Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

Christmas comes but once year, and some of us know what to do with it. A tree? Full of dangly things and noisy things and paper things? It's a catmas miracle! I'm told one of these monsters almost got Rudolph last night.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Recent Films, Autumn 2010

It's been ages since I've written up my new film viewing - partly because I haven't exactly been overwhelmed by the new films I've seen, partly because I haven't seen that many. (Going for older stuff instead, like three viewings of The Third Man this week, that sort of thing...) This is nothing but a sketch, going back a couple months. Some of these films I might come back to - well - one of them, I might come back to. (And Carlos is going to get its own post, though I won't make any promises about when.) It's pretty surprisingly thin pickings for the fall, I think.

White Material - 12/15 - I have to see it again - it only lasted 2 weeks in town... when I do, I hope I can come up with more to say about it.... It's a fantastic film, haunting and driven - Isabelle Huppert intense... set in Africa, a country on the brink of civil war (or toppling over from brink to throes), following Huppert, whose family runs a coffee plantation - it is harvest time - she is determined to bring the harvest in - but the rest of the family is useless, the government tells her to leave, but she won't go, etc. I can't do it justice, so won't try now. Beautiful, haunting, harrowing, another worthy entry in Claire Denis' filmography - she is one of the world's best, and every time shows it again.

Black Swan - 9/15 - I suppose Darren Aronofsky is something of an important filmmaker - he has chops - but I have yet to be won over by any of his films. This one has a lot going for it, but too much of it comes from somewhere else. It's got Nathalie Portman playing a ballerina who manages to win a plum role (partly since the company's artistic director seems to have broken up with the previous star ballerina and has designs on her, something like that.) There's a rival, though, just in from the west coast, sexy and ambitious and not above sabotage. Maybe. It might all be in the heroine's head! All this plays as a mashup of Inland Empire, The Piano Teacher, The Red Shoes and miscellaneous other dance movies... looks nice, but so what? There's nothing new in the story, and even the execution is imported - certainly Haneke and Lynch did it better... I think there is a better film lurking in it, though - like The Wrestler, the best stuff is in the details, the physicality of it. What you see in the dance scenes, in the preparations - preparing shoes, the trainer massaging Portman, a shot of the back muscles of two dancers practicing a move. Those moments, Aronofsky's ability to capture the physical details of bodies and material and movement, make the psychodrama seem trite.

Marwencol - 10/15 - fascinating documentary about Mark Hogancamp, a man in upstate New York who was beaten half to death 10 years ago (more or less) and who, when the money for his therapy ran out, started building elaborate dioramas with GI Joes and Barbie dolls as a way of practicing his motor skills and keeping his imagination active. He invented a town - Marwencol, an imaginary Belgian town in WWII, a place where everyone sort of calls off the war for a while, to hang around, have a beer, watch some cat-fighting... Until the SS comes, looking for drink! He started taking pictures of what he built, very carefully composed and staged pictures, and eventually these found their way to the art world, and from there, he got attention, and even a show. And a film made about him. The film is pretty basic, nothing too special, as a film, but it's such a fascinating story - and Hogancamp's work, both building the town and photographing it, is so strong - dramatic and compelling - that it becomes a powerful and lovely movie. I admit, it also plays into one of my fascinations - hand made, home made art, especially narrative art made from - detritus? scavengings? what do you call it? Whatever it is, I find it fascinating, and Hogancamp is as good at it as anyone...

I Love You Phillip Morris - 8/15 - Jim Carrey as a con man - starting out as a cop, looking for his birth mother, than, after a car accident, deciding to come out of the closet - and turn to a life of crime. Insurance fraud, mostly - which lands him in jail where he meets the love of his life, Phillip Morris, played by Ewan MacGregor... Well - they fall in love, they get out of jail, he cons his way into honest work as CFO of a medical supply company of some kind, where he makes them a ton of money and embezzles a ton for himself... and ends up back in jail... All this is amusing - Carrey gets to let himself go, and is great when he's on the make, but it does turn into a bit of a downer (and a drag) when he the facts intrude.

Tiny Furniture - 9/15 - not sure what to say. Story of a kid just out of college, Aura by name, home, living with her mother (who happens to be a very successful artist, with a vast studio/loft in Tribeca) and sister... She - Aura - mopes and procrastinates, hangs around with loathsome young men and a crazy old girlfriend, takes a hopeless job, wallows in various forms of self-pity, sort of suffers, acts cruelly toward a friend.... All in all, it's handsome looking, amusing, but a bit off putting - all those loathsome characters behaving badly - and centered around a hopeless sad sack, played as a a bit of a damp dishrag.... The rest of the cast has a better time of it - they generally get to revel in their awfulness - playing a cad has to be such a joy for an actor. Still - hard to say how this could be done better - a stronger protagonist would probably come off as even more self-pitying - this way, it's possible, at least, to think her passive-aggression and self-indulgence is meant to look pathetic. I guess. Still - it's not half bad, for all that.

(These I saw a long time ago - not sure how much I can say at this point.)

Waking Sleeping Beauty (9/15) - solid documentary abouyt the rebirth of Disney's animation department. That's about all I can say about it - it's good on telling the story, not so much on bringing any kind of critical thought to it. That's all right - does what it sets out to do.

Anton Chekhov's The Duel (10/15) - fine, conventional Chekhov adaptation, about a civil servant and his mistress, and the crisis in their affair - her husband has died, he wants to get rid of her, but lacks money and will... he has enemies, she has suitors... All of this elliptical and subtle, very Chekhov...

Inside Job (10/15) - fascinating and infuriating film about the financial meltdown - makes the plain obvious point that wall street and the investment banks were run like a combination of a ponzi scheme and racketeering. Deregulation allowed criminals to prosper in the financial world - and by the 90s and 00s, the system had evolved to positively encourage dishonest behavior. All the incentives - from high compensation to public ownership of investment banks (and the attendant emphasis on stock prices and constant growth) - encouraged risky, predatory, short term profit maximizing strategies - with no real risk from failure. And - when the thole thing failed - most of them walked away, or kept going, or got jobs in the government. And then - as the recent Peter Orszag stories reiterate - went right back into the banks, for a few million a year. Hard not to feel utterly helpless in the face of this stuff.

Red (7/15) - very amusing if stupid actioner with a bunch of retired spooks being knocked off and getting together to go after the people doing it. I can't quite explain the plot, which has something to do with a VP killing off his past, at the behest of a contractor - but it's quite amusing, with a hammy cast in full swing... very welcome Mary Louise Parker sighting - one of those actresses lost to TV, but who brings life to anything. She holds her own with the rest of the hams.

Friday, December 17, 2010

What About After That?

This is sad - Captain Beefheart, Don van Vliet, has died.

Having swiped a good part of this humble blog's motto and purpose from the Captain - my opinion of him should be clear...

And - here's a clip, live for radio, with Frank Zappa on guitar, a wonderful take of a magnificent song, Orange Claw Hammer...

One of the greats.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

December Miscellany

Nothing much important here, but the world is turning around me, and I should put in a word....

The Cliff Lee sweepstakes are over - turns out there really was a "mystery team" - the Phillies! Not that mysterious, I guess. You had to wonder if they were going to step into any of the bidding - they aren't that far off the Boston/New York superteam standard. I will have to work up some baseball thoughts when I have some time - it has been a happy season here in the land of the bean and the cod...

On the film front - I have to get a note up about David Cairns' Late Film Blogathon, ongoing now.

UPDATE: forgot this one - Spielberg blogathon, hosted by Adam Zanzie (Icebox Movies) and Ryan Kelly (Medfly Quarantine.) Running from 12/18-28 - that is, right now!

Coming in January - a Hitchcock Blogathon - a very promising affair.

And? I must leave you - I am still in thrall to the Vampires, for another day or so. After that, the holidays... I hope to get back in here and make up for some of my slackness, but who knows.

For now - Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

30 Years

...since John Lennon's death. It was a fairly incomprehensible shock to me when it happened - more than I expected it to be. I was a Beatles fan before, but not terribly passionate - that came afterwards. I think - who can trust their memories?

