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Archive for the 'Cinema' Category

The spectacular attraction of Annabelle’s Serpentine Dance

I’ve written about it before, but it continues to amaze me.

When watching the film Annabelle Serpentine Dance #1 filmed for Edison in 1894, it is easy to compare it to contemporary film thinking that something is missing. The single-shot film is silent, no longer than 20 seconds and not employing any editing or camera-movement. All we see is a female dancer performing “The Serpentine Dance”, thus the performance seems to be more important than narrative continuity, and a characterisation of the performer. When analysing Annabelle Serpentine Dance this way, we fail to understand the origin and the conditions in which the film was made. Also, we assume that cinema have to consist of a narrative and a characterisation of its “performers”. I believe cinema should also be celebrated because of its ability to create visual attractions while expressing an art of motion.

Annabelle Serpentine Dance was created in the early days of cinema, originally intended for exhibition in the Edison Kinetoscope, a peepshow device showing short films, no more than a minute long, which people could see by peering down through a viewer at a tiny image. The audience in these kinetoscope parlors was mostly male, one reason being that the topics chosen were taken from vaudeville performances created to appeal to male audiences, thus the moving pictures often featured clips with female dancers, railway trains, fire and police workers and sporting events. However, the films also attracted women who were interested in a glimpse into the usually forbidden world of masculine amusement. Annabelle Serpentine Dance features the popular vaudeville performer Annabelle Whitford Moore performing the “Serpentine Dance” – a choreography assumedly invented by the American performer Loie Fuller. Annabelle’s costume composing of billowing fabric with wands attached to the sleeves makes her able to manipulate and extend the costume above her head and diagonally to the sides. Throughout the film, she either looks down or directly into the camera smiling, while the movement and her long, flowing skirts create a variety of visual patterns. The movements of her costume continuously hiding and exposing her body, makes you think of a magician’s vanishing act.

In addition to the pro-filmic elements mentioned, Annabelle Serpentine Dance also employs a “direct” film manipulation element, as each black and white frame of the film has been hand-tinted in different colours. This has been employed to imitate the original performance by Loie Fuller who had light in different colours projected onto her costume while performing. This additionally adds something from a magical world, as it looks like Annabelle’s costume changes colours as she moves. The effect of hand tinting had never been used before in moving pictures, which undoubtedly must have been a spectacular sight for the audience.

The variety of visual patterns created by movement and hand tinting are exactly the elements that should be heightened when analysing Annabelle Serpentine Dance today. It not only creates a very aesthetically pleasing sight, it also develops an astonishing magical world that the spectators are allowed into. When Annabelle acknowledges the camera by smiling, she creates a bond between her and the spectators asking for their full attention while allowing them to be voyeurs. I believe, this direct address of the spectator increase the attraction of the performance as she is reminding us that we are looking at a performance on a screen, yet we are being greeted by a “real” person who knows we are watching her. In later classic cinema, when the application of “invisible editing” became popular; looking at the camera became a taboo and the acknowledgement of a spectator disappeared. This created a new kind of moving picture industry that mainly focused on narrative continuity and psychological characterisation.

Another attraction of Annabelle Serpentine Dance is the movement of Annabelle’s costume that can be celebrated as cinema as an art of motion, which has been a huge inspiration for later filmmakers and philosophers. I believe Annabelle Serpentine Dance creates an art form celebrating motion in itself. The background is dark and the stage Annabelle is performing on is shallow, leaving the only place to focus your attention on her performance, thus the movement. These framing techniques were often employed in Edison’s early moving pictures.

It is important not to forget that Annabelle Serpentine Dance originated from the vaudeville stage where it was a very popular attraction. When bringing it into early cinema, it was obviously desired to carry on the popularity. The publicity posters made for Loie Fuller’s performances of the serpentine dance portrayed her body as highly eroticised. I would imagine that Edison could have used the same “trick” to attract more people. If so, this could confuse people when seeing the performance, as they may have come with a preconception that Annabelle Serpentine Dance was supposed to be a skirt dance. It is easy to see the choreography’s relation to burlesque dance in the way Annabelle’s costume through movement is constantly concealing and revealing Annabelle’s body. This effect of using the rhythm in hide and seek also creates an attraction.

