Sunday, December 2, 2007

Short Film Week, Day 1: Five short films

[This entry is a contribution to the Short Film blog-a-thon being hosted right here at Only The Cinema, in association with Culture Snob.]

Todd Haynes' first film was the controversial Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, his mock-documentary account of the Carpenters lead singer's rise to stardom, battles with anorexia, and untimely death, with reenactments performed by a cast of Barbie dolls. This largely unseen masterwork is officially suppressed by both the Carpenter estate and Mattel, for obvious reasons, and can currently only be seen on the Internet (like here) or on bootlegs. The film works on multiple levels, quickly surpassing the kitsch potential in its premise and delving into a deeper critique of the societal pressures on women and the cultural impact of pop music. The film's main focus is on Karen's increasingly out-of-control anorexia, and Haynes frequently interrupts the narrative with scientific and psychological discussions of anorexia's symptoms, causes, and the effect on the women who suffer from it. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that the use of dolls to portray all the characters is not simply a jokey formal tic, but an inspired metaphor for the ways in which Karen is manipulated and commodified by her family, record company, and society at large. The blank face and unrealistically proportioned body of the Barbie doll, that signifier of perfect female beauty in American culture, is the perfect form through which to critique the pressures placed on Karen to attain an impossible perfection. The demands of her career, her overbearing family, and the journalists only too ready to call her "chubby" — sound familiar, Britney? — conspire to keep Karen struggling with her image of herself.

Haynes also provides a secondary level of commentary which looks at the Carpenters' actual music, interrogating the role of their style and message in 70s culture. He presents the obvious idea that the Carpenters' sweet, clean music and image provided an escape hatch in American culture, away from the horrors of Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. This, he seems to be saying, is another form of commodification, a political manipulation which uses pop culture as a distraction from the real issues of the day — an idea made explicit in the sequence in which Richard Nixon invites the group to sing at the White House. In another scene, in a remarkable visual transition, Haynes pans across a map of Southeast Asia, then fluidly transitions into a shot of a disco ball. The borders of countries become the rigidly segmented sections of the disco ball, flashing with light as it rotates in a dance club, and the realities of war are obscured by the focus on celebrity and fame.

But what's most striking about Haynes' first film is how surprisingly poignant and potent it is. Its Barbie doll characters seem designed to distance the viewer from this material, and yet Superstar is affecting and moving in its portrayal of Karen's tragic life. Haynes' dual themes of the commodification of women and the use of pop culture as a political distraction would seem to be at cross purposes, since on the one hand he's critiquing the Carpenters' music and on the other criticizing the treatment of Karen by those around her. In fact, though, both ideas indict a culture that's more concerned with appearances than deeper truths, that is all too eager for a distraction from reality, whether it's the saccharine gloss of the Carpenters' music, the gossip surrounding the band's private lives, or the media image of celebrity. Haynes makes all of these cultural surfaces a part of his documentary, adopting the tone of a tabloid headline or an after-school special, but he consistently delves beneath these surfaces to dissect the psychological effects of such commodification and to explore the real people behind the media icons. The warm heart of his film comes from the fact that he places the human reality of Karen's life at dead center, privileging her experiences and her struggles while investigating the many ways in which her life, image, and music have been used by the culture she was a part of.

Patrice Leconte's Le laboratoire de l'angoisse is a ridiculous little trifle of a short film, a comedy that's so resolutely unfunny that until its very last scene, I was convinced it was trying to be a drama. One of Leconte's earliest films, it's the minimally rendered story of the young female chemist Clara (Marianne di Vettimo) staying late at night in her lab to complete an experiment, and the janitor (Michel Such) who becomes obsessed with her. The film consists of a succession of evenings in the lab, with the janitor maneuvering close to Clara in order to declare his love for her, while Clara remains distant, barely even listening to his attempts at small talk and seduction. She's only concerned with her scientific work, putting in extra hours with seemingly little time for human distractions. The problem is compounded by the janitor's awkwardness, as each night he blunders into increasingly painful mishaps, his hand getting burned, mauled, and scarred by dangerous chemical spills. The janitor's hand, covered in blotches, becomes an outward sign of his love for Clara and the pain of her rejection (or, more properly, her utter disinterest).

