Films are far more often accused of being too long as opposed to too short, and the same complaint generally applies to web videos. But is five minutes long enough for a documentary? In the case of American Dreamers, the answer is “no.”
The crackpot subjects proffered in Michael Jacobs’ Crackle series suggest that when making a documentary for the web, be very specific with your intentions. The first three episodes each profile folk art-making, staunch, American individualists and run 4:42, 5:04 and 3:48, respectively. If they were to exist in the world as trailers that would be one thing, but as videos in their own right they become victims of internet over-condensing.
That said, producer/director Jacobs, along with director of photography Jeff Springer, serve us intriguing, if brief glimpses into the lives of contemporary folk artists working at society’s fringes, carving out their own eclectic versions of the American dream.
American Dreamers debuts by profiling the Simon Rodia (creator/constructor of the Watts Towers) of our time: Jim Bishop and his castle in rural Colorado. “Over 1500 tons of rock and cement, with towers 160 feet tall,” the headers tell us, “All built by hand, by one man.” And indeed this is a proverbial piece of work.
But this is where the division begins between what we want and what we get. What we want are more shots and descriptions of Bishop’s castle. What we get are Bishop’s rantings and ravings, including his thoughts on immortality, his relationship to Da Vinci and Van Gogh, and his not quite fully convincing affection for Christ.
Episode 2 follows MT Liggett and his long stretch of crafted metal road-side signs in Kansas, while Episode 3 delivers the saved (from alcoholism) Cleveland Turner, aka the Flower Man, with his junk collection turned folk “museum” in Houston.
Each are creators of their own unique universe, making the series reminiscent of Chuck Cirino‘s Weird America or the 2001 Chris Smith (of American Movie fame) documentary Home Movie, which delved into the lives of four very unusual home environments. At 66 minutes, it requires quite an investment, but sometimes you get what you pay for.
It’s undeniable that the subjects of American Dreamers have character in spades, but something is slightly amiss. There’s just enough camera-friendly media-consciousness on the parts of Bishop, Liggett, and (to a lesser extent) Turner to be verboten for a documentary subject. These are outsiders, but outsiders circa the YouTube era who you can almost hear say, “Give me my frickin’ 15 minutes!”
Perhaps that’s a bit unfair. These are eccentric men who are working on highly ambitious creations, and their stories (may) deserve to be told, but what they need is a more committed telling.
Aside from the short format, the only major downside is the cheesy opening and the background music. It’s the kind so often used in all things reality in order to grease the wheels. It never wavers from its singular note and attempts to imbue the viewer with a deeper realization and blind acceptance. The visuals, meanwhile, are solid. More than adequate for video on the web. But if Mr. Jacobs ever considers making his online series into a feature-length documentary, I suggest he tinkers with his soundtrack.
In the meantime, check out more American Dreamers at Crackle.com.