Month: June 2014

Lubitsch at his worst?

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Is this the worst scene of a film signed Lubitsch? Lubitsch shot only 8 days of footage before he died. Otto Preminger then took over and finished what Lubitsch had left fully prepped: blame is hard to apportion. The songs are by the great Hollander and Robin but not their best moment. The choreography is like an improvised barn-dance in a palace and stompingly inelegant. Even the costumes must be amongst the most shapeless, garish and excessive the 40s have to offer; Fox, however, was also the home of Carmen Miranda so  there might yet be worse (or better!).

 The colour is that  brightly saturated and garishly hued Technicolor that became the signature look of Fox musicals, one that audiences remembered fondly years after it disappeared.  Betty Grable is still bright and bubly but as far from mittel-Europe, Operetta and Lubitsch as you can possibly get. At the beginning of the film, when she and Cesar Romero avow their love and part, you imagine Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall saying those lines, savour what might have been; and look on harshly at what one’s left. The Lady in Ermine is part of Grable’s downward slide as a box-office star.

Lubtisch was a director of  taste who taylored  his films with great care to a achieve a distinctive style through texture, the particular arrangement of elements of mise-en-scene to create a conceptual bubble, an invisible force-field around this fictional world so that these particular types of characters could exist and act, some have called it Lubitschland. Had he survived the shoot and seen what we now do,  the result might have killed him. One can’t watch The Lady in Ermine ‘straight’ but does it lend itself to camp? Is it so bad it’s good or is it merely bad and unbearable? Worth a look and worth a think.
  Jose Arroyo

The Lego Movie (Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, USA, 2014)

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lego-movie-posters-lead-photo

In The Lego Movie, ‘the story of a nobody who saved everybody’, the villain is President Business aka The Lord of Business; everyone has to do exactly the same thing whilst asserting their uniqueness; and all sing ‘Everything is Awesome’ whilst applying themselves to each daily routine like blissed-out Moonies.

It’s a kid film but so knowing parents will find plenty to delight them:Judy Garland is heard singing ‘How you going to keep them down in the farm after they’ve seen Paree’; Batman, Wonder Woman and Han Solo are some of the guest-stars; All of the Lego worlds, some of which kids might already own and play with, appear as alternate dimensions that the protagonists zap through. Glue is the deadly enemy. The whole film is super smart, razor sharp and very funny until the icky Will Ferrell appears and the film turns compromising, sentimental and appeasing, almost ruining everything.

It’s great to see a film for kids that’s brilliant as well as bright; you’ve got to be quick on your feet with it; until 3/4’s of the way through I thought it the most critical, intelligent and inventive film of the year but then it got sentimental, message-y and the whole Farrell episode was like watching an Andy Hardy movie from 1938 where the Judge and his son sermonize each other into an understanding that nobody believed then and nobody believes now.

The message in this one is that the invisible person is the chosen one, everyone is special, and if business works with rather than against the average person, we’d find utopia. You can see why I preferred the first 3/4 when it was all anti-business and anti-dumbness. Urgh!

I had successfully avoided The Lego Movie until friends went on and on …. and on about its many virtues. I’m glad I saw it and  mostly agree. On the evidence of their work here, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are pretty dazzling directors of comedy; and it’s refreshing to see an American comedy where what’s funny is not just the situation, or the lines but the style of showing itself: the play with images, narrative, point of view. It’s great to see how wit of approach makes a marvel of the banal, even basic dialogue is transformed into dazzling wit via a shift of accent and intonation: ‘He is about to be erased by the poh-leesh of nah-eel’

 The Lego Movie nonetheless performs a primary ideological function which is to first articulate a dissatisfaction with what is – in this case a corporate dictatorship parents of kids might be all too familiar with — and then construct an imaginary resolution at the end to help audiences not only reconcile with the devil they know but learn to love him. As soon as Will Farrell appeared the whole message changes from ‘business is evil’ to ‘ordinary people could work together with business and  wage-slaves might develop into entrepreneurs — or at least really happy workers —  in order to create more business! Everyone wins and everyone is happy! We are business, business is the world, isn’t it lovely, let’s sing our love of Legoland, our land’. It’s as if someone dropped an e into the filmmakers’ kool-aid 3/4 of the way through and they started exclaiming ‘I love you’ and offering drunken hugs to that which they had previously most hated.

Fundamentally the film is just one long advertisement for Lego of course but it is also more than that…but then again, it is very much limited by what it sets out as its primary raison d’être. Anything whose primary goal is to sell you something can’t be art partly because it doesn’t want to deal with truth, even as a partial personal expression of it. It’s out for the sell..and the sell is always some kind of con. What’s interesting about The Lego Movie is that it so  fervently makes one wish this weren’t inevitably and always the case.

José Arroyo

Gossips at a ball in Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan

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In this clip, Mrs. Erlynne (Irene Rich) has inveigled her way into a balls he’s been actively forbidden. What drives her? First, her selfish desire to gets re-integrated into society; or is her desire to see a daughter  she abandoned many years before  more important? Here Irene Rich communicates a motherly yearning but also a little shrug when she sees how aghast the daughter, Lady Windermere (May MacAvoy), is at her presence, as if her main purpose is  neither to communicate not to please but to achieve and attain. One remains unsure.

