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Short site, limited vision

Jake Wilson

Short Site: Recent Australian Short Film
edited by Emma Crimmings & Rhys Graham
Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, 2004

While turning the pages of Short Site: Recent Australian Short Film, I dozed off and had a nightmare in which I was at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and got trapped in an industry-sponsored forum where all the sessions had titles like “New Ways of Seeing” or “Off the Beaten Track” and were illustrated by clips from Harvie Krumpet, with a sidebar focus on new digital technologies and Cate Shortland and Ivan Sen giving masterclasses in script structure to spellbound graduates from the VCA. I was about to leap up and set myself on fire, or something of the kind, when an angel came to me and said: “Oh ye of little faith! Imagine a world without Australian short filmmakers! Think of our cultural impoverishment if young artists did not strive to produce significant work on low-to-moderate levels of government funding, reflecting the many facets of our diverse contemporary society!” I was at a loss to reply, and so awoke.

Returning to the book, I felt bound to agree with its editors, Rhys Graham and Emma Crimmings, that local short filmmaking stands in need of serious criticism. But in focusing on primary documentation through interviews and scripts, they don’t go a long way towards filling the gap. The essays that make up perhaps a quarter of Short Site’s content—a few pages on each of the 10 films featured from half a dozen writers—are billed as “personal and passionate” responses, meaning they move between sometimes flowery evocation, craft-based analysis, and stabs at cultural or historical perspective. As introductions to their subjects they’re mainly serviceable, though often marred by a stylistic carelessness that forces the reader of goodwill to sort through masses of cliches (“seamlessly edited”, “fluid camerawork”) to retrieve the occasional buried insight. On the other hand, in the more stylistically assured contributions the confession of “personal” feelings and attitudes begins to look like a familiar rhetorical weapon, which a writer like Clare Stewart (covering Ivan Sen’s Dust) wields with a touch of knowing melodrama.

What the book lacks, in a nutshell, is a genuinely critical approach. And not just because the assessments are cover-to-cover positive—the unrelenting tone of ‘celebration’ does get a bit wearing. Whatever the editors might claim, the choice of films covered suggests committee-think rather than anyone’s personal taste, gathering together plenty of well-known names and relevant social issues. My own “personal” assessment of the films covered in Short Site which I’ve seen range from decent (Cracker Bag) to dire (Harvie Krumpet, the Aussie Forrest Gump). But more important than the book’s specific endorsements is its unexamined reliance on a particular model of “quality” short filmmaking, a model largely shared by festivals such as St Kilda. Mostly, this means fictional narrative (a single documentary, Shannon Sleeth’s The Meat Game, makes the cut). It also means that the discussion of craft in the interviews leans on a common set of terms and assumptions: even the blokey team behind the Tropfest-winning comedy Wilfred joke with appalling ease about structure and sub-text as hardened veterans of the script-editing process.

Above all, the rhetoric of sincerity that sets the critical agenda for Short Site is mirrored by the uniform emphasis which the interviewees place on their desire for emotional connection with an audience. In most cases, the technique used to establish this connection is the familiar one of fictional epiphany: inviting identification with a protagonist, then structuring a narrative around an image that challenges their sense of self. Thus the abortive firework display in Cracker Bag, the rush of sounds that restore memory in Mr Wasinski’s Song, the guy in a dog suit in Wilfred. There’s nothing wrong with the principle, but when taken for granted such dramatic devices harden into cliche as quickly as the terms of praise used by critics—in both cases, a sense of the “personal” being exactly what vanishes.

One of digital video’s mixed blessings has been to allow even rank amateurs to aspire to professional production values, on the whole reinforcing the dominance of industry standards of “craft” and storytelling (video artists and the local Super 8 diehards like Tony Woods seem to be operating in a whole different medium). What’s sacrificed here is the possibility of an aesthetic that’s both more primitive and more expansive, with less attention given to the script as a blueprint for a cohesive world (invented or documentary) and more to the activity of capturing and playing with images. At events like St Kilda, it would be nice to see more patchwork movies—diaries, documents, improvisations—as well as forms of narrative that are neither naturalistic nor locked into established genres (shorts being obvious vehicles for such experiments, as demonstrated, say, in the work of Chantal Akerman). Of course, this kind of play still goes on in Australian cinema—in music video for example, a field several of Short Site’s interviewees have worked in. But the book barely acknowledges the existence of these different options, much less placing them on any kind of map.

In response, the editors might say that Short Site was never meant as a comprehensive index of current Australian short film, or of anything except individual critical “passion.” But it’s precisely this innocence that feels symptomatic of a disease probably familiar to anyone who has been following the mixed fortunes of ACMI, where a commitment to promoting undervalued work becomes indistinguishable from the hype-driven mindset that “celebrates” the already known, and personal feelings are happily found to correlate with success as defined by crowds pleased and awards won. One mystery remains: why didn’t ACMI try releasing a DVD-ROM including all of this material plus the films themselves? As well as demonstrating their enthusiasm for multimedia, from a marketing point of view such a package would surely have ideally supplemented this book, or replaced it.

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. 26

© Jake Wilson; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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