Strange Short Films From the Dawn of Cinema
As promised, Part Two of this list contains short films from the bold and unusual schools of Expressionism, Dadaism, and Surrealism. Much of the exploratory enthusiasm evident in Part One is still present, but now an avant-guard seriousness shores up each effort. This is art first, play second.
Taking us through the mid- to late-1920s, these films span the era when sound synchronization was being developed. By the 1930s, talkies would become standard. Some of these films, most notably Entr’acte, had music written to accompany them. But others did not, and a small cottage industry has recently emerge around orchestrating music to match these classics.
My advice? Take your time with these. They start weird and stay weird. Enjoy!
Director: René Clair
Run time: 20 minutes and 19 seconds
Entr’acte is a French Dadaist film that features cameos by Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and others. It was written by Clair and the artist Francis Picabia, who just happens to have created the arts and literary magazine 391. While parts of the film could be said to follow a narrative, on the main, it is a pastiche of experimental techniques and Dadaist philosophy. What comes through strongly is joy. The bearded ballerina, the camel pulling a hearse, the roller coaster footage—all share an energy of exploration, rebellion, and playfulness.
The Love of Zero (1928)
Director: Robert Florey
Run time: 15 minutes 7 seconds
The Love of Zero is an avant-guard short that was filmed in one day. Its playful, expressionist sets bring to mind both Pee-wee’s Playhouse and The Forbidden Zone. As exuberant as the acting and film techniques are (nearly every special effect known at the time is on display), the overall theme of the movie is dark. While there are times when a “scene missing” card might not go amiss, the aesthetics alone make this strange little film a worthy watch.
The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)
Co-directors: James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber
Run time: 13 minutes 37 seconds
This version of The Fall of the House of Usher is an expressionist cornucopia. It fairly demands that the viewer already know the story since it dispenses with formalities like plot and character and focuses instead on creating a sense of delirium. It simulates madness though highly stylized surreal imagery, which gives it a strong but not derivative Dr. Caligari vibe. Experimental techniques like filming through prisms and using multiple superimpositions fit seamlessly with the ultra-stylish 1920s fashion and design elements. Visually stunning, the short length is a good fit for the form.
The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra (1928)
Director: Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapić
Run time: 11 minutes
The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra is, of course, about the dehumanization of struggling actors, which it illustrates by giving each extra a large, black number on their forehead. An independent project filmed for the most part in the creators’ homes, 9413 combines innovative expressionist sets and experimental techniques with documentary-style footage of Hollywood. It all adds up to an off-kilter mood that might best be described as darkly whimsical. As much as any movie on this list, this one—the most DIY and lowest budget ($97) of any of them—has a story and pacing that let this short film hold its own nearly a hundred years later.
The Seashell and the Clergy Man (1928)
Director: Germaine Dulac
Run time: 40 minutes
With The Seashell and the Clergy Man, we come to the first and only film on this list directed by a woman. Based on a story brimming with surreal and existential motifs, this French film is a tour de force of the cinematic techniques of the time. In it, a priest comes to hate a General and to covet his wife. Most of the special effects are used to illustrate the priest’s descent into madness. Depending on the viewer, this film could be interpreted as wildly disjointed and utterly meaningless or as a sophisticated work of art that is dense with symbolism. The latter is encouraged by Dulac’s historical position as an important first-wave feminist.
Un Chien Andelou (1929)
Director: Luis Buñuel
Run time: 17 minutes
The Franco-Spanish Un Chien Andelou is the most famous Surrealist movie of its kind. It is also the only one on this list not better known by the English translation of its name, which is An Andalusian Dog. Written by Buñuel and Salvador Dalí as an anti-establishment nightmare, the impetus of the film was to explore repressed emotion. An open eye being sliced in half; ants emerging from a hole in a man’s palm; a man wiping his mouth away, only to have it replaced with a woman’s armpit hair—Un Chien is full of dramatic surreal imagery. But at its heart, it is about sexual aggression. While many of the trick shots and memorable scenes concern the male lead, it is the female who is fighting off an attacker and who may or may not escape in the end. It’s easy for her struggle to be overshadowed, though, when she has to share the screen with a man dragging two grand pianos each laden with its own dead donkey, and there are two priests—one of whom is Salvador Dalí—tangled up in the ropes.
Amy M. Vaughn is the author of Skull Nuggets (Bizarro Pulp Press) and the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space (Filthy Loot). Her forthcoming books include Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel (Thicke & Vaney) and The Shelter (Cabal). She is also a contributing editor at Babou 691.