Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Score One for Silent Imagery

Short entry this mid-week, but here’s another example of silent film inspiring today’s artists. Toronto rock group Lioness has directed (on their own, apparently) a music video that takes some of its visuals from that most quotable of silent epics, Metropolis (1927). Here it is.

This video references a lot more than silent film—I recognized, among other things, images styled on medical footage of the thirties, forties and fifties. But extra marks to Lioness for mimicking not only the famed Maria Robot and Rotwang’s lab equipment (that’s easy), but also the snaky burlesque dances Brigitte Helm performs late in the film.

The clues wouldn’t be that obvious, though, if not for Lioness’ choice of presentation. Black and white, scratched and crackled ‘film’ stock—I wonder if this is a big part of what people think about when they’re called to recall a silent film? I hope not.

Here’s a couple of other examples that dispense with the trappings and focus on the images. Madonna’s ‘Express Yourself’ video is, of course, directly inspired by Metropolis.

(This YouTube clipster may have an axe to grind... personally, I don’t think ‘rip off’ applies to artists, unless they’re taking credit for someone else’s original work. We all pull our ideas from inspirations around us, and make mentors of those who’ve gone before. The beauty of silent film images, potent as they are, is that they function both as direct artistic inspiration to future filmmakers and raw material for samplers and mixers.)

Smashing Pumpkins’ terrific video for ‘Tonight, Tonight’ goes several steps and a moon shot further. This video is an obvious, and I think quite loving, homage to Georges Méliès’ 1902 short, A Trip to the Moon—one of the most beautiful movies ever made. This video is so good, it makes me wonder what a modern filmmaker could produce if challenged to fill two hours with short films of this type—the largely fixed-camera, heavily theatrical adventure stories that dominated the pre-Griffith era. I’d love to see it tried.

p.s.: While I appreciate Billy Corgan’s support of the silent aesthetic, I’d advise him against taking fashion cues from Nosferatu (1922).

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Nosferatu (1922)

What’s left to say about Nosferatu? It’s among the most visible of silent films today; perhaps only Metropolis (1927) has been seen by more people. In notoriety, it follows The Birth of a Nation (1915), but more people talk about Birth than have actually seen it. I’ve seen Nosferatu five times, I think; each time a different print with a different score.

Ah, there’s my way in. The version of Nosferatu I’m going to write about today is a fresh one; it begs new perspectives and a realignment of critical focus, and so yes, there are things left to say. I’m referring to Kino International’s masterful new restoration, Nosferatu: Ultimate Edition. The film quality on these discs is the best of any restoration I’ve seen—you can count the hairs on the hero’s head as he dresses for his journey to the Carpathians. It is a sleek and potent presentation, all around. But the music is what did it for me—Hans Erdmann’s original score, authorized by director F.W. Murnau, raised from the dead by the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra. The music, right from the start, forced me to think again about what Nosferatu is about, at least from the standpoint of the men who made it. Nosferatu, it turns out, is a dark comedy.

Alas, there are two ways a great silent film can be funny today. The first is because its humour is timeless, as Keaton’s and Chaplin’s humour tends to be. The second is because the film has aged badly for one reason for another. Combine this with an unsympathetic audience, and the results are pathetic.

My first and only public viewing of Nosferatu was a miserable experience precisely because of this—I chronicled it here. Looking back on it now, I wonder if part of the problem was my own expectations. Most versions of Nosferatu I’d seen up to that point were decidedly grim. They were scored with organs and rattles sounding ominous and funerary. Accompanied this way, Murnau’s odd images became truly disturbing, and I believe I liked it that way. I liked to believe that a film this old still ‘had it.’

Kino’s new offering makes me wonder if I knew what ‘it’ really meant. Murnau’s approved score is no dirge, at least most of the time; it’s punctuated with xylophones and up-tempo percussion flourishes throughout, even moving into pure romantic melodies when main characters Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) and Ellen (Greta Schröder) express their love. And why not? Von Wangenheim’s hero is no tragic victim—he’s a total clod; a man whose boundless enthusiasm rests on his inability to see what’s coming. Hutter is a real estate agent working for impish weirdo, Knock (Alexander Granach). When Knock tells him he’s to travel to the Carpathians to sell ‘Count Orlock’ a house—the house next to Hutter’s, no less—the young man barely manages a frown. He returns home to Ellen, his wife, and tells her (with a wide grin): “I must travel far, far away, to the land of thieves and phantoms.”

The scene is hilarious. And if a moody organ drone were played over top of it, we’d suspect Murnau wasn’t in on his own joke. But instead, we’re given flutes and clarinets—music to skip through a meadow by.

There are other moments of humour, particularly in the first half of the film. Hutter simply does not know how to react to Orlock (Max Schreck); as a businessman, he must stay dignified and accommodating to his client, but here is a client too strange to imagine—one who functions in the night and measures time by a mechanical skeleton that chimes every hour. It is a classic gag scenario. And Orlock’s one-liners are as good (and as bad) as Bela Lugosi’s would be nine years later. Seeing a cameo bearing Ellen’s face, Orlock compliments the woman’s ‘lovely neck.’ When Hutter decides to go to bed, Orlock begs him to stay up a while longer: “I sleep by day, dear fellow... completely dead to the world.” Hutter’s in way over his head.

Call this one more example of Murnau’s brilliance—a rather under-emphasized facet of it. Unlike every director to follow him, Murnau had no ‘vampire movie’ template to work from (at least, as far as I know). Nevertheless, he and screenwriter Henrik Galeen correctly intuited the silliness every vampire movie must have. See, unless it’s From Dusk till Dawn (1996) we’re watching, we know damn well there’s a vampire coming eventually. Every misunderstanding and misstep the characters make before that vampire appears has an element of camp. Try not to grin whenever someone offers ‘Count X’ a glass of wine, or a walk in the sunshine. It’s always this way when we know more than the characters do.

Nosferatu isn’t funny all the way through—especially after Orlock sails for Hutter’s German home town and brings the plague to every port he stops at along the way. Nor is it ever ‘scary,’ at least, in the Halloween (1978)-sense. Nosferatu’s modern descendants are films like The Exorcist (1973), which excel at maintaining feelings of unease through the distortion of the mundane. Murnau delivers us familiar objects, actions and environments, but always with a twist that makes them abnormal. Sometimes this involves camera tricks, but more often, the context is enough.

There are so many examples. When Hutter gorges himself at a Carpathian inn, the proprietor warns him of a werewolf on the prowl—but all we see is a fox scurrying through the woods, followed by a scene with agitated horses. The scenes have no necessary causal relationship, but we are caused to wonder if the animals fear something unseen.

Left at home, Ellen falls into melancholy and eventually, into a trance. She stares without direction or recognition. She even sleepwalks on a balcony ledge. Ellen has no reason to believe her husband is safe, but neither does she have reason to believe he’s been harmed. When a sunny letter arrives from him, she takes no pleasure in it at all. Like the creatures in the forest, she instinctively knows something is amiss; her grave demeanour combats her husband’s disposition, preventing Nosferatu from descending into farce.

Much is rightly made of Max Schreck’s grotesque Orlock makeup, and the character’s distended, grasping shadow, which overtakes his victims even when the actor is out of frame. The effectiveness of these scenes speaks for itself. Personally, I’m just as impressed with the scene in which Orlock first enters Hutter’s bedchamber. Hutter cowers in the bed Orlock has provided him, watching the tall, narrow, round-topped bedroom door open without being touched. The vampire (climbing steps we can’t see) approaches the doorway, rising as he does so, until the top of the door almost perfectly frames him. Everything in this castle is an extension of the vampire and its permanent evil, and Hutter’s case is therefore hopeless. (Note also the follow-up scene, in which Murnau shows a terrified Hutter scurrying through the hallway—the director surrounds von Wangenheim with a frame precisely the same shape as that door.)

For me, the most disconcerting scenes in Nosferatu are the most artificial. Orlock is a creature of nature, yes; several scenes establish his vampirism as a trait present in other species, such as the Venus Flytrap, spider and a ‘polyp with tentacles.’ However, Murnau also makes Orlock appear supernatural by portraying him moving at fantastic speeds. The director accomplishes this through ‘undercranking,’ a technique you can learn more about here. The results are bizarre and at first, absurd; but let me tell you why they work for me.

In my essay on King Kong (1933), I suggested that the giant ape’s obvious fakery made it frightening in an otherworldy sense, rather different than the effect won by photo-realistic models, such as those used for Jurassic Park (1993). To make King Kong scary requires deliberate suspension of disbelief on our part, because, while we are looking at an obvious fake, the heroine acts as though the monster is quite real.

Hutter’s case is different. When he sees Orlock’s carriage approach him at more than fifty miles per hour, or watches from his tower window as the vampire stacks coffins on a wagon bed in—it seems to us—fast forward, Hutter is seeing what we see. This impossible speed is now as possible as any mundane thing Hutter does otherwise—it all rests on the same plane of reality, and so Nosferatu meshes, in its most unnatural, unsettling way, the realistic and the abstract. Have a look at one of these scenes, starting at 8:40.

It’s liberating to visit this famous film in such a different way. Finally, I appreciate Nosferatu’s artistic scope—encompassing not only horror, but also comedy, its unexpectedly close cousin. Nosferatu can, and should elicit chuckles, and we’ll no longer fear to laugh, because now, we’re sure we’re laughing with it.

Where to find Nosferatu:
Kino International’s Nosferatu: Ultimate Edition is a two-disc set. Disc One features the film with English-translated intertitles, along with two documentaries. Disc Two has the film with German intertitles, subtitled in English. Look for it all here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Link to a Link

It may be cheating to update my blog with an update of someone else's blog, but whatever. Jim Emerson's Scanners: Blog has posted a YouTube link I think you'll find fascinating. It features footage of Buster Keaton's 1922 short film, Cops, run at projection speeds equivalent to the frames-per-second (fps) the scenes were actually shot at. Keaton often 'undercranked' his camera, which lowered the number of frames-per-second; this, in turn, made the scene appear accelerated when projected at a faster rate. Historian Ben Model shows how scenes actually looked when projected at their original rates of 16, or even 8 fps: quite plodding. Played at a faster rate, however, they are manic and precise all at once. Of course, Keaton et al were conscious of the speed at which they were being filmed; hence, they acted in more deliberate fashion, with longer pauses between movements then you'd expect.

