For most directors, short films are a form abandoned in youth, used as a calling card when starting out, then put aside. The prejudice toward long pieces is almost unique to film. After all, authors don't universally give up on short stories upon publishing a novel, and it's not like composers never look back once their first symphony hits the streets. It doesn't help that, apart from the occasional anthology collection or TV series, there's no real market for shorts, and those that do get made tend to disappear into footnotes. Possible Films: Short Works By Hal Hartley 1994-2004 looks to correct that for one filmmaker by compiling short pieces from the director of Trust and No Such Thing.
The result is, perhaps unavoidably, a mixed bag. Most of the DVD's shorts had their origins in other projects, which leads to wild shifts in tone. "The Sisters Of Mercy," for instance, reconfigures raw footage shot for a Breeders video into an essay on the tedium actors must endure to indulge their directors. (The result: more tedium.) "The Other Also" began as an installation in an art gallery, arguably the only place where a single out-of-focus shot of two actresses circling each other in slow motion to the accompaniment of an ambient score and a haltingly repeated Bible passage would be welcome.
Still, there's a reason DVD remotes have skip buttons, and the disc's highlights are worth seeking out. "NYC 3/94" has ordinary-looking New Yorkers walking the streets to the accompaniment of sounds of war from the former Yugoslavia, and the "it could happen here" subtext is more chilling now than ever. Shot for the German TV series Erotic Tales, "Kimono" follows Hartley's wife, Miho Nikaido, as she loses one piece of her wedding dress after another in the tangles of a forest. It develops a hypnotic power beyond its sex appeal (although it's best not to understate that element, either). But the best of the bunch comes first: "Opera No. 1" stages a wildly abbreviated tale of star-crossed gods in a warehouse using a to-the-point libretto. (He: "You're perfect." She: "Well, I'm immortal.") It's exactly the type of short that deserves preserving, should other directors need to justify this sort of collection for themselves. (Editor's note: This disc is available online, through Hal Hartley's website, possiblefilms.com.)