Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927)

Opens with exciting abstractions, sunrise and shapes seen through blinds, then we catch a
train into Berlin and it chills out for a while, the depopulated city reminding me creepily of In My Room before people start to wake up and head to work (more trains), then the movie amps up again, the mass production lines looking very much like the ones I see on the Machine Pix twitter feed 100 years later. This movie probably works better as a city-story than Man with the Movie Camera does, though I love the fanciful effects and meta-scenes of the latter.

German Harold Lloyd:

In act II, telephone users and operators are compared to chattering monkeys and fighting dogs. I’d noticed a brief animal comparison in act I and shrugged it off, since a “symphony of a great city” wouldn’t do that to its people? Lunch, siesta, play – then hurry back to work, with a focus on newspapers. Motion of the day is exaggerated by strapping a camera to a rollercoaster.

Ruttmann died in WWII. He worked with Lotte Reiniger and Leni Riefenstahl, apparently knew Oskar Fischinger, and made a dream sequence in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen. Music by Eisenstein collaborator Edmund Meisel, cinematography by Murnau’s DP Karl Freund, conceived by Caligari writer Carl Mayer – everyone in silent cinema knew each other.

I also watched Ruttmann’s earlier Opus series…


Opus I (1921)

Ghostly motion blobs against a dirty dark background
About four different motions, mirrored, colored and repeated
A third of the way through, new shapes and variations, and more at a time
Next part adds dyed searchlights and sun pendulums and tumblecubes
The shapes never quite interacting, just almost


Opus II (1921)

The same shapes on more charcoaly textures, and with more interaction between shapes
Black and white with some soft blue and a shock of red towards the end


Opus III (1924)

Some new cube overlays and color pulsations look almost 3D
Factory-machinery rectangles then a blue field with 3D blob rotation in the center
The same Red ending as II


Opus IV (1925)

Pulsing horizontal blinds with walking verticals mixed in later – faster and faster till pale purple blobs take over, then the traditional red ending. More advanced music on this one, by Helga Pogatschar – I hadn’t noticed that each film has a different musician. Rewatching the opening of Berlin, there are the blinds and the blobs, like a mini Opus V.

After Keystone and before Mutual, Chaplin spent a year at Essanay Studios in Chicago.


His New Job

Oh man, these Essanay shorts are a half hour long? And there are seventeen of them, so that’s gonna be… about a hundred hours of dudes opening doors into other dudes’ faces and knocking them down. But if I wasn’t amused, I’d quit… the only thing that definitely has to go is the generic silent-film music on the blu-ray. If they’re gonna play music with no regard to the visuals’ mood or editing anyway, next time I might as well just put on something of my own. Anyway, Charlie comes to a film casting office, gets hired as an extra but fucks that up, is made a carpenter until a lead actor is fired, then Charlie replaces that guy in the film-within-film. So many asses get kicked and stabbed and sawed and thwacked, and finally a hammer-wielding Charlie flies into a workplace-violence rage. With Charles “no relation” Hitchcock as the late-arriving male lead, and Gloria Swanson as a background stenographer… I love that extras played movie stars, and stars played extras.

That must be Gloria in the back:


A Night Out

Katy joined me for most of this, making it the first Chaplin we’ve watched since The Gold Rush in 2010. I suppose it’s better than the previous short, but not much. Chaplin plays a fucking asshole, out drinking with his crosseyed friend Ben Turpin, who tries to keep him out of trouble and whom Charlie will later try to murder with a brick. In the meantime he gets into hijinks with Edna Purviance (her first Chaplin film) and hides from her husband Bud Jamison (a Three Stooges sideman who died in the 1940’s from being a Christian Scientist). This one’s more notable for the personnel involved than anything that takes place in it.


The Champion

Charlie is down and out, but still offers a bulldog some of his lunch. He signs up as a human punching bag for boxer Spike Dugan (Ernest Van Pelt, on loan from the Broncho Billy cowboy series) and gets his face kalsomined, then fights back with a horseshoe in his boxing glove. So Charlie is pitted against Bob Uppercut (Bud Jamison) for the championship (featuring some fun long-take boxing shenanigans) and wins with help from the bulldog. Also, the movie stops dead for a while when a shady character arrives (prolific mustache villain Leo White) trying to bribe Charlie into throwing the fight while continually stopping to talk into the camera and do his Snidely mustache thing. Edna appears as an obligatory love interest. I listened to Bill Orcutt, which didn’t really work at all, but I got used to it.

