Silents Please: Shadows, Silence and Sternberg

3 Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg (Criterion)

Josef von Sternberg is the great stylist of the thirties, a Hollywood maverick with a taste for visual exoticism and baroque flourishes (which prompted David Thomson to dub him “the first poet of underground cinema”). That’s the cliché, anyway, based largely on his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, a tremendous body of work that charts the evolution of the director into increasing narrative abstraction and emotional dislocation.

Sternberg Before Sound (and Dietrich)

But step back into his silent work and you’ll find a storyteller of unparalleled talent and one of the great directors of silent cinema. The three films in Criterion’s magnificent box set Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg may be all the evidence we have to this era (most of his silent films are lost and his directorial debut, the 1925 The Salvation Hunters, is unavailable on home video, though clips are included in the set supplements) but they are more than enough to show his mastery of the medium and the rapid evolution of his style, both a visual sculptor and as a cinematic storyteller. The “von” of his name (an affectation that didn’t originate with him but one he embraced who-heartedly) suggests an a European émigré and technically that’s accurate—he was born in Vienna and came the United State an early age—but Sternberg is an American, with European tastes perhaps but an American storytelling sensibility.

These films also showcase his often overlooked genius as a director of actors. While Sternberg fills the frame with light and shadow and layers of texture, he strips the performances down to the elemental base, their entire approach to life in their faces, their walk, the way they lean in for a comment or drop their eyes when they catch another’s gaze. In such carefully orchestrated performances, the smallest gestures, a lift of an eyebrow, a shift in body language communicates everything.

Underworld (1927), his third feature, has been called both the original gangster film and the proto-gangster film. And while it doesn’t look or play much like the films that blasted through the throes of the early sound era—Bull Weed (George Bancroft), the (anti-)hero of this piece, is no gangleader but a solo artist pulling heists with nothing but brazen confidence—this atmospheric classic certainly created some of the conventions and even images that were taken up in the sound era. Bull Weed staring up at the neon sign “The City Is Yours” and the gangland ball in the middle of the film, with thugs in tuxedos and streamers coating the floor, are echoed in Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932), which was also scripted by Ben Hecht (Sternberg rewrote Hecht’s story to the point that Hecht disavowed the script… until it won an Oscar). That’s where it really anticipates the classic gangster story: the underworld network of criminals, the attitude, and especially the cast of street thugs in society dress, appropriating the dress of the upper class while twisting the manners and mores into a warped reflection of high society.

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John Cassavetes and Citizen McCain

Machine Gun McCain (Blue Underground)

John Cassavetes was doing his Orson Welles thing—by that I mean acting in whatever movie paid well so he could finance his own, personal productions—when he took the lead in an Italian mob picture/heist movie hybrid shot in large part on location in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. His presence is defining, or perhaps redefining, in the film. Strolling out of prison with not so much a swagger as a comfortable amble, giving his farewells to inmates and guards alike and bantering with an estranged, slickly outfitted son who arranged for his early release, we immediately face a singularly independent operator about to bump up against the conformity and command of the syndicate.

John Cassavetes: Hank McCain sizes up the situation

Cassavetes is Hank McCain, an old-school criminal in the new order, sprung specifically to rob a Vegas casino that West Coast mob honcho Charlie Adamo (Peter Falk) is trying to muscle his way into, but McCain is not really a team player. Which really complicates things when Adamo gets called on the carpet by the New York godfathers. It’s not just that Vegas is out of Adamo’s territory. The casino that he’s putting the squeeze on is secretly owned by the East Coast mob. When Adamo tries to call it off in typical mob fashion (by putting a hit out on McCain), it just makes the lone wolf McCain determined to go it alone.

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Review: Eraserhead

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

While an attendant whose deformed face and skin make him look like the Elephant Man pulls levers like those that start an amusement park ride, an ectoplasmic spermatozoon plunges squirming into a pool, making its way toward a globe that gradually crumbles, until we take the viewpoint of that globe and find ourselves sliding through a hair-rimmed aperture into a bright white beyond. Conception and birth, right? But of what?