Projecting an undercranked sequence at higher speed makes the scene look 'unnatural,' but it does achieve unique comic effects. Perhaps there's a point to be made here, not just about the depth of skill these silent directors possessed, but also about the value we moderns place on 'realism.'

To see a version of Cops played at regular speed, click here. Scenes that seem unnaturally fast were undercranked. No sound on this one, unfortunately, but the film is widely available through Kino International.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Little Train Robbery (1905)

Synchronicity directs the blog this week. Only a day after re-watching The Little Train Robbery, I saw The Wild Bunch (1969) for the first time. Since I avoid synopses of films I’ve never seen, I knew little about The Wild Bunch, other than its genre and its stars. So it was a surprise, and a warm one, to discover how much this film and The Little Train Robbery enrich one another. What is irreverent in the first film is lethal in the second, and so’s born much to think about.

The Little Train Robbery is a ten-minute spoof of The Great Train Robbery (1903), one of cinema’s first blockbusters. Edwin S. Porter, director of both films, saw lucre in revising his hit western as a light comedy in which the parts were played by children. This was a common gimmick at the time.

The Little Train Robbery follows a gang of kids as they hold up a child-sized theme-park train and steal the passengers’ candy. It is quick-paced and not too ambitious. The juxtaposition between theatrical sets and outdoor scenes, which made its predecessor so interesting, is not present here. It is simply an extended joke, and chances are, you won’t laugh at it.

This is not because The Little Train Robbery is poorly done. It’s just that juvenile delinquency, especially the very violent kind, doesn’t strike us as funny anymore. We’re sensitive, these days, to images of children committing crimes; we’ve seen the consequences these crimes can have, and fixate on whatever violent images may have twisted a child enough to commit them. And so this slapdash comic short from 1905 becomes, for us, a harbinger of sinister trends.

The Little Train Robbery opens with a group of children—aged nine to thirteen, I’d say—playing in their clubhouse. Most of them are dressed in quasi-Western clothing. Posters for adventure-themed plays, movies and magazines cover the walls. The gang’s leader, a young girl, arrives at the clubhouse with another child, who is blindfolded. The boys put on masks, and she smiles. The boys’ crime spree begins immediately afterward, as they head to a nearby barn and steal horses.

While The Great Train Robbery was a period piece, based on a 19th-century play, The Little Train Robbery never specifies an era. It does seem contemporary with its time. And that would be a time when a gang of kids could grow up mesmerized by ‘great’ train robbers and their adventures in print, on stage, and especially on screen. Maybe they saw the first movie. We wonder where their parents are right now.

Of course, children emulate those they idolize. Like the killers in the 1903 film, these boys crouch out of sight and await the arrival of the passenger train they’re planning to rob. In this case, the train is a miniature engine, pulling open-top cars filled with other children. It’s touring the countryside, helmed by an adult whose long legs straddle the engine as he drives. Arriving at a point on the track flanked by steep ditches, he stops to remove a board laid across the track. We know, though he does not, that the board has been placed there by the gang. When the engineer dismounts, the boys rush up and knock him cold with the blunt end of a hatchet. He tumbles into the ditch and the passengers are robbed of their candy. The little hoodlums escape.

The rest of The Little Train Robbery is a chase, as the police, the (recovered) engineer and other locals pursue the kids through the forest, eventually driving them into a lake, where they are captured. We never really catch up to them, though. We never leave that scene where they nearly kill the engineer.

I thought about this as I watched The Wild Bunch, a film also about children inspired by childish adults. Its protagonist, Pike (William Holden) is a worn-down bank robber looking for one last score; he’s in a violent profession, but he’s got principles. Some younger members of his gang do not. And those too young to be in any gang fixate on him, and his fellow crooks, and even the trumped-up Mexican general they oppose. Set in 1913—eight years after The Little Train Robbery was filmed, The Wild Bunch shows us what happens when the man-child rises to positions of frightening authority. Director Sam Peckinpah symbolizes it best through his Mexican general, Mapache; a drunken clown in a uniform who, when presented with a machine gun, proceeds to empty his new toy into a crowded square. A little boy in a matching uniform looks up to him.

The Wild Bunch has much in common with No Country for Old Men (2007). Both are chronicles of cultural decline, presenting it as inevitable, relentless, and ever more brutal. Characters in these films pine for the days when misbehaviour did not bear the seeds of greater menace. The nihilism of their stories defeats all hope. I’d say the greatest argument against these films is the fact they were filmed 40 years apart. But they will always be powerful, because they draw upon the deep unease we bring into the theatre with us, and that unease is born, in part, from the fear that we did too little to prevent our society from becoming what it is. If only we’d taken things more seriously, back when it could have made a difference.