“The magnetism in the simultaneously bewitching and confounding of the male gaze, the rhythm of hide and seek, the promise offered by glimpses of a withheld body and its sublimation into pure form and energy”.

— Tom Gunning, Loie Fuller and the Art of Motion.

Annabelle Serpentine Dance was actually censored because of the short glimpses of Annabelle’s underwear, but I think this was due to the beginning of a utilization of power in the American film industry. We have to remember that Annabelle Serpentine Dance also attracted women who wanted to see what the fuss was all about, and I would imagine that they were not less attracted to the performance than the male audience. Therefore, instead of focusing on the potentials problem of a woman as a subject of the male gaze, I believe it is more relevant to see Annabelle Serpentine Dance as a performance done by a woman consciously deciding to create a sexual element of attraction. Thus, her control of the male (and possible female) gaze resulted in giving the performance an immediate sensual attraction, cutting across classes and letting everyone experience it. However, I believe the sexual attraction was only a minor reason why people were attracted by the performance. Another immense attraction of Annabelle Serpentine Dance was the before mentioned direct use of hand tinting. The effect of the changing colours was employed to give the spectator a feeling of watching a magic show.

“The changing patterns of free-form color, as opposed to the attempt at color consistency and subordination to photographic form that characterizes most tinted films, make these first color films perhaps the most satisfying instances of the art of motion in early cinema”.

— Tom Gunning, Loie Fuller and the Art of Motion.

These “magical” elements of Annabelle Serpentine Dance are exactly why the film should not be read as having a lack of narrative or characterisation. Instead, it should be viewed as an amazing example of The Cinema of Attraction(s). To see Annabelle Serpentine Dance as lacking a narrative or a characterisation, or to call it a primitive example of cinema could not be more wrong. Denoting early cinema as primitive, is to forget that the technological developments in early cinema were the ground upon which cinema is built today. It also inclines that cinema should follow a linear progression where the newest is the best. Further, as Tom Gunning has argued, there is no need to only read cinema in the classical way, we can also look at the cinema of attractions. Instead of assuming that early cinema should be inspired by theatre because classical cinema was, we should celebrate cinema’s multiple ways of moving us. Annabelle Serpentine Dance is meant to fascinate us with the thrill of display rather than the construction of a story and I believe it does so in the most magical way. I am not interested in arguing that Annabelle Serpentine Dance is superior to films employing a classical approach by emphasising narrative continuity and characterisation.

What I want to argue is that Annabelle Serpentine Dance should not be read as a piece of primitive classical cinema. Instead it should be celebrated for its ability to create a spectacle, which has an immediate effect on us while watching it. The cinema of attractions and the classical cinema are two different modes of approach to film making, and instead of trying to categorise all cinema into one category, I believe we should enjoy them in their own different ways. The celebration of cinema as an art of motion and the use of the latest technological developments are not less interesting than creating a film with a narrative or a characterisation. Sometimes we just want to be directly addressed by a spectacle that creates a sense of wonder and amazement.

Paris Asleep (1925)

The French silent science fiction comedy Paris Asleep by René Clair is about a scientist who invents a time-freezing machine that sends out a ray making people caught in its beam fall asleep. For four days he brings Paris to a standstill and everyone – except the watchman of the Eiffel tower and five people in a plane, above the ray’s reach – are frozen into immobility.

Above: a man steals the necklace from a sleeping woman.

Paris Asleep is an experiment with stillness and a display of how the manipulation of movement can affect the characters of the film. By experimenting with film speeds, directions and shots, Clair also experiments with the concept of time and a filmmaker’s ability to manipulate time and stop time all together. The experiments with stillness begin when the watchman wakes up, looks down from the Eiffel Tower and we see a still image of Paris. He immediately notices that something is wrong as the city seems unusual without the movement of cars and people. Then, he looks at his watch, which has been halted during the night – suggesting that the common metric to organise everyone’s life has been removed. Next, we see the watchman walking around the empty streets of Paris, discovering that everyone else is completely immobilised. The arrest of time and suspension of characters seems comical, but also invokes a frightening feeling that they could be stuck in the instant of time forever.

Above: The watchman is looking down upon a Paris asleep.

Above: all the watches have come to a halt.

He meets the other unaffected people from the airplane, and they immediately start taking advantage of their sudden freedoms; indulging in good food, driving in the “frozen” people’s cars and stealing their things. When boredom starts to set in, they hear a cry for help from the scientist’s niece and hurry down to help her. After convincing the scientist to make everything normal again, they quickly miss their previous freedoms. Not being able to face being poor again, they decide to turn on the ray once more. The scientist finds out, turning it off again and the police catch them while they are trying to steal more money.

When the time-freezing machine is turned on and off, Clair manipulates the direction and speed of time by using accelerated motion, slow motion and reverse motion. To make these manipulations realistic, the movement is not limited to people and we see several shots of traffic and city life edited together to create an overall image of the city. The combination of still (paused) images and moving images illustrates the transition from the still life of stopped time to the movement of normal time. In the end of the film no one believes their story about “a sleeping Paris” and they consider if it was all a dream, but after finding a diamond ring at the Eiffel tower they know it was real.

I believe, Paris Asleep is Clair’s way of playing with the magic of cinema, namely the way – especially early cinema – played with the audience by controlling the movie projector from first showing a still image to suddenly “bringing the image into life”. The people frozen by the scientists ray remind me of people in the cinema sitting still (frozen) watching the rays of the film. The filmmaker has the power to freeze people in a moment of time and to temporarily liberate them from their social classifications, to alter their relationships and to change the outcome of events. Paris Asleep turns reality inside out, making reality a dream, and dream a reality.

Above: a chase scene is paused, the theft is without consequence.

Above: a suicide is delayed, and perhaps prevented.

Watch the film here: Paris Asleep – 1925

Birds of September – Review


The title of lebanese-born Sarah Francis’s film-debut suggests that the main theme of the film is movement, evoking thoughts about migratory birds searching for warmer territories in the cold Autumn months. Quite possibly a familiar wish of the CPH:DOX spectators, who’ll instead begin to search in the farthest parts of their dressers for their warm winter coats.

Birds of September is also the title of an Arabic novel from 1962 by Touyour Ayloul describing the saga of village people in Beirut who witness their loved ones depart for far away more promising lands and countries.

The film is, like the novel, set in the streets of Beirut. We are introduced to the city through a slow moving camera, passing buildings and shopfronts that look neglected, while equally sprawling with life. We see the city through what initially appears to be a car window, which for someone unfamiliar with small advertising vans often used in the streets of Beirut, seems like an unusual mobile, glass bubble, protecting us from the outside world.

The ‘bubble’ turns into a confession room for random locals who bluntly speak about their life experiences, while ‘floating’ through the city in the vehicle. It seems like Francis’ camera is constantly searching for something, lurking behind the window, zooming in on different people outside. It’s like the camera wants to get to know these people, while at the same time keeps a distance to them. Maybe this is Francis’ experience of living in a big city, where you can live next to people for several years, without really knowing who they are?

Inside the ‘confession bubble’ outside noise fades, creating a very intimate, isolated environment. The confessions create a closeness between you and the locals as you get to know them and their lives. The confessions are desynchronised with the images of the people inside the confession bubble, challenging us to synchronise them in our imagination. The film’s poetic logic portrays the architecture of Beirut and random people’s movement as a story of a city, the story of a people and the personal story of Sarah Francis. Francis’ story seems to be one of longing for change, being afraid of standing still, and a comment on the swifts of time while people move in different paces.

