Abstract Cinema

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Good to see this documentary turn up at last even if it is on a private YouTube channel affiliated to a site that hosts cinematic rarities. Abstract Cinema was made in 1993 for Channel 4 (UK) at the tail end of the period when the channel could be relied upon to screen resolutely uncommercial fare. The documentary was another production by Keith Griffiths, producer of many films with the Brothers Quay, and producer/director of a number of documentaries such as this, exploring the cinematic zones that television seldom acknowledges.

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I’ve mentioned this programme a few times before because I taped it at the time, and still regard it as an excellent introduction to an idiom that many enthusiasts consider to be the purest form of cinema, as opposed to the theatrical storytelling that dominates the medium. Peter Greenaway has complained for years about the formulaic nature of contemporary feature films yet his own films, which are supposed to be an alternative to what he calls “dominant cinema”, aren’t so very different from the Hollywood norm in their reliance on actors, narratives, sets and the like. Abstract cinema avoids all of these things. Stan Brakhage is one of the filmmakers interviewed, and his own productions not only shunned sound, they even shunned the camera when he was painting directly onto the film strip. At the time of Griffiths’ interview Brakhage was doing this again using the comparatively larger canvas of Imax stock.

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Griffiths’ documentary runs through the history of cinematic abstraction, from Oskar Fischinger and Len Lye (both the subjects of earlier Griffiths studies) to the 1990s when several of the interviewees had taken to programming computers to create their visuals. Griffiths made his documentary at just the right time. As well as having access to a TV channel that would present such work to an audience (albeit late at night), he was also able to interview a number of the leading practitioners while they were still around; in addition to Brakhage there’s John Whitney, Jules Engel, Pat O’Neill, Malcolm le Grice, Michael Scroggins and Vibeke Sorensen. Notably absent is Jordan Belson, possibly because he’s always been reluctant to discuss the production process that created his ethereal imagery, although film historian William Moritz discusses Belson’s work while guiding us through the history. What you don’t get here is the additional 25 minutes of abstract films that were broadcast after the documentary, an unprecedented event, and one that wouldn’t be repeated.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The abstract cinema archive

Punch and Judy, Michel de Ghelderode, and the Brothers Quay

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The Quay Brothers’ first animated film, Nocturna Artificialia, was released in 1979. Prior to this there had been some short experiments but since these are always described as “lost” it’s doubtful that we’ll ever see them. The artistic success of Nocturna Artificialia prompted the Quays and producer-colleague Keith Griffiths to consider fresh outlets for their talents, and resulted in funding from Britain’s Arts Council for two arts documentaries combining live-action film with animated interludes. Nocturna Artificialia has long been available for home viewing on the various Quays DVDs but the two early arts films, Punch and Judy: Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy (1980) and The Eternal Day of Michel de Ghelderode, 1898–1962 (1981), are omitted from the reissue canon for reasons that have never been very clear. Both films have been impossible to see unless you’re an academic or film programmer, at least until now. Once again, YouTube has provided an outlet for exceptional rarities.

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Punch and Judy: Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy

Now that finally I’ve watched these films it’s understandable why they don’t fit so easily with the Quays’ more personal output. Punch and Judy has obvious superficial parallels with Jan Svankmajer’s Punch and Judy (1966) but Svankmajer’s film is his own idiosyncratic interpretation of the murderous puppet. The Quays film is much more straightforward, devoting most of its running time to a history of Mr Punch and the other puppet characters. The story of Punch himself (narrated by Joe Melia) is intercut with a contemporary performance of the play by a genuine Punch and Judy man, Percy Press. Animated sequences are limited to small inserts between the documentary material before a lengthier section at the end that illustrates Harrison Birtwhistle’s Punch and Judy opera. This last section shows how much the Quays had developed their animation techniques since their first film, and is reminiscent of the opera sequences in their later film about Leos Janacek. Animation aside, there’s little else that’s recognisably Quay until the credits which are lettered by the brothers. (For this film and the following one they credit themselves as the “Brothers Quaij”.) Punch and Judy: Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy was of sufficient quality to be screened by the BBC in 1981 as part of the Omnibus arts strand.

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The Eternal Day of Michel de Ghelderode, 1898–1962

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Michel de Ghelderode was a Belgian playwright whose grotesque and macabre works, many of which feature masks and puppets, are favourites of the Quays. This is a shorter film than the previous one (30 minutes rather than 45) but the territory is closer to the Quays’ own concerns. The animated sequences are fewer but they’re marvellous pieces, especially the longer central sequence which animates Ghelderode’s Fastes d’enfer (Chronicles of Hell). The figures in the latter piece may depict Ghelderode’s characters but the decor is 100% Quay, with a nocturnal cityscape and shadows from one of the trams that drift through their early films. A bonus for me was the music by Dome (Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis), a duo for whom the Quays later designed a record sleeve.