Every time you think you’ve got hold of Eraserhead, you haven’t. A curly-haired macrocephalic strolls zombielike through a surreal landscape that is both identifiably urban and suggestively a macrophotograph of some portion of human anatomy. Lights come on but don’t light anything up; the bars of a radiator part like curtains to reveal a dancing woman on a tile stage; a manmade roast chicken no bigger than a fist squirms and bleeds when someone tries to carve it; a man and woman live with their hideous birdlike baby in a dingy flat whose floors and shelves are covered with some tangled, decaying fibrous matter—all of this against a soundtrack of incessant pounding, hissing, squeaking noises, and in the most frightfully claustrophobic black-and-white you’ve ever seen.

If you really give yourself to the film (and there’s a point beyond which it’s pretty hard not to), you pretty soon find yourself shifting a little, seeking out the reassuring glow of the exit light or suppressing the impulse to say to your neighbor “I gotta find some way outta here!” I don’t subscribe to the notion that seeing a film—or any work of art—can damage the viewer; but if anyone could demonstrably suffer permanent damage from seeing a film, there’s a good chance that the film would be Eraserhead. I saw it, and count myself among the walking wounded. The film makes all other so-called “dream” films pale by comparison: it is the most thoroughly oneiric—in fact, literally nightmarish—film I’ve ever seen: vivid, disorienting, captivating, stirring in me terrors whose names I don’t even know. From the field of the personal (or “underground”) film, where there is so much self-indulgent crap, and so much more careless fakery, Eraserhead emerges as a truly subversive film. It gets personal with the viewer in ways so intimate, so embedded in the private recesses of consciousness you wouldn’t have thought it possible. Who is this David Lynch and how does he know? This is what madness might be like, he makes you think, this oppressive absurdity, now funny, now scary, now just plain weird, but making a kind of sense that has nothing at all to do with reason. Believe it: Eraserhead is The Real Thing.

© 1978 Robert C. Cumbow

ERASERHEAD
Direction, screenplay, special effects, editing, production: David Lynch. Camera and lighting: Fred Elmes, Herbert Caldwell.
The players: John Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph, Jeanne Bates.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.

Review: Bahia

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Bahia both is and isn’t the kind of film you’d expect from the maker of Black Orpheus. Like the earlier film, it was made in Brazil and focuses on a society of New World blacks; it is intimately bound up with music and with the joyous dance of life; it boasts sharp National Geographic–style color photography, and a loving sensitivity to the beauty of nature and of the human face; at every turn it stresses rebirth and affirmation, emphasizing the universal human values that are implicit in its amalgam of Christian and Bahian myth. But unlike Black Orpheus, Camus’s newest film is almost structureless, more a freewheeling anthology of vignettes involving the same group of characters than a singleminded narrative film.

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Out of the Past: Otley

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Asked to name the absolute quintessence of the late-1960s film hero, whom would you choose? Benjamin Braddock? Antoine Doinel? Cool Hand Luke? Rooster Cogburn? Butch Cassidy or the Sundance Kid? Frank Bullitt? Wyatt or Billy from Easy Rider? My vote would go to none of these, but to Gerald Arthur Otley, the eponymous hero (played so superlatively well by Tom Courtenay) of Dick Clement’s dazzling first feature. Otley has all the wariness, all the coward’s cunning, all the what’s-in-it-for-me cynicism of the man in the 1969 street; but he also has the quick wit of the born survivor, the good luck of the sainted schlemiel who always somehow stumbles through, the street kid’s celerity in taking advantage of a sudden change in situation and the resilience of the eternally befuddled, but also eternally cocky, “little man” who gets by as much because of his smallness as his manhood. Otley is a thief, a rogue, a liar, a scrounger, a seducer of other men’s wives, and he’s no good at any of these things, and not much good at anything much else either, not even at being the layabout he so naturally is. But he has no malice in him and he loves life, even as it baffles and overlooks him.

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Review: Julia

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Whatever Lillian Hellman’s attitude about herself may be—in Pentimento and elsewhere—Fred Zinnemann’s Julia is at pains to glamorize her. Not only is she played by a woman much more attractive than she ever was; her struggling pre-fame days are also recounted in glossy, romantic terms that revere her (with the comfort of hindsight) as a famous, successful playwright, as the mistress of a famous writer, and as a courageous ur-liberal who performs a daring anti-fascist act long before it became fashionable even to be anti-fascist. There is no denying that the self-congratulatory tone that seeps into Hellman’s monologue and dialogue in Julia is already present in Pentimento; and Jane Fonda has brought off a splendid achievement in portraying the young Lillian Hellman not as the young Lillian Hellman but as the older Lillian Hellman’s impression of her younger self.

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Review: Eyes of Laura Mars

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Give Jon Peters full credit, he’s honest with his audience. At the beginning of A Star Is Born a voice called out advising “all you assholes out there” that the show wasn’t about to get under way until everyone quieted down, and Jon’n’Barbra proceeded to treat their public accordingly for the rest of the film (not that a goodly portion of the public seemed to mind: “Gee, Barbra called me an asshole!—I have arrived!”). Peters’ credit on Eyes of Laura Mars is preceded by a spacey model’s muttering “Guh-ross!” Yes, my dear, Eyesof LauraMarsis pretty gross and, in deference to memories of the good films director Irvin Kershner once made, I’d prefer to lay most of the blame at Peters’ door.

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Orlando and Orfeu – DVDs of the Week

Orlando (Sony)

“Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” So commands Queen Elizabeth I to the androgynously beautiful young aristocrat Orlando (Tilda Swinton), the boy she has taken for her lover, and so he obeys, remaining unchanged over four centuries, or almost unchanged. One morning some hundred years later, the lad looks into the mirror while dressing and realizes he has transformed into a woman. “Same person, no difference at all,” she muses. “Just a different sex.” But true as that may be, her social and legal identity is completely redefined.

Tilda Swinton: Orlando transformed

Tilda Swinton was largely unknown to the filmgoing world when she took on the role of fair, ageless young man who transforms into an ageless woman over the centuries and her androgynous looks evoke 17th century portraits of young male aristocrats. The Oscar-winning actress is of course far more famous today and the visual shock of the transformation no longer so surprising, but the journey is just as fascinating, entertaining and unexpected.

Filmmaker Sally Potter combines the experimental tools and feminist approach of her earlier films with art-house style and more conventional narrative storytelling to find the cinematic counterpart to Virginia Woolf’s writing in this 1992 adaptation of Woolf’s novel “Orlando: A Biography.” Visually, Potter recreates four centuries of British cultural history in painterly images and austerely constructed settings, from Orlando’s lavish manor to the frozen Thames of 17th century London to 18th century Constantinople, in Leningrad and in Uzbekistan. Narratively she plays with conventions and our expectations. Orlando speaks to the audience in brief, often witty asides and decades pass over the course of a single fluid sequence or in a cut. Potter craftily casts queer icon Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth, who plays the part without a hint camp, bringing a sly dignity to the role while also foregrounding the complicated swirl of gender and sexual identity in the film. Within this slightly skewed perspective, the flouncy, flamboyant male fashions and long curly wigs donned for formal meetings and social occasions take an a whole new connotation, especially as Potter explores issues of male friendship and companionship.

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“Directing doesn’t start on the floor”: Claude Goretta and Isabelle Huppert Interviewed

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

The Lacemaker (La Dentellière) was shown in the 1977 New York Film Festival. Claude Goretta, the director, and Isabelle Huppert, who costarred with Yves Beneyton, were interviewed before the film had opened commercially. The Lacemaker is the story of a young girl, employed at a beauty parlor, who falls in love with a student very different from her in aspirations and in intellect. The affair fails and the girl is left suffering from a kind of nervous breakdown.

Judith M. Kass: In the films of yours that have played here, The Invitation and The Wonderful Crook (Pas si méchant que ça…), events give the appearance of going along well and then something happens to disrupt the order. Does the idea of change causing social and personal disruption interest you particularly?

Isabelle Hupper in The Lacemaker
Isabelle Huppert in "The Lacemaker"

Claude Goretta: What interests me is the idea of common lives which can show us that people are deep inside a situation in which they can express something else, something the others don’t see. I’ve always been interested in people who don’t always have the means of expressing their sensibility. In The Invitation the people show the others very little of themselves. They have a richness inside that others don’t notice. And the problem for me as the director is to show the audience that the people on the screen are much more interesting than what they show to the others. It’s the problem of “the lacemaker.” She’s a girl without culture and she’s naturally silent. And people today, facing this sort of character, take the silence as a denial and not as a way of accepting the world. They think the silence is something against them. The problem of the student is that he has a theoretical idea of life and no experience at all. He can’t have a fundamental communication with the girl because he lacks experience of life. He’s not a bad boy; he’s not worse than the others. But this experience is a flop for him because of his youth. For me, the students are caught in a sort of closed world. Their generosity, all the high ideals of life, are theoretical. When they are confronted with real life, it’s quite different. I think in our lives we always have been either somebody’s lacemaker or somebody’s François [the student]. But we are always responsible for somebody else, but we don’t know it sometimes—that we are responsible for the other.

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Box Set Bonanza: Flynn, Novak, Kurosawa, Guitry & Walsh, plus Elvis at 75 – DVDs of the Week

What a couple of weeks for DVD collections. They’re usually paced through the year until the Christmas rush, when the emphasis is on the new, the familiar and the cult. Well, Christmas came early this year for fans of classic cinema, and of course it hit while I’ve been traveling and have had less time than usual to explore them. So I’ve sampled my way through each of these sets, seeing two or three films from each collection and dipping my toe into the supplements (which is a moot point for some of them). I wish I’d had more time to view and more time to reflect and write, but as I’ve got a single weekend before I’m off again, I’m going to get through these before they are completely outdated. I present them chronologically: oldest films to most recent.

Presenting Sacha Guitry (Eclipse Series 22) (Criterion)

The Story of a Cheat

How did the reputation of actor, playwright and filmmaker Sacha Guitry, once the toast of French theater and cinema and popular culture, so slip into obscurity over the years? In the United States, at the very least, he is barely a footnote and his films all but impossible to see. This box set of four comedies from the thirties, written and directed by leading man and defining personality Guitry, goes a long way to correcting both oversights. The Story of a Cheat (1936) takes the idea of narration to a new level in a comic memoir of a reluctant scoundrel (“What have I done to the Lord that people constantly solicit me to engage in crime?”) recounting his life in snappy flashbacks with running commentary. The visual credits sequence alone (which surely inspired Orson Welles’ visionary trailer to Citizen Kane) is a treat. The Pearls of the Crown is even an even more intricately cut bauble of a lark, a tale that bounds through history (and multiple languages) and over the globe to trace the journeys of seven perfect pearls, and once again teases the audience with its tongue-in-cheek storytelling and droll self-awareness when it comes to actors playing multiple roles.

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Review: Salò

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Updating the setting of de Sade’s novel, Pasolini’s Salò proposes that in the final months of fascist rule in northern Italy a quartet of authorities (a noble, an administrator, a banker, and a monsignor) sign a pact, intermarry with one another’s daughters to ensure solidarity, systematically capture the most attractive children of their political enemies, and spirit them away to a country manor house, there to subject them to unspeakable indignities in their unrestrained pursuit of perverse pleasure, from masturbation and sodomy, through coprophagia, to torture and death. Though the power of the film’s images might be easily achieved, simply by evoking the inherent shock of the acts depicted, nevertheless, power there is, in abundance, and Salò does not slip easily (or ever) out of one’s mind. Is the violent reaction against Salò that has occurred in this country a reaction against the acts that it depicts, against the (patently faked) depictions themselves, or against the fact of that depiction, the very idea that someone should make a movie about such things?

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Houses, Phones and Cars: Domestic Spaces in Max Ophuls’ “The Reckless Moment”

By Norman Hale

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Max Ophuls, the great European film director, once observed in conversation with a friend that different love relationships are expressed by different tokens: traditionally a man gives fresh-cut flowers to his mistress, but a potted plant to his wife.* Social rituals with their attendant images fascinated Ophuls. Of special interest to him were the conventional images surrounding romantic love: the sending of flowers, the exchange of jewelry, dancing as an erotic mating ritual, and the exchange of delicately scented, invariably tragic love notes. His films are full of these social rituals in various combinations. But Ophuls’ formulation of the flower ritual attests to more than a sharp eye for custom. In his expression of the rule about what kind of flowers to give to whom, Ophuls lays bare the social logic which underlies the custom of giving flowers. That social logic prescribes that the ephemeral loved one be presented with an ephemeral token; and, like for like, the more permanent loved one is to be presented with a token whose characteristics are stability, growth, and relative permanence. The flowers and the potted plant are not neutral images to which a social meaning has been added. Rather, the meanings of social rituals derive from characteristics inherent in the very objects which express the rituals. Ophuls’ genius, it seems to me, lies in his ability to reveal this logic on the screen, to show how a ritual, its object, and its meaning are related.

James Mason and Joan Bennett pose

While cut flowers seem to be a widespread Western image, the significance and usage of the image differs slightly in each particular culture. Moreover, culture has other, more specific and local images which are not transferable, just as the nuances of language are sometimes untranslatable. When Max Ophuls left Europe for America, he surely encountered a culture with a different social imagery than he was accustomed to. His first two films here are cautious historical or period pieces, highly European in flavor. However, the two following films attempt to deal with a specific American milieu. The latter of these—and the last film Ophuls made in the United States—The Reckless Moment (1949) is complete in its mastery of the American idiom.

By American idiom I do not mean merely speech, although Ophuls’ ear flawlessly recreates a range of dialects from teenage slang to upper-middle-class English to the argot of the lower-class villains. Rather, I mean that Ophuls captures and analyzes American domestic life with the assurance of one who understands its unspoken rules. In a way uncanny for a non-native, he understands the parameters of American social beliefs and taboos. “Belief” may be too strong a word to use since it implies a conscious attitude. Ophuls is primarily concerned with the unconscious, half-articulated, vague notions which rule American domestic life.

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Pandora’s Technicolor Box and More Shameless Knock-offs From Corman: DVDs of the Week

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Kino)

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman

I have a soft spot for Albert Lewin, a literary Hollywood writer/producer turned director with a continental sensibility an eye for handsome imagery (if not always cinematic storytelling). His productions tended toward literary adaptations (The Good Earth, 1937, which he produced, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1945, which he scripted and directed) but Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Kino) is an original script (“suggested by the Legend of the Flying Dutchman,” in the words of the credits) reverberating with mythological themes, literary and classical references and a Hemingway-esque atmosphere of the lost generation of idle wealthy Europeans in early thirties Spain.

All of the men in the tale are in thrall to Pandora (Ava Gardner), a beautiful American nightclub singer who has come to Esperanza, Spain, via London, and spurns the attentions of her admirers with a mix of cruelty and ennui. Then she is drawn to the mysterious ship anchored in the bay and meets the ageless Renaissance man Hendrik (James Mason), a haunted loner whose story is the stuff of legends, and becomes captivated by this mystery man who seems to know her yet makes no advances.

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Breaking News on Net Neutrality from Lloyd Kaufman

The following press release was sent by Lloyd Kaufman, President of Troma Entertainment and Chairperson of the Independent Film & Television Alliance, in response to the report in The New York Times about a possible deal that would allow Google and Verizon greater access to the Internet, which they would then sell to customers at a premium. To quote the article, which was published on August 4: “Such an agreement could overthrow a once-sacred tenet of Internet policy known as net neutrality, in which no form of content is favored over another. In its place, consumers could soon see a new, tiered system, which, like cable television, imposes higher costs for premium levels of service.”

We reprint the letter in its entirety. Please feel free to copy, paste and run on your site and blogs or E-mail around. (See also our interview with Lloyd Kaufman on Parallax View, where he discusses, among other things, his efforts to fight for net neutrality in the face of corporate pressure.)

Dear Colleagues:

As many of you may know, there is disastrous news on the front page of The New York Times today. Verizon and other mega-conglomerates have conspired to kill the last democratic medium: the Internet. It is imperative that we all take action immediately to fight for the only true agent of free information and diversity left in this country. Please spread my anti-mega-conglomerate PSA to all your contacts and post it on your blogs. Call the FCC and your elected representatives and urge them to defend net neutrality. Go to Save the Internet and contribute your thoughts. We must use the Internet to speak out on this matter while we still can.

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Review: Straight Time / Short Eyes

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

I saw Straight Time on a double feature, and didn’t know quite what to make of it. Next day, I remembered the second feature vividly and Straight Time almost not at all. Yet I had trouble finding anything specifically wrong with this Chinese dinner of a movie. It’s cleanly made, easy to watch, competently acted—three of the supporting roles are splendidly played: parole officer Earl Frank (M. Emmet Walsh), suburbanite crime-dabbler Jerry Schue (Harry Dean Stanton), and disturbed ex-con and family man Willy Darin (Gary Busey)—and never less than interesting. Yet in the end it contributes nothing in story or style that seems to add to the currently fashionable dialogue about rehabilitation and recidivism. If there is nothing especially faulty or offensive about the film, neither is there anything outstanding or affecting about it; and it’s that terminal blandness that finally kills Straight Time for me.

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