Masterworks of Avant-Garde Film: 1968-2002

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

Film that Rises to the Surface of Clarified Butter (1968 Owen Land)

Repetitive little piece in which people draw a character, then it comes to brief stop-motion life, then they ponder this, then it happens again with a constant, quiet burbling horror of a soundtrack. Not as much fun as I’m making it sound.


Our Lady of the Sphere (1969 Lawrence Jordan)

I was rather dismissive of this last time but I’m starting to find its variety of techniques and combinations of images and cutouts from old-time illustrations pretty charming. It’s certainly a funnier and more imaginative way to spend nine minutes than the last movie was. “Jordan orchestrates the film in terms of a rake’s progress” say the liners, but I couldn’t make out much of a story (though I could identify recurring characters, at least).

Mouseover to hit the bear:
image

Mouseover to BZZZZZZT the donkey:
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DL2 (1970 Lawrence Janiak)

Differently colored patterns fill the screen to varying degrees, from starfields to spaghetti-o’s to shower-curtain dots to bright silly-string and confetti parties, all created by organically Begotten-ing strips of film. Chiming, percussive soundtrack. Hypnotic and strangely relaxing to watch, though next time maybe play my own music.


Love It, Leave It (1970 Tom Palazzolo)

Speech from a car show plays over a nudist festival. Speech honoring the military plays over clowns. Then the soundtrack goes into a hypno-loop of “love it, love it, love it, leave it” under images of contemporary America (sports and recreation, demonstrations and celebrations, people and get-togethers and riot police), the sound finally mutating into a patriotic song layered over itself like that remix I made of the Brave trailer. The liners say he had a “sharp eye for Americana,” true. And the last page of Cinema Scope #66 points out where more Palazzolo films can be found, if I get into an Americana mood later.


Transport (1970 Amy Greenfield)

One of those dance shorts where the camera moves with the dancers, only the movements here are not too exciting – small group of people lifting each other across a dirty field. And the sound is completely unbearable, a series of horrible tones like the ones they play in movies after a bomb goes off to indicate tinnitus in the lead character. Also, two minutes of opening credits in a six minute movie?


Sappho & Jerry, Parts 1-3 (1977 Bruce Posner)

Early film by one of the anthology project’s many film restorationists. Three two-minute pieces where Bruce takes existing film elements, combines, mutates and split-screens the living hell out of them, adding more simultaneous frames in each ensuing chapter. Great fun.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:


Ch’an (1983 Francis Lee)

Pans, zooms and crossfades of black and white watercolors, with some short bursts of animation. Nice texture closeups of the watercolor work. I preferred Lee’s 1941 from earlier on the disc (these are his first and last films).


Seasons… (2002 Solomon & Brakhage)

Gorgeous variety of textures and patterns, colors and rhythms. “Intentionally silent” doesn’t fly with me, so I played the second half of the new David Grubbs album, which I would highly recommend. If I understand correctly, Brakhage did the textures and patterns, and Solomon did the lighting and coloring? Bravo to both.

I dig this frame because it looks like a dragon crashing into an aerial antenna:

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.

The Long Goodbye (1973, Robert Altman)

Elliott Gould plays a disheveled Philip Marlowe who mutters to himself like Popeye. Altman called him “Rip Van Marlowe,” imagining him as a man out of time, waking up in the 1970’s after twenty years with his old-fashioned detective business (billing 1950’s rates). Marlowe doesn’t mind the modern era – “It’s okay with me” is his catchphrase. He solves the case of a missing drunken husband, meanwhile being investigated for his old friend Terry’s disappearance with a suitcase full of money and turning up dead a few days later. Marlowe is lied to and pushed around by everyone in the movie, but persistently puts together the real story of what happened to his friend – a true detective after all, and one who finally discovers some truths he can’t abide.

