Friday, January 29, 2010

Film #7: City Lights (1931)

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Times Previously Viewed: 1 (about 10 years ago)

The Story (in which I unabashedly spoil the hell out of the movie for you. Fair warning):

A waddling little transient wanders around a city (London, maybe?) and meets a poor, blind flower girl. Immediately smitten, he determines to make enough money to pay for an operation that will restore her sight, while she believes him to be a well-to-do gentleman caller. He bounces around the town from job to job, including street sweeper and prize fighter. He mostly cruises through a seesaw friendship with a sometimes-drunken, sometimes-sober rich fellow, who loves the tramp when besotted and discards him when sober.

In the end, the little guy scrapes together the dough he needs, passes it on to the flower girl, and, through a mix-up, is sent to jail for the better part of a year. Once released, in straits more dire than ever, he finds the flower girl hale and hearty, sight restored and managing her own upscale flower shop. All the while, she has been waiting for the return of her mysterious benefactor, assuming that he was a wealthy Samaritan. When she sees and understands that her true champion was and still is penniless, she accepts him all the same.

Take 1. My Gut Reaction (done after 1 viewing, before any research):

Eh. Buster Keaton's way better. I know Chaplin's place and all, but Keaton kicked his ass. I certainly don't hate Chaplin or his movies, but City Lights, like the other films of his that I've seen, is flat by my standards. It's not hard to recognize the cleverness and choreography that goes into a lot of the gags. Probably the best-known in this film is the boxing match when the little tramp is almost out of ideas and takes an offer to fight for the cash he needs to help his blind lady-love. Here it is:

Pretty nifty, and the gags with the bell ringing are actually pretty good. The problem was that most of the scene got a bit monotonous for me, almost to the point that I wanted the guy in the white trunks to punch the tramp's head off of his body and see the credits roll. OK, maybe it wasn't that monotonous, but the only part during this sequence that made me laugh was the bell-ringing gag (after the 3:45 mark in the above clip), and this was one of only about three moments in the whole film that elicited so much as a chuckle out of me.

Why so few laughs? I think one part of it had to do with being able to see a lot of the visual jokes coming from a mile away. Maybe they were fresh back then and have been imitated so often that I could anticipate them. Whatever the reason, part of the comedy of such things is that they catch you off-guard. Very few things in this movie caught me off-guard or offered pleasant surprises. Sure, they took wit to envision and skill to execute, but so does synchronized swimming, and I don't want to watch that, either.

Probably the other aspect that was lukewarm to me was the story. It's pretty sappy, when you get right down to it. Sure, it's sweet (I'm not totally without a heart), but come on. A poor, pretty, blind flower girl?! Man, that's just unimaginative. Why not just bring out a little kid with polio and on crutches while you're at it?

And yet, there was a moment at the end when I was actually intrigued as to what would happen. (The clip below shows you the well-known end of the film). Keep in mind that the girl has just had her sight restored, thanks to the tramp's love and hard work, and he's just gotten out of the clink after serving several months due to a mix-up related to his getting the money. When she grabs his hand, the look that passes between them is actually the greatest thing in the film, and actually choked me up:

So yeah, Chaplin actually got me on that one, the bastard. Still, we're almost left to wonder, what happens next? It seems to me that she accepts him and that things will work out for the better. And to me, that ending equals a missed opportunity. At the risk of being a Monday morning quarterback, I felt that the story would have been exponentially more powerful if the tramp had simply seen her, taken joy from her restored sight, and then walked away. This would have been an act of pure, selfless love on an almost mythical level. Had it ended this way, I would probably still be crying right now, and would have loved the film all the more for it.

In the end, it's a film that has a few good moments, but one that left me wanting to re-watch Buster Keaton's Our Hospitality. Keaton's gags were funnier, he actually did impressive stunts, I find his demeanor far funnier than Chaplin's wiggling, waddling gait, and he steered clear of the cheap sentimentality that Chaplin employed. Both played characters who were somewhat clueless in their films, but Keaton seemed to have more gumption.

I doubt that I'll go out of my way to watch any more Chaplin movies. I can see why he was big in his day, but he doesn't provide the laughs I need in my comedies. Sorry, Charlie. (Couldn't resist that one. Apologies.)

Take 2. Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some research on the film):

The bonus disc with City Lights is a bit weak. It has some general commentary on the film's place in history and its merits, and there's a pretty good little piece by Peter Lord (producer of Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run, et al). The rest is just outtakes, behind-the-scenes footage and other random tidbits. Here's what struck me from it:

In seeing some of the scenes again, I found that I liked some of them a bit more. The boxing scene actually had a bit more charm, and some of Chaplin's delicacy didn't grate on me as much. Lord did make a direct comparison between Chaplin and Buster Keaton, pointing out how Keaton never tried to deal with love the way Chaplin did. I see his point, but I still like Keaton better. While Chaplin does have a certain warming, disarming charm, I think I prefer the straight comedy of Keaton.

The final scene. By all accounts, this is what makes this film an absolute classic. They show it again several times on the extra DVD and its still touching. Even Chaplin, much later in life, maintained that it was the best, most touching piece of acting he had ever constructed and executed. Agreed.

One final note. This film was released when the spoken film era had, in a mere four years, completely killed the silent film, in effect. It simply wasn't being done anymore. And yet, Chaplin scored a massive hit with City Lights (here's the original TIME magazine review from 1931). He felt that his little tramp character, who was already known and loved throughout the world, would alienate his non-English speaking audience by speaking in English. Being an English teacher, I find this exceptionally genius.

Even though I don't love the film myself, I think its success and endurance are phenomenal, and a testament to Chaplin's ability as a visual storyteller who knew how to connect with his audience. It's also a very fitting film to end the silent segment of the ALL-TIME 100 list.

That's a wrap. 7 films down, 98 to go.

