Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Road to the Heart. 1909. Directed by D. W. Griffith.


This was another film shown with the intertitles cut out. And it was a preservation print to boot.

Not much to say about this. It was a silly little piece in which a man will not accept his daughter's boyfriend (or fiance, or whatever). So the daughter leaves. And the wife goes with her. And the man is left without anyone to cook for him. He has different people cook for him and is dissaftisfied with the results. One who is a cowboy type gets angry and shoots up the place. The man goes and rejoins his family.

It isn't very funny, but then comedy was never Griffith's strong point. It only interested me as an historical curiosity.

Crossroads (Jujiro). 1928. Directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa.


I enjoyed this film very much, but a few days later I couldn't remember my impressions of it. It is very much of a deliberate "art film" (in the sense of Coeur Fidele and L'Inhumaine). It is slow and deliberate with a lot of footage of objects. The performers also act in a very slow, deliberate fashion. I had trouble with this atfirst, but I found myself settling into the film's rhythm.

It is a strory of a young man with a crush on a popular woman. She has many admirers, but also a mate (or so it seems). They play a trick on the young man, leading him to believe that he has killed the woman's lover. It is the same situation which occurs in Little Fugitive, but with much more disastrous consequences.

I would very much like to see this film again so that I could note my reactions in more detail. I doubt if that is likely to happen any time soon, though. I was very impressed with it even though my memory fails me.

Rumpelstiskin. 1915. Directed by Raymond B. West.


This is a really nice production with a true storybook flavor. Watching it is very much like the experience of finding a very old book of children's stories.

I find that I really like the character of Rumpelstilskin. Maybe that's because I identify with him in the sense that beautiful young women are beyond my grasp. But he is such a lively fellow. He is lustful, vindictive, resourceful. I really find myself on his side. He is real, full of life and compared to him the prince seems kind of vapid. I loved it when he casually turned Simple Simon into a pig and when he spins the straw into not just gold, but gold coins.

And the fact is that the other characters did not play fair with him. The miller's daughter is in a jam. True, it is of Rumpelstilskin's making, but she is in a jam and to get out of it she agrees to give Rumpelstilskin her first child if it is a girl. And then she tries to renege on the deal. This woman, while seeming very attractive, does not have the integrity to stand by her word. I don't want to see her get off scot-free.

I wonder. If Rumpelstilskin is so powerful, you would think that he could do something to make himself more attractive. And you would also think that he would figure a way out of his predicament at the end, where he is condemned to spin straw into gold for the rest of his life.

I don't like the king who believes he has a right to do whatever he wants to other people, a king who doesn't choose to wield power responsibly, but seems to feel that it is there to serve his whim. It is a good lesson for him when his son disappears and the fact that he forgives him at the end is a hopeful sign. But this film, ostensibly made for children, contains a pretty sharp portrait of the misuse of power.

I don't know the tale of Rumpelstilskin well, but I know that the heroine is challenged to learn his name. This was not in the film and it was a letdown. I felt cheated. You don't take a very famous tale and cut out the part of the story that is known to everybody. And I even know those words in German: Ach, wie gut dass niemand weisst / Das ich Rumpelstilskin heisst. So I came out of this movie feeling disappointed.

The Man with White Gloves (L'Homme aux Gants Blancs). 1908. Directed by Albert Capellani.


An interesting film, a sophisticated melodrama. A man robs a woman, drops his white gloves, another man finds them and goes to rob the same woman. He kills her. The first man is identified by the gloves and arrested for the crime. The second man obsequiosly opens the door of the patrol car for him.

Capellani is supposedly the most accomplished of the Pathe filmmakers. This film certainly has a sophisticated and complex ending. Crook number one is caught, but blamed for a crime he didn't do as well as one that he did do, while crrok number two gets away scot free. That twist at the end is like something we would expect to see on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and certainly leaves an impression on the viewer.

The Pirates (Les Forbains). 1907.


This was a really lively melodrama. A woman is kidnapped by pirates. Her fiance pursues, battles them and rescues her. (I forget, but I think they kill her parents at the beginning.) It's picturesque and fairly engaging.

A Venetian Tragedy (Un Drame a Venise). 1906. Directed by Albert Capellani.


I enjoyed this film. It's main asset is its picturesque quality. The stagey sets create a stylized atmosphere of a renaissance Venice. The whole thing has a precious quality, as if we were watching scenes enacted in a dollhouse.

There is nothing remarkable about the plot. It's infidelity and a beggar's revenge. The plot merely serves to keep the film moving--and it does.

The film has a strange ending. The husband, having killed the lover, confronts the wife who opens her robe to reveal a strange costume at the sight of which the husband falls to his knees, weeping. I didn't understand what that was all about.

Distress (Ecole du Malheur). 1907.


I had trouble following this Pathe short as well. A man steals bread for his daughter and is caught. I prison he steals a guard's uniform and escapes. (Or I thought he did.) Then he becomes respectable, gets a job as a sort of construction worker, but falls off a building. The daughter is taken home by another policeman and later visits her father's grave.
Now, since the father stole the policeman's unirmorm (or a guard's uniform), I thought the policeman in the later scenes was him and got all mixed up.

The Dog Smugglers (Les Chiens Contrebandiers). 1906.


This Pathe short had a complicated plot and I couldn't follow it. It was interesting to watch dogs used as smugglers, running with bags attached to them. Little incidents were interesting, such as when a bag fell off one of the dogs and another ran back and picked it up. There was quite a contrast between shots of the dogs which were taken outside and other scenes which took place on sets made to resemble the outdoors.

Tr'cheot'my P'sy. 1988. Julie Murray.


This film uses footage from stag films, but I don't see where it did anything interesting with it.

Four Screen TV Film. 1968. John Broderick.


The screen is divided into four parts, each of which shows images from TV. There is so much here that nothing was really able to engage my interest. However, I did enjoy it when I recognized something--snippets from the Batman TV show or the credits for The Abbott and Costello Show. This film might have been more interesting when it was made because a lot more of the images would have been recognizable.

Report. 1964-68. Bruce Conner.


This is a film about the Kennedy assassination comprised entirely of news footage and audio of the news reports. I don't even remember how I felt about it, so obviously it didn't have much impact on me.

We listen to the news reports against flickering black and white frames, we see a shot of Kennedy in the car, shown over and over. With each appearance some footage is removed at the beginning and some is added at the end. Later we see images of Kennedy intercut with images of destruction. The program notes pointed out that he was part of the program of destruction himself. He died by the same forces he trafficked with, no matter who was directing them.

Cosmic Ray I, II, III. 1965. Bruce Conner.


This film has a lot of bounce and energy. Images of a stripper or nude dancer are rapidly intercut with other imagery. It supposedly links or equates sex with destruction. It is such a barrage that it seems more directed at the viewer's subconscious than conscious. And to top everything off there is a Ray Charles selection on the soundtrack.

So what is the equation with sex and destruction? Some artists and thinkers seems to think that the sex drive lies behind the urge to build and create. But watching this film is an exhilarating experience.

Some Phases of an Empire. 1984. Nina Fonoroff.


Imagery photographed from the 1951 Quo Vadis. It was interesting in that if you have seen Quo Vadis it all looks vaguely familiar, but you didn't pay attention to a lot of the figures and movements as they passed by in the original fim, so this connects with something buried in the memory banks. There is a recitation on the soundtrack that, as far as I could see, did not relate to the visual imagery. It just seemed to be two sources of information competing for the viewer's attention.

The Spoilers. 1914. Directed by Colin Campbell.


It is a rare pleasure to see a film this old presented so well. It was a nice print and I really enjoyed it.

The Spoilers is noteworthy for its atmosphere and its gallery of vivid characters. I thought William Farnum was wonderful. It is a complicated story with a lot of twists and turns and it was hard to keep everything straight, but I don't think you need to follow all the details. They just keep the film moving.

This is a film about political corruption. It is also a film about loyalty. It's about characters who look after each other and protect each other. It is about a woman who learns that the smooth, elegant gentleman she likes at the beginning is a deceitful crook and is won by the coarser, shorter, paunchier hero.

