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Monthly Archives: September 2017

Movie Crash Course: Metropolis

I admit I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Art Deco, but still one of the things that struck me about Metropolis was just how beautiful it looked.  The city-of-the-future that is our setting is full of gracefully towering spires and elegant archways bedecked with glimmering lights.  Scenes are staged and filmed with tremendous care and attention to light and color, motion and movement.  Some details may not be realistic, but everything is beautifully detailed.

There’s a chance you may have heard of the plot, but just in case – “Metropolis” is a futuristic city run by one man, Joh Frederson; the rich and powerful idle away their time cavorting in pleasure gardens high in the city’s towers, while the working class lives underground, spending their lives manning the machines on a round-the-clock schedule to keep the city running.

One day, Maria – a woman who basically runs the workers’ day care – invites herself and the kids up to see the rich folks’ pleasure gardens, giving rich and poor a chance to have a look at each other before she calmly brings them all back down to the depths again.

But she’s caught the eye of Joh Frederson’s son, “Freder,” who heads down to seek her back out.  But instead he has his first glimpse at how the workers in Metropolis live, and is horrified; at one point he imagines the machines are a giant demon, ruthlessly eating the workers alive.  From then on, he has two goals – to reconnect with Maria, and to come to the aid of Metropolis’ lesser-off citizens.

His father is less than thrilled with this, though, and consults with the city’s finest scientist and inventor, C.A. Rotwang; Rotwang has just invented a robot, and Joh persuades him to fit the robot out like Maria. The real Maria is a pacifist, but his plan is to have Robot Maria start a rebellion so he can have an excuse to call in his thugs and break things up for good.  Rotwang agrees, but also secretly launches his own plan to have Robot Maria moonlight in the Metropolis strip clubs to cause a little chaos among the rich folk as well.

A word about Maria, actually – both versions are played by actress Brigitte Helm, in what was her movie debut at the age of only eighteen.  Both performances are notable – no real over-acting, and a limited amount of “look at the pretty girl in soft focus” beauty shots.  Helm does use a couple of obvious signifiers to distinguish Robot Maria from Real Maria – namely, heavy black eyeliner and some muggy winky faces – but they’re used sparingly, and it’s unclear whether these choices were Helm’s or Lang’s.

I keep coming back to how the film looks.  The plot and theme are notable themselves – a message best summed up with the film’s famous epigram about how the heart needs to be a mediator between the hand and the mind – but the imagery is what really grabbed my attention, over and over.  The opening shots of a series of gears give way to Metropolis’ workers mechanically marching to the elevator to start their shift – as another group of workers ending their shift also marches away, moving much slower.

A character trying to get past the city’s red-light district spots a flyer advertising a night club, and then another, and another, and is then caught up in a blizzard of flyers raining down on him.  Robot Maria does an erotic dance at the night club, and the shot of the rich men ogling her dissolves into a collage of wide-open eyes.

Meanwhile, a delerious Freder – who’s just had a run-in with Robot Maria after an emotional moment in a Cathedral – imagines Maria as the Whore of Babylon.

Some critics point to Metropolis’ influence on other sci-fi films like The Matrix and Blade Runner, but the visuals have had a stronger impact on music videos.  Janelle Monae’s “Archandroid” character is a nod to the initial appearance of the Robot from the film (as is C-3PO from Star Wars, while we’re on the subject).  There are nods to the film in Lady Gaga’s videos for “Born This Way”, “Alejandro”, and “Applause.”  Twenty years earlier, Madonna all but re-made the film for her video for “Express Yourself.”

 

Queen went even further and outright used some clips from Metropolis in their video for “Radio Gaga.”

 

Queen may have actually had Metropolis on the brain for another reason, though.  That same year, Italian music producer Giorgio Moroder bankrolled and released a new edition of Metropolis that I can only assume was meant to appeal to a “modern” audience.  The film was already a bit of a hash at the time; during its original release, like many longer films, it suffered from some cuts at the hands of studio heads, and cinema scholars figured much of the original footage had long been lost.  Moroder’s version re-introduced some multicolored filters of the kind often used in German expressionist cinema, but cut the film’s running time and cut out several shots.  Moroder’s version also had a rock-score soundtrack, heavily using music by Queen, Bonnie Tyler, Adam Ant and other 80s stars.  (Full disclosure: I actually saw this version on VHS sometime in the early 90s.)