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The rest of the film consists of archive footage of Ghelderode wandering Belgian streets, and live performance of other scenes from his plays. All of this is strange and fascinating, only spoiled a little by the picture being very dark in places. (The screen shots here have been brightened.) Keith Griffiths says that this was a result of the film not being properly exposed, a consequence of the company still learning film-making as they went along. This may also explain why the film is missing from the official canon. If so, it’s a shame since it’s closer to the Quays’ own interests than some of their later commissions.

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Now that these films have surfaced there’s one more short from the early years that’s still unavailable. Ein Brudermord (1981) is based on a Franz Kafka short story, and runs for a mere 6 minutes. Meanwhile, I’m also hoping that someone may eventually post better copies of the Stravinsky and Janacek films, both of which have been prevented from DVD reissue by the copyrights on the music.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The mystery of trams
Inner Sanctums—Quay Brothers: The Collected Animated Films 1979–2013
Holzmüller and the Quays
Unmistaken Hands: Ex Voto F.H., a film by the Brothers Quay
Animation Magazine: The Brothers Quay
The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, a film by the Brothers Quay
More Brothers Quay scarcities
Eurydice…She, So Beloved, a film by the Brothers Quay
Inventorium of Traces, a film by the Brothers Quay
Maska: Stanislaw Lem and the Brothers Quay
Stille Nacht V: Dog Door
Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets
Brothers Quay scarcities
Crossed destinies revisited
Crossed destinies: when the Quays met Calvino
The Brothers Quay on DVD

Animation Magazine: The Brothers Quay

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Interviews with the Brothers Quay have been quite plentiful in recent years—some may be found on their DVD releases—but for the Quay enthusiast some are more notable than others. This half hour programme for French TV stood out for me for taking place inside the London studio where many of the Quays’ short films have been made. The interview was conducted in 2002, and one of the brothers mentions that they may be leaving the premises soon; one of their exhibition catalogues has a recent photo of the studio so we can assume this wasn’t the case.

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Since this was made for an animation series the discussion is mainly about the brothers’ animation techniques. There’s also some barbed comment later on about the conservative state of British television. The UK’s Channel 4 was a great champion of animation in its early days, and the channel’s budget for short films helped finance many of the early films by the Quays and their producer Keith Griffiths. This was at a time when there were only four TV channels to choose from; today we have numerous satellite channels but no room on any of them for unusual or experimental fare. Similar sentiments are voiced on the BFI’s recent collection of Alan Clarke films. Just as there’s no room for the Quays in the current climate, there’s no room either for the single dramas that directors like Clarke were making in the 1970s and 1980s.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, a film by the Brothers Quay
More Brothers Quay scarcities
Eurydice…She, So Beloved, a film by the Brothers Quay
Inventorium of Traces, a film by the Brothers Quay
Maska: Stanislaw Lem and the Brothers Quay
Stille Nacht V: Dog Door
Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets
Brothers Quay scarcities
Crossed destinies revisited
Crossed destinies: when the Quays met Calvino
The Brothers Quay on DVD

Heavy-Light, a film by Adam K. Beckett

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In the early 1990s the UK’s Channel 4 still operated as an avant-garde television channel, broadcasting films, dramas and documentaries that the other channels would be unlikely to show. Late nights were often filled out with resolutely uncommercial fare, as was the case when Abstract Cinema was shown in 1993, a 50-minute documentary by Keith Griffiths that traced the history of abstract cinematic experimentation from the animations of Oskar Fischinger to the growing field of computer graphics. The documentary was followed by an additional 25 minutes of abstract shorts, one of which, Heavy-Light (1973) by Adam K. Beckett, is a particular favourite.

Most of Beckett’s films are free-form doodles, hand-drawn and dreamlike in their endlessly shifting and often erotic metamorphoses. Heavy-Light is different for being the product of some optical process that sends billowing waves of vivid colour blooming out of darkness. The effect is very similar to Jordan Belson’s films where the realisation is equally mysterious and the result equally (that word again) psychedelic; a bonus in Beckett’s film is the excellent score by Barry Schrader. Beckett died young at the age of 29 so there isn’t much of his work to see although a few of the animated films are also on YouTube at the moment (see here, here, here and here). They may not remain there for long so watch them while you can.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The abstract cinema archive

Secret Joy of Falling Angels, a film by Simon Pummell

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An animated film from 1991, Secret Joy of Falling Angels layers a variety of ink and paint effects, sketched outlines and a silhouetted bird skeleton. This creates a very different group of animated angels to those in Borowczyk’s Les Jeux des Anges and Bokanowski’s L’Ange although taken together all three films would make for a strange and unique triple-bill. In a previous post I quoted producer Keith Griffiths enthusing about Bokanowski’s masterwork, and Griffiths happens to be the producer of Simon Pummell’s film. Pummell also offers thanks to those regular Griffiths collaborators (and fellow Bokanowski enthusiasts) the Brothers Quay. (Note: the Vimeo page has “Fallen Angels” but the title on the film is “Falling Angels”.)