Tuesday, 31 December 2013

2013 Dies!

Well, that was the year of The Penciltonian.  What an exciting time!  What a world of adventures!  What!  Why?

I had hoped never to watch another film again, but the bright lights and colours have drawn me back.  Since the official end of the project and the blog, I've found myself compelled to watch the following motion pictures, which I report here in order to wrap up the year:

Iron Sky (2012)

This is actually a far more appropriate end to The Penciltonian than whatever the actual end was: an exciting Finnish/German/Australian/kinda-American film, riffing on a lot of the German movies I've been watching (even 1943's 'Münchausen', which I'd thought pretty obscure) and slathered in modern-style Wagner.  An action comedy about space-Nazis, an enjoyable and necessarily broad satire, which didn't end as I expected.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

On St Christmas Eve's Day, I actually saw a movie on the BIG SCREEN, something I had failed to achieve through the body of the year.  It's an excellent telling of the story, and is pretty close to being a perfect film.  Attractive, exciting, amusing and moving, and the muppets work surprisingly well alongside human actors, without seeming unduly ridiculous.  I'm sure I had more to say about it, but Christmas.

Witchfinder General (1968)

What a jerk!  I've always liked the Puritan style, and have seen photos from the film and admired Matthew Hopkins' hat and fine array, but he was a horrid fellow.  This film sits neatly alongside 'Häxan' (1922) and 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928) as a tale of misidentified witches being beaten up by unchristian Christians - and it joins my beloved 'Winstanley' in being an inspiration for 2013's surprise hit 'A Field in England'.  This is a film of really horrible, hard-to-watch violence (which seems entirely appropriate, given the subject matter), and Pertwee-era-style crash zooms (which seem less appropriate).  Vincent Price IS the Witchfinder General.

War and Peace (1956)

I watched the first hour of this, but became immensely irritated.  It wasn't terrible, but it was slow and unexciting, and I'm no longer obliged to watch slow, unexciting films.  I have the liberty to escape such things.  I also grew aware that the film was not at all the best way to take this particular story.  As much as a massive, massive book is daunting, a film that boils a massive, massive story down to a few hours and makes it feel like any other romance, is a less appealing and less helpful prospect.

A borrowed and wearying cat on me, and upon you all.
So, what does 2014 bring?  I tried to make a list of my predictions, but the list started out frighteningly bleak and full of catastrophe (which celebrities will die, this year?), before becoming a sequence of portents of doom and stars of ill-omen, so I stopped making the list and wondered whatever was wrong with me.  2014 will be very lovely.  Amen.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The End of the Penciltonian

Well, that was The Penciltonian.  A hundred films from a hundred years, 1913-2013 - and a few besides.  There were a number of other criteria I ventured for those wishing to play along at home, and of these I believe I also managed a film from each letter of the alphabet.

The viewing and the blogging have encompassed:
130 films in total
25 British films
54 American films
16 German films
7 French films
19 silent films
28 crime films
28 comedy films
14 horror films
21 films about war
7 films about revolution, which I found to be the most interesting through-line

I failed in my attempt to watch a film from each continent - I only managed a couple from the whole of Asia, and neglected to watch any at all from Africa, South America, Antarctica or The Moon, so I certainly can't claim to have encompassed anything beyond Western, Minority-World cinema.  African cinema, in particular, sounds to be artistically and philosophically different from the sorts of things I ended up watching, and its absence is probably the single greatest deficiency in this Penciltonian project.  I also managed to find terribly few films by female directors, yet must have watched half a dozen with entirely male casts.

The 1920s and the 1940s seemed much the most enjoyable decades, with almost all their films garnering great praise, but I thought the 1910s were a bit rubbish, perhaps because of their lack of later cinematic techniques - I've ventured elsewhere that the decade's lack of close-ups left the performances feeling rather distant, meaning the actors were only able to convey rather crude emotions, lacking nuance.

I expect there will be a handful of additional updates to The Penciltonian, though on a less regular basis.  Wherever I see something startling, or unfairly neglected, I'll try to make mention of it.  But I won't renew a commitment to a century in a year, or two films a week - the costs in time and funds were too high.

I guess I'd hoped I could sum up more victoriously, and tell tales of a project completed, which had led to some great, personal revelation, some spiritual refreshment, or revitalisation of character.  I have watched a hundred films - a goal any of you could achieve inside two months.  It's not especially impressive, only a tribute to obsessive list-making, and to materialism.  My main achievement here was to sit on my ass all year watching movies, which really oughtn't to be something to shout about.

The End.

Starship Troopers (1997)

Rounding out the nineties, we have this excellent sci-fi satire, an anti-war-film disguised simply as a war film.  It drifted into my mind a couple of months ago when I watched 'All Quiet on the Western Front' (1930).  The stories follow similar patterns: in each, a school-teacher inspires our hero to join the army, the better to be a patriot, and both films show a gruelling period of training under a hostile drill-sergeant, which nonetheless leaves the cadets unprepared for the real horrors of battle.  The war drags on for far longer than expected, and the hero watches all his peers perish in agony.  I can believe there are plenty of other anti-war films that follow the same pattern, but these are the two I know, and despite their similarity in plot and purpose, they use very different methods.

'Starship Troopers' is subtler, or at least, it credits its viewer with more intelligence.  It drops the occasional hint that humanity are the real aggressors, and that the 'bugs' whose planets they are invading are only defending their territory, but it makes the aliens ugly enough, and the battles exciting enough, that one could watch the film without realising the cruelty of the heroes, the sarcasm of the jingoism.  'All Quiet on the Western Front' opens and closes with clear anti-war statements, and its hero loses faith in the struggle, speaking openly against its futility - but the horrors experienced by Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) in 'Starship Troopers' leave him all the more committed to the bugs' extermination.  He's a true citizen.  'All Quiet on the Western Front' makes its point with tragedy, but 'Starship Troopers' gives us a happy ending, a triumph for the surviving characters.  Its far more bitter, and terribly unfair.

It's an attractive, fun and thrilling film.  If you can put the grim moral aside, it's highly entertaining, something you can watch a lot of times.  The film was fortunate to be made at exactly the right time, in 1997 special effects had become so good that they still impress today, with CGI 'bugs' and ships looking both real and solid.  Made a few years earlier, I suspect this would have aged poorly.  Five years later, I doubt the film could have been made at all, as the extremely negative portrayals of propaganda and American-style extreme patriotism would, post-9/11, have rankled against the public mood.

I'm told the film is extremely different to Robert A. Heinlein's novel on which it was based, and that the book, published in 1959, plays the war far straighter, with the monsters utterly evil, the heroes justified in their crusade.  It sounds considerably less interesting than the motion picture; the world needs the occasional warning about the evils of imperialism.  I always prefer sci-fi that doesn't advocate for national churlishness.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Two British films I was told were Indian films (2008, 2012)

A few months ago I bemoaned how white, how British and American the films I'd been looking at were - not that those facets are problematic in themselves, but that the films I was selecting lacked diversity.  The original plan for the blog was to see 20th Century cinema from all angles, but in the end I watched very few films from outside Western Europe and the States.  I put out a request for recommendations from less familiar nations, saying "these should be films conceived and made within the continent concerned," and, after seeing the American-Canadian film 'Life of Pi' (2012), I expressed an interest in some real Indian films, as opposed to films set in India but made for Western consumption.

The two I was lent were 'Slumdog Millionaire' (2008) and 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' (2012), and neither is really what I was after.  These are British-funded films with white British writers and directors (indeed the former is directed by Danny Boyle, surely the most famously British director there is, after his Olympic triumph).  They're both set in India, but have largely English dialogue, so they're Indian films to about the same extent that 'Das Herz der Königin' (1940) is a Scottish film or 'Shaft in Africa' (1973) is an Ethiopian film.

Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) under interrogation
'Slumdog Millionaire' regards Indian characters, and is based on a novel by an Indian author, so comes rather closer to being what I was after.  It's the tale of a man from the slums of Mumbai who lives an exciting and difficult life and makes his way onto 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire', with each question causing him to recall some part of his hectic youth.  'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' is about elderly white folks moving to India.  Dev Patel (who stars in both films) is its Indian lead, but he's the eighth billed on the poster after a catalogue of honkeys, and gets by far the smallest picture.

I was concerned that this film would show India only as an 'exotic' background, a colourful holiday location rather than a real nation of real people.  Thankfully the screenplay isn't so blinkered as I feared, and gives a rather more complex picture of India.  It's a mite more optimistic than 'Slumdog Millionaire', which tells of a nation rife with poverty and crime, while 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' is set in a country in which one can live without a door and yet have no fear of burglary.

Dame Judi Dench and Bill Nighy, and plenty of other stars,
old enough to have earnt their great fame.
Both films end cheerfully, with 'Slumdog Millionaire' turning either on either coincidence or destiny, and 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' giving an eyebrow-raising conclusion in which one of the British characters (Maggie Smith as Muriel) turns out to be more competent than Dev Patel's Sonny and relieves him of his responsibilities, so bringing prosperity and order to the white ghetto.  She starts the film as a disabled working class racist, and ends as a lovely able-bodied middle-class lady, and the film ties her moral transformation to a process of healing and rising from the wheelchair.  Alas, this is something one can find in a lot of fiction, the lingering implication being that one's impairment is a curse to be escaped through good deeds or a contrite heart.  It's a well-known trope, which upholds disability's massive stigma.  See also 'The Little Mermaid', 'What Katy Did', 'Avatar', and plenty more.

So, I still haven't seen any Indian films, at least by the criteria that I, and Wikipedia, like to judge these things.  These two were both enjoyable, well-made films, and present complementary pictures of modern India ('Slumdog Millionaire' giving us Mumbai on the coast and 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' showing Jaipur in the North), which I'm happy to put together with 'The Jewel in the Crown' (Granada television, 1984) to give a richer understanding, but I can't help feeling my knowledge of the life in the Indian subcontinent is very much tinged by Western interpretations.

The only other recommendation I've had for Indian cinema is 'how about some Bollywood'; would I just be embracing a stereotype?

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Unreported films

There have been a number of films I've watched during the period of the blog which for one reason or another I haven't written up for you.  They all duplicate (and in some cases triplicate) years I've covered with other films, but for reasons of completism, here's a brief run-down.

Vertigo (1958)

A third James-Stewart-starring Hitchcock movie, after my posts on 'Rope' (1948) and 'Rear Window' (1954).  Of the three, only this one isn't confined to a single room, meaning it can roam up and down the steep San Francisco hills, mainly down.  I was very taken by this film when I first watched it, as there's a point when it rather alarmingly reveals that it isn't in the genre you expected.  Rewatching, I was surprised, and not pleasantly, at what a sinister jerk the hero becomes toward the end.  And Kim Novak's eyebrows are strange and confusing throughout.

Bucket of Blood (1959)

I watched this and wrote it up for you, but then I watched it again.  It's good, it's short, and much of it is imitable.  I made a page of notes the second time, but apparently I've lost it.

The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977)

This is an absurd comedy written and directed by Marty Feldman, and it's a real pity it isn't better known.  It feels like a British Mel Brooks film, or a sillier and wider-ranging 'The Bed Sitting Room' (1969).  It's either an adaptation of a classic novel, or (as the title suggests) a remake of the 1926, 1939 and 1966 films, which ignores the original's lack of laughs and somehow comes out with a more interesting and satisfying resolution than any of those versions managed.  It stars Marty Feldman, Michael York and Peter Ustinov, and features (among many others) a memorable performance from James Earl Jones, who plays an Arab in the style of Terry Thomas.

Chariots of Fire (1981)

I picked up a copy of this film during the 2012 olympics.  I didn't watch any of the sport, but the opening ceremony had impressed me, and a rendition of the theme from Chariots of Fire stirred something within me.  It's music I've always associated with running in slow-motion, so I'd long held at least a little interest in watching the film.  Besides, it got the oscar for Best Screenplay, which tends to mean a film is worth a look in.  It's a fine thing, and well worth the attention given to it at the time, and isn't at all the film I'd expected.

Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (1988)

My cousin Alice recommended me this film, and I sought out a copy the following day.  I had meant to write it up for 1988, but somehow 'The Last Temptation of Christ', 'Akira' and 'A Short Film About Killing' all got in the way.  The occasion of my viewing is now eleven months ago, so I can't recall a great deal, except that the film struck me as extremely Italian, and felt much more like the stereotype I had in mind of European films than any of the German, French or Scandinavian films I'd seen.  It has a Summery, somewhat Catholic feel to it, like 'Cavalleria Rusticana'.  I meant at the time to watch the Director's Cut version, which came in the same set, that I might have a fuller idea of the film before writing it up.  Still not gotten around to that, but I imagine it'll happen eventually.

Ghostbusters II (1989)

After watching 'Ghostbusters' (1984) this was inevitable.  It's a mite less sweary than the original, but otherwise very similar in style, humour and production, and amply enjoyable.  It's a mystery to me why this sequel isn't held in the same regard as the original.

The Baby of Mâcon (1993)

Long-term readers will know I have a love of Peter Greenaway films.  Like so many of his movies, this fascinated me with its ideas and dazzled me with its beautiful cinematography by Sacha Vierny.  Its events show a play within a play - a vast audience, all dressed splendidly in what I'd count as an 18th century style, watching, and joining in with, a play about an ostensibly virgin birth and a tiny, all-powerful baby.  There's a lot of colour and blood and nudity, and it's quite astounding to behold.  The ending, though, was too unpleasant, and represented the first and only time I watched a film for The Penciltonian and resolved not to write it up for reasons of censorship.  If Peter Greenaway has ever gone too far, it was with the resolution to this film, which made for extremely uncomfortable viewing.

Hackers (1995)

1995 was an exciting year for movies, with 'Tank Girl', 'Toy Story', 'Goldeneye', 'Nixon' and 'Jumanji' (the latter of which is a film everybody saw, but nobody now speaks about) all in cinemas.  Saskia is a great advocate for the dream of nineties, so I turned to her for a recommendation, and was shown both 'Empire Records', which got a post of its own, and 'Hackers', an exciting story about the 1337 h@xX0r5, 7H05e co0l kiD$ wH0 C0UlD 7Urn c0mpu73r$ t0 tH3Ir pURp0$35, CH@Ng3 7H3Ir GR@des 0N $Ch00l coMpU73r5, $73@l m0n3y FR0m 8@nK5 (0n @ WhIM) @Nd dR355 iN 0U7l@NDI5h 0u7fI7s, HaPPy n07 70 C0nF0rM.

A Night at the Roxbury (1998)

An enjoyable, though often-scorned bromance, regarding two jiving brothers (Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan) who yearn to escape their jobs at their father's fake-flower shop and make it big in the dance club scene.  I'm not surprised it's less popular and less well-known than other Saturday Night Live movies as it lacks much of a hook to draw audiences in and keep 'em, but it seemed quite enjoyable enough, and an antidote to some of the heavier films I'd been watching.

Shaft (2000)

Having watched 'Shaft' (1971) and its two sequels, it was inevitable I'd get to this year 2000 remake, starring Samuel L Jackson.  It's a fair action movie - and is as explosive and slick as you might hope for, but it's not as incisive as the original, which seemed edgier and more dangerous.  I liked the soundtrack, which is by David Arnold who composed the music for the nineties and noughties Bond movies, and who revisits the original 'Shaft''s funky sound in his own glossy style.  I'm not so sure I can get behind the film's apparent glorification of police brutality, in which John Shaft, a cop, achieves what he needs to be beating people up and pistol-whipping unarmed suspects into respecting him.  We're meant to like the cops who turn a blind eye to these antics.  I guess it gets the job done, but not every violent police officer is so good at heart as John Shaft.  Noughties Shaft seems to have much less sex than the seventies Shaft did, too; perhaps it fell out of fashion.

Anchorman: the Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

An inevitable watch, after 'A Night at the Roxbury' (1998).  A bizarre and pleasing picture of the newsrooms of the 1970s.  Ron Burgundy's jazz-flute recital is a fantastic thing to witness.  The film goes for the old, slightly annoying convention of making all the male characters extremely amusing, but all female characters serious straight-man types who make no attempt to amuse.  Are there any films that reverse this trope?

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

It turned out I had absolutely the wrong idea about the Fast and the Furious movies.  I'd expected tales of car-theft, homicide, drive-by shootings and gritty America.  What I find instead, in this, the third in the series, is an extremely clean film about young racers, challenging one another to drive better and faster to win women.  Saskia described the films as chav-magnets, which might be a fair stab at the core audience.  Like 'The Transporter' (), the film reads like a story-board, each shot clinically chosen, rather than looking like a record of real events caught on camera.  It's an artificial style, but very efficient, very economical.  The script is tight and well-structured (as are, I understand, the others in the series), meaning that the story is well-paced and the protagonist's story engaging and satisfying.  Alas, the core of the film is that old, uncomfortable idea that the white man can go out to a foreign country and in a few short weeks become better than any native at whatever it is the foreign culture supposedly excels in.  See also 'Avatar' (2009) and, I suspect, 'The Last Samurai' (2003).

Das Weiße Band (2009)

I have as many Toms in my entourage as Mary Queen of Scots had Marys (which is to say, about four of them), and one such Tom urged me to seek out films by director Michael Haneke.  The very next day, 'Das Weiße Band' popped up the BBC iPlayer.  It's set in Germany in the early 1910s, and so neatly plugs the gap in my knowledge of 20th Century Germany that's so well filled by 'Heimat' 1-3, Fritz Lang's Weimar Berlin crime films (1922, 1931, 1933), 'Das Boot' (1981), 'Downfall' (2004), 'Der Baader Meinhof Komplex' (2008) and 'Goodbye Lenin!' (2003).  It's a rather unpleasant crime film, subtitled 'A German Children's Story', in which the children are known by name but the adults only by occupation.  Despite being set slightly before the First World War, the film has its mind on the second war, when these children will be running the country based on the lessons learnt in infancy.  Despite a pretty poor special effect of a horse falling over, this is a good film, if rather grim.  It's in black-and-white, too, meaning I have a wholly or largely monochrome film in every decade but the nineties.

Cosmopolis (2012)

Having watched 'Metropolis' (1927) and 'Persepolis' (2008), 'Cosmopolis' had to follow.  This is a story about a businessman in a car going to get his hair cut.  It looks like a blockbuster but is actually an art film, or something of the kind.  There's a wonderful artificiality to his limo's interior, and a daunting and real dirtiness to everything that happens outside it.  I really liked the vast majority of 'Cosmopolis', but wanted it to have a blunter ending.  The final confrontation felt too much like a final confrontation, and the film seemed to lose some of its fascinating individuality.  I'm told the book is deeper and more interesting.

Ted (2012)

I'd almost forgotten that I'd seen this during the course of the project, so long ago was it.  I'd initially meant to write this up, but, in a moment of belief that The Penciltonian was wholesome family reading, I censored this and 'The Baby of Mâcon' out of having their own posts.  Anyway, 'Ted' seemed just the thing to watch while visiting Big Dave in London, where we had been to a fine crêperie/crémerie combo for good pancakes.  The film is plainly from the mind of Seth MacFarlane, creator of 'Family Guy' and its ilk, and I know their comedy is fairly divisive, but it's a style I can enjoy, and which is used well here.  The film put me in mind of one I'd made and then destroyed, 'The Death of Pencilton' about an owl puppet which is obviously a puppet but which is nonetheless treated as being alive.  This did it better.

The Hunger Games (2012)

I enjoyed this, but wondered whether I would have liked the book more - not because the film was deficient, but because I thought prose might have afforded more intimacy to the actual Game part of the story.  A book could give an insight to Katniss's thoughts that was lacking here.  Her predicament might have been more genuinely daunting from her point of view.  As it was, I knew she'd be out of danger inside two hours and back for a sequel or two.  Nonetheless, I look forward to the next film, which I understand to be in cinemas now, but I can't think when I'll get to see it.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Run Lola Run! (1998)

Since my Penciltonian project is nearing its completion, I've been looking over the list of films I've watched this year, and I realised that the 1990s was almost the only decade to be made up entirely of English-language films.  (The other decade lacking foreign-language cinema was the 2010s, but I have another 6 years to rectify that particular omission).  I knew immediately what I'd like to watch: 'Lola Rennt', or 'Run Lola Run', a sassy German film which pleased and excited me when I saw it half a decade ago, and which I'd very happily recommend to anybody who hasn't tried foreign cinema before.

As you might expect, it regards Lola, running.

Lola (Franka Potente) has exactly twenty minutes to rustle up 100,000 German marks to save the life of her jerk boyfriend Manni, played by Moritz Bleibtreu, who went on to play, with a more competent criminality, Andreas Baader in 'Der Baader Meinhof Komplex' (2008).  Lola has an excellent rage, a shock of red hair of the most enviable character, and a capacity to scream with such determination that glass and other weak things must shatter.

Lola Rennt!
The events of the film last just over twenty minutes, but the film is almost an hour and a half in length.  We see multiple attempts by Lola to find and deliver the money, and when she fails she goes back to the beginning and starts again, like a video-game character trying new ways to beat a level.  Which way she goes, and what happens to each of the characters, depends entirely upon her timing: it isn't that she makes different decisions in the same situations, but rather that the situations are different when she gets there.  It all hinges on how quickly she makes it down some (animated) steps at the start.  A difference of a single second is all it takes to change many lives.

I'll certainly keep an eye out for more films from writer/director Tom Tykwer, who works with an attractive energy and flair, and casts even the smallest parts memorably.  I don't know why I haven't watched this film more often.  It's a cool, stylish movie, and a good drama.  It's colourful, it's attractive, has good characters, a pleasing techno soundtrack, and a lot of fun.  If it was in English, you'd all have seen it by now.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Alphabet (not a film)

If you find a satisfaction in the completion of arbitrary lists, please marvel at my ability to watch a film for each letter of the alphabet.  It's a far easier task than watching a film from each year of the century, and this is a venture you might enjoy trying for yourself (indeed, I once listed it as a way to play along at home)

America 3000 (1986)
The Belly of an Architect (1987)
Cabin in the Woods (2011)
Double Indemnity (1944)
Empire Records (1995)
Faust (1926)
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Häxan (1922)
The Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Julius Caesar (1950)
King Ralph (1991)
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
M (1931)
Ninja Terminator (1985)
Office Space (1999)
Persepolis (2007)
The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
The Robe (1953)
Shaft (1971)
Train to Hell (1998)
Up (2009)
La Vie et La Passion de Jesus Christ (1903)
Winstanley (1975)
Xanadu (1980)
Yellow Submarine (1968)
A Zed and Two Noughts (1985)

One can have fun constructing one's own alphabet of movies.  I could just as easily have watched (off the top of my head) 'Animal Crackers' (1930), 'Beethoven's 2nd' (1993), 'Caravaggio' (1986), 'Dog Soldiers' (2002), 'East is East' (1999), 'Fantasia' (1940), 'Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns' (2003), 'Hot Shots! Part Deux' (1993), 'I, Robot' (2004), 'The Jungle Book' (1942), 'A King in New York' (1957), 'The Lion King' (1994), 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' (1956), 'No Country for Old Men' (2007), 'The Omen' (1976), 'Il Postino' (1994), 'The Quiet American' (1958), 'Russian Ark' (2002), 'Step Up 2 The Streets' (2008), 'TMNT' (2007), 'U-571' (2000), 'V for Vendetta' (2006), 'Wall Street' (1929), 'X2' (2003), 'You Only Live Twice' (1967), and 'Zardoz' (1974).  But that would have been a different Penciltonian to the one you have been reading.

A Zed and Two Noughts (1985)

Do excuse my wonky screen-caps - I'm photographing my TV again
We're nearing the end of the Penciltonian now, so as well as watching films from those last few years, I'm tidying up a number of loose ends.  I was keen to watch a film for every letter of the alphabet, and found that I had, quite appropriately, left Z for last.  Since I didn't have the time to watch 'Die Zweite Heimat' (1993) before the end of the year, I turned to 'A Zed and Two Noughts', a pleasingly literal choice for the letter.

Like most Peter Greenaway films, this is full of wit, conspiracies, nudity and astoundingly attractive cinematography.  So much symmetry, such colour.  Greenaway's introduction to the film points out the myriad myriads of light-sources used, from sunlight and starlight to different kinds of bulbs, flames, sparks and rainbows, and with this in mind the uses of light and colour in the film are really quite remarkable.  Some images anticipate my favourite Greenaway film, 'The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover' (1989): a woman in flamboyant, ancient reds in a pink-lit lavatory, or the fascinating or horrible treatment of food that is no longer food.

Venus de Milo (Frances Barber) and a zebra.
"The wives of two zoologists die in a car driven by a woman called Bewick who's attacked by a swan on Swan's Way".  The zoologists, identical twins, obsess over decomposition, grow more identical, and begin to liberate zoo animals for Alba Bewick, who loses a leg but grows more symmetrical.  Though the film is enjoyable and engrossing, you must never watch it it while eating your dinner: it's a beautiful picture, studded with time-lapse footage of decay - apples, prawns or zebras, passing from near life to maggots to brown mush.

The cast includes credible actor Geoffrey Palmer, arrestable comedian Jim Davidson, David Attenborough as narrator of a nature documentary, and a piquant part for Frances Barber, who I know better as Doctor Who's intensely villainous Madame Kovarian, here playing Venus de Milo, a writer of erotic animal stories.  It's a curious and exciting cast, and a film that lingers long in the memory.

I haven't found a film that looks and sounds better.  Magnificent light, colour and framing, and a pulsing, obsessive, urgent score by Michael Nyman.  This was the first film I looked at on blu-ray, and is the only film I would recommend to you in that handsome, unnecessary format.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Cœur Fidèle (1923)

1923 offered me a number of temptations.  I was urged towards 'Safety Last', the Harold Lloyd comedy, though I couldn't find it on region 2 DVD - or perhaps the original version of 'The Ten Commandments', the remake of which I've occasionally enjoyed.  I felt, though, that since almost half the films I'd watched for the project have been American I might do better to watch something European.  Despite the fact that the films are silent, there are, or were, big enough cultural differences between countries that the whole flavour of a French film is extremely different to that of an American film, and so on.  In the end I was tempted by 'Cœur Fidèle'.  Firstly, it had been released on blu-ray, which is rare enough for ancient films that it (currently) usually means they're either very good or very culturally significant.  Secondly, it has an 'œ' in its title, and what mortal man can resist a good 'œ'?