I kept thinking about The Adventures of Robin Hood while watching this. I think that Helen is quite similar to the character Olivia de Havilland played in that film. She is related to "the bad guys" and can't accept that the other side are "the good guys." She is initially hostile to the hero and a big part of the pleasure of each film is in watching him win her over. In each case she is painfully made to see the truth.

She tells Farnum, "I hate your savagery" and he decides to try and not fight anymore since she disapproves of it. This is not being true to himself. And it's sad to see a man do that because of a woman. Hedoesn't even try to defend the mine when it is being taken away from him. He gets over it, though, and soundly trounces the villain in the famous fight scene. And he proudly says, "I licked him with my bare hands. And he does get the girl.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ten Nights in a Barroom. 1926.


This is a film which would be easy to criticize to death. It basically has historical interest in being an early example of "black cinema" or "race films." And if one approaches it without a lot of expectations it is an interesting film to watch.

It starts off introducing us to a bunch of characters and I personally had trouble keeping them straight and remembering who everybody was. It is the story of a man who had been the owner of a mill which he lost to the owner of the establishment in which he drowns his sorrows. He expresses a lot of bitterness towards this man, Simon Slade.

As far as I can see we are not given enough information to evaluate this situation. Did Simon Slade indeed cheat him out of his mill or is he just a big crybaby, blaming other people for his own weaknesses? This is not answered, although the film treats Slade as the villain and his demise comes across as something of a purging of evil, a milder version of the end of Hell's Hinges. His profession of selling alcohol is viewed as inherently bad (and possibly with some justification), a way of preing on man's weaknesses and to top it off he runs gambling games. These games involve cheating, but whether Mr. Slade is a party to that I'm not so sure.

Charles Gilpin's performance as the alcoholic is certainly impressive, especially in the scenes in which he hallucinates. He has a small daughter whom he truly loves and who is able to get him to come home from the bar. The figure of the daughter seems like a cliche, but the little girl who plays her is so photogenic and touching that I was really moved. It is so sad when she wants to be friendly with other girls in the neighborhood, but they turn their backs on her, presumably because of the father.

The alcoholic and the bar-owner get into a brawl which the little girl witnesses. The owner throws a glass at the father, it misses and hits the girl in the head. She later dies. For some reason the crucial moment did not have an impact on me. The reason for that could be that I had seen that scene before in a documentary so it didn't shock me. Or it could have been that it just didn't seem to me that getting hit by a glass would be likely to kill her. And I might be wrong in thinking that. It could also be that this scene was not edited well enough.

The girl calls her father to her bedside and tells him that she won't be able to bring him home anymore and asks him to opromise to never go to the bar again, which he does. Then she dies. It suggests that she was somehow meant to die to bring this man to his senses, a little human sacrifice.

The townspeople turn on Mr. Simon Slade and burns down his establishment. A man we know is a crooked gambler dies in the blaze. The father pursues Simon Slade who attempts to escape by boat, but dies in rapids. The sequence is confusing, as if it weren't all that well edited. The scenes of the townspeople in a state of fury seem kind of static. Slade dies in the rapids.

The daughter's death inspires the father to pull himself together and at the end he is elected mayor of the town.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Den sorte drom. 1911. Directed by Urban Gad.


This film was also shown with untranslated intertitles. During the first part of the film (maybe half) there were hardly any titles at all, but I still couldn't follow it, so I wonder if some of the titles were missing. I didn't find it very interesting until the scene where the two men have a duel at cards and then the film came alive for me. It probably would have been truly absorbing with adequate translation.

Asta Nielsen is intense and always interesting to watch. There is one scene in which it seems she is willing to sell herself to this man to get her boyfriend out of trouble. The sheer revuslsion she shows in that scene is amazing.

The Abyss (Afgrunden). 1910. Directed by Urban Gad.


This film was shown with untranslated Danish intertitles, so it was not possible to follow the story. I was just able to enjoy watching Asta Nielsen's performance.

The best scene takes place in a theater where Nielsen and a partner do a dance routine. At first I thought they were rehearsing, but later it became obvious that this is actually a performance. Nielsen lassos her partner during the dance--it's a really interesting scene.

There is a confrontation at the end when Nielsen stabs a man she is involved with (?) who is about to go after her former boyfriend after seeing him give her money. I had a momentary lapse of concentration and wasn't able to tell if she intended to stab him or if it was an accident. I wish I could see this film with English translation.

Atlantis. 1913. Directed by August Blom.


This was another film shown with the intertitles cut out. It was impossible to follow. What I saw was interesting for its depiction of life before World War I. There was interesting acting from the female characters and a very impressive shipwreck sequence which must have been especially poignant in the original showings as 1913 was the year of the Titanic disaster.

There was also a very interesting use of superimpositions in this film.

September Express. 1973. Storm De Hirsch.


This is a train film--a film about views from a train and superimpositions of the passengers. There is lovely countryside and I think that it would have been even more lovely in full color. I don't know if this was a faded print or if it originally looked like that.

Talking Pictures: The Structure of Film Viewing. 1981. Takahiko Iimura.


I realize that this is a conceptual piece and the deadpan treatment is intentional, but I still can't help thinking that Taka Iimura had too much time on his hands.

Skins. 1976. Barbara Lattanzi.


A very enjoyable abstract film. A lot of it looks like material applied to the surface of the film, similar to Mothlight. In places this abstract footage is superimposed over an animal's head and images of fur. It's very lively and has what I like to refer to as "bounce." I would like to collect this film.

Rite of Passage. 1982. William Scaff.


Although I didn't understand what it was all about, this was a pretty sophisticated film for an 8mm format with dissolves and a soundtrack made up of electronic music. In a vague way it reminded me of James Broughton's Dreamwood. It is about a woman and it starts and ends with this woman and images of water. Somewhere in between she travels in a car, suggesting some kind of passage. I wish someone would explain a little bit about it to me and I would like to collect this film.

Friday, September 25, 2009

3 Films by Willie Varela: Green Light/Becky's Eye/Leaves of Glass. 1974-79.


These short pieces are all pretty much in the manner of Brakhage's abstract films of the 1970s. It sort of seems pointless for one filmmaker to make films in a style that another filmmaker has done so superbly. We really don't need Willie Varela making Brakhage pictures. Nevertheless, of the three I would say that Becky's Eye was the most enjoyable, with a lot of agitated motion and a few discernible images of an eye. (I would like to collect that piece by itself.)

Highs. 1976. Stan Brakhage.


No matter how hard I try, I don't "get" a lot of Brakhage. This is one of them. It didn't say anything to me.

The Passaic Textile Strike. 1926.


[The print of The Passaic Textile Strike was incomplete. It ended abruptly.]

This film is a fascinating historical document. It depicts the struggle of largely immigrant workers to organize and fight back against the mill owners of Passaic and its vicinity. For the most part it is an eloquent presentation of their case. It must have been much more exciting for audiences of other workers at the time who felt that this was a struggle in which they shared.

The film contrasts the living conditions of the mill owners and the workers--luxury vs. squalor. We only see the outside of the owners' houses, but the point is made.

For me, the most exciting parts of the film are those which involve the police and the use of the law to undermine the strikers' efforts. It pushes a button when the police--ostensibly the defenders of everybody--are used as a weapon of the powerful against the not-so-powerful. I loved it especially when a title announces that the police managed to bar the newsreel cameras, but not one of the cameramen who got these shots from a rooftop. The very film we watch seems like a victory.

I wasn't so impressed with the scenes of the labor leaders making speeches. I suppose this was a necessary part of the film, but maybe such images have become such a cliche that they don't impress me. I liked the shots of the workers much better. These were their brethren and peers, with which the audiences could identify. There is one group shot in which a woman belatedly runs in to join the group. This was actually canny filmmaking.

It was interesting to see the relief efforts of other unions and the support shown to the Passaic workers by other other laborers around the country. You really had the feeling that they and not the mill owners were in the majority or more powerful position--a feeling I am sure the film wished to convey.

