone in a monitor-filled security booth, panning and zooming in on the oblivious patrons and employees of a Swiss department store -- in particular, a pretty German girl working the register in the book department. We soon learn that Rolf the security guard -- despite ringing these sexual-predator alarm bells -- is a decent enough guy. He resists easy cruelty with a pair of young, red-handed shoplifters, and he's sweet and shy in his pursuit of his secret crush -- nervously averting his puppy-dog eyes after waving to her on the subway train.
It is on this train where Rolf is given his true morality test, a test involving his crush, another man and a gang of thugs. Rolf fails his test miserably and is left standing dumbfounded on the subway platform, his darting eyes beginning a desperate search for redemption, like an amputee groping for his missing limb.
The defensively pursed lips and hooded, expressive peepers of Roeland Wiesnekker as Rolf add a depth to his character that's lacking in the script -- a testament to how good acting can sometimes compensate for mediocre writing, while the opposite is almost never true. Shot on digital hand-held, Auf der Strecke's grainy intimacy and tight elliptical story arc (not to mention its lightweight concept) fit nicely into the 30-minute runtime. The other nine films in the shorts showcase sound way more original than their feature-length counterparts, with protagonists ranging from a lonely, line-drawn toilet attendant to a pair of persecuted octopi. Here's hoping they get released together on DVD.