THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
Saturday • September 24 • The State Theatre • 6:30 PM
Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, , From Issue 832 By: Robert E Martin
01st September, 2016 0
The Hollywood Shorties is a uniquely optimistic look at the larger-than-life story of the world’s smallest professional basketball team. Ostensibly a documentary on the birth of organized sports in the dwarf community, beginning in the 1950s and rising to prominence in the 1980s, the Hollywood Shorties were a basketball team – the first of their kind – and unique in the history of dwarf athletics.
Formed from an insular community of recognizable yet typecast actors in Hollywood, the team began simply as a rare outlet for little people to gather publicly. But as the team’s athletic skill increased, so did its membership along with its popularity. By the early 1980s the Shorites had created a niche in entertainment akin to the Harlem Globetrotters, playing exhibitions from Gladstone High to the Fabulous Forum with their signature blend of comedy and basketball prowess. But mainly, they found themselves on the vanguard of a revolutionary movement to bring little people into the public eye as something other than mere objects of curiosity.
In a bittersweet turn, the very popularity that the Shorties singlehandedly created would eventually phase the team out of the sport they pioneered, but their legacy stands without peer; and in this documentary by Ryan Steven Green, that legacy is recounted by original team members and the generation they inspired.
Review: This is such an unusual arena of topical material that I am curious as to how you were drawn to it and what some of the creative objectives consisted of that you were striving to achieve with this documentary?
Ryan Steven Green: When you watch The Hollywood Shorties, you see two of my family members on screen—Larry Green, deceased, who was short-statured and a long-time member of the team, and Scott Green, who I interviewed for the film and who promoted the team as well as refereed their basketball games in the 1980s. So, the story of the Shorties was part of my family’s lore, something I took for granted because I grew up around it. It wasn’t until I finished my first feature documentary, Circle the Wagen, and had my ears attuned to “what’s next” that the topic of the Shorties came up over Christmas dinner and really struck me as something special.
I had two major creative objectives. The first was the credo that this was not a film about dwarf-ism. I wanted to depict these men as exactly that—dudes in their twenties having the time of their lives, really not a whole lot different from you or I except they were living in a very public way. Though stature undoubtedly played a significant role in their individual identities as well as that of the team, I did not want this to be a primary focus of the film. My measure for whether or not I had succeeded in this was an audience member’s ability to recall the names of at least three Shorties accompanied by the desire to take one of them out for a beer.
The second objective was less theoretical and more technical in nature and consisted of the question: how do I make something old, gone, passed, feel fresh and alive? This is a quandary for any historical film, but because this was my first of the type it was really weighing on me, especially early on in the process. The more interviews I did and the further along the film got, the more I started to believe that the story itself was captivating enough that it would do most of the heavy lifting for me. As I watch the film now, I really feel that what provides the freshness and life to the film is the excitement in the faces of the interviewees, particularly the team members as they relive the “glory days.”
Review: How did you get started as a filmmaker and how many films have you directed or written. Also, how has your experience as a filmmaker informed this latest outing?
Green: I don’t know how this happened, but I have now been making films for over twenty years. It started, likely enough, with an elective my sophomore year of high school: Beginning TV Production with Mr. Herman. This was the class that made the weekly news broadcast, Apache News, and had the reputation of being an “easy A.” Despite these allurements, my recollection is that enrollment for the class was rather low; which was all the better for me, because it meant more camera time.
Since that first TV class, I have long since lost count of how many films I’ve completed, though I would say that there exists, if only in my mind, a definitive dividing line between my neophyte efforts that began in high school and what I would consider my “good” work, the work that has come to define me as an artist.
That dividing line came about at university with my undergrad-equivalent of a thesis film. While the subject matter is silly (it is a ten-minute moc-but-actually-kind-of-doc-umentary on the so-called “blueflame” phenomenon, that is, lighting farts on fire), it is the earliest film I can look back on and identify an actual storyline, act structure, defined characters, etc. It was also my first foray into documentary, the genre I now work in almost exclusively.
As to what these things have to do with my latest effort, The Hollywood Shorties, I guess I would say I am at a point in my life and career from whence I can look back and see a discernible history, patterns, themes. I would say the defining feature of my work as a whole is that it is unapologetically optimistic. It feels strange to label my work thus, and I don’t like to think about it a whole lot, but it appears rather self-evident at this point: farts, snails, coffee, mannequins, moustaches, VWs, and now dwarves. In all ways and at all times my filmmaking has striven to leave an audience feeling good about life, lightening the load if only by a few chuckles. Interestingly, while Shorties fits neatly into this trend, I also feel that it is my most substantial work, the closest I’ve come to social justice.
Review: What was the most challenging component involved with pulling this film together?
Green: To put it in the briefest way possible: cohesion. With a history that spanned five decades and left behind thousands upon thousands of individual documents (everything from photographic prints to camera negatives, posters to ticket stubs, fliers, programs, business correspondences, promotional materials, gag lists, schedules, maps, fan mail, contracts, all the way their complete financial record from 1977-1992), many hours of game footage, and news broadcasts, not to mention the numerous interviews conducted for the film itself, the task of “threading the needle” and creating some sort of narrative, some semblance of cohesion, was certainly the greatest challenge in the making of The Hollywood Shorties.
Review: Who are some of the influences that have inspired you or informed your work; and what do you feel distinguishes this new film and makes it a unique experience for audiences?
Green: This is another question that I don’t like to think too much about; however, about three years ago I did put together a list of artists, writers, thinkers, and musicians whose work I greatly admire and to whom I would hope my work bears some semblance. Paring that list down to just filmmakers, and in no particular order, we get: John Ford, Michelangelo Antonioni, Fritz Lang, Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Jean Renoir, Paul Thomas Anderson, Preston Sturges, and Charlie Chaplin. If you ask me in what ways these men have informed The Hollywood Shorties, I’ll leave that one to the critics!
The aspect I feel distinguishes this new film from not just my own work, but films in general, is the nature of the subject matter. At one very brief point in history and in one specific geographical location, the Hollywood Shorties had something highly unique, locally celebrated, and on the cusp of becoming known on a much broader scale.
Perhaps because this last part was never fully realized, their legacy was all but forgotten to history. I think one of the side-effects of the information age is a general belief that if something is not on the internet it doesn’t exist. Well, when I started this film the Shorties were most definitely not on the internet; and yet stowed away in the attics and basements of the San Fernando Valley, and especially in the minds of those still around who witnessed first-hand the Shorties in action, was this precious morsel of Los Angeles history waiting to be resurrected. I am just so happy that I was the lucky bloke to which the task fell.
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THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)