Miraculously, though, in 2005, cinema scholars discovered a nearly-complete print of the original film in Argentina.  Using that print, scholars were able to reconstruct and release a version in 2010 that restores most of the original footage (and ditches the rock for a more traditional score).  That is the version to track down if you can.

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Movie Crash Course: The Big Parade

I feel like this is the Ur-War Movie.  Released seven years after Armistice in France after World War I, The Big Parade is noted for being the first film to depict the First World War from the average GI’s perspective; but it also reminded me of all of the tropes from “war movies” that by now feel so familiar.

Each half of the movie has a very different tone as well, with all of the comedy happening in the first bit.  Our hero is Jimmy, a young man of wealth who has little ambition for work. But when war is declared, his sweetheart gushes about how handsome he’d look in uniform, and he enlists.

Soon he is in France, rubbing shoulders with lower-class men and coping with Army life – mess halls, washing clothes in a stream, shoveling manure in a barn. At least he’s making friends with a couple of fellow soldiers, and romancing the pretty daughter at the farm where his squad has been stationed.

While he’s wooing the natives, his buddies are getting into their own hijinks – rigging up showers out of barrels and collanders, raiding local wine cellars, and getting into a contest of rank.

Then about midway through, Jimmy’s squad is sent to the front lines, and the tone of the film dramatically shifts, with the zany army hijinks giving way to daring army bravery.  Our three heroes cover each other during gunfire, march into battle, and huddle in foxholes, sharing a dwindling supply of cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

There are noble sacrifices, tragic deaths, last-ditch rescue efforts – and the realization that the rag-tag misfits have become brothers of a sort.  There’s even the tragic love story, with Jimmy realizing he has to choose between his girl back home in the States and the spunky French girl he has fallen for.

…I feel like I’ve seen elements of this film in everything from Stripes to Full Metal Jacket to Heartbreak Ridge. Unfortunately, for most of the war half that worked to the film’s detriment with me; I’ve seen bits of plenty of John Wayne films, and all the accompanying moments of heroic noble wartime sacrifice, so the second half mostly felt formulaic.  The romance between Jimmy and the French girl Melisande seems pretty forced as well – one minute she’s punching him for getting a little too handsy during a walk, but the next minute she’s kissing him.  ….I dunno.

That said – there are still some charming and arresting moments. Jimmy quickly learns that his own French is abysmal, and so is Melisande’s English, which presents a challenge. So during one of their “dates”, he settles for a wordless bonding activity – introducing her to bubble gum.

Even earlier, before they even meet, Jimmy snares a barrel to hack into a shower, and can only think to carry it home by putting it over his head and trying to peer through the bunghole. He runs into Melisande on the way – literally – and she clowns around with him a bit.

And there are serious moments too. A later scene sees Jimmy in a wartime hospital – and as he surveys the room from his bed, alongside the other soldiers with bandaged legs and arms and heads, there is one man he sees, flailing desperately, who has been tied down to the bed. It’s a moment that may have softened the actual effects of shell-shock, but that the film acknowledged it at all was a surprise.

On the battlefield, too, was a scene that was indescribably eerie. Jimmy’s squad has been sent into a forest filled with snipers, in an effort to flush them out.  The squad spreads out, with Jimmy and his two buddies alongside each other – and as they march, guns at the ready and looking about nervously, every few seconds someone from the row behind them just falls over, a victim of the sniper. There’s no comment on it, Jimmy and his crew flinch briefly, but that’s it. It’s really eerie.

The Big Parade won big at the box office, with audiences flocking to see a dramatization of what they’d just lived through just a few years prior. The unflinching look at war’s impact also caught the eye of producers of tthe later movie All Quiet On The Western Front, who reportedly were inspired by the film.

Movie Crash Coures: Seven Chances

So last night I had three options for films-to-watch – one on DVD, and two online.  While trying to decide which one to watch, I realized one was a Buster Keaton film and then it was no contest.

