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Movie Crash Course: October – Ten Days That Shook The World

Watching October was….interesting.

Sergei Eisenstein’s film was commissioned ten years after the conflict in 1917 which gave rise to the Soviet Union. I very briefly considered reading a simple history of events so I would have a better grasp of what I was watching, but ultimately went in blind; this was meant to be a propaganda film, I reasoned, and I thought a naïve outlook would let me see the propaganda for what it was.

Save a moment or so of confusion over names and people, this was largely the case.  Eisenstein has a really heavy hand with his message, using lots of pointed imagery and montages to drive home his points. I may not have ever heard of the pacifist “Menshevik” party, for example– an alternative party to the Bolsheviks in the initial Soviet Congress – but Eisenstein kept intercutting their words with shots of a team of effete harpers, so clearly I was meant to think their message was airy and fantastical.  I also may not have ever heard of Alexander Kerensky, an intermediary government leader in opposition to the Bolsheviks – but Eisenstein kept showing him posing next to statues of Napoleon, so I was definitely meant to think he was a power-hungry dude.

Eisenstein liked to use statues in his symbolism a lot here. In addition to the Kerensky/Napoleon montage, there’s also a sequence when he is assembling his ministers inside the Winter Palace and is compared to a clockwork peacock.  There’s another sequence where a group of women is being trained how to shoot rifles, under the watchful eye of a statue depicting a mother with a child taking its first steps.  The whole film starts with a bunch of peasants working together to pull down a statue of Tsar Nicholas IV.

The Nicholas statue makes a return during a sequence critical of the provisional government that initially took control of Russia, before the Bolsheviks.  All that actually happens is that the government rallies people to defend Petrograd “in the name of God and Country”.  But those title cards are intercut and mixed in with shots of St. Basil’s Cathedral and ornate statues of Jesus, giving way to shots of Buddha statues, Aztec idols, and suchlike, giving way to overly-ornate medals on various establishment generals’ shoulders and chests – culminating in a sequence of the Tsar Nicholas statue re-assembling itself.  “God and country”, Eisenstein is saying, is shorthand for “the status quo”.

In fact, let’s show you both those montages below – they both come one right after the other.

It’s striking imagery, to be sure. And it’s definitely clear what we are supposed to think of Alexander Kerensky (and also, what we are supposed to think of the General Korlinov they mention in that same sequence – whatever he did).

However – as effective as this film is at propaganda, it is pretty ineffective at storytelling. I grant that it was meant for an audience that already knew the events of October 1917, and knew who Korlinov and Kerensky and the Cossacks were, and what the ship named the Aurora did and why we should care.  But even the Soviets didn’t like it; critics panned its overly-stylized, gimmicky techniques, and the rest of the public just plain didn’t get it – they got the propaganda alright, just like I did, but they were looking for other things, like a plot.

And ultimately that’s where the propaganda falls flat.  I knew that I was supposed to think Kerensky was a sort of empty figurehead, but I wasn’t really given any indication as to why I should care what he did. Lenin was put forth as a super-cool guy, but his super-cool status seemed disconnected from anything else. There were a couple instances of thrilling heroic action sequences, but those were momentary, and moreover they spoke for themselves.  An early sequence of the provisional government squelching a rebellion is also haunting; the government shoots rioters and then raises a drawbridge to cut of their escape. Eisenstein takes pains to show us a couple of bodies stuck on the drawbridge, including one of a horse who was killed in the crossfire; the rising bridge leaves the horse pathetically dangling in midair for several minutes before it finally falls.

Those sequences speak for themselves, however. They didn’t need any still shots of statues of knights or whatever to underscore them.

So what to make of October?  Ultimate this was a very specific example of a specific filmmaker’s unique vision, and an example of how editing techniques can get an emotional tone across.  But in terms of being a complete film, it’s lacking.

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Movie Crash Course – The Projectionist’s Most Wanted

Just finished watching the next film on the list, and I’m mulling it over a bit before my review. In the meantime, I’m going to start an appeal.

I’ve been getting my hands on everything thus far through a combination of Youtube, Netflix, and a classing movie streaming service called Fandor.com.  Thus far it’s been working out – most things are on Netflix’s DVD service, with a lot of the public-domain stuff uploaded onto Youtube.  A couple of things were Youtube-rentable.  Finally, Fandor has a couple of the artier things (I discovered them while trying to track down Prince Achmed), as well as some intriguing other things I’ll be looking into later.

But there are still some movies on my list that have fallen through the cracks.  Either they don’t seem to be on DVD, or the waitlist for the DVD is too long.  Or there is no Youtube upload.  Or it was too “mainstream” for Fandor.  Or…who knows.

So I’m starting a list of my Most Wanted Films – everything that I should have seen by now, if I were going in 100% chronological order, but haven’t found yet.  If anyone knows where I can find or stream a copy, do let me know!