That must be Essanay cofounder Broncho Billy next to our black-hatted villain:

Charlie and Edna heard us looking:


In The Park

In the park are: (2) romance-novel-reading Edna and her would-be-man (Bud Jamison in a short tie), (4) a pair of lovers (Leo White with his nogoodnik mustache, and Leona Anderson, Broncho Billy’s little sister), (5) the world’s most obvious pickpocket (future film director Lloyd Bacon), (7) a couple of violent bumpkins with a pot of sausages, (8) a cop, and (9) Charlie, going around being an absolute ass to everyone. More people get whacked in the head with bricks, the rest get kicked into the lake, and this terror spree is all fun and charming because Charlie is the one doing it.


A Jitney Elopement

Wow, a car chase, with Chaplin driving and being filmed from another car alongside. This is advanced stuff, but not very funny, as he spends 85% of the movie running away from his girl’s dad, her suitor and two cops, pausing to kick them in the ass or throw bricks at their heads. A promising intro section though, Chaplin pretending to be “Count Chloride” to get dinner at Edna’s house, but has table manner troubles. Some prop stuff we didn’t follow – the servants keep destroying the food and dishes, I’m not sure why, and Chaplin is constantly fidgeting with cigarettes. All the same actors as usual, now joined by Irish theater star Paddy “Bungling Bill” McGuire as one of the butlers.


The Tramp

More bricks to heads, in fact there are some worrying head injuries in this one, but now some new actions, as Charlie jump-kicks a guy, gets shot, and sits in a drain pipe cuz his ass is on fire. Naive Edna has two dollars, and everybody wants them, but Charlie wants mostly to protect the girl from his fellow tramps because she is his true love. When it turns out she’s not in love but just helping him out, and he sees her with fiancee Lloyd Bacon (also one of the tramps!), he sneaks away and walks off down the road, an ending he’d keep coming back to.

Edna and her two dollars:

Edna’s dad Ernest has more than two dollars:


By The Sea

Filmed at Crystal Pier, reportedly because Chaplin was between studio locations, having found the Essanay sets unacceptably low-rent. Chaplin gets mixed up with a mustache man because their hats, both tied to their coats with string because of the high wind, get tangled. He torments the guy, who ends up punching a cop, they make up then antagonize big Bud Jamison and an ice cream man, while Charlie takes time to flirt with all the wives. After minor roles in the previous films, Billy Armstrong has his big moment as the mustache man, with newcomer Margie Reiger as his wife, and extremely prolific sideman Snub Pollard as the ice cream man. I played a mix of Book Beriah songs, which worked great, especially Banquet of the Spirits.


His Regeneration

What is happening… it’s a crime drama with a cameo by Chaplin but mostly starring Broncho Billy with creepy glowing eyes as a thief and murderer. He gets shot, apparently not too badly, in a bar fight over a girl, then breaking into the same girl’s house that night he kills his partner Lee Willard. Lee was a Broncho regular, likewise the girl Marguerite Clayton, who agrees to tell the cops that she shot the partner breaking in, while Broncho promises that he’ll turn over a new leaf because of her kindness. More Book Beriah: Secret Chiefs and Julian Lage worked fine, but Abraxas just reinforced how unexpected this thing is.


Work

Charlie drives an equipment rickshaw up a steep hill, narrowly missing the streetcar, whipped the whole way by his abusive boss Charles Inslee (he played bosses and professors, made it to 1921’s Adventures of Tarzan before dying at 52). They are meant to wallpaper a house full of its own petty dramas (with the usual suspects plus housewife Marta Golden), but of course these workers are incredibly incompetent – and it’s kinda a mess of a movie too, feels excessively padded. One good bit: Marta puts her silver in the safe, and in response the workers safety-pin their watches into a pants pocket. I played my new guitar+cello CD from Drag City but it proved too dissonant for slapstick, so back to Zorn.


