A Short Shrift to Short Films?

Can showing short and experimental films in real movie theaters be a sign of disrespect?

Bear with me, this will take some explaining…

I work for the motion picture, broadcast and recorded sound division of the Library of Congress. Inside our facility, located in Culpeper, Virginia, there is a specially-built, well-appointed, and beautiful theater that seats just over 200. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, we show, for free, “vintage” films pulled straight from our vaults. Last month alone we showed A Hard Day’s Night, Moonstruck, “and Harold and Maude.

Many of the films we show are form the National Film Registry. Founded in 1989, the NFR is like the “dean’s list” for American movie making. They are films, as deemed by the Librarian of Congress, of such aesthetic, cultural or historical important that they demand permanent safeguarding within the walls of the Library of Congress.

Twenty-five films are named annually to the Registry. As of this writing, there are over 600 films currently on the NFR. And while the majority of them are famous full-length feature films (Gone With the Wind, Singin’ in the Rain, The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, etc.), a significant portion of them are far shorter. In fact, some films on the Registry are only a half-hour in length or short and some early experimental films might be only a few seconds in duration.

Late in 2013, I had the idea of presenting, in our theater, an evening of some of these “less-long” works so that they too could be highlighted and celebrated and become better known.

But, then, sometime, after I chose the titles to show, and after their reels were pulled from cold storage, and after the schedule had been posted and sent out, I was seized by a disturbing thought: was I doing the right thing?

You see: unlike Gone With the Wind or E.T. or many of the other famous works on the Registry, about half of the 16 films I had chosen to show had seldom, if ever, been screened theatrically before. In fact, they were not MADE to be shown theatrically. For example, the very early and very short Blacksmith Scene, from 1893, was made to be shown in a kinetoscope; the US Government-produced civil defense film Duck and Cover, from 1951, was produced to be shown in schools; and a 1943 filmed performance of Martha Graham dancing one of her most famous compositions, “Lamentation,” was made only for her own reference and the reference of her small band of students. And Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man, Part IV, is probably more accustomed to being viewed in a gallery than an actual movie theater.

As this settled in, various self-inflicted accusations and thoughts began to fill my head. By showing these films on the big screen—literally amplifying their image, am I perverting these works? By showing them stripped of their original context, am I disrespecting them and/or disrespecting the intentions of their creators? And, perhaps worst of all, am I dooming them to a certain visual and aesthetic failure since they were going to be seen (experienced) in a way they were never necessarily meant to be seen?

So many questions arose: Is what was interesting and special in a nickelodeon just going to be rendered silly inside a 200-seat theater in front of a rapt and fully-focused audience? Was what played well to an intimate group destined to fall flat in front of 100 or more spectators?

In some ways, these issues are issues that are constantly plaguing film and film distribution. It is the silent film screened without live musical accompaniment or projected at the incorrect speed; it is the Cinemascope epic shown on a standard-size screen (or on television!); or something shot in Hi-Def shown in no-def, among other problems. (I recall once sitting in the waiting room of a dentist and seeing next to me a man watching 2002’s “Spider-Man” movie on some handheld device, its screen no bigger than a playing card. Doesn’t that lose a little something?, I so wanted to ask.)

This then begs the question, is context then everything? If so, that spells disaster for us all as the mash-up between our advancing technology continues apace with the ways we are increasingly consuming movies and, indeed, all types of media.

At least, I thought, if I am going to show these short films in some new, originally unintended way at least I was in good company and following in a long tradition. I wonder how people felt the first time Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz got shown on television, especially on screens that completely dwarfed so much of their original grandeur? We know how the world reacted when Ted Turner tried to “colorize” all the black and white classics.

But, then again, for every time that an artwork loses something, just as often it gains something through new framing devices, through being seen within a new context. It is Shakespeare in the park. It is Jeff Buckley’s slowed-down take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. It is the underlying message of much of Christo’s work as he temporary obliterates and redesigns our architecture and vistas.

One of the films I am choosing to show for the night of short films from the National Registry is 1957’s “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” by Dave Fleisher. (It was named to the Registry in 2000.) It was, of course, created as a before-the-movie, big screen commercial, a way for theater owners to get theater goers out to the concession stand — “Let’s all go to the lobby / Let’s all go to the lobby / Let’s all go to the lobby / To get ourselves a treat!” Similarly, another selection for the evening, the Kodachrome Color Motion Picture Tests of 1922, was also, basically, a sales tool as well. But now—for better or worse—we were going to ask the audience to view them differently. We were going to elevate them, as the Registry had actually already done. We were going to say, these ads are art, even if they weren’t originally intended to be.

Therefore, it all comes back to the art, doesn’t it? Is it, the art, strong enough to stand on its own? Is it strong enough to withstand the shifting sands around it? After all, a true work of art is a work of art no matter where it is. A Picasso masterpiece is still a masterpiece whether it is hanging on the wall of the Louvre or over the pool table in your basement. Furthermore, museums around the world — including many of the showcases within the buildings of the Library of Congress — —are full of objects that have been liberated from their original intent and are now being celebrated in a way their creators never expected:

— The beautifully colored, finely stitched crazy quilt has been pulled from the bed and suspended from the wall, the better to observe its craftsmanship.

— The carefully woven Navajo basket has been emptied of its contents (annulled of its actual purpose) and now sits on a pedestal, domed by glass.

— The classic car that will never see the open highway again; it is now at the centerpiece of the exhibit hall.

Music is played and enjoyed everywhere and books, by their very nature, are created to be enjoyed wherever they might be read. It is the job of art to take you away from where you are at the moment and into their own worlds, into the mindset of their author/creators.

Changing our perspective on the world around us, even in regard to those things we’ve seen hundreds of times before, is also the role of art. Consider Marcel Duchamp’s renaming of a urinal as “Fountain”, consider Andy Warhol reproducing the label of a Campbell’s soup can or replicating newspaper cover photos. On the gallery wall we come to them with a different eye than we do when we view them on the grocer’s shelf.

Am I, therefore, with this handful of short films, following in the footsteps of Warhol, et al., albeit on a much smaller and far less important scale? And didn’t the Registry itself kind of already do that for me?

In some ways, the world has already beat all of us to the punch. Martha Graham’s 1943 performance of “Lamentation” has already broken out of the confines of her school to be embraced by dance fans and historians. And George Lucas’s 1967 Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1378 4EB, his USC student film, has already extended beyond its primary role as the final requirement to get his degree. I, and the Packard Campus Theater, are just continuing what each of these films have already accomplished. If they have outlived their original intent, they have not outlived their importance or power.

The evening of short films is scheduled to occur in a few weeks. Please wish me well.