What Lubitsch communicates clearly, however is how restrictive this society is. Those huge dwarfing door, those large forbidding spaces, all to be walked through slowly so others may judge at leisure. Her look at Lord Windermere, his walk towards her and the formal greeting: the niceties must be observed. But the shock of the wife at the sight of such a couple is palpable; as is the titillation with which those dowagers, previously sat on benches like mummies ready for the embalmer suddenly come alive, though their interest must be measured, sideways, on edge, underneath the radar. The images Lubitsch composes, that old master drawing that occupies the frame, and these titillated gossips entering the frame from below, allowing their gazes to glance, judge, hide-away below the frame, protected by the ancientness of their protocols, their wealth, their closed-off homes, and their priceless art, all property, all markers of manners, all hiding a civilisation not far and not above cut-throat. The clucking will begin later, in private. This is what Lubitsch’s extraordinarily imaginative and beautiful staging, framing and composition suggests so vividly.

 

José Arroyo

A note on a wipe/fade in Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan

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Perhaps the most beautiful combination of horizontal wipe and fade; and an example of Lubitsch inventiveness with film form and the depth of expressiveness he was able to extract from it. Just before this sequence, Mrs. Erlynne (Irene Rich), a fallen woman, has arrived at the races, shocking everyone with her presence, her too chic moderne dress, and luxuriant feather hairdress. She turns  back to look intently at Lady Windermere. We know she’s her mother because she’s been blackmailing Lord Windermere with the threat of making that knowledge public. It would ruin the daughter who thinks her mother’s dead; and it would not be without cost to Lord Windermere’s own reputation. That threat of blackmail is  how she has the money for the races and for the clothes. She looks at her daughter with a mother’s longing but the gentleman behind her mistakes that glance and is delightedly assuming it is directed at him.

As Mrs. Erlynne leaves, he follows her, a woman of easy virtue who likes being chased and enjoys being caught. We see first Mrs. Erlynne walking through the frame. Then her suitor does the same. Then we cut to Mrs. Erlynne walking but now near the left of the frame as the suitor enters from the right. They’re now both in the picture. As he walks faster and catches up with her, the wiping fade moves to the right until the wipe/fade snaps to a close and completely to black; a metaphor that itself becomes an act of consummation. Simple, beautiful, full of feeling, danger and fun but also of vulnerability. Mrs. Erlynne gets caught, trapped, ‘done’; she sets herself as bait, and the gentleman does doff his top-hat. But the pounce, polite as it is, still ends in a  snap, a kind of expiry, a petite mort, as the screen fades to black, evoking simultaneously the sadness, excitement and vulnerability that is Mrs. Erlynne’s lot to this point.

José Arroyo

The Merry Jail/ Das Fidele Gefängnis (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1917)

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Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 13.00.22A charming three-reel comedy, in a lovely-to-look-at transfer, and very instructive on Lubitsch’s development as a filmmaker. Lubitsch was only twenty-five when he made this loose adaptation of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. Germany was still fighting WWI but now beginning to lose it; Lubitsch was still performing on-stage for Reinhardt in supporting parts but was also already a top-billed film star.

Cinema offered brighter prospects in directing as well. Lubitsch’s delight in the medium and its possibilities is everywhere evident in The Merry Jail/ Das Fidele Gefängnis: he puts the camera on the floor (fig. A), on balconies (fig. B), on the street (fig. C1 and C2), outside doors (fig. D) and experiments by filming that already filmed to get a frame within a frame to seem a reflection on a mirror (see fig. E). Lubitsch’s goal is to please and who can but delight at all this imagination and inventiveness mobilized to fulfill that one overarching purpose?

fig a
fig A

 

from a balcony, and pre-figuring Busby Berkeley
Fig. B: from a balcony, and pre-figuring Busby Berkeley
Fig Ca: on the street though notice the character exits frame right
Fig C-a: on the street though notice the character exits frame right
fig 3.B: but enters frame also from the right. Not yet following continuity editing
fig C-b: but enters frame also from the right. Not yet following continuity editing
Outside doors
Fig D. Outside doors
Fig E. Experimenting with frames within frames and reflections
Fig E: xxperimenting with frames within frames and reflections

The Merry Jail is a farce on marriage, desire and social and sexual role-play; one that presages the later, more sophisticated comedies of manners such as The Marriage Circle (1924) and Trouble in Paradise (1932). The film begins with Alice von Reizentein (Kitty Dewall) asking her maid Mizi (Agda Neilson) to call her husband Alex (Harry Liedtke) to breakfast. They search high and low but can’t find him. She goes to call the police but, as she’s about to do so, the postman interrupts with a warrant of arrest for her husband due to disorderly behavior: he is to present himself to the jail at 8:00. Alex is in fact at home, still in white tie from the night before and still so hung-over he falls face first on the warrant.

A farce on marriage
A farce on marriage

 

Alice and Alec each get an invitation to the same ball: the wife via a letter from her sister reminding her ‘if anyone tries to kiss you, don’t giggle: it’s not chic’; the husband via a telegram from a friend promising that the party will be ‘colossal’. Lubitsch stages one of the mini fashion shows in a shop that are common in his films of this period (see also Shoe Salon Pinkus), this time inciting audience desires for the various delectable hats Alice can’t choose amongst.

