A few of the most beautiful shadow-moments and one of the greatest monsters in all silent cinema hung around a flabby retelling of Dracula – it’s maybe my fifth-favorite Murnau film, but I was happy to watch it on the big screen with an excellent, tightly synchronized live band, Invincible Czars.
Alloy Orchestra returned, with a double-feature this time! First up was this highly ridiculous adventure story, full of corny nonsense, but also featuring some fabulous stop-motion dinosaurs and a cool monkey.
A beardy madman (Wallace Beery of wrestling picture fame) insists to a roomful of people, Lost City of Z-style, that his previous expedition had discovered a plateau where dinosaurs still live, but everyone on his team is now missing so he needs a new team. Sportsman Lewis Stone (Stars In My Crown, Queen Christina) would like to come find new creatures to shoot, and his buddy, romantic doof reporter Lloyd Hughes (title star of Rip Roaring Riley), gets himself invited to impress a disinterested rich girl. Professor Arthur Hoyt (the director’s older brother, mayor of The Great McGinty) comes too, and so does Beery’s dead ex-teammate’s daughter Bessie Love (her final film was The Hunger). Everyone proves to be pretty capable (especially the monkey) at getting into trouble and getting back out of it, and the doof falls for Bessie. More impressive than the “oh shit we’re dead, might as well die together” romance is that the dinosaurs, which would seem to have limited area to live and breed, are constantly killing each other and falling into tar pits. The humans manage to bring a live brontosaurus home to London, where it escapes and nearly goes full King Kong, finally destroying a bridge and either swimming away or drowning, it was hard to tell which.
The evening highlight was A Page of Madness, which had a more experimental score and blew everybody’s minds.
It turns out that it wasn’t watching the movie The Lost City of Z that satisfied me, so much as the quest to watch the movie The Lost City of Z, the confident hope that The Lost City of Z would be a great movie, based on the reviews of my James Gray-obsessed film critics. The movie itself – it’s okay, a quest picture where a determined Charlie Hunnam neglects his family to search repeatedly for Z, stopping only for WWI and to raise funds to return to his quest, eventually aging to the point where his oldest son can join him – then they both disappear forever, having either found their destination or been murdered by cannibals.
Fawcett … insists that this city, which he dubs “Zed,” not only exists, but that it represents a corrective to the very society whose recognition and acclaim he had once so passionately sought … Because Gray shows only the barest traces of what his protagonist discovers in the jungle, one is unable to precisely define how Z comes to assume such majestic proportions in Fawcett’s mind. Originating as a self-interested means to escape from the restrictive prejudices of English society, his search for Z increasingly comes to seem like a quixotic attempt to discover a greater, purer form of human dignity…
Rob Pattinson is very good as Hunnam’s loyal co-adventurer, Angus Macfadyen is irritating as an awful man who joins one mission then quits and sues, and barely in the movie are Hunnam wife Sienna Miller (upper-floor temptress of High-Rise) and son Tom Holland (the latest Spider-Man). The forest and the river and the light are all lovely, and I loved a match-cut from colored liquid seeping in a line to a train moving in the same direction… and the final shot of Miller leaving the National Geographic Society having received mixed news about her lost husband and walking out into the jungle.
Gray: “How do you take the classical form and do something with it? The last twenty minutes, something starts to break down in the film.”
Where Lost City of Z becomes truly special for me … is within its final thirty minutes, where he starts to free himself from narratological function and let his formal syntax do the work – it’s a big step for him I think, because I believe it allows him to drive even closer to something idiosyncratic and distinctive – for most of the runtime it is a decent film, with some ok ideas, just like any other film… but suddenly, if just for a few minutes, we enter the realm of a visionary.
Already one of my favorite movies from having seen it on TCM a couple times in the 1990’s, but watching in a theater (from DVD, tho) with live music (stayed atmospheric for the most part, with even the opera singer keeping to tones and drones) was sensational.
I did not study the clothes of the time, and things like that. The year of the event seemed as inessential to me as its distance from the present. I wanted to interpret a hymn to the triumph of the soul over life … Rudolf Maté, who manned the camera, understood the demands of psychological drama in the close-ups and he gave me what I wanted, my feeling and my thought: realized mysticism. But in Falconetti, who plays Joan, I found what I might, with very bold expression, allow myself to call “the martyr’s reincarnation.”
