Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Animation: An Optical Poem (1937, Oskar Fischinger)

USA, 6 min
Directed by: Oskar Fischinger
The tagline for Disney's Fantasia (1940) read: "Hear the pictures! See the music!" This is, in effect, what Oskar Fischinger was doing with his animation – communicating music to the deaf, giving visual life to music using colours and geometric patterns. His approach, though later imitated by Walt Disney, was largely appreciated outside the mainstream. However, Allegretto (1936) and An Optical Poem (1937) were both commissioned by big studios – Paramount and MGM, respectively {however, the former film was inconceivably stifled into a black-and-white release}. It was a little novel, I'll admit, to see such an abstract cartoon presented under the MGM banner, and, indeed, it seems that the studio was understandably cautious; they bizarrely introduce An Optical Poem as a "scientific" experiment.

Fischinger's film uses patterns of oscillating circles, paper cutouts dangling from invisible wires, synchronised to Franz Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2." The animation itself resembles a journey through outer space. The orbiting circles are akin to moons orbiting planets, planets orbiting the sun, and there's an unmistakable image of a comet hurtling across the night sky. The overall effect of the space-themed visuals and accompanying classical musical is not all that dissimilar to Kubrick's use of the "Blue Danube" waltz during
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Fischinger seems to be suggesting that to fully articulate such magnificent music is beyond the grasp of our earthly minds – to do so, we must utilise objects far beyond our mortal scope. Most incredibly of all, Fischinger reconstructed these great objects using little more than coloured paper and wire.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Comedy: Tomatos Another Day (1930, James Sibley Watson & Alec Wilder)

Tomatos Another Day (1930)
USA, 7 min

Tomatos Another Day (1930) (directed by James Sibley Watson and Alec Wilder) made one appearance at a Boston theatre in the early 1930s, but received such a weak audience response that the creators dismissed it as an outright failure. One can understand the audience reaction: the film itself is so incredibly stilted and awkward (albeit deliberately so) that if you approach it in the wrong mind-set – expecting a traditional melodrama – you're likely to be dismayed at its incompetency. Sibley's son, J.S. Watson Jr., remarked that the film might have proved successful had a popular comedian been involved: "Harold Lloyd, directed by (Mack) Sennet, might have brought it off." Indeed, the film did remind me of W.C. Fields' The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933), in which the actors were encouraged to emulate the melodramatic acting style to the nth degree. Watson uses the same deadpan brand of satire, though his actors, rather than hamming it up, adopt a mechanical, minimalistic delivery that makes them sound monumentally uninterested in their roles.

J.S. Watson had previously co-directed, with Melville Webber, The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), a wonderful Poe adaptation strongly indebted to Robert Wiene and German Expressionism. To a director with such a prominent visual style, the arrival of "talkies" must have been disillusioning – all of a sudden, popular films had lost the artistic flair of Murnau and Borzage, and had become utterly mundane. Tomatos Another Day was produced to "show the absurdity of talkies that recorded action in pictures with unnecessary explanations of the action recorded in sound." The film opens with a clock on the cusp of two o'clock. Soon after, the minute hand ticks over, the clock chimes twice, and a character unnecessarily remarks "it is two o'clock." Watson's satire is spot-on: I can recall many early talkies that treated their audience in such a manner, inserting such mundane dialogue as "I am alone" merely because the sound technology was available to them. I just wish that all gentlemen's hats sounded so crunchy.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Fantasy: La fontaine d'Aréthuse (1936, Dimitri Kirsanoff)

La fontaine d'Aréthuse (1936)
France, 8 min
Directed by: Dimitri Kirsanoff

Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) wrote his three Mity (Myths) classical pieces in 1915, in a collaboration with violinist Pawel Kochañski, for whom the pieces were originally conceived. I don't know anything about classical music, but apparently this work was revolutionary, described as "impressionistic" and "a new style, a new mode of expression for the violin." The three pieces were "La Fontaine d'Aréthuse," "Narcisse" and "Dryades et Pan," of which the first is the most well-known. To my knowledge, there's no specific story that is supposed to go with La Fontaine d'Aréthuse," but here Dimitri Kirsanoff has apparently attempted to devise his own. Fitting the images to the music, but also striving to tell a story, La Fontaine d'Aréthuse (1936) follows his similarly music-orientated short film of the previous year, the wonderful Les Berceaux / The Cradles. Like the latter, it was also photographed by Boris Kaufman, who would later achieve success in Hollywood as a cinematographer.

La Fontaine d'Aréthuse (1936) opens with credits over shimmering images of water, somewhat reminiscent of Ralph Steiner's H2O (1929). After this, the music takes prominence, and we see a pianist and violinist beginning the classical piece. That Kirsanoff even bothered to show the musicians emphasises the importance he placed on the music itself, re-enforcing that this piece wasn't merely chosen at random to suit the images. "La Fontaine d'Aréthuse" opens with what has been described as a "shimmering wash of sound in the piano, octave leaps in the left hand passing above and below repeated chords in the right," a tune which apparently suggests the splashing waters of a fountain. The story "told" by the music involves a naked water goddess on the river shore (no Production Code being enforced in France!), who is pursued by a Tarzan-like hunter, before disappearing into thin air to join her water once again. Pleasant, and recommended, viewing.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Animation: Kiwi! (2006, Dony Permedi)

Kiwi! (2006)
USA, 3 min
Directed by: Dony Permedi

When you've only got three minutes to tell a story, you'd better make it count. Pixar Studios has always excelled at such an efficient brand of storytelling: Geri's Game (1997) is a masterpiece in four minutes, and For the Birds (2000) and Lifted (2006) have always been crowd- pleasing favourites. Kiwi! (2006) is a student film by Dony Permedi, and it was produced in much the same mould. The short certainly looks like a student film, the CG animation terribly crude by modern standards (though, admittedly, it's unfair to compare any animated film to the standards of Pixar). However, the technical detail doesn't necessarily matter, as long as it succeeds in telling an emotionally-absorbing story. This it does pretty well. An ambitious little kiwi, long confined to the earth by his measly ratite wings, fulfills his lifelong ambition to fly – or, at least, to approximate the sensation of flight. The moment of success is oddly touching, and the single tear that slips from beneath his eyelid would be familiar to anybody who's ever achieved his lifelong dream. Still, I didn't find Kiwi! quite as life-affirming as many viewers seem to have – for me, it was an amusing little aside, and certainly not a bad way to spend three minutes of my time.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Comedy: The Gibson Goddess (1909, D.W. Griffith)

The Gibson Goddess (1909)
USA, 6 min
Directed by: D.W. Griffith
Written by: D.W. Griffith
D.W. Griffith is certainly not a name associated with comedy, but he did direct a few of them early in his career {including his debut, Those Awful Hats (1909)}, before briefly returning to the genre with The Battle of the Sexes (1928). This comedy short from 1909 – The Gibson Goddess – might also be considered a "battle of the sexes." On a trip to the sea-shore to enjoy some peaceful reading time, a beautiful woman (Marion Leonard) is harassed by group of male admirers, who follow her along the beach like a pack of hungry hounds. After several unsuccessful attempts to evade her followers, the woman strikes upon the perfect solution to dispel their interest in her: she gets changed into a leg-revealing beach costume. I'd have thought that revealing her body would only fuel the men's lust, but apparently not – each man apologetically excuses himself from her company, some unable to disguise their revulsion.

Most of the comedy shorts I've seen from the early 1900s have based their humour around special effects – Blackton's The Thieving Hand (1908) and Melies' "magic acts" are the first that come to mind. The Gibson Goddess is more of a "sophisticated" comedy, if you will, concerned primarily with human behaviour and social stereotypes. Leonard's "Gibson Goddess" is a perfectly respectable and innocent woman, but also resourceful when required to be. Her male admirers are shamelessly superficial, abandoning one woman to bestow their affection upon a prettier other, and they bicker pettily among themselves as to who shall have claim over each lady. If the film wasn't so lighthearted, the men's "stalker" antics might have seemed rather disturbing, though the actors dilute any worries by behaving, for the most part, as flamboyantly as possible. The jokes are predictable, but I did get a few laughs out of this. Look out for Mary Pickford in a bit role.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Early Superimpositions (1900, Frederick S. Armitage)

The following is a collection of three early shorts by American director Frederick S. Armitage, who here experiments with superimposition as a form of visual effect. All three are available on the "Unseen Cinema" box-set, in the volume "Viva La Dance: The Beginnings of Cine-Dance." Please note that, since I penned each of these reviews separately, there is some overlap of information. Davey Jones' Locker (1900)
USA, 1 min

Around the time that Georges Méliès was experimenting with superimposition and other optical effects to enhance his on-screen "stage acts," American director Frederick S. Armitage was testing similar techniques for manipulating cinematic reality. Davey Jones' Locker (1900) was produced for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, and was created by double-printing two sets of images, originally filmed between 1896 and 1899, over each other. The result is that the two images – one a character (a dancing skeleton) and the other an environment (a shipwrecked boat in the waves) – appear to coexist with each other, the skeleton given the translucent weightlessness of a ghost or spirit. The film is an amusing curiosity, but lacks the complexity of contemporary Méliès efforts like The Four Troublesome Heads (1898) or The One-Man Band (1900).
Neptune's Daughters (1900)
USA, 1 min

Neptune's Daughters (1900) was produced by prolific early American director Frederick S. Armitage for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. The short film is notable for its early use of superimposition, double-printing images from Ballet of the Ghosts (1899) over an ocean landscape from Sad Sea Waves (1897). The result is that the four woman, draped in white, appear to emerge from the ocean like ghosts, before breaking into dance on top of the water surface. Armitage made a few of these short films and this is probably the least visually impressive of the three I've seen, though all are worthwhile for anybody interested in the early development of cinema's visual effects.
A Nymph of the Waves (1900)
USA, 1 min

Of the three ocean-themed cine-dance superimpositions directed by Frederick S. Armitage for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, A Nymph of the Waves (1900) was the most impressive. The scenario is reasonably straightforward. Armitage superimposed existing footage of dancer Catarina Bartho (from the film M'lle. Cathrina Bartho (1899)) over the image of water from Upper Rapids, from Bridge (1896). The result is that the dancer appears to be performing a burlesque dance routine on the surface of the water, twirling and kicking as the waves appear to lap about her ankles. The effect is actually quite convincing, and the water flowing steadily from left to right creates the pleasant illusion of camera movement in the opposite direction.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Avant-Garde: Junkopia (1981, Chris Marker, John Chapman, Frank Simeone)

Junkopia (1981)
France, 6 min
Written by: Chris Marker
Starring: Arielle Dombasle (voice)

Junkopia (1981) is only my second film from Chris Marker – after the breathtaking, poetic La Jetée (1962) – but the two works are not all that dissimilar. Indeed, out of a purely documentary framework, Marker (with co-directors John Chapman and Frank Simeone) seems to have constructed a work of science-fiction. Like his previous masterwork, Junkopia exists without dialogue (and, in this case, characters) and also eschews movement (though not as dramatically as the other film's still images), both by the camera and its subjects. There is one marked exception to this rule. Just as La Jetée climaxed in an unforgettable shot of a woman's eyes fluttering open, Marker ends this film by swiftly and unexpectedly zooming out from a model ship floating in the ocean, startlingly reinforcing the vast, alienating landscape that is his subject. In fact, "alien" is an ideal adjective to describe the film. Michel Krasna's electronic score wails insistently on the soundtrack, as eerily disconcerting as Kubrick's use of Ligeti's "Atmospheres" in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Junkopia opens into a landscape that, peculiarly, struck me as otherwordly. Man-made sculptures – first an aeroplane, then a montage of figures assembled from junk – roost in the depths of the ocean, anchored in a body of water that seems infinitely vast and deep. The soundtrack blends synthesised music with atmospheric sound effects; a radio transmission appears to source from a sculpture of a lunar module, emphasising the directors' focus on what seems a genuinely alien environment. Birds flutter occasionally across the frame, but life otherwise seems muted: aside from his leftover junk, humans seemingly have no part in this unfamiliar specter of reality. But then the film pulls its most intriguing twist. Alternate angles of the sculptures reveal their close proximity to civilisation – beside bustling roadways, nestled before the looming skyline of a metropolis. We are in San Francisco. The surreal landscape was that of our own making, the detritus of human existence hugging the fringes of nature. For five minutes, we were looking at the human world through someone else's eyes.

Avant-Garde: Thanatopsis (1962, Ed Emshwiller)

Thanatopsis (1962)
USA, 5 min
Directed by: Ed Emshwiller
Particularly after the dull George Dumpson's Place (1964), Ed Emshwiller's Thanatopsis (1962) took me completely by surprise. An intense soundtrack of industrial machinery and heartbeat – a chilling construction of sound editing that predates Lynch's Eraserhead (1977) – highlights Emshwiller's exploration of a brooding man's psychosis. The director himself described the film as follows: "The confrontation of a man and his torment. Juxtaposed against his external composure are images of a woman and lights in distortion, with tension heightened by the sounds of power saws and a heartbeat." More specifically, I was left with the impression that Emshwiller was drawing the portrait of a serial killer's mind (the title itself, derived from Greek, literally means "meditation on death"). The man (Mac Emshwiller) sits alone in a dark room, rational reality fluctuating around him. A mysterious woman (Becky Arnold), gleaming in white, dances around the room, but so hideously distorted is her form that she more closely resembles a demon, twisting and writhing in apparent agony, her pain placing evil thoughts in the man's mind. Sex and violence merge into a singularly disturbing image of obsession and inner torment. The film ends with the indistinct silhouette of the man walking through a city, the distorted neon lights representing his warped and fractured view of reality – a chilling reminder that men like this are stalking our streets all the time.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Cartoon: The Hare-Brained Hypnotist (1942, Friz Freleng)

The Hare-Brained Hypnotist (1942)
USA, 7 min
Directed by: Friz Freleng
Written by: Michael Maltese (story)
Starring: Mel Blanc (voice), Arthur Q. Bryan (voice)

When dim-witted Elmer Fudd gets his hands on a book about hypnotism, we just know that it won't take long for his plan to backfire… what we didn't anticipate, however, is that it would subsequently backfire again in his favour. The Hare-Brained Hypnotist (1942) was directed by Friz Freleng, and was released October 31, 1942. The cartoon is notable in that the animators have reverted back to the Elmer Fudd we're all accustomed to, after retiring the experimental rotund version that was last featured in Fresh Hare (1942). It is also interesting in that, unlike the majority of Bugs' encounters with Fudd, the humiliation isn't all one-way traffic, and the pair actually find their traditional comedic roles to have been reversed due to the influence of the powerful hypnotism. The film ends with arrogant Bugs as the fall-guy, having been duped into the belief that he is a Douglas XB-19 experimental bomber aircraft ("I'm the B-19!"), promptly due at the airport to make his flight.

