Thursday, May 26, 2011

Laughter in the Dark

Wednesday, May 25 @ 7:30 p.m.
HI-Baltimore Hostel
17 W. Mulberry Street

My new acquaintance E. Gage (yes, as in film gage), a film fanatic who recently relocated here from San Francisco, stopped by the library to drop off flyers for his inaugural film series at the Baltimore Hostel (conveniently located right across the street on the corner of Mulberry and Cathedral). Called "Laughter in the Dark," the initial five-film screening leans towards mostly comedy shorts, like Laurel and Hardy's classic The Music Box and two extremely obscure Soviet silent comedies (Dziga Vertov's animated anti-capitalist Soviet Toys and Vsevolod Pudovkin and Nikolai Shpikovsky's Chess Fever)), though Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid's experimental Meshes of the Afternoon and George Melies's Trip to the Moon are thrown in for good measure.

Gage wrote program notes for his screening, including this opening mission statement:
"Obsessions, dialectics, physiologies and fantasies inspire these early, liminal works of cinema art so odd in our binary epoch. Enjoy experiencing luminous evocations of the extraordinary that cannot be easily explained, as well as dismissed, as today's reshuffling of stacks of ones and zeros." (E. Gage)

Gage's enthusiasm for screening shorts has reinvigorated my programming spirit and inspired me to start showing more shorts at my monthly library film program.

"Laughter in the Dark" presents a great film line-up - so in case you missed it, be sure to look the following flicks up some time! Gage is a skilled and knowledgeable writer, so I've included his excellent notes for each film description that follows.

1. The Music Box
(James Parrot, 1932, 29 minutes)

Director James Parrot (a Baltimore native son and the younger brother of comedian Charley Chase - who famously co-starred alongside Laurel and Hardy in Sons of the Desert) won an Oscar for this 1932 Hal Roach short, which chronicles the Sisyphean labors of two dim-witted piano movers to push a boxed piano uphill and upstairs into Professor von Schwarzenhoffen (Billy Gilbert)'s house. (Though the film won an Oscar, the Best Supporting Actor may well have been Dinah the Piano Moving Mule!). So storied in Hollywood legend is this short that the City of Los Angeles has erected a "Music Box Steps" street sign denoting the film's location on Vendome Street near Sunset Boulevard.

Gage's program notes add:
Early on, Laurel and Hardy understudied Charle Chaplin in English vaudeville. Hardy sang in bars in the South before acting in silent films in Jacksonville, Florida.

In this early scene in The Music Box, the principals of Laurel and Hardy Transfer Co. have chosen attire patrician, proletarian and prankster: starched white shirts, stiff white collars and cuffs, dark ties, cufflinks, derbies, huge white work gloves and overalls. Laurel, with a grave nobility veiling bafflement, shields his eeyes as he assesses the 131 steps at 923-935 Vendome Street, close to Sunset Boulevard, up which he and his partner must carry a boxed piano to affluent customers.

Dismissive of Laurel's concern, his countenance displaying a rapid and mistaken discernment of the Sisyphean effort before them, Hardy looks down and away from both his partner and the 131 steps with a resolve as decisive and as stupid as usual. Clownish animosity simmers continually between this antithetical pair as they meander through awkward social and physical encounters.

Hardy, known for his philtrum moustache, also worn by a popular tramp and an infamous tyrant, is full of passionate intensity. He is a Number 1 clown, also called a Whiteface, who dominates an Auguste clown, sometimes called a Number 2. Laurel's Auguste lacks all conviction and often wears a bowtie.

These establihed clown roles succinctly define Laurel and Hardy characters in this winner of the 1932 Academy Award for Best Short Subject, Comedy.

Watch "The Music Box."

2. Chess Fever
(Vsevolod Pudovkin and Nikolai Shpikovsky, USSR, 1925, 28 minutes)

Sage advice from "Chess Fever"

With an international chess tournament in progress, a young man becomes completely obsessed with the game. His fiancée has no interest in it, and becomes frustrated and depressed by his neglect of her, but wherever she goes she finds that she cannot escape chess. On the brink of giving up, she meets Jose Raul Capablanca, the Cuban "Human Chess Machine" who reigned as World Chess Champion from 1921-1927.

From E. Gage's program notes:
Educated in chemical engineering at the University of Moscow, Pudovkin entered the artillery at the outbreak of WWI and was wounded and captured within a few months. In a Pomeranian prisoner of war camp for three years, he learned English, French and Polish and acted in productions of Chekhov's plays. After an earlier attempt, Pudovkin escaped by floating downstream on river ice. After an eight month walk, he was back in Moscow by the end of 1918.

In 1924, nearly 80% of the films screened in the USSR were produced outside of the country. Pudovkin was disinterested in the new medium until seeing D. W. Griffith's 1916 Intolerance. His filmmaking studies began, when cinema was a matter of optics, mechanics and chemistry, as actor and cinematographer at the USSR State Film School.

