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Monthly Archives: January 2017

Movie Crash Course: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

(I’m working my way through the critically-selected 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, watching them all in sequence or as close to sequence as I can get.)


Full disclosure: I watched this after a completely exhausting week, after a big meal, and actually dozed off a couple times during the proceedings.  But my roommate was watching too, and he was awake through the whole thing.  And neither one of us really got what the hell was going on.

It starts out with a pair of men on what looks like a park bench somewhere; a woman walks by them in a daze, and the younger man – named Francis – points her out, explaining to the older man that she is his fiancee and remarking that they’ve been through a lot together…flashback a couple years, to the younger man’s small-town past in a German hamlet, where he and his best buddy were young swells about town both competing for the heart of the local beauty. On a lark all three visit a local carnival, and attend a side show run by the mysterious Dr. Caligari, a newcomer with a mysterious act. Dr. Caligari is a hypnotist, it seems, who keeps another man in a permanent sleep, locked up in a coffin-size cabinet; he wakes the man, Cesare, to tell people’s fortunes. Francis’ buddy Alan playfully asks Cesare how long he’s going to live, and Cesare tells him “not past dawn.”

Well, bummer. Especially since later that night Cesare fullfills the prophecy by killing him.

After a couple more murders, Francis starts to get suspicious and spies on Dr. Caligari and Cesare, and discovers that Dr. Caligari has been sending the zombie-like Cesare out on his murderous missions. He and the police give chase, trailing the Doctor to the local insane asylum, surprised when he walks in.  Francis follows, losing Dr. Caligari in the place; he seeks help from some of the doctors, who theorize that Dr. Caligari may be the asylum’s own director, who’s been acting a little weird lately.  They peruse the director’s journals, finding that the director has started to believe that he is the reincarnation of the famous mystic Caligari.  Francis and the doctors are understandably shocked, so they lay in wait, capture “Dr. Caligari” and victoriously consign him to a padded cell, ending his reign of terror.

And then things go totally St. Elsewhere. Francis and his older companion get up from the park bench and wander into a courtyard where a cluster of people is all milling around, behaving…oddly. A woman plays an imaginary piano, a man pretends to be Napoleon.  Francis sees his girlfriend in the crowd and tries to sweet talk her, but she rebuffs him because…she is queen. He then sees Cesare sitting by a wall and cuddling a flower, and warns his companion “don’t let him tell your fortune or you’ll die!”  And when an older man walks in: “Dr. Caligari!” Francis screams.  “You all think I’m insane, but it’s not me, it’s him! Dr. Caligari!” He freaks out, the guards swarm in, and lock Francis in the padded cell.  And outside, Dr. Caligari – who, in truth, is the manager of the insane asylum – remarks that someday he’ll have figured out how to cure Francis.

The end.

Cue the roommate and I looking at each other, then going on Wikipedia to figure out what the hell just happened.

The unreliable-narrator trope isn’t actually that complicated, I’ll admit.  But the production has a lot of unrealistic elements, so it was hard to really trust anything. All the sets are obvious flat painted boards in bizarre shapes – huge isocoles-triangle doors, chairs like plinths, a vase made out of crepe paper and shaped like a four-foot wedding cake. Even the title cards are done up in stylized blocky lettering.  It’s actually a perfect example of German expressionist design – but to our 21st-century eyes, it comes across more like “Dr. Seuss is tripping balls”.



Movie Crash Course: Intolerance

(I’m working my way through the critically-selected 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, watching them all in sequence or as close to sequence as I can get.)


And then a year or so after his last flick, D.W. Griffith got high-concept and epic.

Intolerance is actually four separate stories told concurrently, all meant to illustrate how “love” has done battle with “intolerance” through the ages.  There’s a sequence about the fall of Babylon, one about Jesus, a sequence about the French St. Bartholomew Day Massacre, and a contemporary story about a poor couple.  The French story and the Bible story get short shrift, however; early after its release, Griffith learned that audiences were digging the Babylon parts way more, and made some cuts to the two weaker stories so he could put in some more Babylonian footage.  I honestly didn’t miss them – instead of spinning out into a larger examination of the 1500s religious wars in France, the story pretty much focuses on just one family, with a virginal eldest daughter refusing the advances of a soldier because she’s engaged to another man; the massacre is his excuse for a revenge killing and that’s it.  And as for the Bible story, well – a Catholic childhood and 2000 years of Western European Civilization has made everyone familiar with that.  All we get here is the adulterous woman, the Wedding at Cana, and the Crucifixion.

