Silent Shorts at Emory

Hugo-inspired Melies shorts, followed by Melies-inspired silent shorts, followed by Sherlock Jr. Everything except A Trip to the Moon had live music by Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton, and the films were introduced and attended by every Emory film person I’ve ever seen. A great program – Katy loved it too.

A Nightmare (1896)
Melies is trying to sleep, but different people keep appearing in his bed.

The Man With the Rubber Head (1901)
Magician Melies reveals that he’s got his own head in a box, and can inflate and deflate it using a bellows and a valve. Magician Melies is too excited, and Melies Head is super flustered. It goes on like this until M.M. decides to let a passing clown inflate his head, then he is pissed at the clown when it explodes. What did M.M. think would happen??

Extraordinary Illusions (1903)
A straight-up magic show, with things turning into other things. The beauty is he cuts on the action, so to speak, transforming things as they’re thrown into the air.

The Melomaniac (1903)
Conductor Melies lays out sheet music onscreen using eight Melies Heads as notes. Much fun for the musicians.

The Infernal Cauldron (1903)
A devil throws people into a pot, I think there was fire and maybe an explosion – I was mostly staring at the vivid hand-coloring.

A Trip to the Moon (1902)
A group of wizards stands around talking for three minutes – longer than any of the previous films – before they finally decide to take any trips to the moon. What was that all about? After the explorers journey to the moon and make moon men explode by whacking them with umbrellas, they capture one alien (sort of – he grabs onto their capsule) and bring him home triumphantly to an appreciative crowd. In my remake, I would have the moon man suddenly grab an umbrella and whack the mayor, making him explode. Hyper coloring and nonsense music by Air.

The Haunted Curiosity Shop (1901, Walter Booth)
Very Melies-style thing with a sarcophagus and skeleton and throwing someone piecemeal into a pot.

The ‘?’ Motorist (1906, Walter Booth)
Two complete psychos run over a cop, drive up a building, circle the moon, ride on Saturn’s rings, then escape police by turning their car temporarily into a horse. One of the ten best films ever made, according to Ian Christie. I’m inclined to agree.

The Dancing Pig (1907, Pathe Freres)
Someone in a sick pig suit harasses a girl, is forced to strip, then dances for about a hundred minutes. One of the ten best films ever made, according to nobody ever.

Princess Nicotine (1908, J. Stuart Blackton)
Two smoke fairies harass a weirdly antisocial smoker, featuring some matchstick stop-motion.

Fantasmagorie (1908, Emile Cohl)
Holy crap. One minute of trippy stick-figure animation, eating itself.

How a Mosquito Operates (1912, Winsor McCay)
A balding mosquito the size of a man’s head sucks gobs of blood out of the sleeping man after sharpening his proboscis, repeating his actions frequently since McCay discovered the joy of animation reuse. One of the ten best films ever made, according to Mike Leigh.

Sherlock Jr. (1924, Buster Keaton)
Presented on 35mm, as was A Trip to the Moon. What I wrote last time still goes, except this time the music was much better.

The Dead (1987, John Huston)

Salman Rushdie came better prepared this time. He’s a fan of John Huston in general, but after programming the long-unseen Wise Blood last year for his “great adaptations” series, he turned out not to like the adaptation very much. This one he talked about as if he’d just watched it.

It’s quite a strange movie, and seems profoundly appropriate as a great action/adventure director’s final film. Opens with some friends arriving at a small party hosted by a couple of older women, spends ninety minutes at the party, then a short cab ride home with Anjelica Huston (oscar-winning for her previous John Huston film) and her husband Donal McCann (obviously not a huge film actor, was in Rawhead Rex the previous year, and not even in the lead). She confesses to her husband about a boy who loved her when she was in high school, who loved her with a passion her husband has never known, who died when she left town. And after she falls asleep, he looks out the window, his thoughts in voiceover are the James Joyce story’s celebrated final paragraph.

