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.

Amalgam: no-budget home movie is surprisingly complex in plot and visual effects

Craig Murray, “Amalgam” (2007)

Using just a handycam and his own home as set to make a black-and-white film on next-to-no budget starring himself and a few friends, Craig Murray creates a sinister yet surprisingly comples psycho-slasher flick that looks part “Repulsion”, part “Tetsuo: Iron Man”, part “M” and all extended experimental art / horror music clip. As far as I can tell, the film is a study of an unnamed man (Murray) tormented by recurring images of a giant blonde doll that attacks him at regular intervals in his house and throws him all over bathroom fixtures and other furniture. In between those occasions, he himself attacks, tortures and kills girlfriends and other young women who visit him; then, overcome with remorse, he forces himself to eat their flesh and internal organs, throwing up in disgust while doing so, and later feeling shame and disgust at what he has done.

Shot entirely at home with many close-ups of household fixtures, the film has an extreme claustrophobic feel. Shots are frequently jumpy and Murray uses his camera in astonishing ways, at times facing the ceiling or wall and twirling it around to disorient viewers and give them a sense of the unreality that plagues the protagonist. In scenes just after the doll giant has bashed him, the images are chopped up and sliced so they often appear no more than slews of moving grey shades of unidentifiable objects flashing against a black background. Stop-motion animation is used in some scenes, especially in the film’s introductory sequence of images, and when the man finds himself crawling in naught but his underwear along the street. About three-quarters of the way through the film, when the man ventures outside at night, his odyssey becomes delirious and the images flash back and forth and flicker quite a bit; you can just see the man looking unwell and unfocussed but of what dark demons he is suffering from, you can only imagine how intense they are.

There is no dialogue which has the effect of heightening the horror of the film as we never find out why the man acts the way he does or whether the doll giant is for real or a projection of his sick mind. We can only see his need and desire for company and to connect with other humans, and the self-disgust he feels when he has killed someone who offers him love. Instead of dialogue, Murray uses music from different acts including the post-rock band Mogwai: the music varies from dark, cavernous psychedelic post-rock sometimes reminiscent of Godspeed You Black Emperor to ambient and, in the torture scenes, needling chainsaw noise and power electronics. The music generally jells well with the various scenes and heightens suspense and horror appropriately when needed.

There doesn’t appear to be much plot development although at one point in the film the man decapitates the doll tormentor so there is the possibility that he may change for the better, though that will probably take a long time. There is the possibility that all the murders he commits take place in his mind as the house he lives in doesn’t descend into a cesspit of dried carcasses and blood but bedsheets always look crisp, the furniture ends up in good nick and the bathroom is periodically spotless. I can’t imagine the fellow being house-proud if there’s so much real carnage going on so it’s likely he is giving vent to repressed murderous fantasies.

Not a palatable film, that’s true, but Murray has created a visually impressive work and makes a slim and potentially banal plot look substantial and complicated, all on a frail shoe-string budget. He is well worth watching if only to see how he can deploy his talents in something longer and more dependent on a strong story-line.

Begotten: film explores Christian and pagan myths of fertility in cycle of birth, death and rebirth

Edmund Elias Merhige, “Begotten” (1989)

A remarkable student film that explores Christian and pre-Christian creation / fertility / life cycle myths, “Begotten” was inspired by a near-death experience director E Elias Merhige had after a car accident at the age of nineteen. For a 72-minute film, “Begotten” has a straightforward plot: a suffering god, alone in a derelict building, sacrifices himself and from his remains emerges an earth goddess who impregnates herself with his semen. She gives birth to a son and abandons him. He is soon found by ragged nomads: the son dispenses largesse to them and they gladly take it. They torture and burn him and leave him for dead. The mother returns for the son and starts taking him away but the nomads return and overpower them both.

With regard to plot, the film is very slow and often repetitive and viewers must decide for themselves what the motives of the nomads might be. Why would they want to kill something that helps them, does them no harm and even offers no resistance when they beat it? Logic and rationality would have no place here. It’s only at the very end of the film that everything that’s gone before starts to make sense. Death is required for the cycle of life to renew itself. This lesson must be learned again and again and so perhaps that’s why the film labours over the initial suicide scene, the birth of the son and a later scene of sexual violation. The film is deeply immersive and viewers who are prepared to take the mickey when it comes to plot and character development will find themselves transported to another realm altogether, especially if watching the film late at night.