The characteristically-dim Fudd opens the cartoon on his usual hunting trip through the forest, though he's also found it necessary to read a new book at the same time. When he happens upon the secret to hypnotism, Fudd tests the technique on a ferocious bear, which is soon fluttering in the stratosphere with the presupposition of being a canary. Here, he decides, is his real opportunity to bamboozle the "pesky wabbit" once and for all. But, of course, Bugs proves himself to be more troublesome than his opponent had anticipated, and it isn't long before Fudd finds himself at the receiving end of a hypnotist's powerful glare. This is when director Friz Freleng turns the tables: after Fudd is ordered to act like a rabbit, he immediately hijacks Bugs' usual comedic niche, and the hapless rabbit, despite thinking himself the winner in this particular spate, is consistently out-witted by the stealthy wabbit known as Elmer Fudd. The cleverest Merrie Melodies are those that recognise the series' clichés and actively subvert them – The Hare-Brained Hypnotist does this very well.

Drama: For His Son (1912, D.W. Griffith)

For His Son (1912)
USA, 15 min
Directed by: D.W. Griffith
Written by: Emmett C. Hall

For His Son (1912) is one of D.W. Griffith's most unusual Biograph shorts. At first, I thought that he was aiming to produce an ironic farce: a distinguished physician (Charles Hill Mailes), in order to satisfy his leeching son's (Charles West) demands for cash, invents a carbonated drink laced with cocaine, and he calls it "Dopokoke." Well, I certainly laughed. But Griffith carries forth with a solemn face, ultimately punishing the "criminal selfishness" of the devoted father with extreme prejudice. Oddly enough, the story isn't even far-fetched: I was startled to learn that the original Coca-Cola formulation (for that is undoubtedly the beverage under trial here) did, in fact, contain substantial amounts of cocaine, but that was before the drug's health risks became widely known, and certainly before its sale was prohibited in the United States in 1914. Griffith's main motivation behind this film appears to be one of public service, in the same manner with which he condemned corporate greed in A Corner in Wheat (1909) and inadequate policies for the elderly in What Shall We Do with Our Old? (1911).

The one thing I found most interesting about For His Son is how ruthlessly Griffith condemns the physician. Financially crippled by his son's constant demands for money, the loyal father only then turns to commercial enterprise to provide for his family. But then, I suppose, vanity and selfishness soon intrude upon his fatherly devotion. The physician is later introduced by the banner "Blind to the effects of his greed," and is shown mugging directly into the camera, fists clenched and cigar in mouth: a classic Griffith image of corporate gluttony. Until this moment, I had fully expected the son to be branded the selfish villain, but instead he is portrayed as a victim, controlled and later destroyed by his cocaine addiction. Despite approaching the subject matter with a straight-faced obstinacy that simply demands ridicule, Griffith shows a strong command of the developing cinematic language. Particularly impressive is a series of cross-cuts designed, not to provoke suspense as in The Lonedale Operator (1911), but to emphasise the widespread scourge of the Copokoke beverage, as both main characters and nameless extras fall victim to its evils.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Comedy: Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914, Henry Lehrman & Mack Sennett)

Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914)
USA, 17 min
Directed by: Henry Lehrman, Mack Sennett
Written by: Henry Lehrman
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Chester Conklin, Alice Davenport, Harry McCoy, Hank Mann, Al St. John

Walt Disney stated that his prime inspiration for creating Mickey Mouse was Chaplin's Tramp character. However, the Mickey seen in Plane Crazy (1928) and Steamboat Willie (1928) bears little resemblance to the gallant hopeless-romantic whom Chaplin made famous in The Kid (1921) and other classic features. Instead, the early "evil" Mickey Mouse probably took a few leaves from the book of Chaplin's early "evil" tramp, who is here portrayed as a drunken scumbag who tries to take advantage of a pajama-clad Mabel Normand. Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914) was, in fact, the birth of Chaplin's Little Tramp character, though Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914) was released two days earlier. As the title suggests, the star of the film is actually Normand, who was a leading comedienne in her day, and this was the first film in a series of collaborations for the pair.

In a hotel lobby, an intoxicated tramp sloppily flirts with Mabel, somehow deciding that yanking on her dog's tail is a surefire way of attracting the girl's attention. Mabel huffily storms off to her room, but later runs into Chaplin in the hallway, after having locked herself out of her room wearing only pajamas. What follows is an amusing farce that resembles something the Marx Brothers would have cooked up, as Mabel evades the Tramp by taking cover under the bed of another man, whose wife arrives home and comes to the natural conclusion. This isn't high-class comedy, but Chaplin is clearly the shining light of the film: he staggers drunkenly from room to room, with an exasperated sneer beneath his moustache, and every time he falls down it is actually uproariously funny. Don't ask me how he did it, but nobody (except maybe Buster Keaton) could ever take a tumble like Chaplin could.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Avant-Garde: Night Music (1986, Stan Brakhage)

Night Music (1986)
USA, 30 sec
Directed by: Stan Brakhage

One can't critique a Stan Brakhage work the way one does an ordinary film. I'm not entirely convinced that the director had anything specific in mind when he created Night Music (1986), but, whatever he was going for, it was something subliminal. Though running for a mere thirty seconds (making this, I believe, the shortest film I've ever seen), the eye is greeted with dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of individual hand-painted images, each shimmering from the frame like searing patches of napalm. What Brakhage is showing us is unclear, but probably irrelevant – more important is what we actually see. Me? I saw the vastness of outer space, glittering with blazing nebulae of dust and flame. I saw a frantic oceanic battle, with ships floundering in the waves. I saw a village disappear in an explosion of fire. Then I watched Night Music again, and again, and saw something different every time. The human brain is a brilliant if peculiar interpretor of visual information, and Brakhage taps into the mind's inherent subjectivity. With this goal in mind, he produced a series of silent hand-painted short films, the most impressive of which is The Dante Quartet (1987), a six-minute adaptation of Dante's "The Divine Comedy."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Comedy: Cops (1922, Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton)

Cops (1922)
USA, 18 min
Directed by: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Written by: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Starring: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Virginia Fox, Edward F. Cline

Lying in bed with a sore throat, I needed some cheering up. Buster Keaton didn't let me down. Cops (1922) is generally typical of the comedian's two-reelers of the early 1920s, though with a lesser emphasis on the ingenious gadgets exhibited in One Week (1920) and The High Sign (1921). The film opens with Keaton apparently looking through prison bars at his sweetheart, until a clarifying shot reveals that it is merely the girl's front gate {Harold Lloyd seized this visual gag for the opening of Safety Last! (1923), but he had a right to it – one scene in Keaton's film, whether unintentionally or not, resembles the manner in which a prop explosion decapitated Lloyd's hand in 1919}. After convincing himself to become a businessman, Keaton's Young Man goes on to show that he has the worst luck in the world. First, he is bamboozled into purchasing another family's furniture (by Steve Murphy, the pickpocket in Chaplin's The Circus (1928)), and then gets caught up in a police parade, where, ever a victim of circumstance, he is wrongly accused of performing an act of terrorism.

