Thoughts on Film: Why short movies matter

Initially, when I joined the local film-making club, my idea was to learn the tricks of the trade. By making progressively longer and longer short films, I would eventually achieve my goal: a full-length movie of my own.

Since then, I’ve changed my mind.

Why?

Because I began to realize that not only did I enjoy making short films, I also realized that most stories – which in Hollywood would get a whole 2 hours worth of entertainment devoted to them – can be effectively and powerfully told in less than half an hour. To actually come up with a story which needs more than a hour to be told is actually hard.

But I also realized something else. I was bothered by the fact that there weren’t many short films which were both memorable and well-made. It was as if the people who made short films systematically considered that whatever the end result was going to be, it would never be as polished or as meaningful as a proper film.  A short film, for them, was nothing more than a technical exercise or a way to learn the craft through having fun with the medium.

The real catalyst, however, was when I got the chance to see a beautiful documentary about the Lumière brothers, edited together from a selection of their finest films. These film were delicate, poignant works of art which are still mesmerizing even today.

And none of them were longer than 50 seconds.

That was when I full realized that short films could be so much more than mere technical exercises. Short films had the potential to be their own art form, distinct from that of the feature film: a medium that sorely needed to be championed.

In this day and age, short films have the potential to reach a far wider audience than any Hollywood blockbuster. Freed from the need to propagate the accepted propaganda of the political lobbies which bring money to the film studios, those who make short films can express themselves in ways inaccessible to most professional filmmakers.

A great short film is far harder to achieve than a great feature film, in the same way that a great short story takes far more art and dedication to write than a full-length novel. In a short space of time, you need to create a whole world, draw the audience in, and never let go of their attention until the very last split second.

And that’s why short films matter.

But too many people believe that their short films have no value outside of their circle of acquaintances. Too many consider that, because of their ‘amateur’ status, they must forever place restrictions on what stories they can tell. Remember this: cinema has always been, and will always be, the art of making miracles appear in the audience’s mind. Cinema is made from magic tricks, from misdirection, assumptions, surprises and the occasional ‘where the hell did that come from?’.

That’s why I’m going to keep making short films. My new goal: to make full use of the medium, to prove that short films can thrill and entertain every bit as much as any blockbuster, and most importantly of all… to tell the tales I wish to tell.

La Flèche de Wheeler

This was a short story I wrote for a French short story contest whose theme was “the world of the infinitally small”. It didn’t win any prize, but I quite like it myself, so here it is for posterity’s sake.

(And yes, if you were wondering… I’m bilingual.)

 

LA FLECHE DE WHEELER

Au commencement était le Vide.

Ensuite, quelque chose surgit du Vide. Ce qui auparavant – si tant est que cette notion même eut du sens avant la naissance tumultueuse de l’espace-temps – était virtuel, devint soudainement réel. Il n’y eut pas d’explosion, pas de symphonie apocalyptique pour sonner l’avènement de la chose qui allait pourtant faire tout changer. Il n’y avait aucun être vivant pour regarder ce spectacle, aucune lumière dans le chaos primordial pour éclairer le miracle et le révéler au monde.

Elle n’avait pas de mémoire, car pour elle l’éternité tenait dans un seul instant. Elle n’avait pas conscience du monde qui l’entourait à présent. Et pourtant, elle avait un but, un destin hors de commun.

Telle une flèche sur sa lancée, elle traversa le temps, voyageant dans un univers morne et dénué de lumière, sans jamais s’arrêter. Dans le monde quantique dans laquelle elle existait, il n’y avait ni faim, ni soif, ni amour, ni haine. C’était un monde vide de vie, et pourtant elle était remplie de formes, de mouvement, de choses sans nom.

Elle continua à travers l’espace-temps sans dévier de sa trajectoire – si tant est qu’on puisse parler de trajectoire, car il n’y avait personne pour observer cette étrange odyssée – sans se douter que l’univers lui-même approchait de sa fin.

*

Et ailleurs, à une échelle infiniment plus grande, sur une planète insignifiante dans un système solaire proche de sa fin, l’humanité avait enfin abouti à une découverte qui allait tout changer. La gravité quantique avait finalement porté ses fruits, et la technologie aussi. Le voyage dans le temps était enfin possible.

Le premier essai était prêt: on allait envoyer une sonde dans le futur, et ensuite elle devrait retourner vers le passé avec des informations susceptibles de comprendre comment l’humanité pourrait survivre à l’extinction. L’idée était simple. Tout avait été prévu, semblait-il.

Le suspens était à son comble. L’événement fut suivi sur tous les réseaux et le médias de la Terre. La sonde avait été vérifiée et ré-vérifiée maintes fois. Et quand finalement, dans un petit crépitement, la sonde disparut dans l’espace-temps, il y eut un silence lourd de conséquences.

La sonde ne revint jamais. L’avait-t-on envoyée trop loin dans le futur? Personne n’a jamais su la réponse à cette question-là. Personne ne pouvait imaginer la vérité, si simple qu’elle fut.

*

A l’échelle quantique, d’innombrables milliards d’années plus tard, elle était toujours là, inconsciente du fait que le temps allait s’arrêter. Dans quelques instants, tout serait fini pour elle. Son existence même serait terminée à tout jamais.

Et elle ne le savait pas. Comment pourrait-elle imaginer sa propre fin, dans un monde où la pensée elle-même ne pouvait pas exister?

C’est alors que quelque chose d’autre surgit du vide, barrant sa route, l’empêchant de continuer.

C’est alors que pour la première fois de son existence, elle dut s’arrêter.

C’est alors – et au moment même où le temps était sur le point de s’arrêter à tout jamais – qu’elle intéragit avec l’autre. Un photon virtuel fut échangé entre eux. Et d’un seul coup, elle fut propulsée vers l’arrière. Vers le passé.

C’est alors que sa véritable destinée se trouva mise à nue. Car, en remontant le temps, elle se rencontra elle-même, et en parcourant le temps dans un sens et puis l’autre, elle créa la matière à partir de ce qui auparavant avait été le vide. L’histoire de l’univers lui-même se trouva bouleversée. Les quarks, les leptons, les noyaux, les atomes, les étoiles, les galaxies, les planètes, la vie toute entière entra dans ce nouveau monde.

Et tout cela grâce à un seul électron, qui faisait partie de la paroi métallique extérieure d’une sonde qui avait été envoyée trop loin dans le futur. C’était cet électron qui avait barré la route à elle, et ce faisant un paradoxe temporel avait vu le jour.

Tout cela fut soupçonné par une seule personne, mais tel un rêve, l’idée de Wheeler ne laissa qu’une petite empreinte dans l’histoire de la pensée humaine. La vérité est fugace: jamais elle ne se laissera attraper. Mais l’espoir continue à guider l’humanité, toujours et encore, par-dessus tout.

My Favorite Movies of 2016 (in alphabetical order)

10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg)

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)

Captain America: Civil War (Russo bros.)

Deadpool (Tim Miller)

Doctor Strange (Scott Derrickson)

Ghostbusters (Paul Feig)

I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach)

Jason Bourne (Paul Greengrass)

L’odyssée (Jerôme Salle)

Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols)

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children (Tim Burton)

Money Monster (Jodie Foster)

Mr Holmes (Bill Condon)

Pete’s Dragon (David Lowery)

Storks (Nicholas Stoller)

Star Trek: Beyond (Justin Lin)

Train to Busan (Sang-ho Jeon)

The Nice Guys (Shane Black)

The Secret Life Of Pets (Chris Renaud)

X-Men: Apocalypse (Bryan Singer)

Zootopia (Byron Howard & Rich Moore)

Writing Prompt #1: Good Morning Human

I woke up to the sound of the AI saying ‘Good morning, human!’ in its characteristically upbeat manner of speech. Struggling to stifle a yawn, I stumbled out of bed… and into zero gravity.

This happens to me every single morning, I reflect drowsily. For some reason, artificial gravity was considered cost-prohibitive for a routine flight between Mars and Mercury. Damn those budget cuts. Damn them to hell.

The trouble with waking up in a zero gravity environment is that it’s hard to really believe you’re awake at all. To just float out of your bed and into your clothes is so weird that it feels indistinguishable from a dream.

‘Breakfast is served in Compartment 0154 today,’ the AI continues, while I flail about comically in my daily attempts to pull on my everyday attire. ‘You will have 5 minutes to eat. Then you will have to depart immediately for Compartment 0514, owing to an emergency meeting about the insufficiency in the pressure valves. Do you want your vitals?’

‘No thanks,’ I reply. Vitals – or vital statistics, for the uninitiated – were mostly useless gibberish to me. The AI hadn’t yet realized how mind-bogglingly uninterested I was in knowing my own blood pressure.

Breakfast? Unspeakably boring – albeit nutritious, according to the spacecraft’s resident nutritional expert. I’m not entirely sure I believe him, though.

After breakfast comes the emergency meeting. I’ve got used to those: there are about ten a day. Nothing works on this goddamn spacecraft: liquid nitrogen leaks, radiation leaks, pressure breaches, oxygen breaches, malfunctioning guidance systems and faulty food dispensing systems, the list just goes on and on. Essentially, about every single possible catastrophe which could plausible occur, name it, we’ve already experienced it.

And to think we’re only about a third of the way to our final destination, Mercury: the famed sun-scorched planet named after a deadly toxin. We’ll be lucky if we even make it halfway.

So I head off to the emergency meeting, taking the pneumalift for a change. It might make my eardrums feel funny, but after weeks of flying around like some overgrown Peter Pan, the joys of zero gravity are seriously beginning to get on my nerves.

Upon arrival, I float out of the pneumalift and into Compartment 0514, bracing myself for the usual machine-gun round of greetings from the rest of the crew. Everyone here tries so hard to be cheerful, in spite of the fact that we are in outer space trying to navigate what is possibly the shittiest piece of technology ever made since the invention of iPhone batteries. Their smiles are so forced, I get the general impression that they’ve pulled a muscle in their jaws and are unable of any other facial expression.

But there are no smiles today.

In fact, there are no smiles because there are no faces for those afore-mentioned smiles to form upon. And the reason there are no faces is because there is absolutely no one waiting for me. The whole of Compartment 0541 is completely void of anything remotely resembling human life.

In short, there is absolutely no one there.

I stop in mid-flight, hovering over the holotable. (Well, actually it’s just a regular table which is sometimes used for displaying holograms. Damn those pseudoscientists and their neverending technobabble.)

My first thought is that somehow I’ve made a mistake and I’m in the wrong compartment. Maybe I typed in 0514 instead on 0541. Maybe I’d misheard the AI. Maybe.

I take out my communicator and speak into it, slowly and carefully, enunciating each syllable painstakingly, in order to avoid confusing the AI’s speech-recognition program. ‘Hell-lo. My name is Frank…Mac…Grew…I am in zero five four one. There is nobody here. I repeat… nobody here.’

The AI’s voice answers instantly: ‘Checking crew list… checking crew list… Frank McGrew… correlation with heat signatures… 12%…17%…please wait…23%…’

Oh, no. This is going to take forever, I tell myself.

Well, it didn’t take forever, but it sure felt like it. At long last, the AI began to actually speak to me, having ascertained that I was not a B-movie cliché freshly erupted from some unfortunate crew member’s chest.

‘McGrew, the rest of the crew are unresponsive. I am currently re-evaluating the schedule for this morning. It would appear that no one has left their sleeping compartments. This may be due to an alarm malfunction. Also, in other news, there are 13 unidentified system fails throughout the spacecraft, 10 oxygen leaks, 33 radiation leaks, 122 potential safety hazards, along with an issue involving liquid nitrogen seeping into the food supply. Would you like further briefing on your duties today?’

Well, that did it for me.

I tossed aside the communicator. It ricocheted off a wall and hit me squarely in the forehead. This only made me more pissed-off than ever, and more adamant in my resolve.

I took the pneumalift down all the way, flung some supplies into an escape capsule, checked my oxygen levels, and bade a short but vindictive farewell to the AI. After which, I was ejected into outer space with no further ado.

As it turned out, the navigational systems of the mothership had been completely out of whack, and it transpired that we had been orbiting Mars the whole time, all the while firmly believing we were on the way to Mercury. So in no time at all, I was home.

The Martian government sent out the Space Guard to retrieve the unfortunate fools. Meanwhile, I have firmly decided to change career. Volcanology is a hot field these days, especially with geothermal energy being all the rage.

Okay, jumping down active volcanoes for a living may sound extreme. But it sure beats having liquid nitrogen for breakfast.

 

 

[NB: this short story was written starting from the requirement that it begin with the words ‘I woke up to the sound of the AI saying ‘Good morning, human!”]