Have I mentioned 1932 recently?

1932. You know, the greatest year in Hollywood? “In 1932, Hollywood mastered the art of the sound film. Even so, Shanghai Express, Scarface, Grand Hotel, Love Me Tonight, A Farewell to Arms, Trouble in Paradise, and The Sign of the Cross could not be fully appreciated for the achievements they were. The vocabulary of the critical fraternity was insufficient. No critic could speak with authority on a film’s groundbreaking visual and aural effects. Only in retrospect could these works of art be properly appraised.”

So write Cecilia de Mille Presley and Mark A. Veira in “The Wickedest Movie in the World: How Cecil B. DeMille Made The Sign of the Cross,” which is a chapter from their new book, Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic. It’s a wonderful production history of a delightfully lurid movie, full of funny quotes (“Your god­damned lions are urinating on my martyrs!”) and marvelous stills. Like this one from what was apparently a deleted scene:

Production still from The Sign of the Cross

Well, 1932 was a great year for women and apes. See also Blonde Venus and Kongo. (Admittedly 1933 was an even greater year for women and apes.)

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Terrore nello spazio (1965)

Well, the new DVD from Kino is lovely, and this seems to be a slightly different version of the movie than the one on the old MGM disk. Very good commentary by Bava expert Tim Lucas. This time through I was really struck by how abstract some of the compositions were. Color is the great special effect.

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Top Five (2014)

Poster for Top Five

Chris Rock’s new film has a surprising amount in common with Birdman. Rock plays Andre Allen, a former stand-up comedian and action film star who has been trying to move into more serious artistic territory, just like the protagonist of Birdman.  The story is set in New York City and is a valentine to the city, just like Birdman, and it has a similar slice of life feeling as it follows Allen through the course of day during which he promotes his new movie and prepares for his upcoming wedding to a reality TV star. It has a similar jazzy, improv quality to it. That said, Top Five is a completely different genre than Birdman. Top Five is a romantic comedy, and while it has some serious thoughts on its mind, it feels much more like a lark. It’s more of a feel-good movie, in contrast to Birdman‘s acidic satire.

Rock’s co-star and love interest in the film is Rosario Dawson, who is an incredibly attractive woman playing an interesting character. Chelsea Brown is her real name, but we learn that she has a number of secret identities as a writer. The structure of the film, to the extent that it has one, is a day-long interview she conducts with Andre in her role as a NY Times writer. It’s a romance, so the two characters gradually open up to each other and get closer. Both are recovering alcoholics who are in “the program” (presumably AA), and so they have a commitment to unsparing honesty about their flaws. The film’s most serious aspect is exploring these flaws and the strange life experiences they’ve led to. Some of this is played for laughs too.

At times it felt a bit slack, but it could be that I’m just not a huge fan of romantic comedies. (I saw the film because I like Chris Rock and thought the trailer was great.) The two leads are extraordinarily appealing, and it’s fun to hang out with them as they spar and meld. There are interesting tidbits about life in the business, and there are cameos aplenty by famous comedians, giving the film a family feeling. Not too family, however. It’s also a very raunchy movie, with lots of off-color language and jokes and a fair amount of sex — some of it fairly nasty, in a painfully hilarious kind of way. The laughs aren’t constant, but they’re good laughs when they come. It’s all very predictable, but it’s sweet that way. A very nice piece of entertainment, and Rosario Dawson was a revelation to me. A great role for her.

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari, 1920)

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The Cabinet of Dr Caligari has to be one of the most written-about films ever. This doesn’t surprise me, but I didn’t get a sense of how much had been written until I did a little internet research in the wake of the home video release of the new restoration by the Murnau Foundation. Considering the amount of analysis that’s already been done, it’s doubtful I have anything new to add, but what the hell. I’m just going to noodle on for a while, and if you haven’t done much reading about the film already maybe it will be of interest to you. If nothing else it will also act in small part as a review of Kino’s DVD presentation of the restoration.

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On a personal note, I first saw The Cabinet of Dr Caligari in college in a classroom or similar non-theatrical space, but not as part of a course. It would have probably been 16mm film or even 8mm. It made absolutely no impression on me, and I couldn’t understand why the film had such a great reputation. (This is more or less exactly how I first saw Metropolis as well, although that was for a course and I was impressed by the look of the thing even under those reduced circumstances.) Fast forward probably 20 years when my growing cinephilia led me to explore the silent films of the Weimar era in greater depth, and I picked up the Image DVD of Caligari. Despite some annoying flaws in the image, the visual design of the film made a much greater impression on me, and I watched the movie several times. The eerie music by Timothy Brock and ensemble enhanced the experience immeasurably.

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When it was announced earlier this year that the Murnau Foundation’s new digital restoration from the original camera negative was on the way, I was very excited, and when the first Blu-Ray screencaps were posted at DVD Beaver, I posted about it here. Finally Kino released their DVD (and Blu-Ray), and lo and behold, the new version really was a revelation to me. It’s not just that the level of detail from the negative is much greater than I’d seen before, and it’s not just that the obtrusive black bar from the Image version was gone, although that made a big difference right there. It was also that a lot of the juddering was gone and missing frames were inserted, which I believe in some cases lengthened shots enough that they finally registered with me. (I watched the Image DVD again after watching the Kino, and it seemed that way anyway.) It’s also likely that because the film is so visually dizzying and because I’m so bad at absorbing plot anyway, it has just taken me a half a dozen viewings to really start understanding what was going on in the story. As many commentators have pointed out, the story is structured in such a way that it resists coherent interpretation by suggesting multiple contradictory interpretations. It creates a mood of uneasiness and dread that’s partly driven by the way it keeps pulling the rug out from under the viewer and leaving things unexplained. Or rather the main explanation offered is that everything we’ve seen is Francis’ delusion, so we’re left trying to figure out why he imagined these things.

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For example, who is the gentleman in the frame story to whom Francis narrates the story? He gets the first words of the movie (here in English translation, of course): “Everywhere there are spirits … They are all around us … They have driven me from hearth and home, from my wife and children.” This establishes the mood of mystery and dread. Francis promptly tells the man that his story is even stranger, and he launches us into the main narrative. At the end of that narrative, we return to these two men sitting on a bench, and we discover that they are sitting inside the grounds of the insane asylum. Francis spots “Cesare,” who we thus learn is also an inmate, and warns the man not to ask Cesare his future or else he’ll die. The man looks aghast and creeps away. We learn nothing about him. Is he an inmate? Is he a visitor who, like us, only learns in the end that Francis is an inmate? What of his cryptic statement at the beginning that he’s been driven from his house and family by spirits? The implication would seem to be that he is also mad, but given everything else we learn it’s equally plausible that he’s a figment of Francis’ imagination and that Francis has been reciting his story to himself. From the very beginning we are plunged into uncertainty about what is real and what is imaginary, even if we don’t know it until the end.

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The thing I didn’t grasp until these most recent viewings is that at heart the central narrative of Caligari is about a romantic rivalry — a three-body problem. Francis and Alan both love Jane, and one of the key scenes comes when they agree that they’ll let her decide between them. Whatever choice she makes they’ll remain friends afterward. This seems very naive or at least idealistic, to say the least, and almost immediately Alan is murdered, apparently resolving the rivalry in a decidedly non-idealistic way. But what’s remarkable when you get to the end is that Francis doesn’t get Jane either. Now we see that they are both inmates of the asylum, and when Francis asks for her hand, Jane replies cryptically, “We queens may never choose as our hearts dictate.” What the hell is going on here?

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A lot of commentators see Caligari as the story of a rejected suitor, but this interpretation, like every other, quickly gets very tangled. For example, Alan is not part of the frame story, unlike Francis and Jane. What does that mean? It could be that Francis murdered his romantic rival and projected all that onto Caligari and Cesare as a form of denial, and this crime is why he’s in the asylum. But it could also be that Alan himself is a figment of Francis’ mad imagination — a projection of himself as an innocent who stands between him and Jane and who Francis thinks must be destroyed before Jane will finally say yes. When this imaginary barrier is finally disposed of, Jane still says no, so Francis is forced to imagine she’s from a station high above his and is forbidden from following the love she really feels for him.

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Another odd thing about the love rivalry part of the story is Alan’s question to Cesare. Why does he ask him how long he has to live? On the surface level it seems innocuous enough; we probably all wonder how long we get on this earth. I suppose what’s actually odd about it is that the question itself seems to cause Alan’s death. Even if you interpret Caligari and Cesare as objectively real characters, the only way to make sense of it is that Caligari is a serial killer looking for reason to kill someone and taking Alan’s question as an invitation to death. It’s treating Alan’s question as a death wish. If you then look at Alan as Francis’ projection of his own innocent love for Jane, it gets really twisted. Francis’s innocent love is killed, leaving what?

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The sexual subtext of Caligari is very dark and conflicted indeed. The key figure is Cesare, who seems to embody everybody’s inner desires. He is a helpless instrument of Caligari’s dark designs, and yet in one significant aspect he does exhibit a will of his own, although even that is ambiguous. Just as the reason for Alan’s murder is hard to explain in any rational manner, the causal chain leading to the attack on Jane is deeply mysterious. Francis and Jane’s father have been investigating Caligari’s connection to Alan’s murder. Jane becomes concerned at her father’s absence and goes to the carnival to find him. Caligari greets her and takes her to see Cesare. When he tells Cesare to open his eyes, Cesare becomes fixated on Jane. She flees in terror, and before long Cesare heads to her house to kill her. However, he can’t bring himself to kill her, and instead he exhibits all the signs of rapacious lust as he abducts her instead in what appears to be an act of his own will. Before he gets far, however, Jane’s father and other townspeople catch up with them, and Cesare drops Jane and stumbles away to die. Of what? The cause of his death is never explained.

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This whole sequence is deeply weird. There’s some kind of equation of sex and death lurking underneath it all, but there’s also the sense that Jane’s feelings for her father (or need of male protection?) is what leads to her encounter with sex-death. Then again, Cesare’s own death before he can consummate reads as an image of impotence. Add the layer of looking at this as Francis’ projection, and it again gets really twisted. If Alan is the innocent side of Francis’ desire for Jane, then Cesare (via Caligari) is the dark side. Perhaps Alan is love and Cesare is lust (Conrad Veidt’s distorted leers are almost comical in this respect), but it’s telling that both of them die. Francis is completely thwarted in all aspects of his desire and attraction. The final image is Francis in a straightjacket, and whatever it means, that really does seem to be the bottom line: the protagonist (if Francis is the protagonist) is completely helpless to choose as his heart dictates.

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Another thing I noticed about Cesare this time around is that he exists in multiple representations. We first see him in a poster or banner that Caligari holds up to advertise his carnival attraction. We see the poster again when Jane comes to the carnival looking for her father, so her first encounter with Cesare is also with a representation. Later Caligari substitutes a dummy of Cesare in the cabinet where he sleeps to disguise the fact that Cesare has slipped away to kill Jane. It seems appropriate that Cesare exists in multiple representations, because he himself acts as representation of what other people want. He is Caligari’s agent if we accept that narrative frame, and not only that but he’s fashioned as such as a copy of another mesmerized somnambulist killer named Cesare from an earlier era. If we accept that it’s all Francis’ projection, then Cesare is a representation of Francis’ inner desires. Cesare exists only as an image or copy or symbol of something else.

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It’s said the the frame story for Caligari was imposed by the studio, who wanted to soften the implied political critique of the authoritarian establishment figure who turns out to be a serial killer. As a result, the “it was all Francis’ delusion” narrative frame (supposedly suggested by Fritz Lang) allows for endless spinning of theories about what all the action “really” means, and I’ve been having fun with that myself. There are a couple of elements of the story, however, that seem to me to resist the narrative frame more than others.

