Chances are you’ve never seen a wholphin (a rare hybrid of dolphin and false killer whale), or a Wholphin, the short film DVD magazine emanating on a subscription basis from the Dave Eggers/McSweeney’s publishing factory. But it might be the most relentlessly fascinating and inventive showcase for new short films in the country. Not that it has much competition shorts can appear haphazardly on auteurist-minded DVDs or on public television or the Sundance Channel, but otherwise there’s no dependable cultural outlet for them, and they are for the most part considered cinema non grata in the culture at large. Movies began in the short form, but quickly shorts became nothing more than ballast for features, and then, come the ’60s, were not even that. (Anthology-style TV series may count think of each “Twilight Zone” episode as a 24-minute short but look how that format has fallen out of favor as well.) Filmmakers continue to make them, largely as rÃ©sumÃ©-builders, but a substantial audience has never been acculturated to appreciate them.
We could use a broad variety of semi-annual DVD “magazines” releasing shorts into the public bloodstream, but Wholphin is already much better than that like Eggers’s other periodicals, it’s a magazine/program with a distinctly ironic personality, an endlessly entertaining point of view and a rabid hunger for what’s brand new and supercool, internationally, in this least market-impacted region of moviemaking. Not just any decent short is allowed through the door the Wholphin philosophy runs toward the eccentric and politically radical, while largely excluding the abstract-underground school and the earnest political doc. Anyone at all would be well-served by catching up with volumes one through five (editions have come biannually since 2005), which have already included, amidst eye-popping nature footage (trap-jaw ants, drunk bees, etc.), re-dubbed Russian sitcoms and excerpts from idiosyncratic features, some of the most spectacular and vital shorts I’ve ever seen: Anthony Lucas’s “The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello,” Bill Morrison’s re-edited lost film “The Mesmerist,” Alice Winocour’s lobster tribulation “Kitchen,” Olivo Barbieri’s eye-defying “site specific_LAS VEGAS 05,” Ray Tintori’s junkyard Oz neo-myth “Death to the Tinman,” the Oscar-nominated mega-retro-animation “Madame Tutli-Putli,” inexplicable chapters from Spanish astro-surrealist CÃ©sar Velasco Broca’s “Echos Der BuchrÃ¼cken” and so, fabulously, on. (Occasionally, the Wholphinites go historical, offering up the astonishing 1954 government short “The House in the Middle” which maintained that a clean home would survive nuclear blasts better than a messy one and vintage Iranian animation from 1975.) Each edition of Wholphin comes at you as a cataract of idiosyncratic culture with whole-hearted faith in its own choices; if the editors find something superlatively stimulating or revelatory, it goes in. No other criteria certainly not commerciality or even critical acclaim is necessary. Thus, each volume feels like a complete experience, not just a potluck shopping bag of random fest winners.
Wholphin No. 6 does not disappoint, from the electrifying science fiction of Catherine Chalmers’ digi-vid insect close-ups (used, as Wholphin is wont to do, as menu-movies, as well as an independent entry, “Safari”) to Matthew Lessner’s “Darling Darling,” a domestic absurdism starring Michael Cera and featuring multiple dubbing options, involving either John Cleese or Daniel Handler, but not both. But the best spoonfuls range from an excerpt from Weijun Chen’s doc “Please Vote for Me,” in which Chinese grade-schoolers are instructed to wage classroom campaigns that quickly devolve into all-too-familiar democratic skullduggery; Adam Keker’s “On the Assassination of the President,” a mock-classified-briefing film that whips up a computerized Pynchonian conspiracy lather in just six minutes; “Lucky,” Nash Edgerton’s slam-bang snatch of harrowment that barely gets from a locked trunk into a hurtling car’s driver seat; and Randy Krallman’s “Force 1 TD,” which matter-of-factly, and sweetly, mates gangsta life and seeing-eye Shetlands. Each Wholphin comes with a rather McSweeney’s-ish booklet of interviews and statements, where the queries most often answered are, how and why in the hell did you do that?
The new Flicker Alley set, “Perils of the New Land,” is straight as an arrow, collecting pre-World War I silents that address, in of course outrageously pulpy and melodramatic and stereotypical ways, the issues facing turn-of-the-century immigrants in America (New York, precisely). Thomas Ince’s “The Italian” (1915) is a lively epic about an Ã©migrÃ© gondolier facing ghetto life and lawlessness in downtown Manhattan, while George Loane Tucker’s famous “Traffic in Souls” (1913) limns a complex and righteous screed about “white slavery,” complete with deceived Swedish teenagers, “dens of iniquity,” romantic betrayals, evil philanthropists, police procedural mechanics, and possibly the movies’ first significant use of surveillance technology. While Ince’s Los Angeles-shot movie does a decent job at recreating East Coast tenements (albeit in the SoCal glare), Tucker’s pioneering exploitationeer the production and success of which warranted an entire chapter in Terry Ramsaye’s seminal 1926 film history volume “A Million and One Nights” is a veritable lexicon of pre-war New York locations, from the Bowery to Ellis Island. Three Edison shorts, fiction and otherwise, round out the social crisis docket: “McQuade of the Traffic Squad” (1915), “Police Force, New York City” (1910) and “The Call of the City” (1915); all of the films are both primitive and expressive of the fact that before Griffith put the polish on crosscutting, filmmakers still knew how to tell fast, meaty stories, just by utilizing their frame space and actors’ bodies. As the issue of immigration still rages, more than 90 years later, these eloquent, sympathetic antiques come off as surprisingly progressive have we learned nothing from the 20th century?
[Photos: “Darling Darling,” Monte Lomax Productions, 2005; “Traffic in Souls,” Universal Film Manufacturing Company, 1913]
Wholphin No. 6 and “Perils of the New Land: Films of the Immigrant Experience 1910-1915” are now available on DVD.