Wednesday 29 August 2012

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

Emile Zolas Liv
Biographical movies are tricky. Very few people lived a life that fit exactly into a Hollywood format, so when you see a biographical movie you have to wonder how real it is. Or when attempt are made to keep it real some of the flow or moment is sacrificed in the name of truth. Fortunately the life of Emile Zola was sufficiently interesting to make a nice movie out of it though I wonder if he really was as saintly as depicted in the film.  

According to this version of the story Zola started out as a poor writer slumming it with Cezanne. They were politically active and full of social indignation. His breakthrough was a portrait of a prostitute that became an instant bestseller and from then on he was on the track for stardom and wealth. Later in life he is roused from a complacent life by the Dreyfus scandal. In an attempt to cover up an internal leak in the military high command a lowly artillery officer is blamed with high treason. Zola being a staunch enemy of the high command clique is moved by Dreyfus’s wife to take action in writing and speeches, most notably his J’accuse article and his defense speech when he himself is accused for treason by the high command.

The saintly aspect is the most difficult part to cope with. Paul Muni got a lot of acclaim for his performance as Emile Zola, but for a modern viewer he becomes too two-dimensional as the saint-turned complacent-remade-into-sainthood. I like Paul Muni. He was really good and convincing in “I am a fugitive from a chain gang”, but Emile Zola is a very different character. He is a firebrand speaker, filled with social indignation, but also a cozy teddy of a grandfather type. The fact that Paul Muni is able to do both types, but also be the intense tightlipped fugitive in the chain gang movie testifies to his qualities as a character actor. The two-dimensionality problem rests with the direction and script.    

While this is obviously Paul Muni’s movie the character of Alfred Dreyfus, played by Joseph Schildkraut, is threatening to steal the stage. He is very convincing as the patriotic officer, who insists on his professionalism and his innocence, but whose spirit is gradually broken on the miserable island where he is imprisoned. He did end up getting an Oscar for best supporting act and it is well deserved. His wife on the other hand is terrible. The faithful, fighting wife crying out her desperation to move Zola into action is simply not convincing. It looks fake and overacted and it plays badly with Muni. After a while I was groaning every time she appeared.

I cannot help comparing Zola’s final speech during his trial with that of Mr. Smith in “Mr. Smith goes to Washington”. Where Smiths speech is an appeal to common decency to a jaded and corrupted audience and takes him nowhere, Zola’s speech is also dismissed by a corrupt military audience, but his speech is a much more clever oration. He is effectively exposing the hypocrisy of the military leadership and his accusers and while he is also declared guilty by default he manages to make his accusers the guilty part and effectively, in turn, brings down the military establishment. No need for a deus-ex-machina here. Singlehandedly he manages to turn the tide and talk his way out of his predicament.

The complot against Dreyfus was very real and also a real game changer in France and therefore in itself interesting to watch unfold in the movie. And the reality of it makes it relevant also today. The ranking establishment covering up for itself out of self-preservation is a recurrent phenomenon and choosing an outsider as scapegoat, in this case a Jewish junior officer, to take the blame is also something we are not done with. So, simply for these reasons the movie is worth seeing.

Had Zola been less pompous and more… human, this could easily have become one of my favorite movies of the thirties. As it is it is definitely one of the better ones and certainly entertaining. A history lesson from an age where history portrayed was usually heavily tainted by creative editing. This may be too, but it is less obvious.

Sunday 26 August 2012

L'Age D'Or (1930)

Spanish-French surrealist movie art part 2.

In many ways what I wrote about “Un Chien Andalou” are also valid for L’Age D’Or. It is more of the same with the primary difference that it is better. Of course if you despised The Dog you are going to hate the Golden Age, but if like me you enjoy this sort of thing “L’Age d’Or” is a treasure throve of weird and hilarious surrealist imagery.

I have not figured out the story line. I suspect there is one, but I have not grasped it. So no point in explaining the story. There are some recurring characters though, most notably a man and a woman. First time we see them they make love on a beach in front of a bunch of dignitaries there to erect a statue in memory of some bishops who died there. The man is arrested and taken away into Rome, the city that later grew up on the place. He is freed when he shows the policemen (?) some papers that declare him to be important and so he goes to a party on a castle where the girl presumably lives. Here they continue their odd lovemaking until he go home to throw a plow, a burning tree, a bishop and a lot of pillow stuffing out on the street.

Somehow all this is just not really important. The great thing here is that all these scenes are funny and absurd to a point where even Monty Python must be envious. I will not be surprised to find that there is a deeper motive for the scenes but because they are made as they are they are funny in themselves. I will list a few of them.

A man at the castle is met by his little son. They obviously care for each other. The child teases him a runs away laughing and the father shoots him coldly and deliberately. The guest look out for like 5 seconds clearly thinking “oh, whatever”.

The woman enters her bedroom and finds a cow in her bed. She sighs and leads it out. The bell of the cow makes the man happy.

A man is walking down the street kicking a violin in front of him.

There are a bunch fighters (rebels? guerillas?) on the beach. They see the bishops, stagger out to fight them, but succumb one by one with no further reference to them.

In an isolated mountain castle a bunch of wealthy people have closed themselves off with a bunch of pretty girls and some women well versed in debauchery to indulge in a major orgy. Out steps… Jesus and a crippled old following. When a woman, obviously in pain attempts to follow them Jesus steps back and “deals” with her and he comes back alone.

There are a ton more of these scenes with no seeming relation to anything. Taken out of context they are bizarre, but what exactly is the context?

One scene I did get. Some of the guests at the castle step out of a car but leave behind a big crucifix, meaning that they are leaving holiness behind and what takes place in the castle is unholy.

Maybe one day I will understand what is really going on. Meanwhile I will enjoy guessing and for now I will laugh from the sheer weirdness of it all. That does not mean I am aloof to the deeper points. I just think like with The Dog that this was created also with a sparkle in the eye. We are supposed to enjoy all these bizarre tableaux. And I certainly do.

