A compelling character study in “American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince”

Martin Scorsese, “American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince” (1978)

After making his break-through films “Mean Streets”, “Taxi Driver” and “New York, New York”, Martin Scorsese turned back to directing a documentary short about a friend, Steven Prince, who appeared in a small part in “Taxi Driver”. The film is in the form of an extended interview divided up into several chapters headed by film clips of Prince as a small child at home. Prince talks about several hair-raising episodes in his life as a drug addict  before he got the “Taxi Driver” gig, including the time he shot and killed an armed robber while working at a petrol station, helping a woman who overdosed on a drug by injecting adrenalin into her chest and following a manual while doing so (a tale nicked by Quentin Tarantino for “Pulp Fiction”), escaping the cops during a drugs bust by bursting into tears and accidentally electrocuting someone while driving a van over wires.

Scorsese focusses his camera on Prince and just lets the film roll while Prince reminisces animatedly about the ups and downs in his life and sometimes acts out what he or someone did. The stories may or may not be true and those that are might be very exaggerated for the benefit of viewers. Prince has quite a cadaverous look similar to Marilyn Manson / Brian Warner in his younger days in the 1990s. The relaxed, minimal nature of the filming with very few edits gives it the feel of a home movie and Prince is a very entertaining raconteur who holds viewers spellbound with his tall tales. Scorsese and another actor appear in the film as minor presences.

The film does look a bit ragged early on, especially during a fight scene, but it is very well-made and has none of the jerkiness and occasional out-of-focus shot that might be expected of a home movie of its type. One has to remember Scorsese made this film during a period in his life when he was partying a lot and high on drugs including cocaine. There’s no moralising about how drugs are bad for you and can ruin your life, or how being a drug addict exposes you to the full range of human behaviours and their depravity and is a life lesson in itself. The last scene in which Prince talks about his last conversation with his father before the older man’s death from heart disease is very moving: for a brief moment before the credits begin to roll, Prince falls silent and his usually lively face becomes a quietly powerful study of warmth and feeling as though resolving to stride forward in life as a tribute to his dad with whom he had a rocky relationship until their telephone reconciliation.

Definitely worth a look if you’re a Scorsese fan or you just like visual character studies pared down to the bone.

 

It’s Not Just You, Murray! – a clever comedy piece by budding film director great

Martin Scorsese, “It’s Not Just You, Murray!” (1964)

Made by Scorsese as a film student at New York University under the tutelage of Haig Manoogian, this short film is a clever comedy piece about a mob boss Murray (John Bicona) who’s commissioned a film crew to make a laudatory biopic about him and his chief enforcer Joe (San de Fazio) who’s been his best friend since childhood. The beauty of the film is in the way Scorsese skilfully packs in experimentation with elements of various Hollywood film genres of the past – musicals, musical comedy, silent film, film noir, gangster movies among others – and with the film-making process itself: photographic stills, a kaleidoscopic montage of one scene multiplied into five that rotate around one another in the manner of Hollywood musicals, cinematic self-reference among other techniques Scorsese uses. At once a spoof of gangster movies and an affectionate homage to aspects of Italian-American culture such as male bonding, the film is a character study of sorts: it’s a look at Murray and Joe, how their friendship has developed over the years and how the two men are close even though it’s obvious to all except Murray himself that Joe’s been two-timing him with his wife and might even be the father of Murray’s kids.

The fact that it’s in black-and-white is no problem for Scorsese who even makes fun out of that restriction by shooting some scenes as though they were part of a silent film, complete with tinny piano accompaniment, or part of a 1930s Hollywood musical, complete with close-ups of a chorus line of girls; other scenes in the short might have come straight out of a serious crime or legal drama from the 1950s, or from an Italian movie of the same period (Federico Fellini’s “I Vitelloni” has been cited as an influence on Scorsese so I assume that film’s being referenced here). All the different styles, filming elements and techniques and references are blended together so well that the flow of the film appears completely natural even though parts of it look old and other parts look new and fresh, even nearly 50 years after its making.

