The House Is Black (1963, Forugh Farrokhzad)

I’ve seen this a couple times before, and there’s really nothing to be said. Farrokhzad brings poetry to a leper colony, with thrilling results. It sits alongside Sans Soleil and Resnais’s 1950’s shorts as a supreme example of the possibilities of the personal documentary form. Katy was happy to watch it, and cringed from the images less than I thought she would.


Pumzi (2009, Wanuri Kahiu)

Usually a young aspiring filmmaker will make a short to prove her abilities before moving on to more expensive feature-length films, but Kahiu’s feature drama From a Whisper predated this slick, expensive-looking 20-minute sci-fi film.

Between watching this and Hello Dolly, we are having an unintended WALL-E tribute week. Story goes that Asha lives in a tightly-regulated base in a post-WWIII wasteland. No plant life grows outside, all water is obsessively recycled and rationed, and each resident has to generate their own daily portion of electricity via exercise machines. An outsider sends Asha a soil sample that seems able to sustain life, and when the authorities try to suppress her discovery, she sneaks outside, treks through the desert to the origin point of the soil sample, plants a tree and shelters it with her body. But then we’re confused by the final shot, aerial pull-out beneath the PUMZI title, which appears to show her lonely tree off to the east and a vast forest to the west.


Entr’acte (1924, René Clair)

Twenty-minute film shown during intermission at a play with music by Erik Satie. Clair pulled out all the cinematic tricks he could think of – flashy editing, speed changes, superimposition, stop-motion. He brings the camera on a rollercoaster and positions it under a glass table on which a dancer is leaping.

There is kind of a story – a man with a bird on his hat gets shot, falls off a building. After his funeral procession goes wrong, he pops out of the coffin then makes the pallbearers disappear. Also: Marcel Duchamp plays chess with Man Ray. Ah, early surrealism, how I love it.


Nothing But Time (1926, Alberto Cavalcanti)

“This is not a depiction of the fashionable and elegant life…”

“…but of the everyday life of the humble, the downtrodden.”

A city-symphony short, portraying the work day, after hours, early morning, leisure, crime, etc. – a visual, non-narrative social issues movie with mournful music. It’s nice to watch, but the message seems to come down to “gee, it sucks to be poor.” I dig the montage of vegetables becoming garbage the next day

Crazy split screen – all these puzzle pieces are in motion:

Best shot: inside a man’s steak dinner you can watch the cow being slaughtered:


Shelagh Delaney’s Salford (1960, Ken Russell)

A slightly strange blending of the omniscient documentary and an artist-interview film – an invisible narrator talks about Delaney in the third person then she responds. It’s shot like an interview, but more like a drama in parts, the camera already in her house when she opens the door and comes in like an actress ignoring it. The opposite effect when the crew follows her into town to the market, where every single person stares at the camera.

It’s exciting to explore Ken Russell’s early work, but the heart of the movie is Delaney and her words. Unfortunately she speaks mainly in cliches about the life and heart of the city, which doesn’t make me anxious to see her plays. Delaney wrote Lindsay Anderson’s The White Bus and was a huge influence on The Smiths.


From Spain to Streatham (1959, Ken Russell)

A boy plays along with Elvis Presley’s record of “Hound Dog,” thus ensuring that this little film will never see a DVD release. I wonder where that boy is now, and if he’s pleased with himself.

A ten-minute survey of the national craze over guitars, an appropriate short subject for Russell, who loved classical music and was bemused by rock. It moves from kids destroying an old piano in a courtyard to an older kid jamming on his guitar to a professional music school to a teacher in prisons, religious singers on a street corner, and so on.

“Where are the tambourines of yesteryear?”

