Friday, December 25, 2009

The Butcher Boy [1917]

Known primarily for being Keaton's acting debut, this one's mostly an Arbuckle film, and so it's really too bad that I've never been a fan of his fat-acting [which is less a slight about his appearance than it is about his manner of acting]. Having said that, Keaton gets a decent bit of screen time, first appearing as a hapless customer in the general store where Arbuckle works [flour in the face, feet stuck in molasses, you know how it goes]. In the mostly unrelated second reel, when the love of Arbuckle's life moves to an all-girls school, both Arbuckle and his love rival also move there, dressed as girls, when Keaton makes a second appearance in helping the rival take the girl. The film's not very funny, although Keaton remains very recognizably Keaton -- his understated reactions noticeably stand out amongst Arbuckle's ham, and a certain degree of his vaudevillian athleticism is shown, but mostly he's just thrown around a lot. Worth seeing for historical value, but not much else.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Fall of the House of Usher [1928] and The Fall of the House of Usher [1928]

I just read the Poe short story earlier today, and I thought it was quite good. What I didn't think was that it would be easily interpretable to film, considering its very wordily-constructed atmosphere and mood. Figures that the first two movies I watch after reading it would prove me very wrong. On to the films:

The Fall of the House of Usher (American)

If you're looking to understand the narrative of a film, it would be near impossible to watch this film without reading the short story first, or at least knowing what it's about. Unless you just care about gut impact, in which case you'll be fine.

Since this was the film of these two that I watched first, I was extraordinarily pleased to see that in the very first moment of the film, as the novel's narrator (the film has no such reference point) draws up to the cloud-enveloped dark blot that's the Usher mansion, that Webber and Watson got the story's atmosphere exactly right. To quote from the book: "I know not how it was -- but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible." Although I can't really follow the grammar in the last quarter of that passage, the general gist is that this place is pretty much the suxx0r. Hang on to that thought, because it's pretty much the last cohesive thought that you'll get out of the film.

To continue talking about this, some degree of summary of the short story will probably be necessary: a nameless narrator is called to the Usher mansion because Roderick Usher is dying and lonely, with mental problems to boot! Upon arrival at that dreary mansion, the narrator finds Usher's sister to be in some sort of odd trance-like state and when she enters a catatonic state, Usher buries her alive. In the final moments of the film, as the narrator tells to Usher a medieval story about the defeat of a dragon by some brave doosh, the doors fly open and the sister staggers in and dies upon Usher, who dies of fear or something. Plus, as the narrator flees the place, it splits in two. Wikipedia sez that a major theme of the novel is of Usher's "self-fulfilling prophecy," including that he's such because he expects to be sick and that he buries his sister alive because he expects to. I just take wikipedia's word for stuff like this.

The film manifests Usher's "self-fulfilling prophecy" when the screen literally splits apart to reveal the inside of the mansion. It's an intriguing bit of foreshadowing, coupled with the fact that it seems that the house has become the film (within the realm of foreshadowing). Epstein's film perhaps does similar (aka "tangentially related at best") material a bit better, but I'll leave that for when I talk about the other film.

As I said, the screen splits to reveal Usher and his sister having dinner, whereupon the sister is served something that sends her into some surreal mindtrip mental state, at which point the film becomes heavy surrealism, complete with sets straight out of Caligari or Aelita. The sister walks down a corridor with staircases twisting off in every other direction. She walks down a ramp as escalator-type stairs move down towards the bottom center of the frame, with obvious symbolic meaning. The orientation of those escalators themselves resemble the rip in the frame at the beginning of the film. I'm not sure what this could mean, but I'm sure there's something there. A shadow on the wall shows the hammer nailing the lid of the coffin down (presumably), which is repeated multiple times to accentuate its importance to the mental state of the characters (here, Usher). The camera's doing a continually rotating Dutch angle thingy to illustrate the haze of the characters. A series of jump cuts moves impressionistically through the rooms as the woman reaches out at the screen, trying to claw her way out of her fate. Then it gets more dense with hypnotically surreal stuff. And it remains effective.

