Archive for The Exterminating Angel

Ark Shadows

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , on January 20, 2018 by dcairns

Are thirties cartoons strange because the sensibilities attracted to motion picture cartooning at that time were inherently odd people, or because the years have aged the films in unexpected ways, or because the medium was still in its relative infancy and so rampant experimentation predominated, or something else, or some combination of all three.

At the Fleischer Bros studio, we seem to have a peculiar worldview that’s beautiful to watch (as long as they stayed with shorts: GULLIVER’S TRAVELS and HOPPITY GOES TO TOWN exhibit a very different manner), whereas the lesser studios, it seems to me, often produced work that’s bizarre but doesn’t seem to WORK.

Witness Terrytoons’ jug-band rendition of the deluge, purportedly as Aesop’s Fable according to some title cards, while others (the film has been released with various hot-spliced main titles over the decades since its manufacture) don’t bother with this band-aid alibi and leave the blasphemy to stand on its own merits.

I don’t think the Old Testament mentions anything about a mouse playing a toenail xylophone, so the picture gets off to a flagrantly apocryphal start. Noah’s modern dress overalls suggest this is an updating of the apocalypse, something like TAKE SHELTER.

Then we get a plotless stretch of musical farm animals which is disturbing in a classic early thirties way, especially the la-la-la cow who ought to be rendered into sirloin ASAP to preserve sanity. So things are already a bit upsetting before the single black storm cloud starts a storm that engulfs the entire planet. The giraffe with windows in his neck, and down his right leg, is an unwelcome invention also. Co-star him with the Frankenstein monster from VAN HELSING, the only other character I can think of with windows in him, so I can avoid both at the same time.


Mouse seems to be riding a toy horse, it has puppet-like joints on its legs and is too small to be a real horse, but then it gets struck by lightning and becomes a skeleton. What. And then it gets chopped in half but keeps running, like Baron Munchausen’s steed. (Terry Gilliam had to leave this passage from the novel unfilmed, due to budget problems on THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN: “I cut the thing that made me want to do the movie in the first place.”)

Various equally appalling gags show more exotic animals boarding the ark two by two. Toons of this vintage often have a nice/scary quality of BLACK GLOW, where the ink-lines are somehow underexposed or badly duped, resulting in an antimatter aura of darkness bleeding from the dark figures. This one is kind of washed out, but the lightning bolts are interesting: they’re so over-exposed they just look like some kind of print damage or error, blinding fluctuations in the brightness.

But the ending is the thing that makes this one worthwhile. You should really watch it before reading further, but I do want to write it down so I can see the words in cold black and white. So stop reading now and watch at least the last minute of the toon if you haven’t already, then come back and read on after this happy image ~

YES. Like the freed prisoners of Bunuel’s THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, the happy menagerie give thanks to the Lord for their deliverance — and He strikes them down again, for no reason. Noah ends up with a frozen lightning bolt through the seat of his dungarees, as it rains cats and dogs (more than two by two, them critters breeds FAST). In a cartoon, God is a capricious, cruel, infinitely destructive demiurge, like Bugs Bunny tormenting Daffy Duck in DUCK AMUCK with nightmarish metamorphoses in a cel-painted Beckettian torture-show. The cartoonist hits on the perfect metaphor: if there were a God, this is the kind of guy He would have to be, randomly dishing out surreal punishments before returning us to the darkness of the inkwell.

And the Lord sayeth, “Ain’t I a stinker?”


Stan By Me

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on September 29, 2017 by dcairns

ME AND MY PAL begins with Oliver Hardy saying “This is the happiest day of my life!” so we know it’s going to end in total ruination. Sure enough, if you jump forward to the end, you’ll see this ~

The film contains a great example of the boys using pure surprise, even if the rest of it has a kind of heart-sinking inevitability.

Ollie: Don’t you realise I’m about to become a big oil magnate?

Stan looks a bit confused.

Ollie: You know what a magnate is, don’t you?

Stan: “Sure. A thing that eats cheese.”

Here, the dialogue furiously signals one kind of misconception — we happily expect that Stan is thinking of the word “magnet” and will simply describe one. We don’t really need the joke to be any better than that. But Stan’s mind has taken him somewhere else altogether — perhaps he’s thinking of a mouse. (But “a thing that eats cheese” is a very poor description of a mouse. It would work just as well as a description of this writer.) So he’s confused magnate with magnet and magnet with mouse. This is a brilliantly abstract joke, because the nature of the confusion isn’t definitely clear. We really don’t know what’s on Stan’s mind. It’s a meaningless punchline that works only because (1) it’s dumb and (2) it’s not the punchline we’d expected.

MY AND MY PAL is like Laurel & Hardy via Buñuel. In fact, we know Buñuel was in Hollywood in the early thirties, supervising Spanish-language versions of American films, and we know the boys made several foreign-language versions of their movies (to French, German and Spanish audiences perhaps it made perfect sense that the two numbskulls spoke terrible, phonetic French, German and Spanish). Couldn’t we just suppose that Don Luis collaborated anonymously with Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, to their mutual enrichment?

Ollie is preparing for his wedding to the daughter of his boss, Peter Cucumber (James Finlayson). But Stan brings a jigsaw puzzle to the house as a wedding present and both men become engrossed in it. The taxi driver called to transport the groom gets sucked in too, as does the cop come to complain about the abandoned cab, and some guy delivering a telegram. Finlayson’s violent intervention succeeds in breaking up the puzzle party, but turns it into a full-scale riot. All is lost.

It’s a great example of the use of slowness — the trouble develops gradually, and considerable fun is wrung from Ollie not being able to believe that Stan is better at jigsaws than he is. Stan, though dumb, has a gift for it. We can all remember feeling this kind of resentment, I think — when we were little kids. So unfair.

The story unfolds like THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, a slide into madness and anarchy from simple and civilized beginnings. A final, gratuitously cruel twist of the knife is delivered via that forgotten telegram, since it’s apparently not enough that Ollie has missed out on an advantageous marriage, lost his job, and had all his furniture smashed to bits. These things have to be done thoroughly.

One slight regret: Ollie’s angry switching-off of the wireless prevents us hearing Stan’s opinion of technocracy. I found I very much wanted to hear that.


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on February 7, 2017 by dcairns


Set my first year students a sound effects project, which they just finished. They got to choose from three scenes, from which I’d removed the soundtrack. The scenes were: 10.30 PM SUMMER (Jules Dassin), the opening murder; THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (Luis Bunuel), the crawling hand dream; ERASERHEAD, our first meeting with Henry.

All the students did interesting work and in places sometimes surpassed the illustrious filmmakers they were “collaborating” with. A really interesting case was ERASERHEAD, which has an undeniably immersive and oppressive soundscape by Lynch and regular collaborator the late Alan Splet (whose very name is a magnificent sound effect). But in choosing to privilege a throbbing industrial atmos, the filmmakers naturally sacrifice a degree of individual detail. As Henry traverses a series of heaps of waste material (slag?), all we hear is the urban rumble.


One group of students chose to dub in extremely precise dusty footsteps for Henry’s journey. The effect was riveting. A closely synced sound always draws our attention to the object concerned, and by honouring actor Jack Nance’s gait, and his little hesitations and skids as he deals, not too nimbly, with the more “mountainous” areas, the foley work actually ADDED PSYCHOLOGY — it put us into Henry’s shiny black shoes, and made us experience his every step.

As I remarked at the time, I always like it when I learn something in a class — especially when it’s one I’m teaching.