Masterworks of Avant-Garde Film: 1952-1966

Watching shorts from the Flicker Alley blu-ray, part three.

Abstronic (1952 Bute & Nemeth)

Animation based around electronic imagery from oscilloscopes, set to two catchy tunes. What the future looks like.


Bells of Atlantis (1952 Ian Hugo)

Very abstract imagery. You can often tell he’s filming real objects (woman in hammock) but it’s been blue-filtered and overlaid with patterns to appear underwater. Pulsing and whooping electronic sounds by the Barron couple, visual effects by Len Lye and narration by Anaïs Nin – it’s a pretty cool movie, not a favorite, but made by remarkable collaborators.


Eaux d’artifice (1953 Kenneth Anger)

Seen this before. The imagery is supposed to be erotic but I always end up pondering fountain design and mechanics.


Evolution (1954 Jim Davis)

Wild, almost organic light patterns
Cellophane reflections give an electric glow.
Shifting light blobs that look like colored liquid being pressed under glass.


Gyromorphosis (1954 Hy Hirsh)

Hirsh filmed segments of a sculpture with colored lights and overlaid them spiraling around and inside each other. The result is spindly bits, lines and grids and spokes, all spinning in air like the visual representation of an Autechre song (it’s actually accompanied by some light chiming jazz).


Hurry, Hurry! (1957 Marie Menken)

Wriggling sperms behind a sheet of flames, set to battlefield sound effects covered in horrific scratching. Not nearly as much fun as her similarly-titled Go! Go! Go!. The liners say Menken was “physically imposing” and her relationship with her poet husband inspired Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which sounds just awful. Don’t I have a documentary about her somewhere?


NY, NY (1957 Francis Thompson)

Kaleidoscope-refracted fly-eyed process shots of NYC, with synched Disneyish orchestral music by Gene Forrell. An absolute stunner – maybe the best find of this collection. Film Quarterly reveals that Thompson worked on perfecting it for a decade, screening it at MOMA to “a thunderous ovation” in 1952, but still reworking it for five more years.


Castro Street (1966 Bruce Baillie)

Similar to the last film in a way: abstract-ish view of a city that ends up involving construction workers and transportation. Great sound layering on this one. I guess from watching Baillie’s Here I Am and Valentin de las Sierras I assumed he was less avant-garde and more a documentarian of the underclass.

Sitney:

Baillie occasionally uses slightly distorted images of the trains and the railroad yard with prismatic colors around the border of distinct shapes. He also uses images which were recorded by an improperly threaded camera so that they appear to jump or waver up and down on the screen.

Lucy Fischer, from an astounding 9-page analysis in Film Quarterly:

Castro Street is, above all else, a film of hyperbolic superimposition; from beginning to end it creates a uniform texture of densely enmeshed imagery … Rather than create a sense of superimposed images in dialectical conflict, Baillie works against this to create a sense of coherent union … As Baillie has phrased it in relation to Quick Billy, his matting strategy is one of overlaying imagery so that it “looks like it was all invented or occurring at the same moment.”


9 Variations on a Dance Theme (1966 Hilary Harris)

Dancer in a bare room does a short routine, then again from a different angle. When he starts with the extreme closeups, editing between angles and camera movements to match the dancer’s motions it gets really great. The liners: “informed by his notions of kinesthetics, in which images are structured around movement with the camera in constant motion.”

E. Callenbach in Film Quarterly:

The dancing is cool and straight, by a girl who wears long woolies and never bats an eye; she is not being Modern and not trying to express her soul, but doing a curious ritual action with its own internal logic and rhythm. Watching her is like watching a musician play; it has an immense technical interest as well as the delights of motion.

Koyaanisqatsi (1983, Godfrey Reggio)

Mesmerising footage using slow-motion and time-lapse to make ordinary things (clouds, a night drive, video games, stock exchange) look wonderous.

Glass:

Several generations have grown up looking at those images, but in ’78 they were extremely startling and it was like looking at the world for the first time.

Reggio: “It’s not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words. It’s because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live.”

Rebaixes!

I knew what Reggio was going for with the images, but was pondering how, until the final title cards (defining the title as life in turmoil / disintegrating / out of balance), it’d be possible to see most of the movie as a positive celebration of technological progress. Reggio apparently meant it to be ambiguous in this way.

Set to a rightly celebrated Philip Glass score (reminded me at times of the latest Tortoise album), shot by Ron Fricke (Baraka, Chronos), played in competition in Berlin (with La Belle Captive and Pauline at the Beach). But most importantly, someone at IMDB has figured out how many frames of this film contain topless footage of Marilyn Chambers (four).

Pruitt-Igoe:

From the extras it looks like the movie could’ve become a hippie happening, with staged art events and an Allen Ginsberg spoken-word response soundtrack, before the concept was reworked. Reggio was inspired to filmmaking by Los Olvidados and there’s a good segment on his ACLU-sponsored anti-surveillance campaign.

Summer Wars (2009, Mamoru Hosoda)

A most unusual movie. Katy loved it and wants to see more like it, if such a thing exists. Opens in Oz, which is like a Miiverse Second Life, then quickly becomes the story of Kenji, a student and not-terribly-important freelance Oz coder, who gets talked into joining cute girl Natsuki at a family reunion to pretend to be her boyfriend.

Family reunion conflict:

Oz gets super-hacked, which has real-world consequences because, unlike Second Life or Miiverse, people and companies use it for actual business, and traffic signals and emergency services can be accessed through it. After the family’s beloved grandma dies, they pool their real and online skills to stop the Oz hacker, with some great digital swarm animation along the way.

One of the few movies I’ve watched recently without reading any critic reviews/comments first – just looked interesting when Alamo programmed it last month – and now all I can find is Adam Cook hating on it at Letterboxd. Good thing I didn’t read that sooner, since we’re now looking forward to more of Hosoda’s movies.

The Mermaid (2016, Stephen Chow)

An extremely silly movie that falls back on the ol’ “villainous developers destroying old beloved thing to build new thing for rich people” plot. In this case, the lead evil developer Liu Xuan (Chao Deng, the albino from Detective Dee) is convinced to halt his project and save the mermaid community after falling for mer-Shan (“Jelly” Lin), but his partners (led by his girlfriend, CJ7‘s Kitty Zhang) double down on the mermaid-killing and Liu has to stop them.

Mermaid attack:

Effects-filled fantasy with interspecies love and a strong environmental message becomes the highest-grossing movie in the country – so this is China’s Avatar. Fun movie, valuable less for its story than its random jokes and fun side characters.

Octopus (Show Lo of Journey to the West):

Framing-story scam artist (Yang Neng):

Rich Guy With Jetpack (Jifeng Zheng):

Police Sketch Artist:

Paths of Glory (1957, Stanley Kubrick)

This is France, but we’re not bothering with subtitles or even accents, because those hadn’t been invented yet in the 1950’s. WWI, fighting against Germany, with rightly celebrated tracking shots through the trenches, from the clueless higher-ups patrolling the men they know nothing about, to the middleman Major Kirk Douglas, a serious star some five years after The Big Sky. Posh general Adolphe Menjou (in one of his final films) has pressured scar-faced general George Macready (evil older husband of Gilda) into commanding an attack to capture a hill in exchange for a promotion. The attack will be a huge failure, killing hundreds of men. Two higher-ups (Gen. George and Lt. Roget) will act supremely dishonorably, the former by sending men to die in a pointless and poorly-planned maneuver and ordering fire upon his own troops, the latter by personally killing a subordinate with a grenade in a cowardly moment. But both will get off without punishment, instead picking three soldier representatives to die by firing squad for the operation’s failure, futilely defended in military court by Kirk.

Three dead men: Paris (Kiss Me Deadly star Ralph Meeker) because he’s the only witness to Lt. Roget’s murder of a soldier, Ferol (Timothy Carey, who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the movie, but it’s wonderful) and Arnaud (Lloyd the Bartender from The Shining), who had a great pre-fight speech about death vs. pain, and gets knocked down by Ferol in their holding cell and has to be executed while unconscious on a stretcher.

I thought of it as a powerful anti-war film (with a different approach to the insanity of war than Dr. Strangelove), but Gary Giddins’s commentary says it’s not exactly anti-war, but “about power, class, manipulation and the absurdity of war as a continuation of those civilian instincts.” He also says the pre-battle politicking between officers isn’t in the source novel.

The Future Mrs. Kubrick:

Menjou at Marienbad:

J. Naremore:

Kubrick is especially good at drawing sharp visual and aural contrasts between the château where the generals plan the war and the trenches where the war is fought. The Schleissheim Palace outside Munich, where much of the action takes place, later became a location for another film that depicts upper-class intrigues amid the architecture of a decadent past – Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad – and the opening sequence in the palace interior, where Adolphe Menjou suavely manipulates the ramrod stiff but insecure George Macready, was influenced by one of Kubrick’s favorite directors, Max Ophuls, who had died on the day it was staged.