There are many ways to memorialize Mr. Lennon - in today's political climate, though, I think this is necessary. We're still fucking peasants as far as I can see. He could have written this in 1980 - he could have written it today - and it would ring perfectly true. More true - this country, at least, does not seem to be moving forward - the class system is becoming more obvious, the divisions between rich and poor, those with power and without it, more extreme. We seem very willing to give up our freedom. We may or may not be getting better at smiling when we kill, but we sure seem eager to let the ones who can run the country. A working class hero is something to be...

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Holiday Excuses?

I am actually rather shocked that it has been three weeks since I posted anything here. It's been a busy three weeks, with vacations and holidays -

(A thankful cat...)

- and a paper, about vampires, with this one figuring prominently:

- and not much else. I do have something of a backlog of films to write about. It's been a pretty underwhelming year in the theaters, and there hasn't been much this fall to tempt me out of the house, but there have been a few gems. White Material is all it should be - any Claire Denis film is an event, as far as I am concerned. And I had the chance to see both versions of Carlos - great film, and the relationship between the two is quite fascinating as well. There's a post in that, though I don't know when I'll get it done. I might also get a post or two out of the vampires before I'm done, you never know... And finally, well - there's Jayne Mansfield, ably presented by Frank Tashlin and company, which if nothing else, is worth a picture or two...

But still... I hope I get more content up here in December. Though it's another month that can disappear in a flash, with all the holiday stuff going on. I will conclude with a sports related comment - we Boston baseball fans have gotten a very lovely early Christmas present in Adrian Gonzalez. That is a fine way to warm the soul on these cold winter nights!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

In Praise of Ishtar

The Harvard Film Archive is hosting an Elaine May retrospective this weekend, and hosting Elaine May herself. The high point of this - though any May film is a high point - is Ishtar, a pristine print, a packed house, and May herself. The others have played a couple times through the years - I've seen them in a cinema over the years - but not Ishtar. It's hard enough to find it on any medium - it was sheer bliss to see it as it should be seen.

I suppose if I'm going to write about Ishtar, I have to write about my history of seeing Ishtar. When it came out, I read the reviews, all of them - that I can remember - atrocious - hung up on the budget, the miscast stars, the awkward mix of political satire and silly adventure tale, and believed them. Over the years, it turned up on TV, and I'd see bits of it - and finally saw the whole thing sometime in the early 90s. (1993, according to the notes I found.) I did not like it. I said the bad reputation was deserved. I thought it had some cute ideas, but they weren't executed well, and whenever it started to get clever, something came along and swallowed it up. I wished it was more like the Marx Brothers - the characters in on the joke. (Even if they were morons.) I suppose the cluelessness of the leads - and the consistency of their cluelessness - was a turn off.

And then? it kept coming on TV, here and there, over the years - I'd see bits of it here and there - and over time, somehow, something changed. I guess, in the simplest terms, it would come on, usually toward the end - and I would stick with it until I was bored - and I found that I didn't get bored. I started forming a new idea of it. It was amusing - crude looking, I would think, awkward and unconvincing, but funny, and sweet, in an odd way. I would watch it when it turned up, and found myself enjoying it, certain scenes - the shootout in the desert; Charles Grodin's line readings; and the songs, which in fact I'd always thought were hilarious. And then? over the years, I saw the other Elaine May films, got a better idea of what she was doing. I saw Cassavetes films, I even saw Luc Moullet films, I started noticing resemblance to Monty Python films - I started to get a context for what was happening in Ishtar, and thought I might really like it if I could see it again.

And when I did see it, a year or so ago, when it turned up streaming on Netflix, I got it - I loved it. The pieces came together - I enjoyed it without reservation. And now - seeing it on the big screen, packed house, Elaine May in attendance, a May and Nichols skit played before the main attraction - it really comes into its own. First - seen that way, it really looks lovely. Seeing it on various TV channels through the years did it no favors - it's a very handsome film, with some superb moments. I will say - for the most part it is a fairly workmanlike film - it's not showy, not too visually clever, just a solid handsome film with 2 or 3 bravura moments (the chase through the marketplace, shot and choreographed in two spaces, roofs and streets, over a couple long takes, is just wonderful). But it doesn't need to do much more - in fact, it benefits from the intimacy of its style. It's a very funny film - but the funniest moments aren't so much in the one liners, the gags, as in the playing of the gags, the delivery of the lines. It's in the timing, in the tone of voice, in the actors movements and faces - it's the way Grodin says, "We did not shoot at two Americans in the desert! We did not!" that slays me.... or the whole scene of Grodin and Hoffman talking politics in a restaurant, with three CIA waiters - Grodin's reactions to Hoffman's question about whether Qaddafi was near Morocco... the joke is a good one (Hoffman not knowing who, or what, Qaddafi is, let alone where Librya is) - but the execution of the joke makes it priceless.

And that's what I missed, more than anything else, back in 1993. I was looking for inside jokes and clever dialogue and missed the joy everyone in the film (from May down through all the performers) takes in the execution of its jokes, in the details, in the pauses and delays built into everything. It's a film about clueless Americans, screwing things up overseas, about ignorance and confusion - and the gags, as much as the plot, are built around cluelessness, misunderstanding - around nothing being what it seems, around people talking past one another, about being wrong about everything. Signs and wonders, always misunderstood - simple conversations misunderstood. No one quite sure when other people are talking in code - like Grodin telling Hoffman to move the camel, Hoffman trying to figure out what this means, what will this signal to whoever Grodin is sending signs to - when in fact the beast is on his foot... I don't know if I can explain this - I mean, if I can articulate the reasons I find this film so delightful, more enjoyable every time I come across it. You can't quote it, exactly - you can't quote it on a blog, definitely - the effect of most of the jokes comes in the line readings, or in the exact situation in the film. You can't quote a pause... The situations are funny, but they are, after all, pretty standard issue adventure spoof situations - it's in the ways they are played, the way the oddball readings of oddball lines create the gentle surrealism the film gets.

And it's in things like the way Warren Beatty walks. It's a big meta-joke that he's a schmuck with the ladies and Hoffman isn't - but what sells the joke is how well he plays it - the way he walks down the street, big and awkward, next to Hoffman's (not quite right, but not quite wrong) hipster slither... He makes himself seem more than a little ridiculous - that takes work, when you are Warren Beatty, especially when you are tasked with making a joke out of being Warren Beatty and being a little ridiculous - but he does. I could watch him all day. I could watch Hoffman or Grodin all day - though I would have to hear them, too.

The problem, of course, is that it ain't easy to see this film. It's not streaming on Netflix anymore - it's never circulated on DVD, not in the time I've looked for it. (There's a Region 2 DVD apparently - that's about all.) It doesn't turn up on TV anymore - it doesn't play theaters - it's still invisible. That's a shame. And I don't quite know how it can change - without demand, it won't become available; if it's not available to be seen, there won't be any demand. It's possible, I suppose, for fans to ballyhoo it - but I don't think talk can do it - and it's not a great quote movie, it's funniest in the delivery and in the situations, the characters - and even if there were ways to find images of it, post those - they don't quite show what makes the film so good. It's a performers' movie, and needs to be seen. It played last night along with a short film, made from Nichols and May's Bach to Bach - not that clip, which is just from the record - this film, made by Paul Leaf. It helps - it's fascinating how much of the aesthetic of their fifties skits is still operating in Ishtar. From the start (that's 1958, I think), their comedy worked as much in the timing, the pauses, the interplay of voices, the emphases, and the characters, and stories coming out of the characters, as in the jokes and lines. A like - "It's so hard to acknowledge the fact that aggressiveness need not be hostile." - is funny enough on its own - but as May says it, it's magnificent... And the joy of a line like this - "I know exactly what you mean! Exactly what you mean!" - is completely in Nichol's delivery. And that carries through to the film - whatever the merits of the story, script, and so on (and don't get me wrong - there's a lot to like there), the real majesty of the film comes in the execution. You need to see it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

November 11

Another Armistice Day is almost gone - a holiday I'm inclined to remember, in its original incarnation. World War I is finally over - the Germans making their last war reparation payment this October - but it's effects haven't gone away. Iraq, most of the trouble in the Middle East, that all goes back to World War I, and it's going nowhere. And as a war, the war itself - it still stands out for its raw horror and insanity and sheer pointlessness. I mentioned last year that a disproportionate number of the best anti-war films were set in WWI - it's hard to imagine any other kind of film about that war. (There were a few, between the wars, in the build up to the second world war - but that is about all.) And it is hard to think about World War I and not think about the plain insanity of war itself. To spend any time thinking seriously about World War I is to turn anti-war.

