The Venice Film Festival posted 70-ish short films online to commemorate their 70th anniversary. I watched them gradually over the past year. These are the ones I did not care for. Favorites are here and the rest here.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Visual: driving straight road in the rain through wipers
Audio: ocean with seagulls

Jean-Marie Straub

Single silent shot of pages relaying some quotes about death in a couple of French films.

Lluís Galter

Fuzzy slow-mo long shots of people near water.

Karim Aïnouz

Search party? Man in orange vest with flashlight helmet vanishes into mist.

Bernardo BertolucciRed Shoes

Electric Wheelchair drives over rough street.

Amos Gitai

Still photos of a man on beach crossfade while Jeanne Moreau speaks of a poem (or perhaps not literally a poem).

Lav Diaz

Handheld shot through an upper-floor window as an elderly person slowly walks down the street, then a poetic voiceover kicks in.

Todd Solondz

Ridiculous course catalog of a Chinese film history program 1000 years in the future, using an early-80’s-looking screen with early-90’s-sounding text-to-speech.

Marlen KhutsievIn Perpetuum Infinituum

Chekhov and Tolstoy are having a motion-picture portrait taken. Then: champagne, war footage, a brass band and a giant Viva Cinema intertitle.

Tobis LindholmThe Hit

Two camoflaged jeeps are driving. Bomb!

Claire Denis

Overheard conversation gives way to a noisy Tindersticks song. Is it that she can’t be bothered to find new music, or does she truly love Tindersticks that much? Camera seems to be inside a bag or under a scarf – I’m not convinced this short was even made on purpose.

Rama Burshtein

Man is told to open his mouth. Finally he does. A dance song plays. Hunh?

Semih KaplanogluDevran

Static shot of – what’s that, a tree? – with audio of thunderstorm and constant firefly flicker.

Franco Piavoli

Fire and yelling, then children and sunsets.

Amiel Courtin-Wilson

Rough-looking man plays a prolonged Amazing Grace on harmonica in close-up.

Tusi Tamasese

Stills of some leaves, then of two people doing… I don’t know what, since it’s over already.

Michele PlacidoYorick’s Speech

Old guy says the youth of today are the future of filmmaking while a banal pop song plays.

Julio Bressane

Silent 16mm clips, then clips from 1960’s period epics, something like that.

Excerpt from a J. Rosenbaum article, graciously explaining what the film was about:

The first text, read by Huillet, is an excerpt from a letter written by Friedrich Engels to Karl Kautsky describing the impoverished state of the French peasantry on the eve of the French Revolution … we see the various places in France that are described as they appear today … The second part of the film, roughly twice as long, uses a more recent Marxist text about the Egyptian peasants’ resistance to the English occupation prior to the “petit-bourgeois” revolution of Neguib in 1952 – a more journalistic text by Mahmoud Hussein, author of Class Struggles in Egypt. In both sections, it is suggested that the peasants revolt too soon and succeed too late. Once again, the locations cited in the text are filmed by Straub-Huillet … the sites of revolutionary struggle, again mainly rural.

I wish I’d read that right before watching, instead of afterward. But even if I completely missed the filmmakers’ intentions until I researched it later on, I did enjoy the movie. It’s peaceful to watch, and I had fun trying to compare it to other films. I considered Chantal Akerman (From The Other Side) and even Michael Snow (La Region Centrale), but I slowly realized it’s a huge influence on Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind.

After the two long sections, it ends with stock footage and a radio announcer, again bringing to mind Profit Motive with its street-march finale.

Near the beginning, the camera whirls around a traffic circle while we hear something about revolution (get it? circle? revolution?) and the bourgeoisie, then on to other towns and cities. “Out of 130 families there are 60 which are impoverished.” Much space between blocks of narration, giving me time to attempt understanding of the directors’ politics. The narration itself is sometimes not much help – I wish they’d have checked to see if John Hurt had a couple free hours instead of recording it themselves.

Notes I took:
– colonialist readings of Egyptian history
– Peasant revolts vs. French occupiers
– A couple of revolts are put down, old power prevails
– Narration is directly giving us information, but so slowly
– Second narrator is better
– Ferocious repression in Egypt
– Imprisonment, military rounding people up and searching them

At least now I understand the long horizontal-pan establishing shot in Manfred Blank’s documentary that I watched with Class Relations – it’s a reference to this movie.

