I watched all the shorts I could find called The Letter,
and some related shorts that were on the same DVDs.


The Letter (2008 Gael Garcia Bernal)

“Achieve universal education” – this is from an anthology in which overqualified filmmakers (Sissako, Wenders, Gaspar Noé) created little issues dramas. Bernal had made one feature before this and never really took off as a director. Mustache man Ingvar Sigurdsson (lately star of A White, White Day, soon to be seen in The Northman) is working in Iceland. He helps his son with homework, reads to him. Any time he’s not talking with his kid, a narrator is speaking, and none of this is in English or subtitled on my disc, so I dunno, but the man seems to be divorced and the only letter they receive is a credit card bill.


The Water Diary (2008 Jane Campion)

From the same anthology as the Bernal. Drought caused by climate change causes a farming town to fall apart. The little girl at the center loses her horses, loses her uncle to suicide, spends the day pretend-galloping with her cousin through the dry riverbed. The neighbors tell each other their dreams of rain, and imagine that if the prettiest girl in town plays her viola atop a hill, the clouds will gather and weep. Second movie I’ve seen in a year where people collect their tears in jars. Lovely short, even on DVD, with some unusual visuals. The lead girl later played opposite Elle Fanning in Ginger & Rosa.


The Letter (1971 James Gore & Adam Beckett)

Silent freeform animation, the figures constantly transforming, returning to a striped-shirt character writing then mailing a letter. Besides the figure mutations (just while addressing and stamping the letter, the person becomes a stick figure, a mouse, a bird, a pig and a wolf) we spend some time inside the letter itself, a blue-on-blue field of growing and folding shapes.


Sausage City (1974 Adam Beckett)

Single-color pen drawings of mutating geometries, gradually becomes more 3D as colorful blobbos appear and begin taking over the image, a chaotic jazz combo underscoring the whole thing. This for a while, then it zooms out and a man jumps into the drawing table, where he’s transformed into a hip mouse creature. Music by “Brillo”


The Letter (2002 Vladimir Leschiov)

Man sitting under tall apple tree is writing a letter. Plays around with scale, and the nature of apples. Nice pencil-looking drawing style, with soft music that adds fx and transforms along with the visual scene. Leschiov is described as the most famous of Latvian animators, though he made this in Sweden.


Lost In Snow (2007 Vladimir Leschiov)

A man leaves his shack for some ice fishing and a drink. But the man begins multiplying, differently dressed ice fishers in different nearby spots, as the ice sheet cracks and they all float around each other. Prompted to watch this after we went to the lake today, saw some ice fishers and got very close to a bald eagle. The movie loses points for featuring no eagles, but there is a penguin at the end


The Letter (1998 Michel Gondry)

A boy with a photography hobby is anxious about Y2K and wanting to kiss a girl he likes. His older brother tries giving him advice, the boy dreams that he’s unable to connect with other humans because his head has become a camera, the girl writes a letter saying she likes his older brother. B/W with some nice photochemical effects, I think this was Gondry’s first narrative work that wasn’t a music video.


The Letter (1968 Jacques Drouin)

Only a minute long, simple animation on white background of a person attempting to write a love letter, the words of the discarded drafts appearing onscreen and self destructing.


Pismo aka Letter (2013 Sergei Loznitsa)

Cool jump-cut on a thunderclap, and there is a cow. Either this town is in heavy mist or the film is fogged. This goes beyond Slow Cinema into Sokurovian smear-cinema, without even a pretense at story or characterization, the camera too far from whatever daily menial activities are going on. There’s a four-hour Loznitsa playing True/False next month, and the guy’s not convincing me that’ll be time well spent [edit: a month later, after reviews and global events, now I’m dying to see the T/F feature]

Official description:
“A remote village in the Northwest of Russia. A mental asylum is located in an old wooden house. The place and its inhabitants seem to be untouched by civilization. Over 10 years ago, Loznitsa shot astounding black-and-white footage at a psychiatric institution in a forgotten corner of Russia. Since then it has resided in his archive.”


