Playtime: Three Shorts by Justin Tan, Kyla Stone, and Jackson McMurdo

By Kyle Brandys

Preceding The Novelist’s Film, Hong Sangsoo’s latest work examining the practice of filmmaking among creative communities, is a triptych of short films by student filmmakers from Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), one of the last film schools in North America to require freshmen to shoot on 16mm film. Unified by the use of black-and-white stock in Bolex cameras—which necessitates non-synchronous sound—each film serves as a rich exploration of cinematic time under the singular visions of three emerging artists.

Urgency is the key word to Justin Tan’s White Belt. A humorous Bunuelian nightmare unfolds in this scenario of a man who desperately needs to urinate but is unable; his efforts are impeded by a lock on his belt and a dominatrix who holds the combination. “Fall to your knees,” “Humiliate yourself,” “Bow,” the female tormentor delights during telephone calls. The soundscape of Toronto—chimes of the TTC subway system, the bustle of the crowds—is remixed with the ringing of phones to create a sonic representation of the diminishing countdown. Tan also employs clever visual tricks to depict the increasing instability of the man’s surroundings. One such example is an interstitial sequence by way of a POV shot utilizing fast motion, in which the camera traverses the dense hallways of a shopping system, conveying the unpleasant distress of travelling an urban landscape when in need of bodily relief. Following this shot, the camera frames the subject on his knees, bowing, as a series of lens changes (via the rotating turret of the Bolex) reveal the protagonist to be isolated in the suddenly deserted corridors of the mall. These sequential shots embody an impressive duelling of moods in the surreal environment, all the while retaining a comedic metre. The climax is one last accent of Tan’s skill as a gifted humorist: the subject’s ironic release from the Kafkaesque labyrinth into the open air coincides with the unfortunate release of his bladder.

Barbie and Me, by Kyla Stone, is loosely framed around a young model who experiences an anxiety attack during a photoshoot. Stone reorients the direction of the camera’s gaze to the perspective of the young woman, which provides glimpses into her anxious subconscious via unreliable eyeline matches. A montage, in the tradition of bricolage, conveys the panic attack. Rendered in a grungy aesthetic, the hallucinatory images include a 1950s-style makeup removal advertisement, laptop screens displaying static, and a Barbie held hostage and later beheaded (mirroring the protagonist’s own captivity). The distressed, anachronistic black-and-white footage and the use of different media objects point to the long history of harmful effects of the doll’s anatomically impossible measurements. This temporal refraction is also perhaps a meta-textual acknowledgement that Barbie and Me engages with other iconic works to feature “Barbiedom” as it relates to mental health and celebrity, including Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987). Stone notably repurposes these themes and aesthetic textures from the more distanced genre of the biography film in Superstar to a much smaller frame to craft an exceptional claustrophobic and empathetic experience.

Amidst a chaotic night’s spiral of alcoholic beverages and prescription drugs, a young adult experiences the highs and lows of a dangerous overdose in Last Night, directed by Jackson Mcmurdo. Despite the sensitive subject matter, the film retains the formal playfulness that is indicative of these short films. The small window of a single evening in Last Night is divided into two parts. First, the spiral: a quickly paced section largely composed of jump cuts as the young man samples an assortment of toxic substances. Following a substantial fade to black, is the second half, the breathtaking last sequence. In slow motion, the climactic shot depicts the character now in a bathtub, while the arms of a friend desperately try to shake the adolescent to consciousness. The bifurcated structure allows an inspired experiment with rhythm and audience expectation. The rapid jump cuts resist orientation and withhold the stability of the event from the viewer. The slow-motion shot relieves this tension by providing a slowing down of the action, but to a horrifying and transfixing effect, due to the graphically striking nature of the shot. Time dilates and squeezes in Mcmurdo’s film to stunning results.

Despite the emerging status of their directors, this trio of short films displays rare wisdom for first-year student filmmakers. The works are historically guided, subtly nodding towards their influences to avoid the temptations of pastiche, yet demonstrate distinct strategies for navigating the restrictions of an institutional mandate. Delivered with exuberance and maturity, their inventive approaches to narrative and temporality under technical constraints announce the arrival of three exceptional talents from TMU.