Here, Keaton plays junior broker Jimmy Shannon – a partner in a brokerage firm that’s about to go bankrupt.  But – what luck! – a lawyer arrives with the news that an aging relative has just died and left Jimmy several million dollars in his will, on one condition: he must be married by 7 pm on the evening of his 27th birthday.  And it just so happens that Jimmy’s 27th birthday is that same day.  Fortunately, he’s been summoning the courage to pop the question to his sweetheart Mary anyway, and he rushes over to propose to her.  But when she finds out the mercenary motivation, an offended Mary dumps him.

Jimmy is left reeling, but his partner Billy Meekin is by now rallied to the cause, going to greater and greater lengths to get his partner hitched – first dragging him off to their country club to try his luck with the seven ladies visiting that afternoon, and ultimately placing a “Calling All Brides!” ad in the paper.  But meanwhile, a repentant Mary sends a message to Jimmy giving him another chance and asking him to show up at her house that evening, preacher in tow.  Will Jimmy get that message in time? Will he end up with one of the seven women at the club?  Or, perhaps, with one of the 100-plus women at the church?….

Actually, the bulk of the film doesn’t deal with any of that – it’s an extended chase scene, with Keaton going to greater and greater lengths to escape a stampede of angry women in white dresses, tangling along the way with turtles, bees, streetcars, boats, cranes, canyons, bricks, and such, in a scene that comes across like a merry fever-dream combination of the Pamplona bulls, the boulder scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a sale at a David’s Bridal outlet.

Keaton actually didn’t want to make the film at first. It was based on a stage play from 1916, and one of Keaton’s frequent producers, Joseph Schenck, was convinced it would make a good film adaptation. Keaton hadn’t liked the play, though, and kept putting him off – until he got into debt with Schenck and agreed to the film to help settle the debt.  He even tried to convince Schenck to change the ending, suggesting they fade out in the middle of the chase scene.  (Schenck said no.)

The one thing that finally cheered Keaton up was when an audience at a test screening unexpectedly burst out laughing when Keaton’s character, fleeing down the side of a mountain, dislodged a couple of rocks and then had to dodge them as they rolled after him.  It had been a happy accident at the time of filming – but Keaton had to admit it was funny.  So he expanded the sequence with several more minutes of himself fleeing from ever-bigger rocks (fake ones, of course) cut into the action.  Keaton still wasn’t crazy about the film, but the rock sequence, he liked.

Keaton does find space for other bits of schtick throughout the paper-thin plot – from the exact nature of his proposals to the various women at the country club, to a war of wills with a hat-check girl.

Disappointingly, some of the gags come at the expense of the women themselves – there are a few instances where Keaton recoils in horror from a woman who is either too old or too fat, and in one uneasy moment, he is on a street and about to tap the shoulder of a passing woman and make his offer, but at the last minute he sees that she is African-American and he flees in panic.  That kind of thing was par for the course in 1926, unfortunately.

Surprisingly, I also learned that this film has had a modern remake – Seven Chances was actually the basis for 1999’s The Bachelor, with Chris O’Donnell and Renee Zellweger.  From the looks of the trailer, they kept things like the basic plot and the bride chase, but forgot to put in Keaton’s charisma.

….You may notice a change in my habit of relaying the entire plot of a film – I’ve had it pointed out that that may not be exactly fair to y’all wanting to watch things yourselves.  It’s actually an old habit from some of my theater review writing days, and I’m going to try to get rid of that crutch now.

Movie Crash Course: The Gold Rush

Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush is another film I’m not going to describe the action for.  However, in this case it’s because whether you know it or not, you’ve already seen a lot of this film.

The plot is a comparatively gentle adventure story, with Chaplin as a novice prospector (and one woefully underdressed for Alaska’s winter).  At the start of the film he’s bumbling his way through the tundra, gets caught in a storm and takes shelter in another prospector’s cabin. His host is “Black Larsen,” a criminal who tries to throw him out into the storm; but another prospector, “Big Jim,” also stops by seeking shelter and teams up with our hero to get Black Larsen to let them stay.  When food runs out, they draw lots to choose a hunter for the group; Black Larsen is chosen, but instead of finding food he finds Big Jim’s claim, and decides to lie in wait there.  Fortunately the others manage to save themselves by shooting and cooking a bear.

