I’ve climbed into dentist’s chairs with more enthusiasm than I had taking my seat at the Third Annual Sex and Death Short Film Festival. These weren’t movies, after all, but films. The cinema. Art, if you will, to be enjoyed by people of culture and discernment. Clearly I had no place there.

However, festival artistic director Gregor Hagey must know what he’s doing. The first short, Paul Howden’s Finding Kansas, went a long way toward setting skittish peasants like me at ease, with studly waster Gus (James Gordon) wandering aimlessly through a world that feels like some of the more existential Kids in the Hall skits. There’s the same wide-eyed, deadpan absurdity, and Gordon himself is as adorable a jackass as Bruce McCulloch at his best.

Lest the masses get too cozy, though, the festival’s organizers chose to end it with Istvan Kantor’s Broadcast, surely the longest 21 minutes I’ve ever lived though. The press package calls Kantor’s work “experimentation with the trans-kinetic identity of the revolutionary individual in relation to the scientific engine of artistic and social movements.” I wish someone had told me this was auteur-speak for “the visual and aural equivalent of a road-salt enema.” I would have left sooner, or perhaps killed myself. I’m not sure I’m sufficiently evolved to live in the same world as Kantor’s “machine-sex performance artists.”

The festival’s other eight shorts weren’t as much fun as Finding Kansas, but still far from the horror that was Broadcast. One standout was Self [Portrait/Fulfillment]: A Film by the Blob Thing, which explores the torment of being…well, a Blob Thing. In it, the amorphous claymation lump of the title breaks free of creator Brian Stockton to present his (its?) own very singular vision to the world. The Blob Thing is clearly a filmmaker of staggering talent, and I expect to see great things from him in the future.

Sadly, not all the films presented their messages quite so gracefully.

Ines Buchli’s Foxy Lady/Wild Cherry, in which two 70s nymphets deal with the repressed lechery of middle-aged men, has the lumbering earnestness of an old Degrassi episode. Most people lose their taste for that brand of “socially conscious” bullshit after the age of twelve or so. In Eulogy/Obverse, Ryan Feldman, a young man who has perhaps led a very sheltered life, discovers self-awareness and is generous enough to share it with the rest of us. This might almost be bearable if it weren’t delivered with the mournful solemnity of a public service announcement. And as for the unfortunately titled documentary G-Sprout!…well, I just never wanted to know that much about the sex life of vegans. I’m sorry, but there it is.

Some brighter spots were The Birthday Cake (from Barclay Hope) and Charlie Noir (Keith Davidson), smart stories with startling endings.

Charlie Noir’s James Nolan has just the right Robert Mitchum-like brooding for a sendup of the film noir genre, and The Birthday Cake features the most memorable portrayal of a right psycho bitch I’ve seen in a while.

And then there were the real discoveries—the ones I didn’t want to like but did.

Jason Suedath’s My Dreams of Her are Beautiful is a perverse little valentine of a film, flavoured with more Miami Vice nostalgia than is probably healthy but clever enough to make up for it.

Mary Loathes Tuna is ostensibly a look at the traditional male midlife crisis when experienced by a woman, but it’s hard to spot any crisis here. As played by Heather Swain, Mary floats calmly above her doltish sitcom surroundings, making what would otherwise be eminently lame and forgettable into a thing worth pondering.

There’s something very wonderful about a woman who lives with her mother and looks like a grade-school supply teacher managing three righteously kinky entanglements, with the poise and self-possession of someone hosting a lawn party.

I’m not sure if this is quite the effect producer/director Ben Babchishin and writer Nora Abercrombie were aiming at, but who cares? Rock on, Mary.

Two hours or so later, it’s hard to tell if I’ve been won over by the sex and death or the art, but something here is going to bring me back. Maybe next time I’ll even know what the hell a machine-sex performance artist is. Here’s hoping, anyway.

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