Exploring an Auteur’s Short Films: Ari Aster – Special Features #53

I don’t normally write about short films unless it’s a special occasion. This is a special occasion. I recently watched and reviewed Ari Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary, the daytime horror fairy tale Midsommar. I have become a great admirer of Aster after having seen those two films, both of which I believe to be amazing works of cinema.

Since I saw Midsommar, I haven’t been able to get it off my mind. So, on Friday, I spent the entire day watching Ari Aster’s short films. Today, I want to talk about his flawed short films, some of which didn’t speak to me at all. In five separate sections, I want to describe the experience of watching Aster’s short films, as well as make some general observations as to what it is like to watch the raw material of a future auteur.

I. Setting Your Expectations

A24 – Giphy

When you get the chance to watch content such as the AFI Conservatory thesis film that a respected auteur wrote and directed, it is, of course, really exciting. I recently wrote that I think Ari Aster has proven himself as a fairly precise and detail-oriented director with a clear vision for horror.

But, obviously, he wasn’t always a precise filmmaker. To hone his skills, he had to make mistakes and make flawed films. We’ve all made a home movie that you won’t want anyone to see. Growing up in this day and age means that we’ve all grown up with the ability to make videos all of our lives. Maybe you ran around the house with a camera, maybe you made a lot of student films in high school, upper secondary school, or at university (like I did).

Odds are that you don’t feel particularly comfortable showing those films to the entire world. The director probably feels the same way. So when you get ready to watch raw and possibly unskilled content, you should absolutely be ready for exactly that — imperfections, flaws, and an unsharpened vision. But that is easier said than done.

II. Confusion

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Setting your expectations can be tough, and, if you fail to do so, you may end up feeling like I did after I watched Ari Aster’s TDF Really Works and The Turtle’s Head. Look, we’ve all been immature at one point in our lives. But one thing that I didn’t expect to see in horror auteur Ari Aster’s filmography was severely immature and comedic short films, one of which I absolutely loathed. I know that the crass and unfunny noir-ish comedy, The Turtle’s Head, about a private investigator’s shrinking genitalia, has its fans, but I never warmed to this short film. It is a one-joke short film that operates within a genre that has much more potential.

But if The Turtle’s Head was as bad as it got with Aster’s short film filmography, then I wouldn’t have been as baffled in my first reaction to much of his early work. But in 2011 Ari Aster put together TDF Really Works, which is a short fake advertisement for a device that is designed to make a man’s private parts capable of producing loud farts. It sounds bizarre and it is. It’s gross. Apparently, it was produced for Funny or Die, and it definitely feels like something in that vein.

It’s a short film that, honestly, made me question everything I know about Ari Aster. It is a film that I don’t recommend you see, as you simply cannot unsee it, so to speak. But I am being too harsh, it’s just not at all my brand of humor. I think this kind of short film, which I even hesitate to call it, is what naturally happens when gifted filmmakers grow up with YouTube or Adult Swim.

If this was just a video essayist’s very early, very raw, very immature random YouTube video, then I wouldn’t really bat an eye. But, of course, that isn’t who Ari Aster is. Ari Aster is a brilliant filmmaker who has mastered horror, but those short films present him as a crass and immature comedian. TDF Really Works, in particular, feels like a video Aster and his friends made on a whim for no reason in particular other than to have a laugh. And, you know, maybe that is exactly what it is, which would be fair enough. I have a good friend who has all of these edgy sketch ideas that he wants to film with me, so I can actually relate to that. In any case, this was a really rough start to my short film marathon.

III. Everyone Starts Somewhere

A24 – Giphy

But, as this stage indicates quite clearly, you don’t arrive as the total package. You grow. You mature. You find your touch, your wheelhouse. I made a couple of really rough horror short films in Danish upper secondary school that probably weren’t all that great, but my vision and tastes as a filmmaker and/or film writer or critic sharpened and were refined by the time I wrote, shot, and edited three very different short films at the University of Copenhagen (one original narrative, one documentary short that I was quite proud of, and one adaptation of a Hemingway short story).

At University, I remember speaking to my fellow students about growth as a filmmaker. I remember telling others not to talk themselves down because all of the greats have struggled with raw and unrefined material in their lives. One day, I shared the link to Christopher Nolan’s Doodlebug, a 3-minute 1997 short film that the popular director shot a couple of years after having studied English literature at University College London. As I shared the link, I wrote that ‘everyone starts somewhere, so keep your head up,’ or something like that. I got the feeling that a lot of people, including our instructor, really appreciated it.

I was reminded of this as I watched those two short films that I disliked, and I warmed up to that idea when I watched Ari Aster’s short film BEAU. BEAU is a 2011 short film about a paranoid character who must not go to sleep, and who fears intruders. It sounds like a decent premise for a horror short, and it could’ve been. But that isn’t what BEAU is. BEAU is bizarre, and it includes a surprisingly hilarious pay-off. As I watched the film, I said to myself that I could’ve made this, and, frankly, I quite liked this short. It is a disturbingly funny and tense paranoia-infused Home Alone with a fun pay-off. BEAU was an eye-opener, for me, but it wasn’t the most intriguing of his short films. Not at all.

IV. Seeing the Potential

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Speaking of eye-openers, there are a couple of short films that definitely indicate growth as a filmmaker, even as his style hasn’t been perfected yet. In this section, I want to talk about two particular short films that I’d call rough diamonds — 2011’s The Strange Thing About the Johnsons and 2013’s Munchausen — films that I think work as intended but that still showcase a flawed unambitious vision, or an inadequate grasp of his talent. But, perhaps more so than anything else, I think that these films, based entirely on his vision and interests shown in his features, are the only two short films that seem like Ari Aster narratives. It’s not just that you see the potential here. I think you see Ari Aster.

