Genre at the 2013 Oscars: Live Action Short Death of a Shadow
The Oscars are not generally considered a crucial event for genre lovers; the inclusion of such films is often limited, and often ghettoized, relegated to technical awards only. This year there are several films in requisite categories like Makeup and Hairstyling, and Visual Effects (whose nominees include The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Avengers, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Prometheus). Another good category where one can snoop out genre fare is in Best Animated Film, and 2013 doesn’t disappoint, with the lovingly crafted and decidedly Gothic take on suburbia in ParaNorman and Tim Burton’s tale of a boy and his (deceased) dog, Frankenweenie. There are even a few genre film in higher profile categories this year; they may not be low-budget grindhouse films but Skyfall and Argo have firm genre roots and, of course, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained falls trunk, branches, leaves and all into the genre wheelhouse. One of the best entries for genre lovers, however, is lower profile, a French/Belgian Live Action Short with the satisfyingly ominous title Death of a Shadow.
The film, directed by Tom Van Avermaet, is about a soldier named Nathan who was shot and killed in Europe during WWII. Upon his death Nathan was drafted by a mysterious, unnamed “Collector of Shadows,” a macabre art enthusiast of sorts who dispatches our hero to capture the shadows of human beings at the exact moment of death. Apparently, the more gruesome the circumstances, the more evocative the resulting shadow, so violent deaths are preferred. This man sports the creepy sunglasses-and-bald-pate combo so popular with comic-book supervillains (or twisted anti-heroes, in the case of Spider Jerusalem in the Transmetropolitan series) and spouts fantastically cold instructions to his young employee like “It’s been ages since I’ve had a drowning. Or murder? Murder is always expressive.” The character feels like a bit of a dig at artists whose all-consuming obsession with aesthetics has left them blind to emotion, to the spirit that lies within the form. Or perhaps the Collector feels that death is the only moment where the body reflects outwardly what it feels inwardly.
When Nathan is able to collect 10,000 shadows, the collector will allow him the opportunity to live again. True to the philosophy of ghostly folklore that earthbound spirits are fixated on an aspect of their former life — like love, or vengeance, or debt — Nathan is driven to win his life back by an interaction with a woman named Sarah that happened moments before his death. His own shadow in his master’s collection is an inelegant, hulking shape resembling a bear standing up on its hind legs. When he twists the pins that hold it in place, the details of his death, as well as the fateful meeting with Sarah, flash before his eyes. It seems as though reliving the experience and reminding himself why he continues to live (sort of) in servitude is a frequent ritual for Nathan.
Avermaet makes the idea of the shadow box disturbingly literal, and also incredibly beautiful, highlighting the physicality of death in a way that makes the unsavory Collector slightly more sympathetic. Contained within his collection is a series of contorted, leaping shadows, suspended in a dance of agony. Part of what makes the film so compelling is that this grotesquerie is not so unfamiliar really, a supernatural extension of the human desire to capture, categorize and, above all, understand our most mystifying moments, however painful. The collection, with its almost-human forms caught mid-action, calls to mind the Bodies exhibit that has so fascinated NYC residents and tourists that the once-temporary show seems to be up in perpetuity. When Nathan peruses a catalogue of impending deaths in search of a new assignment, designed like a pre-digital age library index or microfiche, with small Edison bulbs to light the way, the causes of death (Accident, Explosion, Exhaustion, Old Age, etc) are casually listed. I remember a trip to the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, which presents medical antiquities, in which a wall of skulls provided similar statistics (Suicide, Heart Failure, Consumption, etc, and a cause so poetic and haunting I will never forget it — “the weariness of life.”). The curiosity to collect that kind of intimate yet impersonal information about death exists in the real world.
Don’t overlook the other Live Action Short Oscar nominees in search of Death of a Shadow, which is available on iTunes and most Cable carriers’ On Demand services now. Not only is there a particularly strong and varied crop this year, many of the films also have incorporated genre elements. Henry wraps an exploration of aging and memory in a disorienting mystery, Asad sees the fast money of piracy tempt an older Somali fisherman from more honest work, and in Buzkashi Boys two Afghani children have misadventures in the quest to play a ball game that requires the use of a dried goat carcass. Only in Death of a Shadow, however, is there a light-up file box of foul ends.
FARIHAH ZAMAN began working in film as a Programmer for Film South Asia documentary film festival before moving to New York in 2005, where she was the Acquisitions Manager at independent film distribution company Magnolia Pictures. In 2008 she coordinated IFP’s No Borders program, the only international co-production market in the U.S., before becoming Program Manager of The Flaherty Seminar until 2010. Farihah currently writes for The Huffington Post, The AV Club, and online film journal Reverse Shot, among others. She is co-directing a documentary, REMOTE AREA MEDICAL, set for release in 2013.