Lost in the Movies: November 2016

ODE TO BOSTON (video essay on Guy & Madeline on a Park Bench for Fandor Keyframe)

My latest Fandor video essay, like my previous one, is inspired by a new release to look back at an earlier film. In this case, the new release is La La Land, Damien Chazelle's musical love letter to Los Angeles. Watching the trailer, it was clear this movie was screaming from the rooftops that it was an "L.A. Movie" with candy-colored photography of famous locations from the title metropolis. I was most struck by a shot of the Angel's Flight Railway, where the opening scene of my short film Class of 2002 took place. So there was a bit of personal resonance to these clips.

Likewise, when I watched Chazelle's feature debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (I keep accidentally typing "Guy and Madeline Go Boating"), I was struck with a bit of geography-inspired nostalgia. But this time it was more subdued and subtle - despite fleeting shots of unmistakable landmarks early on, it actually took me a little while to realize the film was set in Boston. The locale was slightly disguised by the black-and-white imagery and an emphasis on handheld close-ups of the actors. Nonetheless, the city casts a spell over the film, and I decided to draw out that mood even further in my tribute to Guy and Madeline. I created a short musical montage to a city that I - and obviously Chazelle as well - have a great fondness for.

Here is the accompanying piece I wrote for Fandor:
ODE TO BOSTON In Damien Chazelle's newest film, the young director crafts a musical paean to Los Angeles. It's right there in the title - LA LA LAND (2016) - and is already apparent in the trailer, with its glamorous shots of iconic L.A. locations, and in the synopses of the film, which deals with actors and musicians struggling in the show biz capital. On the other hand, Chazelle's debut feature, GUY AND MADELINE ON A BENCH (2009), is more subtle about its location. The film is composed largely through close-ups of the actors, with black-and-white handheld camerawork cloaking the world of the film in a way that LA LA LAND's widescreen Technicolor palette exposes its own.

And yet Boston (or perhaps Greater Boston, including the surrounding cities) is a distinct character in the movie, its brownstones, monuments, and leafy avenues lending the movie a quiet, pleasant but melancholy atmosphere. New York City makes a brief appearance halfway through, but its fast-paced bustle marks a sharp contrast to the rest of the film. Throughout the film, Chazelle includes fleeting, evocative shots of statues, streets, subways, and skylines that key us in to Boston's unique vibe. Created soon after he graduated from Harvard University, GUY AND MADELINE often feels like Chazelle's love letter to this area, with the New England metropolis a distinct character in its own right.

The film closes with a powerful trumpet solo, shot in a single take, a close-up of the composer/performer playing the instrument as an expression of his love for Madeline. This video essay imagines - perhaps not so outlandishly - that the music is not only a tribute to her, but also to the city in which they fell in, out of, and perhaps back into love. Keeping Guy in a corner of the screen the whole time, I have stitched together a montage of the movie's many quick location shots - juxtaposing these images with a one-minute sample of Guy's sustained solo. This is a distillation of the film's subtle sense of place, and also a way to honor a city I personally have great affection for. Hidden in its corners, glimpsed for a few moments before we return to the actors' faces as our primary touchstone, Boston may still be to GUY AND MADELINE what L.A. is to LA LA LAND - a backdrop without which we can't imagine the central romance.

Uploaded to YouTube in 2018:

For my own personal recollections of Boston, visit my essay Boston, You're My Home, written the day of the Marathon bombing in 2013.

And you can also check out my film Class of 2002, which contains original and found footage from both Boston and Los Angeles:

Black/White: a video essay on Black Girl

Here is my first video essay on my personal YouTube/Vimeo channels since May. Appropriately enough it has a political subject, focused as it is on the work of Ousmane Sembene, the great Senegalese filmmaker sometimes dubbed "the father of African cinema." I explore how his first feature film's aesthetic and polemical qualities intertwine.

