This is another edition of Short Starts, where we present a weekly short film(s) from the start of a filmmaker or actor’s career.
You may not think there’s anything worth knowing about the director of Red 2, which opens this Friday. But Dean Parisot, who is best known for helming Galaxy Quest, is an Academy Award-winning filmmaker. He got his start by directing two excellent, slightly surreal shorts in the 1980s, the second of which, The Appointments of Dennis Jennings, won the Oscar in 1989 for Best Live Action Short. (That was a great year for short winners, by the way, as it saw Pixar’s John Lasseter receive his first with Tin Toy and documentarian Bill Guttentag win his first with You Don’t Have to Die.) Parisot shares his honor with comedian Steven Wright, who co-wrote the witty little movie with Mike Armstrong. The acceptance speech was a highlight of the year’s ceremony, in part because it was so brief and also because of Wright’s amusing comment that “we’re really glad that we cut out the other sixty minutes.”
Wright also stars in the 30-minute film as the title character, an obsessive, paranoid and shy man who begins seeing a disinterested shrink played by Rowan Atkinson. A lot of what Dennis tells the doctor in his sessions is straight out of Wright’s stand-up, his shtick involving dry ironic wordplay and absurd philosophical questions. Atkinson’s character is also seeing Dennis’s girlfriend, who is played by Laurie Metcalf, leading to a deadly climax. The plot isn’t important so much as are the silly flashbacks and brilliant lines, like when Dennis says he wants the psychiatrist to adopt him so that when the doc asks him about his parents he can talk to him directly. It’s a well-directed short, but Wright deserves most of the credit for the film as a whole. If you (like me) love his routines, you’ll love this; if you don’t, you won’t.
Originally made as a special for HBO, The Appointments of Dennis Jennings was later released theatrically as one third of Two Mikes Don’t Make a Wright, where it was joined by a short by Michael Moore (Pets or Meat: Return to Flint) and Mike Leigh (A Sense of History). Now you can watch the whole thing divided into two sections via YouTube below. See if you can spot a very brief early film appearance by David Hyde Pearce.
That was Parisot’s second film, and as a bonus I’d like to also share his true short start. Titled Tom Goes to the Bar, it’s only a third of the running time and it showcases another young talent, Tom Noonan (later of Last Action Hero and Synecdoche New York). The actor is hanging upside down in a bar for no explicable reason, and much of the film is shot to make him seem right side up and the bar topsy turvy. While he tells some stories about his insignificant life as Satie plays in the background, we also observe some other patrons in the place, most notably a dart thrower who manages to hit everything but the board. Tom Goes to the Bar was edited (including sound editing) by the late great Sally Jo Menke, best known for her work with Quentin Tarantino. Watch this odd 9 1/2-minute film, which apparently used to air on The Movie Channel in the ’80s, below via YouTube.