29th 06 - 2011 | 3 comments »

Kenneth Anger: Films from the Magic Lantern Cycle, 1947-1981

Fireworks (1947) / Puce Moment (1949) / Rabbit’s Moon (1950) / Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) / Scorpio Rising (1964) / Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) / Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) / Lucifer Rising (1971-81)

By Roderick Heath

The first context in which I ever heard of Kenneth Anger was probably the same as most people, if they know him at all: as the author of the two Hollywood Babylon books that digest the gossip Anger heard growing up in the fringes of the film world, to expose the mythology and seamy underbelly of Old Hollywood. But Anger’s true metier was making a steady stream of experimental, surrealistic movies, commencing in his teens in the early 1940s, struggling through the ’50s, and finally finding an audience in the adventurous-minded ’60s. When Anger screened his breakthrough work Scorpio Rising (1964), it was the subject of much litigation. But it proved a potent inspiration for young filmmakers and brought Anger a squad of famous fans and collaborators in the counterculture era. Anger, assertively homosexual when it was far from kosher and willing to tackle the matter in his films through allusive, but unmistakable terms, counts as one of the inventors of modern queer aesthetics, as well as a vital contributor to cinema culture in general. Anger’s films represent different levels of realised ambition. With their often perverse, always striking cavalcades of associate images, Anger’s films come across as, and were certainly designed to be, broadcasts from the outer precincts of American society and the modern psyche, looking back to an unattainable pagan past and detecting the codified ways in which primal instincts infuse and distort the contemporary world.

Anger, born Kenneth William Anglemyer in 1927, began his involvement with cinema as a child, so his own personal legend has it, appearing as one of the nymphs in Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), a film that had an effect on Anger’s later cinematic style and interests. He started making films as a kid, but considered his career to have started with Who Has Been Rocking My Dreamboat (1941), featuring several touches, like sped-up footage and dubbed-over pop music, that would become signature traits.

His first really defining work is considered to be Fireworks (1947), a striking homoerotic parable that reveals the depths of Anger’s early debts to Luis Buñuel, to whom he pays explicit tribute by recreating his cigarette-smoking pose in Un Chien Andalou (1929), and to Jean Cocteau, from whom he borrowed an interest in totems and transformations. But there’s also a violently, vividly original aspect to Fireworks, which commences with a single young man (Anger) lolling in his room, fingering a photograph of himself being carried by a hulking sailor, with a sculpture of a hand with smashed fingers sitting on his table. Phallic jokes recur: at one point, the young man seems to have an erection under his sheet, but he brushes away the cloth and finds to his disappointment it’s just a statuette; later the sailor unbuttons his fly to reveal a sparking rocket. The young man ventures out into the night, obviously hoping for a pick-up, but instead he encounters a formidable gang of sailors, including his sailor, armed with rude weapons found on the street.

Anger cleverly obfuscates exactly what happens to his hero except for impressions of something dreadfully violent yet also searingly erotic, in offering visions of his twisted, assaulted body from obtuse angles in a visually brutal experience. His eye are gouged, his upside-down mouth yaws wide in screams; white fluid, which many have thought to be metaphorical semen, pouring on his body, and, most incredibly, a hand holding a broken bottle neck, grazing the shattered edge over his belly, before Anger cuts to hideous shot of flesh being peeled open by determined hands, only to find a wavering compass within the carrion. The images are charged with carnal viciousness, but also metaphorically communicate the discovery of inner nature through acts on the body both pleasurable and aggressive. The young man, seemingly torn to pieces, is then returned to his room, with the sailor from the photo appearing amusingly with a tacky Christmas tree on his head and a candle on a stick that sets fire to the young man’s masturbatory collection of photos: the Christ myth reinterpreted as heroic gay romance mediated by chintzy, five-and-dime, religious paraphernalia. The final image of the two men lying together and the fingers returned to the statue is an emblem of phallic restoration. Coming from the time it does, Fireworks pulses not just with obvious gay interest, but also a psychic awareness of a strange new age—the compass within the flesh has a science-fiction quality to it in its fusion of man and machine, as well as body-horror, and the bleak, otherworldly visions of the outside world have a post-apocalyptic aspect. If it’s one of Anger’s most easily decoded works, it’s also one that possesses eerie, transformative, memorable power. It also got Anger prosecuted for the first time, but the Supreme Court of California finally judged the film to be art.

Anger spent most of his young life in Los Angeles, surrounded by movie industry people, listening to the gossip of the city’s gay community and communing with the ghosts of the already distant days of the great silent stars and the ideals of glamour that had fostered the city’s prosperity. And yet that age had been suppressed in a welter of shame for its outsized, amoral grandiosity, in pointed contrast to the grubby, castrated contemporary scene Anger had tried to portray in Fireworks. Whilst Anger gained the material for Hollywood Babylon from this background, he also absorbed something more mutable, something he tried to articulate in a film he never finished. The film intended to capture the ghosts of the departed inhabitants of the colossal movie mansions littering Hollywood (Billy Wilder would, of course, get around to his more literal treatment of this subject in 1951’s Sunset Blvd.). Anger did, however, complete one scene, which he finally turned into the short Puce Moment. As it stands, it’s a study in trying on nostalgic glamour, as a vampy young flapper sorts through her dresses and lounges amidst fragments of upscale bohemian décor, in seething shadows and colour that imbue the images with a flavour in slight tension with the stylization. One part animated ’20s Vogue photo spread, one part hazy nostalgia dream, this fillip sees Anger embracing a familiar camp-informed fondness for celebrating the apparel of haute couture femininity, albeit charged with a sense of mystery altogether rarer.

Anger left the U.S. in 1950, moving to Paris, to live with some blacklisted friends, partly at the behest of Jean Cocteau, who liked Fireworks. Anger repeatedly began and had to abandon films in the ’50s, including one that was supposed to be a fantasia on the life of the occultist and pansexual deviant Cardinal d’Este, of which, again, only one scene was completed, later shown as Eaux d’Artifice. Another unfinished project, which eventually the saw the light as Rabbit’s Moon, retold a Japanese myth of a man who falls in love with the moon, where a magical rabbit lives, and was enacted by members of the Commedia del’Arte, André Soubeyran, Nadine Valence, and Claude Revenant in the traditional guises of Pierrot, Pierrette, and Harlequin. Harlequin distracts Pierrot from his pure worship of the moon, to which he repeatedly stretches his arms, pulsating in repetitious shots with secretive energy, by dangling Pierrette before him. But Harlequin then snatches her away, leaving Pierrot to be ministered to by two nymphs (shades of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) with the consolations of music and a mirror, and then is pointed to the path to join his rabbit love. In the last image, the rabbit sits in the midst of the forest, and Pierrot plummets to the earth, having presumably tried, and failed, to climb to the moon. Puce Moment and Rabbit’s Moon form fragments of colourful, but frustrating and opaque ambition from Anger.