The outstanding feature of “Begotten” is its cinematography and look of the film. For a moment early on I thought this might be similar to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film “Vampyr” in look (Dreyer used bleached film-stock to achieve a bright and unnatural psychedelic effect). Merhige’s treatment of the film to produce something that looks so aged as to resemble an archaeological artefact breathtakingly original: he photographed his work on 16-mm B&W reversal film and then rephotographed it frame by frame on B&W negatives through density filters (Phil Hall, “Begotten Not Forgotten” http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/3.12/streetcred.html?pg=14). The flickering twilight result has mysterious two-dimensional shadows and much shadow play, looks incredibly abstract in style and partakes of a strong sinister Expressionist poetry in its scenes of full-moon night-sky and needle-like birch trees.

In addition to the deliberately aged look of the film-stock, Merhige uses slow-motion tracking and movements in several scenes to bring out the weird, unearthly aspects of the plot and the cast of characters. In some scenes, images may be layered over one another and animation might have been used. Scenes tend to look very staged with characters not usually facing one another and repetition and slow movements suggest a ritualistic aspect to sections of the plot. A mix of scenes filmed from far away and close-up with some tracking and panning of the camera is usual: the close-ups can be very in-yer-face – that early scene in which the goddess impregnates herself will sure blow away a lot of male viewers!

Dialogue is non-existent which also enhances the Expressionist tone of “Begotten”; instead what we get is an eerie soundtrack, reminiscent of a black metal / ambient / musique concrete soundscape, of night crickets, a tinny guitar rumble, grunting, found sounds and other ambient noises relevant to the scenes against which they appear. The lack of dialogue helps to turn its main characters into symbols or stereotypes and makes the film representative of various creation myths that revolve around gods giving of or being forced to give up their material being for the benefit of humankind: I think of how Aztec gods had to sacrifice their blood to get the sun going across the sky, of Osiris being cut up by Set and being put back together again by his wife Isis, and of Lemminkainen’s mother having to drag her son’s dismembered body from a river and singing him back to life in the Finnish epic “Kalevala”. In Greek mythology, Gaia castrates Uranus to allow their children room on Earth; later, one of these children, Kronos, swallows his children to avoid being usurped by one of them but the youngest child, Zeus, escapes Kronos’s appetite and ends up overthrowing his father anyway. Zeus himself swallows his first wife Metis to thwart a prophecy about Metis’s first-born child overthrowing Zeus if it were a boy. Needless to say, the first-born turned out to be a girl.

Pain, suffering and death occurring over and over yet the life-force continually resurrecting and reasserting itself is a major theme: no matter how depressing “Begotten” gets, no matter how dreadful the violence or ghoulish and unthinking the ragged nomads are, there’s always hope of new life, a new beginning, at the end. Perhaps it’s this aspect of the film that gives it its unique flavour and force. Film lovers must see “Begotten” at least once for its intense vision, beauty and imagination.

 

 

Invention of Love: short film challenges us to rediscover our humanity or allow technology to define us

Andrei Shushkov, “Invention of Love” (2010)

Came across this elegant and melancholy film short by chance while hunting out another film short on Youtube.com and decided this was worth a look. And I’m glad I gave it the time of day (just under 10 minutes to be exact) as its story of a doomed romance is beautifully and economically told in a style that recalls Indonesian shadow puppetry with excellent contrasts of black silhouettes against simple coloured backgrounds of which each colour signifies some aspect of the world the characters live in and highlights the film’s theme. Set in an alternative 19th-century world of steampunk technology, an inventor yearns for love amid his mechanical gadgets and goes in search of it. He finds the girl of his dreams in the country, they marry and he takes her to his home in the city. But she is ill-adapted to life in the city where people’s pets and even vegetation in public parks are all mechanised, and the air is polluted with the wastes of industry, and the wife begins to ail and rapidly fades away.

In some ways this film is a throwback to 1920s silent film: the figures, their settings and backgrounds are all in silhouette so the film has a highly expressionistic style and there’s no dialogue so the plot is straight all-action narrative and expressions of emotion and intention are portrayed completely by the two characters’ movements. Movement is strictly from left to right or right to left and maybe in just a couple of scenes is there movement from front to back or back to front. Significantly, near the end the inventor appears to turn to the viewer (breaking the “fourth wall”) as if to plead for understanding for what he has done. Although the characters and close objects are two-dimensional, Shushkov portrays city landscapes as three-dimensional with a clever use of layers of silhouettes superimposed one over the other and shading the layers with increasingly lighter and more faded tones going into the backgrounds so as to create an illusion of aerial perspective.

The music soundtrack, in part original and in part derived from Frederic Chopin’s work, mostly played on violin, matches the plot well, accentuating characters’ feelings as they travel from joy, happiness and love to homesickness, sadness and despair.

