Saturday, January 31, 2009

Le Million (1931) - #72

From one musical to another... Hot on the heels of the highly Germanic Threepenny Opera, we bump up one year and several degrees of longitude to the west (namely, France) landing on Rene Clair's majorly influential and highly entertaining Le Million.

The similarities between the two films make for a nice segue. Both are musicals. Both cast common street gangs and scruffy criminals in sympathetic roles. Both were adapted from successful stage productions. Both are directed by significant and admirable pioneers of early cinema. Both titles refer to money! But we also see a significant divergence taking place here (beyond the obvious difference between three pennies and one million florins!) as the Brecht/Pabst cynicism of Threepenny Opera becomes established as a counterpoint perspective in film, while Clair's lighter, happier touch settles in as the norm for film musicals of the era (and for decades beyond.)

Le Million, like Clair's previous production Under the Roofs of Paris, takes us into an affectionate portrayal of the Parisian underclass, focusing its attention on the plight of a poor young artist, Michel, and his scruffy companions. The opening shot actually picks right up where Under the Roofs... began, with yet another extended crane shot that takes us from wherever God sits when he watches poor humans endure their daily toils, right down into one particular neighborhood in one little city in the world that just happens to be none other than gay Paree. This film opening must be one of the most striking of its time - an elaborate set was built that allowed human actors to be present at the beginning and end of the shot, with a meticulously designed "forced perspective" model of the neighborhoods filling the space and time in between. Basically, two separate life-sized sets of balconies and roofs were built with the miniature buildings situated in line for a slow tracking shot. One of the few special features on this disc provides a still photo of the prop that gives some idea of the amazing craftsmanship that went into creating the shot:

click on photo to see more detail - the camera tracking rails are on the right, the miniature is in the foreground and the full-size stage in the background.

After the camera pyrotechnics draw us in, we're quickly introduced to a frolicsome scene of celebration as two men representing "us" peep in through the open skylight window. From there, the entire film is a flashback as we meet Michel +going about his business of wooing pretty young women and staving off a host of annoying people to whom he happens to owe some money. In the process of shaking loose from their efforts to collect on their accounts receivable, he gets mixed up in a police pursuit of another wanted man, this one a gang leader, Grandpa Tulip, whose flight across the rooftops of Paris happens to land him in the apartment of Michel's fiancee, Beatrice. Needing a disguise, Tulip appropriates Michel's torn and beaten old jacket, which Beatrice intended to mend. No great loss, one would imagine, until Michel realizes that a winning lottery ticket, with a prize of one million florins, is still in the pocket of that jacket! When he and Prosper discover that Beatrice no longer has the jacket and that it's now in the possession of someone else, the chase commences and a whole series of amusing plot twists and conniveries ensue that keep viewers highly amused over the course of the next hour or so.

Le Million rightfully takes its place as a milestone in the early years of films with sound. Clair and many of his peers remained leery of the potentially destructive effects that might arise from including dialog in movies. He feared that the camera would get lazy, allowing actors to just speak their lines, watering down the techniques and vocabulary that had been developed in the era when visuals had to express most of what the viewer received. However, Clair was able to not only embrace the new technology, he also gave important lessons in how it could be creatively applied. Probably the most famous use of sound in this film is a culminating chase scene where various parties who've all learned about the jacket's lucrative content converge to see who finally gets to grab the loot. Clair cleverly melds the soundtrack of a football game (complete with crowd roars and referee whistles) to the ensuing farandole. The sound we hear has no natural connection to the jostling that takes place as the jacket exchanges hands, but of course it provokes mirth in the viewers who instinctively recognize the link. This was an important technical innovation that (imo) went on to reach its fullest fruition in cartoons, with their expanded freedom to radically switch characters from one context to another.

Unfortunately, I can't provide a clip so you'll just have to watch the film yourself if you want to see it. But this next scene gives a nice sampling of the atmosphere and creative application of sound engineered by Clair. The clip features a light operatic duet singing "We Are Alone in the Woods," the lyrics of which are slyly appropriate to the situation that Michel and Beatrice find themselves in. No subtitles here, sorry, but listen carefully and brush up on your high school French if you want to get the jokes!

Sitting next to most of the other offerings I've reviewed here so far, Le Million happily takes its place as light, accessible fare. Clair achieved quite a bit here, smoothing out the conventions that future musicals would build on so that individual characters and group ensembles could convincingly break into song and push the story forward at the same time. He also incorporated elements of stage musicals that fit sensibly into the narrative and demonstrated new possibilities for using sound effects in addition to musical accompaniment to punctuate humorous and suspenseful moments on the screen. Most of all, his storytelling conveyed a generous warmth and frisky fondness for the struggling artists and hard-pressed stragglers of society. The compassionate humor and skill demonstrated in Le Million keeps the film fresh, charming and accessible to this day.

Link to: Flunky, Work Hard

Link to: Tokyo Chorus

Next: M

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Threepenny Opera (1931) - #405

Cynicism... decadence... exploitation... dark humor that thumbs its nose at the very audience its trying to appeal to... all this and more awaits our enjoyment in this skewed but magnificent relic of the Weimar Republic - an classic one-of-a-kind collaboration between writer Bertolt Brecht, composer Kurt Weill and filmmaker G.W. Pabst, The Threepenny Opera.

We already met Pabst in this series. He directed Pandora's Box. Before I watched this movie, Brecht and Weill were just famous names that had garnered a reputation that was supposed to induce reverence or at least abiding respect. After watching two different versions of this film, listened to the commentaries and special features over the past several days, I won't go so far as to consider myself a really big fan, but sure, I'll go along with the popular acclaim. Brecht/Weill are cool, interesting characters who made a lasting impact on German, and subsequently Western and global culture.

And being the pop culture omnivore that I am, of course I knew, many years ago, that the quasi-jazzy easy listening standard "Mack the Knife," sung most famously by Bobby Darin, could be traced directly back to the famous Brecht and Weill. What I did not know was why this "Mack" character was such a big deal or why a song about a sociopathic, untouchable killer would gain such popularity. By the time "Mack the Knife" had embedded itself in my consciousness, it had become somewhat synonymous with the kind of thing sung by washed up lounge singers like Tony Rolletti. That probably has a lot to do with Darin's hammed-up recording (and the accompanying fingersnaps and other gesticulations) which you can see and hear for yourself:

What a jivey hepcat.

So I figure that most readers of this blog will have some familiarity with the tune at this point - even if the names I've dropped so far don't resonate all that much. I even found a YouTube clip featuring a performance of "Mack the Knife" from a recent season of American Idol (it was pretty lame though so enough said about that.) Now you get a chance here to hear the rest of the story.

The Threepenny Opera's origins go back in time to the early 1700s, when a play titled "The Beggar's Opera" was staged in London. It used the conventions of popular contemporary opera to tell a squalid story about the underclass, using sharp satire to rail against the usual culprits of hypocrisy and corruption in the ranks of the supposedly better parts of society. The Beggar's Opera stirred up both a lot of popularity as well as more than a touch of scandal when the guardians of public morals decided that this experiment had gotten out of hand, denying a performance permit when the sequel was ready to be unveiled. In 1920, the musical was successfully revived in London, and caught the attention of Elizabeth Hauptmann, Brecht's lover at the time, who translated it from English to German. Circumstances detailed in the DVD booklet led to the staging of a production in Berlin. Probably to the surprise of most everyone involved, the play became a huge smash hit. To that point in his career, Brecht had achieved more notoriety for his public behavior than he had earned respect for his literary talents - his earlier plays did well enough to keep him working, but his artistic impulses were basically subversive, not the kind of thing that normally wins a popular following. But the late 1920s, when Die Dreigroschenoper (German title) reached its commercial peak, were an unusual time for Germany, a tumultuous era following their humiliation in the Great War in which all the old institutions were regarded as crumbling and powerless. Brecht's send-up of the conventional wisdom regarding crooks, cops and beggars appealed to a broader public than usual. But the main draw for contemporary audiences was, and probably still is, the catchy music of Kurt Weill.