The film begins with a dramatization of the life and struggles of a typical immigrant family. It is a really good start to the film as it puts the problems behind the strike in simple human terms that most people could understand and sympathize with. The wages are cut so the teenage daughter must go to work. She is fired so the father must work longer hours. He can't handle it and has to take a lesser and less-paying job. He gets sick and is told by the doctor that he should stay home and rest for at least two weeks, but he can't afford to--so he goes back to work the next day. One morning his wife finds him dead in bed. The story is told simply and directly.

One part that I didn't really like that much is when the lecherous boss seduces the teenage daughter and later fires her. This just seems like a cheap shot, although that sort of thing probably did go on. It does engage the viewer's interest, but it just seems that this prologue should concentrate on the simple struggle to make a living. But sex does fascinate the viewer.

I do wonder if the daughter couldn't have gotten herself a job at one of the other mills.

Some of the images that made an impression on me were shots of the workers' weekly pay envelopes and shots of the strikers who had been beaten by the police.

I should say that one of the reasons this film interests me is that I know the locale. Passaic and Garfield are familiar to me which makes this film seem like an ancient history of familiar places.


I can't help wondering, though, about what exactly prompted the wage cuts. Why did they happen at that particular time? I would like to know more about the Passaic textile strike from the point of view of the other side.

Lubin program


The Little Rebel. 1911. Directed by Harry Solter.

Florence Lawrence, regarded as "the first movie star" by many was lovely in this Civil War picture, but I found it hard to follow. Some uniformed officers appear to take over the house, Lawrence shoots one of them in the face, then re returns later (after the war) and they embrace. I must have missed a lot. I think more intertitles would have helped a lot.

The Almighty Dollar. 1911.

This was a cute little comedy. As a trick, someone glues a silver dollar to a stool and those in on it laugh at the people who try to pick it up--until one guy runs off with the stool. Everyone chases him and he cleverly has himself shaved, swipes someone else's clothes (I think) and becomes a different person.

The Servant Girl's Legacy. 1914. Directed by Arthur Hotaling.

The earliest surviving film with Oliver Hardy, this is about a servantgirl who attracts suitors when they find out she is inheriting meny, loses them when they find out it's only $25.00, accepts her loyal boyfriend and then finds out it's really $250,000. This film was also hard to follow because at the beginning she seems to be rejecting Hardy and then it seems that he is her boyfriend.

Manslaughter. 1922. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille.


I really enjoyed this picture most of the way through. It was a nice production (as one would expect from DeMille) and it kept moving. I think it lost its way in the last section, after Lydia gets out of prison.

Leatrice Joy was good as Lydia, but I kept thinking what a great role itwould have been for Clara Bow. I don't know if Bow could have been callous enough, but I kept thinking of her.

Thomas Meighan seemed a little bit stodgy. He's the respectble, upright, solid citizen--so what is the big attraction to Lydia? We are told that he loves her for what she could be rather than what she is, but we are never told why he picked her out to love. We really don't see much affection between the two before the last part of the film.

The comparisons of the decadence of the jazz age to ancient Rome are an excuse for DeMille spectacle. I personally think that the scenes in prison are more interesting. And I really don't think that a summation to a jury is the proper place to talk about the decadence of the time. (though maybe prosecutors do do that in reality.) The jury is there to decide the guilt of one woman concerning one crime.

I very much like how Lydia's rigidity about her maid's theft of the ring is turned around on her when she does something wrong and is put on trial. And the whole theme of forgiveness is well handled--even when the plaque falls down with the words "forgive us our trespasses..." You can call it a cliche, but it works. And the interaction between the two women is very effectively handled.

The real problem that leads to the theft of the ring is that the maid doesn't ask Lydia properly. She just asks, "Could I borrow some money?" when Lydia is in a bad mood. The first rule of asking for anything is to ask when the person you are asking is in a receptive mood. Furthermore, she did not convey to Lydia the importance of what she was asking. She should have sat down with her and said, "Look, I am in a desperate situation. My little boy is sick and is going to die unless I can send him to a warmer climate." Lydia is not hard-hearted and money basically means nothing to her. There is no question that she would have given her the money.

However, I am not criticizing the makers of this film about this, because this is just the way that problems happen in real life. It's a case of miscommunication which results in terrible consequences.

The change that comes over Lydia in prison, her maturation, is the conclusion of the story. Why does the Thomas Meighan character have to go to pieces, take to drink and hit the skids? Why do we need to see this? Just to prove that he didn't really want to send her to prison? The last part of the film doesn't seem to follow naturally and inevitably from what came before. However, it's a great moment when Joy and Meighan see each other again.

Then there is that ending in which he gives up his candidacy for governor for the woman he loves. It's not simply a choice of what he wants most. Being governor is a responsibility rather than a benefit. It is his rival who gleefully tells him that an ex-con (meaning Lydia) cannot reside in the governor's mansion. So the rival seems sleazy, which suggests corruption or dishonesty. By resigning, he leaves the state in that man's greedy hands. I totally agree that after doing the correct and proper thing by sending Lydia to prison her certainly doesn't owe the state the sacrifice of his personal happiness, but that ending is more ambiguous than a simple choice of what is really important.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Adventures of Prince Achmed. 1926. Directed by Lotte Reininger (program notes) or Karl Koch (credited on film).


This is a silhouette animation film and was very beautiful. I was tired and found it very hard to follow. Animated films tend to be extremely concentrated and demand close attention. It is an "Arabian Nights" type of adventure, with caliph and princess, flying horse and magic lamp. I think that if I had the opportunity to see it several times I would enjoy it more.

I think that presenting the characters a s silhouettes tends to turn them into archetypes rather than real people. Some of the scenes that I was most impressed by were when Achmed discovers Pricess Peri-Barre at her bath, when Aladdin lights the lamp and the genie first appears, and the final summoning of a legion of spirits.

If I understood correctly, the Egyptian sorcerer offered the caliph the flying horse. The caliph responded by offering him any treasure he should desire. What he asked for was the caliph's daughter which was refused him while the steed ws taken from him. So the sorcerer was cheated. That's how it appeared to me and I consequently had less sympathy for his opponents than I would otherwise. Certainly, the caliph should not have made such a stupid promise, but as long as he did...

Foolish Wives. 1922. Directed by Erich von Stroheim.


This was a reconstructed print of Foolish Wives. A lot of it was dark. (The print had an overall murky quality.) Some shots which were incomplete were optically stretched out. In any case, it was only a fragment of what Erich von Stroheim intended. So the film was seen at a real disadvantage which was frustrating, but which at the same time lent it an air of rarity, of preciousness.

To me, Foolish Wives is probably the quintessential von Stroheim film. It is set in the "old world" of Europe and deals with decadence and depravity. Greed, which is his most famous film, is set in America and has a totally different milieu. Moreover, in Foolish Wives Stroheim directs Stroheim. And it is that character of Karamzin that one takes home from this film. Stroheim was known as "the man you love to hate" and here he is all swagger and rascality.

I think the main pleasure of this film is in watching the trio of crooks "getting away with it," especially since they do so in very elegant surroundings. They are caught in the end, of course, but it is still fun watching their shameless behavior. By contrast, the Americans seem kind of dull.

Foolish Wives, like other von Stroheim films, gives the sense of a crazy imagination let loose. And the "extravagance" he was so notorious for is the trace of an amazing energy. Whatever else one can say about it, Foolish Wives has its own special flavor. It is his Monte Carlo in the same way that a painter makes a place his own. The film is full of bizarre and grotesque touches--the counterfeiter's retarded daughter, the monk who arrives to interrupt Karamzin's seduction of Mrs. Hughes, and the maid Maruschka whom Karamzin gleefully swindles out of her life savings. There is a kind of inspired madness about Foolish Wives.

The plot is reminiscent of Henry James--innocent Americans thrust against not-so-innocent Europeans. Both Mr. and Mrs. Hughes learn and grow through the experience. Mrs. Hughes learns to appreciate her solid husband as opposed to sham; Mr. Hughes is wised up and learns to take charge of the situation, confronting Karamzin and knocking him down.

What interests me in watching Foolish Wives is that Mr. Hughes, the solid upright citizen, is lacking the qualities needed to satisfy his wife. She wouldn't be so susceptible to Karamzin if he were really fulfilling her. And I don't think that he really does learn to be dashing, challenging and sexy and to realize that these are qualities that he needs to bring to the woman he loves.
What are we to make of the man who has no arms? He certainly shows Mrs. Hughes that things are not always what they seem and that appearances can be deceiving. But when his cloak falls off and she suddenly realizes the situation and tenderly puts it back on, why the passive mak-like face? He doesn't even say thanks. It is a bizarre, puzzling moment.

In the print I saw we don't see Karamzin's death. We see him stealing into the house and waking Ventucci. I think the film cuts away and when it comes back Ventucci starts to drag the corpse. This is awkward and jarring. I wonder how it was meant to be seen and how it was seen in the 1922 release version.

A Kiss for Cinderella. 1925. Directed by Herbert Brenon.


This is an almost magically lovely and poignant film. It's really about a woman whose life is so difficult that she retreats into fantasy. This is a pretty sophisticated subject and I would think it would be difficult to make it work in a film built around a fairy tale. But work it does. Perhps if it had been done in a more sophisticated fashion it wouldn't have been so simply tender.

I didn't care so much for Betty Bronson in the first part of the film. I just didn't find her attractive and it seemed like she was still doing Peter Pan. But as soon as she changed to go to the ball I fell completely under her spell.

I really liked how the character of the policeman goes through a change as he gets to know the heroine. He is prosaic and down to earth at the beginning--he never even heard of the story of Cinderella. He is totally insensitive to this woman. Once he discovers that she takes care of orphans with the few pennies she can earn his heart melts and he becomes a different person. One of the most beautiful lines in the whole film is when he says, "I wish I was a prince."

Esther Ralston is radiant as the fairy godmother.

The dream sequence is the highlight of the film and an absolute joy. Every time I see this film the prince reminds me of Louis Nye as Sonny Drysdale. I love that sequence. The presence of the orphans in their nightgowns adds so much. I was worried that I might be impatient with it because the rest of the film is so moving, but I didn't. It is hysterically funny even while the poignancy remains.

The ending does have a fairy-tale quality to it. "Cinderella" is taken to a house by the sea to recuperate. But whose house is it? Who is paying her medical bills? There is no answer as far as I can tell. But let it be. The film touches horror, but doesn't plunge into it. It is a beautiful fantasy.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Dog Star Man. 1965. Directed by Stan Brakhage.


This showing of Dog Star Man did not include Part IV.

Seeing Dog Star Man for the third time the imagery is starting to become more familiar to me. And that makes it more pleasurable--I can feel the visual music better as I am getting to know it better.

The woodman in Part I seems to be Brakhage himself. In that case, who is running the camera? I tend to think of Brakhage's fils as "first-person cinema," meaning that he is showing us what he sees and is thus behind the camera.

I am beginning to appreciate the humor in Part I of the dog jumping around and wagging its tail as the woodman falls.

Part III is supposed to be about woman--or Jane. There was very little to suggestthat. It seemed to be a very abstract part of the film and the presence of "woman" was much less eveident than was the presence of "baby" in Part II.

Anna Christie. 1923. Directed byJohn Griffith Wray.


I had seen this film before and been really moved by it. Watching it again I find than it is different than I had remembered. I thought that the father had sent Anna to live with relatives in Minnesota. What actually happened is that Anna's mother had taken her there and then years later she dies, leaving Anna at the mercy of cruel relatives. It's a slight difference, but important. I thought that the father had actively sent her away, thinking that it was much better for her than staying with him. In truth, he did it passively--not bringing her to live with him after her mother died.

I also thought that it was more emphasized that Anna thought her father didn't want her. This is actually mentioned, but only in passing. So the film I had remembered about a terrible mistake and a daughter who didn't realize how much herfather loved her was partly a creation of my own mind. And yet it was woven from the cloth of this film.

I love George F. Marion's performance and think that it works so well in a silent film because it is done through gesture. His gestures are so tender. I can see now that he could be accused of being "hammy" and overacting. I think it's a matter of preference--either his performance works for you or it doesn't. For myself, there is something about him that really gets to me.

Maybe his gestures are justified because we are dealing with a basically inarticulate man. He is not particularly verbal and so much goes unsaid. I find myself thinking about the things he should have said at the crucial moments--but doesn't. So it seems fitting that his love and caring is expressed through the body.

One thing I noticed tyhis time around was how Anna changes when she gets on the boat. She comes alive; she blooms. It's so obvious that she belongs on the sea and marrying a sailor would be the most natural thing in the world for her.

The film opens in Sweden and we see Anna as a small child. It's obviously an attempt to "open up" the play, but Anna is an adorable child and seeing her like that has an impact on our feelings for her. When we next see Anna she is hard and drained, but when she gets on the boat and comes alive she is more like what that child was meant to be when she grew up.

The last time I saw this film I didn't like the flashback which took us out of the scene. It worked better for me this time. It is hard to keep life in a film when the story is confined to one place for a long period--even more so when the film is silent. So the flashback appropraitely broke that up.

Things really don't seem to be resolved at the end. It didn't look as if Matt and Chris made up. Chris says, "It's not your fault, Anna," but at the end he is outside of the doorway looking in at the embracing couple and you can tell he's not really happy about the situation. The two men will have a long voyage to get used to each other, but it's still a more downbeat ending than I had remembered.

The Golem (Der Golem). 1920. Directed by Paul Wegener.


The thing I remember most about this film is the art direction. This was German studio design at its best. Thern there are the contrasts--between the frivolousness of the court and the gravity of the Jewish ghetto and later between the old men and the little children.

The story is told in a slow, stately fashion. It takes a while for things to get going and for the Golem to make his appearance.

Memorable scenes include when Rabbi Loew summons forth the demon Astaroth, when he presents a "movie" of the history of Jews at court which is met with jeers and laughter and, of course, the ending in which the Golem is immobilized by the little girl.

The Golem itself veers between being comical and being menacing. It looks kind of silly when it goes into a shop with a bag on its arm and a shopping list. But it does begin to get menacing when it starts to take on a personality of its own.

Rabbi Loew deals with the powers of darkness in order to save his people. In doing so, he takes a risk. He thinks he has everything under control, but the dark powers are not so easily constrained. The power of the Golem is unleashed through human weakness. The rabbi's young assistant re-animates the Golem out of jealousy and sends him against Florain, whome he discovers is the lover of the rabbi's daughter. At this point the Golem begins to act of its own volition.

From what I see, the powers of darkness are defeated by pure innocence. A little girl offers a piece of fruit to the Golem. He picks her up and we don't know what will happen. Will he kill her? Instead, she blithely plucks the power-bestowing amulet from the Golem's breast and he falls.

I don't know what to make of the image sitting on the Golem, plucking flowers. I also am not quite sure what happens when Rabbi Loew seems to pray and then the Golem releases his daughter whom he has been dragging by the hair and goes away. It seems like he is able to affect the Golem's behavior, but only to a limited extent.

Friday, September 18, 2009

I Was Born, But... (Umarete wa Mita Karedo). 1932. Directed by Yosujiro Ozu.


I certainly find this one of the most intriguing titles in film history. Otherwise, I have to confess that I really don't "get" Ozu. Perhaps that's because my own mind is so noisy that it is really hard for me to appreciate something so quiet.

Not very much happens in this film. A family moves into a new neighborhood. The kids have trouble getting along with the kids in the neighborhood. They go to the boss's house for an evening of home movies. The kids see their father behaving foolishly in the movies and are embarrassed. They question him about why he is so deferential to the father of one of the other boys who happens to be a director in the father's company. They call their father a failure and refuse to eat. They finally come to an acceptance of the situation.

The film shows a close observation of human life. I found it interesting and amusing at first, then tedious as it went on and on with the adventures of the kids, but it rallied and the last section had real power. It was a true story about human life in which all the characters are basically nice people and the problems that they face are the ordinary ones that we all more or less face. I certainly liked it a hell of a lot better than My Neighbors the Yamadas--another Japanese film about acceptance of one's place in the world.