He then worked with Lev Kuleshov on "films without films" (they could not afford film stock, and completed the entire film process without film in the camera) including an adaptation of the story A Piece of Meat by Jack London. Impressed, the often-renamed Gorky Film Studio (which worked with many actors from Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theatre) obtained raw film stock for Kuleshov (director) and Pudovkin (co-screenwriter and art director) to make The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the land of the Bolsheviks - probably the first film with a cowboy character made in the USSR.

Kuleshov's theories of the temporal juxtaposition of images strongly influenced Pudovkin's masterpieces, Mother, The End of St. Petersburg and Storm Over Asia.

Selected because of his scientific studies, and his work with Kuleshov, Pudovkin directed a 90-minute educational film of Ivan Pavlov's investigations of condition reflexes, Mechanics of the Brain. During a break in this production, Pudovkin made the surrealist comedy Chess Fever with his spouse, Anna Zemtsova, playing "the Heroine."

Watch "Chess Fever."

3. Meshes of the Afternoon
(Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, USA, 1943, 14 minutes)

Anybody who has ever taken a Film 101 class has seen this collaboration between one-time husband-and-wife team Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, but that doesn't mean it still doesn't have the power to amaze with every new viewing. Plus, there's even a local connection to this iconic experimental film: Maya and Alexander's daughter Julia Hammid lives in Lauraville (and is still active in the local arts community)!

From E. Gage's program notes:
Besides choreography, dancing and acting, Maya Deren wrote aesthetic theory and eventually studied voodoo in Haiti. With Alexander Hammid, she created some of the first US experimental films with a used 16mm Bolex camera. I make pictures for what Hollywood spends on lipstick, Deren stated. Marcel Duchamp, Andre Breton, John Cage, Abnais Nin, Chao-Li Chi and Antony Tudor were among her collaborators.

Shot in and around her Hollywood apartment with Alexander Hammid, her spouse, Meshes of the Afternoon won the 1947 Grand Prix International, section avant-garde, at Cannes.

Alexander Hammid made experimental films in Czechoslovakia, co-directing Crisis about the Sudetenland in 1939. After emigrating, he co-directed The Forgotten Village in 1941 about the modernization of a traditional Mexican village written by John Steinbeck. In 1947, he made The Private Life of a Cat shot entirely in the Greenwich Village apartment he shared with Maua deren.

His To be Alive! won a 1965 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.

Watch "Meshes of the Afternoon."

4. Soviet Toys
(Dziga Vertov, USSR, 1924, 11 minutes)

Vertov's fat greedy capitalist pig, feasting

From Raymond Owen's blog: "Dziga Vertov’s little-known propaganda cartoon, the first Soviet animated film, seems crude—but it’s more sophisticated than it looks, and was loaded with meaning for viewers in the tumultuous Soviet Union of 1924. “Soviet Toys” depicts a worker partnering with a peasant to defeat the machinations of a capitalist “NEPman,” a caricature of the entrepreneurs who blossomed under Lenin’s short-lived New Economic Policy." (Read the complete review here.)

From E. Gage's program notes:
Vertov played piano and violin; recorded collages of phonemes inventing new words including his own nickname; wrote poetry, science fiction and satire; and, in 1917, was a medical student at St. Petersburg's Psychoneurological Institute.

Awareness of the ontology of cinematic images may begin with Vertov's reflexive camera, named the Kino-Eye, that he considered superior to human sight.

I am the Kino-Eye. I am the mechanical eye. I, the machine, show you the world as only I can see it.

Jean-Luc Godard, Lars von Trier, Chris Marker, Stan Brakhage, the Maysles brothers, and Frederic Wiseman are among the many filmmakers strongly influenced by Vertov's theories and his most famous film, the 1929 urban documentary Man with a Movie Camera.

Watch Soviet Toys.

5. A Trip to the Moon(Le Voyage dans la Lune)
(Georges Melies, 1902, 8 minutes)

Melies was the first Moonie

Loosely based on Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon and H.G. Well's The First Men in the Moon, A Trip to the Moon was the first science fiction film. It's still hard to believe that George Melies created all the animation and special effects back in 1902. But it's there for all to enjoy because it's in the public domain (yes, copyrights from the turn of the century tend to expire!).

From E. Gage's program notes:
Melies, always fond of surprise appearances and explosive disappearances, relied on mechanical skills acquired in his family's boot fabrication business to create his own cinema machinery and build his factory - Star Films Studio.

This transmogrification from spectacle to cinema has many antecedents: Plato's Cave, Liszt's Dante Symphony with lantern slides and wind machines, Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung and Le Chat Noir's ombres chinose (shadow plays) including Henri Riviere's full production of Flaubert's exotic The Temptation of St. Anthony with a 70-foot wide rolling stage, and scores of shadow puppeteers.

A 19th century stage magician, Melies conjured into existence some of the first works of cinema. Thomas Edison duplicated and distributed A Trip to the Moon in the US without ever paying Melies. Bankrupt, his life ended selling toys at the Montparnasse railway station.
Watch "A Trip to the Moon."

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