Easily my favorite Ruiz feature to date. At first it seems to have cranked up the surrealistic randomness of The Golden Boat, but with the constant visual interest of the short Le Film a Venir – which would be enough of a recommendation for me. But it just gets deeper and more fascinating as it goes on, while retaining enough of a plot and character structure to keep from becoming pure, confusing symbolism. Even if it turns out to be a huge allegory that I completely misunderstood, it’s still highly enjoyable on its own, full of meaning and ideas. Before I go seeking out others’ interpretations, a simple story rundown:

Stills from the remarkable first ten minutes:

The film’s subtitle looks like Latin, “Rusticatio Civitatis Piratarum,” translated as Pirates’ Exile. Set in “Overseas Territories, one week before the end of the war.”

Isodore (Anne Alvaro of Wajda’s Danton) lives with her parents in exile, who have a missing son (“he would be nine”). They see signs, abandon the house, are visited by cops who make reference to the Isle of Pirates. The girl finds an orphan boy (Melvil Poupaud, who became a Ruiz regular, most recently as the rescued colonel Lacroze in Mysteries of Lisbon) hiding at their new house.

Isidore considers drowning in the surf (her father: “Finally!” then when she falls for a mustache man and decides against suicide, “Ah! How I hate her!”). Pierre, the little boy, is discovered to have killed his whole family, now kills Isidore’s parents, then castrates the mustache man who shoots himself. All of this is done in a low-key way, with nobody getting too upset. Ruiz characters are never shaken when their families are killed.

Off to the Isle of Pirates, where her 10-year-old fiancee Pierre (aka Malo) abandons Isidore and she’s held prisoner by a guy named Toby (Hugues Quester, Binoche’s dead husband in Blue, also in Rohmer’s Tale of Springtime) with multiple personalities. “The defeat of Spain is inevitable… and with that, the feast of blood begins.” Isidore begins to doubt her identity, kills Toby with a knife (everyone is killed with a knife).

She’s visited in jail by her mother (not dead?) and the two cops from earlier. “Know this: this wonderful child who delivered you to the Isle of Pirates is our prophet, Don Sebastian. He’s known around the world. In England, he’s called Peter Pan … He reappears every ten years. He kills with joy his entire family. He shows us how to die. But, much more importantly, he shows us how to kill.”

“We, soldiers of the great battle of the world: we swear to die and to kill in order to introduce the army of corpses for the greater glory of our country, our cemetery. We swear to be reincarnated and to have the honor of dying again for the greater glory of our fathers, of the country of worms. We promise to pursue our struggle for the triumph of Death in order to perpetuate our glory in no other things.”

Isidore is back on the island talking to Toby, referring to Sebastian as their son. Sebastian, looking feral with a knife in his mouth, kills them both. Ends with Isidore and her mother looking at the Isle through their window, the ghosts of her father and Sebastian lurking around. “Everything begins again,” one of the women repeating “We are here… we are here.”

P. Hammond wrote an article for Rouge, hammers out a bunch of the film’s references, influences and allusions.

Surprise, invention, paradox are Ruiz’s touchstones. He believes in affirmation through irony, the clarity of enigma, deferred resolution, outlandish change of mood. He moves forward by staying in the same place. The tales his characters tell echo each other in certain details, enough to suggest an occult order behind discrete events.

What binds Ruiz’s lost souls to each other’s desire is an Oedipal, narcissistic quest for identity.

D. Cairns writing about a different film:

Keats spoke of “negative capability,” the power to enjoy things without understanding them, to relish mystery without requiring a solution, and to appreciate art without being able to fit it into a rational box. Although, there’s always a frustration with movies where one is shut out of the linguistic side, since you know you’re not getting the full experience. It’s like pan-and-scan, only with words.

I’ve found the cover image for one of his Poetics of Cinema books.

Monsieur Fantomas (1937, Ernst Moerman)
This was the prize short of the month… good show, Moerman. Takes the dream-logic, intense crimes and crazy escapes of Feuillade and goes all-out surrealist with them. The master criminal lives in a room with no walls on the beach (much of the movie takes place on the beach), seeks out his true love Elvire. Chief Juve is roused from the bathtub, consults with some seashells and heads buried in the sand. A hundred delightful things happen then it closes with the title card “end of the 280,000th chapter.” Made in Belgium, and I’m very sorry that Moerman didn’t shoot any more films. There really needed to be more surrealist cinema.

The cops close in on Fantomas… but is it really him, or just a cello?

Dinner For One (1963)
Shot in Germany, and shown traditionally every year on television since, a beloved little sketch in which a butler sets the table for an old woman’s absent guests, drinking toasts in each of their places and getting roaring drunk as he continues to perform his duties.

May Warden and Freddie Frinton:

The Spine (2009, Chris Landreth)
Group marital counseling + codependency, slowly coheres into a story. I didn’t like it nearly as much as his short Ryan.


Three by Sally Potter
These shorts predate Thriller by almost a decade, early film experiments not having much in common with her features – well, perhaps slightly with The Gold Diggers, which I started watching but haven’t finished.

Hors d’oeuvres (1972)
Silent avant-garde film, a flickering light shines on still photographs, then slow, unstable film footage of one person at a time in a bare room. Dance movements, slowed down then paused, superimpositions, the light pulsating. Lasted about twice as long as my willingness to appreciate it.

Play (1970)
Also silent, two cameras high up at different angles capture the same scenes of children playing on the sidewalk, at first presented side-by-side simulatenously, then re-edited, slowed down and chopped up.

Jerk (1969)
Faces, sped up and extremely rapidly edited. This was my favorite. I wonder if Potter considered the film’s motion to be “jerky” or if she thought this guy was a jerk.

Father (1977, Shuji Terayama)
a one-take silent sex scene that turns into a pleasant slideshow, featuring video superimpositions of a hand and the back of a head. No audio on my copy.

La Chambre (1972, Chantal Akerman)
Four slow pans around a cramped apartment, fully silent. First the director flutters her eyes at us from bed, then she is wriggling around, then playing absently with an apple, then – change of camera direction! – eating the apple, as the camera finally realizes she’s the only thing of interest in the room and starts rocking back and forth, homing in on her bed.

Birds Anonymous (1957, Friz Freleng)
“Birds is strictly for the birds.”
Just an average tweety and sylvester short, some kind of parody of werewolf movies and alcoholics anonymous, as far as I can tell. Wonder why this was on my laptop. And what is alum?

Playback (1970, Pere Portabella)
Two cameras, and you can see each in the other’s shot as they circle a composer who is arranging his unconventional choir piece, chattering constantly in unsubtitled Catalan. It’s all kind of exciting. I don’t know anything about Portabella, but I like his shooting style so far.

From the filmmaker’s official site:

Playback is presented as a short rehearsal in a double sense. It is a satellite of the constellation of works that Portabella dedicates to the analysis of the “materiality” of aesthetic and cultural languages (Vampir-Cuadecuc and Miró l’Altre among others can also be understood in this manner). At the same time, he analyzes the rehearsals that Carles Santos carries out for the playback recording of a film on the work of Antoni Gaudi. The choir of the Gran Teatro del Liceu of Barcelona reads fragments from Wagner’s Tannhauser, Lohengrin and the Valkyries. The film was shot in the theater “Lluïsos de Gràcia”.

Two Portraits (1981, Peter Thompson)
The director narrates a series of one-sentence statements about his father, as we see consecutive film frames cross dissolving. “His oldest son died at age 31. The decision to have children was left to his wife, as were all decisions except those concerning money.”

Second portrait is of his mother, filmed sleeping outdoors, while on the audio she reads pages from her diary. The first half was far more illuminating and sympathetic. I’m not sure what to do with the second part, but as with all of Thompson’s films that I’ve seen, I’d be glad to watch it again.

First portrait:

From Chicago Magazine: “When Peter Thompson was 35, his father committed suicide. That tragedy 29 years ago sent the Columbia College professor searching for Super 8 film of his father. He found only 12 seconds’ worth, but stretched them out to 17 minutes and added narration. When he expanded it to include his mother, the resulting film, Two Portraits, moved audiences to tears.”