Movies that tell of a coming storm cannot end happily. And so The Little Train Robbery, blissfully innocent though it is, stays true to form. In his final scene, Porter shows us the row of captured bandits, tied together by the wrists and being marched, we assume, to their waiting parents. The girl behind it all is roped last in line, and she gets away. We knew she had to, one way or another.

Where to find The Little Train Robbery:

The Little Train Robbery can be found on Disc Two of Kino International’s must-have, four-disc set, Edison: The Invention of the Movies. The film is preceded by a short commentary from several film scholars. Look for it here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Reflections: Vampire Remixes

A few links for you today, illustrating a phenomenon that brings me hope.

Nosferatu (1922) is one of the silent era’s most successful products, not simply for its quality, but also its longevity. The film has thrived better than most in this, the age of sound (and sometimes, noise). Some credit has to go to the director, F.W. Murnau, whose fame is old and strong among those who appreciate film. On top of that, we have the public’s enduring interest in vampire stories, and if Max Schrek’s ghastly, bald spectre bears little resemblance to Lugosi, well, that only makes it more intriguing.

Most of all, we have the images: Compositions of pantomime, makeup and light; indoor, outdoor; Surrealist, naturalist, blatantly and frighteningly mechanical. Nosferatu is so weird that we wonder what kind of mind could unearth such a thing from its depths. And knowing it is a human mind, we wonder what we could unearth from our own.

Like all great silent films, Nosferatu is in one respect terribly vulnerable: its power is destroyed by inappropriate musical accompaniment. The wrong tune, particularly if it’s ‘chirpy,’ slays Nosferatu just as the rising sun does a vampire—swiftly, totally, ruthlessly.

Low and ominous, organ-heavy, liberal with the cello and bass; this brings Nosferatu’s dread to flower. However, I’ve heard it done other ways. A score need not be sympathetic at all, as long as it makes a point, rather than being the product of indifference. I can even accept a score that makes the film goofy, so long as the artist is trying to make a goofy film.

Whatever the artist’s vision, he or she has a lot to work with. And for those without the time, inclination or means to score an entire film, there are still ‘trailers.’ I’ve noticed these on YouTube for some time now—clips of notable scenes from various silent films, set to a piece of music the musician feels makes his or her point, whatever that point might be. I think they’re great (even when they’re not) because they prove the enduring power of silent film. Among its many other merits, is there any art-form more suited to the age of the sample and the mash-up than silents? The future is bright, and here’s a few examples of why:

This creepy one retains the feel of the film with very modern visual pacing. I’d love a copy of the whole movie done with this score.

The score for this trailer evokes evil, but of the vast and ancient kind. It is The Rheingold Prelude, used for Werner Herzog’s brilliant, 1979 remake of Nosferatu.

This brass- and percussion-heavy version underlines the importance of Nosferatu in cinematic history, but it fails to capture the film’s subtlety. What do you think?

Not sure what this kid was aiming for, but let’s appreciate the plug. Start ’em young...

This is a different approach: the music is set to the scenes, rather than running as a continuous piece throughout. The effect is interesting, but maybe a little intrusive, and even camp. It also sounds like something from The Twilight Zone.

Here’s an approach that only works for a trailer, where you can re-cut to fit the beats. Clips of Nosferatu set to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A (Op 92). Again, the effect borders on comic.

And last but not least. Freddie Mercury was a fan of silent film himself, so I consider this one more than appropriate.

There are more Nosferatu trailers to see, and many more paying tribute to other, great silent films. Have a look, and see where our great medium is headed.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Great Train Robbery (1903)

I have a habit of flipping through fat, paperback movie guides, looking for mini-reviews of my favourite films. You know these books: Leonard Maltin produces one; so do Roger Ebert and a few other film critics. Movies are listed alphabetically, each receiving a hundred words or so, plus a star-rating.

The best place to read these books is in a video store, assuming you’re not after a movie that’s new to DVD. A lot of indy video stores here in Toronto have well-thumbed volumes by the cash register. And it was in one of these ratty, weighty books, years ago, that I first looked for The Great Train Robbery. The review I found was complimentary (three stars, if I remember). It spoke of the film’s influence—the most famous product of Thomas Edison’s New Jersey-based movie studio; considered by some to be the first Western; the first blockbuster, played for years after its release by distributors looking to spike their attendance figures. The review ended with this (paraphrased) line: “Today, of course, the film must be viewed with sympathy.”

‘With sympathy.’ You could almost see the bland regret on the reviewer’s face, before he left his chair for a sandwich and a Godard marathon. It hurt me. As a silent movie fan, I want to believe greatness is everlasting. The failure of a once-formidable blockbuster to move modern audiences is akin to a fall from grace. It’s ignoble. But The Great Train Robbery is more than a curious antique, I think.

Its title is a descriptor. It is a robbery caper that begins the instant the title screen goes black, with a pair of robbers bursting into a telegraph station, and binding and gagging the railway dispatcher. They use his equipment to stop a train at a secluded water tower along its route. Other members of the gang board the train, detach the engine from the passenger cars, and rob the passengers. Director Edwin S. Porter produced a film that is, at twelve minutes, unusually long for its time; it has a fully developed narrative and distinguishable characters, or at least character types—robbers, posse-members, railway workers and assorted civilians. The Great Train Robbery also features rudimentary cross-cutting (that is, cutting from one scene to another to suggest simultaneity and to build suspense); film narratives prior to this were usually linear, and if the director chose to portray two events occurring at the same time, he simply showed them from start to finish, in succession.

