Canyon Shorts

As I said, reading the Canyon Cinema book just made me want to see more of their films, and so I held a solo screening of some video reproductions of films from their archives.

Notes on the Circus (1966, Jonas Mekas)

Doc footage from his seat at the Ringling Bros. circus, edited to a pulp after the fact, divided into four sections.

1. nervous, jittery views of circus acts: trapeze, clowns, animal acts.
2. more of the same, but towards the end of this section the editing goes hyper and adds superimpositions.
3. picks up where the end of 2 left off. This is likely more fun than an actual circus.
4. all energy, focus be damned.

The guitar/harmonica folk music worked pretty well alongside the images. Mekas repeats songs just as he repeats shots (the same woman doffs her white coat and ascends the trapeze at least three times).
Canyon claims “no post-editing of opticals,” so was he rewinding and re-exposing the film while sitting at the circus?

Here I Am (1962, Bruce Baillie)

A pre-Wiseman verite doc on a local school for mentally disturbed children. Why is the caretaker giving the kids cigarettes?!? Non-sync sound (no narration) with added cello. Nicely paced, and very well preserved. Canyon called it “never before released,” but before when? The DVD notes say it was part of a homegrown newsreel program. “Like the school itself, the camera gives the kids center stage and moves at their pace.”

Fake Fruit Factory (1986, Chick Strand)

Shaky, handheld doc of women who work at the titular factory, talking about sex and food and work, interrupted in the middle by their annual picnic. Non-sync sound, I think – hard to tell since close-ups of hands and bodies and fake fruit are favored over faces. Canyon gets the title wrong on their website and botches the description. Wasn’t Strand one of their founders?

SSS (1988, Henry Hills)

Oh wonderful, a dance film. Many dancers in many locations, all wearing hilarious clothes, rapidly edited in a pleasing way, punctuated by a few seconds of black every once in a while. Best part is the music, orchestral then cartoonish, sounds like a DJ with some electronics, all by Tom Cora, Christian Marclay and Zeena Parkins (and recorded by Kramer). Canyon says “filmed on the streets of the East Village and edited over three years.”

Money (1985, Henry Hills)

No music this time, but lots of musicians and some dancers. Seems like a hundred people on the street were interviewed about money (some were given scripts to read) then their every word was chopped out of context and edited against everyone else, sometimes forming new sentences or patterns from different sources, sometimes just spazzing out all over, interspersed with the musician and dancer clips. Somewhere in there were John Zorn, Fred Frith, Tom Cora, Eugene Chadbourne, Ikue Mori, Bill Laswell, Christian Marclay and Derek Bailey. I’ll bet they play this at every Tzadik party. Hills would seem to have a love for music, a sense of humor and tons of patience. Canyon: “thematically centered around a discussion of economic problems facing avant-garde artists in the Reagan era. Discussion, however, is fragmented into words and phrases and reassembled into writing. Musical and movement phrases are woven through this conversation to create an almost operatic composition.” Good poster quote by J. Hoberman: “If time is money, this 15-minute film is a bargain.”

( ) (2003, Morgan Fisher)

Composed entirely of insert shots from other films. Could be the most intricate murder/conspiracy film of all time, what with all the plots and notes and watches and gambling and guns and knives and secret goings-on. I wish it’d had music. Didn’t recognize a single film, and I couldn’t even find any of the sources by searching character names spotted on notes and letters with IMDB. Shadowplay would be ashamed of my b-movie image-recognition prowess. I really want to do a remake, but the logistics and time involved would be hefty. Fisher is only glancingly mentioned in the Canyon book, but I had this and wanted to watch it.

Thom Andersen:

Fisher appreciates inserts because they perform the “self-effacing… drudge-work” of narrative cinema, showing “significant details that have to be included for the sake of clarity in telling a story,” and he made ( ) to liberate them… to raise them from the realm of Necessity to the realm of Freedom,” to reveal their hidden beauty.

Oh Dem Watermelons (1965, Robert Nelson)

Much talk about this one in the book. A silent, still shot of a watermelon lasts an age, then a singalong with an old racist song – or is it an ironically racist new song? – then some melon smashing with pioneering use of the shaky-cam. The song starts repeating and becomes irritating, as must all avant-garde film soundtracks. This time, Steve Reich is to blame. There’s stop-motion and Gilliam-style cut-out animation. My favorite bits are the dog that appears to poop out a watermelon, and the melon slowly crushed by construction equipment. Made as an intermission film for a theatrical racial satire, Nelson claims to have been inspired by Louis Feuillade.

