A look at the short films that cracked TIFF’s Essential 100 movies list in 2010, as posted to The Toronto Film Scene.

Originally published on The Toronto Film Scene – October 20, 2010.

So as I continue to mull over and dissect every crevice of TIFF’s Essential 100, I’m struck still by the seeming randomness of it at times, but even more-so by the extent to which short films (or relatively short films) played into the final document.

All totaled, seven of the 100 films chosen by TIFF clock in at less than one hour. This is one area I can definitively say was TIFF’s choice since, the seven films to which I refer now and in subsequent paragraphs are on the list exclusively because the experts picked them.   None of them factored into the public’s list ““ for better or for worse.

So, we’re left with seven films which – due to historical constraints or artistic intention – clock in at less than 60 minutes yet prove to leave a lasting enough impression to be one of the 100 most essential viewing experiences in the cinematic oeuvre.

So, let’s get down to it.   You’ve got an hour (or less) to kill and you want to see something life-changing.   Here’s how the choices stand up, with an effort to understand exactly why they made the grade.

L’Arrivee d’un train a La Ciotat (Arrival of a Train) 
The Lumiere Brothers

1 minute (rounding up)

So, most know the story of this film by now. Early audiences had no idea what to expect of the new invention that turned flickering light into motion pictures and, for the most part, these displays were simply to marvel at the technology. Then the Lumieres decide to film a train arriving at a station and freak everyone out because the whole suspension of disbelief idea hasn’t formed yet and the theatre thinks certain death is hurtling towards them.

No one can deny the contribution of the Lumieres to the creation and evolution of cinema. They arguably created the art form and while they made a few of these short “˜slice of life’ films, this one gets the spotlight because of the mythology of its first public showing.

So, why does it crack the 100? Well, I’m not entirely sure.   I understand its significance and it obviously served a necessary function in the evolution of an art form. My question is, should this one minute be singled out as one of the 100 most essential viewing experiences of a wannabe film nut? The long answer is yes, for all the reasons I cited above. The short answer, however, is that this is the type of film that would have been served just as well with a mention in the introduction to the project and have achieved the same end especially when you consider the often dubious science of making a “˜best of’ list where artistry is being measured and compared.

Le Voyage dans la Lune (Voyage to the Moon) (Pictured above.)
Georges Melies
14 minutes

So, here we have another landmark film in the medium’s evolution from attraction to art form. Melies’ fantasy is seen as the first narrative film (pre-dating its American counterpart in breakthroughs, The Great Train Robbery , by a year). The film is familiar to anyone who’s ever taken an introductory film course and to most Smashing Pumpkins fans as a to-the-point, yet fantastic (as in “of fantasy”, though it is also highly enjoyable) tale about wait for it a voyage to the moon.

The film not only broke down as one of the first attempts at narrative, but also brought the idea of special effects into play.   Suggesting that the medium could not only be used to capture real life, but to create a reality entirely removed from everyday logic and possibility.

So, then; essential or no? The answer on this one is a resounding yes. This was a perfect choice to represent cinema’s genesis on this list because its legacy as a film goes far beyond just being just an experiment (it’ll be a theme here ) and it really lays the groundwork for the types of cinematic dreamscapes that would later be created out of simple yet unlikely scenarios by the likes of Fellini and Kubrick, all the way on down the line to today’s most cutting edge filmmakers. This also could have doubled as their “birth of cinema” choice and left a spot open for another piece of the cinematic canon that may have gone unrepresented by mentioning both this film and the Lumieres’.

Sherlock Jr.
Buster Keaton
45 minutes

So here’s where my previous “historical constraints” comment comes into play. Coming just three years after Chaplin’s The Kid , the notion of a comedy that went on for more than a couple reels was still somewhat radical. Keaton would go on to make longer films, and the way that Sherlock is structured, you’d hardly consider it a “short” in the sense that you would the others on this list. That said, it fits the confines of my thesis, so let’s have a look.

I’d have loved to listen in on the debate over choosing this or The General as the film that best represents Keaton’s cinematic contribution, since the experts appear to have been operating on a “one film per filmmaker” clause (even though there are many . When it comes down to it, both are incredible examples of an underappreciated comedic genius who, in the minds of many, overshadowed Chaplin in his ability to stretch a great gag over not only an entire shot, but an entire city, country and film. In the end, though, I suspect the “movie within a movie” idea Keaton worked here probably gave it a self-referential edge.

Sherlock Jr. is probably the most entertaining 45 minutes on the entire list, so on that level alone it warrants inclusion. However, to pigeonhole it as just a series of some of Keaton’s best gags is to overlook the fact that it pulses with heart and imagination beyond the scope of just about everyone that was working at the time (and probably a good majority of those that have worked since).

