Shorts! I have discs and discs of shorts and rarely watch them. I’m awfully excited about the new blu-ray of avant-garde shorts from Flicker Alley, but how can I justify buying it when I’ve got a hundred shorts collections just sitting around unseen? Let’s watch some, shall we? And what better place to start than with a Kino collection called The Movies Begin?


The Great Train Robbery (1903, Edwin Porter)

Stunts, explosions, color, brutal murders, thievery, daring escapes – and dancing! Bandits rob the train of its lockbox loot and all its passengers of their wallets, then escape on horseback. Local bunch of ruffians is alerted to the crime and rides off to kill the perpetrators. All this in ten minutes – more economical than the Sean Connery remake.

One of the more famous shots (haha “shots”) in cinema:

Fire in a Burlesque Theater (1904)

Either this was ineptly framed or I’m seeing a cropped version, because there aren’t nearly enough burlesque dancers with smoke inhalation on display here.

Airy Fairy Lillian Tries On Her New Corsets (1905)

Hefty Jeffy helps her out… then faints. Was this a comedy?

Spoiler alert:

From Show Girl to Burlesque Queen (1903)

A woman removes her costume – but the good part is done behind a screen. The title was better than the feature, making this the A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence of its time.

Troubles of a Manager of a Burlesque Show (1904)

Troubles because the women are angry at the crappy clothes he expects them to wear, and they flee and throw things when he tries to molest them.

The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog (1905, Edwin Porter)

So many lost films in history, and this dam thing survives. Hilarious title for a movie without any jokes in it, making this The Ridiculous Six of its time.

The Golden Beetle (1907, Segundo de Chomón)

Ornate, hand-colored, dangerous-looking Meliesian disappearing act. I think a man tries throwing a golden beetle in the fire, and she torments him with showers of sparks before burning him to death. This is great.

Rough Sea at Dover (1895, Birt Acres)

Two shots of the rough sea. Were any other 1895 movies more than one shot long?

Come Along Do! (1898, RW Paul)

Supposedly the first film to feature action carried over from one shot to the next. But I watched it twice, and it appears to be only one shot. Is there an invisible Birdman-like cut in there somewhere? Or did I get the descriptions of the previous two films mixed up? Anyway, two drinkers on a bench outside some mysterious establishment with an “Art Section” and “Refreshments” opt for the art section.

Extraordinary Cab Accident (1903, RW Paul)

Cabs being horse-drawn at the time, a guy stumbles into the street, is trampled to death, then mysteriously recovers and runs off. I’ve seen guys transformed via editing into scarecrow dummies then thrown off trains in The Great Train Robbery, but this one does a good job transforming the dummy back into a guy.

A Chess Dispute (1903, RW Paul)

There is a violent dispute over a game of chess. Mostly this dispute is waged just under the camera’s view, thrown punches and bottles and clothing flying up into frame.

Buy Your Own Cherries (1904, RW Paul)

Awful brute man causes a drunken scene at a bar, then another at his home, then after a quick visit to church he’s wonderful and generous. Extra long at four minutes. Paul also produced the great The ? Motorist, which I had credited to director Walter Booth.

The Miller and the Sweep (1898, GA Smith)

Just a silly half-minute fight/chase in front of an operating windmill. But it’s a really nice shot of the windmill.

Let Me Dream Again (1900, GA Smith)

Happy couple at a party wake up as grumpy old couple in bed… so the movie’s title is the punchline. Smith invented the pull out-of-focus to indicate shift from dream to reality.

Sick Kitten (1903, GA Smith)

Kino says Smith invented the POV shot, and the idea of breaking a scene down into shots from different angles, which he does here. Kids dressed as grownups feed a kitty from a spoon. As is true today, cat films were incredibly popular back then, so this is a remake of his 1901 cat film which had worn out from overduplication.

The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899, GA Smith)

Train goes into tunnel, GA Smith and wife have a quick smooth, train back out of tunnel.

The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899, Bamforth & Co)

A remake! Two different people kiss in a different tunnel (the train shot from different angles than Smith used), in a cabin with worse production design.

A Daring Daylight Burglary (1903, Frank Mottershaw)

Action thriller with multiple shots and locations, reminiscent of The Great Train Robbery. Kino says some plot action in the silent doesn’t make sense because the showman was supposed to provide benshi narration during the screening.