With that having been said, though, I’m not head-over-heels wild about either of them. I think they are two solid short films that both suffer from being overlong, but they aren’t complete wastes at all because they both seem like short films where the filmmaker is flexing his muscles as a filmmaker and showing us his interest.

Both films start as these fairly normal family narratives. The Johnsons begins with a father giving his nervous son ‘the talk,’ and Munchausen begins as a film about letting your child spread his wings and go to college, start a family, and make a life for himself. But, like with both Midsommar and Hereditary, Aster is more interested in the dark side of the family, as well as grief, loss, and responsibility than telling a normal story about growing up or leaving the nest. So, of course, there are twists in both short films.

The Strange Thing About the Johnsons was Ari Aster’s AFI Conservatory thesis film, and it was, somehow unbeknownst to me, rather controversial. I had never heard about this short film before I first saw it, so I was genuinely shocked when it was revealed that it is a film about a father being sexually abused by his own son. It is therefore yet another messed up Aster project about a disturbing family.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Aster fulfills the potential of the story, but you definitely see that Aster-imprint here. It’s always interesting to watch the short films that made a future auteur’s name relevant, but I don’t think this film is much more than a capably made thesis film about a shocking subject-matter that Aster doesn’t do enough with. I think this short film is merely an overlong Shyamalanesque (due to it relying almost entirely on the shocking twist) exercise in shock and provocation and not much else.

Of the two, I definitely preferred Munchausen, which, however, also suffers from an excessive runtime. Again, the premise is fairly simple. It is a silent short film about a young man leaving the nest to go to college, but Aster has infused the story with paranoia and anxiety. In the short film, the mother is afraid of letting her son go. In my notes, I joked that it’s a what-if-film. That is to say, what if Ari Aster was tasked with ending Richard Linklater’s Boyhood after he had just rewatched Up? But, in a way, I think it is more accurate to suggest that it’s a disturbing live-action version of the Pixar short Bao but without the happy ending. What I really liked about this short were the many smooth match cut transitions that reminded me of Aster’s features.

While I didn’t love either of these films, I do, as I’ve made note of, see Aster’s imprint in these films, and I do see his potential here. In this next section, I want to talk about his final two short films, which are stylistically similar to each other but incredibly different from anything he had ever done before.

V. Portraits, Acceptance, and Conclusion

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Now we are at the final stage. But I still have two more short films to discuss before I give my overall thoughts about this experience. So, let’s get to it. Let’s talk about Ari Aster’s so-called ‘Portrait Series’ short films 2014’s Basically and 2016’s C’est La Vie. These two short films highlight Aster as someone focused on character, individuals, and society. They aren’t exercises in match cuts or shock like the two films discussed in the last section.

Now, according to Aster’s website, The Turtle’s Head is the third installment in the portrait series, but, I, personally, don’t think it belongs alongside the other two short films. Because unlike The Turtle’s Head, both Basically and C’est La Vie feature characters speaking directly to the camera in various parts of Los Angeles (thus describing their day-to-day lives and two different lifestyles). I think it is obvious that Aster shows growth as a filmmaker based on a comparative analysis of Basically and C’est La Vie.

They both feature incredibly captivating performances from the actor — Rachel Brosnahan in Basically and Bradley Fisher in C’est La Vie —  portraying the character breaking the fourth wall. In these short films, Aster is clearly imitating Roy Andersson’s Härlig är jorden (int. title: World of Glory), which I must admit I had not seen until after I was made aware of its existence after having seen Aster’s shorts. Not to go off on a tangent, but let me just say that Andersson’s bleak short is devastating and disturbing. It’s fantastic, but it isn’t something you’ll ever want to see again. But I digress.

Both Aster shorts held my attention firmly, but I think it is safe to say that one is significantly more interesting than the other. In my notes for Basically, I joked that this was basically just Aster’s American remake of Fleabag. However, I think C’est La Vie is his best short film as it actually balances tones really well while still saying something. C’est La Vie is bleak and disturbing, but also disturbingly funny. Aster knows exactly what he’s doing here. The entire short film is a social commentary rant, but the end of it is a showstopper that doubles as a thesis statement, mere moments before the short film warms your heart.

“You know what Freud says about the nature of horror? He says it’s when the home becomes unhomelike. Unheimlich. And that’s what this place has become. This whole fucking time and country and everything else. It’s unheimlich. And I want my life to mean something. I wanna change things around and make something beautiful out of all this shit. Even now that I sleep, I have dreams that would make you cry. Big, colorful dreams where… That’s my daughter.” – Ari Aster’s ‘C’est La Vie.’

It really is amazing that in one of his final short films before he became a feature film director, he made note of the horror of the home becoming unhomelike. If you’ve seen Midsommar and Hereditary, then you know that both of those films, sort of, speak to that idea. They are about dysfunctional families or friendships or relationships. One of the films is perhaps about finding a place to put your roots down, and the other film is about the deterioration of a home and a family. C’est La Vie is honest, raw, and, to me, it is the most interesting short film that he has done. He may have borrowed the experimental short film format from Roy Andersson, but in doing so Aster indicates his interests as a filmmaker. He points himself in a direction that we’ve now seen him go in.

Sure, I had to accept that his brand of comedy doesn’t always work for me, and I had to sit through imperfect short film exercises and experimentation, but I think that was to be expected. Aster wasn’t a refined filmmaker when he made his AFI Conservatory thesis film. He wasn’t a refined filmmaker when he made C’est La Vie. Though I think he has shown precision and confidence as a feature filmmaker, Aster isn’t a flawless filmmaker now, and he never will be. But in exploring this new horror auteur’s short films, I saw growth as a filmmaker, and I recognized what I believe to be a thesis statement that gives me a new appreciation for his feature films.

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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