Night and Fog
Alain Resnais
32 minutes

So much of Resnais’ work revolves around the notion of memory.   Anyone that’s seen any of his features, especially Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad , knows that Resnais loves to filter the past through the experiences of those who suffered it to bring forward a central idea or lesson to be taken away.

Night and Fog ‘s is the most direct of said messages and the brevity of the film probably speaks to that fact. A film that looks at the creation, use and subsequent abandonment of concentration camps, combining historical footage with images of the empty halls the Nazis left behind makes a very simple point this shouldn’t have happened and can never happen again.

The film takes a stark and brutal look at the horror that plagued Eastern Europe during the Second World War and serves as a cinematic record to stand directly opposite what Nazi Germany tried to sell as “its way” in films like Triumph of the Will . There are film on this list that are a lot easier to watch (especially when looking at the historical footage), but it is probably one of the most direct political statements and one of the most important historical documents brought forth in the 100. It’s perhaps not a typical “essential” choice, in the vein of the “best films” or “most essential to the evolution”, but cinema also served as a document of the last century and no other film on the list achieves that end quite so succinctly.

La Jetee
Chris Marker
28 minutes

So now we delve into the portion of the list where the shorts hit their more experimental era and we veer away from the films being short due to historical constraints. La Jetee , above the three from the 1960s is the short most driven by plot (and arguably the only one).

I’ll admit a bias to the film as it is the only one of the post-silent shorts on this list that I had actually seen before the list was announced, but its legacy (not only on me, but on popular culture from 1962 onwards) is profound, influencing everyone from David Bowie (whose Mark Romanek-directed Jump They Say video draws heavily on the film) to Terry Gilliam ( 12 Monkeys was a remake of sorts).

The film shows that you don’t necessarily need 90 minutes-plus to tell a lasting story and that sometimes, narrative is best kept tight and succinct. This is another that wouldn’t typically crack a lot of “top 100″ lists due to its length and reliance on still images over moving pictures.

Scorpio Rising
Kenneth Anger
28 minutes

Here’s where the shorts take a decided veer towards the avant-garde. Scorpio Rising deals a lot with myth-making and the embodiment of counter-culture. The themes and imagery presented can be at turns, sexy and dangerous, troubling and iconic. Biker lore is cross-cut with Nazi imagery which, in turn is segued into gay iconography and the sexual cult of James Dean all the while under the continuous thrum of 50s and 60s jukebox favourites like Elvis, Ray Charles and Martha & the Vandellas.

Scorpio certainly has a place on the list as a representation of alternative approaches to story-telling and the deconstruction of the male myth, the 60s myth and one of the groundbreaking experimental films from an age when movie making became freer and more overt in its challenges to the mainstream.

The film covers a large swatch of what the experts were trying to represent by its inclusion, in my opinion. The film is undeniably rooted in the 60s while at the same time rallying against it.   It anticipates the future while dealing with the past. It’s a nod to experimental cinema, queer cinema, short film and, as such, becomes an easy catch-all inclusion, in addition to being one of the most unique visions of a decade filled with them.

Michael Snow
45 minutes

Okay, TIFF we get it Wavelength is a very important achievement in avant-garde cinema. It’s also one of the most highly regarded artistic achievements in the history of Canadian cinema.   It is very important. We get it.

That said, it’s terribly grating and slow. The film is essentially one agonizingly slow zoom in on one focal point in one room while what limited action actually occurs in the film (psssssst, someone dies apparently) happens entirely outside the point of focus and, at times, out of frame.

This is obviously a very important film to TIFF, since it served as the namesake for the festival’s long-running and innovative experimental program. It also obviously has merit as one of the highest regarded avant-garde films of all time by the cinematic elite who live for that kind of thing, but y’know what? I’m gonna call B.S. on this one.   It’s there because TIFF is a Canadian organization and wanted to represent the national cinema — a national cinema that has been carefully pieced together through shorts and docs and animation and (yes!) experimental film.   But this is a ranked list and one that sought to seek balance between expert and popular opinions and the fact is that this film (at #73) is overrated. Even within the parameters of this list it is a political choice, and as “experts”, balance should have been considered when this film was placed ahead of landmark achievements such as Greed , Chungking Express, and even the lightning rod that is The Birth of a Nation, and the necessity of its inclusion should have been questioned when factoring in that it was the lowest ranked of all the shorts mentioned above and was ranked below both the experimental 1960s films mentioned above. But they’re not Canadian I guess.