Short Films


Precious Images (1989) 
Chuck Workman
USA
8 Min.

 

Chuck Workman’s Precious Images (1989), commissioned by the Director’s Guild of America at the unofficial centenary of cinema, is made of hundreds of shot fragments collected from numerous Hollywood titles – mostly highly popular – each of which, generally, lasts for not more than half of a second. If one can get past obvious objections about a centenary film which is made of films from just one film industry and which includes works that had vehemently announced their breakup from it, Precious Images comes across as an effective if not exactly exhilarating tribute to classic Hollywood cinema. Workman assembles his material more on intuition than theory and the film moves from one genre to another, less through their external generic classification and more through the emotional impression the selected shots create. As a result, films from genres such as thriller and horror reside with each other while romance and comedy go hand in hand. Furthermore, Workman cuts his films like the finest of Hollywood films do: manipulative enough to guide our attention from one shot to another and tasteful enough to restrain from overkill.  Also typically Hollywood is the way the film employs music and sound bites, mostly culled from iconic film scores, to pull together the disintegrated structure of the film. Putting aside the lingering feeling that this is Hollywood patting its own back for everything that it’s done, Precious Images makes for a great spot-the-movie game.

 

By a bizarre coincidence, I came across this movie the same day I saw Joel Bocko’s uber-geeky montage that spans 60 years of world cinema. Joel’s vastly superior film plays out like the output of a malfunctioning super-projector in its final minute of operation. Essential viewing, below.

Yek Atash (1961) (A Fire)
Ebrahim Golestan
Iran
24 Min.

 

The oldest Iranian film I’ve seen, Ebrahim Golestan’s short documentary A Fire (1961), chronicles an incident of fire at the oil wells near Ahwaz, Iran, that raged for several months and the relentless efforts to put it out. Edited by poet and Golestan’s partner Forough Farrokhzad, A Fire seemingly plays out as a straightforward reportage, although made about three years late. The firefighting is carried out mainly during the night time and we see silhouettes of men spraying water and of machines trying to clear the debris from the spot of the accident. (The men look like silhouettes even in daylight, thanks to heavy carbon deposits on their bodies). The narrator, speaking in English, tells us that the fire has been on for such a long time that it has become a part of the local landscape. Golestan (who, by the way, made one of the finest Iranian films I’ve seen) digresses regularly from the happenings at the centre to observe the impact of the fire on the residents of the adjacent village and the firefighters themselves. When we are told that the villagers were relocated in order to avoid being poisoned by the residual gases. (We are later informed that the well was shut down and another site was captured for the mining operation). The plight of the firefighters, on the other hand, is even more affecting. Assigned to some of the most life-threatening tasks by the American site managers, they appear as if resigned to fate, their eyes betraying a deep fatigue that’s more than just physical, their bodies (literally) moving ever closer to death, like moth flies approaching a light source. However, Golestan’s film stands in stark contrast to Herzog’s beautiful and atrocious decontextualization game, Lessons of Darkness (1992), in that it recognizes that its subjects are not fuelled by madness, but charcoaled by despair.

(This post comes as a part of the splendid Iranian Film Blogathon hosted by Sheila O’Malley)

 

The Rook (1974)
Ali Akbar Sadeghi
Iran
10 Min.

 

