Singing Spies in a Stormy French Field (featuring James Brown)

Les Visiteurs du Soir (1942)

220px-VisiteursdusoirMarcel Carné is a French film director best known for his acknowledged masterpiece, Children of Paradise, which I will get to eventually this year, but I had long been intrigued by his previous movie, Les Visiteurs du Soir (English title The Devil’s Envoys), not only because of my interest in the fantasy genre but because somehow I had never frickin’ heard of it. Given how much film text I had read over the years, how was this even possible?

Towards the end of the 15th century, two minstrels ride into the castle of the recently-widowed Baron Hugues (Fernand Ledeux), who is celebrating the upcoming wedding of his daughter Anne (Marie Déa) to the rather brutish Baron Renaud (Marcel Herrand). The minstrels, Gilles (Alain Cuny) and Dominique (Arletty) are the envoys of the title, whose mission is to spread despair throughout the world. To this end they will use magic and their own beauty and wit to seduce the members of the wedding, and then suddenly leave their victims, bereft and heartbroken. This plan runs aground when the flawed Gilles – who doesn’t mind using his powers for an occasional good deed – confronted with Anne’s immaculately pure heart, falls in love with her and forsakes his mission.

06-alain-cuny-theredlistDominique works overtime seducing both the Barons, and the Devil himself (Jules Berry) arrives on the scene, disguised as a traveller seeking shelter from a sudden storm. By asking seemingly innocent questions, he sees to it that Gilles is imprisoned and the two Barons will duel to the death over Dominique – but then he, too, becomes infatuated with Anne’s incorruptible heart and love for Gilles, and must find a way to undermine it and make Anne his own.

visiteurs-du-soir-1942-03-gThis is a bit of a departure for Carné, who along with Jean Renoir and Jean Vigo were the main proponents of the somewhat nebulous Poetic Realism movement in French cinema. The major reason for this, though, is unmistakeable: the Nazi occupation of France in 1940. Declining to work for the German-controlled Continental Films, Carné, after several abortive projects, teamed with independent producer André Paulve. To avoid censorship, they decided on a purely escapist feature, set in the past, with no political content. The production shuttled between studios in Paris to the Free Zone in the South for the exteriors, which must have been difficult for the several Jewish crew members, working under aliases.

les-visiteurs-du-soirThe result was that Les Visiteurs du Soir was a rousing success in France, who really needed their escapist fare (and though Carné denied it, there were still whispers of political allegory). There would be several more medieval fantasies released to French screens in the coming years, arguably leading up to that form’s ne plus ultra, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast in 1946.

Les Visiteurs is a charming distraction in this day and age, well-acted and shot, with Jules Berry a definite standout as the chatty, fun-loving Devil. Not a bad way to spend an evening, at all.

Break out your dictionaires:

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A Field in England (2013)

A FIELD IN ENGLAND POSTER A3-1So why not then journey to another black-and-white fantasia of a time long gone, where mysterious forces play out against hapless human subjects?

During the 17th century English Civil War, three deserters from the battlefield (Julian Barratt, Peter Ferdinando and Richard Glover) fall in with another seeming deserter named Cutler (Ryan Pope), who, under the guise of taking them to a nearby alehouse, feeds them soup heavy with psilocybin mushrooms. This is a means of taking them hostage for his master, O’Neil (Michael Smiley), an alchemist who feels there is a treasure in this Field, and he needs people to find it and dig it up. Complicating matters is one of the deserters, Trower (Barratt) is seeking out O’Neil for stealing papers from their master – and Trower refused to eat the mushrooms.

A072_C001_1001IEThat’s the basic plot there. Now, what actually happens in A Field in England is open to interpretation. This is the work of prolific director Ben Wheatley, whose Kill List I found unique, daring and quite striking. He is challenging without being obscure; I find his work genuinely refreshing, and sometimes a little annoying. There is a lot of bizarre stuff to parse in A Field in England, some of it I’m not quite certain we’re ever supposed to understand, like the tendency of Glover’s character, Friend, to die and come back to life suddenly and unexpectedly. How much of the bizarre action in the film is due to the characters’ ingestion of hallucinogens, and how much is due to strange magicks that are unleashed? If Trower hasn’t indulged in the mushrooms, why does he keep having visions of a “bad planet” set to unleash its wrath upon them? It begs for an immediate second viewing, if not a third.

A_Field_In_England_review_featured_photo_galleryBorn of an idea (while Wheatley was travelling by train) to make a movie using a single field as a setting, and shot in only 12 days, Field is one of those technical exercises that bears unexpected dividends, and makes one look forward to whatever the director comes up with next (spoiler: it’s High Rise, and he has the chops to actually do J.G. Ballard justice).

Buy A Field in England on Amazon

Spies (1928)

poster1I continue to work my way through Fritz Lang’s silent days in the Weimar Republic. His previous film, the legendary Metropolis, nearly bankrupted the studio UFA (current estimates place the cost, adjusted for inflation, at 200 million dollars!), and for a time they considered releasing Lang from his contract. Instead, they placed severe budgetary restrictions on his next production, which yielded Spies.

I guess I don’t have to tell you that the movie is about spies, huh? The German secret service is having a bad time of it, with assassinations and stolen secret papers aplenty. This is the work of one mastermind running an efficient and widespread organization: Haghi (the ever-reliable Rudolf Klein-Rogge, once more playing a supervillain with a penchant for disguises). The good guys put their best man on the job, Agent 326 (Willie Fritsch), countered by one of Haghi’s best, Sonya Baranilkova (Gerda Marus). The major problem: 326 and Sonya fall in love.

haghiSpies‘ storyline is much more complicated with that, with additional plots concerning a secret treaty with the Japanese and the duplicity of an army Colonel; but the main thrust of the movie is that star-crossed romance and the increasingly jealous Haghi’s attempts to kill 326.

The climax of the movie, with cops and 326’s organization raiding the bank that houses Haghi’s organization, desperately seeking the secret entrance while the kidnapped Sonya and 326’s assistant Franz (Paul Höbiger) are fighting for their lives, is suitably suspenseful and exciting. The rest… not so much, though there are high points. My personal favorite is one of Sonya and 326’s dates, people in black tie formal at dinner tables arrayed around a boxing ring. Once one pugilist is knocked out, an orchestra strikes up and the patrons rise to dance around the ring. Weimar Germany, everybody!

No, the real problem isn’t that Haghi is a brilliant strategist – which he is – but that his opponents are such ninnies. Even the worst threat, Agent 326, is reduced to an idiot by love. Jerry Lewis would have had a better chance against Haghi. CONTROL, on its Maxwell Smart-est day, would at least have been trying. It’s just infuriating. The fact that is likely an accurate portrait of government bureaucracy is even more infuriating.

fritschStill, Spies was a resounding financial success. Willie Fritsch was an inspired bit of casting, being mainly known for playboy roles in light comedy. His against-type leading man turns in this, and Lang’s next movie, Woman in the Moon, ensured a long career for him. Making her film debut was Gerda Marus (also in Woman in the Moon), a stage actress.  Her casting is notable for her eventual placement in Lang’s heart, ending his troubled marriage with Thea von Harbou, who had written Lang’s most ambitious movies. (Admittedly, the fact that von Harbou would become an ardent supporter of the Nazi Party didn’t help. Lang was, after all, Jewish) Our three main actors are all quite remarkable in a pretty scattered film – the American version cut out all extraneous plotlines and got it down to a runtime of a little over 70 minutes – from two and half hours!

