Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Animation: An Optical Poem (1937, Oskar Fischinger)

USA, 6 min
Directed by: Oskar Fischinger
The tagline for Disney's Fantasia (1940) read: "Hear the pictures! See the music!" This is, in effect, what Oskar Fischinger was doing with his animation – communicating music to the deaf, giving visual life to music using colours and geometric patterns. His approach, though later imitated by Walt Disney, was largely appreciated outside the mainstream. However, Allegretto (1936) and An Optical Poem (1937) were both commissioned by big studios – Paramount and MGM, respectively {however, the former film was inconceivably stifled into a black-and-white release}. It was a little novel, I'll admit, to see such an abstract cartoon presented under the MGM banner, and, indeed, it seems that the studio was understandably cautious; they bizarrely introduce An Optical Poem as a "scientific" experiment.

Fischinger's film uses patterns of oscillating circles, paper cutouts dangling from invisible wires, synchronised to Franz Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2." The animation itself resembles a journey through outer space. The orbiting circles are akin to moons orbiting planets, planets orbiting the sun, and there's an unmistakable image of a comet hurtling across the night sky. The overall effect of the space-themed visuals and accompanying classical musical is not all that dissimilar to Kubrick's use of the "Blue Danube" waltz during
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Fischinger seems to be suggesting that to fully articulate such magnificent music is beyond the grasp of our earthly minds – to do so, we must utilise objects far beyond our mortal scope. Most incredibly of all, Fischinger reconstructed these great objects using little more than coloured paper and wire.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Comedy: Tomatos Another Day (1930, James Sibley Watson & Alec Wilder)

Tomatos Another Day (1930)
USA, 7 min

Tomatos Another Day (1930) (directed by James Sibley Watson and Alec Wilder) made one appearance at a Boston theatre in the early 1930s, but received such a weak audience response that the creators dismissed it as an outright failure. One can understand the audience reaction: the film itself is so incredibly stilted and awkward (albeit deliberately so) that if you approach it in the wrong mind-set – expecting a traditional melodrama – you're likely to be dismayed at its incompetency. Sibley's son, J.S. Watson Jr., remarked that the film might have proved successful had a popular comedian been involved: "Harold Lloyd, directed by (Mack) Sennet, might have brought it off." Indeed, the film did remind me of W.C. Fields' The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933), in which the actors were encouraged to emulate the melodramatic acting style to the nth degree. Watson uses the same deadpan brand of satire, though his actors, rather than hamming it up, adopt a mechanical, minimalistic delivery that makes them sound monumentally uninterested in their roles.

J.S. Watson had previously co-directed, with Melville Webber, The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), a wonderful Poe adaptation strongly indebted to Robert Wiene and German Expressionism. To a director with such a prominent visual style, the arrival of "talkies" must have been disillusioning – all of a sudden, popular films had lost the artistic flair of Murnau and Borzage, and had become utterly mundane. Tomatos Another Day was produced to "show the absurdity of talkies that recorded action in pictures with unnecessary explanations of the action recorded in sound." The film opens with a clock on the cusp of two o'clock. Soon after, the minute hand ticks over, the clock chimes twice, and a character unnecessarily remarks "it is two o'clock." Watson's satire is spot-on: I can recall many early talkies that treated their audience in such a manner, inserting such mundane dialogue as "I am alone" merely because the sound technology was available to them. I just wish that all gentlemen's hats sounded so crunchy.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Fantasy: La fontaine d'Aréthuse (1936, Dimitri Kirsanoff)

La fontaine d'Aréthuse (1936)
France, 8 min
Directed by: Dimitri Kirsanoff

Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) wrote his three Mity (Myths) classical pieces in 1915, in a collaboration with violinist Pawel Kochañski, for whom the pieces were originally conceived. I don't know anything about classical music, but apparently this work was revolutionary, described as "impressionistic" and "a new style, a new mode of expression for the violin." The three pieces were "La Fontaine d'Aréthuse," "Narcisse" and "Dryades et Pan," of which the first is the most well-known. To my knowledge, there's no specific story that is supposed to go with La Fontaine d'Aréthuse," but here Dimitri Kirsanoff has apparently attempted to devise his own. Fitting the images to the music, but also striving to tell a story, La Fontaine d'Aréthuse (1936) follows his similarly music-orientated short film of the previous year, the wonderful Les Berceaux / The Cradles. Like the latter, it was also photographed by Boris Kaufman, who would later achieve success in Hollywood as a cinematographer.

