Tuesday 31 July 2012

The General (1927)

The General
“The General” may not be the funniest of the Buster Keaton movies on the list. That price goes in my opinion to “Sherlock Jr.” or “Seven Chances”. But in my eyes it ranks as the most coherent and complete movie of his. “The General” is not a string of individual gags. Everything happens because it works for the story. That they happen to be funny is a nice bonus, but this is not crazy comedy. There is a sort of comedy where everybody acts as loonies and the framework of reality is lost (an extreme example is “Airplane!”). That is funny for a while, but the comedies that work best on me is when the protagonist (or the sidekick) is doing his or her antics in a believable world of normal people. “The General” takes place in exactly such a universe and Keaton while undeniably being his usual self is not so silly that he is not believable himself.

Keaton is Johnnie Gray, a train engineer in Georgia at the onset of the Civil War. He has two loves in his life: His engine and his girl. The order is a bit unclear. When war is declared he is strongly encouraged by his family in law, especially by his girlfriend Annabelle, to enlist in the Confederate army. This seems to be a recurrent theme of the age. Apparently between the wars families could not wait sending their loved ones into battle. In any case the army does not want him. He is more valuable to the South as a train engineer. Only they do not tell him that. Instead he feels like a reject. His family in law takes it even worse. To them he is a lying coward. Annabelle will not see him till he wears a uniform. Sweet girl.

When a Northern spy steals The General (Johnnies engine) the movie kicks off. Johnnie instantly takes up pursuit by foot if that is what it takes. He soon enough gets a train (though he immediately losses the car with the patrol of soldiers on it) and we get a really unique sequence in movie history: A train chase! And what a chase it is! I have never seen anything like this in any other movie. Two old engines chasing each other. Keaton in his usual style alone and hopelessly unequipped up against a well-armed train. Nothing they throw at him is able to stop him and it is not for lack of trying. At some point Johnnie picks up a car mounted with a monstrous cannon. This cannon is more a comical relief than of actual use for Johnnie. When the barrel accidentally drops and aims at his own train we can easily imagine him blowing his own engine to smithereens.

Against all odds Johnnie makes it alive and almost catches up with The General. By then however he is deep inside Northern territory and he realize that it is probably a good idea to lay low. While looking for food he stumbles upon a staff meeting among the officers of the Northern army and lying quietly under their table he learns of their cunning plane to surprise the south through a quick and stealthy crossing of an important river. Johnnie also learns that Annabelle is in the house. She was accidentally on the train when it was stolen and is now an accident hostage. She is quite pleased to see Johnnie thinking he came all the way to save her. And yes, he is in uniform now, though a Northern on at that.

They steal back the General and run for the Southern lines. Again we have a train chase and this time Johnnie’s is the hunted one. The comical element now, beside their absurd situation on a train being chased by an entire army, is that Annabelle is even more hopelessly inadequate for the task than Jonnie. In fact Johnnie comes out as the competent one who repeatedly has to rescue them from the trouble she is placing them in. But she is sweet and so is he and of course they make it. They save the day by alerting the Southern army and the Northern army is stopped by the river.

You will notice from the above that I am more concerned with the story than the gags. The plot is simply so good and so captivating that that was my focus all through. That also propels the movie up in the ranks of top classics, not just among comedies but in general.

I just have to say it again. Those engines are awesome! I want one.

Monday 30 July 2012

Metropolis (1927)

I have seen Metropolis twice now. The first time I felt disappointed. The second time I was better prepared. It is still overall a disappointing experience but now I am better able to put words on it and also see the elements which are good.

In a way it is difficult to be critical about Metropolis. It is highly acclaimed and celebrated almost universally as a masterpiece. The high expectations which follow such a status are perhaps part of the explanation for my disappointment, but it is not just that.

Let me start with what works here.

It is hard to imagine science fiction without Metropolis. The traces are everywhere. The cityscape and androids of Bladerunner, the classical mad scientist and just check the similarity between the android Hel and C3PO of Star Wars. The Mench-Machine theme is recurrent in especially German culture but also holds a universal fascination. The sets are elaborate and outstanding and they fill the movie with a dystopic ambience that is seeping out of everything. The opening alone with the pounding pistons set the tone exactly right.

Metropolis is probably best known for its android. And it is spectacular! There is a clear resemblance between the quickening scene in Metropolis and the equivalent scene in Frankenstein, both in terms of process (It is electric energy that makes the artificial human come alive) and the motive (to resurrect a dead body), but I would say that Metropolis wins that round. It is both earlier and more spectacular. Birgitte Helm as the android in human shape is also really good although I am more thinking of an insect and a robot when I look at her.

Unfortunately Metropolis is a mess.

Hard as I try I just cannot figure it out. My first thought was a communist theme. The oppressed workers rebelling against their despotic masters and taking control. But that is not it. The point of the movie seems to be that there is a heart that ties the hand (the workers) and the head (the leaders) together to become a whole. So that is then a representative of the elite with some empathy for the lower class? Hmm… That sounds to me like compassionate conservatism and does not seem like such an improvement. Not really a system change. I mean Freder Fredersen does not exactly represent a welfare system.

