My high school physics teacher was a slight, nondescript fellow who hyperactively sparked to life in the classroom. His mantra was “Physics is fun!” and he gave one of the more clever lads an unexpected bonus point for devilishly scribbling it on an exam in place of an elusive correct answer. The reward wasn’t for sucking up, mind you, but for understanding that enthusiasm was more important than the dogged mastery of information. That this long-forgotten anecdote (and life lesson) came rushing back to me after spending some time with “Warts & All: The Films of Danny Plotnick” is neither accidental nor inappropriate. The 10 short comic narratives made between 1986 and 2001 assembled on this wonderful DVD are exemplars of an unpolished, unpretentious school of moviemaking that aims at every moment to be audience-friendly. It’s an attitude embraced today by thousands of adolescents screwing around with camcorders, and by one Seth Rogen. None of them has ever heard of the popular San Francisco filmmaker, I’d wager, but they all inherited his credo: Filmmaking is fun!
“Back then,” Plotnick confides on the candid commentary track to his endearing two-minute piece, “Skate Witches” (1986), “I didn’t know what I was doing.” He started out in Ann Arbor working in Super 8mm, an inexpensive but hellishly unforgiving format to which he remained committed until his 1999 16mm masterpiece “Swingers’ Serenade.” Plotnick taught himself to solve and circumvent Super 8’s limitations, but even as he got expert at his craft he never minded the seams showing onscreen. There are countless imperfections, fuckups and scars strewn throughout his movies, which some view as flaws but most people accept as intrinsic to a DIY aesthetic. Now that we’re irreversibly immersed in the digital age, the rough spots are perhaps best appreciated as artifacts of a mechanical, tactile medium.
As for the plotlines, Plotnick’s biggest crowd-pleasers, “Dumbass from Dundas” (1988, 7 min.) and “Death Sled II: Steel Belted Romeos” (1990, 10 min.), featured loudmouth, over-the-top characters behaving badly. Ray Wilcox, a beefy presence in both films, received his comeuppance (so to speak) in “Pipsqueak Pfollies” (1994, 24 min.) the epic tale of a longhaired loser getting mugged by a bunch of rug rats in a laundromat at 22nd and Guerrero. Consequently, Plotnick’s films fell into no-man’s land, exhibition-wise; they were the polar opposite of the poetic experimental shorts that defined the alternative film scene but they in no way resembled the sentimental, Oscarbait calling-card films produced by on-the-make grads of USC’s film school.
So Plotnick went on the road with his Super 8 projector, in the U.S. and abroad, and screened in cafes and clubs and raw spaces. After Chicago and New York spawned underground film festivals, he wasn’t the trailblazer so much as a popular returning guest. Come to think of it, the only drawback to the lovingly produced “Warts & All” DVD (distributed by Microcinema International — firstname.lastname@example.org) is that these films were made to be shown to a crowd of boisterous, slightly inebriated or stoned people in a funky room. Try as you might, you and your best friend won’t be able to achieve the desired effect on your couch, although the casually hilarious commentary tracks by Plotnick, actress and composer Alison Faith Levy (also Plotnick’s wife) and Wilcox are probably best savored in a small group.
So the recommendation from this corner is to throw a party and invite a dozen or 20 close pals. Tell ‘em upfront that instead of pickup possibilities and political banter, it’ will be a night for serious drinking and movie merriment. Start out with “I, Socky” (1998, 7 min.), which follows a sock monkey enjoying a night on the town (with scenes on the 38 Geary and at Edinburgh Castle), then provide a dose or two of Ray Wilcox. Keep the drinks coming, then cap the evening with the black-and-white classic “Swingers’ Serenade.”
Plotnick, whose recent work includes the ongoing Nest of Vipers podcast and a bunch of music videos with Chuck Prophet, took his inspiration from the myriad how-to magazines that accompanied the mass acceptance of home-movie cameras in the ’50s and ’60s. In “Swingers’ Serenade,” he shot a sample script from one such mag to deliciously twisted effect. After hubby Jay Hinman heads off to work, housewife Levy receives traveling salesman Miles Montalbano (director of last year’s “Revolution Summer” which, perhaps coincidentally, featured a cameo by Chuck Prophet) with open, um, arms. Chris Enright as “The Professor” archly introduces the film-within-a-film, pointing us to every morsel of demented suburban irony. As for your party, a bonus point will be awarded to the host who has a camera on hand. Danny Plotnick’s films reminds us not only that filmmaking is fun, but fun is contagious.
A release party for Warts and All takes place Saturday, March 29, with schmoozing at 6 p.m., show at 7 p.m., Red Hill Books, 401 Cortland Ave, SF.
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