Coming Soon: King Kong (1933):

What better way to transition from the silent films to the talkies than by going from Chaplin's adorable little English vagrant to a 60-foot high, rampaging gorilla?

Hail to the King, baby.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Film #6: Man With a Movie Camera (1929)

Director: Dziga Vertov

Release Country: Soviet Union

Times Previously Seen: none

The Story (in which I flatly outline the plot and spoil the hell out of the film for you. Fair warning):

Uh...there is no story. And this was the whole point of the film. Right away, we get a message from director Vertov telling the viewers that this film will have no story and no dialogue. It is meant as a documentary to show just how the moving camera works as a human eye. He trains that eye on the myriad people in the Soviet Union. While the camera may stay on a person for a few different scenes, there is no running narrative. This is, in essence, a documentary covering a single day in the life of a city.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after one viewing before any research):

This film was surprisingly cool. For being released when it was, I can see why people still go back to it. Granted, you need to have a bit of patience and be willing to accept the director's caveat at the beginning, but if you do, you're in for a 68-minute visual and aural treat. The layout of the filming isn't hard to pick up early on - it starts with the early morning when the city and its denizens are asleep. Nothing moves. The people are in bed. The factory machines are still. Roads are empty. Shops are closed. This first part of the movie could essentially have been done with still, single camera shots.

And then, things start to stir. Slowly, the city starts to pull itself into motion. The people start to yawn and stretch. The machines start to warm up. A few autos and trolleys pull into the streets. As the film progresses, the camera shots become more kinetic and gradually more complex in an attempt to keep up with the crescendoing pace of life. We see inside people's homes and their jobs; their leisure and toils; their joys and sorrows. All of this is done with a massive montage of shots, never staying on any one thing or person for much more than 10 or 15 seconds.

Here's a link to the beginning of the film. Just take a few minutes to look at & ponder each shot:

It may sound dizzying, and at times it is, but it's incredibly captivating. In writing, it sounds dull to speak of watching people work assembly lines, exercise, put on mud packs at the beach, work in coal mines, and file for marriage and divorce licences. But trust me, Vertov knew exactly what the magic of moving films is - it's voyeurism. I don't know when the term "people watching" was born, but Vertov realized very early on that the moving camera's greatest power is acting as a set of eyes for us to take in the endless lives and movement around us. Anyone who's been briefly and quietly hypnotized by seemingly mundane things like a person getting an exactingly precise haircut, water streaming over a dam, or watching people try to jump hurdles, will understand the appeal of this film. At times, I almost couldn't understand why I was so entranced, yet I was.

There were times, however, when I knew exactly why I was entranced, and it had to do with the music. It's awesome. I'm really not sure how much of it was based on the original music score, but there were several sounds that seemed too modern to have been done in 1929 (I'll be looking this up later). The DVD I watched was a 1996 release and the music has a really engaging sound that blends some folk and classical instruments like accordions, violins and pianos with what sounded like modern, electronic mood music. I realize that this may not be very authentic, but it works incredibly well and enhances the playfulness of some segments, while accentuating the frantic pace of others. (Note: the music I heard is the same as the clip that I included above.)

Would I recommend this film to others? Hard to say. Only if you're ready for something experimental, even though it's not outrageously so. This isn't Naked Lunch - there's nothing overtly mind-bending about the film. It's really just a director stretching the limits of the visual medium to its extremes very early on and giving your eyes things that they know, but given in a way that only a movie camera can give it. If you think you'd like to kick back and just watch, then do that. Just watch.

Take 2; Or, "Why Film Geeks Love This Movie" (Done after doing some research on the film):

Holy high concept, Batman!! Talk about vertigo-inspiring complexity!! The DVD I watched features an audio commentary by a Dr. No-sounding film critic who seems to be quite the expert on director Vertov and his entire philosophy of film. Re-watching the film with this commentary opened up all kinds of things that I had only half-grasped or suspected upon my first viewing. Here's the long and short of it:

Firstly, the whole thing is basically a commentary on the value of early communism and the disgusting wastefulness of a capitalist society. The many shots of moving machinery and people working on assembly lines are cross-cut with people in beauty salons or in the service industry; the message being that efficiency and tangible productivity are to be venerated, while the rest is to be dismissed as a complete waste. In the latter portions, it becomes more clear that, true to the visions of Leon Trotsky, Vertov held great disdain for church, alcohol, and fiction. He felt that these three things, more than anything, were the great vices upon which a capitalist society thrived. This is, of course, a different argument for a different blog, but it certainly adds a very dense layer to the film and provides a mountain of material for analysis.

Another interesting feature that was pointed out during the commentary is Vertov's approach to incorporating the filmmaker (himself) into the production. In a form of full disclosure to the viewer, you see many shots of him moving and setting up his camera. This was all to circumvent a tremendous problem in documentary filmmaking - how can you be sure that the subjects being filmed will act naturally? Similar to Heisenberg's uncertainly principle in physics, Vertov and his cohorts ultimately decided that the closer you look at something, the more it changes. You can't truly capture the genuine person as if the camera isn't there. Instead, they make sure that the filmed subject as well as you, the viewer are totally aware of all things involved. These guys were obviously thinking of films on levels that very few of us ever even consider. They saw it as a true science rather than a simple medium of entertainment.

Here's one of the many shots from the film which include Vertov & gets the point across about just who's looking at you:

And all of this is just the tip of the pyramid. I haven't even gotten much into the actual images and how the rest of the them relate to each other. Suffice it to say that even the audio commentator on the DVD admitted that this film simply cannot be absorbed with one, two or even three viewings. There is just too much happening and being said, all without words, amazingly.

Final note: the music score that I heard was done by a group called Alloy, who apparently has made quite a name for itself by performing memorable scores for old silent films. As mentioned earlier, I love what they did with this movie.

