Many years ago the following announcement of coming attractions turned up on many theatre marquees around the country: SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON AND SELECTED SHORTS. Passers-by sniggered. Some may even have bought tickets expecting Joanne Dru to do a strip tease.
Well, theatres don’t show “shorts” any longer, except for the clever Coke commercials and the 20-second pleas to turn off your cell. They show only features, movies that run something like two hours. What has happened to the short? I am glad to announce that it is alive and thriving; it’s just sort of underground. Every year filmmakers, mostly young, make short films hoping to get them exhibited at the hundreds of film festivals that have cropped up in cities around the country and the rest of the world. They have no hope of getting them shown at multiplexes.
The Academy Award people look at many, many shorts and give Oscars for the best. Filmworks will show this year’s ten Oscar-nominated short films–five live action, five animated–on March 12. (If you want to see 30-second trailers of them, click on http://www.shortshd.com/theoscarshorts/) We do this every year; these programs are always well attended.
The fact is, the short film is so different from the feature that audiences have come to expect the offbeat and the fanciful, the beautiful and the harsh, the poetic and the allegorical. You seldom get these qualities in features. Length defeats innovation. Ho-hum arc, your formulaic Three Acts, dominate.
People who make short films are licentiously free. They often toss plot out the window. Some even discard recognizable form. You can see numerous innovative short films online. Click on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMKVd6AGgfg and watch 236 Abstract which consists entirely of eerily ambiguous images. Are we looking at a satellite view of a coastline or a blob of lime jelly on a plate? Something seems to want to burst out. A butterfly? A grub? A slimy creature from a monster movie? Then we see the outlines of dark, sinister trees, then what seems like broken glass, but not trees, not glass. The electric shock music wants to explode. Then–oh, see it yourself. It’s only two minutes long.
Then see David Musial’s short film, also abstract, in fact called Abstract Film, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KTxJ0Z7VlsE. This film has recognizable images. A woman stands in a field. The camera captures an extreme close-up of one eye. There are cuts-away to grave markers and crucifixes atop churches. Through time lapse, a rose blossom disintegrates. First it is fresh and virginal, then petals fall away, finally there is only a dried stub on a black stem. The woman lies in the field in a semi-fetal position. She disappears. Of course this is a film about death–in the abstract. You’ve read poems about death, seen plays about death, read novels about death, and sat through literal feature films about death. Now spend three minutes with cinematic death.
If you want lighter fare, try the short film Validation, a satiric look at the connection between parking lot-validation and real-life validation by Kurt Kuenne. Look at the entire 16 minute film at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cbk980jV7Ao.
All three of these films are on You Tube. You don’t have to win a contest to get your film on You Tube. The twelve-year old son of a woman I used to do coffee with has half a dozen films on You Tube. A cave man could upload a film to You Tube. There are thousands of short films on You Tube. Many worthless, some true prize winners. Truly the site has democratized access to short films.
Did you know that PBS’s Independent Lens has an annual online festival of short films? They are remarkable. You can see this year’s winners, eleven in all–live action, animated, abstract, realistic. C Beck, the grand prize winner, is about a photographer-farmer in rural Minnesota who with Photoshop and unbounded imagination makes scrumptious out-of-doors picture art. Bulletproof Vest is about a kid growing up in a gang-invested ghetto. LA Noir offers some of the most imaginative black and white photography you’ll ever see. You could not turn C Beck into a feature, nor LA Noir. To do so would kill their spirit. There are eight other Independent Lens prize winners to watch, at http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/insideindies/shortsfest/.
It didn’t used to be like this, so democratic, so easy. When I made a film and had a chance to show it to 36 people, I felt pretty cool. Validation has been viewed by over three million people. I did the short film circuit back in the seventies. Make the film, get a lab to do a print (hundreds of dollars), box it up, send it off to the Brno CSSR (Czechoslokak Socialist Republic) Film Festival, hope it gets through Czech customs. Wait six weeks to get any kind of response. Go down to the airport to walk the film back through customs, the guy opening the box, glancing at you suspiciously, looking for drugs. Maybe I’d win a prize–at Brno I took something called the “Mayor’s Award.” But usually nothing. Thank you, Comrade, for participating. Have good cinema luck in future.