The Call of Cthulhu DVD
HPLHS Productions, 2005
The Call of Cthulhu, a 45 minute adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s 1926 classic story, is a unique artifact and a genuinely creepy movie experience. This DIY film project - a silent black-and-white film complete with title cards with authentically period sounding music made in 2005 - uses limitations (financial and technological) to great advantage and shows that independent media can take on any task and, with intelligence and imagination, succeed.
I’m no special-effects geek, but the mixture of digital technology and silent movie-styled magic are interesting and pretty seamless. A “boat” surrounded by smoke and filmed with a moving camera captures the way that silent films portrayed ships at sea in a way that works at an almost subconscious level: We’re so used to seeing things like this that they cease to be movie artifices and become an effective signifier. Small bits of file footage are used to add to the vintage feel and the digital effects are integrated into the mix in a way that doesn’t disrupt the ‘20s feel while building the tension.
At times this film evokes classics of silent cinema like Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and summons up the dread felt when viewing Nosferatu. The sometimes harsh shadows and dark backgrounds lend gravity to spartan sets (inspired by the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and the actors generally adapt effectively to the demands of silence capably and sensitively. The music is symphonic in scope and captures the claustrophobic mood and anxious dread perfectly. Buy this and see how much some creativity, some borrowed technology, and lot of work can accomplish.
Milking and Scratching: Hand-Made Films
Directed by Naomi Uman
Peripheral Produce DVD, 2005
This collection of five short films by Naomi Uman, a former private chef to Malcolm Forbes, Calvin Klein, and Gloria Vanderbilt, is both compelling and introspective. Here Uman examines the role of women as sexual objects, explores the nature of the creation of films, and experiments in telling a narrative through light and movement on the screen.
In the first short film, Leche, Uman portrays the life of a contemporary farming family in Aguascalientes, Mexico as a timeless life style of living off of the land. While this can be a hard, even cruel life at times, the film seems to glorify its simplicity. It shows the poverty and lack of education of the featured family in an almost positive light through scenes like a grandmother making cheese and children learning math by counting bottle caps. This is in stark contrast to her second film, Mala Leche, which shows members of this same family some years later after having moved to Pixley, CA. This film shows a mother shopping for groceries at a Food Depot, and an alcoholic father who gets through life without speaking English or being able to read or write in any language. The town of Pixley is centered on a large dairy in which men work twelve hours a day six days a week — a stand in representing the evils of modernization and capitalism. Instead of the quaint black and white footage of the former film this one presents life in all the colors of modern slavery. Though illegal families are not allowed to get Social Security the film makes a point of showing they are still given tax payer ID numbers. This short film shows how the green breast of nature can be exploited for profit.
Removed shows clips from 1970s pornography with the women shown only as white empty spaces, hollow and less than human. This makes a powerful statement about the role of women not only in media but in their everyday lives where they may feel invisible and merely tactile objects deriving worth only from their use and not their identity.
Finally, Hand Eye Coordination gives an interesting look at the way in which films are made and opens a unique window into the creative process while Private Movie is the illumination of a life through light and movement. It conveys emotion while leaving the literal interpretation of the action on screen very open to individual divination. Check it out.
Silence: In Search of Black Female Sexuality in America
Directed by Mya Baker
National Film Network, 2004
Where is the voice of black women regarding their own sexuality in America? Why are black women the fastest growing group of new HIV cases? Where did sexual liberation leave us? What do black women think about the images portrayed by the music industry? Where does God come in to all this? Mya B addresses all these questions and more in her courageous documentary Silence: In search of Black Female Sexuality in America.
The documentary primarily interviews with notable scholars-religious, medical, and academic-and everyday women on the streets of Chicago and New York. She intersperses the stories and opinions of these real life women with historical footage from film, TV, and advertising to paint a portrait of the social stigma around sexuality in the black community.
Women, old and young, speak about the way sex was introduced to them growing up. “I grew up in a black household where sexual discussions were unheard of,” says one woman. This sentiment is echoed by most of the women throughout the film. “Don’t do it,” is the most that some women ever heard from their families about sex.
The documentary’s images are repetitive. The same images pound out a rhythm of systematic sexual oppression in the viewer’s mind. It is a compelling vision into the roots of cultural silence. It speaks to the absolute necessity for communication about sex, and the dangers of growing up without free information.
I found particularly fascinating the commentary on the ties between religion and sex. “Due to the link between teachings…many black women struggle to embrace sexuality without sinning,” she says. Mya B also confronts the classic and still prevalent black female characters in modern mythologies, Jemima and Jezebel.
