The Venice Film Festival posted 70-ish short films online to commemorate their 70th anniversary. I watched them gradually over the past year. These are the ones I did not care for. Favorites are here and the rest here.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Visual: driving straight road in the rain through wipers
Audio: ocean with seagulls

Jean-Marie Straub

Single silent shot of pages relaying some quotes about death in a couple of French films.

Lluís Galter

Fuzzy slow-mo long shots of people near water.

Karim Aïnouz

Search party? Man in orange vest with flashlight helmet vanishes into mist.

Bernardo BertolucciRed Shoes

Electric Wheelchair drives over rough street.

Amos Gitai

Still photos of a man on beach crossfade while Jeanne Moreau speaks of a poem (or perhaps not literally a poem).

Lav Diaz

Handheld shot through an upper-floor window as an elderly person slowly walks down the street, then a poetic voiceover kicks in.

Todd Solondz

Ridiculous course catalog of a Chinese film history program 1000 years in the future, using an early-80’s-looking screen with early-90’s-sounding text-to-speech.

Marlen KhutsievIn Perpetuum Infinituum

Chekhov and Tolstoy are having a motion-picture portrait taken. Then: champagne, war footage, a brass band and a giant Viva Cinema intertitle.

Tobis LindholmThe Hit

Two camoflaged jeeps are driving. Bomb!

Claire Denis

Overheard conversation gives way to a noisy Tindersticks song. Is it that she can’t be bothered to find new music, or does she truly love Tindersticks that much? Camera seems to be inside a bag or under a scarf – I’m not convinced this short was even made on purpose.

Rama Burshtein

Man is told to open his mouth. Finally he does. A dance song plays. Hunh?

Semih KaplanogluDevran

Static shot of – what’s that, a tree? – with audio of thunderstorm and constant firefly flicker.

Franco Piavoli

Fire and yelling, then children and sunsets.

Amiel Courtin-Wilson

Rough-looking man plays a prolonged Amazing Grace on harmonica in close-up.

Tusi Tamasese

Stills of some leaves, then of two people doing… I don’t know what, since it’s over already.

Michele PlacidoYorick’s Speech

Old guy says the youth of today are the future of filmmaking while a banal pop song plays.

Julio Bressane

Silent 16mm clips, then clips from 1960’s period epics, something like that.

After some new ones appeared online, I watched a handful of A.W.’s available shorts. These seem more experimental than the features, and generally not as fun to watch, but still interesting.

M Hotel (2011)

Two guys on a hotel windowsill.
Dialogue is low, muffled and underwater.
I wanted this to connect to Mekong Hotel because of the title, but I guess not.

Ashes (2012)

Low frame rate, some repeated shots with different audio.
Gunshots in both movies so far.
A man talks about dreams and colors.
Hypnotic – I liked it.

Vampire (2008)

Had to watch twice, put me to sleep the first time.
Men are searching for a rare noctural bird for louis vuitton. They rip strips of cloth, douse in blood and strew carefully around on trees while making awful sounds. A man is painted in blood and set out to sit quietly in the cold. In the end nothing happens, or something does, it’s hard to tell.

Haiku (2009)

Sound of outdoors: crickets, owl? Handheld walk into red-filtered tent, men sleeping. Unfiltered shot or someone outside in distance under spotlight. Back to red, two guys awake now, smiling. Credits, quick shot of boom operator. Part of a series of Haiku shorts, with others by Naomi Kawase, Alain Cavalier and Frederick Wiseman.

Luminous People (2007)

Bunch of people on a long boat ride. Possibly a ritual thing, since there’s a monk, and ashes are tossed into the water. River roar on the soundtrack and a man sings a dream song. From the State of the World anthology – I didn’t watch the rest of it.

Phantoms of Nabua (2009)

Lightning strikes the ground, causing puffs of smoke with muted sound.
This is projected on a screen, before which guys kick a flaming football.
Football gets too close, screen burns down.
This made me very sleepy.

Empire (2010)

Very neat ad/intro for the 2010 Viennale, featuring cave photography, a scuba diver and a strobe light (not in that order).

The Anthem (2006)

First half is a static shot of three woman on a canal-side patio. Second half is a busy circular dolly shot around a gymnasium showing a workout routine, lighting crew and central badminton exhibition. Weird.

Third World (1997)

Grainy b/w photography, mostly of buildings, as a man narrates his dreams to a friend on the soundtrack. Then a bunch of nothing much, as a woman berates a kid who couldn’t manage to buy some eggs and bring them home without smashing them all. Then all is dark, and nothing much becomes even less. Dullsville.

Other A.W. shorts: I watched A Letter to Uncle Boonmee a while ago. He’s got a new one as part of the Venice 70 project. World Desires is from the 2005 Jeonju project. I just found a copy of Cactus River but haven’t watched yet. Mobile Men is from the 2008 Stories on Human Rights anthology. And there are lots more on IMDB that I’ve never seen anywhere, like Boys at Noon, Masumi is a PC Operator, the recent Sakda, and Ghost of Asia.

I’d heard that A.W. had gone horror with this new mid-length film. Not really – it’s a slow-moving movie where a few hotel residents coexist with flesh-eating ghosts, or perhaps everyone in the movie is a ghost since the hotel feels abandoned, even when they are around. I found it overall less exciting/entrancing than his other movies.

Featuring Jen and Tong from Uncle Boonmee, with more talk of borders and immigrants, and discussion of last year’s major flooding in Thailand. I like the music, a long stretch of solo acoustic guitar. We see the musician at the beginning, and again near the middle (an intermission?). A.W. seems to want scenes to last after their meaningful dialogue has ended, because he’ll fade out conversations and let us listen to the guitar for a minute while the actors keep talking, unheard.

When the movie seems to have a story near the beginning, Tong (yes, same character name) is telling a girl called Phon that his dog seems to have been partly devoured by a pob (ghost). Phon and her mom Jen are revealed to be pobs. A guy named Masato sees his friend eaten by Jen, but he might have been dreaming this.

Later, Masato is a ghost himself, talking to Phon as if a lifetime has passed since the previous few scenes – then he’s wearing a machine on his head that allows his spirit to travel outside his body. It ends with an overlong shot of jet-skis on the river. I’m missing something major since this was nominated for a “best documentary” award.

AW with the guitarist, giving credence to the documentary theory:

E. Kohn:

According to the director, Mekong Hotel takes its inspiration from a story Weerasethakul originally wrote for a movie called Ecstasy Garden… [which] involved an alien vampire ghost who also happens to be the mother of a young woman unaware of her supernatural lineage… the mother’s appetite gets the best of her and she devours her kin in the midst of the younger woman’s romancing of a local teen boy. Mekong Hotel sort of follows this trajectory without exactly spelling it out; The movie contains scenes of rehearsals for Ecstasy Garden in the bedrooms and balcony of the titular hotel in northeastern Thailand.

After Syndromes and Uncle Boonmee I thought okay, now I’ve got a handle on this Weerasethakul fellow, got a general idea what his movies are like. This one proved me wrong. It’s got the long static shots, and scenes where characters don’t seem to be doing or thinking much, but it has more of these than the others (maybe not more than Tropical Malady, which I haven’t seen since it came out). One of those movies with a slow, slow build-up to a transcendent finale, though it doesn’t feel that way while you’re watching it.

Orn’s hands:

Orn (an older woman), Roong (younger woman) and Min (illegal immigrant pretending to be mute) are the leads. No exposition, so it takes me the first 45 minutes to figure out their names and what they do and how they know each other, more or less. Min and Roong go on a trip into the forest then suddenly, a pop song and the opening titles – halfway through the movie. And now we can hear his thoughts.

Min and Roong:

Orn and some man (not her husband?) also escape into the forest, and much explicit sex follows. Orn seems to be in trouble then – her man chases motorbike thieves off-camera and we hear a gunshot, which she does not investigate. She stumbles across the other couple and they manage to have a damned nice time splashing in the river, before drying their clothes, dumping their litter (Orn chucks it right into the river) and heading home. Weirdly peaceful/happy film.

Roong (actress/character) also appeared in Uncle Boonmee – I don’t remember her, but it’s sometime after the funeral – and Orn appeared in Luminous People.