A Woman

Even before the crossdressing second half, this is an improvement in the action. Opens with more messing about in a park – a “flirt” is aggressively picking up guys, and family man Inslee fights Charlie over her and ends up in the lake. Charlie in turn picks up Inslee’s wife Marta and daughter Edna and they invite him home for doughnuts (whatever conditions these movies were filmed in, you can see the table is crawling with flies). When the man of the house comes home and Charlie realizes who it is, he dressed as a woman (even “shaves” his mustache) to escape, pauses to taunt dad and his new friend Billy Armstrong, then declares his love for Edna. Pretty much nonstop activity, with one delicious pause trying to find the perfect lakeside spot to kick in the blindfolded Inslee. One of five Chaplin shorts on the Anthology Film Archives Essentials list.

Edna is not impressed by Charlie’s initial attempt to be a woman:


The Bank

Back into filler territory already… cute bank vault intro, then it’s mostly Charlie feuding with fellow janitor Billy Armstrong and playing havoc with his mop, and a mixup where Edna is in love with a cashier also named Charlie. Things pick up when Lawrence Bowes (a newcomer but wearing the same fake mustache as all the heavies, so who can tell) brings some guys to rob the bank after his meeting with the president goes badly, our Charlie singlehandedly takes them all out while Cashier Charlie hides under a desk, and the girl switches Charlies… but in the apparently deleted final minute, the janitor wakes up kissing his mop, the robbery just a dream. Cashier Charlie was Carl Stockdale, bit actor and alleged murderer of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922.

A Tale of Two Charlies:


Shanghaied

More intricate than usual, and with some good acrobatics, mostly involving keeping things upright while a boat sways – even while doing flips! – then smashing everything anyway, because the general public didn’t pay their five cents to see Chaplin carefully protect a bunch of dishes. Ship owner pays captain (Bowes again) to destroy his boat for the insurance, captain needs a bunch of men onboard who I guess are supposed to drown to make it look convincing, so he pays Charlie to bonk sailors on the head and toss them into the boat until the sailor pile is large enough to go out to sea. Charlie was also dating the owner’s daughter Edna, so everyone ends up on board along with a barrel full of gunpowder. Newcomers: the cook in the best scene (Charlie absolutely ruining the soup) is John Rand, who would get minor parts in Chaplin films through Modern Times, cabin boy Fred Goodwins, who would make the jump to the Mutuals before dying of bronchitis at 32, and as the owner: Wesley Ruggles! After ten more Chaplin shorts, Wesley started directing, made about 50 movies in the 1920’s, then won best picture with Cimarron and directed Mae West in her censor-defying I’m No Angel.

Conspirators Bowes and Ruggles:


A Night in the Show

A very drunk Posh Chaplin, predating his excellent drunken Mutual short One AM, is seated up front in the richie section for a variety show, while a Poor Chaplin with completely different mustache and eyebrows sits in the balcony cheap seats. On the plus side, it’s all very funny – on the minus, there’s Leo White in blackface. Newcomers: As the chuckling fat boy who brings two pies to the performance (guess where those end up) we’ve got Dee Lampton, whose final film would be the Harold Lloyd short Haunted Spooks before he died at age 20 of appendicitis. May White (no relation to Leo?) plays a performer, and Carrie Clark Ward (woman with the feather hat that Charlie destroys) appeared in the first screen version of The Awful Truth (the Cary Grant was its second remake).

Cheap Charlie grabs the firehose:


A Burlesque on Carmen

Atypical Chaplin short for a number of reasons… for one, his character has a name: Darn Hosiery. He’s a guard who turns on his fellow officer Leo White for the love of Carmen Edna, who has seduced him into helping him admit her smuggler friends through the gates. She runs off with bullfighter John Rand and Chaplin chases her to Seville, demanding that she belongs to him, then murder-suicides (kind of – it’s the second movie I watched this month to end with a gag knife trick). Added to the usual gang of idiots is Jack Henderson as a barkeep – his career of bit parts would fizzle after the silent era. Based on the famous novel/opera, which has also been filmed by Lubitsch, DeMille, Raoul Walsh (twice!), Jacques Feyder, Christian-Jaque, Charles Vidor, Otto Preminger, Terence Young, Radley Metzger, Carlos Saura, Francesco Rosi, Joseph Gaï Ramaka, Mark Dornford-May, Alexander Payne, Jean-Luc Godard, and Lotte Reiniger. I played an excellent Roberto Rodriguez album.


Police

“Each man kills the thing he loves” – I didn’t realize this Mike Patton & Jean-Claude Vannier album would have lyrics, but they’re appropriate, Patton croaking “where’s the money at” during the heist scene. Charlie gets robbed on his way out of prison by a fake preacher and fails to get into a flophouse. Why does he put an alarm clock in his pocket? A costarring role for Wesley Ruggles as Chaplin’s ex-cellmate who ropes him into burglarizing Edna’s house, and who later shoots Charlie multiple times in the butt. Charlie takes Edna’s side during the ensuing tussle, so when the cops arrive, she acts like he is her husband – shades of the fake-Chaplin His Regeneration. Consistently good movie – they’ve come a long way since the plotless slapstick nonsense of the earlier films.


Triple Trouble

The most poorly restored and shoddily edited of the bunch, cobbled together by Essanay after Chaplin had left the studio from outtakes stitched together with a newly-filmed framework starring unknown actors. I listened to Steve Gunn and William Tyler in honor of Hanukkah night one. Chaplin works as a janitor for explosives inventor Nutt, torments Edna the maid then retires to the flophouse from Police, where Billy Armstrong is robbing the residents and chewing the scenery. This ends in a pretty good brawl, then we’re out of fresh Chaplin footage, as he meets Ruggles in a couple scenes directly recycled from Police to get back into the inventor’s house, where a bunch of cops are flailing about. Thus ended Chaplin’s Essanay era. It’s a considerable amount of output for a single year. Essanay barely lasted past the Chaplin year as a studio; signed Max Linder and merged with Vitagraph before becoming part of Warner Bros.

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.

I can’t tell exactly what it’s supposed to be, perhaps a symbolic arthouse parody/critique of nuclear family life?

Sometimes it seems like psychodrama, sometimes comedy… sometimes we get effectively haunting phantom visuals and sometimes the kid is sitting on a toilet wiping his ass with bible pages.

Lighting can be complex, or scenes can be lit with a single spotlight with inky blackness all around. The actors often look distraught, and the kid spends half the movie crying (and 15 minutes playing with an aerosol can). Their movements can be theatrical, like they’re hitting the marks of a dance routine (in fact, one scene is presented as a stage performance). Camera has some unique methods of moving and reframing to change a scene without cutting, and the kid acknowledges the camera in at least one scene, waving it forward as the family lurches haltingly through a field.

The movie is fully silent, but in accordance with the Director’s Intent (presumably), I played John Zorn’s The Mysteries album followed by the last 20 minutes of Filmworks XXV.

The kid would grow up to be a painter, worked on Genealogies of a Crime, and his dad was an actor, appearing in Truffaut films around this time.

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.

Dreyer:

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.

Quotes below are from Marilyn Brakhage’s program notes.

The Process (1972)

Flashing colors. Negative silhouettes of human figures (wearing hats). Increasingly recognizable scraps of home movies, but yeah, mostly it’s flashing colors. Listened to “Cosmetics (Secret Chiefs 3 Remix)” by Foetus, which had some nice moments of synchronicity, mostly served to make the film seem more sinister than was probably intended.

“Brakhage again addresses the interaction of internal and external sources of imagery, but in this case, as the sole subject of the film. Here, slightly displaced positive and negative versions of the same image create a feeling of insubstantiality.”


Burial Path (1978)

Opens with a dead robin in a box, so I took the title literally and assumed a funeral tone to all the defocused light that proceeds from there. The bird does get buried towards the end, and he intercuts scenes of live birds (not robins) feeding outside. Played the end of Brian Eno & Harold Budd’s “Ambient 2” album, a pleasant change from the previous soundtrack.

Burial Path “graphs the process of forgetfulness.” But Burial Path is also about death, and was sometimes referred to (by Brakhage) as the third part of a trilogy, with Sirius Remembered (1959) and The Dead (1960). (The “path” is also the route taken to visit Brakhage’s friend, the then-ailing literary scholar Donald Sutherland, to whom the film is dedicated.)


Duplicity III (1980)

All crossfades, all the time. The kids are going trick-or-treating, doing house work, playing with cards and toy guns, enacting satanic rituals, performing in school plays which involve ghosts, robots and an Indian chief. Deers and dogs towards the end. Played tracks 2-4 of Coil’s “The Angelic Conversation” which sometimes made the film seem doom-laden, sometimes gave the impression that it was taking place near the ocean.

Halloween: Fire Walk With Me


The Domain of the Moment (1977)

Liked this one a lot because it’s full of critters: baby bird, guinea pig, dog, raccoon, mouse, snake, all double-exposed and playfully filmed, with painted mothlight sections in between animal blocks. Played tracks 4-6 of Secret Chiefs 3’s “Book M”, which was inappopriately energetic at the beginning but worked rather well in the middle.