After the storm, the pair part ways; Big Jim returns to his claim, where Black Larsen tries to kill him and steal the loot. Larsen falls off a cliff in the process, but Jim has still gotten a nasty enough blow that he develops amnesia.

Meanwhile, our little Prospector has abandoned gold prospecting and drifts into a frontier town, trying to figure out what to do with himself. He quickly falls in love with Georgia, a dance hall girl there, spending most of the second act trying to woo her; she writes him off in favor of Jack, a flashier guy in town, and she and her buddies tease him by stringing him along. But gradually, his gentlemanly ways start to win her over.

But before our hero can declare his intentions, Big Jim runs into him – and his memory is jogged enough that he remembers he’d had a sizeable claim, at a spot near the cabin where he’d stayed with our hero.  He drags our hero away to help him find the cabin, promising they’ll split the proceeds.  After a daring expedition, they find the gold.

The last scene sees our hero and Big Jim triumphantly sailing back to the continental US, newly rich. Our hero still misses Georgia, however. But conveniently, she is on the same ship, regretting her treatment of our hero. They run into each other, she’s swept off her feet by his charm and riches and they live happily ever after.

But that’s the plot.  What you’re going to remember instead, what Chaplin was best known for, is the schtick.  In fact, if you were to make a list of Chaplin’s best-known “bits”, most of them are actually in this one film.

Cooking a boot?  It’s in here.

Trying to stay upright in a tilting house?  It’s in here.

A hungry companion hallucinating that he’s a chicken? It’s in here.

The roll dance?  Yup.

…Watching these films was my first real encounter with both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, even though I’ve been hearing about them both all my life. I also kind of got the sense that there was a sort of rivalry between them; just like how you’re either a Star Wars person or a Star Trek person, or you’re either a fan of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones.  Or you’re Team Edward or Team Jacob.

Similarly, you were either a Charlie Chaplin person, or you were a Buster Keaton person.  And having finally watched them both, I think I’m Team Keaton.  I appreciated Chaplin’s schtick, and it was fun to watch, but his comedy seems more…sweet, rather than zany.  There’s a layer of sentiment that kept me from losing myself in a full-out belly laugh the way Keaton did.

That said, though, there was a bit midway through the film that I actually watched twice simply for the picture it made.  It’s a scene when Chaplin first comes upon the dance hall; a song strikes up and everyone else in the room starts dancing, but Chaplin is left alone.  And for several seconds he is simply standing in the foreground, watching the dancers all alone, his back to us.

I couldn’t tell you why, but I found this moment strikingly and hauntingly beautiful.

 

Movie Crash Course: The Adventures of Prince Achmed

Name it quick, without looking it up: who made the first full-length animated feature film?  I bet you said “Walt Disney” – and a week ago, so would I.  But we would be wrong.  This film pre-dates Disney’s Steamboat Willie by two years, and was made by the German artist Lotte Reiniger – and even better, she was working mostly alone, using a camera and animation technique she invented herself.

Usually I talk about the film a lot when I post these reviews, but Reiniger’s story deserves to take precedence this time.  As a girl in turn-of-the-century Berlin, she was fascinated by Balinese shadow puppets and Chinese paper silhouette art, to the point that she made a puppet theater and put on shows for family and friends.  Then film caught her eye as a teenager, and she started thinking of ways to combine film with her shadow puppetry.

Reiniger started working with a theater company owned by Max Reinhardt, an early German filmmaker.  She had no theatrical aspirations, but Reinhardt’s work in film drew Reiniger’s eye.  She ended up working closely with company member Paul Wegener, another actor-turned-filmmaker; Wegener first called on her to create silhouettes for the title cards for his films, then asked her to try coming up with a way to animate the mice for a film about the Pied Piper.  She used her cut-paper puppets for the mice, and was almost immediately invited to join the Institut für Kulturforschung (Institute for Cultural Research), a new animation studio.  There, she made shorter films – many of which played to sold-out houses, even though they were only a few minutes long – and did some advertising work as well.

