Watched this the night before it won the oscar. I was rooting for All That Breathes, not because I’d watched it yet but because it has birds. No birds here, just a Russian man with great popular support, considered the best hope against Putin. The movie follows from his sudden illness on a flight to Siberia, through his recovery in Europe and the investigation into whether he was poisoned, through his triumphant hero’s return to Russia… haha just kidding, he was arrested immediately and will be in prison indefinitely. Pretty good doc, most notable for having footage of Navalny prank-calling his suspected assassins into revealing exactly how they attempted to kill him (underpants poisoning) and cover it up. The director previously made a doc about The Band, but I should really watch The Last Waltz first.
Moomin (Zach Dorn)
Desktop video (cellphone in portrait mode) dude telling story of trying to win a claw-game moomin for his Canadian girlfriend. After they break up he combs through their text messages emphasizing the in-joke importance of the moomin, then fails to win one in an online app. Fine as a short opener, demonstrates the difference between cute and good.
Love at First Byte (Felizitas Hoffmann & Theresa Hoffmann)
Sentient public transit surveillance system falls in love with a passenger. Blurry and repetitive, Katy has tried to forget this ever happened.
Example #35 (Lucía Malandro & Daniel D. Saucedo)
Cubans love Santiago Alvarez! Reversed and inverted images, okay, but leave your colonoscopy footage at home, please.
No Elements (Barbara Vojtašáková)
A broken-up couple had shot lots of film around the city and down by the river, her film project that he’d picked up during their relationship and now wants to take over and complete, while she is ambivalent. Nice reversed-footage tricks.
While The Night Falls (Amir Aether Valen)
You Are Not Here (Nastia Korkia)
Afraid I didn’t take notes on these two, but recall that Katy was concerned about consent in the Russian funeral film. That movie’s director Korkia was returning to T/F after her feature GES-2 played last year.
Belovy (1992, Victor Kossakovsky)
After watching three Kossakovsky features, I love when he applies grand visual ideas to ordinary topics, so it’s disappointing that this one looks like an unrestored Sokurov video in brownscale SD.
Enjoyed the two minutes of hedgehog-related drama, not the half hour of a family arguing at the dinner table. Nice pre-Gunda spotlight on farm animals, some sweet long takes, some good rants. A Tarr-worthy final shot justifies the effort – the wife listens to tapes, laughing, crying, then dancing, the camera getting up and dancing with her, her belligerent brother passed out in a corner of the room having fallen on his head from the table.
“Abracadabra. Potatoes, dig yourselves up!”
Hedgehog being protected from very upset dog:
A Gentle Creature (2017, Sergei Loznitsa)
Woman in the countryside travels to confront the government about an irregularity, and the government laughs and destroys her. Although it’s not entirely the people in power – her fellow members of the public are awful, and she’s insulted by everybody. Tempting to watch it as a document and think “wow Russia is a terrible country,” but after a scene of beautiful cranes on rooftops, it felt more like sci-fi horror, as something that could befall any country.
Her coworker at home: “My man never went to prison, so I never had a chance to see the world.” Everyone certainly talks a lot, but Vasilina Makovtseva’s performance shines whenever there’s a short break from reading subtitles. She ends up in a town outside the prison where her husband is possibly being held (she never finds out), a corrupt little mini-society feeding on visitors like herself, nobody ever giving straight answers, or help without strings attached.
She dreams of being taken by guards to a fancy reception where all the people who’ve given her shit along her journey take turns explaining their points of view and applauding each other, after which she’s raped in a prison van, then awakens and is led away by another surely untrustworthy guide.
Upon realizing this is a Dostoevsky story, I realized I could repeat my White Nights Fest from last year. Then I read the story (written 30 years after White Nights) and realized this is more of an “inspired by” situation, since the book follows an unhappy marriage ending in her suicide. Seems like Loznitsa just liked the title – Makovtseva is surely a gentle creature, but more determined than she ever appears.
Animated Shorts watched March 2022
Superman (1941 Dave Fleischer)
Wait, everyone on Krypton had superpowers, and Superman was raised on Earth in an orphanage? Mr. White is the newspaper boss. Lois flies a plane, is the only person investigating the letter they got saying an electrothanasia ray would cause devastation at midnight, the villain a mohawked creep, vaguely popeye-voiced, with a pet vulture. “This looks like a job for Superman,” Kent says casually the next day, after Lois is kidnapped and many people are dead, goes out and punches the electric ray into submission (and unforgivably, saves the girl and the villain but not the vulture). A silly story, but check out these colors.
