Monday, 30 July 2012

The Grateful Dead Movie

In March 1973 Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, The Grateful Dead's organ-playing blues man died from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage. A heartbroken Jerry Garcia summed up the loss of one of the band's founding members, "We can go on calling ourselves The Grateful Dead but after Pigpen's death we all knew this was the end of the original Grateful Dead". A year later Garcia's words took on greater significance when it was announced that the Dead were taking an indefinite hiatus. By 1974 the band was exhausted. They had survived a series of back-to-back grinding tours, but the task of truckin' the Dead's massive Wall of Sound, a 641 strong speaker cabinet from one show to another was putting an enormous drain on the band's finances. Individual band members were also eager to record their own material and with that the Dead were put on hold. The retirement would prove short lived when they reconvened in February 1975 to record the Blues for Allah album, but as preparations were made for a 5-night farewell concert at San Francisco's Winterland in October (dubbed The Last One), Garcia had the idea that if the band was about to meet its end there should be definitive document and with that came The Grateful Dead Movie


Jerry Garcia was a life long cinephile. From an early age Garcia loved Horror movies and later became a devotee of European Art Cinema. Garcia had strong aspirations to become a film maker but his life was entirely devoted to his music. Garcia recruited documentarian Leon Gast to direct the film, then provisionally titled There is Nothing Like a Grateful Dead Concert, and what began as a straightforward visual record of the Dead's performance soon evolved into a documentary encompassing the entire Grateful Dead experience - the music, the band, the fans, the stage set-up, the road crew, and the drugs. Gast placed seven camerman (among them Albert Maysles) around the stage to fully capture every nuance of the Dead's performance across the 5-nights, with additional footage shot within the audience and in and around Winterland. Immediately after the Winterland shows Gast flew to Zaire to film the three-day music festival which preceded the Ali/Foreman fight (the footage which later became the Soul Power documentary), and Garcia took over as "editorial director" charged with the unenviable task of sculpting 125 hours of performance footage into a coherent, commercial film.


The Grateful Dead Movie, Garcia's labour of love (or Jerry's Jerk-off as Phil Lesh once described it), didn't see the light of a projector bulb for almost three years. As well as sifting through the footage in search of the best performances and the best coverage, Garcia and soundman Dan Healy pioneered a new innovative type of mixing which resulted in a perfect symbiosis of image and sound. The film's post production had put the Dead's finances in another precarious situation - when the project was first mooted in 1974, the budget was set at a modest $15,000 but by the time the film had its premiere in New York in June 1977, the film swallowed up a staggering $600,000. The film took a heavy toll on Garcia as well - "Every time I thought about something, my mind would come back to the film and I'd get depressed", and towards the completion of the film a stressed out Garcia sought refuge in heroin. Rather than distribute the film along conventional lines, the movie was booked to play special Roadshow style exhibitions in major cities, with each theatre screening the film specially fitted with an expensive sound system which could do justice to Garcia's state of the art mix. It was a grand idea but the band would never see a return on their investment in the film.


Whatever the turbulence of post production, filming of The Grateful Dead Movie saw the band on tremendous form. Perhaps the impending retirement had energized the performances and over the course of two hours, the Dead radiate a brilliance the studio albums could never quite capture. The film opens with an 8min amphetamine-fuelled animated sequence in which a skeletal Uncle Sam goes through various mind-bending adventures before the film begins proper with the band on stage performing an exuberant US Blues. The film's transitions from performance to documentary are expertly done, the band's long improvisations jams give the film the space to feature the other players in the Dead's psychedelic wonderland - the road crew are seen assembling the monstrous Wall of Sound, and there's some amusing stuff with Bill Graham. Most of the non-musical footage is reserved for the Deadheads, the band's unfailingly devotional community of fans - although the Dead don't get it all their own way, as one irate fan vents his anger at the band over the filming of the Winterland shows. Garcia of course loved this bit of impetuous whining and left him in the film - much to the fan's eternal mortification no doubt.


