Thursday, December 6, 2007

Short Film Week, Day 5: Four 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.]

Georges Franju's first film, Blood of the Beasts, is a documentary set in a pair of Paris slaughterhouses and their surrounding neighborhoods, contrasting the traditional poetic, romanticized depiction of Paris against the casually administered brutality of these abbatoirs. The film opens on the outskirts of the city: open fields, a train steaming by, an open-air market being set up by the side of the road, two young lovers passionately kissing. From there, Franju ventures into the slaughterhouse, painstakingly following the slaughter and gutting of a horse, with rivers of blood flowing everywhere. The camera even tracks in close to observe skin peeling away from muscle, and the slaughterhouse workers scraping away at the flesh with their knives. This is a totally unflinching depiction of the processes behind the production of meat, and the brutality and goriness of it all is frankly stunning. The contrast between this horror and the context of the surrounding environs provides an additional frisson of tension to this scene via the viewer's memory. When the slaughterhouse workers walk up to the horse with a bolt gun and rapidly place it against the animal's head to kill it, does the audience think of the loving kiss that immediately preceded this scene? It's this tension between the pleasures and beauty of everyday life and the bloody horror of the abbatoir that elevates the film above the level of the typical PETA shockumentary.

The film delves into similar levels of detail for the slaughter of a cow, some young calves for veal, and a large number of sheep. In each instance, Franju focuses on the blood and the peeling back of layers that accompanies these killings. The accumulation of details that the film gathers becomes nearly unbearable by the time it's over — the piles of cow heads, the involuntary twitches of the animals even after decapitation, the canals of blood running along the concrete floor. Franju's camera never flinches away from these details, darting in ever closer to capture every second and nuance of the carnage. It's difficult to take, possibly even more so than Brakhage's similarly gory Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes, because in this case it's not just corpses being dissected, but live animals being killed and ripped apart. Even in black and white, the casual brutality of this process becomes overwhelming and even nauseating.

Franju's documentary thus elicits a primarily physical response, although he's said in interviews that he was aiming for a more distanced, aestheticized perspective from his audiences. But the sheer horror of these sequences, and the film's insistence on intimately capturing every step in the process, makes it difficult to step back from the images and view them objectively. It's a tough, uncompromising film, exposing the violence that exists within the hazy, fog-shrouded streets of romantic Paris.

Mary Hestand's He Was Once is a short parody of the old claymation series Davey and Goliath, accomplished with live actors made up to look like animated dolls. It's as bizarre as you'd expect from that description, and it has a close affinity with the work of Todd Haynes, who produced the short and appears in a cameo role in the first scene. The story is simple: Davey (Todd Adams) sees a bear chained up in town in front of a store, but when he goes home and tells his family, his disciplinarian father doesn't believe him and beats him with a belt for lying. Davey then finds out that his father was lying too, and turns the tables to get his revenge. The underlying theme of the violence and domination inherent in societal structures and familial relationships is a clear connection to Haynes, with the father a petty, dictatorial figure. His spanking of Davey plays out like a torture sequence from a thriller — he's trying to beat Davey into admitting that he's lying, and when that doesn't work he starts beating the dog, Goliath, instead, just to get Davey to crack.

This film's expos#233; of the suppressed ugliness of suburban life is hysterically funny, and the claymation parody is perfectly executed. The characters move in jerky slow motion, and the scene where the mother slaps Davey's sister is a shockingly hilarious moment, the slap and the sister's reaction both happening in awkwardly paced slo-mo. It's a brief film, just 16 minutes long, and available as a very appropriate companion piece to Haynes' Dottie Gets Spanked on the Zeitgeist DVD. This is well worth seeing for anyone who gets a kick out of Haynes' particular brand of subversive humor.

