Cinema 16: American Shorts

Another excellent Cinema 16 compilation has hit the shelves. Just think of it as a sanctuary for baby hedgehogs, says Lance Barrington.

By Lance Barrington

Attention spans, we are told, are getting shorter; blockbuster films are getting loooooonger (and don’t it just feel that way!). Small should, therefore, be beautiful, and yet short films remain a much maligned entity in this country. They pose difficult questions: what, exactly, is a short film? It doesn’t get on the TV and it’s never in the multiplex so where, and how, do we watch them? And why should we care about these little things, awkward like baby hedgehogs? Well, there will never be a viable homegrown film industry if we don’t support our artists (directors down to gaffers) at the beginning of their careers, when they need it most. More than that, though, shorts are at the cutting edge of celluloid as art-form, the sharp end of the creative wedge of filmmaking. The best ideas in shorts surface sooner or later in the blockbuster – CGI-d and test-screened into platitudinous conformity – or in adverts… And what are the best adverts these days other than very short films?

Cinema 16 have been spearheading the rehabiitation of shorts in the public consciousness, giving them sanctuary and a platform to reach the audience they deserver with their excellent series of DVD releases. Collecting together 16 of the best short films made by British and European directors, respectively, in their first two titles, they now turn their attention to America and, as always, it’s quite a range. Tim Burton, Todd Solondz, Alexander Payne, Mike Mills and George Lucas are all represented, and it’s fascinating to look at the little known works by famous directors to try to discern the spark of talent that led on to bigger things. Lucas’s USC short Freiheit is his first ever film and as such it’s simple and naïve, yet displays a skill in editing and photography as well as themes of courage, liberty and honour that would become so familiar. Burton’s brilliant stop-motion Vincent seems to encapsulate his whole subsequent output – the dark aesthetic, off-kilter humour and freakish characterization of everything from Beetlejuice to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and beyond. Shorts compilations are a great leveller, however, and the films from less familiar names are also absorbing, such as Peter Sollet’s tender and impressionistic tale of young love in the city, Five Feet High and Rsing and Stefan Nadelman’s poignant documentary Terminal Bar. Chuck in an Oscar winner, two clever pastiches, and a few experimental classics (Maya Deren’s breathtaking Meshes of the Afternoon and DA Pennebaker’s Daybreak Express scored by Duke Ellington, and A Warhol), and you have the total package. Like milk and cookies after softball, this is very good, very American, and is a great use of DVD technology and distribution.

Cinema 16: American Shorts will be absorbing to filmmakers and cinephiles alike, guaranteed multiple viewings thanks to the director's commentary on many of the shorts. A film school on a silver disc, it couldn’t come more highly recommended.

NB: the disc is NTSC only, so those of you with crappy old tellies like me had better watch it on the computer!

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