The Grateful Dead may well be the most documented rock band on compact disc, but precious little film footage exists of the halcyon days of the band. The Dead can be seen in a short performance bit in Richard Lester's 1968 film Petulia, and two years before the Winterland film, the band were filmed playing a show in Oregon for the feature length but unreleased Sunshine Daydream. The Dead also appear in the 2003 documentary Festival Express, which chronicles a 1970 train tour across Canada which included Jonis Joplin and The Band among others. The Grateful Dead Movie remains the definitive visual document of the band. Bathed in queasy purples and rosy pinks, the Dead have never looked better, the onstage telepathy between the band members is mesmerizing as they travel the space ways of long extended jams led by Garcia's fluid guitar lines. 1973 is seen as a crossroads in the band's long career, when the Dead left Warner Bros. to launch their own short-lived label. In retrospect the film is a farewell of sorts to classic-era Dead, the band emerged into the second half of the 70's making patchy studio albums and ditching ballrooms for stadiums. Acoustic sets figured more prominently at live shows, perhaps foreshadowed by the end credits of The Grateful Dead Movie which features a time-lapse photography sequence of the crew dismantling the Wall of Sound for the final time. It lasted just 37 shows.


In 2004 US label Monterey Video released The Grateful Dead Movie in a fantastic 2-disc special edition. Disc 1 featured the Movie, while among the extras on disc 2 were 90min of music from the Winterland shows that didn't make the final cut. Monterey's DVD went out of print in 2010 but Shout Factory re-released the same edition on Blu-Ray no less in 2011. In terms of optics, the (A-locked) Blu-Ray is not a major leap forward from the DVD - this is not a criticism of Shout Factory's transfer, The Grateful Dead Movie has always looked a little soft due to the lighting conditions of the original film. Also the 16mm blow-up to 35 gave the image a grainy look. All these imperfections are present on the Blu but if you keep your expectations in check, the 1.85 transfer is quite decent. Audio is where the Shout Factory edition really shines, the Blu features a truly stunning sound mix and far exceeds the Monterey DVD (a more detailed account of the audio options can be read here)


Disc 2 of the Shout Factory Blu-Ray edition comes as a standard def DVD. The biggest extra on the second disc are the 90mins of music that slipped the final cut, including extended jams of Uncle John's Band, The Other One, Weather Report Suite and a particularly fine version of Dark Star. Next up is over an hour's worth of documentary features - A Look Back (28min) features archive and contemporary interview footage of the band (including Bill Graham), while Making of the DVD (14min) focuses on the job of preparing the sound mix. Gary Gutierrez's memorable contribution to the film is showcased in Making of the Animation (16min). The other significant extra on the set is the very interesting, anecdote filled commentary by editors Susan Crutcher and John Nutt. The Grateful Dead Movie is also available as 2-disc DVD edition, or can bought as part of Shout Factory's mammoth 14-DVD Dead boxset All The Years Combine. A UK DVD of The Grateful Dead Movie is out now and a Blu-Ray is promised for September.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Blue Sunshine

Fear, loathing and inexplicable baldness are the order of the day in Jeff Lieberman's second feature film, Blue Sunshine, a terrific chiller from 1978, and quite likely the director's masterpiece. In the film, strange things are happening to ordinary everyday 30-somethings. The symptoms include accelerated hair loss and irritable moods followed by violent and psychotic behaviour. Jerry Zipkin who witnessed an old college friend succumb to the condition (and is mixed up in his accidental death) investigates the phenomena and discovers that the each of the persons involved dabbled with a substance in the late sixties known as Blue Sunshine, a powerful and volatile strain of LSD...


On paper Blue Sunshine sounds like a conventional enough story, playing like a 70's paranoid thriller in the vein of The Parallax View, spliced with the Hitchcockian device of the wrong man forced to clear his name. Thankfully, Blue Sunshine is something far more special, a spiky, fast-paced, loud and determinedly eccentric film, full of off-kilter touches, something akin to one of Cronenberg's early films (especially Rabid) fused with the offbeat rhythm of a Larry Cohen film. Lieberman might have swapped the sinister swamplands of Squirm for the big city sprawl of Blue Sunshine, but the landscape here is no less menacing. Lieberman has a talent for creating images that get under the skin of the audience - in Squirm, a plate of spaghetti was fraught with danger while in Blue Sunshine, the sight of bald heads (foreshadowed by repeated shots of a foreboding full moon in the credit sequence) is, on some subconscious level, deeply unsettling. Perfectly in sync with Lieberman's visuals is Charles Gross' idiosyncratic score using instruments like gongs and bells to add another layer of weirdness to the film.