On its fiftieth anniversary, Black Girl (aka La Noire de...) is widely considered the first sub-Saharan African film by a sub-Saharan African filmmaker. As one would expect, much of the film takes place in Dakar, Senegal (where writer/director Ousmane Sembene was from). However, two-thirds of the film takes place in France, where the main character Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) has traveled to work as a domestic servant for a French couple. This film, then, offers a (cinematically) unfamiliar window into a familiar milieu, as we watch the interactions of a typical bourgeois domestic scene - an unhappy wife, an indifferent husband - through the eyes of an outsider to it. In these sequences, Sembene designs a world defined by a heavy contrast between the colors black and white - not just obviously in the skin tones of the actors, but through clothing, decor, even food. It's tempting to read the film entirely through this lens of sharp racial contrast but as this video demonstrates, that's only half the story.

Black Girl's most important contrast is not between black and white in France, but between that very stark French juxtaposition, and the more subtle shading in Senegal. What applies to form applies to content as well: the rigidity of Diouana's life in Antibes is not matched by the more relaxed events and performance shown in the Dakar flashbacks. Through this larger contrast, and also be freely cutting across time and space to analyze these different lifestyles side by side (as well as ending back in Africa, on the face of a little boy who accompanied Diouana in some of the earlier scenes), Sembene discourages us from placing the European part of the story as the ascension of a hierarchy, the inevitable outcome of Diouana's situation. Instead, we are encouraged to regard the sharp black/white contrast of the European scenes, and the stark racial and economic power dynamics which accompany them, within a larger context - and then to reject it.

Discussing The Secret History of Twin Peaks #2 (Twin Peaks Unwrapped)

The Secret History of Twin Peaks, by Mark Frost, fostered a number of elaborate theories about what its unusual approach means - or whether it means anything at all. Last week I appeared on Twin Peaks Unwrapped where I discussed the book with hosts Bryon and Ben. Are the "mistakes" and "inconsistencies" of the book actually purposeful, and if so what purpose do they serve? What does the novel tell us about Mark Frost's vision of Twin Peaks as opposed to David Lynch's? How seriously should we take the intimations of flying saucers?

After my appearance, the podcast brought on another guest, Aaron Mento. He had very strong opinions about what Frost intended. Listen as he decodes the words and images, and see what you think...

Discussing The Secret History of Twin Peaks #1 (Obnoxious & Anonymous)

Several weeks ago, Mark Frost's new novel, The Secret History of Twin Peaks was released to general excitement, acclaim, bafflement, and frustration. Imaginatively written as an FBI dossier full of fictionalized mixed-media files (newspaper clippings, confidential reports, postcards, etc), Frost takes us through the history of the town and some of its inhabitants up to the final day of the series, going just a few hours further than what we had already seen. To the surprise of many readers, Frost focused a lot on a wider context - Lewis & Clark, Jack Parsons and the occult, UFO lore, even the JFK assassination and Nixon adminstration. Like all parts of Twin Peaks, the Secret History found its celebrants and its detractors...and Cameron Coultier (as the video's cover-image suggests) was definitely one of the latter! I joined him for a video chat on his Obnoxious & Anonymous YouTube channel to discuss the book for several hours with other Twin Peaks fans. This was the first of my appearance on two different podcasts - the second will be cross-posted later today.

Sci-Fi Countdown - Star Wars (CinemaVille discussion w/ Bob Clark for Wonders in the Dark)

Bob Clark's final podcast for the Wonders in the Dark sci-fi countdown covers the first Star Wars film, a/k/a Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), I made another guest appearance. We talk about the film's unique legacy, connection to the larger saga, and other matters in the seventy-minute-long episode.

Lost in Twin Peaks #3: discussing Mark Frost w/ Twin Peaks Unwrapped

Twin Peaks Unwrapped just completed a "Mark Frost Month" in honor of his new book The Secret History of Twin Peaks. Though he co-created Twin Peaks and was far more involved with its day-to-day creation than David Lynch, Frost has often been overlooked in discussions of the show. Ben and Bryon invited me on to discuss Frost's contributions, and also his other works like Storyville. Be sure to listen to the whole podcast, as it includes a great interview with Twin Peaks writer Harley Peyton, who shares his memories of working with Frost.

