Category Archives: Highly Recommended

The Potluck and the Passion (1993, Cheryl Dunye)

The first sequence of The Potluck and the Passion, with director Dunye (also acting) sitting down and talking with girlfriend Gail Lloyd about the dinner party they’re about to throw. They go over the guest list as the opening titles run, who’s invited, why they’re invited, why Dunye and Lloyd are throwing the party (it’s their one year anniversary but Lloyd isn’t really comfortable with saying they’re dating).

Dunye and Lloyd are basically playing the same characters from Dunye’s previous short, She Don’t Fade, but it turns out there’s zero continuity between the two films. It also doesn’t matter because after Dunye and Lloyd have the first post-titles scene–Dunye’s trying to give some guests directions, Lloyd’s getting the apartment ready with help from friend Robert Reid-Pharr.

It’s Reid-Pharr who gets the film’s first aside, where–in now familiar Dunye fashion–sits and talks to the camera. He’s talking about his character, not talking as his character. His monologue has a lot of personality; better than his performance, but he’s still effortlessly likable sidekicking for Lloyd.

Potluck then cuts to the guests who need the directions–Nikki Harmon and Myra Paci–whose delayed, overly complicated journey to the party is the film’s only subplot. And Harmon and Paci never get monologue moments, their story is solely dramatic. Though comedic.

Once the party starts, Dunye and Lloyd become background to the main plot–guest Shelita Birchett decides she maybe likes other guest Pat Branch (who also co-wrote) far more than she likes her awful girlfriend, Nora Breen. Birchett and Breen get frequent monologues, mostly in character, but starting with the actors talking about the parts. The very clear subtext is Breen is dating Tracy because she’s a Black woman (and Breen is a condescending, controlling, culturally appropriating white woman). Branch isn’t just a Black woman, she’s an older woman with very different experiences than Birchett, who–in addition to dating a white woman–has always tried to live in a white world.

The chemistry between Branch and Birchett is electric–their performances are excellent–and having Breen directly address the viewer lets the character be terrible, but always realized. She’s never thin, because of how the monologues support the dramatics.

Dunye’s shooting on video, so the lighting is always off. She’s got some great composition, which embraces the video medium and is ambitious with it–there’s just no way to light it. It’s not Dunye’s fault, it’s the medium. It’s video.

Dunye’s direction of the actors in the dramatic scenes is fantastic, as is her editing of their monologue delivery scenes. And she and Branch’s writing is excellent.

Potluck and the Passion is occasionally cringe-inducing, often very funny, and always inventive. Dunye’s direction and Branch and Birchett’s performances are superior.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Cheryl Dunye; written by Pat Branch and Dunye; edited by Antoine Bell; released by Third World Newsreel Film Collective.

Starring Shelita Birchett (Tracy), Nora Breen (Megan), Pat Branch (Evelyn), Cheryl Dunye (Linda), Nikki Harmon (Lisa), Myra Paci (Kendra), and Robert Reid-Pharr (Robert)


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Meshes of the Afternoon (1943, Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid)

Meshes of the Afternoon is a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream. But since they’re dreams, it’s really just the one dream, I suppose. A woman–presumably, because directors Deren and Hammid shoot from her point of view during the waking segment–comes up and takes a nap. On her way home, she’s found a flower (the short opens with a hand dropping it down before disappearing… the hand, not the flower) and then dropped her key. Once she picks up the key, which has fallen down the stairs, she finds the home in disarray. She goes up stairs and takes a nap in a chair.

At this point, the actions begin to repeat. Only the woman is revealed (co-director Deren). There are some first person shots, usually reestablishing what’s changed–there’s a moving knife, a phone off the hook–but Deren is in the action shots. She moves through the house, upstairs to find herself, only to enter another dream, and another. Soon she’s chasing a hooded figure, trying to get the flower. Or she’s watching the chase.

And then there’s that house key, which soon becomes a knife and Meshes goes from being ethereally confusing to dangerously ethereal. Sort of dangerous. Because it’s never clear how aware Deren’s dream-self is of her reality. There’s never any confusion as she moves through the house, which sometimes loses gravity or has the wind inside instead of outside. There’s determination, which eventually becomes resigned determination.

Meshes is deliberate and repetitive with its visuals. It’s patient for the viewer, never rushing them along. Hammid also photographs (and costars later on in the fourteen minute short); there’s higher contrast to the exteriors than the interiors–there’s also some fantastic process shots–while the interiors are more… airy. Outside seems hot, inside seems cool. The perceptible breeze plays into it, a relief for the protagonist.

The short encourages reflection if not downright dissection–Meshes entangles itself as it moves along, giving the viewer enough time to catch up but not enough time to unravel before the next iteration.

It’s exhilarating.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid; written and edited by Deren; director of photography, Hammid.

Starring Maya Deren (The Woman) and Alexander Hammid (The Man).


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Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend: The Flying House (1921, Winsor McCay)

The Flying House does a lot in its eleven minute runtime. First and maybe foremost–it’s questionable given where the film ends up–it’s a successful, ambitious format change for the Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend comic strip. Adapted by its creator, McCay–who’s got his twenty-five year-old son, Robert, animating–Flying House is a cartoon version of the strip. It’s a complete success in that regard.

But it’s also how McCay tells a story in a silent cartoon. The characters, a husband and wife who have to convert the house to a flying version to escape a greedy landlord, talk to one another in word balloons. The husband doesn’t say much. The wife has these hilarious one-liners. She’s nagging, but passive aggressively and condescendingly. And the husband deserves it to some degree. He doesn’t have the best plan.

The word balloon thing? It’s phenomenal. It’s jaw-droppingly effective. There’s the expectation of intertitles in a silent film so having those intertitles on screen with the action (or at least the illusion of action)… it starts Flying House out on a serious level. It’s an ambitious film. McCay (and McCay) always excel. Even before the big, “here, look at this scientifically accurate” space thing to show off the potential for animation in education.

The way the figures move–whether people or flying houses or planets–is another of the film’s magical parts. Between movements, objects are completely still. But while moving, they’re graceful, with an enthusiastic pace. Culminating in the space sequence, which is ballet.

Fantastic direction, fantastic animation. The Flying House is perfect.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Winsor McCay; animated by Robert Winsor McCay.


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How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966, Ben Washam and Chuck Jones)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! has three rather distinct things going on throughout the twenty-six minute television special. It also some some indistinct things going on–the Whoville songs, while charming, are nowhere near as impressive as the big things.

First, but not foremost, is Washam and Jones’s direction. Although Grinch is a Dr. Seuss adaptation, as a cartoon, its possibilites are different. Jones and Washam make the Grinch (and Max, his dog) into familiar cartoon roles. The Grinch is the bad guy, Max is the reluctant accomplice. It’s familiar because the dog can’t talk, while the Grinch does. Though not to poor Max so much as at him.

And when the Grinch does talk, it’s Boris Karloff’s voice, which is the second distinct thing going on. Boris Karloff narrates The Grinch–reading the source book. When the Grinch speaks, it’s Karloff’s voice… just filtered a little. The effectiveness of the filtering is a tad questionable, but more because of the additional noise the filter adds. Karloff’s familiar but not exactly the same voice for the Grinch’s dialogue? It works. It just sounds too distant.

Karloff’s narration is always good, frequently awesome. For example, the times he has to list various silly-named Christmas items are delightful, as Karloff approaches each new and absurd word with the jovial–but still reserved–calm; it’s awesome. It’s great narration. It defines Grinch.

At least for the first half or so.

Because then in comes the third distinct thing. Thurl Ravenscroft, uncredited singer of You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch. When the Grinch is stealing Christmas, sure, there’s some narration from Karloff, but it’s all about Ravenscroft’s voice. There are some great lyrics too–the song is set aside from the narration and is more a musing on the poor character of the Grinch. It’s awesome.

The Karloff narration and, eventually, Ravenscroft’s singing never bump into each other. Throughout, the animation works with the narration–expression is important in Grinch, as the amount the Grinch can contort depends on how long it takes Karloff to get through a particular line. And it can seem like Karloff is dragging it out to encourage contortion. And a contorted Grinch is not a pretty sight.

Similarly, when Ravenscroft gets back to the chorus in each of the Mean One segments–there are at least three–it defines the moment, not the animation. Lovell Norman and John O. Young cut most every sequence just right. There are a couple long moments during the Whoville songs, but Jones and Washam have the charm baseline high enough to allow indulgences. And even enjoy them. The finale’s tensions work because Jones and Washam don’t rush things, because they do slow down the pace. They let the finale rhyme with the opening, back to relying on Karloff.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is fantastic. Jones and Washam pace it out just right for the narration and song. Except without Karloff or Ravenscroft, there’d be nothing to pace. Good thing everything works so well together. Or, so well, alongside each other.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Ben Washam and Chuck Jones; teleplay by Irv Spector, Bob Ogle, and Dr. Seuss, based on the book by Seuss; animated by Ken Harris, Tom Ray, Phil Roman, Richard Thompson, and Don Towsley; edited by Lovell Norman and John O. Young; music by Eugene Poddany; production designer, Maurice Noble; produced by Jones and Seuss; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Narrated by Boris Karloff.


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