You Should Watch Short Films Forever

I’ve been struggling for years to express to other people exactly what I love about short films as an art form. Some of that is definitely that short films have no significant constituency in popular culture, so you can’t really assume a lot of priors. I don’t need to explain what feature-length films are like as an art form before I tell you why I like feature-length films, but most people don’t watch a lot of short films so in almost every conversation I have about them, I’m on the back foot from the get-go. I think there’s a popular view of short films as either Very Important Movies About Very Important Issues, like the tens of thousands of anti-bullying short films on YouTube, or pretentious film school nonsense, and probably shite either way. 

And there is a lot of stuff like that, sure, but if it feels like that’s all short films are, that’s really just a reflection of how accessible they are as a medium, if not necessarily for audiences, then certainly for filmmakers. All you need to make a short film is a camera, a way to edit the footage and the time to make it. Every phone in the world has a camera on it right now more powerful than almost anything imaginable just thirty years ago, and there’s loads of free editing software, some of a very high quality, available on your phone or computer. All that leaves is the time, and short films by definition are generally less time-consuming to produce. Even with the constraints of needing a computer and Internet access to do it, I’m not sure there’s a medium other than the written word with a lower barrier to entry as both an artist and a publisher than short films right now. It’s no shock it produces tons of rubbish, any more than it’s a shock most self-published novels are total shite. But the vast and overwhelming shiteness of self-published novels has never impugned the novel as an art form. Yet the glut of bad short films on the Internet has undeniably tainted the reputation of the medium. 

The most obvious explanation is there are virtually no large commercial interests behind short films (and there haven’t been for decades), whereas novels are produced and distributed by some of the biggest commercial interests in the world. Short films are a relatively uncommodified form, which is fantastic in a lot of ways, but it also means they aren’t marketed outside a small niche of filmgoers and largely lack even the infrastructure for formal, large-scale distribution outside the festival circuit or self-publication on the Internet. For novels, there are official routes to publication that, however flawed they may be in other areas, do provide some level of quality control just on the basic level of competence with language. It’s a reassurance that, if nothing else, a bunch of people who aren’t the author read the book before you and made sure it wasn’t just absolute unreadable gibberish. The line it draws is imperfect and hardly meritocratic, but it mostly succeeds at sorting some of the wheat from most of the chaff. The only guides people interested in or curious about short films have to finding the good stuff is articles like this by critics and other enthusiasts. And then you have to be able to get your hands on the films to watch them, which can be pretty tricky given the lack of distribution. Unless you have a load of cash to drop on expensive Blu-ray boxsets or Vimeo rentals – and even then, not everything is available to buy – you end up dependent on people willing and able to upload them for free, legally or not, just to be able to see them, and even official uploads can be pretty low-quality if they haven’t been reuploaded since YouTube started allowing higher-definition video. 

But I love short films despite all the hassle. I love short films because they’re films and there’s almost nothing in this world I love as much as I love films. 

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The Mere Possibility of the Movie Musical

Earlier this year, video essayist Lindsay Ellis uploaded a dissection of the 2019 film adaptation of Cats. Cats is a cinematic monstrosity that has to be seen to be believed, and Ellis’s video seeks to figure out why. Cats (2019) is awful in ways both rooted in the source material – the whole thing is basically a succession of cats walking into frame and singing a song about what kind of cat they are – and entirely its own – the uncanny valley visual effects make the cats somewhere unsettling between human and cat – but Ellis places a lot of the blame on the tricky business of moving from stage to screen.

“Some musicals – not all, but most of them – require a visual medium that jives with the way the musical itself is constructed. Les Misérables was constructed for the stage. Cats was constructed for the stage,” Ellis says, citing the way actors on stage frequently pantomime props or sets that aren’t there, “That is the thing about theatre… it is constructed so that the audience has to imagine what’s going on in the story. Overcoming that suspension of disbelief is built into the design of the medium in a way that it is not with film.”