Animated films were traditionally short in the early days of cinema – largely because of the painstaking work needed to produce them, but also simply because of tradition.  Animated films were the appetizer before the main pictures, little throwaway cartoons meant as a quick laugh.  In fact, the only reason that Reiniger ended up doing a full-length film was because a colleague, spooked by Germany’s economic inflation, panicked one day and bought up a huge stash of raw film before it got too expensive; then, when he calmed down and saw how much film he had, he realized he should probably do something with it.  He approached Reiniger suggesting a full-length animation, but the amount of work it would entail gave her pause – as did doubts about whether animation could sustain a full-length story.  After some thought, however, she agreed, and started work on Prince Achmed.

Reiniger came up with an animation table that used layers of panes of glass set into a hole in the table; different layers of glass had different cut-out images on them.  The most “active” elements were all on the top pane, so it could be easily lifted up for the cutouts to be changed.  A light underneath the glass projected the shadows, and a regular camera fixed in place above the glass captured each frame. For the smoothest animation, Reiniger had to capture six frames per second.  The film took two years to complete.

But my word it’s gorgeous.

The story itself is a gumbo of plot points taken from the Arabian Nights collection of folktales.  Our hero, Prince Achmed, is the son of the Caliph, tricked into a ride on the back of a magic flying horse conjured up by an evil magician.  By the time Achmed figures out how to land he’s been spirited away to the land of “Wak-Wak”, where he cavorts with a series of temple maidens before meeting Peri Banu, their princess.

But then Peri Banu gets kidnapped by a Chinese emperor and the horse gets stolen, and Achmed must come up with a way to save her – enlisting the help of a witch living inside a volcano, and meeting Aladdin in the process.  The witch has a grudge against the magician who started all the fuss so she’s more than happy to help.

And just like with all fairy tales, there’s a happy ending, with Peri Banu rescued and the magician vanquished.  Even Aladdin gets rewarded, falling in love with Achmed’s sister.

Reiniger’s cutouts are amazingly intricate; there are lace details, patterened screens, hydra-headed beasts, shifting leaves and feathers, and sparkling stars throughout.

Even the motion – sometimes it’s just a little finger or a rolling eyeball, but it manages to come across with expression.

After it was completed, Prince Achmed got held up a further year waiting for a distributor; but was a smash success when it was finally released in 1927.  Reiniger was able to make a second similarly-animated film based on the Doctor Dolittle novels, and then tried her hand at directing a live-action film (about a shadow puppet troupe).  However, her live-action film was just finishing production right when sound films were gaining in popularity, so Reiniger had to pull the actors back in to loop in their dialogue; this delayed release of the film, and the actors’ skill in dubbing apparently wasn’t very good.

Reiniger’s luck kept on a downswing during the 1930s, as she and her husband desperately tried to relocate out of Germany to escape the Third Reich.  Unfortunately, they weren’t able to get a permanent residency visa anywhere, so she and her husband kept relocating from country to country, moving to whereever they could get a temporary visa and staying there until the visa expired.  Nevertheless, Reiniger made twelve more films in this period.  Ultimately she had to return to Berlin in 1944 to care for her elderly mother.  Fortunately Hitler’s regieme left her personal liberty intact, but creatively, Reiniger was stuck making propaganda films for the Third Reich until war’s end. Finally, in 1949, Reiniger got a visa to resettle in London, where she made a series of animations for the BBC in the 1950s.  Ultimately she returned to Berlin, where she died in 1981.

She’s not that well known here; but animators definitely know of her. Her animation technique is a precursor to the cel-based stop-motion technique used by studios throughout the 20th century.  The opening of Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia features Mickey Mouse silhouetted against a colored background, in homage to Reiniger’s design style.

More recently, the character “Prince Achmed” in Disney’s Aladdin may have also been a nod to Reiniger’s work.

Finally, Reiniger is also a name amongst puppeteers.  When I spoke with a puppeteer acquaintance, he reminded me that there was a Google doodle recently that paid homage to Reiniger, done in her style.