Renowned painter and filmmaker Ali Akbar Sadeghi’s The Rook (1974) is a hilarious short animation based on a quick little game of chess. The idea of bringing the game to life, in itself, isn’t a terribly novel thing. Many people, like me, would have wondered how a film based on chess would pan out, given the inherent capacity for not only sadism and spectacle, but even analysis of class, war and bipolar politics. (Kubrick’s chess movie is probably the closest one comes to witnessing such a treatment). Sadeghi, given that he was working for the Kanun, undermines the scope for gratuitous violence throughout, instead opting for a Lego-like version of the war. The result is nearly as hysterical as Pudovkin’s and Shpikovsky’s brilliant comedy based on the game Chess Fever (1925). Sadeghi’s style of animation (that seems to have died out now and which one used to see so often in government sponsored animation programmes in India) generally consists of two planes of action, which appear as if they are sliding one beneath the other, and involves hand-drawn sketches animated to puppet-like gestures marked by repetition and rigidity. And the director uses this rigidity to great effect in The Rook. The kamikaze match (which actually sticks religiously to the rules of the game), right till its recursive, anti-climactic showdown is full of absurdities, not only in the way each move is presented, but also in the playing strategy itself. I don’t know if I should understand it as a remark on the absurdity of war or on the absurdity of the game, but Sadeghi sure harnesses the absurdity of the medium to its fullest here.

(Posted as part of the ongoing Iranian Film Blogathon at Sheila O’Malley‘s. Do check out the rich collection there)


 

Rangha (1976) (aka Colours)
Abbas Kiarostami
Iran
15 Min.

 

I’m usually wary of tracing auteurist strains in a filmmaker’s very early works since this retrospective ‘curve fitting’ not only turns out contrived but imposes an unwarranted burden on the filmmaker by not allowing him to change with time. One of Abbas Kiarostami’s earliest short films, Colours (1976), both reveals traces of his subsequent preoccupations and stands antithetical to many facets that would become his trademark. Made for the film division of Kanun (Centre for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults established by the Shah’s wife in the 60s), Colours is a educational documentary, possible targeted at the very young, which urges the children to discover various colours in natural and manmade objects around them. Like Satyajit Ray, Kiarostami started out as a graphic artist and Colours appears closer to that vocation than filmmaking. Presenting various items head on, more often than not amidst a white background, with a narrator describing what is shown, the short is completely preoccupied with objects and surfaces (like his very latest, can we say?). The soundtrack, with its redundant voiceover and a corny, loopy soundtrack is in direct contrast to Kiarostami’s later, minimalist ventures. But Colours is also one of the very few completely non-narrative films by the director, who seems to be more at ease here working with still life than live action. Kiarostami’s still on experimental grounds here and the Centre seems to have provided ample opportunities for that, even (especially?) after the revolution. The film ends with shots of drawings on a blackboard, which has quite easily become emblematic of Kiarostami’s early works at the Centre, the works of the Kanun, in general, and even Iranian cinema, in a way.

P.S: There’s an extended scene with toy racecars tracing curves on plastic tracks – so redolent and so-not-redolent of the director’s later works.

(This is a token contribution to Sheila O’Malley‘s Iranian Film Blogathon, which I’m eagerly looking forward to. Get over there pronto!)


The Heart Of The World (2000)
Guy Maddin
Canada
6 Min.

 

One of the most exhilarating works of the last decade, Guy Maddin’s six minutes of undiluted phantasmagoria, The Heart of the World (2000), is a postmodern film about modernism. Like The Limits of Control (2009) – a postmodern film about postmodernism – Maddin’s picture parodies modernist ideas of grand narratives and universal philosophical and political truths, obtainable through science, that could help change humanity for the better. But while Jarmusch’s latest took up arms against capitalist modernization and cultural homogenization, Maddin’s film is merely nostalgic and mocking in attitude. Constructed using pseudo-degraded film stock, expressionist, distorted images, atypically ambiguous Eisensteinian montage and a pulsating track by Georgi Sviridov (which was also employed by Peleshian in Beginning (1967)), the film’s “grand narrative” opens with the image of an omniscient cinematic eye peeping into the diegesis and follows Anna the scientist (the mother figure in the film – wielding a telescope that points downwards – is possibly modeled after the titular queen in Aelita (1924)) as she tries to save the “heart of the world” – the truth – from a breakdown due to, well, individualism and capitalism. Even at the minimum, The Heart of the World, teasingly and cheerfully, presents a scintillating time capsule of an age that exhibited a utopian optimism towards psychoanalysis (the film is a Freudian’s playground), feminism, technology and cinema (the last two of which Vertov uses almost interchangeably when he says that Kino-Eye can transform man “from a bumbling citizen through the poetry of the machine to the perfect electric man”), be it through Kino-Pravda, Kino-Train or Kino-Eye.

