Friday, April 24, 2009

Horror: Road to Glennascaul (1951, Hilton Edwards)

Road to Glennascaul (1951)
Ireland, 23 min
Directed by: Hilton Edwards
Written by: Hilton Edwards
Starring: Orson Welles, Michael Laurence, Shelah Richards, Helena Hughes, John Dunne, Isobel Couser, Ann Clery

During a break in the filming of The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice (1952), Orson Welles takes the time to recount a creepy "tall tale" allegedly told to him by a broken-down motorist to whom he offered a ride. Welles plays himself in the film, acting not only as the narrator, but more involvedly as the resident storyteller. One can imagine that it was this role, in addition to his obvious talents on the radio, that inspired The Fountain of Youth (1958) – a wonderful half-hour television pilot for "The Orson Welles Show," which boasted a concept not dissimilar to "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," but with Welles taking a more active presence in each episode's production (inconceivably, the show was immediately rejected). One also suspects the film's influence on the BBC's brilliant "Ghost Story for Christmas" series, the most impressive of examples of which are A Warning to the Curious (1972) and The Signalman (1976) {adapted from stories by M.R. James and Charles Dickens, respectively}.

The best kind of ghost stories, I think, that those told through an intermediary – it keeps them grounded in reality, which paradoxically makes them all the more creepy. The viewer's natural inclination is to trust the narrator's word, but in this case the narrator must rely on the word of the motorist, Sean Merriman (Michael Laurence), who could be making the whole story up… or, he could be completely sincere. It's that uncertainty that makes Return to Glennascaul (1951) a perfectly chilling ghost tale, and a fine companion for a cold, lonely winter's night. We must not, of course, underestimate the emotional resonance of Welles' narrating voice, which contributes just as much atmosphere as Georg Fleischmann's hazy photography. The film was nominated for an Oscar in 1954, but lost out to Bear Country (1953), one of Wal Disney's two-reeler nature documentaries. In any case, think about Return to Glennascaul next time you decide to pick up two female hitch-hikers – I, for one, will be following Orson's example!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Drama: What Shall We Do with Our Old? (1911, D.W. Griffith)

What Shall We Do with Our Old? (1911)
USA, 17 min
Directed by: D.W. Griffith
Starring: W. Chrystie Miller, Claire McDowell, Adolph Lestina, George Nichols, Elmer Booth, Donald Crisp, William J. Butler

D.W. Griffith's first film, Those Awful Hats (1909), was designed as a comical public service announcement of sorts. A few years later, the director continued to perform public services, but the complexity of his work had evolved exponentially. Much like A Corner in Wheat (1909), he is here using cinema to make a profound social statement, this particular issue highlighted in the film's title: What Shall We Do With Our Old? After an aging carpenter (W. Chrystie Miller) is fired from his job to make room for young workers, he is unable to find another job, leaving him, penniless, to care for his ailing wife (Claire McDowell). In order to survive, the carpenter reluctantly turns to crime, but is arrested and brought before a kindly, sympathetic judge (George Nichols). Despite the judge's understanding, it is too late for this elderly couple to be rescued from abject poverty: the wife succumbs to her illness, and the carpenter is left grieve his losses and ponder his lonely predicament.

A Corner in Wheat ends with an image of hope. What Shall We Do With Our Old? concludes with an image of despair, a pertinent social problem without any known solution. Griffith doesn't even attempt to propose any sort of resolution, which does admittedly come off as rather hypocritical – it is, after all, one thing to merely acknowledge a problem, and another to try and fix it. But the film is given emotional depth through an opening title that informs us that the story was "founded upon an actual occurrence in New York City," assuring Griffith's undeniable social relevance. Miller is very good in the main role, showing strong emotions in response to his character's hardship. Nichols, as the judge, also does well, playing the sort of sympathetic authority-figure role that Frank Capra might later have set aside for Harry Carey or Harry Davenport. McDowell, as the carpenter's sick wife, is adequate, but quite obviously far younger – 34 years old – than she was supposed to appear.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Cartoon: Red Hot Riding Hood (1943, Tex Avery)

Red Hot Riding Hood (1943)
USA, 7 min
Directed by: Tex Avery
Starring: Daws Butler, June Foray, Frank Graham (voices) (uncredited)

If you thought that Little Red Riding Rabbit (1944) was an offbeat adaptation of the fairy-tale, then you haven't seen nothing yet. Tex Avery's Red Hot Riding Hood (1943) opens in the usual fashion, but, after that, any resemblance to any known fairy-tale character, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. The Wolf baulks at having to play the one-dimensional bad guy for the hundredth time, and threatens to quit if the animators can't come up with anything original. So Avery throws together Red Hot Riding Hood, an adult cartoon set in the big city – the Wolf is a sex-crazed womaniser, Red a knockout nightclub dancer, and Grandma a libidinous old lady with her own high-rise penthouse. Yes, I warned you this one was different! Somebody must have forgotten to inform Avery that he was producing cartoons for children, since there's actually little to laugh at for anybody who isn't yet acquainted with the birds and the bees.