These ideas about the film musical – that the suspension of disbelief required for musicals as a genre is at odds with film as a medium, or that the process of adaptation from stage musical to film is a particularly and perhaps uniquely fraught one – are really common. People talk about film musicals as particularly difficult to pull off in ways they don’t about pretty much any other genre. “The genre’s lack of realism and inherent camp” is “alienating for modern audiences”, according to Film School Rejects. Ellis basically concludes that film adaptations of stage musicals are totally unnecessary, at least outside of animation. Musicals as a form are naturally suited to theatre in ways they’re just not suited to film, is the point. But all of this is bizarre: it sounds hypothetically plausible, but isn’t at all borne out by the evidence of nearly a century of movie musicals.

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Make It, Don’t Fake It

Trash Humpers is a difficult film to talk about without people dismissing it as, well, trash. Shot on VHS and edited in part on a pair of VCRs – sometimes blindfolded – it follows an anonymous gang of misfits in rubber old person masks1 as they traipse around Nashville, TN and film themselves doing a bunch of weird shit, like humping rubbish bins. Right from the second shot of the film, they hump rubbish bins, and fences, and trees, and whatever other inanimate objects strike their fancy. (They hire some sex workers at one point, but mainly to play drums on their asses.) It’s vulgar, strange and unsettling. It has less than no plot and almost no sense of linear time: the only thing that suggests any particular order to the events is the fact that some scenes are taped over others. 

“It’s not for everyone” is a cliché and a truism, but the audience of people both able and inclined to enjoy a film like Trash Humpers is vanishingly small. Some of that is the weird sex stuff, sure, but Pink Flamingos features unsimulated blowjobs, sex scenes involving live chickens and a guy who makes his asshole sing “Surfin’ Bird”, and it has a thousand times more popular appeal than Trash Humpers ever could. When we talk about taste in art, I feel like there’s a tendency to try and sort people into “types” or “taste profiles” or whatever. Usually on the basis of genre – the horror fan, the action fan, the romance fan – or, increasingly, based on weird, niche stereotypes like the “IMDb 250 fan” (a subject of derision in many online film communities for reasons that remain unclear to me) or the many varieties of “bro”. But our tastes are a lot more granular, specific and individual than that. I am, in theory, the target audience for a film like Hell or High Water. I love Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster and Chris Pine. I love westerns. The premise – two brothers rob the bank that duped their late mother into getting a reverse mortgage – fits me like a pair of moulded leather gloves. I wish at least 800% more films were about the recession and earnestly believe that movies should depict as many bank robberies as possible. But I don’t like Hell or High Water. It’s not a bad film, and there are lots of things I like about it, but it left me cold in the end. When I look back on it now, my overwhelming memory is how its desaturated colour grading reminded me of watery dilutable orange. It’s simply not to my taste. 

I don’t know if I could ever explain exactly why Trash Humpers appeals to me, but it does. In spite of all the reasons to find it mindless or boring or ugly, I just love this little film. It’s beautiful and funny and scary and moving. It rules. 

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Notes on The Conjuring

This article is part of the Notes on Failure series, which discusses interesting cinematic failures. Previously, The Last Jedi.

The Conjuring was a smash hit on release in 2013. It tested so well with audiences that Warner Brothers moved its release from the February dead zone to the summer blockbuster season. It was the first horror film to get an A from CinemaScore, who calculate an average score based on surveys of cinema audiences (and have been since 1979). It’s inspired an entire cinematic universe of sequels, prequels and spin-offs, with three more in the works. It was critically praised, too: reviews routinely described it as a classy throwback to films like The Exorcist, a kind of slow-burn horror in marked contrast to James Wan’s directorial debut, torture porn pioneer Saw.  

The problem with this, of course, is that The Conjuring sucks. Here’s why. 

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You Should Watch Figures in a Landscape

I find it easy enough to sell people on a film I love when it’s widely hated. The bad reputation of a film like The Happening is obviously an obstacle to selling people on it, but it’s also kind of a hook. At the very least, it saves me some explaining and gives me an initial impression to subvert. People also get a bit of a thrill from contrarianism. It feels good to reject the consensus, especially in such a low-stakes way as liking a film most people – or most critics – think is shit. Discovering a hidden gem or a misjudged masterpiece makes you feel like you’re in on a cool secret. It’s countercultural in the most literal sense. I know exactly how I’d pitch someone on the surprisingly moving Adam Sandler comedy Click or the director’s cut of the 2003 Daredevil movie with Ben Affleck. 