Ebert has a really wonderful write-up on the film:

The Dead ends in sadness, but it is one of the great romantic films, fearless in its regard for regret and tenderness. John Huston … had an instinctive sympathy for the kindness with which the guests at the Misses Morkan’s party accepted one another’s lives and failings. … Gabriel is the witness to it all. An early shot shows the back of his head, regarding everyone in the room. Later he will see his wife, finally, as the person she really is and always has been. And he will see himself, with his ambitions as a journalist, the bright light of his family, the pride of his aunts, as a paltry fellow resting on unworthy accomplishments. Did these thoughts go through John Huston’s mind as he chose his last film and directed it? How could they not? And if all those sad things were true, then he could at least communicate them with grace and poetry, in a film as quiet and forgiving as the falling snow.

The only actor I recognized (besides Huston, of course) was Colm Meaney in a minor role. Also in the room here Dan O’Herlihy (Buñuel’s Robinson Crusoe), Donal Donnelly (of Richard Lester’s The Knack) as a drunk, Helena Carroll (The Friends of Eddie Coyle) as one of the hostesses (don’t know if she’s the one in charge or the one who sings a song who McCann imagines dead in the final monologue) and Marie Kean (Barry Lyndon’s mother).

Month of 121 Shorts: Silent/Early Cinema 1

November was Shorts Month! All shorts were watched at home on video, except for an outing to the November edition of Bizarro Saturday Morning, at which I fell asleep during the only theatrical short, tired out by episodes of Casper, Ultraman and Rocket Robin Hood, so it’s sadly not represented here.

The Policemen’s Little Run (1907, Ferdinand Zecca)
Tedious, undistinguished little romp, wherein cops chase a dog for stealing food, then the dog chases the cops. Fakey backgrounds ensue. Ferdinand Zecca, director of Kissing in a Tunnel (not the 1899 original or the 1899 remake, but the 1901 remake), later co-directed one of the first feature-length (well, 45 minutes) films.
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Troubles of a Grasswidower (1908, Max Linder)
The Mr. Mom of its time. Dude is an asshole so his wife leaves him, goes home to mother. Dude then fails to do the simplest household tasks until everything is in ruins and his wife returns to shame him. Terrible! Well, it’s slightly more bearable than the cops chasing the dog. Linder must’ve played the widower; he wrote and starred in plenty more shorts, such as Max’s Hat, Max Takes Tonics and Max and Dog Dick (?!)
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Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics (1911)
Now that’s more like it. Winsor announces he’s going to make an animated moving picture, some blowhard dudes laugh at him, then he damn does it and it’s brilliant. One should never doubt the author of Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend.
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Winsor at work:
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Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906, Edwin S. Porter)
Most of the movie is the guy drinking, eating and going home, with finally some actually dreaming there at the end. His shoes fly off on strings, some stop motion, some Exorcist bed-bucking and Little Nemo bed-flying. The best part, with little devils beating him from above, looks like a Melies-lite advertisement for headache powder. One assumes he’s speaking the punchline at the end, but there’s no intertitle. Comic strip was better!
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Winsor would later create his own animated Rarebit films, and Melies would make the probably unrelated Dream of an Opium Fiend in 1908.

The Telltale Heart (1928, Charles Klein)
I love total Caligari-ripoff expressionism in cinema, and there isn’t enough of it so I was happy to find this. Completely excellent, probably my favorite Telltale Heart yet. I don’t mean to disparage the recently-watched Ted Parmelee animated version and I do miss the rich voice of James Mason, but everything works here – the Caligari sets and fonts, the acting of the lead fellow, his crazy-POV version of the inspectors and the montage and effects (overlays and mirrors).
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Depending who you believe, this was either directed by Klein (a writer/director up to the 40’s) or Leon Shamroy (cinematographer through the 70’s who worked with Fritz Lang, also shot The Robe, Caprice and Planet of the Apes).
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Fall of the House of Usher (1928, James Watson & Melville Webber)
Every version of Telltale Heart re-tells the story with narration or titles, but this film tells the Usher story through mystifying visuals… and since I’m not familiar with the story I still don’t know exactly what happened, but boy was it awesome.
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What if cinema had ended up looking more like this? What if poets were directors? The mind boggles. I’ll bet Cocteau loved this (or despised it since he didn’t think of it first).
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dream sequence from When The Clouds Roll By (1919, Victor Fleming)
A semi-remake of Rarebit Fiend! Douglas Fairbanks eats some Welsh rarebit (melted cheese on toast) along with mince pie, lobster and an onion. Not a drunken fool like the original rarebit fiends, DF is conned into eating the nightmarish midnight snack by a mad doctor. He then runs around doing stunts on horses, trampolines and camera-trick houses, pursued by ghosts, a party of society women and giant costume versions of the foods he ate. I am definitely dressing up as rarebit next halloween.
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Oramunde (1933, Emlen Etting)
Woman in a too-long white dress dances on the rocks to express her sadness. Made me sad so I guess it’s pretty good.
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Hands (1934, Ralph Steiner & Willard Van Dyke)
Hands, falling, against black, doing stuff. Montage of hands doing stuff on location. Hands getting money for doing stuff. Hands buying stuff, taking vacation, getting married to other hands. Counts as propaganda somehow.
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Coco Before Chanel (2009, Anne Fontaine)

Brooding designer Coco Chanel meets visionary Igor Stravinsky, and sparks fly in this fictionalized bio-romance… oh wait, no that’s a different movie entirely. So what happens in this one? Coco (Audrey Tautou) is a young seamstress in a song-and-dance routine with her sister (Marie Gillain, the girl from My Father The Hero), but dreams of independence. Shacks up with an older, thin-mustached guy Etienne (Benoît Poelvoorde, Belgian star of Man Bites Dog) then falls for young thick-mustached guy Boy (Bostonian Alessandro Nivola of Junebug and Jurassic Park III). After she’s made enough money selling hats with help of actress friend Emmanuelle Devos (star of Resnais’s new Wild Grass, Mathieu Amalric’s girlfriend in A Christmas Tale), she leaves them both, becomes a solitary superstar and never loves again (except, assuming either movie is true, Igor Stravinsky).

Seemed slightly better than your average “famous historical person in love” kinda movie. They pull off a bit of drama, and one memorable image (postscript-Audrey sitting on a mirrored staircase as very modern-looking models descend, applauding). But remove Coco Chanel from the title/script and replace her with a nameless fictional character and this never would’ve made it into theaters. It’s supposedly exploring the mystique of this famous designer, but never really does so, barely touching on the design elements she is known for, just throwing together (or making up) biographical details. Katy didn’t love it either, or I’d try to be nicer.

Shorts watched June 2009

Poyraz (2006, Belma Bas)
Rural people sure live quaint and handsomely photographed lives!
Nuri Bilge Ceylan was thanked in the credits

Why Play Leapfrog (1949, John Sutherland/MGM)
Let’s hear it for capitalism! Clever cartoon describes why inflation is okay and raw material costs don’t mean much. A boring explanation of why America is so darned great that ends by telling factory workers to be more efficient and come up with smart cost-saving ideas which will lead to greater pay increases.

Balance (1989, Christoph & Wolfgang Lauenstein)
Ominous stop-motion – five mute guys with numbers on their shirts and telescoping fishing poles in their shirts are on a balanced platform suspended in space. One catches a sort of music box and the others get greedy, leading to a fight which ends with one guy on the far end of the platform from the box.

Broken Down Film (1985, Osamu Tezuka)
It’s a popeye-like cowboy cartoon except that the film’s projection problems (hair in the gate, scratches, countdown leader, etc) are part of the story. Cute.

and a few from the Unseen Cinema box set…

Paris Exposition Films (1900, James White)
Some one-minute films at the Eiffel Tower a decade after its construction. Best part is this guy on the left side of the screenshot. People were walking up to the camera and this guy saw his chance for stardom, so he prepares himself for some manuever (maybe a backflip) but blows it, stopping instead to shake hands with an acquaintance offscreen as the film runs out.
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Captain Nissen Going Through Whirlpool Rapids, Niagara Falls (1901, Edison Co.)
It takes longer to type the title than to watch the film, which is of some submarine-looking craft bobbing in a river. Found a wonderful tale online of Nissen’s stupid death four years later, but unsure if it’s true.
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Down The Hudson (1903, Frederick Armitage & AE Weed)
Much more interesting than the submarine thing – New York riverfront over a hundred years ago. I assume lots more of this stuff will be on disc five.
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The Ghost Train (1903)
Oooh, someone learned to invert the black/white image AND to matte a moon into the upper corner. This is one of my favorites because it is neat-looking and twenty seconds long. If only you could say the same for Transformers 2.
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Westinghouse Works, Panorama View, Street Car Motor Room (1904, Billy Bitzer)
Long factory tracking shot reminds me of the beginning of Manufactured Landscapes. Unlike in ML, all the workers stop and look at the camera.
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In Youth, Beside the Lonely Sea (1925-ish)
Crazy three-panel layout illustrating the poem told with text above and below the picture. Lots of ghostly superimpositions. This was so damn cool I had to lay down for a while.
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Snow Day Shorts

I took advantage of the huge weekend snowfall in Atlanta by huddling on the couch with a pile of DVDs of short films which I’ve long delayed watching, followed by two obscure features, totaling eight newly-seen titles on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s hallowed list of 1,000 favorite movies. At this rate of eight per day, I’ll be through the list in no time, so anyone else can feel free to send me their own thousand-faves list and I’ll get to it shortly.


First off, two by Jane Campion. I wasn’t too kind to Sweetie or The Piano, was hoping I’d enjoy the early shorts more. A Girl’s Own Story (1984) is a vaguely Terence Davies-reminiscent period piece about two sisters and a friend one winter in the 60’s – having fun, going to school, singing Beatles songs and dealing with family trauma. The parents only speak to each other through their children, and dad brings his girlfriend to Pam’s birthday dinner… meanwhile friend Gloria leaves school because she is pregnant by her brother. Passionless Moments (1983) is a series of humorous sketches (each with its own title: “Clear Up Sleepy Jeans”, “No Woodpeckers In Australia”) with an ethnographic narrator telling us somebody’s mostly-insignificant stray thoughts (misheard lyrics to “Daydream Believer”, identifying a strange sound outdoors).

A Girl’s Own Story:
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These were two of the most enjoyable shorts I watched all day, so hooray for Jane Campion. Both were worked on by Alex Proyas, director of Dark City, whose new Nic Cage movie opens this month, and Passionless was made in collaboration with Gerard Lee, who wrote/directed a comedy in 1995 involving marital strife because of a sold piano, hmmmm.

Passionless Moments:
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Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1993, Peter Capaldi)
I’d always admired the title of this and assumed it to be blending of Kafka’s and Capra’s sensibilities, but no such luck… it’s more of a Franz Kafka In Love, as the writer struggles to complete the first line to The Metamorphosis. Might’ve been nicer if I’d watched it earlier then, since by now every known artist’s inspiration has been illustrated by the movies, either as a serious drama or a light fantasy. Richard Grant (same year as The Age of Innocence) is Kafka, and his work-interrupting neighbors include Ken Stott (who’d soon play the lead detective in Shallow Grave) as a knife seller with a missing pet cockroach, and Phyllis Logan (a Michael Radford regular) as a novelty salesman. Our director is better known as an actor (Local Hero, Lair of the White Worm). My favorite detail: being friendly to a neighbor Kafka says “call me F.”

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There’s time in any shorts program for some Norman McLaren. I checked out a section on the DVDs of work he did with Grant Munro, one of the few men strong and patient enough to animate himself with stop-motion. A piece I’ve seen before called Two Bagatelles (1953) has Grant zooming around to music (Katy came in from the other room to express disapproval at the music), a fun exploration of their live-stop-motion ideas. An unreleased set of sketches and experiments called either On The Farm or Pixillation adds slow-mo, film-reversal and mattes into the mix. Canon (1964) features a blippy electronic version of “Frere Jacques” and has four Grant Munroes at once, moving across a stage and interacting. And A Christmas Cracker (1962), for which McLaren/Munro did great dis/appearing stop-motion jester titles and transitions, is a compilation of short holiday cartoons.

On The Farm/Pixillation:
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A Christmas Cracker:
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One of the non-McLaren segments of A Christmas Cracker, in which an inventor travels to space to retrieve a real star to top his Christmas tree:
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Wong Kar-Wai’s Hua yang de nian hua (2000) is a montage of rotting nitrate footage from newly-discovered vintage Hong Kong films. Two minutes long, fast-paced and wordless, set to a song used in In The Mood For Love.
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Two by Santiago Alvarez. Now! (1965) is a montage of upsetting footage, still and moving images, as Lena Horne belts out the title song, and Hasta La Victoria Siempre (1967) is twenty looong minutes of music and stock footage focusing on Che Guevara and other revolutions and revolutionaries. A chore to sit through – I’m gonna stop watching Alvarez movies for a while now.

Now!
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Hasta la victoria siempre
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Two early shorts by D.W. Griffith… although he made about 200 films in the two years between them (those were the days!) so maybe only the first one can be called “early.”

A Corner In Wheat (1909)
Wealthy trader corners the market in wheat, meaning less money for the farmer and higher prices at the market. As unrest grows and the cops are called to protect a bakery, the now even richer trader and some classy women tour the grain elevator to symbolically survey their fortune. He slips and is buried in grain, an ending stolen by Vampyr a couple decades later.
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Tom Gunning via Erik Ulman says: “the editing has special appropriateness in this film, as it represents the ‘new topography’ of modern capitalist economics, and its ‘lack of face-to-face encounters with the forces which determine our lives.'” Based on a book by the novelist who wrote McTeague (Greed). Actor who played the farmer appeared 45 years later in Ford’s The Sun Shines Bright.
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Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)
A musician, just back in town after some weeks away working, gets all his money stolen by the titular gang. A rival crime gang fights the musketeers, and during the fracas our man gets his money back. When the rival gangleader is about to be arrested, the musician and his girl vouch for him, lying that he’d been with them the whole time, as thanks for his help. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and all that.
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Wikipedia claims this “probably the first ever film about organized crime” and an influence on Gangs of New York – as if Scorsese’s first exposure to crime was in DW Griffith films. Lillian Gish, star of many Griffith movies, plays the girl.
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Report (1967, Bruce Conner)
Recording of radio broadcasts from when JFK was shot. Sometimes the visuals are robotically repeated loops of newsreels, sometimes film countdown leader, sometimes all white and black flash flickers, which do not translate well to medium-grade internet video. The second half is excellent, still the radio announcers but with shock associative visual editing from all manner of sources: a bullfight, advertisements, war movies and so on.
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Tunneling the English Channel (1907, Georges Méliès) has long bothered me because it’s the earliest film on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 100 favorite films list but hasn’t been available anywhere on video. Fortunately the new Flicker Alley set remedied that, and I could finally see it, in fine condition with wonderful hand-coloring. It’s a cute story and a technically superior film, with the color and the combination of animation, live action and Melies’ usual fun effects. Story goes that the leaders of France and England agree to build a tunnel under the channel, and all goes well until the train crashes. As the tunnel fills with water undoing months of work and drowning the prime minister, they wake up – it was all a dream and they decide not to build the tunnel after all.
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LMNO (1978, Robert Breer)
A hammer, a faucet, a headless naked woman. Rapid-fire comic-book situations. Mainly-irritating soundtrack of running people, running water, and running tape static. Next time I’ll feel free to see how it works with a couple Kinks songs instead. Not my favorite Breer, but I’ve actually seen his films projected in a theater before, so this one obviously suffers from being a bootleg download watched on a laptop.
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Chris Stults, Film/Video Assistant Curator at the Wexner Center in Columbus, says (out of context): “The thing that has always drawn me the most to avant-garde cinema is that it is intended for an individual viewer, not a mass audience. The individual has to complete the work. To go back to the idea of seeing cinema anew, the viewer often has to figure out how to watch the particular film or video and then from that process of learning how to watch, meaning and interpretation can follow.”