Judge Bill Gibron reviews a collection of full frame documentary shorts. And the Blurb Writer will next state that the Pope wears a funny hat.
"I find the documentary form to be one of the most vital means of expression in film."—Martin Scorsese, Chairman of the Board, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
DVD has done a lot for the entertainment industry. It has exposed filmmakers and their movies to audiences who would have otherwise missed their personal or perverted images. It has resurrected long-lost films that previously rotted on the bottom shelves of video stores, or worse, lay dormant in a studio's dilapidated vault. Even the more prominent moviemakers have had a chance to revisit their careers and bodies of work, releasing special edition versions of their classic titles with bonus material enhancing the context of their vision.
But perhaps nowhere has the diamond-encrusted power of the Digital Versatile Disc been better exploited than in the realm of the documentary. This mostly-ignored medium, resigned to special festivals and little-seen PBS screenings, has found happy hospice on the modern home theater format. And the amazing thing is, people are actually buying, renting and owning these once ill-considered films. The chance to see an amazing work like Brother's Keeper, the molestation-meets-home movies of Capturing the Friedmans, or the fiery rhetoric of Michael Moore just goes to show the power of DVD. Where once critics had to beg and scream for someone to slink to a local art house to catch a one-time showing of Hoop Dreams or Roger and Me, now an entire store shelf is taken up with hundreds of general and genre-specific real-life stories.
Even short fact films are finding a place in the new digital domain. Last year, the Full Frame Documentary Festival released a disc, representing the best of the many submissions the cinematic carnival screens each year. Now they're back with another collection, the appropriately named Full Frame Documentary Shorts, Volume 2. And while it matches their first effort in scope and subject matter, the documentaries leave a little something to be desired this time around.
Started in 1997 by Nancy Buirski, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and editor at the New York Times, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival has, over the last seven years, become the premier showcase for non-fiction filmmaking in America. During an annual three-day festival every April in Durham, North Carolina, hundreds of artists and thousands of fans have a chance to see and experience startling, fresh visions of the world and the people who populate it. Either in a matter-of-fact fashion or an experimental storytelling style, it's the reality of the subject that links these divergent, delightful elements. With a board consisting of such filmmaking luminaries as Martin Scorsese, Ken Burns, Jonathan Demme, D.A. Pennebaker, Martin Sheen, and John Sayles, the quality of films is remarkable.
The DVD release Full Frame Documentary Shorts, Volume 2 is a second helping (after 2003's magnificent Volume 1) of some of the most interesting short films to be presented at the festival over the last year. Varying in length and tone, these films run the gamut from astonishingly personal to universally obtuse. As an overall package presentation, this is a fascinating DVD sampler. Individually, the films each have their positive (and occasionally negative) attributes. Discussed and scored separately, we begin with:
• Crowfilm (2003)
We tend to measure mileage based on the rate of travel by these winged odometers. There were supposedly 24 of them baked in a pie for a certain king. A single member of this biological order sang in the dead of the night, and then took its broken wings and learned to fly. But thanks to Edward Davee's experimental hodgepodge of images and ideas, the crow has never looked this enigmatic. Instead of stereotyping them as the bottom feeders of the bird world, Davee makes a declarative statement regarding crows' artistic qualities.
In general, there is nothing wrong with environment-based films. Sometimes, the scintillating "nature" of the subject matter helps to overcome the National Geographic cinematic approach. Sadly, Crowfilm contains very few of these ethereal elements. Its focus on the notorious blackbirds that seem to make up the vast majority of the aviary population is matched by a rather dull directing mannerism. Davee, the man behind this mania, uses several differing film stocks, various cameras and interesting (and irritating) exposures to try and give his basic birdwatcher's compendium an inventive flair. All this attempted ambiance does, though, is muddle up whatever message he was driving at. Okay, crows are creepy. But borrowing many of Hitchcock's visual compositions (from the Master of Suspense's own fine feathered fright flick) does not connote an original thought. Crowfilm is too insular to be inviting. The magic of the mise-en-scene used here is only in Davee's deranged head.