  1. The Great White Silence (1924). This was a sort of found-footage documentary based on some film shot of English explorer Robert Scott setting off on his ultimately-doomed exploration of Antarctica. There was ostensibly a new restoration released in 2010, but I haven’t found it.
  2. The Thief of Bagdad (1924). An early Douglas Fairbanks silent film.  The waitlist for the DVD is so long Netflix doesn’t know when I’d get it.
  3. The Eagle (1925).  This is another long-wait from Netflix; starrting Rudolph Valentino.
  4. Napoleon (1927).  This is a serious long-shot – the original film was over five hours long, but other cuts of varying lengths may also exist. The only version I can find is over on the video site Daily Motion where someone has uploaded it in six separate pieces, and….er, I’d like to find a slightly more authoritative copy. (Or at the very least, something not on Dailymotion because I hate that thing.)
  5. The Crowd (1928). Yet another long wait from Netflix; one of the last silent films.

I will continue to update this list as I run into things that are tough to find, or as I find things on this list.  If anyone has any leads, please let me know!

Movie Crash Course: The General

Oh, Buster, you’ve let me down.

The General itself is a true-to-form Keaton picture, and yes, I did laugh in places, as I always do at Buster Keaton’s work now. In fact, a short while ago I’d have been totally fine with this.  The usual stuff is there – trying to impress a girl, the obstacle thrown into his path, daring stunts and hijinks ensue.  And he is is usual skilled self.

In this case, the premise is that Keaton is a young engineer on the train line between Tennessee and Georgia in 1861, equally devoted to both his favorite locomotive (this is actually the “General” of the title) and his girl, Annabelle, who lives in one of the towns on his usual route.

However, one afternoon as he is visiting her, her brother comes home with the news of the attack at Fort Sumter, and both father and son resolve to enlist and go to war. Keaton’s girl turns to him with starry eyes and says that he should enlist as well, and he dashes off to be first at the enlistment office – but when they learn he is an engineer, they turn him down, believing him more useful in his civilian position.  As he dejectedly walks away he passes Annabelle’s father and brother, standing in line to enlist, and they try to wave him into line with them; he just shakes his head and walks off. They interpret this as cowardice on his part, and when Annabelle hears their opinion, she breaks up with Keaton.

That’s just the setup. The meat of things happens a year later, with Annabelle boarding his train to visit her father in a military hospital. But unbeknownst to them both, a team of enemy spies has secretly boarded the train, and when Keaton stops the train for a lunch break en route, they sieze the locomotive and one of its freight cars – with Annabelle unexpectedly inside, hunting for something in her luggage – and take off, headed for their camp.  Keaton spots them and gives chase.

Cue the hijinks.  Which in this case involve pursuit by handcar, mishaps with a cannon, and rides on the cowcatcher.  There’s even a second stretch of hijinks after Keaton has managed to overhear an enemy plot, rescue Annabelle and reclaim his engine, and is racing back home ahead of the enemy, trying to save Annabelle and warn the home troops in time.  And it ends happily, with Keaton rewarded for his bravery and Annabelle happily back by his side.

Keaton based this on an actual incident from the Civil War, in which a team of Union spies actually did sneak onto a train and hijack it during a meal break, destroying the tracks in their wake and thus severing an important communication and freight line for the Confederates.  But when dramatizing this story, Keaton made an executive decision.

He made the Confederates the good guys in this movie.

Not for political reasons, most likely. In fact, Keaton was most likely just responding to the collective opinion of the day – that the Confederates had been little more than underdogs, ultimately doomed and harmless, who’d just made a mistake.  Making the underdogs the heroes of his comedy would be funnier, he reasoned, so instead of playing one of the Union spies and telling the story from that angle, he cast himself as an underdog Confederate wannabe who wins at the end.  But this was still only a mercenary outlook at worst, rather than a sympathy for the south; but there isn’t a filmmaker alive who hasn’t at least considered giving the public what they want so they can sell more tickets.

Still, watching this film in this year, after this year’s news events, made me pretty uneasy, especially when Keaton tags along with the Confederate Army towards the end, riding bravely into battle behind the Stars-and-Bars.  He even serves as flagbearer during the ensuing clash at one point – it’s a moment played for laughs, still, with Keaton marching along a bluff carrying the flag and inadvertently stepping on the commander’s toe or something.  But – it was Buster Keaton carrying the Stars and Bars. And I didn’t like seeing it.

