April 15, Lincoln’s Yahrzeit

Today, a friend reminded me, is Abraham Lincoln’s yahrzeit. Being a gentile, I didn’t know this word, but knew what she meant. It’s the day commemorating the anniversary of his death. Although I’m told that a yahrzeit is is mostly observed for one’s parents, Lincoln is a father of sorts to all of us Americans, so it fits.

I think of this every year, in fact, whenever I see or smell a lilac, on account of the Whitman poem that taught me to love poetry, the one that starts:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

There will be a lot more about poetry, and not just screenwriting and story-telling, here soon, and this was the poem that first got me, especially the later verses written just weeks after Lincoln was shot, verses like this one:

Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.

Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.

His cadence and his open-endedness (I’m sparing you those verses; the whole poem is online here.) became standard, what American poetry is, but this poem, free-wheeling as it is, is bound together with such purpose, it’s what my friend Sean Sutherland co-founder of the Verbal Supply Company, likes to call a complete poetic thought, without being too bound to a single metaphor.

This poem gave me a habit, when faced with loss and impending loss, to look at the grander scale, without cheapening the depth of mourning. “In the scheme of things,” I’ll think, “I should be happy.”

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It looks like it’s been a few years since Greg Trupiano of the Walt Whitman Project gave a walking tour, but I’m sure other literary tours of Brooklyn Heights and downtown hit some of Whitman’s sites, but no matter. Every year we have a yahrzeit for one of our fathers every time we see a lilac, like this young one poised to bloom (for the first time) in my dooryard:

The Shortiest Short

The Academy Awards were six weeks ago, and already it’s like six years ago. Truth is, I tuned them out this year more than I have in decades, with the exception of one category, for “Best Live Action Short.”

“Six Women,” the short I wrote, was in editing then, and coming in at a frustrating (to me) 20 minutes long. It has since been “picture locked” at exactly that length, after my pleas to speed sequences here, and to trim my own bits of dialogue there, which had long been yielding diminishing returns, started giving the story less feeling. We had a few discussions about the ideal length for a short film, which I was insisting was nine to 12 minutes – inconveniently, since I’d written an 18 page script, and we all knew that a page roughly equals a minute.

I’d settled on that short length from what I knew of film festival programming. The shorter a short is, the more places it can fit into a program: You can always stick an extra six minute film, if it’s at all decent, into a two-hour showcase of shorts. And the best way to see a short is before a feature: A day after seeing a program of, say, ten 10-minute films, they’re mostly a blur in your memory, but if you can see one substantial short before an 80 to 100-minute feature, then it’s probably made an impression, but programmers understandably prefer 10-minute films for coveted slots like these.

The key word, substantial. Short films tend to have narratives like jokes, a short to medium-length preparation for one single punch line. At six minutes that’s literally all you have time for. If you want a character with more than one quality, and to take him or her plausibly to an unexpected place, then you’d better double that time. Much longer than that, and you’re in uncharted territory. The determinant must be the substance.

As with any venture, a maker of a short film must ask, “What are we doing this for?” Is it a widget for a short film program? A piece of art? Or a showpiece to persuade someone to make a full-length feature? I’ve made a case in the past for why some films can’t be made cheaply, but are still worth making, and some stories can’t be told in eight minutes but are still worth telling.

Watching the Oscar-nominated shorts back in February as we were refining ours, I got that strange burst of confidence you get when you see the top-of-the-line material and realize, “This isn’t all that great.” I also found it very reassuring that three of the five Oscar nominees were longer than ours, including the American favorite “Day One,” written and directed by Henry Hughes. That persuaded me to let go and let God, or maybe let go and let Ted (Teddy Schenck, who was directing, and saw the light about the length of “Six Women” weeks before I did).

Shok-inside

From “Shok,” by Jamie Donoughue.

The two other nominees were the Palestinian-European production “Ave Maria” (written by Basil Khalil and Daniel Yáñez Khalil) at 15 minutes and “Stutterer,” a 12-minute short written and directed by the Irishman Benjamin Cleary. My favorite, hands down, was “Shok,” a Kosovar-British production written by Jamie Donoughue, about two boys who were friends during the Balkan war in the ’90s. It was the all around best-realized story, and you simply didn’t want it to end. My friend and fellow cinephile and I left the IFC theater after watching them all and agreed on this, but immediately started speculating that the American film, which had just as grand aspirations but showed no restraint whatsoever in the scope or subtlety of its themes, was probably going to win.

Which brings me to a brief digression, the reason I like to tune out the Oscars. Like American politics, they too quickly become a discussion of why something will win, rather than why something is worthy. You can speculate for months (and we do) about why The Academy or The Electorate or the primary voters of New Hampshire will feel one way or another, but what do you think?

The Academy disagreed with us, it turned out. I liked “Stutterer,” which prevailed. Far from a one-gag joke, in just 12 minutes it shows three very touching scenes: A type-setter, who’s most loquacious in his own head, is having an online romantic relationship via witty instant messages, hiding his stutter. We can tell by one delightful scene with his father, in which he stammers in painfully long real time through a deeply poetic thought, that knowing him would be very rewarding to anyone who has the patience to listen. Then comes the scene in which he overhears a man at a bus stop verbally abusing a woman, but isn’t able to intervene because he can’t get the words – this is where the average short would place the finale. But Cleary brings us to a new place, a meeting with the on-line love interest. The payoff, slightly cheeseball, lands satisfyingly because Cleary has already accomplished what a good story should: Taken you to the place you thought you’d end up, and then gone one step further.

Still, you can’t compare it to “Shok”! That’s just so much better. Ah well. It won’t be the first time The Academy gave preference to an English-language film over a foreign one. Neither was it the first nor last time, I’m assuming, that some members of a film jury took the time to actually watch a 12-minute movie and skimmed the 20+ minute movies any time they lost patience.

That’s the reality I’ll be living with the rest of this year as Teddy and I figure out where to premiere “Six Women,” and where to screen it after that.