Saturday 25 August 2012

Die Büchse der Pandora (1929)

Die Büchse der Pandora
What is this fascination with the Femme Fatale?

I am losing count on how many movies I have seen about the dangerous woman who leads men into disaster. Especially in older movies women are either complacent trophy wives or dangerous femme fatales. Of course to a varying degree, but rarely beyond those two roles. My suspicion is it is because the movies are made by men and thus governed the male conflict of order and harmony version sexual animalistic lust. In that view the female is what we sexually hunger for, but this hunger threatens to ruin our orderly harmonic universe. Okay, I am no psychologist, but it kind of fits. This would explain why the sweet girls are usually strangely asexual, while the hot, sexual girls are portrayed as dangerous destroyers. They do not see themselves as such, it is a viewpoint imposed by men scared of their sexuality.

Maybe the most iconic example of this phenomenon is “Die Büchse der Pandora” (Pandora’s box) by Georg Wilhelm Pabst.

The protagonist and antagonist as the same person is Lulu (played by American Louise Brooks). She is a silly, happy girl with a boyish sexuality, who lives by her emotions and throws her attention around as a child. In itself just an innocent if childish person. The problem is the effect she has on men. With her easy uncaring sexuality she literally drives the men around her insane.

 It is an entire gallery of men.

There is Dr. Schön, a highly respected man who wants to marry another highly respected (and pretty) woman, but cannot let go of Lulu and end up dead and disgraced for it. There is Alwa, the son of Dr. Schön, who is also in love with Lulu, who throws away his comfortable life for a life on the shady side with gambling and booze and ruin to save Lulu. There is Jack the Ripper who succumbs to his desire to kill women by her influence and then there are the two parasites Schigolch and Rodrigo, who attach themselves to her for the fortunes that drip in her wake.

This is by no means a happy movie. If anything it is traumatic. It starts happy happy in an expensive apartment in the city, but descents to a cold and barren rooftop room with prostitution as the means for sheer survival. Everybody crave Lulu and everybody are ruined in the process and in the end even Lulu herself. Quite depressive, really.

I cannot help thinking that all these men are victims of their own deficiencies. If Dr. Schön is getting married to a pretty girl that he loves, why is he seeing a pleasure girl like Lulu? Is that not asking for trouble? If Lulu insists on sabotaging the variety show because she will not perform in front of Dr. Schön’s fiancée, why not let her sulk? It is her own future she is ruining, not Dr. Schön’s.

And Alwa, would it not be most natural for him to distance himself from Lulu, being as she is involved with his father’s death? And considering what it is costing him to help her? He does not owe her anything.

It annoys me when people in movies throw themselves into unnecessary trouble like this, but I suppose it is to express that deeper male conflict mentioned above and Lulu is just the catalyst.

The only person who seems to see Lulu not as an object but a real person is Countess Geschwitz. She sees Lulu as a victim and wants to help her for Lulu’s sake, but even she is destroyed by it as she has to sacrifice herself to the vermin Rodrigo to save Lulu and make herself, I presume, a murderess.

The object of the movie is to present the ultimate Femme Fatale, but what I really see is a victim of male vanity and weakness. It is terribly sad but also very well done, no doubt about it, if at times annoying.

Louise Brooks is brilliant as Lulu and this is definitely her movie. Her face and particularly her haircut became incredibly famous because of “Pandora’s Box”, and I suppose you can still today go to a hairdresser and ask for a “Lulu”.

As for me, it took a good long night’s sleep to recover from this movie.

Friday 24 August 2012

Blackmail (1929)

If there was one thing I was certain of going into the project of watching the entire 1001 list of movies to see before you die it was that I would get to see a lot of Mr. Hitchcock. His name stands as a beacon and the respect surrounding him is staggering. Even so he is still human. He still had flukes and he did have to practice to get where he eventually got. So far at this point on my quest I am only at 1939, so I have only seen his early work (beside the later classics like “Rear window” or “North by Northwest”), but what I can tell is that the beginning was as bumpy as any other later star director.

“Blackmail” I obtained as part of a box-set covering 9 movies, 4 silent, 4 talkies and then “Blackmail”, which is actually a hybrid as it was started as a silent, but later converted into a talkie. Of these 9 movies I consider “Blackmail” the best (closely followed by the silent “The Manxman”), partly because it sets the stage for many of Mr. Hitchcock’s later themes and partly because most of the others are simply not very good. One of his major problems was that he was struggling with inferior sound technology. “Blackmail” is so early that everybody dabbling in sound movies were using primitive equipment, but this does not improve until several years later (The 39 steps, 1935) for Mr. Hitchcock, resulting in unintelligible speech and annoying overload problems. If I cannot understand the dialogue I am simply lost. And who was that idiot who skipped the subtitles for the box-set edition?

That annoyance aside “Blackmail” offers a number of highlights. We get the love triangle drama, a murder (with a knife behind a curtain no less) and a terrible dilemma. Throw in a blonde female lead and a good dose of suspense and voila, we have the ingredients of a classic Hitchcock thriller.

Alice, the female lead is played by Hitchcock’s favorite Anny Ondra . She was Czech and had a decidedly non-British accent, which is fine when you a making a silent as “Blackmail” started out to be, but a bit of a handicap when she is supposed to be an average English girl in a London tobacco shop (though today it might actually be an advantage, London being one of the most multicultural cities in the world), so Mr. Hitchcock brought in a voice stand-in who dubbed her voice on Ondra’s mouth movements. This did not cease to annoy me throughout the movie as it makes the Alice character rather artificial looking. I think I would have preferred a Czech accent to this charade.

