About halfway through All My Friends are Funeral Singers, the film finds its purpose. After about 30 minutes of vaguely related vignettes, some charming and some smug and clumsy, an event occurs that finally gives the film propulsion and a purpose. That's not to say that it ceases to be a loose, surreal journey through emotions and unveils a clear plot. But the characters suddenly begin to show a desperation and an urgency that makes their lives infinitely more fascinating.
Most of the characters, I should make clear, are dead. Dressed entirely in white, they live in a large, old house with a fortune teller (Angela Bettis), where they give interviews about their lives and deaths for their filmmaker ghost friend, make noisy music, and wonder if they will ever move on from their state of limbo..
Bettis plays the fortune teller, the only person who can see the ghosts, with a mix of joy and frustration. The character loves her ghost friends, but it's not all fun and games, as they have a tendency to pop into the room when she's trying to make out with her boyfriend.
The performances of the ghosts are less even, with some taking on awkward cadences. The vaguely amateurish nature of the film's production and the overplayed whimsy accentuate the short-comings in the performance, and it's not until the plot development forces questions about the past and future that it becomes possible to overlook them again. The focus shifts to questions of who these ghosts are, why they're in the house and whether or not they can leave.
Tim Rutili of the band Califone wrote and directed the film, which shares its name with the band's latest album. His roots in music are apparent, as a band of ghosts is constantly pounding out tunes and/or noise to express their mindset. The music tilts closer to the band's experimental nature than the indie-rock hooks of some of its more popular singles. The ghosts toy in noise art, banging household items or using small pencils to play a violin as a percussion instrument.
Rutili also lends a musical quality to locations, scenes and visual themes, focusing less on plot than mood (although when it comes down to it the narrative is fairly straightforward, if not traditionally coherent). The film's ideas don't all gel, and will frustrate less patient viewers, but Rutili nevertheless has crafted a distinct landscape of yearning souls, living and dead.
All My Friends Are Funeral Singers was shot on HD and is presented in its 16x9/1.78:1 aspect ratio. It wasn't shot with the best lenses or the best know-how, but the color has been well honed (better than the colors on the version that screened at Sundance), if occasionally lifeless, and the details are crisp. The compression looks good, and deals well with the tricky super-8 sequences that are heavy in grain. The colors in those super-8 scenes look odd by design, and while I thought some of the noise looked seemed to have a bit more stray colors than usual grain, I can't say with any certainty that it's wrong.
The film's English soundtrack is presented in a stereo and 5.1 track, both of which are well mixed with good separation. The main attraction, especially for fans of Califone will be the dynamic, musical interludes. The music has a somewhat homemade, noisy aesthetic, but achieves it in a professional, well recorded and mixed fashion.
The extras aren't organized in a particularly coherent or logical fashion, but they do offer a short-but-sweet collection of tangents related to the original feature. There's no effort to explain the film, and that's probably for the best. The material is all presented in 16x9.
The ghost interviews contain extended versions of the interview segments used in the film. While the Julius footage wears the character's one-note joke a bit thin, the tragic vaudeville stories of Alan and Margaret are engaging. Answering Machine: Sherman Version is some sort of deleted scene, containing extra absurd answering machine messages.
Califone's "Funeral Singers" music video, a stylish piece that captures the feel of the film. Using split screens, it combines footage of the ghosts performing the song in the house with grainy Super-8 material. Califone fans will be pleased that the disc also includes the ghosts performing "Polish Girls" as well as two short musical interludes, "Paper Shoes" and "Joe's Ears."
Finally, the excellent theatrical trailer captures the essence of the film without resorting to standard summary or generic voice-over.
A quick side qualm (feel free to skip if minor usability issues don't interest you): While the menus are aesthetically well designed, I do take issue with one oversight in the DVD authoring. At the end of each special feature, when the disc returns to its menu, it goes back to the top item on the menu, instead of the next item on the list. This is a little thing yes, but it does make a difference in usability, especially since most of the features aren't particularly long and most people will watch several in one sitting.
While mainly for fans of the absurd and surreal or Califone, All My Friends Are Funeral Singers is flawed but fascinating. There's not much else out there like it, but if you're feeling adventurous, it might just pull you in with its rhythms.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.