Yesterday I caught Migraine, one of Tribeca’s “Men-Hattan” short film program. It’s about a shoe salesman on a trip to New York City with a bit of social baggage: he’s a recovering addict and a homophobe. I won’t go further into the plot, but suffice it to say that the big city has a few things to teach him on both of those points. It’s well-directed and has some interesting ideas, but that’s not why I’m bringing it up.
Those of you who follow me on Twitter probably saw that I also sat through Morgan Spurlock’s new film yesterday, Mansome. It’s an exploration of how the men of the 21st century are becoming hyper-conscious of their looks, and why that might not be a good thing. It has very little interest in its own context or depth, ignoring the elements of gender, race and sexuality that come up naturally as it moves forward. I have a suggestion for how to fix that: Migraine. Screen them together and see what happens.
Tribeca is one of many high profile film festivals that screen all of their short films in separate programs. Frankly, this is a massive wasted opportunity. Take this one example. Mansome is a movie that probably won’t be loved by critics, because it doesn’t really look deeper at the questions it raises about men and their self-image. Migraine is a short film about a man, his self-image, and how he views other men. Just putting them in a single program creates a dialogue that will enrich the audience’s reaction to both of them. How is it that festivals don’t do more of this?
On the surface, this is a win-win situation for the films themselves. When Migraine sits in a shorts program, fewer people see it. The same goes for every short in the festival. Coupling a smaller film with a feature almost instantly changes its profile. The feature, on the other hand, has nothing to lose. Mansome is going to sell tickets regardless, and as long as the short film doesn’t bump the screening well over two hours I can’t imagine how ticket sales would suffer. Moreover, a documentary like Spurlock’s is in desperate need of some kind of nuance, a way to view the film in another context that allows it a little more depth. Obviously being coupled with Migraine won’t make Mansome a better film, or improve critical reaction, but it will leave the audience with something extra to think about.
This sort of programming isn’t just for films in great need of it, of course. Shawn Christensen’s short Curfew, also playing in the “Men-Hattan” program, would be an excellent complement to Your Sister’s Sister, one of the best features playing the festival. My argument here is simply that the coupling of films is an ideal programming opportunity, a way for festivals to construct new creative discourse in their schedule. The choice of including Curfew in a screening of Lynn Shelton’s hit opens up a conversation about the distance that can arise between siblings. On the other hand, the selection of Neil LaBute’s BFF might drive an audience more toward the sexual politics of Your Sister’s Sister and the trust issues that drive the narrative. Take a look at the full range of shorts and features in Tribeca’s program and it quickly becomes clear that these possibilities are endless.
From the festival’s standpoint, of course, there are reasons to do this beyond the artistic potential of cinematic dialog. The Toronto International Film Festival has a number of shorts programs, all of which are Canadian films. Given that TIFF sees itself not only as a world-class event but also an institution that nurtures Canada’s cinema, what better way to expose international audiences to local film than tying shorts to features? Tribeca as well tries to show off the work of local filmmakers, with an entire program of New York City shorts. It’s a wonderful project, and it might be even more successful with a different scheduling strategy.
Finally, I’ll close with a simple point. Festivals should be exciting. Audiences come to see new films before they get a commercial release, sometimes films that won’t even get that far. Tribeca and others organize filmmaker discussions, outdoor screenings of classics and red carpet premieres. Seeing a movie at a festival should also be a qualitatively different experience than hitting up the cinema on any weekend of the year. Moreover, many of Tribeca’s films will get their wide release only a month or so from now. Why shouldn’t an audience just wait until then, and save some money on the ticket?
Shorts don’t get played in mainstream cinemas, with the notable exception of Pixar. It seems obvious that a short film not only changes the conversation around a screening, but adds an element of exceptionality to the event. To prove my point, have your own film night at home. Start with The Last Farm, a quiet Icelandic film about an old man’s determination to retain his ties to his ancestral land. Follow it up with Trollhunter, now available on Netflix streaming. Think about the connections between the two older protagonists, men who maintain their dignity in spite of the bitter cold. Think about how different The Last Farm would be with the comedy of Trollhunter, or the other way around.
And think about how maybe, just maybe, you should try watching a short alongside every feature. They’re good for you.