Cantankerous Titles & Obscure Ephemera, Vol. 1: DVD

Jan 23, 2008

Although his ideas are interesting on paper, Joe Biel’s most recent stab at filmmaking falls flat. Five short documentaries are included on this DVD, along with an explanatory insert. I’ll give you the rundown of each short; from the okay to the unbearably boring.

“Last Train Out of North America,” about the decline of passenger rail in the United States, was somewhat interesting and enlightening; definitely the best documentary on here. It features interviews with various train riders and explains how, over the last century, the railroad business has gone from a booming private industry to a failing public service on the bottom of the government’s subsidy funding priority list. This short was not too bad at all.

 “Of Dice and Men,” takes a look at strategies of obsessive Risk players. It is an original subject to analyze and it would probably have made a fascinating read, but when the concept comes to life on film, it turns out to be thirty-nine minutes of footage of people playing a board game in a room. It wasn’t exactly riveting to watch strangers participate in an activity that I wouldn’t find the least bit entertaining in regular life.

“Martinis in the Bike Lane” is about bike lane markings in Portland, Oregon that are decorated creatively by bored city employees. Again, a picture and a caption in a zine would have sufficed. Looking at barely remarkable alterations to stencils of a cyclist on concrete for eleven minutes was overkill, to say the least.

 “Central Kansas—Canvas Central” features punk kids talking about the cultural importance and personal significance of patches. It’s described as a “mockumentary” on the back of the DVD case, but in the booklet that it comes with, Joe Biel complains, “I’m kind of fed up with explaining that all of the interviews, history, and discussion in ‘Central Kansas—Canvas Central’ are very real; not contrived.” So, it’s a “very real mockumentary”? I don’t get it.

“Cowboy Hat and a Cane” consists of a couple talking about their dog in a poorly-lit room, showing off snapshots of their dog as a young pup. I couldn’t help but wonder if everybody who saw this documentary before it was mass produced was like, “Hell yeah! DIY punk rock youth are totally going to want to watch these people take their dog for a walk!”

Watching this DVD, I didn’t get the feeling that much consideration was given to making these documentaries interesting and relevant to the audience. Joe Biel keeps mentioning aesthetics in the insert he wrote, but the documentaries (some shot in offices or the side of the street) failed to produce much visual stimulation. Overall, I was disappointed: I’m usually excited to hear about the novel things that make people’s lives interesting, but this film was so dry that I didn’t get anything out of it. –Lauren Trout (