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The Conversation (Coppola, 1974); A Nasty One From the Heart

When considering the astonishing run of acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola's work in the 1970's, most minds tune in to those films that have become touchstones of popular culture: The Godfather Parts I & II, and Apocalypse Now. Neither film requires much introduction here.

Some, but not all fans of these three legendary films and this director are aware of a quietly strange little film that Coppola made, squeezed between the first two Godfathers, made on a relative shoestring budget and presented with very little glitz or arty fanfare. Nonetheless, the film is an atomic sock in the gut for filmgoers, and this quiet little film did indeed win Coppola the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and it is not only Coppola's personal favorite in his canon but is Gene Hackman's favorite role.  .  .  beloved even over his blistering turn as Popeye Doyle in William Friedkin's preceding The French Connection.

This film had a great little ball of synchronicity and providence surrounding it, helping it along. The tale of a surveillance expert/professional wiretapper named Harry Caul, the film is based on a scenario written by Coppola in the late 1960's .  .  .   but he never had the bread to make the film until the smash hit of The Godfather made him a bankable man whose work was suddenly seen in a new light by studio heads. The film came out for general release in April of 1974 .  .  .  just a month after the Watergate Seven were formally charged in court for the break in and wiretapping of Democratic National Headquarters--coincidentally using the precise same methods of technology for the bugging / surveillance that is illustrated in Coppola's film.

The film then profited hugely at the time, then, from its lucky confluence with the entire length and breadth of the Watergate scandal and final resignation of President Richard Nixon afterwards. The myth persists in the minds of the general public to this day that the film was designed to capitalize specifically on the scandal and spin off a film from simple current events.

The Conversation is nothing of the sort; written years before, it is a stinging, quiet film about the disease of work infecting the guts of a repressed man, a man with little to no outlet to valve out the stresses of the day, the months, the years. In particular it's a story about how much louder silence can scream versus a cacophony of noise, how life often becomes more complex as you peel back its layers, rather than simpler. The quieter grows the world, the louder grows the mind. Self examination and an attempt to purge one's demons can lead only to madness, for certain doomed souls .  .  .  certain cyclic, head-trapped, over-restrained souls that are tormented.

A brief encapsulation: Gene Hackman's Harry Caul (likely his most atypical role) is assigned a task of surveilling a young couple; we begin in media res amidst the surveillance operation in San Francisco's Union Square where we slowly, bit by bit, see how Harry has effectively boxed in the couple in (unbeknownst to them) from all four sides fore and aft, left and right, and even from above via a high power unidirectional mic on a sniper's mount.

With this scene we begin hearing snippets of conversation that repeat themselves henceforth through out the film (as Harry reviews them over and over again in his lab and in his head), slowly gaining clarity as the film unfolds in the same way that we catch snippets of visuals in Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now: we, through the eyes of a protagonist, are presented with an almost impenetrable data string which repeats and repeats and repeats until at last the mystery of the senses is unraveled at the conclusion. 

Clearly the couple have traveled here to avoid detection; we hear, through the little snippets of conversation (which are rendered on the audio track with bits of noise and analog interference as though we are listening in with the surveillance agents on their highly sensitive equipment) the clear fact that the two are afraid. Afraid of someone. We sense danger, we sense paranoia, we see that the couple are constantly observing those pedestrians and park-goers that are around them, suspicious of being followed. 

Part of the film runs on the thrill of peeking into the (especially back when it was made) genuinely rarefied world of high tech wiretappers and agents. The gadgets, the operations, the techniques--most people love the romance of spying and are fascinated with authentic looks at the highly protected and carefully hidden world in which they orbit. This is a cinematic obsession with espionage which runs riot across the screens yet today--it was extremely rare to see such an authentic portrayal of this professional strata rendered on the public movie screens for all to see. It was so unique back then it felt like a true, privileged peek into that world.

Harry Caul is a guy who never gets involved with his work--he reads as a highly repressed, blankly overloaded slate, carefully watching every word, catching every revealing syllable before one accidentally stumbles irrevocably from his lips towards an errant reveal.  .  . he is a man who knows how easy it is to listen in to somebody else if you would really like to. Aware what he could be subject to at any moment from a bout of counter-surveillance, he never reveals a thing about himself to anybody at any time .  .  . and this includes his innocent would-be girlfriend (played by an incredibly young Teri Garr).

This is a stinging film that burns the eyes like noxious aerosol accidentally thrown over by an errant wind. Studded with an incredible cast--some of whom, like Robert Duvall, and the astonishing John Cazale had already appeared in the first Godfather (not to mention an almost teenaged looking but still somehow menacing Harrison Ford, pre-Apocalypse)--the film is nonetheless not as much about blazing performances as it is a well constructed, poisonous whole universe of of self-imposed, but somehow unavoidable isolation.

Unavoidable because the habits and the job are too deeply ingrained for Caul for the tendency to be reversed--especially in a world filled with cohorts who are likewise infected with constant deception. Everyone is deceiving someone else in this film: Ford's Stett is deceiving Caul, Cazale's Stanley is deceiving his boss Harry; the young couple is deceiving the Director; Caul is deceiving his young girlfriend; Elizabeth Macrae's blond fling Meredith is deceiving Caul; Stett wound up deceiving the director; Alan Garfield's Bernie Moran is deceiving Caul with his little pen gadget--everybody is filled with lies, and the truth, often times the most obvious thing in the world, is missed because warped minds are expecting to be thrown out into the distant weeds by professional liars and clever agents.

When the simple truth sits unnoticed for so long, owing to the mind having to outfox layer after layer of false realities deliberately piled one on top of the other, over and over again by opponents and by routine, the human loss becomes irrevocable in certain cases of great skill blended with stunted emotional development. This film tells that quietly blistering story in razor-sharp spades.  

Schreck/Clive

3/31/2015**


Preston Clive mar 31 15, 22:15
+1 2

Coming Soon (FOR REAL): Nosferatu, (Murnau, 1921)

When approaching any project, this whether medium you are working in is film, music, writing, painting, whatever, there is one basic thing that you begin with, and there is one essential thing that you end with.

You begin with your vision for the project--that is, what you would like the end product to look like. This is motored by the energy of inspiration, ratcheted up or down via the level of motivation the material actually injects into your artistic heart and soul.

And you end with the output product itself, what the energies and labor on yours and-- in the case of the cooperative arts-- your collaborators' parts ultimately and finally produced.

An extremely inspired artist often begins with an interior sensation, an inner disposition of emotion, of atmosphere, of statement, of excitement, something sublime .  .  .  that he dreams of getting across to his audience. A feeling that the material stimulates in his inner life, which is rarefied in the world, that he wishes to inject direct into the hearts of his audience. Depending on his sensibility, certain situations or juxtapositions excite him because of the way they make him feel. Certain combinations set off interior responses that are very precious .  .  .  the reasons that these sensations are set off, and why they are very precious are part of the essential mystery of life. Who knows why bare twisted branches against a grey sky and falling leaves on a damp foggy day in November were very precious and pleasurable to the French and Russian Impressionists of the Twenties and Thirties. 

Who knows why some people endlessly gravitate towards trouble in their lives and grow very uncomfortable when life is on a regular, positive keel? Who knows why certain depressive people gravitate to a certain type of sadness, and crash and burn and drink and grow erratically aggrieved during moments that typically trigger supreme happiness in most others? Who knows what emotions are in the first place, the function that they serve, and why they modulate so profoundly from person to person? All in the end are chemical reactions in the brain, set off to certain combinations of stimuli; why one person should experience one chemical reaction to a certain stimuli while another experiences secretions of an entirely opposite nature--this is the essential mystery of life. It's the kind of thing that challenges the marketing departments of large corporations around the world, and will continue to do so for time immemorial .  .  .  and large scale purveyors of product for sale would like the responses to stimuli and thus the buying habits of the general public to be simple, neat and predictable. Politicians wouldn't mind that sort of streamlining either. . it would make elections a hell of a lot more simple.