The other two stories are richer ones – for two different definitions of “richer”, as well. The contemporary story follows a pair of young people, each driven to the Big City after a strike action at the mill in their home town (coincidentally the same town). They meet, they marry, and they are plagued by the law, and by a team of moral-busybody reformers – the couple’s baby gets taken away by child services when the women discover the mother having a shot of whiskey to cure a cold, and the husband gets framed for a murder and sentenced to hang.  Griffith reserves his anger for the reformers, though – they’re depicted to be the cause of the strike in the first place, since the mill owner’s sister is among their ranks, and her demands for more money for the cause force the mill owner to cut wages.

The Babylon sequence is epic with a big ol’ capital “E”. There are enormous sets filled with platoons of extras, dance sequences, trained animals, chariot races, lavish costumes, and even some R-rated footage in the “temple of Ishtar” (any questions about whether a woman in a bath is actually naked are answered within ten seconds).  Griffith even came up with the first tracking shot just to show off the scope of the set, rigging up a camera platform on a sort of elevator so the cameraman could pan up.

The story follows a small handful of people – one of whom was, hands-down, probably my favorite: a tomboyish “girl from the mountains” who’s visiting Babylon. We first see her sitting in a courtyard, just sort of daydreamily staring into space; but a moment later, a guy sitting nearby calls to her and lasciviously pats the ground next to him, inviting her to join him, and she rolls her eyes and throws a rock at him and I fell in love.

For the first half of her story, she’s a feisty bumpkin – exploring the city, sassing back at guys who try to hit on her – but later on she becomes full-on action hero, after the king of Babylon intervenes on her chaos (she’s being dragged off to a “marriage market” and is threatening to scratch people’s eyes out) and issues a decree that she is free to choose her own fate.  Out of gratitude, she devotes herself to him – turning spy when she discovers a plot to bring down the city, and towards the end she’s even a chariot driver, desperately trying to get back from the enemy camp to warn the king of an impending attack.

Some of the cast were familiar faces from Birth of A Nation. I recognized Mae Marsh and Miriam Cooper especially, as the younger and older sisters from the southern Cameron family (Marsh played the younger sister whose death is purported to have kicked off the founding of the KKK).  Here they respectively are the young mother doing battle with the reformers, and a desperate woman who frames the young husband for the murder she committed.  Marsh seems especially suited to ingienues; she has a giggly, fidgety energy, always biting her nails or gushingly hugging people.  The “mountain girl” from Babylon was a newcomer, Constance Talmadge, and sounds not unlike her character – there’s a story that she was at a screening of the film and overheard two women behind her discussing the chariot scene, and how “they must have gotten a double to drive the chariot”.  Apparently Talmadge turned around and asked them, “want me to show you how black and blue my knees got from that shot?”

The cast isn’t the only throwback to Birth Of A Nation. The pushback on that previous film was, in fact, the entire motivation for Intolerance.  Not that Griffith was defending Nation as such, though – it just doesn’t come up, and in a lot of places Griffith comes across as pretty progressive (the freedom granted to the Babylonian girl and the sympathetic depiction of the strikers at the mill among them). Instead, Griffith’s critique is against reformers themselves, depicting them as fuddy-duddies who need to lighten up. It’s the reason why the Wedding at Cana sequence is the longest one in the life-of-Jesus story line – “look, Jesus drank and danced, so it’s okay for us to do it too.”  Unfortunately, Griffith couldn’t resist throwing a misogynist ad hominem into the contemporary sequence, suggesting that the reformers were all just ugly old maids who were jealous no one was dancing and drinking with them any more so now they were taking away everyone’s fun.


Ultimately the film was a box office flop, even with Griffith’s post-release cutting to add more Babylon footage. The sales were never enough to offset the cost of production, and since Griffith put up most of the money, he was pretty much financially ruined for the rest of his life.  He made a handful of other films (some of which are coming up on my list), but nothing quite with this scope; after three modest successes, he had another box office flop and gave up producing and directing forever after.

One final note – I also inadvertently got an illustration in the importance of the film score.  Since Intolerance is in the public domain, there are a few different DVD versions floating around, each with a slightly different print. The company who released mine selected a bunch of Generic Symphonic Music for the score – stuff by Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and such; which lead to a really odd disconnect in the scene where the King of Babylon is learning about the enemy at his gates; as he’s hearing about the impending death of his people, the scoring for the scene was the Can-Can.

Deep Breath and Begin

I don’t really make resolutions. I’ve accepted that if I want to make a big change in myself, I need to wait until the desire and pressure has built up to a point where I am about to bust; picking an arbitary date and declaring “I’m going to start here” never has enough motivation behind it, and I fail. Much easier to wait and act whenever the moment rises.

Still, there are a couple things that are coming to me at this moment; a couple big ways where I have seen I could be taking much better care of myself and my life overall.

Cooking and food first. I’ve fallen out of the habit of cooking much for myself – I can throw things together at the last minute, but I’m starting to sneak back into my old theater days habit where “dinner” is a bag of Cheetos and a banana or something, because that’s what’s around the house and I am too exhausted for dinner. Or I’ll go totally the other direction and get a craving for roast chicken or some specific vegetable, and make it for myself – but then I fall prey to the single New Yorker’s curse, where I’ve purchased an entire package of two pounds of beets when I only needed a half pound, and the rest of the package sits in my fridge taking up room and growing slowly mushy.

At some point this weekend, though, the thought hit me that I need to think of my kitchen as a living thing.  It takes in food, and it digests it one way or another – either through my cooking and eating it, or through rot and waste. And then there are all the things that don’t rot, but aren’t getting used and are just taking up space.

So starting this weekend, I’m putting my kitchen, not me, on a diet. I’ll be shopping with a more careful eye on what I already have, how it can be used, and how to use up the leftovers of whatever I make. I’ll be making much more frequent use of my bento and tiffin to take food to work instead of running to the pizza place downstairs. I’ll be much more likely to tuck things in the freezer instead of letting them go bad – and to also rummage in the freezer instead of shopping. I’ll also be making a lot more soup stocks in an effort to use up the herbs that are overrunning my windowsill – and also snagging some of the less-pretty cuttings for things like air fresheners or bath treatments (I made a tea of lemon verbena yesterday, and instead of just tossing the stems, I threw them into a small pot of water and had that simmering on the stove a while; it was quite effective).

Related to that – I’m going to get back into the Calendar Cookery Challenge again. I let that fall after the election, out of sheer depression; but I’ve got to get that going again. Coincidentally, this kind of use-up-what-you-have home cooking kind of fits into the French bistro style, and I’m in a particularly French mood now (a year ago I was in Paris for New Year’s Eve) so I’m going to use Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking for January.  I’ve also splurged (thanks to an Amazon gift card from my brother) on a couple of single-serve Le Creuset dishes to break this in (woot!).

And all of this is going to ultimately be more frugal in the long run – which feeds into the second resolution, to get out of the damn house more often again. I’ve never been that well off – I’ve unfortunately had three separate periods of unemployment, none of them through my own doing, but all still seriously discouraging. After three times of having a job pulled out from under you because of company cutbacks, you find yourself bracing for impact all the time, doubting whether you should go to a coffee shop or buy a book for yourself because “what if I lose my job next week, I’ll need that ten dollars”. My current job is considerably more stable than others I’ve had – but could still pay a bit better, and I end up having to dip into savings much, much more than I’d like.  That’s made me much more likely to stay home and not do much of anything, out of some weird effort to conserve subway fare/lunch  money/laundry money/what have you.

But it’s damn depressing, and it’s started to starve me as a writer. Sheer fatigue is one big reason I haven’t written much in the past several months – but the other is the feeling that I have nothing to say. And the reason I have nothing to say is entirely because I haven’t taken myself out to look at things and meet people and read other things myself. That’s one big reason I’ve started doing the Movie Crash Course, just to give myself art to look at (I’ve got the Netflix account, let’s acutally make it work).  And when it warms up a bit more I’ll be heading back out into the parks and woods around the city, hiking more and exploring more there (thanks to some gear from EMS through another gift card from the parents!).

So. My roommate Sam has been out of town all week, and I used the time to give the fridge a good and critical cleaning. I made my usual New Year’s Day black-eyed peas and greens, but the greens came from the freezer. And the frozen tomato puree next to it got turned into a marinara sauce I can use for dinners this week if I’m falling-down tired, especially when I throw in some of the extra sausage from the package I got for a soup that’s simmering in the crock pot today. That soup and the peas-and-greens will do me well for bag lunches at work this week, and some other soups still in the fridge (squash, borscht, split pea) will all be great first courses for dinners too – and for that, I got a couple cheap packs of chicken breasts and pork chops and a bag of potatoes (there are about fifteen gratin recipes in the Wells cookbook alone).  And there’s a point today at which the soup will need to be set on “simmer” for a full five hours, which will be just enough time to slip out to a matinee at a nearby movie house.

Let’s see how far these good intentions carry me.