Anybody remember the Randy Newman song Short People? Growing up tall and female in a small town outside New York City, I got teased–mercilessly at times. Then everybody grew up. Even so, I loved Randy’s Short People. It felt like payback: “They got little noses and tiny little teeth. They wear platform shoes on their nasty little feet.” Turns out the song was about prejudice, but who knew?
This blog is about the prejudice directed against truncated art forms: short stories and films. Like many people, I love short stories, but we’re a miniscule percentage of the reading population. There’s a joke in publishing circles. What’s the fastest way to clear a room full of editors? Tell them you’ve written a short story collection. Pardon me for saying this, but isn’t that a little short-sighted? The great Canadian writer Alice Munro has made a career out of short stories. She’s won all sorts of major awards, culminating with the Nobel Prize in 2013. Eighty-two at the time, she said, “I would really hope this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something you played around with until you got a novel.” A starving writer in her early days, no doubt she’s been eating well for a while. Her story The Bear Came Over the Mountain was made into the acclaimed movie starring Julie Christie, Away from Her. It’s about a wife who starts down the road to Alzheimer’s, but it’s also about love, betrayal, pay-back and re-configured love. All that in one short story–that’s why it’s such an art form. Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer in 2009 for Olive Kitteridge, a collection of linked stories (like a novel in short bursts) that became an Emmy-winning HBO miniseries last year. Other top films inspired by short stories include: Hitchcock’s The Birds, In the Bedroom, Brokeback Mountain, Minority Report, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.* How many times have you heard a friend say the book was much better than the movie? If the novel is an orange, the short story is the extracted juice without the pulp. It takes up less space in the glass; there’s room for champagne.
This weekend I put down good money, rolled the dice, and went to see ShortCuts, an afternoon of short films and discussion presented by Doug LeClaire, Producer of Asbury Shorts New York, and hosted by The Dallas Morning News culture critic, Chris Vognar. Ten films ranging in tone from poignant to horrifyingly humorous: two thumbs up! Most of them probably averaged 10 minutes or less. Some were silent (apart from mood music). The best of them had a double-surprise at the end, like the film Lunch (2001). I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time. I’ll only tell you the set-up and hope you’ll see it if you haven’t. The film opens at a company cafeteria serving food like green jello salad. A sign on the wall says that Dress-down Fridays have been cancelled. Three morose-looking corporate types in their dress-up clothes, one woman and two men, sit at a table eating lunch. One man’s brought a bag lunch. Each item he removes from the bag makes us laugh harder and harder. Ah, but there’s a method to his madness, and our laughter crescendos. A couple of other films end with a jolt: two deaths/a murder. Afterwards our two hosts tell us that film makers don’t get rich making shorts, no surprise. It usually costs them–or their backers–significant money. Shorts play at film festivals around the country and bring exposure for their aspiring producers/directors. Some shorts win Academy Awards, and you can usually find the nominees playing in a theatre near you before Oscar Night. Some play on YouTube. (Great! But is there anything comparable to watching on the Big Screen?)
I’ll close by giving honorable mention to a short person. The great Judi Dench starred in one of the shorts, Friend Request Pending (2011). I googled her after I got home and was stunned to learn she’s only 5’1″ tall. She played M to James Bond something like seven times. How did she manage to look so formidable? I’ve got nine inches on her, but I will forever bow to her talent.
*See I Spy page for more details.