Tuesday, March 16, 2010

First Friday Shorts – R.J. Cavender

It was a busy week. Oscar week always is for a film critic. But, after catching the Academy Award Nominated Shorts program at The Loft, I’d promised I would return with my assignment photographer, Breezy VonChardonnay, to catch the much anticipated First Friday Shorts program for March.

I was met in the lobby, Breezy thrusting a double-serving of Avalanche Amber Ale (the beer-of-the-month) into my grubby mitt, and then I was whisked off to the main theater which was at near capacity.

That’s when I saw it for the first time. There it stood, just feet from our VIP seats.

The Gong.

Yes, I could tell that this was going to be a good night. A film critic’s dream, really. Only a competition that’s been hailed by the Tucson Weekly as the “Best Local Film Event” would involve rowdy audience participation, blatant disregard for theater quiet zones, and “Gong Show”-style eliminations. And of course, all this hosted by Red Meat’s own Master of Ceremonies Max Cannon. First Friday veteran Michael Sterner was on board to co-host the event and add much-needed commentary for moments when Max was simply left speechless.

The rules for First Friday Shorts are simple: Anyone can enter the film in competition. Every film is guaranteed to play for 3 minutes, but after that the audience can call for the dreaded “gong” if they’re displeased. If the gong is struck, our intrepid host stops the film and the next movie begins.

The show kicked off with a mock-commercial for “Ugly Furniture”, a viral video by Jason Messina, and a ringer that had the audience roaring and ready for fun. (At this point, Breezy commented that we ‘NEED to find out where that store is…their inventory looks amazing!’ I began to explain that it’s not a real commercial, but she was back to slurping her wine through a crazy-straw and the conversation ended just as the next short began.)

The first film in competition for the night was “Serial Killers, Swingers, and Boy Scouts” by Lisa Marie Evans. It was a personal profile of an artist who has some interesting subject matter. I found it quite interesting and fun, despite some audience members shouting over the last minute, seeking to sink the film. But, at a brisk running time of only four minutes, it was able to play out in its entirety and escape the gong. In a word: Quirky. I liked it.

The director of the second film, a guy who simply goes as Ray, spoke briefly before his film, stating that his mission for making it was to eradicate a certain overused word from the English language entirely. But his film “Dude,” which consisted of no other dialogue other than this one offending word got the GONG from the audience members. Not only was the film an exercise in intentionally irritating redundancy, it’s also an idea that’s already been done years ago and to better effect by David Spade on “Saturday Night Live.” Sorry, “Dude.”

The third film up was some sort of multi-media experience called “Opera Storyboard” by director Joke Harmonica. In short, the director stood in front of the screen and described strange hand-drawn screen-shots that involved some adventure that I’m afraid I wasn’t quite medicated enough to join him on. I think I heard the phrase ‘Butt Boats’ at one point. My work-appointed-photographer, Breezy, commented that it reminded her of when her five-year-old nephews talk about Pokemon. ‘There’s a lot of energy and excitement going on…but it doesn’t make a damn bit of sense!’

It was time for a refill.

I returned from the concession stand ushered in by the sound of a GONG, with double-beer and double-wine in hand. The Loft serves doubles now, so less trips mean more tips, I always say. (‘A double? Of WINE?’ asked Breezy in her usual slurry fashion. I had to keep her entertained and otherwise occupied, since she was beginning to heckle the man that she assumed was the last film’s director, but in fact was just Max Cannon trying his best to brave her insults. I can’t take this girl anywhere!)

Next a ringer played that involved an old “Walker: Texas Ranger” clip starring Haley Joel Osment, Wilford Brimley, and a piano-playing cat. Oddly enough, the film topic was a serious one, and I won’t spoil it for you if you find it online. Suffice to say, it was a hit.

“Antithesis of the Human Condition (remix)” by Diana Stapleton was the next film to play, and while it was clever and satirical, it didn’t go for laughs or pander to any specific audience. It seems this filmmaker had something to say about gender roles and society, and while I’m not sure I completely ‘got’ it, the audience let it roll for its entire duration and it escaped elimination. I didn’t hate it, but I’m not sure I’d watch it again.

