Living for the City

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So, where I left off talking about Wings, I was discussing a very unfortunate discrepancy involved in the very 1st Academy Awards on May 1929. You see, there were in fact TWO equally highest honors in the ceremony and while one of them – The Academy Award for Outstanding Picture – was adopted over the years into what would eventually become The Academy Award for Best Picture, the second honor was disposed of before the following year’s ceremony. That honor was The Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Picture and the main source for ire and controversy comes from the fact that the former would be awarded to Wings while the latter would be awarded to F.W. Murnau’s lovely melodrama Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and practically everybody who has had the fortune of seeing both films recognizes that Sunrise is far and away the much better picture, making the abandonment and denial of its place in Academy history feel something like a heavy slight. Then again it’s kind of very easy to find such actions a slight and recognize Wings as the inferior choice when Sunrise is among several consensus picks for the very best film ever made and if you’re expecting me to break with consensus, nahhhhhhhh son. I’m basic like that too.

1927 is a year like no other in cinema. It’s right in the middle of that fantastic period in the late 1920s where the early experimentation inherent in the creation of a new artform – particularly led by European filmmakers and film industries, where each nation had its own vocabulary to visual storytelling – led to it taking the sort of narrative shapes we recognize as common in the movies we watch today, yet at the time of those films’ release, they were probably fresh enough to be mind-expanding to audiences. It’s especially great, in my eyes, when such filmmaking techniques can be seen as innovative in modern circumstances, just from the roughness of their genesis having a kind of realness to what we’re watching. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans does not just feel innovative – like we’re watching the beginnings of cinema anew – it feels heavily expressive and moving to an almost schmaltzy way.

1927 also happened to be the era in which European filmmakers were now being brought over to Hollywood on the merit of their talents, particularly Germans with their heightened shadow-based Expressionism style heralding Hollywood Studios’ interests in using that for genre tales, such as horror. F.W. Murnau was one such filmmaker – with possibly his most famous work, the vampire story Nosferatu, and the fable adaptation of Faust under his belt – but horror was not the genre for which he was recruited for. In fact, William Fox wanted Murnau to make whatever film he wanted with Fox’s production.

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Whatever film Murnau wanted to make turned out to be a picture about a tale written by Carl Mayer so simple and straightforward, it doesn’t even afford proper names to its subjects. Our primary couple is the Man (George O’Brian) and The Wife (Janet Gaynor) and they both live in the Countryside separate from the City where the vampish Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston) comes from to start an affair with the Man. The Man is so corrupted by this relationship outside of his marriage that he becomes malleable to the Girl from the City’s suggestions of leaving with her to live with in the City, but this would only be possible if The Man kills his wife (they are ambiguous as to what should happen with their infant child). The particular plan goes that The Man would take The Wife across the water that separates The Countryside from the City and arrange her drowning to look like an accident, but the Man finds himself unable to go through with it. The Wife, understandably frightened by her husband, rushes away when they get to shoreline while the Man chases her and her forgiveness into the City and it takes a while but they find their love for each other renewed in the day they spend enjoying the sites and sounds of the metropolis they found themselves in.

Certainly a story with major incidents but not much depth beyond the insistence on love triumphing over doubt and fear and a balanced ability to find room for the serenity in the simplicity of life in the Countryside – captured by cinematographers Karl Struss & Charles Rosher in a dreamy light haze that makes the day scenes glow and the night scenes become smoky and inky – yet merriment in the busy attitude of the City – brought to glorious toppling life from the ground up by uncredited art director Rochus Gliese in solid angular modeling and exciting lights, aided by an ambient soundtrack from Fox’s Movietone technology that gave us crowd noises, train sounds, and car sounds to immerse us into the city of The Man and the Wife’s pursuits.

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In any case, Sunrise is not a movie that tries to hide what emotions it thinks you’re supposed to feel. Expressionism earns its name for a reason and Murnau was possibly the most well-regarded filmmaker to invoke Expressionism in the majority of his work (I at one point called him the greatest filmmaker of all time and would probably still hold him in my top ten. I certainly still swear by most of his stuff.), he was interested in using as many toys he could pull out of the box from rear projection to chiaroschuro (especially used in moments that imply the Man’s capability for violence) and even my favorite, title cards that transformed with the mood and morphed (the only other film I can recall doing this so effectively, maybe even better than Sunrise, is Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary of the same year from another German Expressionist filmmaker come to Hollywood). All of these toys are used to project those feelings as directly as possible to the audience and it feels fine for a story that intends to be nothing more than fable, devoted to traditional story tropes from the very beginning. The archness of O’Brien’s foreboding presence where it feels like every step he takes is dragged by a weight alone and Gaynor’s muted but spirited feminity (as opposed to the loudness of Livingston’s flapper stereotype) is just another tool for Murnau to use to present that.

Everything about Sunrise comes together well. It feels ambitious even in moments where it’s only character based moments like when the couple are in a church musing upon their ordeal. It has a sharp handle on tone, such as when the affair between the Man and the Woman from the City turns a bit more towards Murnau’s familiar horror in a psychological sense, or one of my favorite instances, a perfect tossaround between happiness at the couple freshening up at a barber shop, followed by uncomfortable black comedy at the Wife being hit on by an insistent patron there, followed by turning again into brief horror as the Man threatens said patron with a pocketknife, before back to comedy as he frightens him with a swipe. The abstractness of the story made it all just so easy for Murnau and editor Harold D. Schuster to form single scenes into great big emotions while indulging playfully in moments like the Couple dancing at a fair and chasing a pig.

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This is silent cinema. It needs to be bold. It has no room for subtlety. Murnau was one of the greatest because he recognized that and yet he afforded his storytelling a level of sophistication because he took pride in his craft and looking for new ways to change up the shapes of emotions on the screen. And I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t have been proud of the films he gave us nor should I be surprised that the director of The Last Laugh – my very first Murnau picture – is good at using award-winning visuals and performance (Sunrise also has the distinction of winning the very first Oscars for Best Actress and Cinematography) to manipulate our emotions and sympathies with our characters. Only that he was THAT fucking good, for Sunrise is a movie I’ve hardly ever seen improved upon in the 89 years since its release.

In the end, the arbitrary committee and decision-making that led to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans being unceremoniously snubbed feels unfair to this day, especially appalling to me given that it’s in my top ten favorite movies, and so if I had to utilize this upcoming series to rewrite history in any manner as befits my tastes, it would be to recognize Sunrise as one of the first recipients of what was one of the highest honors American cinema would receive, a good pin on what the movie would promise for the medium it took to such dizzying heights, even when Oscar had to be retroactive in its own recognition for its merits.

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History by Lightning Leaves Scorched Earth

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I really wonder if I am remotely qualified to review one of the most notorious pictures of all time, The Birth of a Nation, in any manner at all – whether approaching it simply as movie or looking back at the century since it came out taking the entire world of American cinema by storm (and that’s me being very reserved – many of its technical introductions, if not innovations, really transcend nationality of film) having canonized it as an irremovable part of our film history. It is a landmark for better or worse and it’s more mandated as essential viewing for anybody interested in film as a document of historical sensibilities or the craft of the medium itself. And it is immediately accessible to anyone – being in the public domain, on Netflix Streaming Services, and on YouTube, among other ways to find it.

Especially in the face of the state of racial relations here in 2015, it’s especially a tough question to ask if I’m to really shrug off its disagreeable politics and attitudes to just judge the film on solely on its aesthetics or if I’m going to have to recognize that D.W. Griffith’s creative ambition and his narrow viewpoints come from the same places and we have to hit them both head on.

But The Birth of a Nation was always that towering mammoth of a historical picture that I always had half a mind to look back on and review on my own grounds and now that it is 2015 – literally 100 years since 1915, the year of the film’s creation – it comes a point that I realize it is the time to jump into that picture and try to shake out my feelings about it. Though, the fact that 2015 is also a year of significant events alongside the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the Baltimore protests, Walter Scott and Sandra Bland’s deaths, or the Charleston shooting, deserves some mention, I’m not gonna be able to apply this to the The Birth of a Nation‘s criticism the same way that I will when I finally post on Panel & Frame about Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly sometime this coming week.