She states, “The belief that blacks are more sexuality active than any other ethnic group predates slavery,” and proves its persistence through interviews on the streets.
Another huge topic of discussion around black female sexuality is the characterization of black women in pop media, the “video ho” and her relationship to black women’s sexual freedom. The point is brought up that around the advent of music videos, white rock bands portrayed extremely misogynistic images of white women, and suffered serious fallout from the feminist community. Now, however, those motifs transferred onto black women draw much less disapproval.
Unfortunately, her documentary has a decidedly heterosexual focus and the silence around queer black female sexuality remains. Silence is her first full-length film (her first, the short Warrior Queen came out in 1994) and is nonetheless a film worthy of praise, and, I hope, only the beginning of what we’ll see from Mya B.
-Surgeon Scofflaw aka Natalie Brewster Nguyen
New Dance and Music For The Camera
Kill Rock Stars
This DVD is not music videos of new dance music, but rather a series of short films of new modern dance set to new music. At first I was disappointed but I hung around for the charm. I’m not the biggest dance expert, but I’ve watched the arresting visuals and humor of new dance folks in Philly like Headlong Dance Troupe or Power Performance Project with enjoyment and respect. Modern dance has benefited from its collision with performance art in recent decades and vice versa. The ability of dancers to throw a flexible amount of narrative, props, and extra symbolism into the dancing helps keep the audience’s attention. Meanwhile, the ability of performance to rest on the aesthetics of movement helps keep it floating whenever narratives and text run thin.
The best segments are the ones that occupy this bridge between the two elements like “Laundrodsey Part II: The Detergency.” The DVD throws the third element of short filmmaking into the mix with the same level of mutual benefit. Janet Pants Dance Theatre’s “I’m the Insides” adds different types of shots and voiceovers to enhance their flashback of “the highlights 1970s gestalt therapy session.” Leg and Pants Danse Theatre use the backdrop of a breathtaking plain under a really big sky to enhance “DNA: a Blood Memory.” Overall, the DVD is worth watching and will help bring together indy scene folks in the modern dance world.
War i$ $ell
Directed and Produced by Brian Standing
Prolefeed Studios, 2005
Baghdad fell in April 2003, and with it that infamous statue of Saddam. War i$ $ell opens on this scene, which at the time purported to show a large crowd of Iraqis celebrating “freedom” by toppling their absent leader in effigy. This, we were supposed to think, is why the war was worth it.
But zoom out, as director Brian Standing does, and the images tell a different story: in the bigger picture, the crowd is small and the U.S. military a hulking presence — a terribly amateur performance of a painstakingly crafted script, one more scene intended to add to the heroic narrative of Gulf War II.
The big picture is what Standing wants his viewers to see. According to the film, 40 percent of what is passed off as news in America today is public relations from government and corporations; in short, propaganda. This remarkable statistic demonstrates why War i$ $ell is so necessary (and why there are so many stories about weight loss fads on the evening news). The anti-war movement couldn’t even buy advertising to promote their cause, but Dick Cheney’s press releases are read verbatim at 6 p.m. So much for the liberal media.
Moving easily between footage from both Gulf Wars, 9/11, and World Wars I and II, exploring perspectives political, educational and anthropological, War i$ $ell draws a direct connection between propaganda techniques and advertising. Selling running shoes, selling war; it’s all the same thing; it’s all about the branding. The shaky camera movements and scenes of grainy video seem an implicit critique of the polished advertising/propaganda that Standing condemns.
“Public diplomacy” and “public information” are not new, and Standing shows how campaigns were implemented to great effect during World Wars I and II, and with considerable impact during Gulf War I. The excellent archival materials included on the DVD offer a fascinating overview of propaganda through the 20th century. The messages are familiar: one Word War II poster proclaims, “We’re on God’s side,” while another shows a Nazi stabbing a Bible. Still another informs us, “Victory may be measured in gallons (of oil); keep it flowing,” while a film poster for “Oil Goes to War” invites us to “[s]ee how petroleum production is helping the war effort!” Sixty years ago oil helped us win the war; today it is a compelling reason for it. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Tracing the evolution of propaganda, from posters (WWI) to film (WWII) to the modern phenomenon of propaganda as world-historical event, War i$ $ell urges vigilance in a world of lies and half-truths. “All propaganda strives to be invisible,” John Stauber says early in the film. “Recognizing propaganda is the key to resisting it.”