The Letter (2018 Bill Morrison)

A young man falls for a nurse. Her friend reads alarming news in a letter. A maid is being harassed by her employer. Is Bill a great preservationist, showing us the remnants of old films before they’re physically corroded away? Or is he the cause of the corrosion, has he realized that 1920’s studio pictures of well dressed people having conversations in rooms are inherently uninteresting without an added Decasia effect, and he’s out to document his chemical destruction of silent film history? I like my theory, gonna run with it, though now I see this was made from the Dawson City films.


The Letter (1976 Coni Beeson)

Big keyboard music, voiceover fragments of a man’s breakup letter while a blonde woman in a robe is montaged through all different scenarios, some of them nude. Her voice responds, “what if I change, what if I stop” as the movie deteriorates into hippie-manson-orgy territory with prominent ankhs. She achieves some kinda (still nude) peace at the end. The official description mentions “a symbolic rape by the Devil.”


The Letter (1970 Roman Kachanov)

Daddy’s off at war, and wifey gets very mopey when he hasn’t sent a letter lately, to the concern of their kid. Cute stop-motion.

Even for me, three movies is a lot on a work day. More family history told through photographs, and we think stock footage but with sources uncredited. No tricks pulled with the photos except in the poster shot when torn and discarded pics of pre-revolutionary mom are reassembled. Some tricks with the house scenes though, camera slowly gliding through a long house with furnishings that change according to the political and family situation in each part of the story. Iranian Mom gets a culture shock upon marrying a secular scientist and moving to Europe, but when they return to Iran she embraces the Islamic Revolution and becomes the dominant force in the household.

Having a rough week, I considered pulling out the emergency relief film, Paddington 2, but Brian Dennehy had just died, and I’d long wanted to see it, so chose to watch the movie about a man in constant pain whose professional and personal life falls apart until he commits suicide – great fuckin’ idea.

Composer Wim Mertens does a serviceable Michael Nyman impression – or maybe that was Glenn Branca, one of his few film credits. Architect Dennehy is in Rome with wife Louisa (Chloe Webb, just off starring in Sid & Nancy) outlining the exhibition he’s preparing on an obscure French architect. Webb is pregnant, and having a blatant affair with Lambert Wilson, who is also stealing money and discrediting Dennehy so he can take over the exhibition, and whose photographer sister Stefania Casini (Jessica Harper’s murdered friend in Suspiria) is trying to seduce Dennehy. I like how Dennehy finds her room full of photographs of previous scenes, as if whenever Casini is offscreen, she’s filming the movie we’re watching.

Happy to see that much of the motion in these motion-paintings involves snow or animals – in fact, when there are humans in a scene, they’re the only things that don’t come alive. The visuals sometimes remind of The Mill and the Cross, and sometimes you can’t tell they’re based on still photos at all.

Here’s me, pointlessly taking stills of motion versions of stills:

Crows are prominent. Rare is the scene without any birds in it. The movie is as attuned to outdoor bird behavior as I am, always wondering what the crows and ducks and sandpipers are up to. Whenever there are birds seen through a window we hear opera. Not all the animals survive… tense music in frame 5 before a deer gets shot, and there are more bird fatalities in this than in The Lighthouse. In the most narrative scene, a seagull gets shot and another mourns him. Great ending: a Disney-sounding song, a sleeping motion designer, a classic film on an iMac rendering at about 1fps, the wind in the trees outside.

Tao catches up with his old buddy Dong, a former photographer who’s figuring out what to do next while being needled by his family, wishing he could just stay drunk and hang out with his friends and listen to punk rock, dreaming of returning to his pastoral home town far to the north. Dong’s mom works with fabric, dad sells flutes, and Dong is coerced into starting a jade business. This doesn’t work out – Tao films Dong listening to a jade dealer explain what kinds of stones to buy and how to convince customers into spending more than a piece is worth, then venting into the camera later about this business being an elaborate scam, and that’s the end of the jade story. Dong has lived his whole life in Post-Mao China but still can’t adjust to capitalism.