In any case Alice is dating Frank (John Longden), a Scotland Yard detective, but she is bored by him and just needs to ditch him so she can go out with the much more exciting artist Mr. Crewe. Trouble is Mr. Crewe is a rather forward acting type and before long he has invited this silly, naïve girl into his apartment and is making improper advances on Alice. Of course Alice will need to kill him instead of suffering a fate worse than death and does so in the aforementioned scene with a knife behind a curtain. Here Ondra is at her best with a shaking, panic-stricken expression holding a bloody knife. It just does not get any more Hitchcock.

Frank, being a good Scotland Yard detective knows Alice was with Mr. Crewe and as he is the detective on the case he is also in a position to find Alice’s glove in Mr. Crewe’s apartment. Evidence is building up against her, but he is the only one who knows. Or is he? When he seeks out Alice in the tobacco store her parents run she is a nervous wreck (we have an interesting play with sound as Alice hears only unintelligible sound except for the word KNIFE, which makes her jitterish). Just as he is about to get an explanation from him they are approached by a nasty gent who has found the other glove and now wants do a bit of blackmailing. What to do for Frank? Should he protect the girl who ditched him for a charlatan and protect her from this blackmailing scum? Or should he turn her in and neutralize the blackmail? Ta da, suspense.

“Blackmail” has as mentioned before all the classical Hitchcock ingredients, yet it does not work as well as his later movies and it is not only because of the sound quality and the Ondra dubbing. There is a dilettante element to all the acting and flow of the movie that makes it seem as if it is a bunch of amateurs who have decided to do a Hitchcock piece. They mean well, but I almost suspect that one of them will turn and smile at the camera: “Hi, mum!”. Of course it is just Mr. Hitchcock practicing to become MR. Hitchcock and this is a step on the way, but just so you are aware that there is a bit of way from here to “Psycho”.

I did enjoy “Blackmail”, absolutely. There are much worse movies on the list and it is an easy movie to get through. I just wish it was a bit more… crisp.

Thursday 23 August 2012

Potomok Chingis-Khana (1928)

Storm over Asien
”Storm over Asia” or “Potomok Chingis-Khana” as it is called in Russian is an epic drama taking place on the Mongolian steppes in the years following the Russian revolution. It is grand in format with a lengthy storyline, big sweeps over the endless plains and drawing on the historical legacy of Mongolia’s legendary Genghis Khan. In fact it is too big. As it is in no rush to tell the story it feels drawn out and I twice had to stop because I was falling asleep.

It does not change that “Storm over Asia” is an achievement and that is does have a lot of interesting features.

First of all unlike contemporary Russian films this one actually does have a lead and a rather unusual one. He is listed as Bair, the Mongol, but I actually do not remember his name mentioned throughout the movie. In any case Bair is a herdsman on the Mongolian steppes, living a traditional life in his family ger. His life is about to change when he instead of his sick father has to go to the trade station to sell fur.

This is a silent movie so I am not sure where the music actually comes from but it is well suited. For all the scenes on the steppes we get traditional Mongolian music. How often is it we get to see a movie (not documentary) featuring Mongolians? For this reason I find the opening part quite interesting. Not that I know anything about Mongolian lifestyle, but it looks quite right to me.

When Bair gets to the trade station another important feature of the movie is revealed. It is a highly political movie. Duh, of course. Any movie made in the Soviet Union at this time had to be political. That was the only way you could make movies. So, the theme in this story is the bad imperialists exploiting the native population of Mongolia and that the Mongols need to follow Moscow and take charge of their future. In a sense this is not so different from any similar western movie, except that the roles are turned upside down and, to clarify the message, the themes are highly exaggerated. Not as much as Eisenstein would do, but still plenty.

And the imperialist enemy is the English.

First time I saw this I was caught by surprise. What on Earth is the English army doing in Mongolia? I have searched the net for information on this but nowhere have I found anything about an English expeditionary force in Mongolia. In any case the reason the English are there in force in the movie is not because they really were there but because for the purpose they represent the perfect imperialist bad guys.  The director has taken all the worst elements of English colonialism as it played out in other parts of the third world and transplanted it to Mongolia. So, we have English fur traders who under the protection of English troops cheat the natives, kill summarily, make friends with the religious leaders to control the population (according to communist thinking religion was keeping the people in bondage) and setup a puppet ruler to rule through him.

Bair, our Mongol proletarian hero, is first cheated by the English, then escapes to fight with the communist rebels. When the English in their endless greed attempt to steal a large amount of life stock Bair is fighting it and captured as a rebel. He is taken to be shot in an excellent scene where the English solider is clearly not happy about his orders, but go through with it nonetheless, indicating that it is not the English people but the imperialist system that is criminal.

At that moment the English find a document among Bairs belongings that marks him as direct descendent from the great Genghis Khan. Actually it was a note he got from a monk and not his at all. This changes everything. Now they want to make him a dupe that they can use to rule Mongolia through. Only, they just shot him. Fortunately he was only shot through the shoulder so he lives, but with enough bandages to fix up a small army, including the obligatory head bandage.

This part of the movie I find most entertaining. The English trying to “civilize” the barbarian with suits, fancy drinks and socializing with English women. All these representatives of Western decadence. You would almost think they found real English actors for these parts and I am amazed how inside the Soviet Union it was possible to dress up these people according to the latest fashion.

It is quite amazing how the English manipulators could think that they could tale this guy that they had cheated and fought and played for a fool and think they can sway him and play him as a marionette. Of course it explodes and that last Storm over Asia is indeed a grand finale.
You have to stomach a number of difficult assumptions to accept this movie and arm yourself with a lot of patience. If you do that you get some glorious moments, both of Mongol life, clash of cultures and bitter struggle plus of course the final fury. In between however this is a sleeping pillow and really from a modern point of view the political statements are so exaggerated that they seem more like a mockery than in any way convincing. But then we are not Russians of the twenties.           

