Tonight I watched four short films by Hilary Harris, from the Mystic Fire
DVD. Definitely a very interesting set, from a filmmaker who I previously knew nothing about. I'm not even sure if this is a definitive picture of a small ouevre, or just a sampling of a larger one, since there doesn't even appear to be much info around online. From the little I can find, in addition to the 4 films here he apparently directed an anti-war short in 1966 called The Draft Card Burner
, two other shorts called Polaris Action
, a feature about Sudan called The Nuer
(only $225 here
!), and handled the camera on some films by Amy Greenberg. It's a bit disappointing that the 3 additional shorts aren't included, since the disc isn't too long as is, but the 4 films that are here are worthwhile on their own.
Of the four, Organism
is the top-billed, and it's definitely a major work (although I personally prefer 9 Variations
to it). It was recorded in New York between 1959 and 1974, using time-lapse photography, and edited together into 20 compact, powerful minutes. Harris presents the city as a living thing, changing and evolving through time, and his footage is incredibly compelling. As a portrayal of modern urbanity, it's probably unrivalled, capturing the rhythms and continual motion of city life from a distanced perspective that places the film outside of individual concerns. At times, it verges on academic documentary, but it has too much of a strong aesthetic and visual sense to venture too far in that direction. Definitely worth seeing for fans of experimental film or city symphonies.
Two of the other films, 9 Variations on a Dance Theme
, focus entirely on Harris' interest in motion. The latter film is the earliest here, from 1951, and was strangely hypnotic and compelling despite its utter simplicity. It consists of a pair of long disembodied bull horns by a lakeside, and apparently attached to an apparatus that makes them rotate. Harris caressingly films the rotating horns, which at times look like a dancer's legs thrust into the air, gracefully intertwining and turning. It's a wonderful minimalist exploration of movement and abstraction.
(1966) incorporates dance even more explicitly -- as the title implies, it features 9 takes of a dancer performing a series of simple motions, starting and ending with her on the floor. But the title is also misleading, since the "variations" are not in the dance itself, which remains basically the same with each iteration, but with the method of filming. Harris' first take is a slowly revolving single shot which circles patiently around the dancer as she completes her cycle. The next take is composed of a series of slow zooms in and out, while other takes chop the movements up into quick cuts and fragments, or break the timeline by repeating certain motions. On one take, the camera simply caresses the dancer's body in extreme eroticized close-up, while another distances her by shooting from below, making her stately dance look like the the movements of a giant. The film is simultaneously a meditation on human movement and on the ways in which filming itself alters perception. Each of the 9 takes included in the film serves to alter the viewer's perspective on the dance, often to completely contrary effect -- some emphasize the grace and beauty of the dance, while others draw attention to the tremendous strain and exertion behind the seemingly effortless movements. It's a lovely and affecting film, definitely my favorite here -- and this from someone who usually doesn't even like dance films much.
The final film in the set, Highway
, was the only one I found unsatisfying -- trite shots of roadways and street signs set to a bouncy jazz score. The only thing I can think of, given its time, is that this short provided much of the territory for Hollywood films to mine for cliches in the time since, but even if that's the case it doesn't really redeem the film.
Anyway, other than Highway
these are three very interesting shorts, and I'm certainly glad Mystic Fire gave me the chance to see them. As with their Maya Deren DVD, the presentation leaves a bit to be desired, but you have to take into account the age and obscurity of the films, which would otherwise probably not be out at all. The prints are OK, considering their age, but nothing spectacular. Organism
, which is in color, looks fantastic -- the other b&w films have some speckling and damage but it didn't detract at all from the experience. There's a half-hour interview with Harris on the discs also, but I haven't watched that yet. This is a very nice set of little-known films that definitely deserve some revisiting. I know I'll be going back to 9 Variations
almost right away, at the very least.