Month of 121 Shorts: Silent/Early Cinema 1

November was Shorts Month! All shorts were watched at home on video, except for an outing to the November edition of Bizarro Saturday Morning, at which I fell asleep during the only theatrical short, tired out by episodes of Casper, Ultraman and Rocket Robin Hood, so it’s sadly not represented here.

The Policemen’s Little Run (1907, Ferdinand Zecca)
Tedious, undistinguished little romp, wherein cops chase a dog for stealing food, then the dog chases the cops. Fakey backgrounds ensue. Ferdinand Zecca, director of Kissing in a Tunnel (not the 1899 original or the 1899 remake, but the 1901 remake), later co-directed one of the first feature-length (well, 45 minutes) films.
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Troubles of a Grasswidower (1908, Max Linder)
The Mr. Mom of its time. Dude is an asshole so his wife leaves him, goes home to mother. Dude then fails to do the simplest household tasks until everything is in ruins and his wife returns to shame him. Terrible! Well, it’s slightly more bearable than the cops chasing the dog. Linder must’ve played the widower; he wrote and starred in plenty more shorts, such as Max’s Hat, Max Takes Tonics and Max and Dog Dick (?!)
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Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics (1911)
Now that’s more like it. Winsor announces he’s going to make an animated moving picture, some blowhard dudes laugh at him, then he damn does it and it’s brilliant. One should never doubt the author of Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend.
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Winsor at work:
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Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906, Edwin S. Porter)
Most of the movie is the guy drinking, eating and going home, with finally some actually dreaming there at the end. His shoes fly off on strings, some stop motion, some Exorcist bed-bucking and Little Nemo bed-flying. The best part, with little devils beating him from above, looks like a Melies-lite advertisement for headache powder. One assumes he’s speaking the punchline at the end, but there’s no intertitle. Comic strip was better!
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Winsor would later create his own animated Rarebit films, and Melies would make the probably unrelated Dream of an Opium Fiend in 1908.

The Telltale Heart (1928, Charles Klein)
I love total Caligari-ripoff expressionism in cinema, and there isn’t enough of it so I was happy to find this. Completely excellent, probably my favorite Telltale Heart yet. I don’t mean to disparage the recently-watched Ted Parmelee animated version and I do miss the rich voice of James Mason, but everything works here – the Caligari sets and fonts, the acting of the lead fellow, his crazy-POV version of the inspectors and the montage and effects (overlays and mirrors).
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Depending who you believe, this was either directed by Klein (a writer/director up to the 40′s) or Leon Shamroy (cinematographer through the 70′s who worked with Fritz Lang, also shot The Robe, Caprice and Planet of the Apes).
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Fall of the House of Usher (1928, James Watson & Melville Webber)
Every version of Telltale Heart re-tells the story with narration or titles, but this film tells the Usher story through mystifying visuals… and since I’m not familiar with the story I still don’t know exactly what happened, but boy was it awesome.
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What if cinema had ended up looking more like this? What if poets were directors? The mind boggles. I’ll bet Cocteau loved this (or despised it since he didn’t think of it first).
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dream sequence from When The Clouds Roll By (1919, Victor Fleming)
A semi-remake of Rarebit Fiend! Douglas Fairbanks eats some Welsh rarebit (melted cheese on toast) along with mince pie, lobster and an onion. Not a drunken fool like the original rarebit fiends, DF is conned into eating the nightmarish midnight snack by a mad doctor. He then runs around doing stunts on horses, trampolines and camera-trick houses, pursued by ghosts, a party of society women and giant costume versions of the foods he ate. I am definitely dressing up as rarebit next halloween.
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Oramunde (1933, Emlen Etting)
Woman in a too-long white dress dances on the rocks to express her sadness. Made me sad so I guess it’s pretty good.
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Hands (1934, Ralph Steiner & Willard Van Dyke)
Hands, falling, against black, doing stuff. Montage of hands doing stuff on location. Hands getting money for doing stuff. Hands buying stuff, taking vacation, getting married to other hands. Counts as propaganda somehow.
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More Shorts watched October 2008

Allures (1961, Jordan Belson)
I don’t know Belson very well, but this reminds me of my favorite parts of Norman McLaren and Len Lye, abstract animation set to music. Not frenetic, slow swirls and twirls, overlapped colored light patterns set to sparse music with dark electronic manipulation (composed by Belson and Oscar-nom musician/humorist Henry Jacobs). Must see again.
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Allures (c) Jordan Belson