This is all presented with such a deadpan, straight-faced sensibility that it's hard to grasp whether it's meant to be funny, or if it's leading towards a sudden outburst of violence directed at Clara. It's only in the film's shockingly funny (and ludicrous) final shot that the film's comedic thrust becomes clear. The rest of the 11 minutes might be seen as extraneous, even boring in the repetitive nature of the scenes, all leading up to the shock of the final joke. Leconte has adopted the short film to the form of the verbal joke, with a long story leading towards a punchline. In this case, the laughter at the final shot, the punchline, arises from a mix of shock and the silliness of it all, and the film provides an additional knowing wink in the form of the incredibly slapdash special effects used to achieve this final moment. This is a slight, silly little film, but it did get at least one hearty laugh out of me, so maybe it wasn't entirely a wasted 11 minutes.

Zbigniew Rybczynski's Steps is not the best example of the art of this Polish video animation pioneer, but it is a fun and technically interesting experiment anyway. Rybczynski was one of the earliest proponents of experimenting with the unique properties of video, especially the use of digital editing to create special effects impossible to reproduce on film. In Steps, he uses these techniques to insert a crowd of Americans into the famed Odessa Steps sequence from Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, in effect turning both the great movie and the revolutionary politics behind it into a kind of tourist attraction. In Rybczynski's film, the tourists are insulated from the events of Potemkin, which is the opposite of the effect Eisenstein was aiming for with his intensive montage techniques. If Eisenstein envisioned people being moved and stirred to action by the slaughter of civilians by tsarist troops depicted in this scene, Rybczynski shows the more likely reaction in a media-saturated age in which people are increasingly aware that "it's only a movie," and the capacity for a truly political film is possibly lost, or at least not as readily apparent as it once seemed.

Indeed, Rybczynski's work is mostly apolitical, reveling in visual tricks and surfaces, and despite his thorough deconstruction of Potemkin, it's unclear what his own perspective on the original film might be. Certainly, he's mocking and satirizing the boorish Americans and their tourist mentality, which looks on everything as a potential spectacle or entertainment. His characters represent a cross-section of differing (but all philistine) views on art. There are the tourists who view Eisenstein's work as only a backdrop for their vacation pictures, a "scenic" setting which can encapsulate, in two or three snapshots, the entirety of a country or time. There's the film aficionado, complete with a shot-by-shot book on Potemkin, who seems interested only in the film's individual shots and formal devices rather than its meaning. There's the reporter who seems to ignore the film happening around her and prefers to interview a celebrity among her fellow tourists. None of these people are focused on Eisenstein's actual work, but nor for that matter is Rybczynski, who gives little insight or context for Potemkin other than to satirize the exaggerated reactions to it from his characters.

As a whole, Steps is something of a mixed bag. Its visual tricks are dated, of course — Rybczynski was at the vanguard when this was made, in 1987, but not today — but on a gut level the collision of an old black and white Soviet film with modern tourists in color is still moderately convincing. The quality of the acting and the crude force of the satire have held up even worse, and too many moments fall flat or verge into plain annoyance. The level of the satire on display here is probably best encapsulated by the still above, of a Russian woman in agony after being shot in Potemkin, as a cowboy-hatted American looks on, smiling and chewing a hamburger — funny, perhaps, but not exactly subtle. Rybczynski could sometimes descend into kitsch or somewhat cheesy aesthetics in his videos, which in retrospect often look very much of their time, and this is possibly his worst offender in that regard. He's an innovator worth exploring, but those who are interested would do well to start elsewhere.