I spent some time a month or so ago reading about the war - reading about battles. I can't say I've studied it all that much - I grew up a history nerd, a war nerd, reading insatiably about the Civil War, WWII, Indian Wars, the Revolution - not so much about WWI though. And that probably for good reason - there's no way to turn the Great War into anything particularly engaging. There's nothing exciting or heroic about it - even more than that, there's barely any narrative about it. After the first year, it's just murder. Other wars have their moral element, political issues behind the fighting - slavery in the Civil War, the holocaust, and Nazi and Japanese aggression in WWII - WWI just has two groups of more or less unsavory governments fighting over obscure principals or power. And maybe even more than that - the nature of combat in WWI took away the sense of personal investment you can get from WWII history. It's an odd thing, but I probably turned pacifist from reading Audie Murphy - the realization that by the end of the book, all his friends have been shot - hit me. The effect depended, though, on the personalization of those soldiers - on the way they were killed or hurt one by one, over time, individually... something at odds with much of what I have read about the First World War. Killing came in waves, in masses. 20,000 soldiers in a day. (Though by the second world war, people were killing 100,000 civilians in a night; in a second; it's not like WWII lacks in evil.) The scale of WWI's combat - well over a million men shot in several battles, that moved the lines - what? a mile or two? in three months? that would be lost a couple months later? It's hard to wrap your mind around it, the number of men involved, the amount of effort that had to be expended on killing them.

Those are the qualities that make it such a prime source for anti-war films, I think. The madness of it; the lack of moral and political distinctions between the sides; the tendency to swallow heroism and individuality whole (where the fighting is concerned.) I celebrated the day (if "celebrated" is the word) by watching Paths of Glory - which gets at some of this. The arbitrariness of the executions is as good a symbol as any of the complete arbitrariness of the entire war. Those three deaths had no more or less impact on the war than all the others. The mind-boggling stupidity and viciousness of the tactics and strategy of the war are hard to believe, even. But there it is... Kubrick manages a bit of a neat trick there - personalizing the men who died - zeroing in on three of them, while maintaining the sense of randomness in their deaths. They have no chance - their actions are meaningless. They are swallowed whole, but they were alive...

So - to remember - Veterans of all wars, the people stuck in the middle of these things, though they almost never have anything to do with the reasons for being there... and veterans of that war, the war that should have ended all wars, but failed at that as much as it failed at everything else - not ending all wars, but breeding war and horror in its wake. All right.

Start with an interview with the last American veteran, Frank Buckles:

And some vintage footage - here, Ypres, 1914:

The Battle of the Somme:

and gas attack footage:

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Japanese Film Blogathon, 2010

I don't have any content yet, but I have to post a link to this - the second Japanese Film Blogathon, hosted by Wildgrounds. It's probably no secret that Japanese film is one of my passions - I will have to contribute. And I will certain enjoy the reading.

I could start by answering the questions on this page (there is a poll - go answer, if you wish!):

1) What is your favorite era of Japanese cinema? Up to the end of the 30s? 40s and 50s? 60s? 70s and 80s? 90s and 00s?

If I have to answer - the 50s - the old guard (Mizoguchi, Ozu, Naruse, etc.) were still at the peak of the powers - the post-war generation (Kurosawa, Ichikawa, Kobayashi, etc.) came into their own, and were also at the height of their powers - younger filmmakers got their start (Imamura, Masumura, etc.); you had thriving genre cinema, along with art cinema, all of it - pop and art - capable of creating powerful, exciting work... It's an absolute golden age of film. And from an auteurist point of view - Ozu, Kurosawa and Naruse all produced a body of work in the 50s that will rank with any director's decade ever - Mizoguchi comes off below them only because he only survived half the decade. And Ichikawa's 50s work is not far off the mark.

Now - I imagine, if I were able to see as many films from the 30s as I have the 50s, it could challenge the later decade. Ozu, in the 30s, might have been even more impressive than he was in the 50s; the only other major director I have seen even a fair sampling of from the 30s is Naruse - his early work also holds up very well to the later... So I don't know. I do know - the 60s were a strange time - when pop cinema thrived; when the new wave directors created films as impressive as anyone anywhere - Imamura's 60s films can stand with anyone's, Oshima isn't far behind, and many others - Suzuki, Teshigahara, Shinoda, etc. - did fine work as well. The previous generation - Kurosawa, Ichikawa, etc. - continued to make good films, but started to drop off. Kurosawa dropped out of sight for half the decade - Ichikawa's films started to decline (roughly when Natto Wada stopped collaborating with him)... And - if I remember my history right - the film market collapsed utterly. A collapse that continued in the 70s, and knocked even the art film makers out of action - Imamura disappeared for most of the 70s, Oshima was forced abroad, Kurosawa could barely work.... Since 1980 - I think Japanese film has been revived - certainly, a lot of the old guard started making films again, and good ones; new talent emerged, and so on - but at a much more modest level than the past. Though even now, a number of my absolute favorite contemporary directors are Japanese....

2) What is your favorite genre? Jidai-geki/Chambara? Horror/Monster? Yakuza/gangster? Gendai-geki/shomin-geki? Pinku/roman-porno? Anime?

This is harder to answer - because in general, I am not so much a fan of genres as of films - I certainly like art films, and auteurist films - my favorite genres, you might say, are directors. So - Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse, Kurosawa, Ichikawa, Imamura, Oshima, Suzuki, Kurosawa, Miyazaki, Kore-Eda, Miike - working across the full range of genres, almost. Though for poll taking purposes, the answer is always Ozu.

But still - go read - and I hope to come up with something of my own for this... it is a subject very dear to my heart.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Welcome Back, 1929!

...we haven't missed you... I refer of course to the election, and the Republicans retaking the House of Representatives. I certainly understand the frustration with the continued difficulties the economy is in - I don't understand why anyone would think that electing Republicans would help. And it's particularly frustrating given that the house has been the most reliably positive branch of government these two years - Obama (to quote Roy Edroso) is a "trimmer and a pudding" - the Senate has been as obstructionist (with 59 or 60 nominal Democrats, or Democrat allies) as any opposition party - the Supreme Court has been quite effectively moved right for decades.... Pelosi was about all you could hang on to.

Well? if 2 years of disappointment cause a huge shift from Democrat to Republican, maybe the next two years will cause a huge shift back - not likely, I'm afraid, but we can cling to it. One of the more annoying traits in recent decades is the tendency to treat the president like a prime minister (if not a king) - to ignore what happens in the legislature, and blame or credit the president for everything. So - if things get much much worse in the next 2 years - a not unlikely possibility - the president will probably be blamed, no matter how much congress is to blame.... or - what is even stranger - the president will be blamed, but reelected anyway, while Democrats in congress will lose seats... It's happened before.

I admit - I don't particularly trust the voters to act sensibly. I don't know how that can be fixed. I think this state of affairs is very carefully supported by the powers that are (mainly lobbyists, though a good many of the actual politicians in power seem to concur) - they work very hard to keep people from voting rationally, to convince people that elections are symbols, that politics is posture, and policy is too complicated for our little heads to worry about. And that this cynicism and inherent corruption is, in fact, inherent, inevitable, and What Politics Is, and stop worrying about it. The stronger minded ignore politics - the weaker minded find someone to hate and cheer for the slogans.... That's a hard attitude to counter, since the only way to counter it is by grinding away at simple stuff - "but what policies do the Republicans hold that you like?" as someone I know kept asking in a recent political argument with someone determined to get rid of the Dems... Maybe John Stewart can save us, I don't know...