As with Lieberman's debut, the film inspires any number of readings - on one hand it's a riff on 60's drug paranoia films like Hallucination Generation, (1966) but on a deeper level the film takes a swipe at the betrayed idealism of the children of Aquarius. Unlike Hunter Thompson's drug casualties of the 60's, the permanent cripples and failed seekers, Blue Sunshine's victims have become the kind of well-adjusted people in positions of responsibility their younger selves might have rebelled against, and in a cruel twist of fate the hedonism of youth have caused their well cultivated lives to spectacularly unravel. Interestingly in 1990 Jacob's Ladder trod similar territory with Vietnam vets experiencing disturbing delayed reactions from doses of hallucinogens administered during the war.


Much has been made of Blue Sunshine's leading man, future soft-core erotica director Zalman King (Wild Orchid, Red Shoe Diaries) and his ability or lack of, to carry the film. King is certainly no David Hess, but his performance, uptight, intense and erratic perfectly suits the mood of the film, and whether intentional or not, one is never quite sure if King's Jerry Zipkin is on the level. Worth mentioning that Zalman King displayed a similiar kind of intensity when he appeared as Jesus no less in the very interesting (but hard to see) Passover Plot made just prior to Blue Sunshine in 1976. Also notable among the cast is Robert Walden (the rat-fucker from All the President's Men), and in a nice bit of casting, Mark Goddard, most famous for his role of marooned space cadet Don West on the TV show Lost In Space, plays the politician who a decade earlier was dealing Blue Sunshine to the students at Stanford.


Despite the original negative being destroyed at the lab where it was being stored, Synapse's 2003 DVD of Blue Sunshine was a valiant attempt at restoring the film to what it looked like in theatres in the 70's. And for the most part, the restoration team, working from a 35mm print found in the UK have done a commendable job. The 1.85 anamorphic image looks relatively sharp and has strong colors but the film does look a little worn and grainy. Still, there are worse looking discs in your collection and Synapse have tweaked the image about as far as possible. The audio is much better and makes for an immersive experience. If the image quality was less than perfect, Synapse makes amends with an impressive array of extras - Lieberman is on hand for a director's commentary and returns for the 30min interview Lieberman on Lieberman. Also included is Lieberman's rare 20min short film from 1972, entitled The Ringer (which includes optional commentary), plus there's a short restoration piece, the theatrical trailer and a stills gallery. Synapse also issued a second edition of the DVD accompanied by the soundtrack CD. Despite it being a limited edition (a generous 50,000 units!) this 2-disc version has been available for years but copies of this edition are beginning to dry up so if the film has been on your wish list now is the time to grab it. Another DVD edition of Blue Sunshine was issued in 2011 by New Video DVD but the Synapse is the one to pick up.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Squirm

Jeff Lieberman's 1976 debut is one of the great underrated Horror movies of the 70's, a film which should have a place among the classic drive-in flicks of the decade but instead feels doomed to live out it's existence with the likes of Bug (1975) and Empire of the Ants (1977). In 1999 the film was given the Mystery Science Theatre treatment, an odd choice along side the usual MST3K schlock - yes this film is about a town under siege from carnivorous earth worms but Squirm is made with such style and confidence that it seems a breed apart from most of the other creepy-crawly films of the era.


Nature blows a fuse in the small rural town of Fly Creek when a storm topples electrical lines sending thousands of volts into the moist earth turning the local worm population into ferocious flesh eaters. New York interloper Mick and his flame-haired girlfriend Geri investigate the strange goings on and uncover some locals devoured clean to the bone, but worse is to come as darkness descends on the town and the worms prepare for supper... On the face of it Squirm is a nature vs mankind film in the tradition of The Birds, but dig deeper and the film reveals a sly subversive strain, the paranoia and repressed emotions of an insular community bubbling to the surface in the form of irrational violence. Aside from one spectacularly gruesome Rick Baker effect, the film was originally awarded a PG rating, but Lieberman fills his film with disquieting images which play on our inherent distaste for all things slimy and slithering - a large fat worm is seen spilling out of a chocolate soda, or the famous shot of worms emerging from the perforations of a shower head. There's some striking macro photographic images as well with the worms seen in extreme close-up, Lieberman's nod to the giant bug movies of the 50's perhaps, but a clever device nonetheless emphasizing just how alien these creatures are.


Squirm begins with an introductory scroll reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and while it seems the similarities end there story wise, stylistically both films share some common ground, with Lieberman reigning in the splatter, with the emphasis on mood and atmosphere. No doubt American International expected some drive-in fodder when the studio allotted Lieberman just twenty-something days to shoot the film, but the first time director managed to circumvent the budget limitations with some impressive exterior photography, the wild Georgia locations looking damp, off season even sinister, and there's some audacious camerawork employing a huge wide angle lens to depict the worms' point of view. As with the director's subsequent films Blue Sunshine and Just Before Dawn, Squirm has an eerie, subtle musical score, as well as a very effective sound design which perfectly compliments the visceral images.


Performances in general are better than typically seen in this type of film, helped in no small part by Lieberman’s writing which breathes life into his characters, giving his cast various bits of business to work with – the pot-smoking tomboy younger sister, the mother with the frazzled nerves, the greasy womanising sheriff, and the dim-witted and disgruntled bait boy under the yoke of his father. One suspects that lead actor Don Scardino is a stand-in for the Brooklyn-born director and his fish-out-of-the-water routine is often very funny. It’s a shame Scardino didn’t appear before the camera more often, but he can be seen in He Knows You’re Alone and Cruising, later going on to produce and direct big TV shows like The Cosbys, Law and Order and 30 Rock


MGM’s 2003 R1 DVD (still denied an official release in the UK for no good reason) looks fantastic and is simply the best looking Squirm to date. The 1.85 anamorphic image looks terrific, colors are vibrant, black levels are solid and the picture is pleasingly sharp restoring much detail obliterated on the old Vestron and Orion tapes. The mono sound is fine too. Extras include the theatrical trailer, a TV spot and best of all an excellent and very worthwhile commentary by Jeff Lieberman who discusses every aspect of the production, including what big name stars almost ended up in the cast, and explains how the whole worm infestation was caused by the movie Ocean’s 11 – to find out more, be sure to catch it.

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Notes
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To read more about Squirm and the films of Jeff Lieberman, head over to Jon's excellent and comprehensive career retrospective at the The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Commentary #1 - Michael Mann on Heat

This post marks the first of a projected series recalling little nuggets gleaned from film maker commentaries. In this first instalment, Michael Mann remembers a primary source of inspiration behind his cops n’ robbers epic Heat...
There was a painting that inspired me about this moment and that painting probably got me interested in making this motion picture of Heat longer than anything else, and it was a painting of a table with a .45 on it and a rear shot of a man standing against a background, and contained within it somebody was involved in some life of aggression and action and yet the contrast was in the mental state because here was a moment of inner loneliness. It didn’t dictate something, instead it posed a question – what is this man thinking, what is he imagining...
Michael Mann, Heat (Warners DVD/Blu-Ray, commentary index point 20:12)

Pacific by Alex Colville, 1967

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film 1894-1941

A landmark release in the history of the DVD format, Image's 2005 boxset gathers together 155 Underground and Experimental Films spread over 7 discs with each platter representing a specific theme. The films themselves chart the development of early Cinema from short-burst camera experiments to long-form art films. There are montage films, poetic essays, experimental animation, optical films, abstract color films, documentaries and so on. Curator Bruce Posner explains in the accompanying booklet that the selection of films was as much decided by what was available rather than any strict artistic criteria. A wealth of Experimental films have been lost or destroyed over the years and many of the films here have been rescued from obscurity, previously held by private collectors and film archives. Given the personal nature of Experimental Cinema, many of the film makers represented in the box set are little known but there are a surprising number of famous names attached to these films, among them D.W. Griffith, Billy Bitzer, Edwin S. Porter, Douglas Fairbanks, Victor Fleming, Orson Welles, Robert Florey, William Cameron Menzies, Ernst Lubitsch, Busby Berkley and Robert Flaherty.

