The Cinematic Catalog of Josh Kornbluth

If this is your first time reading the name Josh Kornbluth, let me introduce you.  The shortest of short descriptions is that Josh is a monologist, like Spalding Gray.  He mixes humor with autobiographical drama, but without all the kooky new age stuff; and like Gray, every so often he produces a new work about another new stage or event in his life.  Is he as good as Gray?  That's a tall order, but he certainly stands up as an artist in his own right with a distinctive style and his own preoccupations.  He's working in the same, especially narrow field as Gray, but he's in no way a knock-off.  The comparisons wouldn't even be made if there were more monologists getting their work turned into feature films.  This is theater stuff that rarely gets to make the transition, but we're lucky when it does.  And at least Josh's work is better cataloged on DVD than Anna Deavere Smith's.  That's an M.I.A. post for another day.
Haiku Tunnel is Kornbluth's first film, from 2001, about his time starting as a temp and going perm at a law firm.  Josh co-directs with his brother, Jacob Kornbluth, who also lends a hand adapting the screenplay from Josh's original performance script.  It's more of an overt comedy than the works of Gray (or Smith), and as we'll see, that he always applies a lighter, more comic touch to his works.  This is also one of the most movie-movies in his oeuvre.  I promise I'll stop comparing everything to Spalding, but just to give you a sense, think of Terrors Of Pleasure, where interspersed throughout his monologue, we see actors, filmed on location, depicting the scenes being described.  But this goes even further, allowing the actors to speak their dialogue and have full, traditionally cinematic scenes, interacting with Kornbluth and each other.  Yes, there are monologue segments, where our star stands in a small, white room with a blackboard and a few props to directly address the camera/ audience.  But the rest of the cast is really able to shine, which is great, because he's assembled some a terrific team of co-stars.  They're mostly unknown, apart from a small but hilarious appearance by Harry Shearer, but they all deliver smart, memorable performances.
2002 Sony Classics DVD.
Sony Classic's 2002 DVD slightly window-boxes the film to a rough 1.82:1 and looks pretty good for SD.  Yeah, it's a bit soft, and would surely look nicer boosted to HD.  It was shot on 35mm, so just imagine.  But it's anamorphic, not interlaced, and the colors and detail are clean and attractive for a DVD.  The audio's a clear Dolby 2.0 track with optional English (and French) subtitles.  Sony always does first class work, so if this film has to be DVD-only, at least we got this one.

Especially since they gave this film a decent special edition.  There's an entertaining and enlightening commentary by both Kornbluths, some funny deleted scenes and outtakes and the trailer (and two bonus trailers).  It also includes an insert with chapter notes and a director's statement.  Unfortunately, the standards didn't stay this high.
2004's Red Diaper Baby is Josh's second film, made for the Sundance Channel, and it plays much more like Swimming To Cambodia, strictly as a one-man performance (or "concert film"), but filmed before an audibly present live audience and enhanced with moving cameras, colored lights, music and changing background images.  This one's less blatantly a "comedy," but still a quite comic reflection of his childhood, but with a little more heart and drama.  It's a more personal and mature work, not that Haiku Tunnel was lacking in these departments.  The title's a reference to how he was raised by devoutly communist parents in New York City, which would go on to inform his whole life (as we'll see in a later film).  Jacob Kornbluth sat this one out, which is instead directed by documentary director Doug Pray (Hype!, Scratch).  It took a while to get this on DVD, but Passion River eventually put it out in 2010.
2010 Passion River DVD.
Despite being a more modern disc, it's pretty problematic.  Maybe it's partly due to its television origins, or Passion River just being a less professional outfit.  But you can plainly see the issues above.  This disc is non-anamorphic (I've left the negative space around the first image to illustrate how it would display on a modern TV) and two out of every five frames are interlaced.  It's also window-boxed to an unusual AR of 1.64:1, which is certainly suspect.  Oh, and the left edge of the screen is colorless (presumably a part of the image that was meant to be cropped out.  Other than that, the image isn't too unattractive.  The picture seems clear when it isn't combed and the colors feel correct.  You could just about get away with it on a smaller fullscreen set, and I guess Passion River just took Sundance's broadcast master and slapped it on a disc, but it's hard to believe anybody would still try to pass this off in 2010.  Imagine the outcry if Netflix streamed something that looked like this.

