News, Article, Bigger picture, Blogposts, Culture, David Cox, Film, Film blog, Lynne Ramsay, short films — April 9, 2013 19:42 — 0 Comments
Test Post: Film-makers have lost the art of making a long story short
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No law dictates that a film must last 90-plus minutes. The feature emerged to meet a commercial need: purpose-built picture palaces had to provide a full night’s entertainment. Before they arrived, cinema consisted solely of short films. Giants like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy managed to deliver masterworks on one or two reels.
Now, the ascendency of the picturehouse is over: cinema admissions stand at little more than a 10th of their 1940s level. Instead, individuals forage for audiovisual fare from a galaxy of outlets on a plethora of devices. They’re time poor, and itching for something brief to watch on their tablet while cooking, queuing or commuting.
At the same time, entry barriers to film-making have collapsed. Anyone can shoot full-spec HD video on a phone, upload it to a waiting website, and build an instant audience through social media. No talent need go unrealised.
You might have thought all this would inevitably have brought the short film roaring back, to tower over the entertainment landscape. But it hasn’t.
It’s not that shorts aren’t around. Institutions like the London Film School have guaranteed an abundant supply. Worthy bodies like the BFI go out of their way to cherish the format. Not only are shorts indulged by the grand festivals, they have plenty of jamborees of their own, like the London Short film festival and Tropfest. Within the industry, they remain the calling card of the wannabe. Yet most ordinary film fans rarely encounter one.
Enthusiasts used to rely on a comforting explanation: it was too hard to get to see short films. The days when they were played as a matter of course in support of the main feature are long gone. Unnecessary problems have sometimes blocked distribution. However, in the age of YouTube, iTunes, Vimeo and numerous other dedicated sites, no one can claim that it’s hard to watch a short. So why don’t more people do so?
After all, short films launched the careers of directors like Ridley Scott, Ken Russell and Shane Meadows. Wallace and Gromit began life in extremely popular TV shorts. Yet if you ask filmgoers why they don’t seek out short films, you tend to get the same answer: shorts aren’t usually worth watching.
So is there something lacking in the current output? From this week, lucky citizens of 14 towns and cities will get an opportunity to decide. A feature-length assembly of all but one of the 2013 Bafta nominees is being given a theatrical release. These, remember, are supposedly the best of the bunch.
Famously, it’s harder to write a short story than a novel. To establish setting and character and resolve a meaningful tale in a tight space is obviously a challenge. Of the seven films in the selection, only two actually attempt it.
Fyzal Boulifa’s The Curse shows a woman tempted by forbidden love in rural Morocco tackling a gang of mocking children. Muriel d’Ansembourg’s Good Night depicts the sexual coming of age of two 14-year-old girls on a lurid night out. Both of these films are thoughtful, honest and watchable. The Curse offers genuine insight, while Good Night summons excellent acting from its young principals. Yet neither is what you’d expect to see up for a Bafta.
The other five films, like so many shorts, opt out of the demanding task of miniature drama. Kris Kelly’s animated Here to Fall shows us a girl tumbling through a bizarrely fantastical landscape. Presumably it’s supposed to enchant and amaze; it doesn’t. Eamonn O’Neill’s I’m Fine Thanks offers an animated account of a young man’s troubled progress through life. The draftsmanship is original, but the content is too vacuous to be endearing. Johnny Barrington’s Tumult is ambitious and well realised. It’s a horror/joke/fantasy, but the premise is too absurd to stir shock, amusement or wonder.
Will Anderson’s The Making of Longbird took the animation award. With admirable weirdness, it shows a young animator trying to resurrect a feathered character invented by a Russian animation pioneer. The bird starts to talk to him; unfortunately, it has nothing interesting to say.
The live-action award went to Lynne Ramsay‘s Swimmer. This follows an endurance athlete making his way through British waterways accompanied by sounds and images that are presumably going through his mind. Beautifully shot and edited, it adds up to nothing whatsoever.
All this amounts to an accurate reflection of the state of British short films. They rarely succeed in exploiting brevity to make a story compel. Instead, they flaunt technique. Sometimes this yields shafts of ingenuity that deserve to inform mainstream film-making. Often, however, the results are derivative, soulless and humourless. The films can seem like sketched ideas waiting for someone more excited by them than their inventor to invest them with life.
As such, they doubtless have their place. Film students have to practise; film-makers need to experiment. The rest of us can carry on ignoring the format. All the same, this seems a bit of a pity. Commercials, music videos and amateurs’ parodies demonstrate all the time that short can mean brilliant. The John Lewis Always a Woman ad knocks spots off all of these Bafta contenders. It’s hard to believe that we couldn’t have better short films.
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