Wednesday 22 August 2012

M (1931)

There is something monumental about one-letter titles. As if saying that with one letter we have said it all, it is enough, the associations generated speaks for itself.

Of course it is far-fetched, but if one movie deserved such a monument it would be “M”.

I can just as well say it right away: Among the 100 first movies on the list this is my favorite. On any scale it is a top ranker and I know I am not the only one with high regards for “M”.

What is then so special about “M”? Is it not just another crime flick?

With an overbearing smile I shake my head: No no no no, “M” is truly special.

“M” was, I believe, the last movie Fritz Lang made before he left for America. Ironically the reason was that it was rumored that Hitler wanted him to be his director, so it was time to leave Dodge City. Ironically, because Lang in his movies and particularly in “M” is quite anti-fascist. Hitler was just too stupid to see that.

Fritz Lang was part of the highly skilled group of German directors who trained in the German expressionist school were able to tell stories on many levels even simply through the cinematography. This is done extensively in “M”, so that the ambience is dense. The fear and anguish when the mother at the opening of the film waits for her little Elsie to come home and it dawns on her that she may have been taken by the murderer. Or the desperation of the law enforcement when they are getting nowhere no matter how much they try.

The city is haunted by a child murderer, Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), who mysteriously spirits away children. We do not see him commit the acts, but when we hear him whistle Grieg’s “I Dovregubbens Hall” we know he is on the prowl, and the neck hairs start rising. We want to scream to the child to get away from the monster, but in the end we just see the toy roll away and we know it is too late. This is so skillfully done that it is just as effective today for a jaded audience as it was in 31.

The city is working itself into a frenzy over this child murderer. Really the worst threat is a threat to our children. Who is the murderer? It could be anyone. Somebody a little too friendly to a child and he is immediately a suspect and the parents guard their children from just about everybody. Pedophiles are just about the most horrible kind of people, but today we a frequently hit by pedophilia hysteria not unlike what we see in “M” and it is incredibly destructive to the cohesiveness of society, but a total disaster for those falsely accused. The libel of a suspected pedophile is unshakeable and guarantees isolation.

The police are totally upbeat about it. With German thoroughness they literally comb the city for any trace of the killer. Lack of success just makes them even more thorough and the people who take the brunt of that effort is the criminal underworld.  The smugglers, thieves, bootleggers and gangsters are feeling threatened by all this attention from the police. They figure it is the murderers fault so the solution must be to get him out of the way. He is ruining it for everybody. In a spectacular scene we switch back and forth between a police planning meeting and the war council of the gangsters and they are saying exactly the same things. If this is to indicate that the police are using gangster methods or the gangsters have taken over from the police I do not know.

In each their ways they are now getting somewhere.

The police find out who he is, not through a massive and brutal police effort, but through classic detective work, by being smart.

The gangsters set the beggars to look out for the murderer. They can cover the entire city and nobody takes any notice of them. And true enough soon they got him spotted. One of the beggars plant a chalk “M” on his shoulder and now his is literally a marked man.

Beckert flees into an office building and the gangsters now make a veritable heist to get to him. This is definitely one of the many highlights, like an early “Ocean’s Eleven”. They get him and take him to a court of their own to judge him. Here we have one of the most talked about scenes of the movie. In this mock court of law Beckert admits to his crimes, but still pleads innocent. He has no control of what he is doing. How can he be punished for something he cannot control? They, the judges, they are criminals by choice. They could stop any day, but do not. Who are guilty here? Who are they to judge him?

Just when we thought this was as simple crime case it is turned upside down, because we too are busy judging him. Do we buy his defense? Against such crimes is there any defense and would we listen to it?

“M” is expertly made. It is innovative in many ways, but it is the shear suspense and imagination by the director which drives the movie. And the relevance. That has not changed. The fear, the hysteria, the overzealous police, the eagerness to judge and of course criminals who threaten our children.

But man, you get smoker’s lungs just from watching it…

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Borte med Blæsten
There are many notable watersheds in film history. The advent of sound for example. But one of the major ones got to be “Gone with the Wind”. This movie redefined what a big Hollywood production is and can do and simply set a new standard. If you wanted to impress, this was the one to top. On every parameter “Gone with the Wind” was bigger than anything seen before, even on running time it would make von Stroheim and Gance blush in embarrassment.

It was also the most expensive movie ever, the most ambitious cinematography, most important adaption, most directors worn out, most Oscars and if the rumor is right the most spectacular infight among the divas of Hollywood to become Scarlett O’Hara.

To use a cliché, if you have not heard of “Gone with the Wind” you have been living under a rock.

Yet I had never seen it before.

Not for lacking any opportunity. It is to this day frequently on television and the stable of any half-decent video collection. It has just never been my thing. Like musicals or gangster movies I have always skirted family dramas. Now I got the chance and… it is still not my thing. Oh, it is a very impressive movie! And it is gripping enough to keep you there for the 4 hours it takes to get through it. I am just not really into the subject.

“Gone with the Wind” is made of the same fabric as romantic pulp literature and could easily have become intolerably sweet. Already it performs a sort of historical white-washing of the Old South, but it could have been even worse if it had not been for the complexity of the characters, most notably Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable).

Scarlett is the classical spoiled, egocentric and manipulative Southern Belle and in a pulp version she would have grown up to become a loving and caring mother/wife/heroine. Instead she develops strength to become a powerful spoiled, egocentric and manipulative Southern Belle. We are always let to believe that her association with Melanie (Olivia de Havilland), Rhett or crisis of war is reforming her and opening her mind to other people’s needs and wishes. Instead time and again we see the egocentric monster reappearing. She wants what she cannot have and she will get it no matter how many dead bodies or broken hearts she has to walk over. In the end she cares for no-one but herself.

