Thursday, May 31, 2012

Diary of a Lost Girl

Diary of a Lost Girl, the second of Georg Wilhelm Pabst's productive collaborations with Louise Brooks, is a potent and gorgeously stylized depiction of an innocent young woman's destruction at the hands of the not-so-innocent. Brooks plays Thymian, a beautiful and sheltered pharmacist's daughter whose dawning realization about the cruel ways of the world coincides with the loss of the security of her family. The opening of the film enacts a lurid symbolic struggle between innocence and sin, naïveté and knowledge. Brooks' Thymian, dressed all in white on the occasion of her confirmation, her eyes wide beneath the iconic ridge of her dark bangs, looks around her with a complete lack of guile, sweetly accepting presents from family and friends, glowing with courtesy and grace.

She seems entirely unaware of all the sexually charged glances being exchanged all around her: the exaggerated leer of her father's assistant Meinert (Fritz Rasp) who all but licks his lips and bulges his eyes like a cartoon wolf when he looks at her; her father's (Josef Rovensky) sexual liaisons with one maid after another; her aunt's (Vera Pawlowa) grim knowledge of these constant affairs; the knowing glances and raised eyebrows of the party guests when they see the new maid Meta (Franziska Kinz), who brazenly stares at her employer with an invitingly wicked smile that openly suggests that the cycle is going to start again. Everyone but Thymian seems to know exactly what's going on, but she is blissfully unaware of the sexual drama surrounding her.

In her pure white confirmation dress, a band of flowers wrapped around her head, she's a vision of innocence so pure and unstained that the mere realization that sin and sexual predation exist in her household produces a fainting spell, confining her to bed as though she's taken ill. She sees the corpse of her beloved maid — who'd committed suicide after being abandoned by Thymian's father — then runs up the stairs in a daze, sees her father with his arm already around the new maid, both of them staring at the camera in a frozen pose, a sly smile on the face of the new maid in contrast to the serene blankness of the dead girl downstairs, and in one fluid motion Thymian swoons to the floor, overcome by the taint of impurity infiltrating her home.

This is only the beginning of Thymian's suffering, as Meinert takes advantage of her vulnerability and rapes her. Pabst freezes the frame at the moment when the creepy druggist lowers Thymian's limp form into bed, and then immediately cuts to a baby carriage being taken out of Thymian's room, months later, carrying the fruit of that forceful union. Thymian's family casts her out, and she's sent to a reformatory, which she soon escapes with her friend Erika (Edith Meinhard), only to fall into a life of prostitution. The man she believes is going to save her, the disgraced and disinherited Count Osdorff (André Roanne), is actually a lazy and pathetic outcast who settles easily into a life of comfort at the brothel with Thymian and Erika. Pabst, though, doesn't portray the brothel as an entirely unpleasant life; the girls have fun and like each other, and Thymian certainly seems happier and better off there than she was under the care of the strict Christian moralists at the reformatory.

The reformatory is run by a stern mistress (Valeska Gert) whose usually stony face betrays an expression of ecstatic joy when whipping the girls through a frenzied gymnastics routine, and a bald-headed, looming movie monster giant (Andrews Engelmann) who first pops comically into the frame by standing up in front of a sign listing the many things that are "verboten" in this dismal place. This cartoonish giant delights in punishing the girls, grabbing them with a clawed hand at the scruff of their neck as though picking up a disobedient puppy, and his leering sadism is both creepy and hysterical — particularly when he runs a confiscated tube of lipstick across his own mouth, grinning impishly, then uses it to write a reminder to punish the girl he'd taken it from, a note signed with a heart to indicate his sadistic love of punishment.

Lesbian eroticism is another obvious subtext here, especially in the reformatory, where most of the girls have clipped, close-cropped boyish haircuts, and Erika introduces herself to Thymian by surreptitiously touching the new girl's leg with her foot and winking at her, echoing Meinert's leering winks. At bedtime, as Pabst pans down the line of girls getting ready for bed, two girls sit in the same bunk, giggling, and fall back into bed together. The scene where the matron tries to seize Thymian's diary is also loaded with suggestive intimacy, with the stern woman grabbing at Erika's bare legs, looking up at the two girls sitting in the top bunk, grasping at them with clawed hands. Later, when Thymian visits Erika at the brothel where she's staying, Pabst emphasizes the brothel's madame putting an intimate hand on the bare back of one of her girls — the gesture is repeated when the madame pushes Thymian together with a male client to dance — and then has Erika kneel before Thymian, taking off her shoes and undressing her, unbuttoning her demure reformatory blouse with its high collar to expose a V of flesh at her neck.

The film is steeped in this kind of sexual suggestiveness. Thymian's downfall has everything to do with sex and money, and sex and money come to be linked in very intimate ways for her. After her first night at the brothel, after she's spent the night with a man — swooning in his arms so that her limp form very much recalls her unconsciousness during Meinert's exploitation of her — the madame hands her an envelope of cash and makes it clear that it's from the man. Only then does the very naïve Thymian realize what's happened, and she recoils from the cash, which Pabst nevertheless emphasizes in a closeup. Much later, when her father dies and she receives an inheritance from Meinert for buying out the pharmacy, the camera glances from the pile of cash to Meinert's smug, cartoonishly grinning face, making it seem as though this too is a transaction, a belated payment for that long ago night when he'd taken her to bed.

It's not all grim tragedy here, though, and there's some limited comedy relief along the way. Among the humorous scenes is a very strange sequence where a goofy guy with a billy-goat beard (a possible anti-Semitic caricature) comes to see Thymian for "dance lessons," and she leads him in a bizarre calisthenic workout inspired by her reformatory exercise drills, while holding a drum protectively/suggestively over her crotch and beating it with a mallet in the way the reformatory mistress had done. The sexual symbolism is especially naked here, but those undercurrents are everywhere in this film.

The plot unravels a bit towards the end with a predictable tonal shift towards an optimistic, redemptive conclusion, seemingly foisted upon Pabst by censors eager to end on a positive note after all this barely coded sex. Even here, though, Pabst's emotional poetry shines through. The film is never less than beautiful, its style fluid and expressionist while also remaining grounded in social realism. And Brooks is just magnificent, with a beautiful and vibrant face that was perfectly suited to the silent cinema. When she smiles, the screen glows, and when she's suffering her eyes seem to contain unimaginable depths of feeling, often assisted by Pabst's very sympathetic photography of her, as in the stunning shot where she stares out a rain-streaked window, the raindrops on the glass standing in for her tears.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Magnificent Obsession

Douglas Sirk was a master of the lurid Hollywood melodrama, transcending often outrageous and contrived material with the sheer force of the emotion and the visual rigor that he invested in these stories. In films like All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind, Sirk found profundity and great beauty in what would have been trash in the hands of others. In Magnificent Obsession, a forerunner to the Jane Wyman/Rock Hudson pairing of All That Heaven Allows, not even Sirk can truly transcend what must be one of the worst plots and the worst screenplays in Hollywood history, a ridiculous pile-up of contrivances and silly plot twists in the service of a saccharine Christian-themed drama. It's a clunky and deeply strange film, and its absurd narrative prevents it from ever really being great, though Sirk's mise en scène and keen eye for painting in Technicolor elevate it at least to the level of a campy, emotionally intense tearjerker.

The story concerns the redemption of the callow playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson), who gets a wake-up call when his boating accident indirectly causes the death of a prominent, well-loved local doctor because an important piece of medical equipment was being used to treat Bob when the doctor had a heart attack. Bob falls in love with the doctor's widow Helen (Jane Wyman), but his clumsy attempts to pursue her — using a bastardized version of the philosophy of Christian charity practiced by her husband, and taught to Bob by the husband's friend Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger) — only results in further tragedy, when an accident leaves Helen blind. It's soapy in the extreme, particularly when Bob dedicates his life to medicine, becoming a doctor and using his wealth and his knowledge in an attempt to cure Helen's blindness even as he courts the blind woman (who apparently doesn't recognize his voice) under the laughable assumed name of Robby Robinson. Once one starts trying to pick apart the plot, it's difficult to stop, so it's best to just let it be, to try to overlook the unending cavalcade of absurdities and foolishness and sudden emotional reversals, to focus instead on the undeniably rapturous power of Sirk and cinematographer Russell Metty's images, which are as always some of the finest examples of Technicolor extravagance.

Sirk makes this insane plot come alive with the sensuous power of his images. Resonating with the theme of literal and metaphorical blindness, Sirk continually bathes the characters in alternating blocks of light and shadow, draping the film in darkness. Walking across a room, they step into the light for a moment and are then swallowed up again in darkness, the shadows falling across faces and erasing features into black silhouettes in the night. For all his obvious love of bright, pastel colors, Sirk seems equally at home in inky blackness, stretching shadows across the frame so that the characters are perpetually shuttling back and forth between seeing and unseeing, between flashes of light and dark pools in which nothing can be seen. When Helen visits Switzerland for a barrage of tests with some famed eye surgeons, her face is totally profiled in shadow until the doctor pans a small light across her face, highlighting each of her eyes in turn, creating a tiny circle of light, a pinprick reflected in her shining eye.

This approach reaches its apex with the scene where Bob takes Helen out for a romantic evening. The whole sequence is draped in these kinds of shadows, simultaneously creating a sumptuously romantic mood and suggesting a visual analogue for Helen's blindness, the darkness all around them shading their faces, hiding them from one another. As they dance together, they twirl and their faces are alternately shaded and lit up, passing in and out of the shadows with each turn. Sirk's aesthetic has a meticulousness that works against the raw, oversized emotions of his material. At one point, Helen, blind, picks her way across a darkened room, carefully feeling for obstacles and making her way slowly through the shadow-strewn room, until she comes to a balcony where her extended hand knocks a potted plant off the ledge. The camera follows the plant's fall down to the street below, where it shatters with a loud crack, triggering Helen's breakdown at precisely that instant, as though a starter's pistol had been fired.

In another scene, when Bob is about to perform the climactic surgery that will inevitably restore Helen's sight and redeem him from his careless and wasteful past, he hesitates until he looks up to the viewing gallery, where he sees Randolph, this film's kindly incarnation of God, looking down on them with a benevolent smile, the operating table and the doctors around it reflected in the glass around Randolph. He then steps away, satisfied that Bob will perform this task, and Sirk holds the shot of the now-empty viewing gallery, the operating room still reflected in it, visually communicating that God has done his work of inspiration, and the rest of the task must be left to the hands of man.

The film is rich in this kind of loaded visual symbolism. Sirk often transcends the frankly stupid plot with the sheer emotional power of his images, which crackle with vitality and feeling even when the twists and turns of the script barely make a bit of sense. But, even though Sirk often worked with such lousy material, and routinely transformed it into masterpieces, here, for whatever reason, he can't quite perform that miracle. The result is a film that's as visually beautiful as one would expect, and often seething with raw and over-the-top emotion, but never comes together on the multiple levels that characterize Sirk's best work.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Go West (1925)

Go West is one of Buster Keaton's more low-key films, but also one of his strangest, focusing on a gently sentimental romance between a man and a cow. Keaton plays an out-of-luck drifter, tellingly named Friendless, who sells off all his possessions — but forgets to take his clothes out of his dresser first, forcing him to buy them back — and heads west to try his luck as a cowboy. For much of its length, the film ambles amiably along, carefully spacing out its modest gags about Keaton's hapless attempts to become a cowboy. His efforts are unsuccessful, of course, but he does succeeding in befriending a cow named Brown Eyes by taking a rock out of her hoof, causing the animal to follow him dutifully around for the remainder of the movie. When the ranch owner sends her off to the stockyards with the rest of his cattle, Keaton follows along, hoping to rescue the damsel in distress from her fate.

It's a goofy premise, and a likeably goofy movie. The pace isn't as non-stop hilarious as Keaton's best work, and structurally it's rather similar to his previous feature, Seven Chances, with two-thirds of it drifting along a bit slowly before picking up the pace for a wild chase sequence finale — although in this case, the herd of pursuing brides from Seven Chances has been replaced by a herd of stampeding cows, chasing Keaton through the streets of Los Angeles.

This finale is the film's best part, mainly because the sight gag of all these cattle swarming through the city streets, with people fleeing in every direction while Keaton strolls casually through the throngs, is just so inherently funny. There's a madcap quality to this whole sequence, which basically has one joke — cows wandering into inappropriate places — that Keaton elaborates and riffs on over and over again, to very enjoyable comic effect. The best gags come when he complicates the scenario, as when the cows enter a clothes store where Keaton and the cows careen around with a man on roller skates, another hapless customer who flies across the store on a zip line, and an out-of-control elevator. Keaton's impeccable sense of motion and timing brings all these elements together in satisfying ways, creating loopy slapstick action that's all about kineticism for its own sake. At one point, a barber shop employee, trying to escape the cows, leaps over a wall and lands on a cow, which runs out from the other side of the wall with the man on its back; as the cow trots out of the store, he reaches over and grabs his hat on the way out. Later on, in a gag so random it's almost surreal, this cow-riding shoeshine man suddenly appears in the middle of the police station, chasing the cops out into the street.

The whole sequence memorably climaxes with Keaton putting on a devil costume so that he can attract the cows with something red. The sight of this man in a devil costume running through the streets with a herd of cows racing after him is hilarious, especially when a drunkard, stumbling upon this sight, acts unfazed and simply begins directing "traffic." In the end, Keaton's Friendless is able to lead the cows to the stockyards, making him a hero to the ranch owner, who grants Keaton any wish he wants. "I want her," a title card reads, and Keaton seems to be gesturing towards the farmer's daughter (Kathleen Myers), who'd been hanging around the fringes of the movie as a rather lackluster love interest. Of course, Keaton's actually talking about Brown Eyes, who he leads out from behind the fence that had been hiding her, and this little gag underscores the strangeness of the film, which mocks the romantic subplot with this ending, pushing the girl aside in favor of the cow.

The film takes a while to build up to that gloriously ridiculous climax, and the earlier parts of the film are much more low-key, with few truly hilarious moments. There are a few nice sight gags involving Keaton's incompetence as a cowboy, like the fact that he's equipped his horse's saddle with a rope ladder to help the diminutive ranchhand get mounted, or the tiny gun that gets lost in his massive holster, requiring him to tie it to a rope so he can draw it without digging around in the holster. There's also a quasi-serious, if not very developed, subplot with the rival ranchers who are trying to stop the cattle shipment from reaching its destination, which leads to a prolonged shootout with Keaton haplessly trying to join in. Soon after, there's one of Keaton's beloved train sequences, with him doing his bowlegged cowboy saunter across the roofs of the train cars, running towards the engine to get the runaway train under control. This sequence is brief but still has some nice gags, notably a cow spearing a mail pickup on its horns as the train rushes by, and later dumping it on an unsuspecting passenger waiting on a platform.

Go West isn't one of Keaton's best features, but as with all of his silent work it's an enjoyable comedy, even with a somewhat slower pace and fewer brilliant jokes than his peak efforts. At the very least, it has a fantastic climax, and a memorably irreverent tone towards the predictable romantic resolution that, even in one of Keaton's more sentimental pictures, confirms the artist's distinctly unsentimental sensibility.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Under Capricorn

Alfred Hitchcock's Under Capricorn is one of the director's more divisive films, but it certainly doesn't deserve its unflattering reputation. This lavish period melodrama, set in 1800s Australia, might be deliberately paced, but it's as emotionally, psychologically and formally complex as any of the director's best work. The core of the film is a twisted three-way relationship that develops between the wealthy ex-convict Sam (Joseph Cotten), his disturbed, alcoholic wife Hattie (Ingrid Bergman), and Charles (Michael Wilding), who had known Hattie as a boy in Ireland and claims to Sam that he can awaken Hattie from her self-destructive, near-insane mental state. Indeed, the charming Charles is able to shake Hattie out of her stasis and mental collapse, but he also preys on her, seducing her away from her husband even as he cures her. Sam watches this situation unfold, glowering and brooding, under the watchful eye of his maid Milly (Margaret Leighton), who obviously desires Sam and resents his wife. There's a dark history here that slowly, patiently unfurls, but the emphasis throughout is not really on narrative, past or present, but on the churning, potent emotions of the protagonists and the engulfing visual style that Hitchcock springs like a trap around the characters.

Hitchcock made this film immediately after the long-take formal experiment of Rope, and he applies a similar aesthetic here, albeit not quite as rigorously. This was Hitchcock's only collaboration with Powell/Pressburger cinematographer Jack Cardiff, whose sumptuous use of color and glossy, unreal aesthetic is a perfect complement to Hitchcock, and especially to the particular qualities of this lush period drama. Using the unbroken take style of Rope, Hitchcock and Cardiff hold shots for minutes at a time, the camera unmoored, drifting around the rooms of Sam's palatial home, its gentle movements subtly but definitively defining the relationships between the characters. Who's in the frame and who's not means everything in this film, particularly in terms of the central love triangle, as Charles' friendship with and seduction of Hattie increasingly pushes her own husband out of the picture, shunting him off to the side.

In the first scene where Charles and Hattie meet, she wanders, drunk and dazed, into one of her husband's dinner parties and sits down at the head of the table. Charles holds her chair for her and then sits next to her, leaving his own spot at the table. Once Charles sits down by Hattie's side, it's as though there's no longer anyone else at the table; Hitchcock maintains a two-shot of them as she reminiscences about the past, occasionally glancing across the table, presumably at her unseen husband, but Hitchcock doesn't cut away, doesn't show the reaction of the others to this immediate intimacy, doesn't show anyone else or have anyone else even talk again until Hattie stands up and the camera tracks to follow her, past the others at the table, as Charles walks her to the staircase leading back to her room.

Later, when Hattie dictates a letter to Charles' sister, Hitchcock again keeps the camera on the two of them, Sam forgotten outside the frame, until the camera begins tracking away from Charles and Hattie, past her husband's now abandoned place setting, through the empty room, finally finding Sam, walking away, his back to the camera, in the hallway, as the image fades to black. It's as though, when Charles and Hattie are together, everything else fades away, forgotten, the triangle becoming a two-shot, the room emptying off-camera. Hitchcock and Cardiff have a way of shooting the scenes between Hattie and Charles so that even if someone's standing right next to them, it feels like they're all alone.

In a subsequent scene, Milly, who'd been fired, returns while Charles and Hattie go out to the ball together, again leaving Sam behind. Hitchcock holds a very long and mostly static take as the maid chatters away, delivering her passive-aggressive patter about Hattie, her voice full of gossipy insinuation. The frame slowly constricts and expands as Sam wanders in and out of view, sometimes glowering in the background, sometimes strolling towards the camera, his face dark. All the while, Milly's barely disguised bile dominates the soundtrack, and she remains the visual center of the shot, but it's Sam's darkening expression and stalking walk that actually serve as the scene's viscerally felt focus even when he's peripheral or outside the frame altogether. Only at the very end of the scene, the end of the shot, does Sam finally step forward into the foreground of the frame, and Milly's voice fades away, his anger finally blotting out her words.

There's another fantastic long take when Hattie tells the story of her past with Sam. The camera maintains a medium distance as she paces around the room, and the camera glides with her, often with Charles' head in the foreground of the frame, placing the spectator in his position as he listens to her. She often resists facing him, though, showing the camera her profile more than her full face, which makes the sudden closeup, when she confesses to shooting her brother, all the more startling: the camera suddenly floats upwards and presses in at precisely the moment when she steps forward and leans into the shot, nearly facing the camera for her confessional moment. It's especially striking because immediately afterward she returns to avoiding this direct, forward-facing manner, turning her profile to the camera or turning away altogether, looking up, down, anywhere but straight-on.

This patient, elegant style pays off especially well in the final act, when all the long-bubbling resentments and conflicted emotions come to the surface in an eerie, dreamlike climax. Hattie, returning to her drunken hysteria after a series of dramatic twists and turns, sinks back into her isolation, terrified of the horrifying things she imagines seeing around her room. As Sam tucks Hattie in and comforts her, there's a long, rumbling roll of thunder that sounds like a blown-out speaker, and it continues to roar throughout the nightmarish scenes in which Hattie discovers a ghoulish shrunken head in her bed and collapses, with Hitchcock suggesting the passage of time afterwards with a gorgeous image of a rain-streaked window superimposed over the unconscious woman's face. This whole sequence is haunting and gorgeous, with every detail heightened: the single beaded tear glistening on Hattie's cheek, the tracking shot along the rough terrain of the pillowcase and bedsheets, the continued rolling of the thunder, the sinister tinkling of Milly's keys as she creeps around the room, the light glinting off the poisoned glass that's so resonant of other sinister drinks in Hitchcock's oeuvre.

It's a dream, a nightmare, and the subsequent scenes in which the plot begins reversing gears to move inexorably towards a happy resolution have the feeling of waking up from a dream, finally shaking off the narcotized slumber that afflicted these characters and kept them trapped in a recurring cycle of self-destruction and recrimination. Under Capricorn is a stylish and beautiful movie, its aesthetic seductive and hypnotic, with a psychological complexity that makes it enthralling throughout.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Three Stan Brakhage shorts, 1995-1997

I Take These Truths is one of Stan Brakhage's painted shorts, and indeed it offers up a near-exhaustive catalog of the many styles and techniques associated with his hand-painted work. The film is characterized by its staggering diversity, its evolution from one style to another, seldom settling into any one mode for very long over its 18 minutes. Sometimes there's a kind of stained glass effect, with bursts of bright primary colors hemmed in by thick black lines. Sometimes faded colors and specks hover in a plain off-white field, leaving the frame only minimally populated for a few moments. At other times, the frame is full of bright red, blue and orange bulbs, like balloons drifting into the sky or a field of flowers. At one point, white specks flutter against a black background, like snow falling at night, and then later in the film, the black-and-white palette returns with graffiti-like almost-letters twisting and twirling against the black. The pacing is mostly extremely fast and constant throughout, but even so there's some sensory variety, from jumpy rhythms to a sensuous flow between blobs of paint to a jittery, strobing quality that makes each frame seem momentarily frozen, a paradox within the unceasing forward momentum of Brakhage's flood of imagery.

So it's a study in color, starting with a few pale washes against a white backdrop, then quickly growing more complex and stretching out in multiple different directions. Like so many of Brakhage's painted films, it confounds analysis or interpretation. The title might suggest some kind of political perspective here, but not only does the film itself contain no hint of any tangible, non-abstract content, but Brakhage himself provided an alternate explanation that completely negates any attempt to extrapolate to external factors or ideas. For Brakhage, the only "truth" is the truth of the image, the undeniable truth of what's seen and experienced by the individual. It's an experience that's exceedingly difficult to translate into words, but that's precisely what Brakhage wanted with films like this. What's "self-evident" is what is seen; what the film "means" is only its particular combination of colors, shapes and visual rhythms. It's purely about its own physical appearance, about the textures of the paint slathered directly onto the film, as well as the even more direct black-and-white segments where Brakhage scratches images right into the filmstrip without even using paint.

It's a physical effect he's going for as much as anything, rooted in the physiological truths of how the human eye works, the way we transmit images from our vision to the brain for processing, at a rapid speed that still struggles to keep up with the pace of Brakhage's constantly changing imagery. Perhaps this neurological basis for vision explains the sections of the film in which dense bundles of dark lines wiggle across a white space, images that suggest either neuron networks or clusters of chromosomes. Brakhage was always interested in what's inside us, in the way the human body and mind work. Such images hint at those fascinations without concretely embodying anything at all.

The Cat of the Worm's Green Realm explores the natural world as seen from perspectives outside of humanity. Stan Brakhage's camera digs down into the undergrowth, into the hidden miniature worlds that ordinarily escape human notice. The film is receptive to the endless beauty and variety of the natural world, to its subliminal structures, to the life and vitality encoded in even the smallest segments of the larger whole, even down to the molecular level. To that end, Brakhage probes textured closeups of veiny leaves, buds on the end of green stalks, and sedimental layers of bark, placing his view right up against the surface of things, examining the lines and gradations that are revealed at such an intimate distance, or using blurred, abstracted images to restore the tiny detail to the vaguer outlines of the totality.

Often, the frame is composed entirely of subtle gradations of green, clusters of bushes and trees blending together into a rich color field that reveals all the different possible meanings of "green." In one of the film's most memorable moments, a shot of trees and bushes slowly pulses into focus, starting as a field of blurry greenery and then gently wracking the focus back and forth, like breathing, until the leaves on the trees pop into focus, at which point Brakhage immediately cuts away, so that only that split-second of clarity remains in memory. It's startling because of how organic that process of focusing is here; it really does feel like the camera's mechanisms are synced to the gentle rise and fall of the operator's chest, his breathing contributing to the gradual slide of the image from blurry to clear in minute ticks.

The film's color palette tends towards lush natural greens and fleshy pinks, both suggesting fecundity and sensuality. Brakhage runs his camera lovingly along the surface of curving pink color-forms that might be flowers but suggest sensuality and femininity — as does the slithering, fleshy body of a worm, captured in a clinical closeup, tiny clumps of dirt clinging to its curves as it writhes around within an abstract light field. A black cat stalks around the edges of the film, often barely glimpsed, blending into the shadows, flickering through the underbrush. The cat, which occasionally stops to lick itself long enough for a closeup, is one of Brakhage's surrogates in exploring the natural world, and as the title implies, the worm is the other. Both are creatures that glide through the world much more effortlessly and smoothly than humans, much more seamlessly integrated with the dense greenery.

Brakhage seems awed by this subterranean beauty, by the impressiveness of the world's structures whether one examines them at the highest level or the lowliest. There's a sense of near-religious sentiment here, as in a shot of the sun filtering through a canopy of undulating tree branches, the effect something like stained glass, the light tinting the leaves yellowish on the sides facing up towards the sun, while underneath are darker shadows. It's a jaw-droppingly pretty image that Brakhage slowly fades to black so that shadows seem to be infiltrating this tranquil garden, blotting out the sun, spreading across the leaves like rot.

Yggdrasil is the World Tree of Norse mythology, the spine holding together the Norse cosmology of nine separate worlds, the tree from which Odin hung for nine days in order to gain knowledge. What this has to do with Stan Brakhage's film Yggdrasil: Whose Roots Are Stars in the Human Mind is not immediately clear, but Brakhage himself describes it as a response to his own Dog Star Man, a revision of his earlier cosmology. The film is dominated by muted, washed-out colors, with lots of browns, evoking the trunk of the World Tree, particularly in a repeated, painted image of brown patterns running vertically along the frame.

Brakhage here alternates between several types of footage: hand-painted stretches, photographic documents of nature and industry, and sequences in which Brakhage explores the properties of lit-up cities at night. The film is a fast-paced montage in which these different images collide against one another, spaced out between inserted pauses of black leader that introduce brief rests or create a flickering effect. The most effective images in the film are the brief shots of lights: showers of sparks from fireworks, curlicues of colored lights speed-blurred and dancing across a black frame, little twists and twirls of light from speeding cars or city buildings, hovering in the nighttime blackness. Those images often recall Marie Menken's extraordinary 1966 film Lights, though here Brakhage quickly moves on from those bursts of light each time they appear.

Also compelling is what seems to be an uncharacteristically literal shot referring to the "stars" of the film's title, in which the stars appear as bursts of sunlight dancing on the lightly rolling surface of a cloudy body of water, a star field conjured up from a stagnant pond. Despite these moments of interest, this film is something of a lesser work from Brakhage, somewhat lacking in the mystical, mythological import implied by its title.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Wild Child

François Truffaut had, from his very first feature, his famous debut The 400 Blows, been very interested in childhood and the experiences of a child in a world governed by adult rules. The director's 1970 film The Wild Child returns to that theme and to the territory of childhood, albeit from a very different angle. Based on a true story, the film deals with a young feral boy (Jeanne-Pierre Cargol) who is discovered in the forest in 1798, running around naked, covered in dirt, fighting and biting and scratching like an animal when he's captured by some rural folk. The boy can't speak, has no understanding of language, and has apparently never experienced the socialization of being around other people. Totally isolated and wild, the boy, eventually dubbed Victor, is a case study for what humanity is like in a natural state, without the accoutrements of language and social behavior that society has created.

Dr. Jean Itard (Truffaut) hears of the boy and decides that he will take Victor into his own home, placing him in the care of his housekeeper Madame Guérin (Françoise Seigner) and trying to teach him language, trying to educate the boy and bring him into human society. It's another opportunity for Truffaut to study the rebellious spirit of a boy's resistance against societal rules: the film is dedicated to Truffaut's one-time child star Jean-Pierre Léaud, and one can easily see in Victor a trace of the same wild, anti-authoritarian qualities that Truffaut so admired in Léaud in The 400 Blows.

And yet The Wild Child possesses very little of those qualities. By this point, just over a decade after Truffaut's debut feature, the director who'd started out shooting rough and raw footage in the streets and decrying the "tradition of quality" cinema that had preceded the French New Wave, had himself been absorbed by that tradition, making films far more polished and conventional than one would have expected after his debut. In contrast to the unpredictable energy and enthusiasm of The 400 Blows, The Wild Child is somewhat dry and smooth, the sharp edges sanded away. Victor is a far wilder figure than Léaud's Antoine Doinel, but the film doesn't really do justice to his wildness, his unconventionality, his complete separation from human society. The result is a film of interesting ideas that's somewhat dull in its execution. Néstor Almendros' stark black-and-white cinematography is crisp and clear, but the film's more restrained tone clamps down on the poetic emotionalism of Truffaut's earlier portrait of uncouth childhood.

Most of the film is narrated by Truffaut's Dr. Itard, reading excerpts from his medical journals about the boy, which contributes to the clipped, clinical tone of this material. The film also moves at a very brisk pace, the long and arduous process of socializing this boy condensed to a highlight reel, complete with old-fashioned iris-in/iris-out effects to transition between scenes, a cutesy flourish that's completely at odds with the no-nonsense rapidity that otherwise characterizes the film. Truffaut makes the process of adapting this boy from a frenzied wild child into an at least superficially civilized kid seem like it happens quickly and incrementally, each new triumph of progress ticked off before moving on. Tellingly, he also cuts the story off before the sad conclusion of the real tale: in real life, Dr. Itard gave up on Victor soon after the events of this film are over, and Victor never progressed beyond the rudimentary fragments of language he's picked up by the end of the film. He spent the rest of his life in an institution, just as Itard's rival doctor had suggested at the beginning of this film. Truffaut elides any hint of this conclusion, choosing to end on a more ambiguous note, Victor having just returned from running away to resume his education with Itard. The ending hints that he could learn more, could actually become socialized and learn to speak, even if he still harbors a longing for the freedom he enjoyed in his former life.

That trace of melancholy about the loss of freedom is the film's strongest element, a cross-current to the unwarranted optimism implied by the ending. Cargol delivers a touching, raw performance, embodied entirely in his face, without recourse to any verbal expression other than a few grunts and a few hesitant words. He seems to long, viscerally and intensely, for the wilds of nature, and though he eventually accepts wearing clothes and eating with utensils and participating in Itard's language and alphabet games, he's still connected to nature. He'd rather stare out the window than watch his instructor. He'd rather run through the fields or stick his head out a carriage window like a dog in a car than play more of Itard's endless matching and memory games. One of the film's more provocative questions is the idea of whether the kid was actually better off not being discovered, if he was happier living wild and free without any attempt to fit in with a society that he'd never even known existed. It's at moments like this that Truffaut's poetic sensibility comes to the fore, in images of Victor running off through a large open field, escaping from the rules and restrictions of a world that he still doesn't fully understand, an image that strongly evokes the closing sequence of The 400 Blows, with Antoine Doinel escaping to the beach.

The Wild Child has periodic moments like this that reveal Truffaut's interest in this story and the ideas he wishes to explore through this wild boy's life. On the whole, however, it's a routine and undistinguished take on an inherently interesting subject, bolstered by its unique resonances with Truffaut's prior work. For a film that raises the question of whether its protagonist might have been better off living his life outside of society, it's a rather staid and conventional work that never truly does justice to the wildness at its core.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

La fille de l'eau

La fille de l'eau was Jean Renoir's first feature, the melodramatic story of young Gudule (Renoir's then-wife Catherine Hessling), whose father dies, her uncle (Pierre Lestringuez) abuses and attempts to rape her, and she's left on her own to endure a series of torments. After settling in with a group of gypsies, she's left on her own again when a conflict between the gypsies and the local farmers escalates into violence. She's then taken in by Georges (Harold Levingston), a shy young man who cares for her when she has nobody. Only the return of her drunken, nasty uncle threatens the happiness she finds with Georges and his family.

The story is fairly prosaic, and Hessling's dramatic range seems to be limited to staring at the camera with her admittedly striking eyes wide and her lips parted in an expression of terror or sadness, but there are definite signs of the director's talents in this very visually inventive debut. Some characteristic Renoir attributes are already in place here, like the naturalistic depiction of the picturesque countryside and the emphasis on class inequalities. This is especially apparent in the farmer Crepoix (Pierre Champagne), who begins harassing Gudule and the gypsies after Gudule's dog accidentally spills his bike. This petty, vindictive man physically assaults them and shatters their fishing traps, then brags about his exploits in town. Crepoix and the other farmers aren't even rich, but they're clearly at a higher social level than the nomadic gypsies, and with the exception of Georges' family, the townspeople lord this power over those beneath them.