At the shop, Alice is noticed by a stranger, Egon (Erich Schönfelder), who finds her so attractive he proceeds to importune her all the way home and into her very living room. ‘If you don’t go away, I’ll teach you a lesson you won’t forget’, she tells him on the way. ‘That’s what I want’ he says. This might seem creepy to modern eyes were it not for the lack of real threat, the gentleness of the innuendo, the fact that she always seems to have the upper-hand, and that the whole thing is played in a heightened humorous tone.

 

When the Police representative arrives to pick up her husband for his night in jail and catches them together, Alice asks Egon to ‘play’ her husband so as not to ruin her reputation. He agrees but not before kissing her several times; after all, he remarks delightedly, he’s got a right to; she’s his ‘wife’. In the meantime, Alex, unaware of any of this, decides to chuck jail for the ball. ‘My wife has no idea. That shows how stupid women are’, he tells his friend as they head off. But actually, one of the delights of Lubitsch’s films is in showing how smart women are; it will be the wife who teaches the husband a lesson or two at the end.

In the first act, Lubitsch sets up the situation for the comedy, which he will exploit to the maximum. He also puts into play some of the elements of farce: the physical comedy, the asides to the audience (in this case, visually rendered, with the characters sometimes performing directly to us), the paralleling of situations and their effects on people of different social stations (the maid also goes to the ball), the role-playing and mistaken identity, as well as a humorous reflection on sex roles. This is traditional farce with elements not dissimilar from, say, Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.

 

In The Merry Jail, the situation, the structuring of the basic story and its resolution are really no different than what one would expect on-stage. What is remarkable is how Lubitsch attempts to deploy all of these elements of farce into a visual medium so that editing, rhythm, camera set-ups and composition all contribute to the farce. For example, at the end of the first act when, the wife decides to go to the party, Mizi the maid jumps for joy saying ‘now the coast is clear’. She puts on one of her mistresses’ dresses and then what Lubitsch shows us is a shot of the husband going to the ball with friend in a car, then Egon, pretending to be the husband, going to jail in a carriage accompanied by the warden, then the wife alone in a car, and finally the maid, in evening dress, running after the streetcar and jumping onto it as a kind of visual punchline to the situation comedy and as a gag in itself. There’s a play on the rhyming of the shots in terms of content (two men, two men, one woman, one woman); a careful sequencing of forms of transport to maximize a gag; care taken with how type of shot and timing can incite laughter. The goal is first to delight; secondly, but just as important, to create a series of connections that will be pursued later, in this case that which happens at the ball and that which happens in the jail.

Maurice Chevalier sings about Mitzi in One Hour With You

Lubtisch has the greatest respect for a laugh and he’s not above stooping low (Countess Titti Tutti). There are lovely visual bits such as Mizi smoking and hiding her cigarette from her mistress; or her dancing on the table at the ball; or the way she orders three extra helpings of goose livers. In fact, Lubitsch must have a fondness for the very name because a generation later and in another country he’d have Maurice Chevalier sing a paean to her in One Hour With You (Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor, USA, 1932): ‘Oh that Mitzi!’ (see clip above).

 

Mizi
Mizi

There are visual jokes such as the custom of kissing in Prince Zbrschowsky’s country and how each of the main characters is given a gag at the entrance (the best is again Mizi’s, who ends up kissing the hand of her escort), or how Alex only recognizes Mizi as his own maid when he steals a kiss (‘It IS Mizi!) or how he disparages marriage to his own wife (Are you married? Do I look that dumb?). Lubitsch even makes a joke out of the numbers of footmen who rush to get people’s coats. Comedy directors who don’t already study Lubitsch should: there’s a lot to learn from even the Lubitsch who was only twenty-five

 

 

Pierrots at the ball
Pierrots at the ball

 

The scene at the ball  is less accomplished than what he’d do later in The Oyster Princess but is nonetheless flowing, rhythmic, another musical sequence without music. The handling of the crowds in the sequence, overflowing with black and white Pierrots, the lounging around doorways and ogling: all are purposefully delightful. There’s even a guiding intelligence behind the editing so that Mizi’s final shot is  continuously cut onto scenes at the jail.

 

low-key lighting for Quabbe in jail
low-key lighting for Quabbe in jail

In the jail we get an articulation of themes Lubitsch would go on to develop for the rest of his career: the man with the heart stuck to his arse; or when Egon arrives in the jail, one of the downtrodden prisoners says ‘He seems to be a big shot. He probably is a con artist.’ Things are not what they seem, people are not who they say, appearances are important and attention should be paid, pleasure can ethics, and sex can be morality. The viewer, always assumed to have a great intelligence and a good though weary heart in Lubitsch, is trusted to make sense of what is not explicitly rendered.

