Archive for March, 2012

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4 by Erich von Stroheim

March 27, 2012

Blind Husbands (1919)

Stroheim’s first feature opens with a titlecard introducing the key theme of marriage complacency, and questioning if the third party of an affair is entirely to blame, pointing to the husband. This latter point does not so much come into the narrative bulk, as the third party pursuer (played by Stroheim himself) is never shown to have decent intentions, but is instead more of an additional, somewhat lecturing, thought. That being said, the final scene brings the ignorant husband idea full circle and is rather touching as a scene in itself. The portrayal of the wife, as in Greed‘s Trina, is awfully weepy for the most part. She’s in a moral bind, and is sympathetic as a result, but is also of that distinctly early 20th century melodrama brand of woman….rather weak and helpless. Even the waitress is a victim of sorts, despite her rampant sexuality, she obsesses over the “villain”. Compared to the complexity of extramarital affair turmoil in the Woody Allen pictures I’ve been rewatching lately, it comes across as simplistic indeed. Although the central plot and its emotionality dulls a bit, the film is still noteworthy in other ways. Outside of the wordy aforementioned titlecard, the film does not rely on them for superfluous exposition. In fact, Lillian Ducey’s titlecards are poetic as well as succinct and infrequent. One particularly astute use of dialogue cards has, firstly, Stroheim wooing a young woman with two sickly romantic lines, a pause between the two, and then later Stroheim using the same exact lines on the wife character. The pause the second time around invites an expectation for the follow-up come-on, and when it comes it does as a punch, highlighting the treachery of his falsity, albeit amusingly so. This is a more nuanced way to convey his ignoble intentions for the wife of the story proper: directly via trait of character.

Prior to the second half set up in the mountains, a brief conversation takes place revealing the men’s individual stances on mountaineering, on how to conquer and even the degree to which they respect the alps, and it reads rather metaphorically as their differing approaches to women at the same time. Later, the mountain known as The Pinnacle which the husband and Stroheim attempt to conquer, is frequently described in Godly terms, and as a place where sin does not exist. Naturally, like the gold-tinted desert of Greed, it becomes the setting for the dramatic climax; a classical synergy of drama and setting. But is this snowy wilderness “without sin” merely as a convenient place for committing crime, or is it such because it is above Earth, or even beyond -a purgatory? The husband learns of his own sin: revering the mountains (and his work) so much it is as if he is cheating on, certainly neglecting, his wife. And crucially, Stroheim’s fate seems almost a punishment, or more accurately a comeuppance; the guilt of a life lived sinfully finally takes hold of his conscience. Or is he merely terrified of a hawk? Doubtful. Stroheim seems to work on a grander scale than that, and this is just the start.

January 2011

Foolish Wives (1922)

Stroheim here essentially remakes and betters his debut Blind Husbands, examining as it does the machinations of an immoral imposter (again played by the director himself) versus the goodness of the victimised married couple, even down to the vaguely didactic ending. It should be mentioned at this point the infamy of Stroheim’s struggles with producers butchering his work, leading him to proclaim of Foolish Wives that “they are showing only the skeleton of my dead child”. But regardless we could understand Stroheim’s cinema as filmed literature, his process of adaptation as exhaustive as, say, Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, as opposed to what remains: Phil Jutzi’s bite-size Berlin-Alexanderplatz. No, it’s not at all as bad as that. The surviving films are still comfortably paced and effectively grand. The title is interesting: this story depicts only the one foolish wife (yet some other foolish women), the plural suggesting microcosm as per his previous Blind Husbands -two sides of the same coin. It could also be called Greed, as here we see the lust of Stroheim’s “Count” from Husbands extend from sexual to monetary and a greater sexual ravenousness. At no point does Stroheim introduce a possibility for redemption here, his Count never develops feelings for the woman he plans to woo and rob blind as we’ve seen in so many romance movies; he’s as malevolent and selfish as the man of the modern world can get, and he is disposed of offscreen and with no concern (in comparison to the servant’s delicately-handled suicide, also offscreen). The character becomes more interesting in relation to the real Stroheim, who likewise deceived the world he was a Count, who shares with his creation an exorbitance in film production the Count seeks in an upper crust lifestyle, and who manipulates the plot as his protagonist does the Hugheses. That he casts himself in such a role tempts one to see a cinematic purging or self-scrutiny taking place, but perhaps he was just playing with his public persona.