In general the quality of the films themselves is excellent. Many of the films may have been exhibited just once or twice and prints are for the most part in very good condition. Some of the films are featured here with their original soundtracks, while the silent films have been given excellent and thoughtful scores. Some films play completely silent as per the wishes of their creators.

Anyone wishing to write about the set is immediately faced with the sheer volume of films on offer but I'd like to take up the challenge, investigating the contents of each disc. Where available I have added links to view the films online. The 7 discs are as follows:


Disc 1: The Mechanized Eye
Experiments in Technique and Form

Disc 2: The Devil’s Plaything
American Surrealism

Disc 3: Light Rhythms
Music and Abstraction

Disc 4: Inverted Narratives
New Directions in Story-Telling

Disc 5: Picturing a Metropolis
New York City Unveiled

Disc 6: The Amateur as Auteur
Discovering Paradise in Pictures

Disc 7: Viva la Dance
The Beginnings of Ciné-Dance





Disc 1: The Mechanized Eye

Experiments in Technique and Form


From the liner notes on the sleeve:

The dynamic qualities of motion pictures are explored by cameramen and filmmakers through novel experiments in technique and form. Early cinematographers James White, "Billy" Bitzer, and Frederick Armitage display experimental shooting styles that wowed audiences. Other independent companies further image manipulation through creative staging, editing, and printing, such as a stunning three-screen film that predates Gance's Napoléon. Experiments by photographer Walker Evans, painter Emlen Etting, musician Jerome Hill, and the film collectives Nykino and Artkino record the world in a continual process of flux. A most extreme approach is realized by Henwar Rodakiewicz with Portrait of a Young Man (1925-31), a monumental study of natural and abstract motions


5 Paris Exposition Films (1900) incorporating Eiffel Tower from Trocadero Palace, Palace of Electricity, Champs de Mars, Panorama of Eiffel Tower, Scene from Elevator Ascending Eiffel Tower view

The first batch of films on The Mechanized Eye set are known here collectively as the 5 Paris Exposition Films, each one a short segment of Parisian life filmed in and around the Eiffel Tower. Made in 1900, these short snapshots filmed by James White are early prototypes of the "city symphony" genre - films like Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927), and Man With a Movie Camera (1929) which focused on the sights and rhythms of everyday city life. The "city symphony" film took a more poetic approach to documentary filming, often taking a subjective view of its surroundings, as does White's film when his camera takes a trip up the Eiffel Tower, the spectacle of the City of Light laid out before it's mechanical eye. For audiences of the early 20th century, this extraordinary vista was no doubt thrilling but watching the films today, the scene where curious Parisians mug for White's camera is a highlight...



Captain Nissen Going through Whirpool Rapids, Niagra Falls (1901) view

Filmed by the Edison Company and running just under two minutes, this little film records a trip by daredevil Peter Nissen through the furious torrents of the Niagra river inside a rather strange looking submarine-like vessel (complete with smoking chimney). The vessel known as the Fool Killer II was appropriately named considering Nissen had no way to steer the craft. The Edison film captures well the shifting patterns and textures of the river, and is notable for it's impressive travelling shot. Incidentally, Nissen survived the journey down the Niagra but his luck ran out in 1904 when he was killed crossing Lake Michigan in a wind-powered balloon...



Down the Hudson (1903) view

The first of two experimental shorts by Biograph and Edison Company cameraman and director Frederick S. Armitage, Down the Hudson is a film of a boat trip down the river using time-lapse photography, the entire voyage lasting an astonishing 3 minutes. By modern standards, the film looks primitive but remains an important snapshot (literally so) documenting how the landscape looked at the turn of the century. 85 years later sound artist Annea Lockwood took a similarly abstract record of the Hudson, with her Sound Map of the Hudson River, a 71min field recording of the sounds and sonic textures experienced on a journey along the Hudson. A journey I would highly recommend...



The Ghost Train (1903) view

Frederick Armitage was an early pioneer of Cinema, and in addition to time-lapse photography, he experimented with super-impositions, reverse motion and other special effects. His 1903 film The Ghost Train (which runs a breezy 20 seconds) is a spectral version of the Lumière Brothers famous L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat. Armitage used a negative image of a train coming down the track (surrounded by ghostly railroad men), and combined a positive image of the moon and clouds in the background. A simple but effective piece of cinematic trickery...