The play's popularity made a film almost inevitable, even though it was created in the very early days of sound pictures. To its credit, Threepenny Opera is a true film production, not just a stage play recorded in moving pictures. Final control of the screenplay was wrestled away from Brecht (he intended to inject more overtly Communistic elements into the text as his own political thought moved in more radical directions.) The film's financial backers got nervous as Germany's political climate was already beginning to change in the early 1930s - they simply wanted a faithful adaptation of the play that had already proven to be so lucrative. Pabst took over, more or less, but made wise (and controversial) decisions to eliminate several songs and allow the plot to advance through spoken dialog and narrative scenes. He removed some characters out of the script and in the process alienated Brecht to the point that the playwright filed suit. There's a lengthy legal controversy that hangs over the film's production that I'll ignore here but it does point to the volatility that three strong artistic egos can produce, especially when dealing with material that pushed the limits of censorship and government disapproval. That story can be read elsewhere.

What we have here interests me as one of the earliest film adaptations of a highly successful, crowd-pleasing stage musical. That makes it historically important. What makes it entertaining is, first, the story line, second, the expertise of the filmmakers, and finally, the tunes. I have to say that I wasn't initially blown away by the music. Let's face it, this is kind of old, quaint sounding stuff that has a hard time recapturing whatever innovative "edge" it possessed on initial release. But now that I've heard the songs a few times, and carefully read the English lyrical translations, I'm more appreciative. Still, it's the wry storyline and cinematography that won most of my admiration.

The plot concerns the lead character, Mackie Messer, the head gangster in his part of London, and the conflicts and eventual alliances that he forms with Peachum, the "prince of beggars" and Tiger Brown, the chief of police. The opening scene of the movie is really quite pleasing to behold, as it starts out quietly, leads us through wonderfully decrepit street sets and into an open square where we get to learn about this Mackie fellow.

Hmm, somewhere along the line, looks like Bobby Darin lost his nerve when it came to singing the original lyrics!

The woman that Mackie has his eye on is Polly, the spoiled, impulsive daughter of the Peachum, the "prince of beggars." Mack sweeps Polly off her feet, persuading her to marry him in a wee-hours ceremony that takes place in an abandoned warehouse. The gifts he provides his new wife, including her gown, are burgled to order by his gang. They marry before the rogues gallery of witnesses and Polly sings a sweet song, explaining how Mackie won her heart when proper gentlemen who knew how to treat a lady never had a chance.

Peachum and his wife reject Polly's marriage to a common crook. He takes pride in his honest business, selling licenses to London's beggars. In exchange for the fees and 50% cut they pay to Peachum, the beggars benefit from his expertise and professional equipment (properly ragged uniforms, crutches and such) to create an aura of authenticity and maximize their profits.

Mackie, for his part, goes about his criminality with aloof, debonair efficiency. He's ready to pull out accounting sheets that indicate production trends among his pickpockets and prostitutes. He fancies himself a man of discriminating tastes, sadly burdened by the inferior qualities of his uncouth henchmen. But he takes pride in his ability to provide guidance and wisdom to the underlings.

To fill out the picture, the chief of police is an old war buddy of Mackie's who's just about as dedicated to protecting Mack from legal troubles as he is keeping up the appearance of his personal integrity, though he cannot hide the truth from himself. You get the drift.

The central conflict revolves around the three male leads, and also Mackie's female relations. Peachum wants Mackie arrested so that he can reclaim his daughter, extorting Brown by threatening to send his army of riff-raff to disrupt the new Queen's coronation parade. Brown succumbs reluctantly and reneges on his promise to keep Scotland Yard off Mackie's trail. Meanwhile, Mackie's old flame, Jenny, is casually tossed aside when he takes a liking to Polly. But Polly quickly discovers that Mackie won't be content adopting a more domesticated lifestyle. Pretending to go on the lam to escape the reach of the law, he slips away to a brothel, though he eventually slips up and is arrested. His confinement gives Polly the opportunity to step into Mackie's leadership role as head of the gang. What happens to Polly provides the most interesting and impressive character development. She uses Mackie's "cash on hand" to purchase a small bank - basically, making his criminal enterprise legit. Peachum's fury drives him to whip the beggars into a frenzy, until he learns that his daughter, through her newfound prominence in society, has earned a place of honor at the Coronation Day festivities. Suddenly, Peachum recants his incendiary rhetoric, pleading with his subjects to come to their senses! But the procession of tramps marches on to its inevitable encounter with royalty. Forced to flee in disgrace, Brown comes a-begging himself to Mackie, himself just sprung out of jail but happily reunited with his clever wife. Finally, Peachum himself decides to unite forces with Mackie and Brown, completing the upending of the social order. His inability to fully control the forces he unleashed teaches Peachum, in his own words, "the power of the poor." Mackie asks him, "If the poor are so powerful, then why do they need us?" To which Peachum replies, "Because they don't know that we need them."

The Threepenny Opera, though set in London, really evokes the social chaos and clamor in Germany that preceded, and tragically set the stage for, the emergence of National Socialism. Indeed, just two years after the film was released, the Nazis had come into power and promptly censored the film, destroying whatever prints they could get their hands on. Pabst, Brecht and Weill all fled Hitler's regime by 1933, and of course the censorship of their work rings eternally to their credit.

Also of interest in this package is a second disc featuring a French version of the same story, cast with different actors and shot at the same time. This was a common practice at the time that allowed a studio to feature actors and performances that would better appeal to citizens of nearby countries. Subtitles and dubbing were apparently either impractical or just undesirable. The French version pales in comparison from the original, though it's not without its pleasures. I enjoyed seeing Albert Prejean and Gaston Modot (reunited after working in Under the Roofs of Paris.) A nice video essay highlights the subtle differences in lighting and atmosphere between the German (darker, heavier) and French (lighter, more playful), even though Pabst directed them both. The scenes would be shot with actors switching places on the sets after one round of takes was finished. And of course we get the requisite excellent commentary, interviews and illuminating, lavishly illustrated essay pamphlet. Inflation has pushed the price of admission well past three pennies (and then some) but I think I got my money's worth.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Golf Specialist (1930) - #79

This morning I promised that my next entry would be a review of G.W. Pabst's The 3 Penny Opera, and I am definitely getting ready for that one. I've already watched the German and the French versions through one time each and started on the special features. But before I move into the films of 1931, I have this short subject to mention - the first of five entries I'll be jotting off as I work through a disc titled W.C. Fields 6 Short Films. I'm basically going to skip the first film, a release from 1915 titled The Pool Sharks that is mainly distinguished by being Fields' screen debut. It does feature a few funny gags, including some humorous stop-motion effects with billiard balls rolling around in formation. But I didn't want to make it the very first entry in this series. Nanook of the North is much more deserving of that honor. From here on though, I'm going to make quick entries to cover some of the notable short films that Criterion occasionally includes in their discs.

This whole DVD is dedicated to Fields' short work. It's interesting in that it gives us a chance to watch how his character developed into the cranky old codger with top-hat askew, a booze-engorged nose, muttering "yes, yes, my little chickadee" as he twiddles his fingers while mugging through his epic double-takes. The disc represents the only five talking shorts that he did, each running a bit over twenty minutes, about the same length as the classic Three Stooges and Little Rascals films that people my age grew up watching as early morning and after-school entertainment on TV. (Them, and Gilligan's Island reruns. Oh, and Speed Racer and Kimba the White Lion too.) Criterion also released The Bank Dick on DVD but that disc went out of print (I own it though) when whoever owns the rights to these films put his classic features into a pair of big box sets. But I won't get to that one until the series works its way up to 1940.