The use of mostly blue and yellow shades to contrast the world of nature with the world of machines, industry and pollution is very effective. The yellow suggests pollution and ultimately poison and death. The white background near the end of the film suggests loss of vitality and surrender to mechanisation. While the tragic end can be predicted – viewers can guess even before the halfway mark that the marriage will end in tears – the film’s ultimate conclusion is unexpected and horrific with the inventor deciding to give his life over completely to the world of machines rather than reconnect with nature and all that gives him his inspiration and creativity. The ending is horrific due to its ambiguity: the inventor turns to the audience but his silhouetted face is blank and viewers must choose either to sympathise with his desperate actions or pity him for his inability to escape, mentally as well as physically, his hi-tech Victorian world.

The film suggests that the world of machines can replicate or copy nature but can never really replace it and while it copies, it will continue to undervalue and destroy the original live creation. Humans have lost sight of what is really valuable and sustains them; they may try to replace it with tricky and clever technologies but the results are pale and sterile substitutes. Like the inventor, we must choose whether we want to remain with our machines and allow ourselves to be defined by them or break away and reconnect with the true source of life, vitality and identity.

“Invention of Love”? The title is very ironic indeed.

 

A Chairy Tale: fable about importance of communication, respect and equality

Norman McLaren and Claude Jutra, “A Chairy Tale” (1957)

A delightful little number that even young children will appreciate, this Canadian short is a fable about communication and the importance of respect and equality among people. The film is very simple and is set on an unadorned stage with a dark curtain in the background. Actor Claude Jutra wants to sit down on a wooden chair to read his book but the chair has a mind of its own and refuses to be sat upon. There follows an amusing sequence in which Jutra chases the chair around the stage Keystone-Kops style, fights with it, rejects it, tries to humour and placate it, dances a tango with it. and finally is made to understand that the chair just doesn’t want to be treated like, well, part of the furniture.

The method of animating the chair involved the use of strings attached to it as if the chair were a marionette puppet and then varying the speed of the camera throughout filming so that in the finished product, parts of the film whiz by fast and other parts are at normal speed. Pixilation, a form of stop motion animation used to bring together live and animated figures in the pre-CGI age, gives a slightly more stilted and less naturalistic quality to Jutra’s movements but otherwise he works very hard and moves freely and expressively.

Musical accompaniment by Ravi Shankar on sitar and Chatur Lal on tablas provides the only sounds viewers hear. The music provides an extra layer to the film’s story in that the sitar and tablas are continually conversing with each other in addition to fulfilling the usual counterpointing role of highlighting aspects of the film’s story. Perhaps the music could have been even more relevant to the film if the tabla player had been allowed to play solo in some parts of the film so that his drumming takes a lead rather than a support role. The sitar is lively, sinuous and resonant; the tablas are hard, dense and blunt and don’t’ resonate quite so well so perhaps the tablas need more “space” in the music and the sitars less for the instruments to sound equal.

The structure of the plot mirrors stages in a confrontation that leads to exhaustion, consideration of alternative strategies and finally negotiation and agreement. A lesson to be learnt here is that aggression and violence to get your own way will always fail and it’s better to listen to the other party’s grievances. Seeing an issue from the other person’s point of view is another lesson young viewers will take with them. When every strategy is exhausted and the film milks its conflict for all it’s worth, agreement and compromise are possible and the film ends. The film’s moral can be extended to other relationships including love and marriage, and to relationships between and among groups in society.

Man with a Movie Camera: experimental film documentary with the camera as central character

Dziga Vertov, “Man with a Movie Camera” / “Chelovek s Kino-apparatom” / “Liudyna z Kinoaparatom” (1929)

No plot, no obvious characters or a point of view to identify with, no apparent direction or narrative – how can a film be made without a story structure or something similar to stop it from being a mess? A directionless mess is how “Man with a Movie Camera” may present to most audiences as it must have when first released in 1929. The reality is that director Dziga Vertov made the film as a documentary in three parallel parts: a documentary of one day in the life of people in three cities (Moscow, Kiev, Odessa), showing them at work and at leisure and emphasising their interactions with technology and machines in particular; a documentary about the process of making a film; and a documentary of people watching the first documentary. The film is continuously self-referential and aware of its being observed and filmed as it observes and films: throughout the film there are references to the camera itself and its association with human eyes and film techniques such as splitting the screen in half, rotating the film, running two scenes in a continuous repeating back-and-forth montage, jiggling the camera and tracking call viewers’ attention to the act and process of observation.

