The London Times

November 8th, 2006
Keep it short, keep it sweet

A collection of single-shot short films demonstrates the virtues of conciseness and the power of imagination

Whatever happened to the short film? Nowadays the single big feature is king of the cinema, plus a few zappy, semi-comprehensible trailers to whet our appetites for the next one. But if you peer not too far back into the mists of cinema history, you will find such things as second features, cartoons and even Pathé News.

Over the next few weeks a new initiative by Film and Video Umbrella, in conjunction with the UK Film Council and Arts Council England, will be bringing a series of 15 newly commissioned short films — they vary from a little over one minute to almost ten — to a cinema, club, shop, café or river boat near you. Look out for them this month, for example, on the Tate Boat that plies between Tate Modern and Tate Britain.

These films are by a mixture of film-makers with a track record and total unknowns. The challenge was the same for all of them: to make a short film in a single, uninterrupted shot. No splicing. No sub-plots. No abrupt changes of scene.

Short films need to make a fast impact. The best of the films here do just that. Some of them incline towards short-story-telling, others are more like art videos, examining the nature of what they are doing by making surprising links between, for example, film and painting. In George Barber’s Automative Action Painting cans of paint are flung across a road. As the car wheels pass over, the whole spectacle is transformed into an action painting.

One of the best — and one of the shortest at just a little under two minutes — is Ori Gersht’s Pomegranate. Within a wooden picture frame he has assembled elements of a still life: a pomegranate and a cauliflower, both suspended from wires; a squash, partially sliced, on a window sill. We watch the nothing that is happening here in anticipation of — what? Nothing, because nothing happens in a still life painting except our own contemplation of it.

But something does happen here. A bullet suddenly bursts open the pomegranate. It wheels slowly in the air like a smashed, violated mouth, spraying seeds in cloudy slow motion, a shockingly perfect image of beauty and its violation.

That film represents a near-total absorption in a single image. Other films are on the move narratively — in Matthew Grinter’s Tea Leaves a camera pans in slow motion around the inside of a café to a dribbling soundtrack of inconsequential music. Each tiny moment is absorbingly funny — a man’s tea is spilt; a line of dominoes topples; a couple are having a fight; a rude boy gangles in through the door. A stiff man in a business suit is drinking orange juice from a fluted glass. A flower seller hovers hopelessly just beyond the window. Very quickly we pan back to the spilt tea, at the moment when the waitress replaces it with a refill — so life begins again.

Most of these films have a lightness of touch, and often a skim of humour, to help them along. Many also play deftly with the relationship between sound and image.

Sometimes the soundtrack helps to point up the joyous absurdity of what we are seeing — in Tula Parker and Anna Weatherston’s Beach Jam a toy car is tweaked along a length of sea wall by thumb and finger past other toy vehicles to the accompaniment of a tremendous, driving beat. Sean Dower’s Automaton is an exercise in the deft use of camera angles. The camera’s eye caresses, explores and generally hulks around a vintage drum kit as a drum solo is being played. The camera licks at the drums’ metal rims, wings over the drummer, sneaks underneath, and finishes by being absorbed back into the skin of the bass drum. Camera movement alone gives this film a real sensuous charge.

The longest film is Clio Barnard’s Dark Glasses. It brings together a painful conversation about a distant and troubled childhood with scenes which bring the conversation to life. Its grainy instability and its juddery vertiginousness help to make emotional sense of the questions being thrown at the woman under quiet, almost whispered, interrogation: do you like to speak to her? What’s your sense of her? The film moves back and forth in time; extraneous sounds wash in and out.

So there is movement, speed and inventiveness in these films, a revelling in what the camera can do, and the multiplicity of ways it can work in conjunction with sound.

These days so many main features are too big and noisy for their open good. They sprawl oceanically; they are as wide and as high as they need to be within their soaring budgets. These shorts, by contrast, are tightly managed, tightly drawn, and a credit to their young makers. They go off like sticks of dynamite on a short fuse.

For details of where the films are playing, visit