Visually, Crowfilm is a very atmospheric attempt, a monochrome mixed media montage, bringing a stoic sense to this rather simple subject. The 1.33:1 full frame transfer can be a bit muddy at times (given to the original elements utilized here), but overall, the look and feel of the film (including the strange, evocative music) is much better than the content featured.
• Ms. Alabama Nursing Home (2003)
Helen Penuel is a resident of the Enterprise Nursing Home, deep in the heart of Alabama. The 80-something lady has been selected as a participant in the Statewide Ms. Alabama Nursing Home pageant. As a matter of fact, she is a "pre-selected" semi-finalist, based on her application and picture. As the big contest approaches, she and several members of the staff travel to Birmingham to prepare. There, they meet the rest of the participants, and as with every other beauty pageant, tempers and egos flare.
Perhaps the two most amazing bits of information we learn from the Ms. Alabama Nursing Home short have nothing to do with the lonely life of the aged in the managed care facilities of America. No, the first fascinating element occurs when we learn that Helen is a finalist in the State pageant. Suddenly, the administrative staff members are all her best, closest friends, ready with competitive advice about winning the title. Everything from smiling more, to preparation for the typical beauty pageant question, becomes paramount in the mind of these stage mother nurses. The other interesting insight comes after the spectacle, when Helen has returned to her room and the glare of the spotlight is gone. Turning to the camera, our happy-go-lucky elderly lady claims that it was the "colored" on the judging panel that cost her the crown (she came in second runner-up). As a matter of fact, she continues, she expected the "colored" contestant to win, since she had at least two shoe-in votes. These amazingly crass comments coming after all the goodwill we've witnessed during Ms. Alabama Nursing Home hurt, since they show that, even in what seem like enlightened times, trademark Southern prejudice—especially that based in the deep South—still exists in strident certainty. It's this final insight that taints the proceeding pleasantries we've witnessed in this interesting film, a chance to view the events that passed before (including looks and comments) in a whole new light.
The direct from video transfer makes for a more immediate movie experience than with other filmed elements. The non-anamorphic 1.66:1 letterboxed transfer is bright, colorful, and clear. All the dialogue and droning ambiance of the trip and the contest are excellently captured and everyone's pleasant—and private—personality comes across here.
• Nutria (2002)
A rat is a rat, unless it's a swamp rat, in which case it's called a nutria. This web-footed rodent living in the bayous and backwoods of Louisiana has become a kind of unofficial state animal, an anointed nuisance with resident status. Officials try to hunt and/or destroy nutrias. Schools use them as mascots. Some people have even tried to domesticate them. But when famous New Orleans chefs attempt to put the pond possums on their upscale menus (in an effort to control the population), the citizenry responds with green-gilled rejection. Seems the nutria is the animal Louisianans love to hate…even when it's on their plate. And they say Cajuns will eat anything.
On his show Insomniac, Dave Attell visited New Orleans and rode with some Louisiana Animal Control officers as they went on a citywide nutria hunt. Watching these cops casually and carelessly blast the oversized rats out of the water, a mixed message of mirth and misery was illustrated. Certainly it was cruel to shoot the shinola out of these beasts. But the overall size and density of the overpopulation problem makes the marksmanship that much more futile…and funny. Nutria is a fascinating, frisky look at how the parishes and people of Louisiana are trying, desperately, to come to grips with this enormous bog beaver. Just watching the attendees of a food festival choke down bowls of nutria gumbo (or better yet, the cook who accents his swamp mouse stew with "other" meats, like chicken, shrimp, octopus, and crawdad, rendering the nutria content moot) shows the "anything goes" attitude in dealing with this dilemma. A little more background on how this oversized pest came to Louisiana—and more importantly, thrived—would have been nice. And the general good-natured attitude of most of the people featured seems to go against the "we hate these things" thesis the movie forwards. Still, as one of the funnier, sunnier entries on the disc, this dissection of a wetlands weasel is very entertaining.