Rhett is not just an appendage to Scarlett. While we never really find out where he is coming from he is the person that she can never manipulate. He is smitten by her but not blinded like everybody else. He sees the strength in her, her spirit and loves her for it, yet he refuse to fall into her net. And because she cannot manipulate him she hates him and is yet attracted to him. In the end it is her egoism that keeps them apart for long and ruins it for them in the end. The main difference between the two is that Rhett knows his own weaknesses. He rests in himself, yes, but he also tries to do the right thing when the cause is good. Scarlett on the other hand is blind to her own weaknesses to the point of idiocy and “right or wrong” comes second to her own needs.

Like Julie in “Jezebel” Scarlett insists on getting the one man she cannot have. She cannot get it into her head that maybe he does not want her. In fact Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) is deeply devoted to his angel of a wife, Melanie, and is not hiding it. The only thing that keeps him from slapping Scarlett whenever she insinuates herself on him is his own decency. He is a good man, a perfect man for Melanie, and I feel truly sorry for him to be the target of Scarlett’s infatuation. Throughout the story Scarlett is psychopathically driven to do horrible things, mainly to keep some grip of Ashley. Her first husband she marries in a failed attempt at making him envious (as if he cared). Her caring for Melanie is no generosity toward Melanie, but aimed at Ashley and she plays on Melanie’s goodness to keep him in town when he wants to go to New York.

Even when she does marry Rhett and seem to have found mutual happiness it is always her infatuation with Ashley that tears them apart. She just cannot let it go.

In a movie with plenty of heartbreak for me the strongest scenes are those with Scarlett’s and Rhett’s daughter Bonnie. She is a darling and Rhett loves her dearly. In a time where Scarlett (again) cannot forget Ashley it is Bonnie that keeps them together. Rhett will suffer for the sake of his daughter, while Scarlett’s complaint is that Bonnie loves her father more than her mother. Rhett is just being a good father. When the situation becomes intolerable Rhett leaves for London with Bonnie, but the girl need both her parents and for her sake he returns. When Bonnie tragically dies (horrible scene!) there is no glue left. Rhett correctly gauge the situation and leaves, fed up with Scarlett. He was never a victim of her manipulations, but he used to love her and she squandered it away. Now he just does not care. His parting words: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”, has become iconic.

Scarlett and Julie in “Jezebel” are very similar characters and they are very difficult for me to root for, yet they seem to be prevalent in this sort of stories.  These are stories of idle nobility where the women have been rendered useless by wealth and lack of professional ambition with social activity their sole occupation. Their impractical dresses are a giveaway. They are useless. Any ambition they may have must be turned in a social direction creating saints (Melanie) or monsters (Scarlett). Fortunately we have come a long way since then.

The cinematography of “Gone with the Wind” is stunning. Filmed in beautiful Technicolor it has none of the garish colors of “Robin Hood” or “The Wizard of Oz”, but uses tones in perfect alignment with the context. The fire of Atlanta is so exceptional because of the intelligent use of color. It just would not have been half as effective in black and white.

It was an overwhelming experience to see this movie and with “Gone with the Wind” it does not feel like I am in the thirties anymore, but in a much later age. It would be many years before the rest of Hollywood caught up.   

Monday 20 August 2012

La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928)

Jeanne d'Arcs lidelse og død
When first I saw ”La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc” a year ago I was disappointed. This is supposed to be one of the best movies ever and by our own celebrity director Carl Theodor Dreyer to boot so anticipation was high and of course impossible to redeem.

Now I have watched it a second time with much less anticipation and my view of it is a lot more nuanced now. At least I can see where the acclaim comes from. I would not say that I am sold, but I do like it better.

“La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc” is a difficult movie to be critical about. In many ways it is raised above criticism. I already mentioned the rating it receives in the international community, but also the topic itself is fraught with controversy.

Jeanne d’Arc is an official saint. Anybody criticizing her or anything relating to her is messing with a major religion and everything relating to that in terms of hurt sensibilities and religious dogma. Secondly she is a national hero in France and no joking. I have been to Rouen and seen the monuments they made for her. Even today she is a national symbol surpassing even Napoleon.  When Dreyer wanted to make his Jeanne d’Arc movie in France and a rumor was floating that Lillian Gish would play the part of Jeanne d’Arc there was an outcry. A foreigner will make a movie with an American as Jeanne d’Arc? God forbid!

Fortunately it was not Lillian Gish who ended up playing Jeanne d’Arc but Renee Falconetti, a theater actress with a much more naturalistic acting style.

So when I say that “La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc” is not top rank I am sticking my neck deep into a swarm of wasps. What I actually just mean is that an hour of clerical interrogators questioning a girl following by 20 minutes of burning is not really my idea of a good time.  

But less can do. Once you realize that not much more than this will happen you can go into the details and there is quite a lot of reward there.

Jeanne d’Arc has been captured by the English army during the hundred year war. In their eyes she is an enemy general and a dangerous one at that because she can fire up the local population of France with her religious and nationalistic fervor. Therefore she must be eliminated and preferably in a way to deter any copycat actions. As a court case the result is given in advance. She must die.

Therefore it may seem odd that it is the church accusing her and making a lot of fuss out of it. Why not just condemn her and be done with it? Because there is something much much bigger at stake here.

The crisis is on at least three levels.

Every party going to war believes that God is on their side. In WWII the German soldiers had written on their belts “Gott mit uns”. Then what about the other side? If God is on our side He can hardly be on their side. Because if He is we have chosen our side wrongly. Thus Jeanne d’Arc must be wrong. God cannot be allowed to be seen fighting on the French side.

Secondly the church deal in absolutes, at least in medieval times, but for many segments of the religious community it is not so different today. There is one answer, the right one, and everything else is false. It undermines the authority of the church so any freethinker is quickly stamped a heretic and disposed of.  Jeanne d’Arc challenges church dogma and is dangerous and it is important that the public and the rest of the church reject her.

