Now Streaming: CINEMA TOAST, From the Bizarre to the Comedic in Retro Found Footage Experimentation
While pandemic times has brought a lot of difficulties and frustrations to the film and television industries, there are advtantages: given the limitations, people are forced to get creative. What kind of work can we make when we can't physically work together? How do we adapt our work and find creative means of expression while distancing? How can we use that which is at our limited disposal, to tell the stories we need and want to tell?
One such offering that explores new means and filters of expression is Cinema Toast, a limited series that takes public domain footage and gives it new twists with new voiceovers and stories. Created by Jeff Baena (Life After Beth, The Little Hours), and executive produced by the Duplass Brothers, the 10 episodes take some familiar and not familiar old movies, television shows, documentaries and public information films, and piece them together with new stories voiced by the likes of Aubrey Plaza, Alia Shawkat, Colman Domingo, Nicole Byer, and more. The result is an entertaining mix of the funny and bizarre, and an intriguing experiment in form and content.
Given the sheer volume of public domain audio visual content, it's no small feet to not only find the right kind of footage, but find the right kind of story to go with it. Do you do a slight variation on what the footage has already been? Do you piece things together to make something completely different? Do you aim for parody, satire, or the eerily dramatic? The 10 episodes more or less fall into these categories, with varying degrees of success.
The series works best when it's the most experimental in the selected clips and how they are re-configured into a new story. "Quiet Illness", written and directed by Aubrey Plaza, and "Kiss Marry Kill", by Nina Perrier, both reconfigure the footage to tell stories of women on the edge of insanity, dealing with strangeness in linear time and corporeal form. "Quiet Illness", voiced by Christina Ricci, Plaza, and Hamish Linklater takes footage from films starring Lorreta Young, and make a story about a woman, recounting her husband's death and her own life, yet she's never quite sure how her husband died, or what her part might have been in that death. "Kiss Marry Kill", with Da'Vina Joy Randolph, Colman Domingo, and Lorraine Touissant, has a sorceress proviing Vivian with a potion that allows her to inhabit other bodies, frequently white women, and how thst changes how she sees the world and others see her, with footage from films such as Sepia Cinderella. Both these episodes take advantage of being able to cut old footage together into the uncanny, with the seams and cuts visible for the audience to get lost in the stories, and the cracks between. When you have a dissonance between the voiceover narration and the images, the episodes take advantage of it by giving a dissonant narrative that shows the true potential of this method.
In "Report on the Canine Auto-Mechanical Soviet Threat", writer/director Alex Ross Perry and narrator Eric Stolze weaves together news, propaganda, animation, and children's shows to weave a strange conpiracy theory of the Soviet takeover of the United States via sentient cars and brainwashed dogs. In the final episode "The Gunshot Heard 'Round the World'", David Lowery makes film noir even more noirish in its black and white sharp angles, as a man recounts a tale of murder and insanity. While not quite as successful as the previously mentioned episodes, these two allows for more creative freedom and a way to turn our minds to how we view old footage and its meaning.
Some of the episodes put an altered (though not too different) narrative on an old film. Baena's episode takes the old film Made for Each Other, about a couple dealing with difficult parents, and imposes a narrative about dealing with difficult parents. It's twisted a bit to be a 'Friendsgiving Dinner', and this time the couple have to deal with the husband's divorced Mom and Dad, brilliantly voices by Nick Offerman and Megan Mullaly, and it's certainly both light and clever, if a bit long. Writer/director Kris Rey turns to the great Roger Corman's Swamp Women to tell of four women trying to get what's owed them, though in thise case they are factory workers as opposed to convicts, and voiced by Gillian Jacobs, Naomi Ekperigin, Kate Muccuci, and Alia Shawkat, it's a pretty hilarious twist. and Jay Duplass certainly puts a twist on both the western and the war film with "The Cowboy President", apparently inspired by true events, combining footage of Burt Lancaster with that of Ronald Reagan, about men tryiong to prove that Reagan is mentally unfit for office, It's certainly amusing, if a bit too long.
Mel Eslyn's episode "After the End" has a ski patrol searching for a cave monster, using Corman's Beast from Haunted Cave. Again, there's not a lot of alteration, just a fun use of voices like Dan Stevens to play with the story a bit. And fans of Night of the Living Dead can certainly appreciate and enjoy Marta Cunningham's episode 'Attack of the Karens', in which white women, overcome by a strange haze, make their Karen-esque presence felt for one hapless Black man, recently moved to the suburbs. This is the most inventive of the episodes that add a twist to long stretches of footage to a single film, bringing out the subtext of the source material.
The least successful of the episodes is #9, "One Gay Wedding and a Thousand Funerals", which uses footage from the Anne Baxter Film Carnival Story to tell the tale of a straight man so desperate to stop gay marriage that he creates a huge ladder, off which straight people jump, in protest. A funny joke, no doubt, but not one that can be sustained for nearly 30 minutes. That's really the crutch of an otherwise successful experiment in television; most, if not all, of these episodes would be improved with a shorter running time. Most lose steam at about the 20 minute mark, even the stronger ones, and the viewing mind starts to wander. A tighter control of the narrative and keeping things tight would have helped some of the weaker episodes from losing energy.
But it's certainly a worthwhile adventure, not only filmmakers but also for a viewer willing to proverbially dip their toe not only into some retro-styled comedy, but also to expand their horizons on experimental television. This kind of experimentation is usually relegated to small festivals and arthouse cinemas, not often seen on mainstream television, so take advantage will it's available.
Cinema Toast is now streaming on Showtime in the USA, and on Crave in Canada.