Written and Directed by: Various
If you have become weary of the nearly non-stop deluge of action films released on DVD and are looking for decent alternative programming, then look no further. Relief can be found with the first issue of SHORT cinema journal, an outstanding new DVD series. This soon-to-be-monthly DVD magazine features a wide variety of short subjects from around the world, and includes a number of extra features. Initial expectations for this title were very high, and I'm very pleased to say that it definitely does not disappoint -- SHORT cinema journal offers viewers the type engaging and intellectual programming sorely lacking in these initial days of DVD. The 16 shorts presented in this first collection, SHORT cinema journal 1:1 ISSUE: Invention, are excellent choices covering a wide range of subjects, and watching the DVD is rather like watching your local PBS station in terms of quality and content. The shorts are grouped in individual sections according to their genre -- animation, narrative, interview, documentary, monologue, music, criticism, experimental, and advertisements -- and each section features its own introductory segment. A 10-page foldout booklet is included in the packaging which contains a full chapter listing, a description of each short, and a several-page spreadout showing poet Henry Rollins' fully-tattooed back (he is also featured in his own short film, Easter Sunday in N.Y.C.). We'll be discussing each of the shorts individually in terms of content and audio/video quality. Please note that when we are discussing the video quality of the shorts, you should take into account that most originated on 16mm film or on video -- due to the inherent nature of these source, the video quality will likely not be as sharp or as clear as standard motion pictures taken from 35mm masters.
Opening the disc is "Invention," SHORT cinema journal's very cool 40s introductory logo sequence. This is immediately followed by the "Table of Contents" section, which runs 2m09s (Dolby Digital 2-channel audio). The disc's contents are slowly superimposed over a sequence featuring two typical film buffs sitting at a lunch counter discussing the usual Hollywood thing -- how to create their own independent film project. The focus is on the humor of the situation, since the actors and dialogue are purposely goofy. All in all, the Table of Contents winds up being a refreshing change from the norm.
The "Animation" section of the disc is introduced by a 30s title card giving the chapter locations for two animated shorts, Mr. Resistor and The Big Story. To support the image, a short segment of fun nonsensical dialogue is presented in Dolby Digital 6-channel sound.
From the folks over at Will Vinton Studios comes 1993's Mr. Resistor, written and directed by Mark Gustafson. This strange, 8m04s stop-motion animated tale features a little guy made out of resistors and other tiny electrical components who finds his way into the outside world. For him, the outside world is a old, unused room filled with lots of various junk. Before long, he sets his sights on an discarded school sports trophy and saws off its arm. The trophy isn't at all happy about this, and calls on his many trophy friends to help him take care of Mr. Resistor. This short is a lot of fun, and is definitely a must see for fans of stop-motion animation. The image quality is very clear and colorful, and the Dolby Digital 2-channel stereo soundtrack is fine.
Directed and animated by Tim Watts and David Stoten, The Big Story is a 2m01s black & white three-dimensional animation featuring characters who not only look exactly like Kirk Douglas, but have his ego and mannerisms as well. The story takes place in a newspaper office, where the personalities of an editor, a newspaper reporter and another worker clash, and everything is built up to conclude on a somewhat lame, one-joke punchline. The various Douglas' are voiced by actor Frank Gorshin, who does a remarkable job of impersonation, and the animation itself is a sight to behold. Letterboxed at an approximate 1.71:1 aspect ratio, the black & white image is very clear and sharp. The Dolby Digital 2-channel surround soundtrack is in excellent condition. The Big Story is also notable for being the first domestic use of the multiple angle function available for DVDs. Presented on the alternate video track (angle #2) is the complete original pencil tests for The Big Story, allowing viewers to see how the final animation was planned. The multiple angles function works perfectly, and takes about 2 seconds before the image switches to the alternate angles on my Toshiba 3006 player (I understand that it's nearly instantaneous on some players, but slower on others). The individual drawings and the animation present in the pencil test itself are first rate, but viewers are advised to remember that it was used solely to plan out the final animation. While the images are sometimes well-defined, characters and backgrounds are quite often only represented by rough sketches or outlines. Also, since the pencil test is only a representation of the final product, not much attention was given to the visual quality of the print, and dirt and other markings do appear on the image.
The 30s introduction to the "Narrative" section lists the chapters for Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade, Black Rider and Trouble. Accompanying this is some outrageous dialogue (Dolby Digital 6-channel), which I won't tell you about since I don't want to spoil it for you.