Min’s drawing:

NY Times with more specific insight: “There’s a suggestion that Roong is a member of the Karen ethnic group, a hill tribe people who live in northern Thailand and eastern Burma and have been involved in human-rights struggles with both countries. Like Min, whose skin rash probably developed after he hid from the police in a septic tank, she enters the forest like a refugee.”

This was to be the U.S. premiere with director in attendance until the stupid New York Film Festival stole him away. Still, third U.S. screening ever for a top-shelf auteur’s new Cannes-winning feature ain’t bad for Emory. Too bad they couldn’t drum up more interest – maybe 40 people in attendance. Too bad it played from DVD (in a room with a 35mm projector), also. Atlanta film culture sucks.

When I saw Tropical Malady I fell for the atmosphere (there wasn’t much else to that movie but atmosphere), the sounds, the magic and the jungle. Syndromes and a Century added slow, quizzical camera moves and characters with shifting identities. So this one was the best of both worlds, like a small set of Syndromes characters plopped into Malady’s magical forest, still feeling more like an original vision than a retread.

Boonmee runs a farm in the country, has a personal nurse (an immigrant, possibly illegal, from Laos) to tend to his kidney problems. Jen (sister of B’s late wife) and Tong (a young relative, maybe a nephew) come to visit from the city. It’s a peaceful tour around the farm until Boonmee’s wife Huay materializes at the dinner table, and then his son Boonsong emerges from the forest. Boonsong had been lost to the family for many years, having run into the forest to start a family with the monkey ghosts and apparently become one himself. Of course all this is strange, but only Boonmee realizes his family has returned because he is about to die, so the next day he tries convincing Jen to move to the farm. Finally Huay leads the three (Boonsong has left) into the jungle, and into a giant cave, where she drains her husband’s kidneys one final time. At the funeral Tong is made a temporary monk, but is uncomfortable so he visits Jen’s hotel room where she’s counting gift money with her daughter, and takes Jen out to get some food. But after they get up from the bed and start to leave the room, they also remain on the bed watching TV – a final bonkers scene in case the audience got too complacent after Boonmee’s death.

Unless it happened when I left to use the bathroom, Boonmee never vocally recalled his past lives, but there are unexplained scenes which might refer to them. The movie opens with a cow (NYFF says it’s a water buffalo) snapping its rope and lumbering into the forest, maybe glimpsing a monkey ghost before being retrieved by its keeper. Late in the film there’s a photo montage of soldiers who apparently capture a gorilla. And in the middle there’s a scene with a princess stopping at a waterfall on her way through the forest. She intends a tryst with one of her servants (seemingly not their first) but drives him away, accusing him of loving only her status, not her beauty. Then she peers into the lake and sees herself beautiful beneath the water, wades in, dropping all her jewelry, and has sex with a flattering catfish. Was Boonmee the catfish? Did his hookup with the princess provide the bad karma that led to his kidney ailment?

I knew I recognized Tong, but didn’t realize he played the monk in Syndromes and a Century. That’s interesting, since he’s play-acting as a monk in this movie. He was supposed to only stay a few days but ditched on the first night, showering and changing into his street clothes at Jen’s place. In Syndromes, the monk wanted to be a DJ, and denied another character’s story of reincarnation. Before that, the same actor played a character named Tong in Tropical Malady – a definite thread through Weerasethakul’s last three features, even if recognizing that thread doesn’t clear up any of their mysteries.

Watched again summer 2011 with Jimmy, this time on handsome 35mm at Cinefest – lovely! I’m sure that photo montage with the soldiers/gorilla and the incongruent voiceover is important, given that it comes right before (or during) Boonmee’s death, but still can’t figure what it means.

A.W. says that parts (the cheap gorilla suit?) were inspired by classic Thai TV and cinema, that his father died of kidney failure, and that there are plenty of deleted scenes with the princess that he hopes will be on the DVD.

A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (2009, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

Slow-panning shots outside looking in, but mostly inside looking out. Unique location (Nabua village in Thailand) but also unique photography style. I wonder if another filmmaker could’ve found images half as strong as these. As for the story, well, as usual with A.W. I don’t really get it. The village has a history of violence and repression, and this (fictional?) uncle is unseen, addressed by a narrator. Actually it’s more than one narrator, reading the same script, which is later critiqued for accuracy of dialect as we continue roaming the houses, looking slowly up at the trees. Makes me want to catch up with A.W.’s features that I’ve missed. Later: So I have, with Syndromes and a Century. Its dialogue repetition and shots of trees from inside buildings reminded me of this short.

