The first roundup of misc shorts since the last one.


Tome of the Unknown: Harvest Melody (2013, Patrick McHale)

Wirt and Greg are heading somewhere, manage to get a ride with pumpkin-man John Crops to vegetable city, where they accidentally unleash the fury of the crows. Would play as a deleted scene from Over The Garden Wall if not for bluebird Beatrice’s different voice and some more cartoonish facial expressions. I’m guessing with the Harvest Melody subtitle that he’d planned to make more standalone shorts like this, but then they made the full series.


The Umbrella Man (2011, Errol Morris)

A web mini-doc on a single detail of the Zapruder film: a single man with an umbrella on the cloudless day Kennedy was shot. Interview with JFK assassination expert Tink Thompson, who sets up the mystery, then explains it was discovered that the man was making an obscure visual protest against a policy by JFK’s father.


Demon in the Freezer (2016, Errol Morris)

“Why is it so important to make the monkeys sick?”

The argument over preserved samples of smallpox virus – whether they should be kept, and for what purpose? Floated: vaccines and biological warfare with the Russians. I don’t know a whole lot about smallpox but it sounds horrible.


Dog (2002, Suzie Templeton)

A sick/dying/dead dog, a father, a boy, a murder, a patch of either blood or mold upon a wall, and the most disturbing stop-motion I’ve seen this side of Robert Morgan.


Oskar Kulicke and the Pacifist (1952, Kurt Weiler)

I loved The Apple, so watched some more puppet shorts by Weiler. Bricklayer Oskar endures the whining of a pansy pacifist then sets him straight, asking how the pacifist will like it when he’s conscripted after a U.S. invasion. No, pacifism is dumb and learning proper use of arms is essential, Oskar concludes.

The U.S. military elite:


Heinrich The Dysfunctional: A German Elegy (1965, Kurt Weiler)

Surprising to watch this right after the other, since it’s about a failed German invasion of Poland in 1472 due to misfortune and royal idiocy. King of Libnitz attacks Cracow in order to obtain liquor and a young bride. After recruiting a traitorous young goat farmer, the king makes it to the enemy castle, only to be pissed on by the local kids and sent home on a manure cart, all his cannons destroyed. “The fatal flaw of the heroic German character: thirst trumps wisdom.”

Last-minute reprieve for the goat farmer:

Ceremonial welcome:


Nörgel & Söhne (1968-70, Kurt Weiler)

Three-part story of how the nomadic Nörgel clan developed tools and farming, then trade, then currency. Character-based stop-motion with some fun material tricks with liquids, animals and the heavens. Nörgel becomes more of a brutal slavemaster the closer he gets to modern capitalism, and in the end he retires and reads Marx’s Das Capital (historical chronology is shifty in these movies) and regrets the awful thing he’s done.

Barter calculations:


Street of Crocodiles (1986, Quays)

Live-action man spits into the machinery, activating it, and releases stop-motion man who creeps into a dusty world of pulleys and screws populated by hollow-headed dolls. Wonderful string music. I still don’t know what it all means, been meaning to get the Bruno Schulz book forever now, but it’s all so dusty and textural and mesmerizing in its mysterious movements.


Quay (2015, Christopher Nolan)

Eight-minute trip to the Quays’ workshop featuring some Street of Crocodiles puppets and commentary on their methods. I suppose splashing Nolan’s name across the blu-ray package was meant to get new people interested in their work, kinda like “JJ Abrams presents Phantasm: Remastered“. I hope it’s working.


Esperalia (1983, Jerzy Kalina)

A guy goes slow-mo crawling through the forest overlaid by patterns and rotoscope lines, seeing visions and phantoms, with an increasingly disturbed soundtrack.


The Public Voice (1988 Lejf Marcussen)

Magnifying glass reveals the blueprints beneath paintings, the lines behind the lines behind the lines. Slow zooms in and out as patterns and figures slowly prove to be details within other works, a visual art history folded into itself. I didn’t recognize most of the work, but there’s some Dali and Bosch in there.

What a thrill – Morris’s most energetic movie yet. The story of a certain litigious woman (let’s call her J) and her exploits – in her own words, and from the perspective of a couple insiders (a pilot she hired, a dog-cloning scientist) and outsiders (two tabloid journalists and an ex-mormon radio host). The result is what Morris calls a “Looney Tunes Rashomon,” in which you can never quite be sure of the true events because each side is enthusiastically, entertainingly promoting their own version.

The events in question: in 1977 J’s boyfriend/crush went away on a mission (or was kidnapped by the Mormon church). She assembled a militant team to rescue/kidnap and deprogram/rape him, depending whose story you buy. When the story came out, the tabloids hit her hard, finding and publishing supposed evidence that she’d been a sex worker. Towards the end of the movie as we’re running out of details and stories regarding the 70’s incidents, J lives alone with her dog, still pining after her now-married Mormon boy, when the dog dies – so she has him cloned in South Korea, and now lives with five perfect replicas of her former dog. The events in J’s life would be notable in themselves, but the genius of the movie is all in the telling. The editing is a little jittery and jumpcutty for my liking, but the welcome absence of the Mr. Death-style re-enactments and the wealth of valuable stock photos and the cool tabloid-headline graphics make up for that.

Morris:

I like this new film because it’s a return to a kind of absurdist version of what I do. I love the oddities of how people express themselves. Take [tabloid journalist] Peter Tory’s affection for the phrase “spread-eagled.” Every time he says “spread-eagled,” and he says it again and again and again, I ask myself, “Is he making this up? Is this tabloid journalism in its essence?” At one point, he’s talking about the “sex in chains” headline, and he says, “I think it was ropes, but chains sounds better.” Tabloid’s a story about narrative, about how stories are constructed as they’re being told. I wanted to achieve that effect in a movie, and I hope it’s there.

It’s Political Documentary Month! We will see how long that lasts. Katy asked if all Errol Morris’s films are about death (as far as I know they are) and commented that the square photos within a widescreen strip within our square TV across the room made her feel blind, so I brought up stylistic differences between Morris and Ken Burns, figuring we’re being punished for watching a theatrical feature in the same way we’d watch a television program. Afterwards, I showed her In The Loop, which I thought worked much better than S.O.P. on the TV screen. I was psyched to revisit it but she didn’t like at all, since it doesn’t count as satire on government if it’s exactly the way she imagines government works, and anyway it’s not funny.

S.O.P. was surprisingly tame. As one of the former prison guards points out, it’s not like they were beating prisoners or killing them, although that happens when the CIA bring in their own prisoner, a guy who they’re told “was never here.” Unfortunately for the CIA, photos of that incident leaked along with the rest – the ones with prisoners tied up in “stress positions” with panties on their heads, handcuffed into simulated sex scenarios and stacked in naked pyramids, all with Lynndie England flashing a thumbs-up in front. The prison holds a confusing number of military and government groups and private organizations – it would’ve taken a whole other movie to get it all straight. The guards certainly weren’t clear about it themselves. A side-effect of Morris’s technique here is that he’s made the opposite of The Road to Guantanamo, which was told from the prisoners’ point of view. This movie is an analysis of the photographs, of the circumstances behind them, but only from the guards’ points of view. The nameless prisoners, degraded and objectified in those photographs, remain anonymously dehumanized in the film, enigmatic vessels of suspicion (they are, after all, “enemy combatants”) and sympathy (for the torture/s.o.p. depicted).

IMDB: “What do an elderly topiary gardener, a retired lion tamer, a man fascinated by mole rats, and a cutting-edge robotics designer have in common?” That’s what I set to find out while watching this very fun, good-looking and well-edited movie. Katy got tired an hour in, liked it for the most part but didn’t enjoy my connection-drawing game.

Dave was a lion trainer who traveled with the circus. He seems ambivalent about his career, not talking it up as a great time with his beloved lions or an exhilarating and rewarding experience, mostly going over the reasons for first wanting to be involved (he idolized and eventually worked with Clyde Beatty, animal trainer and entertainer who once co-starred with Mickey Spillane in a weird-sounding mystery called Ring of Fear) and the procedures and dangers involved.

George is an elderly gardener who creates, trims and maintains the topiary sculptures in one estate garden. You get the feeling there used to be one old woman who oversaw the garden, and now there’s nobody, that he’s gardening for himself on someone else’s land. Unlike Dave, who is helping train newcomers, George has nobody following in his footsteps, and dislikes other gardeners’ methods (using electric hedge trimmers, for example).

Raymond studies and “wrangles” insects, and has become a specialist in the naked mole-rat, a mammal that exhibits insect-like behavior. He sets up a museum installation to put their society on display, and talks about their activity and relationships.

Rodney is a robot scientist trying to innovate robotic movement and behavior by putting together bunches of small robots or processes which try to solve common tasks, instead of attempting to control them with one larger intelligent system.

There are plenty of ways to link these four guys and their jobs/interests, not a large hidden theme which is the One True Key to unlocking the film. They all work with non-human life forms, trying to study and control behavior. Some offer insights into human behavior through the lens of their subjects. All but Dave work with arrays of smaller beings (robots/leaves/rats) which work together towards large tasks (or forms). I had more but I’ve forgotten half of them… IMDB commenters mention themes of growth and development, consciousness and death, or the guys as representative of different concepts of god’s existence.

I loved the editing, the music (by Caleb Sampson, who killed himself the following year), the use of stock footage (such as old Clyde Beatty films) instead of the Mr. Death re-enactments, the pacing. The movie’s got heart… these guys are really involved in what they’re doing, care about it, and each is able to express himself and his subject in an engaging, philosophic way. It’s not the connections and differences between these guys which are interesting in themselves, it’s the way Morris encourages the viewer to discover them. Wonderful.

Engineer Fred, who spent his whole year around prisons (his father worked there), offers to design a better electric chair. He does, it works. Fred proclaims himself an electric chair expert, makes more chairs for other states. Soon he’s got contracts for a gallows, a lethal injection machine, and a gas chamber. Fred proclaims himself an expert at all execution apparatuses. Soon he is asked to join the legal defense team of a holocaust denier and travel to Auschwitz to determine whether there were gas chambers present. Not knowing a goddamned thing about history or chemistry, Fred goes to Auschwitz and looks around, does some severely flawed chemical tests looking for arsenic, and notes that these buildings (in their ruined 1990’s state) don’t even have DOORS! You can’t very well expect to contain poison gas without doors. So Fred decides that since he is an expert at all matters concerning execution, and since he doesn’t see how there could’ve been gas chambers here, the holocaust must’ve not happened. Suddenly nobody wants to be associated with Fred, so he stops getting engineering contracts and instead gets lawsuits and offers to speak at neo-nazi gatherings.

Kind of a sad movie, about death and denial. Morris uses re-enactments to dramatize Fred’s career, provide some visuals to all the interviews… which is fine, but I could’ve done with about ten minutes less slow-motion footage of chiseling bits off walls at Auschwitz. I liked it – Katy did too.