Masterworks of Avant-Garde Film: 1952-1966

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

Abstronic (1952 Bute & Nemeth)

Animation based around electronic imagery from oscilloscopes, set to two catchy tunes. What the future looks like.


Bells of Atlantis (1952 Ian Hugo)

Very abstract imagery. You can often tell he’s filming real objects (woman in hammock) but it’s been blue-filtered and overlaid with patterns to appear underwater. Pulsing and whooping electronic sounds by the Barron couple, visual effects by Len Lye and narration by Anaïs Nin – it’s a pretty cool movie, not a favorite, but made by remarkable collaborators.


Eaux d’artifice (1953 Kenneth Anger)

Seen this before. The imagery is supposed to be erotic but I always end up pondering fountain design and mechanics.


Evolution (1954 Jim Davis)

Wild, almost organic light patterns
Cellophane reflections give an electric glow.
Shifting light blobs that look like colored liquid being pressed under glass.


Gyromorphosis (1954 Hy Hirsh)

Hirsh filmed segments of a sculpture with colored lights and overlaid them spiraling around and inside each other. The result is spindly bits, lines and grids and spokes, all spinning in air like the visual representation of an Autechre song (it’s actually accompanied by some light chiming jazz).


Hurry, Hurry! (1957 Marie Menken)

Wriggling sperms behind a sheet of flames, set to battlefield sound effects covered in horrific scratching. Not nearly as much fun as her similarly-titled Go! Go! Go!. The liners say Menken was “physically imposing” and her relationship with her poet husband inspired Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which sounds just awful. Don’t I have a documentary about her somewhere?


NY, NY (1957 Francis Thompson)

Kaleidoscope-refracted fly-eyed process shots of NYC, with synched Disneyish orchestral music by Gene Forrell. An absolute stunner – maybe the best find of this collection. Film Quarterly reveals that Thompson worked on perfecting it for a decade, screening it at MOMA to “a thunderous ovation” in 1952, but still reworking it for five more years.


Castro Street (1966 Bruce Baillie)

Similar to the last film in a way: abstract-ish view of a city that ends up involving construction workers and transportation. Great sound layering on this one. I guess from watching Baillie’s Here I Am and Valentin de las Sierras I assumed he was less avant-garde and more a documentarian of the underclass.

Sitney:

Baillie occasionally uses slightly distorted images of the trains and the railroad yard with prismatic colors around the border of distinct shapes. He also uses images which were recorded by an improperly threaded camera so that they appear to jump or waver up and down on the screen.

Lucy Fischer, from an astounding 9-page analysis in Film Quarterly:

Castro Street is, above all else, a film of hyperbolic superimposition; from beginning to end it creates a uniform texture of densely enmeshed imagery … Rather than create a sense of superimposed images in dialectical conflict, Baillie works against this to create a sense of coherent union … As Baillie has phrased it in relation to Quick Billy, his matting strategy is one of overlaying imagery so that it “looks like it was all invented or occurring at the same moment.”


9 Variations on a Dance Theme (1966 Hilary Harris)

Dancer in a bare room does a short routine, then again from a different angle. When he starts with the extreme closeups, editing between angles and camera movements to match the dancer’s motions it gets really great. The liners: “informed by his notions of kinesthetics, in which images are structured around movement with the camera in constant motion.”

E. Callenbach in Film Quarterly:

The dancing is cool and straight, by a girl who wears long woolies and never bats an eye; she is not being Modern and not trying to express her soul, but doing a curious ritual action with its own internal logic and rhythm. Watching her is like watching a musician play; it has an immense technical interest as well as the delights of motion.

Masterworks of Avant-Garde Film: 1940-1951

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

Tarantella (1940 Bute & Nemeth)

Abstract designs move in time to music, a la An Optical Poem and some of the Len Lye films. Bold and colorful.

Lewis Jacobs in Film Quarterly:

At first glance, the Bute-Nemeth pictures seemed like an echo of the former German pioneer, Oscar Fischinger, one of the first to experiment with the problems of abstract motion and sound. Actually, they were variations on Fischinger’s method, but less rigid in their patterns and choice of objects, tactile in their forms; more sensuous in their use of light and color rhythms, more concerned with the problems of depth, more concerned with music complimenting rather than corresponding to the visuals … Fischinger worked with two-dimensional animated drawings; Bute and Nemeth used any three-dimensional substance at hand: ping-pong balls, paper cutouts, sculptured models, cellophane, rhinestones, buttons, all the odds and ends picked up at the five and ten cent store. Fischinger used flat lighting on flat surfaces; Bute and Nemeth employed ingenious lighting and camera effects by shooting through long-focus lenses, prisms, distorting mirrors, ice cubes, etc.


Pursuit of Happiness (1940 Rudy Burckhardt)

These NYC mini-docs keep getting better. This one is mostly focused on people and advertisements. Towards the end, Rudy goes nuts in the editing, rotating and slowing and superimposing and splitting images. “Intentionally silent,” which I cannot abide, so I played some Cyro Baptista.


