Thursday, January 29, 2009

Animation: Windy Day (1968, John & Faith Hubley)

Windy Day (1968)
USA, 8 min
Directed by: John Hubley, Faith Hubley
Starring: Emily Hubley (voice), Georgia Hubley (voice)

John and Faith Hubley shared a fruitful career in the field of animation, and were awarded three Oscars for Moonbird (1959), The Hole (1962) and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Double Feature (1966), respectively, as well as four further nominations. Windy Day (1968) was produced in a similar manner to many of their cartoons – the animation was built around the pre-recorded conversation of two people. In this case, it is the directors' young children, Emily and Georgia Hubley, who carry on a free-wheeling exchange of dialogue that feels natural and spontaneous. One daughter wants to act out a medieval fairy-tale, but the other is hesitant, and the conversation switches topics frequently and haphazardly, even touching on the mature concepts of love, marriage, dreams, life and death. The two girls speak of such ideas with enthusiasm and naive innocence, but their conclusions are surprisingly insightful, and the animation almost struggles to keep up with their rapidly-switching topics of discussion.

Animation has always been the ideal medium for converting into visuals the free-association of human thoughts and interaction. Ideas and subject matter spontaneously change and switch back again, and the mind repeatedly conjures up fantastic flights of imagination and association. Like leaves on a breeze, thoughts and dreams materialise seemingly out of thin air, carving out random and erratic paths. Caroline and Frank Mouris' Frank Film (1973) employed a similar idea, instead animating with collages of magazine photographs. More recently, John Raskin's I Met the Walrus (2007) ascribed visual illustrations to an archival interview with the late John Lennon. The Hubleys' Windy Day takes together the dreams and aspirations of their two young daughters and converts them into a visual fairy-tale, a vivid meditation on the nature of life and innocence. At the 1969 Academy Awards, John and Faith Hubley lost out to the similarly-titled Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968), which was awarded posthumously to Walt Disney.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Soviet: A Strange Voice (1949, Ivan Ivanov-Vano)

A Strange Voice (1949)
Soviet Union, 10 min
Directed by: Ivan Ivanov-Vano
Written by: Dmitri Tarasov
I'd previously only been familiar with animator Ivan Ivanov-Vano through this collaborations with Yuriy Norshteyn, but he was quite a prominent figure in the field of Soviet animation, active for nearly sixty years from the 1920s. In fact, he is often affectionately termed the "Patriarch of Soviet animation." A Strange Voice (1949) is a breathtakingly beautiful example of the master's craft, despite serving propagandistic purposes. By the 1940s, Soviet artists at Soyuzmultfilm studio had been influenced considerably by the American work of Walt Disney, and thus their animation has a quiet, realistic style that is far removed from the more unique (and, by then, obsolete) cartoon designs that had originated in the Soviet Union {see Bazaar (1934), and you'll know what I mean}. Given the degree to which Soyuzmultfilm owed its new style to American animators, it's rather ironic that this particular cartoon condemns the work of foreign artists, albeit in the guise of a pleasant and amusing cartoon made to appeal to Russian youngsters.

A Strange Voice opens in the pristine Russian wilderness, where a nightingale regales the other birds with his beautiful whistling song. Then a stranger arrives in the midst. A black-and-white crow awkwardly alights on a branch and denounces the nightingale's performance as being outdated. She proposes to give a concert of her own singing voice, and the Russian birds politely accept the offer. But when the crow opens her mouth, there is no beautiful singing voice, but only the grating honk of a trumpet. Apparently, this cartoon has American jazz in its sights, and the Russians are to have no part in this grotesque new brand of music. The crow is unceremoniously whistled and then pecked off the stage, and the humble nightingale is able to continue its pleasant song. Providing you look past the propaganda, this ten-minute short is beautifully animated, with a nice musical soundtrack. And, for the record, I happen to like jazz.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Avant-Garde: Blinkity Blank (1955, Norman McLaren)

Blinkity Blank (1955)
Canada, 5 min
Directed by: Norman McLaren

The idea of creating visuals to match existing music was certainly not a new one, either in animation {see Disney's wonderful Fantasia (1940)} or live-action {see Jean Mitry's Pacific 231 (1949)}. With Blinkity Blank (1955), offbeat Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren offers his own bizarre take on the technique, matching simple two-dimensional images (etched directly onto the cell print) to some classy jazz music by Maurice Blackburn. The idea, I must admit, works better in theory than in execution. I liked how McLaren attempted to replicate the subtle musical melodies using purely visual cues, in effect the closest a deaf person will ever get to hearing the music for himself. But he doesn't quite pull it off. McLaren's primitive etched outlines, depicting anything from birds to umbrellas, communicate the tempo of the music, but not the emotion. It takes a masterpiece like Fantasia, with its breathtaking Technicolor animation and gentle pacing, to achieve this aim most completely.