So here goes with the first one, a very funny burst of visual humor that I wish YouTube would make available. The first half of this one can be seen here, and it's funny enough on its own terms, especially Fields' encounter with a screaming little girl. But the film only becomes classic in the latter portion, when Fields, his caddy and a cute young ditz he picked up in the lobby make their way to the golf course. For ten incredible minutes, he flails and flounders just trying to launch one tee shot, only to be thwarted over and over again by faulty clubs, noises, blowing papers, sticky stuff on his hands, shoes, clubs and so much more. My words just can't convey how hilarious I found the whole thing, and of course Fields is just so great with the throwaway gags and put-downs. Watching the scene, in which he never does get to take his whack at the ball (he's led off in handcuffs before he can get his satisfaction!), I was reminded of some of the scenes shot by Luis Bunuel over the course of his career where a huge build-up fails to ever find its release as the characters are continually interrupted and distracted from the task at hand. What a sensation that produces in the viewer - unresolved tension! A powerful and poignant technique.

P.S. I just found a site where you can watch the whole film if you don't mind opening it up in RealPlayer and sitting through a couple short ads.

Link to: Monte Carlo

Next: Borderline

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Borderline (1930) - #371

OK. As if Blood of a Poet wasn't quite artsy enough, here we have, in our next entry in the Criterion Chronology, Kenneth Macpherson's Borderline - a singular exercise in cinematic avant garde-ism that I have just discovered but now, having learned just a bit about the creative personalities who put it together, love deeply. We are in Obscuro-land here, folks. I can't find any YouTube clips and my hunch is that a relatively small group of movie-watchers know about this film or are very well equipped to enjoy it or even make much sense of it.

In the mid-1920's, a group of English artists and intellectuals got together and called themselves "Pool." A few of the more prominent names include Kenneth Macpherson, Hilda Doolittle (HD), Winnifred Bryher, for what that's worth. Macpherson was the film theorist, HD gained notoriety as an "imagist poet" and Bryher was the requisite wealthy heiress that collectives like this needed to sustain themselves so that they could pursue Art without the necessity of wage-generating Labor.

Their efforts produced some artifacts of interest to contemporary cinephiles, the most prominent of which was a highly respected publication on film, Close Up. Here is an excellent article on Pool that offers crucial background information for their film Borderline (the only feature they ever produced, and it only runs 75 minutes.) For your convenience, I'll quote the brief synopsis it offers of Borderline:
In 1930 the Pool Group made their own feature-length film Borderline. It was aggressively avant-garde in style and daring in subject, dealing with inter-racial sexual entanglements, and marked by unmistakeable homo-erotic undertones. Directed by Macpherson, it starred H.D. together with Paul Robeson (already well established as a major star of the legitimate stage and concert platform) and Robeson’s wife Eslanda. Bryher inevitably also had a role. The innovation of the film was to concentrate on the inner psychology of the characters, using a form of montage – dubbed by H.D.”clatter-montage” which had the effect of superimposition. Where the film was not banned by censorship authorities it was unenthusiastically received by the critics, and disappeared for many years. A pristine print exists however in the Cinémathèque Suisse, which has recently issued it in DVD form, together with Véronique Goel’s documentary Kenwin, about the house which H.D., Bryher and Macpherson built at La Tour-de-Peilz.
A sidenote: As I work my way through this diverse and fascinating collection of films, I'm finding that placing them in their contexts makes all the difference in enhancing my enjoyment. Of course, Criterion does a wonderful job providing supplements. Just popping these things in for the sake of "watching a video" won't yield consistent results. And I'm pretty confident that most viewers who just happened to channel-surf their way to Borderline would find themselves pretty befuddled without some kind of background to prepare them for the show. Viewed in contextual isolation, the work is disjointed, inaccessible and probably rather irritating. And just knowing about the Pool group's existence won't alleviate the potential frustrations, of course. But if you're like me and relish the thought of a group of non-conformist ex-pats venturing off to Switzerland, recruiting Paul Robeson and his wife Eslanda to join them, and making a movie that deals with such provocative topics in a precedent shattering manner... well I think it helps to know all that prior to engaging with the challenge that Borderline presents!

So what I've done by way of my own review is to create in words an impressionistic response to what I saw on screen. I also have to praise jazz musician Courtney Pine, who composed and performed most of the music on this soundtrack, commissioned and recorded just a few years ago when the film was being prepared for DVDc release. His work here is amazing - he plays various wind instruments himself but also incorporated a lot of new sounds, including electronica beats and backwards samples, into the mix. I would probably have struggled more to get this film if it weren't for Pine's excellent sonic interpretations of what happens on screen. I wrote the words that follow as the film played then edited the mess down a bit in homage to these early Modernist pioneers.

Hurtling Train drops us in abruptly who knows where? Cast names and Censor's Approval fades to ringing phone and collisions of bodies on wall, dropping picture frames as tempers flare, dishes break. Jazz score picks up, phone call down to the bar where smokin' drinkin' dancin' frenzy in full swing gets interrupted by an alarm,

here's Paul Robeson playing "Pete, a negro" standing by window contemplating and gesturing with his big strong hands. Hang up the phone, nobody wants to talk to Astrid (played by famous poet HD who, fame or not, could use a better haircut!)

Astrid (white woman, Thorne's wife) and

Adah (Pete's wife), corners of love triangle with Thorne, console each other as silent film strives valiantly to tackle the psychological complexities of a loose-morals interracial confusion of affairs. Thorne, white guy with surprisingly modern "look" compared to most guys one sees in old silents,

plays with knife wondering when he might get cut, cut to scissors and dancing, glares and brooding tensions building as Robeson's big strong hands, formidable presence fill the screen. He lays on bed thinking back to bright skied happy days of courtship with Adah, before Thorne and Astrid complicated their lives. Adah has left and Pete sets out to find her while the barflies watch amused.
Cat snags goldfish from jar on ground as Pete catches up with estranged wife pursuing her through strangely angled streets and rough alcoves. Husband and wife gaze in soft focus against rough background.