The final scene at the end of the film looks like pure surrealism with all the major people in Murray’s life turning up to celebrate his success and a professional photographer hired to take a photo of Murray and Joe together. The film ends precisely at the point that the camera flash goes off, there’s a big bang and a white cloud of smoke issues to completely obscure the two, er, friends … so does Murray finally realise what Joe’s been up to or does Joe get the last laugh here?

Scorsese’s mother Catherine shows up in small cameos as Murray’s mama, forever stuffing her little boy with spaghetti even when he’s doing jail-time and she has to feed him through the bars!

The film looks back on Hollywood history and forward to Scorsese’s career in making films about the Mafia and his interest in  film culture and its preservation. It’s a must-see for anyone interested in Scorsese’s development as a film director and in film experimentation.

Fuji: inventive film makes the banal fresh and scrutinises the art of animation

Robert Breer,”Fuji” (1974)

An interesting short of a train trip taken through the Japanese countryside with Mount Fuji dominating the rice-fields and towns along the way, “Fuji” uses a combination of rotoscoping (in which the animation is based on tracing outlines of actual photographed scenes) and drawings of people and geometric objects to create a highly personal and impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness narrative that constantly interrogates its formation and organisation. Each image or series of images is subjected to a mini-cycle of birth, development, breakdown and re-birth of images from the abstract to the realistic and back again as if the art of animation is continuously re-invented anew. Early scenes of the Japanese landscape have a watercolour-painting quality with transparent splashes of blue or red in the background; later scenes stress the flatness of the rice paddies or the potential abstract and geometric qualities of paddy fields and industrial chimney stacks. Drawings are pared right down to the strictly linear and utmost minimal detail yet don’t look at all primitive or faux-naif; proper if ever-changing perspective is usually shown and figures are portrayed accurately if sketchily. The rhythmic train-noise soundtrack sets the pace for several picture montages, thus establishing a tension between sound and visuals.

There’s no definite story to be told here, the short is basically a snapshot of a train journey that Breer himself made while travelling in Japan in 1970: he took photographs of the trip and these are the basis for “Fuji”. The continual shift in perspective and point of view focuses the viewer’s attention on what might be considered fairly banal subject matter: after all, nearly everyone takes a train trip through the countryside at least once in life-time and most people living or who have lived in Japan would have travelled past Mount Fuji on the train. The trip becomes an arena in which surprises may happen and if they don’t, the journey is a stimulating ride anyway.  Passengers boarding the train may look ordinary but the way they are drawn makes them interesting subjects in themselves.

At once realistic, abstract, experimental, fluid and fragmented in appearance as well as in construction, “Fuji” illustrates how the banal can be made fresh and how the art of animation itself can be subjected to viewer scrutiny and study in real time as it were.

A Man and a Dog Out For Air: inventive and original experimental animation piece

Robert Breer, “A Man and a Dog Out For Air” (1957)

Why have I never heard of this wonderful animator before? This very short animation piece is wonderfully imaginative and minimalist to the point of experimental abstraction. In this 2-minute wonder, a man takes his dog out for a walk and through their eyes we experience what they encounter on their amble through the neighbourhood. What they see isn’t out of the ordinary – they see birds in the sky for one thing and that’s about it for objects overhead (sorry, no fleets of alien spacecraft come all the way from the other end of the Milky Way galaxy to take over our planet) – but the cartoon held me spellbound thanks to the extreme minimalist approach used.

Well yes, the background is plain white paper and the lines are no more than moving serpentine scribbles that emerge from two straight lines drawn on the page. To the accompaniment of mechanical bird calls and occasional traffic sirens, the scribbles move quickly and gracefully to portray landscape, weather, animal life around the man and his dog, various other objects they see and finally a set of stairs. Before the film ends on the word “End”, we are treated to a couple of views of the eponymous portly gentleman and his pooch.

The film takes on the quality of abstract drawings as the lines shift and what actual drawings emerge are usually in naif or primitive form. The pace is very fast and some viewers might need to see the short a few times to realise that they’re seeing things from the man and dog’s points of view and that they have to use their imaginations to make sense of the squiggles and lines as they fold and unfold constantly over the screen.

Remarkably “A Man and a Dog Out for Air” isn’t even the most experimental of Breer’s shorts, the fellow did more animation that’s even more breath-takingly original and creative. I wanna see it all!

Aeg Maha (Time Out): Soviet Estonian animation at its most surreal

Priit Pärn and Hille Kusk, “Aeg Maha / Time Out” (1984)

“Aeg Maha” is animator Priit Pärn at his most defiantly surrealist best. The entire short is one big surrealist dream with practically no plot save for the fact that the character dreaming it is journeying in the dream with no particular aim in mind other than to have a good time. All the action takes place on a stage and concerns a cat in thrall to time as represented on an alarm clock. At 9:30 am the main action begins in a whirlpool and the cat plunges right into it like Alice into the rabbit hole.

The cat’s adventures proceed amid a riot of visual gags in which ripples become an island which becomes a manhole cover; palm trees can be chopped into mini helicopters; elves’ long hoods do multiple duty as river streams, umbrellas, fish skeletons and moulds for wolves’ teeth; a woman’s bra becomes a sail; and even the cat’s own tail gets him out of trouble by chainsawing the palm trees and then whacking a predatory shark. Everything is all free association: there’s no narrative within the dream, no apparent moral, it all seems to be just nonsense.

Is it really though? The alarm clock rings and the cat discovers it was all a dream. The curtain falls and all the characters he met in the dream gather in front for audience applause.

There might just be a message, one the Soviet authorities missed completely: within the prison that was Soviet society at the time, you can be free to do whatever you like within your imagination – with the proviso that your time in the clouds is strictly rationed by the clock.

Eine Murul (Breakfast on the Grass): study of a dreary, run-down, post-industrial society

Priit Pärn and Hille Kuusk, “Eine Murul (Breakfast on the Grass)” (1987)

Inspired by the Edouard Manet painting “Luncheon on the Grass”, this 25-minute short follows the lives of two women and two men in an Estonian city and the alienation and deindividuation they experience in four installments. An anonymous woman braves surly behaviour and sexual harassment from various strangers as she tries to do her daily shopping and eventually has to grant a sexual favour to a fruit-seller for a measly apple. In the second installment, a man called Georg undergoes identity loss while trying to work the system to his advantage to get a job as a manager. Up next, Berta also suffers identity loss as a result of becoming a mother. Finally, Eduard joins a queue and sucks up to a slimy bureaucrat in order to leap over hurdles to get a certificate.

All the characters above join for a picnic in the park and pose as models for the Manet artwork. This is the only time in their lives (presumably) when they are able to demonstrate their individuality to the outside world. They then return to their humdrum lives. Although the film does not have English sub-titles, mercifully for me whatever Estonian-language dialogue is present seems to be secondary to the film’s plot and themes and acts as background noise that reinforces the soullessness of the society around our four comrades.

The artwork is mostly pencil-drawn save for Georg’s segment in which stop-motion animation is used on realistically rendered characters and backgrounds that turn out to be part of Georg’s day-dreaming. The animation is deliberately childish in style to emphasise the petty nature of society and how it reduces people to infantile and boorish behaviour. In Berta’s segment, the woman loses her face and any features she attempts to apply to her blankness end up primitively drawn and easily wiped off. Meanwhile photographs and paintings of her are beautifully scribbled by pencil and she tries in vain frustration to emulate these pictures before destroying them.

Although the film looks very simple, it’s quite subtle and complex: throughout the piece, sinister grey figures drag an artist through the streets while accompanied by sinister black birds. This perhaps says something about the society’s attitude to art and culture, how it derides and crushes things of beauty and individual expression. At the end of the film, the artist lies in agony on the road, his arm obliterated by a tractor. Various scenes in the film portray the little ways in which people are ground down by their depressing urban environment; as Georg’s domestic scene demonstrates with oozing black goop coming up through the kitchen sink drain and through the paintings on the wall, even home is no cozy cocoon against the grim outside world.

The film has many surreal elements and acknowledges its debt to surreal artists like Salvador Dali (early on, there is a reproduction of one of Dali’s works in the background) but even surrealism gives way to dreary reality and in the end is made to reinforce the dismal look and conduct of Soviet Estonian society in the late 1980s. Worth watching for its style and varied use of animation and those people interested in what a run-down, post-industrial society might look like when all its wealth has been exhausted and everyone is reduced to living like rats ought to watch this piece.

Suur Tõll: colourful, almost psychedelic animation about a mythical Estonian hero

Rein Raamat and Kulno Luht, “Suur Tõll”(1980)

In Estonian mythology Suur Tõll is a giant hero king who rules the island of Saaremaa off the coast of western Estonia in the Baltic sea. He gets the animation treatment in this 14-minute short directed by Rein Raamat and Kulno Luht and featuring artwork by Jüri Arrak. In a colourful, almost psychedelic cartoon dominated by shades of yellow, orange, dark browns and tan, and with a brassy music soundtrack to match, the great king strides about the island battling evil where he finds it. As the short progresses though, he loses his wife to a demon and then in a fight against an army of demons, the demon king beheads our hero. In a rage, Suur Tõll kills the demon king and defeats the army; he then recovers his head and goes away to die. His body turns into a stony hill and his head becomes a boulder on a plain to remind the Saaremaa inhabitants of his heroism and feats of strength and bravery.

The constant music soundtrack with its deep-voiced, almost inhuman choruses and the blaring brass trumpets gives the short an epic, almost Biblical feel. The giant, his wife and their various enemies look so monumental in their simple cut-out cardboard silhouette figures and big blocks of colour so it’s a real shock to discover that the couple is mortal after all. The animators assume that everyone watching the short knows the stories about  Suur Tõll so they blend the best-known tales about him in one film and the action proceeds silently with just the music as sonic accompaniment.

The bright hues, the almost child-like outlines of the characters and their blocky shapes with very few details of clothing and the way they stride rather than walk, fling things rather than throw or toss, and go WHACK! with their swords, scythes or spears rather than fight, together create something that is very dream-like and surreal, and fitting for an age when giant heroes really did stride across the landscape and sometimes deigned to help humans with their problems. The short is very distinctive in look and style but if viewers want to know more of Jüri Arrak’s work, they are best referred to his paintings and drawings which really are the bee’s knees.

Põrgu (Hell): good versus evil in homage to a 20th century Estonian surrealist artist

Rein Raamat, “Põrgu (Hell)” (1983)

While watching “Wax or the Discovery of Television among the Bees”, I noticed that Thronoi the Bear who had uploaded this film in its entirety to Youtube had also uploaded some Estonian animated films so I decided to check out some of those. “Põrgu” is a remarkable short piece by noted animation director Rein Raamat and is based on three drawings, or three sets of drawings, by the early 20th-century surrealist artist Eduard Wiiralt: these are called “Hell”, “Cabaret” and “The Preacher. The original drawings, made during the 1930s while Wiiralt was struggling for recognition in Paris where he was living at the time, appear at the end of the film and have a very nightmarish and deliriously erotic quality; it is this quality that Raamat captures in this animated chimera tribute to Wiiralt.

A lively cabaret filled with dancing couples and drinkers, nearly all of whom look debauched and corrupted by sensuous materialism, becomes a battleground between the forces of good, represented by a fiery-eyed preacher, his hair standing on end and all messed up as such passionate, near-fanatical desert prophet fellows usually have their hair styled; and the forces of evil in the guise of a Pan-like devil playing merry tunes on a cornet. The various dancers switch from sedate tango to lively can-can music and back again as the preacher first claims back the dancers and drinkers from the satanic embrace and the devil rallies his fires and can-can girls to lure back the hapless couples and drinkers. The dastardly one calls on giant robot figures with gun barrels in their eyes and mouths, ready to shoot. A battle royale ensues, the dancers contort and change into monsters and for a while it seems that Evil has triumphed over Good. But Good soon revives and sends out new shoots and branches of life that overcome Evil. Too late though Good comes to save any of the dancers who are too far gone in their enslavement to the pleasures of lust and other sins when under the devil’s spell and even the preacher himself is unable to withstand the intense attractions and powers of Hell.