“A consideration of the consciousness of other life forms.”


Murder Psalm (1980)

Whenever Brakhage films a television it looks like the end of the world. One of his most music-video-looking films, full of increasingly sinister-seeming juxtapositions – pure texture interspersed with stock footage from a strange movie, an education film about brains, leftover autopsy footage from The Act of Seeing, war footage from 23rd Psalm Branch, reversal film of a highway at night. Played the end of Autechre’s “Exai”, which was a great idea.

“A collage of found footage of monstrous implications.”

M. Keller in Film Quarterly:

The most striking imagery comes from an educational film on epilepsy, and Brakhage’s film is structured around that preexisting narrative … Brakhage makes visual relationships between the ball, water in the birdbath, the girl’s hand, a scale model of the brain, a half of a wagon wheel, a covered wagon, and a semicircular tunnel. Circular imagery is cut in half by the frame to make semicircles or hemispheres. The material about epilepsy is transformed into a meditation on the social and cultural circumstances of childhood trauma via a visual string of semicircular imagery. By substituting one image for another – e.g., the model of the brain for the covered wagon – Brakhage links their meanings and implication. The girl’s seizure is made part of the social organism through visual rhyme.


Arabic 12 (1982)

Light asterisks: a film of reddish, star-shaped light artifacts. Wonder if this is what ashtray epic The Text of Light is like – hopefully not, since I lost patience in this 17-minute movie towards the end. Felt like Autechre’s “spl9” was trying to give me a panic attack, but the next track slowed things down for the film’s more diffuse second half.

Fantasmagorie (1908)

The adventures of a prankster clown and his transforming world. One of the strangest animations ever, setting the stage for everything from Betty Boop to Don Hertzfeldt. Seen this before, of course.


Le Cauchemar du Fantoche (1908)

The Puppet’s Nightmare: Stick-figure man is sleeping when the world revolts on him, the line-drawing nature of his surroundings morphing into an endless series of free-association torments.


Un Drama Chez Les Fantoches (1908)

Back to unreliable stick-figure world. In this one, a woman gets her dress torn off, and later possibly murdered, but these being stick figures I guess there’s no fear of censorship. The stick-figure violence is less surreal than the others, so potentially more disturbing, until the two identical fighting dudes melt into puddles and the woman refashions them into a boa, then we’re back in Fantasmagorie territory for a spell. All four characters bounce back and take a bow at the end, just to make sure we know they’re alright.

Hat guy going to jail for murdering that woman:


Le Cerceau Magique (1908)

A man with Meliesian powers of stopping/starting the film to replace objects is approached by a little girl whose hoop has broken. The man transforms his cane into a new hoop, displays its new magic abilities, then the girl quickly tires of her magic hoop and hangs it on a wall, where it becomes a frame for some goofy animations, which are frankly not too exciting, and barely decipherable through a haze of film decay for half the time.


Le Petit Soldat Qui Devient Dieu (1908)

Return of the hoop girl… she runs off then stop-motion soldiers maneuver in front of a child-drawn house and ride paper boats into the river, where they’re discovered by a grotesque gang of shoddy blackface actors. Not sure what any of these things have to do with each other, unless Cohl was creating a universe of interrelated shorts which all take place within the hoop-girl’s imagination.


Les Freres Boutdebois (1908)

Acrobatic Toys: Stop-motion acrobats on a tiny stage self-assemble then perform tricks until the film ends abruptly. I liked the quirky xylophone music.


L’Hotel du Silence (1908)

Flabbergasted man enters hotel where things move on their own. The actor expends much effort trying to convince us how insane this all is, but 108 years later it’s more tedious than insane. Cool set design, though. The flabbergasted man is impressed by the hotel’s wizardry, but eventually he’s dirty and tired and hungry and overcharged, wishing Yelp existed so he could give this place a scathing review. IMDB says it’s a Méliès remake.


Transfigurations (1909)

Actors take turns looking into a peephole where they see different animated horrors, which is a better framing story than the girl with her magic hula-hoop (better animations, too). The proprietor laughs at each customer, who leaves angrily. I don’t understand his business model. Also, couldn’t all of Cohl’s films have been titled Transfigurations?