Pity the short film. Like the runt of the litter, it is destined to be overlooked and undervalued, dwarfed by its more muscular sibling the full-length feature. Sure, it has its own Oscar categories - the short live-action winner this year was the unsettling Six Shooter, the first film by the playwright Martin McDonagh. There are also popular gatherings dedicated to the form, such as the Brief Encounters Short Film Festival, held each November in Bristol. And the National Film Theatre is hosting a one-day retrospective of shorts from the Pixar animation studio, which has proved itself a master of narrative economy.
Yet the short has no permanent home beyond the festival, the film-school presentation evening or the themed portmanteau movie (such as the recent 11'09"01, which set directors such as Ken Loach and Shohei Imamura the task of making shorts relating to the 9/11 attacks). Shorts rarely turn up in cinemas as they once did: that would reduce the number of possible screenings of the main feature and, therefore, the box-office take. And there isn't space for a short film in most critics' Top Ten lists, or even Top 100, though few would disagree that cinema was altered for ever by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's 16-minute Un Chien Andalou, or that Jean Vigo's À propos de Nice and Zéro de conduite, both under 45 minutes, are as vital to that director's standing as his only feature, L'Atalante.
In these enlightened times, then, let us end discrimination against those films which are disadvantaged in the area of length: the temporally challenged, if you like. We can do this by conceding that the short is closer in essence than the feature to the way we experience life - that is, as a series of self-contained elements rather than an overarching voyage of discovery. And it is hardly less of an achievement to render a narrative in, say, 15 minutes, than to unravel it compellingly over two hours. In fact, shorts must achieve the same level of plausibility or enchantment as a feature in a fraction of the screen time.
Take Pixar's Oscar-winning Tin Toy, from 1988. The film is shot from a toy's perspective: trapped in its box in the living room, it sees an approaching infant distorted grotesquely through the creased plastic packaging, so that this gurgling baby resembles a rampaging mutant (which, for parents in the audience, may qualify the film as documentary realism). The toy scuttles under the sofa, where it discovers a community of fellow playthings cowering in fear, having undergone the same ordeal of being flung around and drooled over. The film packs humour, suspense and imagination into its five minutes without suggesting that the mysteries of its peculiar little world have been exhausted.
This sense of a riddle not fully solved, a terrain not completely covered, can be a pleasurable element of feature-length films, as demonstrated by directors such as Krzysztof Kieslowski, Roman Polanski or David Lynch (all of whom made their reputations with shorts). In the short film, however, it is virtually essential to generate enigmas or intimations, perhaps because a work of such reduced length cannot aspire to narrative arcs or three-act structures the way that longer work does.
"A short film needs a twist, even if it's a very small twist," says the screenwriter John Wrathall, whose short film Magic Moments was rare in earning a UK cinema release (it accompanied Alain Berliner's Ma vie en rose in 1997). Wrathall cites Spike Jonze's wordless, three-minute comic shocker How They Get There, in which a woman apes the movements of a fellow pedestrian, as a lesson in what a short film can achieve. "Most shorts seem to be about nerdy young men trying to get the girl," he observes. "This one does something very dramatic and funny with that material. It's also a short that knows it's a short, rather than being a little bit of a feature film that is in no way ready to be made yet."
Jonze's full-length films (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) turned out to be equally coruscating, adding further credence to the image of the short as a dry run for aspiring feature directors. That may be why shorts struggle to be considered as real film-making, rather than the cinematic equivalent of a new cheese sampled by supermarket customers before they commit to buying an entire block. Certainly that appears to be the only commercial reason for their continuing existence.
"Shorts just don't sell popcorn," said Osnat Shurer, executive producer at Pixar's shorts group, in an interview last year. "It really does take commitment from a company to make them, because people tend to see shorts as a taste of something big-ger. And shorts require resources that are not going to pay back, so business-wise you really have to commit to it." Pixar has no trouble getting its shorts screened in cinemas, as it attaches one to each feature. Its big summer film, Cars, will be preceded wherever it plays by One Man Band, about buskers competing for a child's coin.
Elsewhere, it's a case of catch-as-catch-can for audiences. The Cinema 16 series of DVDs, which has issued compilations of British and European shorts, makes things easier. A US volume will be released next month, collecting ground-breaking work such as Adam Parrish King's The Wraith of Cobble Hill and Stefan Nadelman's Terminal Bar alongside student efforts by established directors (George Lucas, Gus van Sant). Shorts are also turning up more often as special features on DVDs. I recently discovered that my copy of The Nightmare Before Christmas contained two early Tim Burton shorts (including Frankenweenie, considered too frightening by Disney to be shown with Pinocchio in cinemas). The packaging had neglected to boast about these gems, which was an oversight, or evidence of the low regard in which shorts are held, or proof that the advertisers were subscribing to the same notion that underpins the finest short films: less is more.
"Pixar Short Films: a retrospective" is at the National Film Theatre, London SE1 (020 7928 3232) on 1 April. Cinema 16: American short films is available on DVD from May from www.cinema16.co.uk