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Wim Wenders' one-second wonders

If brevity is a cinematic virtue, Wim Wenders must be a born-again paragon. Rob Hastings looks at a film competition where the story must be told in 24 frames

Boil moviemaking down to just the tiniest of moments and still directors will argue about it. Jean Luc Godard once said "cinema is truth 24 frames a second", while Brian de Palma maintained that films lied at the same rate.

Either way, the boundless possibilities of what can be achieved with a video camera and just an instant to play with are being explored by a film competition in which entries can last no longer than one second. Yet with great irony, The Beauty of A Second is being judged by a director famed for delighting in some of the slowest films and most lingering shots in cinema history.

The man in question is the German director Wim Wenders, a Palme d'Or-winning hero of the European arthouse scene. With many short-film contests now flooding the internet as cheap marketing tools for the companies backing them – this one is run by the pen and watch manufacturer Mont Blanc, while Virgin Media and the recruitment company Reed are among others who have cottoned on to the benefits – some cynics may feel Wenders has been duped, or paid very handsomely, for aiding a gimmick-driven publicity exercise.

Yet watching some of the early entries, the extreme challenge and real artistic merit behind the quick-fire concept quickly shine through. A few of the results are, simply, sublime. Nor are they all as pretentious as one might expect.

The online competition is open to anyone with a digital camcorder, even if it is just the camera on your mobile phone, and as Wenders says in the promotional video, the entries can focus on "anything you consider beautiful". Among the subjects he suggests are a smile, a child's face or a kiss – but the clips uploaded so far have shown far more ingenuity. An extreme close-up of a snail's antennae wobbling inquisitively; a man opening the door of his car in an empty car park below a stormy black sky, only to step back in befuddlement as hundreds of brightly coloured balls gush out of the vehicle; a little girl pulling a snorkelling mask over her face. It is surprising how even the briefest shot of the sun glinting on the minuscule hairs on a woman's back can prove so highly evocative.

Film buffs who know a thing or two about Wim Wenders are still likely to be smirking at his involvement in the competition, however. His style of directing could hardly be in more direct contrast to the instantaneous fix of fast-cut shots that older figures in Hollywood sneer are the death of sensitive filmmaking. Instead of resorting to increasingly desperate attempts to keep the so-called MTV generation engaged, Wenders is known for keeping his cameras lingering as long as possible. And as for length, his 1991 film Until The End Of The World was released in cinemas at a relatively restrained 158 minutes – the director's cut DVD version runs for 280 minutes.

"As someone who has a passion for cinema taking its time, there's a nice irony in him being involved in a one-second film competition," says Ian Freer, a film reviewer and assistant editor of Empire magazine. "It's the opposite of what he does. Kings of the Road [175 minutes, 1976] is brilliant, but it's very slow."

As for the concept behind the competition, Mr Freer think it is an inspiring one. "If there's any way to squeeze even the tiniest narrative into 24 frames of film, that just seems a fun thing to try and do," he said. "There is something compelling about it."

Not all the critics are so impressed, however. Dave Calhoun, the film editor of Time Out, said: "If you look at the compilation video of the first round of entries, you're not actually watching a one-second film. When they're edited together and you add music on: yes, somebody has shot the image, but the artistry and the creativity is in the edit – and then it begins to feel like an advert for a building society. The music is so bland, and the images are so general and universal.

"Any competition which encourages people to think about the moving image is a positive thing," he added. "But you do watch that compilation and wonder how much Wenders has been paid – that was my main thought. I'm not saying he's insincere, but it is a commercial, really."

The motive behind The Beauty of a Second is, of course, primarily commercial. But for the many aspiring film-makers who are spending days coming up with ideas for this shortest of short-film challenges – which closes on 10 January, offering the prize of a weekend break in Berlin and a meet-and-greet with Wenders himself – that is of little importance.