You are left with a feeling of familiarity to the city of Beirut, but distance to it as well. Maybe this is symbolising Francis’ own feelings toward her home, and how she’s travelled to the point of no return – being close, yet far from it. You also sense a fear of getting stuck in a city, but also in life. As we float through the city, we feel like floating through life. The film is beautiful and poetic, while at the same time very real. It deals with modern issues such as stress, death and self-discovering. It’s a personal journey that translates to everyone who have a longing for exploring new places — spiritual as well as physical ones.
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The Woman Behind Lolita

There is something magnetic, deeply mesmerizing about the opening paragraph of Nabokov’s Lolita. It takes three dainty steps of the tongue to pronounce Lo-li-ta, which is all the time Nabokov needs to showcase his dazzling writing skills and his love for clever word play and literary gimmicks. Extraordinarily simple yet highly ingenious, down-to-earth and “physical” yet brimming with an excess of desire, the controversial novel’s first paragraph draws in the reader in the bat of an eyelid, yet keeps her at an intriguing distance because of the morbid topic, because of the moral boundaries that are so brashly overlooked by the narrator’s thoughts and actions.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Image from Stanley Kubricks 1962 adaptation of Nabokov’s Lolita.

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What style! ‘You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style’, Humbert warns us at the outset. That may be true, for a murderer, but in Nabokov’s case it was someone else he could count on for advice, help and inspiration. Vladimir Nabokov wrote his first draft of Lolita (published in 1955) while on butterfly-collection trips in the Western United States with his wife, Véra Nabokov. Not many know the crucial role she played in drawing up the scandalous masterpiece: surprisingly enough she acted as his “secretary, typist, editor, proofreader, translator and bibliographer; his agent, business manager, legal counsel and chauffeur; his research assistant, teaching assistant and professorial understudy”!. It was Vèra who prevented Nabokov from burning the unfinished drafts of Lolita; she believed in her husband’s creative genius, privately encouraging and standing by him all his life — he called her “the best-humoured woman he had ever known.”

Vladimir and Vèra Nabokov

Vladimir and Vèra Nabokov

Now, putting aside the fear of sounding like a despicable child-abuser, have a go at composing a short paragraph in homage to Nabokov’s incredible style, and dedicate it to your own Vèra. Think about your loved one’s name (wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, companion or lover – it doesn’t have to be a paedophiliac, semi-incestous infatuation that drives your passionate immagination), find inspiration in its soothing sound and the meaning it acquires as you spell out the letters. Say it out loud a few times. Now break it up in syllables, listen to the consonants and vowels, draw shapes with the letters and go with the rhythm of the name. Though Nabokov, as Vèra herself admitted, always “had the good taste to keep me out of his books”, we — who lack his fervid imagination and literary status – are free to playfully smuggle our loved one’s real name into our imaginary word game. Try it as a very personalised and poetic card, as a humourous note to leave on the fridge before leaving for work, or as a romantic text message for a high-brow surprise during the day.

Vladimir and Vèra Nabokov

Vladimir and Vèra Nabokov

Sources:
Amis, Martin. Visiting Mrs Nabokov: And Other Excursions. pages 115–118. Penguin Books (1993)
New York Times obituary, “Vèra Nabokov, 89, Wife, Muse and Agent”, 11 April 1991
Brian Boyd’s biography, “Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years” (Princeton University Press, 1990)

Hush

Betty Compson in The Docks of New York

Sometimes you don’t need sound. You just need the glamorous world of film noir, it’s excessive use of soft light and cigarette smoke. This is one of those times. The Docks of New York (1928) by Josef von Sternberg starring George Bancroft and Betty Compson is a silent film noir drama about stoker Bill Roberts who gets into trouble during a brief shore leave when he falls for Mae, a dance-hall girl. The film comes together in the combination of cinematography by Harold Rosson, expressionist set design by Hans Dreier, and the sensual performances by Bancroft and Compson.YouTube Preview ImageYouTube Preview Image