Next a ringer called “Soup Kitchen in My Pants” rolled, a fun little experiment in lip-sync audio manipulation where the collective known as Day Job Orchestra has taken clips of old Star Trek episodes and added alternate audio that matches both character movements and reactions. It was really quite a clever little ringer and one that aspiring filmmakers could use as a template on how to make an effective and infectiously funny little film.

Up next was “Change” by Phil Lybrand, a film that felt like a mixture between scenes from “Maximum Overdrive” and the ‘My two dollars!’ chase scene from “Better Off Dead.” While the look and feel of the film were slick and it held my attention, overall it felt like I’d seen this all before. It escaped the gong, but I think this filmmaker has the potential to make some even stronger films—a director to keep an eye on, for sure.

The next two films, “Dumbfounded” and “The Bee Jays,” were both gonged and the audience was growing restless with anticipation. My photographer, however, was yelling non-sequiturs of ‘Self-Indulgent!’ and ‘Double Wines!’ at no one in particular and had built a small fort out of empty plastic wine glasses. We were going to either need an intermission or a stomach pump soon.

Luckily, the last film before intermission, “Boners” by Scott Chaffee and Justin Humbert, was a light-hearted musical romp gloriously praising the virtues of spontaneous erections. I had a difficult time getting my photographer to stop singing the refrain of ‘I get boners! Everybody gets boners!’ for at least a full fifteen minutes following the film’s closing applause. But, at least I was able to pinpoint her whereabouts within the Loft lobby at all times during intermission, just from the sound of her warbling off-key expletives.

Somehow, and I’m still not entirely sure how this happened, I found myself back in the theater for the second act of the competition. Breezy had doubled up her stockpile of wine, and was gleefully taking pictures of her feet when the lights once again dimmed and Max took the microphone.

“Zoo Books,” by sketch comedy group Last Call Cleveland, was the first ringer that brought us back to the show. And I’ve got to say that this faux-audio added to a retro commercial for kid’s books is just about as funny as a short can get and still stay under the one-minute mark. A YouTube Classic!

A slow-moving mock-buster “Parahomo Activity” by Jorge Herrera played next, but got the GONG at the three-minute mark. I’m sure the internet is littered with parodies of this film. But, it’s hard to satirize source material that just generally blows anyhow. So I’d like to speak on behalf of critics everywhere and ask that we just collectively forget about the movie “Paranormal Activity.” It wasn’t fun the first time around, so anything derived from it is bound to be even less entertaining. Just. Stop.

Next, a short comparative study of fast food advertising versus the reality of what you really get served was presented in the film “Whoppers” by David Morales. While not a new subject, I think this film could have benefited from better quality footage. The premise was simple, with “Whoppers” showing BEFORE shots of what a Wendy’s or Burger King cheeseburger look like in the ad and then the AFTER shots of what you were really served in a paper wrapper from the local fast food chain. But the BEFORE shots really didn’t look all that appetizing to begin with, and some of the AFTER shots in this film were damn near unrecognizable. My photographer simply closed her eyes and gloriously flipped this film the one-finger salute until it ended. I mirrored her sentiment in spirit.

“Little Gold Men” by Michael Glass and Bryan Sargus played next, and while it ran for the maximum of fifteen minutes (a first?), not much could be heard past the three-minute mark due to a mob-like exchange between those who wanted it gonged and those who didn’t. I can’t really say what it was about, so take that however you will. I did, however, hear someone in the audience exclaim ‘Don’t be a hater!’, which would be an all-time first for me to hear in any theatrical surrounding. So, to you sir, I say…THANKS. I had a chuckle at your expense.