More is made explicit in The Merry Jail, however, than would be the case in Lubitsch’s American films. The innuendo is much more varied and covers a lot more of the spectrum of desire in these early German films than in the later American ones. There’s the carnivalesque scene of couples dancing in the Second Act where you see that the men are really women in costume so that it is women dancing with each other; and of course there is also the to me quite fantastic sight of Emil Jannings as the homosexual jail guard Quabbe, first making a pass at Egon, and then kissing the jail warden and expressing his love for him. It’s played for laughs but there is also real feeling and sympathy. I was quite shocked and delighted to see such a representation, so worked through, in such an early film, and particularly one of Lubitsch’s: we will not see this in his American films.

Punishment
Punishment

 

At the end, there’s a general unmasking, an expression of homosexual love, a formation of a couple cutting across class lines with Egon and Mizi, the re-affirmation of the marriage of Alex and Alice through the recovery of the wedding ring, and finally a kiss and a restoration of order – but not before the wife turns the table on her husband and puts him in his place: a delightful three-reeler.

 

Final clinch
Final clinch

The Merry Jail appears in the Criterion DVD of Trouble in Paradise with a score recorded exclusively for the Criterion Collection in 2002 by Aljoscha Zinmerman.

 

 

 

José Arroyo

 

Devil’s Knot (Atom Egoyan, USA, 2014)

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Devil's Knot

 

A movie about the sexual killing of pre-pubescent children that has Dane DeHaan as the ice-cream man but that doesn’t end the way you’d expect it to. Another film that paints a dark picture of a rural America wading in poverty, ignorance, corruption; of a society that lacking justice in this world seeks it in another, sometimes through Jesus and sometimes through witchcraft.

This America that we see is depicted for us by a Canadian, a director famous for keeping things cool, distant, objective, complicated; one who likes to take it slow and doesn’t feel the need to take the audience with him; even when a town is willing to sacrifice three innocent teenagers as revenge for the murder of three innocent children. We see events in different mediums but the aim is to complicate rather than clarify. The focus is on self-expression rather than communication; maybe the director doesn’t trust the audience, maybe he simply hasn’t given any thought to it. Too bad for us.

Any film that needs a whole set of title cards at the end to wrap up the film can’t be said to work and I find the story-telling weak. However, Egoyan knows how to set a mood, one that starts under a river in a forest and ends up troublingly lodged in one’s psyche. The shots are often in shallow focus so that only one thing is clear at a time; and the camera sometimes wonders to the side of the action and sometimes outside of it completely, indicating that there are other answers to be sought.

Reese Whitherspoon gives another tart performance as a rural working class Mom, a multi-faceted one where hardness and anguish and need and love get even more muddled up with a need for justice. The moment where she dares her husband to hit her or when her arms seem to take up a life of their own and reach out for the nearest child as an evocation of the loss of her own, are moments worth treasuring: they show us a great actress giving her all and back to her peak.

Devil’s Knot also has other attractions: Stephen Moyer from True Blood is the lawyer working for the State; Bruce Greenwood clearly indicates that his Judge David Burnett has another agenda, Colin Firth is a very trim private investigator trying and failing to solve the case. It’s a film based on a true story, of great interest and many attractions. The pleasures, however, are few.

 

José Arroyo

Carmen/Gypsy Blood (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1918)

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Screen Shot 2014-04-15 at 13.24.00

One doesn’t really learn much about Lubitsch or indeed about the deployment of ideas of Spanishness from Gypsy Blood[1]. According to Sabine Hake in Passions and Deceptions: The Early Films of Ernst Lubitsch, Gyspsy Blood is the result of Lubitsch being ‘forced to comply with specific requests. Asked to direct a promotional film for the new UFA star Pola Negri, he chose Carmen …While the film undoubtedly profited from the popularity of the Bizet opera, its melodramatic story remained … uncharacteristic for Lubitsch’ (p.42).

 

In relation to  ‘Carmen’, Prosper Merimée, Bizet and the drawings of Gustav Doré had together already provided a basic but flexible narrative, an iconography and indeed a music to have passions to, which this DVD makes full, if choppy use of. The elements of the Carmen story may have been relatively new to a mass audience in 1918 or 1921 — although C.B. De Mille had already made a film of the material with Geraldine Farrar in 1915 — but, to us now, Lubitsch’s achievement is to visually render already familiar scenes in ways that still hold interest.

IMG_0743

According to Scott Eyman, the film borrows Mérimée’s flashback structure in which a campfire storyteller tells ‘the tale of a man bewitched.’ We then see Don José Navarro’s conservatism — and as played by Harry Liedtke, his dullness — his provincial background and the purity of his sweetheart, here name Dolores (Grete Diercks) but known by other names in other versions, all evoking a dewy-eyed drippyness: Micaëla in the opera, Cindy Lou in Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones, the Broadway version of the opera,etc.

Carmen, or really Carmencita as she’s called here, gets a spectacular introduction in the famous tobacco factory scene. We see her attempt to spring José from jail, thus ensuring his degradation and downfall, with a sensual boldness that was to remain unmatched for many a year, the scene where she’s got her hands tied behind her back but snatches the flower off Don José’s lapel with her teeth still seems risqué. The scenes of gypsy thieves in the caves are used mainly to exoticise the landscape and as a striking way of filming Pola Negri from inside the cave. The bullfights, seemingly an integration of documentary film footage, are filmed with a sexy and deadly brutality so that the matching of sex and death is a prelude to meeting with Escamillo (Magnus Stifter) and her own final death. Lubitsch is very sparing with his close-ups, saving them mainly to show Carmen’s desire for Escamillo and her death at the hands of Don José at the end.