Betty Compson and George Bancroft in The Docks of New York

The Dante Quartet

Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘Green’?
— Stan Brakhage

Stan Brakhage is known for his experimental films created by painting or glueing images directly onto celluloid. This way he opened up a different way of seeing, challenging our perception and bringing us back to a child-like way of seeing unruled by man-made laws of perspective. The Dante Quartet is one of his experimental short films from 1987 it was inspired by Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and took six years to produce. The effect of the images being painted directly onto the celluloid is both meditative and challenging for the viewer.
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A Woman Under the Influence

This film from 1974 by John Cassavetes is without doubt one of my all time favourites. Gena Rowlands immediately became my idol after seeing it. I really don’t want to say much more about it, I just hope this clip below encourages you to watch it!

The dying swan scene:
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Daisies

Daisies was made in 1966 by the Czech filmmaker Věra Chytilová and was considered a key film of the Czech New Wave. It was banned in 1968 shortly after the “Prague Spring” by the Soviet Communist regime, as was Chytilová from making any new films in Czechoslovakia until 1975.

Věra Chytilová

The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact stopped the creative and social freedoms of “Prague Spring” when they decided to invade Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968. Therefore, many Czechoslovakian artists’ reactions were to employ metaphors, humour, and radical narrative play to express the dangers and hypocrisies of life under a repressive regime. In order to make subversive political statements, ambiguity was a necessity.


Daisies depicts the two female protagonists Marie and Marie, who are claiming that the world is “bad” and therefore they will be too.

The story is structured with a non-linear narrative, and via jump cuts we are thrown between incoherent scenes, never quite knowing what will come next. The film consists of montages of contradictory imagery, a baffling dialogue, asynchronous sound, colours that change from full to monochrome to psychedelic, anti-naturalistic optical effects and sudden accelerated motion.

The Maries want to go against the norms of society, and act out as they see fit. They do this when they date older men, get particularly drunk in a fancy nightclub and steal food, drinks or money from other people.

Many aspects of Daisies make it appear like a feminist film. The Maries are constantly sexually teasing older men, making them pay for expensive dinners only to send them away in trains afterwards. At one point the Maries cut up phallic-looking food with a pair of scissors and eat it. Many of the men they meet seem like symbols of the patriarchal society, and the Maries’ actions therefore become a symbol of how they “castrate” it.

The main thing the Maries like to do is to eat, and they do this in a manner that also goes against the norms of society. They eat almost all the time, and if not, they ask people for food or talk about it. They even seem to confuse the meaning of love with food, and they question why men do not simply say “egg” instead of “I love you”.

Daisies is a film with many possible interpretations, and Chytilová is concealing an important message underneath the veils of ambiguity. The veil Chytilová has chosen is highly Dadaist. With Daisies Chytilová challenges our conventional understanding of ourselves and the world we live in.

In a nod to the Maries’ challenge of societal norms, the final title of the film reads: “This film is dedicated to those who only get upset over a “messed-up trifle””. It is a stab at the passivity of the bourgeoisie society, underlining Chytilová’s belief that instead of being provoked by a step outside of the rigid borders of etiquette, they should be provoked by much more pressing issues such as the Soviet occupation, the constant threat of violence that follows with the occupation, destructions of war and the lack of freedom of speech.

Watch it here:

Mr. Anger and the Puce Woman

Yvonne Marquis in Puce Moment

A lot have been said about Mr. Kenneth Anger. Over the years he’s been called many things, none of them particularly flattering: a satanist, a racist, a weirdo but whether he is one thing or another we can’t really tell. What we only know for sure is that he was, and still is, one of the most intriguing experimental directors ever. Demonic, provocative, way ahead of its time, Anger’s visual work is powerful and gentle at the same time, like suspended in time yet truly mesmerising.