In the meantime, The Birth of a Nation will be something to simply approach as what it is. That’s it.

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And what is the movie on the narrative is the ties that bind and the discord that splits two families close to each other during the Civil War that changed America irrevocably and its aftermath Reconstruction, based on their relations to each other and where they stand. The Northern based family is the Stonemans – abolitionist patriarch Senator Austin (Ralph Lewis), his daughter Elsie (Griffith’s interminable muse Lillian Gish), and his sons Tod (Robert Harron) and Phil (Elmer Clifton). In the Old South resides the more voluminous Camerons – young Southern Gentleman Ben (Henry B. Walthall) will be our primary protagonist and not simply by screentime proxy, but there is also a notable presence in his sisters Flora (Mae Marsh) and Margaret (Miriam Cooper).

In the first act of this infamously 3-hour silent picture, The Stoneman sons join the Union Army while the Cameron sons enter the war on the side of the Confederate (Ben being joined by his brothers Wade and Duke, played by George Beranger and Maxfield Stanley respectively) and so begins the tragedy of their place while the world changes around them as all but Ben are casualties of the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Ben however is still put under legal jeopardy when he gains notoriety as a Confederate Colonel and is forced to be attended to medically in the North by none other than Elsie herself, whom we are early on revealed that Ben has long held a romantic torch for. Elsie and Mrs. Cameron are able to make an audience with President Abraham Lincoln himself (Joseph Henabery) and successfully make a case for Ben’s presidential pardon alongside Lincoln’s many attempted policies to reconcile the Confederacy and Union into one nation again after the Civil War has torn the United States apart.

Lincoln’s post-war attempts are cut short as John Wilkes Booth (who I just realized is played by Raoul Walsh! THAT Raoul Walsh! The guy who made White Heat and High Sierra and if you haven’t seen those, stop and go watch them! Speaking of directors in little roles, here how about that John Ford playing a Clansman?!) executes the President shockingly at the Ford Theatre and Sen. Stoneman and his fellow Congressmen begin to corrupt the Reconstruction to their own vitriolic means against the South as the first Act of The Birth of a Nation concludes.

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And I’m gonna take a break from synopsizing the moving picture to note how remarkably restrained the First Act is in its attitudes, though not less than obvious that Griffith had clear sympathies for the Confederacy beyond narrative. Romanticizing Confederate soldiers is still a classical storytelling trope used to this very day without obligating the work to share the points of view of the Confederacy (the last notable usage to my mind is essentially the Firefly/Serenity franchise, albeit space Confederates), but Griffith goes above and beyond to portray the Southern way of life as fragile and essential – the Cameron daughters particularly as framed as pure young virginal allegories for how perfect life already is while the politicians in favor of the abolition of slavery, namely Sen. Stoneman, are all bluntly high and mighty and flaunting in their idea that they know what is best and that change and progress is necessary (I really fought about whether or not to put progress in scare quotes to portray the movie’s attitude accurately, but I really can’t even pretend to put myself in Griffith’s bigoted perspective). And the minstrel presence of two blackface actors portraying black servants of the families already serves as precursor to the truly ghastly Second Act of The Birth of a Nation, where blackface becomes more than just caricature but an appalling way to visually identify the villains as being the dark and blackened men who act on animalistic instincts in desire of sex – as is the case of Gus (Walter Long) – or supremacy, in the case of the mulatto antagonist Silas Lynch (George Siegmann).

Which causes me to realize I haven’t explicitly acknowledged what it is that portrays The Birth of a Nation as such a problematic film. Let me take a deep breath:

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The screenplay by Griffith and Frank D. Woods is adapted from a novel called The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, Jr. and the play Dixon also produced after the novel’s publication. The title of that novel is based particularly on the events of the Second Act where Ben himself is now moved to action by free blacks now mobbing their way into influencing the South to a darker age and, by taking said action, creates the Ku Klux Klan to fight off the Reconstruction.