Anger had begun to cordon off his own area in the avant garde, however, in his fascination with cultural detritus and iconography—a form of fetishism which, both overt and subtle, throbs beneath such retro imagery. He struggled through the ’50s and early ’60s to make more movies, with only one inarguably completed, signal film to show for it: Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. This film was inspired by a party given by some friends for which the theme was “come as your madness.” Anger, impressed with the results, decided to make a movie of the event transformed into a mystical spectacle. Here Anger expanded upon another interest important to his art: his life-long fascination with Aleister Crowley and pagan religion, especially Crowley’s personal creed, Thelema. (Anger subsequently made a documentary film with his friend Alfred Kinsey that looked into Crowley’s Abbey of Thélème in Palermo.) Built around the theme of a celebratory pageant in a lustrous palace from Coleridge’s “Kublai Khan,” Pleasure Dome depicts a number of pagan gods gathering together in the palace of a multitudinous titan, alternately garbed as Shiva, Osiris, and Nero, initially glimpsed swallowing jewels,and played by former silent film actor and dancer Samson De Brier. His guests include a pantheon of fascinating counterculture figures. The writer Anaïs Nin appears as Astarte, wearing a bird cage around her face. Anger’s friend and fellow pioneer in alternative cinema, Curtis Harrington, plays a servant based on Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Margaret Cameron, the wife of a Crowley acolyte who would later play the mysterious Greek witch in Harrington’s Night Tide (1961), appears as Kali, rendered as a fiery-crowned über-femme. Pan turns up, accepting the gift of fire Kali gives him so that she can light her cigarette from his palm, before he conjures Aphrodite (Joan Whitney) from the flames.

As with many of Anger’s, images in the film seem wrung out of some collective unconscious, and also strike like the dark inverse of ’50s religious and historical epics with all their themes turned inside out, celebrating victorious, fertile paganism and anarchic antimoralism. Anger wildly superimposes the gods’ faces against cabalistic emblems, including the Eye of Horus, a constantly recurring motif in Anger’s later films, as is shots from silent movies, here with visions of Babylonian worship and calamity perhaps out of Intolerance (1916): glimpses of the god as Osiris, with Isis (Katy Kadell) suppliant before him, clearly evoke a silent film style with sepia tint, make-up, and gesture-acting. It’s all scored to Leos Janacek’s “Gagliotic Mass.” Characters, religions, genders all merge into each other, masks within masks revealed, but the film has a faintly visible narrative, as a beautiful young man amongst the guests is clawed by an orgiastic crowd like Orpheus assaulted by the Bacchantes. This sacrifice to the perpetuation of natural rhythms and archaic ritual also evokes the assault in Fireworks, as the imagery proliferates in an ecstatic fury. The whole thing, on one level, is a camp tribute to a kind of vanished heyday of high-society decadence, as well as the ambition of Crowley to turn Judeo-Christian European society’s mores and myth-history inside out. Anger perhaps succeeds better with images than any cant could accomplish: his pictures tear the fabric of reality, religion, mythology, sexuality, and character to pieces, and then glue them back together in any form he sees fit. In doing so, Anger created one of the founding documents of psychedelic and camp aesthetics.

Anger struggled for quite a few years after this, writing Hollywood Babylon and publishing it in France chiefly to raise funds, and attempting to shoot a film version of Pauline Reage’s The Story of O. But it wasn’t until he made Scorpio Rising that he made a proper comeback. He moved away from the historic artifice of his ‘50s works to explore a more contemporary fetish, celebrating the paraphernalia of motorcyclists, overlaid with pop music. In doing so, Anger discovered aspects of popular culture that practically no one else had recognised before, discerning the latent fetishism and delirious eroticism in the music, the homoeroticism in the macho excess of the leather-clad motorcyclists—the gone-wrong sons of the queer-bashing sailors of Fireworks. Divided into several acts, Scorpio Rising commences with languorous sequences of young men obsessively repairing, tending, and reconstructing motorcycles, the mechanisms of the machines explicitly defined as love objects by the songs playing. One young cyclist lounges in bed reading comics before finally, indolently, piecing together his biker uniform and venturing out into the night. By now familiar Anger motifs recur, but in a newly confrontational style, as wayside denizens, bohemian effuse, and gay corsairs congregate to party whilst his iconic biker Scorpio (Bruce Byron) is conflated with Jesus, glimpsed in excerpts from an old silent film, and Hitler, waving a Nazi flag like a barbarian priest summoning armies of the night to orgy and rampage.

Anger described the film as “Thanatos in chrome, black leather, and bursting jeans,” his letter bomb to contemporary American culture. Amongst other things, the film perhaps proved Anger the most original and intelligent user of associative montage since Eisenstein, synthesising a series of connections between religion, sex, subcultural obsession, mechanics, and politics. Anger’s unfinished, ill-fated follow-up, Kustom Kar Kommandos, indicates with its title his ongoing thesis. A capped, cigarette-smoking, blonde-haired death’s head winks at the audience repeatedly in Scorpio Rising, evoking old VD posters as well as medieval folk-myth, having pushed the sex-death association to a limit. His method of reconstructing inanimate objects as eroticised things through careful lighting and dreamy photography segues into shots of bared chests fringed by leather, signalling Anger’s developing refusal to approach gay imagery so obliquely, leading to swiftly glimpsed sadomasochistic abuse, like a whip-scarred ass and a man being held down, again evoking Fireworks, with fluid being poured on his buttocks. The sexuality and fury of Scorpio Rising is encoded in its structure, rising from the languorous sensuality and indulgent observations of the early scenes into a hyperkinetic montage driving towards a deadly pile-up, with the red revolving lamp of an ambulance the inevitable last image.

Scorpio Rising courted controversy, and got it in spades, finally being banned by an all-female jury. The ban was later overturned, and Anger became a counterculture hero. He started hanging out with famous freaks like Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, who would both make substantial contributions to two of his most important later works, Jagger composing a score for Invocation of My Demon Brother and Faithfull appearing in Lucifer Rising. Much the same as Anger’s early works had looked back with some nostalgia to an earlier period of subcultural revolt associated with Crowley, so, too, his own films are fascinating records in image and idea of another era. Anger’s adoption by the age he helped to create, ironically, brought him into close contact with some of the forces he’d been attacking in his films.

With Invocation of My Demon Brother, he returned to familiar structural motifs, commencing as he had done with Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and would again in Lucifer Rising, with a figure who seems to possess powers of magic or, at least, prophetic talent awakening. In this case it’s a white-haired man with a demonic aspect, looking about a room full of naked male houris and conjuring visions where they grapple, conjoin, meld into beasts of many backs. Freaky youths smoke a joint from a skull-shaped holder, and Anger himself plays a ranting priest of Thelema waving the Nazi flag and stalking around his psychedelic temple performing rites, as footage of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam swerves into the burning of a dead black cat in a funeral, footage of Satanic Church founder Anton LaVey, and, as a kind of grace note, hippies performing a gentler rite that concludes with a charred figure holding a sign that reads: “Zap – you’re pregnant – that’s witchcraft.” That closing message literalises the sensibility that runs through Anger’s films, the inextricability in his eyes of mysticism from corporeal sensation and the cycles of creation and death. Bodies writhe with symbols projected on them, including a swastika seemingly reclaimed for its original mystical roots.