The basic Dolby stereo track is fine, but subtitles are no longer an option.  And there are absolutely no on-disc extras.  The menu screen consists of nothing but a Play button.  They do at least continue the tradition of including an insert with a director's statement (and chapters).  But just that's pretty paltry.
Next up is 2012's The Mathematics of Change, about Kornbluth's falling in and out of love with math at Princeton University.  In a sense, as we're following Josh from his childhood years now to his college years, this can be taken as a pretty straight-forward sequel to Red Diaper.  It's another straight monologue, in the sense that there are no actors or dramatizations, just Kornbluth performing for another live audience (who we get to see this time and, curiously, they all seem to have papers set out in front of them).  It's performed, appropriately, in an actual mathematics auditorium at Berkley, and there are fewer theatrical effects (no alternating backgrounds, just a chalk board, and the lighting rarely changes, save for a few key moments).  Interestingly, it uses the same music as Red Diaper Baby and Jacob Kornbluth is back as director.  Mathematics was released directly to DVD and streaming by Quixotic Projects, which is essentially a self-release by the film's production team.  As of this writing, it's still for sale.
2012 Quixotic Projects DVD.
But these guys seem to know how to do DVDs better than Passion River, though.  It appears to be a properly pressed disc (not a DVR as I was expecting).  It's anamorphic and properly progressive, openly framed at 1.78:1.  It's the one that could most pass for a blu-ray of the three we've seen.  It has a 5.1 audio track and the menu screen at least has a Chapters menu, though disappointingly there are still no subtitles or any kind of special features.  There's no insert this time either, not that that's important, but I was starting to grow fond of the director's statements.
Finally, Josh Kornbluth has made one more feature film (to date), 2017's Love & Taxes.  You might think it would be his first title available on blu, but sadly it veered in the other direction, and is streaming/ direct download only.  I see Love & Taxes as the fan favorite, if not the best film, as it brings us full circle.  It's another movie-movie, even bringing back several of the cast members from Haiku Tunnel (yes, including Harry Shearer) for all the scenes where Kornbluth isn't standing alone, live on stage.  There's a romcom element to this one that lays a little flat, but otherwise it's everything you could want.  It documents the period of Kornbluth's life when he finally had to hire accountants and deal with his many years of tax avoidance (thanks to his communist upbringing).  It even brings us around to him filming Haiku Tunnel.  Jacob Kornbluth is back as director, filming scenes with another actor playing Jacob Kornbluth.  He even introduces a few of the real people from his life that we've seen throughout his work in the closing credits.  It's a really good film on its own terms, but even better if you've followed Josh on his journey through the previous films.
Unfortunately there's no disc to detail of this one, so I'll leave it at that.  This isn't strictly speaking the entirety of Josh Kornbluth's film work, as he also works as a character actor, appearing in films as diverse as Jack and Teknolust, and perhaps most significantly in the atypical documentary Strange Culture.  But these are the four true Kornbluth films, the creative visions he's written and starred in.  I would love, love, love it if Criterion or any other label out there boxed these four up in for a sweet little blu-ray set.  Even a halfway decent restoration to SD would benefit Red Diaper Baby.  But I wouldn't hold my breath.  I'm a little surprised nobody even put out a barebones Love & Taxes disc as a new release.  No, I'll keep hoping for more, but this is probably all we get.  But I highly recommend these, and hopefully we'll get a fifth film.  He's still active on Youtube and stuff, so I don't think we've seen the last of him.

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