A night at the nihilism movies

By day, Elisha Shapiro teaches reading and composition at Santa Monica College. By night, he's a werewolf. Or he could be if he didn't shave all his body hair for a nude photographic art project.

Nihilist sign.JPG

Actually, the depilatory makeover happened many years ago, but it's the sort of traffic-stopping stunt Shapiro routinely indulges. Staging the Nihilist International Film Festival is just the most recent act in his parallel universe of art.

Like the opening day of the Los Angeles Games in 1984 when he staged the alternative Nihilist Olympics. A series of cars competed in the tire-squealing U-turn event at the intersection of Melrose and Curson. Five oddly dressed people wielding clipboards and Magic Markers rated the performance of the Dodge Dart, the Firebird, the taxi...

Like the 1994 election for L.A. County sheriff, when he ran as a Nihilist, an arty campaign covered by this correspondent in the pages of Los Angeles magazine, where he said, "As sheriff, my department will be crawling with homosexuals and women, who will make the department less aggressive. ... After all, 10 percent [of the electorate] are gay, more than 50 percent are minorities and there are probably at least a hundred artists who vote."

Last night, Shapiro produced the 14th Nihilist film fest at the Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica. The audience watched 10 short films Shapiro curated from 40-some flicks submitted by people who thought that among the millions of festivals listed on film competition websites, their artistic sensibilities married nicely with nihilism, which Merriam-Webster defines as the belief that traditional morals and ideas have no worth or value; that a society's political and social institutions are so bad that they should be destroyed.

So of course nihilism is funny. Anyone who knows Shapiro knows that. Overheard in the crowd of 30 or so folks milling about before the screenings was a woman telling a friend about a recent meeting he had missed: "All we talked about was bankruptcy. All I like to talk about is moral bankruptcy."

Funny nihilism also can be dark and gruesome. "Deborah," the first short of the night, is an animated film from Germany about a woman impregnated by a monsterish sort who ends up getting his nose pecked off by a bird because he's unhappy about impending fatherhood. A moral tale within an amoral world told in a crisp 2 minutes and 45 seconds.

"Self Inflicted," from Oregon, is about a masochist in search of a woman to hurt him so good. Enduring cinematic images: stiletto heel/foot instep; fork/fingernail. But he's a nice guy, and over its nine minutes you root for him to find the right passive-aggressive partner. He doesn't.

"Really thought there was going to be a happy ending there," said Shapiro.

Elisha Shapiro2 12-13-13.JPG

"I find this film really charming," he said as introduction to "Geek Assassin." Too long by half (28 minutes), it's brought to you by our gentle Canadian friends who created a vengeful redhead so violent she makes "Goodfellas" look like frat boys. We watched the assassin mentor a high school girl in dealing with bullies, and do we need to mention that disarming language skills are not part of her arsenal?

Another blood-soaked charm came courtesy of "Juice of My Heart," a 4 ½-minute L.A. film about a waitress mistreated by customers. The final scene -- spoiler alert -- features a cop given a cup of coffee in which a finger floats.

The Japanese-language "Heartbeat" stars blunt force with a side of Saturday-morning cartoon in 2 ½ minutes of animè-ish action, also from L.A. Its peppy soundtrack and bright colors are set against stabbings, car accidents and other urban adventures. Fun for the whole family!

There's violence, and then there's institutional ennui. Help yourself to "Appetite," from Eastern Europe, in which a couple unburdened by one word of conversation makes and eats breakfast for 7 ½ minutes while bloodcurdling screams issue from the apartment next door.

Shapiro's response: "Serbians are hilarious."

The most popular film of the evening was produced in Scotland, but exactly where is a mystery because, as the credits announce, "This place let us film here as long as we didn't mention them."

"The Arsehole Gene" is an LOL mock documentary about the discovery of mutated DNA that makes people not only wholly unlikeable, but subjects of discrimination. After all, as we see in 13½ minutes of interviews with scientists, pharmaceutical reps, arseholes and their enablers, they can't help being truly repugnant creatures. "George Patton, Nero, George Bush ... politicians, lawyers and bikers," says one talking head, "are just sick people. You can't really blame them for what they've done."

What they do ranges from spilling the milk to peeing in the teapot.

The British Arsehole Foundation lobbies for benefits for the afflicted "because there's an arsehole in every family. Please donate."

But the claim of global suffering is undermined by a thoughtfully provided pie chart that depicts the arsehole population as nearly one-third U.S. and two-thirds French.

Still, posters for the British public information campaign proclaim: "You could be an arsehole. Get tested now!"

As the scientists acknowledge, "We can detect it, but we can't treat it." They advise prenatal testing, so that "parents can decide if they want a son or daughter who's an arsehole. Our hope is that within decades, we'll have an arsehole-free world."

If that works out, the conceptual artists who feed the nihilist market presumably will find other rich resources. Elisha Shapiro knows there's really no shortage of material.

To see other examples of Shapiro's work, link here.

Photos: Ellen Alperstein

More by Ellen Alperstein:
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed