Sunday, 29 September 2013

Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Occasionally, recently, I've grown weary of The Penciltonian, of having to watch a pair of films a week (as enjoyable as this is) matched to the years I haven't yet covered, then write them up.  Some days I look eagerly to December, when I can count it as a complete work, and update it only when I have a great urge, or a fine and unlikely film to speak about.

Sometimes, though, I find a film like this one, 'Человек с киноаппаратом', and the project seems worthwhile.  The whole scheme, and its attached blog, started so that I could find such amazing works as this, that I might watch films I would otherwise miss entirely - and this find has excited me more than any.

Three trams.
Chairs!  Trams!  A typewriter!  A telephone!  An I-don't-know-what!  The crowds swarm, the movie theatre warms up, the band begins to play.  The film is a torrent of images, tiny clips of life, and of objects in the Russia of the late 1920s.  It's a documentary, I suppose.  A silent film with no intertitles, no story and no characters.  Factories, engineering, trams and fast trains.  Horses and parasols.  The occasional car.  We even see a birth.

I had thought silent movies had peaked a couple of years earlier with 'Metropolis' (1927), when they'd grown as big and confident as they could.  1929 is down in my mind as the year talkies became the standard, with 'Hallelujah' and 'Sunny Side Up' and the Marx Brothers - but I didn't know about this film, which does pictures without sound - and without any commentary - so well, so intimately, giving us all the scale of the city without the need for sets, and with real people passing by as themselves, not silent crowds responding melodramatically to catastrophe.

Director Dziga Vertov had no interest in fiction, and thought the cinema had far more important matters to attend to.  Spurred on by a desire for authenticity, and with (in apparent contradiction to this) a rich imagination for special effects, Vertov filmed some of everything, and together with his wife Elizaveta crafted an absurdly fast montage, a picture of three cities in what is now the Ukraine.

Vertov in a moving car, filming another
A dying man in an ambulance, a sequence of the ambulance driving right across the screen cut together with fire-engines going left - or rather each holding steady, as the emergency vans are shot from parallel vehicles.  Weeping, sorting, mending.  A shampoo and a shave, intercut with the sharpening of an axe.  Russia looks warmer than I'd imagined.  Not comfortable, but full of life.

It's the sort of film Peter Greenaway might have put together in the silent age.  Like this, his early films eschewed characters and actors on the screen, but they justified their sets of pictures with narrators telling stories tenuously connected to the real, visual story.  This film doesn't have that opportunity, so uses music, with various different scores having been attached to different releases over the years.  The version I watched uses Greenaway-collaborator Michael Nyman, probably my favourite movie composer, with his obsessive rhythms, his minimal, urgent chords, deployed excellently here to support the astounding pace of the film.  It's just the sound I like.

Suddenly in the middle of the film the flow ceases.  We're given, not a moving image, but a still shot, a single frame repeated.  We cut to a lady, Elizaveta Svilova, trimming the film-strip with scissors.  A moment later, the frames she's been looking at, frozen shots of blurred action, come to life, and what we know as only a set of frames is played for us as motion.  What an excellent education this film is, teaching us that films are films, that what we see is not just the truth, or the way things really look, or the natural way to tell the story in images, but a deliberately constructed piece of work, something that has been crafted and engineered, over which decisions have been made by cameraman and editor.  I'm extremely taken with this movie, as you may note.

This isn't anyone's story but the director's.  This is the tale of how Dziga Vertov walked around with a camera and gathered footage.  It wants us to remember that there's a camera on the set as well, and that everything is for our benefit, like in 'Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr Leonard Cohen' (1965), when Cohen assures the audience that we haven't seen him acting naturally; caveat emptor.  The film sparkles with Vertov's amazing ingenuity and humour, reversing footage, bolstering a magician's act with trick photography, and giving us, through the wonder of stop-motion, a dancing lobster, a tripod that puts itself away and a camera that can take a bow.  The fun for the audience, then as now, is working out how it's been done.

What great shooting!  What great editing!  And after all these years, what great music, confirming and emphasising the excellent energy and drive of the pictures, an energy that exceeds anything else I've seen this year.  Few films have better captured and held my attention.

Available on DVD, and also available on YouTube.  I think this is an amazing film, and would urge you to watch it.  It'll only take an hour.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

This sequel to 1968's sci-fi classic 'Planet of the Apes' spends its first half telling the same story again with a different astronaut, but in the second half moves unexpectedly to an underground realm of skinless psychics who sing hymns to a gigantic bomb.

Like the earlier film, it starts eerily, with wide empty spaces, perils of nature and troubling mysteries even before we reach the Apes.  Here, too, there's a lengthy sequence where our hero isn't permitted to speak, but must nonetheless get things done - it's always good, in this visual medium, to have a respite from talking.  We then get the same exposition and capture-and-escape antics as last time, before the new mystery and fresh ideas are allowed to take hold.

The Apes look pretty good here, riding to war.  When they get there their
lack of numbers and weapons makes the conflict seem terribly small-scale.
It isn't very clear why they go to war, nor who they expect to fight.
Charlton Heston has opted out, so his character, Taylor, is written out at the start (once we've seen a reprise of the earlier film's famous ending) and only returns in the dying minutes, to have an excellently exciting mace fight with this film's Taylor-substitute, Brent (James Franciscus).  There's a rare thrill to seeing the hero of a film you're watching fight to the death with the hero of an earlier, better movie.  We're torn over which we want to win, or we're meant to be.  Brent has the advantage that we've spent an hour getting to like him, but Charlton Heston is Charlton Heston, and though he fights the more savagely, he seems the more original of the two.  Perhaps if Brent hadn't been so clearly a Heston-lite it would seem a fairer competition.

Charlton Heston turns up, eventually.
There was a brief period when the outlandish bomb-worship and the film's excessively destructive climax made this my favourite of the five classic Apes movies.  I came round, in the end, to the greater merits of the '68 original, but think I would claim the third film, 'Escape from the Planet of the Apes' (1971) as the best of the bunch, a weird fish-out of water comedy in modern-day America which very slowly darkens into a bleak and unfair tragedy, its villain genuinely trying to save humanity, and its dearth of Charlton Heston made up for by the presence of Ricardo Montalban.

They're appealing films, each one more utterly miserable in its findings than the one before.  The first is about how human appetite for destruction never ceases, the second about how we cause the end of the world, and it somehow gets even worse as the series goes on, with films about killing babies and smashing people's heads in as borderline-legitimate ways to make the world better.  The movies have the most paranoid soundtracks, an alarming and unusual set of noises for an orchestra, at the time - and they're attractive to look upon.  I always envy Taylor's linen mace-fighting jacket in this instalment, and if I hadn't broken my sewing machine I would  surely have replicated some of the Apes' garments by now, pleasing designs which look like no human culture I could name.

This is probably the only Apes movie where you could take the Apes out
and the plot would still more-or-less work.  Nice costumes, though.
The things that most date the film to 1970 (or more properly to the late sixties when it was written and filmed) are the use of wild camera zooms and the fact that the only notable African American character is simply credited as 'Negro', which any later would surely have seemed questionable.  The film is also quite Vietnam-flavoured, with the Gorillas going into battle, but first breaking up ineffectual anti-war protests by the Chimpanzees.  On the day I viewed this film I went along to an unfortunately unpeopled anti-fascist rally, so I was rather relieved to see this film present an even smaller and less effective protest by which I could make some happier comparison.

P.S. Brent spends the film looking for Taylor, but never expresses an interest in the three astronauts who travelled with him.  Presumably he knows which of the four was played by Charlton Heston.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Great Expectations (1946)

I'd meant to watch David Lean's 'Oliver Twist' (1948), but put the wrong disc in the machine and watched this instead.  I would have been happy with either, and I'm glad, as I know this story less well, to the extent that I'd forgotten a number of twists towards the end.  I very much like Dickens, despite having read very little of his work.  I like his stories, which I have seen adapted often enough to convince me of his merits as a storyteller, and I like his titles, his name, his face and his beard.  I have read 'Great Expectations' (though I always feel compelled to call it 'Great Big Expectations'), and I've read 'A Christmas Carol' more than once, and delight in its phrasing.  'A poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every December the 25th!'

The story is slightly more Harry Pottery than I'd recalled: our hero is a young orphan being raised by an intolerable relative (though Mrs Joe is as much a Thenardier as a Dursley), before being visited by a large and scary man (the bald Abel Magwitch, rather than hairy old Hagrid) and offered escape from his uncomfortable and rather tedious life.  In each case he comes into an unexpected inheritance and is urged to travel to London and get himself some decent clothes.  Pip becomes a lawyer, not a wizard, and his battles are (mainly) less violent than Harry's, but as a backstory it worked as well in 1860 as it did in 1946, and still gets the audience on-side today.

Young Pip contemplates Mr Pumblechook's gigantic pie.
I've mentioned before how impressed I am by all the 1940s films I've been watching.  Every other decade has its duds, its highs and lows, but the six films I've watched from the forties have been uniformly excellent, with the talking picture now being well-enough established for the films to lack for nothing.  Forties film-making seems to have a particular style, with its academy ratio, its monochrome, its polite hair and well-spoken performances, and the stories told in the decade's films seem to suit this style extremely well.   This film makes a rather fine companion to the previous year's 'Les Enfants du Paradis' (1945), English and French films set in nineteenth centuries of comedy and sadness, gainful employment, crime, love and beauty.  I could say a great deal more about my love of that particular film, and a surprising amount of it applies here as well.

I praised the direction of David Lean's 'Doctor Zhivago' (1965) recently, and I'm content to say he had a considerable flair even this early.  Some flourishes are quite overt: a novel use of voiceovers to show Pip's memories of earlier scenes, or to put the voice of his paranoia into the mouths of a herd of psychomachiac cows, for instance; or a scene in which the shrill Mrs Joe opens her mouth to exclaim, not in words, but in parps and blurts of incidental music.  Other touches are subtler, for instance when there's a change of actor in the lead, as the child Pip (Anthony Wager) is replaced by the adult Pip (John Mills) - we hear our grown-up protagonist before we see him, and watch the shadow he casts while working the forge with Joe before he's eventually summoned before the lens.

Finlay Currie IS Balthazar.  Oh, but that's in 'Ben-Hur' (1959).
Because it's Lean at the helm, naturally there's a role for Alec Guinness, who I've learnt to expect in dramatic roles, but who here plays the comedic role of Herbert Pocket, a camp young fellow with whom Pip lives most happily.  It's wonderful to see such a different, such an energetic performance from Guinness, but it's curious to see him in so relatively minor a role.  Later in his career I'd expect to see him playing, if not Pip, perhaps Miss Havisham, though I would not mean to wrest the role from Martita Hunt.  She gives a terrifyingly strong performance of an excellent character: Miss Havisham sits, resplendent in cobwebs like some Wintery queen of Narnia.  She says she has sick fantasies: to be precise, a desire to bring in children to have them break one another's hearts.  She's a horrid sort, and garners too little redemption too late.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

High Society (1956)

I like it when films open with overtures, long expanses of time and music even before we reach the opening titles, when one can sit and stare at the word OVERTURE on the screen and soak up some atmosphere and mood, so that when the big melodies of the incidental music or (as here) the songs arrive they have a familiarity and all seem to hold together.  The overture is also just enough time to make a decent cup of tea, and to peanut-butter some cheeses.

The film stars Bing Crosby, alas now regarded as a physically abusive churl, and Grace Kelly, who (since I have no class) I have hitherto known only as a Mika track, with Frank Sinatra, who I've a notion was perfectly lovely, or else perhaps some kind of gangster.  It's quite a cast - Grace Kelly's first musical and last movie, and it's the first time Crosby and Sinatra shared the screen.

It's also a musical and the songs, by Cole Porter, are fine and dandy.  The most famous is surely 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire', sung by the only characters in the film who aren't, and it's a catchy piece, with appropriate choreography.  I'm not left humming any of the other songs, but it was all fine musical fun.  The title track, at the top of the film, is an excellent jazzy number sung by Louis Armstrong with a cigarette-holder.  'End of song, beginning of story,' he cries.

Featuring Louis Armstrong as himself.
I really like Grace Kelly's costume in this film, in particular a floor-length white dress which incorporates a cape of the same length and material, a design I'd associate with the Indian subcontinent, but which Kelly carries off magnificently.  By the time the film was released she was princess of Monaco.  Somehow it seems inevitable.  The men all wear suits, which may be attractive but are pretty dull, but Grace's arrays seem worthy of note.

As to the plot?  Well, Grace Kelly is getting married, but to whom?  She reaches the eve of her wedding-day with a three way choice, her fiancé, her ex-husband, or a nosey reporter.  It's plainly not going to be her actual fiancé, as he's too little fun, and is only played by John Lund, while the other two are Crosby and Sinatra.  Still, between these two it feels it could go either way.

In the end, it's a film about rich people having rich people fun, which doesn't particularly appeal (though at least the film is honest - most films we see are peopled by actors no less wealthy and perhaps equally whimsical, though at least we're seeing them at work).  It does, however, make a pleasant Sunday afternoon's viewing.

A dress with attached cape.  Why don't all people dress so?
It's also a cool film about cool people being cool.  Who's coolest?  Louis Armstrong, of course!

The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

This popped up on BBC iPlayer (and presumably on real live BBC television too, but it's some while since I last watched anything as it was broadcast, for this is the 21st Century), and since I always check out their monochrome films (it being a cheap way to fill Penciltonian gaps), naturally I investigated this one's year, and was glad that it fit.  I've a natural interest in Quatermass, it being classic British sci-fi, a rather different proposition to classic American sci-fi.  The three Quatermass serials were so heavily plagiarised by early 'Doctor Who' that it's nice to finally see where all those story ideas originally came from.  Ideally I'd be watching the TV original from 1953, but it's largely lost from the archive, and besides would not fit with my own Penciltonian Xperiment.

The film is set around London, no longer the war-torn London it was a decade before, but not yet the swinging London of the sixties.  It's an interesting and lesser-acknowledged gap, and well suits Nigel Kneale's penchant for dark, pessimistic, xenophobic tales about how, though we're a nation of ingenious innovators, the universe is utterly malign and is coming to kill us for no reason we can comprehend.

Of course, back in those days we all wore our coats all the time,
to show how serious we were.
Bernard Quatermass is not a Briton, as he was in the TV version, but the American Brian Donlevy, who gives a stiff and uncharismatic performance that's very hard to like.  He's meant to be an anti-hero, a man of science with serious business to attend to and little time for the media - but even so, I've rarely seen somebody so dull in the lead.  It's doubtless deliberate, and he's paired with a lively policeman, the good-humoured Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner, who went on to be Dixon of Dock Green).  A returning rocket - a great novelty in these early days of the space-age - presents them with a mystery, a crime, and an unknown form of life, prompting them to launch the two interlinked investigations, with Quatermass in pursuit of scientific facts and Lomax keen to determine whether a murder has been committed by Victor Carroon, the surviving astronaut.

Victor Carroon is played by the scary-faced Richard Wordsworth.  While all around him jabber in the polite accents we might see in 50s pastiches, Carroon is sweatily silent.  While talk of rocket-ships and paperwork makes this sound a sci-fi procedural, the film is a horror at heart - the first Hammer horror, indeed - with Victor Carroon is its monster.  It's a horrible performance, murderous and implacable, with the astronaut infected by something he cannot resist, compelled to smash and to drain life, leaving behind wizened husks which are still unpleasant to look upon today.

The infected Carroon approaches a cactus.
P.S. The film features an amazing one-scene cameo from Thora Hird as a gin fiend.  Despite an attempt to watch many films of diverse kinds, my century of cinema (of which I have now completed three-quarters) has somehow managed to include two films with Thora Hird, but none with Arnold Schwarzenegger or Kevin Bacon.  I'd never really thought of her as a movie star.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The Godfather (1972)

1971's 'Shaft' and 1972's sequel 'Shaft's Big Score!' seemed terribly similar to one another, seeming to present too homogenous a picture of the early seventies, so I resolved to watch another film for one or both of the years, to get a little variety in.  Since I felt I'd ill-appreciated the movie when I first saw it in 2007, I thought I'd watch 'The Godfather', commonly regarded as one of the greatest movies of the Twentieth Century.

Well, it turns out to be excellent.  It feels much more relaxed, more lifelike than 'Doctor Zhivago' (1965), for instance (if I may take an example of a substantial film from the previous decade, the direction and storytelling of which I had applauded).  But you don't need me to commend 'The Godfather'.  So many words have been spent, this last 41 years, in this film's praise that it would be a waste of your time for me to say anything more.

P.S. This is why The Penciltonian won't even be watching 'Citizen Kane' (1941)

P.P.S. I'm aware I've replaced one 1972 New York crime movie with another, but they're as different as they could be.  Nobody would have thought to append an exclamation mark to this movie's title.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

I was expecting to write about how 'Doctor Zhivago' is a film that, though I respect as great, well-made and technically excellent, I don't like at all, and find intolerable to watch.  Disconcertingly, though, watching it for a third time, I found myself enjoying it tremendously, not irritated by the wet passivity of the eponymous poet, not wearied by the tragedy, but interested and engaged.

What had gone wrong this time, or right this time and wrong before?  Perhaps, because I now knew the order of events, I knew what I was meant to care about - or perhaps Yuri Zhivago irritated me less this year because, since seeing it last, I had a lodger, a scientist from Dijon, who strongly resembled Omar Sharif's bright-eyed, moustached humanist, meaning I find the character more familiar and sympathetic than I did before.  I'm disinclined to suggest that this is a case of my tastes maturing in the last five years, as that would seem an insult to my younger self, who I believe found legitimate reasons to dislike the film back in 2007 and 8 - and might imply that I'm now more inclined to accept the boring.  No, I wonder whether the real reason for my turnaround is that we are now living in revolutionary times.

Zhivago, after the revolution
Before I get to that, let me praise the film for a moment.  Like 'Bridge on the River Kwai', this is a film by David Lean (this time adapting the work, and to an extent the life and the funeral, of Boris Pasternak), and there's good reason Lean is so well-regarded, and is the favourite director of another erstwhile housemate of mine.  His 'Doctor Zhivago' is exceptionally well directed - and I know I've been saying that about a lot of films without really explaining what can be an empty phrase, so on this occasion I'll try to explain what I mean: Lean presents a convincingly freezing Russia, and makes good use of quick cuts and transitions, sudden jumps through actions or conversations, to give us what we need to see but suggest a story in which everything takes even longer than this long film can put on screen.  He makes fine use of a limited palette of black, white and brown, with occasional red for the Bolshevists and big yellow flowers in the spring.

His images are striking and his camerawork inventive, sometimes moving through the dark to peer through different ice-covered windows, sometimes following in characters' drafts, making their way through dense crowds or packed rooms where there hardly seems space for a camera.  My favourite moment in the film comes straight after the intermission and entr'acte - the screen is entirely black, but not empty.  There's the sound of a steam-train, and after almost a minute a pinprick of light appears in the centre of the screen, and grows, until we realise our camera is mounted on the front of the train, and we've been watching a journey through a long, dark tunnel.  This isn't just a lot of fancy technique, indeed a lot of it is subtle unless one is watching for it - but it builds a real epic, lives fuller and more complex than we see on screen and a huge and deeply troubled Russia in need of a revolution, and then suffering from it.  The way the film is made, and the story told, raises questions: there is something fascinatingly odd about the meeting between the two Zhivagos, Yuri (Omar Sharif), the doctor and poet, and Yevgraf (Alec Guinness), his half-brother, the secret policeman, who bookends and narrates the film.  On the one occasion they meet, we never see Guinness speak to his brother.  His side of the conversation is carried entirely through narration in the past tense, leaving the two terribly distant even in their one happy union.

Says Klaus Kinski: "I am the only free man on this train.
The rest of you are cattle!"
This the second Russian Revolution film I've watched for The Penciltonian.  The first was 'Battleship Potemkin' (1925), which had the merit of actually being Russian.  That film was a work of propaganda, so presented the revolution with great optimism.  Perhaps rightly so, as change was surely needed, and the men well motivated, but 'Doctor Zhivago' gives us the unpleasant 'what happened next', and even the unpleasant 'what happened during'.  It starts with peaceful protests, but our media often tells us how unsuccessful those are, and what tends to happen to innocent protestors.  Alas, it seems the police will always put down peaceful protest, as is memorably the case here, and as they did in New York and other cities two years back, tearing down the Occupy camps, and in many cases exceeding their jurisdiction, and that of any human being.

'Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex' (2008) made a convincing case that peaceful protests are always punished and never achieve their aims, and that violent action and domestic terrorism are the only ways one can really highlight injustices and strike against their causes.  They're extreme and unpleasant techniques, but it may explain why peaceful protests, where they don't peter out and fail, tend to grow into the kind of revolution we see here.  As the film shows us, the Russian Revolution wasn't clean and wasn't very successful.  The old order was certainly overthrown - and eventually we'll get to 'Nicholas and Alexandra' (1971) for the Tsar's sorry side of the story - but despite the change of regime, the social injustices stayed, or got far worse.  It's the same story of hopeful revolutions gone bad that we see in Iran in 'Persepolis' (2007) or in England in 'Winstanley' (1975).  Watching this as the story of a troubled Russia, rather than simply that of a mild-mannered medic, made the story come alive for me on this viewing.  This isn't merely a tragic romance, though it certainly is that - it's the story of revolutionary times, such as the world is experiencing today.  They're terrible times, where hope is trodden down in the name of progress, or else survives to blossom into something yet uglier.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Nosferatu (1922)

I'd been quite tempted not to watch 'Nosferatu' - after all, I'd already covered 1922 with 'Häxan', an exciting Swedish/Danish documentary on witchcraft which relieved me by being less alarming than I anticipated - and it wasn't as if The Penciltonian lacked for silent German classics.  Indeed, adding together the silent and the noisy, 'Nosferatu' is the eleventh German film I've watched for the project.  The twelfth, if you count 'Das Weisse Band' (2009) which I've entirely neglected to write up, but which I was very glad to watch.

Nonetheless, when my friend JillBob mentioned that she had a copy of this, the first vampire movie, I felt I resolved to go ahead.  After all, Werner Herzog considered it the greatest German movie, and the few clips I'd seen made it look extremely stylish and not a little horrific.  Besides, it shared a director with 'Faust' (1926) which I enjoyed so much in February.  Both are adaptations of existing tales, but while 'Faust' was an ancient legend, 'Dracula', which is here ripped off but not paid for, had only been in publication for 25 years.  This is a less ridiculous film than 'Faust', having less room for comedy interludes.  Its ending isn't quite such a cheat as that earlier film, and is told with pictures, rather than that film's odd tactic of wrapping matters up with a page full of text.

Why would I screen-capture the other characters when we could see another picture of Count Orlok?
Count Orlok, the film's copyright-busting name for Dracula, is a magnificent physical specimen, with his huge hands, mouse-like mouth, his sharp ears, gigantic nose and look of constant surprise, all this on the implausibly slender body of Max Schrek.  He throws his shadow before him, and looms over our heroes, before doing the rudest and most horrid thing an obvious vampire can, buying a house just over the road from theirs.  He isn't the sexy Dracula we all know and love, but a creaking corpse, incredibly still and angular, which is style I much enjoy.  An embodiment of death.

As in 'Faust', director F. W. Murnau envisages The Black Death as the ultimate danger to society: demonic in origin, and killing indiscriminately on a vast scale.  In his earlier film a giant devil stood over the town and billowed the plague as smoke.  Here Orlok walks among us, on our streets and up our staircases, bringing his plague in soil and rats.  Doors are marked with crosses to keep out the evil, as if fending off the Angel of Death at the Passover.  It's hysterically xenophobic stuff, but rather disconcerting.

A venus fly-trap in action.
Cinema audiences hadn't seen such things.
By this stage, cinema has everything it really needs, except perhaps audible dialogue.  Rich use of tinting makes up for a lack of colour photography, and Murnau realises he can use the film to show the audience, not just action and plot, but novelties they might only have read about, hence the venus fly-trap above, which does its thing and eats a fly before our watching eyes.  This sequence is even given context, as we have a brief scene with a teacher explaining the plant to his students, and for a moment we're in the same documentary territory as the aforementioned 'Häxan'.  Such diversions are permissible as Murnau cuts all the slack, removing anything that would be a waste of our time to watch.  He knows we're familiar with the clichés, so while an earlier film, or a modern amateur, might have lingered on a hero tearing up a bed-sheet, then tying each strand together to make a rope, here we cut from the first brief rip to the descending hero.

And a fine hero he is too.  Gustav von Wangenheim plays Thomas Hutter (Jonathan Harker in all but name) in a manner very similar to Gustav Fröhlich's Freder in 'Metropolis' (1927) - indeed, it's a certain type of silent hero who crops up in several of these films: simple, energetic, good humoured sorts who find delight in the simple things of life, who are then plunged into dark realms, their happy lives marred by catastrophe.  Uncomplicated characters, but very well played, coming across as immediately likeable, rather than simpering or irritating.

Alas, I believe I've now watched all the silent German films that I've heard of, and may need to fill the remaining gaps in the 20s (21, 23 and 29) with Westerns or some-such.  Up until World War II, Europe seems to have been producing far more attractive, cool and exciting cinema than America, so if you've any suggestions from one continent or the other (indeed, any continent at all) for these early years I'd be glad to hear it.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Casino Royale (1967)

He wanted to be James Bond.  They wanted him to be Peter Sellers.
1967 gave us 'Casino Royale', a bizarre and extremely uneven psychedelic comedy.  It suffered under five directors seemingly unaware that they were making the same movie, and its star Peter Sellers walked out half-way through after realising the film was a comedy, meaning the remainder had to be substantially reworked to fill the gap left by the main character.  The thing's a wild mess, a terrible film brimming with excellent moments.  It's also one of my favourite films, though I hardly feel I can defend it.

So Sir James Bond (a magnificent David Niven, in a lead role that was meant to be a cameo) has turned his back on the world, but the combined intelligence forces of the international community try to persuade him out of retirement, and when he refuses they blow up his house for some reason.  There follows an interminable half hour in Scotland before we get to either the plot or the memorably funny parts.

Mata Bond in East Germany, with a young Ronnie Corbett.
What ensues is an increasingly trippy series of antics and escapades in which many agents, all of them dubbed James Bond 007, adventure around the world.  I particularly like the sequence in East Germany, which is shot to resemble expressionist cinema with its extreme angles and outlandish lighting, and the all-too-brief part of the film starring Sellers, even his awkward encounter with Orson Welles and his card-tricks.

The first time I saw 'Casino Royale' I genuinely thought I'd fallen asleep and was dreaming. It was about the time the horse gallops onto the spaceship in Trafalgar Square, though my brain had been struggling to keep up with the pictures ever since Le Chiffre's torture of the mind, a sequence in which Peter Sellers is bombarded by hundreds of illusory bagpipers, one of whom is Peter O'Toole but doesn't know it.  Peter Sellers tries to cry for help but the only thing to come from his mouth is an animated speech-bubble.  I tend to assume that this is what hallucinogenic drugs are like.  If it isn't, then they aren't worth taking.

Sir James Bond escapes from one of the great sixties evil lairs.
I'm sorry to have missed 1967, but I was years too late.  To think that in Britain this and 'The Prisoner' and 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' were all in simultaneous production boggles the mind.  We won Eurovision, too.

Akira (1988)

I've had 'Akira' recommended to me twice, once by a poster and once by a person.  The first case was at university, on the wall of a friend called Neil.  Now, he and I disagreed significantly on some key issues (crucially he did not hold back on branding my Christianity, anybody's indeed, 'stupidity', with an agitated regularity), but it was apparent that his aesthetic suggestions were greater and more generous than his theological ones.  It's thanks to him that I discovered Peter Greenaway, Michael Nyman, Apple Macintoshes,  'MacGyver', 'Garth Marenghi's Darkplace' and port (the beverage, not the nautical direction) all of which have brightened my life this last decade.  So I was always confident that 'Akira', which he advocated from his wall, would be worth my attention.  I never sought it out until a rather more recent friend, a young filmmaker named Charlie, suggested it as anime worth the watching when I commented that The Penciltonian hadn't yet touched the cinema of Asia.  As you may recall (clue: you probably won't) I once expressed a desire to watch a film from every continent.  It really shouldn't have taken me this long.

It's a handsome film, its animation far above what little anime I've seen on television.  At times it can almost look real - but heightened, with the lights of fast motorbikes blearing and ghosting long after the vehicles have left the screen.  The pseudo-realism of the animation style gives director Katsuhiro Otomo greater control over framing and lighting, and on when, to the split second, characters or objects enter the screen.  The style allows for calculated depictions of violence - bullets hitting dogs, or gang-members falling from bikes - slow or fast, but perfectly rendered, things that would be too horrid or simply unconvincing using actors and special effects.  Rumours have abounded for a decade about a proposed live-action remake, but I don't think it would retain the visceral flair.  It would divide the world into real and CGI - two things that still don't quite blend, one always knows which is which - rather than the single, consistent but visually beautiful style presented here.

Urghh!  There's some of that blood right there.  There's quite a bit of it.  And explosions.
I feel at a disadvantage, talking about 'Akira', as I know almost nothing about the culture of Japan, ancient or modern.  Films, especially science-fantasy like this, often draw on a society's deep-rooted preoccupations, folk traditions and enduring fiction of previous ages.  'Miracle on 34th Street' (1947) or 'Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD' (1966) would make far less sense to a viewer without a knowledge of the countries and cultures concerned, and for much of 'Akira', though I enjoyed the film moment by moment, I felt I lacked any grasp on its references and allusions, whether consciously or unconsciously included, so was missing the bigger picture.  It's the same uncomfortable detachment I felt when watching 'Spirited Away' (2001), and may have led me to misread the films.  For the first half of this movie I'd assumed the third world war (which struck on the day after St Swithin's in 1988 and wiped out Tokyo) was a nuclear one, since Hiroshima is the only recent Japanese history that I really know - and I assumed a growing sphere of sci-fi destruction to be a cloud of nuclear mushroom.  This was not, as I'd supposed, a film of angst for the forties, nor were the aged and elusive children tragic nuclear ghosts.  This was something newer, quite a different set of ideas.  I'm glad, I think, or the film might have been far heavier than it was.

I don't want to say too much about the film.  As I've mentioned, it was commended to me without any clue as to its contents, and I feel you'd do well to go in without too much of its plot spoiled for you.  What's more, I hardly feel I've absorbed the film on my one viewing.  Since I was offered the option to watch it dubbed or subtitled (I chose the latter) I'd like to see it again, taking the other option, before I'll really feel confident about what I've seen.  The only other things I'll note are (firstly) that I'm always thrown by anime's habit of putting comedic lead characters, prone to all manner of slapstick, in otherwise fairly humourless films, and (secondly) that the film's climax is physically disgusting, but attractively so, and was unlike anything else I've seen in the year's viewing.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Is it better to die for what you really believe in or compromise your principles and live?  It's a strange question, but cinema never tires of asking it.  I'm always tempted toward the former option, but Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) agrees so vehemently that he'd seemingly die for almost anything, any point of the law, however small, and have his men die with him.  He's quite fantastically stubborn, and it really doesn't go well for him, or for anyone, except the people he's trying to defy.

This is 'Bridge on the River Kwai', from a novel by Pierre Boulle who also gave us 'Planet of the Apes' (1968).  Both are exciting movies full of apparent hope in the midst of catastrophe, and each uses a tale of thrilling adventure to convince us that all human endeavours are ultimately futile, and that we might as well just hurry up and die.  Unavoidably, by the way, I'll be spoiling the end of this film for you.  But like the end of 'The Wicker Man' (1973), I think it isn't hard to see it coming.

Colonel Saitu!
It all starts with the surrendered Colonel Nicholson marching his men into a Japanese concentration camp in the middle of the Second World War, somewhere between Bangkok and Rangoon.  Colonel Saitu (Sessue Hayakawa) intends to set the British soldiers to work building a railway-bridge over the Kwai, and Nicholson is fine with that so long as the officers don't have to join in.  It's in the Geneva convention, see.  What follows is an excellent hour-long stubborn-off, with calm British resolve against Japanese rage, a clash of two national stereotypes which comes off as excellently tense unfolding drama, and which left me quite exhausted wanting one side or other to compromise even just a little.

Of course, once things get worked out, Colonel Nicholson is determined that the British should build, not just a bridge, but the best bridge on the continent, which causes problems when the film moves its focus to a new set of heroes travelling out to sabotage the bridge and slow the enemy's supply-lines, not realising that it will be so well-built.  We then alternate between the two teams of heroes, one believing that completion of the bridge is the only worthwhile thing they can really do with their lives, the other realising that their chances of survival are low, and the only thing they can hope to achieve in their remaining time on Earth is the destruction of the bridge.

I've a notion that in Boulle's original novel the bridge isn't destroyed, but this is a movie and movies don't work like that.  If we're promised an exploding bridge, then gosh-darn-it, there's going to be the most explodey bridge that the super-widescreen of Cinemascope can show.  It's a long film, but it's an excellent film.  David Lean is directing, and he really knows how to handle an epic, and build up tension.  His next two films were the magnificent 'Lawrence of Arabia' (1962), and 'Doctor Zhivago' (1965), which I really don't like at all but will concede is a very good film.  It's easy enough to make a big film, is scarily simple to make a long film, but David Lean really knows how to get the details right, so that every shot is well constructed, every element works together, and nothing goes to waste.  He especially knows how to use Alec Guinness, who appears in all his better-known films (notably as Fagin in the not-a-musical version of 'Oliver Twist' from 1948), and gives one of his best performances here, managing to make Colonel Nicholson something other than an agitating jerk.

I once had a house-mate who took great personal inspiration from Colonel Nicholson, as well as from Yuri Zhivago and T.E. Lawrence.  One of his greatest skills was the ability to give flawlessly loud renditions of the final scene of any David Lean movie, and his one-man performance of the end of 'Bridge on the River Kwai' was a thing to behold.  The scene builds up so gradually and so quietly, with a train audibly on its way for ten full minutes before it arrives at the explosive-covered bridge; the tension racks up, as Nicholson, slowly and methodically, discovers and uncovers the cable that connects the explosives to their detonator, a realisation growing ever clearer in his military mind.  Those long minutes are deafeningly quiet, verging on silence before at last we reach the cry, so often repeated by Ted, of 'Blow up the bridge? BLOW UP THE BRIDGE!  BLOOOOWWWW!?   BLOW UP THE BRIDGE!  HELP!  HEEELP!   HEEEEELLLP!'


And when it comes it's not a model, but a real explosion with a real bridge and a real train, and it makes all the difference.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Southland Tales (2006)

This is what villains look like.
I made the mistake of watching this in the middle of the night, then going on holiday for what felt like months, before returning to write it up.  Thus, I'm left only with its overpowering images and feelings.  It's like a dream, not in an ethereal or drifting way like 'Russian Ark' (2002), but with an aftertaste like 1967's 'Casino Royale', where you wonder 'did I really see this film, or did I make it all up?'

So it's a science-fantasy, I think, but only just.  The movie divides its action into three episodes, and taking a sensible cue from the Star Wars trilogy (1977-83), numbers them IV-VI rather than I-III.  The fantastical world on which its action occurs is not long-distant Tatooine, but late-2000s California at the casual end of World War Three.  It's a political comedy of sorts, though I couldn't quite place its politics, since the incompetent terrorists of the left seemed little better than the Republican governance.  Perhaps it was the individuals, the ones who get on with private lives, that were commended.  I forget.  It was lost in the blur of an odd adventure.

Miranda Richardson heads a vague yet menacing government agency.
The film has a curious cast.  It's full of people I didn't expect to find together in the same film.  The Rock (it pleases me to hope that this is his actual name) plays an amnesiac politician, or perhaps the son of one, who has been involved in a sci-fi experiment of sorts before being scrobbled by the Democrats who wish to incriminate him ahead of the elections.  The Rock is mainly noted as a muscle-man, but, like Schwarzenegger before him, has started to branch out into comedies, some strange and excellent, some slightly more desperate.  This film belongs in the former category, and I suspect 'Tooth Fairy' (2010) belongs in the latter, though I'm content not to find out.  He's much better at comedy than Arnie, perhaps better at acting, but shares with him a look of one who expected to be in a more serious film but will make do with their circumstances.

Elsewhere we find Sarah Michelle Gellar, in my mind unshakeably Buffy, here playing an adult movie star who befriends the aforementioned Rock, having meant to incriminate him before the world; Justin Timberlake playing an Iraq war veteran, and yes, he gets a song; and Wallace Shawn, who I know best as the Sicilian from 'The Princess Bride' (1987), here playing the villainous Baron von Westphalen whose outlandish scientific scheme threatens the whole of the United States.

Justin Timberlake, for some reason.
Beyond this, and some of the vibrant set pieces that I'm disinclined to spoil for you, my mind goes just about blank.  I remember it being an extremely fun film, with its exposition given as inexpensively as possible at the front end, and a stylisation that makes the incredibly near future of America seem a ripe site for fantastic adventure.  I recall thinking, during the last of its three episodes, that it had gone on a little too long and that I wished it would end, but by that point it was about four in the morning and I wanted to go to bed so I won't hold a grudge.  I don't remember what the ending was, but I recall being satisfied, so it must have been worth the wait.  One day I'll revisit this film with a clearer head and enjoy it as if for the first time.  Or hate it, but that seems less likely.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Two films about offices: Glenngary Glen Ross (1992) & Office Space (1999)

Shelley Levene finally gets his groove on.

'Glengarry Glen Ross' (1992)

A few years ago a person I often meet directed an excellent production of 'Glengarry Glen Ross' for The Company, a small but consistently entertaining amateur dramatics troupe.  The play was very different to their usual array of classics, swashbucklers and European tragedies, and very much swearier, so it was a strange delight to see some of their best actors, most of whom I've seen in a dozen other roles, spewing forth David Mamet's uncompromisingly aggressive dialogue.

It's a very good play, and I was advised at the time to seek out the film; since 1992 was one of my few remaining gaps in the 90s I seized the opportunity to watch it here.  For one thing, I wanted to see how a play set entirely in one room of an office could work as a motion-picture - and for another, it's a strong drama and worth the rewatching.

The result is very talky, with very sparse, if welcome, use of music.  It's set in and around the office, with dialogue scenes moved out to cars, to a cafe, to rain-battered streets.  As consolation for a relative lack of visual diversity we're given an array of excellent performances from the likes of Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin and Kevin Spacey.  These are actors who can sell incessant invective and descent into despair, and Jack Lemmon was rightly awarded for his performance as Shelley 'The Machine' Levene, crumpled and pathetic whenever he's being himself, but able to turn on that magic old charm as soon as he's talking to a customer.

It's the eighties nineties, by which I mean this is still the age of the yuppie, of eighties style and sound, greys and browns over colours.  The story regards real-estate agents selling bad properties to bad customers, each of them under threat of the sack if they fail to come out on top.  Unemployment is the worst thing that can happen.  That makes it sound like a rather trivial threat, but these are people who have nothing but the job, whose lives will fall apart if they can't bring in the money, by whatever means.

It's an extremely tense watch, with a rising anxiety and pressure, and it was a relief when it was all over.  It's well-made and well-acted, but I couldn't help wondering whether something so dialogue-led was really a good use of a visual medium.  I preferred watching it on stage, but it was a very good production.

Jennifer Aniston in 'Office Space'.  She doesn't work in an office but still isn't happy.

'Office Space' (1999)

That we might lighten the mood after the difficult watch that was 'Glengarry Glen Ross' and make a double-bill of nineties pictures about miserable workers who look to crime as a last resort, Saskia ventured that we watch 'Office Space'.  This was certainly the pudding of the two films.  The office here is just awful, but at least it's comically so, and we're given a reassuring hint that, if the worst comes to the worst, we might be happier in a non-office job.

Office Space is blessed with moderately likable characters, with Jennifer Aniston as Joanna, a waitress urged by her employer to show customers that she enjoys her work, and enjoys it in an extremely regimented fashion; and Ron Livingston as Peter, who works in the eponymous office and is hypnotised into losing his overwhelming stress, causing him to saunter through his hellish life being casual and honest in ways which ought to be sackable offences.

While 'Glengarry Glen Ross' was a work of moral complexity and anguish, wherein every character was being cruel to somebody, even if just to their potential customers, 'Office Space' has a clear and booable villain: Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) is everything one could hope to despise in a cheery young manager, and even merits his own Wikipedia page, an honour currently reserved for only the most iconic movie characters.  The only other character who really leaps out of the film is Milton Waddams (Stephen Root), an intense and learning-disabled office-worker acted with the same extreme gusto that made Mickey Rooney's 'hilarious' Chinaman in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' (1961) quite so monstrously offensive.

It was a curious double-bill, like following 'The Elephant Man' (1980) with 'Dumbo' (1941), but it seemed to work.  I'm left extremely glad I don't work in an office.  If you do, why not quit today?

P.S. I suggested watching 'Glengarry Glen Ross' without giving any clue to its contents.  Later, asking Saskia quite what she had expected of the film, she described 'Brigadoon' (1954).

But I'm a Cheerleader (1999)

So Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is a cheerleader.  She's dating the captain of the football team, and so on and so forth.  She doesn't much like kissing him (and when you think about it, kissing is an absurd and alarming act, though as I recall an enjoyable one), but otherwise looks set to do the appropriate American thing, and settle down and get married.  Until, that is, her family put it to her that she's gay.  On the contrary, she protests, but they're most insistent.  The thought has never passed through her conscious mind, but in no time she's packed off to a correction camp, where stern leaders seek to convince her of her homosexuality, then 'cure' her, and others of her ilk, using a perfectly charmless five-step plan.

So starts this wonderfully cheap-looking film; its tall-screen aspect ratio (alas, cropped to 16:9 for the DVD release) and dearth of fancy make-up or lighting leave it with a pleasing humility, a look that owes more to the 50s or 70s that the slick 90s.  Several things left me expecting the film to be a broad comedy: the DVD box, the film's dazzling colours, the particular direction, and the oppressive villainousness of the main antagonist - but despite this, there's a strange absence of the overtly comic, of jokes or obviously humorous situations.  Not that there's anything really missing, as such - the film remains excellent fun, constructed with a wonderful lightness of touch - but at its core is not humour but a rising despair, a dreadfulness.

Pink for girls and blue for boys
So anyway, the Umbridge-like head of the camp berates Megan and her new friends into shameful acknowledgement of their gayness, and seeks first to gender them.  Pink and washing up for girls, blue and sports for boys - that horrid set of heteronormative stereotypes that, aside from anything else, have precious little to do with who has sex with whom.  I realise I oughtn't to be outraged by the outlandish petty villainy of fictional characters, but it never ceases to agitate me that pink (an excellent colour, if not the best) is mandated for half the population but utterly forbidden for the other half, a pair of complementary social diktats as terrible as one another, and one we're all taught from youth.  Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty), the disciplinarian at the head of the camp believes this is the best way back to straightness, and that such rigorous, tedious normality is the only acceptable option, the only true good.

In the seventy films I've watched so far for this Penciltonian project, no villain has so easily raised my ire as Mary Brown.  Of course, it's possible that in such an extreme antagonist, the film is using a straw man - except I'm pretty sure that such camps do exist, where people are taught to despise and repress parts of themselves that cannot ever truly be changed.  This satire may heighten the performances and draw attention to the hypocrisies, but seems to represent something that does indeed exist in the world.  It's an unpleasant prospect.

My lodger, Saskia, showed me this film about a fortnight ago.  We consumed it in a double-bill with Michael Cera comedy 'Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist' (2008), a film which was an amply enjoyable indie romance, if perhaps a little too aware that it was being an indie romance.  'But I'm a Cheerleader' seemed less polished, less studio-constructed, and was all the better for it - I commended it at the time for actually being about something.  This film left something to be angry about, and had the sweeter romance, as Megan finds a complicated but engagingly peaceful relationship with Graham, a girl at the camp less naïve and less happy than her, who faces the threat of disinheritance from her family if she fails to turn straight.

Graham and Megan
I couldn't help but wonder whether this film was chosen with an ironic pointedness, since we watched this the night before I went off to run a Christian holiday-camp for 14-18 years-olds, whether perhaps the film's colour-coded borstal, with its ineffectual brain-washing and campaign of shame and condemnation is how my Scripture Union camp, 'Transformers' is imagined by some.  Needless to say, mine was not an exercise in oppression, but something far freer and more welcoming, and pushed no agenda on sexuality, being in general far more interested in God's love, and computers, and board games and such.

It seems curious to defend it against such an extreme example, but since I long ago met somebody who supposed that Christian holiday camps are concentration camps (invoking Godwin's law, indeed) I might as well say something of its content: the young people came because they thought they might like it, and returned because they did like it.  It's a computer camp, rather than a running around one, with a good half of the day given over to technical activities, those being programming, photography, 3D graphics, video and music production.  The projects, their tone and content are whatever the young people want to make, though we on the team lend a hand wherever we're asked for.  The rest is eating, worship and Bible study.  The latter are not, to my mind, indoctrination or normalisation, and not nearly rigorous or emphatic or competent enough to be the brainwashing my friend supposed in the aforementioned conversation.   They're there because we believe there is hope beyond death, and hope before it too, and that it's kind-of a big deal, and it would be churlish of us not to tell people all about it.

If you're curious about the sort of things the technical activities produce, by the way, here's 'The Face-Taker', a horror film the young people made toward the end of last week.  The same Youtube channel contains dozens more short movies we've made from the last few years.  I'd especially recommend 'Earth Pie', 'Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My', and any of them, really.  And I'm always glad to talk about the camp in person, too; I've been disappearing off to it each August for many years but rarely find the opportunity to properly enthuse about it.

I seem, now, to have sauntered so far away from 'But I'm a Cheerleader' that I feel I'd do well to wrap up.  It's an enjoyable film which places an immediately likeable main character in an alarming situation which fails to put her down, but rather brings out all her merits.  There's a message worth hearing and a beautiful romance, so I could hardly fail to recommend it to you.

...and here it is on DVD, not that this was what I was driving towards.

Broken Blossoms (1919)

'The Yellow Man', as the intertitles would have it.
...or to give it its full title, 'Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl'.  Naturally I was a bit wary, and when the director's slide came up bearing the name 'D.W. Griffith' I was inclined to turn the film off, so gruelling did I find 'Birth of a Nation' (1915), that plodding racist pageant.  This being the age of extreme xenophobia in the US against the so-called 'yellow peril' the film had the potential to be ugly indeed.  I was intrigued, though, by the first few minutes, which promised a tragedy, but gave us, not a Chinese villain, but a Chinese hero, a tender Buddhist missionary who travels to the wild land of London with a message of peace and hope.  This is not what I expected from this writer/director.

It seems that Griffith, having created a massive monstrosity of racist cinema in 1915, then made a career out of partial apologies.  He never conceded that 'Birth of a Nation' was a racist diatribe, but followed it, and its uproarious reception, with a succession of films about tolerance and, like this one, about non-white heroes oppressed by Western whites.  For balance, you see.  There are problems, of course.  Huan Chang, the film's hero, is played by the white Richard Barthelmess, who plays the role in an angular style almost identical to Roddy McDowall's Dr Cornelius from 'Planet of the Apes' (1968).    He wears so much make-up as to seem between ethnicities and between genders, and almost every intertitle refers to him not by name, but as 'the yellow man'.  Even in monochrome, this is surely a step too far.  Now, I could spend a lot of time here exclaiming 'outrageous thing is outrageous' and surprising nobody, but perhaps this isn't just a particularly patronising and racist attempt to tell an anti-racism story.  Perhaps this is all deliberate, and D.W. Griffith has learnt irony and self-awareness.  I do hope so.

...but soon: 'The Yellow Man's dreams come to wreck against the sordid realities of life'.
Weird racist anti-bigotry aside (not that we should really ignore these things), this turned out to be a surprisingly well-made film.  As it transpires, D.W. Griffith is extremely good at telling a story with pictures - something not immediately apparent from the hugely long 'Birth of a Nation'.  He excels with this more intimate noir, this tale of crime and domestic abuse in foggy Limehouse.  The characters are few, and (aside from 'the yellow man') interesting and well-drawn, the shots and staging are far above anything else I've found in this difficult decade, mixing the usual long-shots with convincing two-shots and some of the closest and most aggressive close-ups I've seen from the silent era, or any era.

The story itself is simple and horrible, with Battling Burrows the boxer beating the child Lucy with a belt whenever his temper's up, and her brief escape under the care of the sensitive young Huan Chang only acting to enrage Battling past breaking-point.  When Battling Burrows orders the waif-like child to smile, she doesn't know how to; she has to push the sides of her mouth up with her fingers, and in this way smiles for him with eyes full of terror.  I realise this is a highly sentimental melodrama, but an astounding performance from Lilian Gish propels this from didactic slush to something truly horrific and frightening.

Lilian Gish as the terrified Lucy
I say again, Lilian Gish gives a great performance, which renders the film more upsetting than it ought to be.  There's plenty to remember about the film, and it's the clearest, and most agreeable in duration, that I've yet seen from the 1910s.  It also treats us to two rather extraordinary death scenes.  We see them both coming, of course, but the performances are certainly remarkable, and I shall endeavour to attempt one or both of them on the day I die.

The film's so old you could doubtless find it on Youtube (the best quality copy seemingly being the one with its title in Russian), but here's a disc anyway: