A Brief History of Princess X (2016, Gabriel Abrantes)

“Hey guys, my name is Gabriel Abrantes and I’m the director of this little six-minute film” – probably the first movie I’ve seen with director’s commentary as the main audio. It’s the story of Princess X, the sculpture and the subject, with playful voiceover: the characters’ mute dialogue in semi-sync with Abrantes, the director laughing at the actions and commenting on the filmmaking. “Here we changed his costume so it would seem like time was passing. He just ended up looking like Fidel Castro.”

M. Sicinski:

Princess X is undoubtedly a smart little film, and Abrantes wears his erudition lightly, possibly a little too much so. But in such a small space, he accomplishes several feats — things too modest to call “impressive,” per se, so let’s label them nifty. The film brings out the neurosis and below-the-belt impulses of modernism without turning it into a punchline, making “modern art” some sort of con. Abrantes follows tangents like a champ, following through when, for instance, our Spin the Phallus game lands us on Freud. But above all, he generates an uncanny sense of Victorian human puppetry from his performers, especially Joana Barrios as Marie Bonaparte. We find ourselves inside a weird, high-speed hybrid film, equal parts Guy Maddin and Raoul Ruiz. It’s something special.

Princess X (the marble version?) premiered in 1917 in the same show as Duchamp’s urinal, which grabbed all the headlines, postponing Brancusi’s own controversy until 1920, when the bronze version was censored in Paris. The marble is on display 200 yards from my office, and I visit it some afternoons.


Checked out Festivalscope for the first time with these next couple of shorts… great site, going to have to keep an eye on its new releases.


As Without So Within (2016, Manuela de Laborde)

I think it’s closeups on planetary stone objects. Sometimes we go too close, and the film is overrun with low-framerate grain, and sometimes we pull back with minor Lemony light changes. Soft static on the soundtrack, annoying. Some double exposures toward the middle. I liked the lighting, at least.

Played ND/NF 2017 and Toronto before that. Knew I’d heard about this somewhere – turns out it got six whole pages in Cinema Scope.

De Laborde:

Although I didn’t want to make a film that’s about outer space per se, I do like the metaphor, and also the relation that it suggests between cinema and the theatre. We go into this neutral non-space and we have to make sense of these self-contained universes, with their own balance and rules and life of their own, which works according to a language or order that was born from these materials, and yet they are also just these floating bodies in the middle of a dark, empty room.


Spiral Jetty (2017, Ricky D’Ambrose)

Male narrator gets job working for the daughter of recently deceased, celebrated psychologist Kurt Blumenthal, documenting his papers and tapes. Narrator is the last person to get to see the full collection before the daughter and her conductor husband (played by n+1’s film critic) suppress and destroy certain things (such as “the papers from the maoists”) before it’s all sold to a university. The short premiered just a week before I watched it online, does some things I like with editing and sound, and has an interesting focus on objects (news articles, handwritten notes, photographs). Dan Sallitt gets thanked in this film and Ben Rivers in the previous one, and both of these connections make sense to me.

In a Brooklyn Magazine interview, D’Ambrose reveals that his family’s own home movies substituted for Blumenthal’s. He’s working on a feature called Notes on an Appearance. “The shorts exist because the feature existed before them: each short was an attempt to solve certain aesthetic and conceptual problems that I’ve been thinking about ever since I started writing An Appearance.”


Arm, Flexion, Extension (2011, Bea Haut)

A white wall is painted black from a few tripod setups, while light shapes flicker across the “haphazardly hand processed 16mm film” over the sound of projector noise. On International Women’s Day, Michael Sicinski posted links to seventy female filmmakers’ Vimeo pages and I picked this one at random… the idea was to watch a bunch more, but I haven’t gotten to that yet, just cataloguing them for later.


Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises (1999, David Gatten)

Bible pages and words and letters flash and scroll past, with various levels of enlargement and exposure and opacity and speed, flickering by in different ways, maybe according to the Moxon quote before each section. I was annoyed when I realized it would be all silent text on screen, then I improved things by playing the Monotonprodukt album, against the Wishes and Intentions of the filmmaker. He probably also didn’t intend for me to watch a VHS transfer on an HDTV, or to pause the movie halfway through because my mom called, but that’s life in this 21st Century.

Sicinski in Cinema Scope:

Portions of the Biblical texts are affixed to the film, lifted from their source with cellophane tape after Gatten has boiled the books. We see the ink, hanging together in atomic word-forms like nervous constellations, mottled and wavering in thickness. The Word, indeed, is made flesh.