There actually is a “plot” and there are “characters”: the plot is a snapshot of modern life in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s, detailing the variety of work people do and what they get up to in their free time and the complexity and pace of the lives they lead. The impression viewers will get from all the jumpy edits and the use of unusual filming methods is that people are swept along by a force originally of their own making and now with a life and energy of its own. Cities wake up in the early morning and already there are people out and about cleaning the streets and preparing to open shops. Drivers and conductors board trams and take them out into the streets to pick up commuters. Gradually people get up from bed, wash themselves and get ready to go to work. Machines whir and wheeze in factories and trams and buses zip along the roads while pedestrians dart in and out among them. Along the way, Vertov chips in images of people attending weddings and funerals and of a woman giving birth, capturing the entire human life cycle in a matter of minutes. Later in the film people exercise, relax at a beach and play sport and games. “Characters” in the plot are the people at work and play as a collective character, the various cameramen who might also be considered one collective character and the cinema audience shown at the beginning and at the end of the film.

Above all, the camera has the starring role and Vertov acknowledges this by including a stop-motion animation scene of the camera, its case and tripod performing an awkward bow to the cinema audience near the end. At critical points in the film, interlays and montages of the camera lens and the human eye emphasise the camera’s role as an active observer and reporter of human activities. The intention on Vertov’s part is innocent enough but in the context of what was to develop in Soviet society later, the camera as an intelligent and perhaps not impartial observer can be a sinister metaphor for a surveillance state. The cameramen become mere hired help who perform dangerous jobs on the camera’s behalf: one man climbs a perilous ladder up a chimney, his equipment slung over his shoulder; another perches on the top of the edge of a door on an open-top car breezily flying down a street; and a third is carried in a basket over the thundering waters of a dam. There’s one heart-stopping scene in which a man, maybe or maybe not a camera operator, appears to be run over by a train. Who or what is the machine taking orders here, the cameraman or the camera?

Numerous filming and editing tricks including filming from different heights and angles, freeze frames, images laid one over another, speeding up or slowing down the film, and montages of repeating images from one to the next and back (so that the images are commenting on each other) relay Vertov’s view of society as progressive and reliant on the interdependence of human labour and technology. The pace is breathless and often dizzying and the camera itself sympathises with viewers by going dizzy itself. There are no class differences – everyone is a partner together in a world of work and leisure – and there are few differences between men and women at work. Women are shown performing labour and doing desk jobs: there is one marvellous montage sequence showing women telephone switchboard operators plugging wires into boards to connect callers and a woman working on a train carriage. Everyone has a role to fulfil and society’s progress and wealth depend on everyone doing his / her fair share of the work and toil. There’s room for humour too: the camera indulges in a playful overlay of a cameraman setting up his tripod and camera in a glass of beer!

Some viewers may find the machine-like portrayal of society and the people a little creepy: the whole society operates too smoothly and efficiently. It’s very easy to get the impression that the people going about their activities are little ants operating on autopilot, never stopping to think about what they’re doing and whether they could be doing something else or the same thing in a different way. There are references to Vladimir Lenin and yes, the film does portray society as serving Communist ideals and goals and building Communist society with combined proletarian effort. Unfortunately it was France not the USSR that had a Jacques Tati doing his bit to interrupt the machine flow of society and introduce some untidy human chaos, and that much later than when Vertov made his documentary.

The joke about “Man with a Movie Camera” (or should that really be “Movie Camera with Hired Help”?) is that the people in the cinema watching the documentary and the cameraman (men?) making a documentary never see what he (they?) captures on film and neither do viewers like you and me. The humour, energy and zest that inform “Man with a Movie Camera” make it fresh more than eighty years after it was made. Clearly Vertov is celebrating Soviet society of 1929 as technological, forward-looking and thinking, prosperous, egalitarian and buoyant: the film is a cheery and exuberant advert for the society it depicts. Considering the terror that was to come with agricultural collectivisation and the resulting famine in Ukraine, Stalin’s purges of the Communist Party and the Soviet armed forces later, and his restrictions on artistic freedom which the film also celebrates, all in the 1930s, viewers might find themselves watching “Man with a Movie Camera” with a skeptical eye and a sad heart.

Arsenal: as Soviet propaganda, film is surprisingly pacifist and innovative in use of montage

Alexander Dovzhenko, “Arsenal” (1928)

Notable for its skilful use of montages of images to create and build tension, excitement, urgency and other moods, “Arsenal” revolves around an incident during the Russian Civil War: a group of workers at an arsenal factory in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine then as now, rebelled in late January 1918 against the revolutionary parliament of Ukraine that had just declared the country’s independence from the Russian empire. The workers declared a strike and joined a group of invading Bolshevik soldiers to fight the Ukrainian forces. Under the leadership of politician Symon Petlyura, the Ukrainians crushed the factory workers’ rebellion, killing many people, and drove out the Bolsheviks on 4 February 1918. A few days later Bolshevik forces returned and captured Kiev.

