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!

Anemic Cinema: experimental film of spirals wears its welcome out quickly

Marcel Duchamp, “Anémic Cinéma” (1926)

Here’s an intriguing 7-minute animated film that consists of a sequence of spiralling patterns, either of actual spirals or concentric circles around a central sphere intercut with three-dimensional phonograph disks with various cryptic messages of a tongue-twisting, alliterative or punning nature circling on them. The accompanying music consists entirely of a looping melody played over and over on a solo stringed or keyboard instrument. The steadily whirling patterns appear to bounce up and down and sometimes give the impression that viewers can see right into them; they may also appear to speed up or slow down, brighten up or reduce the light. The effect of both images and music soundtrack can either be hypnotic or frankly boring and monotonous depending on whether the viewer suffers a sudden attack of attention-deficit disorder where s/he never experienced it before while watching the film. The film does start wearing out its attention halfway through. Needless to say there’s no plot or other linear narrative device to speak of and the film could either have been made in one hit or have been a cut-and-paste job. Duchamp refuses even to speed up or slow down the sequencing of images to cater for his target audience (most likely himself and a few friends).

The film is credited to Rrose Selavy which is a pseudonym Duchamp frequently used for his creations. It does suffer from being filmed in black-and-white, colour not being available in the late 1920s as the use of colour could have extended the film’s life and maintained audience attention to the end. As it is, the film is an interesting exercise in Dadaist film-making and encourages viewers to see the art of film-making as something beyond story-telling.

 

Entr’acte: brave and experimental film-making with no linear narrative

René Clair, “Entracte” (1924)

This film’s title derives from its originally being an interlude between two acts of a ballet. Director Clair deliberately sought to make a film shorn of all conventional story-telling narrative and concentrated instead on making a highly impressionistic work. He juxtaposes various images and scenes such as cityscape scenes, boxing scenes, a view of two men playing chess on top of a building and others to suggest nervous energy and the almost neurotic pace of everyday modern urban life. Cinematic techniques available at the time included layering images over one another, filming from different angles (including filming a ballerina dancing on glass from beneath her), slow motion filming and splitting an image are all used. There is no narrative or story to follow though the second half of the film focusses on a funeral procession where the coffin runs away from the mourners through a city street and the mourners have to race after it. By making a film of unusual visual style and technique and abandoning all notions of linear narrative where one thing has to lead to another, Clair is suggesting we do away with old paradigms and mind-sets of seeing, hearing, feeling and experiencing everyday life and common objects.

Erik Satie’s music is an important part of the film: Satie wrote the music to match the action and sequencing of images and in this way created a true soundtrack. The cast of actors appearing in the film include Satie himself, the photographer Man Ray and artist Marcel Duchamp. The influence of the anarchist Dada art movement which ridicules lack of meaning in the modern world is strong.

Some viewers may find the film uneven and hard to understand: the film’s first half may look disorganised but the second half which revolves around a runaway funeral hearse and the people following it may make more narrative sense (although there’s no need to look for a narrative since none supposedly exists). Scenes on a rollercoaster that include it being upside-down in some images and the camera constantly moving might make a few viewers quite dizzy. Overall this is very brave and experimental film-making from a film pioneer.

 

Our Lady of the Sphere: experimental film’s welcome wears out quickly

Larry Jordan, “Our Lady of the Sphere” (1969)

An intriguing and colourful film, “Our Lady of the Sphere” is based on the Bardo Thodol, a Tibetan funerary book usually known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This book describes the experiences a soul may have in the interval between death and rebirth. (Death and rebirth are represented by outer space scenes in which a figure passes into or out of a pock-marked moon.) The film short is a collage of scenes usually dominated by one colour that appears as a blanket shade over the scene or in various shades throughout the scene. Objects float or slide over figures and backgrounds in the various settings; the animation resembles old Monty Python cartoons made up by Terry Gilliam or album cover sleeves for old Amon Duul II recordings like “Tanz der Lemminge”. (Amon Duul II was a famous German space rock band of the early 1970s; I have the band’s first three albums.) In several scenes mysterious astronaut figures with Christmas baubles for helmeted heads appear and it seems that these figures are guides to the soul making its way through the shadow world towards its new life.

Viewers not familiar with the Bardo Thodol – and most won’t be as most Westerners are not believers in Tibetan Buddhism – will find the film’s novelty value wearing off very quickly: there’s no apparent plot to speak of, there’s no narrative structure to be discerned, so the film presents as just a series of pretty unrelated collages with lots of floaty objects or somersaulting gymnast figures. The music soundtrack is based on “Largo for Glass Harmonica in C minor” by Johann Abraham Peter Schulz, interrupted at intervals by an annoying buzzing doorbell noise which usually heralds a transformation. The central part of the soundtrack is taken up by a famous circus / carnival / sideshow musical motif which everyone knows but whose name remains obscure. Probably the most interesting part of the film short is a scene near the end in which two astronauts, representing the soul and its guide, pass through a rapid series of backgrounds which change quickly, their colours shifting as well and drenching the astronauts in different hues, and arrive at a staircase that may lead back into the material plane of existence.