The first short in the Narrative section is the one most likely to grab most people's attention, George Hickenlooper's Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade (1993). This 25m07s black & white short is the original basis for the recent hit film Sling Blade, which was expanded to feature-film length by writer/star Billy Bob Thornton. The short revolves around a newspaper report (Molly Ringwald) who is given the chance to interview a mentally-handicapped man (Thornton) about to be released from an institution for the criminally insane. As will become obvious after watching this short, Thornton had his characterization of Karl down perfectly far before he made Sling Blade -- his unique drawl, his body movements, everything. Also starring is J.T. Walsh (who reprises his role of a fellow inmate in the feature film), Jefferson Mays and Suzanne Cryer. The print is letterboxed at an approximate 1.79:1 aspect ratio and is extremely clean (a couple of markings appear here and there, but there are very minor). The focus and the contrasts are on the soft side, giving the short a somewhat "dreamy" and glowing quality. Whether this is intentional or not, I cannot say, but I suspect it is due to the film stock used more than anything else. One thing the film stock does add is a level of grain that is more noticeable in some sequences then in others, and it helps in giving the short a more gritty, documentary-style quality. The Dolby Digital 2-channel audio is a mono mix as far as I can tell, and although it's not perfect and a little fuzzy at time, it works to the film's advantage.
Directed by Pepe Danquart, 1992's Black Rider (aka Schwarzfahrer) stars Senta Moira, Paul Outlaw, Stefan Merki, Klaus Tilsner and Andrea Katzenberger. Running 12m18s, this poignant study of racism manages to builds to a funny and deserved climax. Most of the action takes place aboard a trolley, where a young black man (Outlaw) dares to take a seat next to an elderly woman (Moira). She very noticeably objects to his sitting next to her, and we soon discover that she is an incredible racist. She spends the rest of the journey bitching and complaining to her fellow passengers about the problems with foreigners, and soon goes off claiming that the African people are responsible for literally everything that is wrong with the world -- crime, disease, poverty, you name it. The black man is understandably upset with the old woman, but holds his peace until the appropriate time. Just as the ticket collector is coming around, he grabs the woman's ticket and quickly eats it. The woman is immediately thrown off of the trolley and charged with fare dodging, and of course the ticket collector won't believe her ridiculous explanation. To the amusement of some other passengers, the man has gotten his well-deserved revenge. Presented in black & white, Black Rider comes from Germany, and its German dialogue is supported onscreen by English subtitles hard-encoded on the print. The subtitles are very readable, but the edges are a bit rough and "move" a little. The print itself is letterboxed at about 1.66:1, and is definitely not in pristine shape. After a somewhat dirty and scratchy opening segment, the print becomes much clearer, but numerous splices make an appearance throughout the program. The contrast level also leaves a bit to be desired, but this is again due to the low-budget nature of the film and the stock used, so it's unavoidable. The Dolby Digital 2-channel stereo soundtrack is in decent shape, and features a cool jazzy score.
Written and directed by Carrie Blank, 1995's Trouble was created as a thesis film project while she was a student at the Film and Television Department in New York City. This 16m07s short is the poignant and funny story of an incredibly annoying Jewish mother, Goldie (Tovah Feldshuh), and her young teenage daughter Addie (Cole Plakias). Trouble follows the pair around town for the day, with Goldie managing to embarrass her daughter every step of the way while ignoring all her needs. While at a clothing store, Addie purposely ignores all the "shoplifters will be beaten" signs and sneaks behind a counter to steal some jewelry. She is apparently happy to be in trouble and to get a rise out of her mother, but Goldie gets her out of trouble by applying some of that famous Jewish guilt on the store owner (Michael Imperioli). We soon discover that Addie has a habit of stealing all the jewelry she can get her hands on and pawning it off so she can pay for her "life support machine." For Addie, "life support" means buying and reading all the science fiction novels she can get her hands -- this is an attempt to keep her sanity while she's stuck in a house full of irrational and annoying "aliens" attempting to thwart her very existence. Trouble also co -stars Terry Sommer, Alice Spivak, Frannie Handman, Barbara Haas and Linda Dale. Very touching and very funny, Trouble very much reminds me of my own childhood (only I accomplished this without any of the shoplifting activities, thank you very much). The black & white full-frame image looks like it was transferred from a 16mm original. This image is a bit on the soft side and there is always a small level of grain making an appearance, but neither are a problem. There is, however, one torn frame towards the end of the short. The Dolby Digital 2-channel surround stereo mix is fairly impressive.
Accompanied by a Dolby Digital 6-channel music mix, the Interview section gives the chapter listings for an interview with director Michael Apted and an excerpt from the film Baraka.
The Michael Apted interview was directed by SHORT cinema journal. For the duration of this 11m10s piece, Michael Apted in shown sitting in a chair talking about his films and why he likes to direct. Among the items discussed are his feelings about creating decent works, how film is a powerful medium that influences people, his Up film series, and more. Although the content of the interview is interesting, I found it difficult to watch. The black & white full-frame short was shot on video and uses various "stylistic" approaches and video tricks in an attempt to spruce up the material -- there are lots of titles, and much shifting, blurring and moving of the image. Rather than "improving" the material, it distracts far too much from Apted's speech with its irritating imitation of MTV visuals. Additionally, the basic video seems to have been processed in such a way that it has a strange computer-enhanced "fuzzy" quality, and this too quickly becomes irritating. The Dolby Digital 2-channel sound is clear and distinct.
The 12m15s Baraka consists of various excepts from the 70mm feature film of the same name. Directed by Ron Fricke, Baraka is a showcase of different cultures and images from around the world. Designed to impart a certain emotional quality on the viewer, the images themselves are simply beautiful to behold, and some of the shots were obviously very difficult to achieve from a technical standpoint. Letterboxed at about 2.13:1, Baraka features a very colorful and perfectly clean image. However, the image is a bit soft, and since Baraka was transferred from what is likely a 35mm reduction print taken from the 70mm original, I definitely expected to be much sharper than it appears here. The Dolby Digital 2-channel surround stereo soundtrack is of excellent quality. Baraka also features an alternate audio track (audio #2) containing an interview with producer Mark Magidson. Magidson discusses the various aspects of putting together Baraka, from the music, to the purpose of the film, to discussing the technical aspects. This untimed Dolby Digital 2-channel run only about half-way through the video segment.
In addition to chapter listings for This Unfamiliar Place and Goreville U.S.A., the 30s introduction for the Documentary section features snappy dialogue from New York writer who relocates to Los Angeles and does nothing but complain about his situation. The Dolby Digital 6-channel sound is accurately rendered.
Directed by Eva Ilona Brzeski, the 9m54s This Unfamiliar Place (1992) focuses on Ms. Brzeksi's attempt to get her father, Andrzej Brzeski t talk about his childhood and the Nazi occupation of Warsaw during World War II. Unfortunately, her dad really doesn't have much to say, since there are many other subjects he'd rather think about than the horrors he experienced at that time. The full-frame image is presented in both black & white and color, and while the condition of the footage contained within This Unfamiliar Place varies quite a bit, the overall effect is pleasing. The newly shot color and black & white footage looks fine, but some of the obviously dated historical footage is in worse shape (some of the regular black & white footage also varies depending upon the stylistic approached used). Although the Dolby Digital soundtrack is listed as a 2-channel mix, it sounds monaural on our system.
Written and directed by Seth Henrikson and Dave Sarno, Goreville U.S.A. takes a 6m49s look at a strange law passed by the town of Goreville. Very simply, a 1982 gun law is in effect requiring "heads of households to maintain a firearm together with ammunition." The filmmakers go around town and talk with various individuals about their feelings of this definitely peculiar law. The quality of the black & white full-frame image seemingly depends upon the film stock used at the time various interviews took place. Sometimes the image is clear, but sometimes it's grainy, soft or stark. Overall, the image usually exhibits some amount of grain, has a soft focus, and has weak contrasts. The Dolby Digital 2-channel sound comes across as mono and is unremarkable.
When you find yourself watching two guys sitting on a bench at Venice Beach and one of them complaining how nobody ever understands his films or himself, you'll know you've found yourself at the 30s introduction to the Monologue section. There is the usual chapter listings (this time for a Henry Rollins piece), and the dialogue is presented in Dolby Digital 2-channel mix.
