Thursday, June 04, 2009

Experimental Film Gets Punk'd

The color of infinity inside an empty glass
I'm squinting my eye and turning off
and on and on and off the light

It's for this experimental film
Which nobody knows about and which
I'm still figuring out what's going to go
In my experimental film

- "Experimental Film" by They Might Be Giants

Some - what am I saying...most - experimental films take themselves way too seriously. Which is why I love filmmakers who occasionally take the stuffing out of experimental film's pretensions. Coleman Miller's Uso Justo is one such film.

Uso Justo
I was lucky to see this short in 2005 at Skizz Cyzyk's MicroCineFest film festival, where it won Best EXperimental Film and Audience awards. It also won the "Ken Burns Best of the Fest" Award at the 2005 Ann Arbor Film Festival. Uso Justo is a hilarious restructuring of an obscure 1959 Mexican film, created in the same recontextual spirit as Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily? and the restructured narratives of experimental filmmaker Craig Baldwin (Tribulation 99, Spectres of the Spectrum, Mock-up On Mu).

You used to be able to see the whole film at the digital mag Wholphin's website, but no longer. This is an Internet Archives/Open Source Movie clip from Coleman Miller's film "Uso Justo":

Even as You and I

Even as You and I: Hy Hirsch as the Idiot Savant

Of course, an earlier spoof of the experimental excesses of avant-garde cinema was Roger Barlow, Harry Hay and Leroy Robbin's hilarious 1937 short Even - As You and I, which you can find on the Kino Video DVD collection Avant-Garde - Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s.

You can also see this film on YouTube, as shown below:

Even as You And I - Part 1

Even as You and I - Part 2

(Roger Barlow, Harry Hay & LeRoy Robbins, USA , 1937, b&w, 12 minutes)

This brilliant spoof of surrealist films highlights the fine line between making “amateur” home movies and serious “high art.”

In it, three men come across an ad for an amateur filmmaking contest and, after failing to come up with a standard Hollywood scenario (their script gets as far as “boy meets girl”!), they see an article on Surrealism in Time Magazine and take to the “hot” genre like melting watches to a Salvador Dali landscape painting. In fact, the film’s narrative was based on a real-life amateur film contest sponsored by Liberty magazine and MGM’s Pete SmithSpecialty Films” unit that the film’s three directors entered (two of the directors, Roger Barlow and Harry Hay, portray themselves in the film). As Nicolas Rombes comments on his Professor DVD blog:

Many of the images in the film are shocking and surprising in a surrealist way, and yet because we know this is a comedy--and because the film is linked to "amateur" practices--they are easy to dismiss. I think the fact that this short movie uses the amateur context to make a mock avant-garde film is sort of telling: even though amateur film and avant-garde seem at opposite ends of the spectrum (one highly self-conscious, difficult, and artistic, one almost purely mimetic and supposedly artless) they are in fact closely linked.

The Enoch Pratt Free Library owns another great spoof of experimental films its 16mm film collection, Carson Davidson's award-winning Help! My Snowman's Burning Down (1964, 9 minutes, 16mm).

Help! My Snowman’s Burning Down
In this Oscar-nominated satire on avant-garde surrealistic films (1965, Best Short Subject, Live Action Subjects), a beatnik in a homburg hat sits in a bathtub on a New York pier, typing on toilet paper and later fishing by casting his ring-baited line down the bath drain. When a female hand emerges from the drain, he paints one fingernail and it disappears. When he opens a medicine cabinet, he finds another guy shaving on the other side. Eventually his bathtub sets sail in the harbour, only to encounter a toy sub in the film’s climax. Check this item in Pratt's catalog. Don't have a 16mm projector? Not to worry, somebody uploaded this film to YouTube:

Help! My Snowman's Burning Down

A YouTube commentator claims that HBO used to air Davidson's short between movies "back in the old days when they played short films between top-of-the-hour showtimes." That sounds pretty cool; wish I had HBO!

I dunno much about Carson Davidson. Some sources say he was a cinematographer on a cult film called The Flesh Eaters (1964) that was directed by Jack Curtis. Other sources say "Carson Davidson" was a pseudonym of Jack Curtis (!)(?). Whatever, his films are pretty interesting and worth checking out.

The Pratt Library also owns another Oscar-nominated short (1956, Best Short Subject) by Carson Davidson, 3rd Ave. El (1955). And yes, it's also on YouTube.

Related Links:
Coleman's Blog: the seemless universe

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