Finally, and that is the most interesting point and the one mostly explored in the movie, there is a personal element. All these clerics have devoted their life to a belief and Jeanne d’Arc is challenging it. If she is right then they are wrong and they have been living a lie. We see the clerics react in different ways to this challenge. Some are mocking her, refusing to consider the challenge. Some are furious with her. It is terribly infuriating when somebody is trying to pull the blanket from under you. It is a personal affront. And some are doubting themselves, wondering if she is right after all and that they are doing a terrible mistake. The inner battle is most visible on the older monk, who was in the beginning engineering a trap for her, but later stands in the doorway looking at her, his thoughts in turmoil.

So it is very important that Jeanne d’Arc admits that she is wrong, that it was all just some misguided girl confusing Satan with God. It is not enough just to burn her.

And in this endeavor they fail. Despite all the pressure and cunning and psychological terror they inflict on her she cannot give up her belief and so she becomes a martyr and in death she wins.

It is difficult not to see a parallel to religious fanatics today who die for their convictions with the rest of the world busy dismissing them as misguided fools. And I will probably take a lot of heat for saying that, but the analogy is there. Combining a religious and political agenda is dynamite, so while we see all these clerics as sadistic hypocrites in some place we also understand them because Jeanne d’Arc is dangerous and not just from their point of view. We just happen to sympathize with her cause and her persona.

What Dreyer achieves in his film is to focus entirely on this battle and does it by showing the faces of people so close that we can see the wrinkles and the warts and all the feelings and thoughts running through their heads. This is an angle we rarely see in Jeanne d’Arc related movies and that is why this one is special.

If this is your focus when watching it instead of expecting a popcorn flick then I will grant that it is a good movie.
And then I forgot to mention that the soundtrack "The voice of light" is absolutely amazing.

Sunday 19 August 2012

Un Chien Andalou (1928)

Den Andalusiske Hund
While I was watching this one I was wondering, what on Earth am I going to write about it? I am still not sure.

“Un Chien Andalou” is a surrealistic short film by Salvador Dali and Louis Bunuel from 1928. It is widely recognized as a breakthrough “movie” for surrealistic art and has won tons of acclaim. With a running time around 15 minutes it is quick enough to get through, so not much is wasted by seeing it. I have been through it a number of times but I am still not much smarter.

Being surrealistic means that it does not make much sense in a direct literal way. Instead it tells a story through symbols and metaphors and creates images and tableaus which are supposed to carry a meaning. Or maybe not. And that is why I actually like this sort of movies.

While on the one hand these pieces are awfully clever made and begs a highbrow interpretation I also sense children behind it who like to provoke and tease us and lead us in the wrong direction. This feeling is more pronounced in the later (and better) “L’Age D’Or”, but it is still, at least for me, a very integral part of seeing it.

Even a cursory foray into the works of Dali will tell you that the playing aspect is everywhere in what he does, so much that it often borders Dadaism, yet there is always a meaning behind it. You just have to twist your mind in strange directions to get it.

I am not enough familiar with Bunuel yet, but according to what I have found about him and seen from him he is a provocateur supreme. The later “Las Hurdes” movie twists facts and constructs realities to such an extent that the format of documentary becomes provo-art serving an artistic (and probably political) agenda.

I still do not understand “Un Chien Andalou”. Oh, there are plenty of interpretations out there, but somehow it ruins the fun of seeing it having some precooked interpretation as a crutch. I prefer to be disgusted by the eye that is cut open, to laugh at the horses and priests being dragged by the young man trying to reach the woman and wonder at the point of the intertitles saying “8 years later” or 16 years before”.  I do get that what we see is a visualization of subconscious feelings, trauma and issues that the woman and the man are carrying with them as if watching their relationship in some seventh dimension where we get images for what goes through their minds, but I like to be left guessing at the actual meaning and the tingling suspicion that they are pulling my leg.

In this way “Un Chien Andalou” becomes a very personal experience, like watching art in a museum. I should mention here that when my wife and I visit art museums (which we frequently do) we always aim for video art, installations and photography for the very same reasons that I like “Un Chien Andalou”. We are not high-brow about. In fact we rarely “get it”. But it tickles your brain and is also amusing in a way often missed by a more scholarly approach.

After all I did find something to say about “Un Chien Andalou” without really saying anything and in some odd way that feels very appropriate for this particular movie.

Saturday 18 August 2012

The Docks of New York (1928)

I like these gloomy, dark movies in seedy bars with underdog characters. They scream ambience and cinema noir and are in fact a celebrated style in itself, though normally associated with the forties.

In this case we are a lot earlier. “The Docks of New York” is from 1928, but if not for the fact that it is silent it fits perfectly into the noir ambience of that later age. The first 45 minutes take place in the night in and around a seedy bar by the docks and you can almost smell the tar and salt and feel the humidity of the fog. It is a very dense ambience created with light and shadow and an excellent set.

Instead of the derelict detective we have a stoker from a ship in port just this night and the mysterious girl is a suicidal prostitute that the stoker is fishing out of the water. But they are exactly as underbelly of society as any lead in a noir.

The stoker Bill Roberts, played brilliantly by George Bancroft, has the swagger and nonchalance of a veteran at sea. He makes his own decisions and he gets his way and does not whine about it when things go wrong. He come about in the first part of the movie as an irresponsible brute, but shows remarkable empathy and integrity as the story progresses. He may not be likeable but in this seedy environment we root for him from the moment he jumps into the harbor to save Mae (Betty Compson). He takes her to a room on top of the bar under protest from the matron of the place. That just goes to show what a miserable character Mae is. Even in her hour of need the boarding house does not want her in.