The Fall of the House of Usher (French)

I might be a bit biased towards this one given my previous admiration for Epstein and my tendency towards films that reveal the artificiality of film, or art in general. Epstein was no stranger to this thematic territory, given that he had made The Three-Sided Mirror a year earlier -- and probably earlier films too, although those aren't available for my viewing pleasure. Epstein changed the brother-sister Ushers to be man-wife (perhaps to remove the somewhat unnecessary possibility of an incestuous relationship between the two), and also changed it so that Usher (and indeed, every Usher) is obsessed with painting his wife as she dies. The obvious interpretation is that he's trying to preserve her through art, and that's certainly an element of it, and this is what Roger Ebert noted in his review of the film. But more than that, it displays the self-deception and artificiality in the painting, for obvious reasons. Furthermore, in the paintings of the wife, sometimes it is actually a painting, and sometimes it is the camera filming the wife in real time posing within the frame; this bit of fakery only exists in the film world for us as viewers, and not for anybody within the film. The fakery in the painting has been generalized to film itself. On a side note, considering both this and Le Tempestaire some twenty years later, it would seem that Epstein was one of the earliest directors - along with Evgenii Bauer - who was interested in those themes [if you know of any others, let me know!]. In almost a trivial addendum, two or three intertitles show Roderich saying of the painting: "Here, she really lives!" That bit of heavy-handedness is my only complaint about the film. The film itself is revealed to be artificial when it resorts to surrealist techniques, such as brief time-lapse and blurred images.

This film better than the American film - and even better than the Poe story - captures Usher's psychological anguish as his wife is presumed dead, using a slew of techniques from slow motion to slowly tilting camera frames. This makes it somewhat similar to the American film, although that was more global in terms of producing unsettling images -- rather than this film's focus on Usher himself. This is also a very beautiful film, especially when it builds to the climax. There's also a swift tracking shot along the ground that can only be described as kewl.

And it's narrated by that guy with the voice, which is awesome.

Friday, January 30, 2009

By the Law (Lev Kuleshov, 1926)

If you already read my thoughts about this film on IMDb, there's no need to read this, since it's basically the same stuff I already said there (albeit with spoiler stuff). I just needed to break out of my Dark Knight/Frost/Nixon/Benjamin Button rut...


Even before just a few months ago, I thought that Kuleshov was just an early film theorist – I didn’t know that he actually had made any films. When I learned that he had made some feature films, I stupidly thought that they would just be dry and uninteresting experiments in film technique. I was terribly wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong. By the Law is one of the most tense and gripping dramas I’ve seen – and that’s true even without the silly label of “for its time.” It concerns a group of gold miners in the Yukon who aren’t having any luck with their mining at a certain location. As their manual laborer, Michael, is packing up their camp, he discovers gold nuggets and they decide to stay in the location for longer. They have further success, but a few months later, Michael walks into their cabin and inexplicably shoots and kills two of their group before the remaining two manage to subdue him. Although the leader of the group, Hans, is all for killing him on the spot, his wife Edith insists that he get a fair trial back home (by the law, you could even say!). But before they can move back to civilization, the yukon ice starts melting, flooding the area and stranding them for weeks.

Regardless of however exciting that may or may not sound, the film is a success on a level beyond just plot. Michael is shown as a sort of symbol of nature: as Hans and Edith go out into the wilderness to bury the deceased, he thrashes around in the ropes they bound him in like some crazed wild animal. Another indication of this is that in the opening scene, while four of the five the miners sleep, Michael’s playing with the group’s dog – he’s the only one to really connect with nature. On the other hand, Edith and Hans are more reminiscent of civilization, in their desire to have him stand trial by the law, their practice of religion, and so on. That isn’t to say that the film is a simple allegory for something like the the taming of nature by society, as the end of the film shows in full effect: due to the protracted nature of their visit with nature, during which time Michael has tempted both Edith and Hans individually to kill him, they eventually decide to conduct the trial themselves – from which they conclude that they have to hang him. They do. But in the film’s final moment, as they’re packing up to leave, Michael appears in the cabin’s door frame with the noose still around his neck. He takes the gold, taking off his noose, tossing it to Edith and Hans for “good luck.” In a bizarre sort of metaphysical and symbolic turn of events, nature has resurrected Michael. An IMDb reviewer said this, and I can’t possibly try to say it better:
“Dennin represents the adaptable, at home in the selfish wilderness. Hans is prepared to respond in king to Dennin’s brutal greed, but Edith must cling to the grooves of civilization, religion and the law. But in the wild, the laws of man do not reign. Edith and Hans have done nothing more than conduct a false trial, giving false authority to actions. So Kuleshov has taken this irrationality unique to man, and given it to nature. Nature response with the mysterious and incomprehensible unexpected.”

