Bring On the Dancing Bears

Vintage techniques get new life in this program of shorts.

OLD FILM IS NEW again. Hip, history-minded artists have lately been turning back to the supposed limitations of the silent era, reviving old techniques and tropes for their own ends. You see that tendency in bands such as Seattle's Ensemble Sub Masa performing new, live scores to old silents, and in sepia-tinted Old Hollywood yarns like Shadow of the Vampire and The Cat's Meow. From Canada, Deco Dawson has some similar ideas about reappropriating nitrate stock—five of his short films are being shown at the Little Theatre, along with some of his photographs and performances of his stage work (Wednesday, Feb. 12 through Sunday, Feb. 23). Several other collaborative shorts, including Guy Maddin's wonderful Heart of the World, will also be screened.

To view Dawson's FILM(emend), with its grainy, blurry, splotchy, black-and-white cinematography (accompanied only by music and no title cards), you might think it was shot during the era of E.S. Porter. It hasn't just been aged; it looks like it was unspooled, tied to a car bumper, and dragged down a gravel road. But Dawson's work hearkens back less to the two-reel conventions of Porter, who was busy codifying narrative into The Great Train Robbery in 1903, and more to the pre-World War I trick films and surrealism of Ren頃laire, Man Ray, and other members of the Parisian avant-garde. A woman knits furiously in some kind of dark, isolated guardhouse. Then she suffers stigmatalike wounds, as does the obsessive, unhappy shoe polisher in FILM(luster), who's trapped forever in his futile labor.

Full of divided souls and warring doubles, Dawson's films are, in content as well as form, throwbacks to the time of Marx and Freud. Two miners dream of killing each other in FILM(lode). There's both the violence of the oppressed proletariat turned against itself and the fever-logic of the subconscious mind: Eisenstein crossed with Dr. Seuss—as when the two men chase each other with pick axes to Khachaturian's "Saber Dance."

Dawson's best and most sustained work, the 23-minute FILM(dzama), concerns an illustrator who literally falls into the trunk of his own imagination. There, he visits a kind of twisted Disney studio commissary where pantomime bears, cartoon cowboys, and fish-headed figures dance to Kurt Weil. His sketches of naked flappers burst into short live-action sequences, surreal but whimsical. (Plus more dancing bears!)

WHAT LIES BENEATH this pastiche of Russian constructivism, German expressionism, and Dada? Dawson claims to be more of a theater guy than a film geek, citing Samuel Beckett as an influence on his nightmarish scenarios of confinement and compulsive reiteration. (Think of Happy Days, with its babblingly oblivious protagonists buried to their waists in dirt.) There are hints of brief escape (mainly in dream), followed by more shoes to polish, more rope to pull, more cartoon sketches to be crumpled up and tossed in a pile. Therein lies a telling difference between Dawson's silent-era inspirations and the tireless heroics of Chaplin, Lloyd, or Keaton: No matter how many obstacles were thrown against those guys, they always prevailed (as Chaplin does against the bear in The Gold Rush).

Yet those silent-era paladins famously lacked any psychological depth. Here, it's all psychology, all interiority (virtually every character is trapped in claustrophobic space and darkness). Dawson takes the jittery repeated actions of silent film—which would be considered continuity errors today—and distends them even further, like the shoe polisher, into repetitive regress. But the Little Tramp never comes to the rescue.

It all sounds darker than it is. Dawson takes a willfully naive, retro approach to his vignettes that also gives them a certain safe distance. As if leafing through an old book of Freud's case studies (e.g., The Man Who Polished Shoes), you can imagine these vignettes are the neuroses of the last century—instead of our own, projected backward into the nickelodeon.

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