Over the course of the 50s and 60s Jerry Lewis was one of the most successful comedians in America. During his early years working with Dean Martin as part of the “Martin and Lewis” duo he rivaled Frank Sinatra as a nightclub draw, he had a popular radio show, he was a host in early television and he was a major draw at movie theaters. However, he was a rather divisive figures, especially later in his career when people kind of started to get sick of his shtick. A lot of people just found him annoying and we’ve all heard those jokes that cited his continuing popularity in France as proof of that nation’s questionable taste. Oddly enough, despite my usual interest in old Hollywood cinema I’ve managed to pretty much avoid ever one of his movies. I’ve seen him in his dramatic supporting role in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, I’ve seen clips of him on talk shows, and I’m sure I’ve seeing bits and pieces of his famous Muscular dystrophy telethons, but otherwise I’m completely unfamiliar with Lewis’ work, making him one of the most famous and successful people I’ve never even tried to look into. So, I’ve decided to do a quick crash course that looks at some of his work when he was at the height of his popularity both during the Martin and Lewis years and in the later your when he started directing his own work.
At War with the Army (1950)
Jerry Lewis began his career as a film star by making about twenty movies with Dean Martin while they were still part of the “Martin and Lewis” team. As a nightclub action “Martin and Lewis” shows were built around the contrast between the two performers’ styles. Martin would be a debonair future rat pack crooner and would play as a sort of straight man to Jerry Lewis, who would act like an almost inhumanly wacky class clown who would almost reach early Robin Williams levels of being “on” at all times. The two had appeared together in a supporting capacity in two films prior to this but At War with the Army was the first film where the duo headlined a film. It is not, however, considered to be a wildly successful debut and if I’m being honest the only reason I really picked it for this little Jerry Lewis marathon (aside from it representing an era I wanted to cover) was that it was really easy to find streaming. That kind of backfired as the main reason it was so easy to obtain was that it apparently fell into the public domain at some point and as such there are a lot of really crappy transfers floating around and the one I watched looked like it hadn’t been even a little bit restored, so in the interest of full disclosure this was something of a compromised viewing.
This is a pretty basic example of a “service comedy,” a comedy sub-genre built around poking light fun at the more mundane elements of military service and life on military bases. These were of course rather popular in the post-war years as a generation of men had some experience of military life and must have received these movies in much the way we watch office comedies today. In it Martin plays a sergeant who is hoping to get shipped off base to something more exciting while Lewis plays a new recruit who is unsuccessfully trying to get a leave of absence to visit his wife, who is having a child. The two of them were also apparently entertainers before entering the army, so they are also trying to rehearse for a camp talent show because, well, the movie needs to have some reason to have Dean Martin sing. I didn’t find it overly funny and I must say I’m a little worried that Jerry Lewis is going to be a bit grating on me during this marathon because he spent most of this movie talking in a very annoying voice. However, I will withhold judgement until I see some of his more highly regarded work.
** out of Five
Artists and Models (1955)
What a difference five years makes. Going from the slapdash At War With the Army to the large budget Artists and Models shows quite a jump in confidence in what people thought a Martin and Lewis comedy could be. This was something like the twelfth film the comedy duo made in five years… I have no idea how they found the time to make all those movies and also do their usual nightclub tours, but somehow they pulled it off and you can probably see how the two might have gotten a bit sick of one another’s company. Indeed this is close to being the last film the duo made together and you can sense hints of meta-commentary about the two splitting apart in the movie. The film is actually set in, of all things, the world of 1950s comic books and has Martin’s character chasing a comic book artist played by Dorothy Malone and Lewis chasing her roommate played by Shirley MacLaine. In this period comic books were almost exclusively a medium for children, but being the perpetual man-child that he is Lewis’ character is a big fan of comic books and is partly attracted to MacLaine’s character because she occasionally models for her roommate garbed as her signature character The Bat Lady. MacLaine is a standout here who is much hornier and more energetic than the MacLaine characters we’d see in Billy Wilder’s movies and seems like one of the few characters who could actually have been an understandable match for someone with Jerry Lewis’ comic persona.
The movie was directed by Frank Tashlin, who had previously worked as a writer and director on the Looney Tunes shorts, so he could probably relate somewhat to this world and he injects the movie with some absurdist physical comedy like a massage scene where Lewis’ legs are twisted and contorted unnaturally and the film also has some straight-up pop culture spoofs like a clear riff on Rear Window. Shot in technicolor and in the VistaVision format, the movie was clearly made with a lot of confidence and you can also see that the film’s madcap energy generally fits Jerry Lewis more than the laidback and cool personal of Dean Martin. It’s long been theorized that the reason the Martin and Lewis team ultimately broke up because Martin was sick of the louder Lewis getting more credit for the duo’s success and you can kind of see how he would have felt like this sort of thing wasn’t playing to his strengths. I’m also still not quite sure what to make of Jerry Lewis’ comic persona. He’s certain more enjoyable here in a well-made movie but his voice still grates a bit and he almost feels like a bit of a precursor to Adam Sandler and his manic comedy persona.