Sterling Hayden:

Marlowe’s customer is Eileen Wade (folk singer Nina van Pallandt) whose drunken, abusive husband Roger (a beardy, rambling Sterling Hayden) is found at a scammy treatment center run by Dr. Verringer (Henry Gibson of The ‘Burbs and Innerspace). It’s not clear what exactly Verringer is up to, but he gets his bill paid by showing up in the middle of a party and appearing to hypnotise Roger into cutting him a check, then Roger drowns himself walking into the ocean that night.

Great scene of Marlowe talking to Eileen while Roger is walking into the surf below:

Marlowe’s investigation of his dead friend hinges on his belief that Terry (MLB pitcher Jim Bouton) couldn’t have murdered his wife as has been claimed by the police. But it turns out he did, and has taken the money stolen from Mr. Augustine (The Rose director Mark Rydell) to Mexico. His newly widowed neighbor Eileen is coming to meet him but Marlowe gets there first and shoots Terry.

Sometimes I had to activate subtitles for the muttering… this was a favorite:

Screenplay by Leigh Brackett, who wrote a bunch of Howard Hawks movies including Philip Marlowe mystery The Big Sleep. Altman got Mad Magazine artists to do the movie poster to convey that this ain’t a dark and humorless Humphrey Bogart movie. One of many great things about the movie is its John Williams theme song, which shows up everywhere in different versions. More movies need theme songs. How hard can it be to call up a talented indie musician and say “I’m making a movie, here’s a title and plot summary and general mood, write me a theme song”? This might make the original-song oscar category worthwhile again.

Gould improv-Jolsoning with fingerprint ink:

Altman on working with actors: “I can’t tell them what I want to see, when what I want to see is something I’ve never seen before.” Something audiences at the time had never seen before: when Marlowe is being intimidated by Mr. Augustine, I couldn’t focus on the dialogue at all because one of Mr. A’s henchmen is a pre-fame Arnold Schwarzenegger, four years before Pumping Iron, even.

Rein Raamat animated shorts

I watched Raamat’s Lend a couple months ago, just getting to the rest of the disc.

Kutt / Hunter (1976)

More cross-fading animation. Whale-hunters dodge icebergs while tracking their prey. The whale wins. Nice water and Northern Lights effects.


Pold / Field (1978)

A black/white world, slow heavy labor, each frame crossfaded into next. Work horse dreams of a better life, escapes. I think he returns to the farm after getting hungry.


Varvilind / Colorful Bird (1974)

Bored future society starts to come alive with the addition of primary colors, as their world gradually becomes a groovy hippy paradise. A black cat threatens to make everything square and gray again, but the cool kids intervene, ending in a psychotic color trip. Maybe Estonia didn’t have the color green – the movie shows yellow and blue combining to make… blue. I like the silent-film opening titles, and how each of the Raamat shorts is so different-looking than the last.


Kilplased / Simpletons (1974)

White-suited loggers discover that logs roll downhill. A farmer tries to befriend some birds while his horse is eaten by wolves (he doesn’t see the wolves, so a cat is blamed). The men burn down their structure (silo?) and destroy their own fields while chasing a pig. At least they get to eat the pig. The cartooniest Raamat I’ve seen.

I like the way he draws bird feet:


Tyll the Giant (1980)

Tyll helps the puny humans rebuild after their towns are destroyed by demons, rescues them when rough seas overturn their boat and participates in brutal battles against their enemies. This doesn’t go over well with the devil lord who shoots boulders from his eyeballs, so he destroys Tyll’s home and murders his wife. In a final horrific battle (this is the most bloodshed I’ve seen in a cartoon since Metalocalypse), Tyll is beheaded, then a voiceover I didn’t understand (because I lack subtitles) gives an epilogue. A tremendous end to the Raamat party.