Second portrait:

Oh man, I don’t know what happened plot-wise, but clearly (dimly) we’d have an expressionist madhouse classic to beat Cabinet of Dr. Caligari on our hands here if we had a better print copy.

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No intertitles, and I guess I was paying more attention to images and technique than trying to puzzle through the story, so even the one-line IMDB plot-blurb “a man takes a job at an asylum with hopes of freeing his imprisoned wife” is news to me. I thought he might have always worked there, maybe he imagines she’s his wife, but he’s either hallucinating – crazy enough to be at the asylum, but gentle enough to be given menial jobs – or maybe he becomes mad from hanging out there too long, or perhaps the ending is a dream… so either Caligari or Shock Corridor.

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Watched it with Superchunk’s score playing on the stereo. Now Superchunk are heroes of mine, but they wouldn’t be my first choice to score a bonkers dream-logic silent film… worked pretty well, but maybe next time I’ll cook up a mix CD for the occasion.

Based on a short story by Yasunari Kawabata, who has other titles with interesting names to his credit and film adaptations by Naruse, Shimizu, and Kon Ichikawa.

Kinugasa made Gate of Hell, which I think I’ve heard of, and some 100 other films. I hope somebody has looked into this.

An IMDB user: “the film makes use of every single film technique available at the time: multiple exposures and out of focus subjective point of view, tilted camera angles, fast and slow motion, expressionist lighting and superimpositions among others.” V. Petric via Midnight Eye: “These devices… are used not for their own sake but to convey complex psychological content without the aid of titles.”

Silents Are Golden has a plot description: “An elderly man, a former sailor, works voluntarily at odd jobs in a lunatic asylum where his wife is confined after having attempted to drown her baby son in a fit of madness many years ago.”

Excerpts from M. Lewinsky’s well-informed interview on Midnight Eye:

The strongest direct influence was certainly Murnau’s Last Laugh. There was much debate in Japanese film magazines about this film – it was released in Kyoto in January and in Tokyo in mid-April 1926 (A Page of Madness was shot in May 1926) – and its having no intertitles. In a published enquiry “My Favourite Film”, Kinugasa chose Last Laugh saying he had seen it five times. If you compare the two films you will find many elements and images from the German film used in A Page of Madness, but transformed and integrated in a different structure.

The comparison with Dr. Caligari is quite pointless I think. This German film from 1919, despite being popular in Japan, is too different in its mood and making, and its treatment of madness has nothing in common with A Page of Madness.

There are many instances in A Page of Madness where the film relies on benshi narration to furnish crucial information. Without narration, without dialogue, the film at times is nearly incomprehensible.

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 FINGERFÄCHER 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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Part of Bunuel’s really good stretch, this came between Viridiana and Simon of the Desert. Glad I finally watched it… probably one of my favorite Bunuel movies now.

After a dinner party, about twenty ridiculous upper-class people (and one waiter) are mysteriously unable to leave the room. And nobody outside can enter the house. They do get out, over a week (and three deaths) later, by recreating the moment when it first happened, standing in the same position they were at 3am the first night. Then they all go to church together and it happens again.

In between, we’ve got chicken feet in a woman’s purse, mountain vistas in the bathroom, dreams and voiceovers, sheep and bears running through the house, morphine, lovers dying mysteriously, and the total breakdown of high society.

Hard to keep track of who’s who most of the time, except for the gay guy who complains a lot. I occasionally recognized Silvia Pinal (the hostess, Tristana). The steward Julio is Simon of the Desert, and a few other actors from this one were in Simon (incl. Silvia as the devil). A couple of these guys were in Bunuel’s early Mexican movies, one woman was in Brainiac, and two people were in Samson vs. The Vampire Women, released the same year!

A Brazillian movie won the Golden Palm at Cannes that year, beating Exterminating Angel, Cleo from 5 to 7, L’Eclisse and The Innocents. The IMDB is probably stretching when it says this movie was referenced in both A Nightmare On Elm Street and The Blair Witch Project.