*** out of Five
The Ladies Man (1961)
The “Martin and Lewis” comedy team dissolved in 1956, possibly because Dean Martin felt Lewis was getting all the credit but neither of them spoke publically about the “split.” Both men landed on their feet however and Lewis quickly established himself as a solo performer both on stage and screen and eventually landed an extraordinarily lucrative contract with Paramount that also gave him a great deal of control over his movies and would also allow him to begin directing. His second directorial effort and one of the films for which he’s most remembered is 1961’s The Ladies Man, a comedy about a weird nerdy guy who swears off women forever after his girlfriend cheats on him only to then take a job as a handyman at a big high class all female boardinghouse. The film opens with a big “all events are fictional” disclaimer, which is itself a joke because almost everything that happens in this movie is outlandish and crazy. The basic premise of this, with the protagonist having serious issues with women over a single slight, is kind of misogynistic on the surface but everything in the movie is so cartoony that it’s hard to get too worked up about that. The film also isn’t overly plot heavy and almost plays like a series of sketches around a specific theme and location and some extremely wacky antics and fourth wall breaks ensue.
As a director Lewis is certainly trying to flex his creative muscles a lot here and borrows some from the cartoonish touch that Frank Tashlin had on Artists and Models. The film plays out on this gigantic dollhouse like set where you can see into various rooms from the outside and Lewis fills the film with some fairly inventive visual as well as some truly strange digressions. However, Jerry Lewis the actor impresses me less here than Jerry Lewis the director. I’ve tried to be patient with Lewis’ screen persona but man can he be loud and grating and that issue is even more pronounced given that he’s not sharing his screen time with the debonair straight man Dean Martin. His character is also so crazy that it can be a little hard to take him even a little seriously when the film tries to build anything resembling a story around him, especially in the second half where it tries to make him something of an object of sympathy. One of Lewis’ goals in this era was to inject his comedy with a little bit of pathos, and ones mileage with that will probably vary based on how inclined you are to enjoy his man-child characters in the first place. I can see why some people would really dig it though as there is definitely something rather auteur-like and adventurous about the whole thing, almost like an American Jaques Tati film, but for me that comedy persona just kind of undercut the whole operation too much to fully get behind it.
**1/2 out of Five
The Nutty Professor (1963)
Jerry Lewis’s most famous movie is almost certainly his 1963 effort The Nutty Professor. That was true before Eddie Murphy’s popular remake and it’s especially true after it. In fact most modern viewers watching the movie will instantly recognize that this movie was the inspiration for the voice of the Professor Frink character from “The Simpsons.” I saw the Eddie Murphy movie ages ago and am not a huge fan. The two movies have fairly different comedic outlooks but they do have the same basic concept: a scientist who is something of a “nerd” develops a potion that makes him into a sort of Mr. Hyde called Buddy Love whose more handsome and popular. In the remake the professor is obese and the potion makes him skinny but here it’s mostly just about the effect it has on his personality. It turns him from a shuddering weakling to this chain-smoking debonair singer who is the life of the party who doesn’t wear glasses and is unrecognizable in a sort of Clark Kent to Superman kind of way. One can kind of view this as sort of statement about Lewis being at war with his own comic persona, albeit one where he curiously places the kookier persona as the default and the “normal” one as the aberration.
It is also not hard to view Buddy Love as something of a subtweet of his old friend Dean Martin and the “rat pack” crew that he was now running with given that he is a chain-smoking singer and womanizer but he’s also made out to be a bully and a fool and is suggesting that being a kind-hearted goofball is preferable to being one of those “cool” people. Of course in a modern context a lot of this could be viewed as a bunch of “nice guy-ism” and the movie isn’t terribly concerned about the inner life of the woman that these two personas is going after (who’s also one of the professor’s students, which is also an issue that goes unaddressed), but as a simple comedic fable it’s interesting and it’s also interesting when you consider it within the context of Lewis’ career. Looking past that I’d say that this is one of the less abrasive Lewis comedies in part because his nutty professor voice amused me more than some of his other comedic voices and also because his outlandish personas are actually tied into the story rather than ancillary to it. That said, while I get what he’s trying to do with the Buddy Love stuff the movie does sort of just give up on being funny in those parts and frankly I’m not sure I was exactly laughing uproariously during much of it.
