Come, It is Time to Keep Your Appointment with…

 

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I wonder if I can credit Robin Hardy’s 1973 cult horror film The Wicker Man for initiating my interest folk music, given it constantly stops its own narrative investigation in order to indulge in a festive performance of traditional songs arranged by Paul Giovanni. It’s present to the degree that Hardy himself called the film a musical during production. It’s either that or Yusuf Islam back in his “Cat Stevens” days that brought this in me, but I was more or less exposed to both of them around the same time in high school and The Wicker Man seems the work of art that made a more significant impact on me. For The Wicker Man also initiated my interest in storytelling that focuses within an isolated location or community, particularly when the resultant development is a suspicious eerie atmosphere hidden underneath surface pleasantries with its inhabitants. And it is in that particular aspect that I think it was tough for me to figure out what I meant when I used “cult” to describe The Wicker Man.

You see, The Wicker Man is of course a film that explores the existence of a pagan culture within the fictional agronomical society of Summerisle that sits in the Hebridean Archipelago, based in Celtic history, as police sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is sent there to investigate the sudden disappearance of a little girl named Rowan Morrison. So “cult” describes the subject.

But “cult” also describes the object. The film has only slowly developed more and more of that status than the already low-key but unanimously positive reception it had as a rough horror classic in the late 2000s when I first saw it and both of those elements – the reception and the version – are based in the same thing: a mind-bendingly convoluted set of rights disputes and poor handling of the print (sometimes apparently deliberate spite by producer Michael Deeley who famously hated the film, sometimes incidental) that led to the 102-minute cut that Hardy was satisfied with being turned into an 88-minute compromised cut that was released (as a double feature with fellow horror masterpiece Don’t Look Now) and most commonly seen. Meanwhile, a 99-minute version closer to Hardy’s preference was sent to Roger Corman to later be used as the basis of Hardy’s restoration to a Director’s Cut that was a bitch to find back in the day up until a Blu-Ray in 2013 was released of one more attempt by Hardy – whose previous decades of optimism that his original cut was still existent had now been disabused – into a 91-minute Final Cut from all the surviving resources.

I told you it was convoluted. All that combined made The Wicker Man a tough enough find in worthwhile quality to turn it to cult semi-obscurity.

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Having seen the 88 minute, 99 minute, and 91 minute versions, I do feel most qualified to say that any version will easily get you to a significant amount of brilliance. For no matter which cut one watches, you’re still going to get the abnormal slow boil of the Anthony Shaffer’s mystery script coming together real nicely in any arrangement, probably thanks to Hardy being involved in each cut (even in reluctance) and so having an idea of where to deal with whatever’s removed or moved around. And while the Final Cut is my preference – it’s the one where the pacing feels tightest and confident in where it slips away, while also spreading the musical numbers spread enough (with the addition of the brilliantly dreamy “Gently Johnny” to truly pay off in Hardy’s attempts to create The Wicker Man as a musical – I particularly love the idea the theatrical cut had about opening right when Howie arrives on Summerisle in a seaplane without any foreplay in the mainland as in the other cuts. It gets us on quite the disoriented foot with the setting. Though I must say the original opening with Howie performing mass does so much to establish what position he is entering this conflict from.

The second of which he steps out of the plane, he’s given a hard time by the smiling harbor master just for requesting a dinghy. The harbor master tries to deflect as much as possible by claiming the harbor is closed until Howie insists long enough. And so the majority of the movie is witnessing Howie’s fluster as he is continuously directed around in a circle by several individuals or authorities, including being told by the mother and classmates of the child that Rowan never even existed. Howie’s a dutiful and thorough investigator who pushes through the continuous lies and mishandled records – all delivered in the most bothersomely polite manner and off-putting brightness – to find proof of her existence and evidence suggesting a misdeed of some sort. It’s often just enough clue at the end of a scene to augment the frustration out of every interaction Howie is involved in and understand why he must push his bemused way through every misdirect he’s given.