Monday, November 01, 2010

Crossing the Line

I want to add a bit more about the style in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Of all the tricks Mamoulian pulls out - the roving camera, the first person shots, all the fancy transitions (radial wipes, lateral wipes, lap dissolves and such), and holding those transitions halfway through, all the special effects and makeup and whatnot - I want to pick out one - the 180 degree cuts, especially between closeups. I suppose those things are just made for me - Ozu fan that I am - seeing it here, in a Hollywood film, is quite wonderful. I like the variety you get, too - the shot opening this post is a reverse angle on the shot opening yesterday's post on the film - that is, a cut between fairly long shots of the audience and Jekyll at his lecture...

Then there is this - starting with a profile shot of Jekyll and a girl at his clinic:

Cutting in to these shots - the girl, starting to walk, and Jekyll encouraging her:

...And later - in the love scene between Jekyll and his fiancee, Mamoulian repeats the series of shots, pushing it even further - starting, again, with a profile two shot:

Then cutting at 90 degrees to Rose Hobart, then 180 degrees to March, then back to Hobart closer, and so on:

It's pushing the principal about as far as you are likely to see. Of course, Mamoulian establishes frontality from the beginning of the film - the subjective camera device justifies it at first, but it doesn't take long for the motivation to disappear, as seen in the shots above.

And all of it sets up and pays off the doubling theme, playing on the image of a man looking in a mirror - and allowing for mathced images across time. Jekyll in the mirror -

...becomes Hyde in the mirror...

And from there - you can expand the principal - Jekyll slicking his hair back - Hyde slicking his hair back (in a mirror, naturally, with Ivy on hand, as before...)

... and so on. A clever, innovative, piece of work indeed, and all its tricks integrated into its story and themes - films like this just make me sing...

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Look.... Look... Look

I have said before, I rather dread October in the blog world - a solid month of horror film posts - blah... It's not that I don't like horror films, I think it might be a certain generic resentment - you don't see whole months devoted to melodramas do you? westerns, screwball comedies, the color blue? I suspect if you did, if ever February were given over the romantic comedies, say, I would soon get tired of that, too... I start here with ritual condemnation because this complaint is particularly disingenuous this year. I am positively steeped in horror related art just now. There is that vampire class - so it's a book and a movie a week about vampires. (Though we seem to have left the horror section behind - doesn't seem to be a lot of horror left by the time you get to Anita Blake or Dead Witch Walking - they seem a lot more Stan Lee than Bram Stoker.) And that aside, I keep watching horror films, and thinking about horror films when I'm watching other kinds. Did I mention that Mark Zuckerberg sometimes seems like a vampire? Who wouldn't think about vampires watching Inside Job? Or Carlos?

Though more directly - I'm certainly attentive to the overlap between vampire stories and other kinds of horror films. Questions of sympathy - watching vampire films and books pick up on the idea of the tragic monster. It's interesting that of the wave of horror classics in the early 30s, at Universal mainly, but elsewhere too, Dracula is probably the least sympathetic to its monster - Dracula is a monster, with some charm, perhaps, but not much in the way of pathos. Compare him to Frankenstein's monster - to the Mummy, or the Invisible Man - or to other studio's horror characters, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They all have their reasons - they are all, in some sense, driven to their evil, and we are made to feel the loss when they go wrong. (And in a couple of them, we are brought very close to seeing them as not evil in the least.) In Dracula, we get that with Renfield - though he's a secondary character - not so much the Count himself. But from the first sequel, it's there, even more overtly than in some of the others - Dracula's Daughter is a sympathetic, self-reflective, guilt ridden vampire who fights her legacy, her nature, her evil nature, her needs. It is a very sad film, full of ironies that you can't quite ignore - the way she keeps begging people for help and no one understands her, no one is willing to help her, and when, inevitably, she acts - they carry on like she has been a demon from hell. This is, in fact, something of a trademark for at least one strand of horror films - it obviously goes back to literary sources, Dr. Faustus or Dr. Jekyll, good men who found that evil was present with them, any number of doppelganger stories and temptation stories and stories of overreaching or too late repentance...

It's interesting in those 30s films. First - those early films seem to have been made for two sets of eyes - like there are two films in one. I mean - most of them are, on the surface, straightforward horror films, with ugly, horrible monsters, doing terrible things to pretty innocents (or not so innocents, but still pretty.) And since films, in those days, played, and then went away, never to be seen again (at least until Henri Langlois came along), this is how they were remembered. But when you see them over and over - you notices how much sympathy most of them show their monsters. Now - after decades of availability on video, DVD, etc. - this probably doesn't come as much of a surprise. But they were always made that way, weren't they? For two audiences - the one that saw them once and twice for the thrills - and the devotees, who would see them over and over and absorb as much of them as they could... And there's another element to this - the more you see these films, the more you notice the complexity of their morality. A film like Bride of Frankenstein (probably the best of the bunch) functions almost as a straightforward bildungsroman - but because the hero is a monster, the film has a surprising amount of leeway in his morality. The monsters have the ability to act out desires that the Hays code forbade - since they are monsters, they will get what's coming to them in the end - but along the way, they can act far more naturally than regular characters could, and the filmmakers usually gave us a chance to sympathize with them. At least, for those who came back, who watched them carefully, for something more than shocks and thrills.

Anyway - these days, films are a lot more free to spell things out. And back in the day, there were films that laid out what they were doing pretty clearly. For example, the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I am ashamed to admit it, but I had not seen it until this week - needless to say, it was a revelation. The theme - the good man who does evil - is explicit of course; so is the sense of a more complex view of morality and humanity than the Hays code could handle. It's rather shocking what the film does get away with - not just the strip teases and brutality, but a pretty direct statement of Victorian hypocrisy - poor Dr. Jekyll, saintly and brilliant as he is, is going half mad from lust - he begs to be able to marry his sweetheart NOW, but her father refuses - and he, like many a good Victorian gentleman before him, turns to drugs and whores. (More or less at the urging of his respectable pal, too.) The results are all too predictable. It's interesting that this is, in a way, a reversal of the central moral issue of Dracula - there, it's the horrors of female sexuality - here, it's the horrors of male sexuality. Both the horrors that come from acting on it, and those that come from its repression. It's an exaggerated enactment of the classic Victorian hypocrisy.

Though what really gets me about this film is what a a magnificent piece of filmmaking it is. Gorgeous, and endlessly clever - look at that shot of Jekyll (post-Hyde) and his pal, under the picture of the old Queen... paintings, statues, decor are used throughout to similar effect. Rouben Mamoulian was, I won't deny it, as flashy and thrilling a director as any of his peers - and he had some very impressive peers ca. 1931 (Capra, Lang, Sternberg, Lubitsch, Renoir, etc.) He is as skillful as any of them - and probably flashier than most. This film is really a dazzling display - relentless moving camera, sophisticated sound, brilliant and showy editing, state of the art special effects, superb sense of composition, staging, set design, you name it. There's not much like it in Hollywood at the time - with its 180 degree cuts and innovative wipes and dissolves (he loves holding a transition in the middle - wipes (as below), dissolves (Ivy's swinging leg chasing Jekyll and Lanyon through London)).... It's as showy and strange as a Japanese film of the period....

Though I'll end with another general comment on horror films, especially in the 30s - this is one of their other hallmarks. They held onto a lot of the aesthetics of art films, especially German art films, longer than most of Hollywood, and further down the food chain, if you will. A fairly uninspiring production like the Murders of the Rue Morgue still looks great (see below). And at the high end, Dr. Jekyll, or the Whale horror films, they were as good as anything of the time, and worthy successors to the work of Murnau and Lang and company in the 20s.