Important supporting characters are Andy, officer on Bill’s ship and his superior, and Lou his wife. Andy seeks out the same bar and is surprised to find his wife there. He is obviously a bad card, the notorious sailor scoundrel and she is fed up with him. When Bill brings in Mae Lou quickly takes charge of her obviously feeling a kinship with the girl. She sends Bill down to the bar for a hot drink for the girl and typical for his character he bulldoze his way in in his still wet cloth, shake off all protests, make space at the bar and order a warm toddy.

A relationship takes form between Mae and Bill and they are not trying to kid each other. None of them claim to be proper company but they still reach out for each other, Bill convinced that he needs to show her a good time and make her feel valued if only for a night. She need dry cloth so he takes it upon him to find some. When nobody answers at the harbor pawn shop he simply walks in and finds some cloth for her. How difficult can it be? That there is a price to pay for his actions is not much of a concern for him. That belongs to another day.

To show Mae that she is good enough to marry he decides to marry her here and now, right there in the bar. They even call in a parson to perform the rites. All the while Lou is looking out for her and even offers her her own wedding ring hoping that it will give Mae more luck than it gave her thereby clearly telling her that her own marriage to a sailor was a disaster.

The next morning is a new day. Bill gets up while Mae is still asleep and leaves her a few notes and prepares to depart on the boat. The marriage belongs to yesterday and today is a new day. Andy, the officer, exploits this to find Mae in her room, considering her free game. Mae defends that her husband will protect her, but finding the notes she realizes it was only a dream. Lou has followed her husband to the room and the next thing the police are there, ready to take Mae away for murder. At this point Bill decides to take responsibility after all and comes to her assistance. Also Lou steps forward and claim that she killed her husband, yet we will never know who did it.

Now comes the interesting part. Are they man and wife or where they just pretending? Will Bill leave on that ship and will Mae accept him as a husband? The resolution is high drama and, without being melodramatic, is about fighting your nature, showing some integrity and take a bullet for those you care about.

Despite the lack of kisses and tender words this is a very romantic resolution, when people without illusions about themselves and each other decide to commit themselves.

Josef von Sternberg belonged to the rather large group of German directors who invaded Hollywood in the late twenties and early thirties and brought with them the superior cinematography they had perfected in Germany under the common denominator of German expressionism.  This is in my opinion his strongest film in terms of cinematography, though he would later for a short while go back to Germany to make “Der Blaue Engel”, his maybe most famous movie. He seemed to have a weakness for fallen women, typically portrayed by Marlene Dietrich, but here in “The Docks of New York” there is no glamour at all, just grimy, raw humanism.

This is a must see. Silent drama noir reached its peak here.

Friday 17 August 2012

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Mand over bord
By now Buster Keaton does not require any introduction. As this is the fifth of his movies I have already written many words about him and his filmmaking. I previously mentioned that I obtained a box set with six discs of his works and plenty of it is good. Unfortunately “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” is not top rank. It is also the last movie in the box set and so, I suspect, marks the decline of Buster Keaton.

The problem with “Steamboat Bill, Jr” is that it is not really funny. That is, not in the way his other pieces on the list are funny. For a comedy, particularly slapstick, it is critical that you laugh. I watched it second time with relatives and instead of laughing they fell asleep and I do not blame them.

The story is fine and the production of it is elaborate enough. Buster is as usual totally misplaced as a wannabe playboy returning from Boston to his father’s steamboat on the river. Flippant cloth and a little moustache may look smart on a Douglas Fairbanks, but Buster Keaton can make such a character look ridiculous when applying his deadpan demeanor, an especially since his father is a rough and self-relying man with no respect for Boston flippancy. This would or should work well, but somehow the fire is off. The fun just does not really start. Instead it just drags out. A scene where Buster has to get a new hat is marginally fun but is dragged out much longer than it can carry.

Buster’s father Steamboat Bill has a feud going with his competitor King who owns practically everything in town, including a much smarter steamboat than Bill. It is pretty clear Bill is losing that battle but stubbornness keeps him in the fight. King also has a daughter who is also back from Boston and knows Buster from there. They have a romance going to the chagrin of both fathers.

When King gets Bill’s boat condemned (which it probably should have been anyway) Bill strike up a fight and is sent to jail. At this point Bill has already given up on his son and arranged for him to go back to Boston, but now it is up to Junior to save the day.

We have an again marginally funny, but drawn out, scene with Buster trying to free his father with a hollowed out bread full of tools. They mess it up so it just results in Bill remaining behind bars and Junior placed in a hospital.

Then we have the storm. This is also the part the movie is famous for and I grant that it is very well made and include some fantastic stunts by Buster including a house falling down around him and he missing it by standing in the empty window frame when it lands. The whole place is torn to pieces and a tornado could probably not have done a better job. Certainly all of King’s operations are ruined. The only problem: it is not really funny.

Buster puts Bills boat to sea and starts saving people, the girl, King and his father, whose prison is sailing down the river and Junior is the hero of the day, Hurrah.    

It really bothers me that I did not find “Steamboat Bill, Jr” funny. I really like Keaton’s stuff and he has a really expert touch with timing, not just in his own stunts, but in the pace of the movie and the comical timing of the gags. Here it felt as if his heart was not really in it and the timing was mostly off.

Keaton did not survive the sound revolution professionally so “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” became his swan song. I wish he had gone out better, but I will choose to enjoy the things that worked. Keaton as a foppish New England playboy, the amazing stunts during the storm and Keaton’s deadpan demeanor.

Thursday 16 August 2012

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Kun Engle Har Vinger
”Only Angels Have Wings” is a thoroughly good movie on almost all accounts. This is exactly the right movie to spend an evening with if you just want a good time. It is not a movie of deep socio-political points and not really a comedy either. It is a story of tough men flying a mail line across the Andes Mountains in horrible weather and the life surrounding that. That is enough and that is very entertaining.

