Unseen: Jazz in shorts (Part 3: 9-12)
9. Catalog (John Whitney 1961)
Ornette Coleman: the name alone is a resonance of risk, of risk itself. Ornette Coleman on violin: that’s risk on DMT.
It isn’t especially difficult to see why an experimental filmmaker might use improvised music, as both forms are intrinsically shapeless and risky. This particular experimental filmmaker, John Whitney, was absolutely a risk-taker and pioneer. A motion graphics man, who’d made some noise in the 1940s as an animator on TV commercials and collaborated with Saul Bass on the title sequence for “Vertigo” three years before “Catalog”. Years later, his graphics submission for “2001: A Space Odyssey” was turned down on account of it being too obtuse.
For this reel of visual effects, he built an analogue computer from a discarded World War II anti-aircraft gun sight! And what a beautiful experiment, for the duration of which I have to remind myself is in real-time (Ornette’s screeching aids this process too). The motion of Whitney’s patterns is so precise that, were the images not so striking, you would think you were watching a CRT oscilloscope. CGI might get there eventually.
10. Time Piece (Jim Henson, 1965)
Don Sebesky, Ed Shaunessey, George Devens
Apex of Muppetmaster Jim Henson’s largely forgotten turn as an experimental filmmaker. In early 1965, “Time Piece” premiered at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, was picked up by distributors Pathe films and released in theatres alongside Claude Lelouch’s melodrama “Un Homme et une Femme”. Henson wrote, directed and starred and it’s the one and only time he was nominated for an Oscar. There’s pub quiz gold in there somewhere, though that’s the day you can no longer argue gentrification doesn’t exist in your area.
Jim collaborated with CTI and Verve house arranger, Don Sebesky on the score and they must have been up in each other’s business the whole time, as the music is syncopated to the (wordless) action. “Time Piece” is a study in time-keeping, so Sebesky’s opting for a rhythmic percussion set-up has conceptual coherence. The drums we hear are Ed Shaunessey’s (even though Derek Bailey plays the on-screen drummer), the resident kit man on “The Tonight Show”, and George Devens is the vibraphone player. Just to thicken up the brew further, Blue Note engineer, Rudy Van Gelder, has a "recorded by" credit.
11. Afterlife (Ishu Patel, 1978)
When James Baldwin said “People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead”, I read that as a “hell on earth” principle, pouring scorn on notions of post-life feast or famine.
I thought of that quote as I tried to work out Patel’s “Afterlife”, in which he appears to have taken Baldwin’s stance beyond the grave in his impressionistic depiction of what dying feels and looks like. I hadn’t reckoned on phosphorescent sequences, with the sounds of Herbie Mann’s “In Tangier”, as a summation of an individual’s life experiences, and now that I have, I’m intrigued to see what mine will look and sound like.
12. What She Wants (Ruth Lingford, 1994)
“When I had the screening for Pleasures of War someone insisted on taking her seven-year-old child in to see this film, which I thought was bordering on child abuse, really. People do behave as if it can’t do any damage because its animation, which is the same as saying it can’t really mean anything.”
Text speak has pushed Lol Coxhill to the front of the unfortunate name queue. What was once merely mirth inducing is now grounds for....laughing out loud (sorry). Well, here’s a thing: Lol Coxhill is a great musician, so stop laughing out loud. Here’s another thing; he scored this ‘feelbad’ short animation about a woman who dreams of rampant sex while commuting on the underground. That’s quite fitting. But don’t laugh.
Ruth Lingford created the entire film on an Amiga 1500, and it’s precisely because her aesthetic is so humbly captivating from the offset, that we feel as uncomfortable as we do when she takes us inside her characters. As her palette begins to overflow with images of excess, Coxhill’s soprano improv, which opens as clean and lucid as a Garbarek solo, develops into something entirely lawless. Coxhill’s a pretty game sort (he once played a gig in a skip) so I’m sure he relished taking the ear on this most private journey.