“Puce Moment”, a short film by him from 1949, was meant to be a celebration of ladies of the silent screen (the original title was “Puce Women”). Puce is the name of a colour, the pale red-violet that permeate the six-minute filming of a lady in her boudoir, what is left of the original project, failed because of lack of funding.
Yvonne Marquis is the woman who plays the role of the “diva”, in real life she would later move to Mexico and become the lover to former Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas. Yvonne’s resemblance to old film stars such as Clara Bow and Barbara La Marr is striking and her whole action is a tribute to the rich, decadent life of the Roaring Twenties.

“Puce Women was my love affair with Hollywood…with all the great goddesses of the silent screen. They were to be filmed in their homes; I was, in effect, filming ghosts”

— Kenneth Anger

Puce Moment

Clara Bow & Barbara La Marr

Everything is perfect in this “puce” moment of pure visual pleasure…from the vivid colours of the sequinned gowns, that once belonged to Anger’s grand-mother, to the languid expressions of the silent Yvonne. Her alternate acts, slowed-down or speeded-up, are combined with beautiful and haunting psych-folk soundtrack (added in 1966) by mysterious musician Jonathan Halper. The power and immediacy of this unusual, dream-like film make it look so up to date after all those years. A post-modern celebration of the past, way before post-modernism really had a name.

Colleen Moore in her boudoir

Puce Moment

Enjoy the film…

It Takes Two

Jean-Marie Straub was an extrovert and a visionary. The public face of the prolific filmic duo she and her husband Danièle Huillet formed, she is one of the cinematic legends of the twentieth century. Their career, which started when the couple were students in Paris in 1954, spanned four decades and includes over two-dozen films. Dividing their collaborative work equally, Straub’s focused her attention behind the camera lens. Her enigmatic camera-work, focussing on long takes their films ‘un-write’ the visible through the arrested movement of the camera. Most notably perhaps in their first full-length feature, Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, which appeared in 1968 as the couple’s second feature length film.

Jean-Marie Straub and her husband Danièle Huillet

Not Reconciled, 1965, their first feature length film, illustrates the proponents of minimalist cinematography that Straub experimented with in her cinema.

Straub and Huillet’s films have not, however, gained the deserved recognition for their contribution to cinema and cinema politics, critics have noted. In spite of their being the “darlings” of the Cahiers du Cinéma, numerous collaborations with legends such as Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Robert Bresson to name only a few, and occupying a substantial portion of Deleuze’s infamous book Cinema I their films have not made their way into the hearts of the revivalist film watchers of today. 

Not Reconciled (Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, 1965)

Not for the faint-hearted

Many critics hastily concede of Straub’s minimalist style that it’s “inaudible” and “unintelligible” and even those admirers of her work dub the films as “dry and intellectual”. Their films are, however, part of a body of cinema, a body that pertinently probes a social and historical backdrop in France’s ideological past. Straub and Huillet’s films are notoriously imbued with Marxist ideology, this is something that manifests in the textually on screen, objects, figures and music all bear equal weight, and indeed make watching these films a sensory marathon.

Class Relations (Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, 1984)

“The films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are best understood in the context of contemporary developments in radical, materialist cinema. They offer what many people see as a genuine alternative to both dominant narrative cinema and conventional art movies. Their work is formally austere and demands attentive, intellectual participation from audiences.”  (Quote from The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson.)

The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, 1968)

As with running a marathon, I can only imagine, great satisfaction follows from watching these films. Straub-Huillet’s films are challenging but they incite an obscure reward beyond the sensuous towards the ‘sensible’ in the image, something like the Idea. Objects on screen are extended beyond their formal, prescribed and allocated positions and allow new forms to come forth on screen. As the infamous philosopher of cinema writes..

…the Straubs, are probably the greatest political filmmakers in the West, in the modern cinema. But, bizarrely, this is not due to the presence of the people; on the contrary, it is because they know how to show how the people are, what is missing, what is not there.

— Deleuze

Straub and Huillet’s film The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach: