Enthusiasm (1931, Dziga Vertov)

A “symphony of the Donbass” (region of eastern Ukraine known for coal mining) which aims to celebrate sound recording in film, but still has almost no noticeably-synched sound. I assumed this would be a part-talkie follow-up to Man with the Movie Camera, and it has moments of MwtMC-style montage, but mostly it’s dreary and impersonal (compared to Earth, which I just watched, anyway) propaganda for “shock workers,” which are workers who aim to overachieve their quotas in exchange for glory and prizes.

Before it gets bogged with with shock workers, the first half of the film, cutting between a woman listening to headphones and the reorganization of Russia (churches are torn down, replaced by angular Stalin statues) during the “five-year plan”, is exciting.

Grunes:

Amidst a cacophony of toot-tooting, static, chug-chugging and ding-a-linging, we are told this: “The country needs coal.” Vertov, in a highly fragmented fashion, aims at an integrative view of the interdependency of elements of Soviet productivity. Coal-mining provides energy; factories, combining machine- and human labor, provide steel and manufactured farm equipment; the latter, fueled by coal and operated by farmers, thresh a harvest of wheat. The railroad is shown as connective tissue, transporting mined coal to the factories and, from the factories, whatever is needed in rural areas. Railroad tracks are the new order’s bloodstream. Captions and narration assist in portraying workers at whatever point in this joint process as aggressive warriors and heroic figures.

A tidbit from J. Jacques: “Vertov himself placed massive emphasis upon Enthusiasm’s sound. Western screenings were notorious for Vertov’s insistence on raising the soundtrack to intolerable levels, having blocked the exits to prevent escape.”

from Senses:

After returning from glory abroad with his Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov undertook a suicidal double challenge – to make a political film that would both show (with image and montage) and song (with sound taken from nature and machine) the heroic, dramatic struggles of the state to industrialize at any cost – while pioneering the use of untested sound recording in the field. The finished film, Enthusiasm, was received with derision and incomprehension.

CJ Chamberlin, author of the above, has an outstandingly long, detailed and thoughtful article which would take as long to read as the movie did to watch, so I skimmed and grabbed a few parts.

Vertov was both a genius and a willing creature and subject of a totalitarian ideology. Whatever he was, Vertov never was that ambivalent about the price to be paid in blood and skulls for world socialism. And the Ukraine bore more than its fair share of the price: factory slave labour, brutal collectivisation and the terror famine. By any rational standard, his Donbass Symphony (the alternate title of Enthusiasm) should be an infamous film. If I were Ukrainian, I would burn the negative and sprinkle the ashes with holy water.

Earth (1930, Alexander Dovzhenko)

“Are you dying, Semion?”
“Yes, I’m dying, Petro.”
“Well, die then.”

From the very beginning – alternate shots of farmland, each time taking up more of the camera’s field of vision, the horizon getting higher until the earth covers the whole frame – which follows to this exchange by two old men, I was captured by the movie. But, reading the below description, I realize I wasn’t following its story closely enough. As usual with these revolutionary Russian silent films, knowledge of the history is important, and I come bearing none at all.

M. Sicinski:

This final scene takes place just as the funeral of Vasyl, the slain Bolshevik, evolves into a fervent demonstration extolling the Communism for which young Vasyl died. Even Vasyl’s father, who had up to this point been skeptical about Communism’s plan to collectivize the farmlands, joins the struggle. But the kulaks, the landowning peasant class from whom the farms are being expropriated, are going down swinging. Khoma Bilokon (Pyotr Masokha), the eldest son of the area’s dominant kulak family, has already committed murder, having shot Vasyl in the back. Khoma confesses, but Earth is not a crime procedural, and Dovzhenko’s final scene is both politically sharp and poetically evocative.
Using an odd form of cross-cutting that makes Khoma’s spatial relationship to the funeral extremely ambiguous, Dovzhenko moves us between the guilty individual and the burgeoning collective, the past and the future. Khoma shouts out to the mourners that he shot Vasyl, in the back, under cover of night. The crowd completely ignores him. Hysterical, Khoma exclaims that the land belongs to him, and he even goes so far as to plant his head in the dirt and run in circles. However, both within the diegetic world of the film and within Dovzhenko’s cinematic syntax, Khoma and the kulak class are marginal, almost nonexistent. Although this image is compromised by the truth that Dovzhenko cannot depict – that of Stalin’s mass extermination of the kulaks – its representation of what it feels like when history passes you by remains unequalled.