News From Home (1977, Chantal Akerman)

Exciting to get to see this in theaters… glad I held off on watching the DVD for so long. I’m always afraid Akerman’s movies will put me to sleep at home, probably unfounded since I found D’Est mesmerizing. This one is similarly anthropological, showing New York in its specific era, making me wonder if the movie feels more special as a time capsule with each passing year. Akerman had moved to the States for a couple years and her mom wasn’t taking the separation well, writing constant letters, mostly to ask why Chantal hadn’t sent more of her own letters. So Chantal reads the letters from her mom aloud rapidly over her long-take images and sounds from the city, often letting the spoken correspondences get drowned out by traffic and train noise. In practice, it’s more interesting than it sounds.

M. Orange:

The keenest signifier of Akerman’s pervading sense of rootlessness, of unbelonging — a reaction, perhaps, to the threat of confinement of any kind — would also be her truest anchor in the world: her mother, Natalia … Speaking in I Don’t Belong Anywhere, a documentary profile shot shortly before her 2015 death, Akerman wonders if “throw[ing] Jeanne Dielman in her [mother’s] face was very generous of me,” describing the film as “a kind of mirror that wasn’t necessarily something [women of that generation] appreciated seeing.” In the same documentary, Akerman says it was only with News From Home that she realized her mother formed the center of all of her work. At the time of these interviews, Akerman was completing work on No Home Movie, a meditation on her elderly mother’s decline and impending death. It would be her final film.

By Brakhage, Volume 2, Program 3

Quotes below are from Marilyn Brakhage’s program notes.

The Process (1972)

Flashing colors. Negative silhouettes of human figures (wearing hats). Increasingly recognizable scraps of home movies, but yeah, mostly it’s flashing colors. Listened to “Cosmetics (Secret Chiefs 3 Remix)” by Foetus, which had some nice moments of synchronicity, mostly served to make the film seem more sinister than was probably intended.

“Brakhage again addresses the interaction of internal and external sources of imagery, but in this case, as the sole subject of the film. Here, slightly displaced positive and negative versions of the same image create a feeling of insubstantiality.”


Burial Path (1978)

Opens with a dead robin in a box, so I took the title literally and assumed a funeral tone to all the defocused light that proceeds from there. The bird does get buried towards the end, and he intercuts scenes of live birds (not robins) feeding outside. Played the end of Brian Eno & Harold Budd’s “Ambient 2” album, a pleasant change from the previous soundtrack.

Burial Path “graphs the process of forgetfulness.” But Burial Path is also about death, and was sometimes referred to (by Brakhage) as the third part of a trilogy, with Sirius Remembered (1959) and The Dead (1960). (The “path” is also the route taken to visit Brakhage’s friend, the then-ailing literary scholar Donald Sutherland, to whom the film is dedicated.)


Duplicity III (1980)

All crossfades, all the time. The kids are going trick-or-treating, doing house work, playing with cards and toy guns, enacting satanic rituals, performing in school plays which involve ghosts, robots and an Indian chief. Deers and dogs towards the end. Played tracks 2-4 of Coil’s “The Angelic Conversation” which sometimes made the film seem doom-laden, sometimes gave the impression that it was taking place near the ocean.

Halloween: Fire Walk With Me


The Domain of the Moment (1977)

Liked this one a lot because it’s full of critters: baby bird, guinea pig, dog, raccoon, mouse, snake, all double-exposed and playfully filmed, with painted mothlight sections in between animal blocks. Played tracks 4-6 of Secret Chiefs 3’s “Book M”, which was inappopriately energetic at the beginning but worked rather well in the middle.

“A consideration of the consciousness of other life forms.”


Murder Psalm (1980)

Whenever Brakhage films a television it looks like the end of the world. One of his most music-video-looking films, full of increasingly sinister-seeming juxtapositions – pure texture interspersed with stock footage from a strange movie, an education film about brains, leftover autopsy footage from The Act of Seeing, war footage from 23rd Psalm Branch, reversal film of a highway at night. Played the end of Autechre’s “Exai”, which was a great idea.

“A collage of found footage of monstrous implications.”