Lost in Twin Peaks #2: discussing the theme of incest w/ Twin Peaks Unwrapped

I wasn't sure what picture to use at the top of this post. To show characters for whom incest is an issue in Twin Peaks would give away crucial story aspects to the casual browser who hasn't watched the show yet. And that's a problem I'll get to in a second. The picture of the cabin in the dark woods, with the light in the window and the action inside obscured, is eerie enough to suggest a secret beneath the surface without getting explicit. That in itself is in the spirit of Twin Peaks, a show that digs beneath the town's welcoming but spooky appearances to unearth corruption, betrayal, loneliness, violence, murder and, yes, in more than one storyline, incestuous overtones.

Lost in Twin Peaks #1: discussing the Owl Cave ring w/ Twin Peaks Unwrapped

I wrote about the results of the election yesterday, following the conclusion of my Favorites series on Sunday and the posting of my most recent Fandor video on Monday. From now through the weekend, I will be cross-posting twice a day, sharing podcast appearances from the past few months now that I'm done with other work. Starting next week, I will begin sharing new material - starting with a video essay on Ousmane Sembene's Black Girl (1966) which has political as well as aesthetic implications.

Ben and Bryon of Twin Peaks Unwrapped have invited me to participate in a recurring segment on their podcast, in which I discuss Twin Peaks - usually a particular theme or aspect - for about ten to twenty minutes. They presented these segments two weeks in a row (usually, to my understanding, they'll appear once or twice a month) so I'm just catching up by sharing them now (the second will go up tomorrow). At the end of the first podcast, I pop on to discuss the Owl Cave ring in Fire Walk With Me - in particular, why I see it as a more positive object than many other fans do. The rest of the episode includes some chatter about the film and cast of the upcoming continuation - but most importantly, there is an extended, captivating interview with the author of The Twin Peaks Access Guide, Richard Saul Wurman, 81-year-old renaissance man who, it is casually mentioned, was also the founder of TED Talks.

11:30 pm to 3:30 am: The Unthinkable

I did not expect this to happen.

This is the logical outcome of the ball that started rolling when the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq. It's what happens when one side says "Why not?" and recognize that power creates its own norms. And it's what happens when the other side has no faith in its own values - their integrity, their popularity, or their feasibility.

Hillary Clinton ended her campaign in true form, sending John Podesta out to calm the crowd and send them home (essentially Go to sleep, We've got this), while she wrapped things up behind closed doors, calling Trump and letting him take the stage to proclaim victory before she had addressed her own supporters. Elite to elite, the way the whole race has been run, ceding the populist ground to the vulgar puppet for Paul Ryan and the ruthless Republicans who will actually be setting the agenda.

I don't know if Bernie Sanders would have won. I think he would've had a better shot. What I do know is that the results are in, and Hillary Clinton has lost. And Donald Trump is going to be the next President of the United States.

I am in no mood or mindset to neatly compose an essay right now. Even this intro has taken me forever to get right. Instead, I am going to reprint most of what I wrote on Twitter in real time as the outcome of the race slowly became clear and the nightmare dawned. There's hope here too. But it emerges against a far more stark, dangerous backdrop than I foresaw.

Election Day Status Update

After a slow summer, this site has been quite busy in the fall, finally wrapping up the last (more than) half of my Favorites series by adopting a daily schedule after grinding away, off and on, for four years. Several projects are wrapping up simultaneously, while others are waiting to get started, and those projects plus work plus actually needing to get out to vote...all keep me from doing what I had planned for last night or this morning: finally talking about current events on this blog for the first time all year. My reflections on 2016 will have to wait to go up till tomorrow, if I feel like it - aside from brief thoughts right now, and some links to previous political/cultural essays that represent where I was at the time of writing, not necessarily where I am now.