Albert Watson's 10m30s film, Henry Rollins - Easter Sunday in N.Y.C. (1997) fits appropriately with the introductory segment - Henry just goes on babbling about life in general through his weird but vastly entertaining sense of poetry, and most people complain that they can't understand him or his performance pieces. There is but one Henry Rollins, and you just have to love him for who he is (as we mentioned earlier, he's also the decorated gent gracing the cover of the DVD). The film is a combination of black & white and color footage (it's full-frame), and the image is very crisp. The Dolby Digital 5.1 6-channel surround sound mix is very peculiar -- overall, it's very strong and has an excellent mix, but some of the audio in a few segments is almost impossible to understand. Everything is fine, and then suddenly the audio goes very quiet, and sounds like it's cutting out. I am assuming that this is part of the original audio mix for the short and was done this way on purpose, but it's a pain -- it mainly sounds as if all your speakers are dead except for one. This monologue is also accompanied by three additional alternate audio tracks featuring Rollins' energetic music: "The End of Something" (audio #4, 4m50s), "Starve" (audio #5, 4m08s), and "Shame" (audio #6, 5m31s). The three alternate audio tracks all features a Dolby Digital 2-channel stereo mix, and the quality sounds very muted in comparison to the 6-channel mix of the interview -- you have to turn the sound way up to hear it.
A sweeping grand orchestra music score accompanies the 30s Music introductory segment (it's Dolby Digital 5.1 6-channel). There is a single chapter listing for a John Lee Hooker - Performance and Interview (1997) by SHORT cinema journal.
I'm not much of a blues fan and I've actually never heard anything by John Lee Hooker prior to this, but I found the John Lee Hooker - Performance and Interview (1997) to be fairly engaging. Directed by SHORT cinema journal, this 6m27s piece features -- as I'm sure you've gathered from the title -- a short interview segment followed by one of Hooker's most recent music videos. During the interview portion, Hooker speaks in an understated manner while playing his guitar, and he occasionally breaks into a song. Although footage of Hooker is shown while he is speaking, it does not necessarily match what he is saying at the time and more often than not look like a strangely-dubbed foreign production. The interview segment is letterboxed at approximately 1.76:1, and the black & white transfer has no problems. The color full-frame performance piece (I have no idea what the song title is) is fantastic, showing Hooker playing and singing on a high school gym stage while various students slowly gyrate on the dance floor before him. To me, the stylistic look of the performance piece seemingly resembles a brightly hand-colored image and gives is a welcome, somewhat surrealistic look (it's a little hard to explain), but the quality changes slightly depending upon the look of the individual scenes in the video. There is one title card introducing the video that states "This is a tribute to one of the best bluesman of the century" featuring white text on a black background. During its onscreen appearance, the text slowly breaks up into large pixels -- this seems to be a problem that occurred during the transfer itself, not a DVD artifact, since the pixelation is consistent in appearance when replaying and/or freezing the image. The Dolby Digital audio is absolutely fine (2-channel stereo for the interview, 2-channel surround stereo for performance piece).
The 30s introduction to the Criticism section features a chapter listing for the sole entry, Quisling & Tsai. It is accompanied by a Dolby Digital 6-channel surround stereo piece.
SHORT cinema journal's Quisling & Tsai features a combination monologue/criticism being spoken over various simplified line-drawing animations. The basic discussion during this 1m09s segment deals with how modern man is able to live in modern times, how he is a prisoner in his concrete jungle, etc., etc. This short really wasn't my cup of tea, and I personally found the subject matter to be neither enlightening nor entertaining. I couldn't see the point behind it, and, unfortunately, chances are that most of you will feel the same way. The color transfer for this full-frame short is fine, as is the Dolby Digital 6-channel audio.
The Dolby Digital 6-channel dialogue featured over the 30s "Experimental" intro segment is about inventor Nikolai Tesla. The specific short featured within this section is Shape Without Form (1995), directed by Stephen E. Berkman and featuring Everett Sloan, Aaron Smith and Jane. The title of this 2m49s short is quite apt, as it features a series of seemingly random images apparently designed to be purposely incomprehensible. When I first watched this short, I was thinking to myself, "What the Hell is this thing about?" Then I read the name of the title again, read the description in the booklet, and watched it again. Although I understand the point behind it completely (or at least I think I do), I still can't help asking "What the Hell is this thing about?" "Shape without form, shade without color"...you go figure it out -- who says I have to like or understand everything myself...? Shape Without Form was sponsored by LEVI'S. The color transfer for this short is quite good and follows a sepia-toned scheme. The Dolby Digital 2-channel surround soundtrack is of very good quality. An interview with director Berkman is featured on audio track 2 (also a Dolby Digital 2-channel mix), and he quickly talks about how you really should be having some sort of emotional experience when watching the image -- he's right, I was having an emotional experience, but I don't think it was the type of experience he was hoping for.