The film’s visual style is equally brilliant – although it was made in the Soviet Union at the same time as Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Dovzhenko, while the soviet montage theory was still largely in effect, it’s a precursor of Tarkovsky's cinema more than anything else. It never does a Eisensteinian electrifying collision of shots; rather, it goes for the poetic image that we can immerse ourselves in [whatever the merits of Eisenstein, this is a style I far prefer]. While the land is flooding, the exterior shot we get of the cabin is that of it being reflected in a large puddle of water – subtly, Kuleshov is juxtaposing a sign of civilization, the cabin, against the forces of nature, largely foreshadowing what will happen by the end of the film. As Edith, Hans, and Michael make their way to the tree that will serve as hangman, they’re followed by an oddly emotional tracking shot, observing each one in turn as they each try to come to terms with what they’re doing. I hardly expected this from someone who I thought was just a film theorist: Kuleshov's an utterly brilliant director.

The musical score on the Kino VHS is absolutely indispensable – if you can locate it, it’s worth however many arms and legs you have to give to get it.

I also watched Kuleshov’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, which is somewhat amusing but doesn’t amount to much. It’s worth seeing, but don’t try judging Kuleshov’s directorial skill from it – he’s capable of better, as this film shows in spades. It’s a travesty that these are the only available films from him.

One of my absolute favorite films – possibly even top ten stuff. Certainly my most recently seen film that I can consider a favorite.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky; 1975)

There was a specific moment in The Mirror when I realized it would be a favorite movie. It’s the scene where the father recalls a scene from a childhood when he looked at a girl walking in the snow. The camera then cut to a close-up of his face, which then cut to a barrel of a gun. Do I love it because it has some rich allusive meaning that explains it all? An allegory about how violence intrudes upon the simple pleasures of life, or something along those lines? Fuck no. I think that too often people talk about films in terms of “And this means this, which means this in the context of scene C, which ties in perfectly with the allegory presented in the opening, which means this and explains why the monkeys touch the monolith.” [Admittedly, this is a practice I too often follow]. The Mirror works both on a level far beyond that, and is also much simpler. I love sequences such as the aforementioned for the simple reason that they contain such a raw power and evoke such strong emotions in the viewer [well – me]. That’s what makes it simple – it doesn’t require any unearthings of unholy symbolism to appreciate. The only real question is why it evokes those emotions, which is naturally a much more complex issue. Incidentally, it’s also an issue I don’t really care about. The film is what it is, that’s that. I’m happy with it.

The film switches willfully and almost spontaneously between color and black&white and past and present. This, combined with the previously mentioned lack of a simple unifying subtext, has led some to call the film a difficult piece of work, but I find that simply ludicrous, as the film is anything but difficult to appreciate. I think that that label is best left to such works as Zorn’s Lemma or L’Âge d’or [at least for me], which may ultimately bear the same fruits, but I find I would have to work much harder to draw any sort of enjoyment, entertainment, much less any sort of stimulation at all from the films. Indeed, I think that The Mirror is one of the easiest films out there to watch: it’s not incredibly long or demanding, like Andrei Rublev or Satantango, a dullness like Saving Prvate Ryan, an intelligent dullness like Battleship Potemkin, and it doesn’t even have the pretension [not something that I personally believe is there] that people like to accuse Lynch of having. Quite simply, it’s aesthetic unrivalled by any other film that I’ve seen, and one that perfectly expresses the elemental purity of film language.

The best film I’ve seen? Yeah, sure. Maybe. I dunno.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Fritz Lang; 1922)

For several months, Fritz Lang has had the unique honor of having directed two of my most treasured silent films, Der Müde Tod and Metropolis [if he were alive, I think he would be very proud of this]. Sadly, before tonight, these are the only two silent films I’ve seen from him.

Well, he can now boast three silent favorites. Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler is one of the most wickedly entertaining films I’ve seen. And as silent crime serials (sort of) go, it’s far beyond Les Vampires (which is indeed about crime, not vampires) or Judex – although I certainly like both of those. And that may be ultimately because Dr. Mabuse isn’t just about crime; it’s about people. The upper class, in all their rich glory, have all the wealth but no purpose. This is alluded to be a few lines of dialog, such as:
“We are bored and tired, Mr. von Wenk! We need sensations of a very special kind to keep us alive!”
But not only are there intertitled cues – it’s in the very visual approach. The rich are generally shown to in muted compositions, in dynamic-less poses (picture below). Compare this to almost any shot with Dr. Mabuse (such as the one in the image above), who almost always commands the visual center and focus of the screen. Of course, this could be interpreted as glorifying crime [“Here's some boring old fuddie-duddies in all their wealth, but heeeere’s…DR. MABUSE, KING OF CRIME!”], as I believe Les Vampires was accused of being (which is really the only reason I’m bringing it up). That may be true on a technical scale, but it turns out to be rather unimportant. On one hand, I can’t imagine anyone walking away from the film thinking “Crime: fuck yeah!” and more importantly, Mabuse eventually goes insane from his crimes. Not cool.

It may not be the most poignant social commentary [I suppose you could mutter something about the depression of post-war Germany – but I won’t go there], but it’s effective enough for what it is. Any sort of quasi-depth aside, the film’s terrifically entertaining. Dr. Mabuse, with his trusty variety of disguises, robs a train, messes with the stock market, and hypnotizes people to cheat at blackjack. One of the film’s best sequences arises out of his blackjack schemes: as part of Inspector Von Wenk’s ruse to track down Mabuse, he plays blackjack with Mabuse as dealer. As Mabuse stares at Von Wenk, trying to hypnotize him, the people surrounding Mabuse gradually fade into black, and the camera zooms in as Mabuse’s face enlarges the screen. While not exactly modern in its approach, it’s easily one of the most visually striking moments in silent films [equalled only by, say, Metropolis?].

Overall, yeah, the film is 4+ hours long, and silent to boot, but it flies by faster than most other films, silent or no. And you can no doubt thank Fritz Lang for that.

Of course, if nothing else, it’s great because it opens with the intertitles of
“You have taken cocaine again, Spoerri! You know that I do not tolerate that! If I see you one more time in such a state I will drive you out like a dog!”
“If you drive me out…I shall shoot myself in the head -- !”

#2 of 5 for Lang.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Way Down East (D.W. Griffith; 1920)

“He has three specialties:
ladies-- ladies--
and LADIES.”

It’s easy to knock a good deal of silent films for their obviously dated intertitles (such as the above) or melodramatic acting. Personally, such things have never bothered me, as they’re just a product of the time, rather than any real flaws in production. It also hardly helps that many techniques that silent films pioneered are standard practice today, so that when we see them in their original context, they seem unremarkable – or moreover, we don’t even notice them (think of the Kuleshov effect, cross-cutting, etc.).

And if these were problems for most silent film directors, they are certainly problems for Griffith – or at least the modern perception of Griffith. Universally regarded as one of the first true film pioneers and innovators, his films are also credited as moving film technique forward more than any other director. And that is to say: he was among the first to employ such things as the Kuleshov effect and cross-cutting. As mentioned earlier, the problem is that we now take these things for granted. As for me, when I watch old(er) films, I don’t think of any sort of specific technique (“oh, Griffith’s employing cross-cutting now to amplify the suspense”), but watching Griffith, it is undeniably clear that he was miles ahead of his peers in a visual sense. I lack the specific film grammar to be able to say why, but his films have better rhythym than his contemporaries, better visual flow, a better sense of editing and framing, and so on. Even going ten to twenty years later into the 20s and 30s, he still knew better what he was doing with the camera than anyone else. At least in the 40s, we got Welles who – shall we say – shook things up a bit.