Samadhi (1967, Jordan Belson)

Eclipses and auroras, perhaps the eyeball of a wizard, five spherical minutes with a blowing, groaning soundtrack.


Samadhi (c) Jordan Belson

The Way To Shadow Garden (1954, Stan Brakhage)

The camera stalks creepily around an empty room. A clean-cut young man comes home, struggles with a glass of water and the bed, dances, reads a book. The camera continues its subtly creepy assault, lingering on light bulbs, but otherwise I’m thinking this is Brakhage’s most performance-based film that I’ve seen, a wordless narrative episode. But then the man claws his eyes out, the film stock reverses, and he seems to find the shadow garden, all blind light and shubberies. The first half makes me think Brakhage could’ve made some killer Sirkian dramas if he’d had the urge.

The Potted Psalm (1947, Sidney Peterson & James Broughton)

Shots of people and things. A graveyard. A snail. An accordion. A funhouse mirror. Dolls suicide. A woman eats a leaf. The cameraman has a beer and a cigarette.

Not the first Sidney Peterson movie I’ve watched, and I still don’t get what he is on about. Kino made an interlaced transfer, hired a woman whose Casio can make neat sounds to record a horrible score.

I had a bunch more in mind to watch, but I suppose I’ll get to them another day.

Buy from Amazon:
Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, 1947-1986
Kino Avant-Garde 2: Experimental Cinema 1928-1954
Henry Hills: Selected Films 1977-2008
Jordan Belson: 5 Essential Films

Canyon Cinema (2008, Scott MacDonald)

I first heard about this book (and Canyon, probably) at this screening at the Nashville Film Festival presented by Dominic Angerame, executive director of Canyon.

Had been meaning to buy it ever since. Coincidentally, the day after I placed my order, Dominic posted a letter declaring that Canyon “can no longer continue as it was originally conceived and changes need to be made that are appropriate to our present day and age.” I wish that such changes included more screenings like the one at NaFF (perhaps in two years, for Canyon’s 50th anniversary) since the book didn’t captivate me the way the films do. I guess infighting between partners and artists at an indie film distributor isn’t so exciting to me.

Divided into sections representing phases of the company’s history: Formation, Incorporation, Revitalization, Intellectualization, Maintenance

Little discussion about films themselves, but much about who gets paid what percentages, festival screenings and censorship, the difficulty of raising funds and the disparity between the famous members (Bruce Conner, Stan Brakhage) whose films rent out more than half the other members combined. Mostly interesting were the reprintings of original Canyon newsletter articles.

Some favorite pieces:
Saul Landau’s account of a 1964 police seizure of Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour
Robert Nelson’s 1968 summary of the Brussels festival films, followed by miscellaneous notes, then another summary of the Bellevue festival.
Robert Pike’s story about a three-minute film called God Is Dog Spelled Backwards
Brakhage’s story of the making of The Text of Light
James Broughton’s “How to Cope with the Question Period”
A couple of Kuchar cartoons
Larry Jordan’s “Survival in the … Film Market of 1979″
Warren Sonbert on film syntax

Buy from Amazon:
Canyon Cinema

Essential Killing (2010, Jerzy Skolimowski)

Vincent Gallo was amazing in this, won an acting award in Venice. He plays a soldier captured by U.S. forces after blowing up three guys with a rocket launcher – at least that’s what I thought. A couple things I read online suggest that he lifted the launcher off another soldier in the cave, or found it there when he was just stumbling by, but that wasn’t how it looked to me. Anyway, he kills enough people over the course of the movie – and is antagonized and tortured enough – that it’s clear (even from the title) that the movie isn’t making him out to be evil nor especially sympathetic. He is trying to stay alive in the midst of social and military conflict. He doesn’t manage, but not for lack of trying. The movie’s many action scenes are tense and powerful, the images are often poetic, and with Gallo’s great performance on top of that, this has become one of my favorite recent films.

