Short Rounds is a biweekly column dedicated to spreading the love of short film. Every other Wednesday we'll curate a number of flicks around a theme, from current film festivals to whatever is in the air. You know you've got the time.
Tim Burton’s original Frankenweenie debuted in 1984, almost three decades ago. Now, all these years later, we get to see his new stop-motion take on the old film. Yet while the wait is extraordinary, the project isn’t. Shorts get adapted and expanded all the time, often to great success. District 9 comes to mind, or Bottle Rocket. Others are currently in the works, like Spencer Susser’s I Love Sarah Jane and Andres Muschietti’s Mamá. Some of these are more faithful than others. Frankenweenie, with its shift from live action to stop-motion animation, is one of the most drastic revisions. It’s certainly a risk.
Frankenweenie isn’t the only short in the Burton back catalog. There’s also Vincent, an animated homage to Vincent Price. Why didn’t he adapt that instead? I won’t pretend to know, of course, but it does bring up an interesting point. Not all short films deserve to be adapted into features. In fact, most of them don’t. Many of even the best shorts should stay as they are. How do you know when it makes sense to expand a film into a feature? Here are six short films that should absolutely be taken one step further, and might help answer that question.
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The Terms, by Jason LaMotte
The best shorts create characters that seem to live beyond the limited boundaries of the form. There are few better examples than the two leads of this Irish short-story adaptation, a father and son in the rural countryside. It opens with a house in flames, the boy having set it ablaze. The father responds with a deal: he’s going to shoot his son, but he’ll give him a head start up the hill to better his chances. Even if the plot of The Terms is no more than this event and its aftermath, these characters are richly wrought. We have a brief sense of their past, a family in better times. Their darkly comic rapport gives insight into who they are, and why in spite of the conflict they remain deeply connected. They could easily populate the feature films of the Coen brothers or Martin McDonagh, and they should certainly get their own.
Deus Irae, by Pedro Cristiani
To keep things in the spirit of Fantastic Fest, here’s a flick that carried off the festival’s Best Potential award in 2010. Surprisingly fresh for an exorcism movie, Deus Irae creates its own world in a genre filled with redundancy and imitation. Like James Wan back in 2003 with Saw, Pedro Cristiani is interested in presenting a new character and a new kind of horror film. The film is essentially just an extended exorcism sequence, yet twists the aesthetics of demon cinema, introduces a team of three unique priests who invite us to sympathize, and hints at the edges of a suggested world. All of this suggestion, coupled with the strength of its characters and style, could give Cristiani a bright future.
Grounded, by Kevin Margo
Ironically, Grounded might be calling out for a feature by exactly the opposite means of Deus Irae and The Terms. While those two other films introduce characters, themes and the beginning of a fictional universe, this sci-fi adventure seems much more interested in tearing all of that stability out from under the audience. The images are as stunning and incoherent as 2001: A Space Odyssey, while the character himself and his interaction with this odd universe are reminiscent of Moon. A feature would perhaps balance those two, adding some narrative reasoning to the strange events of the short but also maintaining the experimental core.
The Old Man and the Sea, by Aleksandr Petrov
Aleksandr Petrov is one of the world’s greatest paint-on-glass animators. His shorts have won an impressive collection of awards (including an Oscar for this film in particular). He has never directed a feature, but has rather produced a series of increasingly ambitious literary adaptations. His visual accomplishments, from the grand waters of The Old Man and the Sea to the brash livestock in My Love, seem to breathe with the scope of a four-hour epic rather than a short. Yet because all of his pre-existing films are versions of short-form 19th century fiction, he shouldn’t try turning one of them in particular into a feature. Rather, he should apply his skills to a bolder, longer work. It is within Petrov’s skill to produce the definitive cinematic version of Moby Dick. Here’s hoping he tries it, or something equally vast.
Wind, by Marcell Iványi
Of course, an adaptation need not be handled by the director of the initial short. Twelve Monkeys, made by Terry Gilliam 33 years after Chis Marker’s La Jetée, is a daring stylistic leap that takes full advantage of the narrative openness of the original. The same could be done to Marcell Iványi’s Golden Palm-winning Wind, a minimalist short that, like Marker’s still-photo classic, plays with the potential of an unorthodox style. Wind is in one long take, panning through a somber gathering in a rural Hungarian village. In just six minutes we see grief, death, hints of crime and the desolation of a community we can only infer is closed off to the world. The obvious choice for a feature adaptation is Béla Tarr, but the man needs a break (and may have retired). Instead, I think Roman Polanski would have an interesting take, or perhaps Martha Marcy May Marlene’s Sean Durkin.
The External World, by David O’Reilly
Out of all these suggestions, a feature version of The External World would be the most exciting. Where The Terms and Deus Irae begin to create a defined universe, David O’Reilly’s animation shatters its own rules with each passing minute. The structure of the film, a seemingly endless series of loosely connected vignettes, might not necessarily seem like great material for a feature. Yet a longer running time would allow these moments to be turned into longer, more daring sequences. The film’s conclusion is already evocative of 8 ½, a classic example of organized chaos from which O’Reilly could take inspiration. Finally, the extraordinary detail in The External World, from the Pikachu wearing a Micky Mouse mask on the subway to the quirky characters on the morbid sitcom, leads me to believe that O’Reilly has an awful lot more to say. Here’s hoping he gets the chance.