Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Pharmacist / The Barber Shop (1933) - #79

I have two more titles to cover from the DVD of W.C. Fields 6 Short Films: The Pharmacist and The Barber Shop. (Both links will lead to YouTube clips where you can watch them yourself.)

The thing is, I really don't have much to say about these films other than that they are very funny and I imagine I will be popping them in quite a few times in the years ahead since I really enjoy the quirky glimpse that W.C. provides into the smalltown life of his era. He's such a hard-pressed character in just about every film he's in - a washed up heel who's painfully aware of just how stuck and miserable his plight really is, even though he's deeply enmeshed in all the trappings of propriety and modest success. In The Pharmacist, he plays a shopkeeper who must quietly suffer the mild indignities of cheapskate customers, frivolous daughters and a too-easily indignant wife. And what do you know, his plight is not all that different in The Barber Shop either. In fact, the same woman plays his wife in both short subjects (Elise Cavanna, the actress who engaged in that memorable grapple in The Dentist.) Various absurdities take place just for the sake of random, nonsensical, slapstick amusement - a girl eats a canary bird, two old codgers fritter the day away over a meaningless game of checkers, only to have Fields disrupt the exquisite tension they'd developed through maliciously bad advice to one of the players.
Oddball customers wander in off the street,

heap on the aggravation with their pointlessly petty requests, then leave the quietly seething propietor to mutter his insults askance. Both films end up with criminal intrusions that inject a note of action and suspense into the proceedings before ending up in shamelessly blatant deus ex machina resolutions that provide a convenient excuse for fade to black. We aren't left with any kind of underlying message or redemptive point at all. These short films, each running around 20 minutes or so, offer a brief foray into a world at once fading into the distance but still familiar in its basic roles and functions, surprisingly bitter and brutal while remaining quite capable for stirring the embers of nostalgia for a version of Americana that is thankfully receding into the past.

Eclipse Review: Japanese Girls at the Harbor

Eclipse Review: Every-Night Dreams

Eclipse Review: The Private Life of Henry VIII

Eclipse Review: Passing Fancy

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) - #231

There's no medium quite as capable as film to transform the exploits of twistedly maniacal, utterly evil mad scientists into a fine evening's entertainment. The Most Dangerous Game gave us a decent version of this cinematic stock character, but if I have to choose, I'll take Dr. Mabuse as the superior ultimate bad guy over Zaroff the crazed hunter. Zaroff and Mabuse share an ability to pursue their own selfish desires seemingly unimpeded (despite mainstream society's efforts to isolate them from more conventional mortals) but Mabuse easily takes the prize for originality, scale of ambition and unstoppability. And The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (as a film) provides a lot more complexity, strangeness and cinematic bravado to savor. So let's give it a look.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse serves as a unique "double sequel," featuring characters from two different films directed by Fritz Lang - his 1920's silent feature (released in two parts) Dr. Mabuse the Gambler and M, from 1931. Dr. Mabuse, in his original appearance, was a master criminal who orchestrated a broad network of cheats and took excessive pleasure in finding new ways to corrupt his fellow human beings. At the end of that movie (which I've never seen but would really like to some day) he winds up in an insane asylum, having lost his empire of crime. In M, we first meet Inspector Lohmann, the police officer most intent and in charge of apprehending Becker, the serial child-killer. Lohmann makes a return appearance here, in the next film Lang made following M. It would also turn out to be Lang's last German production. (More on that in a bit.)

Mabuse's role in this film is rather limited but memorable. He never left the asylum - in fact, he is as physically contained and remote from his fellow humans as a law-abiding citizen might ever desire, remaining confined to his bed in a near-catatonic state through most of the film. Not that that makes any difference though. Mabuse has developed his psychic and hypnotic powers to such a degree that what little human he is granted provides sufficient opportunity for him to wreak havoc for havoc's sake, without interference or interruption. He does this through the influence he wields on Dr. Baum, the head of the asylum whose fascination with Mabuse's dark insanity has made him all too susceptible to the fiend's control. Privy to the grotesquely brilliant conspiratorial strategies Mabuse draws up from his stark, barren cell, Baum uses Mabuse's written instructions to coordinate the activities of his own empire of crime, using the technology of his times to convey criminal directives, anonymously, to his organized units of henchmen.

We soon learn that Mabuse/Baum's motives go well beyond mere enrichment or the accumulation of worldly power. Their interest has taken on the purity and focus of abstraction - they are motivated to promulgate evil and calamity because they regard such upheavals as necessary, even cleansing, for the sake of saving a humanity at risk of deeper degeneracy from what they regard as its own base impulses. So they distribute counterfeit currency, distribute narcotics, threaten extortion and roil society in just about every other way imaginable, for the sake of our collective future. Or rather, not our future... but that of a new humanity that will arise from the rubble and wreckage that their harvest of chaos will leave behind.