After the initial attack, Gallo is pursued by helicopters and deafened by a rocket strike. He’s interrogated and waterboarded, then escapes when a prisoner transport truck tumbles off-road in what turns out to be Poland. He tries to surrender and make himself known to his captors, but sees a chance and kills a couple of guys instead, escaping into the wilderness – later pursued by dogs and falling into a river to escape. Now he’s in the snow on unfamiliar ground, eating insects and berries to survive, starving, having delusions. He hitches a ride on a logging truck and kills a logger, then in the movie’s weirdest scene, assaults a nursing mother to get milk. He ends up at a sympathetic mute woman’s house (Emmanuelle Seigner of The Ninth Gate and Bitter Moon), for one night of rest and recovery. But by now he’s mortally wounded, escapes on a white horse but doesn’t last long.

M. Atkinson:

As a filmmaker with a puzzling half-century of peculiar projects and long silences and catholic passions behind him, Skolimowski has always been a marginal figure, erratically appearing and helming films so disparate he’s a living disputation to the auteur theory. His work defines him as a searcher, a road movie antihero still looking for his mythical home on the horizon. One of the most interesting nomads in a film culture filthy with them, Skolimowski was cut loose from the Eastern Bloc in the late ’60s and has been roaming the plains of the global industries ever since, coming full circle in his new film, lost in the icy Carpathian wilderness.

It’s a film designed to be noticed, a film about the Afghanistan war that doggedly, even perversely, resists overt politics; an on-location survival saga shot with a recognizable American-indie star (Vincent Gallo) who has not a word of dialogue; a physically rough ordeal that’s meticulously staged and framed on the razor’s edge between pulp excitement and arty poeticism but never quite tumbles into either camp.

Red River (1948, Howard Hawks)

Another rockin’ John Wayne/Walter Brennan movie, although this one seems more Westerny than Rio Bravo, what with the cattle drives and Indian attacks. Wayne is a Texas rancher who builds a cattle empire after losing his sweetie to Indians while crossing the Red River years earlier. Now he and his young protege Monty Clift (his first year in Hollywood, five years before From Here To Eternity) take a long, difficult drive north since cattle prices have crashed down south, hoping they’ll hit a railroad town before they hit bandits or Indians. The men mutiny when Wayne becomes a slavemaster, Clift takes over, and there’s a pretty badass showdown between the two at the end, culminating in a happy reconciliation.

Harry Carey Jr. (in one of his first movies) makes the mistake of talking about his lovely wife waiting at home, so he gets killed in a stampede brought on by some idiot who steals sugar from chef Brennan – the movie’s way of saying that life is meaningless. Harry Carey Sr. (in one of his last movies) plays the happy-ending cattle buyer at their destination town. And John Ireland (the coward Robert Ford in I Shot Jesse James) is set up as Clift’s big rival, then his plot thread fizzles out. IMDB says Hawks wanted Cary Grant for the part – I guess Ireland wasn’t an exciting enough player to justify adding another twenty minutes to the film. Remade in the 80′s with James Arness, Ray Walston and LQ Jones.

As usual after we watch a Hawks movie, Katy and I shared an uneasy conversation about auteurism. She accused me of being a Hawksian auteurist, but I still can’t tell a Hawks movie from, say, a Billy Wilder or William Wellman movie. I just tend to like them is all.

I shouldn’t have to look up web articles about this movie since I have the BFI Film Classics book, but it turned out to be way boring. Senses of Cinema talks up Wayne’s oedipal relationship with Clift, then Intl. Cinema Review compares Clift’s and Ireland’s competitive gunfight to an orgasm, so apparently the movie was all about sex and Katy and I didn’t realize.

Buy from Amazon:
Red River DVD

The League of Gentlemen (1960, Basil Dearden)

“Everything’s prepared. We’ve left nothing to chance.”

A tight, charismatic perfect-crime heist movie. Guys with gambling problems, mean wives, fake personas (one pretends to be a priest) and mounting debts join forces under the instruction of a cranky ex-soldier. Turns out they’re all ex-soldiers, specially selected (aren’t they always) for their former military skills. Two heists ensue – first to get military weapons from a training complex (arguably the more exciting of the two), then a gas-mask assault on the bank (definitely the more photogenic). They’re sold out by an eight-year-old witness, going straight from the celebration party (where nobody tries to scam anyone’s share – gentlemen indeed) to the paddy wagon.

