Saturday, May 11, 2013

Shorts on Screen

My ambivilance towards short films is well documented. So often I find short films are truncated versions of what directors want to make (a feature), or a build up to a punch line that doesn't warrant the time spent getting there. I know it's terrible of me and I have indeed seen many excellent short films, but I find watching short sessions at film festivals to be a struggle. If they were made more available online then maybe I could pick and choose - does anybody know of a website that streams shorts?

Anyway, I do find myself becoming more and more a fan of one type of short film, however. Those that avoid traditional narrative are really starting to make me take notice. On the infrequent chance that I actually get to view them, I've noticed myself becoming more and more receptive to them. I think, in essence, the lack of traditional narrative or conventional plotting is ideal for the short film structure. It allows a director to simply put forth an idea without having to struggle with the likes of dialogue and actors. More akin to a museum artwork, these type of films make wonderful use of the medium and actively make the viewer lose the reliance on traditional elements like exposition, dialogue, and actors (although these type of shorts can obviously still incorporate them) and the mental processes that usually go along when watching a movie. They exist not so much to tell a story, but to tell an idea and I think that's marvellous.

Two examples of this that I've seen recently include Lucy Raven's RP31 and Eva Weber's Night, Peace. The former is little more than four minutes of excised test patterns and calibration charts and assembled into a constantly fluctuating series of looping edits. It screened before Shane Carruth's Upstream Color at the New Directors/New Films festival and while I'm not sure the two go together all that well, I found it fascinating. My viewing partners, however, did not. I admired the way it took elements of cinema we otherwise do not see and contorted them into something that we can't ignore. Projected on a big screen - 35mm no less, thank the heavens - and the images have a hypnotic quality. "When I snap my fingers you will turn your telephone off and cease discussions about just how much of a bitch that Candace lady at work is."

With its presentation on 35mm it would be very easy to read the film as a love letter of sorts to the sort of filmmaking components that are no longer with us. If the film has a weakness it's that Raven doesn't actually give a context for any of the footage and, for all we know, could be completely invented for the purpose of the film. In which case the film would become ultimately a fake experience and one that falls into the trappings of its digital predecessors. I don't think that, of course, but it's a reading that one could definitely argue. Here is a link to a well-written piece that looks at RP31 from the other end of the critical spectrum. I can see where the writer, Catherine Wagley, is coming from.

As for Eva Weber's Night, Peace it uses a similar trick of reconstructing images we otherwise mightn't ever witness and transforming them into a visual poem of sorts. With more of a centred structure than RP31, Weber's film examines London nightlife in a distinctly haunting manner using CCTV and security footage (or, at least, specially filmed footage that looks like those things) to see the city as a dark and uneasily quiet place. It's another film to describe as hypnotic and I particularly liked the moment (visible in the video below) where two urban foxes stop their alleyway fighting and notice the camera. Night, Peace is a city being watched from various angles at a moment of vulnerability and weakness, as it sleeps. It was the perfect introduction to Nights with Theodore at the San Francisco International Film Festival (the film my FIPRESCI jury awarded, just by the way) since they both share a haunting urban quality that makes for a captivating filmgoing experience.

A clip of Night, Peace is available online and have embedded it below. Neither of the films are available in full as far as I am aware so if you're interested you'll have to seek them out in other ways. I recommend them though and I hope to see more like them in the future.

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