*** out of Five
Boeing Boeing (1965)
When I put my Jerry Lewis retrospective together I was kind of flying blind. I knew I wanted to look at Artists and Models, The Ladies Man, and The Nutty Professor but I wasn’t really sure what my first and final movies would be and ultimately made my choices based in part on availability. For my last movie I’m looking at Boeing Boeing, a movie that (based on the other four movies I looked at) isn’t very representative of the man’s comedy and in which he’s probably more of a co-star to Tony Curtis than the lead performer on. It does hold an important place in the man’s career as it was the last movie under his Paramount contract but it maybe wasn’t the best movie to place in a marathon… but I ended up quite liking the movie in part because rather than in spite of the fact that it isn’t very indicative of Lewis’ style. The film is set in Paris and concerns a pair of American bachelor foreign correspondents and specifically one played by Tony Curtis, who we come to learn has been juggling three separate fiancés who don’t know each other. These fiancés are each stewardesses for three different airlines and he often refers to them by their respective employers (British United, Air France, and Lufthansa), so the plan is that because they all have different flight schedules he can count on them never being in town at the same time. Essentially it’s an update to the sailor who has a girl in every port, but supercharged.
It’s incredibly caddish and sexist behavior and the movie is aware of this and eventually gives the guy some degree of comeuppance, but until then we get to have a certain vicarious thrill to watching this guy flail all over the place as his whole operation kind of falls apart when the women all find themselves back in Paris at the same time and he needs to find ways to keep them separated. Lewis plays his friend who arrives to discover all this craziness and has to try to help him with his various cover-ups. The whole thing is basically set over a weekend and largely in the Curtis character’s apartment, which sort of betrays its origins as a stage play and you could definitely picture the manic comedy here being particularly effective in that environment. It’s also notable that Jerry Lewis is not really acting in his usual persona here and isn’t even putting on some other character like he was as Buddy Love, really he’s just kind of giving a straightforward comedic performance without a weird voice or exaggerated mannerisms which blends in with what Tony Curtis is doing. So yeah, not a very Jerry Lewis-like performance or movie… and depending on how you feel about the guy that might be for the best.
***1/2 out of Five
So, that’s five Jerry Lewis movies to see if I liked the guy and I can’t exactly say that they left me a huge fan… but there were certain stretches here and there where I could certainly see the appeal. As a director the guy certainly had some inventive idea and I can also see why his comedic persona could be amusing, at least for short stretches, but for me it was often a bit grating to deal with for entire movies. It also isn’t hard to see why the public would turn on him eventually, no matter who you are comedic personas almost always get old eventually. I left the little marathon off before he really fell off with the American public and the “they like him in France” jokes really started to take over. I think that whole “French” thing combined with his sometimes erratic public behavior did ultimately hurt him. It’s a little surprising that he never really made any kind of come-back and his movies sort of never re-entered the public eye. The guy lived until 2017, you’d think at some point he would have tried to play the father in an Adam Sandler movie or something, but outside of his telethon he really toiled in obscurity in the last two decades of his life. I don’t think I’m going to be seeking out his other movies too diligently, but who knows, if one of them comes on TCM or something I might give it a look.
I’ve maintained on this site that I’m only going to do full reviews of movies if they receive theatrical releases in my area and that I was going to stick with that even in the age of COVID, and so far even during quarantine I’ve only stretched that rule once and that was to review the film Bacurau. I made an exception for that one firstly because it did play in some New York and Los Angeles theaters with plans to expand right before the shutdown pushed it out of theaters and secondly because they had a special program in place that would give some of their On Demand revenue to a local theater. I’m bending my rules even further to give a full review to the new Spike Lee film Da 5 Bloods, a movie which to the best of my knowledge has never played in a single theater and debuted directly on Netflix. So why am I willing to give this a full review and not something like The Lovebirds? Well, for one this is a movie that I am fairly confident that Netflix would have at least given some kind of small theatrical run had there not been a pandemic. But the bigger reason is that, frankly, it’s Spike Lee. Spike Lee is a major auteur in a way that most direct-to-Netflix filmmakers are not and when he puts out a movie it’s a bit too much of an event to just take lightly.
The bulk of Da 5 Bloods is set in the present day and follows four African American men who met while serving in the Vietnam War. They, along with a fellow soldier who never made it back, collectively formed a unit that dubbed itself “the five bloods.” Today these men are middle aged and consist of Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). These veterans have reunited to visit modern Vietnam and are hoping to locate the remains of their fallen comrade Norman (played in flashbacks by Chadwick Boseman), but it quickly becomes apparent that they have an ulterior motive. At one point in the war they had apparently been tasked with delivering payment to a local American ally in the form of a chest of gold bars and after their helicopter went down they buried this treasure with the intention of coming back at a later date to keep the loot (which they styled as a form of reparations) but during the war the spot was napalmed and they lost track of it but think they may be able to find it now using modern satellite technology. However, finding the gold and bringing it back are two different things and it becomes apparent that there are other forces at play.
One of the more unexpected revelations I’ve come to about movie watching during the pandemic is the realization that a lot of my understanding of what movies are out there and what to expect from them has kind of been informed by the fact that I used to steadily watch twenty minutes of trailers ever week before every theatrical viewing experience. Without that I find myself seeing movies a bit more “blind” than usual and that was certainly the case for Da 5 Bloods, which I knew the most basic plot outline to but hadn’t seen a single trailer for and that maybe wasn’t for the best because the movie is pretty different than what I had thought it would be. As the movie started I was expecting the film to be an African American version of something like Richard Linklater’s recent film Last Flag Flying, which was a fairly reverent film about modern Vietnam veterans coming to terms with their past experiences. I was expecting that in part because I was thinking back to Spike Lee’s last movie about the African American military experience: 2008’s Miracle at St. Anna, a movie that was generally less “in your face” than the average Spike Lee movie and was seemingly more interested in simply adding a film about black protagonists to the pantheon of World War 2 epics. That movie was from a span in the 2000s when Lee was a little more interested in “playing nice” with what audiences expected from studio movies (in some ways it was the end of that stage of his career) and I probably should have gathered from its title that Da 5 Bloods would be something of a different beast.
Da 5 Bloods proves to be something that’s a bit more raucous and in tune with what Lee was doing with Chiraq and Blackkklansman. It makes a lot of intentionally bold decisions like shooting the Vietnam flashbacks in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio to match old news footage of the conflict and having the aged actors from the modern segments still playing their younger selves in these flashbacks. Some of these things work, some of them don’t. I certainly liked a lot of the basic ideas in the film: its exploration of the inherent tension of African Americans more or less forced to defend a country that hates them is strong and the film also creates a cadre of interesting characters and places them in interesting environments like modern Vietnam and those flashback scenes are really strong. However, I think the film starts to go off the rails in its second half when it rather bafflingly turns into a full-on action movie that openly riffs on the 1948 classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Pretty much from the moment that a certain thing happens involving a landmine the movie really started to lose me.
Let’s go back to the aforementioned The Miracle at St. Anna. At the time I felt like the heart of what didn’t work about that movie is that Lee seemed to have been so interested in making a movie about the black experience in World War II that he wasn’t overly discerning about which movie about the black experience in World War II he made and as a result he seemed to have just picked a random and frankly kind of corny spec script about the Italian campaign and added a lot of material about the African American experience (that was legitimately interesting) without corrected everything wrong with that original script. At least that’s the impression I got, looking into the history of that project I don’t think that’s actually true and that was intended from the beginning to be a movie about Buffalo Soldiers, but the flaws were there nonetheless. Funny thing is, it seems that with Da 5 Bloods Spike Lee really did take a script that was about a white (or perhaps mixed) group of soldiers and re-wrote it to be about the black experience. It’s certainly less stuffy than Miracle at St. Anna but it doesn’t gel together as well. I suspect that that original script was meant to deal with a generally less sympathetic cadre of soldiers whose interest in that lost gold felt more like straightforward greed than anything resembling reparations and that the Delroy Lindo character in particular was meant to be more of a straightforward villain and that the violent conflict would have felt more like a people getting punished for their lust for gold in keeping with John Huston’s film.
This is a movie that I really wanted to love. We’ve been starved for a decently budgeted movie from a great auteur and Spike Lee in particular seems like an important voice to be hearing from at this time, but the movie he’s given us is not the triumph I was hoping for so much as an interesting mess. It’s certainly not the first time that Lee has made a movie that’s a bit messy but it’s rare for him to do so with this kind of scale and budget. He can be more of a perfectionist when he wants to be, like he was when he made movies like Malcolm X, but that’s not really where he is right now but that isn’t entirely a bad thing… it just means his movies aren’t going to be perfect. In its own wild way this was a fun movie to watch and there is a lot in it to appreciate in its own way.
*** out of Five
This is the second part of a two-part retrospective, click here to read part one.
Scorpio Rising (1963)
Our next movie brings us into the world of Kenneth Anger, another larger than life character who’s career included both experimental cinema and other cultural endeavors. Anger (who is still alive today at age 93) is possibly just as famous as a film historian, of sorts, as he is for the short films he made. He’s the author of a rather infamous book called “Hollywood Babylon” which was filled with salacious (and frequently fabricated) gossip about early movie stars. That writing project is probably the most mainstream thing he’s been involved with but his true legacy lies in these provocative short films that usually combine queer themes, pop culture iconography, and occult imagery. Anger was openly gay and also an accolade of the pagan mystic Aleister Crowley and his Thelema teachings, which permeate his films and he was also boldly open about being a gay man in a time when that could have gotten him thrown into prison and willing to include overtly homoerotic imagery in his films. His breakthrough film Fireworks, which he made in the late forties, is also a legit classic of the form and was prosecuted for obscenity leading to a California Supreme Court ruling that homosexuality was a valid subject for artistic expression.