The gang’s (mostly) all here:

The film’s writer (Bryan Forbes) is one of the criminal soldiers, as are the great Roger Livesey (years after his Powell/Pressburger films), Lord Richard Attenborough (Flight of the Phoenix), Nigel Patrick (Pandora and the Flying Dutchman) and Jack Hawkins (The Small Back Room, Zulu, Land of the Pharaohs).

Highly enjoyable little movie by Basil Dearden, about whom I still know nothing because I rented this and didn’t get the liner notes. Here we go: “elegantly crafted… noir-tinged dramas that burrowed into corners of London rarely seen on-screen.” Looks like the other three in the box set were more explicitly about British social problems.

M. Koresky:

A lively crime escapade with melancholy undertones, this examination of the instability of a generation of British men may have appealed to Dearden and Relph’s social sensibility: the film takes place more than ten years after the end of World War II, but its main characters are veterans who have not been able to fully reintegrate into civilian life. They find the normal patterns of postwar behavior alienating—going to work, living with wives and children—and are haunted by nostalgia for the masculine community of wartime.

Buy from Amazon:
Eclipse Series 25: Basil Dearden’s London Underground

Iron Man 2 (2010, Jon Favreau)

I was so glad to see a high-quality big-budget comic movie for once, enjoying the story and the evil Russian with a whip and Sam Rockwell trying to outdo Tony Stark as a self-obsessed showman (the movie never lets us forget that Tony, despite his braggadocio, has humanity’s best interests at heart). Then Samuel L. Exposition came along and ruined it. Nothing against Mr. Jackson – he can be awesome – but why cast him in a momentum-killing non-awesome long dialogue scene in a donut shop? After this, the movie wastes a lot of time on Scarlett Johansson’s Avengers character, as if we know or care who the hell she is, plus gives Rourke a go-nowhere back-story, doesn’t punish Cheadle for stealing an Iron Man suit and giving it to the transparently evil Rockwell, and provides Downey with a happy-meal redemption from his so-called dark days (ooh, he’s drunk on his birthday) and a permanent cure for the illness that’s supposedly afflicting him (Katy and I forget some origin-story details from part one). It falls into fragments and never reattains its pre-Samuel-L innocence. Anyway, I liked Mickey Rourke’s electric whip and parts of the final fight scene. And the cockatoo. Katy likes Gwyneth Paltrow, but not as much as in the first movie.

Weirdness: this was written by Justin Theroux of Mulholland Dr. He and Favreau (who cast himself as comic relief) must not have a thing for comic superhero names, since I didn’t know that Mickey Rourke was supposed to be called Whiplash (or Don Cheadle “War Machine” or Scarlett Johansson “Black Widow”) until IMDB told me. A post-credits scene sets up THOR, which we’ll watch some weekday night as soon as it’s free.

Buy from Amazon:
Iron Man 2

Shadow of the Thin Man (1941, W.S. Van Dyke)

The Thin Man Challenge: I like to watch these movies with Katy, not think too hard about them, then see if I can remember a single plot detail a week later. Piecing it together as it comes back to me. Firstly, the series is now saddled with a kid and a celebrity dog, and they each get to waste fifteen minutes before the mystery can get started, then they’re essentially out of the picture.

Once again, Nick is some kind of celebrity detective, attracting much attention wherever he goes, allowed to wander drunkenly onto crime scenes and tamper with evidence. Nora gets involved in the case, but only as much as seems necessary to maintain the formula set up by previous movies. And speaking of the formula, Nick again rounds up the suspects in a single room at the end, reveals the killer’s identity, a struggle ensues, good guys win.

Nick’s friend Paul was what, a reporter? a cop? He’s accused of killing a bookie (and somehow his girlfriend Donna Reed gets arrested too), so Nick starts his own investigation, figures out some horse jockey shot himself by dropping a gun down a shower drain – so an apparent murder was a suicide – and some gambler named Benny found hanging in his apartment was actually set up – the apparent suicide was a murder. Turns out the killer was a police major, the corrupt police force collaborating with gangsters and gamblers – a weird message for rah-rah 1941 Hollywood. I guessed Donna Reed as the killer, only because by the end she’d only had about six lines despite being fourth-billed.