Westinghouse Works, Panorama View Street Car Motor Room (1904) view

Filmed in 1904 by D.W. Griffith's perennial cameraman Billy Bitzer, Panorama View Street Car Motor Room was made as part of a 21-film collection entitled Westinghouse Works, 1904. Each film in the collection lasts approximately 3min and were filmed by Bitzer at various Westinghouse manufacturing plants. For the Panorama View sketch, Bitzer stationed his camera on a ceiling crane and had the crane move from one end of the plant to the other in one complete shot (at one point the crane stops momentarily to take a breather before moving on). A simple but in many ways remarkable film, the vertical movement of the shot meshing with the lateral movement of workers entering and exiting the frame from either side is quite hypnotic. The film is valuable also as an insight into the working conditions of men in heavy industry, with regard to safety (and the lack of it). Around the 1 minute mark, an iron bar falls from the ceiling narrowly missing a worker. In 2006 film maker Jennifer Baichwal composed a similar long tracking shot of people working for the documentary Manufactured Landscapes...



In Youth, Beside the Lonely Sea (1924-25) view

In his liner notes that introduce the 5min In Youth, Beside the Lonely Sea, film historian Kevin Brownlow admits that he assumed the film's triptych technique (whereby two side screens are hinged to the centre screen) was inspired by Napoléon but In Youth, Beside the Lonely Sea seems to predate Abel Gance's 1927 epic by a two years. Here the triptych has a dual function, sometimes used as a prototype widescreen panorama, and in other instances used to illustrate the protagonist's mix of memories of his youth. The film, based on a poem of the same name by American poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich features on screen text from the poem as well as some simple but effective special effects of fairies dancing. Appropriately enough the authorship of this mysterious film remains unknown...



Melody on Parade (1936)

The first of three montage experiments featured on the The Mechanized Eye collection, Melody on Parade is a dated but delirious mixture of newsreel footage of military parades (cadets drilling and marching projected at various speeds), a baby parade contest and the final segment entitled Presidents on Parade, a roll call of American presidents past and present using newsreel footage and animation. The montage is set to theatre organ music courtesy of Lew White (superimposed at the foreground of the frame) with maudlin narration sung by vaudeville singer Irving Kaufman ("And I see Franklin Roosevelt a gunnin', He's gonna start things hummin'"). Melody on Parade is hardly an essential addition to the collection but it's an amusing one nonetheless...



La Cartomancienne (The Fortune Teller) (1932) view

La Cartomancienne is 12min poetic film directed by American artist and film maker Jerome Hill. Set in a small coastal village, a young woman visits the fortune teller of the title who sees love in the woman's cards. When the woman meets an Adonis-figured man emerging out of the ocean, she reaches out to touch him - a dream or reality ? Filmed most likely in the south of France, La Cartomancienne is a highly symbolic work with references to Carl Jung and his theories of the subconscious. The film is a visual feast, shot with color tints, with Hill experimenting with animation and in one scene, the print itself seems to deteriorate and momentarily transforms into something akin to a Jackson Pollack drip painting. Jerome Hill's most widely seen work was in the field of documentary (his film 1957 Albert Schweitzer won an Academy Award for best documentary feature) but he looms large in the story of Experimental Cinema, as he was one of the patrons of the Anthology Film Archives, a museum and theatre dedicated to preservation and exhibition of Experimental Film...



Pie in the Sky (1934-35)

Directed by Ralph Steiner and produced by the leftist Nykino collective (an abbreviation of New York Kino) Pie in the Sky is a 22min Depression-era comedy which lampoons religion and it's empty promises. Two down on their luck men denied a meal at a soup kitchen ignore their hunger pains by mucking around in a bleak rubbish strewn landscape. Nykino's mission statement was to make dramatic revolutionary films, but Pie in the Sky is decidedly less pretentious, it's a playful, funny and at times irreverent work. The film is noteworthy for an early appearance by Elia Kazan (appearing as part of the Stanislavsky-influenced Group Theatre) playing one of the bums. Interestingly Kazen appears on the credits with his nickname Elia "Gadget" Kazan. The film itself is something of a rarity, Kazan made no mention of the film in his autobiography and it's also absent from the otherwise comprehensive Kazan on Kazan (Faber & Faber, 1999)...