The father does admit (to the mother, I think) that he does kiss ass to his superiors and their lives are better because of that. And it is sad that this is so often required in this life.

Being made in 1932, this film has a surprisingly "modern" look for a silent film.

Coeur Fidele. 1923. Directed by Jean Epstein.


Another print with the intertitles removed. There was a synposis for this, but it was still seen at a big disadvantage.

Overall, I found this to be a much more interesting French "art film" of the 20's than L'Inhumaine. It was consistently interesting to watch. There were great shots of objects and a sense of place. One feels that the film was made by artists who really looked at the world around them and captured it on film, calling our attention to something as often overlooked as graffiti on walls.

The hero and heroine weren't very interesting characters. The hero, in particular, seemed quite lifeless. He seems vapid. The villain was the only interesting one of the major characters.
While visually interesting this picture wasn't terribly involving on an emotional level. I really didn't care that much about the characters. It came to life for a moment here and there--such as when hero and heroine meet again and embrace. The emotion was carried by their hands on each others' bodies.

The girl who walks with a crutch caught my attention. She seemed like something from a von Stroheim film--particularly when her crutch is run over by a truck (I think it was a truck) and she is left crawling around in the street, ignored by the villain.

I would definitely like to see this film again.

Near Dark. 1987. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.


I am sorry to be writing about this film about two weeks after seeing it.

This is a fascinating film. I regret that I couldn't hear all of it. I was very much impressed by the photography.

They were certainly the ugliest, grimiest bunch of vampires I have ever seen. But they are also believable. These are characters that we can both relate to and fear, I think. Lugosi's Dracula and Max Schrek's Nosferatu seem to belong in some far-away fantasyland. The midwest of Near Dark might still actually be a fantasyland--but its a little too close for comfort.

The way I read this film, it contrasts or opposes humanity and vampires. The vampires are predators--motivated by survival. The distinguishing characteristic of humanity is compassion. So when a young man is bitten by a vampire and kidnapped by them and told that his only hope to survive is by killing--he can't do it. In two episodes, under enormous pressure, he can't bring himself to kill a human being, even though it will mean a horrible, bloody fate for himself. Both of the people he is supposed to kill--a truck driver and the boy in the bar--seem nice, likable people. When he jumps out of the truck the driver stops and asks if he's sick and needs help--showing true human concer. He is too much of a human being to ever truly become a vampire.

And then there is the female vampire who "turns" him. She is the only one of the vampire clan that we really like and there is enough chemistry between her and him that we feel sad when she comes to him after he has been made human again. We feel sad that this relationship can never be. Or so we are led to believe.

The ending of the film is beautiful with a capital "b." The vampires kidnap the hero's sister and he goes after them to get her back. In addition to compassion he has courage. And as events reach their climax, the female vampire turns on her clan and runs out into the rising sunlight with the little girl, fully believing (as I understand it) that she is sacrificing herself. She chooses compassion over survival. In other words, she chooses to be human.

And then the miracle happens. She does not burn up as the other vampires do. (This part is never explained.) And then we see her in bed and tyhe hero comes in and opens the drapes and she can face the light. She is a human being again in body as well as in spirit. Her sacrifice has been rewarded.

The male hero sets a moral example which inspires her. He affects her behavior through his inability to kill in order to survive. She has surrendered her humanity in order to survive--as many do--and is finally inspired to reclaim it.

The sad thing about this film is that such sacrifice is not always or even often rewarded in the real world. Aye, there's the rub. But my feeling is that it should be--which is why Near Dark is such a satisfying film.


One scene which particularly impressed me was when the vampire Homer approaches the little girl Sarah at the soda machine and invites her back to his motel room to watch TV. That was really chilling. Homer is a particularly interesting and grotesque character. I think he was "turned" when he was a child and even though he has grown up and aged on the inside, he still seems about eight or nine years old on the outside. He is obviously bitter about the situation. It does make me wonder somewhat about the effects and value of anti-aging techniques and therapies.

The President (Praesidenten). 1920. Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer.


I don't have much to say about this film because it was shown with no intertitles whatsoever. I was not able to follow it. I can only say that I was impressed by the use of animals. The three dogs in (I think) the courtroom were interesting. The scene that had the biggest impact on me was when a woman is turned out of a house and has to get past a fierce-looking, barking dog to get past the gate.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Souls on the Road (Rojo no reikon). 1921. Directed by Minoru Murata.


I had a lot of trouble with this film. My eyes were hurting bad and I found it hard to follow and to understand who was who. I had the father mixed up with the man who held the burglars at bay with the gun and also with the wealthy man who holds the Christmas party. So, for much of the film I wasn't "into it." But then I did get "into it" and I can say that this film was an emotionally wrenching experience for me.

There is the story of a father and son. They quarrel and the son leaves the father's house. It was not clear to me what the fight was about. The son tries to make a career as a musician, but fails and returns home, destitute, to ask forgiveness and help from the father. He has a wife and daughter with him. The daughter is very sick. The father adamantly refuses and the son, his wife and their child go out into an ice storm. They take shelter in a barn, The father goes after them and offers shelter to the women, but not to the son who, he says, must go out and work in the fields (or chop wood?) to atone for his sin. During all this quarreling the little daughter dies. The son appears to die outside.

At the beginning and at the end of this film we are told about mercy. There is a quote from Maxim Gorky to the effect that "there is a moment to show mercy. We must not miss the moment." The theme of mercy is also illustrated in the story of two convicts who, hungry, attempt to steal from a wealthy man's house and are caught. The guard forces them to beat one another, but at the end shows them mercy and lets them go.

The two stories don't really come together--at least not that I was able to see. They do interact at one point when the son approaches the thieves on the road and asks for food for his hungry daughter. They give him the last of their bread. So when they are shown mercy later it's a case of "one good turn deserves another."

There wasn't enough of the story about the two thieves or it wasn't interesting enough. It didn't seem to me to be sufficiently developed.

The wealthy man's daughter seemed a perfect part for Mary Pickford. When the son and his family are sent out into the storm it was like Jesus, Mary and Joseph, an analogy pointed up by the fact that it is Christmas Eve and there is a Christmas party going on nearby. What makes the story of the son and his little daughter so sad is that I suspect that the wealthy man and his daughter, who are having the Christmas party, would have gladly provided them with shelter in the spirit of Christmas.

I was very moved, but was it a cliche and my response simply "stock response"? That moment when the serving girl cries out that the little girl is cold is harrowing--but that doesn't mean that the film was well-made. I would really like the chance to see this film again.

Wild Bill Hickock. 1923. Directed by Clifford S. Smith.


William S. Hart is in a fancier, more streamlined Western with more lavish production values and he looks out of place. He was older and heavier than in Hell's Hinges and I think he overacts in places. He doesn't come across well.

I found it hard to follow. I don't know what all the business was about Hart making a promise to lay down his guns (which he has to ask to be released from) and why he has to resign as deputy to fight the villain.

I did like the scene in which Hart loses control and starts passionately kissing the woman he loves, who belongs to another man. That was so human and it rang true.

It was quite a feat in which Hart outshoots the villain (with his gun lying on the floor which he has to pick up!) when we know he is losing his eyesight. It was showmanship--but somehow it wasn't William S. Hart.

The Taking of Luke McVane. 1915. Directed by William S. Hart.


I don't like Westerns, particularly, and this one didn't make much of an impression on me. I thought the female lead was cute and noticed for the first time that Hart has a somewhat horselike face.

Hart shoots a man in self-defense and, afraid of being lynched, rides off and is pursued by the sheriff. The sheriff offers to help him exonerate himself if he will return with him. Hart agrees, but then they are attacked by Indians and die fighting them--so the situation never gets resolved. I found that unsatisfying.

I was very tired when I saw this film.

Hell's Hinges. 1916. Directed by William S. Hart and Charles Swickard.


This is a powerful, fascinating film. It is an archetypal story of a battle of good and evil. It's also a story of a "descent into the underworld." I found it interesting, formally, that the town, "Hell's Hinges" is divided among two groups of people, the "good" people and the "bad" people, and one important figure from each side changes sides. The minister and the outlaw balance each other out.

William S. Hart is wonderful. He has a fantastic presence, a dignity of bearing. The scene in which he first sees Clara Williams and starts to question his life is a great moment. The film is very old-fashioned in the idea of a man being redeemed through his love for a woman, but it carries its conventions proudly. Here, there seems to be an almost mystical bond between the two when she is praying and he, I think outside of hearing distance, makes the decision to join the good people.

The men in the film are dominated by the women. The young man became a minister, a role he was completely unsuited for, to please his mother and sister. I get the feeling that Hart, a powerful and authorotative man, really doesn't think very much for himself, but takes on the values of the woman he loves. This is just an issue that I'm particularly sensitive to.
The final conflagration in which the town is burnt to the ground is an amazing climax, but I think it came off better in conception than in execution. (That may be because I was tired.) I wonder how William S. Hart's actions fitted in with the Christian love he was supposedly learning, though I think what he did was totally justified.

The burning of the town was symbolic, of course, but I somehow wish that the picture of the town as a locus of evil or microcosm opf Hell had been painted a little more starkly. But that might not have been possible without slowing the film down too much.

Some of the written titles were a little too arch for my taste. All in all, I enjoyed the old-fashioned feel of Hell's Hinges, but some of the titles did grate on me a little.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Oyster Princess (Die Austernprinzessin). 1919. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.


This has to be the most enjoyable film I have seen in a long time. It's a delightful, witty film full of exuberant high spirits. The Oyster King is a great character, one who has other people wipe his nose after he blows it, lift the coffee cup to his mouth, etc. Ossi Oswalda is a ball of fire as the willful daughter who wants to marry a noble for no other reason than that someone else did and doesn't let the prospective bridegroom get a word in edgewise, thereby marrying herself to the wrong person.

There is a scene at the wedding feast when everybody dances the fox-trot. It is so weird to find that scene in a silent film of 1919 because it obviously cries out for music. It would have been a highlight in a sound film of the 1930s. I was lucky to see this film with live accompaniment by a pianist who was really able to give this scene the energy it requires.

It didn't work for me when the Oyster Princess participates in a sort of temperence society meeting where they endeavor to save drunks and everyone is so taken with Prince Nucki who stumbles in that they have a boxing tournament over him. Lubitsch's touch fails there, I think, but that's a minor quibble. When she brings him home not knowing who he is, what happens is one of the sweetest love scenes I have ever seen in a movie. It just seems so right and proper for these two people to get together and we love it when they do.

There is a recurring gag in which the Oyster King always says, "That doesn't impress me." The movie ends with him peeking through the keyhole at the newlyweds until they finally turn out the light. He turns to the camera and says, Now, that impresses me!" A perfect punctuation mark and a perfect Lubitsch touch.

A Woman Scorned. 1911. et al.


A Woman Scorned. 1911. Bobby the Coward. 1911. A Country Cupid. 1911. A Knight of the Road. 1911. All directed by D. W. Griffith.

I really liked A Woman Scorned. It had very effective cross-cutting and at the same time credible human emotions. Afterwards, my interest began to wane, maybe because the films were hurting my eyes. I really liked Florence La Badie (?), the female lead in Bobby the Coward. She had real charisma. By contrast, I wasn't so taken by Blanche Sweet in A Country Cupid and found it hard to relate to all the males who were so taken with her. I had trouble following it and keeping everybody straight, though I did like the little boy who acts out of true love and looks after the schoolmarm's romantic interests, even though she obviously doesn't feel much for him. I wasn't very interested in A Knight of the Road, except at the end when the hobo is offered a respectable life, but doesn't want it and runs away. That was cute.

Way Down East. 1920. Directed by D. W. Griffith.


It's almost unbearably intense in places. They say such intensity needs to be offset by "Comedy relief." I don't know, but I do know that the comedy in this film didn't work. It's really sad because it mars the film badly.

Richard Barthelmess is superb, but it is Lillian Gish's show all the way. Great moments include when she learns she isn't really married, when her baby dies and when she is told to leave the place she is working and finally asserts herself and tells her side of the story. For me, that is the real climax of the film--it is such a great moment of release--and the scene on the ice floes is just an anti-climax. I was surprised, but I wasn't overwhelmed by that famous sequence.

The multiple wedding ceremony at the end is a very rich moment. Through no fault of her own Anna had become anoutcast, an alien. That multiple wedding shows her being accepted back into the community.

I was a little bit put off by the sermon-like tone at the beginning of the film. Just tell the story and let us draw our own conclusions. I see the situation a little different than D. W. For me, it is sad that in this society a man could not satisfy his sexual urges without causing real pain to others. That's how I see it.

The Poor Little Rich Girl. 1917. Directed by Maurice Tourneur.


Fantastic movie. This was one of Mary Pickford's most successful vehicles and it hold up just fine after 87 years. She was superb, she was lovely.

It has some really nice special effects. I was really touched by the scene where the father is thinking about shooting himself (shown through superimposition) and his daughter comes into the study. The last part of the film is dominated by an elaborate hallucination that the drugged daughter is having. The film cuts back and forth between reality and her delirium. I had trouble following it for a whil;e--which could just have been that my eyes hurt and I didn't feel well--but it comes to a fantastic climax in which she has to choose between life and death. It's a great moment.

The nasty servants were sharp caricatures and the film had nicely illustrated intertitles. Some people might think it was corny, but I found its message valid and well-put.

That hallucination in which Pickford finally has to choose between life and death reminded me very much of A Matter of Life and Death and, to a lesser extent, The Blood of Jesus.

The Kleptomaniac. 1905. et al.


The Kleptomaniac. 1905. The Life of an American Policeman. 1905. The Rivals. 1907. Cohen's Fire Sale. 1907. All directed by Edwin S. Porter.

In general, I found these films hard to follow. I didn't get the end of The Kleptomaniac. Was the wealthy woman let go because of her status? It wasn't clear. I was lost with the last part of American Policeman whichhad to do with a carriage and changing costumes. I was also lost during part of Cohen's Fire Sale, the part where the women are in the shop, before he hits on the plan of having a fire.

The Rivals seemed just plain stuipid. I suspect it worked better as a comic strip than as a movie, but that may have been because I wasn't feeling so well. It did have a moral, though, in that these two men were knocking themselves out trying to outdo each other in courting this woman and she goes off and marries someone else.

Cohen's Fire Sale reminded me a little of Clair's An Italian Straw Hat. The crate of hats was taken away on (I guess) a garbage truck and the hats were falling out all over the place. And everybody loved those hats.

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities. 1911. Directed by Rollin S. Sturgeon (?)


A very impressive production for 1911. The only thing that really grated on me was the theatrical backdrops for some of the scenes. That was a shame because the film had some very nice exteriors in the first part, especially when the girl is abducted.

My eyes were really hurting (I need new glasses), so I did not see it to good advantage. I found it hard to follow. My reaction today was that it was a little bit too confused and there was too much going on in too short a time.

It's no Orphans of the Storm, certainly, but it is a film full of noble action, of individuals caught up in cataclysmic events. There are memorable scenes, such as when Dr. Mantle finally realizes that it is his daughter, when he accecpts the aristocratic Renay as Lucy's future husband and when he is confronted with his own words damning the descendants of the Marquis who imprisoned him, Renay being his nephew. And of course the ending when Sydney Carton goes to the guillotine to insure the happiness of the woman he loves. Maurice Costello is quite fine, but I don't think we were given a chance to really know him or the other characters well. This film might be best appreciated by those familiar with the book.

An Elephant on His Hands. 1912. Directed by Frederick Thompson.


This is a silly little Vitagraph comedy that was fun to watch. The simple truth is that elephants are fun. The elephant stole the show. I don't know how they trained it, but that elephant took over--drinking, getting into bed, marching into the kitchen and eating whatever he wished. The elephant just took over. I enjoyed it.

A Fool There Was. 1915. Directed by Frank Powell.