Academic Hack:

In a stunning act of political avant-gardism, Joe has adapted Thai Buddhist tenets regarding reincarnation as a means for excavating the hidden history of a troubled landscape. As his camera slowly creeps and pans through darkened, abandoned homes, Apichatpong is displaying the remnants of a repressed past, in an assertion of ghostly, vertical time. … Joe’s dominant visual cue throughout Boonmee is the depiction of dark, illegible interiors whose porous walls and broken-out windows allow the bright green of the jungle to puncture the once-domestic space with light and texture. As beautiful as the effect may be, it is also chilling, since it represents the breakdown of human effort’s separation from natural encroachment, the dissolution of basic boundaries.


We Work Again (1937)

A newsreel short about how “we” (meaning black americans, though it sounds like the regular white studio voiceover guy saying “we”) are finding jobs after the depression – mostly jobs in the arts, thanks to the federal works agency. Contains rare footage of Orson Welles’ “Voodoo Macbeth,” which used all black actors and looks like it could’ve used a higher prop budget.

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The Little White Cloud That Cried (2009, Guy Maddin)

Commissioned for a Jack Smith program. It reminded me of Kenneth Anger, with the classic pop songs strung together, the soft-focus closeups, but that’s probably because I barely know anything about Jack Smith. Lots (lots!) of nudity, largely (maybe entirely) transsexuals. Typical Maddin editing (which is to say: exhilarating). It’s either art or the best porno I’ve ever seen.

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Someone got the filmmaker by accident. He looks so intense!
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Send Me To The ‘Lectric Chair (2009, Guy Maddin)

No credits. Need to get a copy someday without interlacing. Made for the Rotterdam festival for an outdoor exhibit. Isabella is in the ‘lectric chair. A man rushes to save her, too late, embraces her as the switch is pulled. Charming homemade effects: tin foil, sparklers and exercise equipment. Louis Negin (reused footage from Glorious?) dances shirtless in celebration!

Maddin: “Now, I was immediately told no nudity, I was immediately told no strobing, so strobing became the new taboo. It would throw the citizens of Rotterdam into epileptic fits flipping on the sidewalks.”

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More, from a simply fantastic interview with Maddin: “My condition for doing it was that I got permission to re-use the footage in my next feature. Whenever I accept a short film commission, I get permission to use the footage from it and so I’m slowly assembling clips… and in this financially depressed time, you need to. It’s a Frankenstein feature film built together from a bunch of dead short commissions.”

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Zoo (1962, Bert Haanstra)

One of the greatest short films ever. He must have shot for days and days to get so many great shots of animals and spectators, then associatively edited them together into a docu-comedy. I learned from the ravingly positive writeup on the official Bert site that it was all filmed with a hidden camera.

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Contact (2009, Jeremiah Kipp)

Boy and girl visit dealer, get bottled drug and take it together naked. Bad trip ensues. Girl’s concerned parents wait at home, until she shows up late, hugs daddy. Very little spoken dialogue – for artistic sake, or with international film fest distribution in mind? Heavy-handed sound design with echoey shock-horror effects with a sidetrack into 8-bit glitch noise.

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The Bookworm (1939, Hugh Harman)

The crappiest little time-filler of an MGM cartoon. Can’t imagine anyone wanting to buy these as a set, so may as well parcel ’em out as bonus content on other discs. Poe’s raven wants to catch a bookworm (that’s a worm who eats books) to put in the Macbeth witches’ cauldron, but the worm is saved by characters from other books, with a complete lack of imagination, not even the har-har caricature value of those not-great Tashlin library shorts. Why would the books want to save a bookworm anyway? This seems an important part of the story, and it’s just ignored. Ted on IMDB overthinks the movie, says it’s “amazingly sophisticated in its abstraction,” no kidding. A Tashlin movie would just blow Ted’s head right off. Harman put more effort into the same year’s classic short Peace On Earth.