What's really interesting about the film, though, is Renoir's inventive editing and aesthetics. At several points within the film, Renoir employs a jagged, rapid cutting style that feels surprisingly modern. In one scene, Gudule witnesses the burning of the gypsies' caravan before fleeing into the woods to escape from the angry townspeople. The next morning, she falls down a quarry, and Renoir cuts to a closeup of her face, surrounded by a frizzy halo of wild hair, followed by a rapid montage of very brief shots clipped from the previous night's torment, a subjective flashback montage that emphasizes how traumatic these images are for her. Each image lasts only a second or two, calling back the haunting nighttime images of flickering flames, the faces of the locals watching happily as the caravan is engulfed by fire. Later, when Gudule's uncle returns and she runs into him on the road, Renoir cuts rapidly back and forth from one face to another, a technique that recalls the much slower, tension-building approach he'd used in the earlier scene where the uncle nearly rapes Gudule. In that scene, too, Renoir had used alternating closeups, with the uncle gradually approaching, his face filling the frame, with the camera creeping closer and closer to Gudule as well, until her face was a blurry smear of terror. Renoir also highlights just the uncle's eyes in one shot, enclosing them in a rectangle within the frame, surrounded by black, calling attention to the act of looking, the act of looking at his niece with sexual predation.

Also very noteworthy is a long sequence in which the abandoned, feverish Gudule sleeps in the woods on a rainy night and has a strange, surreal dream that provides an opportunity for Renoir to indulge in the kind of hallucinatory visual effects that he often employed in his early silents. This is an extraordinary sequence in which Gudule drifts across the countryside, superimposed in ghostly, washed-out white, while encountering a barrage of surreal imagery. She runs across her uncle — suggestively holding a snake while leering at her — and Crepoix, and the two men appear as evil sprites haunting her throughout this dream. Renoir uses multiple superimpositions, runs the film backwards to make it seem as if Gudule is flying from the ground up into a sitting perch on a tree branch, and, in one unforgettable sequence, has the two men running across the frame sideways or upside-down from Gudule's perspective.

This unsettling, effects-laden dream sequence stands out here, anticipating the even more dazzling way in which Renoir would use this kind of surreal dream in his heartbreaking The Little Match Girl. Here, it's a momentary break in the low-key reality of this film, which drifts along without much bombast despite the melodramatic plot. This is an auspicious debut for Renoir, a film that's as attentive to the beauty of nature as it is to the plight of the heroine. This is especially obvious in the tranquil early scenes of the girl and her father on their riverboat, punctuated by evocative closeups of Gudule, her hair ruffled by the wind. Despite its predictable plot, La fille de l'eau is worthwhile for its union, uncharacteristic of later Renoir, of naturalistic photography with choppy editing flurries and fantastical optical effects.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Modern Times

Modern Times was the last of Charles Chaplin's "silent" movies, made after the silent era was over for everyone else, with pretty much only Chaplin hanging on — and Chaplin only able to hang on because of his special clout and fame. Like its predecessor City Lights, this isn't a true silent film, since it has a synchronized musical score (written by Chaplin himself) with sound effects and even, in this case, some actual speech. This is Chaplin's affectionate goodbye to the silent era, one last great masterpiece of silent aesthetics, with only a few small concessions to the sound pictures that had taken over the rest of Hollywood. Virtually all of the actual intelligible dialogue in the film is delivered through machines: the boss' voice barking orders over the intercom, a radio news report, a robot voice that delivers a sales pitch even as the salesmen stand silently nearby, miming along with the recorded voice. This suggests Chaplin's suspicion about the coming of sound in the movies, treating the voice as disconnected from the speaker, always with a mechanical layer between the source and the sound.

That suspicion of the modern and the mechanical runs through the film, which is a brilliant satire of modernity, with a jaundiced eye cast on the unemployment and misery of the Depression, as well as the supposed improvements of modern factories and technology. Chaplin plays a factory worker on an assembly line, unable to pause in his repetitive tasks for a moment without falling behind. This is a society that seeks to mechanize and automate everything, including even eating, thus eliminating one of the only breaks the workers get and turning it into just another step in the assembly line process. It's no wonder that this poor worker suffers a mental breakdown, unable to tolerate these oppressive conditions any longer. Chaplin, wrenches in hand, sees nuts everywhere, including in the buttons on the back of a secretary's skirt or across the breast of an older woman's suit; he's so compulsively locked into the rhythms of the assembly line that even his sexual responses are mechanical, a woman's body reduced to a series of machine parts to tighten and manipulate.

Now out of work, Chaplin's happier in jail, where he at least gets a comfortable place to sleep and some food — laced, in one outrageous scene, with cocaine from a drug dealer — than on the streets, where he's simply a poor bum. Once he gets out of jail, he's joined by Paulette Goddard's "gamin," a young orphan girl who remains a sprightly free spirit despite her life of poverty and deprivation. She is positively feral and ferocious from the moment she first appears on the screen, baring her teeth in a wild grin, a knife clamped between her jaws like a pirate as she steals bundles of bananas for the other poor kids of the waterfront. She's a magnetic and vivacious presence, with an electric smile that lights up the screen, and she's every bit Chaplin's equal, perhaps the only one of his leading ladies about whom that could be said.

Together, Chaplin and Goddard embody the determined spirit of the Depression's poor, locked out of jobs, unable to provide for themselves, living on the streets and scratching together whatever scant food and shelter they can get. And yet they never give up, and their spirit is infectious, their enthusiasm and boundless optimism propelling the film forward into one inspired comic set piece after another, the humor always tinged with the harsh truths of poverty and struggle. Chaplin is continually bouncing in and out of jail and getting fired from one job after another despite his well-intentioned but bumbling attempts to get by. He stumbles into countless comic situations, at one point accidentally leading a Communist rally by picking up a red flag from a passing truck. The rally's quickly broken up by cops, as is a later strike by factory workers — in fact, there's very little that the cops don't break up, and the film is rather contemptuous of these authority figures who can only endlessly arrest and chase those who are just trying to ease their hunger in any way they can.

Towards the end of the film, Chaplin returns to tweaking the new talking pictures, with a sequence in which Goddard gets Chaplin a job as a singing waiter. Chaplin seems to be preparing for his entry into the sound era, teasing the audience with the prospect, at long last, of his voice being heard on film. He rehearses a number, having Goddard write out song lyrics on his cuffs, but he rehearses silently, mouthing the words and dancing, and when he finally does sing, he's forgotten the words, so he just makes up a nonsense song that's mostly pseudo-Italian dialect, gibberish and an occasional recognizable English phrase. It's a wonderful way of ushering Chaplin into the sound era without having him actually communicate anything intelligible, and the film as a whole provides one last visually, viscerally eloquent expression of Chaplin's privileging of image over sound.

The film's conclusion is justly famous, with a stunning final shot of Chaplin and Goddard walking off down a long road into the future, arm-in-arm, Chaplin duck-walking besides his beautiful partner. It's optimistic and exhilarating and utterly gorgeous, a perfect ending to a film that is often cynical about the mechanization of the modern age but is celebratory of the human ability to resist this dehumanization, to fight back with song and dance and silliness and determination and, perhaps most importantly, love. After all, this is undoubtedly a love story, one of the rare Chaplin films where the tramp doesn't give up his great love at the end; when he strolls away into the distance this time, for once he's not doing so by himself. Chaplin was in an off-screen relationship with Goddard at the time he was shooting this, and it's easy to see that romance in her onscreen radiance and the absolute adoration that's implicit every time Chaplin turns a camera on her. He's in love, and seems determined to communicate that love in every image of his costar; the result is that it's nearly impossible to watch the film without falling in love with her along with Chaplin. Romantic, hilarious, beautiful, and endlessly inventive, Modern Times is one of Chaplin's greatest works, an ode to the irrepressible human spirit and its capacity for love and invention.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Conversations #32: Michael Haneke

Jason Bellamy and I have posted the latest of our Conversations at The House Next Door. This time around, we've tackled Michael Haneke, whose newest film Amour is currently showing at Cannes; we haven't seen it yet, but in the meantime, we have provided an extensive overview of nearly all of Haneke's previous theatrical features, from his debut The Seventh Continent to his 2009 stunner The White Ribbon. It's a wide-ranging discussion in which we go back and forth on the subjects of morality, video, genre, violence, and the filmmaker's stance towards his audience.

Haneke is one of the modern cinema's most provocative and controversial auteurs, one of those artists who tends to provoke a strong response one way or another. Obviously, we hope to hear your thoughts on this complicated figure, so please join the discussion via the comments section at the House.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

The Blue Angel

Marlene Dietrich's performance as the burlesque singer Lola Lola is one of the most iconic screen incarnations of the dangerous woman who lures a man to his destruction. This role in The Blue Angel was Dietrich's breakthrough; director Josef von Sternberg discovered her here and would make her his muse in many subsequent films. She radiates sex as the singer who wins the heart of the stuffy, sexless Professor Rath (Emil Jannings), an aging bachelor whose sheltered existence makes him especially susceptible to Lola's womanly charms. Rath initially only goes to the club the Blue Angel because he's outraged to learn that his students have been going there at night, but he keeps returning because of Lola.

The professor's fascination with the singer is charming and almost childlike; he becomes flustered and foolish in her presence, very unlike the stern disciplinarian he is with his students. This was an early venture in sound filmmaking for everyone involved, and it shows in the broad, physical performances, especially Jannings' turn as the professor. He blushes — it's obvious even in black-and-white — and sputters, his eloquence totally gone. Sternberg stages numerous deliciously naughty scenes that play up the professor's total helplessness before the spectacle of Lola. She drops her cigarette case and he goes scurrying under the table, fumbling around to recover the spilled cigarettes, but getting distracted by her long stockinged legs splayed out next to his head. "Send me a postcard," she says, her voice dripping with insinuation. Later, Rath gets drunk and wakes up in Lola's bed, clutching a doll, which he examines quizzically, like a child with a new toy. That's how he is with Lola in general, as though he's discovering women and sex for the first time, which of course he is.

The film then relentlessly, pitilessly follows Rath's downfall, his sad descent from respected professor to pathetic clown. Rath's boyish pursuit of a notorious woman like Lola causes him to lose the respect of his students and his colleagues, and he's soon drummed out of the college. In the scene where he loses his job, he sits at the front of the class, toying with a flower that Lola had given him, surrounded by mocking chalk drawings that his students had drawn on the blackboards behind him. The camera tracks back, leaving him isolated there, receding into the distance, and Sternberg repeats this unforgettable, simple but effective shot at the very end of the film. Rath then marries Lola and joins the traveling revue run by the magician Kiepert (Kurt Gerron). When Rath discovers, on his wedding night, a pile of risque pictures of his new wife, he demands that she stop selling these souvenirs. Her deadpan response is telling, and chilling, as she tells him they better hold onto them in case he's ever poor. Sure enough, Sternberg immediately cuts to a shot of Rath, some time later, shuffling through the postcards, waiting for Lola's performance to end so he can walk around from table to table, selling them to the club patrons.

The film reaches a heartbreaking, absolutely shattering climax when the revue returns, after five years away, to the Blue Angel in Rath's hometown, the first time he's been back since his disgrace. In the meantime, his relationship with Lola has deteriorated, and the childlike bliss he once felt with her has long since vanished, along with his dignity. The man who once virulently defended her virtue, calling Kiepert "a pimp" for convincing Lola to drink with club patrons, now finds himself in the same position, living off of her beauty and seductiveness, living off of her appeal to other men. Worse, Kiepert sells the Blue Angel show on Rath's name, knowing that his former friends and students and neighbors will flock to the club in order to see the disgraced old man perform as a clown alongside his sexy, provocative wife. This is the final assault on Rath's dignity, though he's perhaps even more shaken up by Lola's blatant infidelity, her flaunting of her new dalliance with a strongman who's also performing at the club.

Rath's stage act is harrowing to watch: he stumbles onstage in a daze, pulled along by Kiepert, standing utterly still, his posture slumped and his face frozen, while the magician performs his tricks and gets laughs by smashing eggs on Rath's head. The show, it's clear, is only successful to the extent that it humiliates the professor: that's what everyone is there to see, and they laugh uproariously at anything at Rath's expense, while remaining silent for Kiepert's magic tricks. At a key moment, Rath is supposed to crow like a chicken while Kiepert makes eggs appear from thin air in front of the professor's face, but Rath stays silent until he sees Lola, backstage, kissing and embracing another man. Kiepert pulls him back onstage, telling him to crow, and he does, letting out an anguished, horrifying sound, a sob of fury and despair ripped from his very soul. He cries like a chicken, for the delight of the audience, but it's a heartrending sound, a sound of such raw emotion that it provides all the justification that could ever be needed for the switch from silents to talkies.

Dietrich's songs are also unforgettable, and another big reason why this was one of the very first major sound pictures. Her dry, deep delivery makes her ribald songs seem offhanded, as though she's so blasé about her own sexiness that she can simply drawl out these naughty come-on tunes. She stalks about the stage as she sings, not wiggling or dancing; there's something almost mannish and unfeminine about her stage manner, but only because she knows damn well that she doesn't have to oversell. She just has to stand there, stretching those long legs, singing those songs, and the men will helplessly fall all over her. That's why her signature song includes the oft-repeated phrase, "I can't help it," because she really can't. There's just something naturally seductive about her, a force of nature that's beyond her power to control. She really does have some feelings for Rath, it seems, and she thinks he's sweet and charming when he defends her from the caresses of other men. But everything she liked about him is worn away by the reality of living with her lifestyle, so their relationship is doomed to failure.

The Blue Angel is a tremendous film, a classic that endures for far more reasons than its undeniable historical relevance. It was the film that made Dietrich a star, and that forged the Dietrich/Sternberg partnership that would yield six more collaborations in the next five years. It also helped Sternberg transition from silents to talkies. The Blue Angel occasionally betrays its transitional nature, especially in the way sound from outside is abruptly cut off whenever a door shuts, a device Sternberg makes a bit of a gag out of during the backstage scenes. It's also notable that much of the action, particularly Jannings' comedic bits, plays out without dialogue, getting across the substance of a scene through the actors' body language and facial expressions. It's a film with one foot still in the silent era, and yet its use of sound can also be explosive and powerful, which is a big part of what makes the film so dazzling. It's the best of both worlds, straddling two very different modes of filmmaking, ushering in the new era while reaching back for some choice tricks from the old. The Blue Angel has it all: it's sexy, funny, gorgeously shot, and above all, deeply tragic.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Jamaica Inn

[This post is one last late contribution to the third annual For the Love of Film blogathon and fundraiser, which ran from May 13-18. This year, hosts Marilyn Ferdinand, Farran Smith Nehme and Roderick Heath have dedicated the week to Alfred Hitchcock, whose early (non-directorial) work "The White Shadow" will be the beneficiary of any money earned during the event. Be sure to donate!]

Jamaica Inn was the final film of Alfred Hitchcock's British period, made just before the director emigrated to Hollywood. Hitchcock was purportedly not very happy with the film, which he made quickly and cheaply, in a hurry to get to America. It's certainly not one of the director's most characteristic works, a period pirate drama based on a Daphne Du Maurier novel. It's obvious the director is distracted and not fully engaged, and the film is pretty much as dire as its reputation suggests, mostly lacking in Hitchcock's characteristic visual rigor. Instead, it's talky and plodding, with little to recommend it beyond some showy performances and the occasional nice visual flourish.

Maureen O'Hara, fresh-faced and beautiful, is "introduced" in the opening credits, since this was her very first starring role. As Mary, she's playing an avatar of innocence and goodness, stumbling into the center of a den of thieves when she goes to stay with her Aunt Patience (Marie Ney) and Uncle Joss (Leslie Banks). Joss, it turns out, is the leader of a group of pirates based at the Jamaica Inn, a base of operations from which they lure unsuspecting ships to crash on the rocks, plundering the shipwrecks and killing any survivors to coldbloodedly eliminate any witnesses. Joss, unbeknownst to Mary or anybody else, gets his orders from Sir Humphrey (Charles Laughton), a local dignitary who Mary has met and thinks of as an ally. When Mary arrives at the Jamaica Inn, she quickly disturbs the pirate gang's plans, freeing the pirate Trehearne (Robert Newton), who is being hanged as a traitor by the rest of the gang.

The film is primarily an acting showcase for Charles Laughton, shamelessly hamming it up as Sir Humphrey, a role substantially expanded and changed from the Du Maurier novel especially for Laughton to sink his teeth into. He seems to be having a blast playing this man living a double life as a well-respected lord and a smuggler boss. When he's not bellowing enthusiastically for his servants, he's pattering in a rapid stream of pretentious wordplay and speechifying, all bluster and stilted mannerisms. It's an over-the-top performance, though Laughton modulates his hysterics towards the end of the film, when he finally reveals his villainy to Mary, dropping all pretense and affecting more of a quietly sinister demeanor, projecting menace in silky tones. At this point, he becomes something of a memorably Hitchcockian villain, binding Mary and taking her away as he unleashes a mad stream of vitriol.

Hitchcock shows only sporadic signs of being visually engaged by this material. In one scene, as Trehearne tries to convince Patience to let him go, Hitchcock's camera whips rapidly back and forth again and again from one of them to the other as they exchange lines, arguing over the man's fate. Hitchcock also makes the scenes out in the countryside very stark and dark, set in a bleak rocky wasteland with perpetually gray and cloudy skies hanging above the hideously warped landscape. The exterior scenes have an eerie, minimalist artificiality that's bracing and potent, creating an evocative atmosphere. In one scene, as Trehearne and Mary hide from the pursuing pirate gang, Hitchcock places them in the foreground of the shot, in front of a jagged rocky wall that obscures them from the villains scurrying around in the background of the shot. The docks where Humphrey takes Mary at the end of the film are also moodily shot, covered in shadows, betraying the influence of German expressionism, though Hitchcock doesn't linger long in this foggy locale.

On the whole, though, such evocative moments are rare, and Jamaica Inn winds up being one of Hitchcock's very worst films. Hitchcock was on his way to Hollywood, and his first film there would be another Du Maurier adaptation, Rebecca, the sensuous style and psychological depth of which only confirms how slapdash and uncharacteristic this final British film was.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

[This post is a contribution to the third annual For the Love of Film blogathon and fundraiser, which will be running from May 13-18. This year, hosts Marilyn Ferdinand, Farran Smith Nehme and Roderick Heath have dedicated the week to Alfred Hitchcock, whose early (non-directorial) work "The White Shadow" will be the beneficiary of any money earned during the event. Be sure to donate!]

The 1934 version of Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much is very different from the 1956 Hollywood remake he made with James Stewart and Doris Day. The original film is a punchy, economical little thriller that deftly juggles its conflicting tones, with a generally lighter, more comedic tone than the later film. Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) and his wife Jill (Edna Best) go vacationing in the Alps with their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam), and get accidentally tied up in an international incident when their friend, who turns out to be a spy, is killed. Before he dies, though, he points the couple towards a clue that leads to a plot to assassinate a diplomat, and as a result Betty is kidnapped to prevent the Lawrences from giving their information to the British Foreign Office.

The early scenes of the film strike a jaunty tone, and strangely for a film that centers around a child kidnapping, it starts with a pretty cynical attitude about kids. In her first few scenes, Betty blithely skips onto the ski slope to scoop up her puppy, tripping up the skier coming down the hill and nearly injuring him badly, then snottily interrupts her mother at a skeet-shooting competition, prompting Jill to remark, as she misses her shot, "this is what happens when you have kids." It's all pitched in a ha-ha-just-kidding ironic tone that seems to hide at least a little genuine bitterness — which might be understandable, since after all this is a kid who obliviously blunders onto a ski slope, nearly kills a guy, and then laughs about it afterwards. The Lawrences are blithely ironic with one another as well, jesting and flirting — though mostly not with each other. As Jill dances with another man, Bob mischievously ties a piece of knitting thread to the back of the man's coat, so that as they dance the string winds around the legs of all the dancers. The climax of this comic set piece, when the man discovers the thread, cleverly dovetails with the introduction of the film's serious plot, as Hitchcock chooses this exact moment to have the man get shot.

Throughout the film, the comic is tightly interwoven with the dramatic, especially when Bob and his friend Clive (Hugh Wakefield) go hunting for Betty, trying to track down the kidnappers. The unfortunate Clive keeps getting a raw deal, serving as a guinea pig for an underworld dentist, then getting arrested himself when he tries to inform the police about the kidnappers' plot. Best of all is the strangely goofy scene when Bob discovers the kidnappers hiding in a church and confronts them: the villains can't simply shoot Bob or risk attracting police attention, so the showdown devolves into a wonderfully sloppy battle of throwing wooden chairs, Bob facing off against the bad guys as they hurl chairs at one another, all while a nun plays the organ to mask the racket they're making. It's almost childlike, a game with deadly serious stakes.

Of course, on a more serious note, there's the famous Albert Hall sequence, in which Jill sits in the audience, knowing that an assassin is going to shoot a diplomat when the music gets loud enough, but vacillating about what she should do. Hitchcock drastically expanded and refined this sequence for the 1956 remake, and it plays out much better in the later film, but here the essence of the suspense is already apparent, slowly building as the gun edges out from behind a curtain. Less successful is the protracted and lackluster shootout between the cops and the bad guys that concludes the film, with Hitchcock's usually precise sense of staging and action here degenerating into a flat, static mise en scène with constant pop-pop gun sounds coming from everywhere.

This extended sequence stands out as plodding because so much of the rest of the film rushes by at a clipped, no-nonsense pace, communicating everything in shorthand. When Jill first finds out that her daughter has been kidnapped, she stares off into space, walks a few zombie-like steps, and promptly collapses, and this is virtually the entirety of the film's depiction of parental grief. Everything is compressed and moves with a choppy, jittery rhythm that leaps from one scene to another. As a result, there's very little fat, but also very little characterization, and neither of the two lead performances stand out. Thankfully Hitchcock at least got a scenery-chewing villain in Peter Lorre, who plays the creepy kidnapper Abbott. He's a sleazy, slimy character, defined by the oddly skunk-like white streak running down the center of his hair. Curiously, Hitchcock gives Abbott some of the film's most subtle emotional beats, like the closeup of him looking down — with guilt? sadness? — while thinking about what he'll eventually have to do to Betty when this plot is over. Later, during the final shootout, when Abbott's female partner is shot by a stray bullet, he pulls her close to him, genuinely upset that she's dying. The film rarely pauses for such sentimental moments, so it's striking that the villainous Abbott is the focus of these brief diversions.

The Man Who Knew Too Much mostly speeds by, giving it a jumpy feel; it's bursting with the nervous energy of a rough, low-budget work. The film suffers at times from this economy, mostly in the clipped emotional subtext that the director would build upon when he remade the film, but it's still a fine early Hitchcock thriller with some enjoyable quirks.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Number Seventeen

[This post is a contribution to the third annual For the Love of Film blogathon and fundraiser, which will be running from May 13-18. This year, hosts Marilyn Ferdinand, Farran Smith Nehme and Roderick Heath have dedicated the week to Alfred Hitchcock, whose early (non-directorial) work "The White Shadow" will be the beneficiary of any money earned during the event. Be sure to donate!]

For a film that its director didn't even want to make and later dismissed as terrible, Number Seventeen is a surprisingly entertaining, if more than a little ridiculous, minor thriller. The film was forced upon Alfred Hitchcock, then still very early in his career and coming off a box office flop that limited his options, so it's no wonder that he thought so little of it. In fact, it's a convoluted, frantically paced comic thriller that's devilishly difficult to follow, and doesn't even attempt to develop its narrative in the least until the hour-long movie's almost half over already, but is incredibly enjoyable anyway.

The plot involves a stolen diamond necklace, a bunch of crooks meeting up with their fence to split the take, a detective, the daughter (Ann Casson) of the man the necklace was stolen from, and an innocent bum (Leon M. Lion) caught up in this whole mess because he'd stumbled into the wrong building. Of course, none of these things are explained in the least until most of the movie's over already. To make things even more confusing, even when this basic scenario becomes clear, it's still not at all clear who's a crook and who's a detective. The film has a breakneck pace and hardly ever pauses to explain anything, which makes it not very satisfying narratively, but kind of fun in a baffling, manic way. It's the kind of film where a woman (Anne Grey) previously described as deaf-mute suddenly begins talking halfway through the movie, and it's never explained why, and where identities seem to switch every few minutes.

