A Rack of Junk Makes Alloyed Joy in 'Wild and Weird'

Highlights include a Red Spectre and a Cameraman's Revenge.

Wild and Weird: The Alloy Orchestra Plays 14 Fascinating and Innovative Films 1902 - 1965

Director: Various
Cast: Various
Distributor: Flicker Alley
Rated: Not rated
Year: 1902-1965
Release date: 2011-07-05

The Alloy Orchestra are stars of today's silent era. In other words, this three-man group has accompanied many silent films on DVD and in live performance, and now their work is featured in a collection of 14 films. A picture in the booklet shows them with keyboard, accordion, clarinet, drums and their percussive "rack of junk". From this they produce an impressively protean collage of sounds in varied styles.

The films have mostly been available on other DVDs, and in fact many are in some form on YouTube, the Internet Archive, or other sources, though not with Alloy music. For example, Buster Keaton's The Play House (1921) is also present (with a different score) on Kino's new three-disc collection of Keaton's shorts, and Georges Méliès' monumental A Trip to the Moon (1902), with desultory English narration, is naturally in Flicker Alley's Méliès box.

Most of the films date from before 1920, and scattered throughout are vintage glass slides from the era that were projected between films. They have ads and messages, like the request for ladies to remove their hats. In fact, such is the topic of the first film, D.W. Griffith's Those Awful Hats (1909), a trick film of the type beloved by the Surrealists. It's set in a theatre where a film is being projected (it was printed over the image in a black space, and you can see the fluctuating seams) while various large-chapeau'd ladies cause a commotion until the surprise ending uses another trick.

Working for Thomas Edison, Edwin S. Porter made Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906) from the popular comic strip by Winsor McCay. It uses a battery of tricks, including superimposition and stop-motion, to create the dream and the hero's blurred inebriation. (Welsh rarebit was a meal with cheese and beer.) McCay himself moved into animation, and also included is his own Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend: The Pet (1921). The tale of a mysterious animal that grows huge and threatens the city anticipates King Kong and all other city monsters.

One of the set's great highlights is the beautiful Red Spectre (1907), made in France by Segundo de Chomon. It's one of hundreds of movies about film-trick magic acts in which people and backgrounds appear and disappear in flashes of smoke. Its special uncanniness derives from the magician's skeleton suit, the macabre underworld setting, and the still eyepopping hand-stenciled colors. It's a good showcase for Alloy's spooky mode.

From England, F. Percy Smith's The Acrobatic Fly (1908) is a series of close-ups of flies on their backs, "juggling" various objects with their feet. The excellent liner notes say Smith glued the flies; I thought they were pinned and could even make out the pin. It also says the flies quickly died under the super-hot lights. Today the ASPCA that would be on their backs.

The Thieving Hand (1908) and Princess Nicotine, or the Smoke Fairy (1909) are Vitagraph productions possibly made by J. Stuart Blackton. The latter is more superimposition trickery as tiny women gambol and cavort with a man's matches to show the magic of smoking. The former is a delightful comedy with stop-motion effects as a man's artificial arm proves an incorrigible pickpocket. This can be a forerunner to all movies about errant or transplanted limbs with minds of their own. Also wonderful is the French Artheme Swallows His Clarinet (1912), in which the unfortunate hero's condition (the instrument sticks through his head like an arrow) gives plenty of opportunity for musical commentary.

Another of the set's highlights is Ladislas Starewicz' masterpiece of stop-motion and tinted animation from 1912 Russia, The Cameraman's Revenge (also available on the Starewicz collection of the same title). Like Smith's film, this too uses insects but in an infinitely more sophisticated way to tell a knockabout domestic comedy of adultery and the dangers of cinema. Starewicz is one of cinema's grand masters and still sadly under-exposed. His French animated feature The Tale of the Fox is on DVD in France but not in Region 1, an oversight that requires correction.

All these films delighted in the possibilities of cinema and indulged in tricks and nonsense just because they could. They were calculated to appeal to a wide audience and did. By the '20s, avant-garde artists were exploring the limits of motion photography, also just to see what was possible but not necessarily with commercial intent. For example, Dada artist Hans Richter made Filmstudie (1926) in Switzerland. It's a collage of shadows and geometric shapes, like an abstract painting that happens to move. There are also multiple images of a woman's face and glass eyes, plus some images in negative. For the soundtrack, the Alloys read fragments of Dada poems by Hugo Ball; the disc's only extra is a ten-minute look at the creation and layering of this track.

A film that played art houses was The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra (1927), an expressionistic comedy that turned out to be a sort of calling card for montage artist Slavko Vorkapich, director Robert Florey and cameraman Gregg Toland. It uses actors, street shots, cut-out shapes, miniature sets, and effects with lighting and mirrors. The extra is worked (or non-worked) to death but, in a happy ending, goes to heaven.

Leaping forward several decades, the set closes with Eliot Noyes Jr.'s Clay, or the Origin of Species (1965), Oscar-nominated for Animated Short Subject. Various claymation creatures, real and imaginary, endlessly transform into each other in this black and white short. The Alloys replace the jazz score that previously accompanied the film.

The 140-minute program is too long and overwhelming for one sitting, but bite-size chunks should impress any cinephile, old or young.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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