Films for Class: Three Avant-Garde Shorts

dimensionsofdialogue1Dimensions of Dialogue

A toxic plutonium blast of a short and a parable about human conversation that turns ideological platitude (destroy, destroy for yourself, and destroy often) into tactile majesty via the blunt allure of its sheer construction. Casting aspersions far and wide at humanity’s capacity for mutual destruction and the acid bath that is collective human contact, Jan Svankmajer’s famous stop-motion short almost slumps into recasting Soviet era fears of conformity as skepticism of any human contact at all. But by dabbling in the dialectical exultancy of human interaction and the sheer possibility that arrives from destruction, he achieves something not only probing but poetic in its exploration of how creation and destruction are essential for one another.

Shooting motile, mutable blood through the veins of food, garbage, and clay, personifying each, and then setting each on a collision course with each other to sit back and watch as they unflappably tumble into unstitching themselves, Dimensions is terrifyingly charged with the animus of an unstable existence. Energized by the inherently jittery, staggered visual style of stop-motion, every moment and every frame seem to exist in the perpetual present as a path to no conclusive argument other than the tension of that moment’s existence. Less abstractly, Svankmajer erects personifications of life, death, inspiration, and destruction formally via stop-motion animating whatever he can find and producing facisimiles of human conflict out of sheer space, color, and motion. Bringing new meaning to appetite for destruction, garbage vomits out another garbage-person, who in turn engulfs the former only to vomit out a new member of the species doomed to immanent destruction. A clay beast engages in a kiss with another only for the mutualistic affection to mutate into parasitism and mutually assured destruction as the bodies coalesce, melt, and eventually lose any semblance of recognition as life. Garbled words engorge figures feeding on the language of others and then expunging them in warped or distorted fashion, expelling gross facsimiles of the verbal energy fed to them, The act of conversation and interpretation of another human becomes a live-wire act of violating the meaning of other people’s words only to enliven them with your own variation on the theme given to you.

Obviously, the film rests on a broad parable about humanity’s essential status as enemy to itself, but Svankmajer’s out-on-the-edge, formidably euphoric style imagines his argument as carnival sideshow as much as sociology, a theater pantomime in three acts with the emphasis on play. Morbidly hilariously and mordantly tragic, Dimensions is a masterpiece for the same reason any film is: it inscribes its very caliber, medium, and construction with the palpable strain of its own themes, morphing from a film “about” creation and destruction into a work that embodies creation and destruction via its formal caliber. Entrusting its themes to its own acts of imaginative creation and destruction, Svankmajer effectively steers clear of nihilism via the almost orgasmic chutzpah of spasmodic visual gesticulations that clarify every miasma of destruction as an explosion of artistic creation in itself. Because every broken-down character is essentially the raw material of something new, an artistic license for the film to continue reshaping itself, each person-variant seems charged with the inevitable fatalism of its own entropic self-immolation and recreation. If that isn’t enough for you, try the sheer brio of imagining creation and destruction not as opposites but as mutually fulfilling principles of life, a continuum more than a war of attrition. This wanton simulacrum of life is vivaciously animated with what may be the central dialectic of existence, the very cycle of being.

Svankmajer understands the essential duality of any avant-garde film: although inscribed with an awareness that conventional cinema is a failure to represent the world in all its fullness, they do not renounce the world or represent it. Contrarily, they work with the world’s objects – quite literally, in all their cases – to kindle their frustrations about the world and cinema into riotous, rowdy orgasms of uncontrollable human emotion. They strive on their own inability to represent themselves, and in doing so, they represent themselves more fully than any other mechanism or attitude might allow. Torment and exultancy locked into mortal, inescapable tension, Dimensions of Dialogue is shot through and enlivened by undercurrents of maximalism and minimalism, one of the many fascinating Soviet-style formal paradoxes that energize the film with many dimensions of unresolved anxiety about the essential contradictions of its own existence:  something new and something lost in every moment.