Another great night with the Alloy Orchestra. Probably the number one advantage to living in Lincoln is that they come through every year with a different silent film – last year was Man with the Movie Camera, the year before was Son of the Sheik. Now I’ve bought their Phantom of the Opera on DVD, and I’ll see if I can sync the CD of their Lonesome score with the Criterion blu-ray – unlikely, but it’ll be fun to try.
Emil Jannings (same year as Tartuffe) is introduced as a sonofabitch who mistreats his woman, soon leaving her and their young child and running off with Lya de Putti (Murnau’s Phantom and the Joe May Indian Epic). They work circus acts until noticed by trapeze star Artinelli (Warwick Ward, who became a producer in the 1930’s) and asked to join his act. Artinelli easily steals away Emil’s girl while Emil spends all his time drinking and gambling (don’t trapeze performers have to stay in shape?), and when he realizes the betrayal he plots revenge. Some fun first-person shots from the trapeze were this film’s main attraction when it opened. Emil envisions his boss having a fatal “accident” – somehow he can’t bring himself to drop the guy, but is okay stabbing him to death
Ouch from Dave Kehr:
The blatancy that makes it so easy to teach is also its chief drawback as art. Expressionism needed the taste and insight of a Murnau to be transformed from a manner to a style; this film, untransformed, is the work of the negligible E.A. Dupont.
That Flicker Alley blu-ray set I threatened to buy at the beginning of the year, well I bought it. And besides being full of interesting avant-garde films beautifully preserved in high-def, it’s really well sequenced and presented. Gonna have to break this into a few screenings and posts since I’m taking so many screenshots.
Manhatta (1921 Sheeler & Strand)
City photography, mostly seaside and rooftop, floats by, with intertitles from a Whitman poem. Impossible to know how this looked in 1921 since by now I’ve seen hours and days of NYC photography. Buildings and ships still look like buildings and ships, so I was mostly interested in the few shots of people and traffic. Strand later photographed Redes and codirected Native Land.
Lewis Jacobs, writing in Film Quarterly in late 1947:
In technique the film was simple and direct, avoiding all the so-called “tricks” of photography and setting. In a sense it was the forerunner of the documentary school which rose in the United States in the middle 1930’s … The picture’s emphasis upon visual pattern within the real world was an innovation for the times.
Anemic Cinema (1926 Marcel Duchamp)
Alternates geometric spirals with word spirals (jokey French puns, I think). Peaceful. His buddy Man Ray helped out, and some prankster named Gustavo contributed a drone soundtrack.
In Visionary Film, Sitney calls it one of the “two fundamental works of the graphic cinema from the 1920s made without animation,” along with Ballet Mechanique.
Duchamp’s purpose was presumably to create an artwork with minimal means, including quasi-found objects, the disks he had made for another purpose. His idea is clearly reflected in the title, Anémic cinéma, which suggests a weakness or thinness of means. “Anémic” is also an anagram for “cinéma.”
Life and Death of 9413 (1927 Florey & Vorkapich)
Still one of my favorite shorts ever. I love that Florey & Vorkapich were already this cynical about Hollywood in the silent era – especially great is the “babababa” mouth-flapping in place of speech. Would be a good short to run before The Last Command.
Skyscraper Symphony (1929 Robert Florey)
New York buildings, photographed straight ahead and jutting out in all directions, making this an appropriate follow-up to the city documentary Manhatta and the expressionist angles of 9413. Donald Sosin contributes a very nice piano score. Florey directed a Marx Brothers movie the same year.
Mechanical Principles (1930 Ralph Steiner)
Pistons, meshing gears and other mechanics, beginning slow and simple and getting into crazier and faster gizmos. Really cool.
A Bronx Morning (1931 Jay Leyda)
More New York scenes, this one more social than the structural interests of the others. Leyda had documentary cinematography and editing pretty well figured out by age 20, worked with Steiner, later with Eisenstein and went on to write film histories.
How much does expert ladies hair bobbing cost to-day?
Lot in Sodom (1933 Watson & Webber)
Leagues beyond the previous films in visual poetry. Bodies collide in slow motion, mirrored and refracted. Eventually a plot takes shape when an angel appears to woolen-bearded Lot and tells him to get out of town before it’s destroyed by a rain of fire (there’s some other stuff I didn’t catch, not being familiar with the bible story). Like I wrote for the same directors’ Fall of the House of Usher, “I still don’t know exactly what happened, but boy was it awesome.”
Jacobs called it “the most distinguished experimental sound film of the period.”
Lot in Sodom used a technique similar to that of The Fall of the House of Usher, but far more skillfully and resourcefully. It drew upon all the means of camera, lenses, multiple exposure, distortions, dissolves, and editing to achieve a beauty of mobile images, of
dazzling light and shade, of melting rhythms, with an intensity of feeling that approached poetry. Its brilliant array of diaphanous shots and scenes … were so smoothly synthesized on the screen that the elements of each composition seemed to melt and flow into one another with extraordinary iridescence.
Poem 8 (1933 Emlen Etting)
Visual poetry with no narrative – the first time that had been done, according to Etting, who is wrong (Man Ray, Hans Richter, Ballet Mechanique). Rough on the technical side, but it works for me. Dig the first-person camera sipping a cocktail and making out with an undressing woman. I didn’t feel the new piano score by Rodney Sauer was appropriately poetic.
An Optical Poem (1938 Oskar Fischinger)
Floating shapes appear and move in sync with a Liszt song. Since it’s made with paper cutouts in stop-motion (which must have been aggravating) you can their shadows upon each other.
Thimble Theater (1938 Joseph Cornell)
Cornell and his posthumous editor Lawrence Jordan throw together a bunch of things and run circus music under them all. Too many kids in a paper flower… what looks like a Melies movie… a cartoon printed inverse and upside down… mountain goats… a man vs. kangaroo fight in slow-motion. Before Spike & Mike or Everything Is Terrible or Star Spangled to Death, Cornell was the original curator of clip shows of wonderous things.
Ballet Mecanique (1924, Léger & Murphy)
Every camera and editing trick known to man (at the time), in a rhythmic collage of pleasingly odd images. Plucky string music by Paul Mercer on this version.
The women (woman?) of Ballet Mecanique:
Combat de boxe (1927, Charles Dekeukeleire)
Someone allowed a filmmaker to shoot a sold-out boxing match, not knowing Dekeukeleire was a lunatic obsessed with film reversal and superimposition who would shoot anything but a standard angle on the action. Who did the great soundtrack, all pulsing sound effects and breathing? Dekeukeleire was a Belgian film pioneer, made two other influential avant-garde films in the late 1920’s according to wikipedia.
The boxer uses ghost mode:
Rose Hobart (1936, Joseph Cornell)
Cornell’s re-edit of East of Borneo, which appears to be a somnambulist jungle picture, highlighting the scenes of star Rose Hobart. Oh wait, he has slowed the film to silent speed, that’s why it looks so dreamy. The not-exactly-fitting-the-mood soundtrack is from a record called Holiday In Brazil.
Cornell’s first film, and his most famous. Reportedly during the premiere screening Salvador Dali attacked the film projector in a rage, claiming the film had been stolen from his dreams. I watched a whole program of Cornell shorts at Eyedrum in the pre-blog era, but hadn’t seen this one before.
Rose chats with a monkey:
B. Frye in Senses of Cinema:
Rose Hobart was only one of several mythologized actresses who populated Cornell’s hermetic world. Many of his boxes were homages to the actresses that formed his pantheon: Lauren Bacall, Hedy Lamarr, Greta Garbo and Deanna Durbin, among others. In Rose Hobart, Cornell holds Hobart in a state of semi-suspension, turning the film itself into a sort of box. She moves her hands, shifts her gaze, gestures briefly, smiles enigmatically, perhaps steps slightly to the side, and little more. The world appears as a sort of strange theatre, staged for her alone.
Betty Boop for President (1932, Dave Fleischer)
Okay, what? That is a cynical view of government for the 1930’s. Betty does caricatures of I’m not sure who, and appears to be a communist. Her opponent is Mr. Nobody, who gets booed by his crowd. After she’s elected, her victory parade fades into a giant beer mug, implying the entire film has been a drunken fantasy.
Betty Boop’s Penthouse (1933, Dave Fleischer)
Bimbo and Koko are incompetent, cat-tormenting mad scientists obsessed with their next door neighbor Betty. They accidentally create a Chemical Frankenstein who pursues her before being turned into a flower by her perfume. Insane and wonderful. Nice variation on the ol’ blackface Al Jolson gag.
