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.

I missed the evening show of Manchester by the Sea because I misremembered the start time and got caught up watching Black Mirror episodes. But I still wanted to get bummed out watching a long Casey Affleck movie, so fortunately I had The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford handy. I don’t remember Casey from the Oceans trilogy or Interstellar, so this served as a reintroduction before Manchester, and both turned out to be stunner movies with great lead performances. If anyone is working on a Timothy Carey biopic, I nominate Casey as lead.

I’ve seen this story before, in Sam Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James, in which The Coward Robert Ford shoots his hero/boss Jesse in the back, then lives the rest of his short life as a famous outlaw-killer, reenacting his crime onstage. This movie fleshes out the gang much more, showing a Robert as a starstruck, excitable kid, the runt of the Fords, and Jesse as paranoid and dangerous.

After one last train robbery, the gang lays low. Jesse has a family with wife Mary-Louise Parker, lives in a forest house near Kansas City under a fake name, never got caught. Ol’ Frank James (Sam Shepard) and Charley (Sam Rockwell) make the weasely, weak-sounding Robert feel bad about his Jesse James hero-worship, but Jesse recruits Robert when the rest of his gang starts falling away and he gets nervous that someone will sell him out for reward money, visits old friend Garret Dillahunt and kills him. Meanwhile, Paul Schneider and Jeremy Renner are none too bright, compete for the attention of a teen girl, eventually have a huge falling out and Bob kills Renner and calls the cops on Schneider. Late appearance by James Carville as the governor, Nick Cave as a troubadour and Zooey “She” Deschanel.

Casey and Carville have a psychic battle:

Dominik and DP Roger Deakins don’t overdo the stylistic quirks, allowing the story and actors to do their thing against gorgeous landscapes, but the movie’s got its share of flair – shots with edges blurred like old-timey photographs, an occasional omniscient narrator.

Casey of the Clouds:

A. Cook:

On one side it mythologizes the transitionary period of American history via the fable-building narration and dreamy photography, and on the other it slowly and methodically demystifies the characters that populate it and the falsehood of celebrity. It is this contradiction that is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film and mirrors the inner-conflict of Robert Ford and his complex relationship with Jesse James.

The Village (1993, Mark Baker)

Fun story with a fairly minimal drawing style. Small town is hateful and suspicious of each other until they have something to unite around: imprisoning and hanging their falsely-accused neighbor. After a rooftop fight, he manages to escape into the woods with his lover. I dig the decorative swarm of ants who end up complicating the plot. This won a pile of awards, also oscar-nominated against winner The Wrong Trousers.


His Comedy (1994, Paul Bush)

More an art piece than a short story – the poetic voiceover does nothing for me, and I couldn’t make out any sort of narrative. Maybe something religious or mythological? Ah, it’s all Dante quotes, as I should’ve known from the title. Cool looking, though – everything composed of wavy lines, with some parts (motion of bird flocks, fire, bombings) that appear rotoscoped. I liked Bush’s later, twitchy Episodes from the Life of Jekyll and Hyde.


Dreamland Express (1982, David Anderson)

Sleepwalker finds a train in the woods and takes it for a ride. All manner of wonderous imagery ensues. One of those animations that reminds you how limited and straightforward most animations are. Glad I didn’t skip this after realizing it’s by the same guy who made Deadsy. Won a Bafta (interesting thing that year: Burden of Dreams won an award; Fitzcarraldo was nominated but lost).

Holy shit, the Lumière films have been remastered in HD and look incredible. I understand no spoken French, so played the music-only track on the blu-ray, though I’ll bet the narration is super interesting. Hope this comes out in the U.S. eventually.


Sortie d’usine III (1896)

Sortie d’usine II (1896)

Sortie d’usine (1895)

Three takes shown in reverse order (and with declining picture quality). There are dogs (the same dog?) in all three, and dudes who need help riding their bikes.


Débarquement du congrès de photographes à Lyon (1895)

The first self-reflexive movie? A photographer notices he’s being filmed, his own camera aiming towards our camera.


Repas de bébé (1895)

This baby would be 120 years old now.


Forgerons (1895)

Hammering and cranking – right as the film ends the anvil guy is being poured a drink. Can’t help but notice how clear the scene looks even with the fast hammer motion. I wonder what (approx) framerate this was shot at. Reportedly a remake of an Edison kinetoscope from 2.5 years earlier.


Arroseur et arrosé (1895)

Classic hose gag, ends in a spanking.


