Monday, July 20, 2020

Shorts: The underground

I don’t blog about short films very often, outside of what I see at the Queens World Film Festival, anyway. This seems like a good opportunity to change that, especially since so many underground filmmakers are known for their short film material as much as their features.

There are lots of filmmakers I could talk about; for this post I’ve chosen five, all based in America. I may do a post like this again with other underground filmmakers; don’t know, but I’ll try to talk about shorts more often.

Meshes of the Afternoon. This was Vija’s suggestion: Maya Deren was a dancer and all-around creative person in addition to being an experimental filmmaker. In 1943, she and her husband Alexander Hammid got together to make this wordless, dream-like narrative—and it does resemble a narrative more than I had expected; I had thought it would be more impenetrable.

She stars in it, and given her thick, dark hair and the abstract nature of the film, it kinda resembles a Kate Bush video. The cinematography is good, and she and Hammid pull off a few clever camera tricks. For what it is, it’s not bad.

Deren is considered a major figure in the field of experimental film. She’s quoted at length in this piece about her.

Bridges-Go-Round. Shirley Clarke was also a dancer. She studied film at the City College of New York and was down with not only Deren, but other experimental filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas.

1959 was a very good year for her; in addition to her contributions to the Oscar-nominated short Skyscrapers, a collaboration with four other directors, including DA Pennebaker, she made this ode to New York’s bridges. The angles she shoots from, the double exposures, the color filters, make the bridges look like Spirograph designs (I can’t be the only one out there who remembers Spirograph, can I? Can I?). Here’s a more complete profile.

Pull My Daisy. This was Virginia‘a suggestion. Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac wrote and narrated this 1959 short directed by Robert Frank & Alfred Leslie, featuring Allen Ginsberg and a bunch of other Beats (I presume) at a small party at some couple’s apartment. The people are definitely talking to each other, but you can’t hear what they say because Kerouac talks in a voice-over the whole time, making up some narrative about their conversation—I think.

I can’t say I’ve ever had much interest in the Beats, so while the contrast of Kerouac’s running commentary and the relatively mundane imagery feels like an overly literary MST3K episode, I zoned out after the first ten minutes once I realized this was going nowhere.

Kerouac’s novel The Subterraneans was adapted into a Hollywood movie the next year, with Leslie Caron and George Peppard. Kerouac has been the subject of a number of docs, and movies have been made of On the Road and Big Sur. This Atlantic article wonders why Hollywood can’t make a decent film about the Beats.

Mothlight. Stan Brakhage was known for his abstract short films that really played around with the medium. He was also friends with Mekas and Deren, as well as the composer John Cage. For this 1963 short, he worked without a camera: moth wings, flower petals and blades of grass were pressed between strips of 16mm splicing tape  and the finished product was contact printed. I like the strobe- like effect the film produces; it’s not the kind of effect you could easily reproduce with computers.

Scorpio Rising. Kenneth Anger is one of the first openly gay filmmakers in America; his films came under scrutiny in the past on suspicion of obscenity. You may have heard of the duology of books he wrote, Hollywood Babylon, about scandal within the Golden Age of the film industry. Here’s a piece on him from 2016.

In this short, images of biker gang members preparing to go out for the evening lead to a really wild party and a cross-country motorcycle race, all set to oldies music—though they probably weren’t old in 1964, when this was made.

The homoeroticism in this is evident almost from the beginning, and the party scene brings that subtext to the surface in a big way, but what struck me the most was the editing. He mixes in images of the Brando movie The Wild One with a Christ narrative and Naziism, and the Eisenstein-like cuts are sometimes no more than a split second, other times they’re longer. The effect is exhilarating and more than a little disturbing.

Many of these filmmakers were part of the film distribution collective co-founded by Jonas Mekas called the Film-Makers Cooperative, also known as the New American Cinema Group. Their archive of over 5000 titles are in a variety of formats, from 35mm to video and DVD.


  1. Thanks for this interesting article and the links. I will be lost for a while.

    PS: I remember Spirograph. Expect them to make a big comeback any day now.

  2. Modern kids would dig Spirograph. They can’t play video games all the time, can they?


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