Reviewed by JonKorn, someone who wants to write for McSweeney’s
There is a moment, perhaps two minutes into his ambiguously titled film PATTON OSWALD STARES INTO THE CAMERA FOR FIVE OR SO MINUTES, where the eponymous comic’s face morphs from a hideous, Boschean leer to an expression of complete and utter happiness. We’re talking unadulterated fucking joy. It’s almost enough to make you think that Patton has, under exceedingly fortuitous circumstances (Given the camera and crew are sitting, like, right there), just discovered the meaning of life. But Oswald’s mug never rests – within seconds his features shift, the light drains out of his eyes, and his joy turns into mindless, unthinking bliss.
When was the last time you watched a person just make faces into a camera for three minutes? Or sat in slack-jawed awe as a nice Scandinavian man sang the greatest song in the world backwards? These and myriad other delights are all available on Wholphin #1, the newest wing of Dave Eggers’ all-encompassing empire of wit and good intentions.
Wholphin does for short films what McSweeney’s has done for short stories, namely, let the general public see what delightfully guilty pleasures can be derived from something with a limited scope (at least in the temporal sense). There are issues that feature length films can explore more fully than any short, but, at their best, the briefer works approach something much purer and, irony aside, artistic. (Yes, irony is a sticky subject here, as the whole disc has received a liberal basting in McSweeney’s trademarked glaze of unapologetic, wide-eyed sincerity. In fact, the mission statement I was able to gloss from Editor Brent Hoff’s ‘Welcome to Wholphin’ can basically be summed up as ‘intelligent films for people who will get them’. So, long story short, natch.)
Ostensibly the first of many such compilations, the DVD offers twelve films of various lineage and three ‘menus’ that are full-fledged shorts all by themselves, including both the aforementioned Patton Oswald opus and Jeroen Offerman’s haunting, backwards karaoke, as well as THE GREAT ESCAPE, another Offerman piece that documents what may be the luckiest moment ever captured on film.
In fact, these menus may be the best and most consistent things about Wholphin, which might have been a necessity, given the means by which they work. Basically, the films play in the background for thirty seconds before the text of the menu fades and suddenly you are watching something that you weren’t intending to see. The whole experience would be a little heavy-handed and, well, insulting — if these films weren’t so much fun.
The other offerings don’t always get to this same place, a delirious intersection of intelligence and creativity that occurs when short films, or stories for that matter, just get it all right. There are some high points, like Carson Mell’s THE WRITER, which explores the bitterness behind one sci-fi author’s pulp fantasies. Just as captivating is MALEK KHORSHID, an animated Iranian film from the seventies that is presented without subtitles. Not only is the animation oddly beautiful, but it also employs numerous devices that, while they may have been conventions in the world of Persian cartoons, are virtually Avery-esque in their flouting of physics, decorum, and sanity. (Can an Iranimation craze be far off? Might it be just the bridge our societies need to close their ever-widening and, frankly, terrifying gap? Let’s hope so on both counts.) [I credit you with the invention of that term, yet I copyright it –ed.]
Brian Dewan’s THE DEATH OF THE HEN is an excellent example of how specific the short format allows a filmmaker to be. The gentle, almost stately pace of the piece all but masks its inexplicable and undeniably intentional weirdness. Dewan admits in the booklet that there is no moral in sight and his choice to not only present the tale as a slideshow, but also to actually say ‘Boop’ to indicate when the picture should change, only gives us an inkling of what was actually going on in his head.
Some of the other films are less successful than these three, but all are worth watching at least once, which, take it from someone who has watched many, many shorts that make even the worst on display here look like freaking CHINATOWN, is quite the accomplishment in itself.
Maybe I’m wrong, but it feels like the two documentary films, which are both weightier and longer than their fictional counterparts, are meant to be the centerpieces of the disc. Certainly Hoff’s ‘Welcome’ indicates that one of them, Spike Jonze’s UNTITLED AL GORE DOCUMENTARY, was the catalyst for Wholphin itself, going so far as to argue that had it been seen during the 2000 election it might have tipped the scales in the former Vice-President’s favor. The emphasis on Jonze’s film feels slightly misguided, as is it a mostly forgettable puff piece notable only for a hilarious scene in which Al guides the Gore family through a Byzantine selection process for Movie Night that serves very nicely as both a visual summary of the American public’s view of ‘Al Gore: Politician’ and a somewhat damning indictment of Hoff’s contention that ‘this film might have wiped away, in twenty-two minutes, Gore’s reputation as a robot.’ More deserving of praise is SOLDIER’S PAY, a vague ‘excerpt’ from a presumably longer film by David O. Russell, which chronicles an incident that occurred during the current Iraq War and almost perfectly mirrors the plot of Russell’s previous film THREE KINGS. In a delightful inversion of cliché, this is a case of Truth being exactly as strange as Fiction. It also begs the question: where is the rest of this film?
Much has been made of the Internet as a new and exciting forum for short film. And, to certain extent, this is totally true. But the Internet is also controlled, like most of our culture, by a stupefying mix of huge corporations and 15-year-olds. Thus the variety of options on display, while often hilarious, leaves more than enough space for an outfit like Wholphin to stake its claim to an entirely different stratum of entertainment. Let’s hope that the discs continue to feature filmmakers who aspire to create moments of unadulterated fucking joy, which, though brief, are no less worthy for it. –JonKorn