A Desperate Poaching Affray (1903, William Haggar)

Men with guns chase men with nets. Oh damn wait, the poachers have guns too, and blast at least three of the pursuers. Poaching was deadly serious business. Just a big chase scene, really.

Attack on a China Mission (1901, James Williamson)

A man’s house is attacked, he defends with rifle, then more groups keep arriving and I’m not sure what side they’re on. Kino says it’s a reenactment of the Boxer Uprising, which must have been a confusing uprising. Kino says JW was famous for moving action across multiple shots, mainly during chase films, which sounds like what everyone was famous for in 1901.

An Interesting Story (1905, James Williamson)

Mustache man pours coffee in his hat, injures the maid, wrecks some children’s fun, and keeps running into things because he won’t put down his book (just like kids today with their cellular telephones). Satisfying conclusion as he gets run over by a steamroller, but some passing bicyclists inflate him, using the ol’ dummy-replacement trick last seen in Extraordinary Cab Accident.

Electrocuting an Elephant (1903, Thomas Edison & Edwin S. Porter)

Never forget, no matter what his achievements in human history, Thomas Edison once electrocuted an elephant for fun and profit.

Great to watch this again in high-def. I remembered it being interesting, but not looking this spectacular. Morose knight (Max Von Sydow) and his charismatic squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand of Winter Light, hard to adjust to him not being the morose one) are heading home through the plague-ridden country, accumulating other characters along the way. It’s both very serious about life and death and also full of jokes and lighter moments, so maybe the first Swedish horror comedy? Along the way, Jons has folksy/philosophical conversations with townsfolk, and the knight has religious/philosophical conversations with Death.

First, Jons rescues an intense, silent girl (Gunnel Lindblom: Sydow’s servant in Virgin Spring, his wife in Winter Light) from a dangerous thief. “I’m a married man, but with any luck my wife is dead by now, so I’ll be needing a housekeeper.” Then they come across actor/jester Jof (Nils Poppe of The Devil’s Eye) with his wife Bibi Andersson, sexy maid in The Magician), who’ve just been ditched by their more serious companion Jonas and need protection. Jonas has stolen the blacksmith’s wife (Inga Gill of Miss Julie), but the smith (Ake Fridell, Monika‘s dad) gets her back and Jonas wanders off to meet Death.

It’s been established that jester Jof can see spirits, so he’s the only one who realizes that the knight’s solo chess games are actually with Death, and that the knight is losing, so he escapes with his wife. The rest of the gang continues to the knight’s castle where his wife Karin (Inga Landgre, recently in Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Remake) is waiting. The six of them are just having dinner when Death catches up, and out in a field with their young son, Jof sees Death leading them all away.

Peter Cowie calls the actors “medieval ancestors of those troubadours, those traveling musicians who are still so popular in Scandinavia today.” I’ve meant to ask Trevor how often he runs across troubadours. Cowie also calls this “the high point of Bergman’s symbolic period.” I’m pretty sure the sudden parade of self-flagellating religious nuts was a Monty Python influence.

Woody Allen:

His big contribution was that he developed a vocabulary to work on the interiors of people. He would choose these great and gifted actors and he would guide them so they could project these inner states of extreme emotional intensity. He would use close-ups and keep those close-ups going longer and longer, and he never let up. Gradually the psychological feelings of the character the actor was portraying just sort of show up on the screen. He was so unsparing with the camera. Finally you start to see the wars that are raging inside the characters, these psychological wars and emotional wars, and it’s no less visual in the end than the movements of armies.

“A man on three scotches could program his way out of any problem in the world.”

I was sure I wouldn’t like this b/w 4:3 analogue-video about a 1980’s supernerd computer-chess competition set entirely in a drab hotel, but that’s because I didn’t realize the directions the movie would take. Very glad I gave Bujalski another shot, after disliking his Mutual Appreciation.

P. Coldiron for Cinema Scope:

Bujalski has always shown a tremendous talent for letting big ideas work themselves out in mundane scenarios; this film takes both of those to their furthest limits… Computer Chess’ main force of narrative thrust comes not from any event, but from the its subtly dynamic formal movement from something like mockumentary toward out-and-out abstraction.

There is a camera within the movie, a news documentary being made on the event (whose cameraman gets yelled at for shooting into the sun), but most of the footage isn’t from its perspective. Honestly by now I get the characters and actors all confused, so I can’t recall who participates in which threads, or who Wiley Wiggins played, but I remember Myles Paige as a confident independent with a new approach to programming, who gets trounced in the matches and ends up on the run for stealing drugs from two apocalyptic-minded interlopers. Patrick Riester from the Caltech team goes wandering, gets picked up (and ultimately terrified) by new age swingers at a sad post-hippie conference. One team works for a secretive well-funded organization, and M.I.T. is “the team that’s got a lady on it.”

“I do not think that Tesla is a good role model for your academic career. That is the path to madness.”

The movie becomes very playful, and the outcome of the chess match starts to matter (to us) less and less. It plays with its cameras, and with sound sync and color. Coldiron: “One character, short on cash, returns home in search of money and upon his arrival the film suddenly shifts to colour 16mm, eventually locking into a loop that traps him in a formal purgatory where he remains for the rest of the movie.”

“Everything is not everything.”

Bujalski: “I think it’s odd from the beginning; that oddness just flowers and flourishes more as it goes… I have no doubt that it will frustrate a lot of viewers, but I think it will frustrate them in a new and different way.

“This film deals with the world of fantasy. It is a fairy-tale for grown-ups. It explores the realm behind the magic mirror wich served Lewis Carroll 100 years ago to stimulate your imagination. … This film has been produced by artists. We have made use of the traditional freedom of the artist to follow our inspiration.”

The producers felt compelled to append that little preface, probably to distinguish their movie from contemporary films like Desk Set, Bridge on the River Kwai and I Was a Teenage Werewolf. But this was also the year of artistic masterworks The Cranes Are Flying, Letter From Siberia and The Seventh Seal, none of which felt the need to open their piece with a pretentious prelude pointing out its poetry.

Cocteau, I think:

With the participation of Louis and Bebe Barron (Forbidden Planet), Max Ernst, Alexander Calder, dada artist Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, some of whom had previously worked on more justifiably renowned films like Entre’act, L’Age d’Or and Richter’s own Dreams That Money Can Buy.

Short, playful episodes, all somehow chess-related. For instance, in one scene a man is paralyzed and confounded by a chess board, mocked by a coat rack in the room shaped just like the king piece, while white mice run around his black shoes. A naked woman arrives and suddenly he is able to take his turn, while a horrible horn plays and the mice, captured by a folding chess board, transform into pigeons. This all sounds like it should make for a fine bit of visual poetry, except that the pacing makes it tedious, and most of the movie features intolerable flute, trumpet, accordion and violin music.

Richter was around 70 when he made this. Seems more like something he did with/for his buddies rather than general audiences. Titles and occasionally narration in English. I liked some stop-motion, a Svankmajeresque dance of rattles, mobiles and masks made from repurposed found objects. Liked the 1950’s fashions. Otherwise it’s a pleasant waste of time, maybe not the Great Lost Cocteau Film I was hoping for. I wouldn’t mind watching again if it ever surfaces with less appalling picture quality than my copy.

Allmovie:

The idea is to present chess conundrums cinematically the way Lewis Carroll did in literature, particularly in Through the Looking Glass. Filmmaker Hans Richter, who’d previously collaborated on Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet, designed his films like paintings; as a result 8 X 8 is visually dazzling, especially segment #2 (“A New Twist”) — even when the viewer is at a loss to understand what is going on.

Grunes:

The first episode is a period piece depicting royal intrigue in the woods. It includes a lady’s tripped-up, trapped bare foot: one of numerous erotic images. In another, Calder constructs a mobile and uses his breath to blow it into life. Here, also, is randomness—of the found objects, various movements resulting from disparate shapes and weights, etc. A woman’s kiss elsewhere turns a royal doll into a human beloved, but, unwilling to cede any power, the woman submits the man’s head and neck to a succession of hats (including a large one with a chessboard design) and ties, preferring to wear the crown herself, and converts the man into a puppet on a string. In perhaps the most wonderful episode, an adventure in “the fortunes of love,” Max Ernst pursues another chess piece, wife Dorothea Tanning, throughout Lower Manhattan—initially, in unexpected black and white. … A clock turns counterclockwise, erasing its numerical indicators. The film’s irresolution suggests that life is a chess game in endless play.