I single out the depth and the strength of the impressions of a person's inner life because the difference between the intentions for the inner life of an artwork, versus the end result, can be extraordinary. One can enter into a project with great excitement for the idea of injecting this or that Stuff of Life into the minds of the viewer, and complete the project completely crushed for the difficulty of transmitting this essential substance of the life process. Some things get across easier than others--often times a narrative element that once was easy here, is almost impossible there.

*           *           *

One of the most difficult things to transmit from the inner gates of the human soul over the life of a complete artwork are those things we find "chilling." Not "BOO!" scary, not gory, not shocking .  .  . but eerie .  .  .  creepy .  .  .  frightening down at the true level of the ancient and the human and the supernatural as pertains to the mass of human substance throughout time. One might set down into a work of art, souped up with ambition and energy, feeling--because the creative individual is so familiar with those flashes of ancient shadows that flicker in and out of the soul down through the ages, has sifted between his mental fingers that decayed remnant of human civilization that sits off to its side and haunts it through every age--that he can master these elements on the medium of his art. .  .  seeking to render the feeling behind flashes of the Long Dead sensed on dirt roads of an old town at night, of not being alone on deserted staircases, in forests, in abandoned amusement parks in dark winter night.

Most horror films are fun. They're fun in the same way that the Fun House and Coney Island or Rye Playland are fun. Most people enjoy being scared--scared in a way that reminds of the innocence of childhood, irrational fear of those things we don't understand--then we grow up and no longer feel those fears of Under The Bed, or Down In The Dark Cellar. Fun in the way that a rollercoaster is fun for an adult: your body tells you you're going to die during the loop, but your mind overrides the sensation and knows all will be well, and the excitement translates as rarified exhilaration.

*           *           *

On the other hand, there is a fear that is eternal in that it stretches through the sum of an individual's life: there are some fears that remain in the hypothalamus no matter how rational or old one becomes. They're also eternal in that they remain frightening to humans in 2015 just as they were in 15 BC. No amount of sophistication and advancement in human learning can completely erase these things--the human soul is apparently neverendingly capable of being chilled when confronted with certain combinations of stimuli that evoke a sense of the shadows of the supernatural and the ancient, when a sense of the past seems to push unnaturally into the present, and this past image is warped with something subtly unnatural, subtly warped or deformed or decayed .  .  .  something unseen but strongly sensed. The hairs on the back of the neck go right up.

This is the stuff that--because so much of it must be felt rather than directly seen--is enormously difficult to translate into an artwork.

F. W. Murnau had been working in the medium of the cinema for little more than two years when he shot and assembled Nosferatu; he had virtually no precedent for this kind of genuinely supernatural material shot in a largely naturalistic style, shunning the manipulation of exaggerated sets and choosing to shoot outdoors in nature. Yet somehow this eternal freight of the unseen supernatural soaks through the frames of this film.

The conception and the execution--clearly Murnau, Galeen, and Grau (and Fritz Wagner, the highly skilled cameraman) came to this material all on the same page .  .  .  and we miraculously (I say this confidently owing to the vast acclaim for this film) get out of this film to this day what the makers in large part likely intended to put into it. There is virtually no disconnect between intention and output--no diminution from concept to execution.

That, my dears, is a rare miracle, to this day. 

Clive/Schreck

3/27/2015***

 

 

 

 


Preston Clive mar 27 15, 22:06
+1 1

T-Men & Raw Deal (Mann/Alton, 1947): A Cry Into The Void

Let's pretend for a minute that the dazzling duo of Eagle Lion titles Raw Deal and T-Men was considered lost, and only now had been rediscovered over the past say eighteen months. Let's also pretend that the reputations of Mann and Alton, based on the strength of the canon of both men independent of one another and in tandem, sat at the lofty heights that they always have been. Painting With Light by Alton, The Black Book, He Walked By Night, plus all of the raves about T-Men and Raw Deal from the past before the films were lost let's say in a nitrate fire in some small Los Angeles or midwest vault. Not to mention Mann's El Cid and Fall of the Roman Empire and all the rest.

Now let's say the films were only now just rediscovered by the current hodepodge of  filmfan generations--cineastes young and old. Imagine the dumbfounded reactions; imagine the stunned audiences as the newly recovered films went on tour through the arthouse circuit. The reviews by a bowled over Kehr, Hoberman, Silver, Ursini, Muller. 

Do you have any doubt that the blogosphere would be alight with reviews by dazzled eyeballs, that hi-caliber film reviewers in the NYTimes, the Village Voice, the Chicago Sun-Times, the LA Times, all the film journals in France and the rest of Europe as the film went overseas (where cinephiles have an insatiable hunger for authentic American noir from the late 1940's). .  . that all of these would create overlapping buzzes about the film that ultimately would join and exponentially expand the sense of impact, turning these two titles and their rediscovery by the modern generation into a cinematic global event of the first order?

Do you think there would be any question that the films would be scanned carefully in 2-4K and encoded for BD release? That there would be a drumbeat of anticipation at very least along the lines of the itchy palms aching to put their hands on the recent Caligari, Variete or any number of titles recently restored and eagerly awaited on BD?

Do you think that there would be something of a scramble for rights acquisition on these little Edward Small productions for home video release? Wouldn't the scramble be something of a rush to be the one to excitedly secure the rights to reproduce for home video consumption these phantasmagorical masterpieces of film noir, and to be the one to facilitate recovered history put straight into the hands of the public for posterity?

 

Maybe the reaction would not be precisely as above, but it sure would be a "thing" in the world of cinephilia. These two films take the foundational elements of early Wilder, Lang, Ulmer and a few others in the early Forties, they take the highly stylized exaggerated snappy patter of--for example--Raymond Chandler in his novels and in his script for Double Indemnity .  .  .   and create a visual equivalent. There's no question that the discovery of these two low budget miracles of careful and highly controlled filmmaking would constitute an event of significant import; the foundational story of Noir would have to be modified, if not quite rewritten. 

*           *           *

Is the significance of this film any less simply because the films have been (thankfully) available to us for continuous viewing since they were made? Should we be any less dazzled, should we allow ourselves to go dull over two examples of low budget B filmmaking that are as lofty as is humanly possible?

Who extracted more from a small cast of second string actors, a few thousand bucks, a camera, high contrast film stock and a few lights to pick out key elements here and there in the darkness? How many other filmmaker-cinematographer combos could so profoundly dwarf with a few stretched dollars the efforts of top tier A list studio filmmakers working with the privilege of lavish crews, sets, top casts and multimillion dollar budgets?

How many other tiny teams of impoverished B film artists could earn so much stunned, almost embarrassed awe from those colleagues way up above of them on the studio ladder of prestige?

Mann and Alton during the brief interludes of their collaboration were a rare--very rare--combo indeed .  .  .  so good they could almost be seen as low budget outsiders who were unquestionably superior to their colleagues in the tippity top of the studio crop: an awe and respect that was profound indeed.  

Yes: situations like these were very rare indeed. The are plenty of filmmaker/director-camerman combos who work within the constraints of the B budget that earn the respect of their colleagues in A level Hollywood .  .  .  but this is an affection filled, slightly condescending regard for rough-edged low budget genre work that rises above the rest of the mass of B drek yet almost never raises an authentic aesthetic challenge to the skills of top tier studio filmmakers and crew-craftsmen .  .  .  at least not during the Golden Age of the studio years ending with the 1970's. The films of Edgar Ulmer or Morris Engel are examples.

T-Men and Raw Deal probably need no heavy introduction to the kind of readership that floats through this blog. There are a good number of you, and I know where most of you come from--the vast majority of you know the kind of super-rare filmmaking resident in these two gems. Filled with authenticity of their age from location shooting in seedy urban spots amplified by John Alton's high contrast, fine art camerawork, spilling with tough guy masculinity on both the good and bad guy sides (and T-Men is a famous blurring of the line between good and bad guy, cop and villain, as two undercover Treasury Agents--the T-Men of the title--pose as low level gangsters to penetrate the underworld .  .  .  and perhaps get into their roles a little bit too deeply, getting a sympathetic character killed via their needless machinations on the side) these films represent the very top level of accomplishment in the Noir/crime drama medium, as well as a clear apotheosis of mid-century B&W cinematography--probably cinematography period, in any age.

These films ratchet up the process of psychological mise en scene to the level of high Dutch chiaroscuro blended with Gothic art, a rare cinematic delicacy available nowhere else beyond the bounds of TMen, Raw Deal, The Black Book, and He Walked By Night (on which Mann was an uncredited cleaner-upper for Werker). Nowhere else will you find this level of exaggerated, hyperreality distilled to such crystaline excellence. 

These films have been screaming out for proper treatment on home video for well over ten years. Even the VCI two disc set for T-Men and Raw Deal only just met the bare minimum requirements in terms of image presentation. These two films are cornerstone entries in mid century American filmmaking .  .  .  on any level. The fact that they sit ignored by the Blu Ray age is a crime, a sin, of the highest magnitude. They deserve fresh transfer in 4K resolution from the finest fine grains (or, heaven forfend, a camera neg) sitting out there, with uncompressed mono soundtrack. They deserve, at last, contextual extras, documentaries bringing these two men to life again, filling in the blanks and the background of the making and distribution of these two films.

Anthony Mann received his middling due in the Criterion Collection with The Furies with Walter Huston and Barbara Stanwyk presented kinda ho hum. Eh, meh. Most tuned-in cineastes regard this film as a second string player to the great work Mann did with Alton .  .  . and these two films are without doubt the tip of the towering pinnacle.

Since we've all had the opportunity to bathe in the lush, pitch black paranoia of The Black Book via the Sony On Demand DVD encoded off of telecine from a fabulous print, as well as the Werker on a nice MGM DVD, it's at last time that somebody, somewhere, somehow rescue these two incredibly important works of the cinematic art and place them into the high historical context and state of presentation that is long over due------------P L E A S E! 

I groan into the heavens.

Clive/Schreck

3/24/2015*** 

(All images Eagle Lion Films 1947-1948) 

 


Preston Clive mar 24 15, 23:23
+1 1

Atentát (1965) Vs. Hangmen (1943) Vs. Operation Daybreak (1975)--The Mirror of Murder Has Three Faces

On the advice of my dear friend and cinematic colleague Serdar202, I've taken in the--now-- third film that I've seen dealing with the subject of Reinhard Heydrich, Obergruppenfuhrer SS/SD and Reichsprotektor of Bohemia/Moravia (Czechoslovakia) .  .  .  the film called Atentat (1965) was made by a Czech named Jiri Sequens. This, combined with of course the Lang film and also the very well made and reasonably faithful Operation Daybreak by Lewis Gilbert (1975) make three.

I must say that in terms of telling the tale of the historical event of the assassination and its aftermath in simple human terms of death, fear, porting into the viewer the dark and dismal days of World War Two yesteryear, Operation Daybreak with its simple, straightforward assembly of character with very light and subtle aesthetic cinematographic touches affects me the most profoundly of the three.

Unfortunately, Hangmen Also Die is nothing but pure speculation and thus fiction, despite its constituting my favorite American Lang--this admiration rests on the fabulously paranoid assembly of the cramped and claustrophobic world of blackhearted underground agents and police cracking wise with one another. Hangmen runs on the bleak fuel of the end-of-the-world humor and camaraderie that props up men existing in a world where nothing is out of bounds, nothing is sacred, and anything, no matter how abysmally wrong, is permitted .  .  .  a world shrugging at common murder tossed off like gum spit from a kids mouth. "Your mother's life is over George I'm sorry--what's next on the agenda for today?"

The film is thick with double cross colliding with false realities laying one on top of the other like toppings on a sub sandwich, punctuated with strangely surreal shadows slanting in from unexpected corners--the chiaroscuro of a nation afflicted with incipient political dementia.

Atentat by Sequens is another film altogether, benefiting from what Fritz Lang never had--hindsight knowledge of the true event. By this time the war was over--it was made twenty years after the fall of Nazi Germany and the occupation of his country--and the filmmakers knew relatively fully what happened .  .  .  who carried out the assassination, where the assassins came from, who trained them, and who preceded and followed them.

As has already been mentioned in an earlier blog entry on the Lang film, Operation Anthropoid was carried out by the Free Czech forces living in England with Benes in exile--trained in the UK with English special forces elements, Anthropoid was a paratroop insertion of assassins flown in by English planes, whose ultimate goal was the liquidation of Heydrich. The tale is incredibly nerve wracking as one has the historical vantage point of placing one's self speculatively in the paratroop agents' shoes .  .  .  flying in with such a fatal assignment, passing over the deadly anti-aircraft barriers in the air over Germany, and ultimately parachuting with a limited number of supplies to land with false papers and pure wits--hoping to successfully contact the Czech Resistance, assimilate into the population, slither into Prague, observe Heydrich, and successfully carry out the assassination in a city locked down by the German Sicherheitsdienst / Gestapo.

Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš were the two officers that made up the Anthropoid team. They were flown in in December of 1941 with another set of soldiers inserted into Czech territory under the codes Silver A and Silver B (the Silver operations were not charged with carrying out the assassination). The initial plan was for the two boys to be dropped into Pilsen where friendly elements were waiting for them to make contact--the RAF pilots however missed their waypoints and the two agents wound up dropped to the east and into the zone of Nehvizdy. Eventually both men finally slithered into Pilsen to make contact with their hosts, and then forward on to Prague. 

Atentát by Jiri Sequens is an ambitious, often powerful film that however allows its ambition to run away with itself--and thus its ultimate mission. Its tones are suitably grey and cloudy--it seems as if Sequens never shot on a day when the sun was out; it's a tone which suits the bleak events of the film.

A temporary aside which I'll shortly explain:

I'll never forget a book of poetry I read by a police officer in NYC called Catching Bodies by Philip Mahony--I remember in a little bookstore on Mercer Street in the early Nineties the little paperback had a photo of little kids from a Bronx ghetto standing on a chessboard in a vacant lot, and I opened it--then bought the book after scanning a few lines. In it there is a poem entitled "Complaint #13485, 77 Pct., 10/23/81" where he recounts a murder of an old man walking home in Brooklyn in the late night hours, shot at close range with the killer going through his pockets and running. BOOM, "Whah??" and you fall, you lay there dying and gasping, with some creep going through your pockets for a couple of bucks.

The officer recounts his coming to the scene and reliving this horrible scene leading up to his arrival, and writes something along the lines of (paraphrasing, the book is buried in my apt and I haven't looked at it for years) "Imagine! You are walking home one night; from your miserable job; suddenly; someone walks behind you; shoots you; Brooklyn late at night; as you lay there dying, coughing on your own blood; somebody goes through your pockets; taking your small amount of cash? THE WHOLE WORLD SHOULD SCREAM ABOUT THIS! People should throw up their windows and bang pots and pans because of this!" And goes on to underline the ordinary world and the silence.

