Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Paranoia in a convenient dose

I don’t know which is more surprising: the fact that filmmakers actually take the time to get in touch with me or the fact that more do not.

In any event, I am always quite happy when one of them does—especially when it is to ask me to look at one of their films. You really do not get at the essence of what it is to be a film fan unless you have the thrill of sitting down to watch something without having any idea what to expect ahead of time. Hollywood and marketers and the internet have taken that away from us to a large extent.

My latest invitation to watch something unexpected came last week from Gerard Lough, a filmmaker from Donegal. He is currently working on his first feature film, Night People, which is described as “a horror/science fiction anthology film.” Heretofore his work has consisted of music videos and short films, including a 27-minute Stephen King adaptation called The Boogeyman.

He is quoted on the IMDb as saying, “I think short films are looked down on by some as the poor relation of the film world the same way short stories are sniffed at in literary circles and at times they almost feel like the artistic equivalent of an endangered species.”

It’s an interesting point. I’d say that, historically, the half-hour movie has not been prized for the same reason that four-hour epics aren’t that often welcomed into cinemas. Long ago cinema proprietors worked out that the optimum running time for a movie, from a commercial point of view, was around 90 to 120 minutes. There was a time when shorts and featurettes preceded a feature film, but that time seems to have passed. Nowadays the feature is preceded only by adverts.

But now we live in the future where people don’t necessarily go to the cinema for their art and entertainment. It now often comes through little boxes connected to their TV screens or through their computers. In an age where people can spend weekends binging on an entire TV series or a mere ten minutes watching a YouTube video, does the running time really matter anymore? Does this mean that there could be a flowering of shorter movie forms as well as longer ones? It’s all before us.

Anyway, Lough’s most recent short, which he invited me to watch, is called Ninety Seconds, which somehow makes it sound shorter than it is. (It runs 27 minutes.) It takes place in a quasi-dystopian near-future where surveillance technology is pretty much ubiquitous. The actual location is left a bit ambiguous, although there is an establishing shot of Dublin’s three-year-old Convention Centre, with its distinctive tilted-beer-can high tech look. It evokes the future in a similar way to London’s 30 St Mary Axe skyscraper (a.k.a. “the Gherkin”), which is now a mainstay of UK location shoots.

The setup is that a surveillance expert (Andrew Norry) takes on an assignment from a somewhat sinister businessman (Michael Parle) to spy on a young woman. The film’s title comes from the amount of usable and/or significant footage typically yielded by days and days of recording.

If this scenario—plus Norry’s matter-of-fact approach to casually spying on a stranger—brings to mind Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation, well, I don’t think that’s entirely a coincidence. Lough is taking the paranoia meme of 1970s movies and updating it for the age of ever-present CCTV and the NSA.

Lough does a fine job of establishing a mood and nicely manages to build tension by merely observing someone who is basically going about doing his job. Underneath it all is the nagging sense that all is not as it seems. The cast is first-rate and professional.

It says something about the way we are conditioned to the form of feature-length films that I found myself wanting this film to be longer, to spend more time on character development, to expand the story. Indeed, I would say that it is one of those shorts that could certainly be adapted into a longer form. But as it is, it is a nice little entertainment that envelopes the viewer in a world, virtually indistinguishable from our own, in which we never know where to be looking or whom to trust. Well done.

Now we just have to keep our eyes out (2015?) for Night People.

-S.L., 25 September 2013

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