The longest-held static shot:

After around ninety-five minutes, the camera follows a man with a donkey cart – the first time it’s followed any living thing all movie.

“But it is the reformist petit bourgoise forces sprung from the army who took the initiative of the coup d’etet of 1952”

“And from 1955 to 1967 the mass movement would be dismantled and (courted?) by a new ruling (caste?) inheriting all the vices of the old and betraying the national dignity which had served its ascension.”

More from Rosenbaum – this is excellent:
“The very slow pans, according to Dave Kehr, always move in the same direction as the wind, and it is largely the sense one has of the film’s profound attentiveness to the material world that makes the film so singular a documentary – calling to mind the three living quotations cited by Straub before the screening of the film at the Collective for Living Cinema on April 30, 1983:”

D. W. Griffith at the end of his life: “What modern movies lack is the wind in the trees.”

Rosa Luxembourg: “The fate of insects is not less important than the revolution.”

Cézanne, who painted Mont Saint-Victoire again and again: “Look at this mountain, once it was fire.”

“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.

“You can’t trust cinema” – Straub

Costa brings his In Vanda’s Room minimalist shooting style into the editing room where Straub and Huillet are working on Sicilia!. I thought it sounded like a bore, but liked it a lot, surely more than Vanda itself. Guess I was interested in the process of it, and in rethinking Sicilia and learning about the filmmakers – the documentary aspect more than Costa’s aesthetic work, though seeing something so similar in look to Vanda made me reconsider Costa’s style too. So, a lot to think about, though I’m not sure about it being “maybe the best movie ever made about making movies” (Senses of Cinema possibly quoting Thom Andersen).

Huillet (below) is the quiet one, doing her work while Straub showboats and pontificates, talks about destroying truth, calls a matching shot “the most idiotic thing in filmmaking,” and quotes favorite films of his (of theirs). They take their editing job very seriously – Costa says they completed five cuts a day. They stop to screen and introduce some films, including The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, for a meager group of students, part of the deal they made to get free editing time at a university. Seems to be a documentary made for and by people who need no introduction to these filmmakers; an advanced course in their methods and personality. Funny that Costa points out his own sound design in this doc as “completely fake, anti-Straubian.”

More choice Straub quotes:

“Some people have the impression – because we reject verisimilitude and TV-style cinema, Dallas and all that shit, and even Woody Allen and Cassavetes, etc., that there is no psychology in our films. But that’s not true. All this is psychology. There is no psychology in terms of the performance of the actor because there is a dramatic abstraction that goes deeper than so-called verisimilitude. But it’s there, in between the shots, in the very montage and in the way the shots are linked to each other, it is extremely subtle psychology.”

“When you make films, you try not to say stupid things. You work hard to avoid them. You destroy cliches, go back, correct, abandon or add things. And then, in real life, you do talk nonsense. You end up destroying some of the work you do and the films you made.

“You cannot expect form before the idea.”
“First there is the idea. Then there is the matter and then the form. And there is nothing you can do about that. Nobody can change that!”

Great cinematographer William Lubtchansky died this month. I mostly know his Jacques Rivette movies (plus a Varda short and The Regular Lovers), so here’s another side of his work: something by “the Straubs,” the first one of their films I’ve enjoyed watching after a couple false starts.

A dude (credited as “the son” but I believe named Silvestro) talks with an orange seller about meals. A man on the train complains about the poor. Yelling, always yelling! Everyone is yelling. He’s on a trip, stops to have conversations with people he meets (appropriately, this is based on a book called Conversations in Sicily) which sound like recitations. It wasn’t until I rewatched some scenes from this within Costa’s documentary that I appreciated the recitations, their strange cadence – the first time I was just reading the subtitles, following the conversation, but apparently there’s more to it than the words being spoken. More on the fate of Sicilians, and some over-my-head philosophy. The sound sometimes disappears.

The shots at the end of each segment are getting longer. Oooh, a pan! The same one twice! A long pan across a landscape and back, repeated twice, and I don’t understand. Silvestro lands at his mom’s house, listens to her talk about when he was a kid, what they did and what they ate (snails), then about his grandfather, “a great socialist.” She puts down his father and her husband – I wasn’t sure if she remarried and she’s cutting down two men, or if it was just the one – for his/their weakness. Anyway, the man goes outside and meets an awesome knife sharpener. One of them declares “the world is beautiful!” and the movie ends as they face each other listing off beautiful things.

