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.