The Mechanical Monsters (1941 Dave Fleischer)
These have a catchy theme song. Another rich mad scientist, this one in a purple suit and twirlable mustache, has developed drone technology – radio-controlled bank-robbing robots. Haha, when Lois and Clark are present at the next robbery, Clark steps into a booth to “phone this in” and… he phones it in! He just calls the newspaper office… it doesn’t occur to him to use the booth to become Superman until later. Lois is of course kidnapped, dangled over a smelter. I suppose all of these stories end the same way, with rescued Lois’s cover story in the paper the next day while Clark winks at the camera.
Everyone on Krypton also sports a Magic Cape:
Let’s Sing with Popeye (1934 Dave Fleischer)
Oh no, this was a two-minute short where Popeye punches some of his own stuff aboard a boat, then sings his theme song in a low, disinterested voice with follow-the-bouncing-ball lyrics.
Betty Boop’s Crazy Inventions (1933 Dave Fleischer)
Opens with fireworks with live cats inside, so it’s gonna be good. Betty and friends are at a giant trade show under a circus tent, showing off different impractical inventions. She and Bimbo escape after a haywire sewing machine goes on a rampage, presumably hundreds of people are dead.
In the Future (2019 Phil Mulloy)
Absurd shadow-characters discuss the future. Very short, and a quarter of the runtime is a guy peeing. Phil has been out there since the 1970’s, making a pile of shorts and some features.
Endgame (2015 Phil Mulloy)
Two guys leave the city for some weekend war games and get more war than they bargained for. Stick figure art, the roughly drawn backgrounds include random-seeming numbers and figures. I was with it until the gang-rape joke.
Peter & the Wolf (2006 Suzie Templeton)
Great birds in this: an emotional support duck and a crow tied to a balloon, and terrific camera perspectives and stop motion work. Peter just wants to play in the backyard with his friends, help the crow with bad wings pretend to fly, and skate on the frozen pond, but grandpa wants him to stay indoors because there’s a wolf out there. The boy traps the wolf after it eats his comfort-duck, but frees the wolf at the end rather than hand it over to the ruffian townies. No dialogue, so it premiered with live orchestra accompaniment, and won the oscar, obviously.
My Love (2006 Aleksandr Petrov)
Another half-hour movie based on a Russian story featuring ducks, a cat in a tree, and some good birds. 16-year-old gives a crystal duck to a girl he likes, is figuring out what love is. He dreams of marrying his family’s poor maid, also starts worshipping a hot neighbor, but he is finally weird to the neighbor and when he becomes sick with brain fever the maid leaves to become a nun. My DVD copy isn’t high-res enough to get the full effect, but this is lovely – painted frames, smearing the backgrounds as the characters move past, exploding into fantasy scenes in the kid’s imagination. Feels too wordy, watching so soon after Peter & the Wolf. Petrov’s followup to his great Old Man and the Sea.
The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1981 Mark Hall)
It took a minute to even realize this was stop-motion; my copy’s contrast is off. The opposite of the Petrov in that the wordless animation moments are alright but it comes to life when the narrator is going off – he is Robert Hardy of the 1970’s version of The Green Knight, reading the original poem. Obviously not a movie to explore unless you’re ready to see hundreds of stop-motion rats. Jiri Barta also made a version, which would be worth digging up. A good effort for England, who still had ten years to wait until Wallace & Gromit. Hall was a British TV veteran, working on Danger Mouse among others.
Who Would Comfort Toffle? (1980 Johan Hagelback)
Toffle is alone and scared with nobody to talk to when the night monsters come, so he ditches his house and wanders to find somewhere new. Limited storybook animation with a rock musical soundtrack. The Hemulens are giant things outside that are maybe moomins? Real kids stuff, cute – you don’t see a lot of Swedish mythology cartoons.
The Chimney Thief (1944 Paul Grimault)
A thief who steals lightning rods and uses them to pole-vault across the rooftops is a pretty great idea. What ever happened to lightning rods anyway? You don’t see them around much. The scene where he distracts a guard dog with a wind-up mechanical bone is simply odd, all the character animation timing wonky. Their stretchy rubber-band bodies seem Boop-inspired. Nothing more to it than a rod thief outsmarting two identical cops chasing after him, some typical chase scene bits, but remarkably good use of 3D space. Grimault worked with Jacques Demy and made some other widely-acclaimed works that I’ve meant to find.