Partie d’écarté (1896)

While drinks are poured, cigars are smoked and cards are played, the waiter in the background is overreacting to the scenario, single-handedly inventing silent-film ham acting.


Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat (1897)

It’s coming right at us!


Démolition d’un mur (1897)

I’d like a hand-cranked wall-demolisher. Everything was hand-cranked those days – construction equipment, cameras, fireplaces. Afterward this film is played in reverse, which is apparently a thing projectionists did to blow minds, a post-post-production effect.


Panorama de l’arrivée en gare de Perrache pris du train (1896)

Looking out the side of a train, with nice view of a horse-and-wagon bridge. “Panorama” apparently meant “moving camera”.


Arrivée d’un train à Perrache (1896)

Another train arrival (possibly the train we rode in the previous film). The behavior is what’s odd here. Bunch of uniformed mustache fellows waiting anxiously for the train to arrive, motioning at it, grabbing its handles seemingly in an effort to make it stop faster, then opening all the nice-looking cushioned side doors as a Napoleon-hatted man in the distance slowly paces.


Place des Cordeliers (1895)

Nice angle on a busy street. Horse-drawn double-decker bus!


Place Bellecour (1896)

Some of these are probably really special if you’re familiar with the corner today. Wonder if that hotel being built in the background is still standing. Unexciting until right at the end, a car reading “Absinthe Premier” appears on the right side. An advertisement like we put on tops of cabs and sides of buses, or – still my heart – an absinthe delivery truck??


Quai de l’Archevêché (1896)

It must have been unusual that this street would be flooded, given the huge audience of people watching from the sidewalk as cars pass by. But maybe not, since there’s also a boat. Don’t these people have somewhere better to be? Ah, “floods of the Saône river during the first week of November, 1896” says IMDB.


Place du Pont (1897)

Camera glides beautifully down a trolley line, but Lumiere didn’t have great timing with this one, as we stop to allow a rubble truck to pass. I guess those are simply bus ads for alcohol after all, since here we’ve got “Dunoise liquor exquise” and “Alcool de menthe” (probably De Ricqlès). My new theory is that these are party buses full of college students, who hop from one to another when they want to try a different spirit.


Concours de boules (1896)

A pretty damned exciting game of boules with a big crowd of suit-wearers, who are apt to dash into the middle of the court right when someone’s about to throw.

I knew this was based on a Patricia Highsmith story, but when I saw the opening scene I thought “oh no, is this a remake of Brief Encounter?” Fortunately it goes in a different direction pretty quickly, and while Brief Encounter may have a perfect ending for the 1940’s, Carol has the perfect ending for right now.

Carol (Cate Blanchett) is the interesting rich lady who makes eyes at young department store cashier Therese (Rooney Mara) one Christmas shopping season, and eventually they’re in love, vacationing across the country, not realizing they’re being pursued by private investigators hired by Carol’s husband Kyle Chandler. Not much to say about the movie, plot-wise, since it’s all about perfectly chosen moments and a beautiful visual atmosphere.

F. Zaman in Reverse Shot:

It doesn’t engage with questions of why or how its protagonists are gay, or create simplistic dynamics between homophobic villains and damaged queer heroes. It lets the characters just be, as they are, a defiant act of passive resistance against the assumption that queerness needs to be justified – and that it is the primary quality of the queer person. Just as Haynes is reinvigorating the melodrama genre in films like Carol, Far from Heaven, and even Velvet Goldmine, he is also reframing history to include others — people of color, counterculture figures, queers — in a meaningful way. Carol is also full of visceral pleasures, capturing subjective but universal experiences, like the way the world seems to blur when that certain someone touches your wrist for first time.

Shorts! I have discs and discs of shorts and rarely watch them. I’m awfully excited about the new blu-ray of avant-garde shorts from Flicker Alley, but how can I justify buying it when I’ve got a hundred shorts collections just sitting around unseen? Let’s watch some, shall we? And what better place to start than with a Kino collection called The Movies Begin?


The Great Train Robbery (1903, Edwin Porter)

Stunts, explosions, color, brutal murders, thievery, daring escapes – and dancing! Bandits rob the train of its lockbox loot and all its passengers of their wallets, then escape on horseback. Local bunch of ruffians is alerted to the crime and rides off to kill the perpetrators. All this in ten minutes – more economical than the Sean Connery remake.

One of the more famous shots (haha “shots”) in cinema:

Fire in a Burlesque Theater (1904)

Either this was ineptly framed or I’m seeing a cropped version, because there aren’t nearly enough burlesque dancers with smoke inhalation on display here.