Masterworks of Avant-Garde Film: 1940-1951

Watching shorts from the Flicker Alley blu-ray, part two.

Tarantella (1940 Bute & Nemeth)

Abstract designs move in time to music, a la An Optical Poem and some of the Len Lye films. Bold and colorful.

Lewis Jacobs in Film Quarterly:

At first glance, the Bute-Nemeth pictures seemed like an echo of the former German pioneer, Oscar Fischinger, one of the first to experiment with the problems of abstract motion and sound. Actually, they were variations on Fischinger’s method, but less rigid in their patterns and choice of objects, tactile in their forms; more sensuous in their use of light and color rhythms, more concerned with the problems of depth, more concerned with music complimenting rather than corresponding to the visuals … Fischinger worked with two-dimensional animated drawings; Bute and Nemeth used any three-dimensional substance at hand: ping-pong balls, paper cutouts, sculptured models, cellophane, rhinestones, buttons, all the odds and ends picked up at the five and ten cent store. Fischinger used flat lighting on flat surfaces; Bute and Nemeth employed ingenious lighting and camera effects by shooting through long-focus lenses, prisms, distorting mirrors, ice cubes, etc.


Pursuit of Happiness (1940 Rudy Burckhardt)

These NYC mini-docs keep getting better. This one is mostly focused on people and advertisements. Towards the end, Rudy goes nuts in the editing, rotating and slowing and superimposing and splitting images. “Intentionally silent,” which I cannot abide, so I played some Cyro Baptista.


1941 (1941 Francis Lee)

Flowing paint and broken glass, an abstract visual response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor made just before the filmmaker went to war.


Meshes of the Afternoon (1943 Maya Deren)

This is the best. Cocteau-like death-dream narrative from every perspective, with doubling, mirror-faces, slo-mo – all the effects used to great poetic purpose. Wrote (a bit) more here.

Deren:

This film is concerned with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.


Meditation on Violence (1948 Maya Deren)

A man practicing wutang and shaolin moves to flute music. Drums are added, and completely take over the soundtrack as the man warps to an outdoor setting with a sword and costume. A few token slo-mo and freeze shots then he’s back indoors. Apparently it’s much more complex than it looks and Deren had theories and charts to explain what she was doing, but Sitney calls it “a film overloaded by its philosophical burden.”


In the Street (1948 James Agee, et al)

Documentary of kids of all ages hanging out and playing in the street. Builds to a climax with a war of boys fighting with stockings filled with gravel, then chills out again, then a montage of close-ups. Costumes are involved, and rambly piano music accompanies.


Four in the Afternoon (1951 James Broughton)

Four vignettes set to Broughton poems. 1. Jump-roping woman imagines possible suitors. 2. Gardening man imagines finding a date. 3. Prancing woman in garden is pursued by even prancier man. 4. Sad man in rocking chair dreams of ballerinas past. This one has some nice reverse-action.

Sitney:

For each of the four film poems there is a distinctive cinematic trope; with Game Little Gladys it is stop-motion manifestation and disappearance of possible lovers; in the case of The Gardener’s Son it is a composition-in-depth with the boy in the foreground and the woman he desires in the background … The final section, The Aging Balletomane, may be the finest … Reverse motion is the trope of this episode.

Black Mirror season 2 (2013)

Finally got around to watching the rest of these episodes (though not the Jon Hamm Christmas special) in prep for the upcoming American launch.

Be Right Back

After her cellphone-addict boyfriend Ash dies in a car crash, pregnant Hayley Atwell (Agent Peggy Carter in the Marvel movies/shows) signs up for a service that analyzes his voice recordings and social media posts and creates a Siri-like program she can speak with. Then she beta tests the next version, where a folded-up pseudo-flesh Ash (Domhnall Gleeson of About Time, who plays the human in the similar Ex Machina) is shipped to her house. But it turns out the way you behave at home with your spouse can’t be easily predicted by your social media posts, and even though Ash is able to learn, Hayley finds him creepy and finally banishes him to the attic. Director Owen Harris also made Holy Flying Circus.


White Bear

My favorite of the bunch, either because it’s the most horrific or because it costars Michael Smiley as a dystopian game show host. Victoria (TV’s Lenora Crichlow) wakes up confused and amnesiac, is told that most of the world has been consumed by a mysterious screen transmission, and those who haven’t are insanely murdering random citizens – so The Signal meets The Purge. Vic and a couple refugees come across Smiley in the woods, who first appears to be on their side, then is revealed to be one of the killers. After her thrilling escape, all this is revealed to be a complicated piece of theater. Nobody is dead, except the child Vic kidnapped and murdered, for which her punishment is to live in this nightmare, being constantly pursued and terrified, humiliated in front of a live audience, then her mind zapped with the MIB forgetfulness-ray for the next show. Director Carl Tibbetts has worked on Hemlock Grove, did a little-known plague thriller called Retreat with a promising-looking cast.