I was surprised at how well-made this film was for 1915. The acting doesn't appearridiculous. It hold up. What I wonder is why audiences were so attracted to something like this. It is an exaggerated depiction of male fears: maybe it was popular with women because it showed a powerful female character, albeit a thoroughly destructive one.

I actually had a sense at one point of a group of high school students putting on a serious play that they don't fully understand.

Theda Bara was certainly attractive in some scenes, though it was hard to believe that the men would put up with her being quite so disagreeable. I think that a lot of her popularity was due to the character she created than herself per se. The one who really impressed me was Edward Jose as Schuyler. His growing dissipation was fascinating to watch. The film reminded me of Joseph Laosey's The Servant in that respect.

In Classics of the Silent Screen it mentions that many of the scenes were symbolic in intent. I would like to know more about that.

The Theda Bara charcter was called as "vampire" (later shortened to vamp) and I think that the film played up the vampire metaphor. Schuyler does seem like a vampire's victim and there is a scene of a window being thrown open and daylight pouring into the dark environment, an image later to be seen in vampire films.

I was shocked at the ending. I really expected Schuyler was going to be saved. Seeing a man in a prestigious position completely and utterly destroyed by a malevolent woman was pretty strong stuff to see. As an acknowledgment of female power this film pulled no punches.

Pond. 1984. Directed by Jerry Orr.


A beautiful, gem-like little film of a pond. Reflections of trees, tiny ripples, it reminded me of Monet's water lilies. A very soothing and restful film to watch. I was lucky enough to see "the original," not a print made from it. I can only wonder how much of its beauty was retained in the regular prints.

Homunculus, Chapter 4: The Revenge of Homunculus. 1916. Directed by Otto Rippert.


I came in late to this film, which was a shame because I found it engrossing. Homunculus is a fascinating character, a man-made man who cannot feel love and hates humanity mainly because he cannot really participate in it. It is hard not to think of Hitler and what the Germans would become twenty years later.

The use of light and dark was fascinating, the characters moved with such grace, almost like dancers. I wish I could get another chance to see it.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Blood and Sand. 1922. Directed by Fred Niblo.


It was probably the fact that my eyes were hurting, but I found this movie tedious. After all, I knew he was going to get killed at the end, so what was the big deal? Valentino seemed personable enough, but he didn't make any big impression on me. And I don't see how the film contributed to him becoming such a great romantic idol when he was jerked around by the two women.

Blood and Sand is a very nice production. The sets were really beautiful. One major problem was that there was a lot of footage of the crowds at the bullfight that was intercut and it didn't fit.

There was a lot of interesting stuff going on in this film which is never resolved. There is a scene in a cafe where Valentino humiliates a woman who is throwing herself at him and says, "I hate all women--except one." Is the "one" his betrothed or his mother? An issue is brought up about his feelings about women, then not resolved. We seem to be told that his wife is frigid. It's indicated when Valentino comes to talk to her from below her balcony that these two are not a perfect match: she doesn't approve of his drinking or his companions. All of this could create a solid basis for adultery, but the film fails to capitalize on it.

The figure of the philosopher who "studies" people seems kind of strained. He mostly seems an excuse for getting Blasco-Ibanez's prose into the film. He seems like a very old-fashioned convention. The figure of the bandit Plumitas whose life parallels Valentino's doesn't seem woven into the fabric of the film. There doesn't seem to be any reason for his presence than to point out the moral or the author's ideas about the Valentono character. Still, the milieu of the picture seems to tolerate these didactic touches.

The violence in the bullfighting scenes is very spare. I think I actually missed the charge that fatally wounds Valentino. Blood and Sand does not sell violence. Interestingly, bullfighting is criticized for its barbarism and it is ignored that it is a ritual of courage. I think it is legitimate to criticize it for its cruelty, but there is more to it than that. The filmmakers (or the novelist) had to choose which to emphasize, but it is noticeable one-sided.

A Woman of Paris. 1923. Directed by Charles Chaplin.


Riveting from start to finish. I have a sense of this film as being excellently cast, down to small parts like Marie's father at the beginning and the masseuse. I like Adolphe Menjou the best--he is the one who leaves an impression on me each time I see this film.

It's a really solid production and it's sad to mentally compare it with The Great Dictator. You could be an independent producer in 1923 and still make pictures that looked good.

I love the moment when Jean is painting Marie's portrait and she wants to see it before it is finished. She accidentally knocks the covering off and it's a picture of her as she looked as a village girl, before she became "A Woman of Paris." I also like when she throws the pearls out the window and has to go and retrieve them, as Pierre won't. Also, the detail when Jean is at her place and a man's collar falls out of the dresser drawer.

Pierre is the most intense figure. He seems so attractive in that he is worldly, unflappable, accepting of all that comes. But there is an emptiness to him in his lack of human involvement and the way he "amuses" himself with other people's feelings.

The ending is kind of frightening to me. The male is torn between the two women, finally kills himself, and the two women go off together as best friends. The women dominate the man.

Narcissus. 1949. Directed by Willard Maas.


Parker Tyler made a remark that is often quoted that this film is in the art-film tradition of Jean Cocteau. It was made about the same time as Orpheus and, like Orpheus, is an updating of an ancient Greek myth. Orpheus is definitely more vivid. We hear the characters speak and the film unfolds as a solid narrative. It therefore has a better chance to "take hold" of the viewer. Narcissus is more dreamlike and harder to connect with. And it is much more difficult to relate to or feel for the characters.

It is not a simple retelling of the story of Echo and Narcissus--it plays with that story, throwing in some new ideas and is consequently more confusing. Mirrors are substituted for water, although looking at a reflection in the water is also present. There are three long fantasy sequences, there is another male interested in Echo and she appesars alive and solid at the end. What does it all mean?

There is a spoken narration which seems somehat arch. I couldn't hear a lot of it. The film takes place amongst junk and debris. It does seem to conjure up its own self-contained world which fifty years later seems strange and mysterious. But what is the point of all the junk and debris?
A few moments stood out. When Echo and Narcissus kiss and he becomes afraid and turns away from her she becomes angry. That made an impression on me. Because I was more concerned with his fear than with her reaction. So it took me by surprise. And then when he was beat up after rejecting her again--that was a strong moment.

I liked the scenes of playing at the beach. I didn't undertsnd what that scene was all about, but there is something about people in bathing suits at the beach that appeals to me. I thought that it would be interesting to intercut this footage with footage from Beach Party.

On the other hand, the scenes of Narcissus with the stone statues seemed pretty silly to me and I couldn't get the point of that sequence, either.

I did not understand this film and it didn't have a big impact on me. I found it dated, but I enjoyed seeing it.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Seven Footprints to Satan. 1929. Directed by Benjamin Christensen.


My eyes were hurting when this film started and I thought the whole thing was silly and a waste of time. But as it went on I began to find it moderately amusing and liked the ending. Not worth saying much about. Creighton Hale was appropriately befuddled and the ending was cute. I hadn't guessed the solution.

I missed whatever was supposed to be so outstanding about Sol Polito's photography. I wish I understood more.

Witch (Haxan). 1922. Directed by Benjamin Christensen.


This film is a one-of-a-kind experience, ambitious and fascinating. It holds up very well indeed. Some of the fantastic imagery seems kind of silly today and I wonder how much of wehat we laugh at was intended that way. I really think Christensen's performance as the Devil, with that wagging tongue, was played for laughs.

The cruelty horrifies and frightens. At the center of the film is a story of how an old woman is accused of witchcraft and tortured and how the accusations spread. It is so depressing. The old woman was incredible--her face was so expressive and pathetic. Here was this (I assume) homeless person who came into a house looking for food and suddenly is accused of all sorts of dire deeds and taken away and tortured. It is simply horrible watching people crack under torture and start telling their questioners what they want to hear. One wonders why the torturers never doubt the validity of these "confessions."

What was really awful--and yet rang so true--was how this woman started implicating the very people who caused her all this trouble. It is heartbreaking to see someone doing this--yet it is perfectly understandable.