The shifting impact of history ultimately wasn’t anything Keaton couldn’t control, and I get that.  It isn’t anything he could have forseen either.  The only thing a filmmaker can do – or any artist can do, for that matter – is work with the knowledge that they have available to them at any given moment.  And at the particular moment Keaton was filming, the Confederates were being seen as noble but doomed.  The very statues that we are protesting today were just being put up at about the time Keaton was filming.  The NAACP was just getting off the ground, Plessy V. Ferguson was the rule of the day, and it was still four years before the Scottsboro Boys ran into their own trouble on a train.  Yes, Keaton could have made a principled stand, but he would have been a very rare individual indeed if he had; he may have very well felt that by choosing to not make his heroes plantation owners, he was taking a sympathetic stance.

And yet I still couldn’t get away that this cultural narrative later lead to Gone With The Wind and then to Brown V. Board of Education, and then to Selma, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and then Dylann Roof, and then to Richard Spencer and his thugs in Charlottesville.  Keaton couldn’t have forseen that in 1927.  But those are all things I have seen in 2017.  And just like a filmmaker can only bring the knowledge they have at a given moment, a spectator also carries their own baggage, from their own era and their own time.  And that can always affect how you see something.

Sorry, Buster.  It’s not you, it’s me.

Movie Crash Course: The Unknown

I actually finished this a few days ago, but have been dragging my feet on the review.

I mean, it wasn’t awful. It was short, and a fairly unique tweak on a love-triangle plot, set in Spain among a travelling circus.  Lon Chaney stars as “Alonzo the Armless”, one of the two men in love with Nanon (Joan Crawford, in an early role), the pretty daughter of the ringmaster who is also the assistant for his knife-throwing (with his feet) act.

The strongman Malabar has the hots for Nanon as well, and she is also attracted to him, but there’s just one little problem – she has a phobia of men’s hands.  (The film alludes to her disliking men “pawing at her”, which suggests some kind of previous assault; the film doesn’t get into that, though.)  “Hands! Men’s hands!” she rages at one point.  “How I hate them! The beasts! God would show wisdom if he took the hands from all of them!”  Nanon doesn’t seem to be attracted to Alonzo, but she gravitates to him most often, since he doesn’t have arms, and therefore he doesn’t have hands.

….Except he kind of does.

In fact, Alonzo is a career criminal hiding from the police. Daily, with the assistance of his colleague Cojo – the only person who knows his secret – Alonzo has been binding his arms up and has practiced his “Armless Wonder” stunt act to put police off.  Especially since he’s got a bit more to one of his arms than the average person – Alonzo has a double-headed thumb on his left hand.  And one night, when Alonzo is returning to his trailer, the ringmaster discovers his secret, and Alonzo attacks him – and Nanon sees the attack on her father.  She doesn’t see Alonzo’s face – but she does see the double thumb.  Alonzo – already besotted with Nanon as it is – now has all the more reason for his arms to cause him trouble. So he is driven to a difficult choice; but will it be enough to win the love of Nanon?….

Meh. I don’t know why this didn’t grab me, to be honest.  In fact, in retrospect I have to say that Lon Chaney kills it in this film.  There’s a moment when Nanon shares some happy news with him – at least, it’s happy for her.  For Alonzo it is a profound blow – and you can see it just by looking at him.

Joan Crawford later said that she learned a lot just by watching Lon Chaney in action; “It was then that I became aware for the first time of the difference between standing in front of a camera, and acting.”

The cinematography is also gorgeous.  Some of the shots actually feel a little ahead-of-their-time in the way they’re set up.  But…ultimately it didn’t really hang together for me.

I dunno.  Just not my cup of tea, I suppose.

Political Commentary From The Projectionists’ Booth

One of the happy discoveries I’ve made in the course of this Crash Course in movies was Les Vampires, a freewheeling French crime thriller serial.  It’s one of my favorites so far, largely because of how it throws a bumper crop of oddball plot twists and details into the pot and still manages to all hang together.

And by far, one of my favorite bits is an assassin whose weapon of choice is a cannon.  His technique – which is demonstrated at least once in the film, if not twice – is to scout out the nearest hotel to his target, and then book a suitably-located room.  He then arrives, in disguise, with an unusually large number of trunks and bags, and a couple manservants to help portage everything.  Inside all the luggage, of course, is the disassembled cannon, which he and his men put together once they’re in the room.  Then, at just the right moment, they load the cannon, one of his accomplices opens the window, he aims at his target – and fires.  Then, he and his men take apart the cannon, pack everything away again, and check out.  It is completely and utterly ridiculous, and that is why I loved it.

….I just watched a clip of Trevor Noah’s reaction to the events in Las Vegas.  And something he said jumped out at me – that apparently, after the shooting, there is a growing call for an increased stringency in hotel security.  Pundits point to the sheer number of guns Stephen Paddock had in his hotel room – and the question they are asking is, how did he carry them all in?  Didn’t anyone notice anything?