Another thought is that Metropolis is a scary warning of things to come. That the city of Metropolis rests upon the labor of a prisoner class kept in a concentration camp underground. That could help explain something that kept bothering me. Metropolis seems to be a big city with tall buildings and traffic jams. Yet the triangular society structure with a large working class and a small elite would mean that if the workers are kept underground who would then inhabit all the buildings? It would either be a small city or a very empty one. We learn that to be fired by Joh Fredersen means a one way ticket to the underground city. Does that mean that Joh Fredersen is the only employer in town? Or does it mean that when fired you are also convicted and the sentence is carried out in the underground prison. It does make some sense. Give them some striped clothing and the march of the worker-prisoners could be taking place in Bergen-Belsen.

But that logic only carries so far. It is not anger against the overlord that drives the eventual rebellion, but a rage against the machines. Being prisoners I would imagine that they wanted freedom and to rid themselves of their oppressor, but they seem content with a mediator. The Führer is not so bad after all. Eh, did I miss something?

Joh Fredersen reacts to the impending insubordination by cooking up a cunning plan: To incite the workers so they destroy the heart machine, which will flood their city and kill their children. Nice plan. But exactly what is he trying to achieve besides a horrible atrocity? The thing that goes awfully wrong with his plan is not that the children will die or that the workers escape from their underground prison. Once they have reached the machine room it is relatively easy for them to get out. The thing that goes wrong is that his son is down there. I fail to see how that affects the rebellion from his point of view. Well, he might lose his son, but his son has little influence on the rebellion except saving the children. So in that sense that is just an unexpected high price to pay to get his way. Well, except that he is not achieving anything.

The worker-prisoners coming out of their underground prison thinking that their children are dead are not avenging themselves on their masters who engineered this, but on the agent, the machine who incited them. When faced with their nemesis they, as mentioned, are content to get a mediator.

A third thought I got is to look at the story as a Messiahs fable. That Freder is the Christ that will lead workers (Jews) out of slavery in Babylon. Then Maria becomes a prophet who foretells and paves the way for the savior. This story works part of the way but again only so far. Freders end purpose is to concile the workers with the slave masters and not to take them to the blessed land. Or again, maybe I am missing something.

Besides the inconsistencies of the plot I was not too happy about the acting either. I can cook it down to a single example: Whenever Freder runs, and he does that a lot, it looks like he is doing an Olympic 100 m sprint. It is rather comical, but that is probably not intended.

I do recognize the significance of Metropolis, but I really do not consider it a good movie.        

Sunday 29 July 2012

Pepe le Moko (1937)

Pépé le Moko
There are so many pleasures going through the list, especially if like me you are forcing yourself to see all the movies. One of the things I enjoy is to see all the difference scenery, how people lived in olden times and odd places. It is fascinating to see how cloths change, or cars or hairstyle. Attitudes change over time and what you can show on film. It is fun to hear how speech is evolving, that people then would say the same things then, but in an entirely different way. And sometimes I can just sit and gawk at all the wonderful places that the movies travel through. I have never been to the Kasbah in Algiers and even if this turns out actually to have been a studio production it is still great to have a story placed such an exotic contemporary (at the time) location.

The Kasbah is a mystic labyrinth, a city within the city, filled with an exotic mix of people of any kind but with a slant to the shady side. The Kasbah is the original oriental town with tiny alleys and rooftop passages and a sense of community that sets it apart from the surrounding French city. It is the past meeting the present, the Oriental meeting the Western. For outsiders the Kasbah is impenetrable. It is entirely a world of its own. The Kasbah is ruled by a criminal mastermind who is everywhere and nowhere within the Kasbah. He is the Godfather of the orient. The outside authorities would love to get their hands on him, but in the Kasbah they are powerless.

This is an awesome setting. The potential for mysticism, secret operations, and high crime is enormous.

So much more disappointing is what we really get.

What sort of fellow would you imagine this criminal mastermind, this Pepe le Moko, to be? An oriental Corleone? A mystic Berbian overlord? Nope. He is something as trivial as a French bank robber who has fled to Algiers to avoid justice. Okay a very handsome bank robber, but not the kind of super villain you would have expected. This guy just does not belong here. He seems awfully misplaced. He long for Paris and it is not believable at all that he should have the native clout to make it big in the Kasbah.

Already disappointed by this revelation it may come as no surprise that the high drama that is the plot of the movie is not some intricate criminal endeavor, but the comparatively simple matter of getting Pepe out of the Kasbah so he can be arrested and the resolution of this turn out to be equally unsatisfying.

The problem here is that “Pepe le Moko” is fundamentally just a tragic love story placed in an exotic setting. The problem with that is that I expected so much more, that the potential is so much bigger.

Pepe is handsome, melancholic and emotional bordering manic-depressive. He is a gentleman thief who is safe in the Kasbah, but also imprisoned because he long for Paris. Sometimes he explodes in brutal violence, at other times he sings from the rooftops. He is played by Jean Gabin, the Leonardo diCaprio of the 1930ies French cinema, and his attitude of aloofness is similar. Ines, Pepes girlfriend in the Kasbah, genuinely loves him and even though she is a crafty and intelligent girl Pepe scorns her. To him she is Kasbah.

When Gaby Gould enters the Kasbah and Pepe meets her it is entirely different. She is Paris and thus his heart’s desire. To hell with friends and plans and safety, he wants to go home. And Gaby is home.

This is all very romantic, the handsome prince of thieves and the beautiful parisienne, but it also seems incredibly forced.

The subplots with the unreliable Regis who, paid by the police is tricking Pepe’s protégé Pierrot out of the Kasbah to lure Pepe himself out, or the resident policeman Slimane, who is clearly up to something but manage to walk around untouched in the Kasbah, are far more in line with the context and would have been more interesting to explore. Instead they seem almost inconsequential to the love story/bad case of homesickness that is the core of the movie.

