Short Cuts

Is Diff’rent Strokes better at 5 minutes than it was at 30? Tuning in to the Minisode Network.

Todd Bridges, Conrad Bain, and Gary Coleman of Diff’rent Strokes

The entertainment industry is its own unique ecosystem, and when it comes to content, the people in charge are excellent conservationists. The life of even a modestly successful television program, for example, might extend to syndication, a DVD set, a big-screen remake, and now, a series of bite-sized “minisodes.” This week, Sony launched the Minisode Network, featuring TV artifacts such as Charlie’s Angels, Starsky & Hutch, and The Facts of Life shrunk down to bonsai proportions for an initial run on MySpace. (The exclusive sponsor, Honda, is aptly plugging its compact car, the Fit.)

The venture is a cheap and easy way for a Big Content entity such as Sony to ride the DIY video wave and milk their back catalog for new revenue sources, while also helping overwhelmed culture consumers manage their leisure time more efficiently. But how do these abridged relics fare as entertainment?

The idea for the Minisode Network reportedly gathered added steam after Sony executives saw the ne plus ultra of homemade highlight reels, Paul Gulyas and Joe Sabia’s “The Seven Minute Sopranos,” which has been viewed more than 500,000 times since it was uploaded to YouTube at the end of March. The Sopranos refresher course is virtuosic in its very concision, cramming some 77 hours’ worth of melodrama into those seven (and a half) minutes. But it’s also a miniature work of art unto itself, one that carves out space—seemingly against the laws of physics—for comic refrains (Carmela screeching “Get the fuck out of this house!” at Tony gets funnier every time it’s replayed)and expertly modulated rhythms amid the rapid-fire plot summary.

The Sony minisodes aren’t nearly as inspired—they’re not edited so much as hacked up, and the raw material is not exactly the stuff of Greek tragedy.The distilled dramas boil down to a succession of ‘70s action signifiers: sprinting, fisticuffs, gunfire, car crashes, explosions, plus the occasional pause for a tacit Excellent Hair Competition. This can pass the time for a minisode or two, particularly when the Angels are stuck in a women’s prison wearing nothing but towels or Starsky and Hutch are chasing a vampire (in an installment that seems to have been hijacked by the writing staff of Scooby-Doo).But once you’ve seen an Aaron Spelling joint whittled down to a jagged five minutes, the mind reels at just how the producers managed to fill the other 40, week after week. Even a minisode begins to look distended.

It seems thatSony intended to beckon viewers down an abbreviated memory lane, but the Minisode Network is a case study in the limits of nostalgia. The comedies are dismayingly bad, the canned laughter and applause falling like a hard rain on a tin roof. (They are, however, intriguing from a sociological standpoint: It’s fascinating how often sitcoms of the late ‘70s and early ‘80scontrived to place working-class kids in a wealthy milieu. This setup is present in one way or another in Diff’rent Strokes, Silver Spoons, and Who’s the Boss?, all of which get the minisode treatment.)

The dramas, meanwhile, are more inept than any subsequent parodies might have indicated: In Charlie’s Angels, Farrah Fawcett-Majors strikes judo poses as if she’s choreographing a karaoke performance of “Stop! In the Name of Love.” And the bad guys in the black sedan always wait patiently for Hutch to fling himself over the hood of the Gran Torino before he drags them out of their car for a beatdown. My husband can remember a time when his entire week hinged on whether or not his parents let him stay up late to watch Starsky & Hutch, but the minisode versions of his childhood fixation served up a plateful of stale, flavorless madeleines. “This was so much more exciting in my memory,” he said, puzzled, as Hutch once again dropped to the ground for one of his patented shoulder-rolls.

His experience is the inverse of the phenomenon that Susan Sontag describedin her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’ “: “Time may enhance what seems simply dogged or lacking in fantasy now because we are too close to it, because it resembles too closely our own everyday fantasies.” This can be true when applied to the trashy pop culture of our youth, but only so long as our distant recollections of antic cop shows and the comic stylings of Gary Coleman aren’t rudely interrupted by the thing itself coming too close again, even in truncated form. Sony Television President Steve Mosko calls the minisodes “campy and fun,” but the operative term is in fact camp’s poor relation: kitsch. “Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas,” art critic Clement Greenberg wrote in 1939. “Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. … Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money—not even their time.” And in this case, not even our money—watch that Honda ad, and you’re good to go.

Greenberg titled his essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” presenting the two as polar opposites, but perhaps the strangest aspect of Sony’s kitschy minisodes are their improbably avant-garde roots. The granddaddy of all reappropriated motion pictures—including minisodes, “Seven Minute Sopranos,” and every parody trailer you’ve ever watched on Daily Motion—is Joseph Cornell’s short film Rose Hobart (1936). Cornell remolded and rescoredan unlamented piece of B-movie exotica called East of Borneo, which starred Hobart: He scrambled scenes, repeated individual sequences as if they were mantras, filtered the images through a gauzy blue scrim, and slowed them down to silent-film speed, making it appear as if the players were moving through water. Like Cornell’s exquisite glass-front boxes, Rose Hobart is a masterpiece of inspired assembly, a fascinating fetish object, and something of a shrine. It’s not merelya minisode of East of Borneo, buta bizarre, ecstatic dream of its leading lady.

Rose Hobart is arguably one of the most influential movies that most people have never seen, and proof that an editor-filmmaker, properly stirred, can triumph over unremarkable source material. Cornell’s experimental descendants are too numerous to list, but just a few of the most interesting are stock-footage swami Bruce Conner; Peter Tscherkassky (who chose Barbara Hershey in The Entity as his Rose Hobart figure for the nightmarish 1999 film Outer Space); Tscherkassky’s fellow Austrian Martin Arnold (whose cut-ups of To Kill a Mockingbird and the Andy Hardy movies conjure a tormented, obsessive subconscious for benign pop-culture products); and even DJ Spooky, whose “Rebirth of a Nation,” a multimedia interpretation of D.W. Griffith’s racist cinema milestone, played at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. For these artists and many others, daft or deeply flawedmovies are the compost heap from which beautiful things grow.

Obviously, the primary objective of the Minisode Network is to treat an established brand as a renewable profit-making resource, not to make art. So long as some semblance of a fair-use doctrine remains intact, however, the Sony TV archives might prove to be a treasure trove for those pursuingweirder, better endeavors. Some savvy cross-cutting could give us a patchwork lament for the child-star casualty, filtered through the characters played by Danny Bonaduce on The Partridge Family and pretty much the entire cast of Diff’rent Strokes. The plus-sized and flamboyant Rerun, who burns up the dance floor on What’s Happening!!, is a queer hero just waiting to be born through the magic of montage. Watching Charlie’s Angels, it’s surprising to see how gaunt and spectral a certain blond starlet could look even in her pinup heyday: Rose Hobart, meet the equally haunting Farrah Fawcett-Majors, ghost among seraphim. Joseph Cornells of tomorrow, our screens and hazy memories are yours for the remixing.