Unseen: Jazz in shorts (Part 1: 1-4)
1.Herbie (George Lucas, Paul Golding, 1966)
In contemporary parlance, wanky. I do have a thing for wanky 16mm though, even if I know what’s going on like I know what’s going on in Gravity’s Rainbow, like I know what’s going on with a jellyfish: “Sort of”.
I sort of know its shots of night lights reflecting off car bodies, I know that’s Mingus talking at the start, I know we’re listening to Herbie Hancock’s solo from “Basin Street Blues” on Miles’ transitional “Seven Steps To Heaven” and I 100% know this is one of George Lucas’ USC student films! That’s like unearthing Robert Evans’ first divorce settlement.
Although Lucas’ collaborator here, Paul Golding, says the cars were VW’s, this predates the Disney Love Bug, so I guess it’s called “Herbie” because of Herbie Hancock. I’m inordinately impressed with that.
2. Janine (Maurice Pialat, 1961)
Late bloomer, realist French filmmaker, often described as an urban Eric Rohmer. To me, Pialat’s work is more in the Cassavetes mould. Morally dubious but interesting characters, that Cassavetes real-time documentary feel and his aesthetic is similar. Claude and Hubert conversing as they stroll through the streets of St Denis here could be “Husbands” and that surveillance-like two-shot looking into the cafe meeting could be any early Cassavetes.
“Janine” was written by Claude Berri, though a lot of the two men’s discussions feel improvised. This freewheeling feel is enhanced by the score, where Pialat adopts one of the early tropes of the movement with Urtreger’s swinging piano, including a healthy slice of Monk. It’s as integral to Pialat’s Paris as Miles’ score is to Malle’s or Solal’s to Godard’s.
3. Rhythm (Len Lye, 1957)
When I first asked the ICA guy whether Len Lye was any good, I got “Mmm, sublime. Sort of roundish, yet squarish. Octagonal, if you prefer.” I don’t prefer, so I put the box set back on the shelf and walked out the door.
More fool me. Len Lye is great. A montage master. He is the pioneer of ‘direct film’ (film made without a camera), and his belief that experimental film-making was a form of advanced research, a stage for fresh techniques that could feed the film industry, meant that his methods ranged from celluloid scratching to projecting colour abstracts over black and white blow ups of Charlie Parker solos.
This one is a re-edit of found footage, syncing a sped up cut of a car assembly with a percussion track. It was initially meant as a promo for a motor corporation, but they hated it, refused to screen it and refused to pay him. Their main gripe was with the percussion, apparently. Too tribal aka too African. Gripes. And no one seems to know who the percussionist is. Some say it’s Olatunji, but it sounds nothing like him.
4. The Box (Fred Wolf, 1967)
When percussive raindrops beat worthy ‘real issues’ film, it’s a small victory for clever, unpretentious filmmaking, which is exactly what “The Box” is. This took the best short film Oscar at the 1967 ceremony, which is incredible when you consider how spare it all is, and i’m not only referring to the simple/limited animation. One setting, one unrelenting Shelly Manne percussion track, one “what the fuck is in that box?” concept.
For a while, I thought I’d sussed where the Premo “Come Clean” sample was lifted from. Turns out I was pretty close (it is from a Shelly Manne record) but no dice. On balance, that’s a good thing. This deserves to be remembered on its own merits.