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Magnifying the Role of the Short
Karl Mechem and The Journal of Short Film
by Kaizaad Kotwal
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A still from Patterns, by Jamie Travis, a Canadian filmmaker, included in Volume 3 of the JSF.
It’s hard to believe that the first-of-its-kind journal focusing on short film emerged as recently as 2005. Harder even to imagine is that The Journal of Short Film (JSF) originated in Victorian Village, the brainchild of Karl Mechem, freelance writer and editor for educational textbooks.
Modeled on literary journals (North American Review, Paris Review, Kenyon Review) the JSF is a quarterly compilation of short films on DVD.
To appreciate the role and impact of the JSF, one has to rewind a bit to understand the nature and history of the format under scrutiny.
Shortchanging the Short: A Brief History
What we call the film industry today had its origins in the format known as the short, i.e., the history of cinema is the history of the short film.
When Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope was refined into the film projector and motion picture camera in the late 19th century, the notion that this new medium could be used for mass entertainment purposes was not immediately apparent. Initially, the emerging moving picture technologies were used largely for recording family events, creating personal memoirs, and for other documentary purposes.
The birth of the film industry actually began with the success of E. S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). This first narrative film ever made was 12 minutes long, comprising 14 scenes, each filmed in a single shot.
Even after the industry began to produce feature-length films, the short enjoyed great popularity. These shorts, most often comedic, sometimes animated, were often screened before a feature film. Legendary auteurs of yesteryear – Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges – used the format to great effect.
During and between the two World Wars, short format newsreels and documentaries were screened before the feature and during the now defunct intermissions. These brief updates from the frontlines were part information, part propaganda, rallying the home front to continue supporting and sacrificing for the war efforts.
In the post-World War II era, to paraphrase The Buggles who sang that “Video Killed the Radio Star,” television certainly killed the short subject’s already
dimming star. Once TV had established itself, and as motion pictures began to compete with this upstart medium, the short film became economically unviable. Production costs simply began to far outrun revenues.
Since the 1950s, the short has been relegated to the status of cinematic stepchild, finding audiences largely at film festivals, art museums and within other more esoteric circles of cinephiles. However, in recent years, with the proliferation of new and more affordable digital and computer technologies, the short is witnessing a revival.
The Oscars, arguably film’s highest award, are annually awarded to shorts in three categories – live action, animated and documentary – bestowing the format with prestige and respect on a global scale. In the last few years, the ten nominated animated and live action shorts have been released as compilations in cinemas across the country.
Art museums – particularly modern art establishments – have given the short much attention. Standalone shorts, often commissioned by museums, and ones used by artists as part of larger installations, have been projected in museums the world over. In Columbus, the Wexner Center has consistently focused on the short film both via exhibits and as part of their film and video programming.
Yet, for all the festivals, museums and competitive awards out there, the short continues to live in relative obscurity. That is what motivated Mechem to conceptualize and begin publishing the JSF.
Mechem’s Quixotry: Tilting at Cinematic Windmills
Born in Oklahoma City, Mechem did not always have cinematic aspirations. A man of many diverse interests, he is a self-professed generalist who claims to be curious about a variety of things.
With his engineering degree from Oklahoma State in Stillwater, he moved to Athens, Georgia, to pursue a master’s in Diplomatic History where he focused on the history of international relations with a thesis on nuclear non-proliferation.
Mechem “was going to go all the way” towards a doctoral degree but realized he was not too fond of graduate school. “Things were too specialized and my interests were too broad,” he explained. “It just wasn’t for me.”
His peripatetic existence then led him to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands where he taught computers for a year before ending up in Columbus in 2000 working for publisher McGraw-Hill. Eventually he chose to freelance as a textbook writer and editor, allowing him scheduling flexibility to work on the JSF.
Mechem’s objective in creating the JSF was to provide a new method of distribution for short film that he considered, and still considers, “sorely lacking.” His hope to fill this “gaping hole” continues to be part of his struggle – staying in the black and increasing sales of his still-modest subscriber base. Calling it “yet an underground operation,” Mechem said he continues to work at inventing the format since he is the first to do this.
Extremely guarded, even secretive about production costs, subscription numbers and revenues, answering all such queries with “I’d rather not say,” Mechem will say that he is “still finessing the business model to make the JSF grow.”
To lure subscribers and entries for consideration, Mechem puts out calls at film schools and uses every possible online posting site he knows of to solicit response. The target audience is not academics as the moniker of “journal” might suggest. Rather, the subscribers are all cinephiles, mostly insiders.
There is no entry fee in the process to be considered for publication. “That would just seem mean,” Mechem said, “because we would never want to exclude anybody.”
“I see this as a very democratic process since the short film itself is a more democratic area of filmmaking,” Mechem added.