Travel Notes (1932)

On New Year's Day, 1932 American photographer Walker Evans set sail on a four-month cruise to the South Seas. Evans was invited along on the journey as official photographer, and in addition to his photographic record, Evans shot some 35mm footage which was used for his 12min expressionist film Travel Notes. With little more than a flat sea to photograph, Evans instead fixes his gaze upon the business of the ship, and the 170-foot schooner's network of ropes and pulleys (often filmed from dizzying high angles), while deckhands are observed at work among the rigging. The second half of Travel Notes, filmed on the island of Tahiti is more conventional but no less impressive, Evans' visuals have a wonderful a sense of space and composition. Writing in her biography of Evans, Belinda Rathbone mentions that Evans befriended a 10-year old native boy who had appeared in Murnau's Tahiti-shot Tabu, the film Travel Notes closely resembles...



Oil: A Symphony in Motion (1930-33)

Two Californian film makers working under the name Artkino were responsible for this 8min film which forges a link between nature and the mechanized world, the pivotal role oil production played in the transition from agriculture to industrialization and the evolution of transport. Oil: A Symphony in Motion takes a novel approach to its subject by having the oil itself narrate (through intertitles) its own story, amusingly so in brash language - "I am the commodity men call oil, and this is my saga...I was here all the time, a mile below the cows...Yes I was walled up for a long time but I got away!" The film is heavily influenced by Soviet aesthetics, with low angle heroic shots of crops and cattle framed against huge skies, and farmers toiling away at exhausted fields. Artkino's achievement is better realised when the film is viewed alongside the 1923 industrial film The Story Of Petroleum (available as an extra on the DVD/BR of There Will Be Blood), which takes a far more conventional view of the oil business...



Poem 8 (1932-33) view

Painter, sculptor and experimental filmmaker Emlen Etting once described his 1933 film Poem 8 as "conceived directly in the language of visual symbols in action". Despite it's brief 19min the film is a dense and highly personal work, filmed from the author's point of view a la the 1947 noir The Lady in the Lake. The film's meaning is determinedly obscure but is concerned with movement, innocence and desire - we see images of foliage blowing in the wind, a young girl is seen dancing, followed by images of transport (a train pulls into Penn Station in New York, a liner leaves port to cheering crowds). Later, the author makes love to a woman in a garden, and there are shots of blood dripping onto paper intercut with frenzied hand-held street scenes. The pace slows again and returns to the young girl dancing, this time shrouded in a white veil followed by tranquil shots of autumnal leaves. Incidentally, the woman seen in the garden is American patron of the arts Caresse Crosby who was part of the lost generation of American expatriates who fled to Paris in the 20's. At 19 she invented the modern bra, while later in Paris, Crosby along with her poet husband Harry Crosby set up the legendary Black Sun Press which published works by Joyce, Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot. and other luminaries. The heavy eye make-up she wears in Poem 8 makes her look like one of the apparitions from another great experimental film, Carnival of Souls...



Storm (1941-43)

Among the films collected on The Mechanized Eye, Paul Burnford's Storm is notable for opening with the familiar MGM lion roar. Originally filmed as the longer Storm Warning, Burnford's montage film about unruly weather was bought by MGM who shortened the length to a single reel and added narration. The film's virtues still survive in this revised version - the evocative photography - wind-swept landscapes, trees bending with the force of the wind and pedestrians seeking shelter from a driving blizzard, as well as the rhythmic editing, the film begins with a gentle pace and gathers momentum as the storm is unleashed. London-born Burnford shot well over a 100 educational films but also dabbled in pure experimental film making like his 1954 abstract film Color



Portrait of a Young Man (1925-31)

By Experimental Cinema standards Henwar Rodakiewicz's Portrait of a Young Man is something of an epic, running 54 minutes. The film is structured as three "Movements" and is composed of images chosen for their continuous motion - water, leaves, smoke and moving machine parts. Rodakiewicz collected the footage over a number of years, and filmed in a wide variety of locations - Arizona, Bermuda, and British Columbia. The film is intended to be viewed without any musical accompaniment which may seem daunting given the considerable lenght, but after a spell the film becomes a powerfully hypnotic experience. Ambient Cinema is born...