The final short cinema section on this DVD is dedicated to the best of video advertisements, better known by its more popular name "commercials." First, a 30s Advertisements introduction for the section features some fairly funny dialogue (Dolby Digital 5.1, 6-channel) of someone desperately attempt to instruct a film crew to film a pair of pliers. The three "Commercial Announcements" following are among the most entertaining I've seen (they have a total running time of 3m30s). The first up is the popular EV1 electric car commercial from General Motors, featuring hundreds of house appliances hopping outside to see their new electric cousin (it's letterboxed at 1.69:1). The next one is something called "Obsidian CD-Rom Trip," which I assume is for a computer game, and this full-frame commercial does a very twisted take on the Humpty Dumpty legend. In it, a man preparing a meal in his kitchen knocks an egg onto the floor, and instead of the egg being damaged, his body cracks, contorts, and falls apart into little pieces -- it's absolutely amazing. Finally, Pioneer makes an appearance with their black & white, full-frame commercial, featuring the old historical footage of a suspension bridge swinging in the wind thanks to a man's car audio sound system. The audio for all three commercials is a Dolby Digital 2-channel mix, and they are all fine.
Concluding the disc is a Credits section, which features the same two schmucks from the beginning piece talking about their script again. This time around, they are discussing such things as monkeys who work for the governments, and the credits themselves have a couple of strange entries (i.e., for dogs that didn't and did pee). The dialogue is in a accurate Dolby Digital 2-channel mix.
The overall concept of SHORT cinema journal and the shorts featured on the disc are very commendable, and I can't recommend this disc highly enough. However, the disc does have some "shortcomings" that I feel should be mentioned. The most notable and obvious problem is with Polygram's packaging of their titles, which is essentially a long variation on the standard jewel box. Although the design is initially pleasing to the eye, this opinion instantly changes once you actually attempt to get a disc in or out of the packaging. Rather than protecting your DVD investment, the packaging does a much better job of nearly damaging your disc. Your disc is held within a plastic tray that slides out of the bottom of the jewel case -- however, the tray slides out only part way, and you are then supposed to bend it backwards and pull the disc out. Also, the disc is covered by a small paper "DVD Protection Sheet" you are support to keep and use to prevent scratching the disc surface. The liner notes booklet is inserted into the case above the plastic tray, and it is nearly impossible to remove it from the packaging without a pair of tweezers. Additionally, while the process of removing and reinserting the disc is an already daunting task for most people, it becomes an even more difficult chore for people with chronic hand problems like my wife and myself. Without a doubt, Polygram's packaging is by far the worst to appear in the marketplace. Thankfully, Polygram has been listening to consumer complaints, and although the basic design of the case will remain, changes are being incorporated to make it more user-friendly (I've been told that the plastic tabs in the center of the disc tray are being removed, and that some other changes will likely occur as well). On a side note, if you copy, fill out and return the survey printed in the booklet, SHORT cinema journal will send you a different free collector's box for your disc.
As for the disc itself, I have only a couple of quibbles. One very minor difficulty you'll discover with SHORT cinema journal arises out of its use of multiple angles for The Big Story. Because of the way that multiple angles are encoded onto the disc, the individual shorts are by necessity indexed as "titles" rather than "chapters." This makes it hard for the viewer to skip around between individual segments -- while you can skip forward to the next "title," you can't skip backwards. If you want to skip backwards, you must instead \go through the menu options or program it in manually. On a more important note, none of the individual shorts are time encoded, so you never know how far into the program you are. While the use of "title" encoding on the disc is completely justified, the lack of time encoding is inexcusable. Hopefully this will be rectified on future releases. On a final note, the back of the packaging gives the false impression that all the shorts feature "5.1 channel AC-3 Surround Stereo" soundtracks -- while a few segments do feature 5.1 mixes, the majority of the programming is only available in 2-channel Dolby Digital. And before I forget, the DVD was encoded and authored by Bryan J. Rusenko of Crest National.
These minor quibbles aside, SHORT cinema journal is definitely required viewing for those of you with more intellectual tastes. Some of you may be put off a little by the video quality of the various shorts, but I must again remind of the low-budget source materials for most of them. The next issue of SHORT cinema journal is expected in late September, after which it will be released on a monthly schedule (we understand that issues will be available through your local dealer or by subscriptions). And for those of you interested in future projects from SHORT cinema journal corp., the tentatively titled junior SHORT cinema for kids and SHORT music journal are in the planning stages.
Review by Jeff Krispow
Original Review: 07/20/97
Last Updated: 08/22/97