I love the setting, the supporting characters are interesting and they act out well, but at the core of it the movie is unsatisfying. It smells like a missed opportunity.

Saturday 28 July 2012

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Troldmanden fra Oz
This is one of the movies I have been looking forward to see. Finally, finally it is time.

I never actually saw it before, well only in very small parts. I was almost completely ignorant of pre-1970 cinema before I started this project and that by and far is why I am doing it. So I have not seen it before, yet I knew it very well. The songs are beyond familiar, the characters are iconic, the story is classic. To see it was like meeting an old friend that you have never seen dressed up like this before.

The cultural impact of “The Wizard of Oz” is monumental. What do you say when you get to a really weird place? “I think we are not in Kansas anymore” of course. Right after watching it I was listening to an audiobook in the “Ender’s Game” series where they were quoting entire passages from “The Wizard of Oz”. Not to speak of the songs. In that light it is difficult to be entirely objective when watching it.

Let me say right away that I loved it. For ones all my expectations held.

It is an interesting if classical story that can be understood in several planes. Did the girl go to a magical land by means of the twister or was she knocked unconscious by the window frame and dreamt the whole thing? The later seems the more likely explanation. All the characters and the setting reflect the mind of a child. The characters are proxies for her relations in the real world with traits that are stylized and exaggerated. She is searching for something within herself and goes to find the answer from the oracle of the Wizard of Oz. The Wicked Witch of the West is of course the terrible Almira Gulch. Her green face and evil laughter is not a bit worse than the “real” witch, just transplanted to the fairy world of Oz.

Dorothy’s (Judy Garland) companions are also looking for something, though I did not catch if it reflects a search in their real selves. Obviously they find that what they are looking for they had all the time, they just needed to get reminded. A diploma for the scarecrow so he knows he has a brain even though he got all the bright ideas all along. A symbolic heart for the tin man, even though he was the most empathic of them and could not stop crying. For Dorothy herself she needed to get reminded that all she ever wanted was right there at home on the homestead. Frankly I find that solution a little cheap, but it is a children’s story and we are not dealing in too big existential problems here.

The difference between the real world and the dream world of Oz is skillfully made. The real world is drab and colorless. People are very earthbound and struggling with day to day chores. In Oz however the colors are incredibly saturated and the world is filled with strange and wonderful creatures like the Munchkins who have a Lollipop Guild! This seems like the reflection of Dorothy herself who is filled with thoughts, ideas and concerns that certainly are not earthbound at all. In fact she seems to have lived in a world of her own even before she goes to Oz.

My favorite character is the Wicked Witch of the West. She is just perfect. This could easily have been too sweet a story without her. She is definitely the spice of the story. Nasty nasty. She is going to cook the dog, I know she is.

My least favorite is actually Dorothy herself. Judy Garland is a darling, but there is something utterly disturbing about seeing an adult playing a child. To me it seems almost perverted and instead of being a child’s mind and fantasy we see, it is an adult who never grew up but is stuck in childhood and it strikes me as rather sad. It does not help that they flattened her breasts and gave her a childish hairstyle. In fact it just makes it worse. This may be a product of the age. They just could not let a child play the part or it was acceptable to let an adult play the kid, I do not know.

But that is just a small minus. I thoroughly enjoyed the film and since seeing it have been alternating between humming “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and “We’re off to see the Wizard”. I just cannot get those songs out of my head.

Friday 27 July 2012

The Big Parade (1925)

Den store parade
The subtitle for this movie could be ”Band of Brothers 1925”, because that is basically the formula of this movie, except that when this movie was made it was not a formula at all. I have to admit I like that formula. As much as the horrors of war is shocking and always will be, the sequence of leaving home, bonding with new friends, being thrown into battle and the optional homecoming has a lot of boyish appeal and I could mention a whole string of movies following this concept (All Quiet on the Western Front, Full Metal Jacket, Deer Hunter, Platoon just to mention a few). Sometimes I do not know if these movies are genuinely anti-war movies or if they feed on a fascination among those who make them and those who see them of war. It is a strange love/hate relationship.

In any case the First World War had recently ended and it was time to face the monster. This is a painful process and “The Big Parade” was an early attempt and a very successful attempt at that at the box office. If it was entirely as successful at facing the monster I am not entirely sure. In that sense the later “All Quiet on the Western Front” hit it more clean, but “The Big Parade” was on entirely off the mark either.

Jim Apperson, played by John Gilbert, is the idle son of a rich industrialist. When was is declared he scarcely gives it any attention, but everybody and not least his girlfriend seem bend on enrolling him so he is swept into the army. It is too easy to blame the war hungry celebration at the declaration of war on American naiveté, it was exactly the same picture in Germany and France in 1914 where the soldiers went to battle thinking they were going to a party. But it is still disconcerting to see. This is 1917 and even though there was an effective lid on the news coming out of the war something of the horrors must have seeped out by then. Oh, had they know what they were going into!

During training Jim becomes friend with Slim and Bull, a tobacco chewing construction worker and bartender. The classical buddy-bonding all the while we get singing army inter-titles. Oh, it is a happy, rowdy life to be a soldier.

