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COMMENTARY

At last, a magazine without words

January 20, 2006|Peter Carlson | Washington Post

Wholphin is a whole new concept of a magazine -- a quarterly DVD mag containing not articles but short films, new and old, American and foreign, fiction, documentaries and animation. When I received my copy, I was so happy I started giving group hugs.

That's because I'm sick and tired of words -- endless words marching one after another in horizontal line after horizontal line in paragraph after paragraph in article after article in magazine after magazine.

In other words, I'm sick of reading. I long to join the rest of my fellow Americans sitting on the sofa with beer and Doritos, basking in the glow of a TV screen. And now Wholphin enables me to do just that.

Wholphin is put out by the wild, wacky folks who publish McSweeney's, an avant-garde literary mag, and the Believer, a literary mag that's not quite as avant-garde but is still pretty weird. The first issue of Wholphin comes as a freebie in the latest issues of McSweeney's and the Believer. The next issue, due in March, will be available all by itself, for $10.

What's a wholphin? Well, according to the booklet that comes with the DVD, it's an animal, a cross between a dolphin and a whale. Which is, I guess, symbolic of this mag -- a cross between a magazine and

So anyway, I sat on the couch and put the Wholphin disc into the DVD player. And the first thing I saw was an extreme close-up of a scruffy-looking guy who starts making goofy faces. And then the mag's table of contents pops up next to the guy's face, so you can choose which film you want to see. But I was entranced by the guy making faces so I didn't choose a film fast enough. That turned out to be a big mistake because the table of contents quickly disappeared and I had to watch the guy making goofy faces for, like, five minutes.

And then the camera pulled back and you see that the goofy guy is sitting next to another guy, who gets up and walks down the hallway of a public storage place, following a noise that gets louder and louder and turns out to be a guy rehearsing a folk song in one of the storage lockers.

And then the table of contents pops back up. The first choice is "Al Gore Documentary." Do I want to see a documentary on Al Gore? Good God, no. So I quickly click on something called "The Delicious."

It turns out to be a 15-minute film about a New York yuppie who has a weird compulsion to wear his mother-in-law's dorky red pantsuit while standing in front of a mirror fiddling with scissors and making weird noises. After he does this at a party, his wife decides he's nuts and divorces him. And then he goes to a park in his dorky red pantsuit and starts fiddling with scissors and making weird noises when suddenly he sees a guy in a dorky yellow pantsuit fiddling with scissors and making similar weird noises. So he goes over to introduce himself and the guy in yellow runs away. So the guy in red chases him, yelling, "Wait! Wait!"

End of movie.

Hmmmm. I chug some beer and chomp Doritos and suddenly I'm watching a film of a guy standing in front of a cathedral singing "Stairway to Heaven" backward as people walk backward behind him. He's emoting like crazy, but because he's singing the words backward, it sounds like Swedish, or maybe Swahili. And then he finishes the song and turns off the camera.

The table of contents returns and I choose something called "Death of a Hen," which turns out to be a crudely animated version of a very grim Grimm fairy tale about a rooster whose wife dies.

Whew! By this time, the idea of an Al Gore documentary is sounding better and better. It turns out to be a 13-minute, day-in-the life thing shot in 2000 by Spike Jonze, the director of "Being John Malkovitch." It shows Gore, hanging around with his wife and kids and being very loose and funny and not at all stiff.

In the booklet that comes with the DVD, the Wholphin folks suggest that if the Gore campaign had shown the film on TV, Gore might have won. It does make you wonder: If the film had changed a few hundred minds in Florida, then maybe there would be no Bush presidency, and no invasion of Iraq, and ....

But I can't think about that now. The table of contents is back and if I don't choose something fast, I may get stuck watching that guy make goofy faces again.

So I choose something called "Tatli Hayat," which turns out to be a Turkish sitcom with English subtitles. It's about a doofus businessman and his zany-but-lovable wife and their madcap friends and antic antics. Watching this show is a heart-warming experience because it makes you realize that -- despite the superficial differences of language, culture and nationality -- people all over the world are basically just as idiotic as we are.

If you like the first version of the sitcom, you can watch five other versions of the same episode, each with alternative subtitles that change the plot. After about a version and a half of a Turkish sitcom, you begin to feel a renewed appreciation for magazines with words marching one after another in horizontal line after horizontal line.

The idea of a DVD magazine full of odd little films still sounds great. But maybe it's the kind of idea that should be executed by somebody other than the editors of self-consciously weird literary magazines.

Or maybe not. The Wholphin folks promise that their next issue will include short films created by the writers at "The Daily Show." That sounds promising. There will also be a sitcom from Nigeria. If you consume enough beer and Doritos, you can make a whole night of it.

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