1941 (1941 Francis Lee)

Flowing paint and broken glass, an abstract visual response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor made just before the filmmaker went to war.


Meshes of the Afternoon (1943 Maya Deren)

This is the best. Cocteau-like death-dream narrative from every perspective, with doubling, mirror-faces, slo-mo – all the effects used to great poetic purpose. Wrote (a bit) more here.

Deren:

This film is concerned with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.


Meditation on Violence (1948 Maya Deren)

A man practicing wutang and shaolin moves to flute music. Drums are added, and completely take over the soundtrack as the man warps to an outdoor setting with a sword and costume. A few token slo-mo and freeze shots then he’s back indoors. Apparently it’s much more complex than it looks and Deren had theories and charts to explain what she was doing, but Sitney calls it “a film overloaded by its philosophical burden.”


In the Street (1948 James Agee, et al)

Documentary of kids of all ages hanging out and playing in the street. Builds to a climax with a war of boys fighting with stockings filled with gravel, then chills out again, then a montage of close-ups. Costumes are involved, and rambly piano music accompanies.


Four in the Afternoon (1951 James Broughton)

Four vignettes set to Broughton poems. 1. Jump-roping woman imagines possible suitors. 2. Gardening man imagines finding a date. 3. Prancing woman in garden is pursued by even prancier man. 4. Sad man in rocking chair dreams of ballerinas past. This one has some nice reverse-action.

Sitney:

For each of the four film poems there is a distinctive cinematic trope; with Game Little Gladys it is stop-motion manifestation and disappearance of possible lovers; in the case of The Gardener’s Son it is a composition-in-depth with the boy in the foreground and the woman he desires in the background … The final section, The Aging Balletomane, may be the finest … Reverse motion is the trope of this episode.

The Movies Begin, discs 1 & 2

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.

Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer (2015, Jack Walsh)

Lovely event by The Ross. Went out to dinner with director and cinematographer, and it occurred to me towards the end to feel guilty to be celebrating with the filmmakers of a documentary I’m probably not going to like. Docs about artists tend not to be very artistic themselves, and talking-head interview movies seem pointless to watch in theaters. So I was expecting another Altman, but this doc was great. Yvonne had a fascinating life, and the movie does a good job following it, showing groovy clips of dance routines and films, and not playing the “then this happened, then that happened” narrator games. Yvonne had breast cancer and got a mastectomy, then would stand in classic shirtless male-model poses. Later in the Q&A someone asked if she had breast cancer and I thought “of course she did,” but I guess the movie didn’t explicitly state this, just expected you to follow the stories. This counted as the U.S. theatrical premiere – that’s for a regular week-long release, since it played festivals already.

Screening Room: Yvonne Rainer (1977)

To prep for the Yvonne doc, I watched most of this TV special, in which the great Robert Gardner interviews Yvonne about her film Kristina Talking Pictures, showing about a half hour of it. Local film critic Deac Rossell joined the conversation, and the two men seemed very anxious to talk about film technique, leaving Yvonne to mostly smile in the background – a shame, since I watched this to hear what she’d have to say. I was most uninterested in the film itself at first, with its typically dry, amateur acting, but then I started to notice the unconvincing actors were discussing unconvincing acting in films, and towards the end of the episode the clips played with sync sound in a cool way. So I still haven’t seen a full Yvonne Rainer film, but I know a lot more about her.

Kristina Talking Pictures:

Yvonne:

The Great Ziegfeld (1936, Robert Z. Leonard)

Endless, rambling bio-pic about a theater producer who always planned bigger shows than he could afford, with enthusiasm that proved contagious to financial backers. Semi-falsely billed as a William Powell/Myrna Loy movie, since she plays his second wife, appearing in the last half hour of the three-hour movie. Good scenes (especially the lavish musical numbers) and acting, but the story is bloated with details from Ziegfeld’s life that just aren’t necessary to the plot or character, starting with an opening scene with his father and a little girl (who returns hours/years later to dance in one of his shows, but so what).

Powell was between The Thin Man and its first sequel. He runs a circus act with strongman Sandow (Nat Pendleton of two Thin Man movies), then marries his star Anna Held (Luise Rainer, winning back-to-back oscars with this and The Good Earth) after moving to Broadway shows. Anna carries her whole show, but Ziegfeld wants to do something bigger (he gives the impression of having a short attention span), so he starts the Follies, a musical comedy variety show that changes every year. Some ups, some downs, he seems washed up then opens four Broadway hits at the same time, then falls broke/sick/dead when the market crashes.

Myrna Loy’s character is Billie Burke, the good witch of The Wizard of Oz, and Frank Morgan (Ziegfeld’s main friend/rival) played The Wizard himself. Surprisingly, Will Rogers was dead and that was a Will Rogers impersonator in his scene.

Written by one of Ziegfeld’s main show writers. Won best picture and actress (Luise Rainer). Frank Capra, The Story of Louis Pasteur and Dodsworth took the rest. Got a semi-sequel in Ziegfeld Girl, also by Robert “Ziegfeld” Leonard with Busby Berkeley (it’s shorter, with Judy Garland = probably a better movie), and the music and comedy revue Ziegfeld Follies, featuring Powell as the dead Ziegfeld.

