What's In a Name?
A wholphin is a cross between a whale and a dolphin. A Wholphin is a crossbreed of a whole other sort: the DVD and the magazine. This latest venture in the Dave Eggers mini-empire, which also includes the quirky literary journals McSweeney’s and The Believer, is a quarterly DVD of film shorts old and new, American and foreign. So the DVD part is obvious. But why is Wholphin also billing itself as a magazine?
The genre seems to lack faith in its own readers. Aside from a few notable exceptions, McSweeney’s and The Believer being two, more and more magazines are geared to providing service. The reasoning seems to be that the reader won’t devote time to, much less buy, a magazine unless there’s promise of a tangible outcome—like learning once and for all how to tie a Windsor knot or where to find the perfect slouchy boot. And that lesson better be told quickly for fear the reader lose interest. And so pieces are shorter and easier to consume than ever before. Magazines nowadays are flipped through while getting a haircut, during the morning commute, or while pounding the treadmill. There’s even a guy at my gym who reads Esquire in between sets.
But then there’s Eggers’s own undeniable faith in readers and their reading objectives. A.O. Scott, in his 11 September 2005 New York Times Magazine piece, “Among the Believers”, points out the following dialogue from Eggers’s debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius:
“‘And how will you do this?’ she wants to know. ‘A political party? A march? A revolution? A coup?’
At its simplest, a magazine is work that’s put out regularly. But at its very best, it can reveal some particle of truth, and in doing so, enact change. And that’s exactly the lofty goal Wholphin aims for. In editor Brent Hoff’s Welcome Letter in the inaugural issue, he writes of Spike Jonze’s untitled documentary on Al Gore: “This film might have wiped away, in 22 minutes, Gore’s reputation as a robot… Jonze’s short film could have changed the world.”
But for some inexplicable reason, the only time it was ever shown was at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. The documentary, filmed in 2000, follows Gore and his family at their farmhouse in Tennessee and—after a cramped helicopter ride—on the beaches of North Carolina. It shows him cracking jokes (funny ones, too). We learn he’s the type of guy who always rewinds a film if someone steps away. We even see him bodysurfing. Most of all, we see Gore’s warmth and humanity. Imagine what might have happened had this small short, filmed solo by Jonze, aired to a wider audience. But it was never given a real chance.
While there are a few other politically charged shorts, what hovers over the collection, or, ahem, magazine, is that indisputable quirkiness found in McSweeney’s and The Believer. “Tatli Hayat (AKA ‘The Sweet Life’ AKA ‘The Turkish Jeffersons’)” is the most entertainingly odd of the bunch. The Wholphin editors claim the Turkish sitcom arrived in the mail in an unmarked package from Istanbul. Unable to procure a translator (despite contacting the UN Turkish consulate), they asked five writers to provide alternative subtitles. One version has time traveling and ghost busting. Another revolves around the TV show, “Gilmore Girls.” Breaks in between each are recommended to prevent the feeling of tediousness that inevitably comes with watching the same events repeat five times; otherwise, it’s hilarious stuff.
“The Big Empty”, written and directed by J. Lisa Chang and Newton Thomas Siegel, stars Selma Blair (I wondered what she’d been up to besides hanging out with Marc Jacobs) as Alice, owner of an “empty” vagina. It’s literally a frozen tundra, and the spectacle lands Alice on the talk show circuit. Metaphorically, of course, the tundra is symbolic of a larger ache. The film is smart and boldly visual, and has the same kind of hauntingly affecting ballad as in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
But there are a few films here that are too self-conscious for their own good. “Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody?” is one of them. Even its title is too self-conscious. Written by indie film darling Miranda July (of Me and You and Everyone We Know), a man stands awkwardly on a street and asks those who pass by whether they’re anyone’s favorite person. Despite being only three minutes long, the short still feels haltingly slow. And call me naïve, but I couldn’t help but have high hopes for “The Delicious,” written, starring and directed by Scott Pendergrast. Instead the film should have been renamed “The Bizarre”. It’s about a man who escapes his life-doldrums by wearing a too-tight-in-the-wrong-places red jumpsuit and making weird noises. “The Immature” could work as another title since the characters are all so stale.
To call Wholphin a magazine is an odd statement. The audience is encouraged to go about it in bits and pieces instead of viewing it in one sitting, like through a movie. Yes, some of Wholphin‘s shorts are important, eye-opening works. Some are down right beautiful. But it’s an uneven mix. And who’s to say whoever is watching won’t just pick up the remote—that beloved object of those with low attention spans—and switch to TV? Or they could start flipping through a magazine.