Director Jean Epstein was a stylish fellow, and by all accounts a great director, and chose to tell an extremely simple story with great directorial innovation.  What we have, then, is an uncomplicated melodrama which is all about extreme close-ups of faces, balled fists and reactions.  I've complained at length about the lack of close-ups in 1910s movies, but here, in 1923, they're very much in evidence.  Epstein makes a memorable drama of this tiny story, using sophisticated fades, and new ways of showing us two ideas at once.  The art and the story are as much in the hands of the director and editor as the screen-writer.

The film wasn't at all popular with audiences when it was first released, and I can see why: it asks a huge amount of patience and attention from its viewer, as its deliberately simple story unfolds.  While I admired the techniques, I found myself wishing for something more surprising or interesting in the narrative.  I appreciate great direction, but it's stories that really excite me.  It didn't help that 'Broken Blossoms' (1919) had a very similar content: the horrible jerk, the bland hero, and the threatened, incapable woman who gets to do all the acting.

Much of this film's visual  thunder was stolen by 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928), which came later but which I saw sooner, and which uses the same technique of extreme close-up followed by extreme close-up followed by extreme close-up to build intensity of feeling, almost pushing the camera through the character's face into their terrified brain.

I learnt a new French word!
Having seen 'Cœur Fidèle', I never need to watch another silent film - at least, not as part of this viewing project.  I've covered the first two decades of The Pencilonian (and much besides), and have no more gaps to fill in the silent era (which was, broadly speaking, everything before 1927 and most things before 1931).

But there are plenty I'll revisit, some almost immediately, and I'm curious to look out some of the later silent films, the sort of thing we hear about in 'Singing in the Rain' (1952) and 'The Artist' (2011) - indeed, I'd be curious to see 'The Artist', since it's a silent film made in modern times (though aping the style of the classic silents, of course).

Music videos are probably the most prominent display for silent films these days, with dialogue-free stories told to suit the music, rather than the other way around.  I made my own silent film a year or two ago, 'Pencilton and the Giant Spider' (2012), which isn't as good as 'Cœur Fidèle', but which is shorter and features more fluffy animals.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Tarzan of the Apes (1918)

A mere four years after the novel saw publication, here comes 'Tarzan of the Apes'.  It opens with a zoologically dazzling opening montage to match that of 'Life of Pi' (2012) - A snake!  A warthog!  A lion!  An elephant!  Some kind of bear!  Double rhinoceros!  I suppose audiences back then might have been more easily impressed by such stock footage displays as the one that starts this picture.  (That is, if it is stock footage - it could have been shot for the purpose for all I know, but lions really don't live in jungles, and the scenes with actors were apparently shot far from these animals' real haunts, in Louisiana).  Still, it must have been exciting to go to the cinema and see, not just bleary human forms and shuffling slides of text, but vast, shaky animals.  It's the same reason we see a venus fly-trap in action in 'Nosferatu' (1922), or animals in full colour in 'The African Queen' (1951)

As we all know, Tarzan is a hairy but clean-shaven fellow who lives in the jungle, swings on vines (he does so only briefly here, at the half-way point of the film - I suspect the famous image comes from a later picture) and was raised by animals, making his eventual meeting with civilised society (as opposed to sinister-looking Arab slave-traders, local savages and other horrid stereotypes) exciting and slightly-but-not-very romantic.  The concept is a little similar to that of The Jungle Book, except that, while Mowgli was (I think) an Indian child raised by a wolf, a panther and a hilarious bear, young Tarzan is an English child of the upper class raised by apes and heir to a fortune and heritage of which he knows nothing, meaning a (financially) happy ending is practically guaranteed from the start (though as we'll see, this film never quite reaches that inevitable 'you were rich all along' conclusion).

It's an interesting view of humanity's innate yearnings.
So, for the first half, young Tarzan is raised by a lovely chimp called Kala, larks about a while, and has no reason to talk to anybody - convenient in a silent film.  The intertitles mainly tell us what is happening or what characters are thinking, which seems a rather poor use of silent film as a visual storytelling medium.  This feels less like a film, more like a written story with moving illustrations - illustrations which are as spectacular as they are expensively staged: slightly.  As in 'America 3000' (1986) and 'Battlefield Earth' (2000) , our hero learns English and ingenuity after discovering a book, and immediately comprehending its uses and the meaning of its symbols.

After this we skip a number of years, and meet the adult Tarzan, played by Elmo Lincoln, an actor with an amazing name.  He engages in a variety of adventures of exactly the kind one might expect of Tarzan, and left me wishing I was watching the less innovative but much more fun 'George of the Jungle' (1997).  This, though, was almost certainly the first time there had been a film quite like this, so I suspect I ought to have admired its novelty - but I've seen it all done more enjoyably and slickly later on, so these fresh adventures seem, with the weight of time, full of cliché.

It's not even as sexy as it sounds.
The film only covers the first half of the novel's story.  I'd be tempted (though to be honest not very tempted) to watch the sequel which was released the same year (and was a Western, curiously enough) but it no longer exists anywhere in the world, and can be watched by nobody.

The film suffers, as many 1910s films do, from lack of close-ups of actors' faces, meaning that even if they're doing their best acting we don't really see the emotion, so it's very hard to engage with it as a drama.  By this point these things were getting better, and film-making was growing steadily more competent, so I suspect the rather rough and bleary print I saw on Youtube has also counted against my appreciation of this film.  That is, the early 20s films I've seen restored for home release have looked and sounded so crisp and beautiful, and my dismay at the 1910s may in part stem from the fact that I've watched the whole decade for free in gloriously compressed 240p YouTube video.

You can find the film on YouTube, but here's the novel too.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

A Short Film About Killing (1988)

I was sad, and had been for a while, about international catastrophe, and about entropy, and about the rising tide of British racism, and the fact that the public and the media are not unsympathetic to this terrible thing, and because I had recently watched 'Nicholas and Alexandra' (1971), which is not a very happy film, though I think it worth watching.  So I decided to lighten my day by viewing a movie.  I had two hours in the middle of a working Friday, and the films I had set aside for The Penciltonian were all too long for that.  I needed something shorter, so I watched 'A Short Film About Killing', which is deeply unhappy but seemed to help.

It's a film by Krzysztof Kieślowski, who made the probably-more-famous Three Colours Trilogy, and whose 'Dekalog' I watched a few years ago, after hearing comparisons between it and 'Heimat' (1984).  'Dekalog' is a series of ten one-hour films for television, based loosely around the Ten Commandments, which left me with the impression that Poland (or at least, Soviet Poland) was a cold, cold, miserable place, always snowy and without hope, and that the main occupations there were dying and being cold while travelling short distances.  They were extremely well-made, and compellingly watchable, and two of the most striking were expanded into slightly longer versions for cinema release.  'A Short Film About Killing' is one of those two.  It may sound bleak, but the other, 'A Short Film About Love' wasn't radically more cheering.

This is a film about a young man, Jacek, who kills a stranger, a taxi-driver selected apparently at random.  Not because of some feeling of Nietzschean superiority, as we saw in 'Rope' (1948), but, perhaps, because he's sad, and sees no prospects for himself, or for other reasons undisclosed or barely hinted at.  Perhaps he thought it would be easy.  It isn't easy - he tries to strangle him with a rope, but it turns into a horrible ordeal, horrible for everybody involved, and horrible to watch.  We've watched the Jacek going about the city, and he doesn't seem unpleasant or unreasonable, he just seems disaffected with life - and we've also followed the taxi-driver, who has spent his day declining to pick up customers.  He picks up the wrong one in the end.  And we've been watching Piotr, a sensitive young lawyer with nice hair, who passionately opposes the death penalty, and who, a year later, has to defend Jacek.

Here, as in the hour-long version from the 'Dekalog', we cut straight from the murder to the end of the trial.  This isn't like a lot of murder stories.  There's no investigation of clues, no sense of how Jacek was caught.  We see the murder, then we see the last seconds of the trial, and then we lead up to the other killing, the execution.  It's a philosophical, devastating piece.  Perfectly, horribly directed, though it seems somehow inappropriate to praise the art when the message is so grim and so important.  Something has been done to the lenses or the grading to make the world around Jacek dauntingly dark and murky, as if wherever he moves he's walking into the dark.  He's distressed towards the end of the film, but at the start he's almost emotionless, except once, when he catapaults a spoonful of coffee at a cafe window to amuse some children.  He smiles at this, the only time he smiles in the whole film.  A clip of his brief, uncharacteristic smile was used in the opening titles to 'Dekalog', and once I knew its context, its use seemed terribly, terribly unfair and cruel.

I think you should watch this film, but I understand why you don't.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Rope (1948)

Look, the forties have been going wonderfully well - 'The Third Man' (1949) for goodness' sake, and 'Les Enfants du Paradis' (1945) - and I've enjoyed the decade so much, more consistently than any of the others, indeed - that I didn't want to spoil things now.  1948 was the sole empty year of the forties (heck, the only unfilled year between 1940 and 1996, at the time of writing), and I didn't want to ruin the decade with something poor, or even something promising but mediocre.  So I chose Hitchcock's 'Rope', because I know it to be good.

Now, that isn't a problem in itself, many of the films I've watched I've known and loved and chosen for their familiar merits - but this won't be the only Jimmy-Stewart-Hitchcock-thriller-set-in-a-single-room that I've seen for The Penciltonian, though this and 'Rear Window' (1954) have very little else in common.  So do pardon me cherry-picking this film to fill the gap.  Such an indulgence seems permissible as a reward of sorts, since I'm down to the last five empty years.

I suspect he would humour anyone's aunt at a party,
in such a way as would amuse him.
Like many of the best films, 'Rope' is experimental enough to be interesting, but conventional enough to be watchable (or should those be the other way around).  The great novelty, of course, is that the whole film (after an establishing shot) is told in a single, unbroken shot, with the camera roaming to show us details, rather than the convention of various angles edited together.  It's a tactic used far more lavishly - ridiculously so - in 'Russian Ark' (2002), which is told from the point-of-view of an unseen central character, whereas here the camera stands only for the audience.  We're the ones watching this murder story.

When I first saw it about a decade ago, I was surprised by a couple of things that now seem utterly unsurprising.  First, it was made in 1948 - and the only Hitchcock I knew back then was 'Psycho', from 1960.  I was surprised, as the two years seemed incredibly distant one from another (though, as a mathematician would tell you, they're only twelve years apart).  1960 is very nearly the modern day, or so I thought, but the forties were practically Victorian.  I'd hitherto thought of Hitchcock's career as a tiny, intense thing, all occurring in a short blurt the length of a decade, like the Beatles albums.  It was the first time I started to tie films to their years, a process which led, eventually, to The Penciltonian.

'And what would you say to some champagne?'
'Helloooo champagne'.
The second thing that struck me was that it was that it was in colour.  Perhaps I had a notion that the world didn't go into colour until 'Doctor Who' did in 1970, or in the sixties at the earliest.  I'm closer to the truth now: after some odd experiments, colour happened in a big way in 1939, but was so expensive that the onset of war made it disappear again, except for the most spectacular pictures.  Colour was on and off for a while, and only became the standard about fifty years ago.  I suspect it was affordable in 'Rope' because of the relatively low budget - the film is a play, on one set, and without many fancy effects - and because, by the nature of the movie, I suspect relatively little film-stock was needed: the shots were few, and thoroughly rehearsed, and there were no alternative angles to worry about.

It is, as I say, a very fine film, and one which has aged well - there's the merit of a filmed play.  It regards two young men who, as the camera starts to roll, have just strangled their friend, purely because they could.  We see the remainder of their evening, as they throw a polite party, with the corpse's hiding place as a serving-table.  At any point it seems they could be discovered, or else give themselves away.  To an extent they seem to want to be discovered, and praised for their daring.  It's extremely tense, highly dramatic, but at the same time witty and very fun.  James Stewart is always worth watching, and all parts are enjoyably brought to life, except David, of course, who is dead to begin with.

The Third Man (1949)

A few weeks ago I saw a very enjoyable amateur production of 'Travels with my Aunt', enjoyable because of the story: at every point I wanted to know what happened next.  Certain revelations were easy to predict, but I couldn't guess where they would lead the characters, and whenever I thought I had my head around it some complication would throw the plot in unexpected directions, and make the resolutions I expected far further away.  It wasn't just easy schlock, it was a morally complex and clever work of plotting.  Since the details, the characters and their dialogue were likewise very appealing to me, I praised Graham Green, who had penned the original novel, and resolved to re-watch 'The Third Man', as he wrote both the novel and the screenplay.

It's a British film about an American in Vienna, at a time when it was a divided and international city, a bureaucratic tangle, filled with crime, trouble and outlandish camera-angles.  It's an excellent noir, and I very much like noir, so long as it's excellent.

I like this shot of a bridge.  It looks so much more modern than
most of Vienna as we see it.  The city and the film seem to be
on the border between the old world and the present day.
My first viewing of the film was immensely satisfying, trying to work out the central mystery of the eponymous Third Man.  Subsequent viewings have been no less enjoyable, regarding the performances, the lighting and cinematography and the ingenuity of the story.

I feel a little guilty that I only have positive things to say about the film - I could probably be of far more interest if I condemned it, but it pleases me too much - a beautiful thriller with a great plot - it resists sentimentality and the temptation to grant a comfortable ending.  As it transpires, I've really enjoyed all the films I've watched from the 1940s (except the German ones, oddly enough, despite loving Weimar Republic cinema).  The great surprise of The Penciltonian is that this has turned out to be the best decade for films.  'Went The Day Well' (1942), 'Double Indemnity' (1944), 'Les Enfants du Paradis' (1945), all amazed me.  Of course, I haven't looked at 1948 yet, so perhaps it will al go wrong from here.