In France we get a long, and in my opinion too long, romantic intermezzo. The unit is bunked at a farmhouse in a village and Jim falls in love with the daughter of the farm. She is endearing and certainly an improvement over his girlfriend at home. An interesting cross-cultural love story unfolds though it becomes so dominant that it almost steals the focus of the movie (though some might say that is the focus of the movie). When the unit moves out it is with a lot of drama as they are both aware that this could well be the last they will see of each other.

Now we are moving into real battle. It is very well made but horrible to look at. If this was how they waged war in 1917-18 (and it probably was) they ought to line up the officers and shoot them. Such a stupid waste of human life. I am not talking about wars in general which by definition is a stupid waste of human life, but the way it is presented here is just grotesque. How do you enter a forest you know is stuffed with snipers and machine guns? Covering each other, moving from shelter to shelter, spreading out, and organizing the entire affair? Nope, not here. You line up your people in nice rows and let then march into the forest, uncovered, exposed and without means to effectively get rid of opposition, while the officers are pushing on behind. Napoleonic tactics against machineguns. At least in the trenches they are running when charging and doing so under artillery coverage. It is still a carnage and futile, but here they don’t even do that. Am I supposed to take this serious? Do the people behind the movie really know what they are doing? I am afraid they do. Everything I have learned of the First World War tells me that this kind of idiocy was prevalent. The soldiers surviving this were not heroes but lucky men, though I do not know if I would call it luck to be enrolled in an army fighting world war I.

Technically it is very well done. This counts for both the battle scenes specifically and the performance in general. The acting is more real than is the norm for the silent period and the editing, except for the long love affair is also okay.

One thing the movie shows very well is how different the men are when they return from war and how little understanding they meet. This is not as pronounced as in “All Quiet on the Western Front”, but it is clear enough. There must have been many men in 1925 who recognized the feeling and who were not feeling as appreciated as they felt they deserved. I hope the rest of society learned a bit from movies like this one.

A funny detail from the movie: I kept thinking how much John Gilbert looked like Tom Hanks. I would not be surprised if someone told me they were related. Both his looks and his manners are so Tom Hanks.

This is a movie I enjoyed more than I expected the first time I saw it. It is also a movie I was happy to see a second time. I am just not entirely sure which message to take with me from the movie.

Thursday 26 July 2012

The Gold Rush (1925)

In 1919 the four biggest in Hollywood formed their own production and distribution company United Artists. The four were Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Grifith and Charlie Chaplin. They were the top of the pops and the argument for forming UA was that they were the most expensive people in Hollywood and in this way they could keep the profits for themselves.

What happened to them?

Mary Pickford totally disappeared. There is not a single entry with her on the 1001 list and I have to admit that I have not seen anything by her myself. Douglas Fairbanks made some hugely successful silents of which “The Thief of Bagdad” is the only one to appear on the list. Unfair I think, but a consequence of his movies not ageing very well. D.W. Griffith will always be remembered, but mostly for his technical achievements of which much of it was already done before 1919. He features massively on the list, but it can be argued if that is really deserved.

Charlie Chaplin on the other hand had not even come close to realizing his potential in 1919. His movies since then are glorious landmarks and are as watchable today as they were back then. A hard person might say that it is because he made comedies and they simply age better, but it is a lot more than that. Charlie Chaplin is true genius on many levels. His movies are not just comedies. They are romantic, tragic love stories, social comments, technical marvels and filled with a humanity that speaks to us today far beyond the slapstick.

I have to say this because after watching three of his movies of the four on the list (thanks Steve!) I have realized how grossly I had underestimated Chaplin. Not for a second am I thinking that this or that feature of the movie or story is sooo dated and would have to be done differently today. My guess is that you could make a movie along the lines of Chaplin today and it would work just fine. “The Actor” is not so far off and it cornered the Oscars.

In Gold Rush Chaplin’s tramp is in Klondike prospecting for gold, a task he is hopelessly unsuited for. He is as usual pitted against formidable odds but carry on unfazed, not with Keaton’s deadpan, but with Chaplin’s tragic optimism. In the wilderness he encounters the dangerous outlaw Black Larsen and the friendly but forgetful prospector Big Jim. The scene is a lone hut with basically only that one room. Here we have a number of immortal scenes. The most famous ones are probably when Chaplin and Big Jim out of hunger cook and (try to) eat one of Chaplin’s shoes. Black Larsen has left to get supplies but he is not coming back. The following scene is equally funny. Big Jim is getting delirious and imagines Chaplin is a big chicken and he cannot wait to sink his teeth into him. This is perfect slapstick, but on a tragic backdrop that makes the humor bittersweet and so much more exquisite.

There is a terrible storm and the house and its content is blown away in what is an amazing technical achievement. The hut ends up precariously balancing on the edge of a gorge. When Chaplin and Big Jim go to one side of the hut it tips into the gorge and when they go back the hut rights itself. It takes them a while and more slapstick to figure out what is going on and we got a literal cliffhanger.

Back in town Chaplin makes a tragic figure among the rowdy toughs of this wildest of outback towns. He gets a crush on one of the women in the saloon, but she has only eyes for her boyfriend. New Year ’s Eve he has invited her and her friends to dinner and dressed up the place complete with small gifts for the guests. But no-one comes. For them this was not important and they have already forgotten. Chaplin dreams of having guests and performs the unforgettable potato dance. Comedy again on a sad backdrop. When the girl finally remembers and come to his hut it is too late.

The little tramp is fundamentally a tragic character and hopelessly incompetent at anything he does. But somehow he wins anyway. Not in the traditional way or by some stupid blind luck, but because he manages to win hearts. When Big Jim remembers where he struck gold and uncovers his mother lode he remembers Chaplin and shares it with him. Likewise he wins the girl. And us.