All That Jazz (1979, Bob Fosse)

A singing, dancing musical fantasy taking place in the mind of a lead character confined to a hospital bed, who doubles the filmmaker’s own hospital illness/fantasies. But enough about The Singing Detective

Bob Fosse ended up in hospital trying to obsessively re-edit his film Lenny while launching his musical Chicago, and Fosse’s stand-in Roy Scheider (the guy in Jaws whom I disliked less than Richard Dreyfuss) is in a similar fix, plus he’s juggling too many drugs and women, including ex-wife Leland Palmer (that’s the actress’s real name, also of Ken Russell’s Valentino) and dream-girl Jessica Lange. Inspired by 8 1/2, Scheider always surrounded by women in his profession and home life.

Lost the big oscars to Kramer vs. Kramer and Apocalypse Now, but still won a bunch, including editing, which it deserved. Most impressive part of the movie is the dance scenes, which include the camera and editing as part of the dance.

N. Murray:

Joe’s great curse is that he knows everything can be improved with more time and effort — himself included. More than once in the movie, he shows his work to someone who’s exasperated with him for all the time he’s taking and all the money he’s spending, and in each case, they shake their heads, annoyed to have to admit that all his fussing has made the finished product more brilliant. A skeptic might say this is Fosse congratulating himself, but it’s really more of an explanation. It’s impossible to create something as lasting as All That Jazz without doing a lot of personal and collateral damage.

Frances Ha (2012, Noah Baumbach)

This was fun. I suppose I can forgive The Squid and the Whale now. Greta Gerwig (best known as the first victim in House of the Devil) wants to be a famous dancer, will never be a famous dancer, is kind of unsufferable but cute enough that you forgive her. A better movie than Monsters University about childhood dreams and hard work not entirely working out. Katy cringed a lot during the most Baumbachesque scene, an ultra-awkward dinner conversation, while I was busy trying to figure why Dean & Britta were in the scene.

Pina (2011, Wim Wenders)

Dance doc based on the choreography of Pina Bausch, who died unexpectedly a week before filming was to begin. It ends up feeling like a memorial instead, the dance scenes interspersed with non-synched voiceover/closeup segments with each major dancer saying something about Pina.

Katy wanted more narrative and background, but the movie is purely interested in the dances, which are outstanding and look awesome in 3D. Highlights: “Cafe Muller,” in which Pina runs across a room full of chairs while a guy quickly clears her path, a couple climbing through chairs while a third guy precariously stacks them (Pina was into chairs), a solo sadness ballet at an empty factory, a rainy moon-rock scene with gondola-like floor slides, and dances in active locations (by a busy street, on a monorail).

Royal Wedding (1951, Stanley Donen)

Katy found some rare free time to watch a movie (she was sick), so we watched another Fred Astaire musical (our sixth). SHOCKtober will resume shortly.

For once, Fred Astaire’s costar isn’t his romantic partner but his sister. Fred was in his 50’s, looking slightly rough in close-up but having lost no charm, and sister Jane Powell was only 32, of course. The two are dancing partners in a hit show in New York – he’s the consummate professional and she’s always out with a different guy. Their agent books them a gig in London (supposedly it’s the same show, but prefiguring The Band Wagon, none of the music numbers we see from it seem vaguely related to each other) and they each find true love. Jane Powell recognizes a kindred spirit in royal womanizer Peter Lawford (who costarred in Easter Parade with Astaire and Judy Garland in 1948, the same year Jane Powell starred in A Date With Judy), and Astaire meets pretty redhead Sarah Churchill (who wasn’t in a ton of movies, but guess whose daughter she was). And they live happily et cetera.

Of course the group/duo dances are very nice, but Astaire kills it in the solo segments. He does two of his most famous and elegant dances – one on the walls and ceiling (even after I explained, Katy still can’t figure how he did this), and one ingeniously with a coat rack as his partner, a clear influence on David Byrne in Stop Making Sense. For her own solo numbers, Powell sings. And I did not have to turn to IMDB to know that she’s a big fan of Jeanette MacDonald, the piercing Snow White soprano of Monte Carlo and Love Me Tonight. Powell isn’t as horribly shrill, and recording equipment was of higher quality in 1951, but it’s still not my favorite vocal style.

Young director Stanley Donen’s next musical would be Singin’ in the Rain, and this was the first movie by writer Alan Jay Lerner, who’d write Gigi and My Fair Lady. Sarah’s bartender dad is Irishman Albert Sharpe, who returned in Lerner’s Brigadoon. Keenan Wynn seemed awfully proud of himself, but was frankly stupid as both the couple’s New York agent Irving, and his twin brother in England, Edgar. He would improve into the 60’s, appearing in Dr. Strangelove and Point Blank, before falling to the depths of Laserblast and Parts: The Clonus Horror.