Your Weekly Short: ‘Capillary Curried Cow’

Welcome to “Your Weekly Short,” a feature that showcases one short from a Wisconsin filmmaker each week, every week. Brace thy face.

In honor of Madison’s 48 Hour Film Project, which runs the weekend of July 19 – 21, we’re spending each week in July singling out a winning entry from years’ past.

Inherent in the 48 Hour Film Project’s annual challenge to filmmakers is the competition’s demand for improvisation. Successfully mixing disparate cinematic signposts — a courier named Patricia, a tie for a prop, the line “I can’t hear you” — requires off-the-cuff creative inspiration from anyone brave enough to write, direct, and edit a short film in just two days. Monona-based production house Stumptown Media blends all aforementioned criteria into their 2010 entry, “Capillary Curried Cow,” a short that turns “48 Hour’s” on-the-fly production into an eccentric and idyllic concoction that may as well have been mashed and baked in a Wisconsin farmhouse kitchen.

Judging from the silos and grassland, “Capillary Curried Cow” was shot on a farm, which means it’s a lengthy (and undoubtedly muggy) bike ride for mail courier Patricia (Debra Lopez), hurrying packages from the city to the cattle farm of scruffy eccentric Patrick (Pete Ammel). Patrick’s certainly a peculiar fellow, but don’t let his appearance a la Rutherford B. Hayes deceive you; the man has a plan. Sure, his plan, “pre-seasoning” still living cattle with curry spices, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but he’s as determined to make a breakthrough with his bovine as he is to connect with Patricia. Patricia’s furrowed sweaty brow tells us she’s not too cool with hauling over packages of cumin and chili powder, balloons and a helium tank, especially without any tips, but writer-director Matt Mullins’ tight staging and breezy style make his short as quaint in its romantic goals as it is in its setting.

The short isn’t without its peccadilloes. Ammel’s Patrick is constantly switching accents, a reflection of his cattle’s heterogeneous biographies in Scotland, Germany, and the more desolate parts of Eastern Europe — that’s what he says at least. The act makes for an amusing ongoing gag that can’t help but feel reflective of Wisconsin’s own immigrant roots. “Capillary Curried Cow” also boasts a troupe of composers whose work alternately plods and bounces, often in their own farm animal groans. That off-beat trajectory channels over to Patrick and Patricia’s half-romance, cresting in Patrick’s twee attempt to pop curry-filled balloons with an air rifle so that his cattle may “absorb” the spices through their lungs. Naturally, Patrick’s the one who ends up breathing in the spices, but Patricia, whose annoyance has grown into curious infatuation, seems like collateral damage in his ridiculous agricultural experiments.

Cut to comedic effect, that final moment between Patrick, Patricia and the still-unseasoned cows feels too brief. Mullins arguably spends too much time in the humorous, tertiary moments with his actors lampooning Sean Connery or measuring cow testicles, and one can’t help but feel a more drawn out climax would add some earnestness to this twee romance. At the very least, the exploding balloons might feel more like confetti and less like an “oops!” Taking home awards for Best Acting, Best Use of Character, and Best Film and tying for Best Direction and Best Editing, Mullins along with producer and co-editor Dusan Harminc would go on to greater acclaim in their documentary Forward on the Wisconsin protests. Even three years prior, “Capillary Curried Cow” clearly struck a chord with audiences, at once embodying the state’s cozy comfort while never shying away from the bizarre imperfections that distinguish it. You might need to bike a few miles out from the Capitol Square to find this rustic a farmhouse, but it’s hard to imagine a more “Wisconsin” short film than this. As the name suggests, it’s in the blood.