Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Reflections: Taxonomy

For reasons too complicated to explain, I see a lot of vultures. By which I mean the literal bird, not an unsavoury co-worker or passer-by. The vultures cannot see me, so I can spend a lot of time studying them. They’re very interesting. But the most interesting thing about vultures cannot be observed directly—in fact, direct observation causes you to miss the point altogether. Wikipedia says:

Although New World [North American] vultures have many resemblances to Old World [European, African and Asian] vultures (traditionally considered part of the bird-of-prey order Falconiformes, though now often classified in a different order), they are not very closely related. Rather, they resemble Old World vultures because of convergent evolution.

Looking and acting like a certain other type of bird does not, in fact, mean you’re closely related to it. The article goes on to explain that Old World vultures spot meals by sight alone, lacking the refined nose of the New World vulture. There are distinctions of the genetic variety as well. Fair enough. But for most people, vultures are too alike to be much different. So wherever the birds might be from, they’re still vultures.

The vulture debate is one of those mental exercises that keeps a layperson’s mind fit, if not expertly applied. I find myself engaging in another one lately. It was spurred in part by my previous blog entry on the 1910 film, Frankenstein. At about 13 minutes, Frankenstein qualifies as a ‘short’ film. In fact, it could be forty minutes long and still qualify for an Academy Award for Best Short Film (Live Action). Of course, by the time the Oscars were around to be given out, many movies were running at two hours-plus. That wasn’t the case when Frankenstein appeared.

Frankenstein wasn’t made to be a ‘short film’; it was made to be a movie, and if most movies of the time weren’t much longer than 15 minutes anyway, then a film of 20, 40 or 60 minutes would have been a ‘long film,’ would it not?

This is semantics, but it came to a head not long ago when I was discussing my favourite movies with a friend. He had his casual list and I had mine, which happened to include A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Play House (1921). He protested, on the grounds that these were short films, whereas we were supposed to be discussing features. And I protested his protest, arguing that A Trip to the Moon was about as long as movies got in 1902. OK, he had me on The Play House, but I wasn’t giving up on the first one.

My friend’s point was that the length of a film is a limiting factor on its content, not simply in the obvious sense, but in terms of what works and what does not. He compared it to the different challenges faced by writers of short stories and novels. Short story writers, he said, cannot employ subplots, complex backstories or characters by the dozen. Nor can they afford a mistake. When one has less than 40 pages to work with, any error in continuity, etc. stands out like a beacon.

He’s right, I guess. But placing films like A Trip to the Moon and Frankenstein too closely beside The Pig seems reductionist to me. If a short running time does impose absolute limits on what (or better yet, ‘how’) one can tell a story, filmmakers of today nevertheless have a choice. They can select subject matter well suited to a short film, then make one. If the subject matter is not well-suited to a short, then they (or someone with more money, maybe) can produce something longer.

Would the works of Jules Verne or Mary Shelley (especially Shelley) be considered fodder for a short film nowadays? Not likely, at least if one sought to tell a truncated version of the whole story, rather than material inspired by it. True, no feature-length film based on a novel is wholly faithful either, but we would expect, in the case of a sizeable literary source, that the movie be at least two hours long.

Audiences of the very early 1900s might have expected their novel-turned-movie to be as long as possible, too. Which for them, was pretty short. And I wonder if the directors of the time, bearing the audience’s (and industry’s) expectations in mind, made choices that modern short-film directors might not have made.

But the clock is the clock, and all vultures eat carrion. Says Wikipedia again:

...there is a recent trend to raise the New World vultures to the rank of an independent order, Cathartiformes, not closely associated with either birds of prey or storks or herons. In 2007 the American Ornithologists’ Union’s North American checklist moved Cathartidae back into the lead position in Falconiformes, but with an asterisk that indicates it is a taxon “that is probably misplaced in the current phylogenetic listing but for which data indicating proper placement are not yet available.”

My blog entry on A Trip to the Moon can be read here:

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