Category Archives: Highly Recommended

Tooth Brushing (1978, Bill Melendez)

It’s incredible Tooth Brushing only runs five minutes. The cartoon (an educational short produced for the American Dental Association) starts innocuously enough. Charlie Brown gets out of the dentist, heads home to try out his new brush and other dentist goodies–he’s also got fresh instructions from the dentist.

He runs into Snoopy, then he runs into Linus. And decides he’s going to instruct Linus… and Snoopy instead of brushing his own teeth. It’s fine, because Linus has his toothbrush handy and Snoopy has Lucy’s toothbrush. The Snoopy using Lucy’s toothbrush sequence, as Charlie Brown and Linus get more and more mortified, is where Tooth Brushing nails it. It’s gross (though, really, does Snoopy have more plaque than Linus) and it seems like it can’t be topped.

Then Lucy gets home and shows the boys the real way to brush your teeth.

Great animation, great performance from Michelle Muller as Lucy (and decent ones from Arrin Skelley and Daniel Anderson as Charlie Brown and Linus, respectively) and some perfect comic timing make Tooth Brushing so funny you forget it’s supposed to be educational and not just a great bit. Roger Donley and Chuck McCann’s editing and Jeff Hall’s perfect animation (he holds the horrified expressions just right) are outstanding.

Brushing’s hilarious.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Bill Melendez; written by Charles M. Schulz; animated by Jeff Hall; edited by Roger Donley and Chuck McCann; music by Vince Guaraldi; production designer, Evert Brown; produced by Melendez and Lee Mendelson; released by the American Dental Association.

Starring Arrin Skelley (Charlie Brown), Daniel Anderson (Linus), and Michelle Muller (Lucy).


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Greetings from Africa (1996, Cheryl Dunye)

In Greetings from Africa writer, director, and star Dunye mixes formats. Her first person comments to the camera are black and white video. The dramatized story is color film. Very, very colorful film. Dunye and cinematographer Sarah Cawley have some affected, formalist shots–even though Dunye’s the only one giving first person narration, Nora Breen (as Dunye’s romantic interest) gets some emotive and stylized close-ups. But then there are the more realistic sequences, where the sets are fully adorned–both the first person video shots and the stylized sequences with Breen and Dunye flirting in private have mostly blank walls. Even when Dunye and Breen have scenes in regular sets (Dunye’s apartment’s bathroom and kitchen), the composition emphasizes the actors, not the scenery.

The short runs about eight minutes, with Dunye recounting her time spent with Breen. They meet (off screen, but with the some of the audio played over, in some of Greetings finest editing), hang out a bit, then Dunye discovers Breen has some secrets.

There’s the scene in the kitchen, which has multiple conversations overlaid in voiceover, all with Dunye and Crawley’s stylized composition and colors and with Joan Caplin’s fantastic editing. Greetings is short, but full of content. Between Dunye’s first person exposition expanding it and contextualizing it, there’s also the technical stylizing in scenes to make it bigger. It’s great.

Greetings is mostly comedic; well, it’s not entirely anything, but it’s more comedic than anything else. Dunye’s got a wry sense of humor, not just in her performance, but in the dialogue and plotting of the short. She’ll cut away from a scene for maximum comedic impact. The short’s exquisitely made.

Dunye gives the best performance (there are three other actors) thanks to her silent expressions as she takes in the events, as well as her recounting of them for the first person. With the video to film and film to video changes, there’s a visual cue to differentiate between Dunye the narrator and Dunye the protagonist. Neither is unreliable or so much contrary as Dunye establishes a different narrative distance. It’s very cool.

Breen’s also good, though she really only gets a few scenes and they’re short ones. She’s playing an enigmatic character but not enigmatically. Again, Greetings excels in its subtle disconnects.

There’s a lot of subtlety to the short overall–it plays very much like a culmination of two of Dunye’s previous shorts. Being familiar with them probably makes the quiet jokes funnier, but seeing them isn’t necessary. The film’s more strong enough on its own.

The editing and cinematography are phenomenal. Perfect score by Glorified Magnified and Rebecca Coupe Franks–and perfectly cut to the action. Greetings from Africa is confident and boisterous and confident in its boisterousness. Dunye, her cast, and her crew, all do excellent work.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Cheryl Dunye; director of photography, Sarah Cawley; edited by Joan Caplin; music by Glorified Magnified and Rebecca Coupe Franks; produced by Dunye, Mary Jane Skalski, and Karen Yaeger.

Starring Nora Breen (L), Cheryl Dunye (Cheryl), Jocelyn Taylor (Dee), and Jacqueline Woodson (The Girlfriend).