This is the way I feel about Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, men who at their age should have been raising their children, dancing, working hard, fucking, kissing, loving their wives, and dreaming of their future with an extended family. Instead they are forced by the horror of the age into a nervewracking camaraderie with death, violent premature death, perhaps by torture, death who sleeps with them in their beds and whispering into their dreams, walks with them down every street, whispers into their ear from the moment of their assignment to the moment of their being sold out and their death by suicide and gunfire in the end. 

Atentat suffers a bit from its ambition, attempting to render the horror and claustrophobia of being boxed in by stress and death, trying to build character, render a sense of anticipation and manly adventure .  .  . while at the same time hyperextending its cast of characters and rendering a hypothetical thesis of critical suggestion: the film opens with the operational and competitive tensions between Reinhard Heydrich who created and headed the SD/RSHA and Admiral Wilhelm Canaris who headed the Abwehr. The difference between these two spy organizations is technical, but philosophically broad: Heydrich's SD was the intelligence gathering arm of the SS/internal police, which spread its hooks across the continent and out into the rest of the world as the war demanded. The Abwehr was the military's classical intelligence organization, initially having a gigantic head start on the far newer SD and thus with agents planted across the globe at least wherever a German embassy or diplomatic office existed, and almost certainly beyond.

However, the differences were far more severe: the SD was headed by the maniacally ambitious Heydrich, who spied obsessively on the Abwehr. It's methods were cunning and often, as resolution approached, often brutal. The Abwehr was more of a gentlemanly, military minded group, with the officer's code underwriting much of the operation's ethics. It was somewhat the equivalent of our DIA combined with a bit of the CIA. But Admiral Canaris was ultimately a decent man of the old school, with none of the ambitious, wretched and cunning bile of Heydrich--or Hitler .  .  .  who he ultimately turned on in the end, when it was revealed that he was party to and underwrote the assassination attempt on Hitler's life.

Sequens' film posits a theory that Canaris underwrote the assassination of Heydrich, which is a very long shot indeed. Heydrich and Canaris had a long history together in the Navy, and their families were intertwined through music and military service, and there is not a shred of evidence to back up the thesis that Canaris provided any support or looked the other way--stepping back and allowing the plot to happen. The film suggests this by the inclusion of the power play between the two, beginning the narrative with Heydrich arresting an Abwehr agent of Canaris', and with our beholding of unspecified machinations on Canaris' part, filled with schadenfreude and withering sarcasm when Heydrich is at last assassinated.

By wheedling down these needless roads the film misses out on the tighter human drama of the simple tale of Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš. We never get to know the two men--we never learn anything about them as individuals .  .  .  they're rendered as simple, steely-eyed masculine ciphers of Czech determination which completely misses the point of Czech heroism. Bravery is nonexistent if fear is not resident.

Although Atentat is a well made film with a certain authenticity to it--with lovely examples of here graceful and there manic camera movement, action set pieces, widescreen framing, dark and grey atmosphere, and with one of the best casting decisions I've ever seen to render the person of Heydrich--I nonetheless felt that the larger tale of two human beings with nervous systems forced into a grisly waltz with the phantom of death by the misery of the age .  .  .  this was missed.

Operation Daybreak by Lewis Gilbert, on the other hand, benefits from the hindsight of the errors of both films. Like Atentat, Daybreak was shot almost entirely on location in Prague. Unlike the Sequens film however, Daybreak tells the simple story of two simple men forced into extraordinary circumstance. There is no question that these two films were shot on many of the same locations/recreations rendered with precise exactitude; events play out with the only possible functional shooting angles in certain locations/studio recreations; the cramped environs simply allowed no other choice. Some scenes are almost point to point exact.

Starring Timothy Bottoms (who would shoot Apocalypse Now with Coppola almost simultaneously, playing Lance the surfer) and Martin Shaw (a well known English actor currently famous for playing Inspector George Gently), this film scrapes away all extraneous material and distills the events down with little--though there are moments of occasional divergence from actual history--distraction. There is no larger political frame story or hypothesizing; for this the film benefits enormously. The film rides high the restrained style of color film-making prevalent in the 1970's: careful yet easy, brilliantly acted yet completely unobtrusive and absolutely lifelike, utterly unpretentious of style yet rampantly affecting.

Lewis Gilbert, whose biggest claim to fame among the general public was the direction of a few James Bond films which were so popular running up to that point, handles the material (along with legendary European cinematographer Henri Dacae) with a sensitivity and an intuition that never loses sight of the driving goal of the material .  .   . he steps back and simply allows the circumstances of plot and performance--and nonfictional backdrop--to work its magic.

Of the three films, in terms of the bar of history, Operation Daybreak by Lewis Gilbert must rise highest here. However, that's merely my opinion--and these are three fabulous films that all deserve to be seen.

Clive/Schreck

3/23/2015*** 


Preston Clive mar 23 15, 23:12
0 3

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

Paul Leni: Loss of a Jolly Master

When we think of great directors from the German Silent Era who died far too young, I think of three gentlemen: one is quite obvious, two are far less well known. 

The first would of course be F.W Murnau, who famously died in March 1931 via a Pacific Coast Highway auto crash just before his film Tabu was set to appear in California (an interesting piece of strange synchronicity: I unknowingly put up my appreciation of Murnau on the anniversary of his death, March 11th). 

The second, far less well known director who died under far more obscure circumstances in the haze of the early 1930's in Weimar Germany--on March 7th 1931, incidentally, four days before Murnau--was Lupu Pick, a pioneer German filmmaker to whom F. W. Murnau owed a great debt for the heavy prep work that his partner Carl Mayer cultivated working with Pick, essentially taking the more obvious, strange heaviness of atmosphere effected by unusual costumes and sets in the late teens and very early twenties, and injecting it more subtly into the very air of the film itself via light and shadow, camera movement, and an ethereal sum aura viz the proceedings via skillful mise en scene. Lupu Pick and his wife Edith Posca's death by suicide are not only extremely tragic and ignominious, but incredibly eerie, as it is foreshadowed by what was perhaps Pick's greatest accomplishment--the film Sylvester, aka New Year's Eve from 1924 .  .  .  a film that without doubt was contemporaneously celebrated more than any other title of Pick's (and more than most other directors, at the time).

The third, somewhat less well known (than Murnau--but better known than Lupu Pick) director from the German silent era whose death was an incredibly great loss to the cinema was Paul Leni .  .  . a director whose departure from earth was tremendous because of his great uniqueness of character, skill and hugely original style.

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Paul Josef Levi was born in the summer of 1885 (just in time to be conscious of the world when Jack the Ripper struck across the northern seas in England three years later... Jack would find his way into a Leni film much later) to a Jewish family in Stuttgart. If I had the budget I would fly around Europe and excavate a lineage back to Leni's family in attempt to locate some surviving members that might have outlasted the extremely perilous WW2 years and fill in the blanks of this extremely important director's childhood. 

What I like so much about Leni is how much of the anti-Murnau he was. Whereas F. W. Murnau (and to a slightly lesser degree, Fritz Lang) was an extremely sophisticated art historian who never tired of quoting great paintings in his work, setting other historians off on detective work to pick out quote after quote, Leni seems entirely opposite. His images crackle with entirely original life--bursting with a unique mind, filled to the brim with its own emergency procession of self-generated images that he had to get out on the screen, Leni had no interest in arranging his actors and his set dressings in direct quotations of pre-existing vintage oil paintings. He was too busy painting his own new ones.

