Short Cuts: Marble City Film Festival

You get 10 hours to make a three-minute film—and it better be good

It's 7 p.m. at the Bijou Theatre when the doors are flung open by a brace of lissome volunteers, and the avalanche of filmmakers, film-lovers, and the merely film-curious that will form tonight's audience tumbles into the lobby. Such hubbub is but a dying echo of the chaos that has, for most, been last Saturday's leitmotif. Perhaps 30 percent of the torsos here are posing the faintly defensive question that serves as both slogan and premise for the Marble City Film Festival: "Could you make a 3-minute movie—in just 10 hours?"

Twenty-one teams of professionals, students, enthusiasts, and day-trippers have answered "yes," with varying degrees of evidence to back up the claim. Now each team, accompanied by supporters, exhaustion, and nerves, is ready to see its freshly minted efforts projected onto a screen the size of a building in front of hundreds of their peers.

Festival founder Paul Izbicki looks down on the scene, Patton-like, and allows the briefest flicker of a satisfied grin to cross his wintry visage. In just four years he has seen the festival go from an asterisk to an exclamation mark in Knoxville's cultural calendar, outgrowing the World Grotto and now bringing the Bijou to near-capacity. Thanks to Izbecki and co-organizers Karen Daniel and Libby Sherrill—and their über-energetic team of glamorous assistants—the festival is now a well-oiled machine replete with corporate sponsors (including Metro Pulse) and cash prizes.

Upstairs in the conclave, judges—including me—are gathered beneath the patrician gaze of an oil painting of Dolly Parton to separate the creative wheat from the chaff. Drawn from entertainment, journalism, academia, and public life, we are given strict and detailed assessment criteria. Before long, however, this is—informally, at least—streamlined into a more binary system: Is this film any good?

Many of the submissions are surprisingly watchable. Not only that, but, despite each film's inclusion of three mandatory props and thematic references (announced that morning, presumably to prevent gun-jumping), it's tough finding two similar entries. The first handfuls feature a brother-and-sister snuff-movie, a thrash-metal documentary, a magic game of poker, and a touching romance set in a Western idyll.

But like everything else today, even watching the films must be done hurriedly. The audience—an attentive, supportive crowd, partisan to the core yet wholly magnanimous—is roaring its way through the rated films sent down to them and is now gaining on the judges. The harried arbiters begin to look like they're laying down tracks for an approaching train.

It seems as though both panel and audience will tolerate almost anything except the slow-moving. Proof of this is festival winner Nick Miller's post-modernist "Hot S***." An ironic, over-the-top trailer for itself, this polished, knowing production was by far the quickest-paced—and wittiest—film of the night.

A few genres to the left, John Fairstein's "Nearly Cooked" also receives a well-deserved placing. This charming tale of garden-grown vegetables now on culinary death row was shot partly in stop-motion and happened to feature the most enjoyable line of the night. When a cabbage head is severed, one of the vegetables eschews the more traditional shows of grief adopted by her comrades and instead offers the world-weary, Generation-Y complaint, "Why would you do that?", a subtle piece of characterization worthy of Pixar.

Winner of the student category was Maranda Vandergriff, a junior Orson Welles who, with mind-boggling ambition, not only shot a period piece but did so using just the video-clip feature on her snapshot camera. The result was one of the most textured and intelligent films of the night.

Heartbreakingly, what was arguably the most assured film (and certainly the best acted), a beautifully made cautionary tale of online dating by Jeff Delaney, was submitted too late to be judged.

Will any of these films be salvaged from the wreck of time? Perhaps not, but then neither, in all probability, will anything currently showing at your local multiplex. And the roughest entries are at least honorable failures rather than Hollywood's cynical ones. Marble City Film Festival's twin triumphs are to be found in its playful highlighting of the breadth of artistic talent in Knoxville and in the pleasure it affords the ephemeral filmmaker as she unpicks the thorny little problems of the day. Joy, as Shakespeare reminds us, lies in the doing.

Films are available to view online at the Marble City Film Festival website.