Friday, January 20, 2012

I Have No Words

Film: Heaven and Earth Magic
Format: Internet video on laptop.

It’s not often that I find myself so completely flummoxed by a film that I have nothing to say, but such is the case with Harry Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magic, alternatively titled No. 12. When I say that I can make no sense of this film, it seems like I’m just being lazy. I understand that. To give you an idea of what I mean, though, I’m going to use Smith’s own words to define his film. I found this on Wikipedia. I know Wikipedia is not always reliable, but damn me if this description doesn’t at least somewhat cover what I watched.

According to Smith, this film’s story is this: “The first part depicts the heroine’s toothache consequent to the loss of a very valuable watermelon, her dentistry and transportation to heaven. Next follows an elaborate exposition of the heavenly land, in terms of Israel and Montreal. The second part depicts the return to Earth from being eaten by Max Muller on the day Edward VII dedicated the Great Sewer of London.” Got that? Yeah, me neither.

When I was a kid, I was a huge Monty Python fan. I still am, really. I love Python stuff. I have all of the shows on DVD and own most of the films. I remember watching the show every Sunday night on public television (WTTW, channel 11, Chicago). Every Sunday, it was Python at 10:00 followed by Dave Allen at Large, which I claimed to like despite the fact that much of it was too adult for me to really understand. Anyway, when I’d watch Python, my mother would comment on how stupid she thought the Terry Gilliam cartoons were. I secretly loved the cartoons—they were some of my favorite things from the show.

I promise this isn’t a tangent. Heaven and Earth Magic is essentially a 66-minute-long Gilliam cartoon. Actually, Gilliam’s animations on Python come after Smith’s film, which means that Gilliam may well have gotten inspired by Smith’s work. What we have here are cut-out photographs that sometimes animate. Most of the animation is simplistic, often two-step animation. Little cut-out photographic people walk in herky-jerky motions across the screen. They give each other fish. A cow appears and is hit with a mallet, turning into a map of the various cuts. The woman of Smith’s alleged plot merges with her dental chair.

Yeah, it’s pretty damn avant garde. This impression is in no way changed by the bizarre soundtrack, which is essentially sound effects rather than any sort of music. Parts of the soundtrack might well be considered music—that is if you call a ceaselessly ringing bell accompanied by the sound of several clocks and a steam whistle to be music.

Seriously, this is one messed up film. I have no idea what any of it means. Even if we take Smith’s description of his own work at face value, I still have no idea what any of it means.

Look, I’ll make this really simple. I like Terry Gilliam’s animations. I think they are often funny. But when they go full-on avant garde with intentionally obscure meanings and last for more than an hour, I have enough of them quickly. By 20 minutes in , I was very much ready for this thing to be done. At the 40 minute mark, I was wondering how much more I could take.

Ultimately, avant garde cinema just makes my head hurt. I don’t gain anything in my life or in terms of valid meaning for my existence when I watch a skeleton and a machine essentially play jai alai with a cooing baby that turns into a watermelon. It is beyond me to see how I could have been enriched by such an experience, even on the best of days. Heaven and Earth Magic is not a challenging film; it is a punishing one.

I’m not going to pretend to make up a meaning here, folks. I have not a clue what any of this is about or is supposed to mean. I’m certain there is meaning here; I just seem incapable of fathoming what it is. And I have a genuine desire to soak my head in Epsom salts. Further, I’d suggest that you could show me a clip from this film from virtually any point in its running time, and I wouldn’t know which part it came from.

In the final analysis, I’m just glad it’s done.

Why to watch Heaven and Earth Magic: It will put skid marks on your brain.
Why not to watch: Because at 66 minutes, it’s 33 times too long.


  1. Good grief. I'm very much with you. I haven't watched this movie but I have the feeling I'd be on the same page as you. The worst film I've seen in my life was #23,2, Book of Mirrors, which I wrote about here But at least that film was short. Watching a long avant-guard movie as yours sounds incredibly painful. It was a fun review to read though!

  2. Loved the review, especially the "Why not to watch" comment. I haven't seen this film. I don't even remember ever hearing of it, actually. I don't think I'll be trying to track it down anytime soon.

  3. Believe it or not, I found this thing on YouTube broken into seven pieces. After the third one, I was starting to question the value of continuing, but I figured that once I got that far, I might as well finish it up.

    Also, in the picture above, there's a watermelon in the head on the left. That's the watermelon that our heroine loses at the start, and that stupid watermelon shows up through the entire film.

    I understand the "so bad it's good" thing with films. This doesn't hit that category. It just hurts. There's nothing specific to laugh at. I spent the whole hour with the same expression on my face that my dog has when it hears a noise it doesn't understand.

  4. I know I didn't get a lot from this but I suspect that Terry Gilliam was inspired by this film for his Python animation shorts (I think the key word "short" is what makes them more tolerable). If it is possible that it played any part in the Gilliam that was to follow, I think it was worthy of mention. I certainly thought it was better than Dog Star Man.

  5. Most things are better than Dog Star Man. While this is an untested hypothesis, I think a high colonic is better than Dog Star Man.

  6. I was going to try to watch this in 20-minute segments but I can't do it. I've been watching it in bits all day and I'm barely halfway through it.

    I sometime go "That's pretty cool" to things like the dancing skeleton, but a few minutes later you're still watching the skeleton and it's quite a bit less cool.

    It needs the "It's" man and a John Philip Sousa score and a giant hedgehog wandering around going "Dinsdale?"

    1. Fun fact: I used to have a pet hedgehog named Spiny Norman.

      Good luck finishing this up. At least it's only a little over an hour long.

    2. I did quite a bit better with the last half. Either I was getting into the flow of it or maybe I was just more in the mood for it in the afternoon. When the little energetic fellow was feeding the giant head, that was entertaining. And then the falling celestial elevator with the John L. Sullivan-Gentleman Jim Corbett fight and the dog chasing the watermelon and all the other King Hell Capers. I liked that a lot too.

    3. I've had similar experiences with movies like this. I get to a point where it feels like it takes forever to get half an hour in, and then suddenly I have some sort of mental breakthrough with it.

  7. Yeah, the Terry Gilliam animations are a hoot. As a child I was mystified by them, but now they are one of the best part in their shows. My favorite is the big foot, which from time to time will trash whatever is happening.
    Smith's animations are just weird.

    1. Agreed. I think this may have influenced Gilliam, but Gilliam's work is so much better.