Contrary to my first impressions, apparently there is a story behind the animation in Blinkity Blank – something to do with a bird and its cage. However, I was too busy nursing a migraine to worry too much about these details. McLaren's animation flashes in and out of frame, flickering like a strobe light, and I found it almost maddening to keep my eyes open. Had the film simply been dull or monotonous, I should still have admired the craftsmanship, which, despite the rudimentary animation, must have taken a lot of work. However, once again, it gave me a splitting headache {the first film to do so since the latest Bond flick, Quantum of Solace (2008)}, and I just can't support a film that inflicted pain upon me. My relationship so far with Norman McLaren has been an ambiguous one. While I found Pas de deux (1968) to be absolutely mesmerising, I was pretty much indifferent to his most famous short, Neighbours (1952). Given time, I'm sure that I'll find at least another of his films that I love.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Claymation: Creature Comforts (1989, Nick Park)

Creature Comforts (1989)
UK, 5 min
Directed by: Nick Park
Written by: Nick Park (uncredited)
Starring: Julie Sedgewick (voice)

Nick Park's Creature Comforts (1989) beat out competition from the likes of Bruno Bozzetto and Nick Park to win the 1991 Oscar for Best Animated Short. In all honesty, I haven't seen nominee Cavallette (1990), but I still think that the Academy got their ballots mixed up. Just for the record, I find A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit (1989) to be the much better short film, with an entertaining, fully-structured narrative and no shortage of imagination. Creature Comforts has a nice premise and some good jokes, but it's all over so very quickly, leaving only a shallow impression that doesn't bode well for repeat viewings. Nevertheless, the animal characters have that wonderful home-grown "Wallace and Gromit" look about them, always a lovely trademark of Aardman Animations, as well as charming British accents that add some sophistication to the zoo inhabitants' gripes. I’ve always wondered why the British have inherently sophisticated accents.

This five-minute short film is basically just a series of very brief vignettes in which zoo animals are interviewed for their opinions on life in captivity. Some animals have some good things to say about it, but most do nothing but complain, particularly a certain South American carnivore who goes on at length about the "lack of space" in his enclosure. There's a family of polar bears who are eager to get their opinions across, and miss having steak in their diets. I also liked the turtle that "tries to spend as little time in here as possible," although that is more easily said than done. The quaintness of the dialogue is probably due to the filming technique, which was to interview zoo visitors off the street, request that they behave like animals, and produce the animation around these results. In 2003, Creature Comforts was expanded into a successful TV series, though the even greater success of the Wallace and Gromit franchise validates, I think, my feelings about which is the better film.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Comedy: One Week (1920, Edward F Cline, Buster Keaton)

One Week (1920)
USA, 19 min
Written by: Edward F. Cline (story & screenplay), Buster Keaton (story & screenplay)

One Week (1920) was the first of Buster Keaton's independent two-reelers, though The High Sign (1921) was filmed first and shelved until the following year. The story starts out where most romantic comedies end: with a picturesque wedding ceremony, during which adoring relatives toss confetti and, oddly, second-hand footwear. The lucky groom (Keaton) and his bride (Sybil Seely) strike out for their new home, purchased by a well-meaning uncle. Of course, only in a Keaton short must the husband and wife construct their own house, utilising a do-it-yourself kit that goes awry when the bride's former lover switches the numbers around. The resultant dwelling would not have looked out of place in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), though Keaton is evidently proud of his handiwork, and is thus prepared to overlook the most minor of blunders (such as having the front door on the second-floor). This short served as a trial-run of sorts for the feature Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), for here we see an early version of Keaton's famous "saved-by-the-window" falling wall stunt.

One Week is one of Keaton's finest shorts, with no shortage of imagination, and a continuous string of episodic gags. In one scene, our hero rather coarsely knocks out a traffic policeman, and it's probably no coincidence that the victim is a Charles Chaplin-lookalike. Many of the Keaton's films utilise aspects of engineering, such as The Electric House (1922), in which the actor is commissioned to update a client's home with state-of-the-art technology. In One Week, the product of Keaton's labours doesn't appear quite so impressive, though the house does misbehave is equally hilarious ways. In a vigorous windstorm, the entire building is transformed into a deliriously-spinning carousel, the inhabitants thrown across the room with almost brutal centrifugal force. Leading lady Sybil Seely impressively keeps up with Keaton's comedic antics, even contributing a few laughs of her own, rather than serving only as a beautiful romantic interest. Not that Seely didn't have the "beautiful" aspect covered, the film's show-stopping moment seeing the actress drop her bar of soap while bathing in the tub. A modest cameraman's hand spares us the details, however.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Horror: Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968, Jonathan Miller)

Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968)
UK, 42 min
Directed by: Jonathan Miller
Written by: M.R. James (story), Jonathan Miller (adaptation)

All good ghost stories should be in black-and-white. There's something inherently creepy in the crisp, greyish tones of B&W photography, effectively evoking a time and place where scientific logic didn't hold such sway, and the existence of lingering human spirits seemed more plausible. Jonathan Miller's Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968) was released as an episode of the BBC television series Omnibus (1967-2002), and was adapted from a short story by M.R. James. Though hampered in some ways by a brief running time, preventing any in-depth exploration of the main character, the film is a classic supernatural chiller, a creepy ghost story in the same stylistic vein as Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961) and Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963). Michael Hordern is perfect as the doddering old academic professor who mumbles his way across the exquisite Norfolk coastal countryside, detached from almost all social interaction. With the rustle of bedsheets and the soft whisper of a man's voice, Professor Parkins will discover that his life isn't quite as "lonely" as he thought it was.

At its thematic core, Whistle and I'll Come to You is less a ghost story, and more of a character study. One might choose not to take the bed-rustling spirits literally, and to consider them the manifestation of Professor Parkins' unwillingness to consciously acknowledge the possibility of the supernatural. When asked whether or not he believes in spirits, the professor evades the question with an assortment of largely-irrelevant intellectual musings, boasting a sort of academic elitism that leaves his sincere breakfast companion (Ambrose Coghill) – who is consistently kept at a distance – feeling foolish. The film's brief opening narration notes that M.R. James originally intended his story as an allegorical criticism of "intellectual pride," and this theme always sits at the forefront. Having placed his complete faith in the superiority of academic and scientific thinking, Professor Parkins has lost the ability to coherently interact with other people, and his snobbery extends towards the outright rejection of such far-fetched notions in folklore as that of ghosts. Subconsciously, however, there is always that niggling doubt: what if he's wrong?

Whistle and I'll Come to You has an extraordinary emptiness that I think works extremely well. Very few scenes actually contain any traces of the supernatural, but, as we have already been told that we are watching a ghost story, paranormality is allowed to pervade every moment. Professor Parkins wanders the windy Norfolk coastline, pausing to take in the views, to eat lunch, to read a book – in any other context, such sequences may have bordered on tedium, but our anticipation of the unnatural consistently keeps us holding our breath. Most of the film's icy shivers are brought about through uncanny use of sound effects, knowingly exploiting the instinctive human fear of that which we can hear but not see; the nearby rustling of bedsheets, in these circumstances, was one of the most unsettling noises I've ever heard in a film. Unfortunately, at just 42-minutes in length, the film does feel rather incomplete, as though it is merely the opening half of a feature-length film. Still, considering the medium for which it was made, Jonathan Miller has undoubtedly achieved excellence in the horror genre.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Soviet: The Marathon (1988, Aleksandr Petrov, Michael Tumelya)

The Marathon (1988)
Soviet Union, 2 min
Directed by: Aleksandr Petrov, Mikhail Tumelya

After several years working as art director on such films as Alexei Karaev’s Welcome (1986), Aleksandr Petrov’s first film as director was The Marathon (1988), which he co-directed with Michael Tumelya. This brief tribute to Walt Disney’s immortal creation Mickey Mouse possesses none of the breathtaking visuals for which Petrov would later become known, but it is nonetheless a powerful piece of work, even at just two minutes in length. The film was produced to celebrate the character’s 60th anniversary, and that Roy E. Disney and a group of American animators paid a visit to the USSR in 1988 probably gave some added incentive. By all reports, Disney was thrilled with the effort. While it was Korova (1989) – Petrov’s diploma work – that really established Petrov as an imminent animation genius (he received the first of his Oscar nominations), this earlier student short, by its potent simplicity, is well worth tracking down for all fans of the director.