Secret History of the Dividing Line (2002, David Gatten)

The first five minutes were fun, flipping through a timeline of events, pausing on the biographical details of William Byrd and his expedition to determine the border between Virginia and North Carolina (very Lost City of Z), and this time I knew to start the Monotonprodukt album right away. But then a scroll of the two versions of the Dividing Line publication take over the screen, with a vertical-mask Dividing Line switching between them… this part was mostly unreadable in my SD copy. The text ends and the screen flickers and lights up with horizontal noise patterns, often weirdly in sync with my music.

If I’m reading a Wexner Center program correctly, this is part one and Moxon’s is part three of the same project (“the Byrd films”). Michael Sicinski’s article on Gatten in Cinema Scope 49 is the best, and makes me want to seek out more by Gatten, even though I’ve only found these subpar video copies so far.


A Train Arrives at the Station (2016, Thom Andersen)

Clips from train scenes in movies, using their own sound, including some of my favorite movies (Shanghai Express, Dead Man) and memorable scenes (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). Feels like this was meant to go with a speech or discussion of some sort, because otherwise I don’t see the point of it… I mean, I like trains in film as much as the next guy, so it’s enjoyable at least.

News From Home, perhaps? No source credits, so I can’t be sure.


From The Drain (1967, David Cronenberg)

A comedy sketch in a bathtub, scored with Renaissance acoustic guitar, Hat Guy doing his exasperated theater-guy voice while Glasses Guy mutely grins at him. References to “the war” and a veteran’s center, where the two either work or are patients, then Glasses guy warns of murderous tendrils coming from the drain, and is eventually strangled by them (or a stop-motion phone cord). It’s silly, and surprisingly not the only Cronenberg movie to be shot entirely in a bathroom, but he does an effectively strange thing, swapping positions of the two guys in the tub but acting like it’s normal continuity cutting.

One of the most mental divorce-horror films, reportedly based on the director’s own experience retrieving a daughter from an ex-wife’s cult. Made between Rabid and Scanners, I liked the lead actor (horror regular Art Hindle of Black Christmas and Body Snatchers ’78) better than any pre-Videodrome Cronenberg hero.

It seems Art’s wife Nola (Samantha Eggar of Walk Don’t Run) is under the psychiatric care of “psychoplasmics” weirdo Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed, lending necessary gravity to a movie about psychosomatic killer dwarfs), and there are custody/abuse questions about their daughter, which Nola solves by sending her mutant children to kill her own parents, Art’s new girlfriend, and eventually Oliver Reed.

Family meeting:

The outsider conspiracy theorist in this movie who clues in Art about the doctor’s bizarre studies is the same actor (Robert Silverman) who played the wise outsider in Scanners. But it’s Gary McKeehan (of The Italian Machine) who first mentions “the disturbed kids in the warehouse, the ones your wife’s taking care of,” casually as if everybody already knew. Oliver Reed eventually gets on board helping Art with the rescue operation, helping to redeem whatever the hell has been happening at his institute.

In the extras Cronenberg mentions that after making Stereo and Crimes of the Future, before joining Cinepix to make Shivers, he had to decide if he was going to wholeheartedly pursue filmmaking – “I gave up the idea of being a novelist.” Forty-five years later he’d return to that idea for the great Consumed.

Carrie Rickey for Criterion:

The Brood was released the same year as another film about a custody dispute, Kramer vs. Kramer, which subsequently took the Oscar for best picture. In 1979, Cronenberg, himself recovering from a difficult divorce and custody contest, noted of his most personal film, “The Brood is my version of Kramer vs. Kramer, but more realistic.” Originally, I thought he was joking.

“I have the flu. I need cigarettes.”

Julianne Moore is an actress who sees ghosts, trying to get a film part where she’ll play her own mother in a bio-pic (like a terrible Clouds of Sils Maria remake). Evan Bird (of TV’s The Killing Remake) is a horrid child star, son of Rosemary Cross and new-age massage therapist John Cusack. Evan’s older sister Mia Wasikowska is out of an asylum and back in town, gets a job as Moore’s assistant and hangs out with limo driver Rob Pattinson.

Eventually connections fall into place, and people start dying. Moore gets the role because her rival’s son drowns. Evan murders a young costar who’s been upstaging him. Mia bludgeons her employer Moore with a film award. Rosemary Cross somehow catches on fakey digital fire. Then Mia and Evan creep away and take handfuls of pills. Throughout, the music and editing and shots are pretty unexceptional and I’d be worried about Cronenberg except that I read his terrific novel which released around the same time at this movie.

