Penises for Lunch at New Frontier

Having already posted about a web series and digital distribution, I dropped into New Frontier today hoping to hear a panel discuss the future of web content (subtitle: “Where are the Big Ideas for Small Screens?”).

Too bad I was a day late.

“So, then,” I asked a volunteer while a dozen people streamed by, “what is happening now?”

“Lunch Films,” she said.

“What’s that?”

“A bunch of short films.”

Not much to go on there. “How long is it?”

“Probably an hour or so.”

I’m not a fan of film shorts. Too often they’re purposefully abstract and unintentionally amateurish. There are good ones out there, of course, but not enough to justify sitting through a spotty, 90-minute collection of them—especially not when Sundance has so many promising full-length films to offer. But I was already there, so what the hell.

There’s a story behind “Lunch Films,” as Mike Plante, who commissioned the pieces, explained to the sparse audience. The project started on a whim back in 2006 at the New York Underground Film Festival, when Plante, who works at several festivals, took a filmmaker friend out to lunch. “We were just bitching and moaning like jaded fucks,” he said. Out of that came a contract, written on a napkin, in which the filmmaker agreed to make a short film for Plante in exchange for lunch. Since then, Plante has done the same thing with 49 other filmmakers—all unplanned lunch meetings (with the exception of Bruce Conner).

After Plante said, “Just don’t kick me out for the penises you’re going to see,” I prepared myself for the worst. And yes, as I expected, the 11 films (if I counted correctly) were all over the place. There was TUNG, a minute-long stop-motion film about a guy whose steak-like meal comes alive and crawls away, followed by a plotless diary from avant-garde filmmaker George Kuchar that elicited the occasional chuckle—after a penis joke, for instance—but felt interminable (even though it was only around 10 or 15 minutes long). One short followed a group of men in Halloween masks as they celebrated in an African village; at one point, a man in a pink bikini top strokes another man’s enormous (and fake) phallus while a crowd ululates. The penis returns in a blurry, slow-mo short in which two men take turns whacking each others’ members with a strange object.

So it was true: lots of penises. But there were some genuine highlights, too. The first film, the well-produced CHINESE BOX, concerned a man who sells a prescient talking box to an ex-wife/girlfriend for $400. CLEAR GLASSES, by Sam Green, is a doc about a pair of glasses worn by Mark Rudd, a former member of the radical left Weather Underground (about which Green made a doc in 2002), on the day he turned himself in to police in 1977. (Why clear glasses? As Rudd explains in the film, he didn’t need glasses and wore them as disguise while underground.)

But the best short of all was GOLDTHWAIT HOME MOVIES, a send-up of DVD commentaries in which Bobcat Goldthwait and his siblings talk over childhood footage of themselves. It would be foolish to try to recreate their humor here, so I’ll just say that, based on laughs per minute, you won’t see a funnier film at Sundance this year.

Plante is planning a gallery show based on “Lunch Films,” but has stopped at 50 shorts—even though, as one art magazine put it, the project is an innovative form of “alternative financing” in these recessionary times.

He laughed off that analysis.

“Dude,” he said, “it’s just people having lunch.”