However, for those of us who have surpassed that particular checkpoint, Red Hot Riding Hood is very funny. The sheer audacity of a children's cartoon about sex – particularly given the typically innocent and wholesome image of Little Red Riding Hood – is something to be applauded. When Red first appears on stage, tossing aside her outfit to reveal a decidedly immodest red costume, I was genuinely taken aback, and then felt somewhat ashamed of myself. No doubt the animators in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) used Red as a template for the similarly alluring Jessica Rabbit. Also worth noting is that The Mask (1994) directly referenced Red Hot Riding Hood in the scene where Jim Carrey wolf-whistles (in the full sense of the word) Cameron Diaz during her nightclub performance – I'd never realised this. The interaction between Wolf and Grandma is more conventional than the rest of the film, but still enjoyable. For fans of Tex Avery and MGM cartoons, this one is essential viewing.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Avant-Garde: Cat's Cradle (1959, Stan Brakhage)

Cat's Cradle (1959)
USA, 6 min
Directed by: Stan Brakhage
Starring: Stan Brakhage, Jane Brakhage, James Tenney, Carolee Schneemann

Though as thematically incomprehensible as much of the director's work, in terms of the mood that Brakhage is able to cultivate, Cat's Cradle (1959) is an excellent short film. The home in which the film is set is perpetually bathed in a warm, glowing ambiance, a combination of red and orange hues that suggests comfort, intimacy, love and lust. Brakhage sits against a wall, puffing contemplatively on a cigarette. Wife Jane Brakhage poses uncertainly for the camera – even in such brief flashes, she has a smile that lights up the screen. Though you wouldn't notice it on first viewing, also present are family friends James Tenney and Carolee Schneemann. But most prominent among the film's characters is a domestic cat, coloured black but always bathed in that ghostly reddish light. Rather than being an omen of bad luck, the feline instead serves as the entity that draws together the disparate elements – characters who are rarely seen sharing the same frame – into a cohesive household.

It's probably never a good idea to blend unrelated works of art, but I must admit that the Beatles' "Revolution 9" harmonised perfectly with the film's images, and even to a certain extent enhanced them. Brakhage's films often capture instants in time – prolonging, accelerating, and repeating these moments – and so creating a rhythm of disjointed time that is beautifully complemented by the nonsensical, psychedelic sound collage of John Lennon's avant-garde oddity, which makes frequent use of tape loops and backmasking. Brakhage's montage is unrelenting, each shot disappearing from the screen as often as it came, but, perhaps because he recycles certain frames on numerous occasions, the end result is neither jarring nor disorientating – that Brakhage had no intentions of telling a conventional narrative was, given his stylistic choices, certainly beneficial. The sensuality of the colour palette left me feeling rather flushed, as though I'd been sitting with an intense fluorescent light beaming against the back of my neck.

Cartoon: Blitz Wolf (1942, Tex Avery)

Blitz Wolf (1942)
USA, 10 min
Directed by: Tex Avery
Written by: Rich Hogan
Starring: Pinto Colvig (voice), Frank Graham (voice), Bill Thompson (voice)

We all love to make fun of Adolf Hitler. He's the sort of political figure who's tailor-made for caricature, as Charles Chaplin discovered with The Great Dictator (1940). But it also happens that he was a monster, one whose success spawned the most devastating conflict the human race has ever known. So it's with some uncertainty that comedy and propaganda combine in Tex Avery's Blitz Wolf (1942). That same year, Jack Kinney's Der Fuehrer's Face (1942) won an Oscar for showing Donald Duck's miserable life in "Nutzi" land, where he is continually battered into submission by the machinery of fascism, but Avery's cartoon is rather more open about its hatred towards Germany's leader. An opening title mocks convention by declaring that "the wolf in this photoplay is NOT fictitious. Any similarity between this Wolf and that (*!!*!) jerk Hitler is purely intentional!" Thus, the knives are sharpened, and Adolf Hitler's animated counterpart is about to receive his due.

Blitz Wolf is styled around the tale of the Three Little Pigs (particularly the 1933 Disney Silly Symphony) – certainly the most offbeat version of the story you'll ever see – with the Big Bad Wolf having attained a characteristic moustache and a distinctive German accent. The first two pigs, having misguidedly entered into a peace treaty with the Wolf, are surprised to have their homes destroyed by his armies (this Wolf is too weak and cowardly to blow down houses himself, and instead uses mechanical beasts to do his dirty work). The third pig, his home a veritable steel fortress (a sign announcing "No dogs/Japs allowed!"), urges his brothers to help fight their collective enemy, both in combat and by purchasing war bonds. Not surprisingly, the remainder of the film consists of the Hitler-Wolf being continually shot and blasted from all angles, until he eventually wakes to find himself in the fiery dungeons of Hell. It gets a little bit repetitive, but, of course, Hitler deserves to be exploded as many times as possible.