It was also upsetting to watch the clerics completely abandon integrity and tell a woman that they would set her free if she would tell them how to make thunder from water. She does, it is a trick, and she is dragged away to the stake. They even use her infant child's welfare as a means to coerce her.

I actually found these scenes of witch hysteria more interesting than the fantasy sequences of witches and devils. Unfortunately for me, the blue tinting made the scenes of the witches' sabbats hard to follow.

The scenes trying to relate the witch hysteria of the past to modern psychiatric conditions were interesting, but not as much as the earlier scenes of witch hysteria. They were anti-climactic.
I found the mode of direct address by the director very unusual, especially in a silent film, but I was able to accept it and take the film seriously.

Just another point I wanted to mention about Haxan: The film certainly brought out how the accusations of witchcraft were a means of preying on women who were elderly and helpless. That made an impression on me and made me think about how vulnerable the elderly really are.

Brief Encounter. 1945. Directed by David Lean.


One of the best films I've seen in a very long time. Totally absorbing from beginning to end. A beautiful picture in black-and-white.

Celia Johnson was marvellous. She had quite a burden in carrying the film on her shoulders, but she pulled it off. I was interested in her all the way. And there was such chemistry between her and Trevor Howard. That's what really made it work.

Their relationship was so damn healthy, and yet it caused such pain and shame. My big question was: What the hell was wrong with these two people getting together? If they were going to go home to their spouses, where was the harm? There wasn't, and in other cultures, I think, this sort of thing is more accepted. At least I believe so.

People have a right in their lives for romance and adventure and excitement. Now, one way is to "work" on the relationship. But here we have another. It was the expectations of the society that made it "wrong" and shameful.

Why are we put in positions that pursuing our own happiness causes pain to other people? Well, times have changed. Some things are better, some things worse.

When the man wanted to take the woman to someone's room I had a sense that he was taking advantage of her, when this was really a mutual problem. Was it just a double standard that made me feel this way? I thought so at first, but upon reflection I think that in part it was because the story was actually told through the woman's eyes. We never see enough of him to really see how this is affecting his life. So we are not allowed to really sympathize with him.
The husband seemed pretty vapid throughout the film, making it understandable why Laura would be open to an affair. But he comes alive in the final moments and seems nice and loving. That's a very subtle shift of perspective. I actually was left with the fact that Laura's pain might soon fade. The doctor's pain might last much longer, as males are supposed to be more affected by the breakup of a relationship.

The Unknown Woman. 1923. Directed by Benjamin Christensen.


I didn't enjoy this film at all. It is basically two different pictures that just don't go together. The first part is interesting. A blind artist is obsessed with a woman he offered shelter to five years before. His mother goes out and finds her. I for one want to know more details about why she was fleeing from someone that night.

Then the film turns into this really stupid story about this artist, with his sight restored, and his wife. She is offended that he didn't recognize her when he returned with his sight and hides from him and later poses as a model. There was just nothing interesting about watching these two people play stupid games. I thought he knew who she was all the time--but I was wrong.

There may have been interesting stuff to look for here, but I disliked it so much in general that I couldn't care less about the lighting, the editing, etc.

The Mysterious X. 1913. Directed by Benjamin Christensen.


I found this film to be surprisingly absorbing. I didn't like it at first, but it grew on me. I liked the figures silhouetted on the hill against the windmill. Those shots look forward to the dance of death in Bergman's The Seventh Seal. The film really brought home the idea of war as a childish, foolish game. I also liked its comment on the idea of honor: the hero would rather be branded a traitor and shot than to bring dishonor on his wife by letting it be known that the Count had visited her and left his coat. What a sap!

The last-minute rescue of someone condemned to death is a big cliche, but that's the tradition this film is in, so it's not worth criticizing.

There are some very nice chiaroscuro shots in the prison when the son sneaks in to see his father.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

My Neighbors the Yamadas. 1999. Directed by Isao Takahata.


I started out liking this, but I got tired of it after a while. It's a series of vignettes about family life done in a seemingly crude animation style. It is a lighthearted film, but it became tiresome for me, but that could be because I was extremely tired.

It includes Haikus by famous poets. It seems a little pretentious although I can see that it is an attempt to relate these mundane vignettes to more universal themes.

Actually, the aggravations of family life were beginning to depress me. The film preaches acceptance as the only sure way out of unhappiness and has the Yamadas singing "Que Sera Sera" in Japanese. You don't see that every day.

The Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka). 1988. Directed by Isao Takahata.


Extremely intense; extremely painful. I didn't like it at first but got more involved as it went on. I thought it was hard to follow in places. For example, when the brother and sister went to live with the aunt I didn't quite understand the family situation.

Some of the animation was very beautiful. However, the film does rely heavily on stock responses. After all, how hard is it to be moved by a young brother and sister, orphaned and forced to fend for themselves with bombs dropping all around?

I liked the whole idea of the boy trying to keep from his sister that their mother has died. Then, when he finds out that she does know he starts to cry. It's as if keeping it from her was a way of suppressing his own grief.

Mockery. 1927. Directed by Benjamin Christensen.


Overall, I found this a tedious picture. Certainly, the action scenes were tedious. However, there was one nugget of real gold in it. That was the scene in which, after Lon Chaney practically attacked Barbara Bedford, he is caught and would be executed depending on what she says about him. She is asked the question: "Has he been loyal?" It is a great moment of decision. As she looks at him she sees the scars on his chest from the whipping he got when he did not betray her. She answers yes, he has been loyal and in fact he was the only one who stayed to protect her. That moment worked beautifully for me.

There are interesting aspects to the film. Chaney is a Russian peasant who thinks that if everybody is made eual he will possess the Countess. It is quite obvious to the audience, however, that she is not going to be attracted to him romantically no matter what. When he believes the Countess is a peasant she tells him that they will always be friends. Once her true identity is revealed she becomes condescending towards her friend--well-meaning, but condescending. Once when he goes to speak to her she cuts him off. So we can sympathize with how rank divides people, how it comes between them, while at the same time realizing how unrealistic his hopes are.

After the Countess lets him live in that moment of decision, he defends her and, in fact, dies defending her. So her choice of the high road is rewarded. There is a very strong moral sense in both this film and The Devil's Circus.

There are some very moving shots of Chaney as the Russian peasant. One does miss an element of the macabre or grotesque in a Chaney picture and is a little bit disappointed--or I was, anyway. I think if the whole film had worked better it wouldn't have been a disappointment. There were some interesting things about this picture, but on the whole I still found it tedious.

The Devil's Circus. 1926. Directed by Benjamin Christensen.


It dragged in spots, but overall I thought it was a pretty powerful picture. Norma Shearer was great. I like the Shearer of the twenties much better than the one of the thirties, although it was hard not to see the image of the later Norma Shearer in her scenes.

I wasn't too interested in the scenes of the circus performances, but that could just have been my own taste. I did like the idea that the circus audience is completely unaware of the real drama going on behind the scenes.

It does seem to be a seriously religious film with God and the Devil as major players. The scenes of the Devil pulling the strings of a puppet play seem hokey today, but they may have been viable in 1926.

There really is a sense of the circus as a "bad place" or a locus of negativity. I also liked the idea of how the two lead characters reverse roles with regards to a belief in God. Carl rejects the Bible at the beginning and Mary is devout. At the end it is Mary who has lost her faith and Carl comes to tell her that there is a divine presence.

This film does have its cliches. I knew Mary was going to somehow fall during the aerial act and the scenes of her selling the dolls was also pretty much of a cliche.

Three times we see characters struggling with conflicting drives: Carl with his desire to force himself on Mary; Hugo's girlfriend with her temptation to sabotage Mary's aerial act; and Carl's desire for revenge at the end. These scenes were well done.

I also liked very much the touch of Mary's dog. That added some life to the picture.


I read a quote from one of the original reviews of The Devil's Circus wherein it observed that when Norma Shearer reappears as a cripple in the latter part of the film her face is "as clear and fresh as before the accident, and the hardships of the war..." I see the point, but I'm wondering if that was just an accepted convention in movies of that time.

Also, Norma Shearer reminded me a little of Mary Pickford.