Mechem makes the first cut, from about a hundred entries for each issue, passing on for further scrutiny about 30 shorts for consideration by his editorial panel and judges – usually three film professionals. Some 10 to 11 short films make the cut and are finalized for publication. Most are from around the U.S. Mechem is most proud that the JSF has published works from Romania, Hungary, Spain, Iran, Australia, New Zealand, and Germany. Paul Hill, studio manager at the Wexner Center’s editing facilities who has served as a judge for all the volumes except one said, “What we all really enjoy is getting a lot of work from Europe and abroad in trying to keep it diverse.”
The JSF sets an upper limit of 20 minutes in defining short film. Standards across the world vary, however, with some venues considering the short as anything under one hour in length.
Published out of Mechem’s home, the DVD’s technical production is handled by Paul Hill and Daniel King. The printing is completed in New Jersey where the journals are mass-produced and packaged.
A simple legal contract is utilized to give the JSF the rights to publish the film for dissemination via the journal while the filmmakers retain the ownership of their works, according to Mechem.
Most often, the journal’s issues have no particular focus or thematic cohesiveness. However, two have specifically been coalesced around some central idea or notion: Volume 9 (Fall 2007) features documentary shorts published in collaboration with Witness Video of Brooklyn, New York. Focusing on human-rights issues, this volume includes entries from as far as Burma (Myanmar) and Chechnya. Volume 11 to be published this spring will zoom in on the thriving, vivid film culture of Portland, Oregon.
Mechem came to short films rather late in life and quite by accident. “I became aware of them just several years ago,” he said, “and since I discovered that all this seemed interesting, I was eager to see where I could find more.” A self-professed film buff with not a lot of formal education on the topic, Mechem is passionate when he speaks about the journal and the format.
The potential for experimentation that short cinema offers particularly intrigued Mechem. All the different ways of communicating excited him. “There is so much more variety with shorts than in feature length films,” he said, citing that shorts can be live action, documentary, animated, experimental, narrative or a combination of styles and genres. The same variety can be found in full-length features, but Mechem suggests that the short format exploits this variety more fully given that most mainstream cinema is rather homogenized.
Mechem acknowledges, like many in the industry, that while the proliferation of affordable camera and editing technologies has been a good thing overall, the increased volume of shorts being produced has not necessarily meant a proportional increase in the quality of works available.
Mechem likens this phenomenon to another technology watershed in human history: “Like with the invention of the printing press, a lot of crap was printed,” Mechem said, “so too with short films, there is a lot more being made, not all of it great.” That is one of the many challenges he faces. “You have to sort through the noise when the volume has increased,” Mechem said, “and that is where my editors come in. They are my filters.”
One of those oft-used editors, Jennifer Lange (assistant curator of media arts and also in charge of the Art & Technology program at the Wexner Center), agreed that the technology has made things cheaper and easier for aspiring filmmakers while quality is still what should be the standard when seeking out shorts for publishing and viewing.
On a positive note, the proliferation of cheaper technologies has meant that people who previously would have had no cinematic voice, due to the prohibitive costs of filmmaking, are now able to exercise their visions in telling their stories. Because of this new revival, people in places where the celluloid light rarely shines have been able to draw attention where it is much needed.
Although a more diverse chorus of cinematic voices has emerged through the short film – in terms of gender, race, sexuality, religion, socio-economic class, and geography – it would be naïve to assume that the short subject is inherently democratizing. Young white men of some economic or social privilege still largely dominate the short film world, much like its parent world of long format cinema.
Lange, like Mechem, recognizes that the world of shorts has seen an increase in the diversity of emerging voices. At the post-production facilities at the Wexner, Lange notes that “for every one application I get from a male filmmaker, I get five or six from women.” “Video,” she concluded, referring more broadly to new film technologies, “has been democratizing.”
With the rise of Internet sites like YouTube where video sharing has become a common pastime and phenomenal moneymaker (for the Web site owners and the advertisers), the notion of the short film begins to look more and more viable. Yet, there’s a catch here as well. While short filmmakers love the idea of mass dissemination of their works via the Internet, there is no money there yet for them. More importantly, these Web broadcasting technologies are still rather crude where the quality of the viewing experience is still sorely lacking even on the latest and fastest of computers.
But as soon as Web browsers and Internet broadcasting technologies become more efficient, better refined, short films are certain to enjoy larger audiences and perhaps some return in revenues.
Mechem and Lange are both ecstatic that the means by which short films can be disseminated are on the rise. That, after all, is why Mechem got into the business of the JSF. He also hopes, as the subscriber base increases and revenues become more plentiful, to have a print companion to the digital journal.
For the future, he also plans to have screenings of individual volumes of the journal at museums, theaters, community centers and anywhere else his work is welcome.
Visit The Journal of Short Films at www.thejsf.org
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