Finger-Fan (1982, Linda Christanell)
Austrian title is FINGERFĂ„CHER so I thought I’d get something racy for my lunch hour, but no, we’ve got some hands fanning out some fabric on a table… a finger-fan. Synopsis says “objects tell a random story – objects are bearers of obsessions-issuing energy as fetishes,” which might be badly translated or it might not… with the avant-garde it is hard to tell. Camera shoots some objects and photographs, a mirror re-directs part of the frame, there are some basic stop-motion and optical effects, and I remain unimpressed but lightly amused.
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La Cravate (1957, Alejandro Jodorowsky)
Glad it was short, I couldn’t have taken much more of that accordian score. Goofy mimes swap heads at the head-swap shop while a guy with a silly tie tries to land a girl. Strong, bright colors. I guess the concept of swapping heads can be kind of dark, but otherwise this is like a kid’s fairytale compared to El Topo. Fun movie.
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The House With Closed Shutters (1910, DW Griffith)
A Dixie-loyal young girl runs a message to the confederate front lines after her supposed-to-be-messenger brother comes home drunk and afraid. When she’s killed (because she was playing like a kid in no man’s land), their mother covers it up by acting like her son was killed and forbidding her “daughter” to ever leave the house or open the shutters. Decades later his old friends walk by the house, he swings the shutters open and dies from the shock.

Dead guy on chair (left) while his mother orders the friends to leave
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Suspense. (1913, Lois Weber & Philips Smalley)
After the servant quits and leaves the key under the mat, a vagabond takes the opportunity to enter the house, eat a sandwich and stab the woman and her baby to death with a knife. Or he would – but she calls her husband who races home from work in a stolen car followed closely by the cops (who, as cops do in silent movies, shoot their guns constantly not worrying about the casual damage they might cause – not to mention that it hardly seems fair to shoot a guy dead for stealing a car). Worth watching for the titular suspense, and the reaction of the guy whose car the husband stole when he finally catches up and sees the wife & baby safe: a big “well whattaya know” shrug to camera and a pat on the husband’s back. Co-director Weber played the wife.

Sweet split-screen:
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Return of Reason (1923, Man Ray)
Whirling carnival lights at night, nails and tiny beads exposed directly on the film, a tic-tac-toe structure twirling on a string, all in stark black and white. Ends with negative image of a topless woman with psychedelic light patterns on her body.
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The Starfish (1928, Man Ray)
A reputedly beautiful woman is shown behind distorting glass. A man holds a starfish in a jar. Terrifying close-up of starfish. Mirrors, split-screens and superimpositions. This is nice – how come poets don’t make movies anymore? Adaptation of a poem by Robert Desnos.

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Emak-Bakia / Leave Me Alone (1926, Man Ray)
Twirling, swirling light patterns, spinning prisms, a girl with painted eyelids (paging Mr. Cocteau), broken dice, a tad of stop motion. The notes say Ray uses ‘all the tricks that might annoy certain spectators,’ and eighty years later he has annoyed me. Or maybe I’ve just watched too many of his movies in a row. I’d seen no films by Man Ray, then poof, I’ve seen half of them. Good stuff.

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Oooh look, her painted lids are half-closed so you can see all four eyes:
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The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra (1928, Robert Florey & Slavko Vorkapich)
Far and away the greatest of these shorts. Intense shadowy miniatures interspersed with close-up photography of actors tells the story of a young hopeful actor defeated by the ruthless Hollywood star system. After he dies, he rises to heaven, where there is always open casting. A predecessor to Mulholland Dr.? Incredible-looking homemade film, very expressionist-influenced. Florey went on to direct 60+ features before moving to television, Vorkapich edited montage sequences for Hollywood films in the 30′s, and assistant cinematographer Gregg Toland shot Citizen Kane.

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Rhythmus 21 (1921, Hans Richter)
“generally regarded as the first abstract animated film”, wow! Squares of light and dark get bigger/smaller, more complex patterns start to appear, pretty slow movement, never gets outrageously intricate, but if it’s the first film of its kind, it’s a great start.
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Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang)

Checked out a nicely high-quality (if slightly trapezoidal) digital projection of the new edition, pleasingly crowded for a Thursday night. On one hand, Metropolis was plenty long enough, and each scene has always seemed to go on a bit too long (Jimmy didn’t come, saying “I’ve slept through Metropolis enough times, thanks”), but it’s still nice to have more of the film available for study. Half the cut scenes involve “the thin man,” hired by Mr. Frederson to spy on his little raised-consciousness son, who only makes a cameo in the pre-Argentina footage. And it’s easy to tell the footage apart, since the new stuff comes from a scratchy, shrunken 16mm print.

Wrote nothing special in August 2008:

Katy doesn’t want to participate in 2005 Month or in Shocktober, so there’s a semi-theme-multi-month going on with 1920′s Movies instead, beginning with this, one of the most famous and celebrated of the 1920′s Movies.

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