IMG_20160405_232926It should also be mentioned that the financial success of Spies ultimately worked against UFA, as Woman in Space saw Lang, flush with popular success, back to his old budget-busting ways. But that’s a movie for another time.

Now witness some divine overacting and great editing in the first two minutes:

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Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

singin-in-the-rainIt is no secret that I generally despise musicals. Don’t hate the music per se, I just have my doubts about inserting it into a story. This has been pointed out – with some truth, no doubt – that this is due to my absolute lack of talent in the singing and dancing arts. I will wrestle you two falls out of three in the realm of Shakespeare, motherfucker, but ask me to carry a tune or do more than the simplest dance step, and I’m out of the running.

(Yet I will admit no small amount of fondness for 1776. I am a mass of controversies.)

But if I am going to continue my self-education in the ways of cinema, I am going to have to face up to this genre. Singin’ in the Rain is held up as sheer perfection by many musical fans, so I marked it as a gateway into such things, and the fact that I found the DVD for 99 cents in a Library Sale helped, too. Then my frequent partner in cinema exploration, Rick, mentioned he had picked up the restored blu-ray, and if you are going to watch a Technicolor movie, you should make sure your eyes are taking in all the angstroms they possibly can.

001-Singin-in-the-Rain-1952-Don-Lina-and-Cosmo-at-Movie-PremiereThe movie starts out with a recap of the career of matinee idol Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), who with his partner Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) journey from vaudeville entertainers to silent pictures. Lockwood manages to parlay a stand-in for stunt work to leading man roles while Cosmo plays mood music during filming. Running from a pack of pre-Beatlemania clothes-ripping fans, Lockwood encounters Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds), who is so unimpressed with him that he has to immediately fall in love with her. The Big Twist is this is all in 1927, and a little movie called The Jazz Singer is about to change movies for good.

singin-in-the-rain-movie-still-660x330A lot of our plot, such as it is, is going to involve Lockwood’s co-star Lina Lamont (a pretty amazing Jean Hagen), hyped by the press to be a Burton-Taylor pair, except that Lockwood can’t stand her. Another problem is that Lamont has a voice like chalk squealing across a Brooklyn blackboard. An advance screening of their new romantic epic, The Dueling Cavalier, is a laughable disaster, at least partially due to the horrific on-set sound recording (“They need to invent ADR,” I muttered).

That evening, Brown and Seldon cheer up Lockwood by brainstorming that the actor should return to his roots and The Dueling Cavalier should become The Dancing Cavalier. After singing “Good Morning” to celebrate, Cosmo also invents ADR by figuring out that Kathy could dub in Lamont’s lines and songs in the new footage.

aieeeeThis will be the plot major thereon, trying to keep the secret of her new voice from Lamont and the repercussions when the plan is blown by a treacherous (and lamentably under-used) Rita Moreno (as “Zelda Zanders, The Zip Girl”). My major problem, as usual, is the damned musical numbers. I expect the number when Lockwood confesses his love to Kathy, no problem. “Good Morning” is a little harder to accept, as its impetus is the discovery that our three heroes have talked until after midnight. And worst of all is “Make ‘Em Laugh”, a number everybody loves but I always refer to as “Try Too Hard”. It’s there because Kelly rightfully thought that O’Connor deserved a solo number, but it feels incredibly shoe-horned in. Then you feel bad because you discover that O’Connor was smoking 4 packs of cigarettes a day, and filming the number put him in bed for three days. And then when he came, back, he found out somebody hadn’t checked the gate after his last take and he had to do it all over again.

singing-in-the-rain-5Even fans seem to have a problem with the big “Broadway Ballet” number (better known to us heathens as “Gotta Dance!”), because it has literally nothing to do with the movie’s story. It’s not a problem I share, because it has no reason to be there – it is so obviously something that Kelly wanted to do, they just stopped pretending and let him do it. Though at the end of the sequence – which is supposedly Lockwood describing it to the studio’s head (Millard Mitchell) – I did get to say, “Okay, Cosmo, now you’d better invent Technicolor, too.” It’s a great, dazzling number, costing almost $600,000 to produce, but my God! What is it doing there?

singin-in-the-rain-blu-rayNow “Singin’ in the Rain” is itself the direct opposite, the song and dance growing naturally out of the preceding scene. It’s become Kelly’s iconic number, all the more amazing because he did it while sick as a dog, with a fever somewhere south of 101 degrees. This movie really tried to kill its stars – Debbie Reynolds tap-danced until her feet bled. Literally. And Kelly still insulted her dance skills and re-dubbed all her taps himself.

O-Conner-Reynolds-and-Kelly-in-Singin-in-the-RainFor a movie with a lot of meta-textual jokes about Hollywood – when Kathy rescues Lockwood from his fans, she’s driving Andy Hardy’s jalopy – the most incredibly meta-textual stuff comes from behind the scenes. The best one involves Kathy’s re-dubbing of Lina Lamont’s lines in The Dancing Cavalier. The lines are actually being delivered by Jean Hagen herself in her natural voice, so it’s Jean Hagen dubbing Debbie Reynolds dubbing Jean Hagen. Then you find out that all of Debbie’s songs were actually sung by Betty Noyes, and you start wondering who Incepted you while you were sleeping.

Buy Singin’ in the Rain on Amazon

There are only two songs written specifically for this movie – the aforementioned “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Moses Supposes” (“Singin’ in the Rain”? Written in 1929), causing some to point to it as the first of the jukebox musicals, which rather ignores the next movie I was going to watch.

Stormy Weather (1943)

Stormy_weather_xlg“Stormy Weather”, the song, was written in 1933, before you ask. The movie is loosely based on the life of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who actually did lead a pretty interesting one. Only the broadest brush strokes are used in the first 45 minutes or so, as Robinson reads the current Theatre World  magazine, a “Special Edition Celebrating the Magnificent Contribution of the Colored Race to the Entertainment of the World During the Past Twenty-Five Years”, and telling the neighborhood children all the following flashbacks.

…Starting with his return from service in World War I, and his meeting with the fictitious singer Selina Rogers (Lena Horne) at a dance for the returning troops. The following bits with Robinson working as a waiter at a bar run by Ada Brown with a band led by Fats Waller is necessary story folderol, as Robinson had a good career in vaudeville before joining the Army, but it provides a re-meet cute with Selina, who follows him after he’s fired for being too good in one show to another show on Broadway (in the 20s, there a brief vogue for all-black revues there). Their romance deepens, but Robinson wants a marriage and children, and Selina does not. She heads off to Paris to become a big star, and Robinson heads to Hollywood. They don’t mention for what, but we’ll get to that later.

horne-robinson-stormy-weather-1943Then who should drive up in his convertible than Cab Calloway, inviting Robinson to attend a show he’s throwing that night “for the troops.” “For the troops? I’ll be there!” And who should be at that show than Selina Rogers, singing the title song and having totally changed her mind about married life. She and Robinson have one more number, and then Cab takes us out with “Jumpin’ Jive” and an appearance by the Nicolas Brothers that will make all your joints and muscles ache just watching it.

lena and cabJukebox musical it is; Fats Waller – of course – does “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and Cab does another standard, “Geechy Joe”. There are, in fact, something like 20 musical numbers in a movie that is barely 70 minutes long. And this is not a B-movie rushed out by 20th Century Fox, either, this has prime talent behind the lens as well as in front, and a fair amount of money invested in big production numbers (though certainly not to the dizzying heights of MGM nearly a decade later for Singin’ in the Rain – the Broadway Ballet alone probably cost as much as five Stormy Weathers). That is amazing considering that in most of his other movies, Robinson is in standalone scenes so they could easily be edited out in the South. Hell, his best-known roles – in four Shirley Temple movies, where he served not only as Temple’s friend but her dance instructor – were similarly cut. Fox knew this wasn’t going to play in half of the country.

Screen-shot-2010-10-15-at-6.57.30-PMA major reason for its existence is in evidence from the first and last sequences – Robinson’s service and the proud introduction of “Cab Calloway Jr.” (actually Robert Felder), in uniform and ready to ship out for WWII. “I wish I had a son like him!” exclaims Robinson. As sure as the seal on the closing title urges you to Buy Liberty Bonds on your way out, this was telling the African-Americans in the audience that they were needed for the War Effort, and for the length of this movie, at least, Hollywood was behind them.

In 2001, Stormy Weather was enrolled in the National Film Registry, for a number of good reasons. It’s one of the few (only three I can think of right now) studio movies of the period with an all-black cast, and certainly the only one where the characters seem like actual human beings, with real desires, goals, and foibles.

stormy-weather-bill-robinson-lena-horne-1943You can’t say that race doesn’t exist in Stormy Weather, as it doesn’t shy from the minstrel show realities of Robinson’s early career. It’s pretty significant, and not a little subversive, that when a blackface comedy routine in that Broadway show is presented (and you should be wincing at the sight of two black men smearing burnt cork on their faces), there is no reaction from the audience until the curtain closes on it. It’s a pretty clever routine, too, lightning fast lines delivered at a staggering pace, and their disintegrating car deserved some applause – but nope. Silence. That’s a pretty sharp commentary right there.

fatsThis is Fats Waller’s final film appearance – he died too young of pneumonia just five months later. There’s also some typical Hollywood jiggery-pokery with the Robinson /Horne romance, too, since he’s 40 years her elder here. Doesn’t matter that much, though – once the man starts dancing, he’s ageless. This movie serves as a tribute to so much happy, seemingly effortless, pure talent that we should all be thankful it has survived so we can enjoy it today.

Buy Stormy Weather on Amazon

That should have been my last movie for this round (this has gone on long enough, hasn’t it?), but then an impromptu Internet poll determined I should watch one more, and it was a fairly fortuitous choice:

The T.A.M.I. Show (1964)

"First Annual". Right.

“First Annual”. Right.

Now this is a literal jukebox movie. Who the hell needs a story, anyway?

But the story is pretty interesting: After The Beatles’ landmark appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, this concert and film was put together by Bill Sargent, who had developed a technology he called Electronovision. An early bid to develop high-definition TV, the cameras sent a then-walloping 800 lines of video at 25 fps to tape, creating an image that could yield a reasonably good picture when transferred to 35mm and projected; it had been used once before for a Broadway production of Hamlet starring Richard Burton, that made the rounds of non-New York theaters. It was used to record this concert, and then only a handful of times, the most notable being a production of Harlow starring Carol Lynley.

Oh, but what a concert. Opening with Chuck Berry and “Johnny B. Goode” (I’m going to digress here to point out that another media landmark, the supposed Country Music icon Hee-Haw, also opened with “Johnny B. Goode”, though performed by Buck Owens), and then Berry and Gerry and the Pacemakers alternate for a while, then the Miracles (hi, Smokey!), Marvin Gaye, Lesley Gore, Jan and Dean (who also play hosts), The Beach Boys, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, The Supremes (hi Diana!), The Barbarians, James Brown and His Famous Flames, and The Rolling Stones.

Hai, Smokey

Hai, Smokey

That is two hours of incredible music, recorded and mixed live on the fly, apparently cut down from a five hour event (we are spared equipment moving and the like). This is pretty much the soundtrack of my youth, and I sat there with a dopey look on my face.

The Barbarians sing a medley of their hit.

The Barbarians sing a medley of their hit.

I had only thought I had seen The T.A.M.I. Show before; what I had actually seen was a mashup with a later, similar event called The Big TNT Show that had some of The T.A.M.I. Show cut in to be released as This Was Rock. It turned out that Burton had all the Electronovision versions of Hamlet pulled, and somebody in The Beach Boys organization decided that their performance needed to be pulled from all prints. That didn’t quite happen, fortunately, which is why these days we can watch Brian Wilson singing with The Beach Boys, something that would not happen again for 19 years; this was only a few months before his nervous breakdown.

vlcsnap-2016-05-02-14h39m35s495There’s other little festive things, too: the pack-in book for the DVD infers that assistant choreographer Toni Basil only appears in the opening credit montage, but I’m pretty sure I spotted her among the dancers (who are doing some OMG get-me-some-oxygen gyrations that would have impressed The Nicolas Brothers with their freneticism) but truthfully, I was looking for another dancer in the lineup, and I finally got a good look at her during the Supremes’ number: hai, Teri Garr!

Ladies & gentlemen - The Supremes! (and Teri Garr)

Ladies & gentlemen – The Supremes! (and Teri Garr)

And the legendary Jack Nitzsche on the left!

And the legendary Jack Nitzsche on the left!

If I have time to watch it again, I need to try to get a better look at that backup band, too: that is the legendary Wrecking Crew, which at the time included future stars like Glenn Campbell and Leon Russell.

Another telling bit concerns the last two acts: James Brown and The Rolling Stones. Sargent wanted The Stones to close the show, probably because they were the closest thing to The Beatles he could afford. The Stones didn’t want to follow Brown, and Brown wanted to close the show. Hell, everybody realized that Brown tamishow-2should have closed, except Sargent. So Brown proceeds to make The Stones wish they had never come to America with a set that threatens to melt your TV set. The Stones rise to the challenge, throwing in a bit more footwork than usual in their first song, “Around and Around”, but it doesn’t matter to the screaming teens; the two acts are really for different audiences, and in that one night, both audiences are there, and they are enjoying the hell out of each others’ music.

1315169718That’s the other big cultural landmark that happened in 1964: The Civil Rights Act, signed into law on July 2, outlawing discrimination and segregation. The thing is, The T.A.M.I. Show is an accurate depiction of the radio of my youth; we didn’t care about the color of the music, we cared about its quality, and I heard an astounding variety of music on my little transistor. Modern radio, categorized and pre-boxed and yes, segregated cannot compare, and we are honestly less for that.

Which makes me more glad than ever that Shout Factory has finally managed to put it out on home video, Beach Boys and all.

Please be advised I will not be held responsible for this video melting your computer monitor. Please! Please!

Buy The T.A.M.I. Show on Amazon – it’s currently dirt cheap

Hopefully you’ve now have enough of me for a while. I’m going to be spending the next couple of weeks on my Villain Blogathon entry, and as usual, I rue my choice and the work I have cut out for myself. See you in a couple.

Russians, Germans, and A Certain Amount of Doom

I Am Cuba (1964)

51dkKQ4LeYL._SY445_There are two things – Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film: An Odyssey and Xan Cassavetes’ Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, that should both ditch their existing subtitles and substitute Why Haven’t You Watched These Movies Yet, You Asshole. I’m not kidding about this; I honestly think my late-in-life drive to catch up with essential cinema was jumpstarted by Cassavetes, and Cousins just widened my horizons exponentially.

