Griffin Dunne (An American Werewolf in London) is a hopeless single dude working a boring job with Bronson Pinchot. After work he meets diner patron Marcy (Rosanna Arquette of Desperately Seeking Susan the same year), bonding over their shared love for Henry Miller, and she refers him to her artist roommate Kiki (Linda Fiorentino of Jade). After an undercranked cab ride to their loft, his night spins out of control in tragicomic fashion. Not to get all auteurist on a 1980’s wild-crazy-night picture, but it’s better-looking and more intricately designed than this genre generally gets.

O’Hara and Bloom:

Buncha people with tendencies to panic and lose their cool about small things, not excepting our main man – in Marcy’s bed smoking a bad joint he suddenly sneaks out ranting about needing paperweights. He gets into a barter situation with bartender Tom (the late John Heard), gets shamed by Kiki’s dom boyfriend, wanders over to waitress Teri Garr’s place, then to Catherine O’Hara’s place, then a beardy guy’s place, then Verna Bloom’s place – what is it about Griffin Dunne that makes everyone want to take him home? Verna paper-maches Griffin to hide him from an angry mob who believe he’s responsible for a string of break-ins, then the actual thieves Cheech & Chong steal him, believing he’s art. It’s a very good ending, pulling Griffin abruptly out of the situation and back to his office, which could make the whole thing seem like a harmless dream if not for Marcy’s suicide.

Teri Garr is skeptical:

John Heard is skeptical:

Made by Scorsese between King of Comedy and The Color of Money, after a first attempt to make The Last Temptation of Christ fell apart. Reportedly the flashy camera moves were designed as a Hitchcock parody. Joseph Minion wrote (with some help from Kafka), also wrote Vampire’s Kiss and Scorsese’s episode of Amazing Stories. Tied with Blood Simple at the first Independent Spirit Awards, but it was better-loved in France, where it got a César nomination and won best director at Cannes.

Mouseover to make Dick Miller wink at you:
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A very good hour-long movie of the Kafka story, with Gregor Samsa played by a first-person camera and off-screen voice, so there’s no creature effect to ruin the weird mystery.

First movie I’ve seen by Czech new wave director Nemec whose early features were released by Criterion alongside Daisies. An eccentric movie with long roving takes. I’d forgotten the three initially-silent tenants who move into the family’s apparently spacious apartment to help pay the bills after Gregor stops being able to work. Gregor’s disappointed father is played by Heinz Bennent (Heinrich in Possession).

I’ve also seen Caroline Leaf’s 1977 animated version, a 2008 short where post-death Samsa returns as a flock of CG butterflies to torment his family and coworkers, and the meta-version where Richard E. Grant plays Kafka. Apparently Tim Roth starred as Gregor in 1987, and there’s a well-reviewed Russian feature from 2002.

“I am French and now demand quiet.”

In the beginning, our young hero meets a ship’s stoker and I’m already excited, because this is my third stoker this month! First Emil in The Last Command (as punishment) then Bancroft in Docks of New York, and now this unrelated French/German movie throws another stoker on the pile. This is also the second German-language film I’ve seen lately made by a French director (after Perceval Le Gallois).

Karl arrives in America, shipped away from home for causing a scandalous pregnancy, and gets involved with the stoker’s plight along the way, before Karl’s big-shot uncle (a senator) has Karl taken to a friend’s country house. But he takes to the streets with his suitcase, losing all support from his family after a complicated bit involving a midnight deadline. Karl hooks up with a couple of drunken travelers along the way, who will keep dragging him down wherever he winds up, first as a hotel elevator boy then at the home of an eccentric woman named Brunelda. Karl finally escapes as a technician on a travelling theater group based in Oklahoma (not a group performing the musical Oklahoma!, as I first thought). “In Oklahoma everything will yet be reexamined.”

Adapted from Kafka’s Amerika, published posthumously and incomplete in 1927. Shot by William Lubtchansky (same year as Love on the Ground) with Caroline Champetier (Gang of Four) and Christophe Pollock (Haut bas fragile) – so was Rivette a big fan of this film? The cast includes directors Manfred Blank and Harun Farocki (as our guy’s troublesome traveling buddies) and Thom Andersen (as an American – that could be anybody) and at least two other filmmakers. As for the other actors, most appeared in no other films (even the lead, Christian Heinisch) – except for the uncle (Mario Adorf of movies by Schlöndorff, Fassbinder and Skolimowski) and Brunelda (Laura Betti, below, of Pasolini and Bertolucci movies).