For a 2 hour long movie it does not feel long at all. The pace is fast, the dialogue is interesting and there are plenty of high adrenaline flying stunts. For the movies on the list this is a first, though for movies of the period it was not so uncommon. And of course the girls of the movie are quite a sight.

Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) is running this mail service owned by Dutch, the local trade-in-all-things, but it is bare sticking together. If they can keep their contract for 6 month they will land a much bigger contract and will be able to get some proper planes. As it is they have to fly half-wrecks as long as condition are just marginally acceptable to fulfill the contract and they are only a few weeks from completing it. These are tough conditions and Geoff is losing pilots and planes at a frightening pace, but he and his men know this and weather all the bitter losses with stoic macho attitude.

Into this world walks Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), a showbiz girl on her way from A to B but apparently in no hurry to get there. She stands out quite spectacular in this frontier environment and quickly becomes the center of attention. Everybody jockeys for her attention, even Geoff, but when one of the pilots dies landing in bad weather and they all hide their grief in macho banter she shocked and disgusted by their insensitivity. That is, until she finds out that these are the hard realities here and they just have their own way of dealing with the pain.

Jean warms up to Geoff, but then things get complicated again when Bat McPherson (Richard Barthelmess) enters as the new pilot with Geoff former girlfriend Judy (Rita Hayworth) in tow as his wife. Bat carries a secret with him. He once bailed out of a plane while the mechanic crashed. Total dishonor. Only he has come to the wrong place cause one of the pilots here at Barranca, The Kid, is the mechanics brother and his secret is soon common knowledge. Bat is an excellent pilot and he is willing to do anything to prove himself worthy. Excellent qualities when you want to fly for Geoff.

The whole setup with the pilots and the planes here at this frontier location is great. It works and even though Cary Grant is a little too much of a sleek star for the part of this roughneck running this operation it is still quite believable. Once Richard Barthelmess gets out of his suit and into proper flying gear he gets to be a bit of an Indiana Jones and those flights across the pass makes the movie worth seeing on their own.

My sole objection is with the girls. Oh, they are great, not two opinions about it. Jean Arthur is good and Rita Hayworth is just spectacular. It is just that they seem out of place in this setting. Barranca is not a place where you hang around. This is a place where you work and make yourself useful. Geoff does not want a wife who will just settle down and make family and worry about his flying, but that leaves nothing for these women to do but being trophy wives. Otherwise they are basically useless. We never see them do anything but being idle, flirting or worrying and this in a place of grime and hard, dangerous work. I guess that is just being 1939 and me being 2012, but still…

Anyway, that is just a detail. I really enjoyed this one. This is a movie from the time when men were men and instrument flying meant following a compass in bad weather.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

The Crowd (1928)

En søn af folket
”The Crowd” got to be one of the most depressive movies I ever saw. For me it was no pleasure seeing it. To see it a second time for the commentary required a few deep breath and still I had to stop midway just to surface for a while.

It is not a bad film. I mean it is well made technically and acting-wise and certainly there is a point to the story, but this is no feel-good flick. Instead it seems as if King Vidor when making this took a sadistic glee in bringing down misfortune in every shade on our leads and he did not even make the male lead particularly sympathetic to boot.

I would say that the story is a negative reaction to the story of the American Dream. The belief that the individual is special and can get far if he works hard and is given the right opportunity. This is how the story starts out. John Sims has been told since childhood that he is special, that he will get far and he believes it to the extent that he is not really working in any special direction. He is just looking for that magical opportunity and then his ship will come in as he phrases it.

But what King Vidor hammers through to us is that John is not alone with that ambition. There are tons of people around, millions, and John is no better than any of them. The world is not turning around for the benefit of him. In fact the public and particularly fate could not care less for him.

John’s particular misfortune is that he keeps believing he is special. That he keeps promising that it will get better, but it is as if he is not really trying. Fortune is supposed to find him but it does not. He is getting a job, but it does not lead him anywhere, yet he hangs on to it. He gets a wonderful wife, but in-laws from hell and they keep pounding him for not getting anywhere. Even when he rebel it does not work because he does it in an egocentric and hurtful way, like when he escapes from the in-laws at his wife’s birthday and end up partying all night at his friend Bert’s place.

And then when finally he gets lucky and he wins 500$ for a slogan his little infant daughter gets run over and dies. This was just too much for me. At this point I wondered if I at all wanted to finish the movie and I certainly needed a break. I cannot deal with children getting hurt and seeing your little daughter get run over must be any parent’s nightmare. I know it is mine. How do you recover from that? John does not. From this point his life is a downward spiral. He loses his job, cannot find another one and gets the humiliation of being offered a job by his horrible in-laws, a job out of pity and for her, not for him. His wife gets fed up with him and he despises himself. It sounds bad and it is a lot worse. King Vidor knows how to present misery.

It ends on an upside, but it is an upside at the cost of the American dream. His life is not about success. Even the lowliest job is okay because the real value is his wife and son. That he has to accept that he is nothing special. He is just one in the crowd.

We have a special concept in Scandinavia called the Law of Jante (Janteloven). It goes like this:

1.       Don't think you're anything special.

2.       Don't think you're as good as us.

3.       Don't think you're smarter than us.

4.       Don't convince yourself that you're better than us.

5.       Don't think you know more than us.

6.       Don't think you are more important than us.

7.       Don't think you are good at anything.

8.       Don't laugh at us.

9.       Don't think anyone cares about you.

10.   Don't think you can teach us anything

We use it to pound each other in the head to make sure nobody sticks out of the crowd. While we all on the face of it despise this law, we unknowingly adhere to it and try to be modest, because we know people do not like it when we show off. And we do not like it ourselves when others cannot keep their feet on the ground.

To see this principle applied so blatantly in a movie is tough and also a bit shocking. John gets pounded, not by small-minded bystanders but by fate and his own self-deceit. And fate is brutal to him.

I hope there are not too many of this sort of movies on the list.