… Yes. The Birth of a Nation truly shows its distorted colors in its second half and desperately maintains that they’re red, white, and blue.

Anyway, what makes this most shocking is how aesthetically powerful the movie is. There’s a reason it has always been considered a gigantic snapshot of all the capabilities of the cinematic medium in the same vein as Citizen Kane and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and that comes from how impressively stimulating it is. D.W. Griffith brings to the table panoramic shots in full frame 1.33:1, knowing just how to accommodate the scale to fill the image with nostalgic liveliness in the early scenes and surrounding action in the war and raid scenes at the same time using the implication of off-screen space. It utilizes the pointed perspectives of irises to portray the intimate and character-based, alongside the length of the picture desperately attempting to expand the scope into more of an epic and involving atmosphere. It competently contains challenging night scenes and occasionally moves the camera further into the lives Ben and Lynch. Its cross-cutting, of course, by Griffith himself in moments of peril and tension – namely in the infamous scene where Gus chases down Flora while Ben races to rescue her – is the stuff of legend. But what is of course worth noting is that most of these skills are not without precedent, only that The Birth of a Nation is a big enough splash to pioneer them into the basic and involuntary artistry of film and a momentous enough picture in its ambition to be admired for its ability to say the things the way it can.

What really surprises me, though, are the storytelling techniques that are ahead of their time in The Birth of a Nation in both the best ways and less than pleasant ways, and I think they all culminate in its war scenes in the First Act. Continuously pummeling scenes of violence that does the impossible (according to Francois Truffaut) of propelling further and further into the fight without any excitement, but without any sound work to give one more dimension to the experiential part of the film. I especially think sound would have really benefit the slow and lengthy shots where we watch each of the Stoneman and Cameron brothers die and languish, having the unsettling rhythm of war turn more and more distant as their gazes become vacant and we watch their souls leave them. It’s agonizing in a manner it aims for, but not with the same potency as the rest of the film pumps through its veins. What does give the unpleasantness of war its biggest potency is dousing the frame of the war scenes in a visceral red until all is settled and we return to the usual grey of silent cinema, now having more of a thematic meaning as the rubble after the battle has reduced everything to dust. A devastating portrait of war that pre-dates All Quiet on the Western Front, the most devastating of war films.

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You see, the formal construction of The Birth of a Nation is immaculate and while I would not hesitate to claim the following film Griffith made in vague response to this one, Intolerance, would better take artistic flourishes with the tools Griffith displayed here, it is impossible to argue against The Birth of a Nation‘s spot in canon no matter how much we might resent it.

And I really have to admit to resenting it now.

The First Act of The Birth of a Nation is relatively fine, the story it uses its impressive tools for is a naive fiction based on romanticism with its ugliness merely sitting in its pocket. I’d say if it weren’t for that First Act, the movie would be hard to understand what there is to admire about it. Its racism is muted, never impossible to ignore, but sidelined in the way of its emotional manipulation towards faces as genial and attractive as Gish’s and Walthall’s. It’s essentially no different than recognizing Gone with the Wind‘s grandeur alongside its objectionable content.

But that Second Act… that Second Act is like suddenly finding a real nightmare on your hands. It’s the darker side of how skilled someone can be in crafting a despicable narrative in art when he has the talent to do so. That Second Act is completely morally reprehensible, made all the more shocking because it tells its tale almost as well as the First Act, if not for how obviously it dips its hand in melodramatics then.

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For one, Lynch is already introduced as an unnerving psycho who’s devious grin and buggy eyes is just more and more of a manner of turning black people in this movie into cartoons, but it’s nothing compared to the scenes portraying black representatives and voters in Washington as picking their feet, and eating fried chicken, and drinking like, after the Stonemans and Camerons are given broad but sophisticated presences all throughout Act I, we have here the worst Looney Tunes short in existence.

In the meantime, it underlines this misrepresentation of black people with the elitist suggestion that Congress is FORCING white people to salute and allow black soldiers to pass and legislating mixed marriages and at one point a handshake becomes a point of contention between Ben, a revered war hero, and Lynch. Because “are these the sort of people you want marrying your daughters or sitting in your courtrooms? For shame!”