Cousins is the one who convinced me to seek out Russian Ark, both a good and a bad thing – but I think the only scene quoted in his series that dropped my jaw as hard as Ark‘s final scene was a sequence from a movie I had never even heard of – I Am Cuba.

Any section of that scene would be pointed to with pride by any filmmaker, but as you can see, it just. Keeps. Going. It’s a sequence designed to astonish the viewer and make them wonder just how the hell that was accomplished. It is toward the end of the movie, certainly (and in fact should probably be the end), but I am here to tell you that I Am Cuba is full of such wonders.

tumblr_n62lwpBWdy1qcoaf4o1_500After the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the subsequent break-off of relations with the US, aid began pouring into the country from Soviet Russia, and one of those pieces of aid took the form of Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov, cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky, and poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, to make a movie about the Revolution with the nascent Cuban film ministry. Developed and shot over an astonishing 14 months – during the Cuban Missile Crisis, even – the result was I Am Cuba. Kalatazov was given a tremendous amount of leeway and support from both governments. At one point he requested 1000 soldiers for a scene, and he got them (even though radio announcements and speakers from trucks had to be employed to reassure the citizens that the sudden mobilization was not another revolution).

Untitled1One scene involves student revolutionaries throwing molotov cocktails at a drive-in movie screen showing footage of Batista giving a speech; not only is the image of the dictator giving his speech wreathed in flames particularly potent, but the following footage, with the students escaping in the chaos, is done in a long shot and we still see the burning screen in the background – that is a real structure in real flames with a ton of people. Urushevsky requisitioned infrared movie stock from the military, resulting in eerily beautiful footage of white and silver palm trees and sugar cane against a black sky.

The movie takes an anthology approach to the build-up to the Revolution; a girl eking out a living as a prostitute to the venal Western tourists has her life shattered when one of her customers insists on coming home with her, because he thinks finding out how “these women” live would be interesting; a sugar cane sharecropper has his life similarly destroyed when his landlord sells his farm out from under him – the farmer gives his son and daughter his last peso to go to town, then torches his fields and house and literally lies down and dies; a student revolutionary plots to kill a corrupt Police Chief but can’t pull the trigger when he sees the man eating breakfast with his loving children – the same Chief will kill both his friends and the revolutionary himself, resulting in the above funeral scene; and finally, a simple farmer who just wants to be left alone is radicalized when the government indiscriminately bombs his farm in search of rebels, destroying his home and killing his son.

iamcuba-splsh2I Am Cuba begins with a continuous shot every bit as startling as that funeral scene, and continues to dazzle with its camerawork. I had thought there was no way it could possibly keep that up, and to my surprise and delight, it did. I even find that these bravura shots (easily found on YouTube) are not my favorite. That falls to the opening of the second story, as the farmer, while his children sleep, prays for rain to save his crop. Rain it does, and as water flows down the camera lens, the image blurs, and successive waves down the camera reveal the farmer’s life, the birth of his children, the death of his wife – his life on that little farm. It is a remarkable sequence, purely visual, and as close to poetry as anything I have ever seen onscreen.

Well, we all know how this goes, as we have seen it repeatedly in the life of great films: the premiere of I Am Cuba in 1964 was a disaster; the Soviets declared that Kalatozov had made an art film, not the propaganda that was intended, and Cubans found it far too Slavic in its portrayal of its people, going so far as to call it I Am Not Cuba. And thus it was quietly stored away, a copy in the USSR, a copy in Cuba, forgotten, ignored out of existence.

Until the USSR dissolved in the early 90s, anyway. Blurry VHS copies began to circulate, and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola discovered it and sang its praises. I Am Cuba was rescued from the dustbin of history, and we are all the richer for it.

There is a documentary in Milestone Film’s Ultimate Edition, The Siberian Mammoth, which fails on the front I wanted – there is no revelation how Urushevsky accomplished those remarkable shots, where tales persist of special vests that served as Steadicam prototypes, with eyes and carabiniers that allowed the camera operator to be hooked into systems of pulleys and wires. There is instead a lot of reminiscing, and the most significant thing, for me, is that all the Cubans who participated in the production had, over the years, allowed themselves to believe what they were told: that the movie is a massive failure, something to be ashamed of. The change that comes over them when they are given newly-minted tapes of the movie, and read the praise that is now lavished on it, is telling, and very, very satisfying.

37020_2Honestly, highest possible recommendation.

Buy I Am Cuba on Amazon.

Letter Never Sent (1960)

letterneverNow, on the shelf of Criterion blu-rays I have amassed over the last couple of years in my travels through used movie and book stores, I discovered I had another, earlier collaboration between Kalatazov and Urushevsky, Letter Never Sent. It’s the second of their three movies together, the first being The Cranes Are Flying (as usual, I seem to be accessing filmographies in reverse).

Letter Never Sent is much simpler in concept than I Am Cuba, if not in execution. The very first shot lets us know that these are the same filmmakers, as four geologists (Vasiliy Livanov, Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy, Evgeniy Urbanskiy and Cranes’ Tatyana Samoylova) are dropped by a river in Siberia, the camera holding on them as their helicopter flies away, and they become part of the environment.

It has been theorized that the geology of Siberia is similar to the parts of Africa where the richest deposits of diamonds have been found. Ergo, the geologist’s mission is to find those diamonds. The leader is on his seventh such mission; the guide, his tenth. There are two lovers fresh from university. They dig and analyze, moving deeper into the interior, through the summer and into the fall – and they finally find diamonds.

fireThe sequence showing their efforts is going to be familiar if you’ve seen I Am Cuba: swirling and magical, artistic and amazing, it truly feels like months of exhausting labor packed into a few minutes. The four finish off a bottle of cognac they had reserved for celebration; then, in the morning, they are completely screwed.

Well, you expected this in a movie titled Letter Never Sent. They awaken to find themselves in a massive forest fire, losing the guide almost immediately, giving up his life to rescue supplies so the others have a chance. Then, having lost their guide, the other three try to find their way back to “The River”. Their radio is broken, and they can receive but not transmit; the heavy smoke prevents them from being seen from above. The geologist injured during the fire slowly weakens, eventually wandering off in the night so his comrades don’t have to carry him anymore. Then winter comes with its snow and ice, and The River is still nowhere in sight.

Russians really, really love their doomed characters, don’t they?

current_800_086_largeKalatozov’s long, choreographed takes are an obvious influence on Andrei Tarkovsky; Urushevsky’s camera is much more restless, but it’s quite possible to see the influence from this through Andrei Rublev. and with Kalatozov’s insistence on using real environments whenever possible. God only knows where he shot the forest fire scenes, or how dangerous it was, because that shit is real. You can tell when the filming switched to Mosfilm’s studios because the camera stands still.

Letter Never Sent was a large hit in Russia and in fact led to a boom in the number of students studying geology. It’s a great examination of the human will to survive – as the last survivor continues to write his wife with frozen fingers, he says, “My life is no longer my own.” He has to survive, to get that map to civilization, or his friends will have died in vain. This movie is doubtless the reason Kalatozov got the nod to direct I Am Cuba, and the only other movie he got to direct after its disastrous premiere: the Soviet/Italian co-production The Red Tent (1969), about the failed 1928 Arctic expedition of the airship Italia. I’ve not seen it, but I remember asking friends who had what they thought of it, and they just got a strange, faraway look in their eyes and moaned, “They all died…”

You know. Doomed.

