Peter Shelton

Ligers and Wholphins and Sharks, Oh My!

Posted in At the Movies, Watch columns by pshelton on November 26, 2009

The guy in the wetsuit and scuba gear strums his guitar and sings: “If I was a great white I wouldn’t bite you. But I’d swim right next to you.” And right behind him in the blue depths, swimming along apparently uninterested, is this enormous, white-bellied, 40-million-year-old apex predator. Clearly a great white shark.

The audience at the Montrose Pavilion for Mountainfilm’s annual tour show, a near sell-out of about 600 people, gasped as one, then held its breath as if for the safety of the bubbling troubadour.

You couldn’t hold it for long, though, because The Great White Shark Song got funnier, and deeper, and more macabre as it went along. When in the lyrics a human pulls out a harpoon and wants to shoot the great white, he sings: “. . . Then I’d realize how f*cking really hungry I am right now. Sorry about your leg. I’ll be back in a while. For the rest. Don’t stress. My sister will be back to clean up the mess. Relax. Kick back. It’s only a great white shark attack.”

The seriocomic genius behind the four-minute movie has the unlikely name of Andy Brandy Casagrande IV. He’s a producer and underwater cinematographer for National Geographic. And the film has its Nat-Geo message side: “. . . If I realize that you don’t care about the sea, well that means you don’t care about me. Oh, well. That’s fine. I’ll just bite you in f*cking half this time.”

This is classic Mountainfilm: quirky, brilliantly-conceived entertainment that makes you think. There were 10 other shorts on the program including Look To The Ground, a visit with a blind mountain biker; Pickin’ and Trimmin’, about the rich life of a small-town barbershop in Drexel, North Carolina; and The Good Fight, a portrait of pioneer environmentalist and Grand Canyon river runner Martin Litton, who, after rowing a dory through Lava Falls—he was 89 the last time he did it—likes nothing more than to light up a stogy and do Winston Churchill impressions.

There’s something about short films. (The longest in Montrose was 23 minutes; the shortest—a gorgeous, white-on-white, mid-storm evocation of powder skiing in the Japan Alps—was barely four minutes.) Somehow they set an audience free. It’s like a table of heavy hors d’oeuvres: Eat ‘em up, enjoy each bite-sized morsel, there isn’t going to be a main course.

Someone recently turned Ellen on to Wholphin, “a DVD magazine of rare and unseen short films.” It’s a great idea: Four times a year a group of San Francisco film buffs put together a DVD of shorts from around the world and send them to subscribers in a slick packet with photos and interviews and other extras.

Before we opened the first package Ellen kept saying, “Wholphin.” And I kept saying, “What-fin?” Turns out there has been one documented case of a captive false killer whale mating with a bottlenose dolphin (they were at Sea World in Hawaii) and the result, a cross-species girl baby, is called a wholphin. (You mean Napoleon Dynamite’s childish drawing of a “liger” wasn’t so crazy? I guess not; there really are ligers, too.)

I guess I can see a link between a wholphin and outside-the-box filmmaking. A slim one. But that is another beauty of shorts. They don’t always have to connect, to make perfect sense; they are free to leave you with a small slice of life, tantalizing, incomplete.

One of the best on Wholphin #9 was a how-in-the-world-did-they-make-this? documentary about a hotly-contested beauty pageant inside a women’s prison in Columbia. Another featured a very brave monologue, from the bathtub, by a polygamist sister-wife (she and her younger sister are married to the same man) in Utah. You desperately want to know the rest of the story.

Then there were three very short shorts by Spike Jonze, each one featuring the voice of Maurice Sendak. Jonze has been in the news of late for his controversial feature-length interpretation of Sendak’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are. These shorts were wacky, gory, funny—not for kids but childlike in their wild freedom of invention. “But then I realized,” Jonze says in the accompanying interview, “we’re all totally crazy: The way we relate to each other and imbue everything with our own emotional perspectives on everything is insane.”

Like a guy playing guitar and singing underwater in the company of great white sharks.

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