Birds/Ptakhy (2012 Mykyta Liksov)
Unlike the Blackbird short, this movie called Birds is about birds – this is all I ask for. The birds dance through the air, form couples and nests on the last above-water structures of a flooded Earth, except for one who swims underwater in search of a fallen spouse and finds a glowing egg in the irradiated wreckage of human civilization. I was already enjoying this before its all-timer end-credits sequence.
The Baby Birds of Norman McLaren (2014 Mirai Mizue)
Aha, someone is into maximalist mutations, colorful patterns, and bright pop music. Someone watched the entire McLaren DVD set and took away all the correct lessons, turning in a fun, short, snappy piece with tributes to Norman’s different animation and sound sync styles.
The Big Snit (1985 Richard Condie)
Squiggle-vision cartoon about a domestic squabble over a scrabble game while nuclear war is beginning outside. Between the two Ukraine-related shorts and this one, I hadn’t meant to get so topical tonight. The couple reconciles just in time to be vaporized, a happy ending. This and Condie’s La Salla are maybe over-acclaimed, but I like his very random sense of humor, and he also produced The Cat Came Back.
Petrov’s Flu (2021, Kirill Serebrennikov)
Guy coughing in a packed bus admits to having the flu while a loud racist spouts off – pretty much the worst nightmare of 2021. He’s removed from the bus and given a rifle to execute some well-dressed people, returned to the bus, removed again by a bald cop in a hearse. A guy talking dirty to a child gets his teeth knocked out. A black-haired librarian (the Former Mrs. Petrov) goes Hellraiser-eyed and destroys a violent poet. I think it’s floating in and out of fantasy, displaying the worst parts of society – a dipshit Hard to be a God.
Some good single-take camera tricks, but I did not have the patience for this. After an hour I skipped rapidly through the rest – saw UFOs, Sonic the Hedgehog, and a long stretch in black and white.
*I have rules about this sort of thing – if I only watched half a movie, I don’t mark it “seen” on the database, don’t log it on letterboxd, don’t write a blog post, etc… usually I’ll just mention it at the bottom of whatever I watched next, or in a round-up post. But I feel I should mark that hour I watched of Petrov’s Flu, since I never intend to finish it, and file it away somehow. Not gonna start watching the first halves of movies in order to get more posts in, also not gonna pretend this never happened. Setting a precedent, but who cares?
Russia turned upside down:
Storm Over Asia (1928, Vsevolod Pudovkin)
On to the early Soviet Revolutionary chapter in the Vogel book, characterized in form by “an
aggressive rejection of conventional methods and systems and a profound concern with the theory and language of film.” He writes on Eisenstein’s Strike and montage theory, the aesthetic poetry of Dovzhenko’s Earth, the avant-documentary of Vertov’s Man With The Movie Camera, and this Pudovkin. VP is described as “more sensuous and less cerebral than Eisenstein or Vertov” – I’d seen his wonderful Mother and Chess Fever, but not this one.
Master Mongol fur hunter is sick, sending his son to the bazaar. Much is made of the lovely fur he’s gonna sell which will feed them for months, so you know something’s gonna happen, and pretty soon a monk praying for the old man’s healing attempts to grab it as payment until the son kicks his ass and takes it back. The music is all light flutes for 15 minutes until a low bass kicks in when the suit-wearing whites appear “who guard the interest of capitalism.”
There’s a panic in town when the son punches a capitalist for offering too little, everyone flees while the white guy comically falls down getting lost in his own coat. “AVENGE THE WHITE MAN’S BLOOD” say the titles after he knifes an enforcer in self defense, never a phrase you want to see, and son goes on the run.
The white man’s blood:
It’s an exciting and plotty movie, incidentally with lots of sword dancing and some cat tossing. Our guy runs into pro-soviet partisans fighting in the mountains, rescues their chief by tossing an enemy machine gunner off a cliff, and joins the struggle until captured and executed by the whites. But as he rolls down a cliff, they discover the amulet he’d recovered from the ass-kicked monk back at dad’s house, and believe him to be a descendant of Genghis Khan, rushing to save his life in order to install him as a puppet ruler.
Son in the mountains:
The whites dress him in their clothes, never noticing the simmering rage on his face. He’s reunited with his enemy and property, snatching his fox fur from the evil furrier’s girl, prompting her to get the vapors and the white trader to go on a racist tirade, while in a back room the other whites draw up papers to steal the country. After a prisoner is shot right in front of the son he finally speaks up, and as he rages, the picture and intertitles begin to strobe. Finally, he grabs a sword and rides away, a literal storm blowing away the whites who give chase.
