Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Two Wrenching Departures (1989/2006) & Stomp the Yard (2006)

Within one week in 1989, two close friends of filmmaker Ken Jacobs passed away. They were Jack Smith and Bob Fleischner, two compatriots, who along with Jacobs, helped to cultivate the NYC Underground film scene (Flaming Creatures (1963) being the landmark). That year, Jacobs performed a "Nervous System" piece entitled "Two Wrenching Departures" at the American Museum of the Moving Image. His "Nervous System" pieces involve running two projectors simultaneously, playing with filters and projection speed in an improvisatory way. This piece was an homage to his two friends, utilizing film they shot in the mid to late 50s, when they were cinema-mad, as an intertitle states in the version I saw.

This past week a newly edited, single projector version of Two Wrenching Departures premiered at Anthology Film Archives - and I don't expect to see a more perfect film this year. It combines the late-50's footage with audio (and a brief visual) from The Barbarian (1933), a campy exotica piece starring Ramon Navarro and directed by the journeyman Sam Wood. It's the type of gaudy fantasy that Jack Smith adored, and as Jacobs informs us, he caught it on TV the week Smith died. So as Novarro speaks about the "infinite ecstasy of little things", Jacobs shows it. In re-photographing and repeating individual frames from the 50s footage, Jacobs isolates slight movements and plays them repeatedly back and forth, extending the slightest gesture into mini dramas that are celebrations of the individual: one epic sequence focuses on Smith staring towards the viewer behind a fence, his every eyeblink and intimation of a smirk a revelation, personal tics turned into an incredibly moving memorial. But this is no entombment - it is a celebration of movement, of the cinema that could capture this movement, of New York, and of the men that Ken Jacobs loves.

Stomp the Yard, the deserved box office champ the past couple weeks, moves in a different way, as it adheres to the codes of the teen dance genre. As there is artistry in Jacobs' play with the image, so there is artistry in Columbus Short's effortless physicality on the dance (or step team) floor. Director Sylvain White slightly speeds up select instances of motion, emphasizing the other-wordly feel of some of these moves - the most astonishing of which occur in the break-dancing sequence that opens the film, an ebullient explosion of energy as two teams battle for local supremacy (the greatest contribution of these teen dance films to the musical genre are these "battles", an idea implicit in so many Golden Age sequences where duos show off for each other, but here brought up to the surface). It inhabits its requisite cliches with warmth and humor, and the performances are strong all around, especially the quiet nobility of Short and the under-utilized narcissistic wit of Ne-Yo.


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