But sometimes films aren’t just hated or underrated. Sometimes, they’re not even forgotten: no one paid them enough attention in the first place to forget them. They’re the tough sell. It’s one thing to have been received with disdain, but to have simply been ignored? At least films that were panned were deemed worthy of recording in the annals of pop cultural history. If no one even took the time to hate something, I think our instinct is to assume it’s probably bad, and not even bad in interesting ways. Boringly bad. But even if that’s likely true of most such films, just as it’s likely true of most art ever, there’s nothing fundamentally meritocratic about what gets left in or out of history. The sheer volume of production over the last century-and-change of cinema practically guarantees some good films – maybe even some of the best films ever made – have managed to come into the world with very little notice. Even films by critically well-regarded directors. Even films by Palme d’Or winners. 

Figures in a Landscape is one of my favourite films of all time. One of the best films I’ve ever seen. And no one else seems to give a shit about it. 

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Do I Look Like the Kind of Clown That Could Start a Movement?

It’s a pretty old story at this point, but it’s a good one: when Do the Right Thing premiered in 1989, a lot of film critics expressed concern that it would inspire black people to riot. The film follows a day in the life of the residents of a racially-mixed but largely black neighbourhood in Brooklyn that culminates in the murder of a black man, Radio Raheem, by the police. The police came because of a fight between Radio Raheem and the owner of the local pizzeria, Sal, so the onlookers who saw the murder blame him. One resident, Da Mayor, tries to persuade the crowd to walk away, but Sal’s employee, Mookie, played by director Spike Lee, throws a bin through the window. The crowd runs into the pizzeria and smashes up the furniture. One of Radio Raheem’s friends sets it on fire. It’s one of my favourite setpieces in the history of cinema and it terrified several white critics at the time

It should go without saying that none of those fears were borne out. No riots broke out at screenings of Do the Right Thing. And that’s why the story lingers. It’s a story about the racism of white critics, a nice shorthand explanation of how criticism itself is distorted when the field is dominated by people from a narrow set of backgrounds, whether the skew is racial, gendered or economic. But I think it’s worth recognising that when those critics wet themselves over the possibility of a film inspiring real riots, they weren’t only racist. They were also wrong. And not just wrong because riots didn’t occur, but wrong because riots were never going to occur. Sometimes people have rioted about films, like The Birth of a NationThe Rules of the Game or Padmaavat, a Bollywood epic from a couple of years ago that enraged Hindu nationalists and Rajput caste extremists who heard – incorrectly – that it portrayed sex between a Muslim king and a Rajput queen, among other things. But there is no evidence in the history of film that exposure to a movie’s content, as opposed to the mere fact of its existence, has ever inspired anyone to riot. In fact, everyone who has ever promoted panic about art causing violence of any kind has been wrong. They were wrong about Do the Right Thing. They were wrong about Doom and Grand Theft Auto and every other video game. They were wrong about comic books and “video nasties” and Eminem

They were wrong about Joker

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Westerns, Part 2

Two years ago, I wrote about starting to watch westerns. It was mostly about the gap between westerns as I imagined they would be through cultural osmosis and westerns that I actually watched: defending westerns from the preconceptions of those who haven’t seen them. I was rejecting the view of westerns as a reactionary monolith. No genre is as uniform as the popular imagination frequently remembers westerns to have been.

I’m not sure if the rhetorical function of the western in popular discourse has shifted or if I’ve just noticed different parts of it, but I haven’t seen much of “westerns, of course, went into decline when audiences became uncomfortable with racist depictions of Native Americans” lately. Instead, westerns seem to be more often invoked as… a defense of superhero movies. The westerns/superheroes comparison is probably as old as the contemporary superhero boom – westerns, the story goes, dominated Hollywood for a time, just as superheroes have in the last few years – but was kicked into overdrive when Martin Scorsese called Marvel movies “theme parks” and a million nerds lost their minds. There were a lot of arguments made against Scorsese, from calling him a racist for not thinking Black Panther is extremely important to long Twitter threads of ugly CGI landscapes or medium shots of actors looking sad to “prove” that Marvel movies are cinema.