M. D’Angelo:

Mostly, though, it’s just an excuse for [writer] Wagner to depict “scathingly” bad behavior, as when Moore’s fading starlet leaps around her house with joy upon learning that a rival’s adorable little son has just drowned, freeing up the plum role that Moore had just lost to said rival. Cronenberg, for his part, shoots this cavalcade of random potshots as functionally as possible — this is easily his least visually distinguished film (and also, perhaps not coincidentally, the first film he’s ever shot in the U.S.). Hollywood may be a nest of vacuous vipers, but it deserves a less feeble takedown than this.

Hetero White Male Boone has been having bad dreams, getting calls from psychiatrist David Cronenberg, who is secretly giving his patients hallucinogens. Then a bagface knifes some kid’s parents. Boone’s girlfriend Lori does karaoke at a club. Crazy Boone goes to hospital, where he meets a cheery longhair who scalps himself. All this leads Boone to Midian, underground dwelling of monsters, whose prophet he will become, to the consternation of their gill-cheeked leader Doug Bradley. But there’s trouble before Boone can take his place as prophecised hero, because either he or Cronenberg (who works nights as the psychotic bagface murderer) leads the humans to the monster pit, and a redneck army destroys the pit, driving the monsters away.

Barker creates a fantastic bunch of characters (everyone except Boone) but maybe it’s best he stopped directing. The newly restored director’s cut doesn’t change how creaky and graceless everything is. Everyone talks like they’re in a movie, one guy even screams “nooooooo!” But I hadn’t seen this since the VHS days, was worth revisiting. Maybe I’ll see if I can find the comics.

Cinematographer Robin Vidgeon had shot the first two Hellraiser movies with Clive. Whole companies are credited with the foul crimes committed against movies: “20th Century Fox drastically cut this film at the last minute prior to its theatrical release,” and everywhere it’s Fox this and Fox that. I’d like to see the individuals listed more often, IMDB credits for specific studio execs who sunk the movies.

“As an aphrodisiast, Dr. Stringfellow proposes the use of synthetic aphrodisiac drugs to assist those who wish to attain a fully three-dimensional sexuality.”

I rented this on VHS from Movies Worth Seeing (RIP) back in 2000-2002, watched and hated it. Now it’s in lovely high-def on my Scanners blu-ray, and I am older and more tolerant, so time to give it another shot. And I still hate it, but the visuals are extremely sharp and it has interesting resonance with Scanners.

The story, or perhaps the backstory, is told via narrator, with total silence at all other times (so no sync sound on the action). Eight subjects underwent brain surgery to extend the natural electrochemical network of the human brain to provide telepathic capabilities. So far so Scanners, but there’s more. The psychics are said to have strange reactions when in the same room as each other, and one “pierced his skull with an electric drill, an act of considerable symbolic significance.”

It’s set at a sanatorium in the woods, which I admit is wonderfully well photographed, as are the actors. The guy who we’ll call the star wears a cape with a giant amulet and carries a cane. I wish I could get away with this look, but I can’t – and neither can he. He appears at all times to be a pretentious film student, which would sink the movie if it didn’t sink itself in other ways, by being dull at all times, by depriving us of sound except for the posh intellectual narration, by having the psychics suck on pacifiers. He even uses slow-mo at times, as if the movie wasn’t already slow enough. In recent interviews, Cronenberg says it works better if you’re stoned. Four of the seven actors were also in Crimes of the Future, which I was going to double-feature with this but chickened out, and one actor got as far as The Dead Zone 13 years later.

“I’m one of you.”
“You’re one of me.”

Entrancing movie, full of oddball performances. Mostly bought the blu-ray because the cover art is so outstanding, but this was a pleasure to watch again. Completely holds up, even the scene where Cameron scans a computer (because, it’s explained, computers have nervous systems) through its modem over a payphone, since the movie itself seems to fully believe all the crazy stuff it’s telling us. But how come powerful psychics never notice gun-toting killers sneaking up behind them?