Introducing the kulaks with my favorite edit in the film:

So it didnt bother me while watching that I don’t know what a kulak is. I got that Vasyl (Vasili in the subtitles) is excited about technology, that he plows an entire field (which did not belong to him) with the town’s brand-new tractor and is killed for it. The black-bearded man from that early scene in which Semion was dying is apparently Vasyl’s father Opanas, goes asking the townspeople who killed his son and comes across a priest.

Uncle Opanas gets intense:

“There is no god. And there are no priests either.” (the priest lowers his head) “Just like Vasili died for the new life, I’m asking you to bury him according to the new ways, neither priests nor church servants beyond the grave.” It’s an intense thing to say before a priest, and in a movie that opens with discussion of the afterlife between the elders. Vasyl’s sister or wife or somebody goes naked and crazy as he’s buried near the sunflowers, and one of V’s comrades gives a comforting speech to Uncle Opanas and everybody, as the kulak Khoma dances in the graveyard trying in vain to attract attention to himself.

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Three Soviet Classics

The Naked Spur (1953, Anthony Mann)

Great, tense western thriller with just a few (white) characters and an unusual philosophical ending. “He’s not dead if you take him back. He’ll never be dead for you.” Shot by William Mellor (Giant) in academy-ratio color. I noticed some cool secret-revealing camera moves – from a quick one during the opening titles to a slow traveling shot later on showing a guy hiding behind a rock. Overall great performances except that I wished Jesse Tate had been played by Rio Bravo‘s Walter Brennan – Millard’s voice wasn’t quite right.

Jimmy:

Jimmy Stewart (the year before Rear Window) comes at friendly ol’ prospector Jesse (Millard Mitchell of Thieves’ Highway and Winchester ’73), says he’s looking for lawman-slayer Robert Ryan. Jesse hasn’t seen Ryan since Clash By Night, so offers his assistance. In wanders Kiss Me Deadly star Ralph Meeker as a disgraced ex-soldier, and between them, the men take down Robert Ryan over the protest of his gal Janet Leigh (four years after Holiday Affair).

Everyone but Jimmy:

But Ryan pretty easily turns the men against each other by revealing that he’s got quite a bounty on his head, and Stewart is after him for the money, not as a lawman. This works better than Janet Leigh’s appeals that poor Ryan is innocent – and if we’d ever considered believing her, Ryan loses all sympathy when he wears down the men to the point that he’s allowed to escape, then he shoots ol’ Jesse. Meeker goes down next, but takes Ryan with him, and Stewart recovers the body. But apparently Janet Leigh can make a man fall in love with her pretty much instantly, so…

B. Lucas:

Howard drags Ben’s body to his horse in a final paroxysm of fury, but then turns to Lina and sees in her face the light of unconditional love and a new beginning, and at last relents. The tears and cracking voice of Stewart in close shot are a high moment of this great actor’s career, perfectly complemented by the softer yet no less vibrant playing of Leigh. . . As the camera moves up into the sky, then follows a dissolve to come back to the two characters moving through dead trees within an open expanse, one sees in these images that there is a spiritual rhythm within life, and that “choosing a way to live” can happen even in the roughest passage.

Another look at the face that turned Jimmy’s life around:

Bonus: lots of Indian-slaying and horse-injuring action when Meeker declares war on a passing tribe, and some Jimmy Stewart backstory, narrated to Leigh while he’s injured and raving. Jimmy uses his spur to help climb a cliff at the end (then throws it in Robert Ryan’s face), which I guess is where the weird title came from.

Buy from Amazon:
James Stewart Signature Collection

Pina (2011, Wim Wenders)

Dance doc based on the choreography of Pina Bausch, who died unexpectedly a week before filming was to begin. It ends up feeling like a memorial instead, the dance scenes interspersed with non-synched voiceover/closeup segments with each major dancer saying something about Pina.

Katy wanted more narrative and background, but the movie is purely interested in the dances, which are outstanding and look awesome in 3D. Highlights: “Cafe Muller,” in which Pina runs across a room full of chairs while a guy quickly clears her path, a couple climbing through chairs while a third guy precariously stacks them (Pina was into chairs), a solo sadness ballet at an empty factory, a rainy moon-rock scene with gondola-like floor slides, and dances in active locations (by a busy street, on a monorail).

It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine. (2007, Crispin Hellion Glover)

Another great performance/film/discussion by Glover (he calls it “Vaudeville Distribution”), who is indeed weird, but also seems smart and dedicated to art in ways that very few commercially-recognized filmmakers are. And he’s not really a commercially-recognized filmmaker but a commercially-recognized actor who makes movies outside the system. Thankfully with his second feature he seems more comfortable with his position. What Is It? and its ensuing discussion focused so hard on breaking free from the commercial system, on purposely causing a disturbance, that sometimes Glover came across as one of those condescending IMDB reviewers commenting on black-and-white movies, “if you’re the type of brainwashed consumer who thinks the Transformers movies are pretty good, then you’ll have no use for this slow-moving masterpiece.”

