It’s been over a year since behemothic Disney subsidiary Marvel Studios put out a movie, an unprecedented state of affairs after a solid decade-plus of increasingly tightly-spaced and more or less identical blockbusters. Theaters are empty, Disney is charging thirty bucks a pop to watch sloppy live-action remakes of its old 90s classics, and streaming services are screwing film crews out of their residuals by dropping releases without theatrical runs. In short, it’s a rough historical moment for film, but that crisis also presents moviegoers with an opportunity. There’s a whole world of independent film — everything from quiet arthouse experimentation to quick, punchy horror — ready and waiting for anyone willing to put in the time to find it.
Freed from the constraints of major studio production and the MPAA, short films are able to incorporate radical stylistic and thematic elements mainstream art would never attempt. If they lack star power and polish, that only further frees them to push the medium’s boundaries, to toss our ideas of what movies “should” look like back in our faces. The creative freedom of short film has traditionally rippled outward through the rest of the medium. Without Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, all abrupt trick cuts and faceless figures, would David Lynch as we know him even exist? Without David F. Sandberg’s brutally simple Lights Out would horror movies about sensory deprivation (Hush, Don’t Breathe, A Quiet Place) have seen such an abrupt spike in popularity? Discovering the creative springs from which art drinks has the power to change our relationship to that art entirely.
The Edge of the World
In 2019, director and animator Jonni Phillips, along with a team of guest animators, released The Final Exit of the Disciples of Ascensia, a 50-minute feature about the members of the titular cult finding both suffocation and community in one another. This kind of outsider storytelling, rendered in an idiosyncratic paper cutout aesthetic, would be unthinkable in any kind of traditional studio setup, its tangle of influences — everything from Sally Cruikshank’s Quasi at the Quackadero to Soviet papermation — too contradictory and complicated for risk-averse executives. On its own, though, with only Phillips and her fellow animators and voice actors, it’s free to dwell with deep insight and no judgment on the groupthink and unspoken yearning that afflicts so many queer and trans social circles, giving under-represented people a chance to see their own world, their own loves and struggles, on the screen.
Alli Coates’s American Reflexxx, filmed in one night in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, takes a darker approach to the world of the marginalized. Drawing inspiration from the work of artists like Marina Abramović, Coates passively observe the public’s interactions with the faceless and unspeaking figure of cisgender actress Signe Pierce, perceived repeatedly as transgender by men and women who proposition her, hurl slurs, and even physically assault her. The film is harrowing, its sense of mounting crisis bound up increasingly intimately in the reflective non-expression of Pierce’s mirrored mask as more and more passers-by project their own violent insecurities onto her body. There is no tidiness to Coates’ and Pierce’s performance piece, no proposed answer to the vast upwelling of pointless cruelty it spotlights. It’s the rare documentary which leads its viewers into the wilderness only to let go of their hands, leaving them prey to the same gnawing uncertainty with which the victims of bigoted violence must live.
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The Edible Film
Adrian Dexter’s breathtaking Bo Hansson-inspired fantasy short VÆSEN runs just under five minutes, credits excluded. Robert Morgan’s gorgeously macabre The Cat With Hands is even shorter at just three and a half minutes long, and To-Anh Bach’s SHUDŌ is over and done with in under two. Each of these films has a full and engrossing narrative, distinctive characters, and a clear, evocative atmosphere, an economy of language both visual and aural with which feature films are seldom if ever forced to contend. The uniquely digestible quality of the short film gives viewers a chance to dissect and analyze the mechanics of storytelling on a micro level, and to see how different creators tackle the format’s challenges.
In the queer quasi-thriller I Love My Friends, star and director Lorelei Ramirez cuts together a rapid collage of scenes chronicling the collapse of a fictional friend group. The flurry of moments — snapshots of a life the whole of which is left purposefully vague — curdle from innocent fun to a biting exploration of unwanted affection as Ramirez’s character makes repeated advances on the people whose absence from her life she spends the film lamenting, pushing their boundaries until they reject her completely. The dissonance between narration and onscreen action becomes more and more intense until, in the film’s final moments, it spirals into a kind of ecstatic denial. The film’s narrative structure, so intense that it would prove exhausting if the short were any longer, allows Ramirez to build parallel and compellingly contradictory stories, doing twice the character work in a fraction of the time.
In a similar fashion, C. Imogen Henry’s You’ll Know What to Do bores into the symbolic bedrock of everyday interactions and dynamics to posit a kind of absurd universal hostility in which therapists hand you thumbtacks after listening to your thoughts and even our escapist fantasies only worsen our deep spiritual mutilation. The world unfolding onscreen is elliptically doubled, the meanings of its signs and symbols at once ominous and unreadable.
Even firmly established directors must flex different creative muscles while working in short film, as with David Cronenberg’s 2014 body horror short The Nest, in which a physician consults with a patient who believes one of her breasts is infested by a colony of dangerous insects. Over the film’s nine-minute running time, Cronenberg eschews special effects entirely in favor of giving viewers mental images to try on for themselves, prying at established phobias and medical anxiety to build his atmosphere.
That’s part of the beauty of short film — it recontextualizes the medium as something not monolithic and moneyed but intimate, inclusive, and personal. What you love and need is already out there; you just need to go find it.