Along this same line is something truly remarkable and perhaps far ahead of its time: a modernism set up via a diegetic book the Foolish Wife is shown reading and from which we see passages called “Foolish Wives” by… Erich von Stroheim! Blind Husbands stated it was based on a Stroheim book that did not exist, but here the fib may have consequences on the reading of the film. The passages, and we assume the book as whole, appear to posit the same didacticism regarding blind husbands and foolish wives and greedy counterfeits of the film we’re watching. How much is the book getting through to Mrs. Hughes? According to her husband she has read the book through before, but she nonetheless becomes susceptible to Karamzin’s charms. Is Stroheim pessimistic viewers of his actual film will heed the moralism at play, or is this layer of reflexiveness enough to set it apart, a call to greater self-awareness and reflection? Stroheim may be insulating from hypocrisy his own manipulation in narrative art by pointing to it. While not engineered to guide the viewer as much as in Griffith -indeed Stroheim’s realism and pacing allows for more thought and is literary that way –Foolish Wives is a superb piece of early classical filmmaking as well. Often we are implicated in Karamzin’s lusty gaze, but in equal measure the camera turns on his overtly carnal desire and diabolical gestures with a mix of revulsion and comic delectation. As in the previous film again, evil is countered with pure goodness in the form of the “half-witted daughter” of the religious counterfeiter and in a monk whose presence prevents the Count committing a rape. When Karamzin encounters both we first see him gaze at the person, then from his perspective look upon the figure of purity with a canvas-like texture overlay capturing them in a portrait of Godly virtue. Certainly seen as something to corrupt (the girl) and as a practical bother (the monk) for Karamzin, in Stroheim’s treatment this purity in contrast to the maliciousness throughout denotes a deep moralism running within the veins of his work. It may not be the complete vision, but Foolish Wives is nonetheless an early masterpiece of cinema.

August 2011

The Merry Widow (1925)

Though lighter in tone, this is another sizeable (and lengthy) effort “personally directed” (as it states in the credits) by Stroheim, appropriating the popular operetta in his distinctive way. The most striking point of this adaptation is
that the operetta’s narrative figures into the film towards its end, Stroheim providing a great chunk of characterisation and interaction prior to Sally’s being a widow. The thrust of the story regarding the countrymen’s attempts to have a citizen marry this wealthy woman is de-emphasised, unlike in Lubitsch’s more farcical yet witty and sophisticated adaptation a decade later. Stroheim is naturally uninterested in mapping the particulars of how the royal family will lure Sally, instead it’s a simple piece of motive information pitting Prince Mirko further against our heroes. And that’s precisely Stroheim’s usual dramatic strategy, the threat of ill-intentions corrupting the naive and good, and it occasionally has the weight of a tragedy as a result. Admittedly, I was slightly bothered by the simplistically-drawn good and bad here: Mirko’s ever-maniacal grin and intentions are caricature where the Count in Foolish Wives is sinister in perceptible ways, even then it was best to perceive the latter villain as one polar extreme in a cautionary tale figuring the married Americans; there’s no such moral dilemma in Widow, the American and the good Prince Danilo are rather victims of social circumstance. Considering this, it’s interesting the cohesion with his previous work having the virtuous character be made a humble American, once more with aristocratic Europeans preying on and deceiving her. Though curiously, for part of the film at least, Danilo is a well-to-do who pretends to be an average soldier in order to woo Sally, an inversion of the imitation Counts of the previous films. Certainly the key theme of deception and manipulation carries on here. Not a vital work but a very enjoyable one.

August 2011

Queen Kelly (1932)