The film at question here, Scorpio Rising, was made almost twenty years later but was also subject to an obscenity trial which seems ridiculous because compared to Flaming Creatures its really tame and also generally a more professionally made and accessible work. The film focuses on motorcycle guys modeled after James Dean and Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” who are out causing ruckus that is constantly intercut with religious imagery as well as occult and Nazi symbolism. There’s no dialogue in the film and it is instead constantly sound tracked by a series of 1950s pop songs and it generally was way ahead of its time in its interest in re-litigating the iconography of that decade a good ten years before American Grafiti, Grease, and “Happy Days.” It also doesn’t take a genius to see that there’s kind of a thin (if non-existent) line between the image of the tough hyper-masculine biker gang member and the gay object of desire leather man and the subjects of this movie are almost certainly sexualized. There is quite a mix of symbolism to be found here however. The film’s exact point about biker iconography isn’t entirely clear, perhaps it’s questioning why we view these biker rebels as being so appealing given that they’re kind of violent thugs or is there something sincere to the way he equates what they’re doing to the Jesus imagery? It’s open to interpretation, but either way the film is a much more fun watch than a lot of these avant-garde movies and it’s easy to see its influence permeate culture.
Dog Star Man (1961-1964)
One of the biggest names in experimental filmmaking outside of the silent era was almost certainly Stan Brakhage, an American filmmaker who made dozens of films almost entirely by himself over the course of a fifty year career, many of them organized into specific “cycles.” Criterion has released his work on two multidisc boxed sets with something like eleven hours of footage between the two. His most famous work is almost certainly his “Dog Star Man” cycle that was made over the course of the early sixties. It’s spread over five ostensibly separate shorts (one prelude and four “parts”) and in total runs about an hour and fifteen minutes. The most famous part is probably the “prelude,” which runs about twenty six minutes and establishes the film’s rather wild aesthetic which involves a whole lot of really fast cuts, images layered on top of each other, and weird little distortions on the film. It’s an intensely analog piece of work and you can tell it was put together through some really painstaking work done to celluloid at some kind of editing bay. Elements of the film’s aesthetic have actually been coopted a lot by straight-up horror movies and can be seen in things like the opening credits of Se7en or the video from The Ring or sections of Natural Born Killers but the subject matter here is different than that and while there are moments that are supposed to be unsettling this is not trying to be a work of disturbing horror.
Instead that prelude almost seems to invoke the big bang and the dawn of time while Part One (which is about a half hour) focuses in on the simple sight of a haggard man played by Brakhage himself trying to climb up a hill. The remaining three parts only take up about twenty minutes and act as a sort of freakout with oblique images of an infant and a nude woman and some have interpreted the film as being about Brakhage’s estrangement from his wife and child at the time, which seems plausible but it would also be fair to say this movie is very open for interpretation as its aggressively non-narrative to the point where it rarely holds on a shot longer than a couple of seconds. There’s no dialogue in the film, and for that matter there’s no sound… at all… not even any background music. This is apparently true of a lot of Brakhage’s films as he didn’t want his films to feel like they were accompaniments to music rather than the reverse, and while I kind of get that I kind of wish he didn’t. I’m one of those people like the protagonist of Baby Driver who kind of goes a little crazy if I’m not hearing some kind of noise for any period of time so watching this 100% silent movie was almost more of a distraction than any score would have been. This is very much the kind of movie that will test a lot of people’s patience, and if it was being made by a film student today it probably wouldn’t be very impressive, but as one of the first movies made to look like… that, it does feel like more of an accomplishment even if it does get a touch repetitive at times.
Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966)
Of all the movies I’ve looked at for this series George Kuchar’s Hold Me While I’m Naked is probably the one I have the most difficult time seeing the appeal of. Even when Jack Smith was waving a dick in my face in his film I could at least conceptualize its importance as a piece of transgressive queer cinema, but what’s the point of this? Well, let’s take a step back and look at the context. George Kuchar was a New York (and later San Francisco) based underground filmmaker who had something like 200 short films to his name of which this appears to be the most high profile. Kuchar’s story is kind of interesting as he and his brother began their careers making slightly over-ambitious films with a consumer grade cameras as teenagers that were parodies of Hollywood movies and then eventually found themselves making films for the underground scenes. Hold Me While I’m Naked was made without Kuchar’s brother and was his first film in 16mm, but its amateur nature is pretty apparent given that the actors are plainly amateurs and the film’s technical aspects are “nice try” levels at best. The story concerns a young filmmaker who tries shooting an actress in an erotic scene but has her leave and then he goes home and imagines her getting fucked by some other guy while he jerks off in the shower. The film is not, however, terribly erotic or graphic about any of this and the film has more of a dopey comedic tone, almost like a precursor to the bad Animal House ripoffs we’d get decades later and that might be tinging my opinion of it in a way that might not have been apparent when it was made. Perhaps making a movie based on a slightly dirty joke like this would have been novel at one point but people seem to take this thing very seriously. The Village Voice once voted it the 52nd best film of the twentieth century and 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die called it a “melodramatic tour de force of underground invention.” Maybe I’m missing something.
