November 29, 2011

silents please

In one of those serendipitous quirks of scheduling, two homages to the silent film era are opening at the same time. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, a 3D extravaganza adapted from Brian Selznick’s gorgeously illustrated children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, uses the life and work of  Georges Melies as the central mystery for its eponymous hero to uncover. Conceived for 3D, it uses the contemporary (and derided) version of movie magic to look backward at a magician who was famed for his own glorious special effects fakery.

Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist is a labor of love that made to mimic a 1927 silent. It was shot without sound on Hollywood back lots, framed in the old 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and was converted to B&W in post-production. Where Hugo posits Melies’s art as contemporary as the Hollywood blockbuster he is a character inside, The Artist embalms the object of its adoration.

Hugo elaborates the tale of a tousle-haired tot (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the walls of a Paris train station, working in secret as a clock winder, after the soused uncle (Ray Winstone) who taught him the trade drowned in the Seine. Hugo’s only respite from drudgery is the automaton left to him by his equally dead father (Jude Law). He spends his days stealing gears from the station’s toy store, hoping to spring the rusty marvel to life. With the aid of young bookworm Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), he tries to get the automaton up and running, while investigating the mysterious owner of the toy shop, Georges (Ben Kingsley), who seems to know more than he lets on.

Scorsese embraces 3D technology with an impressive gusto, opening with a swooping CGI-aided shot through the packed halls of the station, the forward motion pushing through layers with a dizzying speed. Likely inspired by the CGI long takes by Robert Zemeckis in his motion-capture films, as well as David Fincher in Panic RoomHugo finds Scorsese in an experimental mode, testing the boundaries of the technology. This long opening, which ends on Hugo’s eye peeping out of a clock face,  helps set up the mini-neighborhood that makes up the station. Hugo is immediately established as a viewer, as he watches the daily routines of the cafe owner, the doughy merchant who loves her, and the growing romance between the flower seller (Emily Mortimer) and the seemingly villainous station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen).

On his first outing with Isabelle, he helps her sneak into the movies, where Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last is playing. Scorsese and his frequent DP Robert Richardson push the camera in closer to watch Isabelle and Hugo’s faces burst into grins as Lloyd works his stunts. This blooming cinephilia starts to enter Hugo’s waking life, as he later dangles from a clock hand just like Lloyd, and his nightmares, as he dreams his becomes part of the clock machinery, like Chaplin in Modern Times. Later his investigation of Georges reveals his past as a master filmmaker, and the creator of the first moving image Hugo’s father had seen, from A Trip to the Moon. Clearly a deeply personal project for Scorsese, it contains lovely tangents on the need for film preservation, which his Film Foundation supports, and a pocket history of Melies’ career, including generous clips from his films, which look glorious in hand-tinted 3D. To maul a Faulkner quote for my own ends, a great director’s past is never dead. It’s not even past.

The wonderful 5-disc DVD set of Georges Melies films from Flicker Alley just went out of print due to interest generated by the movie. Once they get it back in stock, it’s well worth the investment.


For Michel Havanicius, however, the past is most certainly dead, and in need of a nostalgic revival. He came to prominence with the face-pulling parody of the two OSS films, broad take-offs of James Bond style spy thrillers. The Artist is a more sincere reclamation attempt, but Hazanavicius can’t tamp down his natural flair for burlesque, so the film ends up as a goofy, and slightly condescending pastiche, rather than an authentic heir to the old movie melodramas.

It’s a mash-up of a Busby Berkeley backstage musical and A Star is Born, with George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, from the OSS films) entering the downswing of his swashbuckling acting career with the arrival of sound. Before he crashes, he meets-cute with young hoofer Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, also from OSS), and gets her a job at the studio, whereupon she starts her rapid ascent to box office dominance. As Valentin descends into poverty, it is up to Miller to salve his wounded male pride and get him back on-screen.

Valentin is less Valentino than Douglas Fairbanks, with his pencil moustache and persona of roguish athleticism. Miller starts as a plucky Ruby Keeler-type, plucked from nowheresville into Hollywoodland, and then transitions into Jean Arthur-style screwball. Both Dujardin and Bejo play their types with exaggerated pantomime, in epileptic fits of toothy grins and eyebrow levering. This playing-to-the-rafters style existed in the silent cinema, but did not define it — D.W. Griffith’s actors, for example, were famous for their studied underplaying. In wholeheartedly accepting this common stereotype, Hazanavicius makes his characters into quaint oddities, something for our modern tastes to laugh at with proud disdain.

The world in which he places Valentin and Miller is a clear labor of love, with brilliantine art deco sets by Laurence Bennett. The conversion of the color film to B&W, though, makes the film more shades of gray than the deep blacks available to Murnau or Lang, an example of the losses incurred by technological advancement (B&W stock is hard to come by these days). There is also the crystalline sharpness of the close-ups, the norm in our HD age, which lack the woozy mystery of the filtered and soft-focus techniques of the 20s.

It becomes clear that Hazanivicius’ real interest lies in 30s and 40s Hollywood, as his torrent of movie references attest. There is the aforementioned plot device from A Star is Born, a terrier lifted from The Thin Man, the breakfast table scene from Citizen Kane, a blonde bimbo sound test from Singin’ In the Rain, a snippet of the score from Vertigo, and a final city-scape dance number inspired by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It is in this final duet that Hazanivicius closes his ironic distance from the material and exhibits the simple joys of two actors moving in tandem.  Perhaps if he applied his chameleonic style to an RKO musical instead of a silent, he would be able to channel the unselfconscious magic of the original.


March 9, 2010

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In the flurry of interviews Martin Scorsese granted running up to the release of Shutter Island, he rattled off a long list of movies he screened for his cast, including Laura, Out of the Past, Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and The Seventh Victim. The first two were studied by DiCaprio and Ruffalo to look good in a rumpled suit (thanks to Dana Andrews and Robert Mitchum), while the last three, of course, were churned out by Val Lewton’s miraculous horror unit at RKO, a remarkable run of terror keyed off of the suggestion of violence rather than the blood and guts themselves. But the main wellspring of Scorsese’s recent box-office champ are two later Lewtons, which he also mentions: Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946) [Spoilers abound below].

the-isle-of-the-dead-1886.jpg!LargeThe screengrab above is from an early shot of Isle of the Dead, a dead-ringer for Leonardo DiCaprio’s opening journey towards a ghostly island of his own in Shutter Island (the model for both of which is Arnold Böcklin’s series of “Isle of the Dead” paintings, the 1886 version is seen to the left). Greek General Pherides (Boris Karloff) and reporter Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) row over to a cemetery to lay flowers on the grave of Pherides’ wife. They discover an empty coffin, and stumble upon the bizarre household presided over by Albrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.), an archaeologist who ordered peasants to go grave robbing. Now repentant, he lives on the island and offers shelter for any lonely wanderers. Then one of the guests dies of the plague, and Pherides and Davis are stuck quarantined inside, along with superstitious maid Kyra (Helen Thimig), consumptive wife Mary (Katherine Emery), her young nurse Thea (Ellen Drew) and stuffy husband Aubyn (Alan Napier).

Karloff’s Pherides is a clear influence on DiCaprio’s Det. Teddy Daniels. Both are violent men of authority who are driven to paranoia and madness, linked to romances past. As the days of confinement continue, Pherides falls under the spell of Madame Kyra, who accuses Thea of being a “vorvolaka”, an evil spirit who sucks the life out of her victims. Her evidence is Thea’s employer Mary, who has been slowly dying for years. Karloff’s eyes begin to bug out as Pherides clings to this fantasy as the true solution to their predicament – kill Thea and the “plague” will dissipate. Daniels is also imprisoned, but in an insane asylum, as he attempts to solve the mystery of a missing inmate during a biblical thunderstorm. DiCaprio plays it queasy and sweaty, while Karloff goes for a more operatic insanity, but they are both dangerous obsessives driven to insanity by the horror in their own souls.

Why I think Isle of the Dead is a scarier film, if not necessarily a more coherent one, is a result of Lewton’s visual understatement, with the aid of director Mark Robson and DP Jack MacKenzie. The film contains ultra low-key lighting, and when the supposed “vorvolaka” does appear, in a harrowing sequence of live burial, fleeting tulle garments, and tridents shoved into chests – it’s conveyed through terrifying glimpses.

It’s miraculous the film has the power it does, considering the difficulties during production. Karloff required spinal surgery after eight days of shooting, shutting down the production for months. In the interim, Lewton knocked off the delightful Body Snatcher, and when the shoot picked up again, the script was scrapped and re-made somewhat on the fly. No one on the production was happy with the finished product (future Lewton-ites aside), until perhaps the notices came rolling in, when James Agee called it “one of the best horror movies ever made.” It also affected a young Scorsese, who in an oft-recalled anecdote, remembers running out of the theater as a kid in sheer terror before the end, too scared to continue.

In any case Karloff and Lewton were a good match, as Karloff’s intro to the short story collection Tales of Terror attests:

The mightiest weapon of the terror tale is the power of suggestion – the skill to take the reader by means of that power into an atmosphere where even the incredible seems credible.

That could have been the Lewton team’s motto, and the two were to work again for the last time on Bedlam one year later. This film has an even closer relationship with Shutter Island, as it focuses on torturous treatment in an insane asylum, and the lead character’s incarceration. Lewton modeled the film off of plate 8 of William Hogarth’s series of paintings and engravings, “The Rake’s Progress”, which depicted subject Tom Rakewell’s final degradation at Bethlehem Hospital (aka Bedlam). Almost too slavish to Hogarth’s engraving, Lewton and director Mark Robson dissolve in and out of stills of the artwork before each new sequence, adding a static element to Lewton’s usually sinuous works. It’s a weird film in any context, though, with lead Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) a whitewashed reference to the Restoration England actress (and probable prostitute) Nell Gwyn. In this film, Nell is merely a kind of jester for the rich Lord Mortimer (Billy House), and tags along at the “loony” show George Sims (Karloff) mounts for the Lord’s pleasure. Sims runs the “Bedlam” insane asylum, allowing the inmates to rot in a barnyard atmosphere of scattered hay and the constant threat of death. Nell’s conscience is pricked by the earnest young Quaker Hannay (Richard Fraser), who sees a spark of pity in her.

The closest analogue to Karloff’s sadistic Sims in Shutter Island is probably Max Von Sydow’s malevlolent-seeming Dr. Naehring, who is intimated to have a Nazi past and moves with the same stiff bearing as Karloff’s schemer. The inmate population is the same however, a menagerie of terrifying grotesques, erudite madmen, and flailing arms in dimly lit, humid hallways. While Bedlam’s tone varies rather wildly from Restoration comedy to moralist grandstanding to atmospheric horror, it is never safe – and there are some agelessly wonderful bits, including the loony lawyer inmate who dreams of projecting his flip book onto a screen, only “It’s because of these pictures that I’m here.” That is, the cinema made him to madness. A truth Mr. Scorsese, Val Lewton and myself can certainly relate to.


May 19, 2009


Even if Martin Scorsese had never sat behind a camera, his heroic efforts at preserving film history would have earned him a spot in the cinematic pantheon. The biggest news out of the Cannes Film Festival this week, at least for nerds like myself, was the announcement regarding Mr. Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, which restores rare international films selected by a board consisting of directors like Wong Kar-Wai, Guillermo del Toro, and Abbas Kiarostami, among others. Film Comment editor-at-large Kent Jones was introduced as the new executive director, and a new distribution relationship with the “on-line cinematheque” The Auteurs and the Criterion Collection will allow these restorations to be viewed widely.

The Auteurs has already begun streaming four WCF films for free, and Cannes is currently screening four classics they’ve refurbished, including Edward Yang’s masterpiece, A Brighter Summer Day (Michael Atkinson has a lovely new piece up at Moving Image Source regarding it). This is in addition to Scorsese’s English language restoration arm, The Film Foundation, which produced a new print of Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes now screening at the festival, and who also pushed forward the essential Budd Boetticher box set released last year. It’s an astonishing effort at keeping history and cinephilia alive. (for more info, check out GreenCine’s podcast with Scorsese and Jones).

Sure, this news is not as exciting (and shocking!) as the coverage of the genital mutilation scenes in Lars von Trier’s latest provocation, Antichrist (which has dominated the Cannes stories this year), but it might have a slight edge in having a long-term impact on film culture. In my first attempt at digging in to the Foundation’s riches, I watched two of the features on The Auteurs, Kim Ki-Young’s The Housemaid (1960), and Metin Erksan’s Dry Summer (1964).

The Housemaid pulses with a delirious sexuality, focusing on the queasy thrills of smashing moral boundaries and the horrifying retribution that ensues. Kim sets the visual stakes in the opening shot: a track that pushes from outside a window into the piano room of the family’s house, establishing the idyllic, post-Korean war family before settling into a close-up of the cat’s cradle the kids are twiddling with. Cue title card. The journey of the camera mimics the later movement of the unnamed housemaid (Lee Eun-shim), whose entrance into the father’s domain signals the end of domestic bliss, and the entrance into a inescapable cat’s cradle-like net of ethical degradation.

Images of decay soon take over, usually tied to the family’s acquisitveness. The kids play on a staircase of their unfinished house, with two-by-fours looming over them. Their daughter, Aesoon, has to walk on crutches because of a mysterious disease, and their kitchen is beset by a plague (OK, just a couple) of rats. The father buys his daughter a squirrel for a pet, that particular type of rodent more acceptable for being purchased. Kim has things play out mostly in two-shots, but pushes in for the telling detail. The dad, a meek piano instructor, is teaching a young female admirer, and Kim cuts in to his hand cupping hers on the keys. This is when the new maid is seen creeping outside the window, spying on this strangely intimate lesson. Peering meekly inside, her unease growing, Kim cuts to a close-up of two rats writhing on a plate slathered with poison. No half-measures here, as the father’s passive psyche is ravaged by the sexual impulses he can’t control. Once the camera goes inside the house, the perversity can’t be contained, and Kim orchestrates an appropriately grand guignol ending.

Dry Summer, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, is a more naturalistic tale from Turkey that deals with self-destruction. Except in this case it’s arrogance rather than passivity that is the central character’s undoing. Selected for the WCF by director Fatih Akin (Head On), it’s an unstinting portrayal of Turkish masculinity, instantiated in the person of the mustachioed Osman (in a deliciously bombastic performance by Erol Tas). A tad portly, and often shirtless, Osman wants what’s his, regardless of the consequences. So when he declares that the village spring is on his property, he’s fully prepared to defend it to the death after denying the other villagers access to it.

This capitalist swine is often framed in extreme close-up, exaggerating his already caricature-ready features (wide nose, bushy moustache, droopy eyes) into a monstrous ass. Erksan even gives a donkey a similar close-up to cement their physical and emotional similarity. There’s a playful air to this monster, but he’s never portrayed to be anything else, whether tossing a recently severed chicken head to frighten his sister in law, or leeringly imbibing milk as he stares up her skirt. His look is what dominates the film, and his strapping brother’s wife, Bahar (Hülya Koçyigit), is the focus of his gaze. The clash over the public/private use of land is the arc that weaves through the whole film, but Osman’s vision of masculinity is the major subplot – of his ravenous thirst for land, money, and power – regardless of the cost. So when the villagers come to ask for the water, he tosses a pail at them. When they say they’re willing to buy a portion of it, he lends an ear.

It’s not worth giving away his most devious act, since you should watch it for yourself, but suffice it to say that the donkey wouldn’t have stooped to such levels. Tas is so brilliant in articulating his character’s childlike self-absorption that it often seems more like a comedy than a tragedy, but a final act reckoning tips it firmly into the latter, and it stands as a uncompromising critique of masculine aggression, while also being shaded enough to appreciate the guile it takes to be so evil.

I had heard of The Housemaid before, but had no idea that Dry Summer existed. The fact that there is an organization out there willing to restore and distribute this kind of material – artistically exciting but commercially nonviable – in this kind of economic climate, is nothing short of miraculous.These works have me primed for the other films in their pipeline, including Al Momia (1969) from Egypt , Redes (The Wave) (1936) from Mexico, Limite (1931) from Brazil, and Forest of the Hanged (1964) from Romania. Their motto is, “Dedicated to the preservation and restoration of neglected works around the world”, which sounds like something I’d come up with in a fever dream from my more idealistic school days. Apparently Scorsese has been sharing my dreams, except he has the capital and wherewithal to do something about it.

Further Reading: Michael J. Anderson at Tativille