film: Feuillade: Les Vampires [e4] : Le spectre (1915)

Feuillade’s next installment in Les Vampires series is not nearly as good as the last, partially because Irma Vep isn’t nearly as sexy. But also the plot is kinda dull. However, I will note one piece of interest: a flashback. It’s never occurred to me before now that media dependent on time, similar to our own experience living, can only represent a present moment. While we have our imaginations to paint the past and future for us, that’s an entirely interior phenomenon, and film can only convey it through a verbal recollection or a visual representation of a subject’s imagination.  And when it comes to a silent film, including a lengthy paragraph of text is far less desirable than showing the memory; however, this possibility immediately introduces a question of reliability, which we’re familiar with through literature. We don’t question the narrator, that is, the one who is writing these title cards,  the voyeur. But this is something new: taking the film out of the narrator’s hands, giving it to a character, whose sequence may or may not have occurred. We don’t know, nor is that subject addressed. But this is the first film I’ve seen so far that has such an element of flashback and questionable reliability.

Hm, there is the WC Fields film, The Fatal Glass of Beer, which presents the same dilemma to the audience, but that did not strike me as this does. Perhaps because I’m seeing these as an evolution.

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film: Walsh: Regeneration (1915)

I’m beginning to really enjoy these silent films. I was doubtful of American technical abilities after comparing the stillness of Birth of a Nation with Feuillade’s capacity to make a traditional stage setup seem to come alive, to grow deep and epic in space. Perhaps Feuillade has a more positively raw sense of illustration, sexy and violent and somewhat nihilistic; but Walsh, even in what seems to be working in the classic American version of Socialist Realism (boy loves tractor, boy loses tractor, boy reaffirms party values and regains tractor for all time–being in this case: boy loves girl, girl meets untimely death, girl lives on through the burgeoning notion of Christ in boy, boy loves Christ and lives happily ever after). The gunshot that kills her, unfortunately, gives her what seems to be an orgasm–especially as there’s no blood though she’s shot in the heart. So I was entirely surprised when she died a couple minutes later, after kissing Owen (which we do not see, though who needs to see it after watching her prance around without a bra for the past hour? And that orgasm, oh, and her introduction to us being her lying suggestively in bed? And she’s played by Anna Q. Nillson, who is very, very pretty when she isn’t done up like a typical film star of the era. Seeing someone dressed down–sigh. Let’s get back to business, even though I have a crush on a woman who was born almost a hundred years before me).

I procrastinated watching this film, because I’m beginning to get tired of these things, and the plot seemed a little trite. But almost immediately something caught my eye, something extremely modern, something I have not seen an earlier instance of yet: During an early scene Owen is sitting down at the dinner table, in the center of the shot, with his exploitive neighbors, husband and wife, on either side of him, facing each other. And they begin a messy, violent fight as he sits there, lots of arms and things being thrown about. The camera slowly zooms in to Owen, with all the violence framing his body in the shot, and then the faded portion of the screen encircles his head. Offhand, it’s the sort of thing you’d see a lot of in Babe (the gallant pig). It happens only once, but it draws us into Owen as a person, not simply another character, but a mass of hopes and faults and memories.

Walsh learned the ropes from Griffith, with whom he worked, including a role as Booth in Birth of a Nation. So I’d perhaps expect a Griffith knockoff, and from my only experience of Griffith, that would be characters who fit types rather than having any depth. Owen, in this film, is given a life, and rather than present him first as a gangster amongst gangsters, he is first a child in mourning, then a child exploited, then a child rebelling from his slavish life, and then the leader of the gangsters, who values and enacts justice. And as the story progresses he suffers a dialectic between his gangster ethics of human justice, and the Christian ethics of pacifism at any cost. At the center of the story is Christian charity, and it is reached from two directions: on one side is Owen and the street life of degeneracy; on the other is Mamie Rose and the life of abundance and indifference. But neither fit in their places, and thus they meet in the middle, through Christian love and charity. Mamie Rose sheds her past life by moving into a life of frugality, Owen sheds his leadership of the gang by following his love of Mamie Rose and the goodness she instills in him. Ultimately, because of his difficulty in removing himself entirely from his old life, Mamie Rose pays with her life, a sort of martyr, who is then responsible for Owen’s giving up the last of his way of life, taking up the innocent child we know has remained in him (especially given the scene juxtaposing older Owen drinking beer with younger Owen eating ice cream.) And just as we find a middle in their lifestyles, so we find a middle in their lives, when combined, they lose their former selves and Mamie Rose in her death enters Owen’s heart and soul, so Owen may be called dead, who yields a new, better person.

Honestly, I just have a crush on Mamie Rose.

film: Feuillade: Juve contre Fantômas (1913)

I was wrong about the Fantômas series–this film is fantastic. What shines through, above all else, Feuillade’s level of confidence. The first in the series, which bored the hell out of me, had very little movement, scenes were drawn out, stereotypical mime pageants, and it felt like silent theatre. Juve is a bumbling detective who gets lucky in catching Fantômas, who seems to be a passing clever criminal. [spoiler begins here] In the same year as the first film, this was produced, and all is different. Juve takes action as he and Fandor show some slight ingenuity, doing things like climbing into  barrel and rolling themselves down to the ocean to escape a fire–indeed, the sets are greater. There’s humor, as Fantômas is arrested while at a party, escapes the police, and goes immediately back to the party. There’s more of the characteristic attempts at murder, including an enormous snake, whose guts we get to see. And the end is shocking–as Fantômas blows up an entire police force, including the main characters, and we’re left wondering what the hell happened. It takes confidence to do all this–because it is not only Fantômas or Juve’s ingenuity, but Feuillade’s, and although the camera remains still in all its shots, there are many, many more shots, whose lengths are beginning to take on the pace and movement of the film.  If only I could understand all the inter-titles! After seeing four or five of his films, I can say that this is the one that makes me a fan of Feuillade.

film: Feuillade: Les Vampires, Le Cryptogramme rouge (e3, 1915)

Finally, the first evidence of burning sexuality in film. 1915. The gang sits backstage, and one of the men walks across the room, looking like Marlon Brando, very self-assured, he turns around and whistles, and a woman follows his path and right as she reaches him he roughly grabs her the hair atop head and pulls her down, toward him, spinning her and she throws her head back as she pulls into his arms, and then; and then, clutching her neck with one arm, they step across the room and begin dancing to a waltz, violently he spins her, grabs her, pulls her down and back up, and when she puts closes her hands behind his neck, he grabs hold of her hair, and they dance in circles, heads pressed close together, more dips, and then she jumps, he holds her waist, and spins her round and round, her knees bent, her body as if its lying on a bed, and then when she lands he spins her and lets go, and it looks like he has just struck the winning blow, and shakes his hand outward, free of the dance, and then quickly walks away. Now I can say a silent film has held me captive.

film: Feuillade: Les Vampires [e2] : La Bague qui tue (1915)

Midway through a scene, a shot, that looked almost identical to one from Fantomas. The film was carried heavily by letters and newspapers, as in Fantomas, and…surprise, the same director, Feuillade. I could not get my hands on episode 1, so I began with 2, and it was short enough to maintain some of my attention, though I don’t know how well it will continue to do so. But–I’ve turned back on my earlier plan to stop watching things that I know I’ll hate. Why? Well, because this director and his Fantomas and Les Vampires series were influential on the surrealists, whose work I’m trying to read. I also don’t enjoy Buster Keaton–and he was influential on them. But, one watch, and that’ll be all. If I didn’t enjoy Fantomas and yet I’ve had so many observations and comparisons later based on it, then I’ve achieved my task. If Der Student von Prague is by the same director as Der Golem, and if it highly influenced the horror genre…well, I should keep going.

film: Mankiewicz: Guys and Dolls (1955)

2 may 07

I’ve began to wonder if the Good old films are as witty as they are because the people who made them built themselves up from roles in the production of silent films, from writing the stories to the intertitles, perhaps even the unheard dialogue, these are people who understand an element of film the past few generations have taken for granted. I do not know if the music to Fantomas was its original, but it worked on me to create nausea, great dis-ease, in the same way that The Game does so with its golden-tinted film. Sound has importance–and Guys and Dolls, although adapted from someone’s book (of stories, I think), is written by one of these people who built themselves up from the silents. The dialogue mostly goes past me unnoticed, and I enjoy watching the acting, especially of the big stars, Sinatra, Brando, Jean Simmons, even the smallest expressions, you know why they enjoy their names. Simmons and Brando especially made me want to fall in love, the way they fought it quietly, and give in passively. The womens dance numbers are mostly confined to a New York nightclub show, which means a few high kicks and some fucking obnoxious accents. The mens more than make up for this–being fascinating to watch, both individuals and group–reminds me that only in singing and dancing can anyone truly make full use of their body. The other delights are the scenes in Havana, not only because of the love, but because there’s finally some good dancing from the women, (I mean, this is a movie about men who gamble), and also a killer fight scene. Oh, and Simmons and Brando are also so damn attractive I can’t take my eyes off them; there’s a good reason why I did miss an expression. But some of those lines in this film…brilliant. What I can’t stand, oh, what I sometimes could not even look at, are the colors, being everything rich and gooey you’d come to expect from a 1950s cookbook, and I have a hard time keeping my stomach under those conditions. When I saw this live, in which Matthew Hunt plays Sinatra’s role, his performance having burned its way to my heart, even eight years later, the colors were strong, but in a modern “let’s play 1950s” way–not a technicolor way, but emphasis on deep greens, purples, oranges, and I seem to recall much zoot-suits where this film seems to have everyone in much cleaner cut…okay, breakfast is getting cold, i’m being yelled at.

film: (Chaplin) – Tillie’s Punctured Romance

I don’t care if it is the first feature-length comedy ever, because it still sucks–which, I mean to say, is that it contains everything I never liked about American comedies. The majority of its humor is from slapstick violence, some of it’s from alcohol, and a lot is because Tillie’s a real beast. I suppose this would fall into the category “farce”–the same as Comedy of Errors, in which the main purpose is to get laughs, and the only resemblance between two is that despite excessive beatings, nobody seems to get hurt. It grows tiresome to watch these people who seem so alien to their own bodies, falling over everything, having difficulties running or moving or even thinking clearly. However, one sequence of bandied violence, between Chaplin and his crooked girlfriend, was nearly identical to a sequence in The Thin Man. Both begin with one person bumping the other, and end with the man raising his arm back across his body about to strike the girl, and then stopping when noticed by somebody else. In The Thin Man it’s funny because you can see the characters in love, you can see how well they get along, and it’s quite endearing, their little battles of wit and this pretended violence. Yet in Tillie it’s only a droplet in the sea, it’s nothing–it’s not cute, it’s not sweet, it’s not funny. Yet–the one thing that confuses all is when Chaplin and his girlfriend are caught making out. It’s as if they may love each other after all. I don’t know–perhaps I don’t have a good sense of humor. I began watching a Will Farrell movie–uhm, Anchorman–everyone was talking about, and had to turn it off after fifteen minutes of not even finding something to smile at, and the same goes for School of Rock which I watched half an hour of last night. Not funny. I can tell when I’m supposed to laugh. But it just doesn’t do it for me. Yet the Dick van Dyke Show does. In any case, I’ve decided life is too short to watch any of the other Fantomas films, or Tillie films. Fuck that.

film: Feuillade: Fantômas – À l’ombre de la guillotine (1913)

Reminds me of sitting in that fucking theater, twice a week, through the lengthy art films, trying not to sleep, sometimes sleeping, eating candy, eating candy, eating candy…this one was “murder” to sit through. Hahahahah. No, the last fifteen minutes got me to perk up slightly, and say “ah hah! brilliant, Fantomas!” and then worry for the innocent. So, what did I notice? First, I had a difficult time following the film since it’s in French, and I do know some basic nouns, pronouns, and verbs, and then a few other words that look like English, and a few others I’ve picked up along the way, and I found myself able to generally decipher the meanings–sometimes due to knowing what the detective genre turned into. The acting, of course, was as if on stage, and very descriptive in itself; I even laughed at Valgrand’s expressions as he tried to drink his drugged tea while attempting to remain polite despite the taste. I read this comment on it mentioning “this active space of film no need special effects or even camera travelings”–and, like noticing that The Who’s Live at Leeds doesn’t have hi-hat, it struck me that indeed, the camera doesn’t move at all in this film. There is a scene during which one watches the people step into an elevator, the doors shut, and the elevator moves, and then one watches as the elevator moves past the next floor, and the next, and the next, each with its own cut. I wondered why this was shown at all, and if there were perhaps better ways to show it? First, I thought, perhaps it’s just trying to exploit something a bit fancier than people usually see. Then, I decided that it was the only way to show how many floors high the room was. How else, without sound, without movement? The sets are remarkably like ones on stage: there’s the center, there’s the hidden areas to the left and right and rear, concealed by doors and curtains, and the audience is always in the place of the camera–there’s never any “practical” area of that part of the set. So, in words, I can describe this well, however, it didn’t hold me like Cabiria did–thus I can see now why the epic Cabiria so influenced Griffith, a film so much more animated and mature, and only one year later.

26 april 07

film: Neilan: Stella Maris (1918)

1918. I fall in love with Mary Pickford every time I see one of her films, and it’s difficult to remember that her hands were smooth and delicate, her body serenely curvaceous ten years before my grandfather was born. I cannot imagine her slacks torn, her belt broken, and yet watching her, how she loves, and how her heart breaks, I wonder how indebted I am to her for knowing the motions of love–is it she who taught me to slump in the corner or hold your hand to my chest or kiss the top of your ear and bury my face in your hair? Is it she who taught me that when the deus ex machina feels Aristotelian that’s just what we call love?

There was a three year age difference between us, me and the 15-year-old girl with whom I’d fallen madly in love. It was a very large gap at the time. To make things less awkward the first time we went out, I brought my best friend along and she brought some other girl, I don’t remember who. The moment she set eyes on my friend, she fell for him. Maybe they might have ended up together, but at first he loved me too much to hurt me like that, and later he ended up falling in love with some sexless knockout who nearly drove us all off a bridge in an attempt to spite his love. You can see photographs of the four of us looking painfully lovesick as we carried on in such torment for nearly three years.

Horatio Alger does not always prevail: the character Unity has an unfortunate face, a poverty of intellect, and a dearth of grace. But she’s played by the stunning Mary Pickford, who also plays Stella Maris herself. If the name Stella Maris indicates nothing but the character’s untainted purity, the choice seems a bit heavy-handed because the character is so predictable and empty; Unity, on the other hand, only lives up to her name by saving the day in the last five minutes of the film. It seems obvious that the drug-addict-wife needs to die, but it doesn’t seem entirely apparent why Unity has to commit suicide also. Stella Maris was born into misfortune, and upon rising from it becomes disenchanted with humanity. Unity is born into comparably bad circumstances, and only rises far enough to be a servant seemingly doomed to become an old maid. But the fact remains–underneath all that makeup is a very pretty Mary Pickford. So couldn’t the story just…you know, let her turn out happy? Of course not…The real turning point came when we went out on a date, the four of us, and then went back to her house to watch a movie or something–she asked me to get her a drink, and I walked to the kitchen before, looking back onto the sofa, I saw the two girls clinging to my best friend. It had been a set up! I was just a vehicle for propriety, and now they realized there was enough of him to go around all at once. I stormed out.

I find it easy to remove myself to the year of the film, to appreciate the maturation of photography, the use of the iris and the close-up and special effects (like two Mary Pickfords on screen at once, or a dog imagining another dog). After seeing the earliest Chaplin and Feuillade films it’s not difficult to be swept away simply by how the camera tracks away from the embracing characters in the closing shot, bumping along the road one can see appear just before the picture fades out; it’s not difficult to laugh or cry or lose your breath at the way Unity creeps through the shadows darkening all but a luminous stripe across her eyes, foreshadowing everything noir. These things become habit in later years, and if analogous to our own lives, we would, ideally, focus on intellectual pursuits; and so it seems natural that film should become more edifying as it grows less clunky. But not everything appreciates with time.

So, I left the house to cool off, take a walk. I removed my shoes because the air was so warm. And then my socks. And then my shirt. And my pants. And then through the populous suburban wonderland I marched a mile and a half down the center of the street in my underwear. I made it back to the house crawling, my feet swollen with blisters, bloody where I was lucky, and my best friend carried me to his car and drove me home, where they lanced my callous feet, again and again, blisters over blisters, a hundred times, and set me in an easy chair to dry. I was an eccentric, and he was a man, and that’s why they loved him and looked upon me as no more than a curiosity.

film: MacPherson: Borderline (1930)

Click picture for source
Click picture for source

I was always judged very harshly by my appearance, which was something I never took much time to consider. It was around the time that my sister told me I’d taught her a valuable lesson, “that it doesn’t matter what other people think of you,” when I found myself with a host of new values, spending all my time shopping, grooming, tanning, fine-tuning the science of conversation, and, in a word, only caring about what others thought of me. Most people I went to school with are hard on the path to marriage now, and most seem to have really let themselves go, and me? I’ve grown more irresponsible and vain with every passing day, dedicated to nothing more than satiating my senses, living fantastic stories, and doing all I will to brutalize these deep breaths, my firebrands, my progeny, my animation. So, I suspect one of the key reasons I’ve been so enchanted by silent films lately is purely a sexual matter, whether it be Rudolph Valentino or Mary Pickford, so be quite sure that I’m not exaggerating when I claim to be in love. They entice my eyes. But H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), oh no, she does not. And yet she was Pound’s lover, and I find him to be enthrallingly handsome…so, clearly, her intellect could shine through that dangerously steep forehead and that brick of a jaw, a face I could not even bring myself to look at until I tried to convince myself she was actually a man, oh, the relief when she was finally murdered in this film. But why, oh why, did everyone else in the film have to be nearly so ugly as well? What I mean is I don’t care about art or entertainment: I care about pretty.

Director Kenneth MacPherson was a film theorist whose sole surviving film, Borderline, was considered by G. W. Pabst as “the only real avant-garde film,” remarkable considering this film was made in the same year as L’Age d’Or, and Le Sang d’un Poete, both the latter of which Henry Miller extolled for many years (while consistently leaving MacPherson’s work off his lists). This leads one to consider the logistics of distribution of art films in Europe at that time, given Borderline’s role in advancing the career of Paul Robeson and being what would today be considered an international effort—and also wonder why Cocteau and Bunuel’s work went unmentioned. While the use of montage may not add to the semblance of a narrative (indeed, what narrative might one draw from a film exploring the dictates of the unconscious?), it does not hinder the flow, adding something of a poetic rush to it, Eistenstein under restraint; this is furthered by the hand-held use of the camera, giving the film a naturalistic feel amongst the violent strobing. And this is where we find art, perhaps, couched somewhere in between the unnecessary and the useless.

Maybe Pabst looked highly upon this film due to its use of excessive facial close-ups, something he made use of in his 1929 Pandora’s Box¬. Things taken for granted now were, for most of the history of drama, impossible, viz., subtle facial expressions, and this is one of the key elements that differs between pop and art films of the silent era; recall Dreyer’s Jeanne d’Arc and the way that facial close-ups are even now some of the rarer shots in contemporary film. One can see the progression through Feuillade or Chaplin as expressions slowly take the place of grandiose gestures…perhaps it’s only logical that it progressed so far as New Yorker fiction, in which plot was replaced by subtle character development, character development later replaced by inferences, and presently the inferences have been replaced by drivel. And you wonder why I drink myself onto the ceiling every night. Today, perhaps it’s the expression of the full body emphasized, or even the tone of voice, something early sound films did poorly, as a soft voice is analogous to a face’s subtle expression, and radio depended on flailing rather than lilting voices. I’ve written a bit about William Powell and how by 1932 he was a shining example of modern speech. Indeed, the majority of this film is carried by expressions, conscious hyperbole (as opposed to early film’s somewhat vaudevillian methods of acting), and frequent synecdoche as close-ups are used not only on faces but also on hands, arms, and torsos. Silent film may be likened to a deaf person whose other senses are thus heightened, and rarely does a film make use of all our senses. In this film one feels dirty from the spilled drinks and blood everywhere, tastes and smells the smoke and booze through its glorification on every character’s breath, hears the piano and phonograph so constantly seen, and lives the anxiety of the cutting, the lighting that switches from shot to shot, a film one lives, not views.

Borderline (okay, let’s try to be mature and academic) comprises extensive cuts, both in the physical film itself through the montage sequences, and in the domestic fight scene, during which H.D. wields a knife wildly and cuts her lover in a few places. And then there’s the demarcation of male and female, homo- and heterosexual, black and white, shadow and light, dream and reality, indoors and outdoors, hardwood doors and beaded curtains, water and alcohol, dancing and fighting, violence and joy; there are the fluids that will not remain in their vessels, whether blood that gushes, or drinks that spill, and, throughout all, the heretical concept, the heart of borderlines, pulses that nothing can remain static, nothing is born in its grave, that all will break free and finally converge.