I’m not always clear on chronology or location. We’re in Kunming in 2011 on Dong’s 30th birthday talking about taking a trip to Hailar, then “Spring arrived in 2013,” and Dong is on a train, pointing to cities on the schedule, talking about his parents and his childhood in Hailar. So, we assumed it’s 2013 and the trip has begun, before realizing a few scenes later that it’s still Dong’s 30th birthday and they’ve gone nowhere, will go nowhere (except for the jade expo) until the final minutes of the movie.

Watched because of a specific interest in China this year, to be further explored soon. Kunming is in the far (central) south of the country, and Guangdong (the jade expo, and the beach where the promo stills were shot) is far to the east, on the south side near Hong Kong. Beijing is in the northeast of the country, but Hailar is even further northeast, around the eastern tip of Mongolia, a stone’s throw from Russia. According to the description of his previous film, post-earthquake survival semi-doc On the Way to the Sea, Tao Gu and his family are from Wenchuan, just northwest of Chengdu and not near any of his Taming the Horse locations. I haven’t figured out the part where drunk, crying Dong says he wants to kill himself in Yanjiang where he first saw the sea, since Yanjiang appears to be just on the other side of Chengdu from Gu’s hometown, 15 hours from the nearest ocean.

Punk Rock tells the Truth:

Better than Creepy, this is K.K. in arthouse French festival mode.

Stéphane (Olivier Gourmet of all the Dardenne movies) is an eccentric whose giant glass plate photographs are only still in demand by a few connoisseurs, so he spends most of his time in the basement photographing his daughter Marie (Constance Rousseau of Simon Killer) in uncomfortable poses for increasingly long exposures, trying to capture the ineffable. He hires Jean (Tahar Rahim, main dude in A Prophet) as a new assistant, which may have been a bad move – don’t hire someone who’s gonna covertly call an auction house to appraise all your belongings.

For the most part, the film follows Jean as he falls for Marie, who wants to move away from the lonely basement photo sessions and start her own life working at a botanical garden. Jean is a bit of a scam artist, and helps her out by scheming to coerce her dad into selling his estate, for which Jean will get a commission that they can live on together. But the schemes don’t totally make sense, and time goes by and things get weird. It’s not a tight Chabrolian thriller, but something more diffuse. Eventually Marie appears to have died in two separate incidents (a stairs tumble, a car crash), but she still appears real to Jean, and Stéphane’s long-dead wife reappears as a Pulse-referencing slow-motion spirit.

Originally titled Le secret de la chambre noire, I watched this right after Creepy. Since Before We Vanish, K.K. has already released its extended semi-remake Foreboding. The others I missed since Tokyo Sonata include Real (Inception-y romance), Seventh Code (an hourlong paranoid thriller), and Penance (a murder-guilt anthology miniseries).

The cutest onscreen text of the festival:
“Now carrying twins, Boosie careth not about the film”

was soon followed by the most startling:
“Korbyn was buried in the early afternoon”

Individual and community portraits in the area where “Alabama at Night” was set. Instead of telling us a straight story, he selects little character or photographic moments. I tried to compare the editing to Cameraperson or 88:88, then realized we scheduled this in the first place because I saw it being compared to Malick – so, some combination of those. Andrew Crump: “But RaMell Ross has an element on his side that these artists lack — a level of honesty attained only through intimacy. Ross knows his subjects as more than subjects. He knows them as you know your friends, your family, your neighbors.” Ross puts his skills as both photographer and basketball coach to great use, creating a mosaic of moments, many of which I’ve now forgotten, but this seems like one of the True/False films that will survive, so we’ll have a chance to see it again. We stayed for the Q&A, where Ross spoke of a desire to “participate” in a community rather than “consume” it, and said the film wasn’t created to make money, so it has no obligation to act like commercial cinema, a nice distinction.

Tayler Montague in Reverse Shot:

Emancipating the image feels like a goal in Hale County, which loosely follows the lives of Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant, ballplayers who are simply living and striving and working. … Daniel and Quincy are young men with aspirations beyond Hale County’s city limits. Whether through rapping or hooping, they want to transcend the expectations of life there.

