We’re enthusiastic about short films in the office here, having got the chance to check out a host of them as part of our Clowdy Shorts 2014 competition earlier this year. (We should mention that Dan Rogers triumphed with the splendidly-named Bartholomew and Belafonte, or else he’ll be upset).
Because they’re relatively cheap to make and easier to distribute than feature-lengths, they’ve often been a way for directors to hone their talents, in the same way short stories can help novelists find a distinctive voice. Many of them are produced in film school, where even the most talented auteur might have struggled to find their ‘voice’.
This means they can offer an insight into how filmmakers evolve and develop their distinctive styles or approaches.
Here’s a list of some of our favourite early shorts from well-known directors. Some of them are suggestive of the idiosyncratic work they would go on to produce, others are strangely incongruous in this context, while others are just strange full stop.
The Big Shave – Martin Scorsese
As a film student at NYU, Scorsese made a number of well-received shorts in which his talent and single-minded approach are pretty clear despite his relative youth. The Big Shave is arguably one of the most accessible, with a striking jazz soundtrack and an anti-war message.
Although it is generally interpreted as a satire on the Vietnam War (still underway in 1967), the five-minute film has echoes of the interest in destructive masculinity foregrounded in the likes of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver.
Xenogenesis – James Cameron
This is an especially interesting one, given how famous Cameron has become for making incredibly high-budget schlock. Xenogenesis was produced on a shoestring and inspired by George Lucas’ Star Wars – apparently shooting was largely financed by a group of wealthy dentists looking for a tax rebate!
I can’t say much for the dialogue or plot, but the special effects are genuinely impressive given that it was made in a living room.
Bottle Rocket – Wes Anderson
This early Wes Anderson film was written by Owen Wilson, who also stars. This is one of the reasons it’s so reminiscent of the directors’ latest work. It was shown at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival and later extended into a feature-length.
Off-kilter dialogue and ‘quirkiness’ rapidly became an overarching aesthetic for Anderson, who’s arguably has one of the most recognisable styles in contemporary cinema, so it’s no surprise that these elements are both on show in Bottle Rocket.
Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times) – David Lynch
This is a pretty self-explanatory 1966 short from David Lynch, whose ability to create unsettling, anxiety-inducing and surreal tableaus was obviously evident at the start of his career. It very much falls into the ‘just strange’ category.
Although it lacks the polish and wit that made Twin Peaks a cult classic, the sensibility behind early films such as Eraserhead and The Elephant Man is obviously working to full effect here.
Stalk of the Celery Monster – Tim Burton
Like Wes Anderson, Burton creates instantly-recognisable and somehow hermetically-sealed universes; presumably it is no coincidence that the two directors tend to inspire both fervent fanship and intense revulsion.
Stalk of the Celery Monster is really short – the extract available online is just 1:37, with the Library of Congress storing a few other fragments – but the combination of kitsch, macarberie and comedy is recognisably Burtonian.