Director Josef von Sternberg’s second to last picture with partner-in-crime Marlene Dietrich doesn’t waste any time laying it all out on the table. Preempting Citizen Kane by seven years and (and several orders of lip-smacking stylistic magnitude), the film systematically announces its outré structures for us, essentially “teaching” audiences how to view it, with one fell, frenzied maelstrom of uninhibited style. A sleeping child, Princess Sophia of Germany, experiences a view-askew omen of her future destiny and power, but it is the film that asserts itself onto her – and us – in a baroque, tangled edifice of dissolves and swivels of imagery as the girls’ future is compressed into an abstract slurry of imagery, a swamp of paranoia. Sophia’s doll, passive and innocent, cracks into the suggestive malice of an iron maiden, a very different kind of toy, loosening the cinematic channels toward a montage that concludes with a man whipping back and forth in a frustrated ricochet tied to the rope within the bulbous enormity of a bell, an object interrupted by a now adult Princess Sophia undulating on a swing-set. Her suggestive hoopskirt replaces the circular bell in the frame as a new kind of weapon, or, at least, it will mushroom into a weapon over the course of the film. But already von Sternberg has weaponized her body, and the camera, into an agitated fury as a premonition of future pain and punishment dissolves into, essentially, a shot of this woman’s loins in full-tilt, implicitly foretelling her control over the pain ushered out later on. Continue reading
After the gargantuan, epoch-defining success of The Kid, Charlie Chaplin’s superstar status obviously moved him to illustrate his adventurousness and not rest on his laurels. His follow-up film, 1923’s A Woman of Paris, was rewarded with commercial confusion, owing primarily to Chaplin’s temporary rejection of his on-screen persona (he appears only in a Hitchcockian cameo). Advancing his tenure as a behind-the-scenes artist, Chaplin was perhaps tormented by the belief that audiences only appreciated him for the cane, the mustache, and the bowler hat and not for his visual wit or mastery of cinematic form (but of course, the accouterments of Chaplin’s Tramp character were among the defining features of his mastery of the cinematic form none the less). Indeed, in A Woman of Paris, Chaplin allows himself, temporarily, the sin of the title card (which he usually disdained) to explicitly remind the audience that he does not appear in corporeal form in the film, and that we should not request that he do so in order to value his art. Continue reading
A behemoth even at the baby-faced age of 31, Charles Chaplin released his first feature film in 1921 to uproarious public applause, effectively constructing (and with Chaplin, an auteur before auteurism, it was undoubtedly him constructing it) the second highest grossing film of all time by that point. Having already ushered in a flurry of short films that established his plucky Tramp character and co-founded a production company (United Artists) with the other American name-brands of nascent Hollywood (Griffith, Fairbanks, Pickford), he took to his new company not only as a factory for increasing his self-worth but as his paintbrush. Affording him near authoritarian control of his films (funded by his company after all), he would write, direct, star, and answer to no one but himself. Continue reading
Above all, Buster Keaton’s The General is a caricaturist cartoon scrawl of history, a historical epic tethered to, and upended by, the hair-raising hare Bugs Bunny. Unmolested by the burdening weight of its importance, The General is Keaton’s excuse to raise a ruckus with the past, to twist the partitions of memory, and to alloy historical event to a study in stasis and kinesis with the primordial essence of pure cinema. The presumption of operatic diction and molasses-thick sobriety assumed in most waxworks-show historical cinema – often obelisks to history rather than living and breathing exercises in movement with history – is but a distant rumor in Keaton’s phenomenally unpretentious explosion of screen momentum.
