Saturday, March 21, 2009

Western: In the Border States (1910, D.W. Griffith)

In the Border States (1910)
USA, 17 min
Directed by: D.W. Griffith
Written by: Stanner E.V. Taylor
Starring: Charles West, Charles Arling, William J. Butler, Verner Clarges, Edward Dillon, John T. Dillon, Gladys Egan

In 1910, America was preparing to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the Civil War, and the gradual development of cinema made it possible to convincingly recreate the events of decades past. While many of these Civil War films were dispensable and quickly forgotten, at least one director knew exactly what he was doing with the camera. D.W. Griffith became such a successful filmmaker because he could really connect with the human side of his characters. War films can very easily become a one-sided affair, showing sympathy and compassion for only one of the feuding powers, while the other one is designated to the role of the faceless enemy. Not so for Griffith, at least not in this case. In the Border States (1910) humanises both sides of the American Civil War, suggesting that there was little difference between the soldiers who fought for either the Union or the Confederacy (a sobering realisation that usually only comes years after the bloodshed of combat).

The film opens with a young father (Charles West) joining the Union army and marching off to war, leaving behind an anxious family. His daughter (Gladys Egan), collecting water at the well one day, is surprised by a Confederate soldier, who is dying of thirst and being pursued by the enemy. Despite her prejudices, the girl decides to help the poor man, a simple act of kindness that will later reward her in kind. In the Border States really captures the turmoil and confusion of the Civil War, with soldiers fighting fellow Americans at their own doorstep, and being unable to understand why they are in conflict with men who are so similar to themselves. The young girl's benevolence shows that, while loyalty to one's army is noble, this comes second to one's obligation towards his fellow man – regardless of nationality or beliefs. Griffith's action-packed Biograph short, without needing to hammer its message home, is a stirring anti-war testament; it's too bad that, within a few years, the world would be making the same mistakes all over again.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Soviet: Singing Teacher (1968, Anatoly Petrov)

Singing Teacher (1968)
Soviet Union, 3 min
Directed by: Anatoliy Petrov
Written by: Roza Khusnutdinova

Singing Teacher (1968) {which also goes by the name of Kaleidoscope '68. The Hippopotamus} is a funny, ineffectual little comedy short from Soviet director Anatoly Petrov. The off-beat storyline, written by Roza Khusnutdinova, has a bulging hippopotamus reporting for singing lessons with an impatient music professor, but the hefty animal simply cannot carry a tune. After trying to teach his student how to sing with a soft melodious voice like himself, the teacher becomes angry and frustrated, so frustrated, in fact, that he inadvertently falls into the hippo's mouth and is promptly swallowed. The hippo now finds that, when he opens his mouth, the beautiful voice of his former teacher escapes his lips, and so lumbers off contentedly. This is a one-joke cartoon, certainly, but it has its charms. After all, how many films do you see that feature a hippo trying to perform music?

The animation style is quite interesting. Mostly black-and-white, the animation resembles the detailed sketch-drawings you might come across in a newspaper, fairly realistic but with slightly straighter lines and more jagged corners than is usual. The hippopotamus has an ungodly honk that clashes horribly with the beautiful music supplied by the old singing teacher, though the teacher himself is so snobbish and uptight that seeing him gobbled up is actually quite gratifying. Singing Teacher was Petrov's first film as director, though he had worked as an animator since at least 1958. I'm not completely certain, but I assume that this film was one entry in a series or collection of animated shorts, perhaps compiled together as one longer film; the Russian Animation Database also lists Kaleidoscope'68. The Cyclist and Kaleidoscope'68. The Fence, both directed by Lev Atamanov.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Comedy: The Sex Life of the Polyp (1928, Thomas Chalmers)

The Sex Life of the Polyp (1928)
USA, 11 min
Directed by: Thomas Chalmers
Written by: Robert Benchley (writer)
Starring: Robert Benchley
Robert Benchley was an American humourist whose work extended across various mediums, though he is most remembered today for his short-subject comedic shorts, particularly the "How To..." series that he produced with MGM between 1935 and 1939. He has a understated, droll style of comedy – few of his jokes actually aim to get big laughs, and most of the humour is to be found in words rather than in physical slapstick routines. In 1927, Hollywood embraced the arrival of synchronised sound, a technical innovation that proved perfect for Benchley's kind of entertainment. His first appearance on film was in The Treasurer's Report (1928). The same year, The Sex Life of the Polyp (1928) was released, a subtle and likable little comedy with an eye-catching title. As in many of his short films, Benchley plays a smug lecturer who spouts rather ridiculous nonsense to a rapt audience, in this case a ladies' club, whose members giggle nervously whenever Benchley's analogies become a little too obvious for comfort.

