Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Call

The Call
Directed by Antoine Fuqua

Before you actually view the film, take a second to visualize the concept in your mind. Imagine "The Exorcist". Now place John Malkovich in the role of the exorcist and a sexy sports car in the role of the possessed (with an equally sexy Naomi Campbell in the role of the demon possessor to top it all off). Now imagine the famous bedroom scene from "The Exorcist", but replace the bedroom with a barn big enough for the possessed car to do doughnuts in. That's the basic premise behind this film. Oh and don't forget, Antoine Fuqua directed it. You might know him from a little movie he made called "Training Day". It won a couple of awards (Oscars I think they're called?)

With all these semi-big stars and hot cars doing stunts (and some decent special effects to top it off), I bet you're all wondering what the product tie-in is. Well if you must know, "The Call" was created as an ad for Pirelli P-Zero High Performance Tires. Pirelli was trying to emulate what BMW did a few years earlier by commissioning a series of shorts as advertising for their product. (see an earlier post on this blog). The other short in the series features Uma Thurman driving a yellow Lamborghini in one of the most cliche, overindulgent car chase sequences I've ever seen. Using film as a vehicle (no pun intended) for advertising? What an original concept!

Actually though, I kind of enjoyed the homage (if that's the right term to use) to "The Exorcist". A lot of the shots capture the spirit of the first part of the classic it idolizes (hope you have a grain of salt ready). I liked the clever (if not overt) religious/demonic references such as the radio frequency (66.6? Well gee...) and the holy water that the possessed so defiantly brushes off with a swipe of the windshield wipers. Also, I think a fire-spitting sports car is just a bit more intimidating, although a bit less creepy, than a young, puke-spewing Linda Blair. The ignited "No" that the possessed so artfully writes on the ground is also quite clever. At this point, I almost thought that I would be satisfied by this film's quality.

But then came the advertising. When the exorcist (who is unfortunatley played by one of my favorite actors, John Malkovich) reveals his ultimate exorcism tool, I was crushed with disappointment. Expensive sports car tires as an instrument of the divine? Not so sure about that. It also was much too abrupt. The tires just kind of appeared without warning. I was a little caught off guard by the sudden commercialism of it all, especially the little slogan insert at the end.

So what's the lesson here? If you ever need to exorcise a demon from your automobile, head down to your local tire store and buy some new, shiny, expensive tires. They can tame even the wildest four-wheeled fiend. For our purposes as film geeks though, the lesson of this film is advertising and film don't always go together.

Friday, September 26, 2008


Directed by Chuck Jones, United States, 1952, running time 7:12
Warner Brothers

This short happens to be one of my favorites. Looney Tunes strikes again with this Bugs Bunny classic. In this installment Bugs is trying to get to a big carrot festival but got lost and accidentally surfaces in a bull fight ring. As the matador exits the ring, the bull charges Bugs from behind and launches him out of the stadium. We get the now famous, “Of course you realize, this means war.” Bugs reenters the ring and uses several tactics in attempt to beat the bull. Some go well, some bad, but in the end Bugs out smarts the bull with an elaborate setup that uses axel grease, glue, sandpaper a match and TNT to ultimately blow the bull up.

This is a prime example of why Looney Tunes has stood the test of time. It is remarkably written, really funny, and universally appealing. This came out in 1952 and still feels remarkably current. Any number of Warner Brothers’ cartoons could have been posted but this one stood out from the rest of my cartoon watching as a kid. These tunes were edgy, innovative, and way ahead of their time. There isn’t much more to say except ENJOY!!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What to Do on a Date

What to Do on a Date - 1950

The National Council on Family Relations

“What to Do on a Date” is a 1950s educational short film. It chronicles a boy who is trying to figure out how to plan an appropriate date for the girl he likes, Kay. The script is a mix of voiceover and action/dialogue, teaching the basics of asking a girl out and how to perform on a date.

What is most interesting about this short is the fact that it is educational. Educational shorts were frequently used in schools, especially to discuss topics deemed important but not easily broached by the teacher (I definitely had my fair share of short film viewing experiences in elementary school about “inappropriate touching” and “female development.”

If you take away the narration, this short can be analyzed like any other narrative. Boy asks girl out but is unsure if she will like where he is taking her. Boy and girl both have fun at scavenger sale. Girl agrees to go out with boy again; simple short narrative structure.

There are interesting sex roles that come out of the short that speak a lot to the times. In the first sequence, Kay is carrying groceries into the house. Then when she is at the rummage sale she makes the lunch. When her date asks her "You make the sandwiches?" she replies, "Gladly!" Personally, I've never heard someone so excited about making sandwiches before. As for the men, they are seen first playing catch and then doing manly tasks at the scavenger sale, such as installing fixtures and doing heavy lifting.

The reason that these are important is because this short is meant as in instruction manual for young people. It was made by The National Council on Family Relations, in conjunction with RCA. This illustrates an interesting change from the conservatism of the studios in the 50s, compared with studios’ need today to push society’s limits.

It is interesting that the educational aim of this is expressed in narrative, short film form. One of the reasons why I chose to analyze this piece was because it challenges our notions of what defines a short film. You could argue that because it is somewhat instructional that it falls outside the category of a film and into some amorphous sector of video without narrative structure. However, because the film uses the idea of the classic narrative to illustrate the “proper” way to date, it then comes back to fitting exactly into the traditional short film category. Again this argument is circular and exactly why I chose this short.

Christine Barndt

What's Up Doc?

What's Up Doc?

Directed by Robert McKimson, United States, 1950, 7 Minutes.

What's Up Doc is Bugs Bunny's life story. The short opens up with Bugs by a pool, receiving a call from the Disassociated Press. They want his story, which he recounts for them. He knew he was different from the start, being a rabbit naturally. He turns out to be a precocious piano player and dancer, which lands him a job in the chorus on Broadway. After the star goes sick, Bugs tries to fill in and ends up getting booted off the stage. He quits but ends up being seen by Elmer Fudd who brings him into his act as a sidekick. They move up from Peoria to Buffalo to New York and Bugs decides to reverse the act. Elmer is not happy and brings out his familiar shotgun and Bugs utters his familiar lines, "What's up doc?" This gets a laugh and they move up to doing movies. The short then cuts to Bugs talking on the phone who has to get to filming for his new movie, where he is part of the chorus again.

This isn't my favorite Looney Tunes short but this is definitely a good one. It also shows the level of consistent quality output from the Warner Brothers cartoon division, despite it being from a lesser known director. The music, as usual, is great and has a really catchy song. The jokes aren't as good as some of the other cartoons, but it is still pretty funny.
I also liked how this movie focusses less on one big joke at the end in favor of more of a plot. There are some allusions that would slip by most people of any age, like Bugs rejecting a script for a play on Broadway that ran from 1939-47. Besides that, I thought it was a unique and fun short.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Directed by Harry Watt and Basil Wright, England, 1936, 25 mins.

Night Mail is an unusual piece of filmmaking. Made in 1936, it’s a documentary following the life and times of a mail train that runs between England and Scotland. In many ways, it seems entirely unremarkable: the film is interspersed with scenes of the train on its route while the employees of both railway stations perform their daily tasks. In fact, I was bored out of my mind until the last 5 minutes of the film, when its relevance finally becomes clear. As it turns out, poet W.H. Auden wrote a poem specifically for the documentary, and renowned composer Benjamin Britten composed the score. Neither of these elements comes into play until the end of the film, but talk about a crescendo. As the train picks up speed, so does the narrator’s recitation of Auden’s poem, as does Britten’s music. In fact, I found Auden’s poem, or at least the way it was delivered, to be a bit creepy; in a weird, sing-song voice, we hear lines like “In the farm she passes/ no one wakes/ but a jug in the bedroom/ gently shakes."

The film is a rare glimpse into the daily lives of the 1930s working class. Today, nearly all of the screen representations of people from this era are from the glitzy films of Hollywood’s golden age, few of which portrayed everyday people. In one particularly poignant scene, we see the workers at a London station chatting with the barmaids at a local pub after a long day of work.

After watching Night Mail, I wondered whether or not a similar documentary could be made today. Though there is certainly a market for “slice of life” shorts and features, a freight train is a difficult subject to examine; I doubt many filmmakers would be willing to study the daily trials and tribulations of a Red Line train. Then again, modern technology is absent of the human element that makes a film like Night Mail so compelling. But stylistically, it represents one of the earliest efforts to blend artistic content with the documentary format, which we almost expect in modern docs, from exercise in anthropomorphis March of the Penguins to the animated sequences of Bowling for Columbine.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sherlock, Jr.

Directed by Buster Keaton, United States, 1924, approx. 44 minutes
Our Hospitality and Sherlock, Jr. - Kino Video, 1999

The comedic film has hardly been more fun and funny than in the hands on the great “stone face”, Buster Keaton. His 1924 four reel short Sherlock, Jr. is a surreal, special effects laden gemstone that conjures up the magic of the movies and draws guffaws and dropped jaws. Keaton’s short comments on the ethereal, shadow world of the silver screen through gorgeous and ghostly effects and registers richters in laughter.