M. Keller in Film Quarterly:

The most striking imagery comes from an educational film on epilepsy, and Brakhage’s film is structured around that preexisting narrative … Brakhage makes visual relationships between the ball, water in the birdbath, the girl’s hand, a scale model of the brain, a half of a wagon wheel, a covered wagon, and a semicircular tunnel. Circular imagery is cut in half by the frame to make semicircles or hemispheres. The material about epilepsy is transformed into a meditation on the social and cultural circumstances of childhood trauma via a visual string of semicircular imagery. By substituting one image for another – e.g., the model of the brain for the covered wagon – Brakhage links their meanings and implication. The girl’s seizure is made part of the social organism through visual rhyme.


Arabic 12 (1982)

Light asterisks: a film of reddish, star-shaped light artifacts. Wonder if this is what ashtray epic The Text of Light is like – hopefully not, since I lost patience in this 17-minute movie towards the end. Felt like Autechre’s “spl9” was trying to give me a panic attack, but the next track slowed things down for the film’s more diffuse second half.

Mad Max (1979, George Miller)

“I’m the (k)night rider. The toe cutter, he knows who I am!”

I was immediately impressed with the character names, but also confused by the movie. Max is a cop, and yes his police station looks awfully run down, but it’s not some Tom Petty wasteland future – it’s all pretty much how I assume Australia looked in 1979. So maybe the apocalypse happens before part two, and that’s when Max becomes Mad. He gets pretty close to Mad in this one – give an awesomely dangerous guy a “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” montage showing how much he loves his precious family, and guess what’s gonna happen to that family – but I wouldn’t call his murder-revenge spree against the biker gang that killed his family and his partner and broke his arm a permanent madness.

“Any longer out on that road and I’m one of them – a terminal crazy”

Other Weirdness: the big cartoon music during tense scenes. And Max locks a dude to a bomb, suggests he sever a limb to get free – an influence on SAW? Pretty straightforward, sharp-looking movie. And hey, the baddies only run down Max’s wife and kid – nobody gets tortured or raped, making this one of the more palatable 1970’s revenge movies.

We all know Mel Gibson went on to star in The Beaver and Machete Kills, but who was everyone else? Max’s wife Jessie was in early Nicole Kidman film Nightmaster. Max’s even-madder partner Goose does a lotta TV, was recently in The Great Gatsby. Max’s boss “Fifi” was once in movies called Stone and Stoner in the same year. Lead baddie Toecutter played lead baddie Immortan Joe in Mad Max 4. Shot by David Eggby (not Dave Eggers) who later shot a couple of Riddick movies.

Shoah (1985, Claude Lanzmann)

Don’t know how Lanzmann did these interviews with such an even temper and tone. Must have taken a great deal of restraint in the town where locals joyfully admitted making throat-slitting gestures at passing trains full of camp-bound Jews, or when interviewing a German doctor in charge of the starving Polish ghetto. My most recent cinematic response to nazis was Inglorious Basterds, and it’s hard to focus on the facts and details here without imagining escape/revenge fantasies.

Auschwitz-Birkenau:

Lanzmann rarely edits an interview, doesn’t use tricks to seamlessly cut out pauses or repetitions. I didn’t deal with the enormity of the film all at once – instead, having just finished Show Me a Hero, I treated this like another miniseries, watching in 60 to 120-minute increments, which made its relentless death-camp horrors easier to take – or maybe not, since I spent more consecutive days thinking about them. The length and focus of the movie seemed on point, but by the time we got to hour eight, talking to people who scheduled the “special” trains who claimed no knowledge of what made them special, I thought okay, this is a bit long.

A phrase caught my attention, upsettingly familiar-sounding this year: the Jews of the ghetto were “forced not only to build a wall, but to pay for it.”

I haven’t got enough documentary history (or holocaust scholarship) to know how this movie changed things, but I noticed a few unique details. In some documentaries the interview subject will get emotional, tear up, and the camera will zoom into to their faces and I’ll think “this is a bit crass.” The same thing happens here, the camera zooming in, Lanzmann patiently urging his crying subject to continue, and it never seems exploitative – interviewer and subject are on the same moral side, and when Lanzmann tells them that it’s important to continue, you’re with him.

