The Bright Wall/Dark Room Short Film Spotlight is a regular feature celebrating independent short films by emerging filmmakers. To submit a film for consideration, visit our profile at FilmFreeway.
In the 1960s, drama critic Martin Esslin coined the term “Theatre of the Absurd,” defining the style (in his book of the same name) as stories of characters who seem less like humans than “mechanical puppets,” with their dialogue embodying “a radical devaluation of language” as “what happens on the stage transcends, and often contradicts, the words being spoken.” In absurdism, laughter is the only appropriate response to the intense dissonance between what the characters say and the context in which they say it.
It’s this precise dissonance that powers It’s Been Too Long, director Amber Schaefer’s adaptation of a long-running UCB sketch by co-stars Krista Jensen and David Ebert. In what seems initially like a straightforward parody of gauzy late-night cable romance, the central couple—reuniting for an erotic getaway after being separated by a lifetime of circumstances—slowly heighten their fraught murmurings into anecdotes of the moderately surreal (their prior tryst in Nova Scotia was interrupted by an exploding beached whale) and grotesque (they lost touch after he dropped her number into a cheese fountain, ultimately drinking all the cheese in a futile effort to find it again). As they recount the improbably eventful lives they’ve lived in between their improbably frequent coincidental encounters, their biographies growing more impossible by the syllable (she was married to a clone of Adolf Hitler while he was married to a Russian spambot; he ran Guantanamo Bay while she bankrupted Circuit City and Radio Shack), this theoretically straightforward comedy sketch tips towards—and then nosedives into—what Esslin would call “a reflection of a dream.”
Schaefer elevates It’s Been Too Long above the sphere of a Funny or Die sketch by virtue of an uncanny eye for atmosphere—the milieu of the candlelit cabin may be familiar from prior parodic romances, but in just a few minutes Schaefer and director of photography Jordan T. Parrott create a rich palette of honey-colored wood alongside deep red wine and roses, with the cumulative effect more evocative of the simmering tensions of Twin Peaks than the simple stylization of some ironic deodorant commercial. Rather than confusing the comic aims of Jensen and Ebert’s absurd story, however, this straight-faced world building only heightens the comedy. When Jensen’s acid-washed coquette contorts her body with flamboyant abandon upon admitting to having “a son, a daughter, and a bunch more sons, and a mess of daughters,” the effect is infectiously giddy, and all the more so for the verisimilitude of the emotional world supporting the surreal eroticism of the story.
It’s in the story’s final punchline that the absurdity of this comic universe is fully revealed. In a denouement that definitively justifies It’s Been Too Long as a short film rather than simply a filmed UCB sketch, our two central lovers (whose names, we have finally learned, are Bufinda and Chaniel) escape through the bathroom window just in time to avoid being caught by the room’s true occupants—Bufinda and Chaniel, who enter through the front door and begin the entire torrid encounter once more. After initial bursts of shock and delight, the ending lingers under one’s skin. Revealing this story to be a brief time-loop renders the already absurd story fully absurdist.
At its core, theatre of the absurd evokes the classical conception of life’s comical futility, with each of us struggling through our daily rituals despite the essential hopelessness of a life that inevitably ends in destruction. It’s an unnerving lens through which to view a work of comedy, but there’s a reason absurd works often resonate in eras of existential anxiety. The early absurdists emerged in response to the midcentury erosion of what Esslin calls “the certitudes and unshakeable basic assumptions” of the pre-war worldview. And in their carving out of a hyperbolically passionate corner of purgatory, Schaefer, Jensen, and Ebert improbably elevate an alt-comedy sketch to the realm of Pinter and Ionesco, giving us the erotic parody we need and deserve in 2019.