At about thirteen minutes Bruce Conner’s Report is the shortest of the ten movies I’m looking at for my Avant-Garde marathon and yet oddly the hardest one to find. It’s not on Youtube, Vimeo, or even Archive.org and you can scroll through page after page of google video results without finding anything useful. I eventually ended up finding it on, of all places, a weird Chinese video sharing site called “Bilibili” which I’m guessing dumped all kinds of spyware on my computer… thus is my dedication to cinema. I’m not exactly sure why the film is so scarce and can only assume it’s because Bruce Conner, despite passing away in 2008, is still a reasonably important figure in the modern art whose films and visual art still gets exhibited in museums so presumably the trust is a bit more vigorous in their copyright enforcement, which is ironic because Report is a movie that consists almost entirely of footage that Conner himself did not shoot including a lot of footage that is almost certainly being used in a “fair use” fashion.
The subject here is the Kennedy assassination. The film opens up with stock footage of Kennedy’s motorcade driving forward on that fateful day right before the shots rang out and then the screen goes white and starts to flicker almost like a strobe-light (not recommended viewing for the photosensitive) while audio of the radio chatter on the ground is heard. This part reminded me a bit of a short film that Alejandro González Iñárritu would later make about 9/11 for the omnibus film 11’09″01 September 11 and there was a similar thing at the beginning of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. From there we see one of those pre-film countdown things and then the picture comes back and starts to turn into a sort of collage of imagery intercutting footage like the funeral with a variety of other images from the news and pop culture like images of nuclear explosions, and the “it’s alive” scene from Frankenstein, and a variety of commercials. It’s edited together with the kind of fast intensity that we saw in Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man and there is a rather visceral feel to how its put together but what exactly is Conner trying to say? Well on a basic level he seems to be capturing that the assassination was this very somber fact that then sparked an explosion of commentary, conspiracy theories, and just general noise. Also he’s perhaps making a statement about the media in general with a belief that they had exploited his death, which… look, if he thought that event was “exploited” he must have really been disgusted by what was to come.
In my journey through the avant-garde shorts of the 60s I’ve seen weirder movies than Michael Snow’s Wavelength, and I’ve seen movies that are more baffling, and I’ve seen movies that require more background knowledge but out of all of them this is probably the one where there’s the greatest gap between how much a movie fascinates me and how much I actually enjoyed watching it because this thing is almost intentionally tedious despite having an interesting form. The film is set in one room and starts out almost looking like it was filmed on a security camera shooting down at a room. There are subliminal cuts in the film but it is meant to look like it’s a single shot that is slowly zooming in on the wall on the other side of the room over the course of forty-five minutes. Now there are hints that there’s actually a story going on in this room, some characters walk into frame early on, later we hear what sounds like a gunshot off screen and see a person (a cameo by Hollis Frampton, a celebrated experimental filmmaker in his own right) just barely stumble into frame and die on the floor, and then later we briefly see someone else enter the frame to call the police about the dead body. I think the idea is to make a statement of sorts about how it’s doing the opposite of what most movies do by having the camera essentially ignore the action around it and instead remain focused on a single point, though I’m not sure how the occasional color filters that show up play into that.
Now, I’m watching this as a youtube video on my TV which has certain effects on my viewing. For one thing, blowing up the picture like that is not ideal and it made some of the details in the room kind of difficult to see, but the bigger effect is that I wasn’t trapped in a theater and while I probably shouldn’t have I was able to kind of sort of glance at my laptop while watching it instead of remaining entirely focused on the slow static zooming shot on the TV in front of me. I do suspect that if I wasn’t doing that I might have lost patience with it a little bit faster. Still the very basic idea did intrigue me and to some extent I was interested that someone had the cojones to actually make something like this and the basic technique of the slow zoom would one day be reused to great effect by Steve McQueen (himself a filmmaker who emerged from the world of art installations) in his 2008 film Hunger. However, what kind of tipped me not being so willing to be open minded about the whole experience is the film’s score which consists largely of these sharp shapeless tones that were almost painful to listen to. Don’t watch this movie if you have a dog in the room and maybe don’t watch it if you aren’t doing a marathon of experimental films, because of all of them this is probably the one I’d have the hardest time trying to explain the appeal of to a skeptic.
