Full Frame: Documentary Shorts (1999-2002)
"Sometimes they get very stupid with me. Sometimes I have to get very stupid back with them."- Cashmere, a transvestite hooker, on her fellow flophouse residents, in The SunshineDirector: Mira Nair, Roger Weisberg and Murray Nossel, Joan Brooker, Andrey Paounov, Eva Saks, Phil Bertelsen, Kaarina Cleverley and Derek Roberto
MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 02h:47m:53s
Release Date: 2003-05-27
DVD ReviewToo often, the documentary is the Rodney Dangerfield of films: it doesn't get any respect, and it should. The Full Frame festival, an annual event in Durham, North Carolina, has set about to right some of those wrongs, and this disc brings together seven documentary shorts, which usually can only find happy homes on PBS or between features on cable. Each one of them is full of rewards, and the disc is altogether a tasty smorgasbord of what's out there besides this week's by-the-numbers studio blockbuster that will be all but forgotten by the time the popcorn runs out.
Laughing Club of India
2000; directed by Mira Nair
"40,000 people laughing in India is no laughing matter."
Mira Nair, a feature director best known for films like Monsoon Wedding, offers a portrait of a movement founded in India by Dr. Madan Kataria, who takes literally the old adage that laughter is the best medicine. Groups of people get together and laugh, for no reason—they tried jokes, but after a few weeks, they ran out of good ones. So instead they laugh and laugh and laugh, to cleanse the blood, to keep them in good spirits, for the medicinal value of a good belly laugh. The therapeutic value of this daily laughter isn't demonstrated, but it doesn't need to be; the participants vouch for the success and utility of the groups. (One insists that the laughing club helped her fight off cancer, for instance.) Everybody is in on the act: young and old, all castes of Indian society, for laughter cuts across all boundaries. The groups come to have the regimentation of a high-end Pilates class, and the film also offers a fine little portrait of life in Bombay, hugely crowded, the dirt poor competing for space with advertisements for ISPs.
Why Can't We Be a Family Again?
2002; directed by Roger Weisberg and Murray Nossel
"I feel like I'm never going to be able to stop getting high."
Ossie Davis narrates this somber tale of a Brooklyn family. Kitten can't stay off drugs, so her two sons, Daniel and Raymond, are living with their grandmother, Ursula. The boys long for their mother to stay off the junk, but she can't—they relate harrowing tales of how, for instance, Kitten abandoned her boys to score when they were 1 and 5, and left them for days. The camera crew follows Kitten into rehab (which she leaves early), and chronicles their legal troubles, as a judge ponders whether or not to rescind Kitten's parental rights to her sons, and put them up for adoption. It's a rough story, marred only by feeling a little stagy—more than once, it feels as if the participants are performing for the camera. But it's hard not to be moved by Daniel toasting his grandmother, at a party for his high school graduation, for providing a roof over their heads and food on the table.
We Got Us
2000; directed by Joan Brooker
"You never in your life ate calamari like this. It was like butter."
Four women well into their 80s get together regularly for mah-jongg and reminiscences, and the film documents their tales—of immigrant parents and husbands, of children and professional successes and disappointments, of the stern physical and emotional costs of growing older. They're a bunch of pistols, these old ladies—one can't remember the names of all of her many husbands, and another had just been to see Boogie Nights, and merrily reports on the size of Mark Wahlberg's equipment. It's an affectionate portrait, and a touching one, especially about the later years—as one of the women says, "I think I'm having a really tough time competing with the woman I used to be."
Lucy Tsak Tsak
2000; directed by Andrey Paounov
The shortest film on the disc makes use of what usually ends up on the cutting room floor: it's a portrait of Lucy, who works the film slate in the Bulgarian movie business, doing her thing. So it's largely slates, slates and more slates, accompanied by the sound of a projector running. A strange little offering, more about the rhythm of its cutting than anything else.
2002; directed by Eva Saks
"I was honored to be able to pick up someone's eyeball. How lovely was that?"
Did Microsoft start this way? The better part of the film is about Becky and her new business, Trauma Scene Restoration. She's found a peculiar and grisly little market niche: she and her troops swoop in and clean up the mess of crime scenes and suicides and the like, rinsing out human remains ("brain tissue gets very gummy"), cleaning blood-encrusted bathtubs and toilet bowls, replacing floorboards eaten away by acids leaking from corpses. The film is happily not as graphic as it might be; it's shot in black and white, with a little too much gee-whiz 1950s dream kitchen music. But it's one hell of a job, and the people who do it love talking about it. Appended onto the end of the film is a brief portrait of Becky with her partner, a Philadelphia cop—it's all domestic and a little boring, unless you find two women happy together incredibly exotic and weird. And it didn't answer the big question I had: does the cop, when encountering an especially gruesome crime scene, try to throw some business her partner's way?
2000; directed by Phil Bertelsen
"My whole life is nothing. It's been like that for years."
The Sunshine is one of the last flophouses on the Bowery, in lower Manhattan, and this film is a portrait of its residents, presumably the last of their kind, for the whole neighborhood is in the process of being gentrified. "They're drinkers and horseplayers, mostly," is how the desk clerk describes the clientele—and even that is a little generous, for they seem like men with little or no hope, with little but alcohol and methadone (and one another) to console them. It's like something out of O'Neill, or at least Lanford Wilson. Inadvertently touching in this film about the fragility of life are the shots of the neighborhood featuring the World Trade Center looming over the southern portion of the island.
2001; directed by Kaarina Cleverly Roberto
"The only thing that grows out here is telephone poles and Joshua trees."
Intended to be used by local miners on the job, a phone booth was placed in the middle of the Mojave desert, in the late 1950s, miles from any town, road or evidence of civilization. It stood for decades in relative obscurity, but some time in the 1990s caught the fancy of some of the locals, and inevitably a website was created. What's this phone doing there? Who makes calls out? Who calls in? The phone booth became something of a phenomenon, and became a point of pilgrimage—the film spends some time at the booth, with those who have made the trip to answer it, and we see them field calls (usually with a beer in hand) from all over the world. It's a portrait of a strange little phenomenon, people connecting to other random people, carrying on conversations for a while with total strangers, merely because one of them is on the phone in the middle of the desert. The phenomenon came to an abrupt end in 2000, when Pacific Bell removed the phone and all evidence of its existence; its diehard fans erected a tombstone in its place.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: All seven films are presented in the 1.33:1 ratio, and look fair enough—picture quality varies somewhat from piece to piece, but the transfer generally is pretty solid, with the imperfections seemingly coming from the source material.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: Sound is much more variable than the pictureŚThe Sunshine and Family Values sound particularly bad, with lots of muffled dialogue and other interference. The other five fare better, more or less.
Audio Transfer Grade: C+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 7 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
10 Other Trailer(s) featuring Regret to Inform, Speaking in Strings, Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back, Paul Taylor: Dancemaker, Fastpitch, Sound and Fury, Sophie B. Hawkins: The Cream Will Rise, Todd McFarlane: The Devil You Know, Go Tigers!, Keep The River On Your Right
- Docurama catalog
- DVD credits
Extras Grade: C-
Final CommentsA strange and winning assortment of documentaries that are sure to pique your interest.
Jon Danziger 2003-06-01