Director Ted Gesing gives this swamp saga a nice, if occasionally grainy, filmed look with his 1.33:1 full screen image. Colors can sometimes fade or fog in the washed-out visual palette. The sound is first rate, with all interviews understandable and all bayou atmosphere kept in check.
• Album (2003)
The Mee family seemed like the typical suburban success story. Father was a prominent doctor. Mother was a nurse until she married. Together, they lived an idyllic life and had five seemingly normal kids. The family was fixated on cameras and home movies. They filmed Christmas pageants and vacation hijinks. But something was breaking beneath the surface of the Mee family, sinister suggestions of drug abuse, alcoholism, adultery, and perhaps most harshly, childhood schizophrenia. Through the use of old Super 8 snippets, filmed by the family themselves, the Mees uncover their personal demons, letting them run behind the ridiculously happy images. Sadly, this could be anyone's life story.
Here is why compilations like Full Frame are so fantastic. This simplistic saga, told through painfully frank interviews and old home movies, is a more shocking, sad family drama than most fictional dramatizations. The Mees are a study in sheltered shattering, a family falling apart out of the eyesight of everyone, including themselves. When the tiny cracks appear (Dad's addiction to painkillers, the youngest son's mental unrest), the juxtaposition of the nostalgic images of the past make the material that much more heartbreaking. Without giving too much away, the Mees represent the hidden horror of the American family, the failure of the individual over the entire biological unit. When we see the remaining members as they are now (and learn the fate of other offspring), the entire thesis of the movie hits home. We've all had times like the ones the Mees filmed for their own enjoyment. And we've all had hardships and horrors like they've faced as well. Life is not the images from a Super 8 projector. They are the memories, both happy and sad, from all experiences.
Barbara Bird, director and member of the Mee family, has crafted a masterpiece of lost artifacts with this film. Though the 8mm footage is flawed and faded, it is the perfect choice for the 1.33:1 full frame image here. The interviews are all handled with expert aural aplomb, and the overall impression one gets from this film is like eavesdropping on a group therapy session with audiovisual highlights.
• Wood Island (2001)
There is a tiny community near Logan Airport in Boston, a small village filled with individuals from every walk of life. They live their daily existence in the shadow of one of the busiest travel destinations in the world. Planes fly overheard in a non-stop barrage of engine exhaust and jet fueled frenzy. But the unbelievable level and consistency of the noise doesn't seem to bother these determined denizens. They will not let a little something like never-ending takeoffs and landings spoil their piece of paradise. From the local bakery to the religious statue and shrine, Wood Island is more than its aviation annoyance. It's a neighborhood trying to survive.
What, exactly, was Wood Island supposed to be about? People persevering over unreal circumstances? How everyday life is encroached upon by technology? The large shrine to the Virgin Mary in town? The wonderful looking homemade donuts from the corner shop? We really aren't sure, and this is why the short film is not more magical. Wood Island seems to be a very nice place to live, full of homespun spirit and small-town drive. But director Kate Williamson only captures the very basics of her cinematic statement. We see the sound problems (the ever-present drone of airplanes) and the residential response (everything from home insulation to actual ignorance), but none of these divergent elements come together in a profound or thought-provoking manner. Wood Island could be anywhere in America, and it's this lack of a concrete focus that finally scuttles the story being told. While it's nice to look at and very picturesque, Wood Island has nothing beside its landing strip locale to give it a claim to fame.
Shot in a 1.33:1 full screen aspect ratio and utilizing a print filled with dirt and grain, the transfer of Wood Island is as indistinct as its subject matter. There are several incredibly beautiful images (a tree in winter, the shrine to Mary lit up at night), but overall the image is washed-out and wanting. Sound is not a problem here. The audio issues are secure and professional.