Worth a look just to hear the circus music and watch the performing gymnasts but the film’s experimental nature is not much consolation for those expecting a message or theme.

Les Astronautes: droll and inventive animation collage film about an irrepressible scientist-hero

Walerian Borowczyk, Chris Marker, “Les Astronautes” (1959)

An entertaining little film short, “Les Astronautes” is a stop-motion animation collage of photographs copied, cut and pasted onto coloured or still-photograph backgrounds combined with some live action. An amateur scientist (Michel Boschet) builds his own space rocket in his garage and with his pet owl goes for a ride in the craft around his home city Paris, ogling at a scantily clad woman (Ligia Borowczyk) through a window and buzzing a big-shot businessman (Philippe Lifchitz) in his open sedan, before zooming into space and meeting a bigger space rocket which engages him in a dog-fight. The scientist saves a smaller red craft from the big space rocket but he is in for an unpleasant surprise when he tries to contact the pilot of the little ship.

At once rough and raw in appearance and apparent execution, yet witty and cutting in its plot, the film zings along with energy and creativity to spare. I’ll hazard that Borowczyk took care of the animation and Marker might have been responsible for the photography and the narrative technique used in which the particular sequencing of pictures alone suggests the story-line but does it really matter who did which? The whole film is inventive and brims with the film-makers’ eccentric creativity. The scientist grins foolishly at the young woman through a double periscope whose lens show his blinking eyes and his little rocket resembles a crude newspaper origami figure that flits about gaily over photographs of Paris and paintings of outer space and alien landscapes.

The whimiscal soundtrack is a major highlight and could stand on its own as a major piece of musique concrete: light little metalloid melodies jostle for attention with sparse spoken word monologues from the young woman and the pet owl, and various sound effects such as firing bullets where appropriate in the plot.

I wish the film had been longer and developed its story more, particularly near the end where the identity of the pilot of the red spaceship is never identified, nor is the reason for the red ship’s battle with the large space rocket explained. The film’s ending is dark and ambiguous, the owl turning out to be an avian psychopompos, and though the finale is as light-hearted and droll as the rest of the film, viewers can’t help but shed tears at all the other wannabe but ultimately failed scientist-heroes our man joins. This may say something about the irrepressible and curious nature of the human spirit, that despite its often vain attempts to go beyond dull conformist or even oppressive society, people will continue to strive to reach for the heavens – and some day, someone will succeed in breaking away.

 

Din of Celestial Birds: exploration of evolution and development of consciousness in short film

Edmund Elias Merhige, “Din of Celestial Birds” (2006)

Astonishing little film – it’s just 10 minutes long – about evolution and the development of consciousness, “Din of Celestial Birds” is the second episode of a trilogy of experimental films that began with “Begotten”; like the first film, “Din …” is black and white with a grainy look that helps make objects blurry or downright fuzzy. There is no dialogue so viewers who know nothing of this film are best advised to find some information about it (Wikipedia can help in this respect) to understand its plot. There is musical accompaniment so the whole piece can be viewed as an extended music film clip separate from the trilogy if viewers so desire.

I do wish Merhige had made it as a colour film; he could have kept the grainy aged quality and it would still look esoteric and underground. The film could have started off black-and-white and acquired colour progressively with red being added first, then yellow and other colours as Merhige wished. It might even have ended up looking like something Kenneth Anger made in his younger days and forgotten about. As it is, the constant riot of imagery coming at you from the middle of the screen, like the opening credits of 1970s-era Doctor Who episodes (only more bleached out and psychedelic) with the wailing electronic music, or certain spiralling screensavers that you can download from various websites, is wonderful though not very confronting. The images are controlled enough that a definite narrative is obvious: continents and oceans appear, life blooms in a suspiciously bilaterally symmetrical way that appears to replicate human female genitalia, and multi-cellular organisms in their spectacular variety and complexity colonise the planet. Time passes qucikly and finally the Son of Light (Stephen Charles Barry) is born and becomes conscious of his separate existence from Nature. Whether the Son of Light rejoices in his separate and individual consciousness or not is something viewers will have to decide for themselves.

The music is rather a let-down and doesn’t do the visuals justice: it’s highly rhythmic and is mostly dark ambient / near-industrial in style with a fair amount of reverb to give it a cavernous tone. Ghostly choir tones pass in and out and the ambience is quite dark and sinister. Towards the end the music becomes a near-angelic one-tone sound hymn. I would have preferred a sound sculpture piece with a bit of a sharp electronic edge from people like Maryanne Amacher or KTL (Stephen O’Malley and Peter Rehberg) in parts, or even something noisy and melodic from Masami Akita / Merzbow. A few instructions from Merhige to incorporate musical highs and lows and some emotion here and there and I’m sure a good electronics / drone / noise music act would have delivered an appropriate soundtrack.

Still “Din of Celestial Birds” is worthwhile watching at least until the third film in the trilogy is released. I hope some time in the future Merhige revisits the film and decides to make something more substantial out of it with a soundtrack that suits the theme and the visuals.