La Fontaine d'Aréthuse (1936) opens with credits over shimmering images of water, somewhat reminiscent of Ralph Steiner's H2O (1929). After this, the music takes prominence, and we see a pianist and violinist beginning the classical piece. That Kirsanoff even bothered to show the musicians emphasises the importance he placed on the music itself, re-enforcing that this piece wasn't merely chosen at random to suit the images. "La Fontaine d'Aréthuse" opens with what has been described as a "shimmering wash of sound in the piano, octave leaps in the left hand passing above and below repeated chords in the right," a tune which apparently suggests the splashing waters of a fountain. The story "told" by the music involves a naked water goddess on the river shore (no Production Code being enforced in France!), who is pursued by a Tarzan-like hunter, before disappearing into thin air to join her water once again. Pleasant, and recommended, viewing.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Animation: Kiwi! (2006, Dony Permedi)

Kiwi! (2006)
USA, 3 min
Directed by: Dony Permedi

When you've only got three minutes to tell a story, you'd better make it count. Pixar Studios has always excelled at such an efficient brand of storytelling: Geri's Game (1997) is a masterpiece in four minutes, and For the Birds (2000) and Lifted (2006) have always been crowd- pleasing favourites. Kiwi! (2006) is a student film by Dony Permedi, and it was produced in much the same mould. The short certainly looks like a student film, the CG animation terribly crude by modern standards (though, admittedly, it's unfair to compare any animated film to the standards of Pixar). However, the technical detail doesn't necessarily matter, as long as it succeeds in telling an emotionally-absorbing story. This it does pretty well. An ambitious little kiwi, long confined to the earth by his measly ratite wings, fulfills his lifelong ambition to fly – or, at least, to approximate the sensation of flight. The moment of success is oddly touching, and the single tear that slips from beneath his eyelid would be familiar to anybody who's ever achieved his lifelong dream. Still, I didn't find Kiwi! quite as life-affirming as many viewers seem to have – for me, it was an amusing little aside, and certainly not a bad way to spend three minutes of my time.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Comedy: The Gibson Goddess (1909, D.W. Griffith)

The Gibson Goddess (1909)
USA, 6 min
Directed by: D.W. Griffith
Written by: D.W. Griffith
D.W. Griffith is certainly not a name associated with comedy, but he did direct a few of them early in his career {including his debut, Those Awful Hats (1909)}, before briefly returning to the genre with The Battle of the Sexes (1928). This comedy short from 1909 – The Gibson Goddess – might also be considered a "battle of the sexes." On a trip to the sea-shore to enjoy some peaceful reading time, a beautiful woman (Marion Leonard) is harassed by group of male admirers, who follow her along the beach like a pack of hungry hounds. After several unsuccessful attempts to evade her followers, the woman strikes upon the perfect solution to dispel their interest in her: she gets changed into a leg-revealing beach costume. I'd have thought that revealing her body would only fuel the men's lust, but apparently not – each man apologetically excuses himself from her company, some unable to disguise their revulsion.

Most of the comedy shorts I've seen from the early 1900s have based their humour around special effects – Blackton's The Thieving Hand (1908) and Melies' "magic acts" are the first that come to mind. The Gibson Goddess is more of a "sophisticated" comedy, if you will, concerned primarily with human behaviour and social stereotypes. Leonard's "Gibson Goddess" is a perfectly respectable and innocent woman, but also resourceful when required to be. Her male admirers are shamelessly superficial, abandoning one woman to bestow their affection upon a prettier other, and they bicker pettily among themselves as to who shall have claim over each lady. If the film wasn't so lighthearted, the men's "stalker" antics might have seemed rather disturbing, though the actors dilute any worries by behaving, for the most part, as flamboyantly as possible. The jokes are predictable, but I did get a few laughs out of this. Look out for Mary Pickford in a bit role.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Early Superimpositions (1900, Frederick S. Armitage)

The following is a collection of three early shorts by American director Frederick S. Armitage, who here experiments with superimposition as a form of visual effect. All three are available on the "Unseen Cinema" box-set, in the volume "Viva La Dance: The Beginnings of Cine-Dance." Please note that, since I penned each of these reviews separately, there is some overlap of information. Davey Jones' Locker (1900)
USA, 1 min

Around the time that Georges Méliès was experimenting with superimposition and other optical effects to enhance his on-screen "stage acts," American director Frederick S. Armitage was testing similar techniques for manipulating cinematic reality. Davey Jones' Locker (1900) was produced for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, and was created by double-printing two sets of images, originally filmed between 1896 and 1899, over each other. The result is that the two images – one a character (a dancing skeleton) and the other an environment (a shipwrecked boat in the waves) – appear to coexist with each other, the skeleton given the translucent weightlessness of a ghost or spirit. The film is an amusing curiosity, but lacks the complexity of contemporary Méliès efforts like The Four Troublesome Heads (1898) or The One-Man Band (1900).
Neptune's Daughters (1900)
USA, 1 min

Neptune's Daughters (1900) was produced by prolific early American director Frederick S. Armitage for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. The short film is notable for its early use of superimposition, double-printing images from Ballet of the Ghosts (1899) over an ocean landscape from Sad Sea Waves (1897). The result is that the four woman, draped in white, appear to emerge from the ocean like ghosts, before breaking into dance on top of the water surface. Armitage made a few of these short films and this is probably the least visually impressive of the three I've seen, though all are worthwhile for anybody interested in the early development of cinema's visual effects.
A Nymph of the Waves (1900)
USA, 1 min

Of the three ocean-themed cine-dance superimpositions directed by Frederick S. Armitage for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, A Nymph of the Waves (1900) was the most impressive. The scenario is reasonably straightforward. Armitage superimposed existing footage of dancer Catarina Bartho (from the film M'lle. Cathrina Bartho (1899)) over the image of water from Upper Rapids, from Bridge (1896). The result is that the dancer appears to be performing a burlesque dance routine on the surface of the water, twirling and kicking as the waves appear to lap about her ankles. The effect is actually quite convincing, and the water flowing steadily from left to right creates the pleasant illusion of camera movement in the opposite direction.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Avant-Garde: Junkopia (1981, Chris Marker, John Chapman, Frank Simeone)

Junkopia (1981)
France, 6 min
Written by: Chris Marker
Starring: Arielle Dombasle (voice)

Junkopia (1981) is only my second film from Chris Marker – after the breathtaking, poetic La Jetée (1962) – but the two works are not all that dissimilar. Indeed, out of a purely documentary framework, Marker (with co-directors John Chapman and Frank Simeone) seems to have constructed a work of science-fiction. Like his previous masterwork, Junkopia exists without dialogue (and, in this case, characters) and also eschews movement (though not as dramatically as the other film's still images), both by the camera and its subjects. There is one marked exception to this rule. Just as La Jetée climaxed in an unforgettable shot of a woman's eyes fluttering open, Marker ends this film by swiftly and unexpectedly zooming out from a model ship floating in the ocean, startlingly reinforcing the vast, alienating landscape that is his subject. In fact, "alien" is an ideal adjective to describe the film. Michel Krasna's electronic score wails insistently on the soundtrack, as eerily disconcerting as Kubrick's use of Ligeti's "Atmospheres" in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Junkopia opens into a landscape that, peculiarly, struck me as otherwordly. Man-made sculptures – first an aeroplane, then a montage of figures assembled from junk – roost in the depths of the ocean, anchored in a body of water that seems infinitely vast and deep. The soundtrack blends synthesised music with atmospheric sound effects; a radio transmission appears to source from a sculpture of a lunar module, emphasising the directors' focus on what seems a genuinely alien environment. Birds flutter occasionally across the frame, but life otherwise seems muted: aside from his leftover junk, humans seemingly have no part in this unfamiliar specter of reality. But then the film pulls its most intriguing twist. Alternate angles of the sculptures reveal their close proximity to civilisation – beside bustling roadways, nestled before the looming skyline of a metropolis. We are in San Francisco. The surreal landscape was that of our own making, the detritus of human existence hugging the fringes of nature. For five minutes, we were looking at the human world through someone else's eyes.