Methuselah (1927, Jean Painlevé)
The title character is a dog-masked shoe-obsessed megalomaniac. Painlevé himself plays Hamlet, and surrealist poet Antonin Artaud found time to appear in this between Abel Gance’s Napoleon and The Passion of Joan of Arc. Doesn’t really make sense on its own – five filmed episodes that were projected during a stage play, strung together here with a stereotypical silent-film piano score.

The Vampire (1945, Jean Painlevé)
Portrait of the South American vampire bat set to happy jazz. They put a bat and a guinea pig in a cage and let the one eat the other. Don’t think I’ll be showing this one to Katy.

Bluebeard (1938, Jean Painlevé)
An opera version of Bluebeard, comically told with awesome and elaborate claymation.

The High Sign (1921, Keaton & Cline)
Buster steals a cop’s gun, runs a shooting gallery, becomes a rich guy’s bodyguard and becomes the same guy’s hired killer. Gags involving ropes and dogs and a house full of traps – one of BK’s funniest and most complicated shorts. So many film scraches I thought it was supposed to be raining. Features Al St. John (the clown who would one day be known as Fuzzy Q. Jones in a hundred westerns) and the gigantic Joe Roberts.
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One Week (1920, Keaton & Cline)
Opens with the same calendar we just saw in The High Sign and Buster getting married… nice transition from the last movie except that it’s a different girl. The one in which he builds a house. More acrobatic stunts than the previous movie – the two make a good pairing. Ooh, a meta camera gag and some near-nudity. I think more work went into this than all of Go West.
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A Wild Roomer (1927, Charley Bowers)
Charley (who not-so-subtly calls himself an “unknown genius” in the intertitles) makes a God Machine which creates self-aware puppets.
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Actually I’m not sure what that was about, besides being an extended stop-motion demonstration – the machine is supposed to take care of all your household chores. As with both of the other Bowers films I’ve watched recently, he has unquestionably made an excellent machine, so the conflict comes from the complications from having to show it off to others (in this case a cranky saboteur uncle with an inheritance at stake).
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Zooming in further one finds… a baby exterminator??
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Fatal Footsteps (1926, Charley Bowers)
“If there were a tax on idiots, Tom would send his dad to the poorhouse.” Well that makes up for the “unknown genius” line. Charley is trying to learn the Charleston to win a contest in the very house where the Anti-Dancing League (motto: “mind thy neighbor’s business”) is meeting. Just when I thought it was gonna be that simple, he invents some mechanical dancing shoes – stop-motion ensues. The shoes get mistakenly worn by Charley’s relative who offends his fellow Leaguers, then Charley wins (and escapes) the contest.
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Even fish are learning the Charleston:
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Haunted Spooks (1920, Hal Roach/Alfred Goulding)
The girl is first introduced kissing baby birds, so she’s got my sympathy.
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Her grandfather dies – she gets the house and inheritance if she lives in it for a year with her husband – but she has no husband! I thought I’d be in for 25 minutes of haunted-house hijinks, but the husband problem has to be solved first (Harold Lloyd is rejected by his rich dream girl, picked up by our girl’s lawyer while attempting to commit suicide) so we don’t get to the house until minute 17. After introducing some superstitious-negro stereotypes, the girl’s crooked uncle proceeds to “haunt” the house to drive her away and steal the inheritance.
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Cute movie, but what I liked best were the illustrated intertitles.
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Chess Fever (1925, Vsevolod Pudovkin)
Fever has gripped the whole town. Chess breaks up a relationship, drives two people to attempted suicide, then happily reunites them. I guess from important-sounding Pudovkin, with his grim-looking video covers, I wasn’t expecting a comedy, but this was light (despite all the suicide) and wonderful. Wikipedia says it includes documentary footage of the 1925 Moscow chess tournament.
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Charleston (1927, Jean Renoir)
A scientist from central Africa (a white guy in blackface and a tuxedo) flies in his aircraft (a marble on a string) to post-apocalyptic Paris, runs into a sexy Euro-girl and her pet monkey. The girl (Catherine Hessling, Renoir’s wife) teaches him the Charleston, filmed in cool slow-motion. Maybe this wasn’t as surreal in ’27 as it is today. The first (credited on IMDB anyway) film produced by Pierre Braunberger, who would go from Renoir to Resnais/Rivete/Rouch to Truffaut/Godard to Shuji Terayama.
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The Little Match Girl (1928, Jean Renoir)
New year’s eve, a poor girl (Catherine Hessling again) can’t sell any matches, starves/freezes to death on the street after hallucinating a better life. The first Renoir film I’ve seen with stop-motion (there’s only a tiny bit) but not the first to focus on clockwork machines. Also reverse and slow-motion and a horse race through the clouds – much more ambitious than Charleston. In her fantasy she plays at the toy store, shrunk to toy size herself, and meets a handsome soldier who looks suspiciously like the handsome cop who was nice to her in the snowy street. It’s all fun and games until Death comes and wrestles her from the soldier. Both these shorts were shot by Jean Bachelet, who would be cinematographer on three separate films of The Sad Sack including Renoir’s.
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I think these might be time-lapse shots of the tide going out, but the picture quality is too poor to be sure. This is gonna be a rough one…