Keaton loved ending his film's with an overblown chase sequence, whether it be the stampeding cattle in Go West (1925) or the stampeding women in Seven Chances (1925). In Cops, our hero is pursued by hundreds of uniformed policemen, swinging batons and tripping over themselves. Here, Keaton really earns his title as the "Great Stone Face." The chaos and confusion of the pursuit is amusing enough, but even more so is Keaton's extraordinary lack of facial expression – he just runs, staring blankly ahead, like a man who expects his problems to dissipate as soon as he wakes up. Also incredible is the performer's physical dexterity, as he flips back and forth over a tall ladder balanced precariously on either side of a fence. Also watch out for Keaton regular Joe Roberts as the Police Chief, and recurring co-star Virginia Fox in a disappointingly brief role as our hero's love interest. Even an aching throat can't dampen the chuckles in this excellent comedy short. If laughter is, indeed, the best medicine, then I should be better by the morning.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Avant-Garde: L'Arrivee (1998, Peter Tscherkassky)

L'Arrivee (1998)
Austria, 2 min
Directed by: Peter Tscherkassky
Written by: Peter Tscherkassky
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Omar Sharif (archive footage)

For some reason, you've got to admire any filmmaker who dedicates his entire career to re-editing other peoples' films. Peter Tscherkassky has done just that, and L'arrivée (1998) is my first taste of his work. Manipulating "found footage" from Terence Young's Mayerling (1968), this two-minute short is an overt homage to the Lumière brothers, visually suggesting Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896). I've never really been taken by the notion of Deconstructionist cinema – that which explores the inherent artificiality of the film medium – but I found some interest in this particular piece. The picture seemingly opens without any film in the projector, showing only a white background with the far edge of the image creeping ever-so-sightly into frame. Owen Land's Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering,… etc (1966) was excruciating because nothing happened, but Tscherkassky gives us the semblance of a narrative, something to anticipate: we urge forward the creeping film image as we might urge Jimmy Stewart up the stairs in Vertigo (1958).

Tscherkassky is remarking upon cinema's use of visual narrative, a well-worn formula that takes us back to Auguste and Louis Lumière. Anticipation, Crisis, Resolution: the camera awaits the arrival of a train, identically to how we, the audience, await the arrival of the film image into frame. Once the picture has settled into its correct groove, the train collides with its mirror-image, and the film negative almost destroys itself in a gut-wrenching tangle of film reels. Out of this chaos emerges actress Catherine Deneuve, who alights from the train, apparently unharmed by this temporal disruption of her own existence, and falls into the arms of her lover, Omar Sharif. Against all logic, out of this violence has materialised a happy ending, a final kiss offering resolution where there had been no hope of any. Critic Stefan Grissemann describes L'arrivée as "a film in the process of approaching." That sounds about right; it's a film whose very existence provides its own narrative.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Soviet: Story of One Crime (1962, Fyodor Khitruk)

Story of One Crime (1962)
Soviet Union, 20 min
Directed by: Fyodor Khitruk
Written by: Mikhail Volpin (screenplay)
Starring: Zinoviy Gerd (voice)

Fyodor Khitruk is best-known for directing the Soviet Vinni-Pukh ("Winnie the Pooh") films, but his debut Story of One Crime (1962) presents a far less utopian world than that created by A.A. Milne. When Vasily Vasilievitch Mamim, a mild-mannered accountant, attacks two women with a frying pan one morning, he is surrounded by a mob of angry onlookers, and a policeman arriving on the scene decides to set the clock back twenty-four hours to see what could possibly have turned this previously-contented man into a dangerous lunatic. The culprit is revealed to be a single sleepless night, thrust upon poor Vasily by a succession of inconsiderate neighbours in his high-rise apartment building: one man plays his stereo at full-blast, another holds a boisterous party at some ridiculous time of night, two love-struck lovers communicate loudly through the pipes at 3 o'clock in the morning.

In a nutshell, Story of One Crime is about the selfishness of modern society. Despite treating everybody else he meets with complete consideration – offering his train seat to an older gentleman, for example – Vasily is continually inconvenienced by neighbours who are too thoughtlessly insensitive to care about his own needs. The animation style is simple but effective. Khitruk uses split-screens like the panels in a picture-book, in a manner similar to that employed by Norshteyn in The Fox and the Hare (1973). The characters are all drawn as basic caricatures, who bark like jazz instruments when they argue with each other. Khitruck continued this theme of society's selfishness, more successfully in my view, in his film Island (1973), in which the main character is stranded on a tiny island and consistently ignored by every passing vessel. A simple message, but an entertaining film.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Avant-garde: Footnote to Fact (1933, Lewis Jacobs)

Footnote to Fact (1933)
USA, 8 min
Directed by: Lewis Jacobs
Footnote to Fact (1933) was originally intended by director Lewis Jacobs to be the first film in a four-part documentation of the Great Depression, collectively titled "As I Walk." The remaining three installments were never completed, and this film was thought lost until the 1990s, when the original negative was rediscovered by the Anthology Film Archives. As an avant-garde blending of documentary and fiction, the film works. It is similar in style to the many "city symphonies" that were popular in the 1920s, utilising the Soviet montage editing of Dziga Vertov and Hans Richter. In contrast, however, Jacobs centres the film's emotional base around a single character, an old woman sitting alone in her apartment, rocking back and forth. The film uses the woman's rocking motion as a kind of visual motif, juxtaposing it with similar movements in the hustle-and-bustle of the city: a shopper loads fruit into a paper bag, a shoe-polisher goes about his trade, hanging clothing sways back and forth in the breeze.

The film's opening half illustrates the life and vitality of the city, which is contrasted with the lethargy of the rocking woman. Later, Jacobs slows down his editing pace slightly, photographs sparser crowds of people, and portrays the otherwise unseen effects of the Depression: an antique shop goes out of business; homeless men lay asleep on doorsteps, ignored by passers-by. Powerfully, and perhaps a little harshly, Jacobs compares these sleeping men to slaughtered swine carcasses. Footnote to Fact is a good effort at montage, but the old woman in the rocking chair really got on my nerves. For one, she was clearly a young woman dressed up to look old, and her ridiculous appearance – dreary eyes, mouth gaping wide – broke the film's spell every time she appeared on screen. Of course, Jacobs eventually offers us a reason (and a perfectly good one) for why this should be so, but by then the damage was already done. This film can be found in the "Unseen Cinema" box-set, under the volume entitled "Picturing a Metropolis."

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Cartoon: The Old Mill (1937, Wilfred Jackson)

The Old Mill (1937)
USA, 9 min
Directed by: Wilfred Jackson
Written by: Dick Rickard (uncredited)

Walt Disney's series of "Silly Symphonies," which ran between 1929 and 1939, was originally envisioned as a testing-ground for many of the elaborate animation techniques that would eventually be utilised so effectively in the studio's feature-length films. The cartoons, running less than ten minutes, began as brief vignettes of dancing animals and plants (and even human skeletons) set to classical music, such as The Skeleton Dance (1929) and Flowers and Trees (1932), but eventually expanded towards adapting classic fairy-tales, as seen in Three Little Pigs (1933) and both versions of The Ugly Duckling (1931 and 1939). Thus, throughout the ten years that Silly Symphonies were produced, the emphasis was always on visual innovation, and dialogue was always kept to a minimum. Wilfred Jackson's The Old Mill (1937) is perhaps Disney's all-time greatest achievement, and certainly my favourite to date, and was originally conceived for artists to experiment with the animation of animals, rain, wind, lightning, ripples, splashes and reflection, and was the debut of Disney's revolutionary multiplane camera.