Koko on fire:
Carmen (1933, Lotte Reiniger)
I don’t watch much opera, so don’t know the plot of Carmen. It seems she lures some fancy man to her sexy lair, then steals his clothes and sells them, buying herself a new outfit. But she fails to impress an even fancier man, the famous bullfighter, so she heads into the ring, dodging the first man who is now trying to murder her, and dances with the bull. Is that the general idea? Oh yeah, Wikipedia says that’s pretty much it, except the first man ends up killing her. The first of Reiniger’s silhouette films I’ve seen and it’s just wonderful.
Papageno (1935, Lotte Reiniger)
More opera… guess I never wrote up the Julie Taymor theater version of The Magic Flute we saw last year. It wasn’t a proper Taymor film like Midsummer but a live-televised version of her play. Anyway we both enjoyed. I wouldn’t have figured the carefree singing bird catcher Papageno for a spinoff film, but that’s what we’ve got here, set to the Mozart music. Papageno’s a real hero in this one, fighting off a giant snake that attacks his girlfriend Papagena by harnessing his bird-friends’ powers, like an avian Aquaman. She escapes on an ostrich, is gone for a half minute, which is too long for ‘geno, who attempts suicide, saved by a flock of parrots. Definitely best part is the ending, while the reunited lovers are singing to each other and the birds start rolling in eggs hatching baby Papageni.
There’s a lot of kissing and disrobing in these movies – guess you could get away with sexier stuff in silhouette animation than using actors in the 1930’s.
Making out in the trees:
About to catch an escape-ostrich outta here:
Conrad Veidt, Dr. Caligari’s somnambulist, again plays an intense guy with too much eye makeup, this time as stage magician Erik The Great. He can hardly wait until the young girl he stuffs into boxes and pretends to saw in half turns 18 so he can marry her, but the girl Julie (Mary Philbin, star of Phantom of the Opera, Merry-Go-Round, The Man Who Laughs) doesn’t seem anxious to marry the elder magician.
Film Quarterly: “In the course of his act, Eric demonstrates his hypnotic control of his assistant, Julie, and also his power over the audience, in a series of short cuts on his eyes and the faces of the audience, and then swirling images of the city, with Eric’s face looming in superimposition over it all.”
Erik hires a dude named Mark after catching him break into his apartment, as his assistant Buffo’s assistant – so now Erik, Buffo and Mark are all in love with Julie. Buffo (Leslie Fenton of The Public Enemy, later a director) gets caught mouthing off that Julie doesn’t love Erik, and Mark gets caught sitting on a bench with her (bench-sitting was 1927’s version of sex), and Erik dramatically
overacts overreacts, announcing at a fancy dinner that Mark and Julie will marry, as the camera glides over a crowded dinner table in a way I didn’t know could be done back then. Then Erik frames Mark by having him murder Buffo on stage in a box full of swords.
Mark and Julie on the whoring bench, Conrad’s massive shadow over them:
Mark and Julie at trial:
Nothing’s as thrilling as a big courtroom ending, and so Erik and Julie demonstrate how the murder-box was supposed to work in front of a judge. It’s highly unusual, but I’ll allow it. But out of nowhere, Erik confesses and kills himself with a knife, leaving Mark and Julie – a thief and an unemployed magician’s assistant – in each other’s arms. I’m being flippant, but it was a good movie, if not Lonesome-caliber. Also released as a part-talkie, but Criterion’s got the silent version. Cinematographer Hal Mohr shot The Jazz Singer the same year, later A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
No finches were hurt (but it was a close call).
Watched with Katy after episode 2 of The Story of Film (and after Chaplin’s The Circus, since I didn’t want to limit silent cinema viewing to the famous comedians). Pretty straightforward: husband (Johannes Meyer of Dreyer’s Leaves From Satan’s Book) has become a tyrant, mistreating his kids, disrespecting his nana (Mathilde Nielsen of The Parson’s Widow), and driving his wife (Astrid Holm, dying woman in The Phantom Carriage) away to her mother’s to recuperate. Now he has to run the house without his wife’s help, learning to appreciate all that she regularly does for the family.
Katy and I haven’t extensively studied the cinema of 1925 so we had little to say, style-wise, and I saw little in common with the later Dreyer films I’ve watched. Mostly it seemed a well-assembled showcase for great performances by the husband and nana. I’d have some nice screenshots of the close-ups if we hadn’t watched it on Hulu… oh wait, here are a couple stolen from the great DVD Beaver site: