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Hi-8: The Short Documentaries Of Courtney Fathom Sell
Here's another documentarian to watch out for, Courtney Fathom Sell, who presents four short-form pieces on this DVD, a scant 65 minutes of material that thoroughly immerses you into four unique worlds. Sell's work is about as removed from bias and editorial slant as you could imagine, (quite a feat when you consider one of his subjects is his own father) a trick which lets you the viewer imprint your own feelings on each subject. It also makes for more enjoyable viewing, since you never feel like you're being sold or preached to.
My Dying Day (B&W, 10 min):
I'd hate to throw the word "devastating" out again in regard to another movie about cancer, and luckily, Sell seemingly won't allow it anyway. Not that he's necessarily dictating what we should feel about this terminally ill Reverend who spends his last days comforting fellow hospice patients. Sell simply decides to sit back and roll his camera, assembling a simple story from various bits of footage and interviews. Of course this is rough stuff, depending on how you approach it, but it's also refreshingly upbeat, and never maudlin. The fact that it's Sell's own father fighting a losing battle against cancer makes this 10 minutes truly remarkable.
White Clover (Color, 9 min):
This slice-of-life series of vignettes profiling New Orleans resident Andrew Pickett creates a truly odd vibe - a little amusing, fairly disturbing, and unsettlingly open-ended. It's also one of Sell's least transparent documentaries, mostly because we wonder about the effect of Sell's presence on his subject. Pickett's something of a positive gangster, cruising N.O. with a gat in his lap, while wishing only to honor his hood and in some way help resurrect the Big Easy. Pickett sells his pro-New Orleans designs on t-shirts and other apparel, but it's tough to divine that information from Pickett's almost non-stop frontin', rappin' and general posturing. You have to ask yourself if the camera might amplify Pickett's bravado, but it doesn't matter, because he's a riveting presence.
Long Way Back To Paradise (Color, 36 min):
Sell's most stylized and finessed short follows the travails of The Viennagram, a Providence, Rhode Island psychedelic art-punk band (or whatever). Told in fractured form, with interviews, live performances and candid footage woven together in damaged fashion. Additional use of speeded-up footage and post-production video effects plays fully into The Viennagram's aesthetic, but somehow Sell's efforts to influence your perceptions just feel like an extension of the band's performances. There are many bands out there mining the same vein, fronted by charismatic psychopaths such as A.V. Vienna (the Brian Jonestown Massacre leaps to mind) and it's really fun watching his -and every other band member's - super-confident hubris. After all, these instigating, drunken madmen (at least when this was filmed) seem to be playing mostly rowdy basement house parties. Yet the band has undeniable power, and much of what members say has relevance to the reckless art crowd. Sell's profile creates a truly enveloping world, which just might have you subscribing to the Viennagram way.
Under The Bridge (Color, 10 min):
You can't deny that this is a message-driven short - it profiles self-organizing homeless people in Rhode Island who have established a tent camp in the titular location. Sell still manages to avoid preachy behavior, letting a few of the camp's residents just tell their stories. Simply put, these men were tired of watching other men freeze to death during the winter, so they did something about it. Sell finds them investigating the constitutionality of their camp, among other proactive things. It's not your standard look at the homeless problem, and has less dynamism than his other subjects presented here, but it does plain justice to the subject.
It's interesting to speculate how much effect the short form has on these documentaries. Would Sell lose his footing if he had to devote 90 minutes to The Viennagram, or even 20 minutes to Pickett? We'll only find out if and when Sell gets a much-deserved government grant (or some other type of funding) to pursue his work. Until then, we can enjoy the pure brevity of these fine short subjects.
This product comes to DVD Talk on a DVD-Rom, but in DVD keepcase retail packaging that cleverly mimics a Hi-8 cassette box. A trip to Amazon seems to indicate that this isn't a burn-on-demand release, but I can't say for certain if you'll get a factory replicated DVD or a DVD-Rom. That said, I had to play this 1.66:1 ratio presentation on my computer. All of these factors make me unable to give an accurate assessment of the product. Obviously, the Hi-8 format will limit the video quality, but it's all perfectly watchable.
Ditto for audio quality on this stereo presentation; I just can't say. Overall things sound OK. Audio is a bit on the trebly side, especially where The Viennagram's often harsh music is concerned. Most dialog is clear and up front, except when Pickett is rhyming in his car with music in the background. Some of that shit is a bit hard to discern.
A two-minute Interview with Sell provides an insight or two into his process, including something revealing about his short-format choice. A minute-and-a-half Visual Portfolio artfully edits together with music snippets of footage from these documentaries and other of Sell's work.
Courtney Fathom Sell presents four short documentaries on a wide variety of subjects, from a punk band to his dying father. Each piece skirts obvious bias, confidently allowing each subject to tell his own story. They're all great stories too. Sell's work should appeal to both documentary and non-documentary fans alike; he's a director to watch. Recommended.