This time Glover is celebrating his position as outsider artist by adapting a screenplay by Steven C. Stewart, who appeared incidentally in the previous film, and lived (Stewart died before the film’s completion) with severe cerebral palsy. Stewart wrote the screenplay as a dark sexual fantasy for himself to play lead. In a way, the content is worse than some of the commercial crap Glover considers himself above: a thriller in which a guy sleeps with and murders a string of beautiful women, complete with an “it was all a dream” ending. But since Stewart is the lead actor, speaking lines that are completely unintelligible to most audience members but perfectly understood by the women in the film, it brings new levels to the typically misogynistic murder-sex story – because here’s a guy with a lifetime of real frustration (Glover explains that Stewart, an intelligent guy who struggled his whole life to be understood, was locked up in a hospital and treated like an idiot/inmate for years), not just a hack screenwriter getting revenge on a college ex-girlfriend by murdering her repeatedly in his movies.

Stewart’s character is in an institution (filmed, painfully/coincidentally, in the same place where he’d been imprisoned), falls and smacks his head. Later, a lovely woman picks him up, takes him out a few times. Their relationship is evolving, he has stood up (so to speak) to her ex-husband (Bruce Glover) and one night in the car he proposes marriage but she turns him down. So he strangles her to death. Later he has (graphic) sex with her daughter and strangles her too. Moving on, he tries to get a date with a wheelchair-bound woman who doesn’t want to be with anyone like herself. He goes out with a condescending woman whom he drowns in her bathtub, then wanders next door (these scenes were shot in a grand, open set) to visit the girl with leg problems. Even more graphic sex, then he knocks her down and runs over her neck with his chair.

This could go on indefinitely, and Glover says that in the original script it did, for hours. But smack!, sad Stewart wakes up on the hallway floor of that first scene, goes into his room and talks to someone but they can’t understand him.

The color (esp. the reds) seemed gooey and gluey, like the film would have to be scrubbed off the Plaza’s screen the next morning. Crispin seemed pleased to get a question that deviated from his prepared speeches on the films, about the use of music, and answered it more knowledgably and completely than anyone would have expected – and he again alluded to his Czech castle where he hopes to shoot another trilogy (partly involving his father) before making It Is Mine. I hope if he continues with the vaudeville distribution model, he brings them all back here – if not, I’m willing to travel.

Merrill’s Marauders (1962, Sam Fuller)

I always remember this wrong: in 1944, Merrill’s 3,000 U.S. troops join soldiers from other countries, launching a mission from India to reclaim Burma from the Japanese. It opens with narration aplenty, stock footage and even animation, all to set up the plight of these anonymous-looking soldier-actors led by silver-haired Jeff Chandler (in his final film, dead at age 42 from surgery complications). It’s a long slog for the soldiers, ordered to march across Burma with not enough food or rest, all sick and short-tempered, but the movie tries to keep things lively for us with its relentlessly boisterous soundtrack. Fuller says the studio convinced him to make this film as a dry run for The Big Red One. He had an actual Marauder hired as technical advisor, and was excited to have Gary Cooper play Merrill, but Cooper was too sick and would die before the film’s release.

The guys win a decisive battle near the start, think they’ll be relieved by the British, but are ordered to keep moving. Nicely shot battle at a railroad – only the aftermath is shown, a survivor standing above hundreds of casualties.

Standing on what looks like giant 3-D coffins – creepy:

The first woman in the entire movie isn’t glimpsed until an hour in, as they crash at a village to recuperate. The doctor reports: “from a medical viewpoint, they’re finished as a fighting unit.” But orders are orders, and Merrill pushes them forward, to another battle, forward again to the next one. Most of the film is the drudgery of pushing wearily forth to the next battle (Fuller: “For cryin’ out loud, the work of GI’s at war is nerve-racking and frustrating, not glorious!”), and that’s how it ends, Merrill dropping (not dead) of a heart attack while ordering them to rise from the mud and move on, and the men moving. The narrator tells us that they achieved their mission, but that only 100 of the 3,000 remained in action.

It’s not all trudging through mud and dropping dead from hunger.
There’s some good action and ‘splosions, too:

Weird for a war film to focus on the dull parts and resign the climactic battle to a mention by the voiceover. Fuller explains:

To my surprise and anger, the studio decided to cut my final scene in the editing room. Right after Merrill’s collapse, they spliced in footage of a victory parade of soldiers marching down Fifth Avenue. Jack Warner and his executives wanted an overt patriotic ending, and they decided to end the picture what that propaganda-like crap and a pompous narrator bragging about the American victory at Myitkyina. … Merrill’s Marauders got good reviews. Critics for Time and Newsweek remarked that the film had a documentary flavor, giving realistic depictions of war’s simplicity and death. The only thing they said was ‘Hollywood’ was the ending. Ironically, the opposite was true. The ending that Jack Warner’s boys tacked on was real documentary footage of a military parade. In the context, it seemed phony. My film was fiction. But it smelled of truth.

Lt. Stockton, surrogate son of Merrill: Ty Hardin of I Married a Monster from Outer Space

Doc: large-headed Andrew Duggan, a star of Larry Cohen’s Bone. Jeff Chandler was best known (and oscar-winning) for playing head Apache Cochise in three movies.

Bullseye: Peter Brown, a crimelord in Foxy Brown. At right, Chowhound: Will Hutchins, comic hero of The Shooting

Sgt. Kolowicz: round-headed Claude Akins, the jailed killer in Rio Bravo

Muley: Georgia native Charlie Briggs

Not pictured: Taggy (Pancho Magalona), a Filipino with the movie’s best comic scene, “I will wear my shirt out until all tyrants are dead!”

Buy from Amazon:
Merrill’s Marauders DVD

Grand Illusion (1937, Jean Renoir)

A weird sort of (anti-)war film in that the opposing sides (mostly French vs. German) are extremely nice to each other. The great Jean Gabin (between The Lower Depths and La Bete Humaine) is pilot Marechal, flying the right proper monocle-wearing Captain Boldieu (Pierre Fresnay, star of Le Corbeau and Duvivier’s Phantom Carriage remake) when they’re shot down by the right proper monocle-wearing Erich von Stroheim – who shakes their hands and invites them to dinner.

The next section is the source of many comic/dramatic prison camp films, but without the grit and terror of many of them (although Gabin is painfully placed in solitary confinement after provoking a celebration over Germany losing a battle), since WWII forever changed the face of prison camps. The men are stationed with a series of characters digging an escape tunnel beneath their barracks, including three major Rules of the Game actors: The Engineer (jealous husband Gaston Modot), The Actor (Julien Carette, Gaston’s poacher nemesis) and Rosenthal (Marcel Dallo, the marquis), along with Jean Daste (a brush-mustached vegetarian).

That’s Daste at upper-right, and his L’Age d’Or-starring engineer companion over his shoulder:

Before they can use the tunnel, our initial two Frenchman plus Rosenthal (a rich jew who receives lavish care packages from home) are transferred to a new camp – one run by a stiffly strict Stroheim (is there any other kind of Stroheim?), now in a back/neck brace from an injury. They immediately set about planning their escape again. Boldieu causes a distraction while the other two climb down a handmade rope. Stroheim is extremely depressed to have to shoot down Boldieu, a man he considered too respectful to break the prison rules.

Gabin and Dallo on the run:

Finally, a section that proved unexpectedly resonant with Essential Killing – a prisoner on the run encounters a woman living alone (the lead actress of the film, not appearing until the last fifteen minutes) who brings him in and cares for him. Rosenthal has a leg injury, but overall the guys are in better shape than Vincent Gallo was, and Gabin falls for the lovely Dita Parlo (Renoir was always casting actors from L’Atalante), a German civilian with a young son, whose husband and brothers have all died in the war. The men walk off through Switzerland, Gabin hoping to return. But Renoir obviously doesn’t believe he will.

P. Cowie on the audio commentary:

“War is a great illusion,” said Renoir on another occasion, “with its hopes unfulfilled, its promises never kept.” Of course the interesting thing is that [Marechal and Rosenthal] say farewell to each other with no plans to meet, whereas in the original scenario, Bazin claims that the two fugitives had arranged a rendezvous at Maxime’s in Paris for the first Christmas Eve after the war, and the last shot would show “December 24, 1918,” and their table, reserved but empty in the midst of the busy restaurant, as though even their friendship had been an illusion. . . . Many years later, when Renoir was asked about war films and their effectiveness, he replied soberly, “In 1936 I made a picture named Grand Illusion in which I tried to express all my deep feelings for the cause of peace. This film was very successful. Three years later, the war broke out.”

Buy from Amazon:
Grand Illusion DVD

Kill List (2011, Ben Wheatley)

This succeeded as a horror movie because, even though I accurately predicted the final twist (the “hunchback”), I found the whole thing increasingly unsettling, to the point that the climactic flashlit race through dark tunnels was much freakier than it should have been.

Jay is a family man with a son, a pretty Swedish wife (Myanna Buring of The Descent), and a bit of a temper – possibly something to do with his former job running security in Bagdad? He’s hot and cold with his old buddy Gal (Michael Smiley, a raver in Spaced) and Gal’s new gal Fiona, a “human resources” person (she fires people).

I carefully avoided learning anything about the movie’s plot before watching, had no idea that Jay and Gal make their living as hit men. So I’m adding up facts and impressions from these initial scenes, probably needlessly. Why does Jay cook and eat a rabbit he finds dead in the yard? Is it important that the wife is Swedish, also with a military past? Why does Gal keep bringing up that Fiona is a “demon in bed”? I suppose the demon thing ties into the rest, since she turns out to be part of the weird cult that enlists the men for a murder spree.

Victims, preceded by title cards: first, The Priest, who seems grateful to be executed. Why does Gal make a sign of the cross before the execution, when Jay’s wife had earlier forbidden prayer at the dinner table and the men had raged at some campfire-singalong Christians at the hotel? Next: The Librarian, whom they torture after discovering he’s got a child-porn collection, but still manages to thank them (to Jay: “Does he know who you are? . . . Glad to have met you.”) before death by hammer. Next: The MP, but while they camp outside his house, a wicker cult parades through the woods.

Chase ensues through the catacombs, many culties are shot, and Gal doesn’t make it. Outside, Jay is captured, spun around and made to fight “the hunchback”.

1. Earlier on their mission he saw Fiona outside.
2. Fiona has been paying frequent visits to Jay’s house while the men were away, even though Gal claims he broke up with her.
3. I’ve seen movies before.
So yeah, I figured out “the hunchback.”

God forbid everything should be overexplained in a horror movie (you hear me, Rob Zombie?) but this one goes beyond a sense of mystery, ending abruptly after this final one-sided knife fight. The cult’s goal isn’t just to fuck with some poor guy and make him kill his family – Jay is implied to be some sort of demonic chosen one (the victims “recognized” him). But I hope the next step is to sacrifice the guy, because I don’t know how they expect to convince him that this was all an initiation ritual and now he needs to become their king or whatever. Instead I think they’ll end up with one angry, revenge-seeking professional killer.

A. Nayman

… a dual shift from a vague but comprehensible narrative about a pair of ex-military men-turned-contract-killers on assignment into an insane pagan scenario, and also from a skillfully wrought realist presentation into something wholly hallucinatory. Trying to pinpoint the exact moment of this slippage is next to impossible, because Wheatley has designed the film so that the two modes complement and even heighten one another. There are trace elements of the first half’s nervy naturalism in the crazed climax just as surely as tuned-in viewers will sense something uncanny intruding on those early everyday passages. In lieu of any sort of trendy bifurcation, Wheatley bleeds it all together.

The Scarlet Empress (1934, Josef von Sternberg)

Based on the diaries of Catherine The Great of Russia, the story felt like it spanned maybe a year or two, but wikipedia says it was sixteen years between her marriage and the coup she arranged to replace her husband on the throne.

Marlene Dietrich plays Sophia (Catherine is her Russian title), at first a naive girl from the country married to a not-handsome prince (Sam Jaffe of The Day the Earth Stood Still), instead entranced by a count (John Lodge of Murders in the Zoo, future governor of Connecticut).

Marlene and the count:

Catherine is under great scrutiny until she bears her “husband” a son (he’s only momentarily bothered by the fact that they never slept together), then she’s free to run around having affairs and plotting. Nothing is done while queen Elizabeth is in charge, but once Catherine’s husband becomes emperor he doesn’t last a year before his wife has taken over. Catherine has caught the Count fooling around with the former queen, realizes he’s just sleeping around with whoever’s in power, and throws him over.

The Queen:

Katy and I would’ve liked to see more than a minute of screen time with Dietrich as the actual empress – didn’t know that would be where the movie dead-ends. Sternberg is, of course, much more concerned with his camera angles and lighting, and most importantly, shooting Dietrich through a series of filters and gauzes and screens. The wedding scene is an incredible cinematography show-reel, each shot outdoing the last.

Robin Wood:

The connecting theme of all the von Sternberg/Dietrich films might be expressed as a question: How does a woman, and at what cost, assert herself within an overwhelmingly male-dominated world? Each film offers a somewhat different answer (but none very encouraging), steadily evolving into the extreme pessimism and bitterness of The Scarlet Empress and achieving its apotheosis in their final collaboration The Devil Is a Woman.

R. Keser calls it the last great pre-code film, says it “mocks Hollywood’s conventional groveling toward royalty.”

Buy from Amazon:
The Scarlet Empress (Criterion DVD)