Allow me to quote from Mabuse himself, from his handwritten manuscript titled Herrschaft des Verbrechens (The Empire of Crime):
"Humanity's soul must be shaken to its very depths, frightened by unfathomable and seemingly senseless crimes. Crimes that benefit no one, whose only objective is to inspire fear and terror. Because the ultimate purpose of crime is to establish the endless empire of crime. A state of complete insecurity and anarchy, founded upon the tainted ideals of a world doomed to annihilation. When humanity, subjugated by the terror of crime, has been driven insane by fear and horror, and when chaos has become supreme law, then the time will have come for the empire of crime."
The scene where these words are read, and spoken, is about as creepy as one is likely to see from a film made in this era. Baum, poring over Mabuse's manuscripts, is suddenly besieged by a spectral visit from Mabuse himself, his facial features horribly distorted. Mabuse's disembodied spirit proceeds to inhabit Baum himself, who then goes on to fully absorb himself in the detailed plans Mabuse laid out for sabotaging gas storage tanks, chemical factories and the like.

So does this nihilistic philosophy seem at all... familiar to you? Let me turn your attention back to the calendar and the epoch when this film was released: Germany 1933. The Weimar Republic has breathed its last gasp and the National Socialists, b.k.a. Nazis, have been voted into office promising a renewal of the thwarted German nation. Lang clearly positioned himself against the Nazis in this film and in many other ways, and was rewarded for his efforts by seeing his new film promptly banned as one of the earliest acts of the new Nazi government and the official Department of Propaganda adminsistered by Josef Goebbels. Lang naively assumed that his status as a popular and celebrated filmmaker would lead to a popular revolt that would force the Nazis to reverse their decision, but he quickly realized that 1) Hitler and his own "empire of crime" were dead serious about their intentions and 2) the public was basically split between a majority who actually supported the Nazis and a minority that was too intimidated to actually put up any resistance. Lang would soon abandon Germany for France and eventually emigrate to America where he continued to have a long and influential cinematic career.

So The Testament of Dr. Mabuse has a lot going for it beyond the psychological sophistication of its narrative and Lang's celebrated artistry and innovation behind the camera and with sound. We're seeing an important historical artifact, one of the last high-level works of art produced before the awful calamities of Hitler and Naziism came to fruition. The film marks a significant breaking point, a massive disruption really, in the development and history of German cinema. Given the prominence of films by Pabst (Pandora's Box and The Threepenny Opera) and Lang (M and Testament of Dr. Mabuse) in this early phase of the broader Criterion canon, I find it significant that we won't be viewing any more German films in this series until we reach Volcker Schlondorff's Young Torless, released in 1966!

A few other highlights that deserve mention are some great suspense and chase scenes in the second half of the film. This trailer (I think it's a short compilation of clips, not an actual theatrical preview) gives a nice sampling of the film's atmosphere and characters. The whispering voice toward the beginning is, of course, Dr. Mabuse. You don't need to understand German to detect that sinister thoughts are being spoken!

The movie packs a lot of entertainment value if you don't mind dwelling on the darker aspects of human nature for a couple of hours. And I think it relates quite well to our own times, if the commentary and historical tensions with the Nazis and 1930's-era Fascism don't hold your interest. The ideologies of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have a lot in common with the rantings of Mabuse. It may not feel at all pleasant, but I think we benefit from the encounter with malevolent ideologies in films like this, in that it helps us to recognize them just a bit more clearly when they approach us, dressed up more politely and seductively, in our everyday lives.

Next: The Pharmacist & The Barber Shop (1 time only 2 for 1 special!)

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933) - #79

For greater comprehension of this latest post to my movie blog, I suggest that you scroll to the bottom and read upwards, Twitter-style, since that's where this content originated. If you want to watch the original clip of W.C. Fields' The Fatal Glass of Beer, you know what to do. Go to YouTube, search out those words and there it is. Or just click the link above to start watching Part 1. Meanwhile, here's what transpired tonight... (I've edited out some of the extraneous Twivia that had nothing to do with the riveting exchange between me, Elvenlord and Nathew.)

  1. David Blakesleepomoxian OK, you've just read all the best lines from W.C. Fields' classic, "The Fatal Glass of Beer." Thanks for sharing this experience with me.

  2. David Blakesleepomoxian A MACK SENNETT COMEDY

  3. David Blakesleepomoxian You lug! Get out! Get out of here, you tramp you! and it ain't a fit night out, for man nor beast!

