90-Second Newbery Film Festival | Review + video highlights
I once attended a fine, upstanding, respectable university with a number of creative, amusing and kooky individuals, among them, James Kennedy of Michigan. These days Kennedy writes fantasy novels for pre-teens and brings Chicago the likes of the 90-second Newbery Project, which invited young folks to make video versions of Newbery Award-winning children's books. A brilliant idea in terms of getting kids (and their parents) excited about children's lit, the Newbery film fest itself turned out to be about much more than kids making cute films.
Kennedy with Spokesmom as a sidekick (funny, but also a bit distracting from the give-'em-what-they-came-for) and with Babyteeth's Abraham Levitan providing piano man intro music, acted as sometimes manic, sometimes informative, often magnetic emcee. The two-hour show might have been a notch too ambitious, but it was never dull, with comedy skits from the Neo-Futurists and others, an almost-too-absurd Is-it-Snooki-or-is-it-a-Newbery game show hosted by Kennedy plus a (highly recommended) short film from the Smart Aleck's Guide's on mega-weenie John Newbery.
The sum total effect, for better or worse, was no quaint celebration of kid lit: It was a snotty jab at the whole idea of thinking of kid lit as a cute little innocuous genre, which it hasn't been in years. Kennedy and company, perhaps inevitably, couldn't help playing more to parents than kids when he noted that he received numerous videos with graphic violence representing the Utopian sci-fi of The Giver. I cringed a few times when wondering about the questions I'd be fielding from my hyper-aware little one, but things turned out okay. After all, anecdotes like that were what interested me, and I sometimes wanted more background on the filmmakers themselves, be they home-schooled Canadians or private school kids from Evanston.
There might have been more laughs for mom and dad than for junior, but the hundreds of youngsters in the theater (some bussed-in school groups) were riveted nonetheless. How could they not be? The shorts, with their homemade feel, ADD jump cuts and hilarious amateur acting and production, are easily the most out-there videos most children have ever seen. Given a steady diet of multi-million dollar productions and focus -group-tested entertainment, the 90-second movies felt like a dose of subversion, and a welcome one. Kids, Kennedy knows, love a bit of mischief, breaking the rules and flying in the face of convention. My three-and-a-half year old might have been twisting in the seat, but he insisted on staying almost until the end to see 'em all.
I loved only a few of the videos (Bookie Woogie's betray a semi-pro touch of Z-Dad), but enjoyed them all. More importantly, I'm vowing my son and I will make our own for next year: This kind of mercurial enterprise is too good to pass up.