Salute Your Shorts: Debra Granik's "Snake Feed"
Salute Your Shorts is a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.
Although we didn’t cover it in our 2010 Sundance roundup, one of the films we noted to watch out for was Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. The movie took away Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize, won several awards at the Berlin Festival and has been picking up critical raves since its first screening. Unfortunately, despite the accolades it’s being released by small indie-distributor Roadside Attractions, which doesn’t have the money to try and make this festival darling into a big hit. Unless you really follow Sundance, you’re probably unaware that the movie landed in limited theaters last Friday.
This is too bad, as Debra Granik is an example of what Sundance is really all about. Although major studios have been using the festival as a marketplace since Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape blew up in 1989, it’s essentially supposed to be about fostering young filmmakers’ voices. Granik’s latest project is only her most recent success at Sundance, but the festival has been supportive of her throughout her career. Her feature debut Down to the Bone won the festival’s Special Jury Prize, which helped it gain distribution, and even that was in fact an expansion of her first film short, which won Granik the short filmmaking award.
That first film was “Snake Feed,” which Granik made shortly after finishing her masters at the Tisch School of Arts at NYU. Like Down to the Bone, it focuses on a woman trying to raise her family despite a drug addiction. In the feature, the film’s protagonist in fact spends the movie itself dealing with this problem, making it into a sort of counterpart to Half Nelson. The short that inspired it, the aforementioned “Snake Feed,” is in fact fairly different form this despite the part it had in making Down to the Bone possible.
“Snake Feed” stars Corinne Stralke as Irene, who, unlike her counterpart, played by Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air), is in fact finished with her drug addiction. Although she was previously hooked on drugs, she’s currently off of them and trying to go straight while raising her two children. The film’s conflict is simple: she finds out that Rick,who’s either her boyfriend or husband, it’s not particularly clear, is dealing again, and she doesn’t want anything to do with this. She initially confronts him, but he claims it’s a very small-time business. She briefly believes him, but when a customer of his returns, it’s clear that this isn’t the case and she vacuums up his drugs. The film ends on an ambiguous note, where Irene is still struggling with what to do with both Rick and herself.
Admittedly “Snake Feed” isn’t the most original work. This is the type of depressing drama that Sundance and other festivals have accustomed us to by now, and even its lack of any real resolution can come off as a cliche. The beauty of the short is how Granik approaches the subject and treats her characters, who are delicately balanced into more than just a typical case of art film lost causes.
Granik’s M.O. is indebted to the style of kitchen-sink drama that’s become the specialty of contemporary British cinema, a follow-up to the Angry Young Men of the 1950s and 1960s who tried to revolutionize British filmmaking but fell out of fashion almost as they gained success. This is best characterized by films by Ken Loach, Mike Leigh or Andrea Arnold, who’ve used modern technology to their advantage in telling realistically-drawn stories. The unfortunate part of their style, though, is their tendency towards metaphorical proselytizing. In this sort of cinema, it’s become common for a reoccurring concept to scream out symbolism in a way that draws away from their realism. While the camera may be handheld, the writing is frequently overwrought and shrill.
With “Snake Feed,” Granik sets out to copy this sort of filmmaker but with a different type of writing. Admittedly, Granik’s dialogue tends toward extreme stylization, but her narrative is much looser. Of the film’s 23 minutes, only half or so compose the plot, which is obviously quite loose in any case. The other half is characters being themselves, talking to one another and living life without having the narrative forced upon them. While in some filmmakers’ hands this would be tedious, Granik has such a natural sense of pacing and has chosen good enough actors that the documentary realism of things so entracing the lack of a tight plot doesn’t detract. It’s fascinating simply watching the characters be who they are.
So “Snake Feed”‘s meandering, elliptical story is in fact more interesting than a lot of the tighter ones more frequently told in short films. What it does right is picking out characters who feel true, and if they’re real enough their situations are less important. It’s just nice that Granik decided to expand things into a feature. “Snake Feed” is an extra on the DVD for Down to the Bone and like its accompanying films is well worth the time. Hopefully Winter’s Bone will surprise me with its success and we’ll see Granik get the support to continue making her unique brand of Southern gothic realistic films more than once every five years.