The version I saw carried Chaplin’s own voiceover from the early forties. This is of course a modification from the original, but so are any silent we see with a score, so I do not mind and actually thinks it adds to the movie and gives it a better flow because we can be rid of the inter-titles.

I hate to compare the Chaplin movies with each other because they are all good each with their qualities. Instead I would say that “The Gold Rush” ranks among to top movies on the list based on the 121 movies I have seen so far on this quest.  

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Bronenosets Potyomkin (1925)

Panserkrydseren Potemkin
”The Battleship Potemkin” is an iconic movie. One of those movies that many people will have seen stuff from without actually knowing it and most people will have heard of it, but never seen the movie itself.

On the other hand after seeing “Strike” I do not blame anybody for being hesitant about seeing “The Battleship Potemkin”.

In many ways “Potemkin” is similar to “Strike”. This is also a movie with a clear political agenda and it is also sporting the montage style that makes “Strike” (in)famous. “Potemkin” is also a group film rather than a movie about individuals. But “The Battleship Potemkin” is a better movie than “Strike”. I can image the group behind “Strike” met afterwards to evaluate and decided to improve on all the weak points from “Strike” and the result is “Potemkin”.

First of all the movie is a lot more tight, especially in the story. We are not floundering like in “Strike”, but know exactly what is going on, and the story flows a lot more naturally. This is not a difficult movie to follow. The story is also a lot more interesting and has a much better grip on my attention.

The sailors on the impressive battleship Potemkin are unhappy with the management and the event that sets the story in motion is when the sailors are complaining that their meat is rotten and crawling with worms. “These are not worms”, says the ship doctor, “They are just maggots. Wash them away with brine”. That meat is so disgusting! Yack! This of course gives us a lot of sympathy for the sailors and they respond in the only meaningful way by refusing to eat it.

The officers consider this insubordination and are determined to crack down on it hard. The penalty is monstrous. Those most reluctant to announce that they enjoyed the soup and step forward, and we are talking 10 to 15 of the sailors, are covered with a sail-cloth and mariners are lined up to shoot them. The remaining sailors appeal to their brethren and make them waver and the uprising is on. The mutiny of the Potemkin is not like the mutiny of the Bounty a matter of replacing a despondent leadership with a benevolent leadership, but the replacement of an illegal parasite elite class with the common rule of the subordinate class, the sailors. It is notable that not a single of the officers or even petty officers are seen henceforth and also that we see none of the sailors actually giving orders but rather make common decisions in a comity. The socialist ideal indeed.

Meanwhile on land in Odessa the civilians learn about the uprising (it has a nicer ring to it than mutiny) and mourn the sailor that died a martyr. This draws a large crowd and the rebellion is about to spread to the town. Before it gets this far however the Cossacks move in and in what is probably the most famous scene of the movie they coldly fire into the crowd and kills indiscriminately men, women and children. The scene is drawn out to maximum effect: The woman carrying the wounded child in front of the soldiers pleading for mercy and brutally shot down. The women determined to stop the madness but totally ignored and most heartbreakingly the young mother killed protecting her infant child in the carriage, which then rolls uncontrolled down the stairs with a screaming infant inside.

If there was any sympathy for the authorities allowing such an atrocity it is certainly gone now.

For the Potemkin this has minimal influence. They decide to fight their own battle at sea instead of sending troops inland and so steam out to meet the overwhelming force of the squadron sent out to deal with them. These final scenes are filled with suspense and nervous sweat, but after the Odessa stairs I am almost too drained to absorb the naval battle.

The battleship itself is awesome. Eisenstein really had some backing to let him use a real battleship. The boy in me really got excited about this sailing fortress. This is potency with a vengeance!

When you are watching political films you are forced to consider the political message as well. This is a very non-political blog, yet I cannot help thinking that the Russian state had it coming. Any society that leaves a lot of people with nothing to lose is a keg of gunpowder that can go off from a random spark. I do not think it is a coincidence that most unrest, rioting and revolution takes place in countries with a large destitute population compared to the middle class. Once you have tv, car and career opportunities rioting just seems less attractive.

So you can “The Battleship Potemkin” as the alibi for revolution or you can see it as a warning of what happens when you press a population too far, whether it be sailors or civilians.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Chelovek s Kinoapparatom (1929)

Manden med kameraet
”Celovek s Kinoapparatom”, in English: ”The Man with The Movie Camera”, is a movie like no other. At least I have never seen anything like this before.

There is no progressive story, no characters, except for the observer, and no specific drama. Instead it shows us the reality as it is seen by the observer. Reality is here understood as all the small and big things happening in a city over the course of a day as they can be observed with a camera. And that is a lot!

From the quietness of the morning, the homeless waking up on the benches, people going to work, traffic, activity, eating, industry and in the evening entertainment and nightfall. At times it gets so hectic that you can feel the pulse of the city, the sum of all the people living and working there and more, a synergetic effect that makes the city more than its constituent elements.

Usually the observer, us, represented by the cameraman, is hidden from view, but not here. He is very much part of it. This is as much a movie about him, us, watching the city through the lens of the camera (which of course means that there are at least two cameras involved). I am not entirely sure what that is the significance of that except the apparent, that this is a movie about observing as much at the observation itself.

