As I said, reading the Canyon Cinema book just made me want to see more of their films, and so I held a solo screening of some video reproductions of films from their archives.

Notes on the Circus (1966, Jonas Mekas)

Doc footage from his seat at the Ringling Bros. circus, edited to a pulp after the fact, divided into four sections.

1. nervous, jittery views of circus acts: trapeze, clowns, animal acts.
2. more of the same, but towards the end of this section the editing goes hyper and adds superimpositions.
3. picks up where the end of 2 left off. This is likely more fun than an actual circus.
4. all energy, focus be damned.

The guitar/harmonica folk music worked pretty well alongside the images. Mekas repeats songs just as he repeats shots (the same woman doffs her white coat and ascends the trapeze at least three times).
Canyon claims “no post-editing of opticals,” so was he rewinding and re-exposing the film while sitting at the circus?

Here I Am (1962, Bruce Baillie)

A pre-Wiseman verite doc on a local school for mentally disturbed children. Why is the caretaker giving the kids cigarettes?!? Non-sync sound (no narration) with added cello. Nicely paced, and very well preserved. Canyon called it “never before released,” but before when? The DVD notes say it was part of a homegrown newsreel program. “Like the school itself, the camera gives the kids center stage and moves at their pace.”

Fake Fruit Factory (1986, Chick Strand)

Shaky, handheld doc of women who work at the titular factory, talking about sex and food and work, interrupted in the middle by their annual picnic. Non-sync sound, I think – hard to tell since close-ups of hands and bodies and fake fruit are favored over faces. Canyon gets the title wrong on their website and botches the description. Wasn’t Strand one of their founders?

SSS (1988, Henry Hills)

Oh wonderful, a dance film. Many dancers in many locations, all wearing hilarious clothes, rapidly edited in a pleasing way, punctuated by a few seconds of black every once in a while. Best part is the music, orchestral then cartoonish, sounds like a DJ with some electronics, all by Tom Cora, Christian Marclay and Zeena Parkins (and recorded by Kramer). Canyon says “filmed on the streets of the East Village and edited over three years.”

Money (1985, Henry Hills)

No music this time, but lots of musicians and some dancers. Seems like a hundred people on the street were interviewed about money (some were given scripts to read) then their every word was chopped out of context and edited against everyone else, sometimes forming new sentences or patterns from different sources, sometimes just spazzing out all over, interspersed with the musician and dancer clips. Somewhere in there were John Zorn, Fred Frith, Tom Cora, Eugene Chadbourne, Ikue Mori, Bill Laswell, Christian Marclay and Derek Bailey. I’ll bet they play this at every Tzadik party. Hills would seem to have a love for music, a sense of humor and tons of patience. Canyon: “thematically centered around a discussion of economic problems facing avant-garde artists in the Reagan era. Discussion, however, is fragmented into words and phrases and reassembled into writing. Musical and movement phrases are woven through this conversation to create an almost operatic composition.” Good poster quote by J. Hoberman: “If time is money, this 15-minute film is a bargain.”

( ) (2003, Morgan Fisher)

Composed entirely of insert shots from other films. Could be the most intricate murder/conspiracy film of all time, what with all the plots and notes and watches and gambling and guns and knives and secret goings-on. I wish it’d had music. Didn’t recognize a single film, and I couldn’t even find any of the sources by searching character names spotted on notes and letters with IMDB. Shadowplay would be ashamed of my b-movie image-recognition prowess. I really want to do a remake, but the logistics and time involved would be hefty. Fisher is only glancingly mentioned in the Canyon book, but I had this and wanted to watch it.

Thom Andersen:

Fisher appreciates inserts because they perform the “self-effacing… drudge-work” of narrative cinema, showing “significant details that have to be included for the sake of clarity in telling a story,” and he made ( ) to liberate them… to raise them from the realm of Necessity to the realm of Freedom,” to reveal their hidden beauty.

Oh Dem Watermelons (1965, Robert Nelson)

Much talk about this one in the book. A silent, still shot of a watermelon lasts an age, then a singalong with an old racist song – or is it an ironically racist new song? – then some melon smashing with pioneering use of the shaky-cam. The song starts repeating and becomes irritating, as must all avant-garde film soundtracks. This time, Steve Reich is to blame. There’s stop-motion and Gilliam-style cut-out animation. My favorite bits are the dog that appears to poop out a watermelon, and the melon slowly crushed by construction equipment. Made as an intermission film for a theatrical racial satire, Nelson claims to have been inspired by Louis Feuillade.

Samadhi (1967, Jordan Belson)

Eclipses and auroras, perhaps the eyeball of a wizard, five spherical minutes with a blowing, groaning soundtrack.


Samadhi (c) Jordan Belson

The Way To Shadow Garden (1954, Stan Brakhage)

The camera stalks creepily around an empty room. A clean-cut young man comes home, struggles with a glass of water and the bed, dances, reads a book. The camera continues its subtly creepy assault, lingering on light bulbs, but otherwise I’m thinking this is Brakhage’s most performance-based film that I’ve seen, a wordless narrative episode. But then the man claws his eyes out, the film stock reverses, and he seems to find the shadow garden, all blind light and shubberies. The first half makes me think Brakhage could’ve made some killer Sirkian dramas if he’d had the urge.

The Potted Psalm (1947, Sidney Peterson & James Broughton)

Shots of people and things. A graveyard. A snail. An accordion. A funhouse mirror. Dolls suicide. A woman eats a leaf. The cameraman has a beer and a cigarette.

Not the first Sidney Peterson movie I’ve watched, and I still don’t get what he is on about. Kino made an interlaced transfer, hired a woman whose Casio can make neat sounds to record a horrible score.

I had a bunch more in mind to watch, but I suppose I’ll get to them another day.

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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