In the end, I would probably watch this film again since it's not very long and it has masterfully crafted shifts in pace and tone. Since I often enjoy dwelling on what I'm seeing and hearing, this movie is right up my tree. I'm sure not all would feel the same and would write this film off as pretentious, pinko commie junk. I certainly disagree with that, even if I don't completely agree with Vertov's overall social assessments. The film is different and highly innovative; two things that I like to go back to.

That's a wrap. 6 films down. 99 to go.

Coming Soon: City Lights (1931):
Ah...the little tramp. I suppose this will be a fitting way to end the silent film segment of the list. Come back in a few days to see just how this little bugger stacks up to Buster Keaton's mute comedic stylings.
Please pick up all empties on the way out.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Film #5: The Crowd (1928)

Director: King Vidor (who wins the award for "Name That Belongs in a Star Wars Movie")

Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: none

The Story (in which I give away the plot and spoil the hell out of the movie for you. Fair warning):

In 1900, on the 4th of July, John "Johnny" Sims is born to a father who envisions his son doing something grand with his life. Fast forward 20 or so years. Johnny arrives in New York where he hopes to prove himself a success, as long as he's "given the opportunity." He grinds at a monotonous job, marries a nice gal, and has two children over the next 5 years, all the while toiling in the same career and persistently confident that his "ship will come in" any day. He goes through several ups and downs: some typical, like domestic feuds with his wife and in-laws; others much more tragic such as losing his young daughter to a traffic accident. After this horror, he quits his job, hops from one low-level gig to another, and nearly commits suicide. In the end, he finds a job as a juggling clown wearing a sandwich board and barely manages to save his marriage. His dreams of making it big are dashed, but he finds some sort of peace with his wife and remaining child. Swirling around it all is the titular "Crowd" of New York - the ever-bustling, ever-callous, never-still swarm of people that pump through the streets and buildings of the metropolis.

Take 1 (My opinion based on one viewing done before any research on the film):

Lame. Simple as that. If took five films to get there, but I've now seen one that I flat-out didn't like. I do need to mention that I had to watch this on a pretty shoddy VHS tape since it's not currently in-print. The picture quality is quite burned out, which leads to extremely bright spots and washes out a fair bit of the detail in many of the scenes. Still, this was hardly the problem. However, before I pummel the shit out of this movie, I'll take a look at the merits that I could see.

The obvious plus is the handful of interesting camera shots. As suggested by the synopsis on the tape jacket (one of those old-school, hefty plastic snap-case jobs that will end up buried in a landfill for at least 1,000 years), several shots were groundbreaking and iconic. There are three or four scenes with striking symmetry. One of them is when the 12-year old Johnny stands in a crowd at the bottom of a staircase leading into his home, preparing to ascend and learn that his father has died. We look down from the top landing and can get a sense of how distant and alone he is. Another, more famous one is our first look at Johnny's first job in New York. Here's a still shot:

Pretty exacting, eh? This scene and several more reminded me of the brilliant Coen brothers/Sam Raimi movie The Hudsucker Proxy (which I suspect drew very heavily from The Crowd), and which used many similar techniques to convey the sense of the cold machinery of big business. The problem, though, is that there's not nearly enough of it in The Crowd. Aside from these few admittedly impressive moments, nearly all of the rest of the camerawork was rather mundane to my eye. Had there been more shots like what you see above, I probably would have been more engaged. As it was, the extended montages of New York City traffic, the Coney Island amusement park, and Niagara Falls were yawners.

The other positive that stood out to me was that, compared to the other films I've watched from this era, The Crowd seems to be edgier and take on slightly risque topics: domestic fights, broken toilets, getting sauced on bootlegged hooch and picking up flapper "wrens", and the nervousness of a honeymoon evening. It lends a bit of verisimilitude to the story and the sense that Sims' story is that of your average fella. But again, it's the story of the average fella in the 1920s. For us 80-plus years later, the things that seem authentic are very different and amount to a slight disconnect. It's a bit hard for me to sympathize with a guy whose grand dream is winning $100.00 in an advertising contest. In the end, I couldn't say that I was overly wrapped up in whether Johnny was going to "make good" or not.

One final thing that brought me a touch of amusement was the dialogue on the title cards. Since the script was trying to convey the speech of the common New Yorker, we get some prime 20s-era slang. I had to chuckle at terms for people like, "old Bean," "you big egg," and admonitions when one of Johnny's co-workers tells him to "quit the high-hat"(a term used wonderfully by Jon Polito in Miller's Crossing).

On a final note, the overall story had a certain admirable appeal in that it served as a social commentary on hyper-urban culture. In this, the film does good work; however, to be truly effective, it really needed to be more tragic, a la the novel Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser or even the previous movie in this review, The Last Command. As it is, things end on a somewhat chipper note, with Johnny and his wife reconciling and moving forward with life. To me, this was a bit of a cop-out and amounts to the filmmakers trying to side-step alienating a popular audience.

Basically, this movie, though not overly long, was a struggle to get through. I don't really recommend it to anyone but hard-core film heads, critics and historians.

Take 2; or: "Why Film Geeks Love this Movie" (written after doing a bit of reading & research on the film.)

It would appear that, after reading a few critical analyses of the film, that the key words are "Everyman" and "camerawork." In a break from standard film topics, The Crowd was the first film to really tackle the plight of the average Joe trying to run with the rest of the pack. The fact that there is no "hero" or "villain" here seems to be one of the two major innovations here.

The second is, as mentioned, the filming. The use of tracking shots to illustrate how John Sims is either in or out of sync with the pulsing mob is still lauded by critics and filmmakers today. Apparently, the topic and style have been used in several other classics like the aforementioned Hudsucker Proxy and Billy Wilder's equally-heralded The Apartment.

Despite having these things pointed out to me and recognizing the merits, I'll never watch this one again. Well, maybe if someone paid me. A lot.

That's a wrap. 5 films down. 100 to go.

Coming Soon: Film #6 - The Man With a Camera (1929):

Based on the poster, I'll undoubtedly have to do stacks of acid before watching this movie in order to make heads or tails of what the hell is going on. Check back in a few to see if I can explain just what on God's green Earth this playbill is about.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Film #4: The Last Command (1928)

Note: This film not being in-print on DVD, I had to order a VHS version. I was able to catch a whiff of nostalgia as I pushed the tape into the decades-old player in my classroom. The whirring, clicking dinosaur sounded not unlike the first Terminator at the end of the film: nothing but a twisted torso and one robotic arm desperately scraping itself along the factory floor, lunging for Sarah Connor. Man, these old machines are great.

Times Previously Seen: none

Initial Release Country: United States

The Story (in which I flatly describe the plot and spoil the hell out of the movie for you):
A palsied, uncertain old man is hired as an extra in a Hollywood war movie, seemingly because he has the right look and merely claims to be a former general in the Russian Imperial army and cousin to the fallen Czar. We quickly learn through flashback that this man is not lying. In fact, he is former Grand Duke Sergeus Alexander, and the the director of the movie is a former Russian revolutionary who recognizes the old general and sees this as an opportunity to exact his revenge on the man who arrested him 10 years prior. It is also the director's last stab at the Russian aristocratic power of the past.

During the flashback, we see the general to have been a bit arrogant and blustering, but also deeply concerned about his troops and the welfare of Russia. He has loyalty to his cousin, the Czar, but does not blindly follow orders. He is a thoughtful man who develops a sincere caring for a beautiful young actress. The actress, a revolutionary herself, is captured and swayed into admiration for the general. Once the Bolshevik Revolution occurs, the young woman saves the general's life from a bloodthirsty mob, then herself falls victim to a tragic train crash. The general, torn apart professionally, spiritually and mentally, flees Russia.

Ten years later, in Hollywood, he is made to reenact his past role as general. In the middle of acting in the scene, the vivid memory of his past life is triggered, he slips into a delusional passion to defend his mother Russia and dies on the set.

A scene from the beginning of the film, depicting the distant, haunted gaze of Sergeus Alexander.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (A review done before any kind of research on the movie):

This is a great film, silent or not. Sure, there are some elements and aesthetics that I can gripe about (and I will, further down), but this film is a masterpiece. So much so that, during the last 20 minutes or so, I wasn't even taking the notes that I normally take when doing these reviews. I was that gripped. The main character, Sergeus Alexander, is that rare thing in all stories, be they in films, TV, novels or theater: a complete human. So many stories are weakened by simplified caricatures of pre-determined archetypes: hero or villain; good or evil; powerful or weak, and rarely do the twain meet. The greatest characters, however, are people in full, warts and all. Sergeus is one of those characters.

In the beginning of the movie, you feel pity for this old, traumatized and feeble man as the other extras on the movie set taunt him, thinking his claims about his identity are nonsense. When we start to see his life as a general, we quickly resent him, his arrogant posture, his belittling of disrespectful officers, and his seeming callousness toward suspected revolutionaries. Then, we start to see more aspects of him: his tenderness towards the young actress, despite her attempt to assassinate him; his genuine concern for his soldiers' lives; and his deep love for the integrity of his home country. Once we get the sense of the complete man and understand how admirable he is, despite and because of his flaws, it's truly painful to see it all come crashing down around him. He loses his livelihood, his love, and his country, all in one fell swoop when the Empire falls. During the end scene, I was completely enthralled by the general's unbridled release of emotion - emotion that had been caged in by a decade of sorrow.

One of the first scenes in which the seemingly tyrannical general subtly reveals his more humane tenderness.

Something else that you can see in this clip is how the acting has evolved. Almost gone are the grandiose movements of earlier silent films. The actors behave and talk much more realistically, being on-par with modern thespians. Thanks to this, the 21st century viewer can more easily sense the emotions of the characters and empathize with them. As exhibit A, I suggest looking at the general's walk and face when he's retrieving his mistress/would-be assassin's cigarette, pondering whether he's about to die for his love of her; maybe even dutifully accepting it. The whole movie is filled with such moments. The capper is the look on Sergeus' face as his life is ripped from him. From contented to utterly haunted, his wide eyes are burned into my mind. Emil Jannings, who won the very first "Best Actor" Academy Award for the role, was truly amazing.

Alas, it was not a perfect viewing experience. A few minor things made me wince just a bit. One was the music score. Maybe the original, in-theater score was better, but this tape had the standard silent film organ music. I realize that this was the norm for the day, but here in 2010, it made me feel like I was watching an Icecapades extravaganza during an intermission at a minor league hockey game. For a moment, I thought the Hanson brothers were going to charge onto the screen and start throwing wicked hip checks.

Another, more prominent blemish is the gaps in the story. The flashback format works extremely well, but the ten-year time jump gives you no explanation as to how Alexander gets from crying in the Russian snow to subsistence living in a Hollywood boarding house. I realize that it's not the most crucial detail, but I wondered about it all the same.

The only other bugaboo was the titles. It has nothing to do with the acting or the other, more essential components of the movie, but a few of them were distractingly hokey. The prize-winner was when the general captures his revolutionary mistress and says, "You are now my prisoner of war. And my prisoner of love!" Ouch. Not even Sir Laurence Olivier could pull off that line.

But that's it for the downside. Fairly easily overlooked, and leaving me saying that this is easily the most enjoyable film I've watched from the list so far. In fact, I had initially planned to sell the tape after watching the film. Now, I plan to keep it and watch it at least once more. If you think you have the patience for a silent flick (it's just under 90 minutes), this one's a gem.

Take 2: A Few More Thoughts After Some Research (or, "Why Film Geeks Love This Movie"):

There's actually not a ton of analysis of this film out there, perhaps because the story, while packing emotional power, is rather straightforward. The one thing that the critics of the past and present point to is the acting. As mentioned, Emil Jannings garnered the very first Academy Awards for Best Actor in this one (amazingly, he was also nominated for The Way of All Flesh in the same year). Here's the original TIME Magazine review of The Last Command. I particularly like the description of Jannings as "clumsy-faced, blacksmith-muscled" and "think-fingered," while the writer praises him.

In addition to Jannings's brilliant acting is that of William Powell, who portrayed the general's nemesis as the Russian Bolshevik revolutionary-turned-Hollywood film director (it's far less ridiculous in the film than it reads - trust me). I know Powell from a few talkie films like The Thin Man and My Man Godfrey. While he's fantastic in those later films, I agree with critics who give him the nod - his subtle facial gestures and calm, steely gazes were just as effective in silent films. He lent yet another strong presence to an incredible movie.

That's a wrap. 4 films in the can. 101 to go.
Next Film: The Crowd (1928):
I guess this film was a smash-hit in China, based on the bilingual movie poster here. Like the previous two films, this one will be a totally new experience for me. Check back in a few days for the review.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Film #3: Sunrise (1927)

Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: none

The Story:

In the early part of the 20th century, a young married man living in a village is having an affair with a visiting city gal. Smitten with lust, he's convinced to murder his loving wife so that he can move to the city with his mistress. He convinces his wife to hop into their little boat, ostensibly for a trip to the city. His plan is to push her overboard and claim accidental death; however, just as he's about to commit the deed, his wife senses his intent and recoils in horror. He is stricken with the notion of what he is about to do, is overcome with crushing guilt, and pleads his wife's forgiveness. Through a series of increasingly lighthearted antics in the city, the husband and wife rediscover their love for each other. On the return boat trip back to their village, a storm sweeps in and sends the couple into the thrashing lake waters. When the man recovers and thinks that he has lost his wife forever, he is sent into a dark rage, nearly killing the still-present mistress. He stops short only because another stalwart villager finds and revives the wife in the nick of time. Love, rather than homicidal insanity, wins out for the second time in the film. Three cheers for love!!

My Gut Feeling (done after watching the film, but before any research):

This was actually an enjoyable little movie. It's just under 90 minutes, so the story is told in a pretty concise way, with no parts seeming to drag too much. Right away, things get hopping as you start with the man-stealing city gal using her slinky black dress to arouse the killer inside "The Man" (another effect I actually liked is that none of the characters is given a proper name - it lends a parable-like air to everything). I think that the narrative beginning was pretty cool since other, more boring films may have wasted at least a half hour with a story of the city dame's seduction of the farmer. In Sunrise, there's none of that. It jumps right to the sinister plot to kill the sweet young wife. In keeping with this quick beginning, you can tell that his wife is a caring, soulful creature who's done nothing to deserve such treachery. The rest of the movie does the same. Through physical attitudes and facial expressions, we can clearly see the anguish and joy that the main characters experience. It's quite effective.

The interesting aspect of this is that, compared to contemporary silent films that I've seen, the actors in Sunrise don't overdo it too much. Sure, things are melodramatic and postures are exaggerated (I'm sure the script had many obvious phrases such as "slouched shoulders" and "body drawn back in horror"), but not nearly to the extent of a film like Metropolis, which came out earlier in the same year. When you look past the more obvious, heavily theatrical moments, there are plenty of very delicate, human moments: gentle touches, kisses, and looks that ring true to viewers in any time. Because of this relative realism, I found that I actually cared about the characters.

Here's an extended clip. Check out the segment from time 8:30 and after, which I find to be pretty powerful:

The juggernaut film Metropolis dealt with characters who had very little flesh and blood - they represented much larger concepts like "The Aristocracy" or "The Soul". In Sunrise, we're given a simple tale of love and it's very effective. When The Man is stalking towards his sweet little wife to kill her (in the previous clip), I was intensely focused on whether he would do it or not (again, I knew nothing about the movie before watching). The film had already shown us the man envisioning the killing, so I knew the filmmakers weren't going to shy away from being too dark or graphic. When the peals of nearby town bells bring him to his senses and shake him out of his murderous state of mind, I felt actual relief. It was the same at the end when we are led to believe that his wife has truly drowned because of a raging storm. I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach, especially when the man finds his mistress and starts to strangle her (another rather dark and realistically intense scene). When his wife is found and revived, I was genuinely pleased. Call me a softy, but after the pair had been through so much, my heart was rather warmed by the feel-good ending. No tears, though, so I'm going to hold on to my "Man Card".

If there was anything I didn't like too much it was the hokey middle-section of the film. Once the man has snapped out of his urge to kill his wife and has worked to regain her trust, they traipse through the city to re-cultivate their childlike love for each other. This, by itself, is fine. The problem is that the filmmakers used gags that I think were supposed to be truly funny and that made the audience laugh with the reborn couple. Maybe this worked well back in 1927, but now they all seem pretty sophomoric. Granted, we are watching a story about two young farmers, so the things that bring them joy may not translate to the modern, urban film viewer very well. All the same, my eyes were rolling a bit during these scenes, which included a broken lamp, a drunken runaway pig, and a woman's falling shoulder straps (the scandal!!).

In the final analysis, I thought it was a good movie. Like the other two silent films that I've watched so far, I don't know that I'd go out of my way to watch it again, but it certainly wasn't time wasted or a struggle to get through. It's also not hard to see why it's lived on in cinema history. I enjoyed its frankness and tenderness, and its ability to connect with the viewer. It's a good reminder that just because a tale is simple does not mean that it necessarily lacks immense power. Sunrise proves this.

Panning In; or, "Why Film Geeks Love This Movie": (a closer look at the film after doing some research)

This particular DVD had a nice amount of extras, the best being the audio commentary track by cinematographer John Bailey. This guy does wander into technical jargon and musings of the lives of the filmmakers once in a while, but for the most part he analyzes and educates on the film. This is really interesting for those who like to "see behind the curtain" and figure out how they pulled off some of the groundbreaking camerawork in the film. What I got most out of his commentary was his pointing out just how beautiful some of the still shots are. More than once he compared such shots to the paintings of Dutch masters like Vermeer, and its not hard to see it. Here's an example:

There are plenty of other, even more beautiful scenes. What I realized after having them pointed out to me is that, to truly enjoy and appreciate such things, you have to be in the right frame of mind. There are some movies that you'll watch and love no matter what your mood (for me, Predator, Heat, The Big Lebowski and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly come to mind. To each his own). A silent movie like this, though, requires a certain relaxed mood and patience to drink in the oft-soothing visuals and allow them to calmly convey the emotion in the story. In short, I probably shouldn't have downed that espresso before sitting down to watch this film. Such high levels of concentrated caffeine tend to make me antsy for a gunfight.

From what I've read, many film critics & historians show an almost forlorn attitude when writing and speaking of this movie. It came out just one month after The Jazz Singer, which was the very first "talkie," and the film that changed popular cinematic storytelling forever. The irony is that, just as it came out, filmmakers were really mastering the medium of visual storytelling, both technically and artistically. As immense and powerful as a film like Metropolis was, Sunrise showed how the same artistry could be applied to a far simpler and touching theme: the love between two people. To many hard-core film heads, Sunrise was one of the last of its ilk, as the coming years would bring in the rapid decline of the silent film and a major paradigm shift in cinematic storytelling.

That's a wrap. 3 down. 102 to go.

Next film on TIME's list: The Last Command (1928):

If we end up facing a nuclear winter, I think this guy is the hard-ass I want on my team. Like Sunrise, I'm going into this one with absolutely no foreknowledge.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Film #2: Metropolis (1927)

Release Year: 1927

Country: Germany

Times Previously Seen: 1 (about 3 years ago)

The Story: Metropolis tells the story of a dystopian future in which the elite live in radiant splendor high above the earth, while the laborers toil endlessly on massive machines underground. Freder, the highly privileged son of Joh Fredersen, the creator and operator of the city, meets Maria, a woman of the people who has a dream of bringing together the two disparate parts of society. He plans to help her peacefully dissolve his father's constant repression of the workers. Freder's father learns of this and enlists the aid of the mad scientist/warlock Rotwang, who builds an android doppelganger of Maria. Unbeknownst to Joh Fredersen, Rotwang wants to destroy the entire city as cold revenge for Fredersen's having stolen Rotwang's one true love years past. Rotwang's robot impersonator sows discord so strongly that the workers rise up in armed rebellion, wreak complete havoc, and nearly annihilate the city. Maria and Freder eventually emerge to uncover the lies, calm both sides, vanquish Rotwang and his mechanical minion, and bring the two halves of society together.

My Gut Reaction: (Done before doing any research on the making or history of the film)

"The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart."

This is the opening and closing statement of the film, and there's nothing very subtle about how the film steers you right towards this preachy message. Still, this isn't what immediately stands out. What does is just how much more advanced and artistic this film looks when compared to it's contemporaries. Having just watched the 1924 Buster Keaton comedy Sherlock, Jr., the contrast was stunning. Going from a silly little guy running across the tops of trains to massive and angular expressionist sets, elaborate costumes, and a weighty orchestral music score told me not to expect too many chuckles.

Going back to the original epigram on "the head, hands and heart," it was appropriate to me as a viewer. While watching Metropolis, my heart couldn't get into a film with themes that have been used again and again in science fiction, despite my head telling me that it was all highly innovative and thought-provoking in 1927. In the end, my head won out and prevented my hands from ejecting the DVD from the player mid-movie. Metropolis was, quite obviously, a marvel in its day. The themes of class divisions, the struggle of the worker, and the attempts to find peaceful reconciliation were all still very much at the forefront of the developed world's consciousness in that period. I can appreciate this, but as a man born in 1975, they aren't as relevant in film to me any more.

Director: "Remember, you have to look really crazy!!"

In addition to the now-stale themes is the acting. Silent films, of course, require a very high degree of physical exaggeration in both facial expressions and overall body language. I'm sure viewers of the day barely noticed, if at all. Watching now, though, it just looks goofy in a drama. It's one thing when it's a silent era comedy, which is supposed to be over-the-top in terms of physical acting; it's another thing when I'm supposed to gain sympathy for or against the characters. Dramatic film acting has simply evolved far too much to take the silent-era style at all seriously. I know some modern aficionados of silent films can ignore this, or even like it, but not me.

While watching Metropolis, the other obvious area in which films have progressed is in overall sophistication. When watched with a half-discriminating eye, a ton of plot holes can be found. We never know exactly how the workers can so easily mob together and destroy their own machines. If Fredersen is such a cold, calculating mastermind, how does he not anticipate such uprisings? And, of course, the way that Rotwang is foiled is through his exposition of his own plan. Seen as a modern viewer, the story gaps are glaring, and what may have been fresh elements 80 years ago now seem very hackneyed.

Lest you think that I totally despised this film, allow me to mention several things that I really enjoyed. Firstly is the look of the film. Sure, it's way too easy to see which sets are simply paintings and models, but they are pretty spectacular. The choreographed movements of the masses of proletariat are truly impressive. Here's one scene (with a really cool, redone modern score):

In addition to this and several other hypnotically striking visuals is the use of some classic standard elements of adventure stories and fairy tales. The mad scientist/wizard, Rotwang, is easily the most intriguing character, being a psychotic, one-handed genius, complete with his own sanctum which houses a laboratory, secret underground chambers, and a massive statue head that serves as a memorial to his lost love. Plenty of food for psychoanalysis, just with him alone. There's also a pretty solid climactic, rooftop fight at the end between Rotwang and Freder.

One other solid merit is that, despite the few irrelevant or overplayed themes, a highly relevant one remains: technology and its place in reducing our faith in our senses. The android Maria represents how we can get hoodwinked by what we see, just as easily as ever. Her role in this movie serves as a cautionary tale to me. What leads to the destruction of large parts of the city in Metropolis is that the masses take her for authentic simply because she looks like the genuine Maria. In our culture of celebrity worship, where many of us somehow still are surprised when seemingly decent or admirable people (as told to us by Entertainment Weekly) prove to be far less than so, we may be playing out certain aspects presented in Metropolis more than we think.

So those are my knee-jerk feelings. Metropolis is a heady film that was way ahead of its time, and its no mystery as to why it has continued to garner recognition. That being said, I now demand far more from my speculative fiction. Through no fault of its own, Metropolis has become the shoulders upon which later, more advanced films have stood.

Upon Further Review; or, Why Film Geeks Love this Movie (a closer look at the movie after doing some research)

This DVD is loaded with extras: a full running audio commentary, a 45-minute documentary on the history of the film, and other bios and photos of the filmmakers. After pouring through all of it, several things come to light.

One is that this film was quite obviously meant as pure allegory and metaphor. This is probably the best explanation as to why the characters are very one- or two-dimensional and the interpersonal storylines overly simplistic. For allegory and metaphor to work, things need to be relatively simple.

In keeping with the idea of metaphor is that literally everything in the film was meant to be symbolic. The movements, gestures, props, costumes and, especially, the characters. This, as film historian Enno Patalas said, is part of the fun of watching this kind of film. I have to agree, since this is what kept me watching. Drawing from the Bible, the occult, Freudian theories, and plenty of other sources, Metropolis contains endless fodder for analysis, some very obvious and some very subtle or vague. Every scene has something to seek out and ponder. These, as much as anything, is why the film has remained in the consciousness of movie-watchers for over 80 years. Here's what the guys at TIME magazine had to say about it.

A Bit of History

The other interesting aspect of the film is its connection to historical context. It is considered the last of German expressionist art films, with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) being the first. Coming out during Germany's own post-World War I "Roaring 20s," it features a lot of the flashy, angular style seen in the paintings of the day. Director Fritz Lang was quite the artiste, being a poet, writer and painter, as well as film director. Metropolis made such an impression on Hitler that, in 1933, he requested that Lang become the chief film maker for the Nazi party. Lang wasted no time in refusing, then leaving Germany, post haste.

A final interesting note is the checkered history of the editing of the film. For the longest time, no one was really sure about exactly how long the original theatrical release was. This was because it was shown for a few weeks to great success. Then, however, it was pulled and had roughly a quarter of the footage removed. Over the succeeding decades, more and more prints were lost, and more and more hatchet jobs were done on the movie, leaving viewers in the 80s and 90s with a patchwork version of the original film. Interestingly, in 2008, a complete copy of the original film was discovered in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The nearly-complete version, said to clock in at a massive three-and-a-half hours (the current version is 2 hours) will be given special premiers starting in February of this year. Film nerds are no doubt foaming at the mouth for this one. Personally, I'll probably skip out on that mammoth.

That's a wrap. Two Films down. 103 to go. Next - Sunrise (1927):

Unlike the first two films, I know absolutely nothing about this one going in. The two lovebirds in the poster look happy enough, though. We'll see if the "Song of Two Humans" advertised at the bottom of the bill makes me want to sing along or just get drunk and find some earplugs.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Film #1: Sherlock, Jr. (1924)

A Few Thoughts on Silent Film. I'm not a fanatic for silent movies, but they hold a place in my heart. Film school students and historians point to the innovations made by filmmakers from the early 20th century and appreciate them for their technical merits. Most of us, however, don't. Most of us, myself included, mainly want entertainment. And, let's face it, we are now a culture of endless stimuli. The simple combination of visuals and music doesn't quite cut it. The thing that we forget is that film gains most of its power from visuals. The other elements: dialogue, narration, and music, were elements of literature and theater, and simply enhance the visual story being told in films. Before Al Jolson broke the "sound barrier" with The Jazz Singer in 1929, films were all about visual storytelling. Once dialogue was made possible, the gradual de-emphasis on visuals began. These days, the art of telling the story without the aid of words is all but lost. A few major filmmakers of the present and recent past still show this skill. Sergio Leone was a great, Quentin Tarantino is quite an adept, and the Coen Brothers are true masters of it. In a way, the total reliance on facial expressions, body language, prop positioning, camera shots & angles, and choreography to tell the story is pure cinema. With this in mind, let's have a look at one of the earliest icons of silent film:

Times Previously Viewed: 1 (about 10 years ago)

My Thoughts
At 45 minutes, Sherlock, Jr. is not much of a time commitment, and I enjoyed it. As with most silent films, the story is simple: a young projection operator (Keaton) has daydreams of being a world-class detective. Most of the film is given over to an extended fantasy that he has while he falls asleep in the projection booth. He dreams himself into the middle of a case of stolen pearls, outwits the bad guys through a combination of luck and skill, and makes many a narrow escape throughout.

Basically, Buster Keaton was awesome. He seemed to understand, even back then, a universal truth about physical and silly humor - the goofier you're going to be, the straighter you have to play it. Throughout every gag, both obvious and subtle alike, he maintains a stone deadpan that makes for the perfect counterpart to his casual agility, grace and athleticism. This "stone-face" approach still lives today: think very early Woody Allen, Leslie Nielsen in the Airplane and Naked Gun movies, or Ricky Gervais. The thing that makes those bits funny is that the guys pulling them act as if absolutely nothing's amiss. Keaton was way ahead of the curve on this one. I had more than one honest-to-goodness laugh during this short flick.

The diminutive Keaton did all of his own stunts, some of which are pretty astounding when you keep in mind the time period. Here's a montage of some of the hits. Keaton severely fractured his neck doing the one from the train at the beginning. Unfortunately, a few of my favorites were left out (the best bits start at about 5:00 into the video):

Overall, it was a fun watch. Had it been longer, I may have grown a bit tired of the simplicity of the plot and the way that everything is manipulated towards the stunts. As it was, however, I enjoyed it. I may not watch it again any time soon, but it's a great introduction to someone looking for one of the great silent films. I actually think a young kid would still really love this one, too. I mean, what young'un doesn't want to see a goofy little guy nearly getting shot, punched out, run over by trains, and hurled off of motorcycles? Not this one!

Why Film Geeks Love This Film

The answer, like the stories of Keaton's films, is simple: pretty much the same reason the common person liked it - the visual gags and the impeccable orchestration of the stunts. Also, the scene in which Keaton "jumps" into a rolling movie on a projection screen was seen as a major innovation (it's in the middle of the posted visual clip). By today's special effects standards, it seems grossly outdated. At the time, however, it was quite the eye-opener. Here's the complete review by one of the list compilers.

Side Note

On the same DVD as Sherlock, Jr. was an earlier Keaton flick, Our Hospitality (1923). This one was longer, but I actually liked it more. The sight gags were even better, and the story cleverly wove together disparate plot elements, a la the very best episodes of Seinfeld.

Coming Soon...Film # 2 on the list: Metropolis (1927)

This one is considered one of, if not the first great cinematic science fiction masterpiece. Come back in a few days to see what I think of the unblinking stare of that metal chick in the poster. She's going to keep looking at and thinking about you until you come back. Sleep tight.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Me Versus 100: The Warm Up

The Goal? To watch all 100 titles listed on TIME Magazines "ALL TIME 100 Films" list from 2005.

Why? I really do love movies, but only the ones that I love. To clarify that circular statement, I need to say that I'm not like Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, or any of the other special film makers or professional critics who are true movie junkies. They must have spent nearly half of their waking lives watching movies. Such people can find the merit in, and appreciate, the positives in a vast array of films. Not me. Some of the stuff that those people love and laud are things that I couldn't be paid to sit through, even if I can acknowledge the skill required to make them. However, the movies that I love are things that will stay with me until the day that I die. The stories they tell, the characters they reveal, and the visual medium can be things of power, beauty, and so many of the other things that we can experience through film alone.

What Are Your Credentials, Son? My own history with films has been one of slow growth. I wasn't suckled on "artistic" films. Like most Americans of my generation (I was born in 1975), I was happy with my steady diet of massive, star-studded blockbuster films. A handful of these movies are still true classics and I still love them, but most of them have become dated, their stories tired or no longer relevant. At some point, I started discovering the slightly off-beat stuff: Monty Python/Terry Gilliam, Sergio Leone, and the Coen Brothers (remember, I said "slightly off-beat"), to name a few. Over time, I slowly continued to dig for other directors that may not have had tremendous commercial success, but whose movies I liked all the same.

"It's the End of the World! Start Making Lists!!" Then came the end of the millennium. With the coming of the year 2000 came and endless array of "Best of the Century" lists. I happened upon the American Film Institute's Top 100. When I looked at the list, I noticed that, while at the time I considered myself a film buff, I had only seen about 25 of the films on the list. It was an interesting mixture of smash hits like Jaws and Gone With the Wind, and some more daring, innovative films like The Graduate and Raging Bull. Most of them were movies that I'd heard of but never seen, all ones that the "experts" proclaimed to be important for one reason or another. So, I got to work. Over the course of the next year, I worked my way through the rest of the list. Some of the films were ones that I couldn't stand (I've learned that, with very few exceptions, I hate musicals and screwball comedies), and some have become my absolute favorite films (I may not have ever seen Network or MASH if not for the list). And these were just American Films!!

And this is the reason that I'm using another list. I do better when I have some kind of guide. The guide may not always be right, but will usually show you at least a few spectacular things along the way. For a while, I set myself the ambitious task of working my way through the entire Criterion Collection series, which is a phenomenal gathering of foreign & independent films. When I started, there were around 350 films in their catalogue. Since then, they've been adding anywhere from 2 to 10 every month, a rate that is moving faster than I can watch them (I do have a job and a social life, after all). Currently, there are over 500 in their list, with more being adding all of the time. I got through about 150 of them, but had to give up on that monumental task and seek something more manageable.

So, about a week ago, I stumbled across TIME's list from 2005. In perusing it, I noticed an interesting mix of films from all over the world, and from many genres. The list doesn't give too many slots to any one director (Scorcese has 3, a few others have 2), and even the ones that I've seen (the majority of the list) are ones that I saw when I was much younger. Back then, I was less patient and unused to the different pacing and techniques at work in older, foreign, or independent films. In the end, it looks like a list that will give me an excuse to do several things at once: (1) Give myself a healthy, if not exactly exhaustive, stroll through film history. (2) Give myself an excuse to re-watch some films that I love, and (3) Possibly discover some previously-unknown (to myself) cinematic treasure from the past.

Just How Obsessive/Compulsive Can a Man Be? Pretty OCD, but not over the top. The original list was not ranked in any way. Much to my delight, the compilers made no attempt to place one film ahead of another. They simply listed them in order of their release date. In keeping with this, I will be watching them in chronological order. This means a few silent films first, then into the talkies, then color, with all of the other major and minor innovations popping up along the way.

And now, here's a preview of what will be my first review, hopefully coming within about a week or so, Sherlock, Jr. (1924). Check out this awesomely "yesteryear" show bill:

I'll see if Buster Keaton is any happier in the film than on this poster.