Friday, March 18, 2011
Three 1950s avant-garde shorts (Belson Shimané, Broughton, Kirsanoff)
Odds & Ends, by Jane Belson (later Jane Conger Belson Shimané), is a goofy little avant-garde pastiche, a collage of found travel footage with Belson Shimané's own abstract animations, both painted and created with paper cutouts. The imagery is a dazzling and abstract blur: people having fun on exotic beaches and boats, fragments of vacationers walking through bland hotel corridors, images of elbows and legs, disconnected body parts, mixed in with smeared paint and gyrating geometric patterns that look like paper snowflakes of the kind made in elementary school art classes. The whole thing has a rough and offhand aesthetic, as though it was stitched together from whatever was at hand, which it probably was.
The images never quite come together into a coherent whole, but the wry, deadpan narration by Henry Jacobs makes one suspect that incoherence is part of the point. Over a background of stereotypical hippie bongos, Jacobs patters on about jazz, poetry, entertainment, grant subsidies, professional careers, and other matters of art and commerce. His speech is freewheeling, strung together with the phrase "on the other hand," which he repeats every few moments to segue from one contradictory point to the next. He's talking about spontaneity versus forethought, art versus entertainment, meaning versus abstraction, and his narration seems to have nothing to do with the images of Belson Shimané — which is, again, the point. As Jacobs talks about the disconnect between jazz and poetry when the two are put together, he says that sometimes when two things are combined, they seem to have little to do with one another, and people don't know what to think as a result. He might well be talking about the film itself, as his narration meanders on, utterly independent of Belson Shimané's rough collage, two things existing simultaneously without really interacting or connecting to one another.
The result is playful and silly, and Jacobs' self-aware narration earns a few laughs at the expense of avant-garde pretensions, particularly when he imagines making a living by delivering crowd-pleasing unions of jazz and poetry, connecting with a broad public through these peripheral artforms. Odds & Ends is, true to its title, a neat little collection of wry observations and charmingly amateur images.
Four in the Afternoon, by the poet-filmmaker James Broughton, is a suite of four vignettes, each one built around one of Broughton's sing-songy, nursery rhyme-inflected poems, which appear periodically on the soundtrack. Each segment concerns the somewhat elusive search for love. In "Game Little Gladys," a girl skips rope and sees images of ten men who might someday be her husband. In "The Gardener's Son," a young man lounges around, working in a garden and spying on (or seeing visions of) women frolicking in the fields. In "Princess Printemps," a princess is comically pursued by a would-be suitor, but is never caught. In the final segment, "The Aging Balletomane," an old man sees a vision of a young girl dancing on a pedestal, though she disappears every time he reaches for her or tries to approach. The film, though made in 1951, feels in many ways like a lost artifact of the silent era, as it appropriates the rhythms of silent comedy in its bursts of sped-up motion and its exaggerated, gestural, dialogue-free performances. The only sound is provided by the sprightly orchestral music and the occasional reading of excerpts from Broughton's poems.
Each segment is brief and minimal, examining a simple idea in a fairly direct way, and the film as a whole is pretty slight and forgettable, with Broughton's fey poetry and whimsical sensibility often failing to make much of an impression. That said, there are some striking images along the way, images that reveal the poet's visual sense. In "The Gardener's Son," Broughton shoots a tiled walkway in an angled closeup that creates the illusion of depth in the distinctive patterned tiles, so that it briefly seems as though the tiles are actually a staircase. It's then disorienting when a bare foot suddenly steps into the frame, recontextualizing the image so that the tiles no longer seem to be raised or layered, but are revealed as a flat surface. It's a wonderful and playful optical illusion. "Game Little Gladys" evinces a similar concern with geometry and patterns: an early shot shows the girl descending a staircase from her apartment, and Broughton inserts a shot that shows the criss-crossing stairs arranged into a distinctive shape on the side of the building. When the girl skips rope later on, the courtyard where she's playing is filmed in such a way that it seems to consist of several oddly disconnected spaces, with Gladys appearing first in front of an ordinary brick wall, then in a concrete yard dotted with weird trapezoidal protrusions.
There's also a peppy poetry to the image of the princess and her suitor chasing one another, alternately in sped-up Keystone Kops double-time and a weightless, running-on-the-moon slow bounce. Broughton is clearly not just a poet-turned-filmmaker, interested only in words, but an artist who's truly attuned to the poetic visual possibilities of the medium. If Four in the Afternoon is ultimately a minor work, it's at least often an enjoyable one.
The Russian emigré Dimitri Kirsanoff, who had a remarkable if often overlooked career as a filmmaker in France, made The Death of a Stag as a commissioned work late in his career. The film's status as a commission is apparent during the introduction, in which a painting of a hunting party is shown along with a voiceover describing the proud French tradition of the hunt and its endurance throughout the ages. It has the flat tone of an industrial documentary or an educational film. Kirsanoff then sets out to utterly ignore this introduction, instead making a typically poetic and striking document that, rather than confirming the timelessness of this rich man's tradition, reveals the hunt as a rather pathetic artifact of another time, an absurd rite with silly costumes and bracing violence at its core.
Kirsanoff's editing is crisp and fast-paced, observing the preparations for the hunt, watching the bourgeois men and women stand around, eating and chatting, smiling and laughing, as packs of dogs congregate, ready to be unleashed for the start of the hunt. The hunt itself is over quickly; the bulk of this brief twelve-minute film is spent simply watching the hunters engaging in the social rites that seem to be the real point of this whole exercise. Kirsanoff's montage is quick but gives the impression of lingering on certain key details: a man taking a bite of an egg then casting a shy sidelong glance at the camera, the dogs licking one another, the tops of bare, leafless trees swaying in the breeze (a favorite Kirsanoff image), two laborers chopping at a tree, the necessity of their work not interrupted by the frivolous country play of the rich folks partying nearby.
The climax of the hunt itself is actually an anticlimax, an unforgettable image of the titular stag surrounded on all sides by barking dogs and the men in their foppish rifles. Kirsanoff holds the image for a long few moments, capturing the utter absurdity of this very unsportsmanlike method of hunting, and then a single rifle shot cracks and the stag falls into the water, with the dogs instantly swarming onto it. The dogs are used as a symbol for the violence barely contained by the appearance of civility. The soundtrack, with its brassy horns and jaunty hunting music, is occasionally infiltrated by the barking of the dogs, subtly blending in with the horns. Later, the hunters present the dogs with a banquet of entrails and spare hunks of meat from the killed animal, unveiling the feast with great pomp and ceremony, as though it's another of the codified rituals surrounding the supposedly great tradition of the hunt. The dogs' subsequent feeding frenzy, leaping on the pile of organs and meat and fighting one another for a chunk of the spoils, belies the civilized façade of the bourgeois hunters. This fascinating little film is another glimpse into Kirsanoff's clear-eyed perspective, his ability to use his deceptively simple but always poetically rich imagery to cut to the core of whatever he's filming.