What marks Leni versus his contemporaries is his unique emotional temperament: equally preoccupied with the freight of death and gloom, Leni was the only of the grand trilogy of himself, Lang and Murnau who consistently injected the absurd into the mix .  .  .  thus coming up with completely unique combinations of the absurd, the ridiculous, the hideously exaggerated, the outrageously funny, with the dismal, the shadowy, the Grand Guignol, the genuinely frightening.

Leni, from what little we know about him, developed an early interest in art and by his mid teens was a devotee and practitioner of the avant garde. His sensibility was of a purely visual nature--he eventually studied at Berlin's Academy of Fine Arts, and worked his way through various assignments as an illustrator and painter for various journals, poster art publications and so on. Of this period, the New York State Writers Institute states,

"Leni began his career associated with the influential 1910's German avant-garde journal Der Sturm. A writer and illustrator .  .  .  "

Clearly, if the generally accepted chronology is to be trusted, by 1911 Leni somehow wound up nailing a job with Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theater as a set designer. Dates for Leni are unclear, but we know beyond doubt that, for example, during this prewar period in Berlin Reinhardt's theater also played host to the talents of Alexander Granach, F. W. Murnau, Conrad Veidt, and many many more. Unlike, for example, Murnau, Leni rode out the war years in Berlin, not serving in the military--probably as a result of his advanced age by the time the war broke out (he was thirty).

Is this escape from the mechanized death and destruction of the Great War the reason that Leni remained a jolly cinematic prankster, whereas Lang and Murnau were more preoccupied with sturm and drang? Who knows?

We know due to surviving film records that Leni got his start in the Berlin film industry by as early as 1913--a very early start in the business versus that of many of his contemporaries. Murnau, returning to Berlin after the close of the war in 1918, didn't begin shooting his first film The Blue Boy until 1919; ditto Fritz Lang for Halblut the same year.  

Thus, by the time that Lang and Murnau were just getting their start in the business, Paul Leni was a fully established veteran, having already directed The Diary of Dr. HartDornroschen, The Mystery of Bangalore (with Conrad Veidt, with whom Leni would frequently work) among others .  .  .  not to mention a large handful on which he worked as art director.

Playing a very large part in the man's distinctive and thoroughly modern--and hugely innovative--style was the fact that the vast bulk of the films that Leni directed, he also served as designer .  .  . if not designing the film sets himself, then having a large hand in the overall look and feel of the film by working very closely with his art director. Interestingly this worked in the opposite direction as well--the man's facility with the medium of film was so profound that those films that he worked on as art director, he also had a hand in as director: a perfect example of this is the positively stunning Hintertreppe/Backstairs.

During this period of the teens Leni bounced from company to company--Gloria Film GMbH, May Film, Union Film, PAGU and others, a journeyman director working with the cream of the crop of writers, directors, actors and producers. Examples of his stature include his ongoing work with Conrade Veidt, his working with venerable stage director Leopold Jessner, and grand national frau Henny Porten, Harry Leidtke, among others.

Sadly, a great amount of his directorial work running up to the early 1920's is lost, save for Dr. Hart, Dornroschen, and Backstairs. A recovery of Bangalore and Prinz Kuckuck - Die Höllenfahrt eines Wollüstlings (1919) would be key discoveries allowing us to peek into the development of a critical artist at the cusp of development into what would constitute an earth shattering style which would leave its imprint on the medium forever.

We do see in Backstairs the clear evidence of a man coming into his own in terms of direction, in terms of visualizing a psychological canvass upon which to move his characters. Here we see in action the following quote by Leni put into action:

"If the designer merely imitated photography to construct his sets, the film would remain faceless and impersonal. There has to be the possibility of bringing out an objects essential attributes so as to give the image style and colour... This is particulary necessary for films set wholly in a world of unreality. For my film DAS WACHSFIGURENKABINETT. I have tried to create sets so stylised that they evince no idea of reality. My fairground is sketched in with an utter renunciation of detail. All it seeks to engender is an indescribable fluidity of light, moving shapes, shadows, lines and curves. It is not extreme reality that the camera percieves, but the reality of the inner event, which is more profound, effective and moving that what we see through everyday eyes, and I equally believe that the cinema can reproduce this truth, heightened effectively.I may perhaps cite the example of CALIGARI... and DER GOLEM, in which Hans Poelzig created a town's image. I cannot stress too strongly how important it is for a designer to shun the world seen everyday and to attain its true sinews... It will be seen that a designer must not construct 'fine' sets. He must penetrate the surface of things and reach their heart. He must create mood, even though he has to safeguard his independence with regard to the object seen merely through everydays eyes. It is this which makes him an artist. Otherwise I can see no reason why he should not be replaced by an adroit apprentice carpenter..."

This deep warping of the set with dreamscape touches finds itself in evidence in greater and lesser degrees throughout his work in the 1920's for Richard Oswald, Karl Grune, Ernst Lubitsch, E. A. DuPont and others. But without question the most famous example of Leni's use of Expressionist dreamscapes (literally, as the film I'm about to mention contains a tour de force final scene that is the dream landscape of a dozing Wilhelm Deiterle, playing a carnival writer) as filmic canvass is Das Wachsfigurenkabinett.

Written by legendary German writer of fantasic and eerie titles, Henrik Galeen (who also penned The Golem as well as Nosferatu and the 1920's Student of Prague), Waxworks--as the film is known in the English speaking world (and the way I'll refer to it since it's less of a mouthful)--is undoubtedly the film that broke Paul Leni as a global figure in the cinema. 

Original as original is likely to get, Waxworks is as strange today as it was the day it was released. Here we see Paul Leni completely unleashed, unchained by constriction and free to indulge both his appetite for the bizarre as well as the humorous. If ever there was a Jolly Gargoyle of the world of the cinema, surely that creature was the entirely harmless person of Paul Leni.

There are those who come to Waxworks expecting a horror film, and walk away disappointed as they are not "frightened." This is not a film for this kind of a viewer: this is a film for the lover of dreams, for those who download binaural beat apps for lucid dreaming, who take various supplements and eat loads of turkey to bug out on the excess L-Tryptophan. It's a film for lovers of envelopment in the unfamiliar, who treasure the reactions within the human system triggered by elements of the obscure, the ethereal, crooked leaning streets in ancient cities at night, strange texts and chants from bizarre societies from long long ago. These things do not "scare" one, but they cover one in a unique atmosphere of the unreal .  .  .  like laying in the dark and rubbing one's eyes and enjoying the phosphene burst in kaleidoscopic waves. Just like the director's peculiar returning to this kind of strange terrain of injecting the effect that the mind has on reimagined architecture, faces of long dead relatives a long time ago, childhood nightmares in the dark of the half-forgotten infantile crib, so will those viewers who truly connect with this material have a joy of sifting through this odd currency of the mind made plastic for all to view.

Take something extremely simple at the very beginning of Waxworks: at the start of the Baghdad episode, cop a gander at the window through which Dieterle views his beloved while he bakes out in the front of the dream world rock and mud contraption that constitutes their apartment/hut/house/something. She stands in a misshapen, lopsided window with a strange set of cross-hatched cutouts that look as though they were drawn by a child without the slightest sense of geometry or perspective, and then constructed by an architect. What exactly this arrangement is, what it does, why it's there--there isn't a soul on the earth that can answer this question. This piece of architecture is not there to serve that side of the mind... it is speaking entirely to another side of the brain, which fully understands .  .  .  .   

Clearly what we have here is the massive afterburn of Caligari, the last gasp of capital E Expressionism and--for my scorecard--perhaps its most tour de force incarnation. The impact of this film, via its use of a dreamlike conceit that was virtually dead by this time via the turning by Carl Mayer away from these drastic examples of viewer impact towards the more subtle tonalities of the Kammerspielfilm with Lupu Pick and finally F.W. Murnau, the impact is essentially impossible to overstate. Whereas Caligari was a global shocker, a first cracking open of the door so wide that it stunned and shocked, Waxworks blew the industry away as well as the public. There would be no Waxworks Foxtrot won by Leni in the New York and Paris dance halls, but he did win an invitation to America by Carl Laemmle for a very fruitful contract with Universal.

