The First Avant Garde Animation: Watch Walter Ruttmann’s Lichtspiel Opus 1 (1921)

Most visual art forms, like painting, sculpture, or still photography, take a while to get from representation to abstraction, but cinema had a head start, thanks in large part to the groundbreaking efforts of a German filmmaker named Walter Ruttmann. He did it in the early 1920s, not much more than twenty years after the birth of the medium itself, with Lichtspiel Opus 1, which you can watch above. Lichtspiel Opus 23, and 4 follow it in the video, but though equally enchanting on an aesthetic level, especially in their integration of imagery and music, none hold the impressive distinction of being the very first abstract film ever screened for the public that Lichtspiel Opus 1 does.

"Following the First World War, Ruttmann, a painter, had moved from expressionism to full-blown abstraction," writes Gregory Zinman in A New History of German Cinema. As early as 1917, "Ruttmann argued that filmmakers 'had become stuck in the wrong direction,' due to their misunderstanding of cinema's essence,'" which prompted him to use "the technologically derived medium of film to produce new art, calling for 'a new method of expression, one different from all the other arts, a medium of time. An art meant for our eyes, one differing from painting in that it has a temporal dimension (like music), and in the rendition of a (real or stylized) moment in an event or fact, but rather precisely in the temporal rhythm of visual events."

To realize this new art form, Ruttmann came up with, and even patented, a kind of animation technique. Once a painter, always a painter, he found a way to make films using oils and brushes. As experimental animations scholar William Moritz described it, Ruttmann created Lichtspiel Opus I with images "painted with oil on glass plates beneath an animation camera, shooting a frame after each brush stroke or each alteration because the wet paint could be wiped away or modified quite easily. He later combined this with geometric cut-outs on a separate layer of glass."

The result still looks and feels quite unlike the animation we know today, and certainly resembled nothing any of its first viewers had even seen when it premiered in Germany in April 1921. This puts it ahead, chronologically, of the work of Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling, creators of some of the earliest masterpieces of abstract film in the early 1920s, not screened for the public until 1923. Alas, when Hitler came to power and declared abstract art "degenerate," according to Bennett O'Brian at Pretty Clever Films, Ruttmann didn't flee but "remained in Germany and worked with Leni Riefenstahl on The Triumph of the Will." In wartime, he "was put to work directing propaganda reels like 1940’s Deutsche Panzer which follows the manufacturing process of armored tanks."

Alas, "his decision to stay in Germany during the war would eventually cost Ruttmann his life," which ended in 1944 with a mortal wound endured while filming a battle in Russia. But however ideologically and morally questionable his later work, Ruttmann, with his pioneering journey into abstract animation, opened up a creative realm only accessible to filmmakers that, even as we approach an entire century after Lichtspiel Opus I, filmmakers have far from fully explored.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Sigourney Weaver Stars in a New Experimental Sci-Fi Film: Watch “Rakka” Free Online

South African–Canadian film director Neill Blomkamp recently launched Oats Studios, a new film project devoted to creating experimental short films. And now comes their very first production, a short film called "Rakka." Starring Sigourney Weaver, "Rakka" takes us inside the aftermath of an alien invasion sometime in the year 2020. The Verge rightly notes that "Rakka" isn’t "a conventional short film. Instead, it’s a series of scenes depicting various points of view. Some scenes show what the aliens are doing to humanity; others track a resistance movement led by Weaver, and an escaped prisoner named Amir." The new short runs 21 minutes and is streaming free on YouTube. " Watch it above, and to learn about the making of "Rakka" and Oats Studios, read this interview over at Cartoon Brew.

"Rakka" will be added to our collection: 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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Blade Runner 2049’s New Making-Of Featurette Gives You a Sneak Peek Inside the Long-Awaited Sequel

All of us who excitedly write about Blade Runner 2049, the upcoming sequel to Blade Runner, have at some point described the film as "long-awaited." Since the original came out in 1982, that makes a certain literal sense, but the wait hasn't stretched to 35 years without cause. As Blade Runner rose higher and higher in stature, following it up properly grew into a more and more daunting challenge. But now, as Blade Runner 2049 approaches its October release, the prospect that this most respected of all science-fiction movies will have its continuation feels more real than ever — and it will feel even more real than that after you watch the short making-of featurette above.

