December 23, 2003
The Notorious S.N.L., Ready to D.I.Y.

My good friends, Derek and Lauren, just gave me an amazing video for the non-denominational gift giving season (okay, Chanukah.) The tape—which was quaintly duped onto a commercially-available VHS tape and packaged in the original TDK E-HG cardboard box—came directly from its producer, director, and star, Sidney N. Laverents.

Never heard of him? Me neither. But I wish I had sooner, since his homemade shorts are incredible. This multitalented filmmaker makes jacks-of-all-trades (and credit hogs) like Robert Rodriguez and Steven Soderbergh seem like lazy bums. According to the Egg segment on him, Sid lives in San Diego and is 94 years old. He's been conceiving, shooting, and editing his unique independent films for decades. (A fuller bio can be found here.)

His most famous film, Multiple SIDosis (1970), is listed in the National Film Registry. SIDosis is a clever, winking visualization of an eight track recording, with every track—guitar, banjo, vocals, etc.—played by Sid himself. Try getting the song out of your head after watching it; trying watching it only once. It Sudses, and Sudses, and Sudses (1963) is a surreal domestic fantasia, like a dream sequence on The Simpsons as directed by David Lynch. (It fits nicely with Martin Scorsese's 1967 short The Big Shave in the tiny 'shaving disasters' genre.) The Butterfly with Four Birthdays (1965) and Snails—and How They Walk (1964) are impressively-researched, wonderfully-shot mini-nature films made in Laverents' own backyard.

All the films have an intimate, handmade quality and a sense of humor that defies any ironic reading of them as "cheesy" or "schlocky." You can see the patience Sid—and his wife Adelaide—put into these projects, the pleasure of scoring and editing them, of designing credits with construction paper and glue. Also, the films are a window into a uniquely mid-century American sensibility, an awe and curiosity about one's surroundings, even if those surroundings are cookie cutter houses in a Levittown. Like Lynch, Laverents sees mystery, danger, awe, and profound strangeness just beneath the surface of even the most seemingly boring locations. Some of the up-close photography of insects acting out their microscopic dramas literally beneath our feet calls mind the shocking opening of Blue Velvet, where suburban idle gives way to naked Darwinism in a few quick edits.

Maybe it's the music, or the light-touch narration, but these shorts remind me of Disney's The Living Desert or other educational films from the 50s. Of course, Sid's approach to nature is very different from Walt's: take the scene in Snails where he attaches a miniature dump truck to a snail's shell and makes the little sucker tow four sticks of butter. (You have to see it to really appreciate it.)

Probably the weirdest film, by far, is Heidi (1977), a look at a dog's life—told by the dog herself. Heidi, a Long-haired Dachshund, speaks with a deep manly voice about her favorite toys (socks), and the simple pleasures of taking a nap. We also witness Heidi's singing voice, which I can say for sure, would make a dog howl.

Mr. Laverents' opus, though, is The Sid Saga (1985-2003), which I have yet to see. The story of his life told in film and video, the four part film is 106-minutes and features, sadly, the death of his Adelaide in 1989. Sid claims it's done, but he plans to live to 100, so let's hope this American original manages to shoot and edit together a 5th segment. Skip Paycheck and that second viewing of Lord of the Rings this holiday and treat yourself to a Sid Laverents video.

bourbons.jpgSidebar: Since I'm on the whole D.I.Y. thing, I wanna plug an album I've been enjoying a lot lately: The Bourbons House Party: Rockin' Sounds From Boston's South Shore 1964-'66. Recorded at fraternity parties, weenie roasts, and house parties 40 years ago, the low-fi sound makes Cody Chestnutt's Headphone Masterpiece sound like yet another Neptunes clone. Most of the musicians on House Party are just regular guys who probably learned to play guitar to meet chicks and have fun. I imagine most of them are now accountants and high school math teachers somewhere in America, completely unaware of the fact that their songs are out there on CD and iPods of people not even born when they did their cover of "I Fought the Law." Check out the samples and listen to a simpler time.

Posted in a Shallow fashion.

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