In a film beset with, or at least erupting from, the Lost Cause ideology that the South’s loss was a tragic failure of valiant rebels standing up for their beliefs, the two primary causes for Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) are his two lifehood loves, his train that he repairs by day and his female companion Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) he woos by night. His life is tarnished when she rescinds his offers once the Confederates refuse to enlist him due to his importance as an engineer. When his beloved train is stolen by Yankee spies, Gray is whooped and hollered into action to retrieve it almost in spite of himself, acting almost without visible emotional comment in his face. Early on, the world, even his own actions, coast by him with a certain predetermined status, like he is part of an unthinking tapestry rather than an active participant in the world. Until, of course, Johnnie becomes a human mid-way through, a transition with vastly more complicated and foundational reflections on American politics, cinema, and social assumptions than even the film’s revealing connection the the Confederacy. But we’ll get there before the review’s end. Continue reading
In Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven, much like F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise from the same year, and same production company, the mettle of duality and human romance is energized with cinematic luminescence, ultimately transforming togetherness into a prism for enlivening the world and lighting the way to an otherworld that, not heaven or hell, is more akin to the resplendence of worldly beauty itself. Producer William Fox was a sky-high romanticist with peaceful, radiant aspirations for humankind both exhibited within his films and enshrined in their making-of stories. Unlike many Hollywood producers quite this early on, he chose to jump the Hollywood ship of home-grown talent by acquiring some of the most rapturously received European auteurs for his productions with the quixotic belief that his production company’s cinema should be unrestrained and untrammeled on by national borders. Continue reading
Agitprop as festivity more than hoosegow, Sergei Eisenstein’s first film is also his most disarmingly pure and innocent in its desire to agitate not only society but cinema, a film thoroughly unmitigated by its own weight and purpose. The perpetual penitentiary many modern viewers discover when viewing Eisenstein’s unmistakably political films is replaced with a kindled carousel of motion and action, reaction and consequence, that feels not only undated but more progressive and alive with possibility than any film released in the 2010s. A freedom-fighting film that, in a fit of art imitating the dreams of a life that never came to exist, feels palpably liberated from the cinematic status quo. Rather than merely political critique, Strike is a filmmaking polemic, a hustle-and-bustle strike of inventive cinematic mechanisms enlivening the passé “historical cinema” genre that was often as inept and anonymous then as it is now. Continue reading
As the ur-horror film and the first masterpiece from the second visual master of the cinema (tied with Eisenstein; Griffith was the first) Nosferatu could crumble under the surfeit of weight on its back. And, like a steadfast Atlas, it holds up the earth with the gravid, implacable charisma of an obelisk absorbing a totem pole. F.W. Murnau’s incandescent grasp of cinema as a mythical creation capable of inscribing dreams and nightmares in the sky had not yet been matched by anyone in the medium (rather than achingly poetic dreams on alternate planes of reality, Griffith’s and Eisenstein’s films were more monumental architecture, or theater and dance respectively to crib from Godard). And, without much squinting, it’s almost as easy to claim that no one has actually dreamt Murnau’s dreams as well as Murnau in the 85 years since his untimely death. Continue reading
The, ahem, “mindfuck” movie is more or less a reputable genre these days, having twenty years ago adopted a throne in the highest echelon of the cinematic kingdom, at least in the minds of adolescents and high-school film-major-wannabes all across the land. You know, the kind who just can’t wait to tell you about how Fight Club is a metaphysical tract raging against the dying of the individualist, anti-social light or how The Matrix excavated a new world of possibility and mental-architecture and Laurence Fishburne’s voice is so gravelly and sonorous and important so we need to pay attention to it because Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption. And Stuff.
Nearly without exception, all of these films subscribe to a mantra of flashy revelation masquerading a reality of ultimate accommodation, their prophetic visions conforming to all but the most superficial cinematic norms. Their top-level narratives may be slanted, but the form of these films – the visual language, the actual meat of the perceptual and sensory craft – is almost rudimentarily middlebrow. They contort themselves to the regulations and edicts of mainstream cinema perhaps in a misguided belief that tearing the master’s house down with the master’s tools is anything other than an excuse to have one’s cake and eat it too. These films inspect themselves to ensure that they follow every single social, and more importantly formal, decree about how respectable cinema is dictated to function, exorcising themselves of the tangents and fractured loose-ends that might propose genuine new alternatives of thought and representation. A minor injection of a penis here or a superimposed Brad Pitt there excepted, they are primarily films of formal obsequiousness, their flickers of difference from the norm only falling backwards onto the continuity editing and classical style of the films at large. By and large, they do not break Hollywood’s back stylistically, nor do their formal structures redraw our mental assumptions about the governing scriptures of our minds. Continue reading
A tempest of Murnau, Borzage, and Griffith with its own achingly sensual, mist-shrouded, potently translucent vision of city life and the mystique of human desire, Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York is one of the pinnacles of American silent drama in the year of its acme. Which was, coincidentally, the year of its sputtering death throes, almost as if the pre-sound era was firing on all cylinders to stave off the phantom of sound, to preserve the crystalline purity of the visual medium and acclimatize viewers to the potency of the screen itself, and, above all, to throw itself the most divine combination going-away party and sarcophagus it could muster from its own hands. If so, Victor Sjöström’s The Wind might be the mortal specter of tenuous life, the skeleton in the casket, and Murnau’s Sunrise could be the grand, angelic denouement, the swooping saving grace to send the silents off to Asgard or some other heavenly resting place after being tempted by fate. I think it fitting that The Docks of New York would only ever take pride of place at silent cinema’s funeral as the drunken after-party, with the blissful ignorance of acceptance slurring around a fear of the future that is still waiting in the wings. Continue reading
Temptation begs to flatten G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box by giving it a moralizing voice or treating it as a statute on character worth, in doing so succumbing to the bourgeois decree to dress up the film in airs that Pabst, and certainly main character Lulu, have no earthly use for. Played by Louise Brooks in a phenomenal tantrum of a performance at the heart of what is inherently a melodramatic sideshow of a film, Lulu is a man-killer and an earthquake but also an embodiment of the implacable drive to not only persist but discover oneself at the heart of the human condition. In a world that is a playground and a hot-house of self-discovery and self-preservation, our earthen notions of morality don’t really apply. Continue reading