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As film history's oldest and one of today's most prominent forms, the live-action short film has both historical and contemporary significance. Felando discusses the historical significance of the short film, identifies the fiction short's conventions, and offers two general research categories: the classical short and the art short.



1. Introduction

In Spike Jonze’s short musical/romantic-comedy/tragedy, How They Get There (1997), a young woman and man catch each other’s gaze and proceed to flirt as they amble along opposite sides of a city street. The two seem destined for a happily ever after ending, at least until the unexpected occurs and the distracted young man steps into the path of a car. Then, in a sequence worthy of a high-budget action feature, he is struck and slams into the car’s windshield as his shoe sails high into the air and lands alone in the gutter, thus answering the title’s riddle, “how they get there.” It all takes place in just over two minutes. How They Get There is a testament to the pleasures of the live-action fiction short film, including its meticulous narrative compression, preference for intense endings, and knack for flouting feature film conventions.
Cynthia Felando

2. Shorts and Film History: The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Short Film

The history of the short film has been a tumultuous one, especially in comparison to the feature-length film. After a position of dominance in the earliest years of the developing studio system, the short was displaced by the feature and has remained a marginal player ever since. The shifts in the live-action fiction short’s fortunes, in particular, are compelling and enable a fuller understanding of American film history during the studio and post-studio eras. In a history that parallels that of the feature-length film, the short has enjoyed many triumphs and landmarks that are evidenced by a remarkable legacy of films. This chapter surveys some of the most significant developments in the history of the short, from the silent era to the present and primarily in the United States. Beginning with the period of the form’s marginalization when feature-length films became the dominant studio form, in the mid-1910s, the short’s history is marked by some significant high points, including the flourishing of production in the early sound era and the enormously expanded storytelling and aesthetic strategies of the post-studio era. Today, the short film not only survives but, given the proliferation of screening platforms especially favorable to the form, the balance soon may tip in its favor, if it hasn’t already.
Cynthia Felando

3. Short Film Specificity: Narrative Compression, Unity, Character, and Endings

In 1959, Jean-Luc Godard issued a provocative yet ambivalent declaration about the short film and its “essence.” He said it had none. Writing for Cahiers du Cinéma in his capacity as reviewer of the French Festival of Short Films at Tours, and in his typically acerbic and cheeky way, Godard both dismissed the short film and then recuperated it. He first insisted that critics were “wrong to believe in some special function of the short film” and, speaking for his Cahiers colleagues too, he confessed: “none of us has ever believed that on the one hand there was the short film with its principles and aesthetic possibilities, and on the other the feature, with other principles and other aesthetic possibilities.” He quickly qualified his claims, however, with a larger conclusion: “For there is no difference in kind between a short film and a feature, only … in degree. Or rather, there shouldn’t be. But there is.” His reasoning seems to have been that the short film’s brevity prevents it from dealing “in depth” with a subject because, in comparison to the feature-length film, “a short film does not have the time to think.” In other words, he seemed to consider the form’s chief limitation to be its inability to provide access to character subjectivity and depth of knowledge. He therefore concluded that the short film functions as “anti-cinema,” like the “antibody in medicine,” to strengthen the “cinema.”1
Cynthia Felando

4. Storytelling and Style: The Classical Short

Since David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson introduced the immensely useful, painstakingly researched volume, The Classical Hollywood Cinema, their paradigm of the classical narrative mode has enabled the systematic study of feature-length films. It also has served as a useful point of comparison for films that do not fit the classical mode, such as the live-action fiction short. Briefly, the classical Hollywood film narrative turns on a causal chain motivated by a protagonist’s desire to achieve a particular goal, whose efforts are countered by an antagonist, which produces conflict and leads to a closed ending in which the fate of the characters, their goals, and the outcome of their conflicts are clear.1 The majority of short fiction films do not to adhere to the classical Hollywood narrative model with its elaborately developed characters, plots, and subplots. In addition, unlike feature-length films, shorts rarely portray heroes or extraordinary triumphs; there are fewer love stories; and endings tend to be more intense, as noted in chapter three (herein). This chapter organizes the classical short according to several variations including, in the most general terms, storytelling strategies that range from simple to more complex, and from short to long, with running times that range from a few minutes up to an hour.
Cynthia Felando

5. Storytelling and Style: The Art Short

Perhaps the most profound virtue of the art short is its enormous diversity. Since its emergence in the 1950s, the art short has demonstrated a greater range of storytelling and aesthetic strategies than the classical short and, arguably, the feature-length art film. The focus in this chapter is upon the short film’s conspicuous divergence during the 1950s from the more conventional plot-driven narratives, studio-bound settings, and conservative formal strategies associated with the studio era’s classical short, in favor of more character-oriented, looser, episodic, and ambiguous narratives that use an array of visual strategies, from naturalistic to surreal. The early development of the art short took place in the context of the period when the filmmakers associated with the influential European “New Waves” used techniques meant to counter classical Hollywood’s narrative mode. As this chapter aims to demonstrate, shorts were the advance guard in the revolution. Following a brief consideration of a noteworthy precursor to the modern art short from 1933, Zero for Conduct/Zéro de Conduit (Vigo), the discussion will include attention to several landmark titles from the 1950s and thereafter, which help to illustrate the form’s wide-ranging storytelling and formal strategies, and also convey the historical, critical, and aesthetic significance of individual films. Not surprisingly, the art short can be distinguished from the feature-length art film based on its characteristic attention to carefully focused, though often highly ambiguous, narratives and to unity.
Cynthia Felando


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