Wednesday, August 12, 2009

DVD Report: Buskers

[post 020]

I used to buy more books than I'd ever have time to read; now I buy more DVDs than I have time to watch. A single movie with a couple of extra features is no big deal, it's those damn box sets! Silent film comedians are the worst. You used to have to frequent obscure film screenings to catch a glimpse of their work; now you can have all 47 shorts they were in, complete with learned commentary on where each scene was shot, who the cameraman was, and who the star was dating, all on your "bookshelf."

Hey, I'm not complaining exactly, but I thought it would be a good idea to use this blog to start sorting through what's on my shelves and what's destined to appear there soon, maybe even separate the wheat from the chaff, as we used to say back on the farm. It will no doubt get me buying more stuff, but at least this way I'll have to watch it.

Thus is born a new blog feature: DVD Report. And we start this feature with two intriguing but little known DVDs about street performance, Buskers: For Love or Money and Busker Central's Street Performance Video. Both DVDs showcase the work of street performers, primarily in the United States, but that's where the similarities end.

Buskers: For Love or Money
, subtitled The Story of Street Performers, is a fairly sophisticated hour-long documentary created by Mad Chad Taylor, the Venice Beach chainsaw juggler who, it turns out, is also a skilled filmmaker. In fact, the movie has already been in several film festivals, even winning Best Film at the 2008 DIY (do it yourself) Festival.

Instead of using a narrator, Taylor lets the performers speak for themselves on just about everything pertaining to their lifestyle: love of performing; love of money; extracting money from audiences; unhappy childhoods; the steep learning curve; personal relationships; dealing with audiences; dealing with police; competing for prime spots; travel; unusual experiences; etc. And since street performers have more than their share of unusual experiences, the documentary is chock full of anecdotes worth the telling.

What makes the documentary move along so well is that Taylor has excellent footage to illustrate the commentary, as we travel from Venice Beach to San Francisco to New York to Amsterdam and back, watching street performers in action. When he talks about performance accidents, we see them. Unruly spectators, ditto. Impending rain ruining a street performer's day? He's got the shot of a performer desperately trying to finish his act and pass the hat before the crowds rush for shelter. And he edits it well.

Here's some sample footage:

Although there's a ton of performance shots on the DVD, it's definitely a highlight reel. There are no lengthy sequences, nothing like a complete act. We get to meet 96 performers, but none of them all that well. But I don't mean that as a criticism, because Taylor does an excellent job of weaving together all these stories and themes that make up the life of the street performer. Plus it's quite entertaining!

Busker Central's Street Performance Video is a less ambitious work, about 30 minutes long, with no discernible thru-line, most of it apparently shot at the Buskerfest in Boulder, Colorado (USA). The DVD is broken up into short (a minute or two) clips such as the following:

As you can see, these come across as short promos you might flash on a screen somewhere, but as a DVD it gets tiresome, like watching a reel of TV background footage. I'd rather see more of the performers actually performing and fewer canned transitions and cheesy video effects, or themes (Top Secret, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits) that have nothing to do with the subject matter. I don't want to sound harsh, it's all well intentioned and does make me want to go to the festival, but as a DVD the whole thing feels like a student project, big on tricks, short on content.

Should I Buy These?
You can buy Buskers: For Love or Money here for $25. Yes, that's a lot of money for an hour-long DVD, but it probably won't make a film festival near you or make it to Netflix. It's a niche-market DVD and — guess what, guys — you're the niche. So if you want filmmakers and DVD companies to produce work that's not just the standard commercial fare, I'd say once in a while you might want to forego that $5 or more you pay for a beer in a bar, go to Bottle King instead and drink on the street corner out of a brown paper bag, then put those extra bucks toward supporting work in the field. Just a thought....

As for
Busker Central's Street Performance Video, the decision is easier because it's free! Just click here. Okay, it's $5 for postage and handling, but still, how can you go wrong? What you should definitely do, however, is to check out the Busker Central web site, which has a ton of goodies. You do have to register (also free), but it looks to be an excellent resource.

Coming soon to DVD Report: the new Becoming Charley Chase dvd


Anonymous said...

BC's DVD isn't a documentary. You're comparing apples to oranges and we already know they're
different. You should have compared a documentary to a documentary. You also forgot to mention that BC isn't trying to turn a profit. In fact, even though there are hundreds of more buskers on BC's DVD, all of their clips featured are free for instant download at their sight. Cost=$0

Anonymous said...

You're like a gawker in the back row booing a free show...totally classless and now moot - I just saw BC has 3 free discs...I'll be sure not to follow your advice.