• Have You Seen This Man? (2003)
You've seen them around, on bulletin boards and lampposts—posters offering help for losing weight, a change for your career path, or rooms for rent. But these particular flyers have a very different flair to them. They advertise basic items, like crackers or paper clips. The text is homemade and the images hand drawn. And the price always seems right (10¢, 15¢). The requisite phone number dangles from the bottom, crafted by carefully clipping the edge with scissors. The question then becomes, who is selling this stuff, and why? The answer is Geoff Lupo, a self-proclaimed social satirist who uses these adverts as his art. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck try to make some sense out of this "dollars for donuts" environmental entrepreneur.
Perhaps a better title for this short snippet on the life of "artist" Geoff Lupo is Would You Want to See a Film About This Man? Geoff is a strange character, an enigmatic weirdo who somehow manages to convince crafty, jaded New Yorkers to buy his stale crackers and plastic pen lids. They're not handmade. They're not gold or jewel-encrusted. They are merely items that can be purchased in any store. But as part of his "artistic" statement about consumerism and the coldness of most capitalist connections, they become icons to a more ironic sense of buying and selling…some horse hockey like that. Someone once said that performance art is like standup comedy without the jokes—this exactly describes Geoff Lupo and what Have You Seen This Man? feels like. It's clever and cunning, but it is a sensibility crafted out of a very cynical, mean-spirited missive. If the notion of normal people with rational minds buying little pieces of junk from a creative con man enflames your cinematic sense, by all means, enjoy this joyless exercise in self-promotion. Otherwise, Have You Seen This Man? makes no real point, except to highlight that artistic expression is in the eye of the beholder. It's just too bad that, sometimes, that optical nerve can be jaundiced as Hell.
The 1.33:1 video-to-film image is interesting, in that it avoids a lot of the elements associated with digital capture (flaring, pixelating) while offering a real cityscape feel. The ambiance of Manhattan really comes through on this transfer. Several interesting songs are utilized throughout the course of the short, and they are presented in a very nice Dolby Digital Stereo. Geoff Lupo is very soft-spoken, and the microphone barely picks him up at times. But the overall level of interaction with people is captured wonderfully.
• Iwo Jima: Memories in Sand
On the 50th anniversary of the battle for Iwo Jima, veterans from both sides of the conflict return to the tiny Japanese island to relive and remember that awful episode near the end of World War II. Utilizing archival footage, personal possessions, interview footage, and narrative recreations, the cruelty and carnage of this most bloody of battles is brought to life for future generations to witness firsthand. The personal stories are harrowing, the loss heartbreaking, and the military footage utilized expands our notion of this cruel combat beyond that classic Time-Life pose of the Marines raising the American flag.
Sure, the History Channel and Discovery do this kind of riveting recollection documentary in their sleep. Still, it's an evocative viewing experience when it comes along. Iwo Jima: Memories in Sand does a remarkable job of capturing the individual terror experienced by the soldiers on both sides of the conflict. The reading of prepared letters (to be sent to loved ones in case of a soldier's death) is just startling. Hearing the Japanese children's letters to their own soldiers shows us a side of the war we usually don't view. While it would have been nice to see more of the reunion (including some human interaction—most of the reminiscences seem to be man vs. island), at least we get to view battlefields and seashores riddled with the bodies of fallen heroes. There is high emotion here too. Many of the elderly veterans cry easily and often, recalling the horrible loss of life on these bloody fields of fire. While its history may be pedestrian and its presentation a tad too lecture-like, as long as we focus on the real people behind this piece of history, Iwo Jima is a remarkable, respectful testament to the bravery and boldness of the participants in World War II.
Visually, the mix of archival stock footage and newly shot imagery comes together perfectly to paint a very complete view of the Iwo Jima story. The 1.33:1 film transfer is clean, clear and very color-correct. The island is eerie in its black sand solemnity. And the interviews offer their confessional takes in complete aural authority. We never lose a single, important word of wisdom from these true survivors.
