A Brief History of Princess X (2016, Gabriel Abrantes)

“Hey guys, my name is Gabriel Abrantes and I’m the director of this little six-minute film” – probably the first movie I’ve seen with director’s commentary as the main audio. It’s the story of Princess X, the sculpture and the subject, with playful voiceover: the characters’ mute dialogue in semi-sync with Abrantes, the director laughing at the actions and commenting on the filmmaking. “Here we changed his costume so it would seem like time was passing. He just ended up looking like Fidel Castro.”

M. Sicinski:

Princess X is undoubtedly a smart little film, and Abrantes wears his erudition lightly, possibly a little too much so. But in such a small space, he accomplishes several feats — things too modest to call “impressive,” per se, so let’s label them nifty. The film brings out the neurosis and below-the-belt impulses of modernism without turning it into a punchline, making “modern art” some sort of con. Abrantes follows tangents like a champ, following through when, for instance, our Spin the Phallus game lands us on Freud. But above all, he generates an uncanny sense of Victorian human puppetry from his performers, especially Joana Barrios as Marie Bonaparte. We find ourselves inside a weird, high-speed hybrid film, equal parts Guy Maddin and Raoul Ruiz. It’s something special.

Princess X (the marble version?) premiered in 1917 in the same show as Duchamp’s urinal, which grabbed all the headlines, postponing Brancusi’s own controversy until 1920, when the bronze version was censored in Paris. The marble is on display 200 yards from my office, and I visit it some afternoons.


Checked out Festivalscope for the first time with these next couple of shorts… great site, going to have to keep an eye on its new releases.


As Without So Within (2016, Manuela de Laborde)

I think it’s closeups on planetary stone objects. Sometimes we go too close, and the film is overrun with low-framerate grain, and sometimes we pull back with minor Lemony light changes. Soft static on the soundtrack, annoying. Some double exposures toward the middle. I liked the lighting, at least.

Played ND/NF 2017 and Toronto before that. Knew I’d heard about this somewhere – turns out it got six whole pages in Cinema Scope.

De Laborde:

Although I didn’t want to make a film that’s about outer space per se, I do like the metaphor, and also the relation that it suggests between cinema and the theatre. We go into this neutral non-space and we have to make sense of these self-contained universes, with their own balance and rules and life of their own, which works according to a language or order that was born from these materials, and yet they are also just these floating bodies in the middle of a dark, empty room.


Spiral Jetty (2017, Ricky D’Ambrose)

Male narrator gets job working for the daughter of recently deceased, celebrated psychologist Kurt Blumenthal, documenting his papers and tapes. Narrator is the last person to get to see the full collection before the daughter and her conductor husband (played by n+1’s film critic) suppress and destroy certain things (such as “the papers from the maoists”) before it’s all sold to a university. The short premiered just a week before I watched it online, does some things I like with editing and sound, and has an interesting focus on objects (news articles, handwritten notes, photographs). Dan Sallitt gets thanked in this film and Ben Rivers in the previous one, and both of these connections make sense to me.

In a Brooklyn Magazine interview, D’Ambrose reveals that his family’s own home movies substituted for Blumenthal’s. He’s working on a feature called Notes on an Appearance. “The shorts exist because the feature existed before them: each short was an attempt to solve certain aesthetic and conceptual problems that I’ve been thinking about ever since I started writing An Appearance.”


Arm, Flexion, Extension (2011, Bea Haut)

A white wall is painted black from a few tripod setups, while light shapes flicker across the “haphazardly hand processed 16mm film” over the sound of projector noise. On International Women’s Day, Michael Sicinski posted links to seventy female filmmakers’ Vimeo pages and I picked this one at random… the idea was to watch a bunch more, but I haven’t gotten to that yet, just cataloguing them for later.


Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises (1999, David Gatten)

Bible pages and words and letters flash and scroll past, with various levels of enlargement and exposure and opacity and speed, flickering by in different ways, maybe according to the Moxon quote before each section. I was annoyed when I realized it would be all silent text on screen, then I improved things by playing the Monotonprodukt album, against the Wishes and Intentions of the filmmaker. He probably also didn’t intend for me to watch a VHS transfer on an HDTV, or to pause the movie halfway through because my mom called, but that’s life in this 21st Century.

Sicinski in Cinema Scope:

Portions of the Biblical texts are affixed to the film, lifted from their source with cellophane tape after Gatten has boiled the books. We see the ink, hanging together in atomic word-forms like nervous constellations, mottled and wavering in thickness. The Word, indeed, is made flesh.


Secret History of the Dividing Line (2002, David Gatten)

The first five minutes were fun, flipping through a timeline of events, pausing on the biographical details of William Byrd and his expedition to determine the border between Virginia and North Carolina (very Lost City of Z), and this time I knew to start the Monotonprodukt album right away. But then a scroll of the two versions of the Dividing Line publication take over the screen, with a vertical-mask Dividing Line switching between them… this part was mostly unreadable in my SD copy. The text ends and the screen flickers and lights up with horizontal noise patterns, often weirdly in sync with my music.

If I’m reading a Wexner Center program correctly, this is part one and Moxon’s is part three of the same project (“the Byrd films”). Michael Sicinski’s article on Gatten in Cinema Scope 49 is the best, and makes me want to seek out more by Gatten, even though I’ve only found these subpar video copies so far.


A Train Arrives at the Station (2016, Thom Andersen)

Clips from train scenes in movies, using their own sound, including some of my favorite movies (Shanghai Express, Dead Man) and memorable scenes (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). Feels like this was meant to go with a speech or discussion of some sort, because otherwise I don’t see the point of it… I mean, I like trains in film as much as the next guy, so it’s enjoyable at least.

News From Home, perhaps? No source credits, so I can’t be sure.


From The Drain (1967, David Cronenberg)

A comedy sketch in a bathtub, scored with Renaissance acoustic guitar, Hat Guy doing his exasperated theater-guy voice while Glasses Guy mutely grins at him. References to “the war” and a veteran’s center, where the two either work or are patients, then Glasses guy warns of murderous tendrils coming from the drain, and is eventually strangled by them (or a stop-motion phone cord). It’s silly, and surprisingly not the only Cronenberg movie to be shot entirely in a bathroom, but he does an effectively strange thing, swapping positions of the two guys in the tub but acting like it’s normal continuity cutting.

What The Eyes See (1987, Pavel Koutský)

Starts out pretty ordinary then goes nuts. A happy-go-lucky wooden Amish man is saddened when a fat guy, a moonface, and a green Swede yell at him. He wanders, head low, being verbally attacked from all directions. Then the animation slows to a halt and we see the animator’s hands moving the little guy around… wide shot to the animator walking around the studio posing and filming the scene… then he slows down and we see giant hands manipulating the human animator. Reverse back into the original scene, where the wooden guy kicks the ass of the next fella who gets in his face.


Strazce majaku (1968, Ivan Renč)

A ship-traveling dandy sexually harasses the boat’s mermaid figurehead, who awakens and heads into the sea to distract the man in charge of the coin-op lighthouse protecting some jagged rocks. She finally drives the lighthouse keeper insane until he retreats inside, projecting his vainglorious dreams on a movie screen using a phonograph horn and pretending to rescue a toy boat in his bathtub, while outside, the real boat runs into the rocks and sinks. I love this. Got a bunch more Czech shorts to go through later.


The Old Lady’s Camping Trip (1983, Les Drew)

Opening credits reveal this was presented by the Fire Prevention Association, so we know it’s not just a casual character moment when Cousin Jim is introduced smoking in bed. Jim is a regular clumsy firebug, and the Old Woman Who Lives In A Shoe is unusually fire-conscious, bringing extinguishers and smoke detectors on a camping trip.


