Norman McLaren, part one

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.

The Invitation (2015, Karyn Kusama)

I have my doubts that a cult could brainwash people into cleansing their past by inviting their friends over to dinner and murdering them, but I suppose the presence of Zodiac killer John Carroll Lynch as the cult’s representative adds believability. This wasn’t quite the surprise thrill of last year’s Coherence, but it had a couple of great things (and better camerawork). Lead character Will (Logan Marshall-Green, beardy with Keanu-eyes, also of Prometheus and Devil) is nervous and somewhat traumatized to be seeing his ex Eden (Tammy Blanchard of Rabbit Hole) in their former home for the first time since their breakup after their son died, and his back-and-forth between being extremely paranoid and trying to relax provides most of the movie’s tension. He recognizes something feels wrong and essentially predicts the cult-murder but social propriety keeps calming his reactions. And of course I love an apocalyptic ending and this movie (again, however unrealistically) provides one beautifully with a simple image, red lantern lights dotting the surrounding hills.

Watched this after reading an interview with director Kusama and realizing that the trash-heap final version of Aeon Flux wasn’t all her fault. All is now forgiven. Surprisingly the writers of that disaster (also R.I.P.D. and Clash of the Titans) did this one as well. Also in the cast: Emayatzy Corinealdi (Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere) as Will’s new girlfriend, and Michiel Huisman (Treme) as Eden’s party cohost.

Little Men (2016, Ira Sachs)

Low-key, heartfelt story of Brooklyn gentrification ruining family and friendships. This appeared in theaters the same week Neil’s The Brooklyn Wars shipped. Ira Sachs and/or Magnolia Pictures are clearly trying to capitalize on Neil’s movement.

Jake moves into the neighborhood, Tony shows him around, and they become close friends. Jake’s parents are professionals: actor Greg Kinnear and doctor Jennifer Ehle, and have inherited the building where Tony’s mom (Paulina García, Chilean star of Gloria) runs a dress shop. Kinnear’s sister’s part of the inheritance depends on him raising the rent to market levels and forcing the shop out, and the kids are caught in the family crossfire.

B. Ebiri in Vulture:

Jake’s family isn’t exactly rolling in money; dad’s experimental, off-Broadway productions of The Seagull and whatnot don’t pay the bills. This isn’t an entitled family. They are, in their own way, victims of the same forces transforming Leonor’s neighborhood, just a little further up the chain. And for her part, Leonor isn’t above playing a little dirty. “I was more his family than you were,” she tells Jake’s dad, a little too bluntly suggesting that grandpa cared for her more than he did for his own family. Is it the truth, or is that her desperation speaking? Does it matter?

Ehle was my favorite part of Contagion but she’s not given enough room to be delightful here. Fortunately, García is just terrific. Found out from a Brooklyn magazine article: that’s the young actor who played Tony’s real accent – may he never lose it.


I always thought one of them as my Robert Bresson actor, and the other as my Martin Scorsese actor, and I really worked with those ideas in mind. With Theo the job was to let what emerges from the inside appear, to keep him very still. And with Michael it was to let him go free, the improvisational elements are much more within his character in a kind of Joe Pesci kind of way.

J. Romney:

A single cut towards the end shows us that something critical has happened, and that a moment has passed. In an obvious way, the film is about friendship and those certain intense spells in childhood that never quite last; the final scenes, unglossed by any unnecessary narrative commentary, make a poignantly eloquent coda … There’s a certain no-big-deal quality to Little Men and to Sachs’s intentions which is immensely appealing.

The Arbor (2010, Clio Barnard)

Fascinating docu-blend telling the story of late playwright Andrea Dunbar, who lived in a low-income neighborhood. We also see scenes from her plays being performed in the park of this neighborhood in present day. And increasingly the story becomes about Dunbar’s daughter Lorraine, who appears to be following in her mom’s footsteps of hopeless addiction. And all this (except the outdoor performances) is told through actors lipsyncing the words of the real people. Beautifully staged and totally unique movie, though Katy got depressed by the death and drugs and abuse.