Philip K. Dick, the prolific author of Blade Runner's source material, a novel called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, recognized immediately how important the film would become. But its director Ridley Scott admits that he "could never have imagined how iconic it would still be" today.

Though he didn't return to direct Blade Runner 2049, ceding the chair to Sicario and Arrival director Denis Villeneuve and taking on the role of producer instead, he does make quite a few appearances in this featurette as a kind of presiding spirit. "Blade Runner revolutionized the way we view science fiction," says Villeneuve. "I've never felt that much pressure on my shoulders — thinking that Ridley Scott will see this movie."

But more than anything the cast and filmmakers have to say, Blade Runner fans will savor the video's glimpses of the new picture's aesthetic, clearly both modeled after and deliberately made different from that of the original. As the title makes obvious, the story takes place thirty years after Blade Runner's 2019, and just as things have changed in our world, so they've changed in its world — not least in the form of a Korean influence that has its found its way in with the Japanese and Chinese ones that so characterized Blade Runner's future Los Angeles. "Defining this was like walking on a knife's edge," says production designer Dennis Gassner, "riding the line between the original film and what we're doing now."

If you'd like to compare the build-up to Blade Runner 2049 with the build-up to Blade Runner, have a look at its own thirteen-minute promotional featurette above. Made well before the time of the modern internet, let alone modern internet videos, this 16-millimeter film production, which featured Scott, "visual futurist" Syd Mead, and special effects artist Douglas Trumbull, circulated by making the screening rounds sci-fi, fantasy, and even horror conventions all across America. Few movies, let alone sequels, have built up as much anticipation as Blade Runner 2049 has, and even fewer have such a legacy to live up to. At least the filmmakers can rest assured that, if the critics don't happen to like it, well, they didn't like the first one either.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Crash Course on Soviet Montage, the Russian Approach to Filmmaking That Revolutionized Cinema

It would have scandalized many an American filmgoer of the mid-twentieth century to learn that the movies they watched — even the most wholesome Hollywood fare of the era — made extensive use of a Soviet invention. What's more, that invention came out of the very revolution that put the Communists in power, after which the Soviet government "took a strong interest in film, because it recognized cinema for what it was — a powerful tool for social and political influence." So says Craig Benzine, host of Crash Course Film History, in the series' eighth self-contained episode, "Soviet Montage," which tells the story of that cinema-changing editing technique.

The government understood, in other words, the power of cinema as propaganda, and swiftly centralized the film industry. But after the Russian Revolution, which put an end to the importation of film stock, Russian filmmakers couldn't shoot a frame. So while the nation built up the industrial capacity to produce film stock domestically, these filmmakers — much like the video essayists on the internet today — studied existing films, breaking them down, reassembling them, and figuring out how they worked.

In this way, filmmaker Lev Kuleshov defined the "Kuleshov effect," explained by Benzine as the phenomenon whereby "viewers draw more meaning from two shots cut together than either shot on its own," and different combinations of shots produce vastly different intellectual and emotional effects in those viewers.

When they finally got some film stock, Soviet montage filmmakers, who had come to believe that "for film to reach its true potential, the cuts themselves should be visible, the audience should be aware of them, the illusion should be obviously constructed and not hidden," got to work making movies that demonstrated their ideas. They saw themselves as engineers, "joining shots the way a bricklayer builds a wall or a factory worker assembles a vehicle,"and Benzine examines sequences from two of the best-known fruits of these labors, Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and Dziga Vertov's A Man with a Movie Camera (both of which you can watch free online by following those links).

