Symphonie Diagonale (1924)

Article 4272 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 7-25-2013
Directed by Viking Eggeling
No cast
Country: Germany
What it is: Abstract animation

Figures appear and disappear with rhythmic regularity.

Here’s another foray into the world of pure abstract film. In this one, the focus seems to be on the rhythm of the items appearing, growing, changing and disappearing; each pair of images seems to have a matching rhythm. In some ways, it’s quite remarkable; one is tempted to want to compose some music to go along with the images. However, that may partially be due to the fact that the copy that I watched of this at doesn’t have any music to go along with it, and this is a bit of a problem, because without the music, this one gets to be a bit of a bore, especially with a running time of seven minutes. Still, I do like that I was able to see a clear discipline and focus to the project; with some abstract film pieces, it is difficult to tell what they’re trying to accomplish.

Strange Adventure of a New York Drummer (1899)

Article 4270 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 7-22-2013
Directed by Edwin S. Porter
Cast unknown
Country: USA
What it is: Haunted Inn Melies imitation

A New York drummer finds himself in a strange room where people and furniture disappear and reappear.

The first strange thing I noticed is the lack of the word “a” in the title between “of” and “New”; it makes it sound like New York Drummer is the guy’s name, or that there’s only one drummer in New York. What’s less strange is that this is another variation on a standard Melies setpiece; it’s the haunted room where items and people appear and disappear magically. Still, despite being a retread, it does have a couple of novel moments, such as one where a visitor (the landlord or hotel manager, I guess) stuffs the guest in a trunk. This is a fairly standard entry in the early years of special effects cinema.

Spiritualist Photographer (1903)

aka Le portrait spirituel
Article 4265 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 7-15-2013
Directed by Georges Melies
Featuring Georges Melies
Country: France
What it is: Magic film

A magician turns a woman into a portrait of herself, and then back.

This is a pretty ordinary Melies trick film, and I’d probably be largely finished with this review if it weren’t for one interesting little touch. It opens with a man holding up two placards, one in French and one in English, which convey to the viewer the knowledge that a dissolve effect will be demonstrated in the short without the use of a black background, and that this is a novel effect, and, if the truth be told, I do remember that this particular trick was almost always done with a black background up to this point. I don’t know just how difficult it was to switch to a technique using a white background, but it must have been tricky enough for Melies to take the trouble to explain the change in the film itself. If anything, this does demonstrate that the purpose of some of these magic shorts was to experiment with new techniques, which makes this short at least a little more interesting historically.

Soviet Toys (1924)

aka Sovietski igrushki
Date: 7-14-2013
Directed by Dziga Vertov
No cast
Country: USSR
What it is: Animated Soviet propaganda

A greedy capitalist devours everything and gives nothing back. Can the worker and the peasant force him to put his excess funds into the state bank?

What we have here is another foray in Soviet propaganda; it’s basically an allegory about conditions that arose in USSR at the time that Lenin instituted a New Economic Policy that resulted in the rise of greedy entrepreneurs. Much of the imagery is grotesque, especially the sequence where the capitalist gorges himself, vomits into a barrel, and then drinks the contents of the barrel. It verges into fantasy several times, the most striking of which is the merging of the peasant and the worker into a single two-headed creature that was capable of extracting the funds from the capitalist. The animation has a vaguely Emile Cohl-ish quality to it, which makes it a bit primitive for the time. I found it somewhat interesting but also quite predictable at times, and it is best viewed as a product of its time and place.

The Skipping Cheeses (1907)

aka Les fromages automobiles
Article 4262 by Dave Sindelar
Directed by Georges Melies
Cast unknown
Country: France
What it is: Bizarre trick short

When an argument about the odor of the wares of a cheese vendor result in her arrest, her own wares come to her rescue.

I’ve shown several of Melies’s shorts to my friends, and for some reason, this little oddity seems to have become the favorite of the bunch. It’s not really Melies’s special effects expertise that is the reason for its popularity; it’s the sheer absurdity of the premise coupled with the “English as a second language” narration by a Frenchman. The vision of a police department under attack by murderous cheeses is something to be reckoned with, and the deadpan description in particular of the death of the magistrate is pretty hilarious to these ears. No, it’s not one of Melies’s best, but it is one of the more jaw-dropping concepts he’s worked with.

Sightseeing Through Whisky (1907)

aka Pauvre John ou Les aventures d’un buveur de whiskey
Article 4261 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 7-7-2013
Directed by Georges Melies
Cast unknown
Country: France
What it is: Drunken visions

A lazy servant on a tour of ancient ruins decides to lag behind and get drunk on whisky. He collapses and has strange visions.

Maybe it’s because I’ve had a bit of a movie drought lately, but I rather enjoyed this Melies short, despite the fact that it has a fairly poor reputation. Still, one of the accusations made against this short must be reckoned with, and that is that Melies doesn’t break any new ground; it’s mostly a series of “things-appearing-out-of-nowhere” tricks that he’s done before, and even the most surreal moment (in which the drunkard is tormented by a bunch of dancing girls with mops) has popped up in an earlier short. I think I may have liked it a bit more because the title had me expecting a rehash of THE DREAMS OF A RAREBIT FIEND, and the short goes in a different direction; still, that doesn’t mean it went anywhere new. And, if you’re like me, you may spend some time wondering when the sleeping woman in the foreground will play into the action, but you’ll have to be patient; she’s there to set up the final gag.

The Shriek of Araby (1923)

Article 4260 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 7-6-2013
Directed by F. Richard Jones
Featuring Ben Turpin, Kathryn McGuire, George Cooper
Country: USA
What it is: Movie parody

A cross-eyed bill poster dreams that he takes the place of Rudolph Valentino’s character in THE SHIEK.

I’ve not seen much of Ben Turpin’s comedic output; the most prominent role of his I’ve seen so far was some cameo scenes in MILLION DOLLAR LEGS. I will say this much for him, though; he had one of the most iconic faces of silent comedy, and may be the most instantly recognizable comedian of the era next to Charlie Chaplin. Unfortunately, if this movie is representative of his work in general, then it’s for his face he will mostly be remembered. It’s not that the movie is bad, mind you; it’s just that it’s pretty ordinary. Beyond the admittedly funny concept that Turpin is taking on a character played by Valentino, he doesn’t really come up with a particularly engaging personality to set himself apart from the pack. It also lacks the comic inventiveness that would help people like Buster Keaton rise to the top of the craft. For me, the funniest gags were the ones that played off the domestic life of a sultan of the desert being pretty much like the domestic life here at home; my favorite moment has the sultan’s wife going out of the tent to pick up the newspaper and milk, and that’s a pretty mild gag. Oddly enough, the original Valentino movie doesn’t qualify for this series; this one does via the appearance of a magician who can do real magic. Again, I haven’t seen much of Turpin’s work, so maybe he will grow on me, but at this point, I do find myself a little disappointed.