Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Journey Through Film History Courtesy of Jack C. Ellis

First off I’d like to apologize for my lack of bloging of late. Having a monumental task like the one I did the previous year gave me a dedicated project, something to watch, and follow. Add that to the end of the year best of lists, and some Academy Award bitching and well I was out of easy topics. I started writing another blog entry about my inability to remember all the films I’ve seen (to be revised and finished in the future I suspect), but never quite got around to finishing it and like many things in life I put it down in favor of a new shiny topic.

The world of film has recently focused their attention on the Cannes film festival and not surprisingly Terrence Mallick won the top prize for his film Tree of Life. Now I am yet to see this film, but a little about Terrence Mallick for those reading who have no idea who he is. Mallick is a filmmaker who started with a “lovers on the run” story in 1973 called Badlands. A pretty damn great film that was followed up five years later with Days of Heaven. This film is beloved by critics and cinephiles the world over in a way that frankly disturbs me a bit. As legend has it, someone gave the film a bad review, and Mallick took it super personally and decided not to make another movie again, for twenty years. He returned in 1998 with The Thin Red Line which had traditional war movie aficionados scratching their heads wondering what boring nonsense they were watching, and the critically inclined art house crowd declaring it the most profound film of the decade. Of the bunch this is easily my favorite film of his and the one I’ve seen the most. Seven years after came The New World which I hope most of you can vaguely recall since it happened during all of your lifetimes. Critics fell over themselves praising it, and then the debate raged that the version released wasn’t Mallick’s intended cut so film snobs the world over went to hunt down the complete “director’s cut” and praised the film emphatically and told people who had to suffer through the theatrical release (like me) that they had no idea what they were missing.

Well as you can tell my feelings towards Mallick are somewhat complicated. Few directors ever receive as much praise as he does, I guess when you release a film a decade (like Kubrick in his later years), you can build up an unprecedented level of expectation for your next project. That said there is no film I’m more looking forward to seeing than Tree of Life, and the one preview I saw before Black Swan did absolutely nothing to let me know what the film would be about, which is great because anyone who knows me will attest that I like to know as little about a film as possible before seeing it. Like The New World though this will have my expectation chart at 10, so I have no idea how it might deliver, but I’ll find out soon.

The other big film at the fest was Melancholia which won a best actress prize for Kirsten Dunst (yep she IS still alive). I’ve always been a Dunst fan, sometimes to the point of absurdity, but the fact that she was teaming up with Lars Von Trier has got me even more excited for what it’s worth. Von Trier made an ass of himself again by making anti-Semitic remarks and discussing his apparent Nazi heritage, then promptly asked to leave the festival. This is the same man who film people acting like retards (which they called “spazzing”) and filmed hardcore penetration in that same film called The Idiots in what may very well be the most defiant anti-PC film of the 90s, and bless his heart for it. No stranger to controversy and self promotion this sounded like more of the same, but I don’t care if he’s the illegitimate grandson of Adolf Hitler himself, I’m still seeing his next movie.

Now on to more pressing matters:

Even with a brief apology/re-cap I find myself babbling, oh well, I’m sure you’re used to it, or have gradually skimmed through the aforementioned type to get to what must surely be another list, if not hold your horses there’s more. Most of the time I watch anything. Now I don’t watch any and every movie that comes out that would be a monumental waste of time, but there is very little if any rhyme or reason to what it is I watch. I may catch a Japanese film from the 60s followed by a British film of the 80s and then some recent comedy, and go back to watch a silent film no one heard of but me. I dubbed the tendency film schizophrenia several years ago and I think it fits. Following the decade by decade research I found myself settling into another wave of lazy film schizophrenia again. Then one day I got an idea, and went to pick up an old standby off the shelf.

A History of Film: Fourth Edition by Jack C. Ellis has been in my library for a decade now. When my brother attended a film history class for a couple weeks this was the required textbook, and he passed it to me and I’ve been referencing it ever since. Now there is one fatal flaw in the book, it was printed in 1994, so even when my brother was taking the class in 2001 it was obsolete. Ellis in his defense was busy working on updating his History of Non-Narrative film book which follows a similar structure to this book and is complete with my favorite feature of all films of the period.

Now it may be overstating it to say that “everything I learned about film I learned from Ellis”, but that isn’t far from the truth. Ellis reinforced particular ideologies and prejudices (good and bad) that had long preceded him and which colored my own attitudes towards film. A lot of what I’ve seen was based on what was available, and 10 years ago before people were uploading every film on earth to the internet and when VHS was still your best option, it was not terribly easy to tackle this whole book. So my ideas of Italian neo-realism were formed by Visconti, Rossellini, and De Seca because they were the ones whose films were available. Thanks to some obscure sources I’ve been able to look more closely at the films of Alberto Lattuada, Pietro Germi, and Giuseppe de Santis. If you don’t know who those last three are, then that’s because their lack of distribution exists even today.

This book was written long before Mikio Naruse got his due and had everything re-appraised in his filmography so Japanese cinema was still Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi plus others. And of course since this entire book was largely written from the perspective of the West, Japanese cinema is little more than a quaint historical curiosity before 1950 and Rashomon. These faults can seem major, this book is in no way near complete, but there are some features to it that make it supremely vital and an absolute essential for any serious or potentially serious film fanatic.

No other film history book I’ve seen contains nice little bullet point lists of key films of the chapter discussed. Sometimes you get a timeline (as in Bordwell and Thompson’s listing of French impressionism), but rarely will someone give you a clear summary of what you may have missed, a sort of cliff notes version of the chapter, and a place to explore more about what you just read. Ellis book does that and it’s one of the reasons why I wish he would update it, I’d say 17 years is a long enough layoff. I have recently returned to this book with the determination to see all of the films referenced, or at least consciously work on it, whereas in the past decade I’ve only sporadically worked on tackling it, mainly because twenty chapters, each with films of the period listed can seem more like a lifelong goal than something to tackle over your summer break. Perhaps because I’ve been slowly chipping away at it for so long, and because I have a horribly obsessive need to complete lists, I’ve decided now is the time to make this book my bitch.

So let’s start tackling it shall we:

Chapter 3: Great German Silents 1919-1925

It might make sense to start with Chapter 1, but well I’m special and decided to go right for the Germans. Chapter 1 is all about the earliest days of cinema, from 1895-1914. It touches on the films from the Lumiere brothers, Georges Melies, Edwin S. Porter and continues with some Griffith and some of those Italian epics made just before the first World War. Chapter 2 focuses on American film during the first World War, and I’ll get to that later.

Now there is a tendency to classify all silent German films as Expressionist, simply because that’s the style most readily associated with films of the period. Truth is, as Ellis points out that there were three dominant styles in German cinema. The first was expressionism, which takes the form of Caligari, Nosferatu, Genuine, and even Metropolis to a great extent. Then there are the historical epics, like Ernst Lubitsch’s Passion/Madame du Barry and Deception/Anna Boleyn, as well as a picture like Fritz Lang‘s monumental Die Nibelungen. The last style was the “street” film or the Kammerspielfilm also known as chamber play film, which included such titles as The Street (fancy that), The Joyless Street, and The Last Laugh. Now some times these films cross over. There are expressionist tendencies in nearly all of these films. A film that is something of a historical drama like The Treasure or Vanina have the same characteristic high contrast shadows, stagey acting, and overall appearance of those earlier films. Vanina also combines some elements of the street film which makes it rather versatile in terms of German film. It also features the most ludicrous Paul Wegener performance in the history of cinema. See below for a brief example.

I’m not sure why Ellis cut off his chapter at 1925. He makes his case for a change in German film of this period, although he does go on to mention Metropolis which was released in 1927. So if you’re wondering why there’s no mention of Murnau’s Faust, Pabst’s Pandora’s Box or Secrets of a Soul, and others you know why.

Now a brief word about the films I needed to see to complete this chapter.

Genuine (1920) - Robert Wiene

This was a bit of a questionable call. Apparently the only complete print of this film is in the Munich film archive, so how’s a guy like me going to see it? Well looking at my DVD of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (from the very same director) one of the special features is a 45 minute near complete version of the film. All the basic plot elements are there, and it’s not like it abruptly ends or leaves huge gaps. The film is also available in its entirety on youtube where I had to finish it up thanks to my never before watched DVD freezing halfway through the film. I really wish it was available in it’s full form because this is one of the true expressionist films. I mentioned earlier that a great deal of German films from this period (and films made elsewhere that were influenced by it) incorporated a lot expressionist elements. Typically in the acting, the lighting, sometimes the set design, and often in terms of plot structure (stories within stories within stories etc). However very rarely do all the elements come together quite like they did in Caligari, perhaps the most perfect realization of the style. Genuine is really more of the same, with elaborate painted sets, plenty of psychological insanity, laughable acting, and all those things you’d hope for in an expressionist film. So for those who wish to pick up the Kino DVD of Caligari, do yourself a favor and don’t overlook this supplement. There’s even some female nudity to boot, and our female lead has an outrageous afro for a bit.

Vanina (1922) - Arthur von Gerlach

I touched on this film earlier in reference to Paul Wegener, but oh man let’s go on. Often times to attract audiences German films would try to use a gimmick, something to draw audiences in. Some filmmakers like F. W. Murnau tried making films with no intertitles (The Last Laugh the most famous of these), and other films tried using one set, or in the case of Vanina, all the action takes place in one night. A group of would be revolutionaries storm a party, where one of the ringleaders meets the governor’s beautiful daughter (the Vanina of the title), and of course instantly falls in love. The ridiculous thing is she falls for him rather than scream at an intruder. They then get married the same night, and after he betrays his friends, handing over all their plans to her father, he elects to have him hung and sent to prison. So needless to say much melodrama, and with all the action taking place at night you can rest assured that this delivers in deep shadows and dark mood. It’s hard to watch any scene with Wegener who was considered one of Germany’s greatest actor/directors in his day, perhaps best remembered for his turn in The Golem. He did appear in a few Hollywood films, such as Rex Ingram’s The Magician in 1926, and like that film it’s amazing to see how anyone could have thought he was an actor. This film he’s given a comically absurd haircut, put on crutches, and walks around grimacing like he’s horribly constipated for the entire film. No one on earth could possibly walk around frowning with so much emphasis 24/7, but realism be damned Wegener did it. This film is certainly more style over substance (one of the criticisms of many German films of the period), so best not to take it too seriously.

The Chronicle of the Gray House (1923) - Arthur von Gerlach

Also from Gerlach is his follow up, The Chronicle of the Gray House. Most German films, no matter how elaborate were shot entirely on a sound stage. Labor was cheap and for this reason Ufa, the biggest German studio was able to exploit it to make astronomical sets that would sadly be created with a computer and look like shit today. This film however was one of the few that was actually shot outside, although sets were designed and built, and some of the locations look very expressionistic even if they were found in nature. The film itself wasn’t as interesting for me as Vanina but still worth hunting out.

The Treasure (1923) - G. W. Pabst

The first film from the great filmmaker G. W. Pabst shows a director already with a firm grip on how to make a picture. A rather simple story of greed taking precedence over a quaint village as they all try looking for buried Turkish treasure. Like many of these films the sets and camerawork take center stage. Pabst would go on to direct Pandora’s Box as well as Westfront 1918, and The Threepenny Opera, but his first film is a gem. Ironically I watched the film with the original German title cards, which had French and Spanish titles imprinted over them, and I had to upload a separate English subtitle file for the film. So I got to see the film and understand it in four different languages, good for me. I believe Grapevine put out a copy sans English titles, but look hard enough online you should be able to find it, and I was able to locate an external subtitle file, ah the wonders of the internet.

For additional reference, I’ve decided to list all the films included at the end of the chapter:

Passion/Madame du Barry (Ernst Lubitsch)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene)
Deception/Anna Boleyn (Lubitsch)
Genuine (Wiene)
The Golem (Paul Wegener)

Destiny (Fritz Lang)

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Lang)
Nosferatu (F. W. Murnau)
Vanina (Arthur von Gerlach)
Warning Shadows (Arthur Robison)

The Chronicle of the Gray House (Gerlach)
The Street (Karl Grune)
The Treasure (G. W. Pabst)

The Last Laugh (Murnau)
Die Nibelungen (Lang)
Waxworks (Paul Leni)

The Joyless Street (Pabst)
Variety (E. A. Dupont)


Now for the next chapter:

Chapter 4: Art and Dialectic in the Soviet Film 1925-1929

Picking up right where the Germans left off were the Soviets. Although Russia had been a film producing country for quite a while, it really wasn’t until the “montage” school led by Lev Kuleshov that historians took note. Since the book is largely introductory there is only brief mention of what came before. Ironically enough even though Kuleshov is mentioned, and the book even includes a still from his 1926 film Dura Lex/By the Law, it isn’t included at the end in the films of the period.

Now each director had his own unique style at the time. There are moments when the full montage effect is present like one of the flashback sequences in Fragment of an Empire. Yet the degree to which is scarcely as extreme as Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. Eisenstein is the best known of these filmmakers and for that reason his films are generally the easiest to find, so I was able to cross his off relatively early in my quest. It’s more the peripheral filmmakers to focus on this time.

