Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Full Frame Documentary Shorts, Volume 2


We saw Volume One of this series, but it must have been before I started writing these reviews, because I can’t find it. We both enjoy documentary short subjects, a category sadly neglected since multiplexes began showing nothing but one feature, some trailers, and lately a few commercials. Maybe the Internet will give them a new outlet.

“Crowfilm” (Edward P. Davee) I don’t like crows much. Maybe it has to do with The Birds. This is all footage of crows, but it’s not a nature film. Mostly it’s just B&W images strung together, scratched, burned, solarized, and treated in any other way to make it look arty. A lot of it was done with an old Super 8 camera. (Where on Earth did he get Super 8 film? I guess somebody must still make it.) Our only thrill was when Lee realized some of it had been filmed in Oaks Bottom on the Willamette River in Portland, one of her favorite places.

“Ms. Alabama Nursing Home” (Anne Paas) I had deeply mixed feelings about this one. I’ve just spent much more time in a nursing home than I ever wanted to, and they are very depressing places, surprise, surprise. This is like the other end of the Jon-Benet Ramsey madness: a beauty pageant for very old ladies. How old? Well, when ten finalists go up on the stage you wouldn’t be surprised if nine came back. The lady we follow has a continuous oxygen feed, and wins 2nd runner-up … which is a lot more significant than it is in Miss America, because the winner and runner-up may very well bite it before the next contest, so you can easily move up … I guess my negative feelings stem from the dog-show atmosphere of all pageants. Fine for dogs, not so great for humans. However, they all seemed to be having fun, so who am I to complain?

“Nutria” (Ted Gessing) God, three distasteful subjects in a row! Don’t like crows? It’s nothing compared to my feelings for nutria. They are rodents almost as big as beavers that are busily destroying wetlands all over Louisiana and Texas. We even had them on Sauvie Island, in Oregon. The film is short, and the main item of interest is the efforts of some Cajun chefs to get people to eat nutria gumbo. I’d eat it; Lee wouldn’t. But she wondered why they didn’t grind them up and feed them to dogs and cats? I couldn’t answer her, but I’ve thought of a reason, and it’s the same reason there is no mouse-flavored cat food: It would gross out the pet owners. While people around the globe are going hungry, we have to select only the finest cuts of beef and chicken for our pets. No stinkin’ nutria for my little darling, thank you very much …

“Album” (Barbara Bird) Dr. Ed Mee started making home movies of his family in the early ’40s, a time when mostly rich people and movie stars had film cameras. He continued doing it into the ’60s. Now, it is axiomatic that there is nothing in the world more boring than watching somebody else’s home movies. Dr. Mee was pretty good, for the genre, but what makes this work is the format, which has the family members on the soundtrack commenting on the footage and on their lives. The story includes death, infidelity, divorce, and madness. None of this is shown in the movies, but the narration forces us to focus on these happy people and think of what became of them over the years. Sure, there are plenty of families with worse stories to tell, but few of them have documented their lives so thoroughly. And I couldn’t help but realize that, 50 years from now, everybody will have miles and miles of videotape, stacks of DVDs, but it won’t age like this stuff does. It won’t be grainy, won’t have overexposed edges, nor will the blue dyes have faded into reddishness. It won’t look like it was taped yesterday, not completely. (For one thing, all those boys in huge, baggy pants will cringe at their “gangsta” pretensions, I guarantee you.) But it won’t really look old, either. I think that’s sort of too bad.

“Wood Island” (Kate T. Williamson) Wood Island is a small community with a considerable noise problem because of its location near the Boston Airport. (I found 3 Wood Islands with MapQuest, and none of them really looked close enough for noise to be a problem, but I’ll take their word for it.) So this woman decided to make a film about it. There are indoor small-town scenes, but most of it is just static shots with jetliners in the background. Booooooriiiiiiing.

“Have You Seen This Man?” (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck) The way I figure it, there are two ways to react to the idiocy (there, I just reacted, didn’t I?) called “conceptual art.” You can be scandalized that anybody’s taking this bullshit seriously, or you can be amused. I choose amusement. Here, a man in New York City (where else?) posts messages on phone poles and corkboards all over town, offering odd items for sale: a pen cap, a toothpick, a pencil eraser, a cracker. 15 cents for the cracker, similar prices for the other items. He gets a lot of calls and buyers, and the ones we hear and see all seem to be tragically hip to the concept. It’s funny how they try to solemnly out-hip each other and the artist: “Is the toothpick mahogany or birch? All right, I’ll take it.” The one who is most unintentionally funny is the conceptual art “collector,” who actually pays for the right to photocopy the For Sale papers and post his own, and rambles on endlessly about the deep meaning of it all. Strictly speaking, I think this is really more performance art than conceptual, because it was filmed. “Pure” conceptual art is supposed to merely exist in an ephemeral zone of quasi-reality, and we are supposed to ponder this. I don’t ponder bullshit very much, but I can sure find it funny.

“Iwo Jima: Memories in Sand” (Beret E. Strong & John Tweedy) This is the most traditional of the 7 shorts here. It seems oddly out of place. It concerns the 50th reunion of Marine veterans of the meat grinder that was Iwo. It is touching to see these old men recalling the horror, but I’ve seen better accounts of the battle.