This could all have been awfully dry and arty, but it is not. First of all the pace is very high. We are talking Eisenstein high, music video high. Sometimes I get almost dizzy with all the action around me, especially the parts that emphasize the dynamic pulse of the place. Secondly there is a love for the subjects clearly shown in the way people are portrayed. It is an honest but caring portrayal, not exposing them, but presenting them. He likes this city and the people in it. Thirdly there is a playfulness that at times gets outright funny, like the shots of the cameraman riding a bike while filming, which looks very clumsy indeed. Or in the smelter where the cameraman gets very (too) close to the furnace. He is like the cat that must examine everything, getting really close to a child birth or just following people at high speed.

The soundtrack on my copy was by Michael Nyman and is thus a recent addition. No complaint about that though, it fits the movie perfectly.

Really I have no complaint about “Celovek s Kinoapparatom” except maybe that 80 minutes without an actual story or characters seem a bit too Eisenstein and may be better enjoyed in smaller doses. But in the right mood this movie is exactly right. On both viewings I saw in one go and was not even inclined to splitting it, something I often do with the more difficult silents.

Thank you to the list for introducing me to “The Man with a Movie Camera”.

Monday 23 July 2012

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Spøgelset i operaen
I have a confession to make. Before seeing this version I had never before seen or read “The Phantom of the Opera”. It has just never been my thing. It is a book, a musical and several big selling movies, but it never once tempted me to see it. Of course I have heard of it before, who has not, but I am just one of those heretics who always avoided it.

This gives me the big advantage of seeing this elderly version of it with fresh if not unbiased eyes. I have no other version to compare it to and therefore cannot say if this is better or worse or even closer to the original than any of the other versions.

So, what do I think of it? Hmmm… I hope the other versions got away with it better than this one, though I fear not because some of the problems seem inherent in the story itself.

What this version has going for it is Lon Chaney. I am quite excited with him. Before doing this list I had never heard of him before, but now I have seen him in “The Unknown” and here in “The Phantom of the Opera” and based on those two performances he is something special. While his acting is better in “The Unknown” he is still terrific here if we gloss over the general overacting the movie suffers from. Lon Chaney’s face could not have been more fearsome if Peter Jacksons make-up team from “Lord of the Rings” had had a go at him. He is good.

While in general film is mediocre, this is not a big movie as such, the problem of the movie is the story. It is illogical on so many levels, sometimes even stupid, and I find myself getting more and more annoyed with the characters.

Let me give some examples.

Christine, the diva, hears the voice of the phantom, who promises her success and declare his love for her. She is obviously smitten by him and willing to forsake her flesh and blood boyfriend for the mysterious voice and this despite that the voice clearly intends to possess her calling himself her Master. Yet when he appears before her she is scared and shies away even though he has done or said nothing he did not do or say as a voice. What did she really expect from a manipulative dominant voice?

Okay, so he lets her get back to perform again. Actually long enough that she can take part in a masquerade, yet she meets with her old boyfriend in the theater to conspire and plan her escape to take place in connection with a performance. Why don’t they meet somewhere in town instead? There does not seem to be a requirement that she cannot leave the theater. I mean, do the artists actually sleep at the opera?

Some of the illogical events are even funny. Raoul, the boyfriend, and Ledoux, the policeman, sneak up on the Phantoms hideout very stealthily, when suddenly Raoul cries out for Christine and Erik, the phantom calls back “So you think you can outsmart the Phantom?” Well, obviously not; they have just stupidly revealed themselves. When the trap our two clever heroes are in gets flooded Christine pleads for their rescue and Erik, the insane psychopathic criminal, opens the trap and let them out even though he has them where he wants them to be and despite Christine has several times over proved unfaithful to him. Of course she does not even hesitate to go right back to Raoul and declare her love for him right in front of the Phantom. And no way have they surrendered. So who outsmarted who? They are all such geniuses.

A funny detail is also that it is not the super smart and resourceful secret policeman who brings down the Phantom, but an angry mob with torches. So let’s get out there in the street and let the street parliament save the day!

No, I cannot say this is a good movie. If the basic story is this awful I will blame it on that, but I just do not know. There are good and amusing highlights, though many of them are unintended, and it does not save the movie.

Ah, well, at least we get Lon Chaney.

Sunday 22 July 2012

Seven Chances (1925)

Kone søges
One thing you can be certain of when watching a Keaton film is that you are going to laugh. What is not so certain is what you will laugh from. Keaton movies are not just a wacky chase but plays a number of strings that all work out very well in a silent and probably would less so in a talkie.

Seven Chances have one of those mighty chases, maybe even the biggest in movie history. Thousands of would-be brides chasing the groom, up and down streets, through the country side and in trolley busses. It is funny, but this movie has another unique string that I found absolutely hilarious.

Keatons character is shy broker who cannot get around to ask his girlfriend to marry him. He and his partner fall on hard times, but then out of the blue a lawyer appears with a letter saying that Keaton has inherited 7 million dollars. One condition though: He has to marry before 7 o’clock this evening or forfeit the money. Since the two of them has already spent much of the day trying to avoid the lawyer they are now in a hurry.

Keaton rushes out to his girlfriend to ask her marry him. She is less than pleased to find out that it is the inheritance that has prompted him to pop the question and asks him to butt out. Soon after she reconsiders but is having a hard time getting through to Keaton.