Good Scanners:

Patrick “The Prisoner” McGoohan runs a security company’s scanner program, recruits Cameron (Stephen Lack, later in Dead Ringers) off the streets, but the security company’s head security dude Keller (Lawrence Dane of Darkman 2) is secretly in cahoots with evil scanner Revok (the great Michael Ironside, later of Starship Troopers and Total Recall). Cameron tries to recruit reclusive artist Pierce (Cronenberg regular Robert Silverman, looking like Chris Guest in Waiting for Guffman) then teams up with Kim (Jennifer O’Neill of Fulci’s The Psychic) and her crew, scanner war ensues. Cameron and Revok are evenly matched, since it turns out they’re uber-scanner siblings, sons of McGoohan, so the final scan-off gets pretty extreme.

Bad Scanner:

Cronenberg’s follow-up to The Brood, which I should also rewatch. Warped, piercing keyboard soundtrack by Howard Shore. The scanner-controlling drug is named Ephemerol, which is a bit of genius I’m surprised hasn’t been used elsewhere (discounting Scanners sequels).

K. Newman:

There had been all sorts of rumors — and trashy paperbacks — about Soviet ESP experiments and their application to spying and warfare, which eventually inspired a U.S. program that would have some of its peculiar history told in Jon Ronson’s nonfiction study The Men Who Stare at Goats (2004), made into a film in 2009. In Scanners, Cronenberg evokes this shadowy area of paranormal research, as well as contemporary scandals involving botched drug testing, the less-than-ethical behavior of some sectors of the pharmaceutical industry, and the rise of private security and espionage outfits… The finale… can be seen as an optimistic mirror of the pessimistic finish of Dead Ringers, allowing for the mutual survival of the doppelgänger brothers in one melded form rather than ending in their shared death… It’s unusual in the run of films dealing with psychic psychopaths in exploring telepathy as well as telekinesis, and also touches—in its “human modem” sequence—on the fusion of man and machine that becomes central to Videodrome and The Fly.

Berenice (1954, Eric Rohmer)

An Edgar Allen Poe story about a talky, sickly shut-in who stares at everyday objects all day is an odd choice for your first film. The guy (Rohmer himself!) lives with an epileptic cousin, becomes monomaniacally obsessed with her teeth, and eventually they get engaged since neither can deal with the outside world. But she dies one night, and he takes this very melodramatically, then awakens from a fugue days later having dug up the grave and stolen the teeth. It’s all narration and sound effects, shot by Jacques Rivette, still a couple years before his debut short.

Khan Khanne (2014, Jean-Luc Godard)

“This is not a film anymore, although it is my best.” What Godard sent to this year’s Cannes instead of appearing in person. Godard is his usual latter-day self, acting the scatterbrained professor, possibly quoting Hannah Arendt and/or referencing Chris Marker, cutting in excerpts from Alphaville and King Lear, using camera shots and sound editing that make it seem like he doesn’t know what he’s doing, ultimately making little sense to me, but with a weirdo bravado.

Adieu a TNS (1998, Jean-Luc Godard)

Swaying, smoking, Godard recites a singsongy poem over gentle accordion in three parts, the framing tighter each time. I’ve read that this was “a bitter and mournful farewell to the National Theater of Strasbourg.”

The Accordion (2010, Jafar Panahi)

Two brothers play music for spare change, not realizing they’re outside a mosque. A guy threatens to report them to the police, takes their accordion and runs. But it turns out he’s just a poor bastard hoping to earn money with the instrument, so the kids join him instead of killing him with a rock, which had been the other option.

The Nest (2014, David Cronenberg)

Single-take nine-minute shot from first-person perspective of surgeon (Cronenberg) interviewing patient (Evelyne Brochu, Tom’s ally/coworker in Tom at the Farm) who claims she has a wasps nest inside her left breast. Doubles as a commissioned short for some exhibition and a trailer for his first novel, Consumed, out this fall.

Gradiva (2014, Leos Carax)

Another gallery commission featuring a naked girl. This time the girl has gone to buy cigarettes, returns and has a short conversation with Rodin’s The Thinker.

The Legend of Hallowdega (2010, Terry Gilliam)

Unfunny fake investigation into haunted goings-on at the Talladega racetrack from a Daily Show writer. Just terrible. I won’t give away the twist comedic ending because I’m too embarrassed. Ends with a nice Wolf Parade song, at least.

On demande une brute (1934, Charles Barrois)

Early Jacques Tati, who wrote and starred as a hapless actor who accidentally signs up to be a wrestler. Despite all the time spent on audition scenes and the wrestling match, the only good bit is when he tries to keep his shrew wife from absentmindedly eating a pet fish at the dinner table.