Keaton plays a bumbling movie theatre projectionist, caught up in a dream of becoming a detective just like Sherlock Holmes. He daydreams and wishes, simpering in the booth. But ‘detectivity’ isn’t the only thing Keaton pines for: he is also quite madly in love with The Girl (no, but really, that’s the character’s name). She’s capitalized: The Girl. The One. Unfortunately for our hero, The Girl is also the object of The Sheik’s (a bad guy) affection. After an unfortunate mystery develops leaving Keaton all but hopeless, he falls asleep and transcends into the world of the motion picture, becoming a real life detective.

Sherlock, Jr. is entirely tongue in cheek; at a pivotal moment Keaton literally leaves his body and jumps right into a motion picture, leaving our real life audience watching a movie audience watching a movie (and to add to the fun, when this was filmed, the movie audience was really watching live actors in a carefully designed set made to look just like a screen). The escapist qualities of the cinema become absolute for Keaton, and his other worldly self becomes caught up in the projected movie. This is when the literal film transitions from being a movie about a movie to being the movie. Keaton frames the real point of the movie with the real world, but the reason Sherlock, Jr. exists is the story of the detective. The Projectionist is not the projectionist, he is Sherlock, Jr.

The trick photography in Sherlock, Jr. is still pretty mind blowing in contemporary context. The moments after Keaton enters the on-screen movie are particularly exciting. Keaton is thrown into a variety of situations: stuck on a cliff, in the middle of a bust intersection, through a series of cuts. The reality of the scene is never questioned though, as each segment is shot so precisely and proportionally well. Keaton reportedly shot this footage with the aid of surveyor's equipment. His ingenuity worked.

This series of misadventures is not unlike Duck Amuck, which Prof. Middents posted earlier. The notion of the screen is questioned, as well as the idea of who is making the movie. The scenes which Keaton is tossed around in are entirely disparate and random, and have nothing to do with the the movie that follows. Keaton is being toyed with, much like Daffy by his animator - but who is playing with Keaton? The Projectionist Keaton? The inside-movie-filmmakers their selves? The audience? The perception of the spectacle of the cinema is what is questioned here, but it’s done so in a laugh-a-minute riot house.

I think this is an essential question for any examination of cinema, regardless of length, and it’s one that we come back to often in class, as it is more visible through the short lens. What makes a movie? Is it literally the material matter, the film or video, that constitutes the motion picture? Is it less than that, just a series of photos, the motion that makes the movie? This of course, does not allow for a film like La Jetée to be considered a motion picture -- so is it the audience that believes in the idea that it is a movie that makes it a movie? Any audience member seeing a feature in a theatre today will agree it is a movie, and most audience members watching short films in a theatre or at a festival will argue for the validity of the presentations as movies. As a class I believe we agree that La Jetée was a movie; would another audience consider it one, though?

Keaton is arguing through stone-faced comedy in Sherlock, Jr. The duality of The Projectionist’s realities calls into question the legitimacy of our reality. Do we perceive things to be real, therefore making them real? Or are we all just part of a bigger picture, a bigger movie; are we all just sleeping projectionists in some cinema somewhere?

Monday, September 22, 2008

L'Arrivée d'un Train a la Ciotat (The Arrival of a train a la Ciotat)

Directed by Auguste and Louis Lumière

Watch this film. Now tell me with an honest face that was not the most pointless film you ever saw. That's right, it is a pointless film for those of us that lived in the 21st century. Now imagine yourself in a theater in France, December 28th, 1895. And all of a sudden a huge train come flying towards you. You'd run in terror right? Well that's what happened when this film first debuted in a cafe in Paris.
This is considered to be one of the first films ever made and shown to an audience. They showcased it along with 9 of their other films. All of these films were stationary cameras setup in a certain spot capturing simple, everyday things. But for their time they were revolutionary. One can watch these films and be baffled on how anyone enjoyed it. A contemporary comparison can be made, people go all the time to I-MAX and 3-d films and they can watch something a simple as fish swimming around and they are amazed. It's all about the technological advancements of that time. Eventually the French moved on to bigger and better things like narrative films and actually plot lines. Unlike Edison who remained in marvel with the spectacle of film.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Steamboat Willie

Directed By: Walt Disney & U.B. Iwerks. United States. 1928. 7 min. (one reel).

With the recent wave of Pixar shorts that precede each one of their films and the Walt Disney Company’s enormous reach over the entertainment industry, it’s easy to overlook the early days when Walt Disney, the man, was an up and coming animator. While trying to establish his career, Disney created shorts for other producers and characters that he didn’t own until he developed the lovable mouse that would become the mascot for one of the largest corporations today. But looking back at the humble beginnings of Disney’s career and more specifically the original Mickey Mouse cartoons, it’s hard to use phrase such as “humble beginnings” or “lovable mouse.”

