Just as sound film was putting an end to Hollywood’s silent era, the opening scene of City Lights has two people speaking in synched gibberish (a cross between the adults of the Peanuts cartoons and a jacked-up kazoo) - this was Charlie Chaplin’s way of thumbing his nose at the new invention. Sound horrified Chaplin, and with good reason as it was already putting an end to the career of many silent stars. Chaplin knew giving a voice or a language or worse his strong British accent to his internationally beloved Little Tramp character could kill it. The Tramp doesn’t speak, nor does anyone else; instead Chaplin composed a massive score that went with the film.
City Lights opens with a title card, calling itself a "comedy romance in pantomime." It’s also a fable about the heartlessness of urban life, almost a gentle version of Fritz Lang’s much darker Metropolis. Chaplin’s Tramp may be at his saddest and most pathetic. As the Great Depression rages the homeless Tramp searches for compassion in his trademark oversized shoes, ill fitting suit, bowler hat, and Hitler mustache. Like Frankenstein’s Monster and that little girl, The Tramp makes a connection with a beautiful blind flower girl, played movingly by Virginia Cherill in her first film; she would be equally remembered briefly as a real-life Mrs. Cary Grant. She mistakes The Tramp for a rich man and he finds out she and her kindly Grandmother (Florence Lee) are going to be evicted from their hovel. The Tramp takes on a series of humiliating jobs, including street sweeper and prizefighter, to try and help the two women. He also befriends a drunken Millionaire (Harry Myers) who invites The Tramp into his home at night while under the influence, but the next day, once sober, kicks him out. Eventually he convinces The Millionaire to pay for an operation to give The Blind Girl sight. Later The Tramp is mistaken as a robber who robbed The Millionaire and is sent off to prison.Continue Reading
Man With a Movie Camera
Man With a Movie Camera is an experimental film directed by Dziga Vertov. In this film Vertov was attempting to create an "absolute language of cinema" that is "based on its total separation from the language of literature and theatre." Dropping the use of actors, story lines, sets, and inter-titles, the result is a video diary made up of very powerful imagery.
Although this is an experimental film, and Vertov used a wealth of cinematic trickery (variable camera speeds, dissolves, split-screen effects, the use of prismatic lenses, stop motion etc.). The subject matter is of the everyday sort, or rather, the exposure of some of the more esoteric aspects of day to day life. The viewer is taken to see the heart of factories, a salon, a childbirth, and many other places where we normally might not go, we are shown a snapshot of urban life in a Russian city in 1929.Continue Reading
Tagebuch einer verlorenen (Diary of a lost girl)
Had Tagebuch einer verlorenen come out before Die Büchse der Pandora, it would possibly be regarded as the superior film. The reasons filmschoolies seem to champion the earlier film are usually contextual. It had the first onscreen depiction of lesbians, it was the first collaboration between Pabst and Louise Brooks and it is, unquestionably, an amazing film. If you need further proof, the always safe and predictable Criterion released the first and Kino the latter. Viewed side-by-side, there’s little between the two films and the relatively lower stature of Tagebuch einder verlorenen seems to stem more from underexposure than under-appreciation.
With this film, Pabst presents one of the earliest (possibly the first) example of the Women in Prison film. Although technically not set in prison, the reform school setting is a common variation of the subgenre and allows for the same sorts of exploitation – sadism, lesbianism and repression of an innocent forced to endure cruel conditions. Pabst is, somewhat ironically, often praised for his sympathetic portrayals of the plights of women, but here (as with his earlier work) he seems to revel in the lurid situations he creates. Beginning with Die freudlose Gasse (1925) and continuing with Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney (1927) and Büchse der Pandora (1929); Pabst’s heroines are variously unloved, duped, raped, forced into prostitution and murdered. The relentless brutality, at frequent instances, approaches camp in that Teutonic manner where comedy and horror comfortably co-exist.Continue Reading
Herr Arnes pengar (Sir Arne’s treasure)
Subtitled “a winter ballad in 5 acts,” Herr Arne’s adventure is a bleak and beautiful masterpiece of Swedish Cinema. In the 16th century, a gang of conspiring Scotsmen are banished from the country except for their leaders, who’re locked up in a tower. They promptly escape, disguise themselves as journeymen tanners and go on a murderous rampage, looting the titular treasure from the kindly Herr Arne’s vicarage.
When they try to beat the retreat, the bellicose rogues find themselves iced in and forced to wait out the harsh winter. In the process of checking the ice, one of the evildoers (Sir Archie) falls for the sole survivor of their rampage, the young, adopted daughter of the vicar, Ellasil. She falls for him too and, before long, they figure out where their lives have intersected before. Haunted by ghostly visions, Sir Archie even recalls stabbing his beloved’s sister in the heart. And yet, their new love proves unassailable – though they’re understandably wracked with guilt and sullenly accepting of their inevitable ends.Continue Reading
Schatten: Eine Nachtliche Halluzination (Warning Shadows)
Schatten begins with a five minute introduction to the film’s players, who are trotted out like the foils in a police lineup onto an actual stage where they’re identified with intertitles. After this lengthy prologue, the film abandons the use of titles altogether and embraces the purely visual ideal of silent films (predating Murnau’s efforts which are usually credited as the first to do the same.)
In the 19th century, a slightly touched travelling illusionist performs shadow puppetry for the assembled guests at a wealthy baron’s dinner party. The host’s wife is pursued quite unashamedly by four otherworldly effeminate guests who openly and continuously wink and purse their lips. This effrontery quite rankles the woman’s husband (who looks like Orson Welles crossed with Kelsey Grammer). In one scene, the fops appear to grope the baron’s wife in a public ménage a quatre, but it turns out to be shadowplay. If this seems like bad behavior, it’s because it is. And the moral of the puppeteer’s story is brutal. Already confused and disoriented by phantasmagoric shadows, reflections and misleading silhouettes, the puppeteer’s curiously timely tale pushes the partygoers over the edge and the viewer is pulled along with them.Continue Reading
Beau (né George) Brummell, whilst little known today, was a major force in 19th century politics and fashion. Born when courtly circles were filled the ostentatiously foppish Macaronis, Brummell revolutionized English grooming by not wearing a wig, brushing his teeth daily, and developing an understated but well-tailored look known which became known as Dandyism.
In the film, John Barrymore (Drew’s grandpa aka “The Great Profile”) plays Brummel (here, with one “l” for some reason.) He pines for Lady Margery, played by 17-year-old Mary Astor (who was having an affair with the notorious 42-year-old ladies’ man and whoremonger behind the scenes). Lady Margery’s ambitious mother has other ideas, however, and rejects the low-born Beau Brummel in favor of the blue-blooded Lord Alvanley, Colonel of the Tenth Hussars.Continue Reading
Yes, yes, we’ve all heard of the celebrated Nosferatu – its cinematic importance, the legendary back-story of how it was almost lost to the ages due to legal injunctions, blah blah blah – and some people, having watched the film, know how bad many of the available DVD releases have been cropped and look/sound terrible, so it’s good news for jaded movie/horror nuts that Kino Video not too long ago released a specially re-done single-DVD “Restored Authorized Edition” (authorized by the F.W. Murnau Foundation, natch, NOT Bram Stoker’s widow) and a genuinely deluxe “Ultimate DVD Edition” two-disc badboy.
Ordinarily, I’m not a sucker for “re-master & re-package” jobs but I sing the praises of whomever did the deed of remastering the film elements for the DVD transfer; the movie looks gorgeous and crisp with new tinting, as per the original studio intent, and with the hi def-ready transfer many of the scenes look as if they’d been filmed just recently, not 85 years and counting. The super-treat on the two-disc edition for me, however, was the triple-whammy of the original German version (as original and complete as we’ll probably get, anyways) and an Anglo-phile version with improved English title-cards. That, and a terrific near-hour-long documentary, The Language of Shadows, laden with neat behind-the-scenes details of F.W. Murnau’s wicked life and of the failure of the producers to win in court and at the almighty box-office, really gives us some bang for our greenbacks.Continue Reading