If you must have your video predictable, linear and in the literary tradition of drama dating back to Shakespeare’s time, then you need read this review no further. Put it down and step away, Animal Charm Golden Digest is not for you.
On the other hand, if you like your video full of irony so hot and fresh off the media skillet that it still is twitching in the pan, if you watch Un Chien Andalou regularly and it just gets funnier each time, if you recognize modern TV and mass culture in general as the product of madmen bent on making everyone as insane as they are, then read on, because Animal Charm Golden Digest is the stuff you’ve been looking for. The filmmakers are Jim Fetterley and Rich Bott AKA Animal Charm, and the DVD is their Golden Digest of video collages, montages and repurposed industrial video refuse.
‘Repurposed’ is the key word to remember. What these guys have done is to take dated instructional videos, animal wildlife documentaries, promotional videos and other television detritus and mixed it all together into a stew of nonsense that eerily makes it’s own ‘repurposed’ sense. Over those images is laid a soundtrack of ironic music; a counterpoint that emphasizes the repurposed intent. The good news is that when the segments work, they are transcendent. The bad news is that when they don’t, they fall flat on their face.
Edit Edit Edit Edit Edit...
In normal film editing, the filmmaker takes clips that are independent, free-standing scenes, and by ordering them in a certain way, builds a narrative. By experimentally or randomly ordering their unrelated clips, Animal Charm creates a new and unexpected narrative.
I think what they are trying to say is that when you are watching TV, what you are seeing is an edited faux reality and that the editing might just as well look like the one they have made. One of the ways Animal Charm does this is by the use of repetition to emphasize the real nature of the film clip. I think they are saying “Look at this, now look at it again... and again and again. This is the reality of the video, not the spliced narrative.”
Another thing they do is to juxtapose two normally unrelated clips for which there was no preexisting narrative and by force of habit and the mind’s natural desire to make sense of things, a new reality-narrative is created by the viewer. Often this is such a strange, random paring that the result is not something you would have imagined, but is something you recognize when you see it. For instance a lemur repeatedly blinks its eyes but in the context of the film, it appears as if it has blinked in disbelief at the preceding scene. And in case you missed that, they do it all again.
Beat authors William Burroughs and Brion Gysin did much the same thing with their ‘cut-ups’ in the early 1960s. The idea was to take ordinary newspaper or magazine text, cut it into vertical strips and then rearrange the strips to form unanticipated word combinations with surprising results. It doesn’t work all the time and it’s the artists job to cull out the insightful and brilliant gems from the matrix of verbal mush. This makes me wonder if what we are seeing is the entire Animal Charm opus, or whether it is the edited version. Is there even more material that never got off the ground? And if this is the edited version, then why are the dead clips and segments included? I have to think that maybe Animal Charm went to DVD a bit early. Maybe they unnecessarily padded out the disc with unpolished material. Or maybe it all means something to them and I’m too dull to get it.
The Point of the Exercise
This may sound like I’m disappointed with the Digest but I’m not. The good parts are so good that they make the lesser bits look extra bad when in fact they are merely flat. In the Mark Roth segment, footage of a businessman (or perhaps a bureaucrat) is spliced together with a menacing noir soundtrack that works very well. It makes a thing that is easy to smirk at but at the same time is incredibly sad and dismal. This is because while the edited version is comic the actual images are, or were, completely serious.
Presumably the intent of Animal Charm is to rearrange these images so as to cast a new light on what would normally pass as mundane and thereby underscore a fundamental truth. I’ll guess that this truth is that modern industrial life is degrading and dehumanizing. You don’t see as much of that kind of thing as you used to, humanism having fallen out of fashion of late. So these guys are either a little dated or a little ahead of their time. I prefer to think the latter.
Their video has that analog appearance of having been edited on tape, and not digitally. As all of their source material appears to be older than digital video; it must be analog, and looks it. One of the extra features is Scrapbook: A slide show of memories, which shows stacks of video tape machines and what appears to be a mixing deck. While this makes for interesting craft, it might also limit the scope of the product. Is the point of this exercise that they have made an engaging image or that videotape is not dead yet? A minor point, but still one that caught my attention.
Critics of Animal Charm will say that anyone can randomly mix video clips together, so what makes these so special? This is the same argument that was made about Jackson Pollack’s drip paintings: anyone (or any monkey) can do that. The fact is that these guys did do it, and few if any others have. And they’ve certainly done it to the extent that they can get a DVD made. So if it really was that simple and obvious everyone would be doing it... which they’re not.
The Golden Digest is good old down-home surrealism. Some viewers will get it and others won’t. Like a Charlie Parker solo, you either turn if off immediately or you fall under its spell. It requires some degree of audience participation and engagement which also means that it’s not for everyone. Perhaps it’s for you?
There are none to speak of, and it’s hard to say if this DVD warrants them.
Picture and Sound
The picture and sound quality are both pretty much what you’d expect from ‘repurposed’ industrial training videos. In other words, they aren’t likely to tax your home theater system.
How to Use This DVD
Put it in the machine and hit ‘play’. This will cover all the material on the disk. Once you’ve seen it all, you can go back to the menu and pick out your favorites for a second viewing if necessary. I think this might be a fun DVD to have running in the background when guests come over. Wait for the dancing lemurs and watch their reaction. When asked what is on the TV, deny all knowledge of anything out of the ordinary and tell them it’s just the Discovery Channel. Watch for a minute and then ask the guests if it seems unusual to them. Look puzzled when they say that it does.