First, though, how am I voting? My most enthusiastic vote will be cast for Carol Shea-Porter in New Hampshire's first district, a candidate who avoids corporate PAC money (as a result she was not the DNC's desired nominee, email leaks have revealed). But that's probably not the vote you're curious about. I will be voting for Hillary Clinton for president because I currently reside in a swing state and consider this strategy the best one to ensure Donald Trump doesn't become president, despite my many objections with Clinton specifically and, much more importantly, to the entire system she represents and participates in. While I have, to put it mildly, major disagreements with anyone who thinks Trump is a preferable choice, I also don't have much tolerance with those who condemn third-party voters or abstentions. Yes, not voting for Hillary Clinton could be seen as privilege. You know what? Voting for her could be seen as a privilege too. Both actions have dangerous consequences, and can be deeply repellent to the people most directly affected by those consequences. I've made my calculation, and now you must make yours. (A few minutes ago, I published this piece without this paragraph, but I don't want to seem coy - so there it is.)

Nat Turner & Charles Burnett: video essay on Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property

This cross-post was written in October, but delayed until my Favorites series ended yesterday, so that the schedule wouldn't be too cluttered.

It had been a few months since I posted any video essays on Fandor (or anywhere for that matter), but I’m happy to return now with a short video exploring Charles Burnett’s film Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property – obviously very relevant given the recent release of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation biopic of Turner.

(more information & images from the video follow the jump)

The Favorites - Masculin Feminin (#1)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Masculin Feminin (1966/France/dir. Jean-Luc Godard) appeared at #1 on my original list. Most entries are only a couple paragraphs; this one, to conclude the series, is much longer.

What it is • It is autumn, and an important election is on the horizon. Against a background of looming violence and repression, there is also a sense of determined, restless energy amongst the nation's youth, a dissatisfaction with the status quo and desire for change that is finding expression in a reinvigorated left...accompanied by absorption in a pop culture that celebrates consumption and pleasure dissociated from any sense of deeper meaning. But Masculin Feminin is not a present-day documentary and these "children of Marx and Coca-Cola" are not millennials. The country is France and the year is 1965. The film focuses on five young people - two boys, three girls (in their late teens or early twenties, living independent lives, yet still free-spirited, and uncertain, enough to seem more like "boys and girls" rather than "men and women"). Though Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and his buddy Robert Packard (Michel Debord) hew to a more orthodox Communist Party line than the fashionable Maoists and anarchists emerging at the forefront of the New Left, they are definitely plugged into the zeitgeist: joining in strikes from their factory jobs, petitioning the Brazilian government, and protesting the Vietnam War and the Gaullist government up for re-election. However, they appear to be rather clueless about the youth counterculture, Paul especially (watching him "sing" Bob Dylan's lyrics is one of the more amusing moments in the movie).

The Favorites - Lawrence of Arabia (#2)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Lawrence of Arabia (1962/UK/dir. David Lean) appeared at #2 on my original list.

What it is • T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) is an outsider long before he arrives in Arabia. Born from a liaison between a noble father and a servant mother (herself born out of wedlock), Lawrence is still at odds with his surroundings when we meet him: an intelligence officer stationed in Cairo, perpetually bored but bemused. So he is assigned a mission which, however fleeting, should entertain him for a few weeks and produce effective results for the British Empire. Lawrence is to journey into the Arabian Desert to link up with Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), leader of the earnest but unsuccessful Arab Revolt against the Ottomon Empire. Despite his simple mission - assess the situation - Lawrence decides to go much further. When he finally returns to Cairo, he is caked in dust and accompanied by an Arab boy (Michel Ray) who has experienced hardship, battle, and loss alongside the British officer: they are fresh from the daring conquest of Aqaba from its unprotected desert flank. Overnight, Lawrence is deemed a hero - and his journey has only just begun. As with many epic films from the thirties to the sixties (and perhaps beyond), Lawrence's first half (actually a bit more than half) is divided from its second by an intermission. Some have praised the tight, focused, cohesive early section at the expense of the more scattered approach post-intermission. But in fact the film's greatness, deeply rooted and established in the first part, is fully realized in the more uncertain, sprawling second part. Lawrence's story isn't simply one of military success. It's a tale of cultural disorientation, in which a British officer attempts to subvert colonial policy but - unlike similar situations in Dances With WolvesThe Last Samurai, or Avatar - can never fully assimilate. This is also a story of humiliation, of hubris, and of Lawrence's psychosexual kinks applied on the battlefield as well as within his own mind. Lawrence of Arabia has been celebrated throughout history, placing highly on "greatest ever" lists and winning Best Picture in 1962 (maybe the most deserving Oscar winner of all time, with the Godfathers, On the Waterfront, Casablanca, and Gone With the Wind its only rivals, and even they probably fall short). Yet I can't help but feel the film is misunderstood, especially when celebrated as eyecandy without substance.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - Vertigo (#3)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Vertigo (1958/USA/dir. Alfred Hitchcock) appeared at #3 on my original list.

