Monday, September 1, 2008

Film #75: Thanksgiving

In 2002, when I was the Programming Director for North Georgia's Dahlonega International Film Festival (now the Rome International Film Festival), I had to watch hundreds of titles in the span of six months. This resulted in weeks upon weeks of movie-watching, most of it predictably disappointing. (Tip to all festival-bound filmmakers: Actually, with that many movies to watch, a programmer HOPES to be disappointed within the first five minutes, just so they can get through more movies. So make sure your first minutes are great ones.)

Anyway, some time during the spring of 2002, I fished through hundreds of anonymous-looking tapes and came across a short movie from New York City called Thanksgiving, by writer/director Alex R. Johnson. Popping it in on VHS, I was immediately convinced of its immense worth, even though I'd had relatively little experience evaluating live action shorts. No matter, I thought: I know a good movie when I see it. As I wrote in my festival program review, "Achingly sad then rumbling with belly laughs, this fantastic movie refuses to paint in broad strokes."

Thanksgiving begins with Rich (Chris Crofton) facing a lonely "eating day" (as I like to call it). His friends aren't picking up the phone, and he has nowhere else to turn except to his Great Aunt Ruby (Regina Dwyer Thomas). Rich and Ruby's tense holiday encounter with each other in her cramped outer-bourough kitchen constitutes the majority of this 17-minute comedy's running time. See Thanksgiving here on Alex R. Johnson's La Chima Films website (if you have the right Apple plugin). Here's the trailer:

Crofton, a Nashville-based musician and comedian, is beyond superb as our nervous hero; his every line delivery is amazingly natural and funny. And Thomas is his near-equal, ratcheting up his character's discomfort with her every attempt at conversation. Her very first words to him, as Rich takes off his wool cap, are "Jesus, you're bald!" This sets off Thanksgiving's deep dive into the essential gulf between young and old.

In an often vicious ping-pong session of dialogue between these two under-socialized loners, we see illustrated generational differences between manner of dress ("At least I'm not wearing some dead man's clothes," Ruby says, noticing the embroidered name on Rich's vintage jacket. "'Bill'? Who's 'Bill'?"); food consumption (Ruby insists on giving Rich a "small" slice of the pie he brought her, and he protests "Ruby, that piece's as big as a slice of pizza!"); health (Ruby: "I've seen you kids with your bottled water, think you're so hot!") racism (Ruby on all the gum on the sidewalk: "I think it's them Arabs" Rich: "I don't think it's 'them Arabs'"). This scorched-earth battleground leads to an ultimate confrontation that is subtly sobering and outwardly angry.

Thanksgiving gets everything right with its minimal photography by Sylvain D'Hautcourt and editing by John Barr (both help Johnson's film approach the drifting quality of a Jim Jarmusch effort, but without the endless meandering). And the emo-rock score from Scott Craggs, Klaus Hubben and Drew O'Doherty--all members of the Boston band The Ivory Coast--is incredibly effective, popping up in the most perfect of places without ever stepping on the dialogue. At the DIFF, the film won Best Narrative Comedy Short (live-action), Best Director (short), Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Score.

Writer/director Alex R. Johnson (pictured above on a location shoot for his new film Pickup and Return) partially financed Thanksgiving by working as a production office assistant on Steve Buscemi's 1996 directorial debut Trees Lounge. He currently works as a commercial cinematographer and as a producer for Showtime and VH-1, and has recently completed his second short, the 22-minute Pickup and Return (see it here). His and his Thanksgiving cast's sharp talents are, to say the very least, worth much closer attention. Finding their work made extremely worthwhile my watching a hundred laughably terrible DIFF entries like The Singing Bass and Hands. (Please--don't ask...)

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