Smoking women with butch haircuts hang out in the bar,

help Astrid make sense of what's going on as she reckons with fact her husband got involved with nigger woman. Thorne walks in, confrontation, evil glares. Tensions high, confusions too. Accusations, confessions, insults hurled, furniture overturned - old woman looks on approvingly. Scene is set - we are in a mountain village, near a river, early spring, bare trees. Pete and Adah, wafting branches and waterfalls, quick cuts clouds and memories. He gazes fondly, she detaches, while the bar scene continues as lively and dissolute as ever. Coffee's on. The old woman would not allow one negro in if she had her way! And isn't it kind of strange that in a movie with so few intertitles, they would dedicate one for a woman to say "Hey!" and another for the word "When..." Adah must leave Thorne. Had their fun, she's moving on. And wasn't really that much fun. Adah paces, she's stuck, wonders what to do. Pete walks, finds Adah, together again in rented room. Thorne appears, seeks Adah, walks in, sees Pete. What's Thorne going to do about that? Great eye contact shots here as glances switch off from face to face. Is Thorne stupid enough to challenge Pete? Barmaid gives Thorne a shove back downstairs, saving him from worse embarrassment! Thorne out walking through picturesque tall grasses, trees, feeling mighty lost and low. Adah slips out. Gamblers deal cards, children run through the streets. Astrid freaks out, loses to herself in solitaire. Fixates on Ace of Spades. The seagull! Thorne in repose, Astrid puts on record, cat pounces from chair to floor to Thorne. Long sequence of rumination and strategic psychological positioning. Finally, the face off. What is Thorne doing with Adah's suitcase? Astrid tries to win Thorne back. Thorne remains distant, turns aggressive. Astrid gets hysterical, passes out. Is she dead? Looks like it. She ain't movin'. Wait, her eyelids twitched. Is she alive, or is that just a bad edit? No, she's alive! She gets up and moves and they're back at it. But now... he's tossing back shots, she looks crazed. And he's messing with a knife. Old woman appears, carrying produce, gives evil eye, moves along. Glass falls, shatters. Knife grabbed, by Astrid, is she just fooling around? Hand cut, cheek cut, this is getting serious! Now Thorne has the knife. Will he do it? Bodies fall, table tipped, all upended. Blood on the floor, blood on hands, sweater. What to do now? Wipe it up. Pages flap in breeze. There's a body. Astrid. This time, she doesn't blink. Downstairs, the bar scene hops along just fine. Pete gets a rose tucked behind his ear, he goes with it, provides himself brass plate halo. OK, enough of that, "Adah let's go" as couple heads out. Back up to Thorne, he wipes up blood. A mess, no easy way out of this one. He puts the bloody rag into his pants pocket! What a dope. Forensic science still pretty crude back then, by today's standards. Pete and Adah at Thorne's door! They want suitcase. Why did Astrid lock door? Thorne can't let them in, can't let them know he's here inside... with Astrid's corpse! Pete and Adah walk along road with gorgeous mountain backdrop, police move in to investigate the tragic death of Astrid. Hurtling train passes by once again, along with Old Woman, while flames lick screen and world waits to see what happens next. Robeson delivers one mighty blow, sends sneering bystander sprawling. Onlookers cheer. Pete walks out. Even stricken victim smiles. But Adah must leave Pete - she feels responsible for the pain and suffering. Pete staggers, but music plays on, the customers drink, Thorne acquitted and Pete just laughs. But if Thorne is off the hook, who will pay the price? Why Pete, of course. Negro is instructed by Mayor and City Council to move on and leave the town as quickly as possible. "Sorry Pete" says the Bar Maid. "What makes it worse is they think they're doing the right thing. We're like that!" Pete agrees. "Yes, we're like that." He accepts the verdict and heads out of town. But not before meeting Thorne one last time, a meeting that culminates in an iconic black-and-white handshake. Movie's not over yet though. Pete heads to train station. Thorne sits on a grassy hillside contemplating life. Bar maids pour beer. Credits roll.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Blood of a Poet (1930) - #67

Back when I was playing in a punk rock band in San Francisco, back in the early 1980's, I remember one night hearing that another band had lined up a gig at one of the sleazy little bars where musical outfits like us had been relegated in that particular scene. The name of the combo struck me as funny then and it still does now. They called themselves The Aart Paansies- I distinctly remember the extra "a" in their name though I have no idea who was in the group, what they sounded like or anything like that. The name alone said it all to me, communicating the idea of a bunch of smart, semi-talented misfits who decided to put together some kind of act based on their understanding of what was hip, weird and androgynously unsettling, all bundled up under a tag indicating an intention to beat their detractors to the punch.

That memory came back to me as I sat down to watch, once again, Jean Cocteau's early experimental work The Blood of the Poet, a 50-minute ramble through the highly aesthetized imagination of its director. Cocteau, if you aren't familiar with him, did a pretty good job transforming his life into a fair epitomization of the total artiste. Besides directing films, he apparently dabbled in just about every other art form at his disposal, developing a distinctive visual style in his drawings, paintings, sculptures and other media. I don't know off-hand if he was much of a musician, but if the medium involved words and images, he was there ready to give it a go. Beyond that though, he was thoroughly dedicated to making art his life, and vice versa, writing extensively and cryptically on the topic as is reasonably expected of all world class artists, don't ya know.

In my previous post on Under the Roofs of Paris, I made reference (by way of an actor featured in both) to an early classic of surrealist cinema (maybe even the pinnacle of that particular genre, though its director, Luis Bunuel would direct films for nearly 50 more years) - L'Age D'Or (The Golden Age.) Remarkably, Blood of the Poet is even more closely connected to L'Age D'Or, since they were both commissioned by the same person, your friend and mine, the Viscount of Noailles. Despite this shared provenance, Cocteau goes to some lengths in his 1946 essay on the film (written 16 years and a World War after he completed the project) to declare that Blood of the Poet is not a surrealist film - he declares that surrealism "did not exist" when he first thought of it. I will respect his firsthand knowledge of the circumstances, of course, but in contesting this assessment by others, he reminds me of trendy insiders I've known (or been) over the years who cling tenaciously to the minute distinctions that exist between the works of artists who toil within competing micro-genres. So let's humor our visionary and rather accomplished friend by not lumping BOTP in with the generic category of surrealism, even though viewers gazing upon the two films nearly 80 years later are bound to note numerous similarities of style - non-sequitors, fantastic images, confrontational and enigmatic humor and just flat out weirdness.

So what is this Blood of the Poet thing all about anyway? Wow, let's just say, this is one of those movies that really puts the ART in Art House! Unlike the Surrealists who sought to record their dreams on film as concrete manifestations of the unconscious, Cocteau here favors "a kind of half-sleep through which (he) wandered as though in a labyrinth." Big distinction, huh?

To the viewer still uninitiated in watching movies like this, efforts to discern a clear narrative thread are bound to reap a harvest of frustration. Cocteau has put together a string of images that, while expressing ideas capable of yielding meaning, don't offer much promise of easy or immediate gratification. My advice, if this review prompts you to follow through and actually watch the film, is to just open up your eyes and expectations to cheerfully accept whatever Cocteau decides to toss at you. If you are able to stay focused and attentive, you may pick up on a discernable sequence that connects the four episodes, but for the first viewing at least, it may require more work on your part than it's worth. Just let the pictures, sounds and surprises have their way with you and see how that feels.

Now on behalf of anyone who wants a clearer guide for what to expect, here's my road map of how the film progresses. I don't consider anything I write here to be a spoiler as that term is commonly regarded today, since Cocteau is hardly driving toward the revelation of a narrative surprise or the establishment of truths that have to be arrived at unsuspectingly to be properly understood and appreciated. But if you worry that your viewing pleasure may be diminished by having a notion of how the scenes lead from one to the other, skip over this next part!

Here's what you'll see:

1. A masked model in wrapped in swaddling draperies gesturing grandly welcoming you into the film's world.
2. A key turning itself in a door lock, followed by this epigram: "Every poem is a coat of arms. It must be deciphered. How much blood, how many tears, in exchange for these axes, these muzzles, these unicorns, these torches, these towers, these martlets, these seedlings of stars and these fields of blue!" Cocteau goes on to tell us that this is a "realistic documentary of unrealistic events." So I guess that makes this documentary #3 in our survey (after Nanook and Haxan.)
3. Speaking of towers, we see a very tall smokestack chimney begin the process of collapsing in a heap of rubble.
4. We meet the poet, barechested and white-wigged, etching a face onto a blank canvas while a cannon battle (heard but unseen) rages outside his room. He has a nasty scar on his upper back and a five pointed star drawn on his skin.
5. A knock at the door breaks his concentration. He seems wary of who it might be. The mouth of the face he's just drawn is moving, talking to him! In his haste, he rubs the drawing with his hand. Now, the moving mouth has moved off of the canvas... and onto his palm!
6. Off with the wig. The poet decides to drown the mouth in a bowl of water. But he takes pity on it as it gasps for breath, spitting up dribbles of the water its ingested.
7. Fascinated, the poet can no longer work. The mouth in his palm absorbs his attention. Unable to shake it loose, he does the only reasonable thing - revives the mouth with fresh air, then makes love to the mouth (after making sure that no one besides the cameraman is looking.)
8. The morning after... Cocteau himself appears in the form of a bug-eyed plaster cast head, not quite sure what to make of that moving mouth in the palm.
9. Another statue, in the tradition of Venus de Milo (a beautiful, elegant woman sans arms) appears in the poet's room. The poet ingeniously transfers the mouth from his palm to the statue's face. He's elated! End of Episode 1!