“Arsenal” isn’t clear on the actual historical details and it ends when the workers’ revolt is suppressed violently and with much bloodshed; leader of the revolt, ex-soldier Timosh (Semyon Svashenko) bravely faces off against three armed men trying to kill him. Whatever plot exists – the story of the factory revolt actually begins 30 minutes into the film – is very sketchy and is carried mainly by Dovzhenko’s montage arrangements into which inter-titles carrying dialogue are inserted. The overwhelming impression I have is that, regardless of who is right and who is wrong, the use of violence can’t be justified however necessary it seems t people at the time and there appears to be a pacifist thread throughout the film. Violence and bloodshed lead to too many personal tragedies: families are torn apart, widows and orphans face hardship, starvation and poverty.

The film’s main assets are the editing, montage that combines several parallel strands of plot or sub-plot, and cinematography which often features impressive montages of images, many of which are shot at unusual angles or with characters and objects silhouetted against the sky. Particularly memorable are close-ups of factory machines at work, giving the film a near-abstract / futuristic edge in parts. There are some scenes in which the camera tracks along as though riding a train, taking in scenery through a window. The first 30 minutes of the film feature some very riveting set pieces: one series of montages set in the country, demonstrates with searing intensity the poverty and hardships endured by depressed peasants in a village and the sudden bursts of violence two of the villagers engage in against small children and a horse. A war episode follows in which a soldier inhales laughing gas and laughs uncontrollably; the film flicks back and forth between this man and another soldier, silhouetted against the sky, preparing to shoot him, then throwing away his rifle. For this act, he is punished by his senior officer. A third set piece, using quick editing to flash back and forth among images, close-ups and parallel viewpoints of the same incident, chronicles the last trip of a speeding train packed with soldiers returning from war in central Europe; one of the soldiers entertains his pals by playing his accordion. The passengers realise the train is about to crash and soldiers escape while they can. The crash is very severe and the accordion is flung off the train without its owner.

The acting can be florid and overdone and some scenes, such as the Mexican stand-off between a worker and a faltering capitalist in the last quarter of the film, are milked for what they’re worth for tension and emotion.

First-time viewers should familiarise themselves with some of the history of Ukraine between 1917 and 1921 when the country enjoyed a very brief independence before being forcibly absorbed into the Soviet Union, so they can make sense of the film. They don’t have to know all the details of the Arsenal factory revolt – Timosh and several other characters appear to be fictional – but just enough about when it happened, the groups involved, who put down the rebellion and what consequences it had for the future of Kiev and Ukraine generally. As a native Ukrainian and wanting to appear loyal to Communism, director Dovzhenko must have trodden a fine line indeed between supporting his country’s aspirations for freedom and being in the Stalinist government’s good books so as to continue his directing career without too much political interference. As a story “Arsenal” can be haphazard with different incidents occurring at once and the film ducking from one line of events to another and back again so viewers should just concentrate on the imagery and see how editing and montage can be used to suggest or generate tension and passion. The pro-Communist stand is very strong, so strong that an element of fantasy creeps in when Timosh resists being shot; it’s an awkward and wryly laughable moment coming after numerous scenes of brutality and death but the obvious alternative might have put Dovzhenko in trouble.

 

Paris qui dort: amusing and light-hearted short film about human nature and Paris as a fantasy city

René  Clair, “Paris qui dort” (1925)

An amusing and light-hearted moral fable about what would happen if individuals suddenly had unfettered freedom to do what they wanted without having to answer for the consequences, this short film is an early example of science fiction based around a stock character stereotype of the mad scientist and the idea of a city made immobile, in this case by sleep. A night-guard on duty on the Eiffel Tower wakes up one morning to discover the whole city of Paris has fallen into a deep slumber. He hurriedly descends the tower and, walking around the city, can’t believe what he sees: empty streets, abandoned buildings, eerie spaces. He meets five people who have just come off a plane and who are just as bewildered as he is at the city’s apparent desertion. Before long though they discover the delights of being able to do what they like without getting into trouble: they start stealing small items from people frozen in walking or running stances, snatch a jacket from a slumbering woman sitting in a restaurant and take bottles of wine from waiters’ hands. Like children, they rejoice by joining hands and dancing in circles in fountains and swimming pools and going up the Eiffel Tower to see the sights for free but quickly endless freedom spoils them and petty jealousies and rivalries lead to fisticuffs on various perches of the Tower itself.

Fortunately the six people are saved from falling into complete savagery by a young woman (Myla Seller) who sends out an SOS. The cause of Paris’s slumber is quickly diiscovered and the solution is found just as fast but the film has made its point: a potentially new society with opportunities for new growth and development doesn’t necessarily turn out any better than the old society with all its social conventions, foibles, laws and other restraints. After the city is restored to its normal circadian rhythms, the film continues with the night-guard and the young woman trying to force the city to fall asleep again so they can steal money but their plan is foiled and they end up arrested for robbery: a telling comment that unlimited freedom, once tasted, is difficult to let go.

Images of 1925-vintage Paris landmarks, standing in their lonely and dignified grandeur, can be very eerie or can stir up deep emotions: their geometry and the geometry of the city streets and park layouts suggest a perfect fantasy world. The night-guard can’t quite get his head around this unexpected alien beauty – is he dreaming or is the deserted city for real? – and insists on inspecting cars in the street and trying to wake up people he encounters. The early third of the film in which the night-guard wanders the streets alone is perhaps the best part: the plot stands still while a montage of still shots of city locations passes by. For this reason too the film is of historical value to students of Paris’s growth and urban development.

There is plenty of slapstick comedy in the six wanderers’ adventures as they start to bicker and then fight, and in their discovery of the mad scientist (Charles Martinelli) who turns out to be an imposing yet absent-minded eccentric. Oblivious to the potential power his invention gives him, the scientist proves to be just as human as the six wanderers as he is dotty: he gets into a fight with a fellow scientist and the invention explodes on them. Paris ends up racing at hyper-kinetic speed and, as far as some foreign visitors who have visited the place and experienced the city’s traffic are concerned, has stayed that way since.

Special effects are used imaginatively and some simple animation shots that explain how the night-guard and the plane passengers escaped being put to sleep are very well done. The film chugs along at a medium-fast pace with fighting scenes sped up quickly to suggest emotional frenzy. It seems to this viewer that director Clair uses the limitations of the film technology available to him at the time as much as its benefits: scenes where everyone moves at a fast clip (often common in 1920’s silent films) are used to suggest that the scientist’s invention can influence the speed of life as well as cause it to sleep or to wake.

Although “Paris qui dort” is over 80 years old and the characters’ fashions and mannerisms and the cars they drive have come to look more quaint than dated, the film’s comment on human nature and society and its exploration of Paris as a fantastic sleeping beauty come true while the real Paris of human activity, all dirty, smelly and ill-mannered, exists in the night-guard’s head temporarily ensure that it will continue to enthrall audiences.

Aelita, Queen of Mars: a multi-plot story with a moral about living in fantasy versus living in reality

Yakov Protazanov, “Aelita, Queen of Mars” (1924)

This silent Soviet film from the mid-1920’s can be seen in nine parts on Youtube.com thanks to contributor Ishexan. Most current interest in the movie focusses on its sci-fi sub-plot of a trip that three Earthmen make to Mars where they are promptly embroiled in Martian politics and one of them, a revolutionary called Gusev (Nikolai Batalov), inspires the oppressed Martian workers to rebel against their despotic king and replace him with his daughter who is equally tyrannical. This sub-plot is part of a broad melodrama about an engineer called Los (Nikolai Tsereteli) who fluctuates between an erotic fantasy life revolving around an exotic aristocrat woman who worships him from afar and his real life in which his wife Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi), neglected by him, has an affair with a rich foreigner, Ehrlich (Pavel Pol).

Los’s fantasy about the woman Aelita (Yulia Solntseva) begins when he and his colleague Spiridonov (Tsereteli again) receive mysterious radio transmissions from afar which can’t be translated into Russian and someone in their department jokingly suggests the messages might be from Mars. Mars is a place where rich folks like Aelita and her dad King Tuskub (Konstantin Eggert) can spy on the affairs of other planets on a special TV made of geometric shapes and squiggly wires powered by Martian planetary energy harnessed by Gor (Yuri Zavadsky), the planet’s chief scientist and guardian of radiant energy. Poor Martian folks on the other hand must labour in the labyrinthine dungeons of Mars and there’s a rotating roster in which one-third of the workforce goes to sleep in deep freeze chambers when the available work dwindles. Good thing the capitalists on Earth never heard of that idea! Most of the movie’s running time flits from Los’s work ,which among other things involves volunteer work on an engineering project in the Soviet Far East and in his spare time constructing a spaceship capable of flying to Mars with Spiridonov, to Natasha working at a refugee centre, then an orphanage, and flirting with Ehrlich, to other sub-plots which include Gusev’s on-again/off-again relationship with his wife and an investigation of Natasha’s shotgun murder by the comically inept detective Kravtsov (Igor Ilyinsky). There is also a sub-plot that focusses on one man’s attempt to cheat on the food-rationing system used in Moscow which calls audiences’ attention to the economic and social plight of ordinary people in Russia at the time the film was made.