In fact, Rybczynski's earlier Tango might be the best place to start, a masterpiece from 1980 that represents the absolute pinnacle of his work. As with Steps, the video techniques have inevitably become dated, and modern computer editing could doubtless run rings around this film on a purely technical level. Nevertheless, the film has an undeniable appeal not just because of its unique technical innovations, but because its rugged aesthetic is genuinely interesting beyond its novelty. In this film, Rybczynski arranges dozens of different characters on screen, all going through a series of repetitive motions within the confines of a single room. He starts with a small boy who enters the room through a window, chasing a ball that's flown inside. He retrieves the ball and dodges back out the window, only to immediately repeat his actions as the ball flies right back inside; he repeats this loop over and over for the entirety of the film's 8 minutes. After the boy has gone through his routine twice, a woman enters, nursing a baby; she sits, briefly feeds the baby, then closes her dress and walks back out of the room, only to immediately re-enter and repeat the pattern. In this manner, the screen quickly accumulates dense clusters of people, each going about their business in the cluttered confines of the room, overlapping each other's paths and replacing one another in seats or specific positions.

The whole thing is fluidly choreographed to the titular tango music, so that it becomes a dance of routine, a complicated mass dance number structured around banal activities. Individual moments within this frantic crowd are hilarious, sexy, poignant, dramatic, or boring. There are mini-narratives going on within the chaos, as different characters interact with each other in subtle ways. In one corner of the room, a spy story continually plays out as one man places a package atop a dresser and another, in dark glasses and black suit, sneaks in through the window to steal it. A young couple makes love on the room's bed, before the girl interrupts it and runs away in anger. Every person in the room has a story, even if it's as banal as an old woman bringing her husband supper. The room condenses all of life into its compact space, from the tiniest infant to the oldest woman, and the room serves as a kitchen, bedroom, dining room, and even the bathroom is represented, by a maintenance man who carries a toilet through the room.

The effect of all this dizzying digital manipulation is a rich tapestry of movement and action, a condensation of time within the film frame. All these events can't possibly be taking place simultaneously, and yet the film condenses them into the same frame, and therefore the same time, since cinematic time is represented by the progression from one frame to the next. Not so in Tango, where time is digitally warped, stretched, and overlapped, so that each frame maps out an entire day and an entire set of actions happening at different points in time. The rote actions of domesticity acquire a poetry and ragged beauty in Rybczynski's hands, as these people dance through the rhythms of their day, moving to the beat of a music they can't hear.

The first image in Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising is a stream of slowly flowing lava erupting from a volcano, accompanied by the first stirrings of guitar feedback on the soundtrack. The magma flows, the title of the film appears in burning letters over a gorgeous deep blue ocean at sunset, a baby lizard emerges from its egg, and an Egyptian goddess raises her hand to the sky. The film opens with this continuum from nature to the arcane, and Anger goes on to explore the webs connecting the natural, the human, and the supernatural. Motifs from Egyptian folklore and Celtic mythology are blended with Anger's own imagery of ritualistic magic, presumably to evoke the idea that different incarnations of gods throughout human history are all versions of the Lucifer myth. The film moves from one image to the next with a loose flow, not quite narrative, but free-associating between related ideas and images to create a sense of progression.

As with all of Anger's more mystical films, there are some slack stretches, like a numbingly long ascent up a spiraling rock staircase that switches between night and day via some vertical pans. But the vast majority of the film is taken up by such striking imagery that it's absolutely mesmerizing, even when it's not quite clear what's meant to be going on. With Anger's work, I always feel like I'm missing out on a great deal because I don't know much about the mystical and mythological symbology that's woven through nearly all his films — there always seems to be an entire complex subtext in every scene that I'm simply not getting. But the sheer beauty of his visuals (and this film has some of his most stunning) overwhelms any necessity for interpretation. The film works best at a purely visceral level, as a celebration of the magic inherent in nature and time, as well as a celebration of Anger's taste for garish colors and sculpted faces. As a purely visual extravaganza, this is pretty much unmatched.

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