Short films are a strange art of their own--for them to “work,” they have to be perfectly paced, give just enough exposition to drag us into their world but not so much that it bogs down our interest or drags the story, and most of all, it has to leave a taste in our mouths. Shorts are usually shown in hour and a half blocks at festivals, and when your work is bookended by pieces that may be tonally dissonant, hyper-violent or hyper-sexual, or just off-the-wall bonkers, you have to make sure the audience is going to stumble back out into the sunlight thinking about what you served up.
More than most directors who work in the short form, Izzy Lee is able to meet all these challenges.
I first profiled two of Lee’s shorts in 2017 when I saw “For a Good Time Call…” and “Rites of Vengeance,” two gorgeously choreographed perfect punches to the face. Moody, intense, and just dream-like enough, these shorts shone when they indulged in the beauty of movement and the sweet brutality of voyeuristic violence HERE. They left an impression on me as a viewer, and I was so excited when I bumped into Izzy Lee at the Overlook Film Festival and heard about her two newest shorts.
First, there’s “Re-Home,” a short that could be part of a spiritual trilogy with “For a Good Time Cal…” and “Rites of Vengeance.” These three films have a politically engaged, zeitgeist capturing quality that gives them a depth the simplicity of their premises might not otherwise have. While the first two films deal with the redemptive side of the “monstrous feminine,” “Re-Home” is less concerned with gender than geo-politics. Set in an apocalyptic near-future, Trump’s Wall is up, creating a war zone of the U.S./Mexico borderlands. A desperate mother and her baby make the perilous crossing and arrive at the home of a friendly couple who offer to find a good home for the child. The young mother is grateful, but as she settles in for a warm meal with the couple, she soon realizes that things aren’t as Norman Rockwell nice as she thought.
Lee does a great job of implying all the chaos happening in the world outside the opulent home that functions as the short’s only set. World building is tricky ground for any artist--show too much and you’re just distracting people, show too little, and your story doesn’t land--but Lee navigates it nicely by using just the right amount of dread-soaked dialogue to set the tone and let viewers in. In my first review of her work, my major critique was the weakness of the writing in Lee’s short films. Now, I’m happy to say, with Lee writing all the dialogue herself, the overall product is much stronger. Lee’s writing is sharp, clear, and realistic--all assets when writing good dialogue, especially dialogue that has to pull double duty as quick-sketch exposition.
More than the two shorts I reviewed before, “Re-Home” makes me want to see a feature from Lee. The story in “Re-Home” feels bigger than the short film format, and I would love to see a feature length exploration of the themes and ideas present here.
Now, for something entirely different: “The Obliteration of the Chickens.”
Oh man, where to begin but with an exuberant, overjoyed, “What the actual fuck?”
A melange of images, ranging from a crowded cityscape, to a laughing kid eating ice cream, to a clown morosely playing with a balloon, all accompanied by the Werner Herzog-esque monologuing of an unseen narrator, “The Obliteration of the Chickens,” is a feverish festival of references and parody. For anyone who haunts modern art galleries and experimental film installations, the tone and trippy imagery feels almost homey, but like the pseudo-German voice guiding us on this meditation of the Void (which the short tells us is “stupid,” by the way), there is an unheimlich/uncanny quality to it all. The narrator’s voice swells with sorrow as he describes the horrors of modern life, then snaps back to jovial, self-congratulatory philosophizing as the images cascade by. All of it builds to a strange, perfectly and purposefully bathetic meditation on the existential wickedness of chickens. Yes. Just yes.
This short reminded me of two of my favorite things in the world, a YouTube video called “Werner Herzog Reads Curious George” and Adult Swim’s delirious “The Shivering Truth.” Both use absurdist imagery, contagiously joyful nihilism, and art-house-inspired winks and nods to mock and celebrate all the weirdness and despair of modern life. “The Obliteration of the Chickens,” while not as wide-ranging and ambitious as “The Shivering Truth,” is a truly mad, singularly weird romp, one that would definitely cut through all the fat of a short film block, freshening things up with its unchained insanity. Once again, the short is helped by Lee’s writing, which is a pitch-perfect imitation of Herzog’s beautifully pretentious, pretentiously beautiful narrative style.
The A.V. Club named Izzy Lee one of the film makers Blumhouse should hire and I couldn’t agree more. These two newest shorts making the festival circuit show a filmmaker who’s ready to push past the boundaries of short films, a medium she’s spent years exploring and perfecting.