FANTOMAS: THE COMPLETE SAGA (1913)

Fantômas (1913) is Louis Feuillade‘s first crime serial, and probably the best (a fourth serial, 1918’s Tin Minh, has survived and is purportedly on par with the three better known series, but has oddly never been restored or released on home video). Based on the novels of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, Fantômas, which was released as five separate films (Shadow of the Guillotine, Juve vs. Fantômas, The Murderous Corpse, Fantômas vs. Fantômas, and The False Magistrate), sets the pattern for the Feuillade serials that followed. Despite its age (105 years old!) it is insanely entertaining and the most surreal of … Continue reading FANTOMAS: THE COMPLETE SAGA (1913)

BUNUEL’S “UN CHIEN ANDALOU” (1929)

“Moving pictures merely repeat what we have been told for centuries by novels and plays. Thus, a marvelous instrument for the expression of poetry and dreams (the subconscious world) is reduced to the role of simple REPEATER of stories expressed by other art forms.”–Luis Bunuel Although Un Chien Andalou (1929) is believed to be one of the first intentionally Surrealist films, its iconoclastic milieu is predominantly subservient to the sovereign elements of systematic realism.   True to surrealist tenets, the film’s naturalistic texture is the quintessential ingredient in its theatrical absurdity. In this sense, Surrealist film is antithetical to Expressionist … Continue reading BUNUEL’S “UN CHIEN ANDALOU” (1929)

GUY MADDIN’S DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002)

DRACULA PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002, Guy Maddin)

“Dracula” is a very old story. The first (and probably best) cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s tale was F.W Murnau‘s Nosferatu (1922) with Max Schreck. Under Tod Browning‘s direction, Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi personified Hollywood’s vision of the character in Dracula (1931). George Melford made what has become known as the “Spanish” Dracula (1931), which was more fluid than Browning’s version, but saddled with an absurdly inept vampire in Carlos Villarías. Lon Chaney Jr., as Alucard (spell it backward), a Count who needs to watch his carbs, seemed to have effectively staked the character for good in Son Of Dracula (1943). However, John Carradine made Dracula as a supporting character in the mediocre monster mash, House of Frankenstein (1944) and the even worse House of Dracula (1945).

DRACULA PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002, Guy Maddin)

By the mid-1940s, Bram Stoker’s vampire seemed as hokey, outdated, and timid as his penny dreadful precursor “Varney the Vampire.” The genuine horrors of the Second World War, Fascism, and death camps rendered a nightly bloodsucker toothless. Dracula (Lugosi for the second and last time) was resurrected, for laughs, in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which by then seemed apt. Since then, celluloid incarnations of Dracula resurface with occasional, albeit brief vitality.

DRACULA PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002, Guy Maddin)

Continue reading “GUY MADDIN’S DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002)”

TOD BROWNING: DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE

Tod Browning

As a child of the 60s and 70s, I grew up reading about Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), but having been banned in several countries, it was never shown on television and remained-for me-something akin to a “lost film,” achieving mythical status. Then, in the early 80s, with the advent of VCRS, video stores, and VHS, Freaks suddenly was rediscovered. Costing $100.00, I ordered my copy. It was the full feature movie I purchased (excluding the 8MM Chaplin shorts we used to order from Blackhawk Films). When a work of art achieves legendary status, it can fail to live up to its reputation. The Ghoul (1933) with Boris Karloff and Ernest Thesiger (both from Bride Of Frankenstein, 1935) was such an example when I finally viewed it after having read about it for twenty years. Freaks was different. It retained its power and became an anthem; a source of identification to a young art school student. I had previously read of Browning’s uncomfortability with sound and agreed that it would have been even more shocking as a silent, but the awkward line-reading of non-actor freaks (Harry Earles, etc) rendered it powerfully authentic. From there, I explored the films of Tod Browning, discovering his body of art that lead to Freaks, lifetime obsessions, and one of the most unsetlling actor/director collaborations in the history of cinema.

