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
"Martinis in the Bike Lane" (Winner of "Best Documentary Short" in the Mid-Valley Film Festival!)
“Last Train out of North America”
“Central Kansas - Canvas Central”
Contact us if you are interested in setting up screenings in your town! ISBN 978-0-9788665-0-1
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Comments & Reviews
"Joe Biel's collection of "talkies" perfectly embodies the D.I.Y. doc mantra of "just get out there and shoot it." Consisting of four films, ranging from 11 to 40 minutes, Biel injects each film with a political and socially conscious agenda. ... 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."
The winners here are Martinis In The Bike Lane, covering unusual bike lanes in Portland, Oregon with strange markings that offer amusing anecdotes, and Last Train Out Of North America is a surprisingly good piece about the U.S. train system and how it is purposely being undermined by the government so superhighways can be built endlessly for polluting gasoline vehicles instead of modernizing the system like so many other countries have to save money, resources and make oil & auto interests rich. Add the use of archival footage and it is good enough alone to justify picking up the whole disc.
I have made no secret of my love of the indie movie world, and this DVD sums it up. It does not take the GNP of a small third world nation to make a movie. All you need is a camera and an idea. Often, the solution is to produce what is known as ‘A short’, a movie that may last 5 to 10 minutes. A movie that is just a ‘quick bite’ rather than a 7 course meal that quite frankly just leaves you bloated and yet unsatisfied.
Film maker Joe Biel is from the classic indie mold. In some ways he reminds me of Bill Brown, the voice over, or talk-umentary styles are very similar.
Cantankerous Titles & Obscure Ephemera, Vol 1 consists of six ’shorts’. And each one is different. From Bike lanes in Oregon, to the problems facing the passenger railroad industry, Joe Biel takes them on. As my wife Jan would say “I ain’t scared!”
Last Train Out Of North America explores the word of the passenger train, and a wonderful experience it is. Traveling should be part of the experience, not just the vehicle to the destination. Todays world though is one of ‘high speed, and high anxiety’. The train alas has become a second class citizen. For passengers this mode of transport may already be an extinct animal.
Patches, they are not just for fixing rips in your clothes, Joe tells us. They are a way of life. Central Kansas - Canvas Central is a humorous mockumentary about peoples obsession with patches. As one interviewee explains “they are the Coles Notes to a person”.
People that just ‘go out and do it’ are my kind of film makers, and that is what you will find if you watch this great DVD. Way to go Joe!
The main thing that comes across whilst watching Joe Biel's selection of short documentaries is that you can find inspiration pretty much anywhere - grab a camera, go for a wander and chances are you'll come across something worth pointing a camera at. Charming, entertaining and visually interesting, Biel's films have an enjoyably unjaded and inquisitive tone that brings his subjects of choice to life. Worth checking out.
This DVD of short documentaries by Joe Biel was probably the best thing that’s come in the mail for me this month. I mean that; I don’t even get a lot of bills! Maybe, as someone who enjoys interviewing people, I am a bit biased, but I really enjoy the subjects Biel presents, as well as the way personal commentary figures in, yet is not contrived. Among them, Martinis In The Bike Lane is probably the highlight of the collection: a short about the improvisational graphics in Portland’s “bike only” lanes, and the crew who made them. Of Dice and Men explores the competitive world of the board game RISK among anarchists and college students who would normally consider themselves rational, anti-imperialist and non-competitive. The interviews - with women about their interactions with family members and men who seem to change faces when playing the game might be of interest to those exploring. Also noteworthy is the tongue-in-cheek Central Kansas: Canvas Central, about patches as media and the punk relationship with them. It’s really worth checking out, especially for fans of Christy C. Road or Aaron Cometbus.