What to do then? Well, by Jove he is going to get married and it does not really matter who he marires now that his girlfriend has refused. So he goes around asking just about anything female and some who are not if they would marry him. And that is so outrageously funny! Mostly so because it is Keaton doing it. He would walk up to a girl, perfectly serious, ask her to marry him in that deadpan fashion of his and take the rejection in the same manner. It is indescribable. He really goes at it with gusto. I love his hopeful glance at the girl in the wardrobe who has witnessed his efforts and the tiny shake of the head: don’t even ask, mister.

Some of the people he asks are to show that that he is so desperate that he would consider basically anything, like the doll at the hairdresser or a woman who turns out to be a man, but here we get some prejudices that just does not work today, like a jew or a black woman. This sours the experience a bit but only for a moment.

While Keaton has been desperately trying to fulfill his part of the deal, his colleague and the lawyer place a story in the newspaper that this young man must marry before 7 to inherit 7 million dollars and any would-be bride can show up at this specific church. Now that money is involved the case is turned upside down and all these mostly (very) mature women will balk at nothing to get him and the prize of a fortune. They are downright scary! Keaton seeks shelter and encounters the messenger of his girlfriend who tell him that she has changed her mind. Now Keaton must find her and avoid the horde of brides to get married before 7 o’clock.

Having seen Keaton in a great many movies by now it is when he is walking into an impossible situation with a perfect straight face that he is best. “Seven Chances” gives him ample opportunity to do that and that makes it a classic.

I have mentioned it before, but will gladly do it again: I could see Keaton stuff any time, any day.

Saturday 21 July 2012

Liebster Award


I have been tagged for the Liebster award by SJHoneywell at 1001plus. Thanks man! This is the first recognition of this sort that my blog receives.

The Liebster award is a sort of chain letter and comes with a number of conditions:

1. Each person must post 11 things about themselves.
2. Answer the 11 questions the person giving the award has set for you.
3. Create 11 questions for the people you will be giving the award to.
4. Choose 11 people to award and send them a link to your post.
5. Go to their page and tell them.

I have no problem with 1 to 3. It is fun to read what other bloggers are doing besides blogging and I do not mind sharing a bit of my life.

My problem with 4 and 5 is that my blog is still very new and I simply am not following that many blogs. As far as I can see basically everybody I would have sent this too have already received it. This makes me a dead end for this reward/chain-letter. I am sorry about that, it cannot be helped. Still I am flattered to have received it.

Well 11 things about me.

1.       I am not really an expert on movies at all. I just get into these projects and it gets out of hand and this time it was early cinema. The historical aspects mind you. How was it invented, what were the early movies like, how did it develop. This coincided with getting 1001MTSBYD as a gift, so the natural consequence was that read it and then started seeing them. You know, one thing leads to the next…

2.       Another current project of mine is early medieval age, that is 5th to 8th century. The period is usually empty in any coverage. The Romans were there, then they were gone, and then we had medieval Europe. This has always intrigued me. Anything that takes place in this period fascinates me.

3.       I like golf. My game is horrible because I never was able to throw myself properly into it, but it is fun and I can sit an entire day watching it on television. Right now there is British Open and it is awesome.

4.       I love eating. I can eat almost anything and usually enjoy it. A natural consequence is that I spend a lot of time in the kitchen. My lasagna is really awesome, the secret being a half bottle of red wine and air-dried bacon. Yummy.

5.       The only thing I ever won was a year’s worth of salami. I correctly guessed the weight of monstrous salami. Simple really: length, radius and the density of fat.

6.       At my day job I work as a wind engineer (though I am a geologist by training) and I have projected tons of wind farms, but I have never been up in the hub of a turbine since I suffer from fear of heights. It sometimes makes it embarrassing getting down from stairs.

7.       I can control a taxi in Chinese.

8.       It takes me an hour to write an entry on the blog. This is a standard question from my friends. 10 minutes to get the right angle and then I am on a roll. The biggest problem is vocabulary. My English is just not good enough for what I want to write.

9.       I have a competition with my wife on who has been to most countries. She is still in the lead, but I am catching up.

10.   I do not like dogs and they do not like me so we are even.

11.   The only performance I have been involved in was doing sound for an amateur theater performing in a reconstructed longhouse at the local Viking castle. I was not dressed up but hid on a little platform under the roof. But the play was awesome. King Ella got his back torn open and the lungs taken out by the avenging sons of Regnar Lodbrog to the sound of Karl Orff’s Oh Fortuna. Gruesome.

Questions from SJHoneywell

1.       At a movie theater, what snacks do you buy? Or do you sneak them in? If money were no object, what would be your movie theater snack of choice?

I usually am not having a snack in the cinema. If I buy I usually forget to eat it, at least if the movie is good. My wife likes to have popcorn so sometime we buy a bucket of those.

2.       What's the first movie that really scared you?

Ghostbusters. It was the first movie I saw on my own in the cinema and I was very young. When the statues in front of the library came alive I could not take it anymore and had to leave.

3.       The television show/book/graphic novel/other thing I would really love to see adapted to film is

Peter F. Hamilton, the Commonwealth Saga (Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained). If they can do A Game of Thrones they can do this as well. It would be awesome!

4.       If you like horror movies, why do you like them? If not, why not?

Well, I don’t. I get too much into the movies I am watching and so scare easily. These will be the hardest movies on the list  

5.       If you could be any movie character, who would you be, and why?

Doc Brown. To have a time machine build into a DeLorean, that would be so awesome.

6.       Why did you start blogging? What keeps you going?

Frankly, the awful feeling of envy. I was only collecting and watching the movies when I found out that people were writing about them as well. So-Ein-Muss-Ich-Auch-Haben! It was such cool thing to do, to be able to write about the movies I see that I knew this was what I had to do as well. What kept me from doing it for a long time was that I knew I would never be as good as the other bloggers. I am a bloody amateur and not even a native speaker.  What keeps me going is that I kid myself that that does not really matter.

7.       What movie would you most like to see again for the first time with no prior knowledge?

I wish I could go to the cinema and see the original Star Wars movie. I was 4 years in 1977, so no chance of that. But to be a teenager in 77 and see Star Wars in the cinema, that would be something.

8.       If you could write your own epitaph, what would it say?

How morbid! I hope it would say: He will be missed.

9.       What is the best or most useful class in school you have ever taken?

Hmmm… a question from a teacher, clearly. Here is the boring answer: Datalogi A at university. The skills I learned in Excel has paid off thousand-fold. The classes I enjoyed the most were History and English in high school (Hobro Gymnasium). Our teachers were excellent in inspiring, well me in particular, to read awesome stuff on my own.  

10.   Describe your favorite article of clothing.

??? I really do not have a favorite piece of garment. The closest thing would be a shirt with small scooters on. At a distance they only look like dots, but up close they become small scooters.

11.   If there was one household chore I could get away with never doing again, it would be

 Cleaning the bathroom.


Der Letzte Mann (1924)

Hotel Atlantic
”Der Letzte Mann” is the proof that a brilliant director can turn a masterpiece out of even a simple story... and that the studio can trash it again. I prefer to focus on the first 75 minutes and treat the last 15 minutes as an anecdote.

This is the movie that convinced me that the hype surrounding F.W. Murnau is deserved. It is up there together with Sunrise as excellent examples of what is possible to achieve with a silent movie. For the first 75 minutes you feel that Murnau had a very clear vision of what he wanted and was able to realize it. There is a lot of talk about German expressionism of the twenties. Here it is crystalized in pictures so expressive that they do all the narration for us. In fact I only counted one (1!) inter-title throughout the movie, at 75 minutes, the dividing point between Murnau’s movie and the studio’s movie. Everything is done through acting, light, filters, effects and in general brilliant cinematography. At times I felt like stepping outside the story and just admire the skill behind it, but Murnau does not allow it. He tells the story with such intensity that only when we look away and consider the actual story do we realize that the premises are rather hard to swallow.

Emil Jannings (Der Blaue Engel) is the old doorman (for lack of a better word in English) at the posh Hotel Atlantic. He wears his uniform with pride and sports the most impressive sideburns ever to grace the big screen. His job means everything to him. This is who he is. When wearing the uniform he feels important and potent and gains his status in his neighborhood from it. His back is straight and he is content.

But he IS old and he is no longer suited for the job as doorman at the hotel. The hotel management, like any management running a business, deals with that and moves him to another position as washroom attendant. They are of course right and they could have fired him, which in Germany in the early 1920’ies would have been a terrible thing indeed, but the brutality with which they remove him from his position as doorman coupled with his strong attachment to his job makes it seem like an evil act.

The old man is devastated. His life force is sucked out of him and he is an empty hulk, hunched over and half blind. Even the washroom attendant job he is hopelessly inadequate for. This is acted out brilliantly by Emil Jannings. The transformation is complete when he cannot even brush the jacket of the arrogant guests in the washroom.

He does not know how to face his neighborhood. In his mind they will see nothing in him now that he is doorman no more. So he steals his uniform back and put it in storage during work hours so he can come home in glory, his neighbors none the wiser. This works for a while until a woman close to him, neighbor, governess or just admirer, I do not know, appear at the hotel to surprise him with lunch. She surprises him at the washroom and his pretence  is revealed. To the old man this is a major blow. Now he cannot even pretend to be doorman no more.

The odd thing here and the premise that I find hard to swallow is that the old man’s assessment of what his neighborhood will think of him turns out to be true. Those are some very cold-hearted women. He immediately becomes the big gossip and instead of caring and sympathizing with him, they mock and taunt him and treat him exactly as his self-destructive mind is imagining they would. So when he returns home as a broken man he realizes he cannot be there anymore. He is simply not accepted. So he escapes and seeks refuge at the only place he has left, to waste away at the washroom at the hotel.

Thus Murnau tells the story of a man’s deroute when his status in society is stripped from him. You can argue that the old man is kidding himself; that he like everybody else has to accept that he is getting old and you can argue that the neighborhood and the hotel management is unnecessary cruel to him, but it does not make the story less heartbreaking.

Personally I have a problem with this entire washroom attendant function. 1. It is a job like any other and the hotel still cares for him. 2. Why would anybody need a washroom attendant in the first place? I find it disturbing when there is someone in the washroom helping me wash my hands and then requiring money for it. But then that is a bit beside the point.

Apparently the studio could not accept a depressing movie about a man cracking up like that so they insisted on a happy end. I imagine Murnau being so insulted at this requirement that he made an entire mockery of the end. It screams that it is made under protest. The old man suddenly gets a fortune in the most ridiculous and unbelievable manner and then gorge in his new found wealth together with his friend, the night watch. It is so exaggerated that you can hear Murnau shouting: “You want a happy ending? Well, take this, morons” and there is no doubt that this is NOT what Murnau wanted. I wonder if the studio saw the taunt.

Except for this piece of spoiled brat stunt “Der Letzte Mann” is one of the high points of the silent era. It has a very prominent place in my collection.