Ross:

I think it was in 2012. I was like, “I need to film these guys. I need to film this community. I need to start making moving images.” The first images I made were of Quincy hanging out with his friends. I knew both Quincy and Daniel for three years before I started, and I asked, “Yo, Quincy, can I start filming? I have no idea what’s going to happen. I just want to be here with the camera.” And he said, “Obviously.” And then the same thing for Daniel.

When I first started, I didn’t know what I was looking for, and things would happen, and they would really move me, and they would stick with me, and then I’d think, “Oh, this is what I want.” … I made a cut of all of my favorite images; I related them based on color, and sunup and sundown, and it was pretty moving. I considered it like a trailer in some sense. And then through the process of looking at films and talking with people, I realized that a film could be something like this. “Whoa, what if I made a trailer of their lives? What does that look like in the long form?”

Agnès Varda goes on one of her journeys around France, looking up old friends and making new ones, but this time she’s got JR, a photographer who likes to make gigantic portraits and paste them onto walls and other surfaces. This is pretty much the best thing in the world. Photographed: a mechanized farmer who enjoys his solitude, factory workers, dock workers’ wives, a shy waitress, the last remaining resident of row houses for miners, one of Agnès’s late friends, a whole town picnic. Agnès tries to introduce JR to his sunglasses style predecessor, some ex-filmmaker, but they get stood up. Besides that one hiccup, it’s a magical trip.

I thought I’d do another Shorts Month, but February turned out to be pretty busy, so I only got to a dozen (plus the Oscar Animation program). Breaking them up into two posts…


Skinningrove (2013, Michael Almereyda)

After Experimenter and now Escapes, I thought it’d be worth watching everything I can find by Almereyda. This one is simply a slideshow, narrated by photographer Chris Killip who’d spent a few years documenting the titular fishing village. We get descriptions of who we’re seeing, how his (excellent) photographs were taken, and what happened after (two of the boys died in a storm). Killip says he’s never been sure what he should do with the photos – I suppose this is what.


Me the Terrible (2012, Josephine Decker)

Girl dressed like a pirate conquers New York, from the Statue of Liberty to Wall Street to the Empire State Building, until a gang of red-suited bicyclists steal her teddy bear in Central Park and she abandons the rest of the conquest. The adults seem to be lipsyncing to voices from old movies. Not at all like Decker’s Butter on the Latch, but fully wonderful in all new ways.


Split Persona (2017, Bradley Rust Gray)

Twin sisters Karrie and Jalissa have a majorly depressed mom. Jalissa always takes care of mom, so she asks Karrie to stay home for once, but apparently whenever mom is left home with Karrie she attempts suicide. Bummer of a little film, possibly made as a PSA for mental health care – it barely exists online, despite coming from the director of Jack & Diane. This was written by a Nelson, whose mom suffers from depression, and it stars a Nelson as the mom, but no word whether it’s Mom Nelson.


Second Sighted (2015, Deborah Stratman)

Movement through space. Stock footage. Water and earth… earth under water, and flowing like water. Graphic markups on photographs. Models and data and data models. Good stuff, and I didn’t even mind the soundtrack: drones, chimes and that chirpy chatter that accompanies old computer images. My first by Stratman – I’ve been seeing her name here and there.


Woodshock (1985, Richard Linklater)

Bunch of pretty annoying dudes clown around at a Texas underground film festival. Daniel Johnston makes an appearance, then the footage starts overlapping and running in reverse in order to get groovy and psychedelic. He calls this a “film attempt” in the credits, fair enough. I spotted GBH and Exploited t-shirts! Shot by Lee Daniel, who was still working with Linklater as late as Boyhood.


Gazing at the Catastrophe (2012, Ali Cherri)

Closeup of a man’s face, his skin tone shifting every couple of frames. A photoshop cursor strokes each of his features, slowly applying scars or burns to his visage, then the picture cuts away to stuttering video horrors for a few seconds, and repeat.