Other strong images and episodes had … a powerful, radicalizing impact
on audiences: the Mongol about to be executed, heedlessly walking through a mud puddle which his “civilized” British executioner studiously avoids … a dignified Lama priest and a ridiculous British general’s wife cross cut while dressing for a formal occasion … Altogether, the film is an object lesson in visual political cinema, glowing with revolutionary fervor and hatred for oppression.
Valéry Inkijinoff the Son would continue acting, appearing in late Fritz Lang movies, a non-Lang Mabuse, and an Eddie Constantine action flick. The furrier was in Pudovkin’s previous film The End of St. Petersburg. Pudovkin himself acted in films by the other major filmmakers mentioned above.
Saturday Shorts, 2020-11
Going through some animation and avant-garde DVDs on a Saturday afternoon, looking for shorts I’ve never seen before… time well spent.
Cinq minutes de cinema pure (1926, Henri Chomette)
Silent light shines on glassy objects… spinning and cross-fading, never lingering more than a few seconds on each pattern. We go unexpectedly outside to a forest and pond with blown-out white skies in the final minute. It’s pure cinema, I suppose. Chomette was René Clair’s brother.
Dots (1940, Norman McLaren)
Hand-drawn on 35mm (including the soundtrack!), a rhythmic dance of blue dots on a red field, short and very fun.
Mail Early (1941, Norman McLaren)
Public service announcement to not wait till the last minute to send your Christmas mail, via lively hand-drawn envelopes flying across screen to a jazzy Jingle Bells.
Mail Early for Christmas (1959, Norman McLaren)
The remake is shorter and crazier, all flashing light and pattern (etched on film with “vibra-drill”), the title message coming through in single-frame flickers.
Lines Vertical (1960, Norman McLaren)
The line pongs left and right, multiplying again and again until the background color field starts to shift as the line-dance gets more complex. Various optical illusions: imagining the filmstrip flying upwards is easy with this short, and at a few points the lines’ relative thickness with their back-and-forth motion gives the impression of cylindrical columns. Music sounds like electric harp emulating wind chimes and is very soothing.
The lines definitely get un-vertical at the end:
Mosaic (1965, Norman McLaren)
Lines Horizontal is literally Lines Vertical turned on its side, so I skipped to Mosaic, whiich is the two of them superimposed and processed somehow. I was expecting a shifting line grid, but I got dots, maybe the vertices of the intersecting lines. More sputtering hand-drawn sounds (now with added reverb), the white dots flickering to color in brief spots.
Two Greedy Bear Cubs (1954, Vladimir Degtyaryov)
Early post-Stalin film from the first History of Soviet Puppet Animation DVD. Bright fairy-tale stop-motion puppetry about two sibling bears who promise to share equally, but fight over the bedding and over their breakfast, then when they find a gigantic block of cheese they can’t figure how to split it equally until a helpful fox comes to help, creating unequal sides, then biting chunks off the larger piece each time the whiny bears complain about their smaller share, until the bears are left with crumbs.
Kolobok (1956, Roman Davydov)
Love the look of this one, like the wooden incense-smoking figurines my family used to collect. Six decades before Pixar’s Bao, a childless couple bakes a gingerbread bun and it comes to life. The bun romps through the fields and woods, taunting the bear and wolf while singing a happy song about how delicious it must be, until a fox (again with the foxes) chases it to safety at home where it lives happily with its family.
How to Kiss (1988, Bill Plympton)
A classic example of Plympton finding a multitude of ways to turn something lovely into ghastly images. Our lovers end up dead or mutilated many times over – practically a horror movie.
Nosehair (1995, Bill Plympton)
Man struggles to remove a nosehair, and I thought this would end up like Wisdom Teeth, but it goes in remarkable new directions, too many to describe. The hair turns into a line, and for a while the movie becomes a riff on all things animators can create from simple lines. Can’t believe I’d never seen this, it’s one of his greats.
Aria (2001, Pjotr Sapegin)
You know it’s classy from the opera music, but it also opens with some explicit puppet sex. After a fling with a sailor, the Island Woman gives birth… and never cuts the cord, so she and her daughter fly each other like kites. That is not even nearly the craziest thing that happens, for when the sailor and his Barbie wife come to take the child away, the woman undoes herself, down to her puppet armature and beyond, some 14 years before Anomalisa.