Although Queen Kelly was a Gloria Swanson vanity piece produced by her and then boyfriend financier, it’s a Stroheim work through and through. And although he was fired for going over-budget and in a direction Swanson did not agree with, what remains is half of his vision relatively in tact, with a prologue of titlecards expositing the lamentably unfilmed remaining plot of this epic story. There are many Stroheim staples present: marriage as dramatic impetus, the ruling elite as sociopathic or else childish, cocky lushes, a figure of purity corrupted, despicable villains who meet their demises, strong sexual overtones (usually a foot fetish, here confiscated knickers), striking long shots and luminous close-ups, glowing apple blossoms as a symbol of love, among others. Again I am bothered by the cartoonish portrayal of heroes and villains somewhat; indeed the whip-happy Queen and the reptilian Vooyheid are even trashier in nature than usual for Stroheim, and Swanson’s orphan is less of a fool than her American counterparts, as her eyes are wide open to antagonism and so too her fate which seems utterly out of her hands. Most remarkable is the fleshing out of scenes, so extensive that in duration and feeling they go beyond the perfunctory imparting of story points and create, as Rosenbaum puts it, “an emotional detachment in the spectator by making the actors and settings into purely aesthetic objects, delectable or abhorrent surfaces arranged in such a way that the possibilities of identifying with them or sentimentalizing them are decreased.” Stroheim’s (here more lurid) finesse was almost entirely absent from The Wedding March, for me his least enjoyable effort, so Kelly felt a reminder of those kinds of pleasures.

September 2011

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My February ’12 in Film

March 1, 2012

Great month of film viewing. I say film but how many were actually celluloid projected in front of me? One was the Happy Feet sequel, inexcusably blurring its digital images; the same careless multiplex gave Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo the same treatment last month. Yet the theatre was also responsible for the two most memorable film (as in celluloid: glorious grain, imperfect cuts, cigarette burns) projections of recent memory for me: Spielberg’s antiquated War Horse, and this month’s unlikely The Grey; both unfathomable in a digital setting. But unlike David Bordwell, despite how much I love the plastic/aesthetic pleasures of film, I’m a child of digital and have known its beauties (and advantages) in cinema projection. Hugo in 3D (which I had to experience again before it left cinemas) is astonishingly clear, its digitality underscoring and rejuvenating its analog obsession. Similar allegories pervaded the likes of Super 8, The Artist (yikes), and in the rift between Spielberg’s Boxing Day pair -the aforementioned War Horse and his 3D CG animation Tintin which I had the joy of revisiting at home this month.  The rest of these were all viewed on my TV as well, naturally. I saw 61 overall, but the following listed are the ones that really struck a chord. Too many for a top ten, and too hard to order by preference, I just sorta clumped some in groups which also made pictures palatable, and pictures are pretty. The clear favourite was Go Go Tales, however, with its screwball Chinese Bookie-esque humanism, gorgeous soft colour lighting, and musical pleasures. Throughout and at the tail end of the post I’ve gathered any quick thoughts I’d made about certain movies watched this month.

  • Go Go Tales (Ferrara, 2007)
  • La Captive (Akerman, 2000)
  • Porto of My Childhood (Oliveira, 2001)
  • Underworld (Sternberg, 1927)
  • Bully (Clark, 2001)
  • A Geisha (Mizoguchi, 1953)
  • Panic in the Streets (Kazan, 1950)
    *

Three by Philippe Garrel:

  • The Burning Hot Summer (2011)
  • L’Enfant Secret (1979)
  • Sauvage Innocence (2001)

Three tough westerns:

  • Bad Day at Black Rock (Sturges, 1955)
  • The Tall T (Boetticher, 1957)
  • The Tall Target (Mann, 1951)

Men surviving (and not):

  • The Grey (Carnahan, 2012)
  • Southern Comfort (Hill, 1981)

A couple by Mankiewicz:

  • The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
  • House of Strangers (1949)
    *

A very Aussie month:

  • Happy Feet Two (Miller, 2011)
  • Dead End Drive-In (Trenchard-Smith, 1986)
  • Stir (Wallace, 1980)
  • The Back of Beyond (Heyer, 1954)

I also saw the totally rad BMX Bandits, The Naked Country, He Died with a Felafel in His Hand, the Canadian co-production Black Robe, Puberty Blues, The Umbrella Woman, and here they get pretty dire with The Nostradamus Kid, Dark Age, 40,000 Horsemen, Hoodwink. Lastly I also saw Babe: Pig in the City for the first time since I was a child. Fucking bleak.

Happy Feet Two was lightyears ahead of the first. Every moment of the narrative is charged with an evolutionary existentialism, micro and macro married and ultimately crescendoed, it’s truly one of the most thematically clear-eyed mainstream movies of recent times. Just excellent storytelling, purely cinematic.

The Back of Beyond. A narrativised documentary of the people who live along the Birdsville Track in the Outback, the journey from one end to the other via mail carrier is haunted by death -be it the carcasses of cattle strewn over the sand, an Aboriginal man’s childhood memory buried in time, or the visually evoked tale of two young sisters who perish in the unforgiving land -and looks back at each stop not unlike the trail of dead in the Coens’ True Grit. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse‘s headlights rousing sleeping trees finds its cousin here. And John Heyer proves also with his earlier short Journey of a Nation how visually minded he was, a rarity indeed for an Australian filmmaker. Though that one is more noteworthy for its rapid montage.

Compelled to mention:

  • Petulia (Lester, 1968)
  • Lolita (Lyne, 1997)
  • The Ladies Man (Lewis, 1961)

Petulia. Treads Resnais memory-narrative territory in a very Roegian fashion; it was even shot by Roeg.
*

Best rewatches:

  • Hugo (Scorsese, 2011, 3D)
  • Babe: Pig in the City (Miller, 1998)
  • Public Enemies (Mann, 2009)
  • Contagion (Soderbergh, 2011)
  • The Adventures of Tintin (Spielberg, 2011)

I did enjoy Tintin a bit more this time. Every second shot we’re looking at some action or person by way of reflection, a motif I cannot link thematically but which further visually condenses the story (match-dissolves, simultaneous action at multiple depths, “smashing into” as opposed to establishment are other techniques) while maintaining its tone of breezy, irreverent  self-awareness. Very European indeed. No wonder Americans didn’t flock to it.

*
Worst:

  • 20 Million Miles to Earth (Juran, 1957)
  • Silent Running (Trumbull, 1972)
  • Westworld (Crichton, 1973)

Westworld is so sloppy in its premise’s particulars, which is odd since they were what made Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain so intriguing. It’s ultimately more a cautionary tale of mere malfunction than it is of trusting A.I in any complex way as in 2001: ASO. Which would be fine if it were any enjoyable, but most of it consists of figures moving from one side of the frame to the other. Crichton is no filmmaker.

A typically busy frame from Sternberg

The Telephone Book. I found the Alice in Wonderland adventure of the early scenes a bit more fun, but Mr. Smith’s raconteurial bullshit seems to centre the whole thing with the idea it earlier flirts with -all talk and no action -pointedly in the man on the subway who recoils when a girl is actually game. Appropriately enough he gets off on her own anecdotes. A highly dated blend of Monty Python, I Am Curious, Une Femme Mariée, Polanski’s What?, Robert Crumb, Makavejev, and bad early Woody Allen sex jokes. A couple of lines actually made me laugh out loud, deservedly not unintentionally on the maker’s behalf, and it turns out Lyon later wrote for Saturday Night Live. Not much to say, really, it was an amusing diversion with maybe some wit in its employment of montage as replacement and suggestion.

Outland is a pretty notable example of long-focus lensing, deep corridors flattened and figures cluttering every inch of space, appropriate for this lived-in and claustrophobic mining facility. And the terribly underlit murkiness of the image may similarly be fitting, but pleasing to the eye it is not. Otherwise the only thing that can be said is that this film completely loses the meager steam it had when the mystery becomes High Noon western. This cannot rightly be called a sci-fi.

Shame was mostly decent until near the end where it became calculated re the sister, and considered his resorting to faggotry stuff of great tragedy despite him appearing to be relatively OK with it. I also found his behaviour with the girl at the bar, and her partner, incongruous with his character up to that point; you could say he’s at an emotional breaking point here but if so it isn’t articulated. The following threesome was risible. It’s a pity because I rather admire the protracted scenes prior to all this, especially the date at the restaurant. A strangely religious work, with none of the paraphernalia.

Underworld: Awakening was visually coherent and a bearable 88 minutes, which is more than one can say for most of these pointless and pointlessly long additional entries into stagnant franchises. And this is a particularly stale series, compared to the similar Resident Evil brand which mutates at least superficially and has become a rather idiosyncratic playhouse for Anderson and friends. Kate even wears the same leather outfit here. They find enough ways to work within the mandatory dark blue grading field and keep it from getting tired, I found, through pulsating lights, sparks, mist, fire, silhouetting. That being said, it is a predicatably deadening experience, devoid of emotional thrust, overzealously delivering the pyrotechnics. It was amusing to see the narrative work around Scott Speedman’s refusal to return (or unavailability?), I guess successfully but the story is nothing.