What Are Short Films For?

Back in November, DW Mault attended FACT’s Liverpool film night. Would he leave any the wiser about short film?  

What are short films for? What are their uses? Do they exist to further formalism away from the confines of commercial pressures, a la short stories or novellas, or are they a platform for dreamers, chancers and wannabes on their long road to mediocrity?

It probably depends on the ends rather than the means, but I think we can safely assume in the UK it’s most often a platform for getting to direct bad television so you can continue life high on the hog.

Part of this problem is to do with how short films are funded in the UK, or rather how they are not. In the brave new world of ‘anyone can make a film’, where all you need are your friends, a Canon 5D, Final Cut Pro and a Mac Book Pro, funding has collapsed until you get to high-end BFI funded short films (£50,000), which of course are only available once you’ve made a number of self-financed shorts, screened at Film Festivals and been noticed. So it’s kind of a Catch 22 situation and one which makes it more difficult for narratives and filmmakers from sections of society outside of the White Middle Class.

Over the years I learned the lesson the hard way about going to British Short Film events; it’s always best to go with diminished expectations (in a similar way one goes to Hollywood Studio Product): Theodor Adorno claimed that cinema implied the desire to suffer, with that in mind I sat down to FACT’s annual Liverpool Short Film Night. The law of averages says that with 10 Films screening we should see at least one film that is good and a couple that are promising, with the remaining seven also-rans.

I think the starting point for a ‘blind’ screening like this though should always be the refrain from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.” Watching in hope of finding that flash of the heat of white light that says I forgot where I was, I forgot how long before I can leave and hit the bar. The 10 films ran the gamut, as is to be expected, from: Music Videos (which I think should be excluded from Short Film Nights), Experimental, Comedy, Faux Documentary, Documentary, Animation and Dramas.

Many puzzled me in the extreme. If I had made them I wouldn’t have showed to close friends, let alone a cinema full of paying customers. As Film Critic Emeritus Barry Norman always used to say in relation to low budget films vis a vis Hollywood Mega Budget films: “if you’re charging the same price, you must be treated on an equal playing field.” As with many things, Barry Norman nailed the very essence of democratic thought in relation to paying for an experience.

I am not here to happily destroy creative endeavor, very much the opposite. The films that were poor (and very poor at that) were few and far between, most were mediocre in the extreme and one can only hope that their next efforts will show an evolution. One did certainly take from these films that the creators were dilettantes whose filmmaking efforts were a hobby horse that makes the day go quicker. So I’ll only be talking about the films that grabbed me, were made by people with stacks of potential, or were shown with the confidence that underlies a professionalism that should be acclaimed.

The first film that piqued my interest and stopped me sticking my pen in my thigh to keep me awake was Albert Camus And The Fall by the filmmaking duo: Adam Sadiq & Danielle Chinn. They come from a background of the visual arts and architecture (and boy does it show). Their film was an elegy to urban milieu and its after effects. The only example of the extremity that is cinematic formalism as enema. I will look forward to their next film but was dismayed to found out post-screening that might not happen, which is a crying shame. My only complaint would be I think there needs to be a moratorium on the use of time-lapse photography in cinema (that and jokey parodies of Film Noir).

Brevity when watching a series of UK shorts is to be encouraged, especially when the film ends, you internally scream for more. Martin Henshall’s Scratch does this and more. It gives us that hard-to-define element that makes for great art: the sense of mystery, the addled notion of the uncanny… Who are these people, why are they in evening dress, why has the man got a bloodied nose? Henshall knows the old adage of Flaubert: “wanting to conclude is the true stupidity of the human being…”

This leads us to the conclusion and what was there and what wasn’t. Having sat through the 10 films, it seemed there was something missing (and then some).

The final film that pulled my cuff and led me on a dance of nihilism was Ged Hunter’s Leonard. Impressively, Leonard is only Ged’s second film as a director and it was the one film screened that appeared to have arrived fully formed: professional in the sense that it can (and does) exist alongside any other feature film that screened at FACT that night. Again, similar to all four films I’ve mentioned, it understands a sense of ‘the other,’ and that the idea of explanation is to negate the power of the image. It lives and breathes in the horror-like world of 21st century poverty but never rumbles to social realism cliche; more Alan Clarke than Ken Loach.

So who is the titular Leonard? He is a monster, a grotesque created by North End cycles of poverty, free will, Margaret Thatcher and the 1980s. As ever, we are as ignorant of the meaning of the grotesque as we are ignorant of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the grotesque’s image that appeals to the human imagination and the ever-grasping of the uncanny. It’s the irony of necessary monsters and all that it entails.

It points out that to exist surrounded by madness, it’s only sane that we become monsters and grotesques. Imagine the vapid post-hurricane landscape of Xenia internalised in bedsit-land down the mean streets of Walton Breck Road, and you’re nearly there. Most definitely the bastard offspring from the very worst of Vice Magazine and the idiot-savant-like imagination of Harmony Korine.

So seek these quartet of films, remember and repeat Lord Alfred Tennyson: To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield… Good night and good luck!

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