For me, it was a very interesting time to encounter the short-film Ninety Seconds by filmmaker Gerard Lough. No, not because I have recently been the victim of overzealous private investigation or have, myself, used readily available spyware to invade the privacy of anyone I deem fit to invade, but instead because the changing face of Cinema and Television-As-Cinema has been rather central in my thoughts. Ninety Seconds, I would suggest, is the perfect example of the current placement of the dividing line between what narrative short films as single-piece cinema can do (and should) and what long-form series television as individual “short films” in a string can (and should) do.
Understand, Ninety Seconds was presented to me as a stand-alone short film, nothing to do with television. So, let me explain my remarks above:
There is no one who could with a straight face suggest that any less artistry goes in to each single episode of Breaking Bad or The Shield (or any number of other television series) as goes in to any example of big-screen cinema. Yet equally, one could not take the Pilot episode (or any single episode) of such a series and investigate it with the same lens one would a feature film. But nowadays, in my opinion, the impulse for narrative is trending more and more in the direction of lingering focus, episodic development than in pointillist rendition to telescope something vast into a two hour maximum running time.
Short form cinema has more in common with episodic television than with its own long form cousin. Instead of further reduction (instead of just trimming a long film to its essence, so to speak) perhaps unconsciously these days narrative short films seem to gravitate to what I call the “pilot episode verve.”
And this is a good thing. Absolutely. But it carries it with it a few particular sticking points where audience perception, and so reception, comes in.
Ninety Seconds is absolutely perfect as a pilot episode of what suggests itself as an intriguing continuing series. At the same time, as a contained, stand-alone piece of filmic storytelling, it gums itself up a bit, remains too much in-prologue for the “fallout” of the events it portrays to have any direct, under the skin impact.
To look at it as a contained piece of cinema, it comes across more like a synopsis than a piece of short fiction proper; to look at it as the ground level, though, or as the first step over some precipice of only suggested depth and distance, it comes across as the perfect tease, the total hook.
Make no mistake about my tone here: I think there is a separate cinematic art in crafting the first installment of a series than in crafting anything else on film—it is not the same as crafting the ongoing installments, not the same as crafting a single episode-once-the-ball-is rolling, certainly not the same as crafting a self-contained film (long or short). A sense of absolute vastness and yet finality has to be hit—one thing has to end and another not quite yet begin.
This is a kind of vagabond, disembodied art form in the current cinemascape, though, an entity which practically deserves its own genre, but for self-apparent reasons can never receive one.
Ninety Seconds, spot on, sets up a world, a world view, an aesthetic (and I will note it is my favorite aesthetic for speculative fiction—a future presented with no grandeur, one as banal as the here-and-now, even the differences depicted to showcase it as “future” seem already to have a few layers of dust on them) and a character-set perfectly suited for extended investigation. But in doing so, it also creates a beautiful monster that needs to be notably incomplete.
The characters (and the actors and actresses who perform them) have the directness and nuance to them that by end of the slim twenty-seven minutes of storyline (some of the character’s with only maybe three minutes of screen time to their credit) I felt familiar with them, wholly—but familiar in the sense of “ready to go on with them,” not in the sense of “I’ve been through it with them and can reflect”. This sort of quick intimacy, in my view as a lay student of the moving pictures, is something almost automatic to “prologue” or “pilot” cinema, and almost impossible to attain in feature length, or even short form, closed-book-cinema.
Think of it this way—by the end of Blade Runner, I’m all done with Deckard, but by the end of the first episode of Nowhere Man, as much as we’ve been through together already, I’m only just getting into my seat beside Tom Veil and hoping it’s a nice long ride we’re taking.
I say all of these things, and as briefly as I do, because I think to anyone particularly interested in the changing face of “cinema,” the state-of-the-narrative-short is the seismograph: what goes on in this format shows where things are getting ready to fall and reshape in all forms of contemporary narrative cinema.
I truly cannot imagine a typical hep-film-viewer, even one versed in short form, watching Ninety Seconds and feeling it hits the proper notes, has a wholeness—instead, I feel it could wrongly be termed “too quickly wrapped up” or “just another bring-it-around-to-a-reveal” type set piece, when the actual current of the scripting shows it to be no such thing. Fuck, even the fact that it contains not only a pre-title sequence “prologue” but a post-title sequence “written word prologue” as well shows that it has no intention to leave one feeling satisfied or fully informed at the end of its half hour. And nor should it. It’s given you the puzzle piece, not the moral to the story.
The narrative short form is moving more in the direction of being a kind of propulsion device, something to get that audience/participant mind it knows it is going to encounter to move, to kick, to want, to be revved up—not to feel sated, satisfied, ready to reflect.
And Ninety Seconds does this, pitch perfect, leaving it (somewhat ironically considering its subject matter) in a place where it is quite vulnerable to being considered a finite, definitive expression of a thing, when it is meant to be just a glimpse, something reduced from a vaster, more complex story no one who’s watching can yet be aware of.
Not that it is my place as an observer of things cinematic to put such a proposition forward, but if this wasn’t meant as just the start of something for Lough et al., I hope they might consider pressing on, now—letting the disgraced snoop Mark and his now-disgruntled counterpart get back into the thick of things and bring all the implications of themselves crashing down on the world at large, not be left merely stewing in the juices of their individual and somewhat tepid fates as last we see them.
Pablo D’Stair is a novelist, essayist, and interviewer. Co-founder of the art house press KUBOA, he is also a regular contributor to the Montage: Cultural Paradigm (Sri Lanka). His book Four Self-Interviews About Cinema: the short films of director Norman Reedus will be re-releasing October, 2012 through Serenity House Publishing, International.