Junkopia (1981)
Chris Marker, John Chapman, Frank Simeone
France
7 Min.

 

In Junkopia, Chris Marker’s filmography, which is more than a simple collection of travelogues that it appears to be, extends itself to a territory that one is tempted to call entirely alien. The short begins with a shot of a bunch of strange mechanical “beings” floating on what appears to be water. Marker and co. confirm our suspicion, that this might indeed be earth, by giving us the geographical coordinates of the place we are looking at – 37º45’ North. A slew of close ups of these “creatures”, powered by an eerie electronic soundtrack, places them on the same dais as the very many interesting people from across the world that Marker has introduced to us through the years. You almost sense them staring at you. The illusion of this post-apocalyptic, other-worldliness is once again shattered as the directors reveal the relative position (in contrast to the meaningless absoluteness of latitudes and longitudes) of this “community” as being just next to a speedy highway located in our own world, in our own time. The soundtrack becomes even more dense as excerpts from radio, satellite communication, TV programs and popular songs arrive in bits and pieces, trying to overpower each other. A shot of vehicles moving on a distant bridge like objects on a conveyor belt. The terror is registered on multiple levels. Is this how we treat things, ideas and people that we deem to be “less important” and “less beautiful”, while unanimously moving towards a pointless destination? Or is this what our entire civilization, the beauty of our arts, our present culture going to be reduced to? Haunting stuff that is perhaps only paralleled by Tsai Ming-Liang’s Fish, Underground (2001)

Dinner For One (1995)
Abbas Kiarostami
France/Iran
1 Min.

 

Abbas Kiarostami’s short for Lumiére and Company (1995), the film made to commemorate a century of cinema, is arguably the best of the 40 odd films in the compilation. The short films were to be made using the earliest camera that the Lumiére siblings had devised and in accordance with three basic rules, aimed at replicating the filming constraints prevalent a hundred years ago – the films could run for more than a minute, they had to be filmed using a static camera and no artificial sound or light could be used. Kiarostami, being the iconoclast he is, breaks one of the rules instantly by making sound a critical part of his film. Titled “Dinner for One”, the short film shows us two eggs being fried on a pan placed over a hot stove. Meanwhile, on the soundtrack, a woman (voiced by none other than Isabelle Huppert) on the phone urges the person (invisible to us, presumably a man) to pick up the phone and talk to her. She seems to know that he is in the house and, yet, is not willing to pick up the phone. The man, on the other hand, continues to fry the two eggs (a couple?) without paying any heed to the call. Proving once more, as he has so consistently done in his marvelous career, that minimalism actually means maximum utilization of available resources, Kiarostami presents a film that can well be regarded as a crash course in minimalism by one of the greatest exponents of the school. Having us see just a couple of eggs being fried and hear an unanswered phone call, Kiarostami paints a heartbreaking portrait of failed relationships and unrequited love.

Mest Kinematograficheskogo Operatora (1912) (aka The Cameraman’s Revenge)
Wladyslaw Starewicz
USSR
13 Min.

