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The Rise and Rise of the Short Form: Art, Commerce or Ego

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At the start of the film Bedtime Story, a woman lies on the ruffled sheets of a double bed, apparently alone, wearing a skimpy nightdress. As the seconds tick by we hear running water from the bathroom.

Dark and compelling, she is a woman with a harsh line to her face. It comes, we suspect, from time spent as a victim. The image of a woman oppressed is underlined further by the sight of a slightly brutish and vain man who has evidently slept with her and who now enters the bedroom from the en suite.

The woman reaches into the bedside drawer and takes a hand gun between her thumb and forefinger.

To tell you any more would be to reveal the whole of the plot because Bedtime Story, one of the great ultra-short movies, is about to end even though it seems hardly to have begun. Suffice it to say that the outcome is a big surprise.

Bedtime Story is a great film even though it lasts only two minutes. It is based on a great story (a “flash” or “sudden” story) which runs to less than 60 words, less than half the number it has taken me to explain it so far. It is one of a growing number of ultra short works and miniatures appearing across the expressive arts: film, literature, photography, abstract art, even fashion is beginning to opt for ultra-short movies as a medium to convey the artistic vision of designers.

The obvious point about the ultra-short, of course, is that it introduces a vastly enlarged population of artists to the world.

The less obvious point is that creativity is beginning to permeate our work and leisure lives as never before, from the ringtone to the synaptic structure of the World Wide Web. In whatever guise creativity comes calling, we need to understand what this new expressionism means.

Not everybody favours it.

Peter Anny-Nzekwue, editor of Dublin Quarterly, a local literary journal, refuses to publish flash stories.

“I think a writer needs to do more,” he says, “Of course we receive flash stories. They are booming, but I don’t think at this length they are engaging the reader and they don’t reflect an ability to write.”

For Sale. Childs’ Shoes, Never Worn. That’s a six word Hemingway, perhaps the stand-out masterpiece of the ultra-short.

“Flash fiction is the most concentrated, intense, poetic sub-genre of fiction,” argues Mark Budman, editor of Vestal Review an American Journal that specialises in flash or “sudden” stories. “A good flash story replete with a plot, rich language and enticing imagery is the hardest fiction to write. A good flash engages your mind not only for the short duration of the read but also for a long time afterwards.”

Which is certainly the case with Bedtime Story, directed by Paul Baker, an up and coming director based in Los Angeles.

“I made it out of frustration while rewriting a feature script, and having a block,” recalls Baker, “It was supposed to be practice, but it came out a diamond, and sold. My first sale in 11 years at this.”

Anny-Nzekwue’s contrary view is echoed by Jason Sanford , a writer who has goes out of his way to criticise the rise of the ultra short-form.

The problem as Sanford sees it is that ultra-short form stories are not bad but they are mediocre and average and in a world where publishing is now open to a much wider creative community the mediocre not only gets published – it more or less has to be published, filling as it does the great well of opportunity suddenly opened up before us.

“There is a level of decent but uninspired narrative across all genres,” says Sanford, who blames writing schools and the requirement for writing undergraduates to have an outlet, and a lack of depth in contemporary writing for the malaise. “Instead of using narrative as exploration, writers today use narrative as mere statement,” he argues.

Why this debate is important though is because the opportunity to publish (story, film, videocast, blog or podcast) is both becoming a matter of commercial necessity and it reflects deeper underlying changes in society, according to Professor Richard Florida, of the School of Public Policy at George Mason University in Washington DC. Florida says not only are we now living in a creative economy but that international competitive advantage is largely decided by who nurtures and retains creative talent best.

First the art. The ultra-short is a way for inexperienced communicators to get a step on the creative ladder. Bedtime Story for Baker was “a way to learn the craft of filmmaking at its purest, non-studio, non union, free work for the sake of some guy/girl’s obsession to make film.”

Then the commerce. Telecommunications companies want to encourage our creativity because it means we interact more.

Flooding us with ultra-shorts is a way for software companies and broadband service providers to justify their products and services. Put in a less cynical way, burgeoning creativity in society is being met by a number of new tools (bloggin software, podcasting, desktop video editing), and outlets.

If it were just a matter of art versus commerce the proliferation of short-form creativity would still bring irreconcilable values into a cosy relationship allowing more people to be happy, seeking an audience rather than money for their art on the networks of the cash-rich network operators.

The issue of what counts as an authentic creative voice though, compared with what is driven by ego or boredom, is set to remain a tricky one.

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