Cantankerous Titles & Obscure Ephemera
by Joe Biel Author
"Joe Biel's collection of "talkies" perfectly embodies the D.I.Y. doc mantra of "just get out there and shoot it." Consisting of five films, ranging from 11 to 40 minutes, Biel injects each film with a political and socially conscious agenda. Two films in particular carry the common thread of looking to alternative forms of transport.
"Martinis in the Bike Lane" (11 min) is the first in this pair that looks at the colorful history of decorated, and personalized bike lane markers by Portland city employees. It's a fun doc that, while pushing the bike-positive agenda of a bike-friendly city like Portland, keeps from becoming didactic by focusing on the artistic touches to the little painted bike-men on the pavement. City employees are actually encouraged to add a personal touch to the marker, such as adding a golf-club in the figure's hand next to the golf course. Biel even gets to create his own custom figure, complete with a block-spiky Mohawk. "Best Documentary Short" in the Mid-Valley Film Festival!
"Last Train out of North America" (19 min) is the next in this pair, and is obviously the strongest of the group of films. While Biel definitely reveals a personal signature to these films, Last Train feels like a well-researched (and polished) doc lamenting the loss of the commuter train. Featuring interviews focusing on the history of commuter train travel, its decline and ultimate usurpation by air and car--the doc caters to the dying romance of the train ride, without becoming sappy. One highlight is an interview with an older couple who had met on the train many years prior, discussing how society doesn't seem content with taking its time anymore, or enjoying a relaxing train ride.
Biel then veers off into a mockumentary with "Central Kansas - Canvas Central" (11 min). And if this is a mockumentary, then the performances are pretty damn impressive and convincing. Central Kansas is about the obsessive nature of punks to their patches; how they wear them, what they mean, and why the patch is so damn important. While this one did have me rolling my eyes at points (one interviewee wonders aloud why there aren't any 'Sundance' festivals for patches), it kept the humor going throughout and didn't run dry of the premise. A little part of me wonders if the mockumentary label was tagged on at the last minute to save face.
Another sub-culture featured in the longest doc of the disk, "Of Dice and Men" (39 min), investigates the obsessive chronicles of RISK players. The doc focuses on how seemingly normal, relaxed, anti-authoritarian (anarchist) folk are able to transform into budding imperialists through this game. While Biel tries to push the political angle in Risk as a parallel to the current policies of the U.S., it comes off a little heavy handed. The doc works, however, when it ignores all that and we see how people's fundamental ideologies can be suspended when they play a game like this. The appeal of the game to this subculture, and how it is so obsessively played, is what becomes so fascinating.
Biel's D.I.Y. doc aesthetic works well throughout the disk and he's definitely developing a signature in his style. It'll be interesting to see what he aims his camera at next." -James King, Broken Pencil
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