Every Dog’s Guide to Complete Home Safety (1987, Les Drew)

Opens with a cool low-angle view of a spider racing through a house, then turns into the same kind of pleasant-enough kids’ cartoon as the camping trip one – a “safety dog” just wants to practice roller skating but the family dad keeps putting him in dangerous situations as prep for an “iron dog” competition. In the end the dog skates/wagons the family to a hospital when the pregnant wife needs a ride, I’m not sure why.


Evolution (1971, Michael Mills)

History of planetary species in ten minutes. Brightly colored planetary landscapes beget giggling single-cell eyeballs beget water plants and fishies beget land creatures beget monkey-things beget intelligent space-traveling aliens. Innovative approach to reproduction and mutation and natural selection (and creature design) with typical gender division stuff: all creatures are assumed male except the big-titted ones who knit while bearing children. Oscar nominated the year of The Selfish Giant and the inferior Crunch Bird, Mills made a bunch more shorts that would be worth looking up.


La Salla (1996, Richard Condie)

I’ve seen this before, ages ago: early, hideous computer animation with a big-nose opera-singing guy in a room full of living objects making inappropriate sounds, like a surreal indie Toy Story demo. Lesson learned: never open the door. The last of a series of Canadian shorts made by Condie, Oscar nominated the year Quest won.

One of the Roughs, a Kosmos (Carmine Grimaldi)

It was late… let’s see if I remember… a girl and her very beardy dad doing farm things on the farm. She climbs trees. There’s a laptop… and ducks. My notes say “like a more fun Ben Rivers film,” which I meant as a great compliment.


All Good Things (Chloe Domont)

Daughter records her parents, who are still married and living together, but mom has a new boyfriend, who she’s been seeing for a couple years. He comes and goes, accepted in theory by the husband, though their comic bickering makes the film worth watching, more than just home movies of an unusual family.


Happy Happy Baby (Jan Soldat)

Oh shit. It’s intense to watch five films in one day, and we maybe should’ve gone home or checked if the Cafe Berlin concert wasn’t sold out, but instead here we were, tired at 11:30pm, watching a long-take mini-doc shot in dimly lit basement, where an “adult baby” has playtime with his fellow-kink friends then goes to bed in a giant crib, then his much younger “daddy” explains how he got involved in all this. Or what does he explain? I don’t recall because we raced into the cold night the instant it was over, the other two shorts forgotten, Katy railing against Happy Happy Baby, saying it went against the spirit of all the other films we’d seen by presenting people with unusual kinks and holding them up like zoo animals.

Pearl (Patrick Osborne)

Machinima/cutscene clip about a girl growing up with her dad with a car and music then getting too old for dad and hanging out with friends with the car and music then remembering poor dad and going back to visit. It felt kinda like an extended commercial, but not as good, surprising from the guy who made Feast. Ah, it was created with VR software, how cutting edge.

Borrowed Time (Coats & Hamou-Lhadj)

Bummer cowboy story, sad man goes to cliff edge where he accidentally killed his dad whom he was trying to help up with the use of a shotgun. It doesn’t feel like 3D animation is best suited for this sort of thing. The codirectors are seasoned Pixar animators.

Blind Vaysha (Theodore Ushev)

Girl is born with a left eye that only sees the past and a right eye that only sees the future, sometimes by a few hours and sometimes by thousands of years. Maybe you could do some cool things with this concept, but the movie’s only concerned with grabbing the viewer and saying look, wouldn’t this be terrible? Imagine if you had to live like this. Wouldn’t it be just awful? Wouldn’t it? Huh? The end. Ushev is a prolific shorts director and this is the first I’ve seen.

Pear Cider and Cigarettes (Robert Valley)

Long story of the narrator’s troubled friend Techno who gets rich then needs a liver transplant. At least this one has cooler visual style and music than the others, though it’s another sadness drama, and all women be sexy-ass bitches. The director was an Aeon Flux artist!

Piper (Alan Barillaro)

Still the best. Sandpipers rule.

The White Helmets (Orlando von Einsiedel)

Wrenching doc about self-appointed post-bombing rescuers in Syria, mostly set during a training session in Turkey. It would also turn out to be a really useful movie to use when looking for IMDB or Letterboxd users with terrible opinions to block, if either of those sites allowed me to block users with terrible opinions.

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.

Back in the day I’d flip through the Norman McLaren DVD box set regularly, but times change and you get old and overwhelmed with things and one day you realize you haven’t watched any McLaren in six years.


Blinkity Blank (1955)

Advanced hand-etched animation – musical battle of red dot vs. blue dot, flickering and transforming into different images for an instant at a time.

R. Koehler called it “possibly his greatest film, in which McLaren discovered the effect of not drawing on every single frame.”

J-P Coursodon:

One may briefly notice (provided one doesn’t blink) a flurry of feathers, a parachute, a bird cage, a pineapple, an umbrella that turns into a hen-like figure, as well as many undescribable doodles that keep bouncing all over the screen. “This is not a film you see,” wrote French critic André Martin in 1955, “it’s a film you think you see.” You do hear, however, and not just think you hear, Maurice Blackburn’s dodecaphonistic score … with strikingly percussive synthetic-sound punctuations added throughout like so many punches by McLaren’s scratchings on the soundtrack.


C’est L’aviron (1944)

Gentle boat ride in sync with a vocal French tune, constant 3D zoom forwards (and sometimes backwards) over sea, through clouds and towns. There’s a behind-the-scenes film explaining how it was made,


Spheres (1969)

Mathematical dance of stop-motion spheres against a morphing cosmic backdrop. Codirected with René Jodoin in 1946, with music added two decades later.


Love on the Wing (1939)

A post office advert – see also the Len Lye shorts – in which two postal letters are in love. Fast-paced, surrealist-inspired etched animation, characters constantly morphing into different figures.


La Poulette Grise (1947)

Variations of chicken/egg paintings, contorting slowly to a vocal song by Anna Malenfant (doesn’t that mean Anna Badchild?). At the end, the chicken sails away upon a crescent moon.


A Little Phantasy on a Nineteenth Century Painting (1946)

Chalky animation upon a reproduction of an Arnold Böcklin painting.


Là-Haut Sur Ces Montagnes (1946)

Another generative painting, a nice pastoral scene


Book Bargain (1937)

Short doc with voiceover showing the process of printing the London phone book. Cool machinery but kind an unexciting industrial film.

A selection of shorts from DVD, since I just enjoyed his An Optical Poem on the Masterworks of Avant-Garde Film blu-ray.


Spirals (1926)

Increasingly complicated pulsating spiral patterns – just the sort of thing that SD interlacing can ruin, though VLC’s deinterlacer helped. Silent.


Walking from Munich to Berlin (1927)

Time-lapse vacation slideshow, filming things he saw along the way, sometimes for just a couple frames, sometimes more. Inspired a Guy Maddin short eighty years later.


Studie Nr. 6 (1930)

Now that’s more like it – light scratches zip around a dark field in time (kinda) to upbeat music.


Studie Nr. 7 (1931)

Like number 6 but one greater, with closer music sync.


Circles (1933)

Colored (yay) circles flow and move about. A warm-up for Allegretto, and one of the first color films made in Europe.


Radio Dynamics (1942)

More complex, definitely more hypnotic visuals than the others. Silent, but called “a color-music composition” with an opening title reading “Please! No Music,” so I guess it’s some theoretical business about creating music with image.

Great collection with the best liner notes, borrowed from a coworker and watched piecemeal.


The Original Movie (1922, Tony Sarg)

Silhouette animation imagining what moviemaking was like in early days (a mashup of eras from the dinosaur age forward). Nice use of Flintstonian animals as machines (like a long-necked dinosaur as camera crane), but Lotte Reineger it ain’t. Seems an in-joke gag about how producers have always ruined the work of screenwriters. Nice Muybridge reference. The notes say Sarg was a famous puppeteer who created the first Macy’s parade floats.

