Nine Thoughts on Short Films (1995)

Nine Thoughts on Short Films

1. All of my dreams are short films. Feature filmmakers, novelists, the heads of multi-national corporations are different. When they lie asleep they have a single dream lasting the whole night. There is continuity and order, a sense that the house they build asleep is large enough to hold all of their experience, grant each moment of their desire a setting joined somehow to everything else. Their dream is what we learned to call, as schoolchildren, the big picture. The world we live in.

My dreams are different. Lasting just a few seconds they arrive in waves of conflicting advice, storm clouds of pictures raining down on a helpless population unable to sort them before they leach back into earth. My dreams are not the world we live in, as I look out my window, the streetcars running on time, people dressing for work. Each morning I give thanks that my dreams are not the world we live in.

Last night I dreamt celebrities require a second body to absorb a lifetime of cameras and media exposure. They get one illegally through the university. My friend works there and cooks one up for me. But when I arrive I’m surprised to see it doesn’t look like me at all, or even have a shape I can discern. It’s an amorphous blob, a black stain. I think “Oh, the unconscious.”

2. Our dreams did not always resemble films, though we had dreamt the cinema long before it appeared. It was 1895 in a small coffee shop in the wrong end of Paris when they first started showing films in public. The film they showed that night, the one that came before all the rest, seemed to contain all of the short films that would come after because every medium, like the people who go to live there for a time, carries its inventory in a mark or sign, like a fingerprint that traces DNA lines around the contours of the thumb. It was the same with this, the first film ever shown. It seemed to us when we finally saw it, like an act of writing, as if we were reading the writing on the wall of all that was to come.

Already in this first writing of light there is a concern with the autograph, the signature and destiny of the name. Lumiére in French means light, and it’s as if they could only complete the sentence that began with their own naming by beginning a medium which does little more than vary the play of light against a wall, a wall which they call in French la mur, the wall, l’amour, the wall of love. And all of the filmmakers that would succeed them, who would try to make a name for themselves in this light reading would marry their Christian names with those of the Lumiére brothers, the twins of light, whose pictures always double their subject and whose image or imagination would soon make doubles of us all.

3. When I hear the words short film I wonder short of what? There’s a kind of despondency to the term, a defeated air that hangs around it that smells distinctly Canadian somehow. It’s a kind of confirmation of inadequacy, not so much a statement as a shrug. Movies are short only in relation to other movies which ain’t. The ‘short film’ implies something else, something longer, something that isn’t just ‘short.’ And you want to know, we all want to know, where the rest of it is, because this is just a short form, an abbreviation, an acronym. When we watch it, the short film, we give ourselves over to the fragment, the gesture, and can’t help wondering where the rest is.

4. The first film ever made was a short one: short and simple. It showed a train arriving at a station, while folks who worked in the factory of the Lumiéres poured out of the factory gate, waiting for a ride home. When we look at this first film of the Lumiéres we feel that something is missing, something has been left out. Where are the gestures of work, of the factory? We look into the image for evidence of its passing, and realize that the brothers of light have left nothing out after all, that in order to show us the terrible effects of their machines we need only witness the workers themselves. They bear the writing of the machine not simply in its hours of operation, but in their moments of leisure, in their unthinking stroll between factory and home. The Lumiére’s turn an unerring attention to the habits of the body, and find that everything is written there, every remark made in anger, every slight of childhood, every happiness and criminal intent. If only we knew how to read them. As the heads of the proletariat turn to the revolution of turbines and dynamos we understand that their walk is nothing less than a march of progress, inscribed for the benefit of future generations. Here are the hieroglyphs of industrial culture, written now not in the stones of the pyramids but in flesh and bone. This is the first great project of the twins: to undertake a public study of the human body by projecting its parts as large as possible in dark houses of learning across the world, repeating the same gestures time and again, until we could unravel the fathomless mystery of our own flesh.

5. The night before Christmas all my dreams are about food. In the first, two men sit at a table, looking down at dinner, not moving at first.
“What do you think?”
“Well I could easily see me ending up like the mash potatoes.”
“Because of misdeeds?”
“Self assertion.”

6. In the beginning there were only short movies, the camera wouldn’t fit anymore, and the length of a film relied on the projectionist’s patience—in the old days movies were wound by hand, and if the projectionist was bored, or drunk or had seen the print too many times, even a very long film could be turned quickly through the projector. In the early days of the movies, length was in the hands of the beholder.

7. Introducing yourself as a maker of short films—isn’t this the same as admitting that you didn’t make it or go all the way? The odds were too great so you fell short. Came up short. Was it because we were short sighted, or short of the vision that would have made of our masterpiece a real movie, the kind of movie that wouldn’t have to be prefaced with a shrug. It’s short. It’s a bit like saying I’m sorry, it’s a bit like one of those things you apologize for to strangers. Well, after all, you made the short list, or we’ll get to you shortly, and if this keeps up you wonder whether you’ll always end up on the short end.

8. Many books have been written about how to make movies, but few have been written about how to watch them. Fifty years ago a couple of surrealists devised a radical new moviegoing method, so radical that it’s taken nearly fifty years to catch on. Their means were simple—walk into a movie theatre ensuring that the film is somewhere in the middle, stay until the plot begins to make sense, then rush into the next available theatre and begin all over again. Today this celebration of fragments has become a way of life. Today we call it channel surfing.

9. When I hear the words short film I wonder short for who? For all those people I keep reading about who have short attention spans—who can’t be responding to these reports because they’re post-literary. For these channel zappers all the world’s a short film, that never seems short enough. Twenty years ago you couldn’t get enough of a good thing, but now you can’t get little enough. The short film already implies too much commitment, it’s still too much like getting married. What surfing channels makes possible is a glorious series of one night stands where the present is the only form of life, and the bodies never stop changing. Is this what Oppenheimer feared when he split the atom, that we would grow increasingly microscopic, learn to live in smaller and smaller niches of time? That our nuclear arsenals signaled our inability to mourn because they implied that their would be no one left, no one left to turn the reels of the movie that would show everyone as they once were, bending in blue dresses to touch something, watching over the small movies of our lives, the small people we’ve become, huddled together in our private moments. Our movies mark the passage of time, they are time machines, machines built for mourning, and in some moments they are much of what stands between us and our need to obliterate everything. Our need to begin again, to wipe the slate clean. There are two kinds of terror here, the terror of annihilation and the terror of remembering. Which will we find more painful? Or more seductive?

Originally published in: Take One, Fall 1995 and Plague Years: a life in underground movies (Toronto: YYZ Press, 1998)