The narrator, dramatically lit in chiaroscuro to tell the 'story of a man bewitched'.
The narrator, dramatically lit in chiaroscuro to tell the ‘story of a man bewitched’.

 

Many of us have seen the schemas of these scenes over and over again, fleshed out in a variety of modes, genres, productions, versions: the endlessly popular productions of the opera, or perhaps Gades’ flamenco rendering of the Carmen myth on stage, or Saura’s film version of the Gades ballet, or Dorothy Dandridge in Preminger’s Carmen Jones (USA, 1954), or Hayworth in The Loves of Carmen (Charles Vidor, USA, 1948) or Paz Vega In Juan Calvo’s Carmen (Spain, 2003)….We know the story so well and Lubitsch’s version, admittedly an early one, provides only one surprise, on which more later.

flamenco and guitars
flamenco and guitars

 

What do we learn about Lubitsch as a filmmaker from Carmen/Gypsy Blood? We learn that he can handle crowds, that he can handle spectacle, that he’s got an eye for period setting and the telling detail. We also learn that he’s not fully ‘Lubitsch’; had I not known who the director was before watching it, I would have thought it a skilled job of direction but it would have been a question of guesswork as to whether the credit was due to Lubitsch. In fact a film like Frank Borzage’s Desire (1936), which he prepared and produced but did not direct, or One Hour With You (1932), which he prepared and produced but Cukor says he did not direct, were to me saliently Lubitsch upon first viewing in a way that this is not.

Pola approaching, as seen from inside the cave in a striking composition,
Pola approaching, as seen from inside the cave in a striking composition,

Lubitsch’s Carmen was re-titled Gypsy Blood: A Love Tale of Old Spain for its American release by First National. What it reveals about ‘Old Spain’ is that there were a lot of blue-eyed Germans trying to pass themselves off as gypsies, and that they weren’t averse to using blackface to do so, thus reinforcing the notion of Spaniards as the Africans of Europe, with gypsies in particular as descendants of Egyptians. Actually, this blackface might have been what Max Factor’s ‘Light Egyptian’ make-up developed for Lena Horne might have looked like applied to Aryans.

Pola, bored, surly, insolent.
Pola, bored, surly, insolent.

The revelation of this movie is Pola Negri in the title role. She’s someone who’s aware of her sexual attractiveness and uses it as a weapon. She’s the opposite of Henny Porten, insolent, sexy, aware, playful, sneering, coarse. Wid’s Daily, hated it for all the right reasons, calling Negri’s Carmencita, ‘about the crudest, most boorish, unfeminine hoyden that has ever been presented’. Harriet Underhill in the New York Tribune, called it, ‘a gorgeous performance’ with ‘Negri, a powerful actress, who is fascinating, beautiful in a way that has character for its foundation, and intelligent.’

The sap doesn't stand a chance.
The sap doesn’t stand a chance.

Jeannine Basinger sums it thus, ‘‘The role of Carmen gave Pola Negri everything she was best at – primarily the chance to be fiery, tempestuous, and passionate and to break through the boundaries of a woman’s ordinary life. She plays with enormous energy – a radiant and compelling figure on-screen. Variety stated it simply : ‘This Negri is amazing’.[2]

It’s one of the roles, along with Passion (Madame DuBarry) and One Arabian Night (Sumurum), that made Pola Negri a star in America when they were released there in quick succession in 1920-21. According to Mariusz Kotowski, her biographer, it was also Negri’s favourite role: ‘I understood her. I loved her. I was her. It was like playing an organ with innumerable stops. Every motion could be touched upon’. [3] It’s the combination of earthiness and insolence, intelligence and passion, the grace of movement, and a face that can seem ordinary at one moment and very beautiful the next that still captivates today.

 

Escamillo at the bullfights.
Escamillo at the bullfights.

Gypsy Blood was an enormous success unprecedented in the German film industry up to that point. The critic of the Licht-Bild-Bühne wrote, ‘The effectiveness of the German film industry and its indisputable capability to compete successfully on the world market has been unequivocally proven’[4].

In November 1918, censorship was abolished in Germany. According to Hans Helmut Prinzler, ‘On 20 December 1918, the date of the world premiere (of Carmen), the Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils met in Belin and agreed on elections for a German National Assembly. The mood on the streets was verging on civil war’[5]. In 1919, women would obtain the right to vote. The film is on the cusp of a changing world, in a changing film industry, where different roles for women are not only acceptable but demanded. Gypsy Blood, and Negri’s playing of Carmen, capture, evoke and are representative of this process of change.

Still, more and better was still to come from the pairing of Lubitsch and Negri.

A clear influence on the Dietrich of The Devil is a Woman.
A clear influence on the Dietrich of The Devil is a Woman.

 

José Arroyo

 

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[1] Though the footnotes in the inter-titles are very funny trying to do their best to teach and inform: ‘Alcala, a hamlet near Seville famous for its excellent bread’.

