The Death of the Short
The origins of the short are the origins of cinema
itself, and its death is likewise linked. All film inhabited short
formats for its first formative decades and early film still has
an important relationship with experimental film-making (which was
brought into focus by the extraordinary rediscoveries at the FIAF
archive conference in Brighton in 1978). As Thomas Elsaesser put
it in Early Cinema Space Frame Narrative "The rediscovery of the
'primitives' seemed like a vindication of the avant garde's fifty
year struggle to rethink the foundations of film language and dispel
the idea that the cinema's turn to fictional narrative or adoption
of illusionist representational forms was its inevitable destiny."
As cinema developed and refined feature length forms,
shorts continued a life to the side of mainstream modes, they developed
both their narrative specificity and their osmosis with other movements
in the arts. Surrealism had its influence from Luis Bunuel and Salvador
Dali's Le Chien Andalou to Jean Vigo, Man Ray and Maya Deren. Elsewhere
there were rich abstract explorations as diverse as Oscar Fischinger
and Viking Eggeling, Len Lye and Norman McLaren.
The birth of the film school in the post war era,
notably in Eastern Europe, led to early short work by Roman Polanski,
Jiri Mendel and Andrej Tarkovski. Today the short has a major role
in the vocational transition from film school to industry, it is
a crucial calling card, a display of credentials and potentials.
That tradition of utilising the short as an area for
play adjacent to the main work of feature film makers is still evident
in recent films such as Not I by Neil Jordan or Two Nudes Bathing
by John Boorman or Le Batteur du Bolero by Patrice Leconte. Compilation
films in cinema (Loin du Vietnam, Deutschland im Herbst and 11'09"01
- September 11) and television series (Dazzling Image, Ghosts in
the Machine and Midnight Underground, would be examples from a historical
version of Channel 4) also support this.
However as we approach contemporary film culture there
is a reduction in the role of the short as an oppositional or critical
form in the public domain. Perhaps the clearest example would be
the lost opportunity of the pop promo. Instead of a ludic and visual
space for brave film-making, an aggressive commercialisation took
place eliminating the wider prospects for imagination and diversity
in the video clip.
The most watched short narratives would be the mini-narratives
of advertisements and the expositions of the news / factual television
- there is a predominance of ideologically foreshortened forms in
the audio visual domain. My sense is that the specious and the trivial
that pervades television is now in danger of predominating in the
area of short fiction making too.
Of course good films are always made, but perhaps
these are rarer and more exceptional now. Marketing is a self-fulfilling
prophecy and in a gradual and uneven way has had its effect on taste.
Across the last few decades mass marketing has predicated an increasingly
limited version of cinema and has shifted audience taste towards
it. Any context for discussion about the health of the short film
should examine the relationship between the cultural cocoon of a
film festival and distribution of films to wider audiences. What
are the current encouragements for work which challenges conventional
forms or received political understandings? How does the global
image system function and what is the potential for wider diversity
Rod Stoneman is the Director of the Huston School
of Film & Digital Media at the National University of Ireland, Galway.
He was Chief Executive of Bord Scannán na hÉireann / the Irish Film
Board until September 2003 and previously a Deputy Commissioning
Editor in the Independent Film and Video Department at Channel 4
Television. He has made a number of documentaries for television
and written on film in various magazines including: Screen, Sight
and Sound, Kinema and Film Ireland.