Monday, October 25, 2010

World Series

With the local 9 on the links already (the ones who aren't still in rehab, which cuts the numbers down a bit), I haven't been all that devoted to the playoffs so far. But they have gone very interestingly, I will admit. I am not all that surprised to see Texas in the World Series, even thought hey had the worst record in the post-season, only a game ahead of the Red Sox. They are the classic case of a team that got out to a big lead and was able to coast home - in their case, with their best player hurt for the last month or so. So where teams in tight races have to scramble to win, or would get knocked out losing someone like Hamilton (as for instance, the local 9, post-Pedroia and Youk), Texas got into the post-season with a mediocre record, but - with Hamilton playing - a much better team than their record. Teams like that are dangerous. As for the Giants - I'm not so much surprised at their success as I am at the Phillies' failures - who do they think they are, the Braves?

But there you have it - a team in the series for the first time ever - a team that last won in 1954. There's plenty of history, then - though I imagine the TV people are weeping in their beers for missing the Yankees and Phillies again. Well - that would be a series I would avoid. This one - if they started the games at a reasonable hour, I might watch a couple of them! I like the Rangers, in general at least - and I like the Giants, though not so much now as in the Bonds days. (I wish old Barry were around now - if just to piss off the forces of righteousness.) I am inclined to root for the Rangers - and inclined to think they will win, since they have more pop, and Cliff Lee seems to be the money pitchers among money pitchers these days - but would be neither surprised or disappointed to see the Giants win.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Social Network

It's been another week since my last post - sorry about that. One of the problems with this schedule is when I do write about films, I do it after I have been reading about them on the web, blogs, the media, etc. for a week or more - when there is a lot of conversation about a film, sometimes the discourse around the film can start to seem more compelling that the film. The Social Network has been out a couple weeks now, and sparked lots of discussion, on film blogs, beyond film blogs, and it's been too interesting to ignore. It's a fine film, I should say up from - 12/15 in my little rating system - but I find myself thinking about all kinds of things, beyond the film itself....

Like - how is Facebook different than MySpace or Friendster? I never used Friendster, so I can't answer that part - I poked at MySPace, so I have some ideas there. MySpace was an ugly affair - too easy for people to doll it up with color and music and blinking text - Christ, it's the internet ca. 1997. (Ah - how is Facebook different than AOL? ca 1996 - I mean - there are all kinds of blandly factual answers to that one, but the fact is - somewhere in the mid-90s, AOL took off with much of the force that Facebook has the last 2-3 years. Enough to allow it to screw around with Time Warner before they were done. One might see the future of Facebook there - an unstoppable force! that in a year or two will be replaced by something else, which is not so much a replacement as a refinement.... Anyway - to go back a question or two - the tautological answer to how is Facebook different from MySpace or Friendster is that everyone I know who is online is on Facebook. (As one of my cousins said on the site itself - "I have an account on Facebook, I didn't on those sites.") It pushes the question along a step - why are so many people, from old hands at this internet thing (I got Prodigy and AOL in 1990, myself - well after a lot of people I know) to utter newbies, young and old. I have aunts on Facebook, the parents of friends - if my mother had been well the past few years, she might well have ended up using it. How did that happen? I've always been a bit skeptical of Facebook, but the fact (especially compared to other social networking sites) is that it is better designed, more elegant, simpler to use and navigate, more secure (you don't get the malware threats you heard about with MySpace all the time) - and also, more expandable, more flexible, better integrated with the rest of the web. It's surprising to think about it this way, but in the end, it's simplicity and elegance might be the real answer to its success.

All right then - the next question is - how would you make a film about elegant design? For that matter - how do you make a film about privacy settings? I could probably answer the second, something about some poor devil's life ruined by internet identity thieves - but that's not really the problem with Facebook's attitude toward privacy. Facebook's privacy issues are more intimate and pervasive, usually not so dramatic, more a question of what happens when your coworkers find out your opinion of Sarah Palin than when some hacker gets your social security number. And I suspect this difficulty is partly why The Social Network doesn't latch onto privacy as its main concern, but does latch on to misogyny. It's easier to show. It may even be true, to some extent (though not necessarily) - and you won't have any trouble getting audiences to accept it - everyone knows computer guys are asocial nerds who resent the jocks who get the girls, especially at Harvard, where nothing has changed since 1636 (or 1638)....

Perhaps I exaggerate. In fact, the film is perfectly believable on most of these things - maybe not "true" but certainly something like the truth (and since it's fiction, that works.) It is a film about college kids, after all - college kids certainly act up, even at Harvard. And complaints about the women in The Social Network being prizes understate the ways that everyone in the film is a prize or an obstacle, or at least, in some way, found wanting. Eduardo is out of date before he starts.... the Winklevii are inbred rich monsters with dull ideas and a clever friend... Sean Parker is an aging teen band star, trying to stay cool (and every bit as much a prize as any of the women, really).... Larry Summers is a clown, former secretary of the treasury who doesn't recognize the value of Facebook when someone lays it in his lap... the attorneys are attorneys, the girlfriends are all crazy except the One Who Got Away. Only Zuckerberg is above it all - and claims to the contrary in and out of the film, he is not so much a nerd or an asshole as he is smarter than everyone else, a visionary, who tries them all and finds them all wanting. Though of course Sorkin betrays him in the end - that final scene, while certainly admirable from a structural perspective (echoing the opening scene, a woman walking away from Zuckerberg with a variation on the same line), is completely false, a complete cliche, overwritten and pat. Sorkin wants his cake and to eat it too - to marvel at genius in all its amoral wonders, and to click his tongue...

All right - that's what I mean about the discourse overcoming the film. The film itself is a thing of beauty. It does have issues - almost all of them from the script, I'd say. Given the script, what Fincher does with it is remarkable. The film is fast moving and slick, yet always clear, what is going on, who is saying and doing what, the performances tight and exciting, the words and visuals all made to pop out at you. I'll refer you to Jim Emerson for more comment on the filmmaking - I particularly like his remark about how Zuckerberg is "out-of-synch with his physical environment." It's true - Zuckerberg is consistently pulled out of his environment, consistently separated from the people around him - physically as well as emotionally, socially, intellectually. (Physical isolation standing in for the inner states. Expressionism lives!) The phenomenon extends to the partying, too - there is lots of it around him, but other than a couple scenes where he is drunk, Zuckerberg is apart from it, watching - thinking...) It's a superbly made film. There was a time when David Fincher's films drove me mad - he had obvious chops, but they were so inane, his talent in the service of such obvious claptrap (I mean, Fight Club, in particular.) But now, I am convinced - he has become something extraordinary. He benefits, as he usually does, from superb work by the actors. All the principals are wonderful - Eisenberg completely sells this portrayal of Zuckerberg - he plays intelligence as well as anyone, especially slightly dishonest intelligence... And the others - Garfield, Hammer, Timberlake - more than hold their own. Yes - a treat.

Though I can't let go of the script - and maybe, just maybe - the overall conception of the film. It is striking - going back to Emerson, talking about the credit sequence, and Zuckerberg's alienation from his environment - it is worth noting that the film has cut Somerville (and residential Cambridge) out of the picture. The Thirsty Scholar (which is clearly seen and named in the film) is a mile away from Harvard Square (and nowhere near BU - Zuckerberg really blew it there, that girl must have really liked him, to go all the way to Inman Square - nowhere near the subway and on the opposite side of Cambridge from BU - for a drink with him), but that mile disappears. I tend to think the film (Sorkin?) is a bit too enamored with Harvard - impressed by the fact that this was a Harvard kid - not another MIT or Stanford nerd - inventing Facebook. (Or Northeastern - that's where Shawn Fanning invented Napster.) So we get constant reminders that it's Harvard, 370 years of History... which I'm not sure is really there, except when they're giving tours. (Which rather undermines the Final Club initiation scene - every tourist and prospective student who goes through there knows that's the Statue of Three Lies.) I don't know if this is Sorkin, or maybe Saverin (who seems to be the source for the book it was based on) - either way, it feels a bit off. Especially when taken as being about Zuckerberg - it makes it seem to be more about Saverin, or Sorkin....

Anyway - it is a fine film - it is not history, but over time, I'd guess its worth as a film will take precedence over the historical questions.

Friday, October 08, 2010

September Films Roundup

Here are a month of films seen in the theater (less A Film Unfinished, which I couldn't stop writing about in a paragraph...)

Room in Rome (9/15) - latest film from Julio Medem, who I really like, and don't quite understand why he doesn't have a bigger following, and better distribution. Though this is not the film to see to make the case for that praise. It is a chamber piece - literally - the title is accurate - a room in Rome - one of those films, 2 people in a room, talking, etc.... Here, the people are two women, a Spaniard and a Russian, both due to fly home the next day - they have met and had a couple drinks and the film starts with the Spanish woman begging the Russian to come up to her room, for obvious reasons... we se this from above, from the window, it turns out - they pull in opposite directions for a while, then they come up to the room.... And - what? talk, flirt, the Russian undresses, then the Spaniard, they start making out, but the Spanish woman falls asleep and the Russian leaves - except she's left her phone. She comes back and they talk some more and, etc. They fuck. Then they start talking - telling tales - and here, we move into Medem's territory, as they tell rather tall tales - a sex slave in Saudi Arabia? a tennis star? movie actress? renaissance scholar? all this plays off the decor, big paintings or Greece and Rome, and Cupid... the stories get deeper, maybe more true or at least more believable, and maybe they fall in love. That's what generally happens in these films. As it happens, the women stay naked through most of the film, have sex what? 1, 2, 3, 4 times? send mixed messages to the waiter, spy on one another on Bing, and such - in the end? they don't want to stop, but... end up on the street, pulling apart like at the beginning... I don't know. It almost gets past the mix of soft-core soap opera and Richard Linklater it threatens to be, but not quite.... Still - Medem is too good not to keep things intereting.

A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (10/15) - an odd project, Zhang Yimou remaking Blood Simple - though played more like Raising Arizona, to be honest - a cartoon version of the blood simple story. Slight, but effective - a very simple story, an old tyrant with a pretty feisty young wife who has a weakling lover, a pair of clowns (a bucktoothed noodle maker and his peasant girl co-worker), and one outsider - a cold eyed cop... The woman buys a gun, the cop reveals her adultury and the tyrant hires him to kill them - as in the Coen's film, he doesn't - he is after the big score, and kills the boss and tries to rob the safe - but he can't open it - and keeps getting interrupted when he tries. Meanwhile the lover finds the boss' body and buries him, though I'm sure everyone has seen Blood SImple by now... It plays out fast and efficiently, returning now and again to the Coen brothers for scenes straight from their film - though not all is like that. Overall, though it is a somewhat pointless seeming film (rather like the Coen Brothers' remake of the Lady Killers - amusing enough on its own, but why bother?), but very easy to look at - strange and fantastic looking, Zhang's usual hyperbolic aestheticization in full flower...

Catfish (10/15) - possibly a documentary. The story - a photographer in NYC gets email from a kid in Michigan who has painted one of his photographs. Soon he is corresponding with her, mostly on facebook, though some real world stuff - shipping packages of paintings, etc. Through the kid, he starts communicating with her family - mother, and sister, who turns out to be 19, beautiful, long haired, a musician and dancer or some such... Before long, he and she are talking on the phone, carrying on a kind of affair by proxy, complete with sexy talk/text.... Well - she posts songs she's recorded, and our hero employs google and discovers something very interesting - that she's copying her songs from youtube videos. Well then - a bit more investigation, and most of the story starts to come apart - so they head out to Middle of Nowhere Michigan to learn the Truth. Which turns out to be - something rather unexpected. It's not the exposure of the facebook fakery that matters so much as what emerges instead.

It's not quite possible to talk about it without giving away the story, so I'm not going to pretent - if SPOILERS matter, try to skip this paragraph... The film itself is a pedestrian affair - though that's a quality of the way its made - shot on the fly, on cheap cameras, it's video, all the way. What invention there is (in the film) is in the editing - the film makers do make good use of computer screens, pixels, apps and web sites and modern technology - facebook and google and GPS and the like. (It shares this, actually, with the very very slick Room in Rome, which also plays a lot with satellite imagery, map sites, etc...) What makes the film is the story. The woman behind the facebook crew - Angela, a 40ish housewife with a husband, daughter, 2 retarded stepsons - proves to be a fascinating character, and a rather imaginative artist. She's got a new medium, I think - she invents a host of characters, enough for a novel, enough to draw Nev in - if this is real (an open question), it makes you wonder who else she drew in? if you inject this kind of fiction into the real world - and Facebook, like it or not, is the real world - what kinds of effects can it have? Now true - it might all be fiction - but it still works as a story, and this is a very effective way of telling the story. It raises interesting points of course - if the film is true, then she made up a bunch of people and stories, and played them out as if they were real, on the internet. If the film is not real, if it is fiction - then the film makers are doing exactly what they show her doing... Either way - you get a fascinating examination of imagination, play acting your life and so on... It's fascinating and quite enjoyable - and Angela, whether character or author - is a truly great character...

The American (9/15) - stylish artsy mopey killer film... George Clooney as a hit man of some kind, who starts banging a girl in Sweden, is almost killed, goes to Rome to meet a friend, hides out, gets a job (building a gun for a mysterious woman), and deals with a guy with blond hair and a whore with a heart of gold. Not much happens in a beautiful place (making this almost a remake of Limits of Control - as Jim Emerson notes), then he delivers the gun, the woman tries to kill him, but he has anticipated it, and the boss - but they shoot each other and he dies in the car like Sterling Hayden. (No spoilers here because, well, if any of this surprises you, you need to see more movies.) It's a lovely film, slow and existential, completely predictabe (of course he's building a gun to kill himself with - geez!), and maybe not as important as it makes out. (Though I take it, from Emerson's comments, that the general public was terribly confused and distressed, and did not appreciate it's very real beauty.) Overall - it's more Melville than Suzuki (despite a few Suzuki references - the butterfly, the rival assassins), which is probably the main reason Jarmusch's version is that much better - Limits of Control was at least as much Suzuki as Melville (with a dose of Costa in there too...) I like Melville, but I love Suzuki.

Machete (9/15) - silly mexploitation film, full of overdone pseudo political references, plenty of ultraviolence, tis and ass - Machete is a federale in Mexico, attacks a gangster named Torres, double crossed rescuing a girl, his family killed, and blown up - though he ain't dead. He's in Texas three years later doing yard work. He's offered a job killing an evil senator - but that's a double cross - but he's Machete, and escapes. Soon all the bad guys are looking for him, while the women are trying to help him, in more ways than one (It's a mystery he can still walk, given the amount of tail he gets in the course of the film.) Meanwhile, everyone shoots at everyone else. It's all a series of gags and set pieces, but all of it quite entertaining, on a couple levels. You get assassination - an escape from a hospital - an escape from a house - a priest (Cheech) fighting off a gang of villains - all the ladies naked, including Lindsey Lohan - Danny Trejo, cool as shit, DeNiro and Jeff Fahey and Steven Seagal and Don Johnson trying to out villain each other - a huge shootout at the end.... What are you gonna do? a guiltless guilty pleasure...

And - wrap it up with another documentary - Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (10/15). It's nothing special as a doc, but a strong, clear telling of Basquiat's story, making the case for his art, partly by showing it. There is a nice selection of footage of Basquiat, which is sharply edited, musically edited. I think it does make a good case for his art, too - looking at Basquiat, now, he really does look like what they thought he was - his paintings grab you, visually - they are so strong, so arresting - and then they hold you, intellectually, with their references and structure, the blend of text and image, color, design, their relentless intertextuality, their relentless multiplicity. He was the real deal, I think, despite the myth. The problem, of course, is that he died after the first flush of success - he never turned the corner from flashy, brilliant work, to sustaining a mature, inteligent style. The biggest problem with the film, as history anyway, is missing this - it praises him as though he were accomplished and complete, romanticizing him, letting all his fans romanticize him. It plays up the genius child destroyed by evil society, rather than the stupid carelessness and bad luck that in fact killed him. Lots of dope fiends have gotten around the corner and gone on to have real careers - lots haven't - the ones who do are not always the ones you wish would... he left a good body of work, but it's a shame he wasn't still around to do more.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010


I am in awe.

