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WORKING WEEKEND: Long form, short form, freeform

22 Feb, 2002 By: Bruce Apar

After five years of DVD parking itself in one-fourth of U.S. homes, it's reasonable now to ask, "Is repurposing [of Hollywood film fare] destined to be DVD's primary purpose?" Not any more than repurposed stage plays were destined to be the future of filmmaking, or repurposed radio shows the future of TV. Just as 3D animation is a quantum refinement of conventional, flat 2D animation, a new generation of content made 4DVD remains to be seen.

Long-form films endure, short subjects are obscure and freeform content waits to be explored -- developed with digital tools, driven by an abstract sensibility and deployed via platform portability. Five-inch DVDs (with even more compact variants to come) that contain a compilation of freeform images are viewable in all manner of venues (set-top or laptop) and mindsets (immersive or passive) and time frames (continuous or disjointed).

I've been enjoying my first viewing ever of The Bad and the Beautiful, the 50-year-old black-and-white MGM production (just released on Warner DVD) about Hollywood's snake pit, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring luminous legends Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner. It doesn't get more glamorous than that. Yet, as much a sucker as I am for elegant films of yesteryear, there's no denying this type of film plays like an artifact today. Its plot device of telling each character's story serially in flashback becomes a bit silly and stiff. Still, the 1952 winner of five Oscars is very entertaining for many of us who don't mind monochromatic diversions.

The Bad and the Beautiful is classic long-form filmmaking at mid-century. Freeform filmmaking at the turn of the century – the 21st Century -- can be glimpsed in The Best of Resfest Volume I, arriving in stores April 30 from Palm Pictures (no relation to the personal digital assistant company, but there's a cross-promotional opportunity there somewhere).

Res is the brand that identifies a bimonthly magazine and touring festival specializing in digital filmmaking, including what it confidently calls "the world's finest short films, documentaries, features, music videos …" You get the point. But I can't say I got the point of all of the "selection of 16 of the festival's most innovative films."

As usual with intensely personal, defiantly non-commercial artistic expression, some are cryptically self-indulgent, some fascinating, some tedious, some truly thought-provoking. In most cases, though, it's not the story or message that matters to these creators as much as the technique. At least, that's one viewer's take-away after watching the DVD. For that reason, the commercial value of most of these is difficult to divine. It's worth remembering that Resfest represents digital filmmaking's emergence as free form art, not the blossoming of a major market -- yet -- so expectations should be contained.

Also hard to determine in the realm of eccentric, independent filmmaking is the endgame. Apart from the proliferation of festivals – and at last count there are more than 700 a year in the U.S. alone – where does such work get exhibited, who pays to see it and how does the filmmaker fare financially?

In this case, Resfest is one of the places it gets exhibited and those who come to see it are fellow filmmakers enamored of the possibilities of desktop production. Res Media Group (RMG) says its "vast audience [is] professionals and consumers eager to be exposed to the new opportunities created by affordable digital filmmaking technology." It goes on to christen itself "the home of The Future of Filmmaking." Refest covers 14 cities on five continents, this year kicking off in San Francisco September 18. No matter the subjective viewer response to these shorts, the fact they are being given wider exposure on DVD is a good thing.

The opening film in Best of Resfest Volume I, titled Alfred, transpired so quickly, as I mounted my elliptical trainer, that I can't tell you much about it. The good news is if you want to check it out for yourself, all 100 seconds of it, you won't waste much time.

Tongues & Taxis is fun, frenetic animation in a cityscape setting that veers between anarchistic and sophomoric. At 7 minutes, 30 seconds, it ran a tad long for my taste.

Modern Life uses live-action and a fanciful technique to follow a couple's romantic, out-of-body trysts in the retro style of a silent film.

In the precious Pasta for War, clocking in at 4-plus minutes, there's the fertile seed of a concept, but the concoction tasted half-baked, whetting the appetite but leaving me hungry for something more zesty. I also didn't much care for 11:11, a three-minute journey in the desert that nonetheless felt tedious (although that was part of the point), for Cirkus or for Ground. They felt slightly pretentious at fit blush but it's also true that many of these shorts require multiple viewings to fully absorb, if not admire.

Among my favorites were Deformer, Snack and Drink, Luz and Latin Alive. The first, an introspective study of a marquee California skateboarder, is the longest film, at more than 15 minutes; the second shows off impressive mastery of desktop animation software; the third evokes an eerie sense of place; and the fourth, a neo-Sesame Street exercise in wordplay by Stefan Nadelman, arguably shows the most promise for a marketable talent.

The disc packaging and production is well done. Each film can be viewed with or without the maker's commentary, and there is a menu option on each as well for a text screen "About the Film," which provides technical credits, maker bio and a synopsis (which in some cases takes almost as long to read as the short is to watch). A well-designed, four-page printed insert also provides key data for each chaptered short, more than most major studios offer in their movie DVDs, which are frustratingly skimpy on documentation.

The target audience for Resfest is not necessarily your average consumer, but what used to be known in the ‘60s and ‘70s as "media freaks." In the ‘00s, they are not nearly as far outside the mainstream anymore, since video has long since become part of society's DNA structure.

Still, these are not Hollywood DVD commentaries. Here the talk track and text annotations focus on production techniques. If it helps you to know that director/producer/cinematographer/editor/sound designer Stephen X. Arthur used a 35mm Pentax still camera, then Adobe After Effects and Photoshop to make the 88-second Vision Point, the commentaries are worth your while. Even if you don't care about that, it's worth a look just to know where digital filmmaking is coming from.

That's one of the caveats about Best of Resfest. Its selections are culled from festivals held 1997 through 2000. Half of the 16 shorts deemed the "Best" were screened on the 2000 tour, two in 1999, and three each in 1998 and 1997. Apart from that progression suggesting the state of the art logically culminated in the most recent year of Resfests represented on this disc, it also betrays that the cutting-edge cachet Resfest claims is seriously undercut when its April 2002 DVD debut ignores any work produced or screened in the prior calendar year.

The press release says this is the first in a series, so it's presumed that the Best of Resfest 2001 will be covered in a subsequent DVD, assuming Volume I finds a market worth feeding similar compilations.

A word about post-literate filmmaking. A review excerpt about Palm's Sound + Motion Volume I, featuring music video clips, reads, "Easily outdating MTV." It took me more than one pass through that grammatically-challenged phrase to decipher it (at first it sounded to these ears like Sound + Motion was being called outdated; of course, the writer meant to say "easily dating MTV.")

My conclusion is that either today's video freaks need to read the written word more to clarify their verbal skills, or that those of us reared in an analog culture are the ones who soon will be marginalized by teetering in a tower of babble only we understand.

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