The film opens in 1928, with a young child looking at a reflection of himself in the mirror, which is actually a cinema screen. Along comes the guiding hand of Walt Disney, who transforms the child’s reflected image into none other than Mickey Mouse. Having found an immortal friend in this big-eared critter, the child and Mickey begin dancing joyously opposite each other. As the film progresses, the baby becomes a boy, the boy becomes a young man, the young man becomes an adult, and the adult has finally become an old man. Mickey Mouse, unchanged and still bringing joy to this old man’s heart, continues with his enthusiastic dancing. By the end of the film, the man is frail and near death, but a grandchild wringing at his arm becomes equally enthralled by the image of Mickey cavorting across the television screen. Walt Disney may be dead, and Mickey’s original fans may be getting on in years, but this big-eared rodent will always be around to bring delight to the hearts of millions.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Thriller: The Key to Reserva (2007, Martin Scorsese)

The Key to Reserva (2007)
Spain, 10 min
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Ted Griffin (writer)
Starring: Simon Baker, Kelli O'Hara, Michael Stuhlbarg, Christopher Denham, Richard Easton, Martin Scorsese

From one Hitchcock fan to another: Bravo, Marty Scorsese! Given the task of producing a commercial for Freixenet Wines, the prominent director enthusiastically crafted an endearing homage to the Master of Suspense, in the guise of a "rediscovered" Hitchcock script. The Key to Reserva (2007) is that very rare thing – an advertisement that is absolutely a joy to watch, so much so that you can easily ignore the advertising itself and consider the prized Freixenet wine-bottle just another of Hitchcock's unlikely MacGuffins. The film even tries to obscure the fact that it is merely a commercial, with Scorsese starring as himself in a documentary framing device that sees him excitedly boasting about his plans to film three fragmented pages from an unproduced Hitchcock script. One is hardly likely to fall for the ruse nowadays, but, when the short first emerged on the internet, I have no doubt that many people were swindled, even if the promise of Marty-doing-Hitch would have seemed simply too amazing to be true.

Scorsese's The Key to Reserva opens with screeching violins over opening credits that might have been designed by Saul Bass. We fade into the strings of a violin, as a musician twangs vigorously at his instrument, and Scorsese pulls off a breathtaking crane shot – over the heads of the orchestra audience and into the entrance hall – that would have made Hitchcock proud. What follows is an exciting amalgamation of homages to the director's greatest set-pieces, including references to Notorious (1946), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958)… right at the end, there's also a very subtle nod towards The Birds (1963), though you'll have to pay close attention! Hitchcock's film-making techniques are recreated in a slightly-exaggerated but nonetheless affectionate way, and Scorsese delights in exploring the singular stylistic touches - the spectacular long-shots, the overstated angles, the creative use of light and shadow to communicate approaching danger - that made the director such an influential figure in American cinema.

Some directors, such as Brian DePalma, have made a living out of homaging The Master of Suspense, but to witness one of cinema's contemporary greats expressing such gratitude towards Hitchcock is something else altogether. Scorsese even establishes himself as quite an entertaining actor, his self-portrayal occasionally touching on Woody Allen in terms of neurotic, boyishly-excited energy. Even long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker gets an appearance, adding another layer of authenticity to the ingenious framing device. Scorsese's film-within-a-film is almost completely wordless, undoubtedly following in the footsteps of a similar set-piece in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and that the story opens mid-stream adds a hint of tantalising ambiguity. But do you know what would be even better? Nothing would thrill me more than for Martin Scorsese to re-hire screenwriter Ted Griffin, expand these "rediscovered" pages into a feature-length treatment, and release The Key to Reserva into cinemas by 2011. I'd be first in line, and nobody would be admitted after the opening credits.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Comedy: The Living Playing Cards (1904, Georges Méliès)

The Living Playing Cards (1904)
France, 3 min
Directed by: Georges Méliès
Written by: n/a
Starring: Georges Méliès

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [paragraph 3 only]

Considering that Georges Méliès was a stage magician before he took an interest in cinema, it's no surprise that he liked to incorporate countless little "magic acts" into his films. As a rule, his narrative-driven films {such as A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Impossible Voyage (1904)} are by far his most impressive works, not only for their revolutionary storytelling structures, but also for their seemingly-boundless imagination and creativity. Nevertheless, further genius is to be found in Méliès' shorter "gimmick films," which translated the magician's tricks to the cinema screen and proved crucial in the development of visual effects. Too often, early filmmakers like Edison and the Lumière brothers employed this new technology for purely documentary purposes, presenting audiences with brief snippets of everyday life. However, this French "Cinemagician" took a vastly different outlook on the possibilities made feasible by the humble cinematograph: he made the impossible happen before our very eyes.

