Sunday 5 November 2017

Heaven and Earth Magic (1962)

Heaven and Earth Magic
Before Terry Gilliam there was Harry Everett Smith. Gilliam is (among many other things) famous for those animations he did as part of Monty Python. They were made from Victorian cut-outs, were completely surreal and were intentionally absurd. Years before Gilliam did these Harry Smith did something very similar and I am quite convinced Gilliam was inspired by Smith.

Smith’s “Heaven and Earth Magic” is a 66-minute-long animation movie based like Gilliam’s on Victorian cutouts. There is no apparent storyline, indeed any attempt at wresting a story out of this flounders. Instead we see surreal things like women on pedestals, eggs with hammers inside, skeletons with giant syringes and much, much more. There is a fellow, a male character, that appears throughout the movie, clearly a protagonist of some sort, who moves around in some sort of dance. He will carry the woman, give her a melon, find eggs with hammers inside or feed all sorts of things into the mouth of a big face.

I really have no idea what it all means. At 66 minutes it is so long that you would think that it should be more than just absurd images and novel connections and there are some hints that this play with subconscious images, but if it is religious or existentialist or whatever, I have no idea.

It is always frustrating to look at something that makes no sense and after an hour of this my attention was slipping. Yet there is something fascinating about these images. It is just so absurd that it is a novelty all in itself. I can certainly see Terry Gilliam being fascinated by this.

I tried showing a few minutes of this for my son and though mystified he actually liked it. Maybe because it was the scene where a foot appears and kick everything to pieces, that was kind of silly, even for this movie, but I also think children have an easier time accepting the absurd. I cannot help trying to find meaning in what I see and maybe there is none.

The Book writes that the intension is to combine things in new ways and draw on some common cultural references and maybe that is all it is, a playful and idle game of combining silly things. I find it hard to accept that that is all there is to it, but it is the best I can come up with.

“Heaven and Earth Magic” was a fascinating watch, but also unsatisfying. It is special and maybe that is why it is taking a slot on the List, but by taking a slot, it excludes other and better movies. Any of the three off-list movies I reviewed for 1962 deserve the slot more than “Heaven and Earth Magic”.

This concludes 1962. It took a while and with three extra movies it was also a bigger year than usual. 1962 had a lot of excellent movies and it will be difficult for 1963 to reach these heights. But I can always hope it will.


  1. Your reaction to this was about the same as mine, although I think you're kinder to it than I was. I made the same connection to Gilliam's animations.

    The difference, of course, is that Gilliam's animations were often funny.

    1. That is a very important difference. Smith's animations are not funny, but obscure and weird.