The drawings are astonishingly detailed and highly individualistic; each dancer, each bar customer has his or her own particular jaded and corruptible look. One woman character, unmoving, appears extremely monstrous in her wrinkled face and neck. Women’s bodies ooze with eroticism even under their diaphanous gowns though their bodies may not be of the babelicious hour-glass kind. People’s heads, necks and shoulders seem to have an odd phallic silhouette to them. The animation sticks closely to the style and fluid neuroticism of the two-dimensional drawings so there’s no colour to the film and the only sound is that of the music which bounces between violin-dominated tango and woodwind-led dance music.

It seems odd and rather old-fashioned for an animated short to posit tango and can-can music together as rivals for the souls of humanity but the difference between the two turns out to be one of degree. I guess the fact that the dancers and drinkers are already in the cabaret shows that to some extent they’re already compromised beings in succumbing to hedonism for its own sake. There are Biblical figures including doves and a naked nude female statue in the pose of a sacrificial virgin who in the humour of a Svankmajer or Borowczyk film sprouts several breasts brimming with milk, all trying to save humans from ruin by their appetites.

The film is worth watching as an introduction to the work of a significant Estonian surrealist artist of the early 20th century and the spirit of that work.

Wax or the Discovery of Television among the Bees: a moral and political film under the visual overload

David Blair, “Wax or the Discovery of Television among the Bees” (1991)

One of my favourite science fiction films since I first saw it in the mid-1990s on video loan from the University of Wollongong via my local library, “Wax or the Discovery of Television among the Bees” is a home movie featuring inventive computer animation, archived film reels, stills, experimental filming methods, not a little humour and some live action; together these illustrate an unusual science fiction plot of body horror, a murder mission, a particular view of history (especially the history of communication technology, Iraq, World War I and the travails of the Jewish people) and an existence beyond death.

The film tells the story of Jacob Maker (director David Blair), a disaffected nuclear technician at the Los Alamos nuclear science laboratory who feels guilty that his work in designing and testing remote-controlled missile guidance systems, the early 1990s fore-runners of current drone aircraft, leads to refined mass slaughter; he tries to cope with the dissonance he feels between the nature of his work and his need to support himself and his wife by spending afternoons communing with his hive of bees. These are no ordinary bees: they’re descended from a special breed of  honey-makers brought back from Iraq, then British Mesopotamia, by Jacob’s grandfather James Hive Maker (William S Burroughs – yes, that William S Burroughs, famous junkie and novelist!) and his wife’s grandfather in 1917. One day while in a trance with his bees, Jacob receives an unexpected gift that totally transforms his life: the bees penetrate his head through his ear and punch the Bee TV into his brain. The Bee TV gives him a mission and a purpose in life: the universe is unbalanced and he must restore the balance by killing someone.

So a strange odyssey begins: Jacob ventures out into a missile test area, following the directions of the Bee TV, where he comes to The Garden of Eden Cave where he finds giant bees related to his Mesopotamian friends living in the Land of the Dead and revelations about his family history, the true nature of his bees and details of his mission, including the identity of his victim, come to him. He may be the reincarnation of his wife’s grandfather Zoltan Abbasid who married James Hive Maker’s half-sister, a former telephonist, inventor of a kind of telescope and enthusiastic member of a society dedicated to communicating with the dead. James was jealous of Abbasid and arranged for him to be killed by his bees so he, James, could inherit Abbasid’s bees. After death Jacob passes through lives in other dimensions before he is transformed into a missile sent to kill the reincarnations of those responsible for Abbasid’s death, now living in Iraq on the eve of the first US invasion of that country in 1991.