Doesn’t seem like this was made in the 1980’s – it’s strangely timeless, as was Sicilia! fifteen years later. This seems less eccentric than that one (with less shouty acting), but still offbeat, like the Straubs are creating new definitions of what movies should be, with all their specific rules and procedures which they seem morally intent on following. The only rule I remember from the Pedro Costa doc is that they always use the audio that goes with the corresponding camera take, with no blending or other tricks, so you hear the dialogue levels and ambient noise change with every cut. A new quirk is that about every fifth line of dialogue goes untranslated in the subtitles.

Manfred Blank filmed the directors talking about the movie on a balcony, asserting his own filmmaking touches on the proceedings. Does your half-hour making-of doc need a four-minute operatic establishing shot? No.

I have to say, with the Straubs’ strong personalities – Jean-Marie ranting at length and Danièle staying reserved and concise – their communist ideals and views on filmmaking and work and politics – I still don’t get their point. I find the movies of theirs that I’ve seen to be more or less enjoyable, but I don’t see the political meaning behind them, and anything I read about their films gets dully academic almost immediately. So I tried to keep up with the doc, figure out what they’re on about, but it’s not working. I don’t get how Class Relations is not an adaptation or an interpretation, or that “film is not an illustrative or descriptive tool.”

Jean-Marie: “There already was a film adaptation of another Kafka book. That was The Trial by Orson Welles. He tried to show what Kafka had described. … But we wanted to do the opposite. We didn’t want to show what Kafka described.”

He’s saying they filmed the novel on a budget, attempting to pare down the larger-scale scenes and focus on details, so that “every moment is monumental.”

“An image has to stand on its own. An image is not something arbitrary. A finished image doesn’t describe anything; it is its own entity.”

But he swears what they’re doing is not minimalism. He also swears that Karl is not the protagonist or the main character, that every character is equal. Karl is only the “persisting” character. “I’m interested in viewers who are capable of practicing tolerance, who accept everyone and see everyone as equal, even when they differer greatly.”

The filmmakers:

D. McDougall gets it:

In Harun Farocki’s making-of documentary Work on “Class Relations”, one can see Straub and Huillet lead actors through rehearsals, changing their verbal emphases and body movements in minute ways to achieve an effect that seems of marginal significance. In the films of Straub and Huillet, these small details accumulate to create a world whose rules of interaction are the focus of our study; like Kafka, they use human relations as a means to exploring society’s structuring economic and political relations.

V. Canby uses the M-word, and the NY Times accidentally titled his piece on their website “Class Reunion (1984)”.

Though the Straubs do, in fact, move their camera throughout these adventures, the camera somehow gives the impression that it would prefer to stay where it is. It’s a cat that wants to sit in the sun. The minimalism is expressed in the impassive attitudes of the actors, and in the manner in which they deliver their dialogue, which sounds as if they were giving instructions on how to put on one’s life jacket in case of an unscheduled landing at sea. Robert Bresson does something similar, but the point in the Straubs’ film is not to call attention to the distance between actor and dramatized circumstance, as in Bresson, but to deny the viewer any chance to respond in predictable ways.

D. Sterritt:

It’s among their most accessible and “entertaining” works. I put quotes around that word because these filmmakers have stood in career-long opposition to the diversion and distraction that are endemic in commercial cinema; but even abstruse works like History Lessons, not to mention the visually magnificent Sicilia! and the sonically sensuous Moses and Aaron, are entertaining if having your intellect roused and your senses stimulated is your idea of a good time.

I took advantage of the huge weekend snowfall in Atlanta by huddling on the couch with a pile of DVDs of short films which I’ve long delayed watching, followed by two obscure features, totaling eight newly-seen titles on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s hallowed list of 1,000 favorite movies. At this rate of eight per day, I’ll be through the list in no time, so anyone else can feel free to send me their own thousand-faves list and I’ll get to it shortly.


First off, two by Jane Campion. I wasn’t too kind to Sweetie or The Piano, was hoping I’d enjoy the early shorts more. A Girl’s Own Story (1984) is a vaguely Terence Davies-reminiscent period piece about two sisters and a friend one winter in the 60’s – having fun, going to school, singing Beatles songs and dealing with family trauma. The parents only speak to each other through their children, and dad brings his girlfriend to Pam’s birthday dinner… meanwhile friend Gloria leaves school because she is pregnant by her brother. Passionless Moments (1983) is a series of humorous sketches (each with its own title: “Clear Up Sleepy Jeans”, “No Woodpeckers In Australia”) with an ethnographic narrator telling us somebody’s mostly-insignificant stray thoughts (misheard lyrics to “Daydream Believer”, identifying a strange sound outdoors).

A Girl’s Own Story:
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These were two of the most enjoyable shorts I watched all day, so hooray for Jane Campion. Both were worked on by Alex Proyas, director of Dark City, whose new Nic Cage movie opens this month, and Passionless was made in collaboration with Gerard Lee, who wrote/directed a comedy in 1995 involving marital strife because of a sold piano, hmmmm.

Passionless Moments:
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Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1993, Peter Capaldi)
I’d always admired the title of this and assumed it to be blending of Kafka’s and Capra’s sensibilities, but no such luck… it’s more of a Franz Kafka In Love, as the writer struggles to complete the first line to The Metamorphosis. Might’ve been nicer if I’d watched it earlier then, since by now every known artist’s inspiration has been illustrated by the movies, either as a serious drama or a light fantasy. Richard Grant (same year as The Age of Innocence) is Kafka, and his work-interrupting neighbors include Ken Stott (who’d soon play the lead detective in Shallow Grave) as a knife seller with a missing pet cockroach, and Phyllis Logan (a Michael Radford regular) as a novelty salesman. Our director is better known as an actor (Local Hero, Lair of the White Worm). My favorite detail: being friendly to a neighbor Kafka says “call me F.”

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There’s time in any shorts program for some Norman McLaren. I checked out a section on the DVDs of work he did with Grant Munro, one of the few men strong and patient enough to animate himself with stop-motion. A piece I’ve seen before called Two Bagatelles (1953) has Grant zooming around to music (Katy came in from the other room to express disapproval at the music), a fun exploration of their live-stop-motion ideas. An unreleased set of sketches and experiments called either On The Farm or Pixillation adds slow-mo, film-reversal and mattes into the mix. Canon (1964) features a blippy electronic version of “Frere Jacques” and has four Grant Munroes at once, moving across a stage and interacting. And A Christmas Cracker (1962), for which McLaren/Munro did great dis/appearing stop-motion jester titles and transitions, is a compilation of short holiday cartoons.

On The Farm/Pixillation:
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A Christmas Cracker:
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One of the non-McLaren segments of A Christmas Cracker, in which an inventor travels to space to retrieve a real star to top his Christmas tree:
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Wong Kar-Wai’s Hua yang de nian hua (2000) is a montage of rotting nitrate footage from newly-discovered vintage Hong Kong films. Two minutes long, fast-paced and wordless, set to a song used in In The Mood For Love.
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Two by Santiago Alvarez. Now! (1965) is a montage of upsetting footage, still and moving images, as Lena Horne belts out the title song, and Hasta La Victoria Siempre (1967) is twenty looong minutes of music and stock footage focusing on Che Guevara and other revolutions and revolutionaries. A chore to sit through – I’m gonna stop watching Alvarez movies for a while now.

Now!
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Hasta la victoria siempre
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Two early shorts by D.W. Griffith… although he made about 200 films in the two years between them (those were the days!) so maybe only the first one can be called “early.”