Love On Tap (1939, George Sidney)

At least with The Bookworm you can tune out the story and watch the animation, but there’s no joy in this one. Well, it’s a musical short so I guess you’ve got dancing, but that’s not much of an attraction. Story goes this dude is trying to marry a gal who leads a dance troupe, but her dancers are whiny dependent brats and she caters to their every whim, putting off the guy until he threatens to leave instead of marrying her. He should’ve. Sidney later directed celebrated musicals like Annie Get Your Gun and Kiss Me Kate… guess you gotta start somewhere.


Michelangelo Eye to Eye (2004, Michelangelo Antonioni)

Antonioni silently contemplates the work of another Michelangelo. 15 minutes of static or slowly tracking shots, with just room noise until an ethereal choir sings us out into the credits. Nice to see that after all these years, M.A. is still filming people dwarfed by giant structures and pillars.

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Wake Up, Freak Out, Then Get a Grip (2008, Leo Murray)

A cute cartoon illustrating how we’re all going to die from global warming. Only Leo doesn’t say we’ll all die, he says all the good species of animals will die, leaving rats and roaches, and since there won’t be enough resources left for all of us, those with the most guns and lowest morals will survive to slaughter the rest. Then he says we can’t stop things by being jolly good consumers and buying fluorescent bulbs, we must rather campaign our governments and friendly local corporations to smarten up. Not likely! Move inland.

I don’t really know what happened or what it all meant, but I know I enjoyed every moment of this movie. Strange how that can happen, and it’s more rare than I would think. It’s a LOT funnier than Tropical Malady, which was unexpected. That short I watched a few weeks ago, Letter to Uncle Boonmee, prepared me well for Syndromes, which had its share of lush trees and repeated action. Halfway through, the movie appears to start over (do all of AW’s movies start over halfway through?) with doctors Nohng and Toey going through an interview scene they’ve already played out, but in a new setting. Anyway, I’m not going to analyze and read about the movie all night long, just leave this placeholder for myself to watch it again sometime.

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Part of that Mozart festival that I read about four years ago in a magazine while standing in line at the airport. Sticks in my mind very well for some reason… I believe Opera Jawa was mentioned in the same article. Too bad I watched Opera Jawa as a low-res video projection and Syndromes on a crappy interlaced DVD with burned-in subs. I hope standard-def video dies pretty soon.

Ah yes, here’s A.W. in a Criticine interview talking about the Mozart thing:
“It is funded by Austria. It does not have to be about Mozart, but it has to have the spirit of Mozart. I see his music to be about miracles and its connection to everyday life. My film will look back at the past in order to see into the future. Just people living life, inhaling and exhaling, meeting each other—these are already miracles. It’s a film about beauty.”

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I’m leaning heavily on Grunes these days… his nice intro:

Thai writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has said that Sang sattawat is a tale of two trees representing his doctor-parents, one on the grounds of a rural hospital in the 1970s, the other on the grounds of an urban hospital in the present day. The film is divided into two parts—the bifurcated structure begging a series of questions, including: What is the present without the past? city without the country? one parent without the other? One gauge of the success of this film, which is full of talk about reincarnation, is our sense that the breeze animating one tree is the same as the breeze, eternal, animating the other.

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So there’s a monk (above, played by a lead actor from Tropical Malady) and his dentist (Dr. Ple), a flower breeder named Noom and his girl Pa Jane. The interview participants Nohng and Toey must represent A.W.’s parents, but as M. Koresky puts it, “if we’re truly seeing some version of the meeting between Apichatpong’s mother and father, then the director is much more interested in the settings surrounding them and the forces controlling them—architecture, nature, medicine.” Stories are told which take over the movie; the sidetracks become the new main tracks. There’s possibly a fantasy scene or two, a flashback or flash-forward, and gentle talk of philosophy and love. And trees.

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An exercise session in the park cuts to credits (including one for “ringtone composer”) with loony upbeat music, giving the giddy impression that you’ve just watched a madcap comedy. Maybe you have. A.W. seems to have no regard for familiar storytelling or filmmaking conventions, so maybe besides the sex jokes in the dialogue the form itself was meant to be humorous.