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On DVD: Wholphin No. 6, “Perils of the New Land”

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07292008_darlingdarling.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

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 résumé-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 César Velasco Broca’s “Echos Der Buchrücken” 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?

07292008_trafficinsouls.jpgThe 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 émigré 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.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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