The big difference between the work accomplished by Leni in Germany and that in the Hollywood is, to these aging eyes, the following: the culmination of the work that Leni had been doing in his home country was the Jack The Ripper sequence in Waxworks, which Signfried Kracauer said famously was “a very short sequence which must be counted among the greatest achievements of film art.”

A statement with which--rare for much of Kracauer's psychobabbling--I wholeheartedly agree with. 

Let me go on with my difference between German and Hollywood work. With the Jack the Ripper sequence, Leni essentially took the cinema to such a high artistic, wordless, elegant, crystalline level of visual perfection there was basically nowhere to go with it (a criticism that is often, incidentally, levelled at Expressionism in general because of its high volume lack of opportunities for modulation).

The culmination of Leni's work in Hollywood is the sum of all of the parts, all through the pictorialism of The Cat & The Canary, The Last Warning, and the sublime Man Who Laughs are of the loftiest, most unique heights of the filmic art--and these films have been mined endlessly by the greatest directors and the greatest films in the world, particularly those that work in the world of the fantastic film .  .  . James Whale, Georges Franju, any suspense, arthouse or horror film that combines a high pictorial art of the greatest greats with the strangest of the strange.

There is a place to go from his Hollywood work--other directors can take this material and move profitably sideways. With the Ripper episode in Waxworks, there is no place to go but down

 

Those who mix the finest cinematography possible with the most imaginative use of the moving camera, played out against a backdrop of Gothic strangeness and absurdity (sound era Eisenstein, Terry Gilliam, Roman Polanski) are honoring the strange foundational example of Paul Leni in Hollywood.

It is very rare--and thus hugely refreshing--when we have in our midst or our past a man bursting with such rare genius who is at the same time completely unpretentious and takes the piss out of his work at every turn. Without the ridiciculous milk truck driver,  psychiatrist in Cat & The Canary, peeping-tom messenger or guitar-breaking cheek puffing Dirry Moir in Man Who Laughs, or Spiderwebbed female stooge or bouncy Bert Roach in The Last Warning, we'd likely have no Doctor Praetorious, Horace Femm, or--strictly in terms of art direction-- DNA for the Universal Horror Film (and thus the horror film) in general. 

Paul Leni's death, whether we realize it or not, was one of the profoundest to strike cinema; in my view, via his ability to work so well with actors and consistently get that special brand of absurdity into his narratives (he obviously created a jovial atmosphere on his sets), and combine these fruits so seamlessly into flawless and inventive pictorialism, he was well primed to pivot beautifully into the sound film.

He was obviously set to become the premiere sound era director for the Laemmles .  .  .  he died just as the sonorized silents he was making were beginning to give way to sound films at Universal. Who can fail but wonder what Frankenstein, or Dracula, Murders In The Rue Morgue, or so many other films (The Raven!) would have turned into under his expert hand. Who knows where he would have moved afterwards? Leni in Technicolor!

His death by blood poisoning as a result--of all things--a tooth infection is for me among the top two or three losses the cinema has known. He had so much to give, great movies to make, and recognition to earn among a more modern audience. It's a great shame.

Preston Clive/H. Schreck

3/16/2015*** 

 


Preston Clive mar 16 15, 23:12
0 1

HANGMEN ALSO DIE (FRITZ LANG, 1943), PART THE SECOND

Reinhard Heydrich--the man whose name sounds suitably like a Germanic adjective for Hydra-like, inasmuch as the man's specialty in his creation of the German Sicherheitsdeinst, or Security Service, the dreaded SD within the SS that made Canaris' Abwehr look positively warm and kissy--might be one of the most emblematic Germans when it comes to, in retrospect, personifying all that constituted the worst excesses of the Nazi period in Germany. He made Heinrich Himmler look like a fresh daisy by comparison. He made Hitler on one hand smile, squirm, fidget and go boyishly shy and blushy when in his leather trenched presence--and he also made Hitler get all pumped, throw on his own leather trench without a belt, and stalk and strut like the cock of the walk, Heydrich trailing consciously behind.

Hitler loved loyal but hard and vicious, creatively heartless tough guys like Otto "Sepp" Deitrich, Otto Skorzeny, and of course Heydrich. 

Only with Heydrich, there was very little of the two sided coin that Hitler proposed to maintain, at least at first: love-of-Germany and its people/menace of all who threatened Germany. Beyond the bounds of his wife and blindingly blonde kids, Heydrich never seemed to like people very much. Even those who worked closely with him and maintained daily contact and thus were a part of Heydrich's regular life, dreaded the episodes of drunken cavorting with the man. These interludes were full of menace, shcadenfreude, bizarre behavior, rampant philandering that all were terrified to not participate in, and thus made everyone uncomfortable.

Heydrich's life was full of strangeness--a violin player booted from the navy for disgracing himself with a woman, a surface egoist who maintained a private hatred of his own strange, hyper-vertical, large-schnozzed face (he, supposedly, was famously so suspicious of his odd face that he was apparently observed spitting at a mirror after staring at himself disgustedly and hissing "Fucking jew,"); loved to visit whorehouses with his SS comrades, yet presented a crackling hearth of a wholesome Teutonic family man sprung from the blonde sprouting earth, posing for incredibly incongruous and kitschy photos with his family .  .  . laying on the grass, leapfrogging, picnicing with breeches and lederhosen, playing football with weinerschnitzel smeared with wurstfabrik and the like (just kidding on the last one).

Czechoslovokia--or "The Protectorate"--Prague more than any other--came close to spiritually keeling over and croaking under the boot of Heydrich's leadership. Unlike the men who succeeded him after his assassination--the miserable hawknosed ape Hans Frank in Czechoslovakia, and to some degree in the latter years, scarfaced Ernst Kaltenbrunner .  .  .  latterly head of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Heydrich's old slot, where the conglomerate of security and various police apparatus were bundled up for an oversight entity) and a man who was known to tie Heinrich Himmler's stomach in gassy knots--Heydrich did indeed have a subtle side beyond a love of murder as incentivization. For all of his legendary brutality and appearance of tossing off scorched earth with a yawn as a hobby on a lazy spring afternoon, Heydrich didn't ascend to his lofty mantle of RHSA/SD head and Reichsprotektor in Czechoslovakia purely through that Special Menacing Something; the man could be clever, super-subtle, excelled at deception, and knew how to reward people who gave him what he wanted and needed to achieve his goals. Like Fritz Lang's film, Heydrich knew how to layer false realities on top of and to the side of one another in space and in time; he knew how to create the impression of randomness in the carefully engineered; and he was outrageously attentive and invisibly but effectively probing even outside of his professional mandate. His safe, it is said, held the secrets not only of his enemies but all of his allies and closest associates. He was a man who was ready for a confrontation at any time with anybody. He seemed to have seen the world (and particularly the world of appearances in the military and politics) as a nasty chessboard, which he lost at early on too many times, and decided he would never allow such humiliation into his life ever again if he could help it, and actively armed himself against those possibilities through active pre-emption. Those around him knew and felt that they had passed too often under his keen observational apparatus, and trembled thenceforth, knowing that their sins had been carefully recorded with loving care by this thin, oddly feminine-hipped, strange man moving purposely through the lives of all those around him, sniffing out foibles. 

Again--he knew the power of reward. It kept your adversaries close to you and easy to watch. It's for these reasons he succeeded both in the RHSA and as Protektor:human assets require taking care of in espionage. Workers require winning over during an occupation. Heydrich made the exile government and the Allies very nervous during his years sitting in his Prague castle dishing out orders to maximize productivity, owing to the introduction--after brutally weeding out the saboteurs who were disturbing the war production tempo under von Neurath's leadership--of a reward system of increased wages, days off, unemployment insurance and other methods often referred to as "carrot and stick" measures.

Of course, Heydrich, despite his use of generous rewards (in the relative terms of a hard occupation, anyhow) had no love for the Czech people, who he called "scum," and his roundups, executions, use of torture and more earned him the nickname "butcher of Prague." He was despised at atomic levels, and feared equally. And this goes for Germans as well as enemies of the Reich. Like Hitler, he seemed a solitary figure; failed artist, surrounded by yes-men terrified to disagree with him; moody, with virtually no close friends to speak of.

 

Fritz Lang began production on Hangmen Also Die in the latter part of 1942 when the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague was still fresh news, but the truth about the killing was still not known.

Knowing nothing about Operation Anthropoid and the parachutists being dropped in waves by the exile government in London working directly with the military of the Allies who wanted Heydrich removed as a matter of emergency, the film wove an entirely fictional tale.

The film was extrapolated from a story written by Bertholt Brecht--his sole Hollywood contribution--and Fritz Lang, and turned into a script by Lang and a writer called John Wexley (a writer with not a lot of credits but the credits are quite interesting. Check this out.. source TCM):

1. The Long Night (1947) as Screenwriter.

2. Cornered (1945) as Story and adpt.

3. Hangmen Also Die! (1943) as Screenwriter.

4. Footsteps in the Dark (1941) as Screenwriter.

5 City for Conquest (1940) as Screenwriter.7.

6. Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) as Screenwriter.

7. The Roaring Twenties (1939) as Contr to trmt.

8. The Amazing Doctor Clitterhouse (1938) as Screenwriter.

9. Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) as Screenwriter.

10. Eight Bells (1935) as Contr to trmt.

Brecht and Land begin their tale with an opening scene with Reinhard Heydrich--played by Hans Heinz von Twardowski (who played Alan, murdered by Cesare in his room after getting his fortune told in Caligari's circus tent,  24 years before this film)--holding court in Hradceny Castle and ordering executions to scare more productivity out of the Skoda defense contractor factories, who have slowed down their work tempo at the behest of the resistance.

The prologue out of the way, the narrative begins in earnest--the tale of a single assassin who wounds Reinhard Heydrich offscreen in the urban center of a well-rendered studio reimagining of the city of Prague. Donlevy, playing the assassin, a doctor by the name of Svoboda, enters into an en media res shot of the city going about its business under the boot of Nazi occupation. Before meeting him however, we get an immediate sense of tension, of something simmering tensely beneath the surface... police arrest a cab driver for idling in one spot for wasting gas illegally. A man looks at his watch, carefully taking note of the police taking the cabbie away, and subtly rounds the corner and shoes away a hansom carriage driver, telling him "GO! Vanya's arrested."

Clearly, we see, something is going on under the boot of these occupying Germans and their steel helmets, and it concerns the civilian public. Our answer is quickly answered as into the film walks lead Anna Lee, then known for her work with John Ford. Her character, Masha Nowotny, approaches her local fruit and vegetable hawker, looking for some basics despite the wartime scarcity. As she discovers to her disappointment that there are no potatos (or POTATEOZ as the handwritten vendor's sign says) Brian Donlevy suddenly comes jogging out of the shadows and into the film, the second principal character. 

Not finding what he is looking for, he asks Masha if she has seen a cabbie sitting there on the street; having witnessed with the fruit vendor the troubles the cabbie had with the police, the young girl relates his arrest to the nameless stranger. He tips his hat and hurriedly jogs offscreen.

In his wake, upon his disappearance, comes the sound of stomping boots, and a crowd of blackshirt SS men, clearly chasing somebody. Coming to the crossroads of the little platz where the vendor and Anna Lee's Masha have resumed their commerce, ("The cabbage is nice") a German extra playing their group leader asks if they have seen a man running from the direction they came. Cut to Donlevy's character hiding in a dark arched atrium down the block and a bit around a corner, but still within the line of sight of the nearby interlude between the ladies and the SS men.

"Yes," says Masha.

He removes a pistol from his breast jacket pocket, now expecting to be given up and fully ready to fight to the death.

"Which way did he run?"

Carefully weighing her answer against her conscience, her hatred of the Occupation, and her fear of getting into trouble with the Germans, the film now takes its first step towards its narrative identity.

"That way," says Masha, pointing away from where she knows Brian Donlevy's still nameless character just fled. And with that, the crowd of SS/SD security police disappear in the wrong direction, chasing a phantasm.

*        *        *

Soon it becomes clear, as we further follow the meanderings of Donlevy's character--who we clearly see is completely stranded in the city collapsing into a tighter and tighter police grip of emergency decree with nowhere to go--that he has caused this upheaval: he has assassinated Reinhard Heydrich. He dips into a movie theater; a restaurant, tries to go to a prearranged safe house and has a door slammed in his face by the spooked (she has heard of his driver--the cabbie's--arrest while being ordered to close the house down as a refuge to protect the underground, until, the Prague State of Emergency is complete and he has no place to go: time to scramble.

Coincidence: after a time of stressed wanderings, he catches the reflection of Anna Lee's Masha, and marks her home and apartment by tailing her.

The film runs on the tension of complexity and the novelty of weaving such an intriguing tale, sandwiching the viewer between the machinations of the underground and those of the Gestapo-SD in their hunt for the assassin. Donlevy's character, Dr. Franticek Svoboda shows up at the door of Anna Lee's Masha's apartment with a bunch of flowers in his hand, importuning her to save his life and allow him to crash with them during curfew under the lie of his posing as an admirer from a night at the opera.

Masha, the daughter of an old revolutionary clearly has honorable blood running through her veins--she cannot help but acquiesce. The next morning, after an evening of SD/gestapo strategizing to flush out the assassin by taking masses of Czech citizens hostage, the blackshirts knock on her apartment door--the assassin right under their noses. Reason? Masha's father, in the midst that morning of teaching an American history class in his dwelling, is on the hostage list and is to be taken right away to a camp.

Played by the venerable but here-slightly-incongruous Walter Brennan, Mr. Nowotny wishes the assassin (he has figured out overnight through sixth sense who he is without being told) luck before being hauled off, choosing not to give him up to the police and damn his whole family.

 

It's this tension--the agonized dilemma of the family's inability to give the doctor up (an announcement has come on the radio proclaiming that any family known to harbor the assassin will be immediately shot) to gain their father's release-- that drives the film, along with its tremendously expressive style. If they don't turn in the assassin, only her father will be shot. If they do turn in the assassin, the whole family be shot. Vilified by Masha for getting her and her family into this horrible position for doing nothing but helping him, Svoboda and the resistance ponder this conundrum, trying to concoct a way of getting her and her father off of the hook while at the same time not revealing Svoboda's guilt.

It's here that an incredible series of false plants, woven tapestries of deception and fraud, labyrinthine half-truths, incredibly sly, black humor (much of which flows from the mouth of Getsapo Inspector Gruber played by the unbelievably charismatic and hilariously loose Alexander Granach, as wild here as he is as Knock in Nosferatu and as the Shadowmaster in Schatten), ominous menace and danger and outrageous cinematographic-editorial skill.

The film was photographed by the then already legendary cameraman James Wong Howe who is here laying down the closest cinematographic correspondence to the conceit of the Expressionism of the early twenties in Germany. Howe and Lang, during moments of extreme danger and tension, ratchet of the contrast and stretch the angles of the shots to some of the most dramatic black and white images you'll ever see. These interludes come and go as danger closes in on the characters: when an execution is imminent, when an interrogation at the Gestapo approaches a deadly climax, when we descend down to the legendary torture vaults down in the police HQ, during the meetings of the resistance.

The tale is a hyper-complex web of intrigue, incredibly grim and complex for the time it was released--grim and complex even today, especially in its original cut with the original ending, which I won't give away. I saw this film when I was in my twenties and first digesting all of the cornerstones of film history; the first thing I said to my female companion watching it with me was "Citizen Kane is considered better than this??"

I find this film to be the height of Lang's narrative sophistication, and yet the film still unfolds with that easy, flowing quality that makes Lang so easy and pleasurable to watch. Even his lesser films like While The City Sleeps and House By The River unfold with such an ease and pleasure, they're almost addicting. I can watch House By The River 4 times a month for the rest of my live and probably not get bored with it. Ditto so many of the other "mediocre" Langs. One of my cinematic compadres, David Hare, I know feels the same vibe from Lang.

Hangmen is an incredible accomplishment--to me easily his best Hollywood films: most narratively skilled example of total command during his US phase. The dense script, the deft implementation, the extremely "cool" narrative sensibility (Like Sternberg, Lang had a consistent element of "cool" to his films), the menace and the humor bouncing back and forth like a tennis ball--see the ever moving wart on the Gestapo officer's face.

To those who haven't seen it, I would suggest something unusual--skip the weak BD, and try your best to hunt down the PAL edition DVD of the e-m-s version. It restores the "downer" ending, and looks much more filmic and less flat.

Preston Clive/HSchreck

3/13/2015***

 


Preston Clive mar 13 15, 23:44
0 4

Hangmen Also Die (Fritz Lang, 1943), Part the First

How talented was the person of Fritz Lang, what an artist! Every bit the cinematic compatriot of F.W. Muranu, subject of yesterday's rhapsody, the two men yet could not be more different in terms of sensibility and personality.

Far more concerned with the concrete aspects of the darker side of humanity, Lang rejected the ethereal side of darkness and somber dreams, a la Murnau; he was far more interested in the nightmare going on right outside his front door on the dingy, dirty streets of first Europe and later America. The criminals, the beggars, the obsessive manipulators, the cranks and the crooks, the ways government traps a man in his own mind, with his own fears, and manipulates his world like a hidden puppeteer. These are the areas that Lang's mind regularly gravitated towards.

This is not to say the two men were complete opposites-- both (especially during their German phases in the first half of the 1920's .  .  . for Lang in the pre Gerda Maurus days, for Murnau the pre-Fox days) were strict perfectionists, working within the totalitarian state of the UFA studios of producer extraordinaire Erich Pommer's golden years to labor endlessly over images until a product of extreme lustre and burnishment was at last achieved. It is known that Lang admired Murnau on the record (after seeing Der Letzte Mann)--I'm not clear of Murnau's feelings for Lang's work. I have not encountered--or if I did I just don't recall it at the moment--an on the record statement by Murnau in which he is responding to a film of Lang's.

The man's biography is so studded with hyperbole and buildup, hype and flat out taletelling that I'm not going to get into a detailed chronology of his life leading up to his golden Weimar years of Destiny, the two Mabuses--Testament and the preceding Der Spieler--Nibelungen, and of course Metropolis, or relate his tale about how he "invented" the frame story of Caligari, or alternately suggested the Expressionist design of the film, nor relate to his self-promoting "Good anti-Hitler German"tale, since proven by the stamps on his passport to be false, of his fleeing Germany the moment Josef Goebbels sat him down and asked him to be a minister in the propaganda department oversseing the medium of the German cinema.

Probably my two favorite films from Lang's German period are Der Mude Tod, aka Destiny, and the subsequent Die Nibelungen epic. For a moment there in Germany, while making the sprawling epics of Mabuse's two-parter, the Nibelungen two parter, as well as the now recovered original epic cut of Metropolis, Fritz Lang had become everything that Erich von Stroheim was already attempting to accomplish in America--with equal measures of talent and perhaps even more innovation than Lang--but was continuously getting butchered by his studios with every attempt in the manner that Lang suffered but once, with Metropolis. This was Pommer's genius where Louis B. Mayer and the Laemmle's failed the annals of history. Lang commanded outrageous budgets, monumental effects, armies of extras and craftsman on sprawling sets and locations; he geometrically moved his elements like Rommel on the battlefield: exuding power, velocity, innovation, special tactics, inspiring future maniacal behavior from William Friedkin by firing Walther pistols on set to command his actors and craftsmen attention.

*         *         *

For reasons that we assume were indeed political and decent--but not of the heroic slap in the face of blatant desertion viz Joe Goebbels--Fritz Lang did indeed flee to the United States via an intial interlude (Liliom) in France to make a new start in Hollywood, while leaving his wife and constant screenwriting partner Thea von Harbou, regular actor collaborators like Georg John, Paul Richter, the cuckolded then rewarded-with-starring-roles Rudolf Klein-Rogge (husband of von Harbou who Lang snatched from Rogge's arms), Gerda Maurus, Willy Fritsch, and of course Otto Wernicke as the venerable, gutbagged Inspector Lohmann.

Lang flourished (at least to the degree that he consistently made films.. Langian films) in America in spite of himself--he survived entirely owing to his 1) filmmaking power, and 2) legend in Germany, which saw him always generating interest in the mind of ambitious independent producers like Walter Wanger, small studios like Republic, and any number of others.

 

Despite the journeyman quality of his life running from the Thirties to the postwar years in the USA, Lang's sound era Hollywood films are a startling mishmash of titles and genres. Beginning with the stunningly raging Fury with Spencer Tracy (where it is rumored that there was a legitimate murder plot afoot onset among the carpenters and other crew--apparently some ceiling rigging was set to "fail" right above Lang during shooting, sending heavy equipment and set material right down onto Lang's exposed kopf and coiffure.

Thankfully this attempt was nullified by cooler heads--were it not we'd have been deprived of blazing subsequent titles full of ripsnorting Langian paranoia and angst like You Only Live Once (with the delicous Bronx girl Sylvia Sidney starring with young Henry Fonda), The Woman In The Window and Scarlet Street with Eddie G Robinson, all of these acidic titles foundational entries in the then embryonically darkening genre of fatalist, white knuckle, high contrast crime drama that eventually wound up taking the tag of Film Noir.

But between these first couple of American titles with Tracy and Fonda (Fury and You Only Live Once) and the Robinson duo in 1944, just after a couple of first dips of the toe into the genre of the western, we come at last to the title that I wish to speak about. The title is my favorite of all of Lang's American films; it's a film rich with literary quality, glorious acting, silly humor, profound and legitimately gutsy war statements while WW2 was raging in Lang's home country. It's a film as complex as scripts are likely to come--they don't come out of Hollywood this supremely complicated very often. The film has its own circulatory system as complex as that in the human body. The film is full of off-ramps, reroutes back in, false trails, layered realities piling one on the other according to false information and covert action, and a Brechtian (hmmm... I wonder why....) self-reflexivity that calls attention to the tempo of its unfoldment.

Hangmen Also Die is the film of course. Distributed by UA in the year 1943, and produced by a Pressberger (not the guy you're thinking of), it's a film I can literally watch over and over again, year after year. The film is a miracle, even if its home video releases have been a bit shabby.

More--Part Two-- tomorrow, to close out the week. 

P. Clive/Schreck

3/12/2015***


Preston Clive mar 12 15, 23:51
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
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