Airy Fairy Lillian Tries On Her New Corsets (1905)

Hefty Jeffy helps her out… then faints. Was this a comedy?

Spoiler alert:

From Show Girl to Burlesque Queen (1903)

A woman removes her costume – but the good part is done behind a screen. The title was better than the feature, making this the A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence of its time.

Troubles of a Manager of a Burlesque Show (1904)

Troubles because the women are angry at the crappy clothes he expects them to wear, and they flee and throw things when he tries to molest them.

The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog (1905, Edwin Porter)

So many lost films in history, and this dam thing survives. Hilarious title for a movie without any jokes in it, making this The Ridiculous Six of its time.

The Golden Beetle (1907, Segundo de Chomón)

Ornate, hand-colored, dangerous-looking Meliesian disappearing act. I think a man tries throwing a golden beetle in the fire, and she torments him with showers of sparks before burning him to death. This is great.

Rough Sea at Dover (1895, Birt Acres)

Two shots of the rough sea. Were any other 1895 movies more than one shot long?

Come Along Do! (1898, RW Paul)

Supposedly the first film to feature action carried over from one shot to the next. But I watched it twice, and it appears to be only one shot. Is there an invisible Birdman-like cut in there somewhere? Or did I get the descriptions of the previous two films mixed up? Anyway, two drinkers on a bench outside some mysterious establishment with an “Art Section” and “Refreshments” opt for the art section.

Extraordinary Cab Accident (1903, RW Paul)

Cabs being horse-drawn at the time, a guy stumbles into the street, is trampled to death, then mysteriously recovers and runs off. I’ve seen guys transformed via editing into scarecrow dummies then thrown off trains in The Great Train Robbery, but this one does a good job transforming the dummy back into a guy.

A Chess Dispute (1903, RW Paul)

There is a violent dispute over a game of chess. Mostly this dispute is waged just under the camera’s view, thrown punches and bottles and clothing flying up into frame.

Buy Your Own Cherries (1904, RW Paul)

Awful brute man causes a drunken scene at a bar, then another at his home, then after a quick visit to church he’s wonderful and generous. Extra long at four minutes. Paul also produced the great The ? Motorist, which I had credited to director Walter Booth.

The Miller and the Sweep (1898, GA Smith)

Just a silly half-minute fight/chase in front of an operating windmill. But it’s a really nice shot of the windmill.

Let Me Dream Again (1900, GA Smith)

Happy couple at a party wake up as grumpy old couple in bed… so the movie’s title is the punchline. Smith invented the pull out-of-focus to indicate shift from dream to reality.

Sick Kitten (1903, GA Smith)

Kino says Smith invented the POV shot, and the idea of breaking a scene down into shots from different angles, which he does here. Kids dressed as grownups feed a kitty from a spoon. As is true today, cat films were incredibly popular back then, so this is a remake of his 1901 cat film which had worn out from overduplication.

The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899, GA Smith)

Train goes into tunnel, GA Smith and wife have a quick smooth, train back out of tunnel.

The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899, Bamforth & Co)

A remake! Two different people kiss in a different tunnel (the train shot from different angles than Smith used), in a cabin with worse production design.

A Daring Daylight Burglary (1903, Frank Mottershaw)

Action thriller with multiple shots and locations, reminiscent of The Great Train Robbery. Kino says some plot action in the silent doesn’t make sense because the showman was supposed to provide benshi narration during the screening.

A Desperate Poaching Affray (1903, William Haggar)

Men with guns chase men with nets. Oh damn wait, the poachers have guns too, and blast at least three of the pursuers. Poaching was deadly serious business. Just a big chase scene, really.

Attack on a China Mission (1901, James Williamson)

A man’s house is attacked, he defends with rifle, then more groups keep arriving and I’m not sure what side they’re on. Kino says it’s a reenactment of the Boxer Uprising, which must have been a confusing uprising. Kino says JW was famous for moving action across multiple shots, mainly during chase films, which sounds like what everyone was famous for in 1901.

An Interesting Story (1905, James Williamson)

Mustache man pours coffee in his hat, injures the maid, wrecks some children’s fun, and keeps running into things because he won’t put down his book (just like kids today with their cellular telephones). Satisfying conclusion as he gets run over by a steamroller, but some passing bicyclists inflate him, using the ol’ dummy-replacement trick last seen in Extraordinary Cab Accident.

Electrocuting an Elephant (1903, Thomas Edison & Edwin S. Porter)

Never forget, no matter what his achievements in human history, Thomas Edison once electrocuted an elephant for fun and profit.

We managed to watch this despite obstacles (DVD gone missing, Amazon’s lies about runtime). Keaton’s second feature, a vast improvement over his first. Keaton takes a train to brutal, rural America to claim his family estate, which turns out to be a crumbling shack. So instead he focuses on the hot girl who rode the train out west with him (played by Keaton’s wife), but her dad (familiar heavy Joe Roberts) and two brothers are out to kill him because of a century-old family feud.

After a flashback open where Keaton’s dad and Joe Roberts’ brother kill each other, the first half of the movie is mostly the ride out west on a ridiculous wood-fired train said to be based on an actual vehicle. Second half is Keaton, having been invited over by the girl, unable to leave since the men won’t shoot him while he’s a guest in their home. He finally escapes dressed as a woman, then after a mountaintop chase culminating in one of the best stunts in movie history – Keaton swinging on a rope to catch the girl coming over a waterfall – they marry, ending the feud. Watched with Katy as history lesson after the first Story of Film episode, though we mostly forgot to analyze editing and obsess over the 180 degree rule.

I’ve finally watched a James Benning movie. I knew I’d either love it, or not get it, which would be frustrating since I have about 15 Benning movies on my must-see list based on critic recommendations. Whew, loved it. Felt like Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind meets Hollis Frampton. I noticed he was cutting the picture on every new spoken sentence, but later I discovered it gets more Framptony yet: there’s one literal/relevant shot per segment, the long between-segment shots get gradually shorter, movie switches to color when Utah becomes a state and there are precisely as many b/w frames as color.

All spoken text is from historical New York Times articles, which don’t seem overly fond of Utah or the Mormons, so it’s interesting to get a history lesson told by a suspicious narrator – from early reports on Brigham Young, U.S. military expeditions to quell the Mormon rebellion, fights against polygamy, the cross-country railroad, and the Mountain Meadows massacre, in which Mormon militia killed 100+ non-Mormon settlers. Things get somewhat less extreme once statehood is achieved – standouts include the U.S. army’s nerve gas tests killing thousands of sheep and Robert Smithson’s great Spiral Jetty.

Amazing quote from 1880s: “Mormonism is a good deal as slavery seemed once to those of the north who had never seen, but only read one-sided unreliable representations of it: not half as bad when you come to see it.”

Rosenbaum: “Benning’s eye for evocative beauty is as sharp as ever, and his complex invitation to the viewer to create a narrative space between his separate elements keeps this 1995 film continually fascinating.”

“I know what people taste like. I know that babies taste best.”

My hopes were too high for Bong’s English-language debut – I found it talky and clunky and obvious. Good ending, though. Revolution within class-stratified humanity-protecting perpetual-motion train is led by Steve “Captain America” Rogers. He’s backed by wise old train architect John Hurt, loyal-to-the-death Jamie Bell, pissed-off mom Octavia Spencer and tech whiz Kang-ho Song. After dealing with company mouthpiece Tilda Swinton through various levels, final confrontation with engineer Ed Harris, who claims to have planned the revolution and wants the Captain to replace him at head of the train. Meanwhile it’s rumored that the frozen Earth has been warming, and might sustain human life again, which will be tested after Song’s daughter Ah-sung Ko (the monster-abducted girl of The Host) is the only one of these people who survives a train crash.

Things: the workers in back are fed “protein blocks” which turn out to be gelatinized cockroach. The two Koreans are addicted to a drug called chrono which doubles as an explosive. Harris claims John Hurt was secretly working with him (for the good of the train/humanity, of course). A cool bit near the end looks like 2001: A Space Odyssey.

M. Sicinski:

Snowpiercer’s mental motor, its driving intelligence, is its obviousness, which allows the film to be misperceived as something silly. .. Bong, however, seems to understand something many others don’t, both about broad entertainment and the state of successful political action. Big action demands broad strokes; nuances emerge later. In fact, this is to a large degree the political subtext of Snowpiercer itself. .. it doesn’t matter who’s running the train. Bong is not telling us anything we don’t already know, but Snowpiercer’s power is precisely in its capacity to boldly visualize this shared awareness: the futility of liberal revolt, the buffoonery of our betters, the hidden human kindling that is always the tiger in our tank. .. Bong shows us that there’s only one track, and so you can’t flip the switch. You can only light the fuse, and embrace the inevitable destruction as the last picture show.