Buy Letter Never Sent on Amazon

 Die Nibelungen (1925)

nibelungenliedHey, speaking of doomed…

I am finding that I have a deep abiding affection for Weimar Republic cinema. Much magic produced in such a troubled time. Kino-Lorber has been doing a great job of putting out, on blu-ray, the wonderful restoration work of the F.W. Murnau Foundation, not only the work of its namesake (which I have come to love) but of the prolific Fritz Lang, who supplanted Murnau as a guiding force of world cinema, for better or worse. Lang made 16 movies from 1919 to 1933, while Murnau made 17.  But Lang undeniably had his finger on the pulse of his audience –  he knew where what they wanted intersected with what he wanted to make, and he was able to deliver that with unmistakable artistry.

After the success of Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, Lang undertook the massive project of making a film version of the Nibelungenlied or The Song of the Nibelungen, an epic poem dating back to the 12th or 13th century. That’s going to be familiar to opera fans, because Richard Wagner used it as an inspiration for the Ring Cycle of operas, adding about a thousand times more gods and magic. Lang broke the poem down into two lengthy movies, Sigfried (2 hours 30 minutes) and Kriemhild’s Revenge (2 hours 12 minutes). If you come to these movies expecting the opera or even What’s Opera, Doc?, you are going to be severely confused and disappointed.

What does that matter, though? It’s an epic poem, and those inevitably end in tragedy. In short, everybody you’re about to meet is doomed.

A rough knowledge of the operas or, at least, Germanic legend is going to keep you in good stead, however, because the first movie depends on such familiarity to get things moving.  Siegfried (Paul Richter) finishes his apprenticeship to the swordmaker Mime (Georg John) and hearing of the court of Burgundy, decides to journey there and woo the beautiful Kriemhild (Margarete Schön), sight unseen. On the way, he encounters a dragon. Now the dragon is just minding his own business, getting a drink of water, and then this blonde asshole with a sword comes along and kills him. As there is no justice, a drop of the dragon’s blood falls on Siegfried, allowing him to understand the language of birds. A nearby bird tells him to bathe in the blood of the dragon, so he’ll be invulnerable. However, a leaf from “the mischievous Linden tree” falls on him, so he has the required vulnerable spot.

Yep, this photo.

Yep, this photo.

We’ve all seen at least one picture of that dragon; whenever Siegfried is ever mentioned in print, there is almost inevitably a picture of Siegfried bathing in its blood. It’s pretty amazing to see the thing actually moving – it’s a life-sized puppet that required six men to operate and even more to move its body back and forth.

After that despicable act, Siegfried gets a magic helmet (it looks like a piece of net to me, but whatever) from the murderous Albrecht (still Georg John), who still tries to kill Siegfried again, gets murdered back, and curses his treasure just to make sure we know Siegfried is doomed. Siegfried then conquers twelve kingdoms on his way to Burgundy, so he has quite the entourage when he finally presents himself at court. Kriemhild’s brother, King Gunther (Theodor Loos) is reluctant to let his sister see this sudden Adonis, until his right hand man Hagen Tronje (Hans Edelbart Schettlow) points out that Siegfried can help Gunther conquer the women he loves – the barbarian queen Brunhild (Hanna Ralph), who has a tendency to kill suitors who can’t beat her in three competitions.

You know instinctively that Hagen is going to be trouble, He has a beard, after all. And he never takes off his chainmail suit. Though he does sometimes take off his outrageous winged helmet.

siegfrieddeathOne look at Kriemhild, and Siegfried agrees. Using the magic helmet’s power of invisibility, he helps Gunther beat the three trials of Brunhild, and later has to use the same helmet’s power of illusion to beat the uncowed Brunhild in the bedchamber while pretending to be Gunther. Things like this never turn out well, as Brunhild will eventually find out, and insist that Siegfried be killed, even lying to Gunther that Siegfried raped her that fateful night. Hagen, who has been spoiling for just such a chance, volunteers to do the deed and tricks Kriemhild into revealing Siegfried’s vulnerable spot, killing him with a javelin in the back during a hunting trip.

Kriemhild, distraught, demands justice but Gunther and the rest of the royal family closes ranks around Hagen, denying her this. Brunhild, wracked by guilt, kills herself at Siegfried’s bier, and thus are we set up for movie two, Kriemhild’s Revenge.

kriemhildsrevengeOf course, Kriemhild hasn’t gotten any revenge since the first movie, and Hagen twists the knife by stealing Siegfried’s cursed treasure and dumping it in the Rhine so she can’t use it to raise an army against him. Who should crop up but Rudiger (Rudolf Rittner) an emissary from the court of Attila (the ever-reliable Rudolf Klein-Rogge) “The Lord of the Earth”, who wishes to marry Kriemhild (what is with these kings falling in love with women they have never seen?). Kriemhild agrees, and begins her revenge plot in earnest, giving Attila a son and supplanting the Huns loyalty from him to herself. She convinces Attila to invite Gunther and his court to the Huns’ Great Hall to celebrate the child’s birth, only to discover Attila’s Code of the Desert will not allow him to attack a guest. Her loyal Huns attack, and in this first attack, the ever-predictable Hagen kills the child in reprisal, removing Attila’s protection from the Burgundians, who will hole up in the Great Hall, repelling attack after attack, until Kriemhild orders the Hall torched.

attilaSpoiler alert: damn near everybody dies. In fact, each movie is composed of Seven Cantos, each with its own title card, and each Canto should really be called a Spoiler Alert, especially in the first movies, which has titles like “How Siegfried Slayed the Dragon” “How Siegfried Beat Brunhild” and “How Siegfried Got Killed By A Putz in Chainmail Stabbing Him In The Back While He Got A Drink of Water”. It always seems to me when studying these old epics/tragedies that we’re not so much dealing with the Age of Legends or the Age of Heroes as The Age of Jerks. What’s impressive about Die Nibelungenlied is that the women get to be just as big jerks as the menfolk.

There is no denying that Die Nibelungen is a technical triumph. Siegfried was a worldwide hit, and Kriemhild less so, perhaps because the second film is much more Greek tragedy than the first. Schön is icily magnificent in her role, magnetic and powerful – one can actually believe that she can inspire and control the Hordes, exhorting them to suicidal attack after attack, only to be repeatedly beaten, of course, by the exceedingly white Burgundians.

The restoration must have been a very hard row to hoe; the movies had been shortened many times through the years, most notoriously for use as Nazi propaganda; endless use was made of the blonde Richter, riding his white horse through massive forests that were man-made and fated to be torn down so a Hun village could be built. Like the restored Metropolis, this version is as complete as possible, with scenes dropped in from lesser sources made obvious by the clarity of the negatives the Foundation was able to unearth. Die Nibelungen is definitely a long haul, and your enjoyment is going to be directly linked to how much you enjoy ancient poems, silent cinema, and jerks with swords.