I suppose I should go on record thinking the Phils are going to win it again this year. They've been a rolling along, have three great starters and a ton of offense, the rest of the NL is nothing special, and even the AL teams are imperfect. It's true they all start from zero, but it doesn't look like nerves or experience or anything like that are going to cause problems.


Monday, October 04, 2010

A Film Unfinished

Sorry, again, oh readers mine, for taking another week and more to post anything. I shall try to make it up to you by running through a whole month of films at a go - though already I find myself derailed from that project. Some of the films have proven too interesting to leave in a roundup post. And so? Let's start with one film, and go from there...

A Film Unfinished - (13/15) - a fairly remarkable documentary, directed by Yael Hersonski, about a film shot by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto in May 1942. The Nazis shot it, edited it, but never put a sound track, or words to it - it was found after the war in a bunker, and studied through the years. A Film Unfinished examines this film - shows it, but does so with the heavy annotation of its soundtrack. The Nazi film is a strange mixture of scenes of luxury and comfort alongside utter despair - starvation, death, degradation... Without a soundtrack, without documentation, it was not clear what the film was meant as, what the Germans had in mind - as more information appeared, some of the intentions could be guessed at, and the accuracy and nature of the footage itself was better understood.

Hersonski's film, in essence, annotates the Nazi film - we see the German film, and hear a variety of voices copmmenting on it, as well as seeing other footage that helps clarify it. The commentary follows a couple main themes. One is a correction of the Nazi film, accomplished in a couple ways. Hersonski seeks to expose the reality behind the staging of the footage - quoting diaries, showing survivors commenting on the film's deceptions, showing clips from an outtake reel, etc. We learn about the logistics of the shoot- what was staged and how, who was involved, in some cases. At the same time, the soundtrack corrects the Nazis use of the imagery. It's not certain what they would have done with this footage - but it's possible to imagine. Going on the way other anti-semitic propaganda films were put together, we can guess what might have been said, Some of the scenes seem to be directly referencing, repeating, imagery from films like The Eternal Jew - there are scenes of Jewish customs, including a circumcision, that seems aimed at the same effect as the kosher slaughter house in The Eternal Jew - there's a passage showing well off (and very western European) Jews standing next to beggars (many of them seemingly chosen for their more stereotypical appearance) - which seems to echo the dissolves in The Eternal Jew between men shown in traditional Jewish costumes and then western European clothing.

It isn't hard to imagine what might have been said. You can see the same themes appearing - the Nazi's way of depicting Jews as both all powerful and degenerate, of being both a distinct, unmistakeable race, and chameleons, blending into their surroundings... there's a kind of shamelessness to the Nazi's logic in those films - they will say anything about their enemies that will make them sound bad. They would take any imagery, no matter how it might contradict the other imagery in the film, and find a way to add an interpretation to it that makes their targets evil. Though maybe worse than that - many of their propaganda films worked by showing something very close to reality, that is altered - and the altered reality injected into the real world, as if it were already there. That method is on display here - this film shows Jewish rituals, prayers, schools, a funeral, a theater, a bath, a circumcision, a chicken being slaughtered - all "real", but many of the incidents altered, faked. It is shot to give it the appearance of reality - but is warped. One of the main function of the comments on the film is to highlight these moments - almost incidental remarks, that indicate the ways the Nazis slipped things into reality. A woman says that Jewish people don't use coffins; others note that the films shows a circumcision taking place in a home, when in fact it would have taken place in a hospital. Details - but this kind of approach is too common to ignore.

This is something that the Nazis did, constantly, systematically. They were constantly trying to inject their version of reality into the real world. They liked to act out their fictions, to live them - to treat them as real, to make them real. They had a way of staging real life as a spectacle to be watched - and to try, very hard, to act on their fictions as though they were real... I think this appears in their anti-Semitic propaganda films - they try to create an image of Jews that justifies their hatred - they do it by insinuating their fictions into the real world. These propaganda documentaries serve that end - by creating the appearance of reality, by including enough actual reality - and then twisting the reality, adding to it, and treating the inventions as reality, as utterly continuous with reality. There's a project, in Nazi Germany, that certain includes its anti-semitism, but goes beyond it, to reinvent the world, to make the world a different world - to obliterate, in doing so, the objective world, substituting a very close copy, but one consisting of what the Nazis wanted to be true... And - getting back to the film at hand - I think the filmmakers are able to bring this tendency out - not explicitly, in my terms, but by carefully working through the material, showing (when possible) what was real, what was not, and where the seams are. Because part of the danger is to forget that the Nazis were starting with real people, real places, real lives and events - and that those people and places and events have their own stories as well, have existence beyond the imagination of the Nazis. This film does bring some of that out - through the words of the people involved - diaries and survivors' accounts and reports and testimony by one of the cameramen at a war crime trial many years later - by showing the outtakes and retakes, by showing color home movies one of the cameramen took - by freezing on the fleeting shots of the German filmmakers themselves. It highlights the ways the images we see are constructions of the filmmakers, while bringing forward the independent reality of the things and people in the films. To break the tendency to either accept what you see as absolute truth, or to give up the notion of truth - to treat everything as constructions, subjectivity, imagination.

I think - watching Nazi films in particular brings this very point home: that you can not ever forget that what is in the world is in the world, regardless of what someone may do with it. The imagery in this film - in one sense, it is very fragile - at the mercy of what someone might say about it. If the Nazis had completed a soundtrack for this film - it would have twisted what is there, made something terrible of it. Hersonski's soundtrack - also adds to the imagery, changes it, though it succeeds, I'd say, for two simple reasons. First - because it is, as far as it can be, true; second, because it never lets the process of interpreting these images get too far out of sight. Yet - at the same time - this imagery, in fact, almost any imagery, however wrapped in illusions it may be - is very strong - it resists what can be said. There is this - that the people we see in this film lived, in a time and a place - and most of them died, in a time and a place (and that fact is never far from anyone's mind here...) But whatever use might be made of them - they were there.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Vampire Films, At the Beginning

The Vampire class I am taking is proceeding nicely, and it seems like time for a post. The class itself is concerned mainly with vampire literature, but I am a film enthusiast, and am only too glad to take this opportunity to write a bit about he films we're seeing. We've started at the beginning, more or less - Nosferatu and the Universal Dracula - which is also starting at the top. It's all downhill after Murnau.

Of course, that's true for most films - there aren't a lot better than Nosferatu, ever, in any genre. It's one of those foundational films - a fully realized masterpiece, hugely influential, and deep and rich, thematically, aesthetically. It's beautiful, innovative and imaginative, terrifically important to film history - a fully realized effort of the mature German style, something of a pivot between expressionism and new sobriety, with its real locations and expressionistic performances and compositions. Obviously one of the foundations of horror films, especially vampire films, and one of the primary sources of art films for the next 40 years. (That is - I think Murnau's style, developed here, in the Last Laugh, and so on, becomes something of the model for art cinema until the 60s, maybe, when other traditions - Eisenstein, say - comes back into vogue. It's an idea, anyway...) Thematically, it stacks up well against Stoker's novel, even, itself a perfect grab bag of themes, imagery, social and cultural commentary. Nosferatu's blend of expressionism and romanticism advances a number of gender concerns, psychological themes (Hutter's lack of potency, vs. Orlock's surfeit), the way Ellen takes control of the story; it contains powerful historical echoes - WWI, the inflation, the anxieties (stressed by Sigfried Kracauer) of the Weimar Republic, developing the theme of chaos vs. tyranny, weak, emasculated men vs. superpotent tyrants; it offers, as well, hints of anti-semitism (and anti-Slavism), the fear of the East, the fear of outsiders (themes certainly shared with Stoker's novel); like Stoker, Murnau's film brings out issues of class - the old aristocracy coming back to haunt the middle class, the importance of money, property, commerce; there are scientific interests tucked in - not as explicitly as in Stoker, but there - as well as consideration of nature, man's place in nature, nature red in tooth and claw. Disease, pestilence, predation, and the finality and pervasiveness of death. Add to this, I suppose, hints of a roman a clef, building on relationships among the artistic circles Murnau moved in - it's dense, dense, dense.

