When movies are short
A rambling by Tom Knapp

"Fred Ott's Sneeze" is five seconds long.

The tiny film, shot in 1894 in Thomas Edison's Black Maria studio, was the first motion picture to be copyrighted in the United States.

Although feature films have gotten longer in the years since then, some modern filmmakers still have a passion for the short. A two-hour film festival named for Edison's original studio -- held Feb. 16, 2009, at Millersville University, outside Lancaster, Pa. -- celebrates that abbreviated form.

The presentation began with a blank screen and sounds that could have signaled the start of a horror movie. Instead, it was a nature film, the eight-minute "Ice Bears of the Beaufort," which captures the endangered polar bears in one of their few untouched habitats.

Next up was another documentary, "5 Days in July (Newark 1967)," presenting a chilling perspective on the New Jersey race riots that followed the arrest and beating of a black taxi driver.

Some viewers enjoyed the experience, although not all the films impressed them.

"I'm a little bit baffled, to be honest," Ephrata resident Dan Sweger said during an intermission.

"Some of it, I feel, just goes over my head. I'm not getting it," he said. "But it's nice to see something different. And I'm glad to have something like this in Lancaster."

The series continued in a stream where variety was the only constant.

"The Idiot Stinks" is a two-minute scratchboard animation film with a scribbled appearance and chaotic score. "Dear Texas Highways" is a bewildering series of stills about a man, cigarettes, U.S. flags and more. "Temporary Services" is an animated short set in a fertility clinic. And "Circles of Confusion" tells the story of a New Orleans filmmaker whose life's work was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

"Utopia Variations" deconstructs a scene from "The Wizard of Oz" through an algorithmic equation. The five-minute film featuring Judy Garland singing "Over the Rainbow" drew a variety of reactions.

"I love independent film ... and I wanted to see what's out there and take advantage of this experience," Sharon Clarton of Lancaster said.

"And I'm aware that it might be ignorance on my part, a lack of understanding, but I didn't get that one," she said. "Perhaps I was just meant to experience irritation that I can't turn it off. But I have to wonder what (other film entry) was eliminated for this."

"The Dorothy one made me dizzy," Sweger said.

Millersville University student Matt Topper, on the other hand, tapped the Dorothy scene as his favorite part of the show.

"I liked the whole idea of looking at something familiar in a different way," he said.

The standing-room-only crowd had thinned considerably by the start of the second half, which included "Bob's Knee," a documentary about an inventor who was curious about the mechanics of walking; "Secret Machine," an experimental time-lapse piece; "The Last Butcher in Little Italy," which captures a bygone day in customer service; "Stigmata," which takes a stab at a Catholic icon; and "Birdy," an example of stop-action animation in which a flightless bird seeks an inventive, sometimes homicidal solution to his woes.

Based on applause, crowd favorites were "Yours Truly," a montage of classic cinema, modern modeling and a culinary cover-up, and "The Sheriff," a documentary about an uneducated and nearly blind factory worker whose idea of heaven is a police scanner.

The series wrapped up with the upbeat "7 Days of the Week," illustrating a song of the same title by They Might Be Giants.

The 28th annual Black Maria Festival made its second annual appearance at Millersville, which is the 10th venue in a 65-city tour. The festival, based at New Jersey City University, drew more than 700 entries this year, of which 58 are included in the tour.

Each venue curates the films according to desired length and audience appropriateness, according to Ben Cunningham, chairman of the Millersville University art department. For the Millersville show, he included about 20 entries, totaling two hours of film time. Entries ranged from under two minutes to more than 10.

'The power of the visual image is undeniable," Cunningham said.

"I love a film that I don't really get until a day or two later," he said later. "Then I'm walking down the street and suddenly -- wham!"

by Tom Knapp