Bang the Gong

The Loft's First Friday Shorts competition is a raucous celebration of short film

Public humiliation comes in a variety of forms, most of which are unintended, unsolicited and wholly unwelcomed. Face-planting while walking down a busy street, splitting your pants bending over to pick up that nickel you dropped or letting one rip in a crowded elevator are just a few of the ways to bring embarrassment to yourself and shame to your friends and family. And then there are the people who seek out opportunities to be laughed at, mocked and booed. And an opportunity to be gonged, too.

Once a month for the past eight years, such scenarios have played out in the main screening room at the Loft Cinema, home of the First Friday Shorts film festival, with all its quirks, successes and horror stories.

"It's a way to nurture local filmmakers and give them a chance to screen their work to real people," said J.J. Giddings, the Loft's program director. "It's so easy to put it on YouTube now, but you don't get that real reaction."

The brainchild of Giddings, Loft executive director Peggy Johnson and local animator (and longtime Weekly contributor) Max Cannon, First Friday Shorts is set to host its eighth annual Golden Gong end-of-the-year awards screening at 9 p.m., Friday, May 3. The event will showcase all of the past year's winners, which run the gamut from sophomoric comedies to long-slaved-over animation projects.

The festival is open to all levels of filmmakers, whether it be a bunch of friends who decide to act ridiculous on film or someone with real aspirations of a moviemaking career. On the first Friday of each month, they're thrown together in a winner-take-all battle for a $200 first prize—complete with a photo of them holding an oversized fake check—and the chance to wow, annoy or disturb an audience with eclectic film tastes.

The rules are simple: There are no rules. The films are not screened ahead of time, making it impossible to know whether the upcoming selection is family friendly or late-night Cinemax fare. (Only one film has been pulled from the screen prior to gong time, and only because it included scenes depicting bestiality.)

Each short is guaranteed to be shown for at least three minutes, at which point the crowd—and the infamous Crispin Hellion Glover Memorial Gong—determine a film's fate. A red spotlight hits the gong after 180 seconds, and then it's up to the audience to decide if the film continues.

"I don't really remember how the gong came into play," says Cannon, who as the festival's MC queries the filmmakers before their short is screened, then afterward provides either constructive criticism or ebullient praise. "We thought, 'How can we just tear it up, rip it up?' The gong is great feedback, the most honest feedback you can find. Champion filmmakers have been gonged."

Cannon says the quality of the films—from 10 to 17 air each month, along with some professionally made "ringer" shorts thrown in for extra zing—has been strong since the festival began. But the last few years have seen a renaissance of sorts in participants using First Friday Shorts as a springboard to bigger and better things.

Student filmmakers from the University of Arizona have won a slew of monthly awards at First Friday Shorts the past five years, with seniors Ari Grabb (six) and Alex Italics (five) leading the charge.

Grabb said he's been interested in filmmaking since he was 15, and his films lean heavily on his love for animation. His most recent entry, There's An Octopus In Your Head, could be described as an animated heavy metal rock opera about man and the devil having an esoteric, existential discussion about the meaning of life ... and pancakes.

"I was working on this film, probably five to seven hours a day every day for the past year," Grabb, 23, said of Octopus, which is also the subject of his senior thesis.

Grabb said he's enjoyed being able to show his work to a First Friday audience that may or may not appreciate it.

"It certainly did spark a more competitive moment in me," he said.

Italics, 29, had no idea he would someday aspire to make movies when he and longtime friend Dave Neff submitted a Jonas Brothers-like parody music video to First Friday Shorts in 2008. The short, called The Fourmal, after a made-up band, featured two sets of identical twins (Italics and Neff). It easily won that month's event and also sparked a career change for Italics.

"I was just hoping to sneak into law school," said Italics, who the following semester joined the UA's bachelor of fine arts program in filmmaking.

Italics' films A Ballpoint Story and Blackout Roulette won Golden Gongs, which include miniature replica gongs along with $1,000. The past two years, Italics has enjoyed critical acclaim far beyond the Loft's wall, with his films shown at 30 festivals across the country. Although his latest projects haven't been screened at the Loft, he still considers First Friday Shorts as a great opportunity for both new and established filmmakers to gauge how their work is viewed.

"There's really a lot of value in the three-minute mark (of the gong)," he said. "It's a somewhat arbitrary number, but three minutes, that's still like a moment when you can examine your work in progress."

