"I like my columns," says John Belushi's Chicago newspaperman in "Continental Divide," a pleasant romantic comedy of some years back. "They're short."
I know just what he means.
For though no one doubts that long films like Akira Kurosawa's 207-minute "Seven Samurai" or Italy's six-hour "The Best of Youth" can offer transcendent experiences, not enough is said about the pleasure of getting a complete aesthetic experience without having to pack a lunch or invest a major part of your day.
For short films -- because of their shortness -- bring perfection within reach; they offer satisfactions and difficulties that parallel in cinematic terms what Isaac Bashevis Singer, in writing about the short story, described as "the utmost challenge to the creative writer."
"Unlike the novel," said Singer, "which can absorb and even forgive lengthy digressions, flashbacks and loose construction, the short story must aim directly at its climax. It must possess uninterrupted tension and suspense. Also, brevity is its very essence."
When you think about short films that way, it's not surprising that some of the best moviegoing adventures have involved items that meet the 40 minutes or less criterion that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has set as its definition of an Oscar-qualifying short film.
Because it is so focused and so clear, a great short has an effect that is not easily forgotten. I can still remember the audience at an academy screening reacting in delight as the plot of 1992's Sam Karmann-directed French short "Omnibus" unfolded like a steel trap.
We're presented with a man who has taken the same two-passenger commuter train every day for months. Suddenly, after he's boarded, he's told that the train no longer stops at his local station. How he attempts to get the conductor and the engineer to stop for him and the unexpected situations his pleading leads to so captivated the audience that day that the Oscar the film eventually won was a foregone conclusion.
The same thing happened the following year in the animated category with Nick Park's "The Wrong Trousers," which gained the animator the second of his four Oscars. Watching the unstoppable team of Wallace and Gromit take on a sinister penguin masquerading as a chicken while making the serious academy crowd howl with laughter like delighted teenagers is something you definitely don't see every day.
Despite the concentrated excitement the best shorts exude, they aren't talked about a lot because, except around Oscar time, they're not exactly as easy to see as "Pirates of the Caribbean." Though special events and festivals are rapidly emerging to make shorts more accessible, the form has diminished in stature in the 70-plus years since Academy Award categories for them were first introduced.
That would be the 1931-32 season, the Oscars' fifth year, and it is an indication of how central shorts were to Hollywood that the academy recognized them two years before awards were created for editing and for music. One of the films to win that first year, Hal Roach's "The Music Box" starring Laurel and Hardy and a troublesome set of stairs in Silver Lake, is still recognized as a comedy classic.
In the 1930s and '40s, no theatrical experience was complete without a short. As producer Pete Smith wrote in the forward to Leonard Maltin's invaluable "Selected Short Subjects," "an exhibitor would no more think of omitting one or more shorts and a newsreel from his program than he would have kept his theater closed on New Year's Eve. Today a short in a theater is practically as rare as a tick on a rubber duck."
Though the Oscar category names have changed over the years (from cartoons, comedy and novelty in 1932 to animated and live action today), the academy has resisted periodic attempts to eliminate the award because shorts still have a purpose in today's much different film industry.
Because they are cheaper and easier to make than features, shorts serve as calling cards for young filmmakers eager to show off their gifts as well as hands-on final examinations for graduates of film schools. Festivals from Cannes to Sundance solicit them and give them awards. And sometimes even more unexpected honors come their way. Which is what happened to "West Bank Story."
Directed by Ari Sandel while he was at USC's School of Cinema-Television, this deft 22-minute spoof on "West Side Story," described on its website as "a little singing, a little dancing, a lot of hummus," is set to be the Sept. 13 opening-night attraction of the 12th annual Temecula Valley International Film & Music Festival.
Set where else but the West Bank, this sharp and funny mock musical features a forbidden love between Israeli soldier David and the Palestinian Fatima, a love that cannot be because their families operate the deadly rival snack stands Hummus Hut and Kosher King. Expertly made and impressive down to the finger-snapping of the rival gangs and the mugging of a camel named Stormy, "West Bank Story" shows that short films done right retain the power to surprise and delight the way they always have.
Times film critic Kenneth Turan can be reached at email@example.com.
Temecula Valley International Film & Music Festival
What: The festival includes 120 movies, 80% of which are short films. "West Bank Story" screens on opening night, 5 p.m. Sept. 13.
Where: The Movie Experience at Tower Plaza Center, 25735 Ynez Road, Temecula
When: Sept. 13 to 17
Price: $7 ($5, students and seniors), individual films; $15, day pass for movies and music; $25, opening night.
Info: (951) 699-5514, www.tviff.com