The Living Playing Cards (1904), along with the delightfully-whimsical The Four Troublesome Heads (1898), is one of Méliès' most inventive special-effects showcases. The film starts simply enough, with Méliès – our host, as always – stepping out onto the stage and showing the audience a playing card. It is too small for anybody to decipher, so, with a quick slide of the wrist, the card is suddenly substantially larger. He then manages to transfer the card image onto a large, blank sheet of paper, and then the Queen on the life-sized card is magically transformed into a living, breathing queen who emerges from the paper and walks around the stage. These transformations – some more refined than others – employ the use of quick cuts, multiple dissolves and cross-fades, techniques with which Méliès had been experimenting for many years. The two-minute film is presented in the style of a traditional magic act, presenting contemporary audiences with a format with which they were familiar, but somewhat furtively offering the magician a greater flexibility with his tricks.

The most entertaining part of the film takes place at the very end, when Méliès accidentally transforms the King on the playing card into a real-life King, who bursts threateningly from his sheet of paper. Terrified, Méliès flees the stage in fear. Just as he does this, the King throws off his costume to reveal that he is Méliès himself! The first time I saw this, I was genuinely taken aback by the unexpected reveal, and it took several closer inspections to deduce how the trick was actually performed; from what I was able to tell, the director substituted himself into the King's clothes at the very moment that the costume were cast aside. Such an act demonstrates very effectively the advantages enjoyed by Méliès once he had adopted this revolutionary new technology, and, ever since, magicians have struggled vainly to keep up with the advancements presented by the cinematic medium. If magicians are now a dying breed, they can blame their unemployment on clever little films like this one.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Avant-Garde: Ménilmontant (1926, Dimitri Kirsanoff)

Ménilmontant (1926)
France, 38 min
Directed by: Dimitri Kirsanoff
Written by: Dimitri Kirsanoff

Dimitri Kirsanoff, born in Estonia but operating mostly in Paris, was heavily influenced by the theories of Soviet Montage. In his most famous short film, Ménilmontant (1926) – still frightfully obscure in most circles – he adheres to this style strictly, almost obsessively. His preference towards a brisk editing pace carries a unique vitality that is also seen in the work of Soviet masters Eisenstein and Vertov, who pioneered and perfected the technique of montage in the mid-to-late 1920s. But, nevertheless, I don't think it works quite as well here. The Battleship Potemkin (1925) and The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) – perhaps the two most recognised works of Soviet montage – utilise their chosen editing style to full effect precisely because they place greater emphasis on the collective over the individual, in accordance with traditional Communist ideology. There is deliberately no emotional connection attempted nor made between the viewer and any individual movie character, for that would be contrary to the filmmaker's intentions (interestingly, however, the montage fell out of preference from the 1930s in favour of Soviet realism).

Ménilmontant falters because it strives to create an emotional connection with the characters (particularly the younger sister, played by Nadia Sibirskaïa), but Kirsanoff's chosen editing style continually keeps the audience at an arm's length. The closest he comes to true pathos is with the park-bench sequence, when an old man offers some bread and meat to the famished woman, delicately avoiding eye contact to preserve her dignity. Even in this scene, the montage style intrudes. A director like Chaplin (and I'm a romantic at heart, so he's naturally one of favourite filmmakers) would have placed the camera at a distance, framing the profiles of both the woman and the old man within the same shot, thus capturing the subtle emotions and inflections of both parties simultaneously. Kirsanoff somewhat confuses the scene, cutting sequentially between the woman, the man and the food in a manner that reduces a simple, poignant act of kindness into a technical exercise in film editing. It works adequately, of course, a precise demonstration of the Kuleshov Effect, but there's relatively little heart in it.

But we'll cease with my complaints hereafter. I know my own film tastes well enough to recognise that what I disliked about the film – its emotional distance, for example – represents precisely what others love about it. There's no doubting that the photography (when it's kept on screen long enough) is breathtakingly spectacular, making accomplished use of lighting, shadows and in-camera optical effects such as dissolves, irises and superimpositions. There are touches of the surreal. Kirsanoff cuts non-discriminately forwards in time, backwards and into his characters' dreams, fragmenting time and reality into a series of shattered images, their individual meanings obscure until considered sequentially as in the pieces of a puzzle. Most impressive, I thought, was how several shots captured the linear perspective of roads and alleys, watching his characters gradually depart into the distance as though merely following the predetermined pathways of their future. The film ends exactly as it begins – with a bloody and unexplained murder – suggesting the inevitable cycle of human suffering, its causes unknown and forever incomprehensible.