I only laughed aloud one or two times watching The Sex Life of the Polyp, but I had a smile on my face the whole time. The utter confidence with which Benchley recites gibberish is constantly amusing, and the actor responds well to the unfamiliar medium of sound-synchronised film (despite the poor audio quality of the print, which often made the dialogue difficult to discern). To explain the sex life of polyps, Benchley introduces a female test subject he dubs Mary, represented on the projector screen as a shivering and hairy mass. He then adds the male, who responds excitedly to the female presence, but doesn't notice when Mary is replaced by a button, and then a crumb of corn-bread. Finally, frustrated at the inactivity of his partner, the male polyp gives up and transforms into a female. Benchley then asserts that his research interests have now turned towards "some animal which takes its sex life a little more seriously." I think I can guess which animal he has in mind.

Avant-Garde: The Return to Reason (1923)

Le Retour à la raison / The Return to Reason (1923)
France, 3 min
Directed by: Man Ray
Starring: Kiki of Montparnasse

I always get a headache trying to work out what avant-garde cinema is all about – allegedly, cinema brawls have been started for this very reason. So I've decided to appreciate The Return to Reason (1923) for its aesthetic qualities only, and there are plenty. The beginning of the film is a hectic collage of white specks and rotating silhouettes, some footage created without the use of a camera, similar to the later work of Stan Brakhage. Ticking clocks, nail outlines, bright lights, spinning egg crates – what it all means, I don't know, but the brisk editing pace maintains a strong momentum that easily carries through the two-minute running time. Ray's montage flows smoothly for the most part, but occasionally jars like a jump-cut as he switches from one photographic technique to another; for example, from moving to static images, or between visuals produced with and without a camera. In this sense, the film doesn't stream as pleasantly as similar avant-garde works like Richter's Ghosts after Breakfast (1928) and Vávra's The Light Pentrates the Dark (1931).

This was my first film from Man Ray, one of the leading figures in the Dadaist film movement of the 1920s. Dada (or Dadaism) is characterised by the rejection of logic and rationality in artistic expression, and so the embracing of chaos. The title The Return to Reason seems to be intentionally contradictory, at odds with a film in which very little reason is to be found. Perhaps the randomness is all for the director's own amusement – Man Ray was notorious for his wry sense of humour, and he reportedly "talked so you could never tell when he was kidding." He once stated that "To create is divine, to reproduce is human," suggesting an overlying theme of sex in his work. Indeed, the finale of this film involves the naked torso of a woman – perhaps this "return to reason" is the realisation, after two minutes of frenzied, random soul-searching, of what matters most to a man. I can sympathise.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Cartoon: Der Fuehrer's Face (1942, Jack Kinney)

Der Fuehrer's Face (1942)
USA, 8 min
Directed by: Jack Kinney
Written by: Joe Grant, Dick Huemer
Starring: Clarence Nash (voice)

WWII-era filmmakers used two broad approaches when attempting to discredit Adolf Hitler and Germany in general. The first, and least interesting in my view, was to treat them with the utmost seriousness, painting the Nazis are perverted, sadistic and evil baby-killers (and the like). Secondly, there was the comedic approach, by which Hitler was belittled through having entire audiences laughing in his face. The Great Dictator (1940) and To Be or Not to Be (1942) accomplish this hilariously well, but what about the younger demographics? To help communicate the evils of Nazism to children, the Walt Disney cartoon Der Fuhrer's Face (1942) tosses Donald Duck (voiced by Clarence Nash) amid Hitler's militaristic regime, where he slaves away for "48 hours a day" in a munitions factory, continually bombarded with the swastika symbol and the phrase "heil Hitler!" At the end of the cartoon, after a surreal montage of Nazi (or "Nutzi," as the film says) oppression, Donald wakes up in America, thankfully sighing "am I glad to be a citizen of the United States of America."

Despite winning an Oscar in 1943 for Best Short Subject Cartoon, Der Fuehrer's Face was rarely seen following the end of the war. As the atrocities of Hitler's "Final Solution" came to light, the Nazi badge quickly became something, not to be merely ridiculed, but to be loathed. Nevertheless, the sheer audacity of Jack Kinney's cartoon has to be seen to be believed. There's hardly a frame in which the swastika is not visible in one form or another, and Donald is ludicrously forced to bark "Heil Hitler" whenever he comes across a photograph of the Fuehrer. The cartoon's climax is a dizzyingly-surreal montage in which anthropomorphised Nazi machinery relentlessly beats Donald into submission. It's all a little disconcerting, as was its intention, but it's also a lot of fun. Also featured is Oliver Wallace's song "Der Fuehrer's Face," which was covered by Spike Jones and His City Slickers with great success. Indeed, the name of this cartoon was changed from "Donald Duck in Nutzi Land" to capitalise on the song's popularity.