All this means that “Aelita …” can be a bewildering experience for first-time viewers unfamiliar with the immediate post-1917 situation in the Soviet Union before Joseph Stalin came to power in the mid-1920’s. Repeating viewings and a foreknowledge of the film’s plot and themes will be necessary for some viewers to understand and tease out the various sub-plots. Several sub-plots are Los’s daydreams which the film deliberately doesn’t separate from what happens to the engineer in real life so the narrative, and in particular the ending, can be very confusing to watch. A pro-Communist / anti-capitalist message is present in the movie but director Protazanov’s treatment of it is very ambiguous: Gusev has second thoughts about allowing Aelita to assume leadership of the Martian proletariat and his fears are well-founded. This particular moment in the film serves perhaps as a warning of what could happen to the Soviet government, that it might fall into a similar autocratic style of government as the previous Tsarist government: a prophetic message indeed.

Los realises his fantasy about Aelita comes to nothing but chaos, which might make viewers wonder whether it really is a fantasy that he has or something that actually happened to him. Fantasy women who hero-worship you don’t usually try to co-opt you into their own nefarious schemes, do they? He decides that his goal in life is to be with Natasha, who miraculously is alive despite having been shot at close range multiple times earlier in the film, and work with her for the reconstruction of their country. Natasha for her part is willing to return to Los and give up Ehrlich. The film’s message is that inner psychological rebirth is as important as political, social and economic rebirth if people are to co-operate and fulfill the goals of socialist revolution. Fantasising about flying to Mars as a way of escaping humdrum reality and the work involved in maintaining a marriage (and by extension, maintaining a community, especially a new revolutionary community) certainly won’t help to bring about equality and prosperity for everyone.

The film’s production values are very impressive: in particular the Martian sets, influenced by the Russian avantgarde art movement Constructivism with its emphasis on abstract geometric shapes and figures, look very futuristic and in some scenes are monumental. The make-up and costume design for the actors playing the Martians are similarly abstract and angular though the headgear looks comic. The style of acting varies in keeping with the plot and themes: generally the Earthlings move and act in a natural way while the Martians, lacking human emotion, have a stilted and robotic style of behaving. Aelita especially seems a child-like and petulant aritstocrat compared to proletarian Natasha who is portrayed as a warm and caring, if rather flighty, young woman. The editing helps here too, cutting from Aelita at her leisure watching Los on her TV or lounging about to Natasha cooking stew and scrubbing wet clothes. Hmm, what does it say about Los and his attitude towards women and social class that Aelita is a naive fantasy ideal that turns dangerous and has to be killed off while the neglected Natasha is ready to offer him love and support if only he would pay more attention to her and their marriage?

Ultimately for most people the main value of “Aelita …” will be in its sets and design but for students of propaganda and Soviet history, the film has a great deal to say about the difference between fantasy and reality. The lesson is aimed as much at idealists and would-be revolutionaries as for those still wedded to capitalist ways of thinking.

Corruption, authoritarianism, oppression of women and intolerance are a hidden presence in “Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages”

Benjamin Christensen, “Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages” (1922)

Intended as a study on how superstition and lack of knowledge about mental illness could have led to the witch-hunt craze and persecutions in Europe during the period from the 1500’s to the mid-1700’s, this Danish / Swedish co-production is a remarkable silent film that mixes a documentary style with fictional enactments of mediaeval beliefs about witches and how a persecution of someone accused of witchcraft might have proceeded and led to more people being accused and charged of being witches. All the way through “Häxan …” is a very detailed, earnest approach that assumes its audience knows little about witches but is intelligent enough to absorb and understand the information presented here. Although the film deals with a topic that might be assumed to interest only historians studying European culture of the time mentioned above, aspects of the witch-hunt are sure to resonate with modern audiences: in particular, the use of torture to extract confessions, usually false, from people accused of witchcraft who would then implicate other people around them, often as a way of avenging themselves, might strike people as disturbingly similar to the methods used by the US and its allies to prosecute its wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other parts of the world.

The film splits into four parts, all of them highly informative if perhaps heavy-handed with an attention level bordering on obsessive and fetishistic. The first part deals with ancient and mediaeval cosmologies and how these gave rise to beliefs in Heaven, Hell and the existence of Satan and devils. This can be dry and didactic with little pointers on the screen demonstrating the obvious on animated diagrams, reproductions of naive drawings and Christensen’s own reconstructions, and this might well be the point at which most people will tune out. Leaving of course those with an interest in the history of witch-hunts to stick out the rest of the movie where the real rewards lie. The second part consists of a series of fictional vignettes, some very comical and slapstick, of witches concocting love potions, riding brooms to celebrate their sabbat or dreaming of meeting the Devil. The special effects and animation used look primitive to modern eyes but are very effective in making coins come alive or creating the impression of an army of witches in flight.

A mini-movie in which a beggar woman is accused of having bewitched a printer and causing him to die by the women in his family constitutes the third part which makes up the bulk of “Häxan …”. Much of this drama involves the woman being forced under torture by monks to confess her “crime”. The most sinister aspects of this section illustrate how readily other innocent people can be dragged into a witch-hunt panic: in one scene, a monk has sexual fantasies about the printer’s wife so the woman ends up charged with having bewitched him. The film concludes by showing parallels between the witch-hunts of the past and modern practices in dealing with mental illness and phenomena such as mass hysteria and challenges us as viewers to consider whether we are just as prone as people were in the past to fall prey to prejudices and beliefs about the nature of certain mental phenomena like somnambulism and hallucinations that led to so many people being persecuted and killed as witches.

In spite of its broad range, the film flows fairly well from one part to the next which attests to Christensen’s concept and careful construction of it as a self-sufficient whole. The actual joins can be clumsy (especially between the last two parts) but all four parts connect through common themes in the subject areas of witchcraft and demonology and of the social attitudes towards witches and other outsiders. Production values look rudimentary and in some scenes the lighting is poor or the props and sets look the same in spite of the changed context. All the acting was done by amateurs and Christensen himself plays the part of the Devil so viewers shouldn’t expect much out of the cast used; it’s enough to say the actors look and act naturally in a period of film history where professional acting could be exaggerated and look hammy. Close-ups of actors’ faces invite sympathy from viewers; when the same filming method is also applied to various torture implements and how they are applied, the effect on viewers might be unsettling. That iron collar with the spikes pointing inwards certainly doesn’t look comfortable!

Depictions of the Devil and celebrations of the witches’ sabbat are lurid and there’s always the possibility the scenes were played up as much to titillate audiences in a po-faced way as to educate them. Some nudity is shown and witches are shown kissing the Devil’s bum and eating food obtained from corpses. What’s missing from these scenes and others which would have enriched the documentary and made it more relevant to the general public then and now is some historical context: the actions as portrayed visually and as described in the intertitles are a satire on Christian ritual and the practice of Holy Communion or Mass, and might suggest that, in many parts of Europe during the height of the witch-hunting craze, Christianity or its public face at least was resisted by many people for various reasons. After all, contrary to popular belief, the European witch-hunts didn’t actually take place during “mediaeval times”: they actually took place in a period that overlaps with the spread of the Renaissance in Europe outside Italy, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the rise of nation states like England, Spain, France, Sweden, Russia and the Netherlands and their empires in other parts of the world, and the beginnings of the Age of Enlightenment. The implication is that intolerance and authoritarian behaviour in Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity increased with the rise of learning and alternative opinions that might have threatened the power of the clergy.

A sub-text of women suffering oppression within male-dominated structures and institutions in society, the results of which manifest in peculiar behaviour that might be interpreted as witchcraft practice, is present in “Häxan …” though whether Christensen was aware of this sub-text is another thing. Possibly he was but this was a touchy topic that was outside the scope of his research. At the time, psychology was still a new science and Sigmund Freud was still developing his theories of psychoanalysis. Certainly the fourth part of the film in which nuns are afflicted with a contagious dancing hysteria and young troubled women are diagnosed by male physicians as having hysteria suggests very strongly that incidents of mental illness in individuals and groups might have a cultural or social origin.  Had Christensen made his film at a later date, most likely he would have tried to incorporate some psychological theory and study to strengthen his argument about mental illness being a basis for suspicion of witchcraft and he might even address the question of why more women than men were persecuted as witches. There are also several scenes in the film showing monks and abbots denying their faults by placing the blame for them on women so there is an issue of corruption within the established Christian churches that Christensen could have addressed openly but most likely dared not.

The film can be slow in parts and the drama of the beggar woman and her accusers gets cut off just as it becomes really interesting. The visuals are perhaps the best part of the film and the last section that posits mental illness as a possible explanation for behaviour that got women in trouble as witches is interesting though limited in its scope. Christensen as a tubby Devil is laughable – WTF was he thinking when he took on that role? was he trying to make the Devil into something comic? – and scenes of the witches celebrating sabbat bring into question his aims in making the documentary: did Christensen just intend “Häxan …” as a documentary or could he have been striving for something else beyond? The film as is suggests that the art and creativity of movie-making could have gone far beyond both strictly fact-based documentary and the visual story-telling typical of most feature films that are taken for granted today: “Häxan …” is at once fact and fiction, and is more than the sum of two parts.