 

If a list of forgotten pioneers of cinema is to be made, it is highly likely that Wladyslaw Starewicz tops that list. Few filmmakers seem to have come close to him as far as understanding the animation medium is concerned (Cohl and Disney are the only ones that come to mind). Starewicz began his career stuffing dead insects and animating them by traditional puppetry or stop motion photography and then moved on to make (more humane, but less magical) movies employing puppets and toys. His short film, The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), arguably his masterpiece, presents us Mr. And Mrs. Beetle, the former of whom goes away on a trip only to involve himself in an affair with a pretty dragonfly. Mr. Grasshopper, the jilted boyfriend of the dragonfly and a movie maker by profession, plans revenge. When Mr. Beetle returns home to discover his wife having an affair, he is infuriated and erupts. To patch up things, he takes his wife to the local cinema hall where a big surprise awaits him. Hilarious, groundbreaking and profound all at once, The Cameraman’s Revenge, like Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963), stands as a testimony to the power of cinema (animation cinema, in particular) to resurrect and immortalize the dead. No one can deny that there is some sinister charm is witnessing these bugs, which have bit the dust ages ago, come to life once more to perform for generations to come. Starewicz’s sense of slapstick is pitch perfect here (as always, even when he was merely illustrating moral tales later in his career) and the film can well be placed alongside the best of Chaplin. But more than anything, The Cameraman’s Revenge is a bewitching (and the first ever?) acknowledgment of our tendency to believe that photography is indeed truth and cinema, truth 24 times per second.

Sounds From A Town I Love (2001)
Woody Allen
USA
3 Min.

 

Long before young directors started professing their love for their hometowns through segment films, we have had directors whose relationship with their city has been more than a mere proposal. I mean, what would Fellini be without Rome, Scorsese without New York or Truffaut without Paris? And how can one ever forget to add the love affair between Manhattan and Woody Allen to that list? Sounds From A Town I Love (2001) was made as a part of the New York Concert that was held following the 9/11 attacks and presents us snippets from phone conversations of random individuals walking on the streets of the city. When the Academy decides to hand the life time achievement to Allen, they might very well go with this clip for the introduction because Sounds, in a way, helps to sum up the whole career of Woody Allen and, in particular, his style of script writing. The throw-them-all-you’ve-got attitude that is so consistently manifest across his filmography and also within each film is very evident in this short too. Most of the one liners work, big time, and some don’t. The camera tracks, in a way that seals the authorship of the film, along with the actors who deliver these lines the same way that Woody the actor himself would have done. Extremely neurotic and utterly funny at once, these characters are all blasts from the past for anyone who has relished the director’s films. The neighbourhood, which is the raison d’etre of this short, is quite familiar to all of us now and only adds to the nostalgic trip. And that introduction message by the director, where he promises his fans that he would make up for it if they felt that this short film was bad, just goes to show how his relationship with his audience has changed post-Deconstructing Harry (1997)

Mouse Heaven (2004)
Kenneth Anger
USA
11 Min.

 

I don’t think there’ll be anyone who would not be disarmed by Kenneth Anger’s Mouse Heaven (2004), unless that person is allergic to the world’s most famous mouse – Mortimer aka Mickey. We can never have enough of Mickey Mouse, can we? And that is exactly what Anger in underscoring in this fabulous little short. Mouse Heaven begins with a shot of creepy lab rats (in negative, to make it worse) followed by a drawing of Mickey on paper. We are then shown shots of an animated Mickey mouse, then two of them, then a few of them and, soon, then an army of them. And before you know it, Mickey Mouse is on your underwear. Anger floods the screen with all types of Mickey Mouse merchandise – food items, clothes, toys, and tattoos, Mickey in clay, Mickey in metal and even a Mickey in diamond. Although many modern filmmakers have adopted a similar style, Mouse Heaven, clearly, is an auteur’s work. When such quirky songs like “I’m your puppet” and “If I had a million dollars” play on the soundtrack while the visuals give you hundreds of Mickeys dancing and singing, you know it is Anger at the cutting table. Unlike many of his earlier films, which used barely comprehensible imagery, Anger presents us with neat and instantly lovable visuals to show us what our fetishes have brought us to. Thematically close to the director’s unfinished film Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) but based on a zeitgeist of this age, Mouse Heaven is Anger at his sarcastic peak as he takes a massive jab at this exploitative economy of ours, whose free agents are just waiting to stuff the next cute thing.

Hey, who flicked my Spongebob coffee mug?

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