Aristotle writes of drama in the Poetics: “the greater the length, the more beautiful will the piece be by reason of its size, provided that the whole be perspicuous” (VII).
Most films these days fall somewhere in the ninety to one hundred fifty minute range. Film epics are a rarity. Supposing Aristotle is right, why don’t we see more epics? The easy answer is: economics: a two-hour film can be screened twice as many times per day than can be a four-hour film. But this can’t be right: in the art world, films are often much shorter than feature length. This holds true even of artists who, say, in virtue of having established themselves (read: who have found economic stability), need not please galleries or potential buyers.
Another easy answer is: today’s world is so fast-paced that people don’t have the patience for longer filmic or dramatic works. But I think this is wrong too, or, at least, not the whole story. I want to suggest that Aristotle was wrong: beauty does not increase with length: what matters is that a complete story is told and told well. (I won’t consider here whether fragments or otherwise incomplete works can be beautiful, though I think they can, as my previous post on opacity begins to suggest.)
So I want to find some evidence for the hypothesis that a complete story can be told and told well in a short space. There’s Hemingway’s famous six-word short story: “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. There’s also more microfiction (online, in journals) than you can put your arms around. But these observations can’t knock Aristotle. Literature is static, in a way, whereas Aristotle’s principle applies to drama (where “drama” comes from the Greek for “to perform” or “act” or “do”).
I wish I knew about micro-drama (e.g. one-act plays) or about micro-film (microfilm? micro-film) to offer some examples of very short works that are just as beautiful as even the most beautiful long work. (It might be unfair to stack up short works against, say, King Lear, but probably not against something like O’Neill’s Strange Interlude.)
But there is www.5secondfilms.com. Here’s the supposed top twenty (careful: some are offensive and/or very unfunny):
I think it’s telling that all twenty are humorous (or supposed to be). Some of the films illustrate the fact that a complete story can be told in a short span, but they don’t help us decide whether non-comedic drama be short while aesthetically valuable. One possible helpful example is Paris, je t’aime, a 2006 collection of shorts, some of which are quite good. (Please comment on this post if you have your own examples! (Or counter-examples.))
I want to end by noting that very short songs can often tell a complete and completely rewarding story. Such songs might make a better case against Aristotle than microfiction, since there’s a performative or “doing” aspect to music that’s absent from literature.
So, some great examples of great songs that tell a story in under 2 minutes:
Max Richter - “Written on the Sky”
Bach - “Partita #5 in G”
(All of the seven parts of the collection are under (about) two minutes in length. Some more than others, I think, tell a whole story. It’s fun to think here about the relationship of the parts, some of which seem to tell a standalone story, to the whole, which presumably does the same. In a similar way it’s fun to think about the relationship between an album and its songs or its singles.)
The Vivian Girls - “No”
Pavement - “Zurich is Stained”
No Age - “My Life’s Alright Without You” (I can’t find a good copy of this online. Support the artists and buy it!)
Casiotone for the Painfully Alone - “Twinkle Echo”
(I recommend checking out the album of the same name as the song. It’s amazing how well this final, wordless song both tops off and encapsulates what comes before.)