  4. David Blakesleepomoxian ...And you came back, to me and Mother, to sponge off us, the rest of your life!

  5. David Blakesleepomoxian No Pa, I ain't got none of them bonds, and I threw that tainted money away!

  6. Dorethia ConnerDavid Blakeslee
  7. pomoxian Chester, have you got any of them bonds on you, or any of that money?

  1. Bill Baugherelvenlord made a gaff. pomoxian can't respond to my last post because he's outside milking the Elk.

  2. Bill Baugherelvenlord ponders if he is alone in wondering if pomoxian took his med's today. Milking the Elk??? All we have is coyotes around here.

  3. Mr. SocialMrSocial they are live streaming them getting wasted and going to get the tattoo hopefully

  4. David Blakesleepomoxian @nathew ol' W.C. did alright carrying the tune on the dulcimer with his elk hide mitts on. Don't think he'd of done so well w/ a Blackberry.

  5. nathewnathew my dad found an interesting 24 easter egg. on a theatre marquee in one shot during dubaku's crash is an early kiefer sutherland film.

  6. Rick StilwellRickCaffeinated Time to head towards bed, one cup of coffee to take the edge off a long Monday.

  7. David Blakesleepomoxian Hey Lida! It's me! Come here, don't you know me? Mr. Snavely Battered old hide.

  8. dcagledcagle Brilliant caricaturist Taylor Jones has an interesting post on Slumdog Millionaire

  9. David Blakesleepomoxian My old ambusher ain't what it used to be

  10. Mr. SocialMrSocial Everyone follow @BaltimoreMD. If he gets 3k followers by 1am @tweetbomb will get a fail whale tattoo

  11. nathewnathew @pomoxian is it anything like typing with boxing gloves on?

  12. David Blakesleepomoxian I think I'll go out and milk the elk!

  13. David Blakesleepomoxian One the city gets into a bo-hoy's s-hystem, he ha-loses his ha-hankerin' for the ca-hountry

  14. Biz Stonebiz Reading about the strange case of the Marie Celeste

  15. StasiaandBobStasiaandBob Should Rick Santelli Care that Credit Card Companies are Raising Rates?

  16. Bill Baugherelvenlord is impressed that Dave is playing the DULCIMER with MITTS. I once played percussions with a broom.

  17. David Blakesleepomoxian @ elvenlord I'm playing the DULCIMER with my mitts on!

  1. TIMEThePage Jindal's Moment to Shine: The Louisiana governor will deliver the GOP response to the president's address to C..

  2. David Blakesleepomoxian Well I think I'll be high-tailin' it out o'er the rim... and it ain't a fit night out for man nor beast! (cue snow-flurry in the face)

  3. benpoliticobenpolitico An actual use for twitter: stalking shaq

  4. David Blakesleepomoxian My uncle Ichabod said, speaking of the city, "It ain't no place for gals, but pretty men go thar..."

  5. Bill Baugherelvenlord wonders if pomoxian can drink beer with his mitts on and watch W.C. Fields at the same time.

  6. David Blakesleepomoxian There's a moral for the man who comes down to the city: don't go 'round breaking people's tambourines!

  7. David Blakesleepomoxian You won't consider me rude if I play with my mitts on, will ya?

  8. Bill Baugherelvenlord rethinks his last comment and revises it to "If it Floats in your Glass of Beer"

  9. David Blakesleepomoxian You'll have to excuse me, my voice isn't quite right. You know we can't get any Ipecac up in this part of the country

  10. Peter Robert CaseyPeter_R_Casey Thank you @cymberly, @CaPerfPublisher, and @imjustshane. This is all very helpful!

  11. Bill Baugherelvenlord can't comprehend how W.C. Fields could hit anyone's my cyberspace buddy Rick once said, "If it floats you boat"

  12. David Blakesleepomoxian I haven't heard from Chester, it'll be a year come Michaelmas

  13. David Blakesleepomoxian Figure on goin' over the rim tonight!

  14. Ana Marie Coxanamariecox Upon reflection, Georgetown loss tonight less dignified than McCain's.

  15. Bill Baugherelvenlord suggests to Dave that he use obscure LOTR's passwords in the future. It work's for me.

  1. FLWbooks Sci-fi fans? Alt-History fans? You there? New list: "The Best Earths that Never Were" Oh, please RT? This is a fun one.

  2. Jane Seymour FondaJanefonda This is my recent appearance on The View. #theatre

  3. Bill Baugherelvenlord just posted about the Fear of Abandonment and Engulfment at http://soulfulrelations.blo... while in contemplative mood.

  4. David Blakesleepomoxian @elvenlord nice to be contemplative and all, as for me I'm thinking that W.C. Fields hits the spot. The Fatal Glass of Beer! Yukon or bust!

  5. stephenkruiserstephenkruiser Turns out it wasn't me weeping, it was my bladder.

  6. Bill Baugherelvenlord is home. It is quiet. Iona is playing in background and am in contemplative mood tonight.

Link to :  Apart From You (Naruse)

Next: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse