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Nosferatu &. Destiny/Der Mude Tod (Murnau/Lang, 1921): Lest We Forget . . . .

The whole idea of a Silent Film Smackdown or kickboxing match to pronounce a "winner" in the end is an act bordering on a level of absurdity so profound its virtually without equal.

At the same time the idea of bunching these two supernatural films together just set upon me five minutes ago (approximately 12:45pm EST in NYC, 3/30/2015... we still have a little bit of time left before the planet blows up in a great fiery orgy of apocalypse because when a supermoon gets funky with a solar eclipse on the vernal equinox and god knows what-all else, being toasted down to a shivering microscopic cinder is the only possible outcome .  .  .  if you don't believe me then listen to Mystic Momma: she knows everything). I found the idea of a comparative appreciation unbearably alluring so I'm diving in without prep to close out this second calendar week of my resurrected blog.

Two foundational films from two foundational directors in Germany: Nosferatu by Murnau, and Der Mude Tod (aka Destiny) by Lang. Both made in 1921. Both the first undisputed masterpieces by either director. Both gloomy and dreary and filled with the inky charcoal of chiaroscuro. Both soaked with a cold damp wind of grey death. Both tone-setters for the way that Weimar Cinema would be perceived up to this very day. 

Both films are underpinned by awesome performances by singularly grim looking male actors portraying incarnations of death personified in worn, almost shabby costumes that have a perfectly weathered appearance, matching their heavily weathered faces.

Both films imbue the viewer with a hope that--as the narratives wend their ponderously gloomy way toward resolution--the forces of darkness can be defeated with a cipher of human innocence and genuine selflessness. And both crush that hope in conclusion with a rare power of precious, dismal poetry.

Both films harness the power of shadow in one of the earliest examples of sets bathed in shadow, soaked in broad swathes of inky darkness--aside from Evgeni Bauer, these are some of the first films to concretize the yet unspoken maxim of the great cameraman John Alton: it's not what you light, it's what you don't light.

Both films obsess over the rarest esoterica of the supernatural, a subject that was extremely rare in the cinema and would remain so for at least another ten years until the advent of the sound era in Universal Studios and the youthful risk-taking of Carl Laemmle Jr. From the birth of the full length five reeler in the teens and forward, most tales of the supernatural turned out to have rational explanations in the end: scheming relatives trying to scare an inheritor away from a fortune, a cop dressing up as a supernatural creature to scare the competition away, and on and on.

*           *           *

Not only did the two of these films concern themselves with the supernatural, they obsessed for obscurest esoterica of the supernatural. .  .  secret ciphers and glyphs of forgotten hidden societies, mysterious roots and bulbs that were believed to give off healing powers under the glow of a seasonal moon. .  .   the whirling of Muslim dervishes to celebrate the Sufist concept of God (in the much larger Earth of the early 20th Century, how many Europeans knew much about Islam beyond the Arabian Nights?), Paracelsian esoterica, the vampiric myths of eastern Europe and the legends about the foggy, hard-to-reach crumbling castles high on little-traveled passes .  .  .  ideas that in their actual form are as obscure today as they were back then almost a hundred years ago.

Through books like The Demoniac/Haunted Screen by Lotte Eisner, or From Caligari To Hitler by Siggy Kracauer, it's easy to fall into the ridiculous trap of thinking that the German screen of post-war Weimer was filled with little else but doom, gloom, death and the supernatural--but it's not true.

Like the films of Douglas Fairbanks or Llloyd or Chaplin here in the USA from the same period, these are simply the films that, because of their budget, skilled craftsmen, unusual quality and thus broad exhibition, gained great popularity with the public and thus were 1) duped and exhibited voluminously whereby 2) copies wound up surviving here and there and thus made it to the modern era in a far greater percentile versus the ordinary Westerns, adventure films, romances, serials, comedies by transitory flavor-of-the-moment actors and actresses, and newsreels that came out with far far far greater frequency. Eighty percent of the films from the silent era at very least have been lost. The number is probably greater.

Even the studio planet of UFA, known for its Pommerian universe of artifice and grand scale, was a factory grinding out typical studio fare. UFA was no more the studio of super-expensive giant sized productions any more than Universal in the 1920's was a studio that put out nothing but Stroheim and Lon Chaney million dollar super jewels. Universal Hollywood in those days was essentially a B studio--cranking out low budget westerns, serials, comedies, romances, and all the other drek that comes in between. They put out a super jewel feature complete with glossy printed magazine size programs, sheet music sold to the public, etc once a year. Phantom of the Opera, Hunchback, The Man Who Laughs, the Stroeheims, you'll notice that you will almost never find a year where a Universal film with towering, mindbendingly expensive sets is released alongside another of equal budget but of completely different pedigree and subject and art direction. The studio finances just couldn't handle it.

As far as UFA was concerned, it was the stretch from 24-27 where they attempted to ratchet up the studio superproductions to simultaneity (Faust/Nibelungen/Metropolis) that saw the studio stumble right into financial trouble and right into Alfred Hugenberg's mitts.

The point is this: even in the hallowed halls of the old UFA in the first half of the twenties, just pre and post acquisition of Decla Bioskop, the vast majority of cinematic fare in Germany was the same boring fluff made for as little as possible that plagues any era of film. At least when it comes to the connoisseur, with a taste for something different and somewhat more substantial.

How miraculous are both of these films--how so are both of these men. What different temperaments, yet how similar are both of these breakthroughs for both of them. Nosferatu's influence over the years has been endless, although upon its initial release its success was staggered by the Stoker family suit. Der Mude Tod--we know it floored Luis Bunuel; we know it bowled Hitchcock over and remained his favorite film. We know--speaking of the American swashbuckler-- Douglas Fairbanks freaked for the Lang film and bought its rights so he could cruelly shove it in a closet and first copy, then release a flying carpet sequence lifted straight out of the Oriental sequence first, before the appearance of Der Mude Tod in the states. Uncool.

It's very easy in this age of all manner of films everywhere, our senses dulled by porn and CGI and terrorism and apps and all manner of strange information available at the click of a mouse, to miss the impact of Nosferatu and Der Mude Tod

In a field of endless homogeneity and unspectacular, average, mindless prattle as far as the eyes can see--an occasional decent mind here and there, okay, it's true--suddenly two men walk in out of nowhere with completely overwhelming talent and brains, and demonstrate at the same time the strangest taste and aesthetic inclinations. People stop, stunned, staring at the screen, jaws agape. 

How is it that this happens? Just a few times every century? Men arrive almost as if they landed from Saturn, with minds concerned with subject matter that baffle ordinary folks .  .  .  strange men who scare people .  .  .and nonetheless awe the chilled common man to the marrow with the hitherto unseen level of talent that hurls all that originality flowing naturally through their veins direct into the beholding viewer as if by injection?

Almost above all other films from the era--there are others of course--savor these films. Never allow yourself to become numb to their meaning and what they say about the young, barely experienced men who made them and dazzled the planet .  .  .  still to this day. Generation after generation.

Schreck/Clive

3/20/2015***

    

 

 


Preston Clive mar 20 15, 23:09
+1 1

Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)

(Compton Films, 1965)

It's not every day that a film that has been sitting so obviously in my mind's eye for procurement, screaming out for viewing for so long, turns out to be this good after finally relenting, nor is it every day that a film tricks me as completely as Repulsion by Roman Polanski.

On my watch list for a good number of years, there were good reasons for my wanting to see Repulsion: there was something consistent about the reviews from forums and reviews--posts from people I pay attention to and from those I do not really listen much to--that told me, "This film is an excursion into that bizarro nameless territory that you love so much dude... it's probably the real thing. Watch it. You hear me? Watch it."

Even the venerable Criterion Collection's releasing the film on DVD and BluRay didn't spur me into action until finally, some undefinable interior clock went off and it turned out to be my time to grab the film for myself. Even after doing so, it sat for a week or two before I threw it on.

Incredibly, for that week or two I probably watched Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, with Bela Lugosi doing his atrocious humping turn as the Embarrassing Monster, for the seven thousandth time. But still, a confirmed masterpiece sat, unsent-for, waiting for the alarm to go off in my head.

Well finally, this past weekend, the alarm bells battered and banged and the time was nigh to see what all the oozing and cooing was about. Turned out the answer was "An awful goddam lot."

*          *          *

I'm not the most giant-sized Polanski expert. I like Chinatown quite a bit--I love the deadpan way it delivers its insanely wacko universe of complicated simplicity with easy bleak style. Like it a lot, but the film has planted no giant sized magnet in me whereby I make an annual pilgrimage to the film and make sure I keep it fresh in my head. It's been at least ten years since I've seen the thing... probably have seen it three or four times all together.

Rosemary's Baby is on the other hand another box of graham crackers altogether. Adore the film. Love it. Need it in the brain llike the body requires vitamins and minerals; love it as a story to get lost in, to put on and fall asleep to in the dark so it mucks up my dreams with a yellow green aura of horror tinkering with my waking sanity; admire it as a specimen of cinema .  .  .  nod of the head with this camera placement, smile of admiration with this edit, that script line, and on and on.

Created by Polanski in 1965 after the success of Knife In The Water, Repulsion was the result of a Polanski script developed with co-writers, based on his personal experience of meeting a beautiful woman, stunningly attractive .  .  .  yet at the same time agonizingly shy. So shy as to be hobbled, addled with neuroses, perhaps psychotic. To the degree that there was a tangible sense of danger lurking beneath the surface of such physical beauty waiting to be uncovered.

This is a re-imagining of the tale of Beauty & The Beast .  .  .  except in this case both are wrapped up in the trunk of a single human organism: one physically beautiful woman psychologically damaged beyond repair by a damaged beast haunting the reverbing halls of her head.

I am now announcing: there will be spoilers below this line. Eat these words with your eyes only at your own peril, if you have not yet watched this film.

 

Repulsion is, in terms of dialog and physical action, in terms of movement, in terms of suspense, a very quiet film. Shot in stark black and white--gorgeous inky blacks, luminous whites and lovely silver tonalities in between (this would have been a wonderful film to watch, were it still in use at the time, on a first generation nitrate, but who wants to sit in the same room as a projector fire? Me! this is all silliness as nitrate was no longer used at its making in 65)--Repulsion runs on the sensibilities that spin off of the aesthetics of the silent era. 

This is a film that talks to that side of the brain that tosses words into the rubbish heap; it speaks directly to a part of your brain that is soundlessly cultivating a file of impressions on the persona of Catherine Deveuve's lead character Carol, cumulatively watching unusual, soundless behaviors pile up as she writhes quietly through the film. We are never told what is "wrong" with Carol; we are never informed what "happened" to Carol, if anything indeed "happened" to her at all to make her the way she is. We understand and make judgments without words, without labels as we connect her with similar strange souls we've all encountered in our lives. This is the wordless intuition of human existence, which needs no audio track, no title cards, no mickey-mousing score for emphasis. The mind sees, and it understands.

A light sketch in of plot: we open the film with Carol, a manicurist in London attending to a client in a beauty spa/clinique treatment room. Sketching his mise en scene through quiet portaiture and editing rhythms to establish an impressionist sensibility, allowing the aura of character to set the tempo, we are plunked down into the strange intimacy of aging wealthy biddies, chasing after the fleeing angel of youthful beauty. Carol's charge rustles ever so slightly on her padded spa table, the first sign of movement:

"Have you fallen asleep," she asks annoyed, as Carol has stopped servicing her client's fingernails for too long a stretch and gone into a haze.

Carol's interaction with her interlocutors in the film is basically a series of episodes wherein she gives off some specimen of oddball, quiet, "off" behavior wherein they inevitably have to ask--"Are you okay?" The only souls who don't seem to pay much attention to the introverted oddity of Carol is the happyhumping couple of Carol's sister Helen and her lover Michael--played by the super effective duo of Yvonne Furneaux and Ian Hendry.

Carol lives her life in paranoid pantomime, moving soundlessly like a skittish ghost through her workaday business until the departure of her sister and her married boyfriend go to Italy on holiday, leaving Carol alone in her shabby old mansion flat.

This is where the film begins in earnest and is without question where Polanski pulls of his miraculous tour de force of utterly bizarre filmmaking, an art of a stripe that is completely beyond classification: it is not arthouse, it is not horror, it is not suspense, it is not a silent film, but it is hardly a sound film.

It's rather simply Repulsion-- I can't think of anything else to say. With her sister gone--her one toehold, her tiny anchor into the world of responsibility, of paying attention to time and its passage, of routines fulfilled, laws respected, of the world of paranoid fantasy inadvertantly dissolved by the strong sisterly example and presence of Helen--Carole flumps sideways into the jaws of her own mind and the worst that it has to offer itself.

One of the main drivers of Carol's disintegration is her rampant alienation from/hatred of men. Carole is like a foot stamping pubescent girl who rejects out of hand anything that she doesn't understand and which disrupts her comfort zone: thus sexual arousal is a cause for extreme confusion and disturbance, and results in a rage that is focused with laser accuracy on the male that caused it. If a bug bites you, squash the bug. Kill it, stomp it, twist and grind your heel in it until it is neutralized, liquefied goo, never to threaten again.

There is a telling moment in the bathroom of her flat where Carol picks up Michael's dirty bathroom linen.  .  .  her hormonal curiosity overwhelms her and she smashes the sweaty, pheromone-drenched fabric to her face to breathe in the male essence completely, unable to help herself. The sexual self momentarily bursting up through the burbling cauldron of anxiety to have a briefest flash in the world.

As her skittish identity snaps back into the equation and the instinct that triggered the act withers away, Carol is all conscious mind again and erupts in nausea, flinging the offending article away and vomiting in a wastebasket.

This movie kept me unsure until the very end--as Carol endures a complete breakdown, losing her fragile grasp on sanity more and more with each moment that goes by, she begins to hallucinate: cracks erupt in the walls of her flat as her brain starts throwing sparks and sputtering in the direction of complete disintegration. The apartment walls, the rooms, these stretch and grow impossibly. Space and time stretch like silly putty. Rapists appear behind her in the mirror, snap on like flicked lamps behind her on the bed to hump her from behind; multiple pairs of hands reach impossibly out from within the hallway walls to grope and fondle Carol with unbridled masculine lust as she makes her way through the house. Men appear at the door for a visit--already driven to madness by the phantasms materializing in and out of her eyesight, Carol knows she must neutralize these new threats at the first opportunity or more rape, more abuse, more hideous unwelcome maleness shoved into her mind and her body will be the result.

*           *           *

The problem with all of this is that we have been so strictly been following Carol around like faithful dogs in the narrative, warming to nobody else but her, that we have essentially been seeing the world through her eyes. We know beyond doubt that many of the male phantoms that come to haunt her in her flat are not real. As the house is still standing at the close of the film, we're feeling pretty certain that the cracks and the collapses we've been seeing erupt through her warped eyeballs were not real: certainly the hands gumbubbling out through the walls to grope her were not real.  .  . without question the impossible stretching of her living room was not either.

So was the violence that took place within the apartment real too? Were these hallucinations as well?

The answer surprised me--this is a movie neither conventional or predictable.

An extremely unique specimen, Repulsion is a perfect example of the that kind of cinema produced by important filmmakers in all the fire and defiant creative energy of their youth. Anxious to express the newness of their vision and make it more interesting still, they take a large number of chances in an attempt to break through this or that barrier of audience, artistic recognition, or production/studio prestige. The result is pure originality with a pleasing hint of rough edges out on the circumference. I could fill pages with examples of this kind of film throughout history and across the globe--easily, because these are some of my favorites of all time. . . over the hump of learning the ropes, but not a wealthy man living the life of an icon yet. Ambitious, inventive, rare of talent.

Polanski was in a veritable fever of inspiration at this period of his career, a fever than would wane bit by bit, but slowly enough that he would remain a rather vital and inspiring filmmaker for a good number of years to come. He talks about wanting to break through, about wanting to make an impression, to make that break into the English speaking audience, and make it to the big time terrain of his aspirations and live out his destiny.

Via this extremely inspiring example, working with a low budget, seedy, soft core porn production company and distributor, he positively did just that. If you've not seen the film, run don't walk to grab the CC DVD or BD. Sublime stuff.

P. Clive/HSchreck

3/18/2015*** 

 

     

 


Preston Clive mar 18 15, 22:00
0 1

FW Murnau: Twice As Bright, Half As Long

A rare peek at the lighter side of the man. (IMG: Fox films)

Cinema to me will always be embodied by the DNA of the output of two men:

James Whale in the sound era, and F.W. Murnau in the silent era.

This isn't necessarily because I claim historical supremacy of these two particular men above all other directors (though for the latter I do). Rather, it's because--in my head--these were the two men who laid down the first cinematic images apprehended by my prepubescent mind: these were the first directors whose films set off a serious reaction, a chase, a pursuit, a longing, an obsession.

I can't emphasize how important library books were to a young child's mind back then in the mid-1970s when a was a kid forming an identity by responding to those things that he found he had a natural magnetic pull to. Back then there was no home theater: no VHS, no DVD, no BD .  .  .  no not even cable television. Youtube for silents and old horror itches needing a scratch? 

Forget about it.

If you wanted to see a movie, you had to wait half a year, a year. Sometimes more. I recall The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919, Weine) coming on a grand total of once, on PBS throughout the entirety of my boyhood.

And I was very thorough--my mother subscribed to the TV Guide throughout my entire youth, and as soon as it came in our mailbox, I would run immediately over to the living room couch and flip instantly to the movie section. Ordered by day of the week, it would instantly tell me what movies would be on television the upcoming week--what days and what times. I never missed a week because the subscription never was interrupted. Caligari came on once, and there probably wasn't a single time that I opened that TV guide from the age of roughly 9 or 10 forward, that I didn't hungrily peel page off of page through that section hoping to see the words Cabinet and Caligari in the same title.

I saw it once--and nearly blasted up through the ceiling up into the third floor of the house, through that ceiling and up through that roof to go sailing across the north Bronx, leaving behind me a rocket contrail of ecstasy.

While these movies actually came on, you pinched yourself. Heaven. Couldn't believe it. Major event. God forbid your brother or parents wanted to watch something else. We had a big black and white TV down in our first floor play room so if I got squeezed out, I had another TV to default to.

Which is why books at the public library were so important. They helped you--a kid in fourth grade without no job couldn't pick up Famous Monsters of Filmland--remember what these films looked like in the first place. There was a large coffee table sized book on the horror film that my local Bronx library had back in those days which outlined the history of the horror film from the beginning of the silent era up to that point in time, meaning it probably cut off in the late sixties. I remember gazing even at films from the fifties and early sixties that I never got to see until many years later: young Michael Landon in I Was A Teenaged Werewolf, plus Carnival of Souls, and many others.

But it was the films from the silent era and the initial run of Universal sound-era classics from the early to mid 1930's which exerted the biggest pull on me. Those faded images of Paul Wegener's Golem, the terrifyingly eerie persona of Max Schreck's Count Orlok standing in his "salt warehouse" doorway with his fingers extended into impossibly long claws in faded scratchy black and white; the impossibly warped phantasms of Caligari, rendered in strange Expressionist sets my young mind failed to completely comprehend but loved; the grim, solemn seriousness of Karloff's face in the first Frankenstein, the terrifyingly somber mountebanks played by Chaney--these all carried a stern, stoical, sinister quality that was somehow different from anything and everything else on the earth. These weren't just movies, to my young mind--they carried the aroma of something extra that wasn't injected in other movies. Something frightening, something unfriendly, something demonic. Something that was very very different from my family and I; that dark, forbidding atmosphere exerted a pull on me. I would take the book out from the library, then have to return it. Each week searching the new issue of the TV guide, mostly only getting lucky with Son of Frankenstein, King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, Son of Kong, and Japanese Monster Week on the 4:30 movie on ABC TV after school. Godzilla for days.

But as too much time would go by without ever getting to see any of the movies I just mentioned from the silent and early sound era with Chaney, Karloff, etc, the distance I felt from those images that haunted my mind would need to be closed again, and I would go and take the book out once again so I could stare at those loaded images all over again, and give the whole era of the 20's and 30's a refresh in my young brain. The difficulty of finally getting to see these films only added to their ominous quality in my impressionable head; the more time went on without finally getting to tick a title off the Sacred List, the more important the list became, and the greater the import of the titles. Somebody was trying to keep something from me about these films--maybe they were truly evil! Maybe they were Just That Scary!

*         *         *

As for James Whale, we can leave him for another column--but FW Murnau for me has personally been a cornerstone of what constitutes the cinema, for years. This quiet, reserved German from the earth of Westphalia, this solidly middle class Plumpe, this determined obsessive, this in a certain sense stereotypically Teutonic hard worker, seeker of impact, chaser of dreams, this private homosexual, this sailor and admirer of Crux the Southern Cross, this tragic loss at far too young an age, this epitome of all the cinema strived to be back during the age of his professional output and during the present age--this single man was this and so much more, all during the briefest of cinematic careers .  .  .  a career which, when measuring impact against number of years as craftsman, may be the most concentrated in the whole of the cinema.

As a youth, young Murnau (a name he took from a period spent with an artists colony around Murnau am Staffelsee in the southernmost region of Bavaria) gravitated instantly to the world of acting and the stage; during his schooling he attracted the attention--during an acting performance-- of the legendary Max Reinhardt of the critically acclaimed and aesthetically vital Deutsches Theater in Berlin, were he mixed with future collaborators like Alexander Granach (a close friend), Lothar Muthel (ditto) Conrad Veidt. For an insight into Murnau's character we listen to the memoirs of Granach--who played Knock for Murnau in the director's legendary Nosferatu--who remembers the tall, handsome Murnau defending the short, squat Granach from the antisemitic attacks of their cohorts and especially those of a (Jewish, no less) professor, called Held. He also recalls episodes of the two of them slithering into private theater boxes and laying on their bellies to peer down and watch and listen to the great Reinhardt give his private lessons in the theater, which he insisted remain private and unattended by general classes.

This phase of his life was, like many others, interrupted by the coming of WW1. During the Great War Murnau served as an officer on the Russian side of the war, maintaining a life of strict regimentation and order in the miserable surroundings of the trenches. He passed the time writing letters to his close friend and probably romantic companion, Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele, as well as the young man's family--particularly after suffering the loss of young Hans early on during the war.

During the latter phase of his war service he enrolled in the air corps, and served on the European/French front near Verdun, where his meticulously maintained (some say obsessively labored over) plane went down numerous times (between 7 and 9 crashes/unplanned landings by some counts), until he finally took his plane down in fog one fateful last unplanned time into neutral Swiss territory--this ended the war for him.

It was during his internship in Switzerland, riding out the rest of the war on the Swiss side of the border, Murnau re-involved himself with the world of the stage while interned at Andernatt. During this period a production of a renowned Swiss national drama was being put together, and solicitations for production were put out. As internees were allowed to submit, Murnau assembled his own version of the drama, and won first prize and even won himself a modicum of national acclaim in Switzerland when the play was mounted in Berne.

*         *         *

As the war ended and Murnau returned to Berlin, he set himself to the business of the burgeoning world of the cinema. From the war experience, the green eyed young suburbaner had become hardened, learning loss, witnessing endless death, facing his own mortality over and over again on a fantastically industrial scale. He had come home with a highly educated, deeply learned mind set free to a degree by the tutelage of Reinhardt, abstracted by the experience of flight, darkened by death and crashes .  .  .  and yet, rather than succumbing to indulgence or an overwrought disposition, these grimmer elements of humanity were absorbed by an already hyperactive mind obsessed with the world of dreams, flights of fantasy, aches and pains for a lost loved one. One can only wonder--reading the endless ciphers of personal heartbreak in Murnau's films, whether or not he knew real love beyond the loss of the ideal of Hans Degele.

For such an incredibly hyperactive and emotional--and yet severely reserved, occasionally icy but always decent--individual, his monstrous amount of devotion to the new world of the Berlin cinema seems as much a result of his severe work ethic as it does his probably requirement for an outlet for all of that churning, deeply responsive interior life. Without the outlet of the cinema, it's likely that Murnau would have had to do battle with temptation towards some form of indulgence.

*         *         *

Flights in physical space and flights of fancy; the lawless world of dreams, where the hard rules of reality are battered by the escaping mind; smooth movements in space and time; the expressive quality of nature, architecture, weather for narrative punctuation, speaking for character and speaking for a situational mood; clashes between the sensibilities between good and evil, between commerce and the dreamer, between the uncorrupted innocent and the functioning-in-the-world pragmatist, between the city and the country, between civilization and between the instinctual, between man and woman, natural and supernatural, truth and little white lies, between religious hypocrisy and human decency without a congregation, between great fun with the devil and deprivation with the angels, between parent and child: all these elements are very rich in the world of F. W. Murnau. All of these things can be picked speculatively out of his life like an apple picker sifting through a tree for ripened granny smiths. 

The war, his sexual proclivity versus his family's bourgeois inclinations, the tragedy of Degele's untimely death, the repression of an overly severe and perhaps personally unforgiving disposition--all of these things are there in Murnau's life to speculate about, to pick apart if one is so inclined.

But there is little profit there: the joy is in the beholding of the end product of this assembly line of elements that overtook Murnau's mind, and which Murnau's mind overtook when he was making a film--the expressive joy of the artist achieving, venting in code, pointing someone else's fictional finger at this or that personal torment .  .  .  director as worker of puppets, of grand theatrics, of playing god in a universe created all on his own.

The fascinating thing about Murnau, as much as we might be inclined to consider him (and rightly so) an auteur, is that he wrote very very little of his canon: this was left to men and women like Carl Mayer, Thea von Harbou, Galeen, Hauptmann, and others.

But what makes Murnau's film so essentially Murnau is the power of the images, as well as their assembly; and what makes their images and their assembly so powerful is exactly what makes the cinema as a medium so powerful when the cinema does what it does best: tell a story in pictures.

A script is a script indeed--but a silent film scenario generally does not exert quite the power of the proceedings of the final product as does a sound film script. Poorly spoken lines and bad acting can sink a sound film. Poorly spoken lines are not noticed in a silent film, which blimps towards the heavens when a man like Murnau is at the helm because of the power of its images to absorb the viewer, to trigger unspecific poetry quietly in the mind of the viewer--unspecific poetry that is different every time the same viewer beholds the same film. This unlike sound film, which can be-- subconsciously or on purpose--memorized by the viewer, and repeats precisely at each time.

Murnau took the silent film--with other directors, undoubtedly--away from the proscenium, away from the tens and teens concept of a filmed play where the blank camera lens was merely a General Eye of Generic Audience Member. Murnau turned the cinema into a world that viewers simply couldn't believe then, and still marvel incredulously at today: the world of legitimate dreams .  .   . good dreams, bad dreams, phantasms of the everyday, iconic dream images of country, of urban jungle, of supernatural castle. Murnau was the first to consistently bring into the image that thing that the human mind adds to its surroundings-- the glistening sheen of our desires, our love for a mate, our dark and damp and chilly terrors, the dark shadows of our sins, the idealized longings for fame, for home.

Why does the town we live in or were raised in as a child hold such a special quality? Why do we relive in our minds the place and time of good memories? Because what our mind has done to those affairs: Murnau was the first man to consistently take this mysterious human freight of the mind, of life, and put it up onscreen consistently, film after film after film.

Murnau could find the humanity in a script handed to him, find the netherworld side of the mind in a certain tension or conflict, and stamp it with his visual vocabulary--a foundational point in the development of film grammar.

How extraordinary that a man could walk out of WW1 and walk right into Berlin and start making films and in two years, by 1921, start rattling off masterpiece after masterpiece, soaring cinematic towers, one after the other. Walk out of Berlin by 1925 and enter the alien world of Hollywood and make masterwork after masterwork, and leave your stamp on the greatest filmmakers that country would ever produce. Exit that country at the end of the decade and pick up the tatters of a disbanded collboration with Robert Flaherty, and make one of the most unusual, most original, and most heartbreaking (and also, for Murnau, atypical) films ever made.

And exit the making of that final film and enter at last into the netherworld, the ethereal world that haunted all of his films... the intangible and the eternal, where his name and his films will forever reside. He's been my favorite director since I--at last, long after my childhood spent laboring over library books and TV Guides, looking for his most famous film Nosferatu, which I craved manically--had the chance to explore the rest of his canon, little by little during the VHS age, during the 1980's.

They say that the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long--that's surely FW Murnau.

Here's to you, sir.

Preston Clive/HSchreck

3/11/2015***


Preston Clive mar 11 15, 23:34
+1 2

DON'T LOOK NOW (Roeg, 1973), Criterion DVD/Blu Ray

Don't look at your own peril. (Cover c Criterion/Janus)

I have to admit that I have always been a sucker for films that do something very specific: the conceit of placing into the image a passing element that is premonitory of something to come, yet is neither underlined visually, nor called attention to by the characters on the audio plane, thus allowing it to pass completely by the viewer's senses if they're not looking. It's only through repeated viewings of the film that these images are firmly apprehended, and values potentially assigned to them in terms of narrative and/or symbolism.

I love the idea of slipping something in that doesn't necessarily even portend something in the future of the plot--the use of something that borders on the subliminal is extremely exciting to me. It's for this reason that I positively adore a film that was made right around the era of Don't Look Now .  .  .  William Friedkin's The Excorcist, which itself is rich with quick flashes of imagery that can pass quickly by you if you are not looking. A perfect example of this is the face of the demon revealed in a moment of darkness within the flashing of the room lights while Damien and Father Merrin are attempting to exorcise Reagan of that which seems to have taken her over completely. At the moment of this flash, there is no element of portent in the brief reveal; it is simply there as an eerie flicker of identity, reaffirming the process of exorcism.

Here is the moment that I mean:

This face reveals itself in other flashes--one is an extremely powerful moment of Damien dreaming about his dead mother, and the face is spliced in quite quickly-- and in one flickering moment of grinning superimposition later on where Reagan is sitting up and grimacing into the camera in closeup.

Another film which played with the concept of seemingly unrelated images walking by and flickering unannounced through the frame, off to the side, barely in focus, there for you to miss if you are not paying attention, is The Eye by the Pang Brothers. The very nature of the plot of this film made it rich for the planting of such obscure visual material:

At first, the once-blind, new recipient of a pair of eyes doesn't understand the strange phenomena passing through her field of vision; it is only later that we come to understand that she has received the eyes of a dead donor who was capable of seeing the dead.

Don't look now--but if you don't, you might miss something! Nothing is what it seems!

*       *       *

This essay is not going to dwell on the larger enigma of Nicholas Roeg; it will not speculate on the trajectory of his career. It won't assign a value to his films after Eureka and Insignificance or wonder "what happened" to his filmmaking chops as many are wont to do. This is a critical-personal essay on Don't Look Now exclusively, and I will make no effort to tie (nor do I have an interest in tying) the themes in the film into the larger "auterist" framework of Roeg's trajectory of canon. 

*       *       *

Don't Look Now is based on a short story written by Daphne DuMaurier; both concern the subjects of loss, doubt, grief, love, the monotony of life, as well as life's exhilarating and anguishing peaks and valleys. They also dwell and flirt in different ways with the subject of Second Sight (or ESP, or premonition, or whatever you would call it). In the book and in the film however, our male protagonist--in the film played by the massively excellent Donald Sutherland here at his dry laconic best--does not realize that he possesses this gift. A pragmatic man, he is just as much in danger of missing or dismissing these flickering images of portent as they pass through the screen/his field of vision as we, the viewers, are.

The film opens as John and Laura Baxter, a married couple, are sitting in their idyllic country cottage on the suburban green hills of the UK. Immediately we experience the subjective visual life of John, examining as he is a series of slides--one of which in particular is of a church, likely in Venice, though it is not confirmed. The interior world of unconfirmed premonition overlays Johns exterior life like a colored lens laid over another; the end result is that both are rendered somewhat less distinct, so that the man is neither certain that what he is experiencing is premonition--and yet the act of what may be premonition clouds his exterior world. 

The collision between the demands of the physical world and the ethereal flashes of insight requiring an attention to decoding the vague and the symbolic intrusions onto his concrete life--the incompatibility between these two diametrically opposed worlds renders him less than optimally effective in both. No benefit in either direction.

His hard pragmatism keeps him from paying enough attention to these flashes of insight to decode them, thus he is unable to render any profit from them until it is too late. His slowness to pick up on the hints he's receiving in the opening scene, because of his refusal to accept "messages from beyond the fucking grave," (as he cruelly says later in the film) may lead to his arriving too late to save his daughter, and certainly too late to tune in to the meaning and the message imparted by the sisters in Venice--and to his vision of his wife on a vaporatti with the two sisters-- who are trying to save him from his own impulses.

But I'm getting ahead of myself--the film opens with John and Laura reclining, passing time together, living, breathing, existing, doing the things that they do as they make their passage together through life. As John is examining a series of slides, and converses with Laura who is researching the answer to a question posed to her by their younger daughter (at play outside) about "if the world is round, why is the surface of a frozen pond flat in the winter," he picks up on a series of soundless impulses that pass through his substance, invisibly wake him out of his passivity in the moment--like a dog lifting his head to a distant, soundless dog whistle, John senses something is up.

His beautiful little daughter, noodling about in the backyard--it is later pointed out in Venice, by Laura in a supreme moment of "guilting" her husband, that he was the one who allowed the kids to play out there by the water by themselves--has lost her ball in the center of the surface of the watery pond (which is not frozen, incidentally, despite the daughters offscreen question) and is making her way out into the deep water.

The girl is dressed in the brightest, bloodiest red slash of a crimson raincoat--otherwise drained of red, the visual surface of the film brandishes red in precisely the subliminal fashion mentioned above: as a portent, as a hint, an obscure indication of something vaguely worthy of notice: notice me now, for later on you will remember .  .  .  and if smart, will understand.

As John returns to his slide, he observes under a glass the figure of what appears to be a small girl in the church image, wearing a hooded red raincoat. His daughter? Another signal throbs through him--a distortion in the photo? A spill? A crimson streak, flowing directly from the red figure in the image, as though the image bleeds .  .  .  .

Overwhelmed by the nape hairs on his neck standing on end, John rockets up and out into the backyard, not clearly knowing why. As he runs through the little meadow and staggers into the pool to fish his drowned daughter out from beneath the surface, we are enveloped by a cinematic moment of what could be conceivably be the first among very few moments where the film indulges in conceits that do not neccessarily stand the test of time. John's slow mo scream, slowed down on the soundtrack, with bitterly melodramatic strings raking bowed cellos, is a stretch of stereotypical melodrama (cue Phil Hartman's Chuck Heston Solylet Green "It's made outa people!" parody) that has been mimicked and stretched out and milked for laughs.

 

There really is no way to render in words what it is that Roeg is doing here cinematically, via his disordered, fractured narrative. As portents and visual cryptograms come and go, for our and sometimes John's benefit, events and symbol orders are presented out of order. This is a narrative conceit that, along with the subliminal use of imagery I opened this piece describing, I have a great passion for: cinema as a puzzle. 

This is a conceit that stretches back at least to Jean Epstein, and titles like La Glace a trois Faces from 1927. The simple tale of a man considering and then breaking off the idea of engagements with three different women--one a trophy gold-digger, one a mistress of high art, the other a common working girl--the relatively short feature is rendered into one of the most complex film ever made .  .  .  at least as far as the narrative order of its surface is concerned. Hyper complex to the point of being confusing upon first viewing, La Glace has been called a "chinese box" of treasures, compartments open up and give up their secrets, reveal themselves all out of order, etc.

Like all of the titles mentioned above which present key narrative symbols and elements out of order, Don't Look Now is a haunting film that must be seen multiple times to be fully appreciated. It is impossible to apprehend the thick, multileveled web that Roeg and cinematographer Anthony Richmond serve up to the viewer in one viewing and grasp not only the narrative significance but poetic richness of all that is on offer to you.

It's for this reason that the film stands very high on the list of recent cinematic discoveries in my life. I was turned on to this film about eight years ago by a friend of mine who works in the publishing field. We were engaged in a tremendous exchange of collections of DVD's, and he turned me on to this film without a word by just slipping it into the mix of a particular exchange. I watched the film, was completely floored, and thanked him profusely. I still thank him.

I'll refrain from giving any further spoilers away (I have withheld the jolting surprise ending, although I have indeed given some pot points away here), but suffice to say this isn't a film entirely about what is shown. It is equally about how it goes about showing itself.

The Criterion DVD and Blu Ray releases are absolutely beautiful and do a very good job of maintaining the film's color palette, although I did notice a little bit of a cooling towards a bluish white versus the warmer, more aquamarine palette of what we are used to seeing. The extras are sufficiently indulgent to please the newcomer as well as the well-versed veteran--but as I've already yammered on quite a bit, I'll leave the extras to those who are strict disc package reviewers.

All in all, my mission here was to bring out what it is about this film that I love so much, and this lies with the ways and means, the puzzle-like distribution of portents, hints, flashes of the obscure which may or may not be deliberate .  .  . and this I have done.

So----> Bye for now.

Preston C/Herr Schreck

3/9/2015***

 


Preston Clive mar 9 15, 23:23
0 1

Critical Restoration Releases: The Slow Drip . . .

Versus the manic pace that the world of silent cinema once presented to the collector via the endless number of releases in the period running roughly 2000-2009--I want to point out that I am specifically talking about the realm of home video on digital disc--the present market is very slender indeed.

For example, back in these years, we had a large number of companies releasing silent films on DVD at a relatively regular clip: Kino International (pre Lorber days) and Image Entertainment were without question the market leaders. Adventurous titles like Warning Shadows (Robeson 1925), Waxworks (Leni 1924) The Love of Jeanne Ney (Pabst 1927, and one of his best films and my personal favorite by him, even beyond the Brooks films), The Golem (Wegener, 1920), Caligari and Orlac (Weine), A Fool There Was (Powell, 1915, and one very grim picture), Cabiria (Pastrone 1914), Asphalt (May, 1928), A Cottage On Dartmoor (Asquith 1928),  the Stillers, the Sjostroms, the Fairbanks titles, the Griffith titles, the Stroheims, Eisensteins, Valentinos, Langs, Murnaus, and many other one-offs (Gay themed films, odd one-off's like ALIBI, the Jacques Tourneurs) constitute titles that Kino released during the heyday of the DVD age.

Image Entertainment which also included Milestone Films back in those days released their own fabulous litany of titles: the Joe May Indian Tomb two parter, the first DVD of Dr Mabuse der Spieler, the three Eisenstein silents, plus their own releases of some of the Fairbanks classics as well as classic German titles like Nosferatu, Caligari--many of which Kino had released but Image released with David Shepard's Film Preservation Associates, their own one-off's like Lang's Destiny, Chaney's Universal classic Hunchback and Phantom, plus double packages like Shadows/Outside the Law, Nomads of the North/The Shock, along with the DeMille silents, a couple of key Carl Dreyer silents such as The Parson's Widow and Leaves From Satan's Book (both roughly 1920), Louise Brooks double The Show Off/The Plastic Age, The Lost World, the Dziga Vertovs, the Pudovkins (The End of St Petersberg being one of my favorite silents ever), the Dovzhenkos (Earth, Arsenal ditto) .  .  .  and I haven't even moved over to Milestone or Flicker Alley yet.

What has happened?

Well, for one thing, the Eclectic Video Store has perished as a retail species in the life of our big cities. I can't speak to small cities because I don't live in one. But I can only assume that the situation is the same elsewhere as it is here: the street level physical video store is virtually nonexistent.

For one reason or another, the world has changed: art product is rarely if ever purchased from stores any longer. Whether this is because the present generation doesn't perceive artworks or pieces of entertainment to be viable products to be paid for any longer, or they simply have no interest in visiting physical stores for the instant gratification of grabbing a product and taking it immediately home to watch it--or perhaps the online retailer can always beat the price of the brick and mortar retailer .  .  .  or perhaps lastly, the world of online file sharing/torrenting/p2p/general piracy has sucked the viability right out of the concept of storefront retailing of video and audio entertainment. People do not merely wish to pay less--they don't wish to pay at all.

Book stores will be kept for a separate conversation.