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The direct obstruction of his policework is not the sole thing that takes Sgt. Howie aback. His firm appeals bring him eventually to the leader Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) who charmingly informs Howie of the island’s pagan philosophies, rooted from his grandfather, as well the fruits of which the island bases its economy and why these two elements are intertwined. And even before Lord Summerisle lays it out for him, Howie has already witnessed strange unorthodox things happening around such as an open air orgy in the night (including an naked woman in a graveyard whose weeping over a grave resembles quiet orgasms), and the attempts of the innkeeper’s daughter (Britt Eklund, dubbed in an excellently weird way by Annie Ross) to seduce him behind the door by singing and dancing naked in a waking trance.

Howie, we learn extremely quickly, is Christian of a conservative and pious sort, establishing an impossible-to-miss battle of ideologies deep within the film. Shaffer and Hardy, to their incredible credit, deliver this fight in a difficult complex manner: Howie is there to investigate a potential murder and everybody in the island is throwing him the most uncannily suspicious sensation in all their twisting grins and lackadaisical attitude to learning of a child in danger. And yet Howie is also imposing of his Christian judgment onto the citizens of the island, at one point forcing a makeshift cross over a grave regardless of whatever religious beliefs the deceased may have had and outright calling Summerisle’s religion fake to the Lord’s face which is taken with the same unstressed casual receptiveness as anything else thrown to Lee’s face. Lee has long had glowing love for the performance he gave here, almost single-handedly keeping the film’s memory alive while it was essentially lost in the 1980s, and it shows with the clear amount of fun friendliness he exudes in perfect foil to Howie’s disgusted sobriety. It’s affecting to have the closest thing we have as a direct antagonist (as opposed to the entire community) such a welcoming air about him.

It’s off-putting to have such an intolerant character we are forced to align with by our moral sense of what he’s trying to do and yet this very island is so queer – personably as well as visually in flat focus, which is uncomfortably close for a setting so based in stone and trees dressed by a handicraft and populated by faces that look like they’ll squeeze your hand until you show them your teeth – that it’s just as much a natural orbiting to Howie’s point of view despite the aggressiveness of his rhetori. It’s miraculous that Hardy’s direction is able to frame Howie in such a way as to really pull out muted contempt for the character yet still treat his ultimate fate as utterly tragic (which I’d assume you know if you’ve even heard of the film, but if not I’m gonna go ahead and wave a big ol’ SPOILER WARNING up in here). It is indeed a strange land that the stranger has entered and sometimes what’s most familiar is what we’re going to gravitate towards.

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About that strange land: I’m not sure, with a wide variety of Scottish Isles and cities in which it was shot, one can say The Wicker Man subscribes to Werner Herzog’s ideal of the “voodoo of location”, but for someone like me who was totally ignorant of the geography of Scotland at the time and to this day have never actually experienced the country firsthand, The Wicker Man feels transporting. Indeed, Lee in his autobiography Lord of Misrule appears to suggest that their experiences within those distinct areas of Scotland “stitched together a plausible island” and it’s believable enough to fool me. And what gives it that further out-of-place vibe as a setting is Harry Waxman’s vibrant whites making the place seem so overexposed in an eerie way. A visual approach that further provides menace and trepidation to how unfailingly cheerful Summerisle is as a community.

About the culture: well, the very handworn element of the costumes and the festivities leaning into the imminent May Day celebration that the film’s climax takes place (and of course, if you have heard of The Wicker Man, you know how it ends just about as well as you know how Planet of the Apes ends but I repeat SPOILERS once final time if you are of a lucky sort.) are of an uncivilized sort, even by the means of a culture portrayed as tying naval strings to graves and such. The costumes and instruments of their celebration are introduced in one of the latest montages of investigation, strewn together in earthy ways from earthy materials. But not least of all the Wicker Man himself, revealed to us at the last possible moment as a towering madness of straw that really calls attention to the inhumane sacrifice to be made inside of it. And when it dawns on Howie what their plans are for him and his helplessness, the film intensifies rapidly into a more unambiguous horror than everything that preceded it. In a way, the point of the ending of The Wicker Man is not what happens but how it happens and by the mood of Woodward and Lee in this climax is where the complex battle of ideologies has to introduce ambiguity to the final notes of their performances: Woodward as Howie goes through several modes of disbelief and terror in the knowledge of what waits for him and how easily he was manipulated for all his steadfast authoritarianism and trying to declare his faith with various levels of dubiety invited of the viewer, landing on a moment of truly cracking prayer before the flames that will take his life in seconds and undermine by the pained shrieks and cries of the animals dying with him. Lee as Summerisle, meanwhile, is confident and self-satisfied by his plan working as expected until Howie suggests a potential turn of events that knocks that perennial smile off his face and suggests his own level of ambivalence to the practices he mandates of the isle’s people. Shaffer as a writer pulls out all the possible stops with this final turn of events, amplifying the cheeriness of the people at their most religiously violent with their final chant “Summer Is Icumen In” battling with the cries of the animals for dominance on the soundtrack while this ends up being – now that the secrets are all spilled out – the moment that Waxman and Hardy opt for an overcast set of shots as we watch the titular construction burn and collapse to reveal the setting sun.

So yes, the staying power of The Wicker Man may be the loves it brought to be in folk music and quietly unsettling horror movie atmospheres. But it also delivers them in a remarkably intelligent package, mapped out by one of the best writers working in Britain in the early 1970s and executed by two terrifically polar performances by actors at the very peak of their abilities. It’s one of the earliest cases of a movie I watched truly sticking in my head and making me consider what I just watched beyond the hard genre shocks it delivers (it may be a foundational part of my atheism, if I’m being frank), in an unassuming way that does guide me on WHAT to think. And it’s probably based on that that The Wicker Man had the sort of longevity that get it being restored and worked on to be introduced by generations further on alongside me as I constantly engage with its rewatchability.

Like I said, it takes a really great movie to work wonders on people when the most popular thing about it is its ending.

25 for 25 – Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

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Carl Theodor Dreyer is, in my opinion, one of the greatest filmmakers of silent age, an era in cinema history that has absolutely no want for great filmmakers. In an era where many of his fellow European artists were indulging in the arch stylings of Expressionism (which Dreyer himself took a dip into with the 1932 Franco-German horror film Vampyr), Dreyer maintained a much larger interest in grounded realism and focusing on more rigid ways to bring out emotion in the audience. And that is not to say Dreyer’s storytelling isn’t arch, but it has to come in other forms beyond shadow and angular sets. Such as, in the case of The Passion of Joan of Arc, a steadfast focus on close-ups and the natural corners of walls and a powerful central performance, one that Pauline Kael herself called possibly “the finest performance ever recorded on film”. She’s hardly the only one to have that sentiment about Maria Falconetti as the Maid of Orleans herself and I would have to stand alongside that hyperbole. Falconetti’s performance is exactly the kind that earns the hyperbole.

Mind you, we almost wouldn’t be able to see that performance or this movie. The negative was destroyed long away in a fire and with it the only copy of the original version, before canisters of Dreyer’s original cut were discovered in a Norwegian sanitarium (OF ALL PLACES!) and maintained in the Norwegian Film Institute. This wouldn’t be the first time the original copy of a Dreyer film was lost given the unfortunate state of the German and French negatives for Vampyr and all of its copies. Film has to be preserved y’all! We’re losing great movies here!

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But let us not weep over what we lost (ok, weep a bit), but instead celebrate over what we still have with us: The Passion of Joan of Arc stands highly as a picture where every frame invokes drama and the very title implicates the kind of passion play waiting for us within the silent film. Except instead of Christ being the subject of judgment and execution, it is Joan of Arc (Falconetti) after her many victories for the French against the English in the Hundred Years War. Captured and brought to Normandy, Dreyer subjects her to eyes of the audience within his fixed lens and the leering aggressive eyes of her judgers: the infamous Bishop Pierre Cauchon (Eugène Silvain) who condemned her to death, a prosecutor (André Berley), the Dean of the Normandy province they preside in (Antonin Artaud), and several other inquisitors and judges that outnumber and surround Jean in such an overwhelming manner that the close-ups feel like an absolutely mercy. When Dreyer and his co-editor Marguerite Beaugé indulge in rapidly moving from several angry or self-satisfied faces during the first part of the film’s trial, it’s disorienting enough that Falconetti’s face barely feels like an anchor from all the accusations flying at her (David Bordwell noted the negative space around the close-ups – an element of Dreyer neglecting the allegedly magnificent sets constructed for the movie – adding to that dislocation, by not allowing us to know the actual spacing or distance between the characters).