One is the copycat killer, which is also a part of the story that didn’t stick with me at all from earlier viewings. If you ignore the frame, the copycat killer exists to distract the attention of the other characters from the real killer, although he also adds an interesting layer of observation of human nature and how we disguise our own intent by trying to shift the blame elsewhere. As a copycat, he also reflects the asylum director’s imitation of the old mystic Caligari, except the copycat becomes Cesare. As a projection of Francis’ delusional imagination, however, he’s harder to figure. What mask of Francis’ inner desires does he represent? I haven’t come up with an interesting interpretation myself, and I haven’t seen one by anyone else either. He doesn’t fit into the love rivalry story, and if anything seems to be a random example of murderous impulses.

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The story element that strongly resists the frame is the murder of the town clerk. The reason he is killed in story terms is that he’s officious and unpleasant to Caligari. He is the one character I can think of who is only seen by Caligari. Francis never sees him, and therefore it becomes difficult to interpret him as a figment or subject of Francis’ imagination. He feels like the odd man out in the film’s symbolic structure. I’m sure there’s a way to interpret him as such, but my guess is that you’d have to go through Caligari as Francis’ double.

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Which brings me to Dr. Caligari. I haven’t grappled much with his character, and I don’t intend to. The thing that struck me about Caligari this time around was the fact that he was a copy of a character in a book, as mentioned before. The story of the older Caligari of 1708 is already a story within a story, which creates the same kind of narrative abyss that the outer frame story does and adds another level of complexity to the outer frame. Which may be another way of saying it resists the outer frame in its own way. If everything is Francis’ projection, how does Francis know about the 18th century Caligari? It’s implied that he and Alan are students, so maybe he stumbled upon the book about Caligari in his studies. But why would Francis project this complicated identity onto the asylum director, which is what the frame story suggests? Even if you ignore the frame story as an imposition, it’s hard to see how Caligari’s origin story fits the writers’ supposed political critique of a German ruling class that murdered its own people in WWI. The modern Caligari is so obsessed with the historical one that he feels compelled to become him, so, what, the ruling class is too obsessed with the past? Du musst Caligari werden. If it’s Francis projecting the whole thing, is he the one compelling the asylum director to become Caligari? Is this another aspect of Francis’ attempt to deny the responsibility for killing Alan, who is his own innocent love for Jane?

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In the end, so to speak, Caligari seems to disappear up its own fundament, like an inverse Worm Ourobos.The film will remain famous mostly for its bizarre visual design, but whether intentionally or accidentally it creates a bizarre narrative funhouse very fitting to the design. The new restoration allows us to see the beautifully off-balance sets in greater detail, but what surprised me was how it enabled me to see the off-kilter narrative with much greater clarity as well, even if the greater clarity only increased the sense of staring into a bottomless abyss.

 

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Conrad Veidt is mesmerized

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Force Majeure (Turist, 2014)

Poster for Force Majeure

This Swedish-language film is a black comedy about the human ability to reconceive humiliation as heroism and failure as triumph. It’s set in a ski resort in the French Alps, and the majestic setting, with its crystalline air and pure white snow, only magnifies the inadequacies of the characters, particularly the Swedish family of four at the heart of the story. Tomas is a workaholic who is finally taking five days to focus on his family, and Ebba is his beautiful wife and the devoted mother of their two spoiled children, Vera and Harry. While eating lunch on the veranda of the resort one day, they witness a controlled avalanche that nevertheless causes everyone on the veranda to panic. Tomas runs away, leaving his wife and children huddled under the table. His failure of nerve precipitates a crisis in the family.

The comedy of this scenario is very dry and deadpan. It’s a comedy of denial and emotional contortions observed from a chilly distance. I’ve seen some comparisons to Kubrick, and I think part of it is the way the mountainous landscape and modernist architecture of the resort are used to create a sense of austere beauty that seems to mock the fumbling foibles of the flawed characters. Even the mechanisms of the ski lifts and conveyor walkways seem to complain about the idiocy of human behavior or to threaten unexpectedly to break the illusion of command and control. Everything is regular, repetitive, mechanical, but constantly on the verge of coming apart at the seams. I’ve also seen this described as an attack on bourgeois complacency, but if there’s a class element to the satire, it’s too subtle for me. These are middle class characters leading a life of privilege, but their flaws are universal.

