A Room Called Heaven (Laida Lertxundi, 2012).
In no particular order, a handful of films seen for the first time in 2013:
Tip Top (Serge Bozon, 2013)
Cut Yourself a Piece of Cake (Vitaphone Short with Val & Ernie Stanton, 1928)
The Head Guy (w/ Harry Langdon, dir. Fred Guiol, 1930)
So Long Letty (w/ Charlotte Greenwood, dir. Lloyd Bacon, 1929)
La Fille du 14 juillet (Antonin Peretjatko, 2013)
Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (w/ Buster Keaton, dir. Edward Sedgwick, 1931)
Orpheus (outtakes) (Mary Helena Clark, 2012)
Blanket Statement #2: All or Nothing (Jodie Mack, 2013)
The Room Called Heaven (Laida Lertxundi, 2012)
Undesirables (Condensed Version) (Owen Land, 1999)
Declarative Mode (Paul Sharits, 1976-77—dual 16mm)
Les Trois désastres (Jean-Luc Godard, 2013)
Une femme douce (Robert Bresson, 1969)
East Side, West Side (Allan Dwan, 1927)
My viewing patterns in 2013 were erratic to stay the least. I largely split my time between experimental film programs and squinting at hazy grey-market video rips of American early sound film. I often joked about my current ‘schizophrenic’ tastes: somewhere between 20s-30s Hollywood and contemporary avant-garde. There were many new releases that I regret letting slip through the cracks—not hard to do in a city like Paris—and I don’t doubt that I missed a number of important films this year. While this selection is more intended represent personal obsessions than to highlight any general tendencies, there are a few narrative threads that emerge to suggest that it is not as disparate as it may appear.
Among the new releases I did see, I was impressed by two very different French comedies, which undoubtedly has something to do with my current fascination with the genre during the transition to sound. After all, Bozon and Peretjatko seem to be engaged in a constant dialogue with the history of cinema as a comic form. On closer inspection, the back and forth vaudeville patter of Van & Ernie Stanton in the Vitaphone short Cut Yourself a Piece of Cake doesn’t seem so far from the rapid-fire delivery of Isabelle Huppert in Tip Top, who often comes off as a deranged version of one of Hawks’ comediennes. On the other hand, the exuberance of La Fille du 14 juillet seems to be more aligned with the universe of slapstick: delightfully devoid of consequences yet haunted by a certain fatality, with the fears of 2013—unemployment, absurdity of political power, unpredictable violence—replacing those of the prosperous 20s.
A clip from Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931)”
With slapstick in mind, a depression-era Buster Keaton no longer seems to be so out of place with one of his much-maligned but little-seen MGM talkies, Parlor, Bedroom and Bath. The film features a memorable bout of bodily entanglement with Charlotte Greenwood, a comedienne who can easily hold her own to Buster, and who turns up elsewhere on the list with her breezy talkie debut So Long Letty. The Buster Keaton of the sound era also treads on the outskirts of Mary Helena Clark’s typically elusive Orpheus (outtakes), in which the so-called silent comic is to be recognized only by means of his disembodied voice. This aural dimension of Clark’s film helps to operate the transition from early sound to experimental film by bringing to the foreground a defining characteristic of two other recent shorts that I’ve included on my list.
Jodie Mack’s Blanket Statement #2: All or Nothing turns single-frame knit patterns into a rhythmic demonstration of the optical sound track, the properties of which have changed little since the 1920s. Inversely, the frequent shots of vinyl or record players in the work of Laida Lertxundi, of which The Room Called Heaven is no exception, function as a reminder of film sound’s deep historical origins in the phonograph disc (both So Long Letty and Cut Yourself a Piece of Cake were originally shot and exhibited with the Vitaphone sound-on-disc process). Detached from the filmstrip, sound was free to claim a space for itself, a possibility that is never far off in Lertxundi’s work, be it through the surprising intimacy of the sync-sound or its complex layering with vinyl-based music.
Vitaphone Engineer Georges Groves examining a sound-on-disc recording (1927).
While Jean-Luc Godard has gone high-tech by shooting Les Trois désastres in 3D, these young filmmakers seem to be looking towards past technologies for inspiration. Jodie Mack’s dual emphasis on hand-made and industrially produced materials in her work is particularly evocative of the hybrid nature of 16mm film, which requires filmmakers to be increasingly resourceful and independent-minded even if they are more than ever reliant on the market for the survival of their medium. At times it can be hard to tell if the widespread fascination with analog technologies is fetishistic or if their gradual disappearance is simply sensitizing us to their specificities—a question that haunted me for much of 2013.
Before the age of the DCP, I rarely savored a 35mm print of a classic film as much as I do now, with the possibility of it being the last time constantly looming in the background. Yet the cold light of the digital projector can also bring out certain qualities of a film. As a consolation for not having discovered it on 35mm (Paris’s re-releases are now exclusively on DCP), I can point out that Bresson’s equally luminous and suffocating Une femme douce somehow lends itself well to this treatment, as the pristine, uniform nature of the digital image only serves to further deny the characters any possible form of escape.
On a note that is anything but suffocating, I’d like to conclude these musings with a few events in 2013 that gave me the opportunity to branch out from my current obsessions:
- Contributing a piece to Allan Dwan: A Dossier just before making my way to Bologna for Il Cinema Ritrovato, where I was able to see a number of 35mm archival prints of Dwan’s work in the company of many of those who made the dossier possible.
- The program Lieux communs at the Centre Pompidou, curated by Enrico Camporesi and Jonathan Pouthier, which gave me the chance to discover films as ostensibly different as Owen Land’s Undesirables and Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood.
- Putting together a screening of Gina Telaroli’s Traveling Light at La Générale en Manufacture (thanks Andra & James), which just so happened to take place on the same night that viewers in three other European cities were gathering in diverse contexts to screen the same film.
- Any number of local concerts organized by Le Non_jazz, La Chaise (les tabourets) or Ali_fib gigs. To name two particularly memorable shows out of many: Blues Control at Espace en cours and modified banjo player Paul Metzger at Les Nautes.
Noah Teichner is an American filmmaker, writer, and translator based in Paris. He also runs the website Pratfall Elegy, a visual exploration of the slapstick tradition from early French comedy to Jerry Lewis.