Outside The Law (Tod Browning)Outside The Law (Tod Browning)

Although Lon Chaney has two roles in Outside the Law (1920), he is
not the star; rather, the film features early Tod Browning favorite Priscilla
Dean who plays Silky Moll, daughter of mobster Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis). Both are attempting to reform under the guidance of Confucian Master Chang Lo
(E. Alyn Warren). Black Mike Sylva (Chaney) interrupts the reformation by framing Silent Madden for murder. Silky, like Lorraine Lavond in Browning’s later The Devil Doll (1939), now has a wrongly imprisoned father.

Outside The Law (Tod Browning)Outside The Law (Tod Browning)

Silky and Dapper Bill Ballard plan a jewel heist with Black Mike. Unknown to Mike, Silky is aware of his betrayal of her father and, with Bill, she double-crosses her father’s Judas. Escaping with the heisted jewels, Silky and Bill hole up in an apartment and the time spent in such a  claustrophobic setting is awash with religious symbolism, which points to transformation. Browning, a Mason, repeatedly used religious imagery and themes: In West of Zanzibar (1928) Phroso stands in for the self-martyred Christ and calls upon divine justice under the image of the Virgin. In The Show (1927), the sadomasochistic drama of Salome is reenacted and almost played out in the actors’ lives (Martinu’s
opera ‘The Greek Passion’ would explore that possibility to a more jarring, degree). East is East 1929) utilizes Buddhist and Catholic symbology. Priests and crucifixes play important parts in The Unholy Three (1925), Road to Mandalay (1926), Dracula (1931-
possibly the most religious of the Universal Horror films) and Mark of the
Vampire
 (1935).

Continue reading “TOD BROWNING: DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE”

HARRY LANGDON: ACTOR RETROSPECTIVE ON THE ANNIVERSARY OF HIS DEATH

Harry Langdon (June 15, 1884 – December 22, 1944)

CAT'S MEOW HARRY LANGDONTHE SEA SQUAWK POSTER HARRY LANGDON

Charlie Chaplin said he “only felt threatened by Harry Langdon.” Samuel Becket wanted Langdon to act in his experimental film, but had to use Buster Keaton after Langdon’s early death. James Agee, Kevin Brownlow, Walter Kerr, Robert Youngson, Harold Lloyd and Mack Sennett were among those who sang high praises for Langdon’s art.

PICKING PEACHES POSTER HARRY LANGDON

Langdon’s characterization expressed the most pronounced silence of the era’s clowns. This is why, despite his fans’ claims (seen on the documentary included on “Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection”), sound proved completely disastrous for him. Langdon’s persona was only suited to the abstract plane that silent cinema offered.

HIS NEW MAMMA POSTER HARRY LANGDON

Continue reading “HARRY LANGDON: ACTOR RETROSPECTIVE ON THE ANNIVERSARY OF HIS DEATH”

FELIX THE CAT 1919-1930

Felix the Cat %22Felix Saves The Day%22 (1922)

In 1999 Image Entertainment released a DVD compilation of “Felix the Cat” cartoons, from the character’s debut in 1919 to 1924. Inexplicably, Image never followed up with a second collection, and allowed Presenting Felix the Cat to go out of print. Naturally, used copies now fetch high prices. This leaves us with another, briefer collection from Slingshot Entertainment, also from 1999, to take up the slack. The Slingshot release can be purchased for slightly less than a McDonalds Happy Meal, and it will not clog your arteries. The presentation is not as extensive as that from Image, but neither edition is ideal.

Felix In Hollywood 1923

Felix the Cat predates Mickey Mouse by a decade but was just as popular in the 20s as Walt’s rodent was in the 30s. There is a longstanding dispute over who exactly created Felix, but he was born in the studio of Pat Sullivan. Sullivan’s animator, Otto Messmer, usually (and probably rightfully) receives the bulk of the credit. Felix shot to stardom rapidly, but faded in the 30s when Sullivan was reluctant to make the move to sound, thus paving the way for Mickey’s meteoric ascent. The Felix character was revived in a weak, imitative TV series in the 1950s, and has appeared in two execrable feature films.

%22Felix In Hollywood%22

Although the quintessential compilation of Felix at his earliest (and best) remains to be released, the still-available Felix The Cat 1919-1930 will have to suffice until then.