Gravesend (2007, Steve McQueen)

Beautiful shots that seem to go on longer than they should, check, yep it’s the guy who made Hunger. One of those art installation pieces that is very cool to read about and less fun to watch. I wanted to like it, and almost did…

From the official description:

Gravesend uses a documentary approach to focus on the mining of coltan, employed in the manufacture of cell phones, laptops and other high-tech apparatus. The film cuts between two sites: a technological, highly automated industrial plant in the West where the precious metal is processed for the final production of microelectronic parts, and the central Congo, where miners use simple shovels or their bare hands to extract, wash and collect the ore on leaves. .. coltan, traded at an extremely high price, represents one of the key financial factors in the armed conflict of the militia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where decades of civil war have cost several million human lives.

Away From It All (1979, John Cleese & Clare Taylor)

Fake travelogue disguised to look and sound like a real one (unless you recognize John Cleese’s voice), very gradually straying from the company line, slipping in notes of humor and aggression. Stock footage takes us from Rome to Venice to Ireland to Bulgaria to Vienna to New York, back to Venice to Acapulco, to a rapid montage of vacation spots as the narrator begins ranting about existential terror. Accompanied Life of Brian in British theaters.

Already showed up in someone’s top-ten-ever list in Sight & Sound. Completely odd and exceptional movie, everyone acting like they’re in another dimension, standing outside the film. Sleek and cool, starring a blank Robert Pattinson as self-destructive billionaire Packer, Sarah Gadon (Mrs. Jung in A Dangerous Method) as his new wife, Paul Giamatti as his stalker, and a bunch of people who get a single scene each.

Starts with business partners talking shop, health (he gets a prolonged rectal exam while talking with an employee), paintings (he has sex with art dealer Juliette Binoche) and relationships in his silent limousine, but things start to go downhill. It becomes clear that Packer has sunk his fortune into a dying currency, rat-wielding economic protesters fill the streets and attack the car, Packer’s wife is breaking up with him, and his favorite hip-hop musician has died – this is in decreasing order of how much these things seem to matter to him.

Packer’s quest to get a haircut in his old neighborhood is nearly complete when a celebrity-pranker (Mathieu Amalric) hits him with a pie – then, probably unrelated to that, he asks to see his bodyguard Torval’s gun, and shoots Torval to death with it. Down to just Packer and his driver, they have dinner with the barber, who cuts half of Packer’s hair before he wanders off again to confront violent stalker Paul Giamatti, trying to talk reason to him.

The movie is wall-to-wall talk, so to summarize all the conversations, as if I remember them, would take pages and pages. Best to just watch it again. Cinema Scope 51 has a good few pages, with input from Cronenberg and Pattinson, and discussion of what makes this faithful adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel uniquely Cronenbergian.

The sweetest end-of-the-world drama. Likeably lopsided Don McKellar (also writer/director) visits his family (opening nostalgia Christmas presents and having a homey diner) claims that he’s comfortable with his plan to spend the (unexplained but universally accepted) apocalypse in six hours alone in his apartment. Don is really super-depressed over the recent death of his wife, ends up helping an increasingly desperate Sandra Oh, who still thinks she can go shopping and catch taxis in the midst of societal breakdown, attempt to reunite with her intense latter-day boyfriend. This is probably David Cronenberg, a gas company manager who completes his goal to personally phone every customer and thank them for their business, before going home to await Sandra, leaving employee Donna in charge.

Sandra has car trouble:

Don and Sandra get grudging help from Don’s playboy car-collector friend Craig, who is rapidly going through a list of sexual conquests – both acts and partners (Lily, a black woman; Don, who refuses; and their high school French teacher, Genevieve Bujold).

Bujold with Callum Rennie:

Cameo by Pontypool director Bruce McDonald (with the bat)

The midnight hour approaches, but the sun is still up – apparently it hasn’t gone down in weeks. Don’s sister Sarah Polley and her boyfriend attend the final countdown celebration in the middle of town. A nerdy guy named Menzies holds a solo piano concert in an otherwise-unused theater. Cronenberg is shot by marauding youth. His employee Donna, a virgin, is Craig’s final visitor. And Sandra, losing her dream of last-second double-suicide with her beloved, ends up in the arms of Don. It seemed like a generic-indie-looking unexceptional drama in the first ten minutes, but totally hooked me and proved amazingly touching by the end. I can’t stop thinking about it.

Cronenberg gets a taste of his own horror-makeup medicine:

Polley party: