Threes, quas and Ann Arborites
The number three is relevant to television in a lot of ways. It may refer to the number of good seasons “Arrested Development” had, or the Big Three television networks that control the minds of the American people. Maybe three alludes to the years since the sensational Michael Schur comedy “The Good Place” came to NBC, or the number of facelifts a cast member of “The Real Housewives” gets per season. Indeed, the number three is relevant to television in a myriad of ways — none of which I particularly care about. What I do care about is a “Saturday Night Live” skit from 2017 titled “Short Film,” because, you know, I’m alternative.
“Short Film” is “SNL” at it’s best: bizarre, stupid and starring Emily Blunt. It takes place in a quaint little town called Ann Arbor — yeah, we’re about to get pretty meta here. Debuting at the Ann Arbor Short Film Festival is a short entitled “qua,” a thriller featuring Blunt and written or produced by literally everyone in the theater besides one unsuspecting viewer played by Vanessa Bayer. Most of what happens in the short isn’t relevant. What matters is that as Blunt runs through a grayscale forest, she is surrounded by giant white threes peppered throughout the trees and shrubbery.
So what do those threes mean? When Vanessa Bayer asks that same question, none of the cast or crew seems to know what she’s talking about. “I’m sorry, what threes?” Kenan Thompson’s Ann Arbor counterpart asks. No one else seems to have seen the threes Bayer is referring to, leaving all parties involved baffled. I, too, was confused by this sketch, a standout among most “SNL” sketches of date that are pitiful attempts at political satire. I found myself with three main questions: What the hell is “qua,” what do those threes mean and why did they pick Ann Arbor? Three big questions, three tentative answers. Let’s dive in.
A quick google search proves my vocabulary may not be as extensive as I hoped to believe. “Qua” is actually an English conjunction, dating back to the 15th century meaning “in the capacity of” or “as.” Used in a sentence: The president qua commander-in-chief ordered to remove the troops from the Middle East. Kind of pretentious, right? A 20th century usage writer thought so, commenting, “Qua is sometimes thought affected or pretentious, but it does convey meaning economically.” Sounds like not only the description of a word, but of a short film that may be shown in a town like Ann Arbor. The mystery starts to unfold.
But what do those threes mean? “Qua” has three letters, is that the answer? Probably not, but they have to mean something. In my research I looked to a chaotically evil place for answers: YouTube comments. One viewer’s analysis of the short in particular stuck out to me as incredibly poignant. They claim that the short is about a mother whose daughter died after she left her in the bathtub. She’s in denial and running away from herself, surrounded by threes, the age of which her daughter died. At the end of the short when Blunt collapses, looks up at a clone of herself and says “It’s me,” she’s finally accepting that it was she who led to her daughter’s death. Quite a deep interpretation of a fake short film from an “SNL” skit, but not necessarily a bad one. I was pretty impressed until I continued reading the comment to find the final conclusion user Wolf Man Lykan came to: “lol jk I’m bored asf.” Maybe there never were any threes after all.
So why Ann Arbor? Isn’t there enough madness going on in this sketch that it needn’t be placed in a Midwestern bubble? Couldn’t these millennial faux-creative types debut their passion projects anywhere? The answer is no, this sketch couldn’t take place anywhere but Ann Arbor. Sure, NYC and LA are hubs for indie celebrity wannabes, but that’s so predictable. Who would suspect that a 29-square-mile town in the south of Michigan is filled to the brim with 20-year-olds convinced that they are God’s gift to creative world? That no one else gets it like they do? I love Ann Arbor, I really do, but part of the reason I love her so is that every day feels like I’m a part of an anthropological study someone is conducting “Truman Show”-style to see what happens when a bunch of people aged 18 to 35 are stuck in a Midwestern town with coffee shops and craft beers. Have you ever been to Literati and just looked around? The entire second floor coffee shop is full of white men with cuffed jeans and women with dyed hair freelancing. It’s fascinating, it’s marvelous, it’s the exact place “SNL” would choose to host an artificial short film festival. I may not know much about the etymology of the word “qua” or what the hell Emily Blunt was running from, but I know Ann Arbor. She’s a holy trinity of pretentious, passion and peculiar people — the perfect trifecta.