I feel like I’ve waved enough into the direction of the close-ups without truly recognizing what makes them work so well, which has to be the intimacy towards Falconetti’s entranced performance to me. Dreyer denied make-up for the actors, which leads to more defined facials and contoured shapes from the hard lighting (much much softer on Falconetti herself for obvious reasons) and while it’s not as expressive as a more controlled aesthetic, but it is definitely a lot more human and the actors’ intensity carries the viewer. Most intense of all is Falconetti’s wide-eyed daze, all provided in different shades of strong emotions like sorrowful melancholy for her mother, fatigued persecution when the questioning becomes so much more overwhelming, solemnly tragic resignment when her jailors dress her up in a mock crown and make fun of her “Daughter of God” claim (and for a filmmaker as religious as Dreyer, God – despite being a source of contention in Joan’s trial – has no presence in this film), inner conflict (eyes dashing around) as she grapples with choosing between her physical safety or her spiritual convictions, subtle reservation at her confidence against her tormentors as she is immolated. It’s an unfortunate fact that Dreyer had been cruel to Falconetti for the performance, but the morality of that aside, Falconetti demands our alignment with her through the simplicity of her face and she earns it in so well that Dreyer could have made a boring visual film (and yet he didn’t – The Passion of Joan of Arc doesn’t get enough credit for how inventively it uses zoom progressions, how it inverts shots, and frames things off-center) and it still would have been full of drama. It’s completely alien to me how people can claim The Passion of Joan of Arc‘s little amount of incident makes it boring, but there they are. It’s so ready to burst with that titular passion before halfway its brisk 82 minutes that it barely gets mentioned how the film ends on its most incendiary note, not only with the execution of Joan by fire but a riot breaks out (the biggest dramatic liberty made with a film that’s not all that historically accurate) by the inhabitants of Normandy, moved by Joan like we have been.

The only last word to give is to recognize how Dreyer and Falconetti together provided the strongest accomplishment in film craft and performance in my eyes. I can’t imagine how it could be bettered or improved. The challenge is out there, as far as I’m concerned.

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P.S. if you have a chance, I would very much recommend watching the film with the Voices of Light soundtrack on the Criterion Collection DVD (why is this not on Blu-Ray?!) composed by Richard Einhorn.


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31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 27 – The Black Halo

Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.

For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of select horror films in all of the spectrum, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…

This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. 

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I’ve already previously talked about how much expressionism has informed most of modern horror cinema, but let’s briefly just go over it. Germany’s expressionism style from the beginnings of their film industry had a way with shadowplay and overdramatics that really made for compelling genre storytelling as it was direct and blunt, with a very hard hit to the sensibilities of the audience and a clear communication of what the intention of each scene is. If they wanted you to laugh, their physical comedy would be the biggest thing you’d see, if you wanted to be scared, they’d make the shadows that are most scary the biggest on the screen and so on.

But it also could make for particularly compelling melodrama. The play with the amount that we see on the screen and what we don’t see gives a sort of gap for the audience to fill in, involving themselves into the story and investing themselves outright in the story. Murnau arguably had created the greatest melodrama put to celluloid in 1927, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which I dare you to watch and not feel compelled emotionally by the plight of the characters. However, I want to move backwards one year, right before Murnau left Germany to America, his very final film for his home country.

The 1926 film Faust is an incredibly interesting look into what makes expressionism as a style so moving and touching as it plays with both the elements of the style that make it genre filmmaking – primarily a horror film, but other genres get used in here as well – in addition to melodrama – as the tragedy of Doctor Faustus is a fable of old consideration in European culture.

It’s also pretty much one of the greatest possible toybox films ever put to screen, considering that Murnau, who was again in the midst of leaving UFA, probably just wanted to burn his skills out as much as possible (which, thankfully, he did not as his next two films were brilliant). He pulls out all of the possible stops that a film demands out of a filmmaker, making the production the most expensive that UFA had dealt with.

