We Like Shorts, Shorts is a new column in which we single out impressive short films which are easily accessible online. The full shorts will always be embedded in the articles for easy access.
I first stumbled upon 23 Skidoo whilst researching the history of Sydney Film Festival for their anniversary online archive. The short played in the 1965 festival, the same year that Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes and Godard’s Bande a part screened.1 I’d sought it out after seeing how often the National Film Board of Canada kept popping up in festival programs in the early 1960s, it was essentially a staple of the festival, that each year a number of shorts produced by the NFB would be screened in Sydney. I had skipped through a few, most documentary shorts focusing on landscapes and culture, but this plot description from the 1965 festival guide stopped me in my tracks:
“The location is Montreal: the familiar city scene is observed without a living soul. For people, it has been “23 Skidoo”! The tele-type message at the end explains all”
It’s a little bombastic, sure, and I had to look up what exactly the expression “23 Skidoo” meant – it’s army slang for getting out quickly – but the idea of an empty city seemed instantly appealing. It’s one of the drawcards in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later – an empty London, unfathomable yet able to instantly craft a compelling setting, a disturbing mirror of modern day existence. The science fiction undertones of the premise were also promising based on the context of filming, the short was produced in the same year that the original incarnation of The Twilight Zone was ending its fifth and final season.2 In addition to this, the director of the short, Julian Biggs, didn’t seem to have directed much outside of this and a few other shorts, he was more of a producer at the time, so 23 Skidoo had a sense of mystery outside of its actual contents too.3
We open with a POV from a train window as it moves past suburban houses, then, closer and closer to the city through a series of subtle crossfades – the ‘train’ keeps its pace exactly as we teleport from place to place. The music, featuring the whistle of a train on loop, gives us a sense of pace and drive, whilst also indicating a familiar sound associated with people – whilst the train itself is a piece of machinery, the very sound is associated with workers, platform attendants, the movement of a mass. As we hit the city, the music changes, the train whistle disappears and a low drone replaces it until the frame freezes and the title appears. From there, the sense of movement alters completely, we move to a series of static or short panning shots. Later in the film, as the camera gains its sense of purpose, moving towards a newspaper agency, some really compelling tracking shots emerge. A few shots in this sequence call to mind Kubrick’s The Shining, especially in how hallways are used.
Paul Leach’s black and white cinematography is pretty stunning. Whilst it consists of some very simple images, some that could have been shots ripped from social documentaries, this is precisely the point. The sense of the familiar is necessary to create unease. When the camera replicates moving up an escalator, only to freeze at the top, the distance between mechanical observer (camera) us as viewer, becomes clear. The surrogacy of film and audience is shaped in an odd way.
The music, by Kathleen Shannon (music) and Ted Haley (recording), is also vital to the effect.4 23 Skidoo might be a silent film with regards to dialogue, but the merger of real sound and the droning score crafts a sense of helplessness and futility. The twist in the film, mentioned in the plot summary as “the tele-type message”, actually comes about halfway through, with the second half taking the almost hokey (yet still impactful) reveal and crafting a nightmare of sound. The subtle ambience noise of the streets is gone, in its place familiar sounds of people – loud and, in a way, heartbreaking. A succinct social message emerges from what started as mere experiment with form.