Benzine also looks to more recent examples of Soviet montage theory in practice in everything from Dumbledore's death in the Harry Potter movies to the shower scene in Psycho (a film by an avowed fan of the Kuleshov effect) to the final standoff in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. For more on the mechanics of Soviet montage, have a look at the fifteen-minute explainer from Filmmaker IQ above — or pay close attention to most any movie or television show or music video made over the past eighty years. The ideological climate that gave rise to Soviet montage theory may have changed, but the artistic principles its filmmakers discovered will, for the foreseeable future, hold true, underscoring the reliable effectiveness and surprising power of the simple cut.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Akira Kurosawa Names His 21 Favorite Art Films in the Criterion Collection

The highly auteur-respecting Criterion Collection has, as you might expect, done quite well by the work of Akira Kurosawa, director of RashomonSeven SamuraiIkiru, and Ran — to name just a few out of his many films in their catalog. Given all the time and attention Criterion puts into not just the pictures themselves but the wealth of supplemental material that goes with them, you could potentially become a Kurosawa expert from only what you can learn through Criterion releases. That includes an understanding of the 21 Criterion films that Kurosawa included on his list of favorite movies. Find them listed right below.

You'll notice that Kurosawa's Criterion selections, a subset of his list of 100 favorite movies we featured here on Open Culture a few years ago, include more than just pictures to which he would have thrilled during his formative years in Japan in the 1920s and 30s. In fact, it skews toward much more recent and international productions, right up to Paris, Texas (1984) by German New Wave star Wim Wenders, who once interviewed Kurosawa for a magazine. The younger filmmaker asked the elder only technical questions such as "'Mr. Kurosawa, you let it rain really beautifully. How do you shoot it?" "To be honest," Kurosawa admitted, "for me also such topics are more welcome, and we discussed it further. But the editors were pretty embarrassed."

Throughout his long life and career, Kurosawa enjoyed opportunities to meet more than a few of the other filmmakers whose work he admired as well. Last year we featured the story of his first meeting with Andrei Tarkovsky, at a screening of the latter's Solaris. "We were very good friends. He was like a little brother for me," Kurosawa remembered, recalling in particular one incident when the two of them got drunk together and ended up singing the Seven Samurai theme. His other Criterion selections reveal a love for the work of others in what we might call the Tarkovsky class of late 20th-century auteurs as well, from François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard to Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni.

At the top of the post you can watch the first film on Kurosawa's Criterion list, Charlie Chaplin's 1925 The Gold Rush, free online. (The version up top, we should note, is not the Criterion release itself. It's another version.) "Chaplin was very talented as an actor as well," said Kurosawa. "Do you know, comedies are most difficult to make. It's much easier to jerk tears from the audience. He, of course, was gifted as a director as well, well-versed in music. I think he was so gifted that he himself didn't know what he should do with his own talents." But Kurosawa, gifted as he was, couldn't say the same of himself, knowing as he always did exactly what movie he wanted to make next, even in periods when he couldn't shoot a single frame, working right up until the end of his days. Even the title of his final film expresses that sensibility, one that surely resonates with every lover or maker of film who knows how much of cinema always remains to explore: Madadayo, or "Not yet!"

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

What Is German Expressionism? A Crash Course on the Cinematic Tradition That Gave Us Metropolis, Nosferatu & More

German Expressionism: we've all heard of it, and though only some would even try to define it, we all, like old Potter Stewart, know it when we see it. Or do we? The movements under the umbrella of German Expressionism bore vivid and influential fruits in architecture, painting, sculpture and especially film — The Cabinet of Dr. CaligariNosferatu, and Metropolis, to say nothing of their countless descendants, will come right to the minds of most movie-lovers — but the circumstance from which it first arose remain not particularly well-understood by the public, or at least those of the public who haven't seen the brief Crash Course video on German Expressionism above (and the even shorter No Film School explainer below).

Though it also stands perfectly well alone, this primer comes as the seventh chapter of the sixteen-part Crash Course Film History, which we first featured back in April. Here host Craig Benzine addresses the question of just what makes The Cabinet of Dr. CaligariNosferatu, and Metropolis in particular so memorable by examining each film and its auteur director — Robert Wiene, F.W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang, respectively  — in turn.