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The Potluck and the Passion (1993, Cheryl Dunye)

The first sequence of The Potluck and the Passion, with director Dunye (also acting) sitting down and talking with girlfriend Gail Lloyd about the dinner party they’re about to throw. They go over the guest list as the opening titles run, who’s invited, why they’re invited, why Dunye and Lloyd are throwing the party (it’s their one year anniversary but Lloyd isn’t really comfortable with saying they’re dating).

Dunye and Lloyd are basically playing the same characters from Dunye’s previous short, She Don’t Fade, but it turns out there’s zero continuity between the two films. It also doesn’t matter because after Dunye and Lloyd have the first post-titles scene–Dunye’s trying to give some guests directions, Lloyd’s getting the apartment ready with help from friend Robert Reid-Pharr.

It’s Reid-Pharr who gets the film’s first aside, where–in now familiar Dunye fashion–sits and talks to the camera. He’s talking about his character, not talking as his character. His monologue has a lot of personality; better than his performance, but he’s still effortlessly likable sidekicking for Lloyd.

Potluck then cuts to the guests who need the directions–Nikki Harmon and Myra Paci–whose delayed, overly complicated journey to the party is the film’s only subplot. And Harmon and Paci never get monologue moments, their story is solely dramatic. Though comedic.

Once the party starts, Dunye and Lloyd become background to the main plot–guest Shelita Birchett decides she maybe likes other guest Pat Branch (who also co-wrote) far more than she likes her awful girlfriend, Nora Breen. Birchett and Breen get frequent monologues, mostly in character, but starting with the actors talking about the parts. The very clear subtext is Breen is dating Tracy because she’s a Black woman (and Breen is a condescending, controlling, culturally appropriating white woman). Branch isn’t just a Black woman, she’s an older woman with very different experiences than Birchett, who–in addition to dating a white woman–has always tried to live in a white world.

The chemistry between Branch and Birchett is electric–their performances are excellent–and having Breen directly address the viewer lets the character be terrible, but always realized. She’s never thin, because of how the monologues support the dramatics.

Dunye’s shooting on video, so the lighting is always off. She’s got some great composition, which embraces the video medium and is ambitious with it–there’s just no way to light it. It’s not Dunye’s fault, it’s the medium. It’s video.

Dunye’s direction of the actors in the dramatic scenes is fantastic, as is her editing of their monologue delivery scenes. And she and Branch’s writing is excellent.

Potluck and the Passion is occasionally cringe-inducing, often very funny, and always inventive. Dunye’s direction and Branch and Birchett’s performances are superior.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Cheryl Dunye; written by Pat Branch and Dunye; edited by Antoine Bell; released by Third World Newsreel Film Collective.

Starring Shelita Birchett (Tracy), Nora Breen (Megan), Pat Branch (Evelyn), Cheryl Dunye (Linda), Nikki Harmon (Lisa), Myra Paci (Kendra), and Robert Reid-Pharr (Robert)


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Meshes of the Afternoon (1943, Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid)

Meshes of the Afternoon is a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream. But since they’re dreams, it’s really just the one dream, I suppose. A woman–presumably, because directors Deren and Hammid shoot from her point of view during the waking segment–comes up and takes a nap. On her way home, she’s found a flower (the short opens with a hand dropping it down before disappearing… the hand, not the flower) and then dropped her key. Once she picks up the key, which has fallen down the stairs, she finds the home in disarray. She goes up stairs and takes a nap in a chair.

At this point, the actions begin to repeat. Only the woman is revealed (co-director Deren). There are some first person shots, usually reestablishing what’s changed–there’s a moving knife, a phone off the hook–but Deren is in the action shots. She moves through the house, upstairs to find herself, only to enter another dream, and another. Soon she’s chasing a hooded figure, trying to get the flower. Or she’s watching the chase.

And then there’s that house key, which soon becomes a knife and Meshes goes from being ethereally confusing to dangerously ethereal. Sort of dangerous. Because it’s never clear how aware Deren’s dream-self is of her reality. There’s never any confusion as she moves through the house, which sometimes loses gravity or has the wind inside instead of outside. There’s determination, which eventually becomes resigned determination.

Meshes is deliberate and repetitive with its visuals. It’s patient for the viewer, never rushing them along. Hammid also photographs (and costars later on in the fourteen minute short); there’s higher contrast to the exteriors than the interiors–there’s also some fantastic process shots–while the interiors are more… airy. Outside seems hot, inside seems cool. The perceptible breeze plays into it, a relief for the protagonist.

The short encourages reflection if not downright dissection–Meshes entangles itself as it moves along, giving the viewer enough time to catch up but not enough time to unravel before the next iteration.

It’s exhilarating.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid; written and edited by Deren; director of photography, Hammid.

Starring Maya Deren (The Woman) and Alexander Hammid (The Man).


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