10. The statue begins to move, talk and taunt the poet, who seems to be trapped in the room, with no means of escape other than to walk through a large mirror mounted to the wall.
11. He trusts and follows the statues instructions, falling through the looking glass - so astonishing!

12. Into the darkness he descends, landing finally in a hallway in the Hotel Folies-Dramatiques, or is it a street in Paris that houses a notorious prison? No matter, they are all the same.
13. Peeping through keyholes in each room, he witnesses an execution, in slow motion, both forward and reverse. He beholds the mysteries of China. He observes a young girl wearing jingle bells receive flying lessons taught by a sadistic, whip-wielding governess. In Room 23 (ah, the Number 23!!!) he catches a glimpse of the "desperate Hermaphrodite's meetings" (note that one man's and one woman's shoe sit outside the door.) The sign covering his/her loins spells it out: Danger de MORT!
14. Contradictory directions for managing the lighting are given, understood, ignored. A gun is produced. More directions follow - how to commit suicide! This time, the poet feels inclined to cooperate. A shot is fired, blood spills, the swaddling draperies return, but the poet remains conscious. He's had enough! He swears! Back out of this wretched hallway, and up through the mirror again. "Mirrors should reflect a bit more before sending images!" The statue is amused, but the poet is pissed! He lurches forth, ready to do damage. The statue has no chance against the big whompin hammer wielded by the poet. But wait - he's turning into a statue himself! End of Episode 2!

15. School boys enter the picture. Two teenage bullies pause to take a smoking break. A snowball fight erupts. The fight turns serious as one student is wounded and a statue is pounded to dust. Another student gets picked on, strangled, felled by a rather light, wimpy puff of a snowball. His antagonist licks his lips, savoring the boy's imminent demise.
16. Wounded boy bleeds profusely from the mouth, gasping (almost orgasmically?) as his life-force ebbs away. He dies! End of Episode 3!

17. In the plaza where the snowball fight took place, where the dead schoolboy's body still lays, a card table is set up over the boy's corpse. The poet and the statue (now in the form of a living woman) sit there playing cards, accompanied by the "Louis XV friend."
18. Aristocratic dignitaries take their seats in the balcony to watch the proceedings.
19. Statue informs poet that unless he has the Ace of Hearts, he's a lost man.
20. Poet cheats by removing the Ace of Hearts from the lapel of the dead boy's jacket.
21. Announcement of the arrival of the dead child's guardian angel - he happens to be a young black male dancer, whose dark skin and buffed physique glistens with a fresh application of oil. He lays a cloak over the corpse and absorbs the body into his own, growing "paler" in the process (here Cocteau uses a very clever but not entirely persuasive filming technique to illustrate the change.)
22. Just before he departs, the angel removes the unjustly obtained Ace of Hearts from the poet's hand.
23. The poet realizes that he truly is a lost man, while the statue stares at him, implacable and pretty.
24. His heart beating loudly, the poet remembers the instructions he received in the Hotel Folies-Dramatiques. The gun emerges again. This time, he shoots and collapses, leaving a fatal star wound on his temple. Thus flows the blood of the poet.
25. The dignitaries in the balcony applaud the suicide. One of them turns out to be a transvestite.
26. The woman returns to her statue form, with long black gloves replacing the arms that were lost, and leaves the plaza. A silver orb inscrutably arcs across the screen, first this way, then that.
27. The statue meets a globe in the form of an ox, which then shrinks down to the size of a narmal globe. She bears the Lyre of Orpheus and settles into repose. Special makeup effects render the statue into her proper two-dimensional form (since this is, after all, film, a projected image.)
"The mortal tedium of immortality." End of Episode 4!

28. The smokestack completes its fall. All that we've just seen transpired in the moments between detonation and collapse.


What does it all mean? Oh please, don't ask me, that will only spoil it for you. Cocteau himself said this: "This film, which has only one style... presents many surfaces for its exegesis. Its exegeses were innumerable. If I were questioned about any one of them, I would have trouble in answering."

So what do you need me or any other critic for. I've just given you a nice road map. Watch it yourself and discover what you think!

Eclipse Review: Ernst Lubitsch's Monte Carlo (1930)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Under the Roofs of Paris (1930) - #161

This next entry in my chronologically-sequenced survey of Criterion titles offers a sorely needed respite from a grim, draining sequence of films. The last three offerings ended with deaths by crucifixion, burning at the stake and stabbing at the hands of Jack the Ripper! And the first three films I reviewed in this series featured animals being slaughtered with their meat being hacked off and eaten raw on screen, confessions wrought by torture at the behest of a witch-hunting inquisition and a con man posing as a preacher who exploits the misguided trust of a pious woman to rape her daughter! UGH! We gotta lighten up a bit here, don't you think?

Perhaps all those grim scenarios were presented to audiences of the day as a necessary corrective to the indulgent lack of moral fiber endemic to the Roaring Twenties... I wasn't there so I can't really say for sure, but I do know that by 1930, the year our current subject of discussion was released, the world had suffered a serious economic crisis and the Great Depression was just starting to settle in on its way to becoming a historic fact and an "era" unto itself. So it was the perfect time for entertainments of a more bouyant sort to take their audiences minds off the hard realities they were facing. And in France, a cinematic pioneer by the name of Rene Clair had just the right idea - marketing the idealized charms of Paris to a worldwide audience eager to enjoy an hour and a half of escape from the daily grind.

So our survey enters the Thirties by examining this filmic equivalent to the lungfish, a narrative that moves along mostly according to the conventions of silent cinema but incorporating a major technological innovation: sound. Many readers are probably familiar with the fact that The Jazz Singer was the first commercial feature to combine sound and picture. Under the Roofs of Paris blazed that trail in France - the first French "talkie." Clair wisely played his strongest hand in creating this landmark film, finding clever ways to weave musical themes throughout the picture and making strategic use of his limited opportunities to attach dialog and other sound effects to the moving images. Since sound technology was still being perfected and was presumably too expensive to include on every foot of film in the reel, we still encounter frequent stretches where nothing is heard, even when the characters talk to each other. We have to use the same attentive skills that were needed in watching the previous silent films up to this point, allowing facial expressions, body language and our own familiarity with what characters are likely to say to each other in such circumstances to fill the quiet.

In its narrative structure, acting performances and subject matter, I don't think any fans of the movie would feel insulted by my summation that we are not dealing with "great art" here. The story is slight, breezy and fairly conventional - and after what I've been watching over the past couple weeks, I'm quite thankful for that! A pretty young woman, Pola, has arrived in Paris from somewhere in Romania. She quickly catches the attention of a few bachelors: Albert, his best friend Louis, and Fred, a tough guy who considers Pola to be his for the taking. A rivalry develops between the three as to who will win Pola's lasting favor and she flits from one to the other over the course of the film. Songs are sung, comic escapades provide pleasant diversions and viewers enjoy a charming escapade through the cobblestone streets and picturesque watering holes of late 20's Paris. I found the whole thing nicely amusing and laugh-out-loud funny in several places: the restless night that Pola and Albert spend at his apartment, negotiating who will or won't sleep in his bed; the various tensions that develop between the leading male characters as they carouse, posture and gamble with each other to determine who has the next shot at wooing Pola, and finally a chaotic and intriguingly filmed fight scene near the end of the picture that creatively applies sounds create atmospheric details apart from what is seen on the screen. It's helpful to remember that we are seeing this combination of media being used together for practically the first time, and it provides some interesting material to reflect on the development of sound/image vocabulary ever since.