In the wordless, noirish opening sequence, the camera tracks rapidly along the sidewalk as fallen leaves and a man's hat are blown across the ground, stopping in front of a building where a man (John Stuart) runs into the frame to retrieve his hat. He stops outside the building, watching as lights mysteriously play off the walls inside, then he walks up to the door, which opens on its own like the entrance to the monster's lair in old horror movies. Inside, Hitchcock plays with expressionist shadows as the man prowls around, tracking someone else who's inside: there's a loud noise, a man collapses, his hand hanging over the upper railing and casting a tremendous shadow on the wall, and then the man from outside meets someone else wandering the abandoned building, who turns out to be the bum, Ben. They both find the body at the same moment, and Hitchcock finally deflates the tension with a jagged montage of a train roaring by, casting flickering lights over the two men — a forerunner of future Hitchcockian trains — and then cuts to brief, distorted closeups of both men comically screaming in terror.

More and more people begin converging on the abandoned building for mysterious reasons, and though nothing ever makes much sense, Hitchcock builds a compellingly eerie atmosphere as these people cluster in the darkness, listening for strange noises as shadows dance across the walls. At one point, the original man goes downstairs to check on noises at the front door, and he looks out the window to see smoke wafting up from the man on the other side of the door. Much else is conveyed with shadows and loud noises, and as more and more people show up, seemingly all of them toting guns and mysterious appointment cards, it increasingly begins to seem like Hitchcock's going for the atmosphere of a mystery/thriller with a plot that keeps getting more and more complicated without ever fully resolving itself. The film's pretty much a mess, but Hitchcock handles the narrative pile-up so deftly that it's easy to overlook the shambles of the script and simply enjoy the moody visuals and goofy comic asides.

Ben's a very comic character, a tramp who's stumbled into a mystery and just wants out. Hitchcock gives him some fun business to do, further distracting from the plot, like the scene where he checks to see if a gun's loaded by peering into and blowing into its barrel. He then tries to stalk his own shadow before realizing what it is, and playfully waves his arms about, watching as his stretched-out shadow mimics him.

The film finally accelerates to a manic, chaotic climax with a chase between a speeding train and a commandeered bus, much of the chase achieved with some nicely done scale models. Hitchcock keeps cutting back and forth between the bus and the train, conveying the rapid pace of it all and also emphasizing the humor, showing the bus passengers bouncing in their seats as it careens along, flying by a sign that reads, "stop here for dainty teas." It all ends with an epic crash, the detective's identity changes a few more times, and in the final shot, Ben gets his moment of glory, grinning heroically for the camera. It's an extremely absurd and sloppy movie, but its lighthearted tone and Hitchcock's shadowy expressionist approach to it make it nearly irresistible.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


[This post is a contribution to the third annual For the Love of Film blogathon and fundraiser, which will be running from May 13-18. This year, hosts Marilyn Ferdinand, Farran Smith Nehme and Roderick Heath have dedicated the week to Alfred Hitchcock, whose early (non-directorial) work "The White Shadow" will be the beneficiary of any money earned during the event. Be sure to donate!]

Murder! was Alfred Hitchcock's third sound film, and it bears plentiful evidence of the young director experimenting with form and style, livening up what's otherwise a routine and glacially paced murder mystery. The theater actress Diana Baring (Norah Baring) is found one night sitting beside the corpse of one of her fellow actresses, swearing that she doesn't remember killing the girl. Nevertheless, it seems to be an open-and-shut case, and she's promptly convicted and placed on death row. Only after the trial is over does one of the jurors, Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall), have second thoughts about letting himself get talked into going along with the guilty verdict. He begins investigating the case himself, hoping to uncover evidence of Diana's innocence. The film's plot is simple and schematic, and the pace is almost painfully plodding, with one inert scene after another walking Sir John closer to the solution. The performances are mostly not bad, but it's Hitchcock's budding visual imagination and subtle sense of humor that really elevates this pedestrian material.

The film opens in a quaint, patently artificial village that looks like it belongs in a German Expressionist silent: an appropriate place for a murder. In the opening scenes, Hitchcock cleverly builds tension sonically, starting with a scream that wakes up the neighborhood, sends birds fluttering away, and sets the dogs to howling. The soundtrack becomes noisy and cluttered: barking, people chattering, the banging noises of the police knocking on the door of the house that's causing all this disturbance. Hitchcock defuses the suspense slightly with the humor of one couple who stick their heads out their window, the wooden frame continually sliding down on their necks, but they're so intent on seeing what's happening that they let it push them down into the flower bed, craning their necks to see. At the site of all the clamor, Hitchcock further elongates the tension by focusing on the reactions of the people at the scene, shooting the backs of the heads of the people crowding around the door.

By this point, it's obvious that there's been a murder, but rather than just unveiling the body, Hitchcock employs a precise, elegant, slow camera move that retains the influence of the silent cinema in its ability to trace a whole narrative in the angle of the camera' arc. The camera moves from Diana's haunted, staring profile, down her arm, to the splatter of blood on the hem of her dress and her hand dangling just above the floor, then moving perpendicularly along the floor, parallel to a fire poker, the murder weapon, which lays pointing directly at the head of the dead woman who now, finally, appears within the frame.

Diana doesn't appear much in the film, but she still instantly makes an impression with her intense stare and shell-shocked demeanor. She barely even says much, mostly just staring blankly off into the distance, haunted by the secrets she's hiding and won't reveal even to save her own life or help her case. Her expressive silent movie actress face carries a lot of weight for what is otherwise an underwritten character; she serves as the trigger for the plot but is only vaguely defined even though the whole story revolves around her. Her most compelling moment is a wordless montage in which Hitchcock alternates overhead shots of her pacing around her cell with a foreboding image of the shadow of a noose reflected on a wall, creeping slowly up the wall as the sun changes position, a cleverly grim way of suggesting the passage of time.

Hitchcock also has some fun with a quirky little scene in which two gossipy women prepare tea while talking about the murder. This long scene plays out in a single shot that repeatedly tracks back and forth between two adjacent rooms as one of the women putters around, preparing the tea and laying out cups. Each time she walks from one room to the next, the camera tracks with her, and her friend scurries after her, sitting down, then almost immediately getting up again to return to the other room. The back-and-forth tracking of the camera brings out the deadpan comedy of this otherwise mundane scene, building an entirely cinematic and formal humor that's distinct from the banal content of the scene.

Hitchcock puts a little verve into moments like that whenever he can, because he doesn't have a whole lot to work with here. Once the trial is over and Sir John begins his investigation, the film is dominated by a series of stagey dialogues with witnesses and suspects, and there's not much Hitchcock can do to make these lifelessly written scenes pop. There are hints, here and there, of a buried homosexual subtext that was more explicit in the Clemence Dane novel the film is based on, but here it's mostly replaced by an undercooked racial theme. The film's theater milieu is full of crossdressing actors, and gradually the investigation begins to focus on the trapeze artist Handel Fane (Esme Percy), who dresses up as a glamorous woman and flies through the air, wowing the crowds with his grace. Fane's feminine artistry plays into the shocking circus climax, which Hitchcock stages by putting the focus on the horrified reactions of the crowd, just as he had during the opening scenes.

He then follows this, almost perfunctorily, with a letter that explains the film's whole plot, because after a climax like that, there's not much to do but quickly wrap things up and call it a day. As Sir John reads this letter, the shadows of the circus crowd flit by on the wall behind him, giving the scene a weird, disconnected feeling, as though the hero has quietly tucked himself off in a corner, isolated from the chaos, to resolve the plot. It's fitting, too, that the film then ends with a curtain coming down on a theater's stage, a last playful touch that accentuates the artificiality of these dramatics.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Lips of Blood: Guest Post at Fascination

Taking a quick break from this week's worthy Film Preservation blogathon and its celebration of Alfred Hitchcock, I have authored a guest post for Jeremy Richey's great blog Fascination: The Jean Rollin Experience. Jeremy, who also runs the equally fantastic movie blog Moon in the Gutter, is among other things one of the Internet's primary champions of and authorities on the French horror auteur Jean Rollin. His blog dedicated to Rollin is one of the best resources on this cult director. I have recently, in part because of Jeremy's advocacy, been exploring Rollin's work in some depth, so when he asked me to contribute a piece on Rollin to his blog, I was thrilled.

So head over to Fascination to read my review of Rollin's Lips of Blood, which is quite possibly my very favorite of his films, a haunting and typically bizarre film about memory, nostalgia, and the allure of the supernatural.