“The Ruby Grade” by Jessie Nham was next, and lightning struck twice, with a lot of yelling and carrying about and rabblerousing. I could hear it all the way from the concession stand. I caught enough of the film to know I wasn’t the target audience.
If I recall correctly, it was a two-shot of a couple of girls talking about ironical stuff in a library. It made me want to drink more, so I did. Sometimes beer becomes the ‘make stuff more bearable potion’ at the movies. Hell, I can even enjoy a Michael Bay film if I have a few drinks at the theater. At this point, my photographer repeated the dreaded ‘Don’t be a hater!’ to no one in particular, but I’m still not sure if she was being sincere or not. No more wine for this one. She was cut off.

“Awkward Situation Mastery,” a hilarious how-to training video by Tim Lavoie rolled next and I really found myself enjoying the pace and timing of this flick. Each time a new awkward social situation was presented, a disembodied narrator asked, ‘What Do You Do?’ This one could use just a little tightening, but it really does have great classic comedic timing. It’s often hard for a short film to be funny in a creative new way, and this one has a fun and goofy identity of its own. It also introduced new phrases like ‘Pueef’ and ‘Stinky Pudding,’ so don’t go assuming this is high-brow humor for the elitists. This film made me laugh more in seven short minutes than any single episode of Saturday Night Live has in years! For the life of me, I don’t know how the actor in this film kept a straight face through some of these situations.

Next a thirty-second computer animated poop joke called “Charmin” by Justen Tapley and Aaron Clark played. Despite its short run time, I did in fact hear a few assorted screams for the gong. I received a text from my photographer, who was still seated next to me, albeit a bit slumped in her chair. The text simply read: WFT :(

“Feline Ghost Adventures” by Jon Rustad followed, and it was hands-down my favorite film of the night. The movie integrated the audio from the television show “Ghost Adventures” on the Travel Channel, synced up perfectly to the director’s own cats and shot mostly through a night vision camera lens. The effect is really pretty goddamn funny. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the kind of guy who sends friends and family cutsie animal videos on YouTube. This is way beyond that. I found myself unable to resist the ingenious way this thing was edited together. It must have taken forever to sync some of it up and have it work out as perfectly as it did. Having the audio from another source could have been limiting for the director, but so much humor was then derived from playing on some of those expectations and throwing in clever sight gags to balance it out. It had me rolling.

In the end, the vote was given to the audience to decide who the top contenders for the month would be. By round of applause, each film was voted upon, but without proper sound frequency analysis, it was hard to determine a true judgment on the outcome.

And as luck would have it, my very first night at first Friday Shorts was also the first ever THREE WAY TIE, with Scott Chaffee and Justin Humbert (Boners), Jon Rustad (Feline Ghost Adventures), and two-time defending champ Tim Lavoie (Awkward Situation Mastery) all drawing equal applause from the crowd. All three films will compete for the year-end grand prize in May.

I’m sure you’re wondering about the final vote.

And while I’ve been swore to “Fight Club”-like secrecy to the exact events that transpired after the unexpected three-way tie, I can only say that Max Cannon did the only thing any respectable Master of Ceremonies could do. That’s right…

A Dance Off!

I tried my best to document the event, but by the time everyone was on stage bustin’ a move, my photographer was snoring softly in her big theater chair and hugging her camera in a boozy deathgrip. I was able to pry the camera from her talons long enough to snap off a few shots, but I’ve certainly learned my lesson about working with jet-legged fashion photographers on Oscar week.

Thanks to The Loft Cinema for now serving doubles of your favorite adult beverages!

Thanks to Yellow Cab of Tucson for getting us both home safely!

The winning film for the Month of March:

“Feline Ghost Adventures”

For full rules, submission guidelines, and to find out how to enter your own film to compete in the First Friday Shorts go to:


Interview with Jon Rustad, 
director of “Feline Ghost Adventures”

Where did you get your inspiration for “Feline Ghost Adventures”?

Well, our youngest kitty Levi has a seemingly endless supply of energy. He loves chasing the stringed "birdie" and playing hide and seek. We were cracking up on all the funny faces he makes; thinking what in the world does he think he's chasing. It's like his knowing it's only a cat toy has been suspended and that he really believes they are alive. Meanwhile, the TV was on in the background tuned to the actual show Ghost Adventures on Travel Channel. And, it started looking like he was reacting as the voices were reacting to the ghosts on the show. So we busted out our camera, turned on the night vision and let it run. The guys on the show are always freaking themselves out; using the bleep language so it was just a matter of matching Levi and Ghetti's reactions to the audio from the show.

How long did it take to create your film?

We only did two sessions filming them; three if you count the daytime outdoor shots. The tricky part was the editing. I did several passes on just the audio, looking for clips of the guys totally tripping out while keeping in mind shots that might go well with them. We worked on and off in our free time for about a week. Threw in some music from one of my band's (Underwater City People) upcoming release "Dead Inside" and tightened it up to make sure it all somehow made sense.

How long have you and your wife been making short films? How did your production company come together?

We've been making little videos for a couple of years. Music videos, etc. Mostly I work on commercials, which can be fun, but often we can't use this much creative license. Julie and I are combining our businesses now. She has an established business called 24-7 Creative Solutions and I generally work freelance with a variety of Tucson and LA clients. The new company will focus primarily on design and animation and is called "Words Become Pictures".

Plans for the future?

We'll be making more. Probably not a sequel to the “Feline Ghost Adventures.” We think that gag has been sufficiently explored in the original . . . I suppose we could have them jump a ghost shark, but only if we really need the money. I do have a feature length script that we've tossed around the idea of producing, but our next project will likely be another short film. We'll see.

Any advice for other filmmakers on how to avoid the dreaded gong at First Friday Shorts?

Well . . . just make it funny and to the point. It's not the sort of crowd that wants to see you toil with the intricacies of your bad relationship . . . unless of course its funny. Then, once you think you got your edit just right . . . make it shorter. Quick cuts. Only use the essential shots to tell your story, the audience will appreciate the brevity. Despite the audacious nature of the shouts for the mallet of death, they are sophisticated viewers, which basically means . . . they bore easy. You get three minutes "gong free" attention . . . make the best use of it.

In your opinion, what makes a great short film?

In my opinion, a great short film doesn't try to cover too much material. Keep the story concise. If it's a comedy, then do the ol' 1, 2, 3. Priest walks into a bar. Rabbi walks into the bar. Then Tiger Woods walks into the bar and accidentally sits on a grasshopper . . . roll the credits. Done. You'd be surprise how little background info we need to know about a character and still identify with them. Do we need to know he eats Fruit Loops for breakfast? Does his sister think he's lazy because he likes to play video games all day? Who cares? What's the gag, and get to it. Lose your favorite shot, if it doesn't add to the story. Streamline it as if you were telling your buddies at the bar.

Will you be entering any other shorts in the near future for First Friday?

Yeah, I'm sure. But nothing in the works quite yet.

Any advice for other filmmakers when it comes to taking the ultimate critical plunge of putting your work in from of the rabid First Friday audience? I mean, this audience can be brutal!

Just what I said earlier. But I will add, who cares what other people think. Keep making movies. Don't let them scare you off. Bring another film. You remember them gonging you, but they probably won't. I've seen some good films there that got brutally booed, that I would have loved to finish watching. You don't need to pander to the audience, just don't take it personally (as much as possible; nobody likes their art discounted or discarded), but also know it might not necessarily be the best place to screen certain films. Try to watch your film with fresh eyes; as though you've never seen it before.

Anything else you’ve got going on?

Julie and I also play in a local rock band called the HYPNOGOGS. People can find us online and can watch a video we made for the band at:



  1. things make sense only if you want them to. thank you for your review you can download over 50 of my albums for free on the site mediafire.com/jokeharmonica

    also check out I am on a real website with real musicians where you can listen in real-time to my unreal real opera

    www.artistowned.com I am under the name christopher donahue. There is serious musicians on this. The person who put it together worked with Gail Zappa

  2. I think my favorite short of the night was also feline adventures