Rene Claire was rightly regarded as a major figure in the transition from silent to sound cinema and this DVD offers good background material to better understand his contributions to the artform. His very first film, Paris qui dort, comes as part of the package. It's a humorous and startling short subject about what happens when the night watchman of the Eiffel Tower and a group of passengers from a recently landed aeroplane travel the streets of Paris, becoming increasingly exasperated as they discover that every person they meet is asleep and unable to wake up! Really, it is a VERY COOL short film, incorporating touches of surrealism and just plain old absurdity. I actually enjoy this "extra" more than the main feature itself! An interview conducted in 1966 by the BBC enables us to hear Clair's reflections on his career and the balance a director needs to strike (in his opinion) between individualistic creativity and mass appeal. In that regard, apparently his reputation suffered in the 1960's as his sentimentality and light touch fell out of favor by the critics and directors who promoted the New Wave and subsequent film movements. I can understand that sentiment arising for those who felt the need to break out of the inevitable commercial orthodoxy and conventionalities that probably grew out of Clair's successful and lucrative efforts. But not sharing in that particular struggle makes it easy for me to just appreciate what this film has to offer in capturing moods and impressions that still hold a lot of appeal. It makes no difference to me that the Paris streetscapes we see are large manufactured sets - they look sensational as they allow viewers to coalesce their mental image of a warm and wonderful urban milieu where music, romance and inevitable conflicts flow freely and magically all around the humans fortunate enough to live in such a place - even if that place exists only in our imaginations!

I was a bit surprised at the lack of video clips I could find for this film, compared to the earlier selections I've posted on here. But this segment of Under the Roofs of Paris' opening scene, gives you a good sense of what the rest of the movie contains. Enjoy the innovative and impressive crane shot descending to street level... hear the sound start off so quiet and distant, then grow louder as we move closer to the impromptu choir of commonfolk... see the girl (Pola emerges by herself from a shadowy doorway, wearing a cute little cap)... meet Albert as he hawks his sheet music on a beautiful spring day in Paris, a locale that will provide the setting for so many films awaiting us in the rest of the Criterion Collection...

Finally, there's one last delightful surprise that I want to share with you. It may not be so impressive to you if you've never seen Luis Bunuel's early Surrealist masterpiece L'Age D'Or (which ought to be in the CC someday) but I was so amused to see this guy:

Gaston Modot, who plays Fred, the tough guy gangster who serves as Albert's primary (but not only) rival for Pola's affection.

Modot turns out to have had quite a career, and we will see him surface in quite a few Criterion films as the series continues. But I had only known him for one role, in the aforementioned Bunuel film, where he strikes this memorable pose:

I had no idea that Bunuel had cast "reputable actors" for that scandalous subversive project. And for all I know, Modot may have just been hungry for whatever work he could find at the time. But seeing him pop up so unexpectedly as the bruiser in Under the Roofs of Paris sure provided a nice jolt!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Pandora's Box (1929) - #358

If you follow this blog in the order it's written, I hope you find as much fascination and entertainment value as I do in seeing how these early films in the Criterion chronology juxtapose off of each other. Our latest entry keeps that string alive as we switch focus from the pious martyr Joan of Arc to a woman who is just as compelling though perhaps not quite as well known to the ages - Lulu, the incandescent core that burns so brightly in the hidden and forbidden vessel that is Pandora's Box. Filmed in Germany in the height of the Roaring Twenties, Pandora's Box serves several impressive purposes: first and foremost, it immortalized the great Louise Brooks, about whom I will have much more to say. Secondly, it introduces to our "canon" a most important and pivotal figure, the screen siren, that sexy femme fatale whose presence simply moves hearts and plots past the point of no return. What would movies be without a beautiful woman at the center of everything to create the tensions, complications and unfathomable complexity of motives that gives cinema its lasting power?

Yes, I know that Mary Magdalene preceded Lulu in our series as a first-rate celluloid tart, but she was redeemed so quickly and so effortlessly that her character serves at best as only a forerunner. And really, Brooks' portrayal of Lulu establishes a standard that can probably only be approached and at best, equalled, though that is much easier said than done. Lulu is a true original and that originality goes well beyond sheer (mere) beauty and the ability to catch and hold attention on the screen. Of course the movies have been a showcase for pretty women for about as long as a lens could focus an image and leave its impression on film. What Louise Brooks does in Pandora's Box is demonstrate how to convey the most incredible subtleties of feeling by simply taking on a role, understanding that characters mindset and behaving thusly.

There is without any doubt a "performance" happening on the screen when we see Louise in character, but it is far from the hammy melodrama, stilted posturing or impish attention-seeking cuteness that typically comes to mind when we think of movies from this era. Nor is it fair to draw the conclusion that Brooks was just "being herself" even though her real-life experiences gave her some advantage in portraying the role of a headstrong, young, promiscuous, flirtatious woman whose smile, looks and fearless zest for life allowed her to live based on her feelings and pursue her desires with breathtaking abandon and little regard for what others might think of her. Brooks points the way for future generations of actors to trust their instincts and respect the perceptive abilities of their audience so that it would become less necessary to spell out in overt gestures the motivations and reactions they sought to convey. And in the character of Lulu - what motivations and reactions there are for us to ponder, absorb and evaluate!

The story goes something like this. Lulu is a "kept girl," in her early 20's, the playmate of Herr Schon, a prosperous editor-in-chief of a Weimar-era Berlin newspaper. He arrives in the apartment that he's been providing her as their private love-nest to inform her that he needs to break off their relationship because of the damage their affair causes to his social reputation. His intention is to marry someone more fitting his rank in the community. She successfully seduces him, complicating his plans to streamline his lovelife, but his resolve is strengthened when he discovers her ghastly old friend Grolisch hiding on the porch. Grolisch had just dropped by for a surprise visit to see the young woman whom he had first led into this exciting but unsavory way of life, but his presence there reminds Schon of the risks he runs and he leaves her behind, stern and dejected.

Lulu is not so easily thwarted though. She has another connection to Schon, through her friendship with his son Alwon, a young adult who's getting started in showbiz by producing variety revues. Lulu agrees to take a dancing role in the revue and Schon makes the foolish choice to tempt fate by attending the show's premiere with his fiancee alongside him. Lulu, bearing not a hint of willful malice or conniving toward the man who spurned her, nevertheless finds a way to bring Schon into a compromised position that is discovered at just the worst moment by his son and his soon-to-be ex-fiancee. Now he has no choice but to marry Lulu, an act that he likens to his own suicide.

The wedding provides many darkly comical moments as various segments of society struggle to find the point of compatibility in such a setting. Things turn rather grim however once the guests depart and the newlyweds are left alone (or, almost alone.) A gun is produced... it is aimed first this way, then that... a struggle ensues... a puff of smoke rises (remember, this is a silent feature so we don't hear the shot) and a body drops... that of Herr Schon.

Lulu's wardrobe swiftly switches from bridal white to widow's black as she stands trial for manslaughter. The trial moves fairly quickly toward it's foreseeable conclusion, but before the guilty Lulu can be taken to jail, a staged panic creates the opportunity for her escape and she manages to flee with Alwon, Grolisch and Rodrigo, an oafish greedy sidekick.

The foursome make their way to a floating hotel and casino where they exist on what surely must be considered ill-gotten gains. They each have their own illicit means for generating income, Alwon's being gambling. But when his luck takes a bad turn and he adopts measures aimed at guaranteeing the outome in his favor, the jig is most definitely up and they have to flee for their lives. Also caught in the maelstrom that gathers around Lulu wherever she goes (but which we never see her consciously instigating or exploiting) is a lesbian Countess who has her own irresistable craving for Lulu's company. Circumstances unfold such that she and the brute Rodrigo wind up in a room together and the last we see of them is her in wild-eyed hysteria and him laying dead in the shadows.

I tell ya, this movie has it all!

But there's further depths of wretchedness yet to explore. Now utterly broke and bereft of the means of righting their sinking fortunes, Lulu, Alwon and Grolisch wind up in a miserable London tenement, on Christmas Eve no less. Driven to starving desperation but still possessing her mesmerizing charms, Lulu decides to take herself to the streets to alleviate the hunger, perhaps, or just see what her next adventure may be. What happens? Well, let's just say she meets up with a troubled soul for whom she takes a liking, a confused, anguished, forlorn fellow named Jack...

And suffice it to say, there is no option for the filmmakers to pursue a sequel! At least, they never made "Lulu 2: A Flapper's Revenge. "

This outline may give the impression to those who've never seen Brooks in action that Pandora's Box serves as some kind of morality tale chastising the excesses of the Jazz Age. Fortunately, it's neither convenient nor possible to summarize the film that way. Instead, we have a deeper and more exhilirating meditation on the power of guileless, youthful beauty to scramble minds and hearts. The strength and charm of Lulu's character as portrayed by Louise Brooks really defies easy explanation - she captures and stirs up so many emotions simultaneously with her facial expressions and body language that it's practically impossible for them all to register distinctly in our consciousness. It's another one of those films where knowing how the story develops and ultimately winds up doesn't really detract all that much from the enjoyment of just watching.

Criterion really did it up right when it came to the packaging and supplements for this film. A beautiful slipcase box featuring Louise's piercing iconic dark-eyed stare and a wonderful 90-page bound book, richly illustrated with insightul essays on all aspects of the film's production, star and era. The feature film has a full length scholarly commentary and provides four separate, high quality film scores that each demonstrate great sensitivity toward the story while creating varying shades of nuance and atmosphere for viewers. A second disc offers two documentaries covering the life and career of Louise Brooks: one a career overview and the other a more in-depth look at her time in Berlin. They each feature priceless footage of Louise as an older woman, in her 70s, looking back and telling stories and revealing the intelligence and heartbeak that helped make her such a compelling presence on-screen. Brooks was born in a small Kansas town, left for New York City when she was 15 and for a time, took the nation by storm as the very face of her era. Her story is quite remarkable and I can't really do it justice here. Watch Pandora's Box first, then after she's earned your admiration and provoked your amazement, go on to learn just how she got to be Louise Brooks - and how just when lasting fame and celebrity seemed to be firmly in her grasp, she turned her back on it all, fell into obscurity for a few decades and eventually enjoyed a late-in-life renaissance. Such a remarkable life!

It would be easy for me to pepper this blog with portraits of the beautiful, enchanting Louise but you've seen her face before. OK, here's one.

click on it, it's huge!

And here's a video clip that I think is worth inserting since I think the song dubbed in as its soundtrack actually complements the images even though they're from two different eras - a re-edit of scenes from Pandora's Box set to "Mr. Brightside" by The Killers, a band name that actually seems pretty fitting in this context.

And just an interesting little trivia bit: in looking for some YouTube clips to post here, I discovered that the old 80's hairband OMD (short for Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark) recorded tribute songs to both Louise Brooks and Joan of Arc! That had nothing to do with the Criterion Collection since the brand didn't even exist that long ago, but I guess the band deserves a nod for be willing to champion the cause of unfairly maligned women. So good for them!

If I've ever read the "original myth" concerning Pandora's infamous box, I can't remember it in much detail, but the way I've heard it told usually seems aimed at stirring up a feeling of regret that it ever got opened. Myself, I think the world is a more interesting, though pain-wracked, place now that whatever was lurking in there to begin with was set loose to confuse and bewilder us all, especially us guys, ever since.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) - #62

A film like Carl Th. Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc is the kind that, were I to allow it, would delay or derail my efforts to write a review of each Criterion film in order of release, or even grind the whole project to a halt. It's a work of such power, such magnificence and such historical importance that I can't help but feel a bit intimidated by the responsibility to do it justice. As with King of Kings, I did write an earlier blog entry about this film, years ago, so here it is for you to catch up with.

But let's get the basics out of the way. It's a silent film from 1928 that was considered lost in its original form and survived only in cobbled-together versions that nevertheless hinted at greatness. Then, in the 1980s, a miraculously intact and well-preserved copy of the film was found in the closet of a Norwegian mental institution and restored to the version that has now established itself as a benchmark of world cinema and the object of intense admiration from critics and film-lovers around the world. It's not at all uncommon to see this film listed as a All-Time Top Ten by cinephiles of all sorts and even those who may not rank it that high will utter words of deep reverence for the striking camera work and especially the riveting performance by Renee Falconetti in the lead role as Jeanne d'Arc. So yes, this movie is a total established classic. However, it's not a costume drama, nor is it really all that concerned with Jeanne's historical context. A set was built (a large one, apparently) and costumes are provided, but all we really see. after a very brief opening shot of an ancient manuscript flopped open on a table, is a trial, an interrogation, an imprisonment and an execution with attendant mob scene. Basically, a depiction of the last hours of the life of Joan of Arc.

And while the script is based on exact quotes lifted from the carefully recorded transcripts of the proceedings, the quotes are selective and highly compressed. A process that stretched across week is compressed to give the impression that Joan was marched in front of an ecclesiastical panel, faced the questions of high church officials who found her answers problematic and unacceptable, and put to death all within the space of a fateful few hours. I have no quibbles at all with the film's departure from strict historicity - this viewing experience is all about the dramatic anguish and psychological poignancy of the individual soul under intense, unbearable pressure. Joan's story just provides a famous and popularly appealing vehicle in which to cast that drama.

Some familiarity with the basics of her history helps one understand what's going on. Joan of Arc rose to prominence as a teenage girl who heeded God's voice (which she audibly heard) and rallied the French people to resist the English invasion of her native land. The English had their own claims to the land, I suppose (I'm really pretty spotty on this history myself) but Joan was able to appeal directly to the exiled French king and also showed military prowess in battle. Hence her habit was to dress as a man, and it seemed that this very bold, unconventional claim of authority as a woman drew the wrath of the church, especially that faction that was more accommodating to the English presence in France. Hence the study in contrasts:
  • Joan the pious teenage girl surrounded by angry old men.
  • Joan the native mystic from the countryside opposed by learned theologians of the church.
  • Joan who dressed in a man's simple garb in a room full of men wearing elaborate gowns, capes, robes and fineries.
  • Joan whose answers spring from her heart, driven by zeal, interrogated by cunning lawyers who know how to frame their words and implicate witnesses through calculated misdirection.
  • Joan the heretic who would later go on to canonization (just a few years before the film premiered) vs. the orthodox authorities who would eventually be regarded even within their own church as tyrannical fools of the cruelest sort.
In order to even tolerate the film, much less enjoy and get swept up in it, the viewer must have some patience and preferably appreciation for the art of the "close-up." I haven't yet seen this film on a big screen, but I figure it must be nearly overwhelming to see the continual unfolding of profound facial expressions when each image is blown to its originally-intended cinematic dimensions. It's quite powerful just watching it on a standard 27" TV or even my computer monitor. Not just Joan's visage, but the faces of her inquisitors - all of them free of make-up, fully revealed in their raw, wrought, pock-marked expressive nakedness according to Dreyer's intentions. The liner notes in my DVD indicate that his intent was to what he wanted, what he felt, what he thought: realized mysticism. I think he succeeded in capturing at least one aspect of the mystical experience, the profound sense of release and letting go that accompanies that experience - Joan is given numerous opportunities to recant her visions and the other utterances which she previously made with such boldness and certainty... and under threat of torture, she actually does. Only to retract that confession a short while later, an act that she knows will lead her straight to the stake where she will be burned alive until dead.

And all along, we see a soul wrestling with the value it places upon truth, upon personal integrity, upon the willingness to refrain from lashing out or fighting back, not because one is outnumbered or facing hopeless odds of escape, but because the worldly powers themselves are so implacable in its determination to vanquish all that is noblest and purest within us that resistance to them ultimately does seem futile.