Lorraine and Lisa inside a childhood memory:

S. Tobias:

Though the synching is remarkably close to unnoticeable, the style takes some getting used to, mainly because The Arbor isn’t dramatized like films with actors generally are. The scenes are more like eerie tableaux where the “characters” tell their stories straight to the camera, wandering the haunted backdrop of Bradford’s Buttershaw Estate and other settings. This ingenious conceit, borrowed from Robin Soans’ 2000 play on Dunbar, called A State Affair, solves the longstanding problem of documentaries penned in by static talking heads.

N. Rapold in Film Comment:

What’s disorienting are the muted tones of the interviews, which were obviously not originally spoken with the intonation of a dramatic performance. This lends a curious low affect to the recounting of extraordinary incidents, and this disjunction, as well as Barnard’s hyper-immaculate RED photography, are a characteristic of other recent film work by artists such as Steve McQueen and Miranda July. As Lorraine becomes the central focus in the second half of the film, her matter-of-fact, downcast delivery becomes a drumbeat anticipating her inevitable downfall.

Pit and the Pendulum (1961, Roger Corman)

Third version of this story I’ve watched, after the Svankmajer short and the Stuart Gordon version, with which this has almost nothing in common. This was the second full-color Corman/Price Poe adaptation after House of Usher, and everyone was in top form.

In the mid-1500’s, Mr. Barnard (John Kerr of The Cobweb) shows up at reclusive Price’s spooky old castle wanting to know how his sister has died, is taking no shit from anybody. Price gets to be his haunted, tormented self for the bulk of the movie, explaining that his young wife died tragically of illness (but later changing his story), and later while bemoaning his dreadful family legacy he gets to be an evil maniac in flashback portraying his own father, an enthusiastic Inquisition torturer.

Also in the castle is Price’s sister Catherine (Luana Anders of Dementia 13 & Night Tide) and doctor Antony Carbone (art café boss in A Bucket of Blood). The place is being haunted by strange noises and Price has a phobia that his wife wasn’t dead when she was buried, so finally they dig her up and sure enough:

Of course I’d seen Barbara Steele’s name in the credits and recognized her face in paintings of the “dead” woman so was fully expecting her to show up. She’d fallen for the doctor and this is all a plot to drive Price mad so they can run off together. Unfortunately for them, Price’s madness takes the form of reverting to his family’s torture legacy, and he locks up Steele then puts poor Barnard under the razor pendulum while fighting off the others, eventually falling to his death in the pit (the only detail unchanged in the Stuart Gordon movie).

Screenplay by Richard “I Am Legend” Matheson, in lovely widescreen with some fun color-filtered anamorphic Raimi-effects and crazy oil-color swirls over the credits. I hope the other 1960’s Corman movies are this good.

Top of the Lake (2013, Jane Campion)

Detective Robin (Elisabeth Moss of Queen of Earth) is visiting her sick mom in the New Zealand small town where she grew up. A 12-year-old girl is discovered to be pregnant then disappears, and Robin takes over the case.

The story sucked me in, and I appreciated the actors, particularly Moss and local drug lord (and missing girl’s dad) Peter Mullan and a too-rarely-seen Holly Hunter as the guru of a makeshift trailer-park of troubled women. I was hoping for a good movie given extra time to deepen and spread out, but it started to feel too television. Each episode develops the main plot a bit more, gives the main character a bit more backstory, and reveals a bit more of the town’s dark secrets. And the big hook at the beginning (pregnant child) and big reveal at the end (child-molesting club run by chief cop), along with Robin’s stories of past abuse and constant present threats and the women’s camp and whatever they’ve been through, all adds an icky air of sexual violence to the show. As the episodes progressed, I started to cynically believe that this isn’t helping anyone, just attempting to give an air of importance to an otherwise standard story, though I suppose the intent was to recognize the sexual violence present, mostly hidden, everywhere. Overall I did like it, the distinct characters in gorgeous settings, but not jonesing for season two.

Bonus subplots: clashes with local law enforcement, occasional stories of the women at the camp, some late revenge on one of Robin’s childhood rapists, a major on/off/again affair with her high school boyfriend (Thomas Wright of The Bridge), adventures of tight-lipped Jamie (Tui’s most trusted friend), threats of incest, a couple of deaths (most horribly Jamie’s) and a late reveal that the drug lord is Robin’s real dad.


Robin’s mom and stepdad:

Cowritten with Gerard Lee (Sweetie) and directed with Garth Davis (Lion). Same cinematographer as True Detective season one – that’s no surprise. I recently saw Peter Mullan as the evil father in Sunset Song – he’s good at being menacing. Local boss cop Al is David Wenham of Public Enemies. Moss won best actress at the golden globes and the show won best cinematography at the emmys, but Behind The Candelabra took best TV movie at both.

Sepinwall liked it:

The character work is rich and devastating, the atmosphere hypnotic, and the overall storytelling so good that even if the mysteries hadn’t been resolved, I wouldn’t have felt like my time was wasted … who done it ultimately isn’t as important as the toll the crime takes on our heroine, and on the community around her.

The Woman (2011, Lucky McKee)

Plot-summary-wise, this movie could have been a total disaster, but the director and cast perfectly nail the tone, a comically heightened satire built on increasingly horrific acts. It’s a sequel to one of those after-dark-to-die-for flicks, Offspring, but this must not be too important since most of the reviews don’t mention it.

A nice family scene:

Parents Chris and Belle have two teens (daddy’s boy, goth girl) and young Darlin’. While out hunting, Chris discovers a feral woman (Pollyanna McIntosh, who looked very different in Let Us Prey), captures her and chains her into his shed, telling the family that they need to civilize her. “We can not have people running around the woods thinking they’re animals.” This is already an alarming development, as Chris (Sean Bridgers, villain of Room, typecast as a dude who locks women in sheds) goes from kinda-smarmy to kinda-evil, but he’s gradually revealed to be much more evil than suspected. After he incapacitates his wife (Angela Bettis, May herself) and feeds one of daughter Peggy’s teachers to the dogs, Peggy releases The Woman to wreak vengeful havoc.

Mom stands up to Dad for the last time:

The family expresses concern a few times for the “dogs,” one of which is late-revealed to be another hostage woman, mutilated and kept like an animal. Fantastic, table-turning ending as The Woman wanders back towards the woods with the dog-woman and the youngest daughter, and Peggy, with all the men and grown-ups dead, opting to follow along.

I also dug the rock & roll soundtrack. The last Lucky McKee work I saw was his Masters of Horror episode Sick Girl, also starring Bettis. Back then I wrote “fun flick, not bad at all,” which was mighty high praise for the MoH series. Since then I’d forgotten that Sick Girl was about lesbian entomologists – an influence on The Duke of Burgundy?

Oskar Fischinger – six films

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.

Life Without Principle (2011, Johnnie To)

I watched this a couple weeks after Office, not knowing they were Johnnie To’s companion pieces on the 2008 financial crisis. This one presents the corrupt business world more harshly – no lavish sets and musical numbers, just greed, theft, disappointment, ruin and murder.

Connie meets Teresa:

An intertwining-destinies movie following a few character threads. Inspector Cheung (Breaking News star Richie Ren) is on the sidelines of the other stories while his girlfriend Connie is buying an apartment. Teresa is a banker who sells high-risk investments to confused old ladies, ends up with a pile of undeposited money when her loanshark client Yuen is murdered in the parking deck. And Panther (Ching Wan Lau, the Mad Detective) works for broke gangsters, runs around collecting money to bail out a buddy until he finds stock trader Lung who has an idea for fast cash. The real estate thing held little drama, the banking part hinged on some mild deceit (the old lady heard the phrase “high risk” a hundred times so you can’t entirely blame the banker) and coincidence, but Panther was fun – I’d watch a sequel that just followed him around some more.