I read continuously that we are the ADD generation – no patience for even commercials anymore (and, thanks to TiVO and DVD, no need for it). But though we do storm YouTube for the a quick fix of three-minute Colbert Report segments, we’re simultaneously committed to long-term TV show addictions. Anyone who’s ever purchased a season of “The Sopranos” or “Arrested Development” can tell you how surprisingly easy it is to fit 18 hours of television into a handful of days.
The film world could stand to expand its form along with these latest viewing patterns, and our love of the long plot has already shown its influence. This summer’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequel drew on the plotting style of an hour-long TV drama, albeit unsuccessfully – though it had the episodic feel of several back-to-back “Lost” installments, it closed like a cliff-hanger season finale instead of a self-contained movie.
The appeal of TV’s longer narratives isn’t hard to understand – the longer the emotional investment, the deeper the effect (i.e. Pam and Jim’s big moment in last season’s finale of “The Office,” which made my heart break like few 90-minute movie romances ever have). The super-epic film experience ought to emerge accordingly, and could do so for products of any screen size. Theater owners need to lure moviegoers from their increasingly affordable big screens – how better than by the example of a handful of LA cineplexes that offered mega-screenings of the entire “Rings” trilogy or a complete season showing of “24”? Now that’s entertainment at its most immersive.
Such marathons are rarities, with audience attention spans held in serious doubt. Long movie epics are generally denied the big-screen treatment and released instead as a film-quality mini-series, which gets them out to the public without realizing their full potential. Last year’s certifiably addictive “The Best of Youth,” a six-hour Italian soap-operaesque drama spanning 40 years in the life of a single family, was originally an Italian TV mini-series. In installments, it’s affecting; in a single-sitting screening, it’s downright hypnotizing (ditto for the likes of the BBC’s famous “Pride and Prejudice” and that incomparable Mr. Darcy).
But going shorter is perhaps a more feasible direction for film, with obvious production and budgeting benefits as well as easy appeal to our instinct for instant gratification. Consider “Jackass’s” two assaults on the silver screen – they may be hilarious, but they’re not actually movies, and never would have made it to a producer’s office before the mid-’90s. Little more than a sequence of skits, they’re strung together far from seamlessly, without any attempt at a chronological or coherent storyline. That scattered nature is precisely their appeal, as effective as a standup comedian leaping from punchline to punchline over the course of a two-hour set.
The true cinematic response to our quick-hit tendency should be the resurgence of the short film. Shorts are the primary storytelling form of film students – why haven’t these received a little more mainstream Hollywood treatment? Sure, you can get an Academy Award with a short film, but unless you’re at a film festival you can’t get an audience. Movie screenings used to come with newsreels or cartoons beforehand, but only Pixar nods to the old tradition by regularly including an opening act with their feature presentations.
Other than music videos (the proving ground for visual-minded directors and its own sort of creative goldmine), the Hollywood short is typically relegated to the anthology film, a movie composed of several shorts with a common umbrella theme. Often this showcases the work of different directors, such as 1989’s “New York Stories” (Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen) or 1995’s “Four Rooms” (including Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino), although a format combining so many different visions can be dangerously hit or miss. Last year’s “Eros” went painfully awry with the vast disparity of its contributors’ projects, jumping abruptly from a poetic Wong Kar-Wai fable to Steven Soderbergh’s ill-fitting scene in a shrink’s office to Michelangelo Antonioni’s embarrassing show of euro-trash eroticism.
This omnibus form perhaps works best as one director’s single-topic study, and has its creative advantages. Rodrigo Garcia’s “Nine Lives,” released last year and criminally underrated, followed a group of women’s intersecting lives in nine long scenes without the pressure of filling in their whole narrative biography. In the comedic direction, there’s Woody Allen’s quirky “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid To Ask” (1971), which allowed him to go from medieval times to a game show to the inner “control room” of the brain with a Monty Python-esque comedic freedom.
Hollywood is often accused of sticking with the usual clich