The Cloak (1926) - Grigori Kozinstev and Leoind Trauberg

For a brief period of time Kozinstev and Trauberg were something of a dynamic duo of directors in the silent era. Both went on to other things, Kozinstev directing up into the 1960s, but this is the earliest film of there’s to still get mentioned. It’s an often told tale that’s been remade at least three times, including an Italian version by Alberto Lattuada in 1952 mentioned in the neorealist chapter. That said it’s not that great of a film, and this removes all the humor present in the Lattuada film. That film ran the gamut of comedy, to melodrama, to even a bit of a supernatural element towards the end. The Kozinstev/Trauberg version is a bit more dire, because apparently humor was frowned upon in the USSR, or so we’re led to believe at times. The film contains an unrelated prologue that shows the main character in his younger years before he’s at his boring office job forever. Basically it’s a parable about the clothes making the man, and unlike the Lattuada film where he loses his beloved overcoat, here the man’s coat is stolen after he is mugged and left in the cold. Much more pessimistic and stylistically not as montage heavy as one would expect. The Soviets were probably most influenced by the French and their own school of impressionism (which Ellis had an entire chapter dedicated to in an earlier edition which was removed in this printing). In that regard this film probably resembles the French films of the period more so than the Soviets.

The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927) - Esfir Shub

This film is pure documentary. Full of archival footage about the rather ridiculous pageantry associated with the previous Czar. As a view of what actually went on in the years leading up to WWI and the Soviet revolution the film is certainly worth a look. Like any documentary this does have a tendency to make it’s own point. Shub uses some montage techniques to show the growing militarism of Europe as well as the manufacture of weapons as Russia becomes more industrial. As well as some celebratory touches once the revolution is one. This isn’t entirely archival though, some footage was shot new for the film, but it’s a perfect example of history being written by the victors.

Fragment of an Empire (1929) - Friedrich Ermler

Easily the best of the films I’ve watched since most recently tackling this book. I know little about Ermler, in fact I’ve found two different spellings of his name (I’m going with the one used in Ellis’ book). This film however is just brilliant. Surprisingly anti-war for what is so typically considered a militaristic nation. However in 1929-1931 there was a tendency towards pacifism the world over so this film will fit right in with Pabst’s Westfront 1918 and Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front. This tells the story of a wounded soldier who has amnesia and spends the better part of the decade not knowing who he is. In a brilliant montage sequence complete with plenty of surrealistic touches (including a crucifies Jesus wearing a gas mask that Salvador Dali would approve of), he begins to remember who is. He returns to St. Petersburg where he realizes just how much everything has changed. Women are wearing their skirts shorter, he can’t find his family, his former boss is now on equal terms with the rest of his workers, and everywhere he looks are statues of Lenin and the new Revolution. It’s almost too much to comprehend, after all imagine being out of it for a decade and coming home to find a revolution just happened. The film is available with subtitles online, so hunt it out, it’s certainly worth it.

The New Babylon (1929) - Kozinstev and Trauberg

The second film from Kozinstev and Trauberg shows the two perhaps more in tune with the times. This film makes an even greater connection to the French. It is probably the first film to compare the Paris Commune of 1871 with the Soviet revolution. They go through great lengths to show the decadence of Paris at the time, and drawing comparisons to the aristocracy of Russia before Lenin. The film cuts back and forth between nightclub dancers drinking and laughing and soldiers dying. It’s a film of contrasts and probably the best known of Kozinstev and Trauberg’s films.

Turksib (1929) - Victor Turin

The last film from this chapter is another documentary this one about Kazakhstan. In order to perhaps justify Soviet expansion they made this film to show how much progress was made in the region. It begins showing dried up fields and busted crop plants as the poor farmers pray for water. Then harvesting the grain and making nearly impossible 1000km journeys across the desert to deliver the goods. So here comes mother Russia to blast through mountains, and set up rail lines, build factories and machines, so everyone can live happily ever after. The film is unintentionally anti-environmentalist as they constantly refer to conquering nature. There is a degree of sarcasm that is hard to detect in the film, but nowhere near as rampant as the nearly impossible to decipher titles in Eisenstein’s October/Ten Days that Shook the World. Part of the film is interesting in a Robert Flaherty sort of way looking at the natives of this region during this time, but with some clever montages we see the triumph of industry and the USSR making good on it’s promise of a better life for their conquered neighbors.

Films of the Period

Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein)
Strike (Eisenstein)

The Cloak (Grigori Kozinstev and Leonid Trauberg)
Mother (V. I. Pudovkin)

Bed and Sofa (Abram Room)
The End of St. Petersburg (Pudovkin)
The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Esfir Shub)

The Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov)
October/Ten Days that Shook the World (Eisenstein)
Storm Over Asia (Pudovkin)
Zvenigora (Alexander Dovzhenko)

Arsenal (Dovzhenko)
Fragment of an Empire (Friedrich Ermler)
The New Babylon (Kozinstev and Trauberg)
Old and New/The General Line (Eisenstein)
Turksib (Victor Turin)

Earth (Dovzhenko)

I shall continue with the silent American chapters later.