The Swedish title is Turist, which means “tourist.” I didn’t know what “force majeure” meant until I looked it up this morning, but the implications of Force Majeure as a title seem quite a bit different from Turist. In some ways Force Majeure spells out the underlying theme of the film, which is the attempt to dodge responsibility for reactions to events outside of one’s control. Turist perhaps mocks the characters for living life as though they’re only visitors looking to escape the responsibilities of the daily grind. Well, maybe that’s not so different after all.

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Image of the Day

Screencap from Safe Blu-Ray

Safe (1995)

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Interstellar (2014)

Posgter for Interstellar

What to say about Christopher Nolan? His films always leave me with mixed feelings (other than Memento, which I loved at the time, and Insomnia, which I hated), and articulating the mixture feels like a chore. On balance I’d say the mixture is more positive than negative, and thus I’ve seen all of his films except the first one. However, there’s a stodgy, overblown quality to all of them that always leaves a bad aftertaste in my mental mouth.

Interstellar is the story of humanity confronting the existential threat of an ecological disaster called the Blight and looking for the answer via a space trip to a distant galaxy. It’s an ambitious, large scale science fiction film graced with some amazing visual vistas from outer space, inside a wormhole, on bizarre alien planets, and inside/outside time itself. Interestingly, the scenes set on blighted Earth looked muddy and dull on the Pacific Science Center IMAX screen where I saw it. Maybe that was a deliberate choice to contrast the dull-as-dirt limitations of the planet with the grandeur of infinite space, but I’m thinking something was wrong with the image, because it made faces blurry and indistinct too.

One of the things about Nolan’s later movies (since the first Batman film) that drives me up a tree is the hushed, anguished, portentous tone with which so much of the dialogue and the narrative is delivered. Everything — the stakes, the risks, the accomplishment — is HUGE AND VERY, VERY IMPORTANT!!!! The seriousness of Interstellar is leavened with some slightly nerdy but well-judged robot humor, but my personal taste always leaves me wanting more absurdity and sarcasm and less heroism. That said, this one is probably more successful for me than Inception in connecting the high concept to the personal melodrama. The finale was very powerful, I thought, even at its most implausible and perfunctory, and there’s one moment where the protagonist, Cooper, realizes (along with the audience) that he isn’t on a planetary surface like he thought he was that is a beautiful, perfectly executed combination of playful humor and science fictional sense of wonder. Beyond this horizon, indeed.

David Bordwell has written persuasively about Nolan’s skills with narrative structure, and Interstellar, while less tricky and elaborate than Inception, does a very nice job of connecting the dots set out at the beginning to those in the climax, which is a big part of the reason the finale is so emotionally satisfying. Getting between the dots is a bit of a slog, but the attention to structural detail pays off in the end. I find it hard to connect with Nolan’s thematic concerns, which seem overly grandiose to me, but he keeps me coming back with his flair for spectacle and neat story ideas. In a year that has seen a large number of very good and idiosyncratic science fiction films (Snowpiercer, Under the Skin, The Congress, The Zero Theorem), Interstellar isn’t one of my favorites, but it ranks up there with Guardians of the Galaxy as a more old-fashioned populist adventure story with plenty of thrills.

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Pasolini’s Medea

Comments from Netflix:

“Of course I thought this was the opera. I guess I’ll have to pay closer attention to the DVD descriptions in future. This was my fault of course.”

“On my dvd, one whole 15-20 minute scene is repeated, as if the film editor liked it so much, he wanted us to see it again.”

‘”Art” with a capital “A”.’

“It seems to take longer to watch the movie than for the students to have made it.”

‘OK, when I saw the priests scuttling around in their costumes, I thought of a scene in “Time Bandits” and started laughing.’

“Watch Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts instead, and just imagine Medea back home murdering the kids.”