Score: 10/10

begone-dull-care-125th-second1Begone Dull Care

Evelyn Lambert and Norman Maclaren’s screeching supernova of improvisational insouciance is a radiant film that is positively over the moon with its own blasphemous transcendence. A literal abstract that blithely paints and scratches splashes and etches of imagination onto film celluloid, this chirpy short launders its own experimentation with the formal conceit of visually cavorting with the frisky jazz of the Oscar Petersen trio. The music is hardly a shackle though. Instead, the sound here is the key to liberation from any cinematic norms about narrative or character representation and indexical meaning in the world. The formal interplay between mediums charges the film with the libidinal, even auto-erotic ecstasy of simply hopping and skipping around the literal medium of celluloid as a playground for jostling you with color, shape, motion, and tempo. Radically, none of these visual and aural notions are contained by or conscripted to serve ideas or themes outside of their brimming urgency to show off their own joie de vivre rooted in their own existence. Begone Dull Care’s title is not simply a cataloging convention but a principle for the film to live by.

Which is to say: Begone Dull Care is about nothing so much as its own euphoria, the sense of out-of-control, careening bliss achieved through artistic creation that uses jazz music as the reckless and rambunctious musical canvas upon which it exorcises the demons of conventional structure and adherence to edicts from the overlords of Hollywood. Jazz, after all, is about feeling out and reconsidering musical moments rather than adhering to scripted conventions. Yet no film movement has ever so overtly committed to that ideal of improvisation as rebellion in search of a kind of present-tense energy as jazz has for music. The interplay in Begone Dull Care, however, pops with exactly that dream of every moment as an interplay of reconsiderations and revitalizations and free-wheeling dissent. The two art forms intersect as the best of friends and mortal enemies, catalyzing the kind of fiery, up-tempo, off-its-rocker interplay where the sheer punch and vigor of their dynamic conflagration is so feisty it feels ready to pounce off the screen and pop you in the jaw with every moment. Energized with an inter-medium give-and-take, the animation seems to coax the music to greater heights even as it itself is born out of a desire to keep up with the off-kilter rhythm of pure, momentary, musical effervescence.

It becomes almost impossible to signal superior moments. Every structureless blotch sprints with endless stamina, every hyperactive scratch boasts the zeal of a charging army. Igniting a harsh scrape of the film celluloid into an unalloyed scream of hyper-saturated happiness feels like the primordial ideal of filmic existence. At a most essential level, this is the crux of any avant-garde film: an understanding that the simplest of cinematic girders can generate meaning and affect all on their lonesome, and that color, space, sound, and movement are principles of unbridled emotion without the accompaniment of a representational narrative. It’s a pas de deux of two mediums as an embracement of pure artistic creation in a vernacular that, frankly, makes the conventional lexicon of cinematic storytelling seem mute and unable to communicate meaning by comparison. Every second feels like an exotic excursion into new possibility written in an alphabet only cinema on the fritz could muster.

Score: 10/10


Cinema as experiment and cinema without cinema, Stan Brakhage’s no-cameras-allowed short is also cinema at its purest form, reinventing the very nature of what the art form actually is at the rawest of perceptual girders. Difficult to analyze  and even more insurmountable to experience (and all great works of art are experiences more than think-pieces), this re-creation of film-strip via literally pressing translucent objects into two 16mm prisons (prisms) of tape is perhaps the ultimate in “formal” experimentation. Never so hubristic as to exist for its own radicalism though, Mothlight is also a profoundly humbling exercise in finding hope in the quotidian refuse of the world, recontextualizing butterfly wings and blades of grass through the aesthetic prism of cinema. Brakhage does not merely curate these objects to uphold on their own, though. He actually introduces them to one another, reformulating their perceptual girders, reimagining them via the colossal collision principles of collage. While many avant-garde features dip into egotistic aggrandizement, Mothlight is the antithesis of cinematic narcissism.

Score: 10/10



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