Continue reading “FELIX THE CAT 1919-1930”

NO MAN’S LAW (1927)

No Man's Law (1927) lobby card

No Man’s Law is about as odd and obscure as it gets. Produced by Hal Roach, it stars Rex, King of the Wild Horses, Oliver Hardy (as a vile villain), James Finlayson,and Barbara Kent. Directed by some guy named Fred Jackman.

No Man's Law (1927) Oliver Hardy

Oliver Hardy is one-eyed, grizzled, no good fugitive cuss Sharkey Nye, prospecting for gold with good guy partner Spider O’ Day, played by Theodore Von Eltz.  James Finlayson, of many Laurel & Hardy shorts, has cute Barbara Kent for a daughter and he is prospecting too but he’s not very good at it.  Rex, the horse, surveying his territory, does not take a liking to Ollie.  When Ollie gets a wee bit too close to a skinny-dipping Barbara, Rex steps in, chasing off Ollie.

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THE STRONG MAN (1926)

THE STRONG MAN (Dir Frank Capra) Harry Langdon

For 1920s audiences, The Strong Man (1926) showed the quintessential appeal of Harry Langdon‘s idiosyncratic child-man persona. It is easy to see why. Langdon was radically different than the hyperkinetic antics associated with high profile silent clowns such as Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. Today, he is considered the “Forgotten Clown.” This is partially because Langdon died prior to 1950′s revival of interest in silent comedians. Another reason is his later ventures into blacker arenas: Long Pants (1927) and Three’s A Crowd (1927) which made (and still make) audiences uncomfortable. Still, Langdon’s risky choices were defensible. With sound around the corner, his stardom would most certainly have been short-lived anyway.

HARRY LANGDON %22THE STRONG MAN%22

Frank Capra, in his directorial debut, invests his signature stylized charm onto Strong Man. It begins with cannon fire. Paul (Langdon) is a soldier on the WWI war front. Needless to say, he is an atypical soldier. He can’t even knock over a tin can with a machine gun. But, put a slingshot in his hand and he can make the big guy cry (yes, David and Goliath references abound). He gets letters from his penpal, Mary Brown (Priscilla Bonner), who swears love to her long distance Belgian soldier.

THE STRONG MAN 1926 LOBBY CARD HARRY LANGDON

After the war, Paul is employed by the German Strong Man, Zandow the Great (Arthur Thalasso). As they enter several American cities, Paul looks for the elusive “Mary Brown.” He thinks he has found her in a gold digging pickpocket (Gertrude Astory). This “Mary Brown” is actually “Lily of Broadway.” When she tries to retrieve a stolen wad of cash, stashed in Paul’s jacket pocket, it foreshadows several Stan Laurel scenes to come in which a child-man resists being undressed by an aggressive female. Continue reading “THE STRONG MAN (1926)”

TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP (1926)

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp. LANGDON & CRAWFORD

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926), directed by Harry Edwards, was slapstick comedian Harry Langdon‘s first feature for First National. The star was at the height of his meteoric rise and, unknown to him, was a mere year away from his sudden fall. Tramp, Tramp, Tramp is probably the least of Langdon’s silent features, but its merits are considerable.

TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP FIRST NATIONAL AD

A dastardly Snidely Whiplash-type landlord has given Harry’s wheelchair bound pappy three months to come up with the rent: ” Son, I hadn’t told you—we don’t own this place—we’ll be put out soon.”

“Does that mean I don’t get my new bicycle?”

TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP LANGDON POSTER

Harry can’t keep his mind off Betty, the Burton Shoes billboard girl (Joan Crawford). “Stop dreaming of that girl. The money must be raised in three months—it’s up to you.”

“I’ll get the money in three months if it takes me a year.”

Oh, but wait, which way to go? Primrose Street or the Easiest Way? Which way indeed? Hmmm. Harry ponders, makes a step, steps back, ponders some more. It’s the type of scene that will inspire love of Langdon or pure hate. I opt for the former. As for the Landon haters, unenlightened to the Tao of Langdon—they serve as proof that uninformed opinions simply do not count. Continue reading “TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP (1926)”

BLANCANIEVES (2012)

BLANCANIEVES (2012) poster

It has been said the greatest tragedy of silent film is that its era was too brief. It seems Hollywood belatedly agreed with this assessment when they named The Artist (2011, dir. Michael Hazanavicius) only the second silent film to win a Best Picture Oscar (the first was 1927′s Wings, directed by William A. Wellman). The Artist had a somewhat conventionally plotted narrative, clearly patterned after Star is Born (1937, also directed by Wellman), which was perhaps apt, as it borrows silence to portray a silent film. However, its charm and an infectious love of the era won it numerous accolades. Following close on The Artist‘s heels came Blancanieves (2012 dir. Pablo Berger), which did not get nearly the recognition The Artist did, but is the better film. Blancanieves almost feels as indebted to Guy Maddin as it does to the silent era, which may have kept it from attaining the populist status afforded The Artist.

Blancanieves (2012) Macarena Garcia
Fifty-year-old NYU film grad Pablo Berger chose a familiar story: the Brothers Grimm’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” This adaptation came on the heels of Hollywood’s pedestrian Snow White And The Huntsman (which predictably made a gazillion dollars) but represents a much darker, idiosyncratic telling of the tale. Berger grasps an important aesthetic of silent film: its sense of otherworldliness. Berger clearly relishes a hallucinatory texture akin to silent artists such as Tod Browning or Erich Von Stroheim. He transplants the story, brimming with humor and tragically latent left-field sexuality, into and around the arena of Spanish bullfights. The famous toreador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) dispenses of a quintet of bulls, only to be gored by the sixth (the bulls were actually killed, which sparked boycotts by animal rights advocates). Villalta’s pregnant wife Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta) witnesses his maiming, which renders him a quadriplegic. This sends Carmen into premature labor, which proves fatal after delivering her namesake. Villalta’s anesthesiologist, Encarna (Maribel Verdu) sees opportunity and maneuvers to marry the tragedy-stricken celebrity, which puts his infant daughter under the care of her grandmother. Continue reading “BLANCANIEVES (2012)”

LOST AND FOUND: THE HARRY LANGDON COLLECTION

THE CAT'S MEOW 1924 HARRY LANGDONCAT'S MEOW HARRY LANGDONTHE SEA SQUAWK POSTER HARRY LANGDON

Charlie Chaplin said he “only felt threatened by Harry Langdon.” Samuel Becket wanted Langdon to act in his experimental film, but had to use Buster Keaton after Langdon’s early death. James Agee, Kevin Brownlow, Walter Kerr, Robert Youngson, Harold Lloyd and Mack Sennett were among those who sang high praises for Langdon’s art.

PICKING PEACHES POSTER HARRY LANGDON

Langdon’s characterization expressed the most pronounced silence of the era’s clowns. This is why, despite his fans’ claims (seen on the documentary included on “Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection”), sound proved completely disastrous for him. Langdon’s persona was only suited to the abstract plane that silent cinema offered.

HIS NEW MAMMA POSTER HARRY LANGDON

It is easy to see why he appealed so readily to the Surrealists. His persona is dreamlike, subconscious, otherworldly. Langdon’s man-child seems an elfin id. Silence and make-up were existential turpentine for Langdon, removing him, layer-by-layer, from the world as we know it. Continue reading “LOST AND FOUND: THE HARRY LANGDON COLLECTION”

HARRY LANGDON’S THE CHASER (1928)

The Chaser Lobby cardThe Chaser (1928) was  Harry Langdon‘s second directorial feature for First National studios. His third and final feature, Heart Trouble (1928) is considered lost. The few who did see Heart Trouble claimed that it could have restored Langdon to prominence. However, by then First National had written their star off, canceled his contract and punished his risk-taking by yanking Heart Trouble. In most likelihood the studio destroyed all the copies.

THE CHASER FIRST NATIONAL AD

In his review of Chuck Harter and Michael Hayde’s book “Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon,” Leonard Maltin writes: “Harter and Hayde are so pro-Langdon that they feel it necessary to disparage Frank Capra [who directed Langdon’s first film] at every opportunity… the authors take heavy-handed swipes at Capra at every opportunity, ignoring the fact that Langdon’s features did take a nosedive after the collaborators parted company. I remember sitting with an audience stunned into silence as we watched Three’s A Crowd and The Chaser when Raymond Rohauer first presented them theatrically in 1971. They are painfully unfunny. There were other factors that worked against these late-silent features aside from Capra’s departure, but Langdon was not destined to succeed as his own producer, as this book explores in detail.” Continue reading “HARRY LANGDON’S THE CHASER (1928)”

CHARLES CHAPLIN’S THE IMMIGRANT (1917)

Immigrant posterChaplin in The Immigrant

It was approximately 45 years ago this Christmas that my grandfather introduced me to Charlie Chaplin with an 8mm film of The Immigrant (1917). Although the film has nothing to do with the actual holiday, I felt, even at that young age, that Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance (never more beautiful than here) felt like Christmas. I believe my grandfather liked Chaplin, but no more than he liked Laurel and Hardy, whom I was also introduced to that same day. For me, it was different. I was later to learn that The Music Box (1932) was actually a sound film, but the 8mm version we saw (from BlackHawk films, I think) was silent. Perhaps that was one initial reason for my stronger response to Chaplin, but it was far more than that. I was not sold on preconceived notions regarding Chaplin’s superstar status because I knew next to nothing about him.

Immigrant still . game of poker Continue reading “CHARLES CHAPLIN’S THE IMMIGRANT (1917)”

THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (1926)

Historians, film buffs, and Disney fanatics all cite Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) as the first animated feature. While it is the first animated feature as we Americans tend to think of animation, actually that “first” honor goes to a little known, innovative oddity from eleven years earlier. The Adventures Of Prince Achmed (1926) is a labor of love from the pioneering female German filmmaker Lotte Reiniger and her husband, Carl Koch. What makes Achmed still unique 88 years later is animation entirely composed of cutout silhouettes. The result  was one of the silent era’s most enchanting and captivating films. It is also a lucid reminder that … Continue reading THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (1926)

CHAPLIN’S EASY STREET (1917)

Easy Street (Chaplin) lobby card

Easy Street (1917) is ‘s most urbane comedy. Some critics claims it’s his most perfectly composed film, with shrewdly chosen ingredients of minimal pathos, well developed characterizations, the Tramp’s quintessential antagonist and his most frequent leading lady, balanced slapstick, drug addiction, attempted rape, domestic violence, mockery of status quo, with social and political satire thrown in as the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake. Easy Street is evolved Chaplin: a series of astute contrasts in this, his ninth and final Mutual short.

The Tramp is desperate and, upon hearing hymnals coming from Hope Mission, he seeks temporary solace. Unfortunately for Charlie, the collection plate passes him by, but the revivalists do try to save his soul. Of course he would rather have a good meal, a place to sleep, and clothes on his back. , as the church organist, provides inspiration in the way of  pure, divine beauty. As usual with Chaplin, his film is actually dated socialist propaganda edifying the poor and destitute, who we now know have no real reason to live.

In order to win Edna, the Tramp takes on a dangerous job as a Keystone Kopper whose beat is the violent slum haven known as Easy Street. The lord of this slum is Goliath (, who was never more menacing or three-dimensional than he is here, in what turned out to be his final role before dying in an automobile accident). Goliath has an inherent problem with authority figures, even one so obviously ill-suited to the job as Charlie. When the Tramp comes a walkin’ down Easy Street, he has entered the Philistine’s domain, and here it is the giant who sees himself as the good guy with the kopper as an intruder in his skid row utopia.  A brief glimpse into Goliath’s domestic situation reveals a plethora of kids and a weakened wife, on the verge of starvation; it is not that simple, however. Goliath’s Wifey proves to be an aggressor, fully capable of domestic abuse upon her husband (who is more than willing to reciprocate). Wifey’s aggression even hones in on Charlie after he gives her food (because women can be aggressive, and because her inherent hatred of authority figures goes across the board). Continue reading “CHAPLIN’S EASY STREET (1917)”

CHAPLIN’S THE KID (1921)

The Kid (1921) was ‘s first and most autobiographical feature film. Produced for First National, it fulfilled his ambition to move beyond shorts. Critics immediately hailed it as a masterpiece, but its reputation has since suffered due to its many flaws. Of course, no work of art is flawless and the film’s status remains intact. It is, in many ways, a synthesis of Chaplin’s previous work and the work which followed. Chaplin began filming shortly after losing his infant son with first child bride, Mildred Harris. The Kid is, in part, a fantasy about what might have been, which Chaplin wedded to his own bitter childhood memories. The film was also a blueprint for Chaplin’s work process. He took his time filming, much to the chagrin of the studio, who applied considerable pressure on him to speed up the process.

It opens with  as a (single) woman “whose sin was motherhood.” Chaplin, who was himself illegitimate, edits the image of the suffering woman with a shot of Christ carrying the cross. This is visual storytelling, of course, so Chaplin’s not done with the manipulation yet. Our Scarlet Letter-styled heroine sees a couple coming out of a church. The bride, looking shell shocked, is all of about 16 years old. She drops a withered flower, symbolizing her loss of virginity. Her groom emerges, a white-bearded man who is at least 70. The minister and congregation bless the wedding. Edna, empathizing with the bride from afar, is accentuated with a halo round her head as she holds her bastard son. Within a few seconds, Chaplin takes his big swipe at hypocritical American piety, puritanism, and organized religion.

Edna sees an open limousine, darts in through its door (a device he reworked in 1931′s City Lights) and dumps her shame in the back seat, with a letter: “please love and care for this orphan child.”

Continue reading “CHAPLIN’S THE KID (1921)”

BILL MORRISON’S LIGHT IS CALLING (2004) AND JUST ANCIENT LOOPS (2012)

’s Light Is Calling (2004) opened the prestigious 2013 Orphans Midwest Film Symposium at Indiana University, setting an avant-garde tone for the event.

Morrison’s credentials as a experimental filmmaker are considerable, having received widespread critical recognition for the feature Decasia (2002). Morrison’s collages are composed and juxtaposed to music, often by his frequent collaborator composer, Michael Gordon. This technique, combined with Morrison’s obsessive use of decaying silent film and newsreel footage, makes him one of the most startling, original homegrown artists since New Englander Charles “take your dissonance like a man” Ives. Comparing this twenty first century filmmaker to an early twentieth century composer is not as fanciful as might be first imagined, since inherent musicality abides in both, as does a shared aesthetic of deconstructionist Americana.

Light Is Calling will be shown Thursday night at 830 pm. It is part of an evening of film and music, which will includeJust Ancient Loops (2012) and the world premiere of Morrison’s All Vows (2013). Israeli American cellist and Bang On A Can founding member Maya Beiser will supply live musical accompaniment. (Beiser’s reputation for collaborating with composers such as Louis Andriessen, Steve Reich, and Brian Eno may prove to be refreshing in a city whose symphony rarely defines progressive art-music beyond the nineteenth century).

Continue reading “BILL MORRISON’S LIGHT IS CALLING (2004) AND JUST ANCIENT LOOPS (2012)”

BILL MORRISON’S SPARK OF BEING (2010)

Spark of Being can be watched in its entirety for free on IMDB.

Spark of Being (2010) is an example of an artist resisting an aesthetic anchor. ‘s films are often categorized as non-narrative and experimental, so the idea of this artist tackling such a perennial chestnut such as “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus” leads us to wonder exactly how he is going to deconstruct such a familiar narrative. Throwing out all preconceived assumptions, Morrison pays homage to Mary Shelly and makes her Gothic creation fresh again with a startlingly literal interpretation. Indeed, Spark of Being may be one of the most faithful cinematic adaptations of the book to date.

Using found footage, Morrison teams with jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas and his electric sextet, Keystone, to illustrate Shelly’s tale. Douglas is an eclectic trumpeter who once worked as a sideman with the John Zorn ensemble Masada. With an original score that is simultaneously mercurial and animated, it is hard to imagine a more perfect composer forSpark of Being. 

Still from Spark of Being (2010)A frequent (and sometimes justifiable) criticism in films this textured is that the style becomes so all-important the end result is a viewer deprived of a heart to identify with. In short, often, a human element is missing. Morrison has referred to this film itself as “the Creature,” and given the agonized condition of footage chosen, Morrison’s creature may be the most pathos-laden performance of the character since . One can only imagine the painstaking process it took in assembling Morrison’s creation into a cogent psyche, imbued with personality as predominant “presence.” A popular comparison might be the collaboration between  and Claude Rains in producing a personality-driven Invisible Man (1933), but Morrison’s approach is more innovative, while still being true to the author’s tenets. Douglas’ music provides an informative touch of flesh stretched over the cranium supplied by archival footage from Ernest Shackleton’s film of an Antarctic expedition. As in the novel, the film opens here in the segment titled “The Captain’s Story.” The viewer steps with the Captain in his interaction with creator and created and the unfolding tragic drama. Continue reading “BILL MORRISON’S SPARK OF BEING (2010)”

BILL MORRISON’S DECASIA (2002)

Bill Morrison composed Decasia (2002) as a decomposing homage to Fantasia (1940). Far from being a pedestrian imitation (i.e. Fantasia 2000), Morrison’s film is an astonishingly unique cinematic experience: a diaphanous visual collage juxtaposed to the music of composer Michael Gordon.

There is a breed of  minimalistic new age composers espousing a play-it-safe spirituality. Gordon is not among them. He is a one of a handful of authentic, spiritually challenging voices in 21st century artmusic. Gordon’s rich use of dissonance and atonal language puts him shoulder to shoulder with the likes of such 20th century artists as Luigi Nono and John Coltrane. Gordon’s “Decasia,” composed for the Basel Sinfonietta, is called a “symphony,” and is a response of sorts for those who (often correctly) believe that the symphony, as an art form, was extended to its death in the works of Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler. Some would argue that Gordon’s opus, a continuous movement utilizing synthesizer and electric guitar together with full orchestra, does not fit the symphonic criteria. But then, neither did Roy Harris’ iconic work. Like Coltrane’s “Ascension,” Decasia is a demanding journey.  Gordon previously came to prominence with his intimately provocative psychological opera “Alarm Will Sound.” Based on Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo regarding the ear lobe cutting incident, it is desolate and suffocatingly beautiful. “Decasia” is a further development of that aesthetic, moving beyond words to the tragedy of silence, making Morrison a quintessential collaborator. Continue reading “BILL MORRISON’S DECASIA (2002)”

ALEX MONTY CANAWATI’S RETURN TO BABYLON

In 1999, Alex Monty Canawati and his producer found a factory sealed bag of 16mm black and white Ilford film on Hollywood Boulevard. Using this, Canawati and his team began Birth of Babylon, which won Best Short Film at the Arpa Foundation film festival in 2001. This short silent film depicts the infamous, still officially unsolved murder of Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor (played by Jack Atlantis). The Taylor murder involved a who’s who list of Hollywood celebrities as suspects. Among those were Mary Miles Minter (Devora Lillian) and Mabel Normand (Morganne Picard). Although no one was charged, the highly publicized investigation effectively destroyed the careers of the two actresses connected to the case (in 1964 silent actress Margaret Gibson confessed to the killing of Taylor on her deathbed).  The Taylor murder came a mere five months after the Roscoe Arbuckle rape scandal and was followed by the drug-related deaths of silent stars Olive Thomas and Barbara La Marr (Wendy Caron), prompting Hollywood to write morality clauses into its contracts. This regulation eventually gave birth to the Hayes Code.

Canawati had attended the University of Southern California and discovered a fascination for silent film aesthetics and. Apart from , Canawati was the only filmmaker of note producing silent films a full decade before the populist, Academy Award winning The Artist (2011). However, Canawati was not content with Birth as a short and wanted to expand it into a feature, encompassing far more than a single representative event of silent cinema. Due to financial struggles, Return to Babylon (2013) took over a decade to see fruition. It has been worth the wait. Continue reading “ALEX MONTY CANAWATI’S RETURN TO BABYLON”