As such, the final few moments of Invocation suggest an antistrophe from the malefic swirl of much of the film, the most frenetic and evil-feeling of Anger’s works, with its bolder homoeroticism shading into a portrait of a world of disintegrating substance. Anger had tapped into something dark within the period that would be acted out by a true-life, ranting, Nazi-flag-idolising priest of destruction, Charles Manson. And, indeed, one man who appears in the film, Bobby Beausoleil, went on to be convicted and now sits in prison, as one of Manson’s clan of killers. Anger had chosen Beausoleil a few years earlier to appear in his project Lucifer Rising, but by the time of Invocation, which was culled from footage originally intended for the Lucifer Rising project, Beausoleil and Anger had ceased to be friends. Beausoleil instead drifted close to Manson and killed Gary Hinman for Manson. Such a tragic, disturbing subsequent chain of events solidifies the impression of Invocation being Anger’s most acutely tuned reportage from the cultural fringe. Eventually, in spite of Beausoleil’s incarceration, Anger made peace with him. He commissioned Beausoleil to write the impressive score for Lucifer Rising, which Anger pieced together over the next few years, after tossing out a score written by Jimmy Page, who appears in the film briefly, after a row.

Fittingly, Lucifer Rising, in spite of its name, betrays creativity on Anger’s part that’s generally more positive-feeling, more spiritually searching, if no more literal or free of menace. Beausoleil later reported that Anger’s idea was indeed to construct an antithesis to the death-worship of Scorpio Rising. Anger even builds a visual joke out of that contrast, countering how Scorpio Rising’s title was spelt out as metal sequins on a leather jacket, with “Lucifer Rising” appearing as colourful letters on the back of Lucifer’s robe. A Von Danikenesque idea caps off the film that links Anger’s primal, mythical figures with glowing flying saucers. But the film commences with shots of volcanic lava and protoplasmic creation, before a bare-breasted Isis (Myriam Gibril) overseas the birth and growth of crocodiles and salutes the arrival of Osiris (filmmaker Donald Cammell) at the Temple of Karnak, the pair stirring up storms. This is the pair whose “Aeons” are supposed to have passed, according to Thelemic lore, and they’re waiting for the time of Horus. Meanwhile, Lucifer (Leslie Huggins), whom Anger had insisted be played by a young rebellious type, awakens in a mysterious palace, seats himself upon a throne, and claims a blood sacrifice, spearing from on high a young woman. Drenched in blood, he has to bathe. Faithfull appears as a woman, identified as Lilith, the rebellious female demon from Kabbalah lore, who rises from a hollowed, stone resting place by the light of the moon and travels to perform invocations to her male counterpart, Lucifer, in front of the Sphinx and pyramids. Seemingly rejuvenated, or possibly in an earlier time, she follows the path of torch-carrying worshippers to the Externsteine in Germany, naturally-formed stone pillars that have long been a site of pagan and then Christian religious rituals. Lilith seems to penetrate the magic abode of Lucifer.

Here the images lose all intelligibility as magi seem to congregate, and visions zip past with urgency and threat. Swooping tracking shots describe mysterious vignettes, like people with covered faces shuffling cards, Page reading an ancient tablet and regarding a photo of Crowley, and images of slow-motion explosion evoking the finale of Zabriskie Point (1970) in celebrating disintegration fantasy. Anger reappears ostensibly as the same Magus appearing in Invocation of My Demon Brother, performing rites in showers of sparks and stirring the seas to rise. Lucifer concocts apocalyptic magic and gets a birthday cake. Lilith seems anguished by having smashed a table, cries into a blood-stained scarf, and crushes a dried flower she seems to have meant to present to Lucifer. But they’re reunited at Karnak, and this time, a living lotus passes on to Isis, as she and Osiris watch spaceships arrive. In spite of the arcane symbolism and trippy pseudo-myth, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Anger was making films about the act of creativity itself, his whirling incantations resembling the feverish labour that must have gone into these films. In any event, they form awesome, ludicrous, brilliant sprawls of imagery. Anger’s DNA flows like an underground river through much contemporary American cinema, including the films of John Waters, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and Gus Van Sant, and virtually every pseudo-surreal music-video director, like Tarsem Singh, from the late ’80s on.


7th 04 - 2011 | 5 comments »

The Twenty-Four Dollar Island (1927)

Director: Robert J. Flaherty

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North is credited with being the first full-length, ethnographic documentary in cinematic history. As we understand the term “documentary” today, this film certainly stands as the most famous of its time, that is, a documentary that is not merely a document impassively recording occurrences in front of the lens, as with the “actualities” from the dawn of filmmaking, but one that preserves cultural artifacts with either implicit or explicit points of view about those artifacts. Flaherty would be one of the first documentarians to fiddle with the truth to preserve things he found valuable. In Nanook and Man of Aran (1934), for example, his aim was to document ways of life that were becoming extinct. Flaherty banished any modern tools or methods used by the Inuit tribe he recorded in favor of filming their traditional way of life; in Aran, the fishermen of Ireland’s Aran Islands literally reenacted traditional practices they had already abandoned.

You might call Flaherty something of a Luddite, despite his use of photographic equipment in filming and editing his material, and someone who may have romanticized traditional societies even as he saw the evidence of their hardships with his own eyes. His bias toward simplicity comes roaring out of The Twenty-Four Dollar Island, a 13-minute documentary in which the city of New York itself is the main character. The film is included in Anthology Film Archive’s nine-hour DVD set, Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941, a brilliant attempt to make it and other vital and fascinating films unseen no longer.

The Twenty-Four Dollar Island is another startlingly original work, portraying the mechanical organism that is a robust industrial city through its architecture and machines. While I don’t know what the original score for the film sounded like—or even if it had one—the new score by Donald Sosin provides a strong complement to Flaherty’s point of view that a city is something close to a fascistic overlord that, nonetheless, reflects human civilizations through the centuries.

The film opens with an image on paper: an historic drawing of the 1626 trade Dutchman Peter Minuit supposedly made with Native Americans—boxes of trinkets worth $24 for Manhattan Island. Title cards tell us the Dutch immediately built 30 houses. Next, we learn the new city of New Amsterdam grew to 1,000 residents by 1656. The film then juxtaposes a drawn map of the original New Amsterdam settlement with photos of the metropolis that had spread out on the same site by 1926, the year this film was shot. The next title card introduces Flaherty’s subject proper: “New York, symbol of impressive industry, finance, power, where men are dwarfed by the immensity of that which they have conceived—machines, skyscrapers—mountains of steel and stone.”

A couple of men are glimpsed on the edges of the frame as they maneuver some earth-moving equipment into place. Steel clam shovels dig into the sand and move on threads of chain into the air to deposit their loads in a nearby container. The music, which until now had trafficked in Native American motifs, starts to take on a stronger rhythmic intensity, as though it were imitating the heartbeat of the city, and synthesized tones emphasize the mechanistic nature of the subject. Ships belching black smoke and dwarfing nearby ferries and tugboats fill the frame. The Hudson River, visible on the maps shown at the beginning of the film, seems to be brimming with seafaring traffic, like a bathtub awash in rubber duckies and toy boats. Bridges spanning from the island to the surrounding land cut a swath through the sky; when the river traffic and bridges enter the same frame, the sky is all but obliterated. The total encroachment of the urban human habitat on the natural landscape of the island will fill the frame at the end of the film.

New York seems like some ghastly nightmare to Flaherty. Men building the mighty structures of the city work in deep holes, chipping at bedrock with pick axes and sliding down loose earth and rubble. The rock is loaded into a container and lifted by a crane out of the hole. During the scene, my mind raced to the building of the pyramids, which employed devices and many men working with their hands to erect the pharoahs’ tombs. As if by magic, the next image is of a building whose upper half is shaped like a stepped pyramid.

When the film segues to some of the skyscrapers then standing in Manhattan, a tree limb or two break into the frame. Not all of New York is hard and pushy, the film seems to want to say. The music softens with strains reminiscent of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” but trending in the direction of his more atonal Third Symphony, and the examples of grace and elegance then in existence are boxy or overly fussy, reflecting a basic bad taste. If only the Chrysler Building had been finished in time to be photographed for this film, this section might have made a better case for New York’s softer side.

Flaherty captures the muscularity of New York, its ugliness, and deliberately eliminates most humans from the frame. It’s hard to believe the title card that says there were 8 million people living in the city in 1926, so completely does the island seem entirely populated by buildings and machines. There is nothing left from 1626 for Flaherty to recreate ethnographically, and without the elemental roots of the city—only its bedrock bones being hacked to pieces by drone workers—Flaherty seems to find little to dignify in his portrait. His point of view is clear; The Twenty-Four Dollar Island is a mesmerizing and amazing achievement for him and for its new scorer, Donald Sosin, who captures the spirit of the film and enhances it significantly.


8th 06 - 2010 | 5 comments »

Rick Prelinger: On Collecting, Film Preservation, and The House in the Middle

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Among film collectors, archivists, and preservationists, Rick Prelinger has the status of movie legend. Prelinger, an archivist, writer, and filmmaker, amassed a collection of 60,000 advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur films that became the Prelinger Archives. In 2002, the U.S. Library of Congress acquired the collection, which has made a portion of it available free online to those who wish to view, download, or reuse the material. He is cofounder of the Prelinger Library (with spouse Megan Shaw Prelinger), an appropriation-friendly reference library located in San Francisco.

He wrote The Field Guide to Sponsored Films (2007) which “describes 452 historically or culturally significant motion pictures commissioned by businesses, charities, advocacy groups, and state or local government units between 1897 and 1980.” It is available as a book and as a free PDF from the National Film Preservation Foundation. From 2005 to 2007, Prelinger worked at the Internet Archive on a large-scale texts digitization project and recently helped organize the Open Content Alliance. His feature-length film Panorama Ephemera, depicting the conflicted landscapes of 20th-century America, opened in the summer of 2004.

On the heels of the NFPF announcement of its partnership with the New Zealand Film Archive to repatriate 75 American films, I thought a conversation with the founder of another important film archive was in order. Here are the results of our e-mail Q&A.

Rick, you’ve done just about as much as anyone to ensure that sponsored films remain a part of our cultural heritage. How did you get interested in this area of film making?

I was working in 1982 as a researcher on Heavy Petting, a documentary film about sexuality and romance in the years after World War II. As part of the job, I did extensive research about educational, advertising and industrial films, becoming fascinated with this rich world that no one knew much about at the time.

How did you build your collection?

When I started collecting, we were in a time of transition from film to video, just as we are now in a transition from physical to digital media. The U.S. is an incredibly media-rich nation—we throw away more media than most countries ever produce. I began approaching schools and colleges with media collections, libraries, production companies that had gone or were going out of business, and people who’d worked in the industry who had collected material. There was a great deal to choose from and my collection grew rapidly. In 1984-85, I realized that I needed to think in an archival way rather than just collecting, and began to collect original and preprint material instead of simply copies of release prints made for projection. Since there was obviously never going to be money to preserve all of these films, it seemed important to try and save these films in the best possible state.

Where is the collection now?

In 2002-03, the film collection to date went to the Library of Congress, where it is now being unpacked and processed. There will be public access to the materials sometime in the next few years, but it may take some time—they are dealing with some 200,000 cans: 60,000 completed productions plus a whale of a lot of unedited footage. Since that time, we have also continued to collect, and I mainly concentrate on home movies, amateur film, and a few commercially sponsored films. I don’t really collect educational films any more.

I’m a fan of these films, particularly “civil defense” films. The House in the Middle is a curious film that posits the unlikely idea that a fresh coat of paint will protect a house from a nuclear explosion. What are your personal impressions of this film?

The House in the Middle, to me, is a film that relies on a gimmick to get its point across. The government-run civil defense campaign was systemic and reached into many areas of life—there were films for householders, for farmers, for industrialists. In my opinion, this was simply another angle to repeat the line that preparedness would guarantee survival. In addition, the film links cleanliness and fresh paint with morality and survival. While this looks pretty ridiculous today, America’s marketers have often resorted to weird twists in order to sell their products. Compare this film to the many post-9/11 ads that use patriotic words and images to pitch specific goods and services.

Was this film an official part of the Defense Department’s informational effort?

I think it was made with the consent and collaboration of the government, who provided footage for the project, but I’ve seen no evidence that it was an official film.

Do we know anything about the people who wrote and filmed The House in the Middle?

Not really. It appears to have been made by a Washington PR film that may have contracted out production, but I haven’t done deep research yet.

Can you tell me about the physical state of extant copies of this film? What exists? How good are the YouTube and DVD copies of the film?

We have a 16mm Kodachrome print, as does the Library of Congress. Our print is not bad, though a little dark. We made a fairly decent video transfer and put it online for free at the Internet Archive. I think the YouTube version, like most YouTube archival videos, is a poorly derived, poor-quality dupe of what we offer online for free, and the DVDs are also copies of our online copy. I don’t know whether the original film materials still exist but hope to find them some day.

This film is on the National Film Registry as worthy of saving. What exactly does it mean to be on this registry and how will it affect The House in the Middle?

Films that make it onto the Registry are “artistically, culturally or historically” significant. I hope that this means the film will be preserved for posterity, but I believe we should hold off until we are as certain as we can be that original materials no longer exist. Going back to original materials would result in a film that much more closely resembles the original version. Beyond that, the Registry is a wonderful way of calling attention to films that may not be extremely well known but have the potential to enrich public understanding of cultural, social and cinema history.

Sponsored films are obvious precursors to the infomercial and the sponsored news spots that look like newsroom-produced stories. How do you compare these earlier efforts with today’s sponsored films?

Sponsored films are an ancient genre of cinema, going back to the first advertising films projected on New York City walls in 1896. While they are still being made by the hundreds of thousands, companies tend to focus more on the Web as a medium for their messages. The big difference to me between the film era and today is that the large and small production companies and studios that made sponsored films mostly no longer exist. But there’s more in common between video and Web production today and the glory days of industrial and advertising film than most of us might realize. Many of the messages and storytelling strategies are still the same.

What can people do if they want to see these films?

The best resource is the collection we’ve put online, and it’s absolutely free to download and use the films. Check out the Prelinger Collection at the Internet Archive. There are also other great collections at the Archive, including the Academic Film Archive of North America and AV Geeks. Click around!


7th 06 - 2010 | 14 comments »

For the Love of Film, Look What We Did!

By Marilyn Ferdinand

UPDATE: Terrific interview with Brian Meacham, the AMPAS scholar who discovered the New Zealand cache.

By now, most of the film world knows about the partnership between the New Zealand Film Archive and the National Film Preservation Foundation to repatriate and restore 75 American motion pictures that no longer survive in the United States. The news broke in the New York Times yesterday and has been all over the media, Twitter, and Facebook. Frankly, Farran (The Self-Styled Siren) and I were a bit miffed. We were told we should not make the announcement until this afternoon, and here comes someone to steal our thunder! But scoops are what newspapers are about, and this was a big one.

Sworn to secrecy out of deference to the New Zealand government, Farran, Greg Ferrara (who did our ads and banners), and I have known since last fall that the New Zealand archive was the next big project for the NFPF, but we had no idea what the nitrate experts would find as they examined the existing footage. The news is amazing! About 70% of the nitrate prints are virtually complete, and more than two-thirds have color tinting. Included is John Ford’s full-length feature Upstream (1927), a backstage romance involving an aspiring Shakespearean actor and the daring target girl from a knife-throwing act, and a trailer for the director’s lost feature Strong Boy (1929), starring Victor McLaglen. Maytime (1923), an early feature with Clara Bow, was found, though afflicted with the “bloom” that signals nitrate deterioration. NFPF got to this film just in time!

And then, of course, there are the films that the participants and donors in For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon funded!

We promised the blogathoners a good film, and initially, we were to fund Moonlight Nights, a short comedy featuring child star Gloria Joy. But Annette Melville, the wonderful executive director of NFPF who has been so helpful to us, found a real treasure that helped double our money. The Sergeant is a very important short western that will be included on the Treasures V collection, thus receiving matching funds from the federal government. Here’s why it’s so unique.

The Sergeant is one of the earliest surviving narratives shot on location in Yosemite Valley. The one-reeler shows the magnificent terrain prior to the creation of the National Park Service, when U.S. Army cavalry troops kept order, and it is the military presence that provides the backdrop for the story.
 
The western was one of many made by the Selig Polyscope Company, the early motion picture company renowned for its action pictures. Based in Chicago, Selig sent director Francis Boggs west in 1908 to find authentic locations for westerns. Shooting films across the Southwest, Boggs made his way to Los Angeles, where he set up the city’s first movie studio. Boggs hired Hobart Bosworth, one of the first trained Shakespearean actors to crossover to the then-less-respected art of film; Bosworth appears to play the sergeant in this one-reeler, which he probably also directed.

Very little survives from Selig Polyscope, aside from Col. Selig’s papers in the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. After the murder of Boggs on the set in 1911, the company continued on with its popular Tom Mix westerns, the early serial The Adventures of Kathlyn, and animal pictures (the Selig menagerie became part of the Los Angeles Zoo). However, the company failed to make the transition to features and ended production in 1918.

This remarkable film—part western, part travelogue—survives through the single copy shared by the New Zealand Film Archive. The original nitrate distribution print was shrunken but complete. Thanks to our funding, the print was painstakingly copied to modern black-and-white safety negative film. This transfer was made from the negative at 16 frames per second and the tints added digitally to reproduce the colors on the original print.

For the exhibition print, color film will be cut in for the red- and amber-tinted intertitles so that the film can be enjoyed today as it was originally seen by audiences in 1910. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is supervising the preservation and will house the nitrate source material, preservation masters, and access copies so that they will remain available for years to come.

We also raised enough funds to restore The Better Man, a 1912 film produced by the Vitagraph Company of America. It’s another western in which a Mexican-American outlaw proves himself the better man. The stills look intriguing.
 
The newly recovered films will be preserved over the next three years and accessed through the five major American silent film archives: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, which are collaborating with the NFPF on this project. Copies of the complete films will also be publicly available in New Zealand and viewable on the NFPF web site. 
 
We extend many thanks to Jamie Lean, Division Director, the New Zealand Film Archive/Ngā Kaitiaki O Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua, who said, “Hundreds of American motion pictures from the silent era exist in archives outside the United States. We hope that our example will encourage other international partners who have safeguarded ‘lost’ American films for decades to share their long-unseen treasures with the world community.”
 
Clips of The Sergeant are up on the NFPF website, and you can take a look at a list of some of the other films returning from their long hiatus here. You can also kick in some more money for the rest of the films that need preserving (not to mention shipping: Each reel has to be sent using precautions for hazardous materials!). As Gareth over at the Siren’s place said, “I’ve almost never had a sense of such concrete value coming from a donation.” Amen.


3rd 05 - 2010 | no comment »

Shorts/Take 2: The Letter/Bottles/Speed Grieving/Breathtaking

The 2010 Talking Pictures Festival (May 6-9)

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The Talking Pictures Festival has put together an intriguing program for its second group of short features. All of the films are, in one way or another, tales of the fantastic animated by themes centering on death, vengeance, or both.

The Letter (2009)
Director/Screenwriter: Edward Heffernan

Alfred (William J. Norris), a rich, elderly man who sticks with a strictly circumscribed routine that has him do little more than go out to church, read, paint, and rail at the weekly indignity of a visit by his doctor (Richard Henzel). The morning that starts the film has his maid Rosalinda (Carmen Cenko) bring him his breakfast tray, which also contains a hand-inscribed letter. Alfred looks at the plain envelope and stuffs it into his nightstand’s drawer. When he receives another letter, however, he opens them and reads them. They are addressed “Dear Beth” and seem to be from a sweetheart who has not seen his beloved in a while. The second letter announces his intention to come to see her, and his concern over whether she has been with someone else seems ominous. But does this man really exist, and who could Beth be? William Norris, a wonderful actor who has been on the Chicago acting scene for as long as I can remember—best known, perhaps, for playing Scrooge in The Goodman Theatre’s annual staging of A Christmas Carol—strikes all the right notes in showing Alfred’s loneliness, terror, and confusion. Edward Heffernan is an unusually talented 16-year-old high school student who has written a genuinely puzzling script and created an eerie atmosphere that suits it to a tee.

*****

Bottles (2008)
Director/Screenwriter: Jon Stout

Mira (Teressa Byrne), a divorced mother, narrates this film about a strange power she and her daughter Cheyenne (Jillian Henry) share and how she decides to handle Cheyenne’s experiments with animals and people. Emotion is something Mira has never let carry her away—because of the consequences—and that, it is suggested, is what drove her husband Marc (Greg Baglia) into the arms of another woman (Heather Goddard). It would be unfair to share their secret, but it’s a chilling reminder of how deep emotions can run in even the most even-tempered of people. Some great spooky music adds a bit of humor to a film that, ultimately, shows a ghastly outcome for one of its characters.

*****

Speed Grieving (2009)
Director: Jessica Daniels

Malia (Alysia Reiner) is a working woman who has just been told her father (James Naughton) has stage 4 cancer and will not recover. Shaken by the news, the usually take-charge Malia is at a loss about what to do. Unexpectedly, she sees her life flash before her eyes—specifically in a “clinical trial” designed to test whether a person can efficiently grieve in 15 minutes. Grief can cause hallucinations, and this witty film uses that fact not only to lampoon our speeded-up world but to teach the lesson that grieving takes time and perhaps can and should be savored.

You can view the trailer here.

*****

Breathtaking (Dasak, 2009)
Director: Vojin Vasovic

It’s no surprise that the most fanciful of the shorts in this program comes from the Balkans—specifically, Serbia—a region that, in my opinion, cannot be topped for black, absurdist humor. Breathtaking concerns Sveta (Dimitrije Stojanovic), a doughy, 30ish man who lives under the oppression of his mother. He follows a simple routine each day, outlined for us by a narrator (Miroslav Petrovic Mishko), of running a gauntlet of neighbor ladies who comment about his packed lunch of beans and the advisability of him getting married, a card game of “Cheat” at his friends’ tavern, and a walk to his job at a military museum. Quite by chance, he finds he has the power to make anyone stop breathing simply by flicking his fingers at them. Things get out of hand as Sveta feels overwhelmed by the bustle of his town and decides to “protect” himself. Stojanovic plays this lethal sad sack with aplomb, and director Vasovic has a great eye for framing shots flatly or at odd angles for humor. Special kudos go to costume designers Sefanija Ilic and Iva Sokovic for outfitting Sveta, his mom, and their home in a gaudy flower material that is reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara’s improvised drapery dress and perfectly captures the ridiculous symbiosis of mother and son. I laughed heartily through this absurd, dark comedy (which I believe the opening credits say was [credibly] inspired by Luigi Pirandello) that has to be seen to be believed.

Shorts: Take 2 will be shown May 8 at 12:30 p.m. at the Hinman Theater on the 9th floor of the Hotel Orrington, 1701 Orrington Ave., Evanston, Illinois.


13th 01 - 2010 | 6 comments »

Rose Hobart (1936)

Director: Joseph Cornell

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Ever since I first laid eyes on them, I’ve been enamored of the boxes of Joseph Cornell. These assemblages of found objects, neatly arranged in glass-fronted or interactive boxes, create a wonderful feeling of nostalgia, fun, and creative surprise in me the way an absurd joke can make any of us break out in a laugh of recognition. Cornell extended his assemblages to film, buying boxes of films that were languishing in New Jersey warehouses, cutting and cataloging them according to his interests, and eventually splicing them into a number of short films.

The most famous of these films is Rose Hobart, a 19-minute assemblage of footage taken from the 1931 Universal Pictures film East of Borneo and what looks like a motion study that depicts the circular ripples of water after a large rock is thrown into a pond. On the rare occasions when he exhibited the silent film, he accompanied it with a recording of Holiday in Brazil (1957) by Brazilian composer Nestor Amaral, who contributed a couple of uncredited songs to The Gang’s All Here costarring fellow Brazilian Carmen Miranda. Cornell would project the film at a slowed-down speed through a blue filter, though in later years, he took to using a rose filter.

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For those familiar with silent films and their use of color tints to suggest lighting, blue is the color of night, a perfect complement to the dreamscape Cornell conjures from the remnants of East of Borneo and an evocation of the feminine. Together with images of an eclipse blotting out the masculine sun and an erupting volcano, evoking the feminine Pele, he pays homage to the Goddess. Here the Goddess is given form by the star of East of Borneo, Rose Hobart. Cornell’s editing allows for intense observation of the Goddess, who, like the eclipse suggests, is sensed, even desired, but never really known. Our world, he suggests, may be the conjuring of Her own dreams, as She is shown in the beginning of the film reclining behind a mist of mosquito netting.

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The Goddess inhabits an exotic land of palm trees, servants in sarongs, and luxurious surroundings. Sitting females praise her with clapping and singing. She is entreated by two men, one of the East and one of the West, but neither finds favor. Her most meaningful interaction is with a wild creature—a monkey delivered to Her by a servant that She talks to and pets until it, too, lays down to slumber.

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Alone, She is most Herself, gathering together Her bag of tricks that includes both a lace handkerchief and a pistol, a reminder that the Goddess responds as often with natural violence as with delicate beauty. The image of the concentric rings of displaced water fascinate Her—the pool of the unconscious and its perfect, circular form. Cornell invites us to enter this pool several times in the film; only the most hard-headed observer will resist.

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It’s interesting to consider Cornell’s reluctance to share his film creations, the perhaps apocryphal story of Salvador Dali’s anger that Cornell had stolen his dreams, the rather corny music Cornell used to suggest a tropical setting. We are dealing here with the deep and vulnerable unconscious of a single man, the collective unconscious for which Dali spoke, and the simple tunes that keep observers anchored in a homey familiarity (this is very reminiscent of the silly tune that recurs in Bruno Dumont’s nightmare film Twentynine Palms). Cornell doesn’t dwell in the lasciviousness of many dream films, for example, those of Luis Buñuel, declaring as he once did that he did not identify with the dark magic of the surrealists. He preferred the white magic, and that is very plain in his gentle art and films, and the care with which he treated his found objects and reassembled them into works of wonder and delight.

Cornell was a pioneer who worked with and influenced such avant-garde filmmakers as Stan Brakhage and Rudy Burckhardt. His films and those of his colleagues in the avant garde are among those most in danger of being lost. Get your hands on this jewel of a film and think about the delights this rich and under-explored corner of cinema offers.

Anthology Film Archives preserved the only print of Rose Hobart, which was personally given to them by Joseph Cornell. The film is also a part of the National Film Preservation Foundation’s first Treasures from American Film Archives DVD set.


5th 11 - 2009 | 3 comments »

Skhizein (2008)

Director/Screenwriter/Animator: Jérémy Clapin

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

To be “beside oneself” is a turn of phrase we’ve all heard or used at one time or another. It usually refers to someone experiencing something very emotionally charged. Of course, the part of that phrase that most people don’t think much about is that the emotion literally drives one out of one’s body. If you’ve ever witnessed a car wreck or been threatened with serious physical harm, as I have, you’ll be able to testify that it is possible for your mind to disconnect and float away from your body.

French animator Jérémy Clapin took his experience of being in an earthquake and some odd perspectives in some drawings he was rendering and conceived a story of a man whose encounter with a 150-ton meteorite crashing toward him sends him exactly 91 centimeters beside himself. “Skhizein” is from the Greek for “split” and is the root for the word “schizophrenia.” Whether you think Clapin’s protagonist Henri (Julien Boisselier) has literally been cleaved from his body by a quasi-supernatural event or has had a mental health crisis may depend on whether or not you are a fan of The Twilight Zone.

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The muted animation, moody music, and flat affect of Henri make Skhizein a disturbing chamber piece that is open to various interpretations, and Clapin is more than happy to confuse the issue. The film starts with Henri visiting a psychiatrist. Although his body is hovering in the air, he is at exactly the height he would be if he were laying on the examination couch. The nonchalance of the psychiatrist indicates that he sees Henri’s body right where it should be. The dissonance between what we see and must imagine, what we believe could have happened, and the boundary-free world of animation create tension in the viewer. Like a proper audience, we want to believe the person Clapin has set us up to identify with, and Clapin’s meticulous creation of Henri’s altered world—one in which he is able to calculate and diagram in chalk precisely where he must put his hand to flush the toilet or pick up the phone—lends logic and veracity to Henri’s predicament despite its patent absurdity.

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When Henri realizes that the psychiatrist is of no use to him, he takes matters into his own hands. When his television goes snowy with static as it did when the meteorite “struck” him, he looks out the window and spies it again. His pursuit of it—sitting outside his car as he races haphazardly through the streets—is an elegantly crafted chase sequence. At land’s end, we see the outline of Mont St. Michel in the distance—a mountainous island periodically cleaved from France when the tide washes over a land bridge and the only part of France that has never been conquered by invading armies. This landscape detail cannot be a coincidence. Henri plants himself on the sandy beach, draws a quick calculation of where he must be for the meteorite to strike him again, and holds his arms wide.

Did it work? Clapin says, “Henri is alright now, he doesn’t need to get organized anymore.”

The animation, a combination of traditional drawings by Clapin and models rendered by Jean-François Sarazin, Loli Irala, and Raphael Bot-Gartner, is both rather quirky and quite poignant, particularly at the end. The sound design by Marc Piera is almost hyperrealistic; I recommend viewing this short film with a good pair of headphones for maximum effect. And here now is Skhizein.


21st 11 - 2008 | 6 comments »

The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (1965)

Directors: Chuck Jones and Maurice Noble

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

To the vector belong the spoils.

Chuck%20Jones.gifOne of the greatest, most inventive creators in all of filmdom was Chuck Jones. In a career spanning well over 60 years, Jones was responsible for creating such cultural icons as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, Roadrunner, and most of the rest of the Warner Bros. pantheon of two-dimensional stars and directing them in shorts of the highest quality. During World War II, his amusing Private Snafu shorts caught the attention of enlisted men as no dry lecture could and gave them valuable information about hazards they didn’t realize they might face in theatres of war, from malaria to venereal disease.

In 1965, during his fruitful later years with MGM, Jones created an illustrated literary adaptation running approximately 10 minutes that won him his only Academy Award. The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics showed the kind of sophistication that Jones and his frequent codirector Maurice Noble used to appeal to both children and adults.

Written by Norton Juster based on his own story, The Dot and the Line tells of a line who falls in love with a bouncy, lively dot. It may seem strange that a relatively representational illustrator/animator like Jones would turn to abstract forms to tell a story, but what could be more natural to him that paying homage to the building blocks of his profession and when better than during the explosion of pop and op art of the 1960s. But what about the subtitle, “A Romance in Lower Mathematics?” Putting that label on any film, let alone an animated short, would be unthinkable today if you wanted the film to reach beyond the festival graveyard. Fortunately, anti-intellectualism hadn’t reared its ugly head in 1965—for example, scientists working on the space program were among the heroes of the day.

Narrator Robert Morley begins, “Once upon a time there was a sensible, straight line, who was hopelessly in love, with a dot.” Unfortunately, no matter how he tried to ply his suit, the dot brushed him off as boring and rigid, and bounced away to spend time with the spontaneous, fun-loving squiggle. Despite entreaties by his fellow lines to forget about the dot (“She’s not good enough for you.” “She lacks depth [a nice joke on a sphere versus a dot].” “They’re all alike anyway. Why don’t you find a nice, straight line and settle down?”), the line knew only how wonderful she was. He had to find a way to make her happy.

“He tried and failed and tried again, and then, when he had almost lost hope, he found that he could change direction and bend wherever he chose. So he did, and made… an angle.” With intense concentration and practice, he found that the variety of shapes he could make—box, triangle, parallelogram, and so forth—was endless. Giddy with the discovery of his prowess, he gave himself a hangover from changing shapes willy nilly all night. Finally, the day came when he felt ready to approach the dot and try to win her away from the squiggle.

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Much like the Private Snafu shorts, The Dot and the Line doesn’t skimp on the geometry lesson, though the idea really is to show how a simple line can become so many dazzling things with a little practice. The urging toward creativity is unmistakable, and wrapping it in a tale of romance allows viewers of all ages to understand the tangible rewards of literally thinking outside the box.

Many viewers of The Dot and the Line have commented on how shallow the dot is, concurring with the line’s friends that she’s not good enough for him. I can’t say that I blame them; this simple story doesn’t allow for much nuance of characterization. Nonetheless, it’s plain to see that the dot comes to see beyond the limitations of the immature squiggle, and for his part, the line understands that he cannot just rigidly go along in one direction, but needs to be able to bend and adapt if he wants to be part of a loving team.

These days, people lament how far the United States has fallen behind the rest of the world in science and technology. Perhaps if the talents of our most creative minds were made more available to the general public—as The Dot and the Line was—there would be a lot more young people turned on by the idea of creativity with a purpose, as eloquently expressed by the line:

“Freedom is not a license for chaos,” he observed the next morning. ‘Oh, what a head!’ And right there and then he decided not to squander his talents on cheap exhibitionism.”


19th 02 - 2008 | 4 comments »

Oscar’s 2007 Live Action Short Films

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

If ever there was a category that seems almost entirely irrelevant to the Oscars, it is Live Action Short Film. These nominees have been the province primarily of first-time directors, perhaps even projects for graduation from film school. They don’t get general releases in theatres, at least, not here in the States. In fact, the only short I can remember seeing in conjunction with regular theatrical runs was The Heart of the World (2000) by Canadian director and cult favorite Guy Maddin. In fact, it got played over and over with various films until I was pretty damn sick of it.

However, the very first films ever made were live action shorts. An entire industry was built on these short stories of the screen, which may be one reason the Academy has been reluctant to eliminate this category from its Oscar ballot. The first year of Oscar, two awards in this category were given: Comedy and Novelty. Novelty seemed to have encompassed adventure/documentary films, like the 1933 winner Krakatoa, which I presume showed the volcano exploding. Mack Sennett and Hal Roach films were well represented in the Comedy division.

By 1935, big-name studios like Warner Bros, Paramount, RKO, and MGM were being nominated in three new divisions: Color, One-reel, and Two-reel. (The Color division was eliminated in 1938, presumably because the technology was now well-established and not worthy of special technical recognition.) A producer for Warner Bros named Gordon Hollingshead dominated nominations in these categories for some time, with Disney Studios poking up its head now and then.

In 1957, the award got its current title, and although well-known names such as Disney, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Ismael Merchant, Claude Berri, and Jim Henson could be found among the nominees, the category was headed toward obscurity. Today, the only short films we see at the movie theatres are commercials. I can tell you, after viewing the five nominees for the 2007 Live Action Short Film Oscar, I’m ready to start a movement to kick the commercial assault to our senses off the screen and replace it with the witty and often stunning works to be found among this neglected type of film. Here are the 2007 nominees for Best Short Film (Live Action):

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Tanghi Argentini (Belgium)—Guido Thys (director) and Anja Daelemans (producer)

This 14-minute short set at Christmastime is about André (Dirk van Dijck), an officer worker who persuades his bah-humbug colleague Frans (Koen van Impe) to teach him to tango so that he can pursue an online romance with a woman who loves the dance. The characters are sketched quickly, but indelibly, with not a speech or movement wasted in telling this charming and surprising story. Director Thys has spent much of his time in television, so he’s got the experience to work this very short short for all its worth. A real crowd pleaser, it has won numerous international awards. It would be in keeping with the early history of this category to reward such a delightful comedy, but it may seem too slight to Academy voters, particularly against some of its competitors. (Very short clip here.)

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Om Natten (At Night, Denmark)—Christian E. Christiansen (director) and Louise Vesth (producer)

Another Christmastime film, this 39-minute short has the kind of gravitas the Academy seems to like in its Best Pictures, but it’s a real downer that plays more like an Afterschool Special than a well-constructed short feature. Mette (Neel Rønholt), Sara (Laura Christiansen), and Stephanie (Julie Ølgaard) are three young women desperately ill with cancer who give each other companionship and strength on the hospital ward nicknamed Death Row. The women are types (the religious good girl, the woman allied with her divorced father against the world, and the troubled smoker/drinker/wearer of black nail polish who hasn’t seen her parents in five years). Christiansen, who has a couple of directing credits, has spent most of his film career as a production manager. He simply does not have a director’s touch, letting his actors flounder and his story meander and descend into cheap melodrama. The hubby was moved to tears, but then he spent a lot of time in a hospital and so identified with the characters. I, on the other hand, was bored to tears by this predictable, morose entry. Some people are picking it to win. They might be right, but if it does, it will show Oscar really has no taste whatsoever and is all about its image. (Trailer here.)

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Il Supplente (The Substitute, Italy)—Andrea Jublin (director)

This 15-minute film that seems to say that we never really grow up makes its point in a bizarrely original fashion. We are taken to a high school, meeting up with the various nerds, stuck-ups, and artsy types who war away among themselves. Into one rowdy classroom comes a man (Jublin), a substitute teacher who behaves just as savagely with the students as they do with each other. He confiscates a toy soccer ball that has been autographed by an Italian player, locates the class ass kisser and gives him a bad score on his imitation of an ass-kissing snake, is told “no” by a student when he tells her to give him a poem she is writing, and incites the class to rough up the soccer-ball kid. He is found out to be not who he was presumed to be, and ends up confronting the same challenges in the adult world he forced on the kids in the classroom. This is well executed, with energetic performances by all the players, but a philosophical voiceover by the man ruins the anarchic tone of the short and sets us up for a predictable ending. This will not win the Oscar, nor does it deserve to, but it shows the makings of an original talent in first-time director Jublin. (Very short clip here.)

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Le Mozart des Pickpockets (The Mozart of Pickpockets, France)—Philippe Pollet-Villard (director)

Pollet-Villard wrote, directed, and costars in this 31-minute romp through Paris’ petty criminal world. Philippe (Pollet-Villard) and Richard (Richard Morgiève) are crime partners who live in a tiny pension and barely survive as part of a pickpocket ring that works the various street markets. The pair is dumb and inept, but gets lucky one day when they evade the police that round up their partners, partly because a young boy (Matteo Razzouki-Safardi) inexplicably goes up to Richard and holds his hand. The boy follows them home. He doesn’t speak or seem to understand them, so they assume he is deaf. But they incorporate him into a new pickpocket ring, which ends as quickly as it began with Philippe getting punched in the nose. Fortunately, the boy has ideas of his own about how to lift wallets. Richard exclaims to Philippe, “I’d never have thought of it in 10 years.” Yes, these sad sacks need this boy prodigy far more than he needs them. Pollet-Villard plays a wonderful blowhard and directs his actors with great skill. The film has a spritely pace and great situational comedy that never feels cheap. Young Razzouki-Safardi is so cute that he melts your heart, and his gigantic smile at the end of the film is more than winning. This film could be a contender, though I don’t think it will win. Again, it might be too slight for the Academy, and it has stiff competition. (Clips and a “making of” in unsubtitled French here.)

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The Tonto Woman (United Kingdom)—Daniel Barker (director) and Matthew Brown (producer)

This 36-minute adaptation of an Elmore Leonard short story is the best of the bunch—easily one of the best films of any length in 2007—and the one that should take the Oscar if there is any justice in the world. It’s hard to believe that this assured, taut drama about the redemption of a Mexican cattle rustler named Ruben Vega (Francesco Quinn, Anthony Quinn’s son) is the film debut of director Daniel Barker. Certainly, he had a lot of help from veteran cinematographer Ben Davis (Layer Cake, Miranda, Imagine Me & You), whose compositions are spectacularly beautiful and evocative. Film scorer Dan Jones also provides a soaring score that is definitely influenced by Elmer Bernstein. The film opens in a confessional, then is told entirely in flashback from an omniscient point of view. Vega hides on a hillside and watches a beautiful woman walk topless to a tub and water pump outside a desert shack. She pumps water into the tub and starts to wash up. After she goes back inside, Vega comes to call on her, the picture of benign politeness. She stands in the shadows for a while, then confronts him, saying that she knows he was watching her—just like all the others. She has a startling tattoo on her chin, a remnant of the 11 years she spent as a slave to the Tonto-Mohave Indians. She is Sarah Isham (Charlotte Asprey), wife of the largest cattle rancher in the area. Her husband searched for her, but when he found her, he couldn’t keep a woman who had been defiled by the “red niggers” at home with him. She remains exiled in the desert, watched over by three thugs, hired by her husband, who act as drovers of his human piece of property. Vega’s actions for the rest of the picture to redeem her back into society are also his redemption. Every scene is packed with emotional truth and dignity, acted out by a top-flight cast.

All these films and the nominated animated shorts are touring in select cities courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. I would expect a DVD release sometime soon. Perhaps home viewers will embrace this unique and wonderful form of cinema that the big studios and distributors have all but forgotten. l


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