But much of this boils down to film history--in effect, praising the film for not looking so old to modern eyes. What’s The Great Train Robbery really like? What are its artistic achievements, irrespective of the time in which it was filmed?

The Great Train Robbery is set apart by its mixture of archaic and modern. Particularly the sharp contrast between traditional stagecraft and more experimental film techniques. It’s a quilt. Its opening scene is an obvious set with a painted clock over the telegrapher’s head; actors are filmed at a distance equivalent to that between the stage and a good seat in a big theatre. Gestures are dramatic and outsized. But to the right is a large window, and through it we see other trains passing by. This is not a set piece—it’s footage. Porter’s use of double exposure brings reality to the scene, even though the room itself is an obvious cartoon.

The next scene presents complete juxtaposition, as we move from a set to an outdoor location with a real water tower. And then we’re back to artifice, as the criminals board the express car (where any loot would be stored) and shoot the messenger. The train car is another flat backdrop; the curvature of its roof is a trick of perspective. But the loading door of the car is open, and through it we can see real trees speeding by.

In what must have been, for the time, a remarkable shot, we next see the robbers overpower the conductor atop the engine, while the train is moving. We’re again looking at the real thing, and continue to as the train halts,and the passengers pour out in a great herd, hands high, waiting to be robbed.

The robbery scene highlights Porter’s main artistic weakness: the obsessive need to film events in their entirety, even when snippits would have told the story. On stage, this scene would have been punctuated with dialogue to keep our attention. But here, filmed with an immobile camera set at long range, it makes us fidget. Yet it shows inspiration, too. The crowd of passengers is immense, but they flow out of the train car like the contents of a cracked piñata—which, for the robbers, is exactly what they are.

The thieves pull away in the engine, abandon it down the line and head for their hideout in the woods. This is another outdoor scene, following the thieves as they skip down the valley with their stolen goods, across logs and over brooks. The camera moves to keep them in frame—stiffly, yes, but at least it’s moving. That was rare for 1903.

From these outdoor scenes we return again to the stage. The telegrapher, still bound face down on the floor of his office, is saved by the arrival of his young daughter. She’s dressed in vibrant, oscillant purple—the product not of Porter’s art, but a painter’s, who hand-coloured the film cells that make up this print.

The telegrapher alerts the locals to what has happened—interrupting a square dance attended by women in painted yellow dresses, jigging in front of a painted stove. A posse is formed and the robbers are gunned down in the hideout, amid explosions of bright red and orange.

There’s one last scene, of course—the one for which The Great Train Robbery is today most famous. With the criminals finished off in the forest, Porter cuts to a close-up of one more varmint, looking straight at the camera. He raises his pistol, and fires at the audience.

Were theatregoers of the time ‘thrilled’ or ‘terrified’ by this? Some probably were. Had the audience been more accustomed to films, it’s said, they would not have reacted so strongly. But too many people describe the scene as though its value lies solely in shock. Its power lies not simply in its capacity to break the fourth wall; it is the film’s only close-up, and as such, pulls us violently from our positions as passive observers. We were content to watch the murders, safe in our distance from them—now, we’re being gunned down ourselves. This is Porter’s finest piece of juxtaposition, and for this bit of art, at least, The Great Train Robbery may reject the sympathetic eye.

Where to find The Great Train Robbery:
The Great Train Robbery is the centrepiece of several, film history-themed DVD anthologies. My favourite (and the one on which this article is based) is found on Disc One of Kino International’s must-have, four-disc set, Edison: The Invention of the Movies. The film is preceded by a short commentary from several film scholars. Look for it here.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

King Kong (1933)

Why no! It's not silent. See below...

This article's also being posted as part of Row Three's Dirty Thirties Movie Marathon. Check it out here. I will return to silence (perhaps a blessing, at least for those who know me) this Sunday.

“You’ll have to think of a lotta new adjectives when I get back!”

That’s Carl Denham’s promise as he storms out of a business meeting and into the New York City night. He’s a movie director; the type who makes BIG pictures; always exciting, always 100% authentic, filmed on location. Adventure, folks: straight from the planet’s last corners of untouched savagery, captured by the lens, offered to you. He’s got the funding, the equipment, and a boat ready to set sale for his next shoot. All he needs now is a girl.

“STRICT-ly business,” Denham assures Ann Darrow, the indigent beauty he finds on the street that very evening. His boat leaves in hours, to where he can’t say, but Ann’s welcome to come along. She barely hesitates. “There are a lot of girls like me,” she explains, describing her place in the legions of Depression-struck unemployed, from whose ranks Denham has deigned to pick her. She has looks, but no support, and better the risks of a voyage than the life of a thief.

We know what she’s in for. Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) will spend much of the next ninety minutes in the clutches of a 50-foot ape. She’ll take a terrifying trip to the top of a tower. She’ll scream twice for every single sentence of dialogue she’ll speak. This is King Kong, a film needing no introduction. Our only question, really, is what spectacle remains in the ‘special-effects wonder’ of.... 1933?