Many gonged films get the heave-ho when the red light comes on because they haven't done enough to get the audience invested. Whether it's a serious attempt at cinema or just kids farting and cursing, the pacing of the film goes a long way toward its gong-ability, Italics said.

Two of the youngest participants seem to have the pacing concept down pat. Sabino High School seniors Matthew Sisson and Daniel Ramirez have submitted numerous short-and-sweet comedic bits in the past year, many with recurring characters who may be short on substance but are long on audience appeal. They include Burro (Ramirez), the star of March's First Friday winner, Burro vs. the Pirates.

"I like to get people's reactions, get people to laugh," said Sisson, who hopes to go to film school. First Friday is "the one thing I do that gets me out there. I'd love to do this for a living."

More than anything else, the concept of the gong is what makes First Friday Shorts stand out from other such festivals. It's also what causes the most angst and agita for first-time entrants.

"When the first film got gonged pretty severely, I was worried," recalls Mik Garrison, 38, whose animated short Ride Over was co-winner of the April event, along with Grabb's Octopus. "I thought it was going to be a rough crowd, take no prisoners."

Instead, Ride Over, made by Garrison and his business partner, Zoe Matthiessen (the two run a Web and graphic design company called Productive Insomnia), enthralled the roughly 300 people on hand, including Cannon, an animation instructor at Southwest University of Visual Arts who was floored when he learned the filmmakers were self-taught.

"We wanted to expand (our business)," Matthiessen said. "We really wanted to get into animation. We thought it'd be fun to see it up on the big screen."

Garrison and Matthiessen ended up sharing the prize money with Grabb after Cannon determined that the oh-so-scientific applause gauge showed a tie (the first ever at First Friday).

"First Friday Shorts history was made last time," Cannon said.

Additional history was made last summer when a first-time entrant, Jason Willis, submitted an homage to his weird, lifelong fascination with educational films of the 1970s and '80s. Catnip: Egress to Oblivion? was a runaway winner at the July 2012 First Friday Shorts and is among the candidates for the 2012-2013 Golden Gong.

If that was where the story had ended for Willis, a freelance Web designer and editor, he would have been satisfied. Instead, Catnip has screened at 30 festivals, including the American Film Institute Fest in November in Los Angeles. Following that, Willis was invited to show it at the ultra-exclusive Sundance Festival in Park City, Utah.

Suddenly, the 43-year-old was partying at Robert Redford's ski bungalow and rubbing elbows with filmmaking's elite. His tale of catnip and its similarities to LSD ended up winning the Short Film Audience Award and a $1,000 prize.

"This thing cost me $25 to make," recalled Willis, who said he decided to enter Catnip at First Friday because he thought "maybe this would be cool." He figured the Loft would be a good place to show it because of the subject matter.

"It's cats getting high on the Internet—I knew it had some potential," he said.

But for every Catnip, there are a dozen or so films that are just good, not great. And countless more that provide no lasting memory beyond a theater full of Tucsonans screaming "Gong" at the top of their lungs until Cannon ends his long tease and bangs the plate.

The gong came into play only three times during the lineup of 14 shorts in April. The victims were a documentary about an East Coast diner waitresses, a buddy cop comedy featuring a character with a young Hulk Hogan hairpiece, and a poorly edited piece about a guy seeing how many times he can fall flat on his face before suffering a severe injury.

A few others might have been gonged had that they not ended before the three-minute mark. The end-it-before-it-can-be-gonged approach seems to be the one taken by what is arguably First Friday's most notorious nonwinner: W.I.L.D. was submitted by Jared Loughner and screened exactly one year before he shot and killed six people and injured 13 (including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords) on Jan. 8, 2011.

The short was discovered by Loft staff a year later during an office cleanout. It's three minutes of alternating images of the desert and the beach, including shots of the words "lucid dream" written in the sand.

"It wasn't memorable," recalled Loft staffer Zach Breneman.

Over time, the audiences have become more respectful of the filmmakers' efforts and aren't as quick to call for the gong as soon as the red light shines.

"They're starting to give (filmmakers) the benefit of the doubt," Cannon said. "But not always. Sometimes they're just savages. It's really all about audience chemistry. I call it controlled chaos."

The gong shouldn't be something for first-time entrants to fear, according to filmmaker Willis.

"What happens if you get gonged? Nothing," he said. "Do you want to be a spectator in life?

Whether or not it succeeds there, that experience is super valuable. Even if you just want to troll the audience for three minutes, you can do that."