[2] All of these quotes are from Jeannine Basinger, Silent Stars Alfred A. Knopf, Kindle Edition, New York, 2000. The Wid’s Daily, and Tribune quotes from location 527 in the Kindle Edition, the Basinger and Variety from location 3411.

 

[3] Mariusz Kotowski, Pola Negri – Hollywood’s First Femme Fatale, University Press of Kentucky, 2014, Kindle version. Lexington Kentucky, location 511.

 

[4] Robert Carringer and Barry Sabath, Ernst Lubitsch: A Guide to References and Resources London: George Prior Publishers, 1978, p. 3

 

[5] Hans Helmut Prinzler, Sirens and Sinners: A Visual History of Weimar Film 1918-1933, Translated from the German by David H. Wilson, London, Thames and Hudson, 2013. Original Edition copyright 2012, Schirmer/Mosel, Munich, 2012, p. 54.

 

Grace of Monaco (Olivier Dahan, France/USA/Belgium/Italy/Switzerland, 2014)

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grace of monaco

 

Grace of Monaco is the kind of movie where the star wears a billowing ballgown, races frantically through endless palace corridors and jumps into a huge bed …. to weep. Life is so very difficile; even when Maria Callas (Paz Vega) — wearing a fabulous Jeanne Toussaint panther ring —  is your bestie, warbles beautifully,and goes horseback riding with you as a show of support. Luckily there’s a ball at the end so that jewels, gowns and seating arrangements can play their role in simultaneously resolving affairs of state and of the heart.

Nicole Kidman gets an endless amount of close-ups, some so extreme that her earrings are out of focus. The whole film is designed so we can see her be beautiful and suffer nobly while she learns to say goodbye to Hollywood and all the fun of the movie star life and hello to politics, duty, and sacrifice in her new role as Princess of Monaco. Callas’ drive for artistic expression above all else is contrasted with Grace’s willingness to sacrifice art for family and country. Lubtisch was already sending up this type of material a hundred years ago. One looks on the screen in a daze that might might have been caused by the diamonds display but is more accurately attributed to  the drivel that is the story and its treatment.

Derek Jacobi is the fey and worldly aristocrat who teaches Grace protocol. Frank Langella is, I kid you not, Father Tuck, guardian of Grace’s soul. Tim Roth is Prince Rainier, the  unappreciative husband; and first glowers at Grace but then ends up giving her warm glow due to her great diplomatic skills and even greater love for the nuclear family. Grace learns how to act serenity whilst dealing with palace intrigue and other people’s selfishness. At the end Grace is so good at her new role that she gets a standing ovation for her efforts; even old grouch De Gaulle is moved to stand. It’s pure trash, very demodée but lovely to look at.

The film does have an interesting exploration on the nature of acting and performance, in life and in art. Some scenes of Nicole Kidman rehearsing her lines and her expressions would rival De Niro’s ‘Are You Looking At Me’ scene in Taxi Driver if only the film were better. As it is, I can’t in good faith recommend it to anyone  except lovers of fine jewellery.  However, I must say that if you put aside all considerations of film art and are happy to look at glossy layouts in fashion magazines, a boxed set with Madonna’s W.E., the Naomi Watts Diana and this Grace of Monaco would make for one glamorous binge.

 

José Arroyo

The Adventures of Prince Achmed/ Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, Germany, 1926)

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Paul Shallcross, who today played the lovely score he composed for the film, gave an excellent introduction as to why the film has historically been revered as a landmark: the youth of the director, the painstaking mode of animation involving cardboard silhouettes and thin sheets of lead which took three years to complete, how each frame was lit from below and photographed from above using layered backgrounds one painstaking frame after another, how famous avant-garde figures such as Walter Ruttmann, Berthold Bartosch and Carl Koch worked on the film etc. But personally, I always thought there was a reason why silhouette films never took off. It always felt too much like a successful attempt in gaining maximum expressivity from a limited vocabulary; and why bother? The images are delicate and pretty. The story, from the Arabian nights and featuring Aladdin, his lamp, witches, sorcerers, dragons, warriors and princesses — and a setting ranging from the Middle East to China — is exciting and involving. But why not tell the same story using a greater visual vocabulary that allowed more movement and a greater range of expression? Today I got my answer.

I had ever seen the film on a big screen before, and it made a difference. I had never seen it with a mixed race audience, and it made a difference. I had never seen it in a room full of kids accompanied by their parents, and that was the biggest difference of all: they were involved, they understood, they appreciated it. They couldn’t understand the sub-titles but they kept asking their parents what was happening and why (one insistent kid, who obviously couldn’t speak English, had a whole exciting line of questioning for his parents in Spanish from beginning to end). On one level the children understood much less than I; on another they made me see what I hadn’t been able to see before; that a limited vocabulary might not be a bad way of communicating with an audience who doesn’t have a greater one at its disposal.

That’s not the whole story of course; the film has ever been beautiful to look at; the delicate filigree curlicues of the cutouts, the shape of the figures, the rendering of ‘The Orient’, the romantic fantasy of the world created for the film. All have many pleasures (and some dilemmas) to offer any audience.

The event was another success for Flatpack, an achievement best resumed as way of involving local artists with some of the greatest artworks in film history and engaging a wide range of local communities with that work in a landmark location worth discovering or re-discovering, in this case the new Library. May such efforts long continue.

 

Seen at the Birmingham Central Library, 8th June 2014

Birmingham Central Library 8th of June 2014
Birmingham Central Library 8th of June 2014

The Opening of Possessed (Clarence Brown, USA, 1931)

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I love this opening for so many reasons: the way it begins with the factory whistle, tilts and then cranes down to show the crowd of workers surging out of the factory, settles on the boyfriend (Wallace Ford), finds Joan Crawford, and tracks back with  them as a  couple. We see it’s a working couple, a make-do couple, a couple only because it’s the best available in a town without many options. I love the dissolve into the next shot and the way the camera then tracks along with the couple but with the background in focus so we can see the poverty, the drunkenness, a fight between a married couple where the woman is left at home, alone and distressed. We know that’s Crawford’s future if she stays there. I love the way Crawford shows her tiredness and dissatisfaction and the way that she says her only way out of this life and this place is her looks and whatever fellas like about her; we all know what it is, that she’s got it and that she’s willing to use it. I love the way Brown creates a dreamyness of tone when Crawford gazes in on the train from the outside and he frames the windows of the train carriage as a view into a different world, a better world, more glamorous, like film frames run through a sprocket, like cinema. It’s how Brown conveys that going to the movies is many factory workers’ way out of a repetitive, dehumanising, exploitative milieu of mindless labour and into another dimension, a marvellous one of glamorous possibilities. And an awestruck Crawford is our conduit into it. She’s us; us as we could be if we had her looks, her drive and her gumption. It’s a technically superb opening, beautiful to look at, expressive of social conditions and full of feeling.

track laid out for possessed
The crew, cast, and enormous track that made the shot possible

According to Donald Spoto, in the book on Crawford he intriguingly entitled, Possessed, ‘the film struck a powerful responsive chord among Depression-era women of 1931, deprived of prospects and caught in frightening economic circumstances. In their neighbourhood screens was Joan Crawford — sensual yet strong-willed, vulnerable but determined, and willing, as Marian says, “to use whatever men find attractive about me” to succeed.

In a way Marian was Joan Crawford’ (p.87).

And according to Crawford Clarence Brown was ‘a genius’ (p.86). This is certainly a great and complex job of directing, a great performance from Crawford and a film that lays claim to being one of the land-mark films of the pre-Code era.

José Arroyo

Die Augen Der Mummie Ma/ The Eyes of the Mummy (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1918)

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Watching The Eyes of the Mummy in the version distributed by Alpha Entertainment is itself a work of archeology. Each frame is like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of the original positive. We can see the contours, the outline, what the image might have been like. But we don’t know for sure. Clothes, décor, texture—all so important to Lubitsch’s work and the pleasures audiences get from it – are here barely discernible. The quality of the image requires an operation of decipherment at various levels, from the general — what were the images and sounds like originally and what might they have meant to audiences at the time? — to the particular: what does that inter-title so faded as to be unintelligible actually say?

A degraded image
A degraded image

 

According to Sabine Hake in Passions and Deceiptions: The Early Films of Ernst Lubitsch, ‘The Eyes of the Mummy announces Lubitsch’s decision in its promotional campaign: “He (Lubitsch) succeeds in persuading his boss and discoverer, Paul Davidson of Union Film, that he must now realise his artistic dreams in the creation of great film drama . Davidson decides to risk a lot of money…”The rest, as the credits try to suggest, is history. (p.38)’

The film is Orientalist tosh that features all the elements, historical and fictional, archeological digs in Egypt had made fashionable: pyramids, sand dunes, high priests, exotic dances, otherworldly trances, sexual enslavement. These would become even more popular with the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1923. Thus the film is riding a wave of Orientalism in Western Culture, a wide-ranging one encompassing the Russian Costumes popularised by Dhiagelev and the Ballets Russes, but also Chinese porcelain, Turkish rugs and the Japanese Screens so adored by Coco Chanel. Its Egyptian variant would manifest itself throughout popular culture in the twenties and beyond via Sheiks, sand dunes, glittery sequins, hair that was bobbed and fringed, mummies and more.

Emil Jannings in blackface as Radu
Emil Jannings in blackface as Radu

The world of The Eyes of the Mummy is not too far removed from that of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, ever with us in endless adaptations, as well as the relatively recent Stephen Sommers franchise of Mummy films (1999-2008), which in itself encompasses a broad and unapologetic Orientalism. All find an origin in the fashion for Egyptology and all are in evidence here. We could say that Lubitsch was on the avant-garde of a fashion that is still with us, a hegemonic discourse that still places and displaces, fetishizes, fixes, and inevitably puts into play dynamics of empire and subjugation.

Pola's eyes, a Mummy's mask
Pola’s eyes, a Mummy’s mask

 

The plot is simple to the point of simplistic but also sexy and sensational: Albert Wendland (Harry Liedtke), a young painter, goes on a sojourn to Egypt and sees a beautiful girl gathering water by a well. The next day at the Palace Hotel, Prince Hohenfels (Max Laurence) plans to go on an outing to see the forbidden burial chamber but is advised that anyone who has visited has come upon terrible misfortune. Albert overhears and asks one of the victims what happened. ‘The eyes are a live’ screams the victim in delirium.