Overall, the short films on Full Frame are not as exceptional as the first DVD compilation. The films here do have their educational, amazing, and even breathtaking moments. They try to paint worlds and show people previously unknown to the viewer. But one can't help but think there were better examples of the fact-filled film than the mostly mediocre movies here. Crowfilm is a good example of what is wrong with this set. Using a scattershot approach to its subject, hoping that ethereal images alone will carry the piece, this is an excuse for—not an actual example of—a full-blown documentary. Simply showing nature interacting with your Paintshop skills is not a realistic view of the subject or its specific universe. Album does the same thing, but it's successful because it has a story to tell, a specific insight into the decaying suburban landscape that sings louder and better than the bird BS. And as good as Iwo Jima is, it does suggest a submission for a specialty cable channel.
From Wood Island's wasted opportunities to Have You Seen This Man?'s unfortunate focus, the material here reeks of the recycled, of ideas and issues done better by others before. Even when set in the secluded world of nursing homes, we learn virtually nothing about care for the elderly (and everything about that odd desire for indirect celebrity). And even with all the supposed backstory about the Tabasco king and his love of wildlife, we fail to understand the ancestry of Louisiana's nutria population. Just because the topic is unique does not make the movie equally compelling. Full Frame Documentary Shorts, Volume 2 proves that not all factual films supplant fiction as fundamental entertainment.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Commentary. That is what each of these documentary shorts needed. As does the Rebuttal Witness in the first Full Frame review, we note that lack of alternative audio tracks really undermines the presentation of these films. No other cinematic skill demands more in-depth discussion on how it came about than the non-fiction short film. How many hours of footage were shot? The cooperation (or lack thereof) of the subject? How did you achieve certain moments? Was anything "staged"? These are the questions that roll around the mind of a viewer as they sample these shorts. And it would have been nice to let each filmmaker comment on the beginning, middle, and final reception of their work. Unfortunately, one fears that cost, time, or compression issues squelched what would have been a wonderful extra bonus for this set. While each filmmaker here gets a brief step-through biography accompanying his or her film (actually, it's the set's only extra, aside from distributor Docurama's catalog and trailers), that information is just the tip of the iceberg. Documentarians are unsung heroes of cinematic storytelling. It would have been nice to give them a voice here.
Perhaps DVD is also responsible for the less-than-stellar set of short films offered on Full Frame, Volume 2. Maybe the ready availability of distribution and avenues of revenue are keeping the truly quality entries from turning up on these tribute discs. Why share the wealth, the fame, and the exposure with other artists when you can cull a few student works, add in a commercial or experimental project, and release your own documentary disc? So as the popularity of the DVD format increases (and the cost of making discs decreases), more and more artists will choose the independent avenue to promote their own films.
All this means that Full Frame has its work cut out for it. As it finds more and more of its discoveries going off to find their own place in the product line, the festival promoters will have to dig deeper into their archive, casting off the more mundane aspects of their entries to give us the raw, the realistic, and the unrelenting.
Or maybe it's something else. Maybe this new window into the world of documentary filmmaking is merely showcasing what critics and fans knew all along: not every fact film is worth memorializing. The wealth of material made available thanks to DVD has also crowded the corridors of concentration, making it difficult to distinguish what is good from what is merely given. Full Frame Documentary Shorts, Volume 2 does not resort to providing us leftovers from this celebrated entity. But it does run the risk of ruining a good reputation with some less-than-impressive titles. Here's hoping Volume 3 returns to the first entry's creative consistency. Otherwise, nothing, not even DVD, will prevent the documentaries' downfall.
While fundamentally flawed and not as insightful as Volume 1, Full Frame Documentary Shorts, Volume 2 is hereby found not guilty and is free to go. Docurama is sentenced to 60 days of intense alternative narrative track therapy at the Commentary Correctional Facility of Talkative County.
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