NC Short Film Showcase | Saturday, May 21, 2 p.m., $5–$7  |  North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh

The first thing you must understand is that Anne Gomez hates corn. Hates, hates, hates, hates it. In fact, this is an understatement, like saying that a vampire hates garlic, that a slug hates salt. The mere presence of corn—the mere word—causes her whole body to shrivel, the revulsion puckering her animated face. Corn! She really just can’t stand it.

If you found that paragraph curious, wait until you see Niblets, a wily yet sincere short film by Durham’s Douglas Vuncannon. After premiering at Shadowbox Studio in Durham last September and then hitting some far-flung festivals, picking up an award in Madrid, it’s screening in a block of local shorts at the North Carolina Museum of Art on Saturday afternoon. At a well-rounded 25 minutes, it’s one of the longer of the six films screening at the NC Short Film Showcase—others in the bunch run at six or nine minutes.

Niblets does offer a fragmentary portrait of Gomez, from her young life to her longtime work in indigent criminal defense, but it makes no attempt to be thorough, and it draws no simple lines from her corn aversion to other themes. Leaving out the cob and showing us but a few kernels, it’s not just open to interpretation but almost defies it. This makes its toothsome flavor linger—especially if you know enough about Gomez to fill in some of the gaps.

A traditional documentary would focus on Cantwell, Gomez & Jordan, the Durham experimental band in which Gomez played bass and saxophone with drummer Dave Cantwell and guitarist David Jordan. Their collisions of herky-jerky punk and free jazz, part of a lineage onomatopoeically known as skronk rock, has 20 years of local music history writhing inside.

But the only hint Niblets gives of this comes in one of its cleverest edits, which cuts between Gomez playing the sax and describing the textural quality of corn. Her words, as it happens, precisely describe her sound: “A bunch of little things that are going to get caught and squeak and move, ugh,” she says, indicating her teeth with wriggling fingers, one of which is in a brace that isn’t explained until more than halfway through. “It’s like, ‘creak, creak, creak.’”

Gomez grew up in Middletown, an island in Rhode Island. In high school band class, her first instrument was the flute, which she was terrible at.

“I just really didn’t get it,” she says via video chat. “It was a bunch of little dots on paper that you’re supposed to replicate and hopefully not mess up.”

More predictive of her musical future was her friendship with Throwing Muses, an area band destined for alt-rock fame, who got her into clubs and started her immersion in punk.

“One time, they handed me a hubcap and said I was a musician,” Gomez says. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m the one that drops the hubcap in the middle of the song!’”

But it was much later, when she was pursuing a master’s degree in biological anthropology and anatomy at Duke, that she took up the bass, forging her own style in freedom from notated music. “I’d seen so many bands, and one thing that struck me a lot was that the bass player looked like they were going to sleep,” Gomez says. “With the hubris that I had as a 23-year-old, I was like, I can do better than that.”

She was friends with Chris Eubank, local rock’s resident cellist, and he found her a bass and gave her a few lessons. Circa 1990, Todd Goss, who was putting together the primordial local indie band Blue-Green Gods, heard she was learning and asked her to join, because that’s how bands were formed then. Next, she played in the unforgettably named Special Agents of Her Majesty’s Secret Cervix, with Michelle Polzine and Shannon Morrow. Meanwhile, she pivoted to law school at UNC-Chapel Hill, graduating in 1997. When Cantwell, Gomez & Jordan formed two years later, she picked up the sax.

“I always enjoyed tenor sax, especially John Coltrane,” she says. “I felt like it was an instrument where you’re more closely connected with the sound, that you can manipulate more than the bass.”

In the 2000s, Gomez also played in Scene of the Crime Rovers, an experimental marching band led by Morrow, who spread the free-improv energy of Chicago all over the Triangle. That was her bridge to Vuncannon, who played in it, too. He had admired her stage presence in CG&J, and they became friends who habitually took walks on the American Tobacco Trail. “One day, about five years ago, she started talking about the obsessive hatred she had for corn,” Vuncannon remembers, “and it seemed like the film came to me all at once. It’s a window into different aspects of her personality, and everybody who knows Anne agrees that she is endlessly interesting.”

With music by an ensemble from the pair’s community, the finest point Niblets draws about Gomez’s corn aversion relates to her childhood, when she took control of her diet at age 16, becoming a vegetarian (and later, a longtime vegan) against her family’s objections.

Meanwhile, the most drama comes through the inventive DIY set pieces, including one where, against all odds, Gomez’s head pokes out of a giant mound of yellow corn, with only her eyes visible, appearing deceptively calm. But whether or not Vuncannon convinces her to eat the gross-looking plastic gas-station cup of syrupy kernels is the closest thing Niblets has to a spoiler. This is an apt place to close, respecting a film that leaves so much to the imagination.

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