Sunday, January 31, 2010


Tim Barrus To My Film Students at Cinematheque: RE: Your Assignment on Shorts.

I have received most of your shorts. I am enjoying them tremendously. Most of you are beginning to develop an understanding of the power of a metaphor. You get in. You zap it. And then you’re out. No lingering. The audience doesn’t have time. How can you say what you have to say within the context of a moving image, hold the attention of the audience, and then get out so the narrative can move. You’re getting there. I have a few more to look at. You’ve run it from humor to tragedy. The trick is in how to do that in the longer telling of your story. IT’S ALWAYS ABOUT TELLING A STORY. That will never change. Keep it up. More! More! — Tim Barrus

This is Mary now. I’ve been in the background watching these clips and reading the assignments for several years. Normally they do a layered sort of metaphorical event, a lot like music videos. They create mood, establish place, and are about as long as the song lasts. Sometimes there are arbitrary and surprising things happening. Anything to hold attention.

These class assignments were different. Fifteen seconds to tell a story.

Two are standouts so far. The first is called “Pull.” The unasked question it answers is “what happens when someone you love can no longer make it by themselves?” if the link doesn't work.

You pull. And we see one boy pulling another in a bleak complex forest without knowing whether he is sick, hurt, dying. . . There’s no dialogue. Remember that this is an art school for boys at risk, so the truth -- even the TRUTH of this, might be any of those things. Simple. But LOADED.

The other one doesn’t have a title and is not a question, unless you count rhetorical questions.

Here’s a beautiful young man who says, “You don’t get it, do you?” Then a beat. “You will.” It’s that beat between the two shots -- the second one closer -- that gives the piece brilliance, because it’s where we put our own thoughts into the story. We don’t know who “you” might be. Another boy? A girl? A mother? A coach? Someone more sinister? (He himself doesn’t seem sinister. In fact, this is a very beautiful boy as is the title image of a freckled boy’s innocent eye.) He’s looking UP, directly, confidently.

Both of these seconds-long vids tell stories that are packed with possibility, but still profoundly ambiguous, so that we can project ourselves inside whatever is happening. They are like Hemingway’s idea that a classified ad (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) can contain a novel.

There’s a good deal of talk lately about “meta” -- the idea of the ideas BEHIND or UNDER something. Like maybe “metafiction” when the author drops the characters and speaks directly to the reader about what he’s doing. So we could say that the strategy of short, ambiguous but highly engaging narrative is artistically “meta,” and could work in painting, in dance. I suggested that it was pioneered in music videos, short meditations on a song as it’s sung with lots of atmosphere and emotion, but often with quite a bit of mystery. If you’re dealing with human relationships, what choice do you have?

Another source, I think, is the personal practice of “looping” a moment of dialogue or action or music that somehow has intense meaning, something that people watch or listen to over and over as though trying to get inside it. I really think some kids succeed, always have. Those moments exist forever deep inside them, sometimes guiding their real lives. Some of us make loops of memories.

And I relate this “short mode” story-telling to -- don’t groan -- all those high school exercises in Haiku. For those who got it, the lesson of an image that suddenly shifts into deep meaning, is always there. It’s that thing about the old wheelbarrow in the rain, isn’t it?

And then there was that wave of nanofiction: a story in a limited number of words. I wrote a bunch of them. Here’s a timely, if cautionary one.

“The night of the district playoffs there was a freezing rain. The high school bus went off the highway and rolled twice, shattering windows and strewing both baggage and players. Five young men and the coach survived, but wished they had not. Over the years their drunken grieving killed them one by one, even the coach.”

The boys at Cinematheque are not all readers or writers -- they are artists and a keyboard is not necessarily their metier. Anyhow, they speak an assortment of languages. Their shared meta-language is color, form, movement (some are dancers), image, always music, rhythm. They work on the “meta” level, which I’ve approached elsewhere as “felt concepts,” the sort of thing you dream but can’t put into words. The stuff underneath the words.

Another thought. We’re often told about the brief attention spans of modern people and their habits of snatching quick moments of something on a small screen, not unlike advertisements: brief, intense, focussed, no context outside the moment. The medium through which a story is told can’t help but affect the story itself, the way it’s told. The bard who walked from one town to another singing long balladic stories depended upon rhythm and rhyme to carry his memory of the text. Paperback books for people who didn’t have a lot of money and read where ever they could needed vivid, simple stories called “genre” after “gens,” the people. Writing for television in half-hour increments means structuring plot in a certain way. Writing for wide-screen means a certain lyrical visionary style. This meta-level is not mysterious once you learn to see it and, well, FEEL it.

These two “shorts” indexed here are personal, specific, contextual (one in a room, one in a woods), and intense. Technically they are clear and well-framed. I don’t know who made them. I never know the boys as individuals, but rather as a group, mutually supportive. I have an early and intense history with repertory theatre, which is not that different. On the “meta” level.

1 comment:

Lance Michael Foster said...

The first link just took me to a video game preview, so you might need to check that one

The second one was professional in its quality, both of the lighting, angle, etc and in the acting of the youth. Kind of film noir too

You have written a lot of stuff to think about here. As Tim said, it is about the narrative, but we are going through a change culturally...this work reminds me of a sort of lectio divino blended with MTV..quick images and meditation on a few words

Gives me much to think about...