The Dingles (1988, Les Drew)
Gentle, over-narrated kids’ cartoon about a woman and her three cats who experience a minor drama when a thunderstorm arrives.
The Magic Pear Tree (1968, Charles Swenson)
A Decameron story. Jean visits the Marquis, he makes her prove her love with difficult tasks before he’ll have sex with her. A cheap-looking silly-ass movie, so of course it’s oscar-nominated. Swenson later wrote Fievel Goes West and produced Rugrats, Jimmy Murakami produced, and the overqualified voice cast includes Agnes Moorhead (Citizen Kane) and Keenan Wynn (Dr. Strangelove).
Hell’s Bells (1929, Ub Iwerks)
You don’t expect a Disney cartoon to take place in hell. Betty Boop-lite antics as demons and bats dance and transform to the music. The Silly Symphonies tend to seem more like a bit of fun than anything of great interest… time-filler content before the feature. Carl Stalling, however – I hope he died a billionaire.
Projekt (1981, Jirí Barta)
Apartment building is drafted in stop-motion, then furnishings and residents are added, each with their own art style and soundtrack, until all the soundtracks are playing at once, then the architect runs a roller over the building until everything is colorlessly conformist again. Pretty great.
Ballad of the Green Wood (1983, Jirí Barta)
Now beyond paper and ink, he’s animating light, wood and water, mud, worms and plants. An anthropomorphic piece of split wood is eaten by a crow, who becomes part wood, transforming into a wood-demon crow-bat harbinger of winter, until a wooden soldier arrives and slays him to bring back the spring. I think from the art style that it might represent Christians burning pagans? It brought to mind Hannah Gadsby‘s “am I made of box?” and also was amazing in every way – I’ve seen Jirí Barta’s name around before, and now I must see everything.
When the Leaves Have Fallen from the Oak (1991, Vlasta Pospisilova)
A long one, almost a half hour. Superb puppet animation, very talky and unsubtitled, but I usually knew what’s going on. Devil arrives in a whirlwind to a drunken failure of a farmer, will give him magic contraptions to make the farm thrive if he only signs a contract surrendering his firstborn. The farmer attempts suicide when collection time is near and… an old man hears his story then rolls around in honey and feathers? Anyway the farmer ends up in hell himself, running a daily routine of freezing / boiling / hard labor / drinking, until he breaks the cycle by refusing to drink anymore. Another devil contract to bring the farm back to life, this time he fools the devil by promising something when the leaves of an evergreen begin to fall… surprised it’s so easy to fool the devil, but it’s nice to see things work out for once. Vlasta also did animation for directors such as Kihachiro Kawamoto and Jan Svankmajer.
Is The Earth Round? (1977, Priit Pärn)
A boy reads that you can prove the earth is round by walking in one direction until you end up where you started – so he does, but arrives home as an old man. Appreciate the seventies freakout rock & roll, and when his empty pockets become wings and fly him out of the city.
Hotell E (1992, Priit Pärn)
I did not even nearly follow the metaphors here. After a couple of prologues, the movie splits between two worlds: a clock-driven monochrome fly-infested hellscape, and a music-video new-age dreamscape, each mirroring one of the prologues. There’s a door, and they begin to intersect. Movie goes on for ages, always repeating actions but always in new variations. It seems angry.
The Queen of Spades (1949, Thorold Dickinson)
A pretty ok movie, mostly notable for all the definite articles in the credits:
We’re in Russia – all the names and signs and newspapers are in Russian, then halfway through the movie they decided the setting was well established and signs start appearing in English. Captain Anton Walbrook (year after The Red Shoes) visits the card games every night but never plays because he’s determined not to lose. So he visits a creepy bookseller to learn some useful tips:
The creepy bookseller is overdoing it:
Anton learns about a terrible old woman who knows the supernatural secret to winning at games of chance (their big card game is just betting 50/50 on a single-card draw). He pretends to be interested in the pretty girl (Yvonne Mitchell of Sapphire) who works for the old lady (Edith Evans, Ghost of Christmas Past in the Albert Finney Scrooge) by plagiarizing love letters, gets close enough to threaten the old lady, who promptly drops dead, then idiot Walbrook tells the girl his whole scheme. He gets the secret of the cards from the dead woman, wins a fortune then loses it all (and the girl) the same night. Shocktober 2021 Challenge: no more movies from the British, they are simply frightened by everything.