A Corner In Wheat (1909)
Wealthy trader corners the market in wheat, meaning less money for the farmer and higher prices at the market. As unrest grows and the cops are called to protect a bakery, the now even richer trader and some classy women tour the grain elevator to symbolically survey their fortune. He slips and is buried in grain, an ending stolen by Vampyr a couple decades later.
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Tom Gunning via Erik Ulman says: “the editing has special appropriateness in this film, as it represents the ‘new topography’ of modern capitalist economics, and its ‘lack of face-to-face encounters with the forces which determine our lives.'” Based on a book by the novelist who wrote McTeague (Greed). Actor who played the farmer appeared 45 years later in Ford’s The Sun Shines Bright.
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Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)
A musician, just back in town after some weeks away working, gets all his money stolen by the titular gang. A rival crime gang fights the musketeers, and during the fracas our man gets his money back. When the rival gangleader is about to be arrested, the musician and his girl vouch for him, lying that he’d been with them the whole time, as thanks for his help. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and all that.
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Wikipedia claims this “probably the first ever film about organized crime” and an influence on Gangs of New York – as if Scorsese’s first exposure to crime was in DW Griffith films. Lillian Gish, star of many Griffith movies, plays the girl.
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Report (1967, Bruce Conner)
Recording of radio broadcasts from when JFK was shot. Sometimes the visuals are robotically repeated loops of newsreels, sometimes film countdown leader, sometimes all white and black flash flickers, which do not translate well to medium-grade internet video. The second half is excellent, still the radio announcers but with shock associative visual editing from all manner of sources: a bullfight, advertisements, war movies and so on.
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Tunneling the English Channel (1907, Georges Méliès) has long bothered me because it’s the earliest film on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 100 favorite films list but hasn’t been available anywhere on video. Fortunately the new Flicker Alley set remedied that, and I could finally see it, in fine condition with wonderful hand-coloring. It’s a cute story and a technically superior film, with the color and the combination of animation, live action and Melies’ usual fun effects. Story goes that the leaders of France and England agree to build a tunnel under the channel, and all goes well until the train crashes. As the tunnel fills with water undoing months of work and drowning the prime minister, they wake up – it was all a dream and they decide not to build the tunnel after all.
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LMNO (1978, Robert Breer)
A hammer, a faucet, a headless naked woman. Rapid-fire comic-book situations. Mainly-irritating soundtrack of running people, running water, and running tape static. Next time I’ll feel free to see how it works with a couple Kinks songs instead. Not my favorite Breer, but I’ve actually seen his films projected in a theater before, so this one obviously suffers from being a bootleg download watched on a laptop.
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Chris Stults, Film/Video Assistant Curator at the Wexner Center in Columbus, says (out of context): “The thing that has always drawn me the most to avant-garde cinema is that it is intended for an individual viewer, not a mass audience. The individual has to complete the work. To go back to the idea of seeing cinema anew, the viewer often has to figure out how to watch the particular film or video and then from that process of learning how to watch, meaning and interpretation can follow.”

Frank Film
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Barebones story of Frank Mouris’s life narrated on the soundtrack blended with a free-association list of words. Visual is a fast-motion collage of magazine-clipped images. Neat, must’ve taken forever. Won the Oscar, kickstarting a long life of filmmaking obscurity for Frank, poor guy.

Valse Triste
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Looks like a montage of found footage from rural America in the 1940’s set to sweeping sad music. Sepia-tinted, only 5 minutes long. Took me a visit to IMDB to realize the montage represents the wet dream of the boy who goes to sleep at the beginning of the film, damn. I get it now. Bruce Conner born in Kansas in 1933, so he WAS that boy!

Adam, 5 to 12
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Begin the rhythmic Estonian vocal music. Trippy animation doesn’t do much, then the clock appears, then a whole pile of grim images of war and death are overlaid on the clock. Adam tries to turn the clock back but it’s frozen at 5 to 12. Finally it moves dramatically to THE END. Director Petar Gligorovski died in 1995.

V. Gligorijevic (via email) on the music: “Its composer, Veljo Tormis, had clash with Soviet authorities which perceived Estonian nationalist overtones in Tormis’s music, from which the Curse to the Iron, the featured background, is considered one of his most recognizable works.”

Reflecting Pool
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Wow, this is great. Seven minutes of a reflecting pool with some video effects. A man motions to jump in, but is frozen in midair while the pool stays in gentle motion. The man slowly fades out, and most of the rest of the action takes place in the pool’s reflection and through its varying levels of agitation. Probably just a more complicated metaphor for sex than the last film… I don’t pick up on those things easily. Bill Viola is only 56 and still working.

