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Review: ‘A Short Film About Disappointment,’ by Joshua Mattson

August 3, 2018

Joshua Mattson lays out the dirty little secrets of movie critics in “A Short Film About Disappointment.”

“Short Film” is billed as a novel in the form of 80 movie reviews, and that’s mostly accurate. In each chapter Noah Body reviews a film, although he often ignores whatever he’s supposed to critique in favor of offering glimpses into his cramped life.

Some apocalyptic shift in the near future has intensified the gap between haves and have-nots such as Body, who lives in squalor. In the title chapter, Body casually notes that he can’t have sex with a girlfriend at his place because “it is my habit to store jars of urine in my freezer, until they can be conveniently disposed of out the window during the chaos of a power outage or neighborhood riot.”

Mattson’s wordplay (Noah Body = Nobody) and low-key sarcasm are reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov, and Body, who’d rather make movies than write about them, recalls the delusional narrator of Nabokov’s “Pale Fire,” who envied a neighboring poet.

Like much of Nabokov’s work, Mattson’s novel is really about language, which the Brainerd native (who now lives in Los Angeles) clearly loves. Mattson also shares Nabokov’s gift for precise wit, as when Body is asked if he considered murdering a man who cuckolded him: “I never said I wanted to kill him. I instead explored the possibility that I might be happier if he were to die in a freak accident.”

“Short Film” is equally sharp about the way movie critics work: that it can be difficult to write about a movie that is not only boring but in boring ways, that it’s tempting to substitute jokes for insight and that perhaps drawing attention to mediocrity only makes it worse.

It’s a droll book, but it can also be exhausting. We have no reference point for the movies Body reviews since they, and the people making them, are fictitious. Occasionally, there’s a note of parody — one filmmaker is a wicked lampoon of Michael Moore — but most of the titles and creators whiz by with little impact. The result? When Body suggests pairing a film he’s reviewing with two others we know nothing about, the joke doesn’t land because we have no idea what he’s talking about.

I’d bet money that Mattson is a Nabokov fan, but I wish he’d paid more attention to William Shakespeare, who told us “brevity is the soul of wit.”

“A Short Film About Disappointment” grows wearying in the second half, a fact Mattson may be aware of since, in the last fake review, Body admits, “I filed reviews for films that didn’t exist. Good fun for a while, but in time I found it sterile.”

In time, so do we.

Chris Hewitt is a theater critic and feature writer for the Star Tribune. • 612-673-4367

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