According to Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger, sometimes in life you're the hand, and sometimes you're the tushie.
"My sister says you're a feminino."—Schoolgirl to Steven Gale
Todd Haynes is not deeply disturbed. He is mildly disturbed, perceptive, and funny, and we get to benefit from it.
Dottie Gets Spanked, the featured short film on this DVD by Zeitgeist Films, explores the fevered psychosexual inner world of an elementary school boy. Young Steven (J. Evan Bonifant, Blues Brothers 2000) is obsessed with Dottie Frank (Julie Halston, David Searching). Dottie is a Lucille Ball clone who performs wacky antics on her television show. (Haynes was rather interested in Ball as a child.) Steven tunes in religiously.
Aside from Dottie, Steven is also fascinated with spanking. Though he isn't spanked himself, Steven nonetheless fears the act. He is also very interested in the shame, domination, and release inherent in the act of spanking. It consumes his dreams and innermost fantasies.
As fate would have it, Steven's two interests are about to collide. The impact of this outrageous event is never explicitly spelled out. We are left to fill in the gaps, discuss the outcome in our own minds.
This short film was commissioned by the Independent Television Service as part of a search for short films about American television. The pairing is perfect. Haynes is subversive, but approachable. His film deals with ominous and disturbing themes, but he never comes out and says anything objectionable. For example, Steven's father is suggested to be violent, or at least sharply critical, but we never actually see any aggressiveness from him. The whispered consequences and punishments exist in glances, or in Steven's thoughts. Haynes spins a delicate web of psychological drama, but the actual events are tame. It is a trick that is neat to deconstruct and even more fun to behold.
Because of this approach, Dottie Gets Spanked feels remarkably in tune with primitive, childlike drives. It employs the logic of childhood. Watching it, I recall my own residual fear of innocuous things, misunderstandings spawned in my developing young brain. If you took the narrator out of A Christmas Story and made it a little darker, you'd approach the tone taken in this film. The pitch-perfect acting performances, particularly by J. Evan Bonifant and Barbara Garrick (who plays his mother), cement the realism of the tale.
Though it is listed as an extra, I equally enjoyed He Was Once, another short film that parodies the 1960s television show Davey and Goliath. This film deals with identity, spanking, and truth. It has a ring of American Fascism, as though the brainwashing scene in Orwell's 1984 is taking place in every suburban living room in America. The characters in this live-action film resemble claymation figures (like the guy in that Slim Jim commercial), which gives the film a surreal aura of detachment.
I don't want to say too much about either film. Haynes uses an accessible visual language, and my interpretations would only spoil your own experience. Instead, I'll just comment that the pair of films have strong thematic alignment, like two sides of the same argument. Haynes embellishes the fears and angst of growing up, and converts that energy into a sophisticated statement on adult sexual and personal identity.
Haynes provides a commentary for Dottie Gets Spanked that flows well and explains a lot of his ideas behind the film. It is the kind of commentary that I wish all directors would give. The autobiographical elements are particularly interesting. There is also a photo gallery, which is okay if you're into that sort of thing.
The DVD does not look perfect; it was shot on 16mm with a low budget. Colors, particularly red, weep noticeably. Nonetheless, both films are relatively recent, so the prints are in decent shape. Though fuzziness, grain, and other flaws are readily apparent, they somehow complement the spirit of the work and don't detract from the experience. The sound quality on He Was Once is brassy and grating, but it is an ultra-low budget production. You aren't watching this thing for technical prowess; I'm happy to report that there are no glaring audiovisual issues such as misframing or other unforgivable offenses.
This DVD package is a gem that concisely comments on American social mores, television culture, and universal sexuality. The two short films are entertaining and provocative, suggesting more through omission than through explicit acts. The Freudian plays that occur in the characters' minds get to the heart of the young human condition. These mini-dramas are as funny as they are disturbing. If you enjoy alternative cinema or approachably subversive commentary on American culture, this DVD is calling your name.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
• Audio Commentary by Todd Haynes
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