Some official synopsis says that Silvestro “comes face to face with reality, corruption, and treachery, that differ from his memories as a child with a mother lost between abstract fury and an awareness of his incapacity to comprehend the human condition.” I don’t get how the movie is communist, or even whether it’s supposed to be. I liked the style, though, and the length and pacing, the unconventional-seeming editing choices (although in the doc they act like there’s only one way to edit a movie correctly, that it’s obvious, as they struggle for hours to choose the exact frame on which to cut).

NY Times calls it “austere and pretentiously minimalistic”:

Here, at odd moments, it pans slowly back and forth across a particular setting as if to emphasize the filmmakers’ blank emotional and editorial slate. For in the Straub-Huillet esthetic, truth is to supposed to be revealed as much through accident, inference and subtext as through what is actually said.

The Straubs seem to be insulting me for liking this movie more than their others… from an interview:

JMS: Yes, one of the main reason Sicilia worked, is that the bourgeoisie likes to have a protagonist with an initatic journey, and preferably to find back his/her mother, etc. That’s why Bach worked. One can’t change the vices of the bourgeoisie…
Int: So Bourgeoise needs a hero?
JMS: A hero, I don’t know, but they need to hook up on something…
DH: they abhor liberty, for themselves and for others…

Fuck liberty.

Senses of Cinema lays it all out:

Straub-Huillet eschew dubbing in favour of direct sound, to the extent that background noises and even the static noise caused by wind rustling on a microphone are kept in their integrity, and the original sound of each individual image is retained. This, of course, has a huge impact on editing, as cuts cannot be made arbitrarily, but have to defer to the exigencies of the sound: Straub-Huillet will thus linger on an empty space in order to capture the fading footsteps of a character exiting the scene. Similarly, they reject all manipulation of the image in post-production (colour-matching, etc.).

Equally notorious is what in French criticism has come to be known as the “Plan straubien” (“Straubian shot”), which can roughly be defined as a pan or tracking shot of a landscape lasting up to several minutes in duration. While these shots have greatly contributed to the notion of Straub-films as boring and unwatchable, they are crucial for Straub-Huillet’s “pedagogic” project of “teaching people how to see and hear”.

Their position as authors is attenuated by the fact that their films are almost exclusively taken from pre-existing texts – whether literary, dramatic, musical or essayistic. Indeed, only a few lines of dialogue in their entire corpus are their own invention. As Youssef Ishaghpour notes, however, their films are best seen not as adaptations, but as “documentaries of a special type: on works”

Senses also says that “the texture and sensuality of their films mean that they still demand to be seen on actual film stock, in an actual cinema.” Too bad for me, I guess.

The Bridegroom, The Comedienne, and the Pimp (1968, Straub/Huillet)
Four minutes in, it’s just been a long car ride in the rain with opera music playing (there was no sound at all for the first two minutes) and I am very suspicious.

Five minutes in, cut to a stage set, with German words on the wall and a clattering wood floor. Rivette (or Michael Snow) would be pleased. A fast-paced stagey farce follows. Blackout, next scene but the camera hasn’t moved, hasn’t even cut for all I know. Actors include Fassbinder regular Irm Hermann, composer Peer Raben, and future superstar Hanna Schygulla (who I’ve recently seen in The Edge of Heaven, Werckmeister Harmonies and 101 Nights of Simon Cinema).

Bang, cut, new location, and back out on the street. An action scene. Jimmy Powell is marrying Lilith Ungerer (star of a couple Fassbinder films). They go home, the pimp (Fassbinder himself, early in his career) is there, she shoots him and gives a speech as the music returns. All affectless acting.
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So, what was that all about? Well the title refers to the cinematic drama in the third section, that much is clear. And the actress and the pimp were in the stage play in the middle. IMDB fellow says “The film has its roots in a theatre production of a play by the Austrian playwright Ferdinand Bruckner which Straub had been asked to direct by a German theatre company. He considered the play too verbose and cut its length from several hours down to just ten minutes, and it is the production of this play which forms the centrepiece of the film.” As for the beginning, the same guy says it’s a “Munich street frequented by prostitutes.” F. Croce calls it a “mysterious, structuralist gag” and notes that “filmic subversion can prompt political revolution, and transcendence.” No revolution or transcendence here – I just thought it was a weird little movie made by an overacademic sweater-wearing type. Was only Straub’s fourth work – let’s check out his tenth, which is half as long.
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Every Revolution is a Throw of the Dice (1977, Straub/Huillet)
It’s in French this time. Actors sit in a half-circle near the memorial site for the Commune members and recite a poem. I’m mistrustful of the English subtitle translation of the poem, and there’s not much in the movie besides the poem (the recitants are as expressionless as in the previous film, maybe even more so), so there’s not much of value for me here. Actors include Huillet herself, Michel Delahaye (the ethnologist in Out 1) and Marilù Parolini (writer of Duelle, Noroit, Love on the Ground), shot by William Lubtchansky and dedicated (in part) to Jacques Rivette.
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Mongoloid (1977, Bruce Conner)
Music video for a Devo song using (I’m assuming) all found footage (science films, TV ads and the like).
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Mea Culpa (1981, Bruce Conner)
Dots, cubes, light fields and… whatever this is. Conner goes abstract! The music sounds like 1981’s version of the future. Aha, it’s Byrne and Eno, so it WAS the future. I didn’t know that Conner died last year, did I?
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(nostalgia) (1971, Hollis Frampton)
of a photo of a man blowing smoke rings:
“Looking at the photography recently it reminded me, unaccountably, of a photograph of another artist squirting water out of his mouth, which is undoubtedly art. Blowing smoke rings seems more of a craft. Ordinarily, only opera singers make art with their mouths.”
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So far I really like Hollis Frampton. His Lemon and Zorns Lemma were brilliant, and now (nostalgia) is too. Anyway this is the one where Frampton films a photograph being slowly destroyed on an electric burner while Michael Snow reads narration describing the next photograph that we’ll see. It’s important to know that Snow is the uncredited narrator for a humorous bit in the middle. The movie also has a funny twist ending that I wasn’t expecting. This would be part one of Frampton’s seven-part Hapax Legomena series. I have the strange urge to remake it using photographs of my own, but I lack an electric burner and a film/video camera.

Gloria (1979, Hollis Frampton)
Remembrance of a grandmother, Frampton-style, meaning annoyingly hard to watch and strictly organized. Clip from an ancient silent film, then sixteen facts about gramma (“3. That she kept pigs in the house, but never more than one at a time. Each such pig wore a green baize tinker’s cap.”) then a too-long bagpipe song over an ugly pea-green screen, and the rest of the silent film. Or as a smartypants would put it, he “juxtaposes nineteenth-century concerns with contemporary forms through the interfacing of a work of early cinema with a videographic display of textual material.” I prefer my version.
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Prelude #1 (1996, Stan Brakhage)
I don’t think that I enjoy watching low-res faded videos of Brakhage movies. I’ll wait for the next DVD set to come out (or the next Film Love screening). As a side note, I cannot believe that Raitre plays stuff like this. Just imagine: art on television. Picture a single TV station anywhere devoted to showing art. Can you? Can you?!? I feel like screaming!!
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NYC (1976, Jeff Scher)
Shots of the city sped-up, rapidly edited, reverse printed and hand colored, two minutes long with a jazzy tune underneath. Super, and short enough to watch twice (so I watched it twice).
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Milk of Amnesia (1992, Jeff Scher)
I’m thinking it’s short scenes from film and television, rotoscoped, with every frame drawn in different colors, with some frames drawn on non-white paper (a postcard, some newspaper). Warren Sonbert is thanked in the credits. I would also like to thank Warren Sonbert.
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Yours (1997, Jeff Scher)
An obscure musical short from the 30’s or 40’s overlaid with rapidly-changing patterns and images from advertisements. Descriptions and screenshots can do these no justice.
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Frame (2002, n:ja)
Black and white linear geometry illustrating a Radian song. I can’t tell if it’s torn up by interlacing effects or it’s supposed to look that way. Give me Autechre’s Gantz Graf over this any day. Between this and Mongoloid and the Jeff Scher shorts, I’m not sure where to draw the line between short-film and music-video. Not that it’s a dreadfully important question, but I’m in enough trouble tracking all the films I have/haven’t seen without adding every music video by every band I like onto the list. Although maybe videos should be given more credit… I’m sure Chris Cunningham’s video for Squarepusher’s Come On My Selector would beat 90% of the movies I watched that year.
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