Gathering water by a well
Gathering water by a well

 

When Albert does eventually venture there, Radu (Emil Jannings) the keeper of the tomb takes him to the see the ‘Eyes of the Mummy’ and he, thinking that there’s something familiar and fishy, goes into the antechamber to see what’s behind. Radu tries to stop him, they fight, and Albert accidentally shoots Ragu. When he finally gets to the antechamber, he finds Ma (Pola Negri) who turns out be the reason the eyes of the Mummy were alive: they’re hers.

A painterly representation of the previous image
A painterly representation of the previous image

Ma tells Albert of her sad fate: years ago she’d been gathering water by a well when Radu kidnapped her, made her the eyes of the Mummy and a slave to his ‘every’ wish. Albert promises to free her and does. He takes her home to Europe, paints her portrait and introduces her to all his friends. Bernardhi, a famous showbiz impresario, is impressed by her dancing at a party, puts her on the stage and she becomes a big star. Unfortunately for her, Radu lives. He was rescued by Prince Hohenfels and is now also in Europe. When he finds her, his mere glance is enough to once more put her under his spell. When she resists, he kills her, kisses her and kills himself. It’s almost as much trashy fun to recount as it is to watch.

Lubitsch's dynamic compositions and mise-en-scene
Lubitsch’s dynamic compositions and mise-en-scene

 

The film is worth seeing, even in this degraded print, for further proof of how great Lubitsch is with crowds, for the expressive movement of people within space rendered interesting, new and fresh through inventive compositions. The market scenes, embroidered with little vignettes such as the boys stealing, the magicians doing their act and merchants hawking their wares, demonstrate a vivid and textured rendering of atmosphere. We begin to see how Lubitsch creates memorable compositions that are also places for movement and action such as the initial introduction of the sand dunes; and also how these are edited so that time, setting and action all find a rhythm, one which maximizes the spectacular elements of what we’ve been shown; see for example the shot of Prince Hohenfels returning from his outing, the horses on top of the sand dunes and how we continue seeing the movement of the caravan of people until the very last horse goes out of the frame, evoking a sense of exotic, contemplative and magnificent spectacle.

Note the curtain reflected in the Mirror where Radu will appear
Note the curtain reflected in the Mirror where Radu will appear

The scenes at the Art Gallery, the Alhambra Theatre, and the Hotel all function as set-pieces where Lubitsch sets out to dazzle with crowds of people, costumes, dances or even acrobats. This is a film that adores that which can add a shine or or a shiver and this includes playing with film form; see for example, the super-imposition of images to convey the link between Radu and Ma’s minds but also to render Radu’s presence immaterial, otherworldly and spectral. This of course would become a standard way of showing ghosts in cinema in the classic period but, though not new, it was rare enough and must have seemed thrilling then.

dancing hieroglyphics
dancing hieroglyphics

 

One can also appreciate, albeit in a more muted way, Lubitsch’s use of the mirror at the Prince’s salon. It’s a wonderful composition that not only allows us to view off-screen space but also works narratively to create distinctions between what the characters know and what the audience can see, thus creating suspense. In this instance of course what we see before Ma is the appearance of Radu in the mirror and a threat not only to the lifestyle we see her so enjoying but to her very life.

Radu the ghost
Radu the ghost

Last but not least one of the great pleasure of the film is to see Pola Negri in her prime and on display. She’s as alive as anything in the movie and gets to exhibit a range of characteristics: the virginal water girl by the well, the slave of Radu, the eyes of the mummy, the dis-orientated foreigner in the West, the exotic dancer, the stage star, and finally, the ‘last girl’. She’s vivid and vivrant as all of them.

Pola gets admired dancing like an Egyptian
Pola gets admired dancing like an Egyptian

Her dances are something to see. She wears a very skimpy, harem type outfit with the midriff on display and a a see-through shrug. She does a dance that begins with mix of Turkish belly dancing and ballet that eventually becomes a pastiche of Egyptiana. The men are entranced by the sashay of her hips, the women annoyed. Pola’s a dancer and moves her body sinuously; whoever choreographed those dances was clearly influenced by hieroglyphics. The effect is that of making Pola’s body the focal point of all that was dreamy, scary and sexy about the Orient. As if all of the markets, pyramids, sand dunes, sex and tombs were somehow condensed in the figure of Pola dancing. Two different types of spectacle rendered simultaneously interchangeable and other, enticing and threatening.

 

A film to see even in this degraded copy with that jarring and intrusive score by Rachel Gutches, whom I note has bagged the copyright for the whole thing. According to Hake, there are opening titles to the German version that are illuminating about  Lubitsch’s self-critical attitude at this point. According to her, they tell us, ‘This film had a big budget, that is, two pal trees and was shot on location in Egypt, that is, in the Rudersdorf limestone mountains (near Berlin)’ (p.44). Had I known that, I might not have been as self-conscious about laughing at some sections.

 

José Arroyo

Released in the USA on the 25th of June 1922.