The release of the second Mickey Mouse cartoon Steamboat Willie (1928) is possibly the most iconic piece from Disney’s early days. It’s been referenced, parodied and saluted cultural impact with the introduction of such a darling character. However, most of those tributes and even parodies overlook the entire cartoon. Typically, there’s just a clip of Mickey steering the ship and some cases will even extend to the moment when the bigger (whatever that animal is, possibly a giant cat) bullies Mickey out of the driver’s seat. Steamboat Willie is so much more as it could easily be an icon for the early days of cartoon violence.

After Mickey’s overthrown from driving the steamboat, he helps a frantic Minnie board the ship and in celebrating they decide to play music but there’s a lack of instruments. This doesn’t stop Mickey as he goes on to use the animals aboard for musical means. Mickey grabs a cat and yanks on it’s tail to play music with its meow before he swings it around his head and tosses it away; he pulls on a ducks head, plays drums with a pig’s feeding babies as well as on a cows teeth.

While he maintains a seemingly lovable smile the entire, Mickey’s sadistic side shows with Itchy-esque enjoyment. It’s somewhat off-putting to see the world’s most benevolent mouse with such a mischievous demeanor only to be aided by Minnie as the cartoon world’s original Bonnie and Clyde. However, this shouldn’t be too surprising considering the history of subliminal messages and drawings put into Disney cartoon over the years but let’s just hope that Walt Disney never actually condoned animal abuse.

NOTE: Due to uncertainty over it’s copyright law I chose not to attach it on the blog, but take a look on YouTube anyways.

Un Chien Andalou

Part 1
Part 2

Directed by Luis Buñuel. Written by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali. France, 1928, 16min.
Source: Avant garde and experimental films – VHS 5278 and

Trying to find rational meaning in a short film that was not supposed to have any is a ludicrous idea, but, so is to dismiss it because it “doesn’t have any” or because we can’t understand it. Whether we understand it or not, like it or hate it, Un Chien Andalou is, for various reasons, one of those must- see classic shorts. It has its place in film history as one of the first movies without a coherent narrative, hence, the perceived lack of “meaning¨. It was also one of the first non-studio shorts to (unintentionally) make money, using shock value as means to make the audience not only uncomfortable but also unhappy with the film itself.

One of the “explanations” of the film goes as follows: the two unnamed characters are lovers who are discovered by her husband and her dad and then face the consequences. Sounds simple, but now, imagine the following series of dream-like events, so things don’t really make sense. They’ll be out order, you’ll leave a room just to enter the same room again, ants will come out people hands, a severed hand will lay on the side walk, an androgynous boy will get run over which in turn will cause the male lover to be aroused, he will be turned down by his lover and will then pull on two pianos with two priests, the 10 commandments and two dead donkeys; books turn into pistols and the male lover shoots his lover’s father; to then “in (the) spring” on a beach where the lover and her husband are buried up to their chest dead. But before it all began, you read a title card that said “once upon a time” and then saw the woman’s eye slid with a razor.

Dali and Buñuel wanted to shock their audience so they opened their film with the razor/eye-slid sequence. They expected the 1928 Parisian audience to be shocked, to start riots, but, to Buñuel’s disappointment, they didn’t. The surrealist movement was in its beginning and this short granted the entrance into it. Today’s audience would probably have a different opinion; one can just look at the boards in IMDB to get an idea. Perhaps, the 1920s audience was more familiar with Freud and more willing to accept dreams for what they were.

But, the lessons of the film go beyond the unexpected reaction of the audience; its 8-month run enabled the duo to pay Buñuel’s mom back. We can be melodramatic and say that dreams can take you as far a you want, aka two young men literally sharing a dream and two weeks of filming turned into a classic. But, there is more. Aesthetically, Un Chien editing work is great not just visually but also musically. In the scene were the androgynous boy gets run over, we anticipate it happening but the music and the intercutting to the lovers watching from the window keeps the tension. The famous thin cloud covering the full moon for a few second then cut to the woman’s eye being slid makes the audiences gasp every time and no matter how many times you watch it there will always be a chill going down your spine.

At the end, that chill is left unresolved. After the bizarre sequences, our minds could try to extract some structured narrative from the title cards “once upon a time”, “eight years later”, “about three in the morning” and “sixteen years before”. But, as in dreams, the timeline does not make sense, and perhaps some things are better taken as what they are, dreams.