Sweet Light
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Another by Bill Viola. Close-up: some flies on a windowsill. Camera moves slowly and evenly away and turns toward a man writing at a desk. Camera fast follows a ball of paper he hurls on the floor. Abrupt change to camera spinning around a dinner table candle, then insects leaving vapor trails in the air. There is light involved, and it’s all pretty sweet, so there’s your title.

Pause!
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A man against a wall making hand gestures, distorting his face and making breathy sounds. Gets violent at times. Probably also a metaphor for sex. My copy was dark and muddy but it’s not like I’ll be scouring rare video stores looking for a better version. Oh, I looked it up and the man is Arnulf Rainer, a surrealist-influenced artist known for “body art and painting under drug influence”. This must be body art. I wouldn’t have named a museum after this guy, but I guess the New York art scene knows better than I do. Directed by Peter Kubelka.

Powers of Ten
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By famous designers/architects/filmmakers Charles and Ray Eames. “A film dealing with the relative size of things in the universe and the effect of adding another zero”, made for IBM. A man is laying in a park in Chicago. We zoom out from him to 100 million light years (10^24 m) then zoom into his hand to 0.000001 angstroms (10^-16 m). Both Eames died on August 21, ten years apart. Music by Elmer Bernstein (also dead) of Far From Heaven and Ghostbusters.

The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa
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The Kafka story done with cool mushy black and white perspective-shifting animation (paint on glass?). Samsa might be some sort of spider/beetle. Caroline Leaf works with the National Film Board of Canada.

Elimination Dance
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Co-written and starring Don McKellar (Last Night). Dir. by Bruce McDonald, who made cult films Roadkill and Hard Core Logo. Couples dance all night while an announcer reads off descriptions (“anyone who has lost a urine sample in the mail”) eliminating them one by one, as the cops slowly close in fearing unrest. A comedy, cute. Not from the seventies, I realize (1998).

A Doonesbury Special
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Kind of limited animation, but that’s not a cool criticism to make of a well-intentioned independent production like this one. Neat movie, could’ve stood to be another half hour longer. A regular day at the commune with a bunch of flashbacks, “feeling the present as it moves by”. A little sad, some disillusionment about the fallen ideals of the late 60’s, probably a nice companion to the comics (which I haven’t read since Hunter died). Both Hubleys have died, Trudeau cowrote the Tanner movies.

La Soufriere
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“This is the police station. It was totally abandoned. It was a comfort for us not having the law hanging around.” Would’ve probably been one of Werner Herzog’s best-known movies (OR have led to Herzog’s fiery death) if the volcano had exploded as predicted, but since it didn’t, this is an obscurity on a DVD of documentary shorts. “There was something pathetic for us in the shooting of this picture, and therefore it ended a little bit embarrassing. Now it has become a report on an inevitable catastrophe that did not take place.” Herz and crew tromp about an extremely dangerous volcano site in the Caribbean, explore the completely empty towns below, and interview what few stragglers remain. One of the cameramen is from Morristown NJ, also shot Far From Heaven, A Prairie Home Companion, Tokyo-ga, True Stories and The Limey.

Most of these movies are as old as I am.

Felt very little like Haneke’s other movies, maybe because it wasn’t set in modern-day Europe but in Kafka’s time, with horse-drawn carriages and long walks through the snow. Never got a handle on exactly what the lead character K was up to, except that he wanted to get to the Castle, felt he needed to get there in order to be important or get a better job or find his destiny or something, and used everyone around him for that purpose. They caught on, or knew all along, that he was being selfish and greedy and never let them into their world, never let on what they knew about the Castle or anything else… he remained an outsider. Sounds like it actually had a moral, a reason for K to be denied everything… seems kinda unlike Kafka. I mean the protagonist of The Trial never deserved what he got… truly he was sort of weaselly and oversensitive, but I thought he was an everyman, not a specific character type being punished for his flaws.

Had Haneke’s characteristic blackouts between scenes, and ended very apruptly, while K was in the middle of walking from one place to another through the snow for the forty-somethingth time. Not all bad as a movie, but a little dull, and horrid quality third-gen VHS makes for an unpleasant viewing experience. One day I’ll finally crack the book and see how faithful it was. Hopefully not too faithful, cuz that’s a big book and I’m hoping for more excitement than I got from the movie.

Katy did not watch it.