Whereas I found Der Fuehrer's Face to be a highly rewatchable cartoon, even nearly seventy years later, Avery's take on Nazism isn't quite so fresh. There are some excellent word gags, such as a title on the Wolf's tank reading "Der Fewer (Der Better)," but there are also some self-referential signs that may elicit a disbelieving groan: "Gone with the Wind" when the first pig's house is blown away (despite the animators' acknowledgement of its corniness) and "Long darn thing, isn't it?" when we can clearly already see that the pigs' weaponry is rather lengthy. For the adults, there's also plenty of mischievous sexual innuendo at play, particularly in the comparisons made between the length of each army's cannons. One gag, with a suddenly-limp American cannon being rejuvenated by a dosage of Vitamin B1, was certainly more forward than I'm used to from 1940s children's cartoons. Overall, Blitz Wolf is not the most intelligent of animated shorts, but it's an interesting historical document, and a bit of fun, too.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Animation: The Hole (1962, John Hubley)

The Hole (1962)
USA, 15 min
Directed by: John Hubley
Written by: John Hubley, Faith Hubley
Starring: Dizzy Gillespie (voice), George Mathews (voice)

I've really grown to like the films of John and Faith Hubley, and something about their style always struck me as familiar, but I could never quite put my finger on it. Then I saw the introductory title "an observation by John and Faith Hubley," and it came to me – this film is a precursor to "Seinfeld!" Don't lambast me just yet, I'll explain. Anybody who has seen the series' DVD releases would undoubtedly be familiar with the bonus Seinimations, directed by Eric Yahnker, which presented crude animations that synchronised with the many bizarre conversations of Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer. These snippets are worthwhile, not for their visuals, but for the vocal interplay between the contributing characters, and the essence of this idea was already entrenched in the films of the Hubleys, who typically constructed visuals around a spontaneous, free-flowing conversation between two people. The Hole (1962), John Hubley's second Oscar-winning short, tackles, among other things, the nature of accidents, and whether the notion applies to nuclear war.

Two construction workers (voiced by Dizzy Gillepsie and George Matthews) are engaged in conversation as they work. The pair's interaction, as was the Hubleys' style, doesn't feel scripted in the least, following a natural pathway that begins with discussion of everyday issues and ends with the reality of nuclear war. Citizens in the early 1960s were, of course, faced with the height of the Cold War, and this is very much reflected in the cinema of the day. The characters in The Hole reflect upon the possibility of nuclear war being caused by a technical glitch – a scenario terrifyingly brought to life in Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe (1964) – but one contends that even this can't be considered a passive, blameless "accident," as it is we who knowingly possess such a dangerous weapon with willingness to use it. Though the film's animation is not particularly handsome, lacking the bright, fresh colours of Windy Day (1968), the conversation is most definitely worth hearing, and the ideas raised deserve more than a few seconds' contemplation.

Cartoon: The Band Concert (1935, Wilfred Jackson)

The Band Concert (1935)
USA, 9 min
Directed by: Wilfred Jackson
Starring: Clarence Nash (voice)

Mickey Mouse's first official outing in Technicolor {after Parade of the Award Nominees (1932), which wasn't intended for public release} was The Band Concert (1935), directed by the ever-reliable Wilfred Jackson. Like many of Mickey's cartoons, this one is basically a Silly Symphony featuring Disney's most popular character, with relative newcomer Donald Duck (voiced by Clarence Nash) having a few lines of dialogue. Being a cartoon built around an already-existing piece of classical music – Gioachino Rossini's "William Tell" overture, in this case – The Band Concert might be viewed as another important step towards the achievements of Fantasia (1940). Mickey plays the irritable conductor of a country band, who is determined to finish his song against all odds. His dedicated band of performers (including Goofy, Clarabelle Cow, Horace Horsecollar and Peter Pig) continue playing despite the disruptions of Donald – who briefly confuses them into performing "Turkey in the Straw" – a mischievous bee, and a particularly violent tornado.

Donald is amusing, and the bee gags feel a little tired, but The Band Concert reaches full stride in its final act, when a performance of "Storm" from the overture seemingly conjures a real-life tornado. Building upon his work in the Silly Symphony The Ugly Duckling (1931), Jackson somehow turns this meteorological event into something operatic and almost apocalyptic. From the moment Mickey and his band commence this section of the overture, the mood of the cartoon subtly begins to change. Leaves begin to the whirl behind the musicians; the colours are slowly drained from the screen. With Mickey continuing feverishly to conduct the band, even with all this chaos being orchestrated around him, it almost seems as though he's also conducting the weather, suggesting the seeds of the "Sorceror's Apprentice" segment in Fantasia. In 1994, The Band Concert was rated the #3 American cartoon of all time, the highest-rated Disney release. For me, it doesn't beat The Old Mill (1937), but is still a very worthy effort.