Taking a Stand on Shorts
No mere calling card or stepping stone, the short film is enjoying a renaissance
The cinematic art form and the communal act we now collectively call "going to the movies" was born of short films. From Georges Méliès' magical 1902 moon shot to Charles Chaplin's uneasy, queasy "The Immigrant," from Chuck Jones' Wile E. Coyote plummeting to Kenneth Anger's "Scorpio Rising," the short film is, was, and will forever be the first, best skeleton key to unlocking the celluloid treasure chest that has mesmerized us since Muybridge's mare galloped, four hooves flying, at 24 frames per second.
The great irony, of course, is that contemporary short films lead depressingly diminished life spans. Once seen, the calculatedly cavalier choreography of Chaplin's "The Rink" cannot be forgotten, nor can the eye-popping opening of Dalí and Buñuel's shaggy, Andalusian dog story. These brief, beautiful reels of wonder are part of the canon and the culture. They're the historical exception to the more modern maxim that today's short films – documentary, narrative, even animated – have little if any audience beyond festivals, other filmmakers, and the occasional cinephilecentric DVD collection. Too often they're viewed (and just as frequently presented) as calling cards or demo reels, proof that the filmmaker knows his craft.
More recently, however, a new vanguard of masters of the short form have emerged, thrillingly: Spike Jonze, Ramin Bahrani, and Michel Gondry among them. All three have previously screened shorts at South by Southwest, and Jonze returns this year with the locally shot "Scenes From the Suburbs," a companion film to Arcade Fire's last album, screening in the Medium Cool: 4 (not so) Shorts sidebar – just one offering out of more than 100 short-form options at this year's Fest.
Dallas filmmaker David Lowery's SXSW 2011 entry, "Pioneer," which stars Will Oldham and screens in the Narrative Shorts 1 program, is a perfect example of what can be achieved in short order. It's a flawless, two-character meditation on fathers, sons, and the simple act of storytelling that underscores the point that longer does not equate better.
"Short films offer you a chance to experiment and push boundaries a little more than you might be able to in a feature," Lowery says. "There are certain freedoms that come with making a short film. Personally, as a filmmaker, I don't differentiate between which is more important to me, the short film or the feature. Some stories demand a longer running time, and others work perfectly in 15 minutes. [In the past] I've called my short films 'short features,' because they were, like, casual asides. They're films in their own right, and so I want people to see them just as much as any of my other, longer films."
Former Austin filmmaker (and occasional Chronicle contributor) Spencer Parsons, whose evocatively titled "Chainsaw Found Jesus" – screening in Texas Shorts – is a wonderfully weird model of the form, concurs:
"I'm really proud of my feature-length work, but there's something about being in that feature frame of mind that's much more tense; there's more worry and urgency involved. You're more focused on pleasing at any cost, you know?
"Narrative and documentary short-form projects – as opposed to the avant-garde – allow for a kind of focus on certain moments and nuanced details that don't then necessarily have to carry audience attention for longer but nevertheless are important things to recognize."
Enter the Internet, Vimeo, YouTube, iTunes, and assorted other online venues. Will they turn out to be the savior of the festival-orphaned short film?
"I can only speak for myself and my own viewing habits," Parsons notes, "but I know that in general my tastes run to maybe seven minutes, at the outer limits, of what I'm looking at online. I tend to assume that I have a higher attention span than most people, and if my limit is seven minutes, then for most people you've got to have something that really shows well in under that amount of time. I could be wrong, but I'm skeptical in the sense that [I wonder]: Is shorter better? That's something that we're still figuring out. How do you promote and how do you sustain making the work? That's really the big question."
Or as Lowery, whose "Pioneer" really does feel tailor-made for online viewing, puts it: "[Vimeo and the Web] have definitely changed everything. In a way it's the perfect medium for short films, and it's almost as though short films were waiting for this to happen. For so long you would hear about the shorts that were nominated for Academy Awards, but you had no way to actually see them. And now, more often than not, you can find them on iTunes relatively quickly after you first hear of them. No doubt, [the Web] has greatly expanded the life of these types of films that may not have the commercial value [of feature-length films]. I'm never too precious about where people see my films; I just really want my films to be seen."
Friday, March 11, 6:30pm, Rollins
Tuesday, March 15, 1:30pm, Rollins
Saturday, March 19, 5pm, Alamo Lamar C
Narrative Shorts 1
Saturday, March 12, 11am, Alamo Lamar A
Tuesday, March 15, 3:30pm, Alamo Ritz 2
Wednesday, March 16, 11am, Alamo Lamar A
Medium Cool: 4 (not so) Shorts
Monday, March 14, 1:30pm, Alamo Lamar A
Wednesday, March 16, 4pm, Arbor
Thursday, March 17, 5:30pm, Alamo Ritz 1
Saturday, March 19, 3:30pm, Alamo Ritz 1