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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Eat my shorts

The simplest things can get my brain tied up in knots. I have a format for this website and I follow it as slavishly as if I had some kind of boss or manager basing my next pay rise or bonus on how well I follow it. I’m just that kind of personality. I think it is a form of obsessive compulsion.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. A couple of weeks ago I got an email from a director named Zak Forsman wanting me to review his movie, which I could access over the internet. I have done this before, but in this case the film in question was nine minutes long. And that’s where my brain went into overdrive. Relentless readers may have noticed that I don’t have a section on the web site for short films. Normally, I don’t review them—with the notable exception of being within the context of film festivals, which is where one is most likely to see this category of film. Otherwise, short films are not really part of the mainstream entertainment landscape. Some cinemas may show them before the main feature, but I think this is fairly rare. They can also be seen on certain television channels. Otherwise, you pretty much have to find a film festival that includes or specializes in them, if you want to see them projected on a movie screen. Of course, if you don’t mind watching them on a computer screen, sites such as YouTube have put zillions of them at everyone’s fingertips. This raises the interesting questions: what exactly is a short film meant to be and how does it fit into the general film world?

But before I get into that, let’s return to my format dilemma. I wondered, should I create a section especially for short films? Or should I stick stubbornly to my established format and ignore the opportunity to write about a new bit of film work? The solution, you may have gathered, was to comment on Forsman’s film in the course of one of my weekly commentaries. I am doing this for a number of reasons. I think it is important to support new filmmaking talent in any way I can, but even more importantly, there is a chance that sometime in the future, when Forsman becomes a powerful heavy hitter in Hollywood, he will remember me and maybe every couple of years fly me to Los Angeles on his private jet to see preview screenings of his latest mega-blockbuster. So here are my inevitably inadequate thoughts of Zak Forsman’s movie, which is called, ahem, I F*@#ing Hate You.

If the first challenge this film posed for me was its length, close behind was its title. For the record, I have altered it because I fancy my web site as being, nmore or less, family friendly. Unfiltered, the title uses the actual Anglo-Saxon gerund. That limits its audience (e.g. probably no ads in the daily newspaper), but then as a short film, it had self-limited its audience already. But the title may or may not have something to do with the fact that I nearly never saw Forsman’s email because my old nanny of an email filter had tried to hide it from me. But all of this aside, what is the film like?

It is essentially a brief, two-character vignette. It is a testament to its subtle complexity that I cannot say for certain whether it is actually a drama or a comedy. Like real life, it is a bit of both. I will offer another bit of strange praise. Although Forsman—who, the IMDB says, works as a video editor and has another directorial effort in post-production called Heart of Now—says the dialog was improvised with the actors, Marion Kerr and John T. Woods, it sounds like something that was competently scripted in advance. The story is about what is, presumably, the last meeting between a couple that have split up. Woods’s character has come up with a way to say good-bye that is both funny and heartbreaking. It is a simple enough tale, but one that most adults can well relate to. It’s not replete with the profound insights that will change your life, but it is well-made and promising for Formsan’s future work. He is a director who clearly cares about characters. End of review. (When you send your jet, Zak, either the airports at Galway or Shannon will work for me.)

But back to my thoughts about short films in general. As a genre, they are not without significance. After all, they have their own categories for the Academy Awards (for live-action, documentary and animation). On the other hand, how many of those Oscar winners (let alone the nominees) have you actually seen? Practically speaking, short films tend to function as practice for budding filmmakers and c.v.’s for getting work. Check the directing credits of any major filmmaker and you will find that their earliest works were short films. Steven Spielberg started with an eight-minute film in 1959 called The Last Gun. George Lucas’s earliest known film was a one-minute photo montage in 1965 called Look at Life, and he broke through with a 15-minute sci-fi flick in 1967 called Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB. Already showing his penchant for not letting his earlier work alone, he reworked it as an 86-minute film in 1971, as simply THX 1138, starring Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasence. So, the reason for watching short films include not only the pleasures they may provide on their own merits but also the possibility that we may be seeing the emergence of a new cinematic giant.

There are also reasons not to watch short films. The odds are equally good, if not better, that you are watching the work of someone who has no future in the movies. And, by their nature, short films are limited. Not only by time but also but budget and resources. Unless they are made by an already-established filmmaker, they are not going to be made more entertaining by throwing lots of money at them. If they work at all, it is strictly because of the talent and inventiveness of the filmmaker. Because short films tend to be the work of students and therefore experimental, they have not really been my favorite genre to spend lots of time watching. But, occasionally, one will turn out to be every bit as fulfilling (and sometimes more) as movies an hour or more longer. Short films that have blown me away and stuck in my mind ever since include Must Be the Music, which I saw at the 1996 Seattle International Film Festival. Full of energy and narrative drive, it was the rare teen romance, of any length, that has stuck in my mind ever since. Writer/director Nickolas Perry followed up with the less engaging feature film, Speedway Junky, starring starring Jesse Bradford and Jonathan Taylor Thomas. Another is Alan Gilsenan’s Zulu 9, which I not only saw at Seattle’s 2002 Irish Reels Film & Video Festival but actually had a hand in selecting to be shown. In 12 amazing minutes, it was as harrowing and riveting as any feature-length movie, and its subject (the plight of refugees fleeing from Africa to Europe) has become even more timely since. Gilsenan, who has done a fair amount of notable work for Irish television, followed up with a feature film called Timbuktu which, unfortunately, was every bit as disappointing as it was promising. Another was Anthony Byrne’s Meeting Che Guevara and the Man from Maybury Hill, which I have already mentioned a few times on these pages. I first saw it at the 2003 Galway Film Fleadh and, unusually for me, I immediately wanted to see it again. (If you would like to see it, it is possible to do so on YouTube.) Byrne followed up with a feature film called Short Order, which was quirky and which I found compelling and, once again, I immediately wanted to see again. Unfortunately, it never seems to have had a proper release. Last year Byrne released a more mainstream film, based on a Maeve Binchy story, called How About You? The cast included Brenda Fricker, Imelda Staunton and Vanessa Redgrave, who had a memorable cameo in Short Order.

Another brilliant short film that sticks in my mind is one exception that proves the rule. I actually saw it in a cinema before a proper feature film. It was part of a program supported by the Irish Film Board called Short Shorts. It was called The Angelus, and it was hilarious. It was a parody of the film clips they show on Irish television while they play the ringing of the Angelus at noon and 6 p.m., a nod to the traditionally dominant Catholic Church here. It was a one-joke movie, but when a movie is only a few minutes long, one really good joke can be more than enough.

-S.L., 13 March 2008

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