Carl Th. Dreyer
also has the distinction of being the earliest auteur to earn a repeat invitation back into the Criterion Collection. Flaherty, Christensen, Micheaux and of course DeMille all rank worthy of their place in film history, but Dreyer's work here is the earliest example of the kind of director who would go on to produce a whole string of art-house masterworks. I have quite a bit yet to learn about this leading figure of 20th century Danish culture, but I'll have opportunities in the months ahead to study him some more. For now, I suppose it's just sufficient to say I'm a novice cineaste who's impressed to the utmost with the timeless strength and originality of what Dreyer achieved when he was not yet forty years old. There are greater films to be found in terms of sheer spectacle and sweep of vision, but few peer this deep or intently into the heart of individual anguish. Such a pleasant subject to consider, right? Well there is a peculiar and enthralling beauty to be found in this film. It's one I expect to watch many more times in years to come.

This link will connect you to a full length film clip on YouTube, completely silent and without English intertitles. Don't let that bug you - the faces tell the story clearly enough and I only link you there as a sampler to know better that of which I speak. Shorter clips and "adaptations" are just as easily available on YouTube. Here's one of a suitable length that you can sample right here:

Of course, the "epic" symphonic rock soundtrack has nothing to do with the film. Dreyer intended it to be viewed as a truly silent movie even though its had numerous musical accompaniment tracks attached to it over the years. The choral/orchestral work Voices of Light that Criterion chose to put on the DVD provides a stirring and sensitive musical masterpiece quite worthy of the film to which it's been paired. Its composition was inspired by the film but not created as a specific score. Still, a very nice libretto is included in the package citing the literary references for the various theological sources that provide the lyrics. Other than biblical passages, I think all the other words sung (in ancient languages, with English translations provided in the booklet) were from Joan herself or other female mystics of her era.

So there you go, folks. The Passion of Joan of Arc - a most humbling and monumental work of the filmmaker's art.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The King of Kings (1927) - #266

For starters, I already wrote a blog post (on my PoMoXian blog which is pretty much dormant these days) on Cecil B. DeMille's epic landmark film, The King of Kings, exactly two years ago yesterday, as a matter of fact. So go ahead and read that one first, then you can come back and read what more I have to say about it now that I've given the film a few more spins in the DVD player since then.

What I said in 2007 still holds true today, except that I now own the set and no longer have to check it out from the library. And I've also gone ahead and watched the shorter, general release version that DeMille cut down to 112 minutes in 1928, after he'd gotten the maximum mileage out of the 2 1/2 hour "road show" version the previous year. This is one of those occasions where less is not more, since some of the more amusing (but less narratively and biblically essential) scenes were left on the editing room floor. Scenes like when Peter was instructed by Jesus to go pull in a fish and finds in its mouth a shiny coin with which he can pay his taxes, followed by doltish centurions running to the shore to see what they'll find in the fish they catch! Actually, Peter's role is considerably diminished in the shorter version, but not necessarily to his detriment, since his denial of Christ (after Jesus is arrested, of course) is also excised. Basically, what the shorter version does is move the central narrative along at a faster clip, putting the focus more tightly on the conflict between Jesus and Caiaphas, and poor confused and tormented Jesus who manages to get himself badly ensnared between the two.

For anyone who's read the gospels and heard them preached and expounded upon over the course of their lifetime, there isn't a whole lot in this film that you haven't heard or considered before. Probably the biggest "plot twist" in a story that's otherwise so familiar and revered is the notion that Mary Magdalene and Judas were estranged lovers prior to meeting Jesus. Judas, in this version, was the first to be won over to the service of the Nazarene, and his (temporary) switch of allegiance from Mary to Jesus is what drives Mary, at the beginning of the film, to swoop in on Jesus in all her vampish glory, to prove to the lowly carpenter that there is no man who can stand between her and any man she desires.

And there is no doubt, that first section of the film is far and away the most fun portion of the overall viewing experience. For one, it's in Technicolor! How many color photographs have you ever seen that predate the 1930s? And probably even fewer color movies that predate "Gone With the Wind" or the middle section of "The Wizard of Oz," right? Of course I'm right! So that in itself is cool. And what's even better is just the pompous lavishness of the set and costumes.

Mary is all bedecked in plastered curls

sheer fabrics and an eye-catching spiral-sequined transparent brassiere - oh so scandalous, with so much skin showing that I can't help but wonder how much flak it (and her haughty, flamboyant attitude) generated in the more prudish communities of that time.

And what little girl hasn't grown up dreaming of being carted to meet her ultimate conquest in a slave-driven chariot drawn by zebras, "gift of the Nubian king"? Well, Mary of Magdala got to live that dream!

Of course, such rampant harlotry cannot be allowed to stand, at least not in the kind of film that old Cecil B. was selling back in the day (though of course he left in just enough to tickle the fancy of the rubes in the cheap seats!) Soon enough Mary, confident of her impending victory over the "vagabond carpenter," meets Jesus:

who promptly transforms the painted lady by casting out the Seven Deadly Sins...

...into this much more demure, presentable and presumably spiritually and psychologically healthier feminine role model:

Not nearly as scandalous, nor quite as much fun but that's how the story goes, you know! Actress Jacqueline Logan did a nice job setting the standard for future Mary Magdalenes like Yvonne deCarlo, Barbara Hershey and Monica Belluci.

You also noticed of course that after we leave Magdalene's illicit banquet table, we also leave the Technicolor behind. Such is life. From this point, the viewer enters more familiar, stately and reverently scrupulous cinematic territory. A few slight liberties are taken (such as a young crippled boy that Jesus heals turns out to be Mark, who would supposedly grow up to write one of the gospels.) And even though just about every intertitle from that point forward features a scripture reference, many of the quotes are taken badly out of context and applied for the convenience of advancing the story. However, evaluating the film based on its strict adherence to scripture would be a huge mistake - it's power is not at all dependent on tracking with any particular sequence of events as spelled out in the gospels as much as it's found in the consistently straightforward and strong performance of H.B. Warner as Jesus and DeMille's exceptional skill at creating beautiful, painterly camera shots. Here are a few that I capped to illustrate:

The Raising of Lazarus
Procession to the Temple

Jesus Confronted by Caiaphas and the Temple Guard

The Last Supper

Judas' Kiss
Pilate on His Throne

"Behold, The Man!"

The Mob Shouts "Crucify Him!"

The Way of the Cross



OK, I suppose you get the point by now... I'm pretty impressed with DeMille's iconographic touch! And as nice as some of these stills turned out (I hope you agree), seeing them in motion and on a large screen is all the more impressive. Some of these scenes are just loaded with information - it's quite entertaining to see all the commotion going on in the big crowd scenes - people are being thrown off of balconies, throttling each other by the neck and tumbling hard down stairs! And I won't even begin to describe the spectacle of the storm and earthquake that strikes at the hour of Jesus' death. One must simply see it all unfold. Here's a trailer that gives a fair-but-lo-res sampling:

(and don't let the corny voice-over bother you - the film is silent and the DVD offers three wonderfully wordless musical soundtracks for you to choose from!)

And having made a practice over the years of watching Jesus movies of all sorts, I can't help but conclude that this was the first, the best and the one that really got it right. Not to say that there haven't been other worthwhile and spiritually provocative attempts to capture the Gospel on film... but I haven't seen any that surpass DeMille's, in my opinion. If you think there are better versions out there, leave a comment and let's debate!

And as for the fittingness of this particular production in the Criterion canon that I've been sketching out in this blog, I think it is utterly and unquestionably appropriate that this ancient story, so pivotal to Western civilization and ultimately humanity as a whole should have been captured so vividly, so early in the history of cinema. I know that many later films in this series will take a far more cynical, hard-edged and disillusioned view of religion than DeMille ever had in mind, but this pious portrayal of Christian origins serves as the perfect background for those films. By providing the contextual foil for future theological and philosophical deconstruction in cinema, King of Kings offers a formidable depiction of the pathos and sheer symbolic strength of orthodoxy of the Christian or merely culturally conventional variety.