I don’t normally say a lot about short films in these pages, but I thought I would give a shout-out to African Chelsea for a couple of reasons.
I’ve mentioned several times in the last few weeks that I have alternated between bemusement and irritation at the exaggerated cries of shock, dismay, and outrage that have accompanied the news that Netflix has changed its subscription plans in the United States in order to separate (and charge separately for) its streaming video and DVD rental.
I get that people can be unhappy about a price increase, but the fact that something can double in price and still be a relative bargain just serves to underscore how we’ve become largely spoiled by the long tail consumer culture and bought into the notion that everything should be available for next to nothing all the time.
Why? Well, because a lot of stuff is. “Oh it must be nice to attend film festivals and get to see stuff that doesn’t make it to the multiplex!” I hear that one a lot. “I wish I could get DVDs and screeners to watch movies…” Raise your hand if you’ve heard that one. Yes, the film critic gets easier access to more choices, but that doesn’t change the fact that a great variety of quality projects are available for the asking.
African Chelsea is a six and one-half minute, Academy-Award eligible short film, and if you are reading this, you can see it. Short films are often more visually inventive or creative than feature-length films because of the economy. Director Brent Roske tells Chelsea’s story in less time than it takes for a building to fall over in a Michael Bay film. By the end you may be surprised how much you know about her, since each image, each shot, tells a story.
That relates to the other reason I have been thinking about this short film. Within the last week a well known Christian production company has released a feature length film that has been praised in evangelical circles for its message but largely panned in the secular media for its (relative) lack of craftsmanship. Because the film represents an advance in professional quality from the studio’s previous efforts, it’s doubly instructive in showing the differences between films from professionally trained or practiced artists and those from people who are still learning the language of film.
One of the easiest to spot is editing. People less trained or steeped in film tend to be more tentative about the audience’s ability to process information visually and so will verbalize more, take longer setting up scenes, and underscore ideas even after they have been made.
By contrast shorts (by their very nature) have to be economical, direct (which is not to say pedantic), and, above all, efficient. Think of the relationship between a short film and a feature-length narrative in the way one might compare a poem to a novel. It is true that the poem is shorter and can be more opaque–there are more “gaps” as the reader-response critic would say. Its length, though, does mean the reader can attend to it with a heightened degree of concentration, and its denseness can (should?) reward the sort of scrutiny that could torpedo some longer, plot-driven works.
Take for example the shot around the 2:37 mark where Chelsea puts off her glasses and the camera shifts from foreground to background focus. We get the re-occurrence of a lullaby (already established in the first minute), and we already understand how the lullaby would be problematic. In a five second span Chelsea’s facial expression moves from serene to troubled, and it is only after we realize that something is wrong that the sound of the singing kicks in, letting us know what she hears in her head. A more pedestrian, less intuitive editor (or actress) would probably reverse that process, playing the music first and then having the facial expression change to respond to the inner voice. It is interesting, too, how quickly the troubled countenance gives way to a more placid expression as emotional tension gives way to the physical release of sleep, foreshadowing in some ways the end of the short film.
Short films are excellent ways to stretch your boundaries as a film viewer, to practice thinking intentionally about composition, cinematography, and directorial choices. Check out African Chelsea on YouTube. Who knows, when the Academy Awards come around maybe you will be one in the room when the live action short film category comes around that can say, “Well, you know, I’ve actually seen that film!”