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Double Features #7: Genre Buddies

The worst thing a cover of a song can be is faithful. The point of a cover should be to shift a song in a different direction, whether it’s Jimi Hendrix transforming “All Along the Watchtower” from a cryptic folk song to an apocalyptic howl of electric madness or Take That turning Barry Manilow’s dark, dramatic piano ballad “Could It Be Magic” into a synth-driven dance track. It’s fascinating how a change in genre – something so often treated as cosmetic, even superficial – can make the same song sound completely different.

I wouldn’t describe any of these films as covers of each other exactly, but I feel a similar thrill watching them together and thinking about them, the thrill of common elements changed utterly by their context, style and genre. Like they’re singing from the same hymn sheet, but with wildly different approaches to the material. Some of the shifts are smaller than others, but all of them reflect on each other in really interesting ways, and most importantly, all of them rule.

Here’s five more double features.

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Staring into the Great Unknown in Mistress America

There’s a scene roughly 20 minutes into Noah Baumbach’s 2015 film Mistress America where Brooke (Greta Gerwig) takes her younger step-sister to-be Tracy (Lola Kirke) to the restaurant she is planning to start. The shutter anticlimactically opens up to reveal an empty, echoey series of rooms. But as Brooke walks through them, she tells Tracy about her vision for the place and it gradually blossoms into life in our minds. “It would be like a community center and a restaurant and a store, all in one… It would be the place that you, like, love to be.” Tracy is whisked away in this vision, thrilled by Brooke’s passionate explanation and the restaurant’s nostalgic name: “Mom’s.”

In a later scene, Brooke pitches the restaurant to her former boyfriend and potential investor Dylan (Michael Chernus). She stammers nervously and fidgets awkwardly as she tries to explain it again: “It’s a restaurant… but also, like, where you cut hair. Can I start over?” Brooke finally gets her time in the spotlight, her potential big break to finally realise her dream, and she chokes. 

These two scenes perfectly capture everything about Brooke Cardinas. On first impressions she appears supremely self-confident, delivering a seemingly unlimited stream of entrepreneurial ideas and pithy witticisms that Tracy quickly falls for. Brought together by the imminent wedding of Tracy’s mother and Brooke’s father, Brooke is everything that Tracy, an insecure, rudderless college freshman, aspires to be: driven, wildly-passionate, and unstoppable. A resident of Times Square (where they first meet, Brooke stretching out her arms to yell “welcome to the great white way!”), she is the kind of person who becomes the center of attention in any situation, a confident modern American woman who always appears both one step behind and ahead of everyone around her. 

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You Should Watch Family Plot

Quentin Tarantino loves saying that directing is a young man’s game. He’ll talk about not wanting to end up like Billy Wilder, as if the bum notes at the end of Wilder’s career make him a vaguely pathetic figure, instead of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time who happened to end on a bad run. Tarantino will compare filmmaking to boxing, an analogy that makes no sense if you think about it for ten seconds. “A boxer,” Abel Ferrara said, “—one split second of distraction and you could be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life… [W]hat’s gonna happen to you on a set, honey? Your assistant is going to spill hot coffee on your lap. How the fuck does that make you a boxer, Jack?”

But still, it’s easy to see where Tarantino is coming from, because even great directors do not generally make great films in their seventies. I love Billy Wilder dearly – The Apartment might be my actual favourite film – but by 1978 he was making Fedora, a film that’s bad in ways that make it seem almost doomed. It’s not fun enough to be an enjoyable piece of trash and way too dumb to be anything else, and is clearly written to have a legend go hog-wild in the lead but instead has, essentially, some lady, who is fine. I love Charlie Chaplin, and I can’t imagine ever watching A Countess from Hong Kong again. It has a creaky, slow quality, like it should be a 1930s screwball comedy but it was made in 1967 by a seventy-eight-year-old. Both feel like movies made by old men trying and failing to make films that you can’t really make anymore, in ways that make me miss what those men could do when they were younger. Martin Scorsese is seventy-seven and just made three of the best films of his decades-long career, not even counting the documentaries he made in the same period, but that feels more like an exception that proves the rule.

At least, that was my line of thinking going into Family Plot, Alfred Hitchcock’s fifty-third and last film. I expected it to be an interesting failure, or at best, hopelessly in the shadow of the great films Hitchcock made decades earlier.

But Family Plot is great. It is about as thoroughly enjoyable a way to spend two hours as has been committed to film.

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