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Opens with a closeup of Catherine Deneuve smiling, a good sign, but soon she and husband Michel Piccoli are in a car crash. Afterwards, she can’t speak anymore and he has a harry potter scar on his forehead. Some eerie, powerful string music and many close-ups of crabs later, we’re at a seaside town where the couple have come to recuperate. Apparently they don’t talk with the locals much because there’s plenty of gossip going around.

Sheet salesmen:
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Doesn’t take long for things to get weird. Small hands drop buttons into pockets. Piccoli (whose character name is also Piccoli) gets scammed by traveling sheet salesmen. Fishermen provide La Pointe-courte flashbacks for the viewer. Piccoli beats a chef with a dead cat. But it’s not a comedy! Something dark and eerie is definitely going on.

Piccoli talks with a horse. The horse talks back.
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Piccoli is a writer working on a story, and when we see him writing the dialogue being spoken by a woman across town, I’m never sure afterwards what is really happening and what’s part of his meta-movie.

horse: “What is your story about?”
MP: “It’s about a man who knows how to control people by remote control. … but it wouldn’t last very long, a minute at most. This guy would be a bad person, with an evil mind. He wouldn’t be human or animal anymore.”

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Soon Michel meets a bad man with an evil mind, Mr. Ducasse, who lives in a tower. He’s hired kids to drop magic discs into townspeople’s pockets which enable their wills to be controlled by his super computer. Ducasse calls the townfolk his “creatures”, gets Piccoli to play a game of Battle Chess with him over the fate of the town and of MP’s wife. MP is losing, but decides he doesn’t have to take Ducasse’s crazy misanthropic shit anymore, destroys the computer and tosses Ducasse from the tower. I’ll let NY Times give away the ending below.

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Other notes I took while watching:

Catherine writes him messages, which I can’t read from the poor picture quality, and even if I could read them, they’d be in French. I have nice DVDs of Varda and Demy movies here, but I choose to watch a junk bootleg instead. Odd priorities.

The dead cat came with a piece of iron that makes the lights go out and causes people to act strange.

He just told a rabbit that his wife is pregnant.

Thief Max burns money, puts on diving suit, gets shot by partner.

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You can’t tell much about the camerawork from my lo-res letterboxed videotape, but it’s one of the first films shot by William Lubtchansky (a decade before he began his 30+ year relationship with Jacques Rivette) along with two others. Interesting that all of her films until 1977 had multiple credited cinematographers.

Village Voice calls it “really botched” in their roundup for this year’s retrospective… “If it’s about anything, it’s about the creative process in action and stars that fine actor Michel Piccoli as a novelist who bases the characters in his story on friends and acquaintances.”

Ebert: “a complex and nearly hypnotic study of the way fact is made into fiction. It seems to operate on many levels, but in fact it operates on only one, illustrating how fantasy, reality and style are simultaneously kept suspended in the mind of a creative writer.”

NY Times: “Then love conquers all. The survivors of the seven subplots make happy arrangements — for example, the statuesque hotel keeper (Eva Dahlbeck) gives up mistressing for the town doctor and begins with an underage busboy. The writer almost completes his novel. The wife gets her voice back, pronounces her husband’s name (“Edgar”), and has her baby — a bawling creature who at the end fills up the screen precisely to balance (and somewhat to resemble) a crab creature that fills it at the beginning.”

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The movie’s studied anthropology and attack on human behavior reminds me of Resnais’ Mon oncle d’Amerique. And also of Bjork’s “Human Behavior.” There’s definitely, definitely… definitely no logic.