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White-Bread World of 'Suburban Shorts'

August 15, 1996|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like most programs of small-scale independent films, "Suburban Shorts"--screening at the Huntington Beach Art Center on Friday--veers from the exciting and provocative to the merely ho-hum in its search for insight.

The nine little movies, a mix of fiction and documentary with only two longer than 20 minutes, were compiled by the center and American Cinematheque in Los Angeles with an eye toward "exposing the suburban experience." That's a big promise, one that "Suburban Shorts" makes good on, but in a limited way.

Don't look for Latinos, blacks or any other groups to get much attention. A Japanese American boy shows up in one film, but his story is more universal than about anything specific to his ethnic heritage. This is a bill created by white filmmakers about white suburbia. That's not necessarily a knock, just a qualifier.

In fact, the program would be worth viewing if only for Frank Novak's "Domestic Disturbance." This 22-minute number is hilarious, a John Waters sendup that thumps the fat head of "reality" shows such as "Cops."

Using grainy film stock and hand-held videocam jitteriness, Novak has captured the unnervingly immediate and disposable aura of these TV adventures perfectly. We know right from the start that this is white-trash country, only a holler from the backwoods of "Deliverance."

"Domestic Disturbance" gets on its bleary way when cops visit a shack of a home to find that a no-account husband has raised a barrier in the living room, a Berlin Wall separating him from his she-monster wife. He just can't understand why it's causing all this commotion. "I measured the house down the middle," he explains, "I even gave her the kitchen."

Things unravel once the exasperated police leave. He cuts out a doggie-door so his son can visit his mom, then throws a wild party. He proudly bonds with his boy by letting him plaster the wall and clean his gun. "It's important to do things with your kids," he piously informs us.

Everybody fights and fights, and then it's over, leaving us oddly invigorated. That comes from the overexposed humor, but also the kick of voyeurism and the awareness that there are those who have it a whole lot worse than we do.

"Garden," another of the better offerings, isn't funny at all. Director James Spione's 25-minute film is not only the most professional of the shorts, it's the eeriest. Based on a true story, "Garden" re-creates the tragedy that unfolds when a mental patient returns to his family.

A horror story of a different sort is "Kenji's Faith," a 14-minute piece by Eric Byler that follows a little boy as he explores his neighborhood and struggles to cross the street.

Less interesting are Tommy O'Haver's "Home Movie" and Gretchen Hildebrand's "How He Goes," both focusing on what it means to be gay. Unfortunately, neither provides revelation.

The pallid "How He Goes" is about a confusing sexual encounter between two guys in a grunge band, while "Home Movie" (in slightly more vivid ways) recalls the quirks and troubles that come from growing up gay in the rigid middle-class.

Another disappointment is "Pink Houses," Bibi Bielat's shallow investigation of why some ordinary folks go wild and live in pink homes.

* What: "Suburban Shorts," a program of nine independent films.

* When: 8 p.m. Friday.

* Where: Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St.

* Whereabouts: Take Pacific Coast Highway to Main Street and head north.

* Wherewithal: $5 (members) and $7 (general).

* Where to call: (714) 374-1650.

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