Buy Die Nibelungen on Amazon

We Who Are Not Zatoichi

I know it may not seem like it, but I actually did watch some movies in the last month which did not feature a blind guy with a cane sword. Allow me to demonstrate:

220px-The_Unholy_Three_(1930_film)It took me far too long to get around to the talkie version of The Unholy Three (1930). Jack Conway directs the sound version of the Tod Browning silent thriller from 1925 featuring three denizens from a circus sideshow, on the run from the law, who embellish their life of crime with secret identities. Echo the ventriloquist (Lon Chaney) masquerades as a sweet old woman who runs a pet store. Hercules the strong man (Ivan Linow) is her “son-in-law”, and a psychotic midget (Harry Earles, later much more sympathetic in Freaks) his infant son. The pickpocket Rosie (Lila Lee) is along for the ride as Echo’s granddaughter, but she’s falling for the pet store’s clerk, the square Hector (Elliott Nugent).

Their scam is pretty elaborate: Rich people come in to buy talking birds from Granny, but it’s Echo’s skills that give them voice (in the silent, this was cleverly presented with onscreen word balloons!). when the birds turn mute in their new homes, Granny pays a visit to examine them, with Earles along in a baby carriage. Left alone, the fake baby can case the joint for later burglary.

unholy-threeThings go south when Earles and Hercules rob a place on their own (while Echo as Granny tries to bust up the Rosie/Hector romance) and the two bunglers wind up murdering their victim. They quickly frame Hector for the crime, then take it on the lam to a remote cabin while Hector faces the music. This doesn’t go over too well with Rosie, though, who convinces Echo to go to the trial as Granny to clear Hector, leaving Earles and Hercules on their own to plot against the absent Echo.

There are at least two crackerjack sequences of extreme suspense in this version worthy of Hitchcock. The major emotion you’re left with, though, is an understandable yearning to see Lon Chaney’s Dracula. This is his only talkie, and he gets to show off every conceivable emotion; being alternately menacing and comical, even sympathetic at the end. It’s a good swan song, but serves to prove exactly what we lost with his untimely death, at a mere 47 years of age. Man, fuck cancer.

rewind_this_posterJust before the Christmas holidays, a direct download of Josh Johnson’s VHS documentary Rewind This! was made available for like 8 bucks, so I went hey, sure, and made with the Paypalling. Johnson casts a broad net, starting with collectors, then flashing back to the origins of the format, the format wars with Betamax, the rise of video stores, the role of pornography and the medium’s eventual downfall. But it always returns to collectors, who are the only reason, really, that we are even talking about VHS anymore. There are a few areas where I wish he had spent a bit more time, and some where I think he spent too much time (the section on video auteur Dave “The Rock” Stevens seems to go on indefinitely – but then, I also have to admit that he is the most animated of the interviewees). On the other hand, finding out that Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson is truly One Of Us is gratifying, and the guy with a Screams of a Winter Night poster on his wall made me smile. Warm nostalgia just flows over the whole endeavor. Well worth a watch.

solomon_kaneI wish I could give as unhesitating a recommendation to Solomon Kane, based on the character of the same name created by Robert E. Howard, whom most of you will recognize as Conan the Barbarian’s daddy. Kane is usually described as “a dour Puritan” by Howard, and is a sword slinger literally worlds away from the Cimmerian. What Michael J. Barrett has done here is provide an origin story for the character that Howard never bothered to provide. It’s exciting enough, it’s undeniably well-made, but it’s also about a half-hour too long, and emotionally unengaging. James Purefoy as Kane requires some warming up to, but sadly, never quite manages that warming. It’s always good to see Pete Postelthwaite and Alice Krige, even if they are written out of the story pretty swiftly. And oh, look, it’s Max von Sydow, for whom ditto. Still, it’s good enough to hazard a glance if you’re interested. I didn’t hate it.

TestamentOfDrMabuse-PosterWorthy of far more than a mere glance is Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). I admit I cheated on this one – I really should have started with the earlier, silent Dr. Mabuse The Gambler (1922), but I picked the movie pretty late, and The Gambler is close to four hours long, and Testament is a mere two hours. Lang wasn’t interested in making short movies. In fact, the Criterion DVD has an interesting supplement tracing the differences between the original German version, and the French and eventual dubbed American versions, what was cut out and the likely reasons for same.

Testament has a marvelous opening as a man skulks around the supply room of a counterfeiting operation so massive the printing presses shake the walls. This guy will attempt to alert Police Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) of the operation, but the stress of constant attempts on his life drive him mad. Equally mad is our old pal Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) who has been catatonic for years since the events of The Gambler, but has recently taken to silently, sedulously scribbling in notebook after notebook intricately plotted plans for an Empire of Crime based on terroristic acts.

schreibende-mabuse-clearSome shadowy somebody is using these notes to carry out Mabuse’s plans utilizing a highly organized network of criminal cells. A member of the counterfeiting cell, Kent (Gustav Diessl) balks at the shadowy figure’s insistence on murder, and along with His love Lilli (Wera Liessem), he finds himself in a deathtrap with a hidden timebomb when he tries to go to the police. The ultimate identity of the faux Mabuse is never in doubt, but at least half the fun is in watching the characters get there.

The best thing for a film fan is the realization that the grouchy Inspector Lohmann is a carryover from Lang’s earlier M (1931), which means that M and the Mabuse movies happen in the same universe. Lang’s rich portrayal of the various denizens of Mabuse’s underworld bears this out. Someone on the IMDb pointed out that any director would be proud to point to Testament as their crowning achievement, but for Lang, it was basically Tuesday night. It was also his last movie in his native Germany, as the Nazi party was coming to power, and apparently saw things in Mabuse’s Empire of Crime that looked too familiar…

street wars posterNext up was Jamaa Fanaka’s final movie, Street Wars, which proved to be a very entertaining puzzle. I watched it for the Daily Grindhouse podcast, which should be dropping at about the same time I finish this column up, so go to that link and be stunned by my inarticulateness.

I had put off seeing Street Wars for ten years or so… long story… so the best way to follow it up was to watch another movie with an insane title that I had been putting off (but only for a year), and there it was on Netflix: Kill ‘Em All.

kill-em-all-dvdBasically, there are eight assassins (though only four are deemed vital enough to give Bond-style introductory vignettes), who are drugged and abducted by a Cabal of Assassins and placed in a locked room deemed The Killing Chamber. There, they are supposed to take each other on in a series of one-on-one fights to the death, until only one remains standing.

If you are thinking, “That sounds like a rickety device to make a movie that is simply fight after fight,” congratulations, you too have seen way too many of these movies. If you like martial arts fights, though, this movie is pure catnip, and it is smart enough to stage an escape from the Killing Chamber midway through so our remaining assassins can get some payback. The one unfortunate note is when our filmmakers cannot resist making one character say, “This sounds like a video game,” because that is basically what Kill ‘Em All is: the best video game movie ever made that was never a video game.

It also gives us a pre-stroke Gordon Liu as the head of the Cabal, still able to kick a generous quantity of ass at 58 years of age. Kill ‘Em All is definitely not for all markets, but chances are you already knew that, and you already knew if you were interested or not the moment you saw the title.

actofkillingIt was with little or no conscious irony that I followed that up with the acclaimed 2012 documentary The Act of Killing. After a military coup in Indonesia in 1965, there was a genocidal spree of around a million executions of “Communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals”. The death squads were recruited from the ranks of criminals and paramilitary outfits; the difference here, from other countries where such atrocities have taken place, is that these people were never even accused of war crimes – they are successful and even revered today.

