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.