Interestingly, that The Old Mill was essentially a trial-run for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) probably contributed to its greatness. Unburdened by any notion of a solid narrative, the film allows the viewer to simply sit back and lose themselves in the atmosphere of the nature scene. The loose plot concerns the wildlife inhabitants of an old mill situated in an isolated swamp, and whose quiet night is suddenly violently interrupted by a terrifying and immensely-powerful storm that threatens to tear their home apart. The cartoon's attention-to-detail is simply staggering, every character lovingly drawn, their every movement and gesture almost poetic in its execution. Disney's radical and expensive multiplane camera, used here for the first time, allowed the artists to communicate animated depth like never before, and the richness of their creation feels so genuine that you could almost step into the cartoon and explore for yourself. The storm effects had come a very long way from those seen in Springtime (1929), and the lightning streaks across the sky with frightening authenticity.

Though Yuriy Norshteyn's Tale of Tales (1979) holds the official title as my favourite work of animation, Jackson's The Old Mill certainly comes a close second. The meticulousness of the animation work is such that I can almost feel the wind and rain beating across my face, and the miniature dramas of the rainstorm – the bird protecting its eggs from the spoke of the wheel, the owl shielding itself from the elements, the mill pitching over in the gale – always keep me gripping my seat in anticipation. The choice of music, too, plays a pivotal role in developing the required atmosphere. The musical tone early in the film is lighthearted and bouncy, with the chorus of croaking frogs forming a melody that sounds a bit like "The Sorceror's Apprentice." I'm unsure of the piece that plays during the storm's onset, but it is wonderful, bringing a frighteningly ethereal tone that suggests something epic and supernatural about this force of nature. A "silly" Symphony this is not; The Old Mill remains one of the most majestic and heartwarming cartoons ever made.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Soviet: Time Out (1984, Priit Pärn)

Time Out (1984)
Soviet Union (Estonia), 9 min
Directed by: Priit Pärn
Written by: Priit Pärn
Priit Pärn's Time Out (1984) is as nonsensical as a Terry Gilliam cartoon, but with even more randomness to spare. The story, such as it is, concerns an overworked cat who wakes up and is immediately engaged in a flurry of stressful morning activities, eventually working himself into a nervous breakdown. At this point, the cat enters an imaginary inner world that temporarily removes him from the chaos of his daily routine, similar to the reveries of Jonathan Pryce's character in Gilliam's Brazil (1985). At this point, any semblance of narrative is thrown out the window. What I found most interesting amid all this craziness was how Pärn accentuated the surrealism of the cat's fantasies by toying with visual perception, a bit like M.C. Escher's tessellations – an apparent river is revealed to be a dwarf's blue hat; a bird rotates its beak to become a wizard's hat; a crow tries to take off, only to find that its tail is a turn-off in the road.

Eventually, the cat reawakens from his daydream and falls back into the chaotic routine to which he's become accustomed. His "escape" into fantasy, oddly enough, was no less hectic than his usual schedule, though he does admittedly have a greater control over the elements of his environment. Priit Pärn's visual style is a departure from the traditional Soviet animation of earlier decades, decidedly less graceful and with a slap-dash quality that suggests the animator was basically making it up as he went {visually, one might venture that the film is closest to the "Nu, pogodi!" series (1969-1993)}. There's even an appearance from a giant stamping foot, probably indicating that Pärn was, indeed, influenced by Gilliam's work on "Monty Python's Flying Circus." I usually enjoy Soviet animation for its gorgeous visuals, so I'm not sure that Time Out was necessarily my sort of film – but, even so, that was a wild ten minutes. I'm sure I'll be revisiting Pärn's other work at some later date.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Avant-Garde: Puce Moment (1949, Kenneth Anger)

Puce Moment (1949)
USA, 6 min
Directed by: Kenneth Anger
Written by: Kenneth Anger
Starring: Yvonne Marquis
Puce Moment (1949) is, oddly enough, my first film from director Kenneth Anger. As soon as it began, I realised I'd discovered a filmmaker who stood well ahead of his time. Is that folk rock playing on the soundtrack? Surely, I told myself, such a song has no place in a 1949 film – but the technique has since become commonplace in movies and music videos. The film's vibrant colour photography clashes uncertainly with the shaky hand-held filming style, suggesting the rising experimental movement of the 1960s. It's peculiar that Anger wasn't even attempting to be "trendy" or "modern" with his film-making style. Puce Moment, originally intended as a feature, was supposed to be emulating the opulent Hollywood lifestyles of the silent era. The film opens with a 1920s movie star (Yvonne Marquis) lavishly searching for a suitable dress from her extensive wardrobe of flapper gowns, before applying perfume, languishing lazily on a chair, and then taking her four dogs for a walk. Strangely, it all barely feels like the 1920s. Does this mean that the film failed in what it was attempting? Maybe, but it's a glorious failure. Anger's condemnation of the movie star's decadent daily routine preempts Billy Wilder's critique in Sunset Blvd. (1950), and his film-making style clearly influenced the experimental cinema of the coming decades. This was my first film from Kenneth Anger, but it certainly won't be my last.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Cartoon: Frolicking Fish (1930, Burt Gillett)

Frolicking Fish (1930)
USA, 6 min
Directed by: Burt Gillett
Frolicking Fish (1930) certainly isn't Finding Nemo (2003), but it's likely that Pixar received at least some inspiration from this early Silly Symphony. When it came to Disney's basic musical cartoons, which sacrificed story for anthropomorphised movement, few directors were more adept than director Burt Gillett, whose finest effort is Flowers and Trees (1932). Here, he takes us beneath the ocean, where life is great. Fish and crustaceans coexist harmoniously, dancing and playing musical instruments; that is, until the evil black octopus arrives to spoil everybody's fun – never trust a mollusc! The Disney animators were fond, where exotic creatures were concerned, of zooming in on their gaping mouths, perhaps to create the sensation that the cinema audience is being swallowed up by those massive jaws. Here, it happens with a fish; in Hell's Bells (1929) it was a demon of some sort, and a lion in Cannibal Capers (1930). This was Disney exploring the unique artistic possibilities afforded by the animation medium, since such shots would have been virtually impossible to replicate in live-action. The cartoon finds some semblance of narrative in its final minute, when the octopus tries to hunt down and eat a terrified fish, which wriggles out from between the octopus' big white teeth (no horny beak on this one) and drops a hefty-looking ship anchor onto his attacker. It's a bloody – or that should be inky – end to one of the most sinister Silly Symphony villains.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Soviet: Conflict (1983, Garri Bardin)

Konflikt / Conflict (1983)
Soviet Union, 7 min
Directed by: Garri Bardin
Written by: Garri Bardin
Having seen all sorts of anti-Cold War films from the United States, it was refreshing to watch a film from the other side in the conflict. At the very least, it's reassuring to know that both sides were equally terrified at the prospect of nuclear war. Garri Bardin's Conflict (1983) is similar in principle to Norman McLaren's Neighbours (1952). However, instead of animating real-life people for an anti-war protest, Bardin uses matchsticks – an appropriate metaphor given that even the slightest spark of conflict could very well have ended in the destruction of our entire race {take the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, for example}. In the film, two groups of matches are separated by an arbitrary boundary line – obviously representing the Berlin Wall – which is guarded vigilantly by armed soldiers on either side. When, by no fault of anyone, the boundary shifts slightly, a minor territory dispute escalates into a globe-shattering altercation.

Conflict has a simple point to make, and it makes it well. The matchsticks from both territories initially emerge from the same matchbox, suggesting that they're merely fighting with themselves over arbitrary distinctions. McLaren's Neighbours had a peculiar quirkiness that, I thought, was counter-productive to the serious message that was trying to be made, but here Bardin makes it work with something similar. But the little visual gags – the cavalry, weapons and vehicles, all made from matchsticks – give way to horror in the final minutes, when the conflict climaxes in a nuclear strike, which leaves armies of matchsticks flailing in the flames. The final shots are not unlike the post-apocalyptic sequences in the Terminator films. Charred matchsticks stand lonely against a barren backdrop, an environment utterly devoid of life. For a long time, that's where we were headed. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Avant-Garde: 21-87 (1964, Arthur Lipsett)

21-87 (1964)
Canada, 10 min
Directed by: Arthur Lipsett

If you've ever thought that the human race was a great thing, then you need to be taken down a peg or two. Why not try some Arthur Lipsett? 21-87 (1964) might just be the bleakest, most pessimistic snapshot of society that I've ever seen, presenting the director's dissatisfaction with and even disdain for contemporary 1960s culture. A seemingly-random collage of urban footage, both scrapped from the archives of the National Film Board of Canada and photographed by Lipsett himself in Montreal and New York City, is mixed with an unrelated soundtrack that muses on the "importance" of religion in everyday life. The end result is to emphasise the emptiness, dehumanisation and alienation of modern man. Footage of a street performer imitating robot movement is followed by a robotic factory arm performing human chores; fashion models mechanically strut the catwalk with blank, impassive faces; middle-aged women browse shop windows, coveting superficial fashions forced upon them by greater society, rather than by their own independent minds.

Lipsett captures ugly, anonymous faces in the street. Each person seems to be lost in the chaos of living, disconnected from his fellow man, staring off into space at something that we do not see. Several spectators spot the camera filming them and gaze uncertainly at it; one man, coming up an escalator, raises a newspaper to obscure his face. These instances of self-awareness could easily have been edited out, but are instead given prominence. Lipsett's camera – and, thus, his film – is showing these people the mechanical emptiness of their everyday lives, but they're in denial, unwilling to exhibit their depravity for the impartial eye of the camera lens. One sequence perfectly encapsulates this distorted self-perception, as men and women playfully grin at warped reflections of themselves in a carnival mirror (one little girl apparently isn't fooled, and recoils tearfully from the grotesque image of herself). Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet (1930) contends that only through the personal suffering of the artist can a beautiful work of art be created. If so, 21-87 is the suffering of its creator.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Comedy: The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933, Clyde Bruckman)

The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)
USA, 21 min
Directed by: Clyde Bruckman
Written by: W.C. Fields

They say that W.C. Fields was unique among comedians, and I'm not going to argue. The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933), generally ranked among his best efforts, wasn't as consistently hilarious as I'd been hoping, but one does certainly recognise that Fields had a style that was all his own. The film opens in the frozen Yukon goldfields, where a prospector sits huddled in the primitive shelter of a wooden hut – I immediately thought of Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925), but then the characters started speaking and the spell was broken. The loose plot concerns a simpleton prospector whose son travelled to the city and was consumed by the bottle, eventually winding up in prison for three years. It all unfolds in mock seriousness, with every character shamelessly hamming their lines to the camera in broad, ridiculous accents. From Fields' apparent contempt for his own storyline, I'd say he was satirising a type of film that was relatively common in the early sound era, the sort of sombre morality tale about the corruption of the Big City on impressionable rural minds.

Perhaps Fields' type of comedy takes some getting used to, and his absurdist style of wit might easily be misconstrued as sloppy or stilted. Are those rear projections supposed to look so ridiculously fake? I'd like to think so, but, then again, I've seen many movies where obviously-bogus backgrounds have been used with a completely straight face. A lot of the time, Fields' lack of subtlety works perfectly. There's absolutely no reason why getting hit in the face with snow after saying "and it ain't a fit night out for man nor beast" should be funny the sixth time around, but I laughed every time it happened. There's also a droll self-referential moment when Fields chokes on the artificial snow and declares, "tastes more like cornflakes." Even so, while good for the occasional chuckle, The Fatal Glass of Beer feels oddly sparse in terms of laugh-out-loud jokes, and I certainly wasn't rolling in the aisles. Straight afterwards, I watched Buster Keaton's Cops (1922), and that actually did have me laughing my head off – but that'd be opening a whole new can of worms, wouldn't it?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Soviet: Welcome! (1986, Alexei Karaev)

Welcome! (1986)
Soviet Union, 10 min
Directed by: Alexei Karaev
Written by: Dr. Seuss (book), Yuriy Koval (writer)
Starring: Anatoli Barantsev, Aleksei Borzunov, Lyudmila Gnilova, Evgeni Leonov, Klara Rumyanova (voice)

Dobro pozhalovat / Welcome! (1986) is an (unauthorised) adaptation of Dr. Seuss' 1948 story "Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose." This ten-minute animated short film features stunning paint-on-glass animation, and, not surprisingly, involved the talents of the two Soviet animators best known for the technique – Alexei Karaev {The Lodgers of an Old House (1987)} as director, and future Oscar-winner Aleksandr Petrov {The Old Man and the Sea (1999)} as art director. The latter would make his co- directing debut two years later with the Mickey Mouse tribute Marafon (1988), and his solo debut the following year with the Oscar-nominated Korova (1989). The paint-on-glass films with which Petrov made his name utilised an animation style that might be described as romantic realism. Welcome! takes inspiration from its source material, developing the inherent zaniness of Dr. Seuss' tale to produce character animation that is slightly goofy; the moose, for example, has a long, thin legs and a head slightly too big for his body, with large, sad eyes that accentuate his emotions.

In the film, a kind-hearted moose on the prowl for vegetation is talked into allowing an insect to hitchhike on his antlers. The bug invites a spider to share the ride with him. A wood-pecker soon joins them. Having already opened up his antlers to one free-loader, the poor moose can't bring himself to refuse any additional requests, and soon he's carting about an menagerie. When, in his search for more food, the moose decides to cross a lake, his passengers choose to exercise their democratic rights, claiming that they should have a say as to the movements of their new "home." Thus, the moose loses his autonomy. I don't want to overstate the political undertones of a children's work, but Theodor Seuss Geisel (penname "Dr. Seuss") was, in his early cartoon career, a passionate opponent of Hitler's fascist regime, and this story suggests to me how dictatorship can arise through seemingly democratic means, and without citizens realising until it's too late. Perhaps Alexei Karaev was consciously reapplying these themes to the history of the Soviet Union.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Avant-Garde: Mechanical Principles (1930, Ralph Steiner)

Mechanical Principles (1930)
USA, 10 min
Directed by: Ralph Steiner One might consider Mechnical Principles (1930) to be the converse of Ralph Steiner's most well-known work, H2O (1929). The latter film was a close-up examination of water, focusing intensely on the reflection and refraction of light by the liquid surface, an entirely natural substance that mesmerises through the sheer poetic randomness of its movements. There's nothing random about the mechanical movements of the former film. Cogs turn, pistons pump – repetitively and relentlessly, Mankind's constructions continue to carve perfect geometric circles. It's a bit like watching mathematics in motion. The transition between each shot is wonderfully smooth, the film constructed as a sort of mechanical waltz.

Around this time, Hollywood directors like Busby Berkeley were engineering extravagant musical numbers in which dancers were utilised as mere cogs in a machine, each movement dependent upon the ability of the individual dancers to perform their role without error. In Mechanical Principles, this perfection is assured, for Man has never been able to replicate the precision of his machines. I've always found it fascinating how two men can view the same thing through very different eyes. There's something almost affectionate about how Steiner frames the perfectly-weighted movement of the factory machinery, and yet this is the same sort of industrial monotony against which Charles Chaplin campaigned in Modern Times (1936). Maybe both artists are right. Mechanical Principles is surely a mesmerising ten minutes, but, had it gone on for much longer, I might have ended up as hopelessly deranged as Chaplin's Little Tramp.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Horror: Vincent (1982, Tim Burton)

Vincent (1982)
USA, 6 min

Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Tim Burton
Starring: Vincent Price (voice)

Vincent (1982) isn't the sort of film that you'd expect to come out of Walt Disney Productions, but it's exactly what you'd expect from Tim Burton. The director's first success, this six-minute animated short is both an affectionate tribute to the acting career of Vincent Price, and a vehicle for Burton's perverse sense of black humour. Vincent Malloy is a seven-year-old boy with an unhealthy obsession with the actor who shares his name, such that he actively wishes to become Vincent Price – or, more accurately, the range of characters that Price so memorably brought to the silver screen. Via increasingly-ghoulish flights of imagination, young Vincent envisages mutating his dog into a zombie henchman, dipping his auntie into hot wax, and attempting to dig up the totting corpse of his dead wife. Unfortunately, I'm not familiar enough with Price's body of work to spot all the references, but I'm fairly certain that among the movies Burton had in mind were House of Wax (1953), House of Usher (1960), The Last Man on Earth (1964) and, of course, The Raven (1963).

The film is animated in a style reminiscent of 1920s German Expressionism, with the continually-shifting walls and furniture serving to convey Vincent's escalating madness. A definite stylistic inspiration would also have been Ted Parmelee's The Tell-Tale Heart (1953), an excellent animated short film (based on Edgar Allen Poe's short story) that utilised Expressionism to emphasise the insanity of its narrator, voiced by James Mason. But Tim Burton goes one better than James Mason, employing the services of Vincent Price himself, who considered the film one of the most memorable tributes he'd ever received. Price narrates the story as a poem, in a manner than suggests the work of Dr. Seuss, but was probably aiming more to emulate Poe's "The Raven," the final lines of which is used to close the story. Like Poe's protagonists in both "The Raven" and "The Tell-Tale Heart," young Vincent is left at the whim of his insanity, offered little opportunity for redemption or resolution. If you can handle Burton's macabre sense of humour, then this is a gem.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Avant-Garde: The Soul of the Cypress (1921, Dudley Murphy)

The Soul of the Cypress (1921)
USA, 7 min
Directed by: Dudley Murphy
Written by: Dudley Murphy
Starring: Chase Harringdine

The Soul of the Cypress (1921) reminds me of two Dimitri Kirsanoff short films from the mid-1930s. Les Berceaux (1935) was an ode to the men who spend their lives at sea, depicting the vast ocean as something magnificent, majestic, and almost immortal. La Fontaine d'Aréthuse (1936) was a mythical fairy-tale, in which a bare-chested hunter pursues a naked water goddess through the forest. Both films placed considerable emphasis on music, and, indeed, the latter was adapted from a classical piece by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. Dudley Murphy's The Soul of the Cypress predates both of these films, but shares the same spirit. The timelessness of the ocean had been celebrated before, as in Griffith's The Unchanging Sea (1910), but here it is reinforced through Murphy's use of mythological fantasy. Just as Kirsanoff's water goddess rises from nature to tempt a humble man, in Murphy's film the Californian coastline – amid the wind-swept cypress trees – yields a beautiful dryad, whose dancing form is framed against the crashing ocean waves.

The dryad (played by the director's wife, Chase Harringdine) is enchanted by the music of a young musician playing on the cliff-side, and she is released from her captivity within a cypress tree by his "Song of the Sea." With her clothing fluttering in the breeze, the dryad dances to the musician's side, who is equally entranced by her beauty and pursues the nymph when she takes flight. The dryad takes sanctuary inside a tree on the cliff-side, and whispers to the captivated musician that she can only be with him if he immortalises himself through death. In Murphy's treatment of the ocean, there's a certain sexual allegory at play: the trees among which the dryad dances bear the phallic connotations implied by the work of early twentieth- century photographer Anne Brigman, who often framed naked women in a primordial environment among trees and boulders, there's a kind of naturalistic eroticism. Contrary to the film's intertitle, it's not love, but a more primal sexual attraction, that leads the young musician to throw himself from the cliff.

A little research uncovered some intriguing details about The Soul of the Cypress. The version featured in the "Unseen Cinema" DVD box-set didn't particularly strike me as "avant-garde," at least not to the extent of its contemporary contributions {Richter's Rhythmus 21 (1921) or Ray's The Return to Reason (1923), for example}. However, critic David E. James (writing for "Film Quarterly" – 2003, vol. 56, no. 3, pp. 25-31) notes that the Library of Congress' surviving print of the film includes a seemingly out-of-place epilogue that is basically pornographic in nature, featuring a naked woman and her lover (different actors to those playing the dryad and the musician) engaging in an explicit sexual act. This extra footage, which I haven't seen, appears to have been shot in conjunction with the main body, but obviously wasn't screened for general audiences. James contends that the sequence ties in with the film's sexual allegory, and that the musician's failure to physically explore his passion for the nymph specifically references the director's failure to consummate his marriage to Harringdine.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Animation: Moonbird (1959, John Hubley)

Moonbird (1959)
USA, 10 min
Directed by: John Hubley
Starring: Mark Hubley (voice), Ray Hubley (as Hampy Hubley) (voice)

The animated short films of John and Faith Hubley (here credited as Faith Elliott) have an air of improvisation about them. While some, like The Hole (1962) and Voyage to Next (1974), were nonetheless structured around a central theme, the husband-and-wife pair were not averse to simply recording the conversations of their own children and animating whatever flights of fantasy happened to transpire. Of this type of film, Windy Day (1968), in which the Hubleys' daughters make surprisingly profound observations on the nature of love and death, is the most impressive I've seen. Moonbird (1959) won John Hubley the first of his three Oscars (also the first of seven nominations), a victory that signalled the wider acceptance of a more experimental, minimalist style of animated film, as opposed to the vibrant cartoons of Walt Disney and Warner Brothers. With Moonbird, the Hubleys animate the improvised late-night adventure of their two sons, Mark and Ray, in which the pair exchange ideas for capturing a giant "moonbird" in their backyard.

The film has a rough, somewhat scrappy, animation style that isn't necessarily aesthetically attractive, but nonetheless complements the nature of the story – which is that of a hastily-scrawled flight of imagination, a spontaneous improvisation of fantasy. The two main characters appear transparent, as though having been artificially transplanted into their dreamworld. This idea sits at the film's heart. Above all else, Moonbird stands as a tribute to the power of imagination, which is most extraordinarily powerful in one's younger, impressionable years; when Santa Claus was an annual visitor, and one's toys each had a distinct personality. The film does perhaps run a few minutes overlong. The Hubley sons say less of interest than their female siblings a decade later, and, rather than wondering aloud about their emotions and ambitions, instead engage in a charming kind of power-play in which the older son issues orders to his rebellious younger brother. All in all, this is a delightful animated short, and a good introduction to the work of the Hubleys.

Cartoon: Cannibal Capers (1930, Burt Gillett)

Cannibal Capers (1930)
USA, 6 min
Directed by: Burt Gillett
Here's a little treasure that's rarely been allowed outside the Disney Vault. When watching Cannibal Capers (1930), one is faced with two options: you can be angered by the cartoonish racial stereotypes, or you can simply laugh, as I did, at the silliness of it all. Nowadays, most viewers are willing to dismiss perceived racism as "a sign of the times," but I think, particularly in this case, to do so is to do both Walt Disney and 1930s audiences a disservice. The caricatures of African tribesmen in Cannibal Capers are so outlandishly exaggerated that they could only have been intended as a spoof, perhaps satirising the xenophobic generalisations that were admittedly prevalent in the popular culture of the time (and they're still around today, so don't feel too vindicated). This cartoon, in line with many of the earliest Silly Symphonies, simply chooses a setting and devotes its inhabitants to a few minutes of dancing: The Skeleton Dance (1929) had skeletons, Hell's Bells (1929) had scary imps, Flowers and Trees (1932) had plants… and so Cannibal Capers has cannibals.

A major theme of the cartoon seems to be the perceived "primitiveness" of the cannibals, as they are frequently mistaken – both by the viewer and other characters – for lower forms of nature. Or perhaps, less cynically, it's more a commentary on how harmoniously the cannibals exist in their environment. For example, we first glimpse the dancers by their stick-thin legs, which are initially mistaken for trees swaying in the breeze. Later, a cannibal attempting to imitate a turtle is mistaken for one by his own villagers, and is promptly tossed into the boiling pot. But this gag can run both ways. An angry lion (introduced with a stunning zoom into his gaping jaws) loses his crown as King of the Jungle, humiliated so decisively by a cannibal that he winds up more closely resembling a (white) man in a lion suit, fleeing on his hind-limbs. Is this British Colonialism getting nipped in the bud by the locals? Also note how closely the cannibals resemble the title character in The Ugly Duckling (1931), reinforcing that cartoon's status as a racial allegory.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Avant-Garde: Allegretto (1936, Oskar Fischinger)

Allegretto (1936)
USA, 3 min
Directed by: Oskar Fischinger

My first film from director Oskar Fischinger {though he did work on Lang's Frau im Mond (1929)} is, I hear, characteristic of his career in film: abstract animation synchronised to a musical rhythm. Allegretto (1936), his first project following his arrival in Hollywood, was originally commissioned as a segment of Paramount's The Big Broadcast of 1937 (1936), but the production was later changed from Technicolor to black-and-white, and only a butchered version of Fischinger's film found its way into the final release. In any case, to deprive the animation of its colours is to remove most of its charm, something akin to watching Fantasia (1940) in greyscale. Fischinger uses the movement of geometric shapes to visually represent music melodies, in this case Ralph Rainger's "Radio Dynamics," but it's the breathtakingly vivid colours that most strongly capture the pulsating energy of the jazz tune.

Something about Fischinger's animation struck me as naggingly-familiar, but I can't quite put my finger on it. The entire film somehow resembles the sort of euphoria that a film character experiences when they step into a mighty Las Vegas casino, entering a world where suddenly everything seems possible {I'm not exactly sure why I specifically envisioned a casino – maybe it was the vibrant choice of colours, the floating diamond shapes, or the fact that I watched The Shanghai Gesture (1941) just last night}. The pulsating geometry also reminded me of the animation sequence in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). Afterall, I suppose that making random subjective associations is exactly what abstract cinema is all about. Allegretto also has the benefit of a swinging jazz track that is massively enjoyable even on its own, but Fischinger adds colour, movement, and brings the music to life.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Horror: Road to Glennascaul (1951, Hilton Edwards)

Road to Glennascaul (1951)
Ireland, 23 min
Directed by: Hilton Edwards
Written by: Hilton Edwards
Starring: Orson Welles, Michael Laurence, Shelah Richards, Helena Hughes, John Dunne, Isobel Couser, Ann Clery

During a break in the filming of The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice (1952), Orson Welles takes the time to recount a creepy "tall tale" allegedly told to him by a broken-down motorist to whom he offered a ride. Welles plays himself in the film, acting not only as the narrator, but more involvedly as the resident storyteller. One can imagine that it was this role, in addition to his obvious talents on the radio, that inspired The Fountain of Youth (1958) – a wonderful half-hour television pilot for "The Orson Welles Show," which boasted a concept not dissimilar to "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," but with Welles taking a more active presence in each episode's production (inconceivably, the show was immediately rejected). One also suspects the film's influence on the BBC's brilliant "Ghost Story for Christmas" series, the most impressive of examples of which are A Warning to the Curious (1972) and The Signalman (1976) {adapted from stories by M.R. James and Charles Dickens, respectively}.

The best kind of ghost stories, I think, that those told through an intermediary – it keeps them grounded in reality, which paradoxically makes them all the more creepy. The viewer's natural inclination is to trust the narrator's word, but in this case the narrator must rely on the word of the motorist, Sean Merriman (Michael Laurence), who could be making the whole story up… or, he could be completely sincere. It's that uncertainty that makes Return to Glennascaul (1951) a perfectly chilling ghost tale, and a fine companion for a cold, lonely winter's night. We must not, of course, underestimate the emotional resonance of Welles' narrating voice, which contributes just as much atmosphere as Georg Fleischmann's hazy photography. The film was nominated for an Oscar in 1954, but lost out to Bear Country (1953), one of Wal Disney's two-reeler nature documentaries. In any case, think about Return to Glennascaul next time you decide to pick up two female hitch-hikers – I, for one, will be following Orson's example!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Drama: What Shall We Do with Our Old? (1911, D.W. Griffith)

What Shall We Do with Our Old? (1911)
USA, 17 min
Directed by: D.W. Griffith
Starring: W. Chrystie Miller, Claire McDowell, Adolph Lestina, George Nichols, Elmer Booth, Donald Crisp, William J. Butler

D.W. Griffith's first film, Those Awful Hats (1909), was designed as a comical public service announcement of sorts. A few years later, the director continued to perform public services, but the complexity of his work had evolved exponentially. Much like A Corner in Wheat (1909), he is here using cinema to make a profound social statement, this particular issue highlighted in the film's title: What Shall We Do With Our Old? After an aging carpenter (W. Chrystie Miller) is fired from his job to make room for young workers, he is unable to find another job, leaving him, penniless, to care for his ailing wife (Claire McDowell). In order to survive, the carpenter reluctantly turns to crime, but is arrested and brought before a kindly, sympathetic judge (George Nichols). Despite the judge's understanding, it is too late for this elderly couple to be rescued from abject poverty: the wife succumbs to her illness, and the carpenter is left grieve his losses and ponder his lonely predicament.

A Corner in Wheat ends with an image of hope. What Shall We Do With Our Old? concludes with an image of despair, a pertinent social problem without any known solution. Griffith doesn't even attempt to propose any sort of resolution, which does admittedly come off as rather hypocritical – it is, after all, one thing to merely acknowledge a problem, and another to try and fix it. But the film is given emotional depth through an opening title that informs us that the story was "founded upon an actual occurrence in New York City," assuring Griffith's undeniable social relevance. Miller is very good in the main role, showing strong emotions in response to his character's hardship. Nichols, as the judge, also does well, playing the sort of sympathetic authority-figure role that Frank Capra might later have set aside for Harry Carey or Harry Davenport. McDowell, as the carpenter's sick wife, is adequate, but quite obviously far younger – 34 years old – than she was supposed to appear.