In Praise of the Short Film

I just finished a 12-minute film that I’ve been working on for more than two years, and screened it at the Bryant Lake Bowl Theater last week. Roughly 100 people showed up over two nights, a healthy-sized crowd in the 70-ish seat theater.

Could I have made it faster? Probably. Could I have made it longer? Certainly. Could I have gotten more than 100 people to show up to see it? Possibly. But what if everything about it is the right size and shape? What if more, faster, bigger wouldn’t actually improve the experience or make it more meaningful, for me or anyone else?

I spend a substantial portion of my day in front of various screens already, by choice – and I make things for screens, for a living. Many or most of us are in front of screens for many hours each day. I don’t think screen time is bad, or wrong, but I do think that every moment that I ask people to spend staring at a screen on my behalf is both precious, and somewhat fraught – I want it to be a meaningful, dense, rich experience.

I worked briefly as a projectionist, and I remember unspooling a few feet from a reel of the Richard Linklater film Before Sunset one evening, in the deep solitude of the projection booth. That footage was a mere moment in the middle of some second-act conversation  on-screen, but the frames themselves were just two heads, going on and on seemingly endlessly – a minute of 35mm film is 96 FEET long. That’s so many frames, if you think about it, to spend just staring at heads, not really doing anything – merely mouths moving and (on the soundtrack) sounds coming out.

In that moment, it seemed like an incredible waste of a visual medium, to point the camera at people sitting there, talking. That experience, in the projection booth, gave me a deeper appreciation of avant-garde filmmakers who get obsessive about every single frame as an opportunity to create meaning – even though those frames pass by at the edge of perceptibility.

When film is used as a literal device for recording and shaping a narrative scene, it seems to me that there’s a kind of threshold of meaning – it can be beautiful, it can be a full dramatic experience, extremely well crafted, but on some level, a shot is just a shot: we’re watching him walk from here to there. This person is shooting at that robot. The spaceship is exploding. But it’s all craft, relating the information that “these things are happening.”

Whereas, the moment one steps beyond the literality of “these things are happening,” the realm of possible meanings and associations expands kaleidoscopically. We can leave world of logical perception – our eyes seeing that’s happening and our brain making sense of it – so easily, so easily. We spend our literal days right at the edge of this wellspring of the imagination, the realm of the dream – where things make far less sense and mean so much more, simultaneously.

This isn’t always a comfortable place to be, which may be partly why we don’t choose to go there, as artists or as audience, very often or for very long. It’s hard, it’s challenging, it can even be frightening to not understand what’s going on. There are feature filmmakers who are willing to go there, such as David Lynch in his heyday, or Fellini or Bergman in a lyrical mode. More recently, the Beasts of the Southern Wild is the latest example that springs to mind, of a filmmaker successfully leaving the literal and entering the symbolic, the poetic, the not-this-world.

But it’s pretty darn rare, in either movies or television, and when strange things are allowed to happen, it seems like they’re often safely framed in genre terms – “this literal monster is destroying the city – literally!”

Perhaps it’s natural that films that leave the literal would make people uncomfortable, just as dreams are often uncomfortable. We’ve evolved for millions of years to really want to know what’s going on around us at all times. We don’t WANT to be overwhelmed by images that don’t fit neatly together into an entirely comprehensible world. We want our status to be clear – this is safe, that’s a threat, I like these people, I don’t like that person. If we think we understand what’s going on, we feel safe, and if we feel safe, on some level, we relax. If our experience pushes us in unfamiliar ways, we don’t relax, we have to work, and we look forward to the end of the work, when we can relax.

Reading good poetry requires effort, too – and the audience for poetry is tiny. But it persists, because there is that desire, I guess, I hope, for turns of phrase that mean many things at once, for relationships between words that are shifting and slippery, that buzz and crackle and flutter and tickle…

In the thrall of a good poem, I can feel my brain lighting up, and I can feel the vastness of possibility in the universe, forces acting on a greater-than-human scale, complexity beyond my grasp. I feel small and humble, yet connected to at least the intimation of the beyond – and grateful for that connection.

As a filmmaker, I aspire to something similar – it doesn’t have to be a short film, and it doesn’t have to be strictly experimental – but I want to at least attempt to leave the realm of the literal, to challenge an audience for at least a few moments to see beyond bodies in rooms, to recognize that these dream-realms are touchable, are out there… and it’s really a miracle that we can access them, that we have the tools and the techniques at our fingertips which allow us to attempt to draw the imaginary, to map the underworld, to erect the architecture of the dream space.

It’s ultimately an invitation, I think – not everyone is willing to accept the invitation, and nobody has to, it’s a free choice. But the invitation is present, as the lights go down – take my hand here in the mundane, step across this threshold, and follow me… elsewhere.

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