Well, you know something…you could ask the same question of the cannon assassin in Les Vampires.  He also carried an unusually large number of bags into a hotel room, with the intent to commit murder.  And, in the unlikely event someone actually did try to pull off such a stunt, it would be equally as deadly.

However – the other thing that would happen is that we wouldn’t be asking how he got the cannon into the hotel.  We would be instead focused on how he was able to obtain a cannon in the first place, and bending over backwards to stop other people from getting their own.

…A movie about ninja jewel thieves should not be making more sense than real life, y’all.

Movie Crash Course: Sunrise, A Song Of Two Humans

So. Have you seen that many romantic comedies have a “montage”?  You know, a brief series of clips set to sprightly music, with the carefree couple out on the town doing all sorts of fun things like sharing ice cream sundaes, flying kites, strolling hand-in-hand on beaches, riding the Tilt-a-Whirl at amusement parks…  Usually these only last a couple minutes.  But if you took one of those sequences and expanded it a full hour, you would get Sunrise. It’s corny as hell – but in a way that sneaks up on you.

It actually starts quite grimly, with a love triangle between our three unnamed characters: The Man, a farmer in a small lakeside town, his sweetly angelic Wife, and “The Woman From The City,” a vamp who initially came for a vacation during the summer but has extended her stay for several weeks, conducting an affair with The Man.  By the start of our plot, she’s been in town for over a month, and The Man’s affair is now an open secret – he’s sold off some of his animals and is constantly sneaking out of the house for trysts with the Woman, leaving his Wife alone to sadly tuck their child into bed and eat dinner alone.

Early on, during one of her trysts with The Man, the Woman From The City pleads with him to sell the farm and join her back in the city.  He points out that he’s married, duh.  “Well – “ says the Woman – “what if she….drowned?”  The Man is horrified, but The Woman has thought out the entire plot – a staged drowning accident after a day out on their rowboat.  Her seemingly foolproof planning, plus some well-timed canoodling, convinces The Man to go for it.  But – when they set out on the fatal voyage, at the moment that The Man gets up to do in His Wife….he can’t go through with it then, and instead the couple takes a day trip to the City.

 

Cue the hour-long montage.

Save for a couple of Significant Moments, I found myself spending much of the montage wondering why we were watching it.  It was cute and entertaining enough; there are a couple of sweet comedic sequences, one set at a photographer’s studio, another at a barber shop.  There’s also an extended sequence at a combination amusement park/dance hall, where The Man plays an utterly baffling version of Skee-ball that somehow involves trained pigs.  Followed by a merry chase scene when one pig gets loose.

I mean, it’s all cute.  But in the moment it seems oddly pointless.  I’m also not crazy about romantic comedies anyway, so I spent most of this montage feeling faintly amused, yet bored.  You will note, however, that I said it seems pointless – because what I learned is the film is lulling you into a sense of security, which it then blows up with a plot twist during the last 20 minutes of the film, as the couple is heading home.  I will not reveal it, of course – but I will reveal that I went from slouching on the couch feeling faintly disinterested to sitting up, riveted, and even muttering “oh no” out loud at one point.

The standout in the cast is The Wife, played by Janet Gaynor.  The film calls for some emotional whiplash from her; she switches from long-suffering betrayed wife, to unease at how weird her husband is in the boat, to gaiety in the City, all within just a half hour. It could have been histrionic, but she pulls it all off in a genuine way that no doubt contributed to my being suckered in by the montage.   The performance earned Janet Gaynor the first-ever Best Actress award at the first-ever Oscar ceremony in 1927.  The film won two other Oscars – one for cinematography, and one for “Best Unique Or Artistic Picture”, an award that was only ever presented at the first ceremony and was later scrapped in favor of the overall “Best Picture” award.

The cinematography drew notice through its use of extended tracking shots, with the camera following the actors as they walked down a street or through a marsh.  It isn’t the kind of thing you’d notice today, in the days of Steadi-cams and Spike Lee “dolly shots”, but in 1927 it was groundbreaking.  There is an extended sequence where the camera follows The Man as he picks his way through a swamp in his way to a tryst with the City Woman; the only way they could get the shot, though, was by building a swamp inside a soundstage and leaving a clear enough path for the cameraman to wheel his rig along, following The Man through the “trees” and “brush”.  Again, this seems a common thing today, but worked to great effect.

Notably, the film has another “first” to its credit. Most people think of The Jazz Singer as “the first film with sound,” but it’s actually Sunrise; it was the first to use the then-experimental Movietone Sound System, which recorded the sound directly onto the film.  However, director F. W. Murnau only used the technology for a small handful of sound effects, and stuck to intertitles for the actors’ speech.  So more accurately, The Jazz Singer is still the first film to use sound technology for actor dialogue specifically, but Sunrise was the first release to use sound overall.

…Speaking of The Jazz Singer, that’s coming up soon….

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.