So what have a I learned from watching all these avant-garde shorts? Mostly that my interest in them is limited and that they’re probably made less for dedicated cinephilles than they are for aficionados of modern art and counterculture. That having been said, I did find some interesting things to take away from almost all of them and could also recognize certain techniques from most of them that “real” filmmakers would end up using in their work, so on some level you can view the experimental film world as a sort of farm league where people find interesting ideas through… experimenting. Out of all the movies I watched I’d say I was most interested in Dog Star Man and Scorpio Rising and could most easily see myself further exploring the works of Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage. The movies I responded to the least were the movies that were most consciously trying to appear lo-fi and amateurish like the Jack Smith films and the George Kuchar film.
If you’ve ever looked in the film reference section of a Barnes and Noble or equivalent bookstore you’ve probably encountered copies of a book called “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die,” which is a thick (and regularly updated) tome that (as the title implies) lists a thousand and one movies that are essential viewing and gives a little caption about each one. I’ve owned a copy of the second edition of the book (which lists movies through 2004) for what must be fifteen years now and have been crossing films off the list as I see them and I’m down to about 200 movies that I still have to see. One thing I’ve noticed while periodically leafing through the book is that there are actually a bunch of films from the 1960s that are actually short (or relatively short) experimental films, often made in what could be called the “avant garde” style, which are not really the kind of films I would normally encounter through my usual channels and viewing habits. However, I noticed that because of their brevity a lot of these movies are right there for the finding on Youtube and Vimeo. As such I’ve decided to try and watch my way through as many of these movies as I can in one unified “crash course” project and document what I learn along the way. A lot of these are going to need a good bit of historical context and interpretation, so I will try to look up as much as I can but I do also plan to look at these critically. “Avant Garde” filmmaking could well be a recipe for pretentious nonsense or stuff that just plain doesn’t interest me so I do hope to be as honest as possible in my reactions.
La Jetée (1960)
The first movie I’ll be looking at for this marathon is a film that is probably more associated with the French New Wave (specifically the Left Bank) than the avant garde per se, but it’s certainly an experimental short and worth looking at in comparison. The film was made by a guy named Chris Marker (real name Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve), who was a friend and occasional collaborator with major French filmmakers of the era like Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda and while he never really made much of a career making feature length fictional films like they did he did manage to make a couple of narrative experiments that assured him his legacy. The thirty minute film La Jetée is probably his most famous work, in no small part because Terry Gilliam would one day adapt it into a feature length Hollywood movie called Twelve Monkeys starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. I always quite liked that movie but there is something almost perverse about making a big budget science fiction film out of such a weird little experimental project as this. Unlike most of the other films here, La Jetée is has dialogue and also has a clear and prominent narrative to it, what it doesn’t have is moving pictures. The film consists entirely of a series of still pictures edited together into a narrative which is explained largely by voice-over. The story isn’t nearly as lengthy and elaborate as Twelve Monkeys’ is and it doesn’t even have an equivalent to the Brad Pitt character but it does have a similar structure and concept on a basic level even if it’s a bit more metaphysical in its goals. As I said before, I like Twelve Monkeys a lot and this probably won’t be replacing that as my personal favorite take on this story, but this is definitely a unique and interesting work that poses some interesting questions about what a “movie” even is.
Heaven and Earth Magic (1962)
Heaven and Earth Magic is the work of a guy named Harry Everett Smith who was quite the polymath talent. Wikipedia describes him as a “visual artist, experimental filmmaker, record collector, bohemian, mystic, and largely self-taught student of anthropology.” He was a figure of interest in the 50s beatnik scene and had a longstanding friendship with Allen Ginsberg. In the music field is probably best known for assembling the six album “Anthology of Folk” set using his own record collection, which had a massive influence on the 1960s folk revival. And most pertinently he made a series of avant-garde films by employing an animation style called cutout animation, in which paper cutouts are manipulated to replicate motion. Smith didn’t invent this style, in fact it goes back to the dawn of cinema, but he did do it on a more elaborate and extensive scale than it was done before and while I couldn’t find any quotes to that effect I’m pretty sure that his work was a big influence on Terry Gilliam’s animated bumpers in “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
For Heaven and Earth Magic he specifically used images that he cut out of Victorian era catalogs and magazines to create these elaborate scenarios in which these little figures do… stuff. Smith claims that there is a narrative here in which “The first part depicts the heroine’s toothache consequent to the loss of a very valuable watermelon, her dentistry and transportation to heaven. Next follows an elaborate exposition of the heavenly land, in terms of Israel and Montreal. The second part depicts the return to Earth from being eaten by Max Müller on the day Edward VII dedicated the Great Sewer of London.” Even on its face a story like that would be… elaborate, but I must say any narrative in this was pretty lost on me, it mostly just felt like a montage of interesting looking visuals that were strung together to showcase this animation style and on some level I was okay with that. Like a lot of these experimental films this exists in a lot of versions, some of them very long, but the version most people seem to take as canon is only about 66 minutes, which will still test some people’s patience but seemed like about the right length for what it is.
Méditerranée is the work of a guy named Jean-Daniel Pollet, who was probably best known for making films that added visuals to what are essentially poetic monologues. This was his most famous film and it was co-directed by the German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff, produced by Barbet Schroeder and was based around a poetic script by Philippe Sollers and uses the whole Mediterranean region as its theme. The film cuts between vignettes from various different countries along the sea: a bullfight in Spain, images of mummies in Egypt, a Greek temple, a girl on an operating table in what is presumably France. There was clearly a lot of care put into the film’s editing and at times it almost feels a bit like a precursor to films like Koyaanisqatsi, but it’s less bombastic in its execution and more subtle in its messaging… maybe a little too subtle. You occasionally get some sense that the movie is trying to tie antiquity to modernity and tell a story about what unites the cultures around this body of water but that’s something you kind of need to read into it more than something that it give the viewer clearly and over the course of it’s forty five minute runtime (which is in some ways actually kind of long for what it is) there’s quite a bit of repetition. It keeps on coming back to some of these things like the bullfight and the girl on the stretcher, but these “stories” don’t really progress much and you do kind of start to lose patience with the whole thing. It also doesn’t help that this Phillipe Sollers script is completely abstract verse that as far as I can tell only occasionally seems to have much of anything to do with what’s onscreen. Maybe it sounds better in French. The film would go on to be a favorite of Jean-Luc Godard and likely influenced some of his more collage-like films, which are not really the Godard films I tend to like. I saw glimmers of why this film would be of interest here but I wouldn’t say it is a movie I got a ton out of.
Blonde Cobra (1963)
A lot of these avant-garde movies, weird as they may be, are nothing if not meticulously constructed. Ken Jacobs’ Blonde Cobra is the opposite in that it revels in its low-fi underground nature and DIY aesthetic in a sort of punk rock kind of way. The film essentially has the feel of a home movie complete with a dude haphazardly holding up cardboard cards to show the opening credits. The subject of the film is a guy named Jack Smith, who was an experimental filmmaker in his own right (I’ll be looking at one of his films shortly) but has perhaps a larger legacy in performance art and for his role as a “queer muse” to the underground art scene of the time. This film is something of a testament to Smith’s general flamboyance. Much of it consists of shaky footage of Smith messing around in an apartment with the screen occasionally going entirely black as if someone left the lens cap on while he tells “shocking” stories about necrophilia, lesbian nuns, and his childhood sexual awakenings. The guy has a speech style that is kind of a cross between Jimmy Stewart and Bill Paxton in Aliens and later on in the film he starts walking around in rather unconvincing drag in a way that I’m pretty sure was more transgressive in 1963 than it is today. It’s… not for everybody. And without context about who these people are or when this was made it would really seem rather worthless, and I don’t really even know that it did much for me with the background information. More of a movie for aficionados of counter-culture figures than for film fans, but I can’t completely dismiss it given that it’s a movie that is very much aware of what it’s going for.
Flaming Creatures (1963)
Blonde Cobra was a film featuring Jack Smith, but Flaming Creatures is a film made by Jack Smith… and it’s somehow even cruder and more unformed than the former movies. The film is about forty five minutes long and largely seems to exist as a medium for Smith to film various drag performers, trans people, and intersex people. A lot of the film consists of fuzzy images of these people dancing interspersed with close-ups of breasts (belonging to androgynous people) and penises, then there’s a gang rape/orgy, then there’s an earthquake and a vampire that looks like Marylyn Monroe… and then fifteen more minutes of drag performers dancing. It’s decidedly not for everyone. Let’s be clear, this is a movie that comes from a time of extreme heteronormativity and when any kind of sexual expression outside of the “norm” was highly taboo and an underground film like this was likely a product of an intense need for representation. I would also say that I can see why this would be an important film to know about if you’re deep into the history of LBGT cinema or drag performance. That having been said, I found this to be quite the chore to sit through despite its relatively short runtime. While making the film Smith deliberately used out of date film stock when making it, which makes the picture quality really hazy and hard to make out and the camera placement is completely haphazard and unclear. This was probably partly to dilute some of the film’s graphic imagery, which nonetheless got the film in trouble with the law and exhibitors of the film were even subject to obscenity trials in some cases, which gave the film some notoriety as a cause célèbre. Honestly I feel like that forbidden fruit aspect of the film has helped its reputation a lot because as hard as I try to be open minded about it the movie I’m seeing seems a lot different from the one that critics of the time hyped up as “beautiful art.”