Notes on Short Film

Lengthy diatribe on brief cinematic experience.

Posts Tagged ‘cinema verite

Precautions Against Fanatics (1969)

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Central to the ongoing thematic concerns of Werner Herzog’s cinema is the question of vocation, of what activities, often wildly ambitious, seemingly pathological or downright peculiar, call out to certain, often-eccentric individuals, giving their lives a sense of almost divinely inspired purpose. It’s one of the things that allows the not un-eccentric Herzog to connect to so many subjects he might otherwise feel unable to relate with…

Quoted from this analysis of Herzog’s films, the above claim is a fitting description of the directors style and predominant themes. Werner Herzog films extremists, weirdos, and people you wouldn’t meet everyday walking down the street, and he somehow makes them seem relatable and ridiculous at the same time. This short is a pseudo-documentary with a bit of absurd humor, something I have a sneeking suspicion would be much funnier to a German sense of humor than a young American’s. Still, at only eleven minutes long, the film is worth a view.

The DVD Verdict Review has this to say in summary:

Precautions Against Fanatics doesn’t seem to fit with the previous films at all. But that’s okay, because there aren’t many films that Precautions Against Fanatics would fit in with. The film is a surreal little excursion into Herzog’s sense of humor. The 11-minute film takes place primarily at a race track, while various people try to describe what they do to help the horses, which include everything from standing in front of the pens to walking around a tree to guarding a fence. Although I found it funny, I had the sense that I was missing something, and the DVD box mentions something about German celebrities, so I can only assume that some of the actors are famous people. In any event, the short is bizarre enough to stand on its own without cultural reference and would be appreciated by fans of strange comedy.

For the purpose of a short film class, it is also a good introduction to Herzog’s distinct brand of filmmaking.


Written by Alisa Hathaway

March 13, 2011 at 4:49 pm

The Discipline of D.E. (1982)

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My first experience with Gus Van Sant was Elephant (2003) and while this is a vastly different experience, The Discipline of D.E. (1982) makes me consider this filmmaker’s work in a while new way. Offering a stark contrast to cinema verite, this film playfully attempts to remove the truth and imperfections from everyday routines. Where the cinema verite movement wanted the raw feeling of spontaneous human action, Van Sant is instructing viewers how to remove the spontaneity and clumsiness from their lives. It is a comment on the artificiality of filmmaking. In a movie, an actor never trips unless the narrative calls for it. If the actor does trip, the director calls for another take and the action must happen all over again. Why do we allow this to be the case if cinema is meant to capture real life? Maybe because human imperfections would distract viewers from a carefully-crafted message? How much do we need to refine that message in order to transmit to an audience? On his own blog, Jason Kohl says this of Van Sant’s work:

Van Sant understands that filmmaking is the ultimate expression of D.E—you have to keep doing things until you get them right. After Mala Noche (1986), his first feature, he made three more shorts before rejoining Burroughs with Drugstore Cowboy (1989). With films like Elephant (Palme D’or Winner), Milk (Oscar Winner) and Last Days (basically just awesome) he seems to be onto something.

So which is more important in filmmaking, capturing truth or making art? Surely, each filmmaker has a different goal. Another blogger, Patrick Zimmerman, discusses the film and its example of the charade that Van Sant seems to make of human emotion.

Doing Easy yields neither an easy nor relaxed life, but rather an obsessive-compulsive pathology, most clearly manifested in a socially deadly form of isolation of affect.

Both of these are valid analyses, and helped me to better understand the goals of anti-Hollywood short filmmakers.

Written by Alisa Hathaway

March 2, 2011 at 11:32 pm

Daybreak Express (1953)

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This next example of cinema verite from the Cinema 16 American collection is directed by D.A. Pennebaker. While it includes the same aspects of cinema verite that O Dreamland exemplified, this film highlights a pleasant visual quality in truth rather than a depravity. In summary, the five-minute film is made up of images shot on a New York train at sunrise. It is set to a composition by Duke Ellington. The music starts slow, and because a day starts slowly, the images are slow and lingering. As the trains start to run and the New York City streets become more fast-paced, so do the music and the shooting. The colors Pennebaker captures also reflect the idea of daybreak, with cool blues alighting to warm yellows and intense oranges. Some of the visual effects made me wonder if Pennebaker accomplished this whole film on one handheld camera. The backlit silhouettes were particularly beautiful and, I’d imagine, challenging to shoot. I also thought the kaleidascope and wide-angle effects toward the end of the film must have been ground-breaking in 1953. All in all, one of my favorites so far, and a project so much more finessed than a “music video.” Find more information at

Written by Alisa Hathaway

March 1, 2011 at 9:43 pm

O Dreamland (1953)

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This short film is an example of the post-war cinema verite movement. A type of documentary filmmaking, cinema verite attempted to capture the truth of everyday life. It freed the content in films; there were no actors, no drama, and no studio to shoot in. These filmmakers hoped to make a point about human existence by selectively showing it happening. This film is set in the Dreamland Amusement Park in England, and the director is out to prove what a twisted and deprave place it is. The noises of the carnival coupled with the images of leering clown faces and unhappy, pleasure-seeking people intentionally makes the audience uncomfortable. A short summary on the film points out the comment the director makes by highlighting the “Torture Through the Ages” exhibit. We as a people are obviously sick if we’ll go to the carnival to see how we’ve tortured others throughout history. You can find more reviews and plenty of unsettling images from the film here.

Written by Alisa Hathaway

March 1, 2011 at 9:27 pm

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