Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Trapped by Sound: Pabst's Threepenny Opera

Sound is to Pabst what a tack is to a bicycle tire: it still runs, but the ride is bumpy and it takes too long to get there. G.W. Pabst's The Threepenny Opera was filmed in 1931 when sound recording techniques still had much to be desired, and much of the film's failing has to do with just that. Lacking the freedom that camera's were allowed in the silent era (when microphones were not an issue), Pabst reverts to tableaux shots and long takes: the scenes are static, and the actors hardly move. This isn't the usual Pabst who constructs his stories in lurid, penetrating close-ups. What he is able to carry over from his silent films are his love of decor and stylized sets. The acting, however, is uninspired, and it's as though the actors are reading the lines to themselves before they go to sleep. Just as their movements are static, there is nothing kinetic about their voices. As many early sound pictures proved, movies may have learned to talk, but they had still to learn how to move once again.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

King of Hearts (1966)

If ignorance is bliss, then what is insanity?

Phillipe de Broca's King of Hearts (1966) finds the Germans retreating from a small French village at the end of the first World War. Before they do, however, they trigger the town to blow-up when the clock strikes midngight. Logically scared for their lives, the townspeople evacuate, leaving the local asylum unguarded. When Scottish officer Alan Bates arrives in town, he finds the town overrun by the innamtes, and he is soon crowned the King of Hearts. But the Scots and Germans haven't gone for good, and when they show up back in town, it's hard to tell who's the whacko.

And that's the point--that the soldiers, and the world at large, is crazier than anything inside the gated asylum. The loonies are much happier amongst themselves, remaining oblivious to anything so "overly dramatic" as fighting (as one of the inmates describes an impromtu battle between the two armies).

De Broca directs with such a subtle grace that many of the scenes seem to be set to an imaginary music that only the characters can hear. I'm thinking particularly of the three Scottish soldiers, stepping in unison, swaying right and then left, peering around corners to see if the Germans have gone. And the sequence when the inmates let loose in the abandoned town exhibits an understated sense of humor: the accustomed ease with which they pick up lipstick and clothes betrays the excitement that one would expect.

One of the most pleasant things about King of Hearts is its comedic pacing: it never goes for the quick guffaw, instead the movie feels rather understated, as though its humor can only heigthen with familiarity.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Deceitul, Murderous Delight: The Two Mrs. Carrolls

Barabara Stanwyck and Humphrey Bogart aren't their usual selves in The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947). She is not the femme fatale, and he isn't the hardboiled private eye. Lovers after a chance encounter, Bogart and Stanwyck wed shortly after Bogart's first wife passes away. This second Mrs. Carroll begins to bore Bogart, however, as she fails to inspire his paintings as she once did. However, a new muse has entered his life, played by Alexis Smith. Soon, Mrs. Carroll falls ill, with symptoms much like the first Mrs. Carroll's before she passed away...

Director Peter Godfrey, while delivering a solid noir-melodrama, reuses much of the imagery and tension that Alfred Hitchcock used in his film Suspicion (1941): the shot of Bogart holding the poisoned glass of milk is a straight copy of Cary Grant in the earlier film. Both films, however, distinguish themselves in different ways. Hitchcock's film is a family-sized red herring served on a silver platter; Godfrey, on the other hand, consummates the tale of deceit and delivers a murderer at the end of the film. Thomas Job's script (from the play by Martin Vale) is excellently written, with smart dialogue and a handful of wry stock characters (the grumpy maid, the elderly fisherman) that, as often is the case, are the most memorable parts of the film.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Vamp-Camp: A Fool There Was

"A Fool There Was" (1915), the film that made a star out of star Theda Bara, is a poorly dramatized piece of vamp-camp that lingers over Bara's exotic sexuality. This is what the attraction of the film was in 1915, and that is still the main reason to see it today: Bara's sinful ways are as exaggerated as Mary Pickford's innocence, and its extremity is what makes it exciting. Her eating a grape out of her lover's mouth still carries erotic appeal; and her lifting the hem of her dress off the floor to show her ankles--this should also be cherished as a sign of the times, and as an early lifting of the sexuality's veil. (And those hems seem to have been getting higher ever since.)

Though coming fifteen years before Josef Von Sternberg's "The Blue Angel" (1930), "A Fool There Was" tells a similar story of a successful, respected man turned wayward and ruined by his lust. The object of his obsession is Theda Bara, known only as "The Vampire," a woman whose sole preoccupation is with bringing men to ruin: poverty, death, and suicide meet all of her former lovers. Called to England as an ambassador, John Schuyler (Edward Jose) books passage alone on a boat. On board, he becomes the next victim of "the Vampire," and off they go to Italy. Away from his family, Schuyler misses them terribly, but cannot live without his new mistress. Returning home (with Bara in tow), Schuyler fails to balance both his familial responsibilities and his desire for Bara and ends his life in utter ruin.

Director Frank Powell uses flowers as a symbol of female sexuality in the manner of Georgia O'Keefe. At one point Bara even thwarts a jealous lover's pistol with her long stemmed flower. But in other aspects of the film, Powell's direction isn't so successful. The introduction of the family is confused, with too many persons introduced too quickly with little to distinguish them. He doesn't exhibit the same flair for composition or editing that Thomas Ince or D.W. Griffith concurrently used in their own films: Powell's seem flat and unassured compared to them. The story, too, feels undeveloped beyond the bare bones of the plot. It is Bara's image that receives all the attention of the filmmaker, and her expressionistic glamour must have been a shock to audiences used to the Pickford curls. Bara's rampant seduction is domineering compared to the submissive roles played by Lillian Gish. This is not to sleight either Pickford nor Gish, nor to place Bara on a higher platform than either of them, but merely as context with which to compare Bara's character, for hers was the original vamp, the first femme fatale--but if that is all she represents, then "A Fool There Was" would not be worth much. Bara's value comes in her character, complete in vision and in action, which allows her to rise above a mundane script, and separate her from all its mediocrity.

Communal Poetics: Maureen Gosling's Blossoms of Fire

Maureen Gosling’s documentary, Blossoms of Fire (2000), goes behind the mythic “Juchitan matriarchy,” a Mexican town that is supposedly run all by women. The myth is only half wrong: women run most of the local businesses, but it is a gender balance based on a mutual work ethic that has evolved over centuries. From here, Gosling’s story spirals outward, expanding until it encompasses all members of the villages, all aspects of their history and culture—and it’s amazingly fascinating. She approaches Juchitán in the tradition of Robert Flaherty, with expert attention to the customary poetics in their cooking, their clothes, their crafts. Local musicians color the film on-screen and on the soundtrack; one memorable scene involves a man singing and playing harmonica while playing a bass improvised out of a stick, a string, and a bucket. Where Gosling deviates from Flaherty is in the town’s present and future: Flaherty was obsessed with tradition and ritual in a pre-industrial state; Gosling is fascinated with Juchitán’s resistance to globalization and the influx of corporate influence—which the town has thwarted so far successfully through vibrant protests. And this is the key thread of the film: a town that has held on to its roots, and continues to preserve them. The school still teaches the local dialect; Juchitán also elected the first liberal, local government during the reign of the one-party system; after Elle Magazine slandered local women in an issue, the town brought libel charges against the French magazine. What Gosling has found in this small town is a community that stands up for itself and wants to preserve its own unique image and history—it doesn’t want to be like everywhere else. It resists all aspects of modernization: human-made craftsmanship over mass production, homegrown over laboratory foods, the local marketplace over the supermarket. Gosling, with her detail-oriented camera, observes the intimate kinesis of a community at work and translates it on to film fluidly.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Maltese Falcon: Two Adaptations

Dashiell Hammett's 1929 novel "The Maltese Falcon" was turned into three films in one decade: Roy Del Ruth's 1931 The Maltese Falcon (later retitled Dangerous Woman), William Dieterle's 1936 Satan Met a Lady and John Huston's 1941 The Maltese Falcon.


The 1931 version plays much like Roy Del Ruth's other pre-Code gems, such as 1930's Lady Killer with James Cagney: the sensation of comedy and cruelty, with an unmistakable affection for the sleazy and the lurid. An abridged version of the novel, private dick Sam Spade is still the protagonist (though Del Ruth really emphasizes the "public" over the "private"). After his partner is killed on a case, Spade is drawn into a free-for-all over a mystery jeweled falcon--femme fatales, young gunmen, exotic foreigners, fat old men and the coppers--the film is everything film noir would come to be, but The Maltese Falcon is not quite there yet. It is not as dark or cynical as 1940s harboiled films would be; instead, there is a certain lightness about this Maltese Falcon--perhaps its the way that Spade (played by Ricardo Cortez) always has this conniving grin on his face, and can't say anything straight. Duplicity does not expose the darker side of humanity, but the funnier side of things: with no one telling the truth, any absurdity can pass through someone's mouth. It's almost the aesthetic of a Marx Brothers film, but without the slapstick action.


Satan Met a Lady, too, feels like a Marx Brothers film--but not in a good way. It feels like the "straight" scenes, the little bits of plot that try and form a cohesive action, but utterly fail dramatically. Satan, however, has none of the comic relief of a Groucho, nor the sarcasm of Roy Del Ruth's 1931 adaptation. The plot retains the core of the story, but with some excess baggage, such as Spade being an exiled detective, run out of every town by various "public morality groups." The story, however, is so streamlined (to make room for new additions), that in its 76 minutes it hardly finds time to cohere. Duplicity is never so much an issue as unbelievablity: the acting is not convincing of anything but a poor script.