Producer (left) with his editing goat, receiving a pitch:

It’s a mark of how quickly the division-of-labor production system overtook Hollywood that already in 1922 The Original Movie can find its satiric “moral” in the inability of writers to recognize their work by the time it reaches the screen. The puritan-cloaked censors who contribute to the caveman filmmaker’s breakdown would have been on everyone’s mind. Nineteen twenty-one witnessed the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and brought New York’s new censor board as well as a hundred bills in state legislatures to curb perceived Hollywood excess.


The Confederate Ironclad (1912, Kenean Buel)

I guess an ironclad was a hideous, armored boat. Fifteen-minute action flick about confederate soldier Yancey, the Southern girl who loves him, and beautiful Union spy Elinor who easily cons ol’ Yancey into giving up military information. I didn’t realize the movie would take the confederate side, though – their gunboat rips up the union army, and noble Yancey allows Elinor to escape. Unusually, the original music score has survived, and was used in this restoration.

Wounded Yancey with his Southern Rose:

Yancey was married to the spy, Anna Q., who was a superstar in the 1920’s. Rose was Miriam Cooper, who had a lead role (“the friendless one”) in Intolerance.


Early Films from the Edison Company

Blacksmithing Scene (1893) – blacksmiths take turns banging on iron, drinking, banging on iron… sure enough, this is the original film the Lumieres remade.

The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903) – a decidedly not-gay shoe clerk kisses a flirty female customer.

Three American Beauties (1906) – a rose, a girl, a U.S. flag, all hand-tinted.

The liners on the first two films:

Because the three “blacksmiths” are impersonated by Edison employees, this is not a documentary but the first instance of screen acting. It is also the earliest surviving complete motion picture on film … Of course, at the time “gay” referred only to his devil-may-care impetuousness. The modern meaning gives unintended irony to The Gay Shoe Clerk, whose “young woman” was played by one of Edison’s male employees.


Spies (1943, Chuck Jones)

The Looney Tunes staff with writer Dr. Seuss illustrate a “loose lips sink ships” scenario, as Snafu thinks he’s keeping his mission secret but lets enough pieces of information slip for the enemy to put it all together. I thought Snafu had a rather Bugs Bunny voice, though Mel Blanc says he meant for him to sound like Porky. Amazing work, need to find and watch all of these.


OffOn (1968, Scott Bartlett)

Like the 2001: A Space Odyssey eyeball voyage scene, but homemade with newfangled late-1960’s video technology. Some other indescribable weirdness ensues, funhouse-mirroring and Rainbow Dance techniques. Impressive. Features the kind of grating horror soundtrack in fashion with the avant-garde, though it chills out into some pulsing tones at times.

Speaking in the 1960s at the time he made OffOn, his second film, he saw a technology on the horizon that would make his innovations simpler for future media artists: “With video plus computers you could do it even better,” he said of his imagery of metamorphosis.

A DVD of animated shorts from a Children’s Television Workshop pioneer. I started going through this, but lost interest after a while.

Opens on a weird note:

Owl & The Pussycat (1968)

The very next film has the word “bullshit” and a crudely-drawn naked woman, so we’re not into the Children’s Television Workshop portion of the program yet.

Scratching & Painting on Film (1968)

Yak (1970) – a yak discovers the letter “y”
Tondo (1973) – a 3D geometry/motion exercise, with more naked women.
Floor Tiles (1997) – floor tile coloring fantasia.
Skeletons (1979) – a study of skeletal structure.

Skeletons:

Autosong (1976) – gentle Plymptonian perspective-morphing to low comforting rumble of manual-transmission car. I could fall asleep to this. The second-longest film on here, starts to leave the road entirely in its second half.

Four Quadrant Exercise (1975) – geometry games with blackouts in between.

Hand Trick Letters (1992) – some ugly-looking digital spelling lessons, though to be fair all computer-made video from 1992 is pretty ugly.

Rotating Cubic Grid (1975) – more geometry exercises, though more fun than its title suggests.

To be continued, possibly.