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Focus: The Collected Filmstrips of Brian Dewan, Vol. 1

Just the thing for the hyperactive adult on your Christmas list

Reviewed by Spencer Parsons, Fri., Dec. 5, 2008

Slipped Discs

Focus: The Collected Filmstrips of Brian Dewan, Vol. 1

Bright Red Rocket, $44.99

Focus. Focus. It's less a title than a command, a spoken admonition standing in for many others allowed to remain implicit. In both form and function, the chief subject of musician and renaissance man Brian Dewan's I Can See filmstrips is the gentle hectoring that prods us children to good citizenship and right thinking, delivered in soothingly stentorian tones against simple, iconic illustrations rendered in Magic Marker. They're about the authority of the beep that compels a dutiful Sunday school teacher, third-grade substitute, or A/V-friendly teacher's pet to advance to the next frame ... and how deranged that is. In Dewan's classroom, we obey signals that tell us "frozen custard ahead" or that warn of sleeping ghosts. We learn how civic pride can be a deadly sin and how voting, paying taxes, and supporting handicapped accessibility in our municipal pyramids are part of a system demanding not merely sacrifice but human sacrifice, complete with long knives and the forcible extraction of still-beating hearts.

But there's so much more in these surreal lessons and fairy tales than easy irony or the seemingly evergreen hipster vogue for fucked-with totems of preadolescence. There's genuine mystery in the strongest of them, such as "Before the White Man Came," which teaches not the expected PC litany of Euro-colonial depredations but rather sketches an inchoate force of evil that poisons the New World for pilgrims and American Indians alike, while miraculously leaving the wonder of suspension bridges in its wake. For all their hilarity and whimsy, these filmstrips prepare us for a distinctly frightening and irrational world, not unlike the real one that properly scared the bejesus out of us back when we were eating paste. A designer of electronic instruments that look and sound like the unlikely offspring of old New England churches and punch-card reading computers, Dewan has also contributed album covers to David Byrne (Uh-Oh) and They Might Be Giants (Lincoln), so this first volume of filmstrips might be just the thing for the hyperactive adult on your Christmas list, an educational stocking stuffer to make him or her sit still and focus. Focus.

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