The creativity of German Expressionist film, like so much creativity, arose from limitations: Germany had just lost World War I, most of its film industry had undergone state-sponsored consolidation, and independent filmmakers who didn't want to make large-scale costume dramas (the genre of choice to distract the public from the country's poverty and disorder) had to find a new way not just to get their movies made, but to give audiences a reason to watch them. With 1920's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which you can watch below along with Nosferatu), a small studio named Decla led the way.

"Written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer," says Benzine, "this film was thematically based on their experiences as soldiers in World War I and their distrust of authoritarian leadership." It innovated by presenting its story "expressionistically, rather than realistically. That is, instead of making things like the sets, costumes, and props as realistic as possible," the filmmakers "deliberately distorted everything within the frame," all "designed to look deliberately artificial and throw you off balance." This "highly subjective" cinematic sensibility, developed in Germany and then elsewhere (especially the countries to which German artists moved in flight from fascism) throughout the 1920s, still appears in modern film, well beyond the work of avowed fan Tim Burton: Benzine finds that, "from Silence of the Lambs to Don't Breathe to anything M. Night Shyamalan has ever put on film, the techniques of German Expressionism are creeping us out to this very day."

You can see 10 classic films from this tradition in our post: Watch 10 Classic German Expressionist Films: From Nosferatu to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” Is the Perfect Song to End Any Movie: The Graduate, Psycho, Easy Rider & 50+ Other Films

It’s hard to conceive of director Stanley Kubrick choosing a more perfect song for Dr. Strangelove’s final mushroom cloud montage than Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again.”

Ditto Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. Can you imagine Ben and Elaine making their existential getaway to the tune of anything other than “The Sound of Silence"?

Freelance video editor Peter Salomone can (see above). If he had his druthers, all films would end with Dire Straits’ 1985 hit, ”Walk of Life” a tune Rolling Stone described upon its release as a “bouncy Fifties rock & roll song about cool Fifties rock & roll songs,” noting its “cheesy organ sound.”

More recently, the New Zealand-based music blog Off the Tracks proclaimed it “god-awful,” suggesting that the CIA could surgically implant its “obnoxious” keyboard riff to trigger assassins, and asserting that it (“and those fucking sweatbands”) were the demise of Dire Straits.

Such critical evaluations are immaterial where Salomone’s The Walk of Life Project is concerned. Over the course of a couple months, he has gleefully applied it to the final minutes of over five dozen films, leaving the visuals unmolested.

There are no sacred cows in this realm. Casablanca and The Godfather are subjected to this aural experiment, as, somewhat mystifyingly, are Nanook of the North and Chaplin’s City Lights. Horror, Disney, musicals…Salomone dabbles in a wide variety of genres.

For my money, the most successful outcomes are the ones that impose a commercial send-em-up-the-aisles-smiling sensibility on deliberately bleak endings.

Director Danny Boyle may have allowed audiences to decompress a bit with heartwarming footage of the real life Aron Ralston, whose autobiographical account of a life-changing accident inspired the film 127 Hours, but Salomone’s choice to move the playhead to the moment shocked hikers encounter a dazed and dehydrated James Franco clutching his mutilated arm is sublime. That helicopter could not be more perfectly timed:

Some other dark gems:

Easy Rider:

Planet of the Apes


Salomone told Gizmodo that he’s taking a break from the project, so if there’s a film you think would benefit from the Walk of Life treatment, you’ll have to do it yourself, with his blessing. Fan stabs at Scarface, The Silence of the Lambs and Gone with the Wind suggest that the trick is not quite as easy to pull off as one might think.

You can view the complete collection on The Walk of Life Project’s website or YouTube channel.

via Gizmodo

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  She’ll is currently appearing as one of the clowns in Paul David Young’s Faust 3, opening this weekend in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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