It’s a hokey story, yes, but one made serious and even plausible by the first-person / stream-of-consciousness point-of-view documentary style of narrative structure, presented in a casual, monotone and above all calm voice by Blair himself. Superficially linear in its story-telling, the plot flips back and forth between past and present, and between present and future, and presents a bewildering mish-mash of philosophies and mythology including esoteric occultism and spiritualism, Bible stories, motifs and themes, belief in karma and reincarnation, and New Age ideas about the karmic connections among the living that continue into their next lives after they have died. Startling and unusual computer animation tricks flip the screen, roll it, spin it around and even turn it into silhouettes of lever-arch folders to simulate the movements of birds and other flying creatures. Animated images can look quite dated but are still very inventive and  Blair and his wife, both computer programmers, use them cleverly to create three-dimensional figures and geometrical shapes and patterns, and to emphasise the alien nature of the bees, the Bee TV and the worlds they normally inhabit.

The information overload, gathered from a bewildering variety of unrelated and influences – Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Gravity’s Rainbow”, set during World War II, is one influence here – fleshes out the very bizarre story of karma and transcendence with the goal of atonement and redemption for past sins and the love for humanity that overcomes violence and death. The joining of Jacob, Zoltan Abbasid and their two bomb victims after death suggests forgiveness on both sides. Karma works in such a way that those who kill with violence will themselves be punished with death by violence, as the dead seek vengeance on those who kill them. Jacob himself is both victim and murderer … or is it the other way around? In its own, rather flat way, “Wax …” turns out to be a surprisingly moral and political film. It passes no judgement on the morality of the Iraq War or the wars that follow in its wake but it does suggest that those who kill may themselves be killed in the same way … if not in this life, then in the next.

Repeated viewings are needed to understand the film more fully; each repeat reveals something new and unexpected humour emerges as well – how can there be telephones to dial the emergency number even in the deepest caves or the most barren deserts? Those overwhelmed by the many esoteric references that relate to nothing in their current lives (to say nothing of what they might have experienced before their birth and what will greet them in their next lives) can just relax and enjoy the strangest of strange head trips.

 

The Trip (dir. Kihachiro Kawamoto): lesson on Buddhist attitude to suffering falls short on what it should teach

Kihachiro Kawamoto “Tabi (The Trip)” (1973)

Very striking little animation piece, reminiscent of an extended Monty Python cartoon piece, “The Trip” looks quite simple and has a simple plot but its intention is to educate viewers about aspects of Buddhist religious philosophy and its attitude towards suffering. A young woman goes on a plane trip to a strange country of surreal landscapes where she views a suicide, meets a poor cannibal, encounters war and sees a man who may have been her boyfriend in a past life. After these and other distinctly non-touristy and very uncomfortable experiences, she returns home, definitely sadder for the experience and presumably much wiser about the ways of the world.

The life cycle from birth to maturity to ageing and death, accompanied by disease, is illustrated in the film as are also other forms of suffering supposedly taught by Buddha: the sufferings of the mind and body, hanging onto the things you desire but not getting what you want, losing a loved one and having to meet people who annoy you or whom you find toxic in some way. I found Kawamoto’s treatment of the sufferings rather superficial, perhaps because of the deliberate decision not to have any sound in the film apart from a piano soundtrack, and the film shows nothing about acceptance of change and the non-permanence of all things, even the universe, and how this acceptance can free us from unhappiness and suffering. At the end of the film, the young woman appears not to be enlightened about the nature of suffering and how it tests her character and makes her a better, stronger person.

Bookended by static photographic scenes of people hopping on and off trains, the film is a string of static and colourful collages through or across which character cut-outs move somewhat crudely. The film moves at a steady pace and there’s some discontinuity as the main character’s clothes suddenly change about twice or three times during a trip that appears to be a one-day trip only. Comparisons can be made with Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations: there are puzzling landscapes in which objects become unusual just by their juxtaposition but Kawamoto doesn’t attempt to over-saturate the viewer’s senses with colour, movement (not much at all) or eccentricity for its own sake.

Technically this is a very well-done film but in its plot and message, the film says very little other than that the world doesn’t exist for our comfort and we had better get used to it!