The film, if you'd care to watch it from some optical media. And you might like 'Third Man', a song by The Duckworth Lewis Method. They're very good, you know.

Das Herz der Königin (1940)

Zarah Leander IS Mary Queen of Scots.
There are plenty of English-language films about foreign history - 'Nicholas and Alexandra' (1971), for instance, about the death of the Tsar of Russia, or almost any film about Jesus, so I've long been curious about foreign films about English history.  Are there Indian films about Cromwell, or Russian biopics of Queen Victoria?

'Das Herz der Königin' is exactly what I'd been looking for - a film made in Nazi Germany about Mary Queen of Scots' imprisonment and (spoiler) execution by Queen Elizabeth of England.  It's a bit of history I don't really know, as it wasn't on the syllabus in my youth.  I read the first half of Antonia Fraser's biography of Mary last year, so have a vague understanding of the queen and her times, but since I didn't ever finish the (good and thorough) book, the end of Mary's life is something I first learned about from this film.

I think this may be Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who I've much enjoyed in Fritz Lang's
'Metropolis' (1927), 'Die Nibelungen' (1924), and the Dr Mabuse films (1922, 1933)
The history is something like this: England and 'Schottland' were completely separate nations back then, and their queens, Elizabeth and Mary, were cousins who always wanted to meet.  Catholic Scotland believed Mary was the real heir to England's throne, as, refusing to recognise Henry VIII's divorce, they considered Elizabeth illegitimate and thus an ineligible heir.  Mary went to France for a bit (which in those days was next-door to Scotland) to marry a prince, who died.  When she came back to Scotland it was no longer as Catholic as she was (for, having had Catherine de Medici as a mother-in-law, she was Catholic indeed).  Everything went pretty badly for her until she was locked up by the English for some reason (in the middle of Sheffield, though you wouldn't recognise it in those pre-tram days), and was beheaded for something like treason.  She and Elizabeth never met, except perhaps a little bit in this movie.  The fruit of her loins became king of both England and Scotland, uniting the island of Great Britain, so that's a sort-of happy ending for you.

Zarah Leander, Nazi Germany's great diva, plays Mary, and gets a number of sad-sounding songs, though their contents could be intensely jolly for all I know, as I was watching the film in German without subtitles, so had no idea what anybody was saying.  Nonetheless, Leander gives a pleasant performance, though some count it as her worst.  I've long been curious to see her in action as Maria and Pauline Simon in my beloved 'Heimat' (1984) go to see her in the 1938 film of the same name, and admire her greatly.

Sorry, German language, I've no idea what you're trying to tell me.
The whole film looks very fine, giving us a splendid, very clean picture of history.  Big Tudor costumes: doublets, kilts, ball-gowns and jerkins.  Plenty to envy, and want to wear.  We can tell it's set in England and Scotland, as there's Norman architecture and lots of capotains, a hat I very much enjoy.

I think I would have found the movie more enjoyable, not to mention more intelligible, had some subtitles been available to me.  It would probably make the film's anti-British bias more evident, which in pictures is only apparent in the chilly horridness of Königin Elizabeth's performance.  Who knows what allegations lie within the dialogue?

P.S. Because I only realised a year ago, I shall clarify: Mary Queen of Scots isn't the same person as 'Bloody' Mary, Queen of England, they merely shared a forename, a century and a lineage.  This all happened about 450 fears ago, shortly before Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Guy Fawkes, the revolution and the interregnum (in that order).

P.P.S. While watching the film, my chair broke and I fell over backwards.  It was hilarious.

Look, it's not out on video, but you can find the film on Youtube.  Or better, why not read Antonia Fraser's biography of Mary?  It's really good.  I only didn't finish it because I'm lazy.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)

When I was quite a young child, I was fascinated and disturbed by the ends of two films that I had seen on TV.  One ended with a giant dinosaur being burnt to death in a church.  I never found out what that film was.  The other ended with the Tsar of Russia being taken to a house where all the windows were painted up so nobody could see in or out, and the family eventually being placed in a room and shot to death.  That film was 'Nicholas and Alexandra'.

Recently I found it again, on VHS in a charity shop, and was delighted to find that its three stars were all actors I very much like to watch.  Most obviously Tom Baker IS Rasputin.  This was three years before he was famous, and at this point he was still a really good actor.  He was as good as this when he started being The Doctor in 1974 - he's at the top of his game in 'Terror of the Zygons' and 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang', for instance, but stayed in the role long enough to grow bored and tired, and rarely took a dramatic role seriously again.  But here he is, before all that, scintillating in the role of Rasputin, that most maligned of holy men.  Rasputin was not mad nor a monk, nor a monster - he was a fascinating man, a constant pilgrim, who struggled with his faith and (apparently genuine) powers.  Unlike Hammer Horror's schlocky take on him, this film gives us the historical Rasputin, a far more interesting and tragic person, and one I hope to meet some day, when we're all dead.

Secondly, there's Janet Suzman as Alexandra, the Tsaritsa.  When I think of eighties women, Janet Suzman always comes to mind for her performance in 1986 TV serial 'The Singing Detective', with her strong, cold, muscular manner, her big red hair.  There's an amazing, disconcerting strength to her that's evident here and in 'The Draughtsman's Contract' (1982?), and I think it a pity she isn't more famous.

Third, there's Michael Jayston as Tsar Nicholas.  He gives a quiet performance in the role of Russia's doomed Tsar.  Nicholas II is often presented as a cruel oppressor, but this film shows him as a man trying to be a good, kind leader, who wants to protect his family and preserve his power, that he might some day pass it to his haemophiliac son.  He doesn't understand his people, and he's terrible at taking advice.  I know Michael Jayston best as The Valeyard, that sarcastic, villainous barrister in 1986's 'Trial of a Time Lord', but he's given a far more emotional role here.  There's a scene after his forced abdication when he comes home to Alexandra and just weeps and weeps.  It's a terrible thing to behold.  I understand he recently reprised the role in an audio-drama entitled 'Tsar Wars' opposite Tom Baker as a robotic Rasputin.  I have not so far sought it out.

Nicholas and Alexandra, their daughters, their son, their doctor, waiting.
That would be quite a cast, but there's also Laurence Olivier, Ian Holm, Eric Porter, Julian Glover, Timothy West, Steven Berkoff and so on.  It's a handy hub when calculating actors' degrees of separation.

It's a very serious film, but a very interesting one.  It's quite an education, and a really devastating tragedy.  This was a terrible time to be Russian, and it only grows worse as the Tsar sends his nation into the first world war, and so seals his fate.  From the intermission to the Tsar and his family's long-drawn-out murder in the House of Special Purpose, this is a catalogue of disaster.  The Tsar makes this catastrophe, and it falls on him very heavily.  Not lightly do I compare anything to 'Downfall' (2004), but this is as close as I have seen a British film come to those depths, the gruelling horror of history.

P.S. When I die I want to die like Rasputin: poisoned with cyanide and shot with guns and stubbornly staying alive to prophesy terrible doom, before being bludgeoned to death with chains.  This film really stuck with me.  What a time in history.

Why not watch this film?  It's in English, so you've no real excuse not to.  Don't watch it if you're unhappy, though.

The Bed Sitting Room (1969)

A bizarre post-apocalyptic comedy, directed by Richard Lester (he of the Beatles films), with a script co-written by Spike Milligan and a cast that includes many of the comedy greats of the era.  Much of it is extremely silly, and some of it is even stupid, and as a whole it's an utterly bleak picture about the futility of Britishness after the atomic catastrophe.

Marty Feldman IS the NHS.
It's a film adaptation of Milligan and John Antrobus's absurdist play of the same name.  Jaunty music and surreal jokes played out on Britain's filthiest, ugliest and most polluted landscapes, the most depressing places in the country, fields of shattered crockery, hills of abandoned shoes, every floor littered with something.  It's bleak and ridiculous, and the director apparently worried that he'd spent so much time making it look miserable that he'd forgotten to make it funny.  I'm not sure how well he succeeded, but I enjoy it very much.  It thrills me and it distresses me.  It just about matches 'Daisies' (1966) for oddness, which is quite an achievement.

A field of abandoned crockery.
My favourite scene of the nineteen-sixties is in this film, when Mother (Mona Washbourne) is visited by a nurse who hands over her death certificate and informs her that she's died.  Mrs Throper is overwhelmed with a deep, gentle sadness when she's allowed to hold all her certificates at once: birth, marriage, death and school.  She later gets to throw plates and bottles at Harry Secombe, and becomes a cupboard.

Mrs Throper receives her certificate.
An excellent cast, including Arthur Lowe, Peter Cook, Roy Kinnear and Marty Feldman, manages to deliver the bizarre, almost nonsensical dialogue with a warmth, and make bizarre individuals into people.  Nobody here has realised they're in a tragedy.  The expectation of imminent thermonuclear war must have been a very terrible thing back then, and I don't imagine this film offered much in the way of consolation.

This was the first release in the BFI Flipside range, excellent but neglected British films.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Dr Mabuse, der Spieler (1922)

A disguise of Dr Mabuse
Many months ago, I wrote about this film's sequel, 'Das Testament des Dr Mabuse' (1933), which pitted Inspector Lohmann from 'M' (1931) against the villainous Dr Mabuse from this silent picture, 'Dr Mabuse, the Gambler'.  At the time I was faintly curious to know what Mabuse had been up to before his insanity and institutionalisation, but at the time I was wary of silent films, so passed the opportunity by.  However, my trusty CRT television broke down and died a few weeks ago, so I upgraded to HD at last, and ordered myself a copy of this movie to test it out.  I learnt early in The Penciltonian that director Fritz Lang created pictures worth looking at.  As in 'Metropolis' (1927), he casts Rudolf Klein-Rogge as a charismatic villain, and as in 'Die Nibelungen' (1925) he tells his story over almost five hours, with the audience watching the first half of the film one day, returning to the cinema a day later to find out what happened in the second half.

Nice hat and pattern there, Aud Egede-Nissen.
This film breaks the division I'd imagined in Lang's directorial career.  In my mind, he spent the 20s making epic sci-fi and fantasy silent films, before moving into (slightly) more grounded Berlin-based crime thrillers with the advent of sound in the 30s.  But this is a silent crime film of gargantuan character, and feels like it belongs in both portions.  It's the age of monocles, of cocain and of intertitles.  Dr Mabuse is a psychoanalyst, a gambler and a hypnotist.  An evil hypnotist, mind.  As in the sequel, there's something of a mystery over whether his powers are granted by a knowledge of human psychology, by a triumph of patented German will-power, or by some force yet more malign and magical.  Mabuse is a brilliant and terrible individual, a stylish and intense fellow and a master of disguise.  He dresses up a lot, coaxes people into losing vast sums at cards, and uses his pawns to engage in the more practical criminal fare of theft, un-theft, stock-market cunning and (eventually) murder.  In short, he's The Master, 48 years early.

Chief Inspector Norbert von Wenk regards the artworks of high society.
Within ten minutes of the start, I was excited about some day rewatching the film.  It had an energy, a flair and a visual style that I found very alluring.  I used to have a rather dim opinion of silent films (an opinion you can share if you watch 'Birth of a Nation', 1915, first), but films like this are so rich and exciting, and tell their stories with a directness and drama that you wonder why spoken dialogue ever seemed like a necessary invention.  I love the scene of hypnosis that we see from the point-of-view of the hypnotee, as everything except Mabuse's face grows blurry and the playing cards change their faces.  I love the scenes of miss Cara Carozza dancing - she's an amazing dancer, but not necessarily a good one, but her unembarrassable flailing and jiving is something I one immediately wished to imitate - a strangely attractive, undisciplined style, with plenty of gusto.  I dig the amazing and scary expressionist art that stocks the houses of the city's upper crust; Mabuse says expressionism is just 'spilerei', 'playing about' - but he sees nothing wrong with playing about.  He's a Spieler!

The film very briefly passes the Bechdel test when Cara and Gräfin Dusy Told talk to
each other in prison, but in no time they're on about Dr Mabuse this and Dr Mabuse that...
It's a fine thriller, with a timeless flavour, if not a modern one.  Scenes that I take to be innovative (though they may already have been old hat) are things which later became clichés, but remain ever exciting: a taxi-driver surreptitiously pulls a lever releasing knockout gas in his passenger compartment, for instance.  It feels as if James Bond could break out at any moment.  This is so far advanced, so far advanced in terms of ambition, style and depth from that other tale of silent criminality, 'Dr Nicholson and the Blue Diamond' (1913, and yes, all doctors in cinema were evil until 1965) that it's hard to believe only a decade has gone by.  This is a sinister and exciting story, and is comfortably up to the standards of Fritz Lang's more famous crime-films.  And it's impressive indeed to remain exciting for so many hours.

P.S. This was the same year as 'Nosferatu' and the amazing 'Häxan'.  What a year for European cinema!  Over in the states 'King of Kings' was happening, so the year's merits may have been international.  Of the lot, I believe this is my favourite.  I may need to re-watch 'Das Testament des Dr Mabuse' again now, to remind myself what happened next.

It may surprise you to learn that ancient cinema looks beautiful on blu-ray.  It isn't a format I advocate often, but it brings out every crinkle, every wall-paper, and is a fine way to take these thrilling stories.