Oh, much. Enough for a few more adjectives than Denham would have called for. ‘Smart,’ for example. ‘Abstract,’ perhaps. Always interesting. And a reminder, if it’s needed, that today’s FX wizards may be jumping their own CGI-generated shark. But for now, more plot.

Lack of a love interest provided the only pause in the public’s otherwise uninterrupted stream of hyperbolic praise for Denham’s pictures. And this Ann will solve. Now his ship can steam for the South Seas, headed for a possibly fictional island his old-salt of a captain has never heard of. Nothing can go wrong. But if it does, Denham’s loaded this tub with an arsenal of rifles and gas bombs big enough to pause a herd of moose. This concerns the ship’s grim-faced first mate, John Driscoll, but then, he approaches everything with a sour disposition. Even falling in love with Ann seems to irk Driscoll, though he manages it.

Driscoll balks at bringing Ann to the lost island, but of course, they’re both Denham’s employees, and the director has learned to be ready to shoot at all times. In more than one sense. On the beach they discover an enormous wall, spanning the width of the peninsula, and before it, a native ceremony in full swing, with drummers, chanters, and dancers in gorilla furs circling a young woman. She will be the bride of Kong (whatever that is). The natives quickly turn their attention to Ann, whom they call ‘the golden woman.’ Denham and crew escape the beach, but Ann is captured that night and the ceremony resumes.

The natives open the gates of the great wall and lash Ann to two pillars on the other side. Everyone waits. We hear, along with Ann, the roar of the beast, and the crunch of its steps approaching her. The trees part and it appears, plunging its Bride into shrieking terror, and us, into giggles.

For a second, yes. We’re in the post-Jurassic Park era, after all; we’ve a tendency to knock off points when a fake monster looks fake. Kong sure does. His stare is empty and his movements are machine-like and repetitive. But give him a minute.

Ann screams and screams. She writhes against her bonds, trying to twist herself away from the monster’s hand. The monster pounds its chest and roars above her. We know how we’d feel if we were screaming like that. And Kong’s alien look—his strange gestures and bugged eyes and rippling fur from hundreds of animators’ hands re-adjusting the model—all of it, makes Kong more horrific. Nobody’s playing this for laughs; so now, neither are we.

One of the crucial choices made by King Kong’s directors, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, was to allow the victims’ screams to continue even when cutting to a shot at the monsters’ scale. Take a later scene, when the sailors pursuing Ann are mauled by a dinosaur. Cooper and Schoedsack use dummies to represent the men. They’re obvious fakes, but they wail as they’re ‘killed,’ so we remember the people we saw before, not the props we see now.

Kong obsesses over Ann, and destroys all who follow her. He brutally kills a Tyrannosaurus rex, then a lizard creature, then a pterodactyl, as each threatens her. He also overturns a log bridge, consigning a half-dozen screaming dummies to the pit and leaving only Driscoll and Denham alive. Denham heads back for help, while Driscoll pursues the gorilla. And the gorilla? He takes Ann to a cliff-top—the highest point of the world he knows—and roars his victory.

What follows is one of cinema’s most violent scenes. Driscoll succeeds in rescuing Ann, but the gorilla gives chase, crashing through the huge gate, rampaging through the native village and killing hundreds. Now the body count is measured in close-ups, as we see spearmen crunched in Kong’s teeth and squashed beneath his feet. No one is strong enough to stop him. Only modern technology—Denham’s gas bombs, specifically—can put the monster out.

Like the other males in King Kong (giant gorilla included), Denham acts true to his nature. He sees opportunity and directs the ship’s captain to take the beast home. Cooper and Schoedsack decline to show how this is done. It truly doesn’t matter; it’s enough to know that it occurs. So when Denham stands on the beach and promises a marquee, that marquee is the next thing we see. And King Kong drops none of its breathless pace.

Denham now stands in a tuxedo and tails, before a curious audience and an enormous curtain. When the curtain is lifted, we see Kong on a massive platform, chained in a posture similar to Ann’s when they were betrothed. Denham then introduces Ann and Driscoll, and invites the press to close in for photos. When the camera flashes agitate the gorilla, Denham urges calm: “we’ve knocked some of the fight out of him.” Driscoll’s worried, though; what if Kong thinks the flashes are threatening Ann? He’s right, and Denham’s wrong, and Kong bursts free of his chains and begins his tear through the streets of Manhattan.

Everything Kong destroys, he destroys for a reason. It was this way on the island, and so it is in New York. He wrecks a subway car because it comes at him at eye level, just like the monsters he’s used to. He crushes the men in suits as he did the men in grass skirts, because they pose equivalent danger. Consider the film’s most terrifying scene, where Kong climbs an apartment building, reaches through a high-rise window, and snatches a screaming woman from her bed. He holds her over the street, sniffs her, then drops her. It’s an awful murder, but Kong is merely an animal, looking for a different woman.

Kong acts logically. King Kong is a logical film. And that makes its main character much more than a mindless, destructive force for the hero to kill.

This movie’s shown us men who were stupid, greedy, short-sighted or cowardly. If they killed, or stole, or ran away, it was of their own free will. But when Kong, with Ann in hand, begins his climb up the Empire State Building, it is the last act in a film filled with his heroism. Kong is the film’s only, truly noble male. Whereas Denham endangers Ann repeatedly, and Driscoll, in the end, follows orders, Kong always puts Ann’s welfare first. Only Kong has to face the biplanes and their machineguns.

Kong’s duel with the planes completes King Kong’s vision of New York as a jungle writ-large. The gorilla climbs the Empire State Building because it is the tallest structure around. In fact, the building was, in 1933, the tallest building on earth. The metaphor is simple—as the ultimate alpha male, Kong must attain the highest point of whatever world he knows. And having been brought to the Big Apple, that’s now all the world there is.

Kong tries in vain to swat the planes while protecting his woman. The pilot’s technology seems underhanded—they’re out of Kong’s reach when they shoot him, and we cheer when he manages to destroy one. When the last bullet finishes Kong, he reaches for Ann, then falls hundreds of feet to his death. He was too good for this soft, urban world anyway.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Sherlock, Jr. (1924)

This blog’s purpose is to introduce silent films in way that makes them seem familiar and fresh. I hope it can be one more step in opening readers’ eyes to a new realm of beautiful, brilliant, transformative filmmaking. So Sherlock, Jr. is an easy recommendation for me. It is indeed beautiful and brilliant; not just for its gags, but also for the innovative, wholly integrated, special effects employed by its star, Buster Keaton. They still work. In fact, the whole film still works. Go see it. Go rent it. Rent it twice.

Maybe I’m stalling here. If so, it’s because Keaton’s best films, like Sherlock, Jr., or The Navigator (1924), or The General (1927) are so resistant to analysis. That’s not to say they haven’t been analyzed—people have written theses on duality in Keaton’s films, Surrealism in Keaton’s films, feminism, masochism, mechanism, cynicism, etc., etc., etc., etc. But for me, as a blogger, the danger’s in being too brief. For a Keaton plot is nothing; and a Keaton gag, on its own, is a little thing; they become brilliant because they are brought together by the master in precisely that way. Describing that way is so hard, and telling you where to find the DVD, to watch it yourself, is so very easy...

But please keep reading, because this film is special in another way. Out of all Keaton’s films, I think Sherlock, Jr. may offer the best lesson in the core principles of silent story-telling, thanks to the expressiveness of the actors’ bodies, the iron-clad logic of the plot, and Keaton’s selection of scenes. This is the blood and bones of the cinematic art.

It begins simply enough. Keaton plays a ‘Boy’ in love. The ‘Girl’ (Kathryn McGuire) loves him back. We know it by the tender way she acts when he’s around. We know she’s genuine, because she is wealthy and he’s a flat-broke projectionist at the local movie theatre. Only two things drive him: winning the Girl’s heart, and becoming a great detective.

The Boy’s detective dream is doubly funny because he’s clueless for much of the film. His attempts to woo the Girl are admirable, but really, he’d already won her heart before the movie even starts; only shyness holds him back. His more immediate challenge (and for us, his only one) is to clear his name.

You see, Buster had two bucks. He went to the candy store to buy the Girl a box of chocolates and saw the best one cost three. ‘Will you give it to me for two?’ he asks the sales girl. ‘Sorry, I can only charge three,’ she replies. He ends up buying a one-dollar box, but changes ‘$1’ to $4’ with a pencil.

The Boy made sure the Girl saw that price when he visited her house. He also gave her a ring topped with a near-microscopic stone, which she liked anyway, especially after she borrowed his magnifying glass to see it better. As a budding detective, the Boy carries his magnifying glass and ‘How to Be A Detective’ manual with him at all times.

This was wise preparation. Not long after the Boy arrived, the Girl was visited by a second suitor, the sleazy ‘Sheik’ (Ward Crane). The Sheik spied the couple from the hallway of the house, and decided not to make his entrance until he could trump the Boy’s gifts. Since he’s really a two-bit crook, he stole a pocket watch from her father’s blazer, pawned it for four dollars, and bought her the three-dollar chocolates.

Now, when the Girl’s father discovered his watch missing, the Boy promised to solve the case. Unfortunately, the Sheik was a step quicker—he planted the pawn shop receipt in Keaton’s coat, and so when the Boy himself was searched, it appeared the receipt was his. The amount on the receipt was four dollars—which, of course, was the cost of the chocolates the Boy gave to the Girl, at least, after he changed the price. The Boy’s ring was returned, and he was banished (forever?) by the tearful Girl.

With special effects and grand gags still to come, this early scene is not the most memorable part of Sherlock, Jr. But it’s a terrific example of how to communicate precise information without dialogue. Keaton’s scene in the candy shop is performed entirely in pantomime. His framing at the Girl’s house takes place with minimal intertitles, relying instead on the audience’s ability to connect a pair of number-fours. Because the camera shows both the doctored candy box and the receipt, the gag is clear. Note also how Keaton is intent on integrating every gag in a logical way, consistent with the character and his goals. Keaton gives the Girl a ring because he loves her; it is small because he’s poor; she tries to appreciate it because she loves him; he gives her a magnifying glass because he wants her to appreciate it, but also because he’s a detective, and can be expected to carry one. Lesser comics would have settled for an unexplained magnifying glass—and a displeased recipient of the ring.

Back in the projectionist booth, the Boy mopes. Then he falls asleep, and so begins Sherlock, Jr.’s succession of technical wonders. The featured movie this night is ‘Hearts and Pearls,’ the story of a stolen necklace, a lovely socialite, and a cad. As the Boy slumbers, we see a ghostly version of him rise to attention, and the characters on-screen transform into the actors from the previous scenes. Crane remains the villain and thief, now with a butler (Erwin Connelly) as his accomplice. McGuire is the socialite. The Boy’s doppelganger sees what’s going on, climbs down from the projectionist’s booth to the front row of the theatre, and then into the film itself.

Unlike the others, the Boy’s personality is transformed along with his identity—and that’s appropriate, given his poor grasp of reality thus far. He is now ‘Sherlock, Jr.’, world-famous detective, decked in top hat, tails and cane, called upon to recover the missing necklace. Sherlock, Jr. is no clod, and cannot be bullied. He gives everyone in the house a narrow-eyed assessment, including the Girl. He almost sniffs them for clues. The Sheik and the Butler take him seriously, too; so much so that they devise three methods of killing him: poisoned drink, booby trapped chair (beneath a decorative battle axe on the wall), and exploding billiard ball. Sherlock, Jr. truly is the man the Boy wishes to be—he evades each of these traps with smooth ease. Meanwhile, the Sheik and the Butler nearly fall victim to their own machinations.

The villains escape and capture the Girl, setting up Sherlock, Jr.’s last act. Joined by his assistant, Gillette (Ford West), the detective infiltrates the crooks’ hideout, but cannot locate the Girl. He then escapes the Sheik through a pair of ingenious sight gags. The first sees him dive through a window and land on the street, instantly disguised as a woman; the second has Gillette in disguise, holding a street vendor’s suitcase, into which Keaton ‘dives’ to escape through the wall behind them. You’d call the editing here flawless, except there probably wasn’t any—Keaton perfected both of these gags on the vaudeville stage.

Like several other Keaton films, Sherlock, Jr. ends with an elaborate chase, though this one starts pretty oddly. Sherlock is on the run when Gillette arrives on a motorcycle to give him a lift. Sherlock then sits on the handlebars, facing forward,. However, the pair hit a mud puddle early on and Gillette is thrown off the still-moving bike. Sherlock is unaware of this and speeds a through construction site, an Irish bachelor party, and a picnic; over a bridge and two trucks, in front of a train and under another truck, all the while unsteered. It’s the movie’s best scene.

I won’t give away the ending to Sherlock, Jr.; I’ll just say it’s a satisfying one, and totally within character for everyone. We expect no less, of course. Among all his other talents, I think the Keaton touch is best felt in the respect he gives his audience. He knew he could get a cheap laugh from lesser material and cardboard characters, but he wouldn’t give us something that wasn’t good enough for him. And being a genius and all, his standards were pretty high. So return the favour and go see Sherlock, Jr. Go rent it today. The rent it again, some time.

Where to find Sherlock, Jr.:

Kino International’s The Art of Buster Keaton box set (also available as individual discs) packages Sherlock, Jr. with Keaton’s 1923 film, Our Hospitality. Look for it here.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Happy Canada Day

Today, Silent Volume celebrates 142 years of officially-Canadian culture. As a Canadian, I’m not always sure what that is, but it seems the polite thing to do.

Canadians can be justly proud of their many talents, but two tend to stand out: our capacity to produce great comedy, and our capacity to withstand really, really lousy weather. Let me direct your attention to a little known film that honours both.

The Frozen North (1922) is one of many Buster Keaton shorts, but for fans of the man, it always stands out. For in this one, Buster’s the villain.

Buster plays ‘A Bad Man,’ who arrives in Canada’s Yukon Territory to mine for gold. In the first four minutes of the film, he holds up a saloon, commits two murders, and dances a waltz with his wife’s (apparent) corpse. Beyond profit and vengeance, the Bad Man’s only interest is a nearby prospector’s wife, who looms over him by nearly a foot.

Keaton could do anything with a camera; a snow-covered prospecting town meant limitless possibilities. His puny villain spends the film soaked, encased in snow, or about to be. Igloos, ice fishing holes, snowmobiles and dog sleds set up strange gags and further beatdowns.

The Frozen North also happens to be a parody of cowboy star William S. Hart’s then-popular moral dramas, but you don’t need to be in on the joke. Keaton’s comedy, as always, stands on its own. And if you love his work as much as I do, the novelty of seeing him as the sneering heel just doubles the fun.

Where to find The Frozen North:
Kino International’s The Art of Buster Keaton box set (also available as individual discs) packages The Frozen North with another short, The Haunted House (1921) and Keaton’s 1926 feature, Battling Butler. Look for it here.