I already said a few general words about this little DVD magazine. Just wanted to briefly (read: at great length) address the actual contents.
This is not the order in which the DVD menu compels one to watch them, and thus is not the order I watched them. It’s the order they’re listed on the website, which, incidentally, has now made three of the pieces available in their entirety.
Al Gore Documentary directed by Spike Jonze. 13 min.
Like this one. Click here to watch it. Certainly this is an interesting and historically noteworthy chunk of footage. I guess Spike Jonze’s contribution has been to edit it in such a way that we don’t feel he’s pushing any sort of message or ideology on us. It successfully allows us to feel that weird sense of intimacy one gets from being warmly welcomed inside some stranger’s house. Gore comes across, to me, as someone who really doesn’t know how to present himself and only in the abstract understands this to be a problem. Which is a little touching and a little sad. Maybe that’s what his campaign could have used, I don’t know, but I’m not of the mind that this little video would have turned the election. On the other hand, that’s the strange thing about our media-driven elections; a well-placed tuna-fish sandwich can throw the balance. As the old saying goes. But it’s still hard for me to imagine this idiot impressionable voter that pundits are always talking in terms of – like, if you thought it was a problem that Al Gore was stiff, this video shouldn’t change your mind, because he is stiff, on this video as much as anywhere else. But apparently, campaigns can sell discomfort more generally and irrationally than that. If he’s stiff, maybe that means he doesn’t love his family or watch movies or bodysurf. Oh, it doesn’t? Well then!
People get uncomfortable with candidates because they imagine them to be fully knowable; they extrapolate a grotesquely insufficient human being, working only from the single data point of the public persona and extending it to cover everything. When we see one of those crabs get exposed by the waves, then shimmy back into the sand and out of sight, we think, “Well, I can’t see him anymore, but I know what he’s up to. Same thing he was doing when I could see him.” But politicians aren’t crabs; they’re people, and under the sand they probably own VCRs and whisks and whatnot. If it’s true that the citizenry would have found this to be refreshing news, then this, yes, could have been an important video. But maybe this is all a fake, right? Acclaimed director Spike Jonze is just messing with us. What’s Gore really like? Either you believe in the existence of reality or you don’t, but a video isn’t going to help you trust. That’s what I’m saying.
Soldier’s Pay directed by David O. Russell. 11 min.
I haven’t seen Russell’s Three Kings (1999), but part of the point seems to be that the true story in the present documentary resembles the story in Three Kings. This was just talking heads but it still managed to rub me the wrong way. The story, about American soldiers stealing millions of dollars in cash from an evacuated Iraqi home, is what it is, and the soldiers are who they are, and that’s interesting as far as it goes. But underlying the existence of the film at all is the implication that through this proudly unflinching look at the moral grayscale of war, big corruption is getting skewered. And maybe this really is a slam-dunk case of hypocrisy, but that wasn’t totally clear from these brief interviews. More to the point, as a viewer, I felt like I was being asked to enjoy the slam dunk and also admire the fact that this documentary was too respectful, and too real, to slam or dunk anything. Am I just a cranky jerk? I think that given the context, on a hip DVD next to a Turkish sitcom played for kitsch value – see below – I was more sensitive to attitude than to content. It was interesting enough content for 11 minutes. It should be noted that this was an excerpt from a longer short film (35 min.) which I see is properly called Soldiers Pay (2004). That is, without the apostrophe, so as to allow the pun. Exactly like Finnegans Wake. (1939).
Grimm’s Tales 2: Death of the Hen directed by Brian Dewan. 16 min.
I thought this was cute. Maybe deadpan is easy and I should go harder on it – I think Beth did – but I liked the idea and I liked the execution. It was a classroom-style filmstrip, presented as a filmstrip, with the narrator making a “boop” every time the frame was supposed to advance. The story was this, from the Brothers Grimm collection. The cock and the hen set out about their business but the world throws a confused string of complications in their path until eventually everyone is dead. Aarne-Thompson type 2021! The guy’s illustrations were clumsy but in a committed and thus effective way. I think he’s on to something with this filmstrip idea. The deadening formality of filmstrip presentation, well known to fifth-graders, which completely smothers and mutes the potential awe of any grandly important subject – solar eclipses, or the evolution of mankind, or whatever – meshes perfectly with that sense of strangely muted, formalized horror one finds in fairy tales. Why did all these animals have to go through this maddening series of fairy-tale-ish trials just in order to die? What is that vague threat in the air? Just like fifth grade. I like thinking about the worry in fairy tales and the worry in elementary schools, and I liked this piece for making that connection in its quiet way.
I just found this page about a 2003 exhibition at a nearby gallery – a gallery where, it so happens, I once saw a show of my second-cousin-once-removed’s work – of this guy’s filmstrips, presented in a little classroom they set up. To me this is charming and I wish I had been there. I like exhibitions that manage to have an element of make-believe or the surreal but without actually making any pretense to being important in some way that everything that goes on in a gallery clearly is not. Unassuming peculiarity. At least from this piece, this guy seemed genuinely unassuming. It says he’s a musician, and I’d be interested to hear his music.
Are You The Favorite Person Of Anybody? directed by Miguel Arteta; written by Miranda July. 4 min.
Like I said – and said before that too – I think Miranda July means it, so I don’t mind. So far I still like her thing. I like that this little movie has the setup and rhythm of a comedy commercial, except it’s not selling anything; it’s not even selling any particular punchline or non-punchline. It’s just a little bit of dialogue. It doesn’t have a lot of thought behind it, but what thought it does have it keeps hidden, which allows us to feel that the process of feeling our way to the place where she began, in writing it, has been worthwhile.
What I like about Miranda July’s thing is that she embraces flakiness, but always seeming to have approached it from the direction of non-flakiness. The question of whether to allow oneself to embrace flakiness is always going to be a troubling one, and it’s heartwarming to see someone saying “flakiness is so great!” and yet not have to worry that they only think so because they’re irredeemably flaky. She seems to be espousing a tone of thought that is not usually endorsed by people capable of succeeding, as she has, in the real world. That’s why the question is: is she sincere? Because even in this internet age, it’s surprising to think that a sincere expression of flaky warmth can reach from a stranger all the way to me. Much more likely that it’s coming from a spammer in Nigeria. So one has to be wary. But since that very point – about the myriad possibilities for, yet unlikeliness of, connection – was the recurring theme of her movie, and sort of of this short, and certainly of that website, I believe she is sincere. And I’m all for that. Plus it’s only 4 minutes long.
The Writer directed by Carson Mell. 3 min.
You can watch this at the website too. There’s not a lot to this and I get a slightly distasteful vibe off it, but it is kind of funny. The best thing in it is the lion drawing, which he apparently found in a yearbook, so don’t give him credit for that. His actual drawing style and subject matter seems like a practiced imitation of both Dan Clowes and Charles Burns. I couldn’t find the Dan Clowes picture of the guy with the creepy things coming out of his eye sockets just like in this movie, but, anyway, it exists.
The Big Empty directed by J. Lisa Chang and Newton Thomas Siegel. 21 min.
This sucked. It was a performance of everything that’s wrong with the McSweeney’s brand. A lot of money and love went into making the production design look like the equivalent of the McSweeney’s layout – that is, ostentatiously restrained. As for the content, after letting slip the phrase “toxically asinine,” I will let imdb user alpi wan kenobi from Turkey do the talking for me.
This movie is about Alice’s vagina and other characters around her. She has pain in her vagina and during examination very cold tundra place is found in it. During movie a lot of characters( doctor, Eskimo’s, scientists) is entering in her vagina but find nothing. In fact, there is only problem about her,pain. nobody concern about that except a man.
Selma Blair played very successfully in this short movie. She could show the loneliness of Alice. I think everybody that seen this movie can find something about life, especially love.
Therefore George Clooney and Peter Soderbergh are the executive producers of this movie. Finally, this movie should be watched, I promise you would have a nice time.
Except for Peter Soderbergh, he’s got the facts right. In fact he’s pretty well packed it all into that one paragraph. Except he doesn’t make clear that it’s all infused with that American Beauty-style middle-class benign secular transcendence thing. Mystico-materialism, it should be called. Those guys, Alan Ball and Sam Mendes (and Thomas Newman), pretty much invented it outright, as far as I can tell, and now it seems like it’s the fuel driving half of our culture. At least American Beauty was about it, and endorsed it purposefully. I don’t think J. Lisa and Newton Thomas had any conscious awareness of what they were diddling with. But that didn’t stop them from making a smug-ass movie. If it had been selling a minivan I would have understood, but this was supposed to be about human emotion for god’s sake! At the beginning one might think, given that the whole thing is about Selma Blair in well-ironed clothes holding a deadpan and being pronounced completely empty, that it’s all some kind of smirky joke. But by the end it’s all too clear that they haven’t a clue what they’re smirking about. It’s mind-boggling, but the movie is ultimately a celebration of the redemptive power of sex with another clean attractive person, for the utterly spiritually vacuous. With all the shimmering music and CGI that that entails. It was sort of like one of those hateful lavalife ads we see on the subway – where sex is always depicted as twinkling sparklies and offers the only possible salvation for those hipsters fabulous enough to emanate it. Here’s that one where the girl has the magical butt. Oops, looks I didn’t let alpi wan kenobi do the talking for me after all! Okay, let’s move on before I get any more worked up.
Here, in between two of the items, I have a new idea for how to articulate the irksome subtext of McSweeney’s: “Look, we never stop being interested in things. Look, we are open to every possibility, no matter how awesome, for a richly thoughtful life. Sufficiently hip attention makes everything worthy of attention; ours is the hipness of substance. The difference between uncool people and us is that their patterns of thought are bound by convention and thus tend toward disinterest; our playful approach to the world is an approach to the real world and our minds are alive. This is fun – it is in fact the only real fun; the fun of being alive.” This is irksome because it is smug, and also because it creates its own blind spot: the real world as a deadpan mix-tape might well be slightly more attentive than the American status quo, but in the end it’s just as stifling an m.o. as anything else.
That said, I like the fact that they’ve assembled, for me, deadpan mix-tapes like this DVD, which I found diverting and interesting. It’s good that they sell the actual stuff they do. But they are also selling a brand, which as marketing people the world over will tell you, is the real product, and like any well-formed brand, it makes me cringe. Maybe it makes me cringe in particular because I admire the values – attentiveness, versatility, whimsy – that it has aestheticized, abstracted, and sold as an identity.
My long, heartfelt lament for personal identity in this country, which seems more and more uncharacteristically political to me each time I think about it, will have to wait for another time. But brace yourself.
The House in the Middle presented by the National Clean Up, Paint Up, Fix Up Bureau in 1954. 6 min.
You can’t watch this at Wholphin’s site, but you can watch it here. Something that would typically be called “an artifact of the atomic age,” except who says we’re out of the atomic age? I’m still worried. That said, this is certainly an artifact of that peculiar historical time where cultural innocence and loss-of-innocence tried to find a way to coexist. Horrible weapons could kill millions but it’s still important – maybe it’s even more important – to keep your house looking tidy and smart. Those 1954eans weren’t idiots; they missed the absurdity of this sort of thing because it was simply the continuation of two cultural strains that had only begun to battle it out. Clean homes and nuclear war both probably seemed equally likely to be the right thing to be talking about, so here they are in a reassuring, but ostensibly tough-minded, combination. I wouldn’t be surprised if, say, our era’s endless appetite for sarcasm and irony comes off, to some future era, as hopelessly, provincially 90s/00s-ish, and stuff like “The Daily Show,” which seems so sharp now, will seem like a grotesque juxtaposition of philosophical incompatibilities. Anyway, this was interesting enough and, like anything with an atomic bomb in it, a little upsetting.
The Delicious directed by Scott Prendergast. 16 min.
This was very silly. I used to make very silly videos with my sister when we were kids; this was more or less like that. I laughed at it and parts of it are still making me smile when I think back on them, so I think that counts as a complete success. Giggly ideas like this tend to die in the execution and this one was probably a little less all-out zany than it could have been if less planning and care had gone into it, but that’s always a trade-off, of course, and I think the trade-off here wasn’t bad. It revolves around a guy wearing silly clothes and making silly noises and silly movements. When I was eight or nine, the first Monty Python skit I ever saw was this and it made me Roll On the Floor with Laughter, literally. It certainly wouldn’t anymore, and neither does this. But it might have then.
Malek Khorshid directed by Ali Akbar Sadeghi. 16 min.
This was definitely the finest piece on here – Iranian animation from 1975. I believe this one might be translated as The Sun King but I don’t know for sure because it was completely unsubtitled here. There was very little speaking or writing, but there was some and I can’t say that I know what they were saying, or, exactly, what was going on. A mysterious, poetic, save-the-princess legend quest of some sort, with quasi-traditional Persian imagery. The film had a very lovely 70s-lyrical quality and reminded me of old Sesame Street pieces as well as of Yellow Submarine.
The website and liner notes originally listed Sadeghi as “bio unknown” and gave no year of production, so I googled to see what I could find out. To my surprise, there were plenty of sites with info. So much info that I couldn’t imagine why they had settled on “bio unknown.” So I wrote an email to the editor with some links and said (unpleasantly) that maybe their “bio unknown” was supposed to be somehow coy, but if so that seemed disrespectful. He responded (very promptly!), thanking me for the links, but also said, “coy? disrespectful?” I felt a little chastened for my bad attitude toward McSweeney’s and resolved to be more generous in assessing their motivations, and in general to calm down and be nice. Simultaneously I felt like, “don’t play innocent with me, guy! You know exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about!” Which might be a sign of mild delusion. But come on! If you type it into google you get lots of hits.
Anyway, their site now has some biographical info about Ali Akbar Sadeghi. I hope he appreciates!
Tatli Hayat (“The Sweet Life”) Turkish sitcom. 25 min.
This is an episode of a recent, reasonably slick Turkish sitcom on the premise of “The Jeffersons” – Ihsan and Sevinc are using their new money to live “The Sweet Life” in a fancy building, but… whatever. This is the one where Sevinc gets jealous on the night they’re supposed to be celebrating their anniversary because Ihsan has hired a new sexy secretary. A nice clear translation is available in subtitles. Then they’ve got five “alternate” subtitle tracks written by American comedy writers. I watched the whole thing with the original text, which was, in a mild way, interesting. Mostly it was interesting how exactly it followed the American mold. There was nothing particularly “Turkish” about it; just a slightly lower budget and a reliance on material that we’ve finally written off as “tired” in the US – “hide in the closet!” routines etc. Is that modern Turkey in general, just TV, just sitcoms, or just this sitcom? I don’t know. There were no funny jokes in it but it wasn’t pitiful, either. It was just a Turkish sitcom. Then I watched a few minutes each of the five alternate tracks. Each writer seemed to take the task slightly differently, but none of them really jumped out as being clever enough to justify another 25 minutes of my time. A lot of the same old stuff I did when I dubbed Friends into German for a project in high school. So maybe I’ll watch them, maybe I won’t. Actually, I did watch one to completion, because it cut off early and played against the image the whole time, doing a sort of stand-up routine instead, independent of the characters. That seemed to be the best one. All in all this seems like an idea that probably seemed brilliant in the pitch but in reality just felt tedious and a little mean-spirited.
Stairway at St. Paul and The Great Escape, directed by Jeroen Offerman. 8 min. + 10 min.
The first of these is the artist singing “Stairway to Heaven” backwards, backwards. I used to do this with Sound Recorder in Windows – recording things forwards, reversing them, imitating the reversed sound, recording that, and reversing it. A video performance of a song is cleverer and this is entertaining pretty much the whole way through. Good idea. Apparently now he does live performances of this stunt and is making a sort of career of it. The second is a video piece of a hovercraft approaching from the distance, landing, letting someone on, starting up again, and returning to the horizon. It takes a long time to happen and so works sort of like a still image that happens to be moving. It reminded me of the Bill Viola video installation I saw a few years ago, except less interesting. Had I not seen that exhibition, I might have gotten more out of this. I think things like this, which are more like painting than film, are among the few things that actually benefit from being seen “disembodied” in a gallery and not on DVD or in a theater.
Also on this disc is an untitled thingy with Patton Oswalt making faces at the camera in a long take… and then the camera eventually follows the guy next to him into a storage facility where we hear music… he opens one of the units to reveal David Byrne with a guitar. I think that was it. It was cold-deadpan, joyless nonsense, with celebrities; in other words: “cooler-than-thou.” I was not surprised to learn that it was the uncredited output of Mr. Dave Eggers himself. How did I find that out? I saw it on the prior version of the Wholphin website. But look! – it seems to have vanished in the interim. I imagine that was an intentional choice. But maybe I should remember the case of google and Ali Akbar Sadeghi and just calm down.
I think Dave Eggers is probably a cool guy in real life – that’s what a friend of his told me! – but obviously I am not happy about something here. That may be all my fault. If I get around to writing that identity-politics entry, I’ll put it there. Anyway, sorry Dave, and sorry Wholphin. It’s just me. Keep it up. I will buy the next one. But I promise not to write about everything on it.
Note: Upon reading this through, I see that I’ve used the word “deadpan” about ten times, which is unacceptable. Still, it’s an important concept for this material and I can’t think of too many good substitutes. Maybe the time has come for our culture to make like an Eskimo in snow and invent a full lexicon of deadpan. The word “irony” is doing duty for a thousand things that deserve their own names. Let’s give it a break and start neologizing, people! Leave suggestions here.