In the rapidly changing landscape of modern cinema, where streaming, the internet and television are fast becoming the dominant mediums, the art of the short film is becoming more than a mere calling card for aspiring filmmakers. Like collections of short stories, short films are as powerful and satisfying these days as full features, if only because media is making time itself feel as if it is hurtling forward. A short music video such as This is America, by Childish Gambino, will ignite passions about race relations in America faster than any feature film. Yet this is not a particularly new phenomenon to storytelling. With few exceptions, the great literary minds of the last two centuries have flourished in the art of the short story. From Roberto Bolano to William Faulkner, smaller narratives have encapsulated powerful ideas.
A major breakthrough in the art of the short film is being carried out in Santa Monica College, where a revolutionary film program is training students in the craft of filmmaking while producing exceptional, competitive shorts. The program, under the official class title of Film 33, is headed and supervised by Salvador Carrasco, the acclaimed director of the 2000 feature The Other Conquest, a marvelous historical epic about the Spanish conquest which for a time held the rank of top grossing Mexican film ever. An early pioneer of the New Mexican Cinema, as Roger Ebert termed it in the 2000s, Carrasco has been devoting his energies to providing students a top level film education for a fraction of what you would pay at other institutions. The idea is both simple and ambitious — a college film program designed like an actual studio. The class can all pitch their ideas and the one deemed the standout is then produced. A producer, director and crew are assembled. Every rigorous, nightmarish aspect of film production is undertaken, from crowd funding to location scouting, from casting to pre and post-production.
Already films by the program, such as Solidarity, about Mexican and Lithuanian migrants in Los Angeles, Spaghetti Romance, about a same-sex romance directed by Finklea herself, and Cora, about an African American woman’s struggles in the Jim Crow South, have been exhibited at the Cannes Film Festival. But one of the program’s recent projects, Like a Rolling Stone, is about to make its online debut after making the rounds at various festivals and premiering at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica. Its setting is modern, but there is a primitive and classical force in its storytelling. Both survivalist tale and psychological drama, it combines genres to provide a striking metaphor for the will to pull through, and the tragedy of interrupted love. It is also a wonderful revival of the talents of the actress Carrie Finklea, who here re-emerges as an artist of underrated strengths.
Written and directed by Daniel Hawley, who had worked on the technical aspects of previous Film 33 projects before enrolling the program and pitching his own material, Like a Rolling Stone follows a couple played by Finklea and Nicolas Daly Clark, who are hitchhiking in a lush wilderness, crooning Bob Dylan lyrics, before finding themselves lost. A sudden injury leaves Clark incapacitated and Finklea having to find their way back to civilization. They make their way through a brutal terrain as food becomes scarce and night begins to fall. The woods become an unforgiving arena.
This short is a unique work that feels like a hybrid of Thoreau and Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. A survivalist tale with a special psychological bent, Hawley’s script condenses visual creativity with sharp storytelling in a way few shorts achieve. In 20 minutes the story deals with themes as immediate as survival in dangerous terrain and as microcosmic as the strains of a relationship. The link between these characters and the natural surroundings entrapping them reminded me of Annie Dillard’s beautifully fierce book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in which Dillard described her observations of the natural world in forms often apocalyptic, sometimes lyrical. For Dillard the death of a frog, the battle for food waged by mammals, reptiles and insects and the shift in weather all point to a world in constant struggle. Wasps hunting bees and sucking out their honey, waves by the shore revealing ravenous sharks when made transparent by sunlight, for Dillard the Earth itself is a great and terrible drama. In Like a Rolling Stone nature is witness to individuals struggling against it as they deal with inner turmoil. Before tragedy strikes, Clark and Finklea face a brewing storm between themselves. She wanted them to venture out to hike the woods as a means to bring them closer together- escape from the noise of the modern world as a possible tonic for a romance on the rocks. She must tell him something, but his temper is annoyed by their getting lost. Before tragedy strikes, a tender kiss seems to calm everything down. But nature is unforgiving, as the rapid changing of the earth’s climate proves, and Clark barrels down a hill, breaking like a doll. Finklea transitions from the loving but uncertain girlfriend into a person thrown into a situation of sudden terror.
The technical prowess of this film is impressive in how it tells this story, especially when compared to the kind of work done in projects outside of a school system. Like a Rolling Stone was recently screened at the Santa Monica Film Festival at the Aero Theater, and few of the screened films matched its visual scope. The opening shots of insects living on rocks and soil, followed by a stunning aerial shot of the mountainous forest had a cinematic grandeur worthy of Terrence Malick. The cinematography by Quinn Tucker, supervised by Vishal Solanki, gave the characters’ surroundings a haunting, poetic tone reminiscent of the dreamlike forests of Louis Malle’s Black Moon. A slug moves across stone with quiet serenity, in another scene Finklea finds herself facing a wolf which only stares back. It is the human emotions which boil over in this story, while the leviathan of nature serves as a witness. Amid the entrapment they face, Finklea still finds it in herself to ask Clark if they can move in together, engaging in an aria about love and self-reflection (“We’re put on this earth with a blank canvas and then all of a sudden you’re here, on mine, and you start filling it up”).
Yet the film hurtles along with a visceral energy. Never once do we doubt that these characters are fighting for their lives, that Finklea is waging a struggle against an unforgiving terrain. The music by Michael McClean drives the images forward with a beautiful energy similar to the scores of Max Richter. In the final act of the short the story becomes a psychological revelation. When Finklea is finally found by a Mexican family played by Damian Delgado, who starred in Carrasco’s The Other Conquest and John Sayles’s Men With Guns, and Ilsia Argueta, the narrative transforms into a revelation both tragic and endearing. Did Clark actually survive? Or did he become a mental projection conjured by Finklea to make it through? Often in survivalist stories there is a clean resolution, full of heroism and epic closure, here new implications arise about how we cope under duress.
But keep in mind that the work I am describing was done by students within a campus film program. Every production by the Film 33 course is supervised and executive produced by Carrasco, and the crew that achieved these stunning images were students learning how to craft cinema of this caliber.
Let’s focus for a moment on Finklea’s performance. She is an actress of dynamic force who has been waiting like one of L.A.’s many hidden secrets, for a moment to truly emerge as a film talent. Her beginnings were already a strong portent. In 2003 Finklea acted in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, winner of that year’s Palm d’Or at Cannes and one of the first major works to deal with our American trend of school shootings. But in Like a Rolling Stone the high school girlfriend of a local jock in Van Sant’s film has transformed into a person with a delicate strength of will that she uses to pull her through a life-threatening moment. Finklea seamlessly transitions from struggling in a relationship to struggling to make it out alive. The sweetness in her personality becomes a will to live, devoid of the kind of muscular, death-defying personalities wilderness pictures tend to create. The opening scenes have a wonderful sense of homeliness and banter between the couple, but the rest of the film and performance become absolutely harrowing.
In an era when students are paying up to $50,000 to study film at citadels like UCLA and NYU, Santa Monica College is training and producing to a level those institutions rarely, if ever, reach. Like a Rolling Stone is pure cinema, and at 21 minutes is more engaging than most of the two and a half-hour big budget leviathans that stomped around multiplexes this summer. That a group of talented students made this film is admirable, that it came out of a community college setting is a miracle. Maybe that is the true importance of this film, that it is a testament to what may very well be the future in this brutal economy: If given the resources in a public education setting, capable artists will produce valuable work. This is a small film with something to say for any aspiring filmmaker.
Alci Rengifo is Cinematics Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.