Issue #47: Salute Your Shorts 🩳
Two Distant Strangers + Broadcast Signal Intrusion
Telling a story in a short timeframe isn’t for everyone (or every story). But when executed well — well, it’s every bit as unsettling as a feature film. So this week we’re giving our salutations to some great short films. First, Cate on Two Distant Strangers and the hazards of a time loop. Then, Zosha compares the two forms of Broadcast Signal Intrusion to explore the advantages of the short format. What could be better?
Cate on Two Distant Strangers
In Two Distant Strangers, a young black man finds himself caught in a time loop after a one-night stand that resets each time he is murdered by a white cop. Carter James (Joey Bada$$) is trying to make it back to his apartment to get to his beloved dog. But over and over, he finds himself cornered and trapped by Officer Merk (Andrew Howard) — a white cop who seems intent on killing him, no matter what tactic he employs to escape. Finally, after 99 deadly loops, Carter opts to confront Merk directly, telling him about their encounters and eventually accepting a ride home. The drive goes without incident. But when Carter tries to enter his apartment, Merk reveals that he too remembers the loops, and kills Carter in cold blood. There was never any way for Carter to escape this fate. Undeterred, in loop 101, Carter vows to make it home to his dog, no matter the cost.
With a tight runtime of 30 minutes and only three characters of consequences — Perri (Zaria Simon), Carter’s date is the third — the thesis of this film is relatively clear. Two Distant Strangers hurtles us towards the frustrating inevitability of police violence against black people but reiterates our resilience and ingenuity in the face of it.
After the release of Them, there was a renewed discussion about “black trauma porn” and the increasing propensity for genre media to gesture at a sheen of prestige by including ever more graphic depictions of black pain. Frustratingly, Two Distant Strangers was also looped in with the likes of Queen & Slim, Antebellum and Lovecraft Country as an example of this trend. Ever the contrarian, I have to take issue with that characterization as I don’t think it’s truly warranted. While the film certainly has its flaws and visible seams, it has much more in common with the Spike Lee produced See You Yesterday.
In that film, two brilliant black teens crack the science of time travel but end up in a bind they can’t fix when a trip to the past results in the death of a loved one. While that film is fundamentally melancholy, Two Distant Strangers improves on its formula by ending not on a note of futility, but one of determination.
Elements of this Oscar-winning short are indeed quite hokey. For example, when Merk murders Carter a final time, his blood stains the concrete in the shape of the African continent — an irritatingly uninspired and even nonsensical choice given the specific context of the events of the film. But striving for meaning isn’t in and of itself a flaw. It was merely an unsuccessful gamble.
Where the critiques of this film have merit are in the scenes that replicate the deaths of real-life victims of police brutality. It has been frustrating to see the way that films and television shows have commodified the horrific murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, re-enacting their deaths but adding nothing of substance to the discussion of what might have prevented their death. Easy references engender connection, true. But the loss of a real person is not fodder for narrative ease.
Two Distant Strangers isn’t a bad film by any means. But it strives a little too hard in places despite its good intentions. With a little more thought and a little less reliance on the assumption of shared politics, this perfectly fine film might have been great.
Zosha on Broadcast Signal Intrusion
Something foul is afoot in the world of Broadcast Signal Intrusion, and it may be a monster. James, a young video archivist, lives in a small world — work, home, the dream where his girlfriend jumps off a building. We’re meant to think it’s been a little while since the latter happened; his dad calls and urges him to move on, in any way. But James just plops another tape in the VCR player at work and makes a log.
At least, until one tape shows him the titular broadcast intrusion: a mannequin woman glowering at the camera, twisting unnaturally, distorted sounds, a voice, a hand reaching out, and then, just as suddenly, flickering back to the regularly scheduled program. The imagery is haunting, almost as much for us as it is for James, who sets off trying to solve the mystery of who managed to cut into the broadcast (a real feat considering the amount of equipment required) and why, accidentally stumbling on a mystery much darker than he thought.
This is the start of both Broadcast Signal Intrusion (2016) and Broadcast Signal Intrusion (2021), the latter of which I screened at SXSW. It was more than just among my least favorites of the festival, it was the absolute clunker that I have little kind to say about. But that only made me more curious about the short it was based on — a mystery that led me to something much darker and more interesting than the feature film. Perhaps it’s strange or uncouth to spend a review comparing a short film to its longer one, but I think it actually highlights the impact a short film can make, and the disastrous ways a lengthened version can hobble it.
Where the feature film is all DePalma ripoffs and stilted dialogue, the short flexes its runtime into something deeper, the way the absolute pain of a splinter belies such a tiny wound. Almost immediately the title snaps into focus, James’ recurring dream its own intrusion on his life and our own sense of safety. It’s foreboding and stylized, but it cuts right to the heart of the matter. As a bass groans deep in the background we see the day to day — mostly wordlessly, but instantly recognizably: This man isn’t just in a dark room he’s in a dark place. As we cut between his monotonous work life and even his return home, the camera serves dual purposes, a witness or an intruder; a warning for him, and maybe a warning for us as well.
The full-length film is dedicated to making James’ life a conspiracy, something that can be solved; some of its strongest scenes come from chasing these rabbit holes down — basements and confrontations that feel foreboding and claustrophobic. But by making James’ life, grief, and curiousity the subject of a Mystery Box exercise, it robs the impact that was laced into every ounce of Broadcast Signal Intrusion as a short film. The short toys with how mental health feels at once like something that could be solved with the right trigger, and a storm you can merely weather. It’s simultaneously an issue you’re working through with talking and also not taking so seriously that it swallows you whole. James’ problem is that he can’t see any of the intrusions to his life as simply what they are. Again the wordlessness shores up the short where the feature film is handicapped by over explaining every key detail; despite each ounce of dialogue pointing James in one direction or another, the uneasy void that is the silence of his work sucks up and distracts his attention (as well, at times, like the audiences’).
The 2021 movie gussies up the story and stuffs it to the brim with twists, turns, and Blow Out homages. But what it misses in all that is the sad truth at the center of grief and trauma, something the short cuts right to the quick of: Sometimes there’s nothing new to learn, no great mystery to solve. Often the only thing you’re left with is a lesson you didn’t need to be taught in the first place.
To see a short film that feels so clearly driven to a single conclusion morphed into something new is a strange exercise, but a fun one, as a film fan. It highlights just how differently a viewer can walk away with an experience from the person sitting next to them. 2016’s short is a meditation on grief driving you absolutely mad, poisoning you to read your suffering as part of a greater whole rather than just something that does not, will never make sense and fit perfectly into your life. Maybe, like James, the people who adapted the short into a misbegotten mess could’ve focused more on the answer staring them in the face.
Assorted Internet Detritus
CATE: Bennifer has never been lowkey, whatever happened to Ellen Degeneres?, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house— not even on TV, on getting too old for the internet, the inherent rebellious nature of wine moms, thick thighs save lives, and crocs are still ugly.
ZOSHA: An oral history of Tom Holland’s iconic Lip Sync Battle performance. (At least watch the video!) The messiness of seeing yourself for the first time on-screen in Friends of all things. Fixing Marvel’s villain problem. Bill Gates is getting divorced and also hampering the COVID-19 vaccine distribution.
Next week, we march closer towards death. Jk, it’ll be more movies. If you’re just finding this newsletter, do us a favour and smash that subscribe button. If you’re already a loyal reader, tell a friend. Thanks for sticking with us. Love you! Mean it!