And all of this is put together with exquisite skill. Patterns of imagery (arches, spiders, webs, predators and prey, light, vision, frames - windows, doors and mirrors), careful editing, careful and innovative use of text and manipulation of information (Murnau picks up Stoker's multiplicity of texts - the intertitles feature, if I remember it all - text from the chronicle of the plague; text from the book of vampires; letters; a ship's log; and straight dialogue... all running alongside the imagery) - the different sources of information posed against one another, sometimes in synch, but not always. But always combined with great skill. And finally - the sheer imagination of the film's look - from the extremely effective monster, to the use of simple, but haunting special effects - using negatives, stop motion, step printing, and so on. Like so many early films, it revels in its filmicness - I don't think it's an accident that it introduced one of the fundamental rules for vampires, the fatality of sunlight - the reference to cinema is hard to miss. Vampires, like films, are shadows on the wall, in the dark, and turning on the lights, kills them both...

Not much can live up to that, and certainly Universal's Dracula doesn't. It's an interesting case, anyway. I can't deny, it can be unsatisfying - I'm inclined to think it's the weakest of the early Universal horror films. It lacks the mastery James Whale brought to the Frankenstein pictures (those are as good as it gets, really); The Mummy plays, to me, as an improved remake of Dracula, with Karl Freund having figured out how to make films, and a much more balanced cast. (Zita Johann holds her own, even against one of the truly great Karloff performances - the juveniles in Dracula are decidedly dull.) It's maddeningly uneven - in fact, my opinion of it tends to rise and fall depending on how I watch it. Sitting at home with the DVD remote in hand, I can watch the scenes with Lugosi and Dwight Frye and fast forward through the rest - I love it! whenever I sit through the whole thing, all those long conversations in the second half - Overrated!...

But I am here to praise, not complain... The availability of the Spanish version on the DVD sets is a great boon - watching it back to back with the English version is almost a history lesson in the transition from silent to sound films. It also demonstrates what Browning and company did right. The Spanish version gets a lot of praise, sometimes even being said to be better than the English version - I can't go along with that. It definitely has some advantages - the most obvious is that the source print for the DVD is gorgeous, much better than the source for the English DVD - though that shouldn't fool people into thinking the film itself is better. It is also more consistent, without the strange lapses the English version has - the production itself seems more careful and regulated. (Stories of confusion and indifference on the set between Browning and Freund abound.) It seems more confident in its identity as a sound film, though this has a cost, as it means it tends to be played much more theatrically - more on that later. More on the price paid for that consistency, too.... But the main reason the Spanish version falls well short of the English version is the cast. It's true the Spanish film has better juveniles - but the real stars, Dracula, Renfield and Van Helsing - are far far better in the English version.

Edward Van Sloan is the least of the three, but he gives a first rate character performance as the monsters' foil, giving Lugosi and Frye something to play against. And they are magnificent. Lugosi became an icon for good reasons - he makes remarkable use of his presence, his voice, his body - a grand theatrical performance that is even more powerful on a movie screen. He translates into closeups - very well in fact - and film gives him a frame to use his hands and eyes to great effect. You can watch the exchanges between Dracula and Van Helsing just by watching the performers' hands - a gesture here, a clenched fist there - though who would want to give up Van Sloan's little bows? Lugosi's glances and head tilts?

Though even Lugosi is upstaged by Dwight Frye - Renfield is a great role, and he gets everything he can out of it. This makes another interesting comparison with the Spanish version - there, Pablo Alvarez Rubio plays Renfield as a raving lunatic, all wild laughter and huge gestures, which while arresting in its way, has none of the horror and menace Frye gives him. It's surprising how restrained Frye is - or maybe, how important restraint is in Frye's performance. He plays Renfield as though his body were a straightjacket - he speaks as though forcing the words out at great pain. He builds to it, too, seeming to tighten up in every scene, as his possession becomes more complete, and the enormity of his actions seem to dawn on him. His iconic moments - his mad laughter on the ship is as iconic as anything Lugosi does - are all taut, underplayed, constrained moments, that work better for it. (Or maybe you could say, when he exaggerates, he exaggerates the restraint.) His performance is unsettling, even now - he embodies - and here the word is quite literal - the idea of a man fighting with himself, compelled to act against his better nature. He plays it, he moves it. I could watch Frye's scenes over and over, all by themselves. He's almost Peter Lorre at times....

But meanwhile - the Spanish Dracula's consistency is not always to its benefit. It avoids the dull patches and lazy scenes in the English version - but it has none of the heights of the English version. The English film seems to comes into focus whenever Dracula or Renfield is on screen,and not just because of the performers - the compositions usually get better, the staging gets more imaginative. Best of it, the editing gets crisper and smarter. The editing is wildly uneven, like everything else - but parts of the film are quite brisk, especially the first half. The story certainly whips along. This is especially noticeable compared to the Spanish version. The latter is a good deal longer, partly because there is a lot more there (the English version has been cut down severely), but also because the Spanish version is much slower than the English version. Individual scenes are longer because there is more dialogue (more exposition, usually), because they are played slower - and because they are played out in long takes more often, with more space left between speeches. The English version is cut into shot/countershot more often; there is less of it, and it is played faster. It certainly feels as though the cutting has peeled away all the gaps between the speeches - it feels much snappier than the Spanish version. But beyond all this - the fact is, the editing in the English version (when the editors seem to be engaged by the material) is infinitely better than the Spanish version. Its speed helps - it cuts a lot of the transitions, little shots in the Spanish version clarifying what is happening - you see it during Renfield's arrival at Dracula's castle, where the SPanish version makes sure you know the bats are Dracula, and the English version just cuts from Renfield to three bats to Dracula on the stairs. Things like that are not quite jump cuts, but they aren't far off. There are many examples of this - probably the best being Renfield's slow creep toward a fallen maid - the English version cuts away before revealing the real purpose - the Spanish version finishes the act (he is stalking a fly). These choices do things - they speed the film up - they also give it a sense of mystery, of creepiness - rather like the stop motion effects in Nosferatu.

And then, there is one of the film's great moments - Dracula's appearance at Seward's house - a lovely piece of sound and vision editing. They talk about the marks on Mina's neck - "what could have caused them?" Harker asks. "Count Dracula," the maid answers... It's worth asking about sound - these films were made in late 1930, and show the seams. And again, in many ways, the Spanish version seems more at ease with sound than the English version - it seems quite confident about how to play scenes. There are times - more than one - when it feels as though Browning and Freund were baffled by how to deal with sound. But at the same time, they (and their editor - Milton Carruth, as it happens) end up with a much more modern looking film - where the Spanish film is content to play scenes out as on a stage, the English version looks much more like a film. And it is much more aware of sound as an expressive element - they use it to get in and out of scenes more often - the wolf's howl, a gunshot, off screen screams... Sound moves the story, telling us things that we can't see - the murdered flower seller's scream; the coffin lid dropping when Dracula emerges from his tomb, or his death groans at the end. Offscreen sound is important, and at times, used systematically - Renfield, particularly, always announces his approach with laughter or words. In cold fact, once he goes mad, I think we always hear him before we see him - his appearance is always proceeded by sound... I don't want to make too much of this - it is very uneven in this, as in everything - and compared to some of the truly great early sound pictures, M or Blue Angel or Blonde Venus, it's quite mundane. But like so much about this film - when it's good, it's close to great.