Soviet: The Glass Harmonica (1968, Andrey Khrzhanovskiy)

The Glass Harmonica (1968)
Soviet Union, 19 min
Written by: Gennadi Shpalikov

Andrey Khrzhanovskiy's The Glass Harmonica (1968) is a very political piece of animation, and I know too little about the history of the Soviet Union to make any accurate interpretations of the film's meaning. However, I'm going to have a go at it, anyway. The craftsman of the glass harmonica arrives in a town whose citizens have become corrupted by and obsessed with the lure of money (symbolised by a single gold coin held in the hand of a shifty-looking bureaucrat). The love of wealth has transformed these people into grotesque and disgusting beasts, who roam throughout the streets thinking only of money. This, I'd imagine, would be a critique of capitalism, certainly something that one would expect from the Soviet Union in the late 1960s. When the craftsman returns to the town with his harmonica, the melodious tune of his instrument brings back the humanity of its inhabitants. They break out of their beastly cocoons, becoming beautiful human beings once again; one person offers his coat and hat to a homeless man.

Together, the townsfolk restore their clock-tower to its former glory, perhaps symbolising the rejuvenation and preservation of Russia's culture and history (once money became the town's chief concern, the clock-tower was the first monument to be stripped and defaced, presumably for monetary gain). All this seems like a perfectly acceptable message for Soyuzmultfilm studio under the Soviet Union. However, my research is telling me that The Glass Harmonica suffered strict censorship and was initially withheld from release. There must be a more subtle subtext that I'm missing. Perhaps the film's depiction of a cold totalitarian society struck the censors as being far too familiar for comfort; what was supposedly a critique of the Bourgeois was instead an attack on the oppressive Soviet government. Whatever the politics, Khrzhanovskiy's film nonetheless deserves to be watched for its unique and surreal visuals and stirring classical score. The people are animated as rather sterile painted portraits that only exhibit fractured movements, though they take on a more realistic and romantic appearance after hearing the music of the glass harmonica.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Drama: Das Kleine Chaos / The Little Chaos (1966, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

The Little Chaos (1966)
West Germany, 9 min
Directed by: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Written by: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Starring: Christoph Roser, Marite Greiselis, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Greta Rehfeld

My first film from Rainer Werner Fassbinder is a nine-minute short, one of the director's earliest efforts. The film follows three youths, caught up in the rebellious counter-culture of the 1960s, who decide to supplement their meagre incomes (selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door) by orchestrating a home robbery. The three aspiring criminals – played by Christoph Roser, Marite Greiselis and Fassbinder himself – bust into the home of a frightened woman (Greta Rehfeld) and demand her money. The characters, particularly Fassbinder's Franz, do plenty of over-the-top posturing, no doubt in homage to the James Cagney style of acting that dominated gangster movies of the 1930s and 1940s (the film even references this sub-genre of Hollywood filmmaking, musing that "I'd like to see a gangster movie that ends well, for once"). The scene of a home invasion surprisingly called to mind A Clockwork Orange (1971), though I don't know how likely it is that Stanley Kubrick received inspiration from the amateur work of an emerging German director.

Though The Little Chaos (1966) was undoubtedly shot on a limited budget, and the cinematography certainly betrays these limitations, Fassbinder does know how to position his camera, alternating between close-up static shots and more dynamic hand-held pans. The film opens with a long zoom across a road, as an enigmatic jazz tune overwhelms the soundtrack, suggesting the brand of classy crime capers that became popular in the 1960s. The acting is adequate enough, though certainly not authentic. Fassbinder mugs determinedly to the camera, a faux tough-guy who perpetually seems to have a foul odour beneath his nostrils. Roser's character is much more tender and introverted, a likable enough guy who's obviously been roped into something in which he desires no part. The film ends with "I Can't Control Myself" by The Troggs on the soundtrack, followed by the wail of police sirens. The three petty criminals will probably get away with it this time, but one gets the feeling that they won't be so fortunate on their next venture.

Cartoon: Plane Crazy (1928, Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks)

Plane Crazy (1928)
USA, 6 min
Directed by: Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks
Written by: n/a
Starring: Walt Disney (voice)

This is where it all began. Plane Crazy (1928) – and not Steamboat Willie (1928), as is often claimed – marks the humble debut of Mickey Mouse, perhaps the most recognisable and beloved cartoon character ever created. This little rodent was originally envisioned as a replacement for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a successful character designed by Walt Disney for Charles Mintz of Universal Studios. Mintz had demanded that Disney take a pay-cut, shortly after reminding him that he personally held copyright of Oswald, and had already contracted most of Disney's employees. To Mintz's surprise, the ambitious animator and businessman instead struck out alone, animators Ub Iwerks and Les Clark among the few who remained loyal to him. The first Mickey Mouse cartoon was released on May 15, 1928, in California, where its reception was initially rather lukewarm. The animation itself is not particularly notable, but the jokes are clever, funny and amusingly mean-spirited. Mickey's following would grow, however, and more than anybody – not even the forward-thinking Disney – could ever have anticipated.

At least in his first year, Mickey wasn't much of a gentleman. For one, he wasn't averse to harassing livestock if he could get some benefit out of them – here, a turkey is robbed of its tail feathers, and a cow is grabbed by the udder, which tastefully spurts milk everywhere. Mickey decides that he wants to be an aviator, though his knowledge stretches little beyond how Charles Lindbergh ("Lindy") styled his hair. This dangerous hobby is no doubt fuelled by a desire to impress Minnie the Mouse (here also making her debut), but, when she doesn't respond as planned, Mickey coldly forces a kiss out of her. Disney claims that inspiration for his character partially came from Charles Chaplin's tramp character, though there's very little of that here: the look of pure mischievous evil on his face after being romantically rejected by Minnie is almost frightening! Plane Crazy was originally released as a silent cartoon, but, following the success of Steamboat Willie, it was re-released with sound effects and synchronised music.

Avant-Garde: Window Water Baby Moving (1959, Stan Brakhage)

Window Water Baby Moving (1959)
USA, 13 min
Directed by: Stan Brakhage
Written by: n/a
Starring: Stan Brakhage, Jane Brakhage, Myrrena Brakhage

Quite a few years ago, I attended a secondary school excursion to the Melbourne Museum, where we focused primarily upon the science of the human body. As part of the tour, we also attended a screening for the IMAX film The Human Body (2001), which used some nifty film-making techniques to demonstrate the workings of our organs, bones and muscles. The documentary even delved into the subject of reproduction, though I couldn't help noticing that the newly-born infant emerged in an peculiar state of utter cleanliness. Avant-garde Stan Brakhage apparently had no such inclinations towards prudishness. Perhaps his most notorious film, Window Water Baby Moving (1959) {filmed in November 1958} documents in unflinching detail the birth of his first-born daughter, Myrrena Brakhage. Unlike the bewildering Mothlight (1963), this is a Brakhage film that one doesn't need to decipher; the editing and images tell the entire story, not just of a human birth, but of the tender emotional bond between husband and wife, parent and child, and the all-seeing lens of the movie camera.

As a warning to potential viewers, Window Water Baby Moving (1959) doesn't recoil from capturing the most intimate (and explicit) moments of the baby's delivery. Events that would ordinarily be glossed over in other films, such as the cutting of the umbilical cord, or the ejection of the placenta (which looks just as painful as getting the baby out), are documented in detail, over a 13-minute running time that feels substantially longer. Being a student of biology myself, I felt confident that I could manage well enough, though the truth is that I'm a complete prude. In fact, I probably should have filmed myself watching the film, because my facial expressions must have betrayed something akin to revulsion on at least one occasion. However, as soon as that tiny head emerged from the necessary orifice, I began to understand this "miracle of birth" that people talk about so frequently. Even this term, however, is a misnomer, given that there's absolutely nothing miraculous about reproduction – in fact, it's perhaps the most natural phenomenon of all.

Brakhage's film surprised me in that I had expected a straightforward, literal documentation of the childbirth process, filmed in that continuous hand-held manner that characterises most modern home movies. However, his use of editing really breathes emotion into every scene. Even throughout the most crucial moments of the delivery, Brakhage cuts to shots of his wife, Jane, sharing an affectionate smile with the camera, or the couple's tightly-clasped hands, the husband offering his love and support during a time when the male was typically ejected from the room. Window Water Baby Moving is a movingly personal ode to the immortal bond of family, and to cinema's ability to capture and bottle these emotions as best as it can. Brakhage obviously found this documentary excursion to be a worthwhile endeavour, because he repeated the effort several years later with Thigh Line Lyre Triangular (1961), to record the birth of one of Myrrena's siblings. Not for the faint-hearted, but an unmissable avant-garde experience.

A warm welcome to "Short Cuts," the new stronghold of short films!

Well, perhaps I'm exaggerating.

This blog (my third, as avid readers will note) was initially envisioned as a team project with Josh Tschantret (a.k.a. fake_username), but he went off and created a short film blog all by himself, so now we have what I would consider a healthy rivalry. In any case, if my musings aren't enough for you, please feel free to head over there and browse.

Cinema was born as the short film. From the earliest days of Roundhay Garden Scene (1888) until the mid-1910s, films running less than one hour were the norm. Believe it or not, it was we Australians who broke the mould, producing the feature-length The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) [only fragments of this film remain today, and have been excellently restored by the National Film and Sound Archive.

Once features became dominant, due largely to the efforts of D.W. Griffith, it seems that short films fell mostly out of favour. Today, they are usually seen as inferior cinema, allowing budding directors to explore new techniques and make a name for themselves. Though this is certainly true in many cases, I remain adamant that masterpieces are just as common among short-subjects as they are among features, and this blog allows an avenue through which I can demonstrate this.
Just to get the ball rolling, here are my fifty favourite short films of all time, as of today. My interest skews slightly more towards animation than live-action (and you'll note a particular preference for Soviet animation), but I nonetheless think that it's a adequately eclectic selection:

1) Skazka skazok {Tale of Tales} (1979, Yuriy Norshteyn)
2) The Old Mill (1937, Wilfred Jackson)
3) La Jetée {The Pier} (1962, Chris Marker)
4) Le Voyage à travers l'impossible {The Impossible Voyage} (1904, Georges Méliès)
5) Yozhik v tumane {Hedgehog in the Fog} (1975, Yuriy Norshteyn)
6) Le Voyage dans la lune {A Trip to the Moon} (1902, Georges Méliès)
7) The Old Man and the Sea (1999, Aleksandr Petrov)
8) Geri’s Game (1997, Jan Pinkava)
9) The Tell-Tale Heart (1953, Ted Parmelee)
10) The Fountain of Youth (1958, Orson Welles)

11) Zhiltsy starogo doma {The Lodgers of an Old House} (1987, Alexei Karaev)
12) A Warning to the Curious (1972, Lawrence Gordon Clark)
13) Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968, Jonathan Miller)
14) Feed the Kitty (1952, Chuck Jones)
15) The Signalman (1976, Lawrence Gordon Clark)
16) One Froggy Evening (1955, Chuck Jones)
17) Suur Tõll {Toell the Great} (1980, Rein Raamat)
18) Partie de campagne {A Day in the Country} (1936, Jean Renoir)
19) Moya lyubov {My Love} (2006, Aleksandr Petrov)
20) Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora {The Cameraman's Revenge} (1912, Wladyslaw Starewicz)

21) The Fall of the House of Usher (1928, James Sibley Watson, Melville Webber)
22) Frank Film (1973, Caroline Mouris, Frank Mouris)
23) Zhil-byl pyos {There was a Dog} (1981, Eduard Nazarov)
24) Vesennie Melodii {Spring Melodies} (1946, Dmitry Babichenko)
25) A Corner in Wheat (1909, D.W. Griffith)
26) Son smeshnogo cheloveka {The Dream of a Ridiculous Man} (1992, Aleksandr Petrov)
27) Romance sentimentale {Sentimental Romance} (1930, Grigori Aleksandrov, Sergei M. Eisenstein)
28) Precious Images (1986, Chuck Workman)
29) Korova {Cow} (1989, Aleksandr Petrov)
30) Pas de deux {Duet} (1968, Norman McLaren)

31) Skazki Lesa {Forest Tales} (1997, Elena Petkevich)
32) Polizeibericht Überfall {Assault} (1928, Ernö Metzner)
33) Film (1965, Alan Schneider)
34) Ugly Duckling (1939, Jack Cutting)
35) Nuit et brouillard {Night and Fog} (1955, Alain Resnais)
36) Steklyannaya garmonika {The Glass Harmonica} (1968, Andrey Khrzhanovskiy)
37) Window Water Baby Moving (1959, Stan Brakhage)
38) The Key to Reserva (2007, Martin Scorsese)
39) Duck Amuck (1953, Chuck Jones)
40) Un chien andalou {An Andalusian Dog} (1929, Luis Buñuel)

41) More (1998, Mark Osborne)
42) Flowers and Trees (1932, Burt Gillett)
43) Tsaplya i zhuravl {The Heron and the Crane} (1974, Yuriy Norshteyn)
44) The Thieving Hand (1908, J. Stuart Blackton)
45) OffOn (1972, Scott Bartlett)
46) Frankenstein (1910, J. Searle Dawley)
47) The Skeleton Dance (1929, Walt Disney)
48) La Petite marchande d'allumettes {The Little Match Girl} (1928, Jean Renoir, Jean Tédesco)
49) A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit (1989, Nick Park)
50) The Cat Concerto (1947, Joseph Barbera, William Hanna)