Griffith’s filmic intelligence is most clear in The Birth of a Nation – which sadly, of course, is his most morally…dubious. I find Intolerance a boring piece of intelligent construction, and I love Broken Blossoms, despite some…dubious…stereotypes. Orphans of the Storm is…well, it’s there. Way Down East falls somewhere between The Birth of a Nation and Broken Blossoms. Except for Broken Blossoms, it may be Griffith’s most consistently engaging and interesting, though I don’t feel all of the cinematic craft present in The Birth of a Nation or Intolerance. I suppose that could be seen as a good thing, in that it feels more naturalistic.

As seems usual for Griffith, it’s a Victorian morality play with some social commentary to boot (which is actually more engaging than that sounds). There’s the foppish rich dandy (described by the quote preceding this review) who takes advantage of the simple country girl (Gish, of course) who fools her into thinking they’re married, throws her away when she’s pregnant,tries to come back to her when the baby’s dead, and so on. Then there’s a real You know, the usual stuff. It works just about as well as such stuff has the potential to work.

I’m not feeling the desire to write too much more, so I won’t. In short: worth seeing if you have the patience for silent films. #3 on my list of 5 Griffith features.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Summer at Grandpa's (Hou Hsiao-Hsien; 1984)

Avid readers of my reviews [I suspect that I have an immense number of strangely unvocal followers due to my one review to date…] may recall that I loved A Time to Live and a Time to Die and wasn’t all too wild about Dust in the Wind. A Summer at Grandpa’s, at least for now, falls decidedly between the two. While it doesn’t have nearly the effect on me that A Time to Live and a Time to Die did, it’s a minor masterpiece in its own right.

In terms of general plot, it follows much the same path as A Time to Live and a Time to Die did: a young person grows and matures due to external forces, from globalization to the simple strifes of maturity that life presents. I think that A Time to Live is the more effective film, mostly due to the fact that we see almost all of Hou’s childhood life mapped out. Here, well…it’s just a summer. I suppose it’s more a personal thing than anything else: films that chart out a life tend to be more effective than those that only do it for a small period of time. In A Time to Live, Hou lives his life and, after a number of years, an event such as the death of his father happens, and it’s absolutely devastating, because so much of his life has built up to that moment. There’s something to be said for poignancy of rabid change, but it doesn’t hit me quite as much.

But all that’s just why I prefer A Time to Live and a Time to Die. As I already said, A Summer at Grandpa’s is its own minor masterpiece. In the opening, we have what seems to be somewhat random footage: we see a high school graduate giving a speech about how heavy her heart is to be moving on. At least, it would seem to be random. What it indicates is a lack of willingness to change, to move on: we don’t want to mature, we would rather be children forever. Moreover, it represents the simple change – regardless of the feeling about that change – from childhood to maturity. We even see this in those that would seem to have already made that change: for example, the uncle that is travelling with Tung-Tung and Ting-Ting [awesome names] leaves them on the train as he goes elsewhere with his girlfriend. Not cool.

Of course, that change isn’t exactly for the better: consider one of the opening sequences where Tung-Tung arrives in Grandpa’s town. He drives his toy motorized car [what are those things called, anyways?] into and over the turtle that belongs to one of the country children. While on one hand, this could be considered to be a simple contrast between city and country [product of industry driving over thing of nature], it also serves to compare to a later scene where Ting-Ting finds a dead bird. At the beginning, while Tung-Tung is still young, he and the other children attempt to exhibit mastery over nature, and by the time that they have matured at the end, that nature is dead.

That also ties into the more minor theme of nationalization – which is more directly related to the country/city contrast. Tung-Tung and Ting-Ting’s mother is ill in the city, and when they arrive in the country, everything seems great. But it’s discovered that even in this idyllic place, there are mental illnesses, unwanted pregnancies, crimes, and so on. It all represents the qualities of the city seeping into the country. This was also excellently shown in the quick scene where the grandfather, after kicking his son in law out of the house due to the pregnancy that arose out of wedlock, attempts to bash his motorcycle with a log. Only his log breaks – a clear piece of symbolism I won’t bother going into with any more detail.

As I said, it’s not quite the masterpiece that Hou’s clearly capable of, but it’s nonetheless an excellent piece of work. As of now: #2 of 3 Hou films.