What it is • In the opening minutes of Vertigo, Det. James "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) experiences his first, but not his last, trauma, nearly falling from a tall building - and then watching as the police officer who tries to save him actually falls to his death. For the rest of the film, he suffers from acrophobia, a fear of heights so debilitating he can't even look out the window of his apartment without collapsing. An old friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) offers him a job to relieve the tedium of his unexpected retirement. Elster's wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) has been acting strange - she may in fact be possessed by the spirit of an ancestor, Carlotta Valdez, an Old San Francisco beauty who was scorned by her husband and separated from her child. This is a Hitchcock movie, and Hitchcock movies, however eerie and tense they get, don't usually dabble in the supernatural. Nevertheless, as Scottie immerses himself in the Elster mystery he does seem to be uncovering a case of genuine possession. He falls in love with Madeleine, an aloof, aristocratic blonde, vowing to keep her safe. And then... Well, I saw the film without knowing much about it and I'd recommend you do the same if you can. Stop reading now, and seek the film with a fresh curiosity (jump to the "How you can see it" section to find a convenient option). Only if you have watched Vertigo, or have already had it spoiled, should you keep on reading. After losing Madeleine, Scottie disappears into a fog of regret and anxiety, a catatonic state which, when he finally emerges, leaves him an emotional cripple obsessed with the past. He meets Judy (also Kim Novak), an earthy brunette, nothing like Madeleine...except that she does looks a bit like her. If just for her hair...or her clothes...or her manner of speech. Vertigo's trailer presents this character as a distinct individual and the film could easily play into that expectation. Instead Hitchcock does something far more interesting - something he hesitated to do, only acquiescing when his wife/lifelong collaborator Alma urged him to trust his initial instinct. With a good half-hour or so remaining, Vertigo reveals that Judy is Madeleine; or rather, there never was a Madeleine, not that Scottie knew anyway. In the recent documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, an interesting survey of the American auteur's method, the commentators all concur that Vertigo is - for better or worse - exclusively interested in Scottie's perspective. I find this opinion confounding. The big twist of Vertigo is that we learn Judy's secret long before the climax. Therefore from this point forward, while we may sustain a lingering sympathy with Scottie, if we are paying attention our sympathy is just as likely to shift, irrevocably, to her. This is a powerful subversion of the preceding film; as the fantastic recent episode of the Projection Booth podcast observes, Judy's flashback changes everything. Prior to Steven Spielberg, no director had greater name recognition than Hitchcock, but Vertigo perplexed critics and audiences. It remained hard to see for close to forty years, finally getting a major restoration in the late nineties. Now Vertigo's star has ascended; in 2012, it became the first film in fifty years to surpass Citizen Kane on the Sight & Sound poll. Today it is regarded by a wide swathe of critics as the greatest film of all time.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - Day of Wrath (#4)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Day of Wrath (1943/Denmark/dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer) appeared at #4 on my original list.

