HAPPY CANADA DAY!
MMC! is happily celebrating this Canada Day with Wavelength (1967), Michael Snow’s legendary experimental film. Essentially a slow 45-minute zoom through an empty Canal Street industrial loft (save for four brief sequences of human presence), Snow has called the film “a summation of my nervous system, religious inklings and aesthetic ideas.” Notwithstanding the appearances of its few human beings (including experimental filmmaker Hollis Frampton and art and film critic Amy Taubin), Snow aimed to create “a definitive statement of pure Film space and time, a balancing of ‘illusion’ and ‘fact,’ all about seeing.” The camera is Wavelength’s true subject and its presence is always foregrounded thanks to the intervention of gels, superimpositions, and other visual effects and the intensifying sound of a sine-wave increasing the speed of its repetition. The artificial mechanism of Snow’s reproduction is never lost, but the slow progress of the camera, the static space of the room, and the drone of the sine-wave creates an experience that is both tedious and anxious, however the effect is also meditative, providing the spectator with room to consider Wavelength’s tensions between outside and inside, permanence and impermanence, and the space between ourselves and the cinematic apparatus. This “diary of a room” is hailed as the definitive “structural film,” an experimental mode typified by a fixed camera position, a flicker effect, loop printing, and rephotography, and it has become a canonical work of avant-garde cinema, with its initial screening in 1967 being hailed by experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas as “a landmark event in cinema.”
For those without the patience for Wavelength, there is WVLNT (Wavelength for Those Who Don’t Have the Time) (Michael Snow, 2003) which cuts the film into three equal portions and then superimposes them, creating a new film experience in the process (although one that is likely most rewarding having first seen the original).
A cult classic to knowing G-fans everywhere, Godzilla vs. Mito Kōmon was made by Shinya Takeshita around 1991 while a student at Osaka Art University. The short is loaded with DIY charm and cheeky ingenuity thanks to Takeshita playing a one-man show as a news reporter (with pop bottle microphone), various classic kaiju and tokusatsu characters (with cardboard fins and helmets), and even multiple utility poles. Takeshita also plays various roles from the iconic Japanese television series Mito Kōmon, including the title character and his various followers. The short is memorable in part for bringing two together two Japanese icons: Godzilla and his giant monster ilk and the characters of Japan’s longest-running period drama, Mito Kōmon (1,227 episodes from 1969 to 2011), which featured a feudal lord traveling in disguise with his samurai retainers and redressing some local injustice in each episode. In these socially distanced days where scores of people are taking their creativity to webcams and video-sharing in even greater abundance, Takeshita’s film is a reminder that wacky, enthusiastic, brilliant entertainment was always just one person and one camera away.
MMC! concludes its short film preview of our next Criterion Collection proposal with Joseph Strick’s Oscar-winning documentary short, Interviews with My Lai Veterans (1970). With Haskell Wexler and Richard Pearce behind the camera, Strick interviews five former American soldiers involved in the My Lai Massacre of March 16, 1968, a search and destroy mission by the US military that killed hundreds of defenceless Vietnam civilians. Notwithstanding orders that barred them from speaking about the event, these veterans candidly describe the orders provided, the expectations that were held, and the brutality that proceeded. These accounts resisted the misinformation about the massacre circulating officially and offered chilling insights on some unimaginably outrageous acts.
MMC! returns to the work of Ben Maddow, this time with him in the role of writer/director and working in collaboration with Helen Levitt as producer and Sidney Meyers as editor. Maddow’s short film The Steps of Age (also known as The Stairs, 1950) was sponsored by the National Association of Mental Health, produced by the Department of Mental Health for the State of South Carolina, and organized by the Mental Health Film Board, and it focuses on the strain of aging and retirement through the figure of Mrs. Potter (Rose Spencer), a 62 year-old woman challenged with a listless husband forced into retirement and then the difficulty of moving in with her daughter’s family. The short ultimately promotes the need for empathy, respect, and appreciation by Mrs. Potter and her daughter (played by James Agee’s younger sister Emma), along with an acceptance of old-age and the changing roles that accompany it. The Steps of Age garnered a Documentary Short Oscar nomination, losing to Edmund Reek’s Why Korea? (1950).
Our next stop on the way to MMC!’s forthcoming Criterion Collection proposal brings us south of the Santa Monica Pier to the original Muscle Beach and to Joseph Strick and Irving Lerner’s Muscle Beach (1948). Strick had met Irving Lerner and other left-wing filmmakers through connections with a youth theatre company in New York. After enrolling to study physics at UCLA (because “that’s where movies were made”), Strick signed up as an aerial photographer searching of U-boats off the Atlantic coast during World War II. He worked as a copy boy at The Los Angeles Times upon his return to civilian life and shot Muscle Beach on weekends with the assistance of Lerner and using an army surplus bombsight camera with a “bottle-glass” lens and rigged up with a viewfinder made from “sellotape and paperclips.”
Muscle Beach is a warmly satirical look at an emerging subculture of bodybuilders, gymnasts, and exhibitionists. Originally constructed in 1934 by the Works Progress Administration as a park on a public beach, Muscle Beach in the 1940s has become a standing joke in trade magazines and a source of innuendo in Hollywood gossip columns. The short responds to this view with a lighthearted celebration of soaring feats, flirty sunbathers, and playing children, buoyed by music composed and sung by folk singer Earl Robinson with lyrics by screenwriter and poet Edwin Rolfe. Muscle Beach played in competition at Cannes in 1949, won a prize at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 1951, and became a cult favourite among film clubs.
Our second stop along the way the MMC!’s next proposal brings us to New York’s Spanish Harlem in the 1940s and In the Street (1948), a short documentary made by a trio of brilliant American polymaths: critic and novelist James Agee, photographer Helen Levitt, and painter and screenwriter Janice Loeb. The three friends shot the film in 1945 and 1946, near where they lived, with Levitt editing the short into its final version. Originally titled I Hate 110th Street, a phrase captured in an image of children’s chalk graffiti that opened an early version of the film, In the Street began with footage originally shot by Agee that directly engaged with his subjects, capturing the vitality of children mugging at the camera with gleeful abandon. Levitt’s approach for additional footage mirrored her trickery in still photography. Pointing her camera at Agee or Loeb, her sister-in-law, as decoys, she used a right-angled viewfinder to catch her true subjects unawares. While Agee’s footage anticipates the direct cinema movement, Levitt’s sideways gaze reveals urban life at its most unmediated, save for her expert framing. Theorist Siegfried Kracauer hailed the documentary as “reportage pure and simple,” presenting a collection of seemingly random experiences infused with an “unconcealed compassion for the people depicted” and a tenderness that never converts them into “anything but themselves.” The short was also a favourite of Charlie Chaplin, who never tired of imitating its young participants.