In 2007 I was introduced to the enigmatic short films and music videos of brothers Nathan and David Zellner. I quickly became a fan of their work, as did the Sundance Film Festival and the now-defunct Wholphin DVD quarterly. The Zellners’ films are idiosyncratic, aggravating, and contain a subtle wit and intelligence that makes them rewatchable. Flotsam/Jetsam, their short film from 2005, encapsulates the brothers’ vast knowledge of cinema and comedy, its rules, and how to break them.
The five-minute film is broken into two segments. The first part, "Flotsam," is defined as the part of the wreckage of a ship and its cargo floating on the water, and observes a desperate man lost at sea with only luggage to float on and a caged chicken for company. As a warning, the first three minutes of Flotsam/Jetsam are going to wash over you like the boring black-and-white 8-millimeter art film that it is. However, this first section is a ruse, a purposefully boring pretentious deception. This is the true appeal of the Zellners’ humor. When they are not hitting you with the punch line, they are building a setup that will ultimately be just as rewarding as the payoff, but usually only after the reveal.
Their films are slow-burners. When the "Jetsam" section starts, which is defined as goods cast overboard deliberately as to lighten a vessel or improve its stability in an emergency, you realize the pretensions of "Flotsam" make the finale all the more intense and revelatory. Flotsam/Jetsam is not trying to be anything more than a comedy with a meta payoff. It’s a short, weird, and smart little film that sticks to the definitions of its title and concept. However, since the Zellners never approach any material traditionally, their version of jettisoning things off a boat in an emergency is fucking hilarious.
Here is a short interview I did with the Zellners:
VICE: In a number of your short films you play with time and perception, especially the act of filmmaking itself. What interests you about the medium and its more meta aspects?
Nathan and David Zellner: When we were teenagers, we spent a summer interning for Chuck Berry as his personal videographers. He taught us everything we know about filmmaking and got us to look at things from a fresh perspective.
What was the genesis of this project? When did the specific elements such as the chicken or use of multiple film formats come about?
We have a penchant for animals, adventure, and filming on the water, so it all came together naturally.
Congratulations on your latest film, Kid-Thing, getting picked up for distribution. What's next on your plate? More shorts or features?
Next up is the six-hour Minnie Pearl biopic, though we like hopping back and forth between features, shorts, and music videos depending on what the story dictates.
If you had to be trapped at sea with someone, who would you choose?
If you dig this short film, check out their other shorts, which are available on their website.
David and Nathan Zellner are filmmakers based out of Austin, Texas. They have made two feature films, Goliath and Kid-Thing, both of which premiered at Sundance and continued on to many other festivals. They have handfuls of short films and a number of music videos under their belts.
Jeffrey Bowers is a tall mustached guy from Ohio who's seen too many weird movies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, working as an art and film curator. He is a programmer at the Hamptons International Film Festival and screens for the Tribeca Film Festival. He also self-publishes a super fancy mixed-media art serial called PRISM index.