It’s not very hard to figure out what young people like to watch, but it’s a little more difficult to understand why. This column has tried to explore cultural phenomena like children’s film, “Where the Wild Things Are,” Tim Burton, Wes Anderson, and Landmark Theatres in order to understand what makes them appealing to the young, hip, urban generation. But one extremely important category has been left out: what films young people love to make.
The past two weeks offered numerous opportunities on campus to view films made by undergraduates, including the annual CUNUFF and CUFP festivals. CUNUFF brought in films made by undergraduates across the United States from campuses as diverse as Northwestern, Emerson, and Oberlin. The films shown at the CUFP festival, on the other hand, were made by Columbia’s own students. To anyone who attended both festivals, a trend was apparent in almost every film, especially the ones that were most well-received: the use of irony.
Irony as a concept is familiar to the young, urban population. The ‘noughties’ have seen so much irony incorporated into music, literature, and especially fashion that it almost seems cliché to discuss it: ironic facial hair, ironic trucker hats, ironic mullets, ironic t-shirts. But what about film? In the realm of Hollywood, film has perhaps remained the last bastion of sincerity, with the possible exception of 2006’s “Borat.” Dramas remain dramas, romantic comedies remain romantic comedies. Not so, however, in undergraduate productions, where the best films undoubtedly contain elements of irony. After all, how serious can a film made by 20-year-olds really be?
At CUNUFF, the winner of both “best directed” and “best picture” was the most ironic film of all: the Rambo-meets-Matrix-meets-Austin Powers action spoof “Action World,” which used self-consciously bad acting and a hilarious number of extraneous special effects in order to poke fun at the action film genre (however, the directors themselves—Aaron Fronk, Vince DeGaetano, and Cooper Johnson of Columbia College in Chicago—still claim sincere love for Sylvester Stallone movies).
Victor Suarez, CC ’11, also presented an ironic film worthy of mention, the absurd and oddly funny “Garbage Day!” whose tagline is “Dinner date gone awry!” Awry indeed—in the few minutes of the short film, Suarez toys with violence, murder, and suicide attempts and somehow manages to make drama uproariously funny. Suarez is the only director with a film in both CUNUFF and CUFP (which included his beautifully-shot music video, “Doctor, Doctor”).
“Something that I’ve learned from making shorts is to stay away from drama,” Suarez said when asked about the use of irony in his film. “At least for me, it’s very hard to write a serious short without it ending up pretentious. ... I’ve only seen maybe one or two strictly dramatic shorts that were successful. For me, at this point, the only way I can really communicate a short form story is by poking fun at it.”
Wise words for an undergraduate. Irony lets the filmmaker momentarily knock down the ivory tower, allowing young directors like Suarez the ability to experiment with film while remaining self-aware. There is a reason most dramas made by undergraduates appear unconvincing—filmmaking takes experience, and crafting a believable drama is more difficult than most people assume.
Of course, irony, especially as a comedic element, is also an enormous crowd-pleaser. “I use irony, I guess, because it’s the best method I know that gives laughs without sacrificing a story,” Suarez said. “With drama it’s hard to know if your movie connected with the audience. With comedy you know right away. If you hear them laughing, they bought the story, too... well, maybe.”