Cosmic Zoom

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Cosmic Zoom (1968) is a short, semi-animated film by Eva Szasz, one of the many great shorts financed by the National Film Board of Canada. When I wrote about this in 2006 there was only a low-res version available for viewing on the NFB site while Powers of Ten (1977), a very similar film by Charles and Ray Eames, could be seen on YouTube. Three years on and Powers of Ten has disappeared behind a registration wall but Cosmic Zoom can now be seen in higher quality on the newly relaunched NFB site. A shame about the annoyingly obtrusive onscreen logo but it’s worth browsing the site for more of their excellent animations, not least the work of Norman McLaren. The time when these shorts would regularly turn up on UK TV are long gone so it’s good to know that they’re now available for viewing any time we wish.

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Norman McLaren
Cosmic Zooms

Symphonie Diagonale by Viking Eggeling

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This early piece of abstract cinema from 1924 is available for viewing in several locations—YouTube and Ubuweb have copies—but the best version can be seen at Europa Film Treasures. The film was originally silent so don’t feel too bad about watching with the sound off or with your own score to replace those which were added later.

Born in Sweden to a family of German origin, Viking Eggeling emigrated to Germany at the age of 17, where he became a bookkeeper, and studied art history as well as painting. From 1911 to 1915 he lived in Paris, then moved to Switzerland at the outbreak of World War I. In Zurich he became a associated with the Dada movement, became a friend of Hans Richter, Jean Arp, Tristan Tzara, and Marcel Janco. With the end of the Great War he moved to Germany with Richter where both explored the depiction of movement, first in scroll drawings and then on film. In 1922 Eggeling bought a motion picture camera, and working without Richter, sought to create a new kind of cinema. Axel Olson, a young Swedish painter, wrote to his parents in 1922 that Eggeling was working to “evolve a musical-cubistic style of film—completely divorced from the naturalistic style.” In 1923 he showed a now lost, 10 minute film based on an earlier scroll titled Horizontal-vertical Orchestra. In the summer of 1923 he began work on Symphonie Diagonale. Paper cut-outs and then tin foil figures were photographed a frame at a time. Completed in 1924, the film was shown for the first time (privately) on November 5. On May 3, 1925 it was presented to the public in Germany; sixteen days later Eggeling died in Berlin. For more on Eggeling see the book Viking Eggeling 1880–1925 by Louise O’Konor.

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The abstract cinema archive

Mary Ellen Bute: Films 1934–1957

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Mary Ellen Bute.

Last week I noted the appearance at Ubuweb of Mary Ellen Bute’s little-seen Passages from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. News comes this week of an exhibition of her abstract films at sketch, London.

sketch presents the first gallery survey exhibition of abstract film by Mary Ellen Bute (b. Houston, Texas 1906, d. 1983).

From 1934–1957 Mary Ellen Bute made fourteen short films pioneering techniques with light, sound and the moving image. Her work involved collaborating with artists, musicians, inventors and others who adopted a scientific experimental approach to creating sound and optical effects. In addition to sampling hand processes such as drawing and painting directly on film the work features imagery created automatically by a custom-built, cathode-ray oscilloscope. She can one of the first woman artists to experiment with the medium but unlike contemporaries Hans Richter (b. 1888), Len Lye (b. 1901) and Oskar Fischinger (b. 1900) her work remains largely unknown. This exhibition brings together a complete chronology of her abstract films, most of which have never been shown in Britain and for the first time will present her work as a multi-screen installation using sketch’s twelve projectors. This exhibition has been curated by Michelle Cotton who has included Bute’s work in survey of artist film distributed by the Independent Cinema Office. Essentials: Modernity will be released nationwide later this year.

A publication featuring essays and previously unpublished material will be published by ALMANAC to be launched in September 2008. ALMANAC is curatorial studio and independent imprint run by Andres Bonacina, Victoria Brooks, James Lambert & Anne Low.

The exhibition runs from 26 July to 13 September, 2008.

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Synchromy No. 4: Escape.

For those of us not in London, there’s always YouTube which has a small selection of Ms Bute’s work and in decent quality for once. The two later colour films are especially worth watching; Tarantella was a collaboration with Norman McLaren while Synchromy No. 4 used Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor two years before Disney’s similar sequence in Fantasia.

Mary Ellen Bute on YouTube:
Rhythm in Light (1934)
Dada (1936)
Synchromy No. 4: Escape (1938)
Tarantella (1940)

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The abstract cinema archive

Norman McLaren

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Pas de Deux (1968).

News of a theatre piece celebrating the creativity of Norman McLaren, the pioneering Scots (and gay) animator and film-maker, had me searching YouTube again for his work. His short film Neighbours (1952) is very well-known, oft-cited and imitated for its pixillated character movement. No surprise to see it there, then, along with other works such as Boogie Doodle (1941), Fiddle Dee Dee (1947), A Phantasy (1952), Blinkety Blank (1955) and several others.

Less well-known is a favourite film of mine which hadn’t been YouTubed last time I looked but which is now there in two parts, Pas de Deux (1968). This is a black and white film of a simple ballet performance transformed by its presentation to yield something that could only exist on film. Careful lighting, an atmospheric score, judicious use of slow motion and the stunning application of optical printing to multiply and mirror the figures makes one of the best ballet films I’ve ever seen; it was also one of McLaren’s personal favourites among his many films. He used slow motion again for two more dance works, Ballet Adagio (1972) and Narcissus (1983), one of his final films which impresses for its overt homoerotics but is less striking than its predecessor. The only version of the latter on YouTube is this scratch version with the visuals set to more recent music.

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Narcissus (1983).

The best way to see McLaren’s incredible films is at a decent resolution, of course, and the National Film Board of Canada have made them available on a seven-DVD box set.

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The theatre work mentioned above is Norman by Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon which is at Macrobert, Stirling, from 17–19 April, 2008 then the Theatre Royal, Brighton from 6–10 May, 2008.

In an improbable act of theatrical alchemy, dancer/choreographer Peter Trosztmer literally inhabits McLaren’s cinematic universe. He dances, weaves, converses and interacts with the animator’s pulsing images and leaping figures, set loose in a riotous ballet of line, light and movement.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Reflections of Narcissus