Sunday, April 11, 2010

4 peculiar short films

Lolita's back! At least for today. You know the story, right? I got caught up in a role playing game on the Nintendo DS, and I can't write any blog posts if demons are attacking me all the time. I have to defend Tokyo from the fire demon, and therefore I have to spend a lot of time leveling up. I'm sure you understand.

Yesterday in school was quite interesting. The morning started with the British postal service and ended with the assassination of Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and his brother Bob. Oh, and some soldiers on fire in "Nam". I believe the subject for the day was documentary/experimental films, but I must say that murdered people almost made my newly finished take away coffee end up on the seat in front of me.

Now, let me introduce you to British GPO informative films, American avant-garde and Cuban anti-USA satire!

Night Mail
Director: Harry Watt, Basil Wright
United Kingdom 1936
25 min
Starring: random post office workers
GPO Film Unit
See it on YouTube.

Do you want to become a hero? Start delivering letters to the British countryside! Really, this little piece of educational/information film leaves one feeling that the most honorable men in the world work for the GPO (General Post Office).

Night Mail is generally known as the most famous of the GPO educational films made in the United Kingdom. And oh, is it British! 'Ello, mate!

The subject for the film might seem pretty uninteresting, but through Soviet montage movement inspired editing, Night Mail cleverly delivers an amusing behind-the-scene look at the British postal system of the 1930's. Although some interior scenes are obviously filmed in studios and the actors have clear instructions to move rhythmically, the cast consists only of real postal workers.

The earlier mentioned rhythm of this short film makes me think about music videos. But of course, the one thing Night Mail can be called famous for is the W. H. Auden poem "This is the Night Mail" that is read over rapid cuts toward the end of the film. Quite the climax, if I may use that word in this context. If you don't intend to spend all of 25 minutes on this (bad, bad person), at least watch that poem (1930's rap!):

The City
Director: Ralph Elton
United Kingdom 1939
20 min
Starring: random people
GPO Film Unit
See it on YouTube.

Just look at that. How is the human race supposed to survive among smoking chimneys, indifferent crowds and sad children playing in the dirty streets? Hear the music of the doomsday, watch the sun hide behind black industrial clouds.

Even though the introductory text of this film clearly states that this is a documentary, I am not certain. Of course, the footage is probably not manipulated in itself. But a lot can happen when a scissor gets to go wild on the film strips, different soundtracks are added to different kinds of pictures and material not supporting ones opinions end up in the trash bin. Considering that, The City might be some kind of documentary after all.

In short, this film promotes small neighborhoods and fair weather, and condemns big, filthy cities with miserable children. That one thing not necessarily equals the other is never taken into consideration. Of course. I must say that I actually thought that the city children looked quite happy and normal, even though the filming crew most certainly tried to find the most awful city suburb available.

All in all, this "documentary" made me laugh out loud. Of course, some person with a large stick up his/her ass exclaimed a dramatic "Sssssshhhhhh!" to my merry reaction, but pretty soon the rest of the audience couldn't help laughing too.

Meshes of the Afternoon
Director: Maya Deren, Alexander Hammid
USA 1943
14 min
Starring: Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid
See it on YouTube.

Well, this is interesting. Meshes of the Afternoon is an avant-garde film written and co-directed by American-Ukraine Maya Deren, who also acts in the film together with her husband, co-director and co-actor Alexander Hammid.

The film explores dreams, unconsciousness and female sexuality (yes, in the prude American 1940's!). To me this is like a film adaption of a regular nightmare - everyday things that change meaning or form, the repeating of seemingly the same actions, while some details change, disappear, re-appear or remain in duplicates. It's strange and beautiful.

This Maya Deren work is often mentioned as the most important and influential experimental film of the 20th century. Deren believed that film should be more than just a recording of reality, but rather an artistic medium. She was strongly influenced by French filmmaker and film theorist Germaine Dulac, of who's work I can recommend the following YouTube clip. Danses Espagnoles (1928) is a beautiful experimental film, and comparing it to Meshes of the Afternoon makes Deren's source of inspiration apparent.

Meshes of the Afternoon was filmed entirely silent, and that was how I saw it. With no sound at all the dreamlike quality of the film becomes inconveniently real. But the soundtrack on the YouTube clip works very well too, so give it a watch.

The beautiful Maya Deren. (Picture not from the film.)

Director: Santiago Álvarez
Cuba 1968
18 min
Starring: or rather, including Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and others.

"I have a dream!"

The last short film on the list brought tears to my eyes. Lo and behold! A political experimental documentary dealing with the assassination of not only John F. Kennedy in 1963, but also of Martin Luther King in April and Bob Kennedy in June the year of the film's release. That's pretty quick.
Includes doomsday music by Carl Orff and jazzy tunes by Nina Simone.

Pretty much everything in these mere 18 minutes is quite ambiguous, starting with the title. Now, what could "LBJ" stand for? One explanation is of course Lyndon B. Johnson, who's face shows up between the several traumatic events the film deals with (obviously Álvarez wanted to point towards his involvement in the happenings). By first thought about the title was not however the most obvious, but rather the initials of the victims: Luther King, Bob Kennedy and Jack Kennedy. Probably Álvarez had thought about both options.

Now to the film itself. This is not a narrated documentary of any sort, but rather an ambiguous (yes, that word is very suiting in this context) scrapbook of images from the murders, Lyndon Johnson, the "I Have a Dream" speech and the Vietnam war. About those tears in my eyes: they appeared when a short film clip from Vietnam was shown depicting a man covered in flames, falling to the ground. Not very nice at all.

The part that amazed me most when talking about editing is the "I Have a Dream" part. We see pictures of Martin Luther King giving the speech (from which the tiniest extract gives me goosebumps), and every time he exclaims "I have a dream!" we cut to a firing squad shooting in his direction. Knowing what happened to him, and how fresh his assassination was when LBJ came, you have to get emotional in one way or the other.

It's hard to describe LBJ, you just have to see it. And do. I have no doubts about Castro being glad to let this film be produced, but now that years have healed most of the wounds relating to the topic - see LBJ if you get the chance. It's overwhelming, but liberating in a strange way.

I include the first eight minutes below: you might have to wait until about 2:35 before you understand what the hell I have been writing about. This was pretty cool to see in a movie theater!


Meredith said...

i've seen meshes of the afternoon several times and it still fascinates! will have to watch the rest of these thanks.

good luck with the fire demons. :]

SteveQ said...

Just discovered your blog - and am amazed that the only one of those shorts I've seen is "Meshes." I loved all of Deren's films until I read her description of what she was trying to do; it was so pretentious I laughed out loud.

The short lives on! There's a sick little 9 minute joke called "Spider" attached to a current film (no, I'm not saying - you have to search for it!)