… at least until a little guy named Fritz Lang came around and demolished the company with his own masterpiece called Metropolis the next year.

But in the meantime, Faust… the most recognizable parable on deals with the Devil even if you don’t know that you know Faust. Doctor Faustus (Gosta Ekman) has been carrying the weight of his land’s plague in his hands, trying desperately to provide a cure for it and prevent any further dying at his hands. This pursuit leads him to extreme desperation that challenges his faith in God. Unknown to Faust, the plague is in fact a concoction of God and Mephisto (Emil Jannings giving a polar opposite performance from his work in The Last Laugh and fucking nailing it), who have a wager that Faust will never truly go astray from his humanity and fall into Mephisto’s clutches, regardless of the circumstances. With Faust at his weakest and most vulnerable, Mephisto approaches Faust to seduce him with the possibility of having license over life and death and, as a damned bonus, youth and all the great shit that makes you enjoy youth. Faust considers it and so the struggle truly begins.

I’ve always had a fascination with the tale of Goethe’s Faust, not just generally as a tragedy that easily tugs at heartstrings of guilt, shame, and mistakes, but as a compelling discussion of how far one goes towards his or her passions and how is he or she willing to deal with the consequences of this pursuit. Faust as a film, however, is interesting in that it dilutes much of these themes to a very streamlined tale that is easily consumptive to the film. Gone are much of the verbose prose of Goethe’s piece, as well as the entirely abstract philosophy preaching of the second half of the tale. The ending is fixed up and there’s even some Hollywood-ish inserts into the story, like UFA wanted to match the true titan they were currently competing against. It’s enough to understandably get under the skin of the real Goethe purists and while I do enjoy his work, thankfullu I’m not so much a purist that I would dismiss the movie (but I’m sure the band Kamelot would not be pleased to discover that I usually watch the silent film using their double album concept Epica and The Black Halo as my soundtrack to the film. They seem like Goethe purists.)

However, the true crown jewel of the film goes beyond its treatment of the tale of Faust and instead in the treatment of its spectacle. It’s an epic in every sense of the word, surrounding like Mephisto at the iconic opening scene where he wraps himself around the city and steals away the sunlight from the poor townspeople.

Let’s use that shot as an example. You goddamn well know it’s a model, you know it’s just a painted background that got progressed upon, you basically don’t see the strings to this puppetry but you know how it’s done and it’s there, similar to how we discussed with House. But this time it’s that the imagery is so chilling, so captivating that we don’t care… it doesn’t matter how it says what it’s saying, what matters is what it says and it says “Be afraid.”

This approach is the absolute pinnacle of German Expressionism by using the entirety of its production to present the effect of the image. That means large makeup on Jannings face as he portrays the Devil, that means giant worlds invented with the paint and the lens, that means larger than life actions…

Speaking of larger, the fact that the story – which is not bad but never really the forefront – is just incidental to the imagery that Murnau elicits, the globe-spanning that Mephisto induces in order to cater to Faust’s pleasures similar to the ambitious D.W. Griffith production Intolerance but without the fat, is just further proof in the end that actions will speak larger than words, especially in a visual medium like film. Even though the film gets pretty long by the end of it, Faust has never faltered as a hidden gem of visual artistry from one of the finest filmmakers ever to walk the earth.

I actually do take a moment to wonder whether or not Carl Theodor Dreyer or Ingmar Bergman were themselves influenced by Murnau’s work here, as the environment that the black plague-era villagers give off brings accessibility, both in the level of detail brough to build the village up and have it afflicted with all of these different effects Murnau gives them and with its familiarity to the audience after seeing The Seventh Seal or Ordet. But that’s just me thinking out loud.

In the end, the film historians don’t talk as much about Faust as they do the other films of Murnau and I personally find that a severe shame. Because dammit does Faust have a visual language that I personally feel is only surpassed in Murnau’s career by the brilliance of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. And that comes once more from Faust‘s complete dominance over the genre elements of Expressionism… providing a chilling mentality, a grand adventure, a moving tragedy, and a compelling drama before making us come around to leave the movie going

“Well damn, they don’t make it like that no more.”