“May appeal to those interested in 1960s experimental film, but anyone looking for a film version of Euripedes’ play will be disappointed. ”

“This is not a film version of Euripides’ ‘Medea’, although much of the last half of the movie follows Euripides’ narrative line. The first half is an intriguing imaginative recreation of ancient Colchis and the profoundly non-Greek cultic traditions out of which Medea came. It’s presented as myth, in that her passion for Jason is only implied, not presented. The theft of the Golden Fleece seems unmotivated unless one already knows the story. So this part of the film is like one created by a director from the eighth century B.C. In the second half Euripides’ gods play no role and the focus is on Medea’s psychological reaction to Jason’s abandonment — tho’ her old gods do play a role at least in her mind. The death of Glauce is presented in two versions, one akin to myth and the second a modern, almost feminist take in which Glauce realises Medea’s grief and sorrow and throws herself from the parapet in sympathy. Much of the film is wordless; words are unnecessary for the presentation of most of a myth like this and Pasolini knew that. The slow unfolding of the story is less important than the sense of foreboding and inevitability. One shouldn’t expect any surprises just a wonderfully strange evocation of a completely alien world.”

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Mood Indigo (L’écume des jours, 2013)

Poster for Mood Indigo

Michel Gondry has had a very odd, uncategorizable career. He’s perhaps best known for his hand-crafted lo-fi design sense that feeds into or grows out of a playful, surrealist perspective on the world, although he’s also capable of more straightforward (although still playful) documentary films like Block Party. I’ve seen six of his ten feature films, along with a bunch of his music videos, and I guess I’d say he’s best when he’s working with another powerful creative personality, such as Charlie Kaufman in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Dave Chappelle in Block Party. Thus I was hopeful at the prospect of Mood Indigo, which is an adaptation of the 1947 novel L’écume des jours by the French writer Boris Vian. The buzz about the film was that it was full of Gondry’s trademark design and animation work, and I hoped that adapting another writer’s book would guard against the aimlessness that I thought both The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind suffered from.

I hadn’t heard of Boris Vian, but apparently he’s quite famous in the French-speaking world. L’écume des jours has been adapted on film three times before, including a Japanese version in 2001, and it was also adapted as an opera by the Russian composer Edison Denisov in 1981. The novel has been translated into English three times, under the titles Froth on the Daydream and Foam of Daze. “L’écume” is French for froth or scum, and IMDb claims that the colloquial meaning of the phrase is the remnant of daydreams. Vian’s book is considered a work of surrealism, and so it seems to be right up Gondry’s alley.

So after all that preface, I’ll say I had mixed feelings about the movie. The first half or so left me feeling pretty cold, as it showed Gondry at his most aggressively weird and nonsensical. The visual inventiveness is at a very high level, but it felt like an assault. The characters were unpleasant when they weren’t being too cute and childish. When the protagonist, Colin (Romain Duris), meets the love interest, Chloe (Audrey Tautou), it was like a nightmare romantic comedy. Not a parody, not a satire, but just unrelieved magical realist tweeness. I hated them both.

Well, maybe that’s the way Gondry wanted it. Maybe at heart he’s an avant gardist who wants to attack and subvert narrative conventions and escapist identification. Maybe all the mad visual invention is at the service of reminding us that this is an artificial world, and maybe he’s embracing the fact that dreams can be nightmares. Certainly as the film progresses, it gets darker and darker, and I found myself warming up to it as it got less twee and more anguished. After a while it did begin to feel like a very strange nightmare version of the standard meet-cute-and-die-of-a-disease story convention. (Think Love Story.) Weirdly, the alienation caused by the happy parts of the story gives way to identification in the tragic parts. Is that my personal problem, or is that intentional?

It certainly left me curious about the novel and the other adaptations of it. Vian seems a fascinating, complicated figure, from what I’ve been reading about him. (Amongst many other cool items on his resume, he apparently translated two Raymond Chandler novels and A.E. van Vogt’s The Word of Null-A into French.) As for Gondry, I’m not sure what to make of him at this point. I can’t say I really liked Mood Indigo over all, but I do love his design sense and quirky sense of humor. In the abstract I like his willingness to take chances and follow his literal dreams. The results are more often than not a mess, however, and I’m beginning to wonder whether he will ever do anything as great as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind again.

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