Director Josh Oppenheimer focuses largely on one of these men – Anwar Congo, the most prolific executioner of his city, with somewhere around a thousand deaths to his personal credit, and several of his former associates. They were “Movie ticket gangsters”, selling cinema tickets on the black market, before their promotion to masters of life and death.

At first The Act of Killing seems to be a treatise on the banality of evil, with Congo nonchalantly describing how he developed a speedy way to kill his charges with a wire noose. Chilling, but I’ve seen several such documentaries over the last few years. Oppenheimer realizes this, and instead gives these former movie ticket gangsters – twisted film fans, who saw themselves as the characters of American gangster movies – carte blanche to make their own movie versions of their careers, in whatever genre they please. And they leap at the chance.

The bizarre nature of their choices builds fascination for the film’s second act. There is the expected film noir interrogation scenes (with some stunningly unexpected method acting from a victim), but there are truly bizarre scenes of gory horror and even surreal musical numbers.

TAOK makeupIt is during the restaging of one brutal massacre and burning of a village that we begin to see the awakenings of conscience in the formerly unrepentant Congo: “I didn’t realize it would look so horrible.” This carries through to one of the interrogation and execution scenes with Congo playing the victim, and finding that “I can’t do this a second time.” Watching the final, edited version of that scene, he finally breaks down in tears.

The emotional devastation in The Act of Killing thus comes from an entirely unexpected direction, from a man who spends most of the movie informing people that the name “gangster” means “free man”, and who feels his greatest achievement is a musical number where a man removes a wire noose from his neck and then hangs a medal on Congo, saying, “Thank you for executing me and sending me to heaven.”

The Act of Killing is already been hailed as an important movie. I realize not everyone is going to seek it out, but honestly, they should. There is a great deal of honesty here, and a major lesson in how history is, indeed, written by the winners, even if the winners are in drag.TAOK_HermanOnStage

A Month of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, part one

As a tribute to the late Roger Ebert, some members of the Letterboxd community are spending May visiting films in his Great Movies series. Since this dovetails with my personal project of filling shameful voids in my film education, I decided to commit myself, once more, to a regimented schedule for which I don’t really have time, but hey, you know. Movies.

With the certain knowledge that I have to work the occasional evening, I started early, trying to get a buffer going.

Faust (1926)

Faust-PosterLike any good horror nerd, I was familiar with F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu – A Symphony of Horror, but remained sadly ignorant of his other works. After the phenomenal success of The Last Laugh, Murnau was given carte blanche for his next project, and the result was Faust, at the time the most expensive movie ever produced in Germany… until Metropolis, which we’ll get to later.

Based on various tales in German folklore, but most especially on Goethe’s play, Faust employs a setup well-known to readers of the Book of Job: Satan makes a bet with an archangel that he can corrupt Faust, a decent and devout man of learning. The Devil, of course, is a big cheater and sets loose the Black Death in Faust’s village. When he cannot cure the disease, Faust in desperation tries a ritual in one of his ancient books, summoning the Devil in the form of Mephisto.

3242077879-1Mephisto is an excellent marketer, offering Faust first a free trial day of unlimited power, then finagling to have the day end when the aged Faust, newly imbued with youth, is about to bed The Most Beautiful Woman in the World. Needless to say, Hell has a new customer. Eventually Faust returns to his home town, and falls in love with the shy maiden Gretchen. Of course, Mephisto put his powers to use, and being a demon, manages to frame Faust for murder and totally destroy Gretchen’s life. The demon has forgotten about the power of love, however, which prevails no matter how much misfortune he piles upon it.

The imagery in the first act of Faust is stunning, puppets representing War, Pestilence and Famine on demon horses riding in the sky, Satan nestling  Faust’s village in enormous bat wings.  Moreover, the acting is surprisingly subtle for a silent movie. I had initially thought young and old Faust were played by two different actors, but no, that is Gösta Ekman in both roles. Emil Jannings already had a stellar career in movies when he starred in The Last Laugh, and as Satan and Mephisto, he is not only terrific, he is also obviously having the time of his life. Though Murnau wanted Lillian Gish for the role of Gretchen, he eventually cast a stand-in named Camilla Horn, launching a career that would last into the 90s.

Jannings & Murnau

Jannings & Murnau

This is, in short, a marvelous movie, leaving Nosferatu in the dust. We’ll leave this for a moment, but we’ll find it a bit of a touchstone.

Here, have the first four minutes:

Man With A Movie Camera (1929)

man_with_movie_camera_poster_3Nothing less than the great-grandfather of Koyaanisqatsi. Soviet director Dziga Vertov and his brother attempt to break down the linearity of boring old story-centered cinema with this document of  “a day in the life of a city”. Shot over three years in (actually) three cities – Moscow, Odessa and Kiev – the movie uses a dizzying variety of techniques, dutch angles, double exposures, time-lapse, even some stop-motion animation, and some very innovative editing to sweep the viewer away and shake him up, with no stories or context to distract from the images. All in 63 minutes.

I watched the Kino International version on Netflix Instant, which employs a soundtrack composed by Michael Nyman in 2002. The original score was apparently as experimental as the movie itself, featuring voices, orchestra instruments, and an electric buzzer or two, rather reminding me of some John Cage pieces. Nyman’s score is dynamic and forceful, feeling a little Glassian at moments, cementing Man With A Movie Camera‘s relationship to the Godfrey Reggio’s later Qatsi movies.

Here, I found an excerpt with the Nyman score:

Triumph of the Will (1935)

triumph-of-the-will-movie-poster-1934-1020198741Back to the Germans. This is the fairly infamous documentary of the 1934 Congress of the Nazi Party held in Nuremburg. It is rightfully held up as one of the first and one of the best propaganda films ever made. It is also one of the best documentaries.

Given total support by the Party, director Leni Riefenstahl controlled a crew of almost 200 people, 40 of which were cameramen. Trenches were dug, tracks were laid, special cranes were constructed, all so Leni could get the shots she needed. Some speeches were re-shot later, but overall, it is a testament to her abilities that there are huge, amazing crowd scenes – the congress was attended by 700,000 people – and yet, in only one instance, could I see one of those many cameras.

Triumph is only six minutes shy of two hours, and it can, fact, eventually get boring – damn, but fascists love their parades – but the final rally is amazing. The best part, for me, is seeing the uncut footage of Hitler’s closing speech. We’ve seen this footage excerpted so many times in various programs, that it’s quite refreshing to see it intact, and to witness those little moments when Hitler steps back from the podium to let the crowd roar, and you see Hitler – not the icon, not the image, but the man – you see Hitler, eyes toward his speech, silently contemplating, listening to the crowd, and thinking to himself, “Yes, that was quite good, wasn’t it?”

Reifenstahl’s techniques are still being used almost a century later; this movie is certainly worth a look, for many reasons. Like Man With A Movie Camera, its major value, outside their many innovations, is as a time capsule, a slice of a particular time and place, preserved for all time.

Reifenstahl also actively lobbied for the role of Gretchen in Faust. Who knows what might have happened had she gotten it?

Here’s that final speech, with some overblown music added:

Metropolis (1927)

metropolis-poster…and back to the silents. You’re allowed a bit of cheating in the Ebert Challenge (no more than 10 re-watches), but I’m not even sure this qualifies – it has been years since I’ve seen Metropolis, but this was certainly the first time I’d seen  the restored version.

In a sentence I am really growing weary of typing, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was a dismal flop on first release, and it’s running time was scissored down over and over again. Restoration had variable success until the beginning of the 21st century, when a chance mention led to the discovery of a 16mm print of the original in Argentina. It had apparently been bought by a South American company for distribution at its first viewing, and somewhere in the 20th century it had been transferred to 16mm when the nitrate 35mm print became too unstable. But it had 25 minutes of the missing 30 in somewhat salvageable condition.

Kino’s edition looks astoundingly good; the insertion of the recovered footage perforce must stick out like an over-exposed, streaky sore thumb, but even that is helpful in gauging what exactly has been returned, allowing the viewer to piece together the reasoning behind the edits. An entire subplot involving “The Thin Man”, a spy sent after young Federson by his father, as the young man becomes increasingly infatuated with the under-city of the Workers, and their Messiah, Maria.

metropolis05Still missing is the scene in mad scientist Rotwang’s house, where the elder Federson struggles with his old rival and frees Maria from his clutches; this is now explained in an intertitle card. I seem to recall in my first viewing only seeing Maria running from the house, with no explanation of how she escaped.

My major realization in seeing this, so hard upon the heels of Faust, is how much more I appreciated Murnau over Lang, and I had long treasured Lang. But Murnau’s work is full of subtlety and human moments. Lang is far more interested in melodrama and grand, sweeping motions. As my friend Mark Konecny pointed out, for better or worse, Lang was the future of cinema, and kept making movies until 1960. Most of them were pretty darned good. Murnau worked more slowly, and only made three sound movies before his untimely death in a traffic accident in 1931.

So once again I get to end one of these with a “what if-?” or an “if only-” and hustle myself back to my viewing chair. It’s high time I watched some American fare.

Movie Catchup, June Edition

A very busy week, made suddenly very complicated by a sudden call to complete a long-delayed dental procedure. That is why I haven’t been around.

Monday, Tuesday: city meetings, where I run audio. Wednesday: story for June video magazine due. Also work all evening doing slide slow for my wife’s graduating class this Saturday. It was urgent I get the damn thing done because it is now Thursday morning, we just finished shooting the stand-ups for the magazine, and in three hours I’m going to be in a dental chair getting four or five damaged, increasingly worthless teeth extracted and an immediate denture slapped in. This is something I have never experienced, and I have no idea what sort of condition I will be in tonight. Soup is almost certainly on the menu.

I have the freaking order of the slideshow done, but was frustrated from roughly 10pm to midnight last night because I could not get any sort of music file to play in it. I’ve been using Open Office for the last couple of years because I couldn’t afford Microsoft Office. Last year I managed this trick just fine in OpenOff’s version of Power Point, Impress. This year I’m suddenly being told that any file format – even the ones specifically mentioned in the Open File dialog – are “not supported”. Surfing around forums proves no help. Turns out if I just tell it to embed, save it to a Power Point show and then use Microsoft’s free Power Point viewer the music plays just fine. A bulky, cumbersome workaround, which means I’m timing blind, and still not finished, so hopefully I won’t be too wrecked tonight. Graduation is Saturday morning.

But yeah, I still managed to watch some movies, somewhere in there. Mainly because my landline shorted out and I was without the Net for three days.

I saw Avengers again, this time with my family. Still amazing, still flawless entertainment. I’m still embittered that every bit that would have made me go woohoo had been spoiled for me by the time I actually saw it – where are the Internet outages when you really need them? – but I got to see my wife and son react to them, so that was cool. Had to spend most of the end credits explaining to my son who… that guy at the end was (I still tread carefully for you, dear reader), and I wonder how many nerds had to explain that to non-nerd companions. I checked, and in my copy ofThe Marvel Encyclopedia, he only gets one-sixth of a page.

In any case, my wife is the very definition of a non-comics nerd, and she thought the movie was amazing. Which it is.

My other movies were at the other end of the scale, budget and amazing-wise. Saturday morning I was up at a Godforsaken hour because that’s what your body does to you, and I watched While the City Sleeps, a Fritz Lang-directed piece of newspaper noir from 1956. Lang is always worth watching, and the layered story here is pretty good. First off, a news media magnate kicks off after insisting that his various outlets sensationalize a murder where the killer left the message “Ask Mother” scrawled in lipstick on a wall. Then, his son (Vincent Price!) arrives to take over, without much of any experience in the trade. He creates a new position, Executive Director, and tells the heads of the three branches: Wire Service, Newspaper, and Photos – that whoever solves the case of the Lipstick Killer gets the job.

The cast is great: George Sanders as the Wire honcho, Ida Lupino as a conniving society columnist, Dana Andrews starring as a Pulitzer-winning TV news analyst who used to work the crime beat, and slowly finds himself sucked into the investigation. Toss in Howard Duff as the detective in charge of the case, and you got your very solid detective thriller cast. Andrews finally tucks into the case with glee, eventually putting his girlfriend in danger; it’s pretty amazing to see so many of the threads of the unsub-killer genres being used at this early date, as Andrews and Duff begin profiling the killer. And even if detective stories with a dollop of soap opera aren’t your thing, who could possibly pass up a chance to see Vincent Price in Bermuda shorts?

I also have to say that seeing a story involving journalistic integrity made me absolutely wistful. Man, fuck NewsCorp.

My viewing of While the City Sleeps was also movie number 15 on The List, so goal achieved on watching half of them before Summer hit. Huzzah.

The other movie seen during the outage was chosen at random, something I’d had for a while: You’ll Find Out, which is a parody of Old Dark House movies starring Kay Kyser (and his College of Musical Knowledge), and three guys named Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Lorre.

Kyser is sort of a blip on the landscape these days, but he was pretty darn successful in his day, famous enough that he and Moe-bedecked comedian Ish Kabibble crop up in Looney Tunes. His radio show, a combination variety and game show, was quite popular. It’s unsurprising that he’d make the crossover to movies. It’s also a little unfortunate.

Admittedly, You’ll Find Out is his first movie. Maybe he got more confident, Ish Kabibble less annoying. But I doubt it.

Okay, so Kyser and his band are playing at the 21st birthday party of his manager’s fiancee. Of course, she lives with her eccentric aunt at a creepy old house accessible only by a single bridge, which will mysteriously blow up in the course of the movie. Somebody’s been trying to kill the fiancee, possibly Boris as the old family friend, Bela as the psychic who’s been getting lots of money from the superstitious aunt, or Lorre as a psychic-busting scientist. Or, given that it’s Karloff, Lugosi and Lorre, it’s probably all three. Oh, sorry. Spoiler.

When I was a kid, I was always pissed off that You”ll Find Out kept getting scheduled in the late night horror movie slot. I thought that perhaps now, as an old-timer, I could better appreciate it. Well, nottttttttt really, it turns out. It’s not dreadful, but it’s not a forgotten gem, either. Our big three bad guys act like they’re in a different picture entirely, and I kinda wish I had been watching that movie. The musical numbers are good, but achingly white. I dearly wished Cab Calloway could have dropped by for at least one number. And as I pointed out on Twitter, the final number employs a device used by Lugosi for ghostly voices to make it appear Kyser’s vocalist is singing through the band’s instruments, making it the first instance of auto-tuning, in the year 1940.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go get my jaw ripped out.