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Short and Sound

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Short film has traditionally never had the gift of longevity. Cinema gave short film a mosquito-span life and while DVD gave them an extension, they were ultimately relegated to wallow alongside commentary, storyboards and outtakes. Short film tours the festival circuits, acquiring little nuggets of praise, but never much more. Now with YouTube’s Screening Room and sites like Openculture.com the short form is finding itself in a kind of outreach program.

Often short films are given longer lives post-celebration, as in the case of Academy Award nominated The Last Farm, which found a devoted audience in the Screening Room after its festival debut. Once a week four new short films appear on YouTube’s Screening Room, with the full permission and collaboration of the filmmakers. Established and first-time filmmakers are encouraged to look into the short medium not simply as apprentice work, but as a freer, less studio-audience-budget hectored form in itself. For archived short film, Openculture.com offers an extensive collection from obscure pre-Citizen Kane Welles, to the latest indie releases. This is a great time for discovery as different online venues now offer permanent space for the films, giving fans a space to interact, discuss and enjoy a forum dedicated to what has previously been an orphan medium. With as diverse and multi-functioning venues as these, it is likely short film will never be as transient a medium again.

The history of short film is not nearly as mythologized as film in general (we all have our personal history of film in our heads), allowing the form more freedoms. Short film is interesting for what it is able to do that the longer form can’t. It is a form that can be painterly, with the ability to be entirely visual and eschew narrative. It does not have to appeal, through plot and development, to a viewer’s natural pattern-seeking faculties and so it can follow one aesthetic line, however abstract, to its endpoint, without requiring any backstory or narrative-hangers. Viewers appreciate these qualities and the communities that are being built online mean that short film has a following now entirely independant of the longer form.

Perhaps the funniest example of a short film, Mel Brooks’ The Critic, is also a great example, and parody, of the abstract possibilities of the medium. Winning the Academy Award for animated short in 1963, the film is very short, at three minutes, and the dialogue is ad-libbed; it’s essentially Brooks doing classic curmudgeonly Brooks. More importantly though, it epitomizes what short film can do in a small space, with one narrator, no actors, and all in less than five minutes. Brooks is able, within these restraints, to bring to The Critic the full clout of his comedy as one three minute punch line. Without having to rely on plot to hang his gags on, we get to hear and experience humor uncut. It could only be possible for Brooks to keep the pace, and for the film not to become unfunny, because in short film the experience does not resemble the Aristotelian narrative which demands rising action, climax and denouement. A good short film, like The Critic, is a series of seismographic peaks. It is the short filmmakers’ challenge to scale these peaks for an average length of five to twenty minutes.

Short film also has the liberty of abstraction. The textural is as important as the contextual. This kind of intertexture can be found in David Lynch’s short filmography which starts with the animated Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times) in 1966 to the most recent music video for Interpol – I Touch a Red Button Man (2012). In between there was the very short Lumiere (1966), The Alphabet (1967) and of course The Amputee (1974). For an artist like Lynch, short film is an ideal detour into pure visual textural and narrative delineation, the kind Lynch can so effectively unleash.

It is these abstract possibilities that make the short documentary often unforgettable. In this form there is one recent standout example, a film that has gone beyond the reach-restraints of short film: Diary, a compact, abstract film Tim Hetherington said he made “as an attempt to locate” himself after ten years spent photographing conflict. The film was released following the success of his 2011 Academy Award winner Restrepo, where Hetherington follows a platoon in Afghanistan. Hetherington was shot dead in Libya last year and it is impossible not to view Diary as a final testimony to the dissection between two very different worlds he lived in.

Diary (2010) from Tim Hetherington on Vimeo.

The short format also offers the best angle for the fly-on-the-wall style of documentary film. Pickin and Trimming depicts a small-town community barbershop in Carolina where generations of bluegrass enthusiasts perform and hang out. Though the subject would not be enough to fill a full feature, the little glimpses of these people and the history-–how they connect over decades of hair and bluegrass – is poignant, jubilant and touches on the tropes of passing time personally through their voices and ultimately through the music.

The abstract short film has been the most significant innovation in the short form, but it is undeniable that there has always been a strong realist root in short film, which found its voice in New Wave directors like Truffaut. Watching Truffaut’s short Les Mistons (1957) is like watching his greatest themes: women, love and children, in miniature. This film combined with the 1962 classic An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge show that there was still a realist, notably French strand in short film during the late 50s and 60s. And there is still a strong Eurocentric realist gear in short film today, if not quite so straightforward, as seen in the 2002 Academy award winner J’Attendrai Le Suivant. This French theme segues smoothly with the Coen brothers’ take on the Paris Metro in the pithy and eccentric Tuileries, starring Steve Buscemi as the hapless tourist. But the most recent French success in short film is the short equivalent of a blockbuster. François Alaux and Herve de Crecy, collectively known as the design outfit H5, won the 2009 Oscar for short film with their incomparable Logorama. It is essentially a 17 minute composition of brand logos in the frame of a pretty simple chase plot, except the evildoer is Ronald McDonald being chased by hard/soft Michelin Man cops. Partly it is a clever vehicle for H5 to show off their talents, but it is also a consumer allegory with some serious wattage.

Logorama from Marc Altshuler – Human Music on Vimeo.

Short film now has the ability to have a wide-scale impact given its accessibility and the embrace of online venues like the Screening Room, by both filmmakers and enthusiasts. The lack of restraint when it comes to copyright infringement means not only that filmmakers are not held up by studio small print, but fans can also distribute their favorite films without fear of being reprimanded. Short film benefits from having open screening rooms, but just as importantly it also gains wider appeal from the viral enthusiasm of fans around the world, where the possibility of finding a large, global audience for a low budget, independent short film, is achievable.

These films are being made by people that really only have one agenda: for you to watch, and it is this that makes the direction of short film so interesting. Directors often bemoan the dilution of their original vision through a process  that depends on third-parties, as most inevitably do. Francis Ford Coppola now insists on working with his own money, risking potential financial ruin with each movie in order to have total unhindered artistic control. The nature of short film’s inherent commercial weakness is outweighed by the strength of its independence. Exactly because of these strengths and weaknesses, the artists who choose to work in short film can only be judged qualitatively. Popular measures of success, such as the box office, do not apply. Popular forms of marketing also do not apply, seeing that short film is not released on the back of strategized campaigns or with a marketing budget. There is no hype to short film. The film itself is the trailer and the teaser.  Its success depends on the measure of audience engagement, and the audience in turn becomes the marketing drive through word-of- cyber-mouth.

Feature films have remained relatively traditional in relying on a safe critical network of magazines and news venues for the final word. But the internet has been bad news commercially for feature films, as it becomes more difficult to police illegal hosting and distributing, which ironically, are the same things, when legally employed, that have given short film greater longevity and a leg-up on the mainstream. Short film has come of age on the internet, and because it remains the least commercial form of cinematic art, in turn it also remains the purest.


Chris Vaughan has written about film and books for the Rumpus, Bookslut and other venues. His fiction has appeared in the UK's Warwick Review and most recently in The Lifted Brow. More from this author →