What it is • In a rigid, codified society, dominated by a theocratic order, Anne (Lisbeth Movin) doesn't quite fit in. Married to a much older pastor (Thorkild Roose), she is in love with his son from a previous marriage (Preben Lerdorff Rye). Aside from this menage a trois, she has no living family that we meet - although we do learn that her late mother, unbeknownst to Anne, was alleged to be a witch. Perhaps instinctively, Anne empathizes with Herlof's Marte (Anna Svierkier), an accused witch whom she hides away, vainly trying to protect the old woman from being burnt at the stake. In a society with no avenue for alternation, the slightest deviation from the central path sends one into a kind of disorienting freefall. Discovering her family history, and becoming enamored with a dashing young man so different from her dour husband, Anne no longer quite knows what to think. Perhaps she has been deceived into accepting a repressed, unhappy life. Perhaps she is a wicked sinner, disobeying God's laws despite her fortunate position. Or perhaps she is a witch, with the power to change her circumstances, an amoral force that is good or evil depending on how she perceives it. Shot under Nazi occupation (a condition Jonathan Rosenbaum, among others, considers central to the film's sensibility), Day of Wrath was initially rejected - as were many of Dreyer's films - before critics embraced it as a towering achievement. It is visually striking, between the innovative camera style and the iconographic power of its stark monochromatic imagery, the white aprons and cuffs contrasting with the deep black dress material. There are many great films about witchcraft, but this is one of the greatest, despite - or perhaps because of - its refusal to clearly come down one way or another on whether these supernatural phenomena are real, let alone if they are moral. Anne is eminently comprehensible, but the other characters are not stereotyped; each seems authentic and ambiguous. Anne's terror, delight, and curiosity are palpable, and if we embrace them we also fear their consequences, for others but especially for her.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - The House is Black (#5)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The House is Black (1963/Iran/dir. Forough Farrokhzad) appeared at #5 on my original list.

What it is • The House is Black is not a work of fiction, but the "documentary" description doesn't quite suit it. This is a film about death, about God, about play, about loneliness. It is about the feeling that can swell up inside of you on a bright day, as if you're lost inside a moment. It is about cold medical facts, and hard-earned hope that these facts can be applied to save lives - perhaps more importantly, to ease pain. The film is certainly about pain. And as a narrator tells us over a black screen in the opening seconds, it is about ugliness. It is about companionship in suffering and maybe above all, it is about empathy, an empathy the filmmaker feels for her subjects, and which she coaxes the viewers to feel as well. Empathy is not sympathy. Though commissioned and presented by a charity, the film does not ask us to gaze in horror or pity from afar. The first shot of the film, one of the most powerful shots I've ever seen, features a woman gazing at her own reflection in a mirror. We are watching her watch herself, as the camera moves closer. These camera movements are relentless, and the cutting even more so - several times a second during some rapid montages, dancing with the rhythm of the soundtrack (squeaks, chants, rumbles, repetitive noises picked up at the location). This film is important not just for its subject, but for how that subject is conveyed. Farrokhzad was a poet, and she narrates most of the film (after the stern introduction), softly reciting verses that evoke emotion through abstraction even as we are shown blunt, concrete images of faces, hands, and feet. These images are intercut with quick clippings of birds flying together, of a wheelbarrow rushing over rough turf, individual elements that make up the film. It is a film about poetry, and it is itself a poem. Most frames contain people, usually gazing into the camera lens, not as a challenge but as quiet assertion. There is not much talking, or writing, but the film takes its title from the final scene, which memorably contains both. A child, asked to offer examples of something ugly, names various body parts - a hand, a foot - and then giggles mischievously. This is a film about joy in the face of despair, joy not as mitigation but as relief, something natural that flows from day-to-day life because why wouldn't it? And then another person is asked to write a sentence on the board containing the word "black." He pauses, thinks for a moment, and then slowly, with difficulty, produces the following: "The house is black." This is also a film about sorrow, underlying everything else, the joy, pain, or fear. And yes, The House is Black is about leprosy. Almost everyone we see is leprous to varying degrees, some in early stages so that their affliction appears as a slight blemish, others shockingly encased within their own skin. The film is sobering, but to call it hard to watch isn't quite right. We, if we are fortunate enough not to already suffer from physical afflictions ourselves, quickly grow used to the sight of these people. The horror surrounds the film, in the neglect, the isolation, the maltreatment that facilitates the pain. Within the film is something else, pain yes, but also the dignity of existing, however temporarily, within a space created by an artist (Farrokhzad was so drawn to the people in the colony that she actually adopted one of the little boys when the dozen-day shoot ended, bringing him home with her). Farrokhzad, a strikingly beautiful and brilliant twenty-seven-year-old woman, a controversial, bold, and original artist celebrated at a young age for her talent with the written world, would be dead within five years, killed in a car crash in 1967. The House is Black soon became not just a memorial for those documented onscreen, but for the woman whose imagination and intelligence illuminated the film. It is twenty-two minutes, her only movie, and a masterpiece.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - Stille Nacht I-IV (#6)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Stille Nacht I-IV (UK/dir. Stephen & Timothy Quay): Stille Nacht I - Dramolet (1988), Stille Nacht II - Are We Still Married? (1991), Stille Nacht III - Tales From the Vienna Woods (1992), Stille Nacht IV - Can't Go Wrong Without You (1993) appeared at #6 on my original list.

What it is • Each film is black-and-white. Each is rendered with exquisite stop-motion animation. Each is only a few minutes in length (the first, shorn of credits, barely clocks in at seventy seconds); together they add up to only fourteen minutes. Stille Nacht I: Dramolet was commissioned for MTV back when they used to do that sort of thing, presumably aired as a little bumper between programming. It stars a doll with a cracked head and its top lopped off, clothed in a sack and staring poignantly at a bowl on a wooden table. The bowl, naturally, is filled with iron shavings dancing about as if hypnotized by a hidden magnet. This eerie yet oddly sympathetic doll could be a refugee from the Quay's landmark animation from the previous year, Streets of Crocodiles (think the doll creature in Toy Story, which is almost certainly a tribute). The next Stille Nacht is a music video for the avant-garde nineties band His Name is Alive. If the first film was striking but fleeting, Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married? evokes a more lingering effect. Featuring a female doll whose legs pump up and down and a white rabbit who twitches and flutters against a door, the short obviously calls back to Alice in Wonderland. Yet Carroll's work, weird as it is, features a common-sense little girl as its protagonist, grounding us in a world of wackiness. If we're with anyone in Stille Nacht II, we're with that rabbit and hence we aren't just interacting with a skewed universe, we are enmeshed in it. Stille Nacht III: Tales From a Vienna Wood is closer in form to the first, though it's longer (the longest of the four), a visual experiment with a collage-like soundtrack, perhaps more an object of contemplation than immersion. The camera rotates around a six-legged table with an extended spoon beneath it (the warped, exaggerated, shifting perspective derives from the Quay brothers' enduring fascination with the distorting process of anamorphosis, explored at length in their animated documentary Anamorphosis, or, De Artificiali Perspectiva). A bullet fires from a gun and shimmers through the dark undergrowth of, I suppose, the titular forest - though it's hard to say exactly what we're seeing. Then we are on to the final Stille Nacht, which returns to the Alice imagery and HNIA score of II, while raising the uncanniness another notch. This time we are both inside the room with the woman and the rabbit, and outside of it with a deathlike figure who shimmers hungrily in his desire to get inside. The rabbit devotes great attention to an egg that appears beneath the bleeding doll (this short is heavily invested in menstrual imagery), placing it inside a cage while his ears feverishly wiggle back and forth. There is a precision and intensity to all of the action in these films, as nonsensical as it seems, a conviction that impresses us with the notion that everything we see is incredibly important, even if we can't quite determine why. It's an odd comparison - and maybe the little bunny brings it to mind - but the works of the Quays function almost like nature films, but nature films shorn of a narrator to helpfully explain the habits and instincts of the world onscreen. It's left to us to explain the purpose of the frenzied activity or, better yet, give up and just go for the ride. Dreams, like nature, operate with an overpowering logic we may not be able to fully comprehend even as we sense its meaning intuitively.

Why I like it •

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