Art is long; life is short, Hippocrates said. But not always. A lot of art these days lasts practically no time at all, but then it doesn’t take much time to make, either. November, for example, is National Novel Writing Month, when thousands of would-be authors try to complete a 175-page book in just 30 days. There is also a similar event, Script Frenzy, in which writers have a month to turn out 100 pages.
A month is almost an eternity compared with the single day allotted to participants in the 24 Hour Plays, one of the earliest of the instant-art movements. In the 48 Hour Film Project, moviemakers get a whole weekend — from Friday evening to Sunday evening — to complete a four-to-seven-minute film.
Why bother? Mark Ruppert, who started the project in 2001 with Liz Langston, said that they wanted to find out whether it was possible to make a movie in such a short time and if so, whether anyone could stand to watch it. The answer to both questions turns out to be, mostly, yes. The project, which started in Washington, is now a business employing four people full time and has spread to 87 cities around the world, including Lima, Johannesburg and Casablanca. A few of the filmmakers are professionals; many more are hobbyists or people who fantasize about turn pro.
This year the New York version of the project began on Friday at 7 p.m. at the Village Pourhouse, a bar in the East Village. Seventy teams had entered, with hip, ironic names like Panic Pants, Morphic Sun and Chromatic Square, and if they were representative of 48-hour filmmakers in general, then this is an art form that appeals mostly to white males in their 30s who dress in T-shirts, cargo shorts and flip-flops and like to drink beer while sending text messages.
One by one the teams drew from a hat a slip of paper specifying one of 14 genres for their film, including horror, mockumentary, sci-fi and road movie. Then David Stott, who organized the event, read off a list of elements that each film must include: a tennis ball; a character named Ellie or Ethan St. John, who is the president of something, it doesn’t matter what; and the line “Are you sure?”
Bill Dyszel, who operates on his own under the name CinemaSolo, and whose day job is writing technical manuals and articles, drew drama. This was his 23rd appearance at a 48 Hour Film event in one city or another, he said, and in all that time he has never drawn the musical as a genre. It doesn’t matter. Mr. Dyszel, who is a classically trained baritone, makes a musical every time. Before going solo, he was part of a group that would create an entire musical while riding on the A train from 207th Street to Far Rockaway, and back.
Making his fifth appearance at the 48 Hour Film Project, Adam Taylor, of Galaxy 454, drew silent film and after studying the slip for a moment, said he welcomed the challenge. “It’s not that hard to make a film in 48 hours,” he said. ‘The hard part is the writing, all the prep, dealing with the required elements and bringing everything together.” He mentioned, disapprovingly, some filmmakers who had shown up last year furnished with Nazi uniforms, which they were determined to use, no matter what. “I think it’s more fun if you have to find Nazi uniforms in the middle of the night,” he said.
With only himself to keep track of, Mr. Dyszel probably got more sleep than most of the participants. By midnight on Friday he had already conceived of a character — a man who is president of every business on earth and has outsourced or eliminated all his employees — and written a song for him, a Gilbert-and-Sullivan-like ballad about blaming others for your mistakes. By midday on Saturday he had recorded himself singing it, and, dressed in a suit and tie, was filming himself in his West Side apartment lip-synching to his own voice while he squeezed a pair of tennis balls in his hand the way Captain Queeg, in “The Caine Mutiny,” squeezes his ball bearings. He sang:
Now in hindsight we’ve asked when disasters occurred,
Such as oil-well explosions and such:
Did the people who made the decisions know what they were doing?
I’d say, “Not so much!”
Whether Mr. Taylor, a comedy writer when not making films, slept at all over the weekend is a matter of some debate. His teammates — Donnie Wagner, the cinematographer, and Gina Apestegui, who was the sound engineer and also looked after a lot of the logistics, said they thought he might have closed his eyes for a few minutes. But how would they know? They both admitted to napping for a couple of hours.
By early Saturday morning, Mr. Taylor had completed a five-page screenplay that wasn’t a silent film, exactly, but a political thriller that turns silent after the president of the United States is blown up in an assassination plot engineered by his Sarah Palin-ish vice president.
On Saturday afternoon Mr. Taylor was outside his apartment in Long Island City, Queens, filming a scene in which a Secret Service agent (Mr. Taylor’s friend Jonathan Castro), tearing himself away from the vice president’s bed, rushes outside and, together with another agent, is knocked flat by the explosion. A fleeing, petrified crowd was played by Sarah Schoofs (who had a starring role in Mr. Taylor’s 2009 production “Ben, Hurt”) and by Dani Faith Leonard (another friend, who also played the vice president). Seasoned New Yorkers passing by paid no attention at all to two guys sprawled on the sidewalk and sprinkled with talcum powder.
The talcum powder was Mr. Taylor’s idea. He dumped it into a plastic bag that he inflated and then popped to create the explosion. During one take, however, he got too close to the camera and sprayed powder all over the lens while also turning Mr. Wagner’s hair white. Had they only been entered in the horror film category, it would have been a terrific special effect.
By Saturday night Mr. Dyszel was more or less done with his entry, “Executive Decision” He spent Sunday morning tweaking and — a last-minute inspiration — splicing in an M.R.I. of his brain that he happened to have around. He turned in his film well before the appointed time, as did Eric Kritzler and Ron Houghtaling, of Cup o’ Meat Productions, who were competing in the foreign film division. Their movie, “Das Ei und die Lenkbare,” or “The Egg and the Dirigible” was in back and white with German dialogue, courtesy of Google translation, and English subtitles. It featured numerous scenes of European-style smoking, with characters wielding their cigarettes like little batons, and angst-filled lines like, “Your pain makes me thirsty.”
Mr. Taylor’s movie, “The Great Reign Robbery,” turned out to be nearly a 50 Hour Film because of a balky computer that refused to surrender the finished version. Along with films completed by some other stragglers, his will be shown, together with the 50 that were finished on time, at one of five screenings this weekend at the Cantor Film Center at New York University. But because it was tardy, it won’t be eligible for the awards — for best film, best directing, best cinematography and so on — bestowed by a panel of judges.
Still, if the crowd enjoys it, he may win, as he has three times, an audience-favorite award. And like many of the 48 Hour films, his movie will enjoy an afterlife on YouTube, which is pretty close to artistic immortality these days, and where a seven-minute movie sometimes seems like an epic
By CHARLES McGRATH