It only gets worse underneath when it uses these tensions to justify summary execution of a black character, turn it around to imply a white man’s life is in danger and more valuable, and finally lets its melodrama go full throttle to release Lynch upon the Stonemans as living plague targeting Elsie herself for his lecherous desires. And my, how fearful I am of how persuasively the actor’s performances and Griffith’s editing takes charge of expressing the peril of Dr. Cameron’s legal charges, the daring heroics of Ben’s Klan riding down to save the two families and the South, the implication that there are “loyal” black folk as well who “know their place” (really, the entire perspective of Griffith’s racism seems less malicious and more absent-minded and that’s severely depressing in what says about American culture in the later 1800s to 1910s), the “unity” that comes from bigotry and subjugating the black population, and… oh boy! The best damn part! the implication of divinity and peace in that same amount of subjugation by tinting the frame again into a golden shimmer and superimposing the image of Jesus Christ over the happy people once the blacks are back in their place and kept from our sacred voting booths by intimidation (I know I stated I’d not to apply 2015 racial relations to this, but seeing mounted horsemen guarding those booths with rifles to scare blacks out really says a lot especially today)! Oh God Bless Us Every One!

It makes me want to spit the taste out of my mouth as soon as it’s off and I can’t help knowing how effortlessly the film feeds these bias ideals towards sexuality, race, and class, by the confidence and stature of its technical achievements. Maybe the fact that we recognize its persuasiveness is exactly what holds it as an eternal tenet towards moviemaking and the expressiveness of the visual and image-based, but you cannot by any means separate the politics from the art when the two are so very much intertwined as they are here. Especially in consideration of how aggressive it announces those principles it has around its second half. It’s just how it goes. I respect as a picture, but in the end, I don’t think anyone is obligated to. And I wouldn’t dare suggest one should reject their feelings for it, one way or the other. But that doesn’t mean I have to give it all of my respect nor do I have to look up to Griffith or the hypocrisies of this movie’s portrait of America’s virtue as threatened by integrating black people and whites together and then ending on this pompous note:

Dare we dream of a golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more? But instead — the gentle Prince in the Hall of Brotherly Love in the City of Peace.

… Fuck off.

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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.”

31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 5 – Shadowplays

AUTHOR’S NOTE, December 2018: I’m going to be re-reviewing Nosferatu at some point in the future. I have been unfairly harsh to the film based on my previous exposure to it being the many lesser public domain copies running around. It has risen significantly in my esteem and I expect there is much of this review I no longer agree with.

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 horror films selected at random, 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. Tonight, we’re going to really take our examinations of sources back in time to the very beginnings of film. In fact, we would have to daresay claim that this is not going to examine the very origins of horror cinema, but in an origin of cinema in general. And it’s all thanks to those crazy Germans…

Cinema is a medium of expression, just like any other. There is very little that separates it from another medium, but one of the major distinctions is how it is a visual medium, making it kin alongside the likes of Fine Art and Theatre, but certainly separating it from, say, music or literature. In fact, as everybody knows – even children who were raised by wolves, even fucking wolves know – cinema was a strictly visual medium until The Jazz Singer shouted out “mammy!” and changed that all around.

But there is that era still of the “strictly visual” and through adversity and limitations, we ended up with some of the most stunning visuals made yet in the history of film. We got the visual aspect pulled to the edge so that a story could be told in the one thousand words of pictures, rather than the one word of… a word…

Ok, let’s get my midnight lack of eloquence back in the bushes for a moment while I finally state my thesis: One of the reasons movies are half as effective as they get to be is because of the German Expressionism movement. Prior to the introduction to sound and color, Germany knew damn well how create an engulfing experience and that was by upping the shadows and heightening the drama, through very artistic stylizations of sets in fine art manner that implies artificiality without becoming fake and having the actors overact with their faces and gestures and movements so much that modern audiences would probably go “Ok, ok, we fucking get it, I’m starting to miss Kristen Stewart’s stone face.” Sure it is melodramatic, but you can’t look at a scene in The Last Laugh and tell me you missed what you were meant to be feeling. Make it as highly symbolic and stylized as to be hardened upon the mind’s of the viewer and burned in their eyes well after the movie finishes. Try to design absurdity in a communicative manner, that was the goal of German Expressionism. Don’t make it real, just make it feel.

And it works. Not only does it work, but it is the basis of emotive filmmaking and began to seep into the manner of expression for most films well after we were accommodated to sound and color – most notably with film noir (but that is a story for another day… or more specifically the next Motorbreath video) – and every filmmaker who tries to communicate an idea or theme or just a really emotional story, from Carl Dreyer to Charles Chaplin to Michel Gondry to David Fincher have some thanks to give to the German film industry in the early 20s for providing the answer to how we can make audiences become moved by pictures deliberately.

This in particular worked out best with the two genres of film that were most defined by the reactions of an audience – Comedy on how the audience could be cajoled to laugh and Horror on how the audience could be frightened to their wits. But this series is not the 31 Nights of April Fools (because that wouldn’t work out, since April Fool’s is like… on the first?), so let’s jump into two of the most definitive silent horror films of the era, the movies people most associate into the idea of how to scare people without making a sound. And we’ll get two because I don’t think I have too much to say in the end for either film that has not already been said by film historians and critics best-spoken and more intelligent than I.

Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (translated from German to “A Symphony of Terror”, but I really just love how it sounds in German that I rarely refer to the translated title) is a movie forever immortalized by Spongebob that kind of deserves to get a chance to stand on its own for this generation. I mean, it did inspire more than the hash-slinging slasher. How about Tobe Hooper’s look for Kurt Barlow in ‘Salem’s Lot? Or the Master – my favorite villain that Buffy the Vampire Slayer got? What can I say about it that hasn’t already been said simply by looking as the ghastly ugly makeup work transforming Max Shreck into a heinous creature of the night? That fucking rat face that would provoke disgust if it weren’t on the same body as those wide fixated eyes suggesting a one-track mind straight for the throat. That tall rigid stance with fingers that extend like the branches of the trees that terrorize Snow White, the tip of the nails so pointed as to suggest your heart is pierced just from looking at them? Don’t you just want to duck your head under the covers like poor Thomas having to sleep right next to that thing? The atmosphere around this figure, this inhuman monstrosity that stuns me to see on the screen, is rich with dread and darkness. For how absolute is the screen evil that is Count Orlock (Shreck) that it seems to parallel the stature of Lon Chaney, Sr.’s masterful make-up work? How powerful is Orlock’s essence on the film?

Quite frankly, so powerful that every time I watch the movie I get bored for the 72 minutes he’s not on-screen. Don’t get me wrong. I said earlier it is an essential I’d recommend to anyone, anywhere. And I’d certainly call it a great movie. I mean, for one, it has some pretty solid compositions for even simple moments as Thomas (Gustav von Wagenheim) leaving Ellen (Greta Schroder) and it’s not a more that really lulls one to sleep, but I’d more waiting for the good stuff with Shreck creeping inch by inch in front of my eyes than anything else the movie has to offer.

For one, F.W. Murnau… let’s get down to brass tacks, Murnau is a fucking genius. He was a master storyteller who brought tears in your eyes within one minute of a masterpiece like Sunrise or Tabu. But, I feel like this is the most amateur and uninspired work I have seen yet in his career. And again, it looks great. Not a single shot seems unnecessary nor does he absolutely lack flair or personality with moments, though it’s very obvious in the end that the night scenes were shot in the day and given a blue tint. But it’s his least expressionist film. The shots are straightforward and more feel like a D.W. Griffith work than a Murnau (and not knocking Griffith’s pictures, again, that man could shot competently). The movie is a brisk 81 minutes, it is not long nor boring by definition. But the movie’s lack of heightened shadow and atmosphere, except in moments where Shreck is either on-screen or providing several dark and threatening scenes like the famous crawl up the stairs or the tragic ending, both makes me kind of watching my clock waiting for Orlock to come back than get into the story too much. It’s just that Shreck outshines everything.

Well, that and the plot is not… very inspired or original. I barely mentioned it, so I’ll sum it up. Thomas Hutter gets a chance to go to Transylvania to sell land to the mysterious Count Orlock. When he gets there, Orlock takes a fancy to Hutter’s wife, Ellen, and leaves Hutter trapped within his walls. It is obvious at this point that Orlock is a vampyre and it is a race against time for Hutter to make it back to save his wife!

Sounds familiar? Yeah, I thought so. It’s because it’s Dracula. It is the first screen adaptation of Dracula and it pretty much is a beat-by-beat account of Bram Stoker’s novel. And, given that it is one of my favorite books and an annual read, I am a stickler for how it is presented, so this uninspired fashion of adapting the movie, causes me to consider Nosferatu the second most sterilized adaptation of the book I have ever seen. And if that shocks you, wait till later this month when you find out what I think IS the most sterilized.

It apparently didn’t amuse Stoker’s estate either, who took immediately to a lawsuit on Murnau and left his studio, Prana, bankrupt. As a result, all copies of Nosferatu were to be destroyed shortly after release and for a long while, it seemed they all were. It is by some miracle that we still have a chance to look at the glory of Nosferatu. Even if I am spoiled by Shreck, there are some wonderful moments coming out of von Wagenheim and Schroder that herald expressionist acting, bringing out the most terror on your face when Orlock approaches you or the joy when you receive a letter from your love, calculating your movements on screen so as to entrap the audience in what you are doing.

It’s certainly again amateur green-behind-the-ears Murnau before he actually got to be Murnau and shelled out his true brilliantly expressionist works like FaustThe Last Laugh and Sunrise, but it’s truly a moment of involved storytelling, if not inspired, and worthy of its place among the firsts in cinema… the first to make a character so scary as to make us pray he doesn’t pop out of the screen.

Now, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari… That’s inspired. It’s a mind-bender of a film. It is to the silent era what The Usual Suspects must have felt to the audience of 1995 (my feelings about The Usual Suspects being overrated and a distractedly entertaining film with one of the stupidest endings of all time notwithstanding). But it’s certainly coming from a place that means something to the filmmakers…

At least meaning something to the writers of the film. Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz knew that they wanted to make a horror film, so they decided that they would touch upon the things about their lives that make them shiver the most. For Mayer, it was all the psychological problems he felt he still suffered as a result of his excruciating service in World War I and the military psychiatrist that terrorized them. For Janowitz, it was his suspicion about a recent incident where he associates a man he saw exiting bushes near a fair and a bit of news the next morning that a woman was found dead in that same spot. For both, it was definitely the affrontive atmosphere of fairs, somewhat imposing in their happiness to extremes. Certainly something that would call for an expressionistic approach.

And an expressionistic approach of course meant something to the producer Erich Pommel, who didn’t have much light to use and was all for a movie made out of shadows. And to designers Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann & Walter Rohrig, who finally got a chance to use their artistic intuitions to create an angular world that would have fit better in a nightmare than any haunted house or “school in your underwear” moment ever dreamt up. And to director Robert Wiene to prove anybody can do “Fritz Lang” and work well with designers who have an eye for lines. In fact, this is a movie that it is very hard to establish authorship for. Everybody on the visual side of things seemed to have a hefty hand in making The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari what it is.

And what it is happens to be the story of a couple Francis and Jane (Friedrich Feher and Lil Dagover, respectively) who visit the local fair to witness a somnambulist named Cesare (The uncanny Conrad Veidt) controlled by the hypnotist Dr. Caligari (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski). Cesare insists that a friend of the couple’s will be dead by dawn and sure enough, Cesare proves to be right. But said death causes Francis’ suspicions and he begins to investigate what truly is the story behind Cesare and Caligari, finding himself sucked into a world of kidnapping, murder and madness.

And madness is just what the doctor prescribed. All this world is is haunting and artistic, the shadows mattering just as much as the strokes of paint of the crooked buildings, and there is nothing like this movie, not at all. It may not at all be an accurate representation of the social or medical results of psychopathy, but man oh man, does it feel like it and in the end, that is what most matters with Expressionism. Making your audience feel like they’re in the madhouse itself, with walls and rooms that just aren’t really there, even in the world of the film.

And the performances all sell themselves. At the forefront is a restrained and measured Veidt showcasing an outstanding expertise in pantomime and facial lock so as to make his very pale made-up face a beacon of terrors to come. Nevermind right behind him being von Twardowski becoming the stereotype of a mad doctor and making right due by it for how the movie calls for that deranged mad look all over, a pretentious bastard who wants to world to recognize and hearken just how brilliant this catastrophe he built is. Feher is an able leading man and Dagover is kind of loopy in her presence, but hell, that’s just exactly what the story needs out of their characters and the two of them are not nearly as uninvolved as von Wagenheim and Schroeder kind of were in Nosferatu.

Don’t ask me about the ending, though. I won’t say a damn word about it except that I love it and it really hammers the theme and main mood of the film right home while establishing it in a more grounded form for the audience to leave thinking about the social effects this movie might have had. That’s it. I ain’t sayin’ nothin’. Johnny Tightlips is what I am.

These movies aren’t the only horror films in the German Expressionism (I like to think of Paul Wegener’s Der Golem and Murnau’s later Faust – the latter of which I prefer to both of these films by far), but they are the cornerstones of the movement and how it affected cinema in the many decades afterward. Becoming the emotion, more than just telling you what the emotion is. Less realism, more feeling. The world can be just as much painted with shadow as it is with light and sometimes it’s just as black and white as you think. You just need to see for yourself…

Gaze into the abyss. And find the darkness gazing back at you.

Tonight, Tonight

I so so so so mean to boost my usage of this thing, after being beaten down to only using it once a month. So, when I have to reboot my output in anything, I always figure to start from the beginning…

No. No. No.

… not the very beginning. Because, what the hell can you say about Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory in Lyon other than that it’s a bunch of guys leaving a factory.

No, you want to be shown something you’ve never seen before. Something fantastic. It’s why people want to be told stories. They want to be surprised and amused.

But hell, you run that same risk in the likes of A Trip to the Moon. It’s so short and straight and to the point, not so covered in nuance and theme deliberately, that the idea description is just to say it is about scientists who happen to go to the Moon and fight aliens before returning. That’s the main content of the film and essentially the only thing it is about.

But its imagery is unforgettable, completely engrained into the idea of what science fiction film and what a dreamlike surrealism film allows to be a “reality” for the viewer. I mean, an image from cinema that is as engrained as that of Death and the Knight Playing Chess or Harold Lloyd Hanging Out of the Clock Tower lies below…

atriptothemoon

BOOM!!!!

With a little touch of the fantastic and the magic, the moon is a face with a rocket ship sticking out of its eye. This is undeniably unforgettable imagery and this was well in the beginnings of celluloid, something which is practically cinema’s endangered species now.

You see, it’s the little technicalities like that that truly make it easy to love Une Voyage dans la Lune. It’s fun and pretty to look at. It’s such an obvious little fantasy, even when you ignore the fascinating magic tricks Melies obviously put together to bring it to life… the falling of the rocket ship, the costumes of the Moon Aliens… Those are eye-catching, but also eye-catching is the obviously novel aspects – the woman in short shorts being the workers to shoot the moon out, the professors being such long-bearded old men in robes that make them look more like Wizards than Scientists, oversized ships and rocket guns and staffs and one large-eyed moon…

What more can I say beyond that without going into the intricacies that bore my friends whenever I talk about them? When you’re wowed by magic, you don’t immediately find out the magician’s secrets. So, why should I ruin a magician’s secrets this time around just because I happen to be writing a film blog?

It’s human nature to dream and Une Voyage dans la Lune happens to be the first dream captured in film and shared with everyone.

Why don’t you check it out?

Pure Magic…