Some interviews are recorded with covert videocameras (which, in the late 1970s, were not very covert) broadcasting to a van outside. Per wiki, “during one interview, the covert recording was discovered and Lanzmann was physically attacked. He was hospitalized for a month and charged by the authorities with unauthorized use of the German airwaves.”

Lanzmann shot hundreds of hours of footage and has edited four more feature-length films from them so far. Filmed in part by William Lubtchansky, who was doing great work with Rivette and Godard and Varda and de Gregorio and Straub/Huillet and Truffaut around the same time. Won lots of raves and awards – no oscar nomination, but Lanzmann is now an academy member and was apparently a fan of Son of Saul last year.

Per Kent Jones, Shoah was “the Hebrew word for catastrophe or destruction, which had been in use among some Jews since the early forties.”

Jones on the structure:

The film would consist only of testimonies and new footage shot at the sites where organized killing had taken place, and of images shot where the people on camera were living at the time of filming; there would be no experts making grand theoretical summations; … with two exceptions, the people on camera would be either perpetrators, victims, or bystanders (to borrow the categories established by Hilberg); the film would restrict its focus to the systematic annihilation of the European Jews; and it would be a work of cinema as opposed to an audiovisual historical summation.

By situating his film in the present and creating conditions that allowed us to see that it was coexistent with the past, by questioning his subjects about concrete details only, by creating an atmosphere of quietly urgent attention, by constructing a form that left the impression of multiple possible beginnings and endings, Lanzmann achieved something that was not only unprecedented but was, and is, an astonishment: he returned the Shoah to the civilized world that had disowned it.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, Luis Bunuel)

Seen this a few times before, and a year or two after watching, I can never remember what I loved about it. The story’s not exciting (similar plot description to The Exterminating Angel) and I recall it being slow and weird, but not weird enough to be memorable. So I watched again, and loved it again, and this time maybe it’ll stick.

Starts out with a bunch of slightly awful people trying to make dinner appointments that never quite work out. They arrive at a house on the wrong night. They walk out of a restaurant whose owner is lying dead in the next room. Their hosts abandon them to have sex in the bushes. Meanwhile, ambassador Fernando Rey is dodging terrorists, and local priest Julien Bertheau wants to be the Senechals’ gardener.

So far a finely-shot, classy-looking film about slightly weird things, then the second half becomes a series of sidetracks. A random officer in a restaurant tells a long ghost story, the ambassador shoots a guy, the dinner table becomes a stage play, the priest takes revenge on the man who killed his parents, the whole group is raided by police and arrested, the whole group is slaughtered, and all these things turn out to be dreams, dreams within dreams, punctuated by shots of the group (minus the priest) walking down a road (recalling a shot in The Milky Way).

Murderous priest:

The sex-in-bushes, priest-employing couple: Jean-Pierre Cassel (Army of Shadows, the king in Lester’s The Three Musketeers) and Stephane Audran (Babette’s Feast, La Rupture). The other couple: Paul Frankeur (The Milky Way, Jour de Fete) and Delphine Seyrig, and her drunk sister is the great Bulle Ogier. So that’s another difference between this viewing and my previous ones: this time I know and love all three lead actresses.

Didn’t realize when I decided to watch this and Day For Night that they won consecutive foreign-film oscars.

Piccoli cameo:

M. D’Angelo:

Hard to quantify the cumulative satirical force this movie brings to bear, as it maintains the same level of genial drollery from start to finish. I always start out mildly amused, wind up gobsmacked… but it seems entirely possible that shuffling the scenes at random would have much the same effect. It’s just a single pointed joke that gets funnier and funnier, abetted by a sextet of actors who refrain from any winking or nudging — Bulle Ogier in particular achieves maximum vacuity without calling attention to herself in any way, but they all embody entitlement with zero fuss.