After seeing his name in the IMDB credits, I spent more effort trying to get a screenshot of Tor Johnson than in the rest of this write-up. Almost certain that he’s the one on top here:

Writer Harry Kurnitz had made a name for himself a couple years earlier, writing three movies in under two years (each with a different cast) about a husband and wife detective team (Joel and Garda Sloane), which earned comparisons to the Thin Man series and won him a couple of Nick & Nora sequels.

Buy from Amazon:
The Complete Thin Man Collection DVD

Shadows (1959, John Cassavetes)

I watched the blurry-looking-and-sounding 90′s DVD of this a decade ago, didn’t understand a bit of it and didn’t see what was the big deal. It helps to have some context, to realize that it was unique to release an independent film based on improvisations in America in the 1950′s. And it helps that the Criterion DVD is less murky – some of the dialogue is still hard to make out, but important to appreciating a movie is having a clue what is going on. Not that I’m the world’s biggest appreciator of Cassavetes or jazz music, and this wasn’t some kind of revelation (I still prefer Faces), but at least I feel like I’ve properly seen the movie and I liked it.

It takes a while to figure the character relationships, since the dialogue is naturalistic, no big opening exposition scenes. Hugh is a washed-up, unfashionable singer, taking bad jobs at crappy bars, serious looking with a light beard. His brother Ben (short curly hair, usually sunglasses) plays trumpet, hangs out with friends every night, borrowing money, hitting on girls and getting into fights. And their very light-skinned sister Lelia hangs out with a dreary artsy guy named David who hosts literary meetings. David introduces her to Tony, who literally grabs David’s would-be girl and runs off with her while they’re walking in the park. Lelia’s line after her first sexual experience: “I didn’t know it could be so awful.” This is pretty intense for 1959, a year when Doris Day and Pillow Talk were getting oscars.

Tony visits Lelia’s apartment and can’t deal with the fact that her brothers are black (and therefore so is she), gets all blustery until Hugh chases him out. Tony tries to get himself figured out, but the siblings have moved on – Lelia starts dating a nice (and black) guy named Davey Jones, and Benny ditches his friends and goes off on his own, an evocative ending.

Buy from Amazon:
Shadows (Criterion DVD)

Larry Crowne (2011, Tom Hanks)

Seems like an extremely low-effort movie, managing to coast by on charisma. So I’m not putting in much effort either – stealing the AV Club’s plot description:

Hanks plays the title character, a divorced Navy veteran and longtime employee of a Walmart-like chain who’s fired because he never went to college, thus can’t advance any further in the company. Rather than filing what seemingly should be an extremely lucrative wrongful-dismissal suit, Hanks follows the advice of the quirky next-door neighbors (Cedric The Entertainer, Taraji P. Henson) and enrolls in a community college. There, he strikes up a friendship with even-quirkier fellow student Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who takes on the duties of a strictly platonic Manic Pixie Dream Girl, giving Hanks a makeover, enlisting him into her “gang” of moped enthusiasts, and encouraging his interest in one of his teachers, a bitter, perpetually hungover English instructor played by Julia Roberts.

This is Hanks the lovable everyman, not Hanks the serious oscar nominee. In fact, if this was the first thing you’d seen with him or Julia Roberts, you’d assume they’re on the same bland caliber as Aston Kutcher and Anne Hathaway. Not much of a comedy, just a lightly entertaining drama – watching the trailer to get screen shots, it contains most of the movie’s jokes. Certainly not offensively bad, but I’m slightly offended at its total lack of rough edges.

Pam Grier is looking good. Grace Gummer looks distractingly like her mother Meryl Streep (it’s weird to see a 24-year-old Streep sitting next to 55-year-old Hanks, like one of those commercials featuring dead movie stars looking young again and trying to sell you a car). Economics professor George Takei was the highlight of the film by a long shot. I already forget who Holmes Osbourne (of The Box) played. And Bryan Cranston (Little Miss Sunshine) was convincing as Roberts’s loser husband.

When I look back on Larry Crowne, I want to think of Wilmer Valderrama on a scooter:

Katy liked it. Glad you liked it, Katy! Sorry if I was grouchy about your movie, and also for what I said about Anne Hathaway.