An example of the rare and the sublime. (Image courtesy Potemkine)

The tempo mentioned above was a positively manic one. For every title mentioned above, there are probably five to ten not mentioned. I haven't mentioned any Masters of Cinema, any Danish Film Institute, British Film Institute, Transit Films, Divisa Red, or any of the often rather interesting albeit poorly transferred/awful source element products put out by bottom of the barrel distributor Alpha .  .  .  who nonetheless put out some interesting titles--without which we would have no idea what (for example) Roland West's The Bat (1925) would look like. 

Don't get me wrong--titles do come out. As evinced by yesterday's article focusing on E.A. DuPont's Variete (1925), in all of it's bad-score glory. Not long before this we had a revisiting of classic titles from Lang and Murnau from Masters of Cinema and Kino/FWMS, plus the fabulous restoration of Caligari which made it to Blu Ray recently.

But more critically--and more relevant to this article-- is the set put together by French label Potemkine which gathers up the titles of now only-somewhat-obscure French Impressionist master Jean Epstein into a full Coffret Set. Epstein is a man I've been championing relentlessly for almost a decade now. Occasionally by Criterion's Eclipse label we will get some silent Japanese titles by Naruse or Ozu. Or even Carl Dreyer's Master of the House on the main CC label.

And of course, we have Masters of Cinema seeing to it that the classics, when scanned in hi-def by the primary rights holders, will be put out for distribution in their region with wonderful presentations and extras. 

But in the overall, we must admit, the world has changed in a way that makes the tempo of restorations-to-HD scan-to-disc (dvd or BD) extremely slow versus what it once was. The industry has ratcheted back to a virtual creaking crawl. The days of Rupert Murdoch's Fox releasing gigantic boxes appreciating John Ford from the silent era and forward, or Frank Borzage and FW Murnau at Fox, are long gone and likely to not be seen again. Sad for us.

Things often do go in waves, but it is rare to see an industry--once dead-- resurrect itself. The changes that take root in the psyche of a generation often get nailed down for long term posterity.

Will we see video stores start opening up again with tons of DVD's and Blu Ray's up for retail on shelves again? Will all the fabulous titles waiting to be put out on home video after well known restorations--or simple screenings of very good prints--are confirmed as being in existence, will these start suddenly coming out again in a second golden age? Will the Lupu Picks, the Arthur von Gerlach's, the Wegeners, the Karl Grunes, the Lamprechts, the Jutzis, and so many more .  .  .  will these find their way out to the light of day in digital format?

We may as well ask--will we see a day when popular music returns to the qualitative levels of the immortals of yore, ie acts on the level of the Beatles, the Stones, Hendrix, Cream, The Temptations, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, David Bowie, Velvet Underground, Dylan, Aretha, the Doors, King Crimson, the Fifth Dimension, Johnny Cash, Zeppelin, all the jazz greats of yore like Miles Davis, Mingus, Archie Shepp, Coltrane, Dolphy, Sinatra, etc.

Just think that there was a period where all of these acts were out and about and performing all at the same time. And tickets were five to ten bucks, if even that.

It's a rapidly morphing world, my friends. 

Ciao until next time.


Preston Clive mar 6 15, 23:08
+1 5

"Variete", E.A. DuPont, 1925: FW Murnau Foundation Blu Ray 2015

The first of the year's truly critical home video releases has arrived, and it is one incredibly mixed bag of emotions. 

On one hand we have the superatomic orgasm that constitutes the result of digesting the news that Variete itself has been restored on 35mm fine grain and scanned at HD and coded onto Blu Ray.

In these simple terms alone, the news blew me sideways and sent me stumbling like a drunken sod. I couldn't believe it--I had no news of such a thing even being in the works (partially owing to my out of the loop ness resulting from such a slow pace of key restorations of really obscure titles making it to home vid; eventually your mind just drifts elsewhere). Even if I had been paying attention and somehow missed it, I certainly wouldn't have expected Variete to make it out there in the land of home video, especially not on Bluy Ray, as the title has virtually no brand recognition out there on the street with casual cinephiles.

Very very few individuals know who the hell Ewald Andre DuPont was in the first place, and likely just as few have ever heard of the title itself. Variete is the intellectual territory of dudes like me and many of the folks I correspond with on web forums and via email: guys like Flixy, serdar, Tomasso, Lubitsch (I use their screen names here to protect their identities) .  .  .  professionals like Janet Bergstrom, Tag Gallagher, David Kalat and the like.

So my surprise roughly four weeks ago was complete when I heard that the restoration-to-disc was even underway. I pretty much creamed in my dry goods. For all intents and purposes, when I received the email that mentioned the forthcoming release, I giggled and squirmed and lubricated and flew across the skies powered by a Tinkerbell-like purity of joy and ecstasy.

Now the restoration has landed in my greasy mitts, and I repeat once again: what a god damned pile of mixed emotions is this thing. Happy-sad, joyful-pissed, content and ready to throw down with the disc's producer.

First the good: the image has been restored to a level of purity and cleanliness that I would have hitherto thought impossible on this particular title. I am a maniacal persuser of the upper and under-grounds when it comes to obscure corners of silent film land and the titles that might be tweezed out therein to have the dust blown off of them. I have seen Variete via Grapevine VHS (with the same transfer put to DVDR), television rips, and all manner of in-between... and everything that I'd seen had always indicated to me that (and this is based on television broadcasts from Europe, which can be a good indicator of things to come) the film didn't survive in very good shape.

Imagine my cooing and squiggling and giggling when I popped in this sucker and saw how gorgeous everything looks. The film recaptures its sense of the Berlin nitty grittty, of the sideline netherworld of carny hype and riff raff and ripoffs, with performers living on the outer fringes of the world and on campgrounds in wagons. Some of the subconscious seeds forTod Browning's Freaks, especially concerning the way that Huller and his wife live early on in the film, are visible in the environment that the characters move through in Hamburg. Karl Freund, the cameraman for Variete, clearly had a love for the substance of German life, and this love penetrated right down into the very ground that he walked upon. His love affair with the city of Berlin is keenly on display here in this film--and this regardless whether exteriors are real exteriors shot on location or assembled on sets within the plastic world of UFA; his masterful ability to conjure up within the viewer all of those same interior responses to the dizzy panoply of real life when watching his films--this is in abundance here. Freund would explore this conceit to much greater dept in Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) with Carl Mayer and Walter Ruttman for Fox Europa.

Freund here takes the inventive spirit which he brought to his immediately preceding work with FW Murnau, and goes full on nuclear. Despite claims to the contrary by those with nary a clue what Expressionism truly constitutes, this film is nowhere near utilizing ways and means of German Expressionism.

However, the film is rich with stimmung--rich deep expressive atmosphere that beautifully punctuates the story. The film is tinted very much along the lines of Murnau's Tartuffe--a simple ongoing brown sepia tone throughout. This tone lends a sense of shabbiness and age to the proceedings... the grim environment of the prison where the film opens; the sleazy carny hype of Boss Huller living his hustling midway life up in Hamburg with his scantily clad charges on display; in the backstreets of Berlin and the Wintergarten, the smoky pubs, the late night parties with circus freaks and vaudeville acts getting drunk; the dark world up near the ceiling of the Wintergarten inhabited only by the trapezists.

And then there are the camera movements--swinging, diving, sliding, crawling .  .  .  this film signaled the start of what Karl Freund called the beginning of the Era of Cameramen Crawling Around On Their Bellies, as other cameramen jumped on the bandwagon to set their cameras off like rockets high into the skies.

Telling the story of a love triangle set off by the arrival of a "motherless" Berta Marie (a gypsy brought in off of a ship, from which she inherits her name, by a sleazoid sailor played by the omnipresent Georg John) played by a sultry Lya DiPutti whose sexuality draws Emil Janning's Boss Huller away from his brokenhearted wife and their newborn babe.

Running away to Berlin with his new squeeze, Jannings (all told in flashback to a prison warded who elicits a confession from his longtime charge) eventually sets himself up with a trapeze act in a carny in the capital. A famous acrobat named Artinelli (of the fictionally-famed Artinelli Brothers), scheduled to perform a high ticket trapeze act in the top of the line Berlin Wintergarten, has just arrived in town to tell the hall's promoters that he has lost his brother from his act owing to a fall.

Known for his triple sommersault, Artinelli is about as high class as trapeze acrobats can come; a promoter of the Wintergarten who is aware of Boss Huller and Berta's act out in the sticks of Berlin suggests Huller as a new catcher for his sommersault act. "He is the best catcher in the business," he assures Artinelli.

Artinelli at first snickers doubtfully at the idea of a mere common carnival acrobat working with him, but ultimately winds up convinced after going out to the carny grounds where Jannings and Lya's characters are performing their routine.

I'll stop short here to avoid specific spoilers, but it is enough to say that immediate sexual sparks erupt between the wealthy acrobat and Berta Marie. The man who walked away from his wife and child up in Hamburg now has done to him what he did to his loved ones. It is a tale of depravity, redemption, of lust, of vice, of life on the fringes, of the obscure corners of the world that few people consider (and is also vanishing before our very eyes here in the 21st Century) .  .  .  and it is a sublime exercise in cinema.

An example of what we're used to seeing in the past.

E. A. Dupont clearly had an interest in the world of shabby entertainments, of the workaday grind of those folks who transit the shadowy world of vaudeville for their daily bread; the back rooms, the backstage world, the meager pay, the misshapen souls, the grotesquerie, rooming houses, bars, moments of the sublime colliding with the gross and the absurd. He would go on to explore these themes again in the sublime Piccadilly with Anna May Wong, and again with Moulon Rouge.

The less we talk about Neanderthal Man (1953), the happier we will all be in the end. We all need to eat, speaking of shabby .  .  .   . 

*   *   *   *   

This gorgeous potpourri of humanity and colliding plastic elements in Variete is all well and good on the visual plane; however, on the audio plane for the primary product there on the disc--the restoration of the primary German version--the producers have seen fit to commission what might perhaps constitute the most inappropriate score ever married to a silent film in the history of home video. 

To start we should say the obvious: all but the most ill-informed neophyte knows-- any time the human voice finds its way onto a silent film score, it's a problem. There have been examples of this before, and both involve the person of Donald Sosis and his Farmhouse Window Productions: first I think of a presentation of Nosferatu for home video release--Sosin's wife exlaimed "HUTTER!!" on the soundtrack when Greta Schroeder's character woke up in the middle of the night while her husband was under attack by Orlok in his castle. The other is for the Criterion King of Kings, where Ms. Sosin elucidates words like "Amen" and other prayers on the soundtrack, moving the film from cinematic experience to Christian Forced Church Interlude.

In all cases this requires the viewer to turn down the volume so that he or she does not become distracted from the going's on in the film. It always constitutes a pulling away, a bit of unwanted noise; it's almost like somebody talking to you while you are reading a book. It breaks the engagement of the subconcious mind--itself busy responding to the subsurface implications of the goings-on, and maintaining its immersion in the soupy sea of silent film atmosphere.

It is for this reason that the soundtrack commissioned for this disc by the F. W. Murnau Stiftung (Foundation) is Public Offender #1 in the whole pantheon of Bad Silent Film Soundtracks. Commissioned to the Tiger Lilies, a band that very well may be out in the regular world a perfectly enjoyable and functional band, this is a Bad Score For The Ages, an Abomination of Abominations, an example for all to observe, illustrating All That A Silent Film Score Should Never, Ever, EVER Be.

The score begins by offing itself right away: the famous scene, so wonderfully gloomy and shabby, shot in the dark halls and corridors of the prison when the warden summons Boss Huller to his office, to try and compel him to confess and unburden himself of his sins and perhaps earn an understanding that might lead to some form of profit .  .  . this scene is sung over with an utterly bizarre recitation, some bad poetry running along the lines of (I only listened once for a few moments and slammed the sound right off, this will be a parody to capture the spirit)

"They go down and Huller's brought-in

To the office of the ward-en

And so our tale begins

As Huller recites his sins .  .  ."

It's genuinely about as bad as bad can get. I understand that this underlining of the action with a recitation in words of what is clearly obvious onscreen via the action, this continues unabated.

I've done a decent share of audio commetaries in my time on my schreckbabble audio blog; us commentators have a self-editing function which causes us to internally cringe and make a right hand turn when we hear ourselves committing the cardinal sin of reiterating/narrating the surface action onscreen. I call this William Friedkin Syndrome--the man gives the most godawful frigging audio commentaries. "And this is where Charnier let's Popeye know that--"

Nothing is a bigger waste of the viewer's time than duplicating the onscreen action with words. You don't waste people's time telling them something they already know. You give them somthing new, even if it's just a theory or heartfelt appreciation. People love fanaticism--it's infectuous.

Thus this soundtrack commits two cardinal sins and kills itself completely dead: it speaks words over the silent film where a purely musical score is expected; and the words it speaks are patently obvious.

A friend of mine who has recorded audio commentary for my audio blog has identified a desparate attempt to gloss over the affair on behalf of the Murnau foundation here: apparently spotted by a wary observer who caught and recognized the last name of the poster as an employee of the Murnau Foundation.

I can't verify either way--but it is a truly sad situation indeed. The good news is that included on the disc is a cleaned up rendering of the Lasky Players / Paramount cut of the film taken from the US Library of Congress, and this has a more expected score: a stereotypical but welcome pipe organ style score in the spirit of the silent era.

Preston Clive/HerrSchreck

3/5/2015**


Preston Clive mar 6 15, 00:07
0 2
All topics: 6

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Owen Stone
The artwork in these pieces are really amazing. The cover photo just reeks of communism tension, it…
Owen Stone Nosferatu &. Destiny/Der Mude Tod (Murnau/Lang, 1921): Lest We Forget . . . .
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