The Art of Short Cinema
Let me be honest: I don’t spend a lot of time at film festivals watching shorts programs. Perhaps, for the editor of a website devoted to discovering new visions and trends in cinema, that’s a terrible admission. But I grew up reading and studying novels, so my natural inclination is to go for narrative features and docs I can sink my teeth into. The more Tarkovskian, the more ass-numbingly Tarr-like they are, the more intrigued I’m likely to be, even though I recognize my predilection as a kind of cultural handicap.
Nevertheless, I do subscribe to Wholphin, the quarterly DVD magazine published by McSweeney’s, which features a curated playlist of exclusive “rare and unseen” shorts, some by established directors (Errol Morris, Gus Van Sant), some by performance artists, animators and tinkerers, some caught on the fly by unwitting documentarians. These are, much if not most of the time, fascinating short-attention-span must-sees. YouTube has gotten into the act recently as well, launching a new Screening Room to highlight its own series of curated short films, as opposed to the anything-goes aesthetic at its main site.
Here in New York, IFC sponsors a Rooftop Films program every summer, debuting new indie and underground shorts at a different outdoor location on weekend evenings. In 2007, for instance, I watched a short film by James Longley—a missing chapter of sorts from his Oscar-nominated triptych doc Iraq in Fragments—in a Brooklyn schoolyard with the stars twinkling overhead. There are plenty of online short film festivals, too (iThentic hosts one for mobile users), but with very few exceptions, these tend to function as a dumping ground for amateur work, one-off gags or elaborate gimmickry (see The 15 Second Film Festival, a/k/a/ “the Cinema of Distraction”), and festival hopefuls plastered with rejection slips. Even major film-world entities can steer us wrong when it comes to finding the cinematic equivalent to Wilde’s dictum that “brevity is the soul of wit.” This year’s shorts program at the venerableNew York Film Festival (every feature film was paired, awkwardly, with a short) was among the most execrable I’ve seen in some time, and far too many listed Columbia University’s Film Division as co-producer.
So what’s my problem with shorts? None, really. But context is everything. Earlier this year, at Sundance, I dropped into the New Frontier Café on Main Street on my last day to chill out, take a break from work, crowds, and yes, even films. Of course, this was impossible. In the dark, subterranean lounge space, as I sipped espresso and gawked at mobile art projects, hoping to nap in a big plush armchair, I was drawn by flickering lights into a nearly hidden room running a series of six animated shorts by Brent Green. (See link below.) As I wrote then, this turned out to be one of the most indelible experiences of my trip. So it was with some genuine interest that I reviewed the U.S. shorts lineup at Sundance 2009, which was released yesterday. Again, I’ll be lucky if I make it to any of these programs (there are just too many), but I did notice something heartening: two smart, young Indiewood actors are taking a seat in the director’s chair.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Mysterious Skin, Brick), who we interviewed not long ago, has adapted an Elmore Leonardstory for his debut, Sparks, which the press release says is about a “former rock and roll goddess who may or may not have burned her house down.” Up next, and also in the U.S. Dramatic Shorts program, is Gordon-Levitt’sMysterious Skin co-star Brady Corbet (Funny Games, Thirteen). His film is called Protect You + Me, and is described thusly: “A reminder of a long-forgotten event, combined with a challenging situation, provokes a man to extreme action.” Corbet is an intriguing character, as I discovered when I chatted him up in January, so I’m especially curious to see how his vision comes together. Also up in the U.S. Documentary program is Oscar winner Jessica Yu (In the Realms of the Unreal, Protagonist), another FilmCatcher couch alum, who’ll revisit an age-old question, “How are babies made?,” in The Kinda Sutra, a blend of interviews and animation. Admiring her previous work as much I do, I’m kinda looking forward to seeing it. But hey, Jess: Just don’t short me.