The Waldo Moment

Comedian Jamie (Daniel Rigby of the show Jericho) who talks through a cartoon bear called Waldo finds his attack on politicians going viral. Jamie’s more of an insult comic than a politician, but his producers smell a hit and strong-arm him into continuing, even entering Waldo into the campaign, at the expense of his sanity and his relationship with a woman in the race. This isn’t quite dark enough for Black Mirror, so at the end a guy from an unnamed U.S. agency meets them wanting to use Waldo to destabilize global elections. Based on a Nathan Barley sketch, I think. Director Bryn Higgins has a series of historical hospital dramas.

Unstable puppetmaster:

Dignified debate:

Jamón, Jamón (1992, Bigas Luna)

In a small town (interests: bullfighting, the local underwear factory), wimpy Armando del Rio gets his girlfriend Penelope Cruz pregnant, to the horror of Armando’s mother (Stefania Sandrelli of The Conformist), who hires virile Javier Bardem to seduce Penelope. Kinda weird and fun movie, with some uneven melodrama.

Quoting myself in an email: “Favorite part is how they emphasize that this is a nowhere town by showing tractor trailers blowing past in every scene.”

And again:

That scene [the battle to the death with legs of jamon] is the movie’s downfall in a nutshell. It all started out a wacky, bizarre comedy with nude bullfighting, topless Penelope Cruz, confused young lovers, bitchy feuding parents, oedipal complexes and lots of jamon… then gradually turns dark and serious, while still trying to remain focused on giant testicles. So in that final jamon-fight, one character is comically whacked in his comically huge groin area, and three seconds later another character is tragically killed and everyone is sad. We didn’t buy the tonal shift.

Marsha Kinder’s Film Quarterly review points out that we missed lots of cultural references:

In its violent climax, Jamón Jamón uses a pair of ham bones to parodically reproduce Goya’s famous painting, “Duel with Cudgels.” In the process it also evokes Saura’s serious adaptation of this image in Lament for a Bandit (1963), with its overly dramatic music and its stylized movements between distancing long shots and brutal close-ups – an alternation that makes it difficult for us to miss the studied allusion. Yet Bigas Luna’s bathetic choice of weapon also brings to mind Almodóvar’s murderous ham bone in What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984).

Luna won an award in Venice and Bardem was noticed for his acting. Nominated for all the Goya awards, but trounced by the other Penelope Cruz movie in her debut year in film, Belle Epoque. Luna figured his movie’s success was due to casting Javier Bardem as a guy with big balls, so he did that again the following year with Huevos de Oro.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973, Peter Yates)

A tired-looking Robert Mitchum is a crook trying to stay out of jail by making deals to give up his friends. His fellow crooks are suspicious of him, and the cops owe him no particular loyalty, so it looks increasingly (to us, if not to Mitchum) that there’s no way out. Shortly after the cops get the drop on Eddie’s bank robber friends, Eddie is unceremoniously executed by the bartender he thinks is his friend (Peter Boyle of Taxi Driver). At least they had a nice night out at a hockey game beforehand.

I especially dig the general atmosphere (and the funk guitar soundtrack). Everyone acts cool but threatening. C. Stebbins called it a “relentlessly melancholic film where chess pieces are moved through quiet back-dealings and dialogue exchanges infused with ever-maneuvering fatalism.”

Mitchum, unamused:

Kent Jones:

There’s not a punch thrown, and only two fatal shots are fired, but this seemingly artless film leaves a deeper impression of dog-eat-dog brutality than many of the blood-soaked extravaganzas that preceded it and have come in its wake … Two crisply executed bank heists and a logistically complex parking-lot arrest aside, the kinetic excitement here is sparked by the verbal and gestural rhythms between the actors as they plead for their lives across dingy Beantown tabletops.

Boyle and Jordan:

Laughs: Katy told me Peter Bogdanovich was in the TV show she’s watching, and I was seeing him everywhere in this movie – turns out most men in 1973 looked like Peter Bogdanovich. I also got chuckles from the lead cop (Richard Jordan of Logan’s Run and Interiors) being named Dave Foley, and another character called Jackie Brown.