Boo! by Albert DeMond is one of those deliriously silly shorts that could only have come out of classic Hollywood. Using clips from Nosferatu, Frankenstein, and the now-lost Universal thriller The Cat Creeps, DeMond spliced together a rough, jokey story that's meant to be the dream of a man who gulps down lobster and milk right before bedtime. Dream of the Rarebit Fiend this ain't, though. The roughly edited footage is accompanied by a silly voiceover making lame jokes and riffing on the material with some strained stabs at clever wordplay. Most puzzling and out of place are the continuous jokes about Congress: "he acts like Congress, and always ends up where he started." Ha ha, right? It's all along these lines, and only the narrator's cheery enthusiasm saves his delivery from being totally painful — the cheesiness of it all redeems the short as kitsch, at least.

DeMond also seems to have stumbled across some accidental avant-garde techniques, like endlessly looping a few seconds of footage to create hilarious repetitions. At one point, the film gets stuck in a loop cutting back and forth between close-ups on a leering Frankenstein's monster and a screaming woman, with the voiceover providing the sound effects for both. The jerky looped motion and repetitions reminded me of the much later work of avant-garde filmmaker Martin Arnold, who also repurposes other films for his own humorous ends. The obvious difference being, of course, that Arnold's films also critique and deconstruct the societal assumptions encoded in the films he's splicing, whereas DeMond seems content to make shallow jokes. Still, the film remains somewhat funny today, although more for its kitsch value than for any of its actual purported humor.

Scenes From the Life of Andy Warhol is Jonas Mekas' avant-garde documentary capturing a series of small moments and images from Warhol's life, filmed between 1966 and 1982 and completed in 1990, after Warhol's death, with a postscript that features audio from Warhol's memorial service at St. Patrick's Cathedral. This is a warm, energetic film, clearly made with a great deal of love and admiration for Warhol, who is shown mostly in scenes disconnected from his art, hanging out with friends, vacationing, and having fun. The art itself occupies a surprisingly small place in the film, with Warhol signing Polaroids in the midst of a birthday party, or a brief shot of a photo session, or an art gallery show of his work. Mekas puts this artistic output into the context of Warhol's private life, with a fragmentary collage of images of Warhol at play: shopping in a fruit market, spending the summer at a friend's house on Long Island, and hanging out on the edges at parties.

Mekas blends all this together in a rapidly edited montage of impressions and small moments, each individual shot not adding up to much, but the whole thing providing a kind of memory bank of Warhol's life. The film is mostly scored by music from a 1966 performance by Warhol's Factory house band, the Velvet Underground and Nico, starting with a fuzzy, distorted version of "I'll Be Your Mirror" and moving on to a series of lengthy improvisatory jams. Mekas introduces the segments of his film with intertitles describing where and when the images are from, thus providing a sense of historical context, even if many of the titles are allusive and probably intended to be understood only by those who were actually there. In this way, the film is somewhat exclusive, frequently referencing people by first names only, or even not introducing them at all. Warhol was always part of a tight-knit community of artists, friends, and hangers-on, and this film reflects that closeness in its sense of a community that centered around Warhol and has thus lost a great friend with his death.

Other intertitles within the film have a more poetic intent, like the recurring text that reads, "Outside we could hear the ocean." The ocean figures heavily in the film, since so much of the short's length is taken up by a vacation with friends at the shore. Another title reads "This is a documentary film," before a later title takes it back: "This is not a documentary film." Indeed, both are true. Mekas' film does document Warhol's life in the sense that all its images are taken from reality, and represent candid moments with no fictional content. On the other hand, Mekas makes no pretensions to objectivity, and his film is structured not as a straight account but as a series of memories. He brings in footage shot over the course of almost twenty years, so that literally speaking much of this material is a memory for him. The camera remembers images from 16 years of Warhol's life, with greater visual clarity than real memories, perhaps, but with the same distance from the original events. Mekas' subjective blending of these memories into a dense, rapidly edited montage further separates the film from actual lived reality, making it an arrangement of memories meant to convey the visceral experience of being around Warhol. Ultimately, though, this argument cycles around: the film must be a documentary, because it's in search of truth, the truth of Warhol's life, vitality, and friendships.

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