Saturday, November 26, 2011

Caligari’s Children

Between 1919 and 1924 the offspring of Caligari, the Schuerfilme (films of fantasy and terror), flourished in Germany.  You can see one of them, Der Golem(1920), in the previous post I did about Expressionism.   However, in actuality most horror films today as well as numerous science-fiction films derive from German Expressionism.

There were two notable artists to mention in regards to Expressionism.  The first is Fritz Lang,  one of the masters, he gave us films such as Der müde Tod(Destiny, 1921).  For some reason many of the hard to find silent films are only available online in Spanish, not sure why this is but dust off your español for this one.

der müde Tod 1/2 by desfilms
der müde Tod 2/2 by desfilms

Notice that the theme of this film is pure Expressionism, doom, gloom and Teutonic mythology.  What Lang added to cinema was the use of lighting to emphasize lighting and space. This was because Lang was a trained architect and it’s that skill that becomes so readily apparent in his other, more famous, Schuerfilme, Metropolis(1926)

An inspiration for many science fiction and other films to come, Metropolis is a story about a totalitarian future society, a dystopia,  brilliantly rendered through architecture and film process.  There’s a lot of different versions of this movie floating around.  Here’s one, it’s not a great print but I think is fairly authentic.

Lang managed the conversion to sound and directed several sound films, the most brilliant of which is M(1930)M seems to be more of an indictment of German culture at that time than the story of a man on the brink of collapse due to the guilt from his past deeds.  Either way, M is not Expressionism, it’s what followed Expressionism, Kammerspiel.  More on Kammerspiel later, first M.

The second notable artist to come out of German Expressionism is F.W. Murnau.  His film, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horrors, 1922) is considered the prime example of the Expressionism movement.   The most incredible thing about this film is that it was made with very limited resources.  The Expressionism comes from camera angles and lighting, rather than expensive studio sets.

So many directors were inspired by this film and the techniques used in it are continually copied.  For example, Orson Wells shot Kane from a low angle – which comes directly from this film, it’s how Nosferatu is shot to make him seem menacing.

And that brings us back to Kammerspiel (intimate, or instinct film).   A film that forgoes the dramatic and tries to bring forth a more realistic portrait of the oppressiveness of contemporary middle-class life.  Kammerspiel retains aspects of Expressionism, they have similar themes and they look similar, but Kammerspiel avoid theatrics.  Instinct films are constructed for their specific media.

Murnau’s next important film is the first truly in this genre.  It’s called Der letze Mann(The Last Man aka The Last Laugh, 1924) and it was written by the same writer as Caligari.    The Last Laugh was one of the first films to make use of camera tracking, the camera is a character in this film.  It was the first film to move its camera backward and forward, as well as up and down and from side to side, in scenes of substantial duration. 

Beyond that Murnau also liked to use subjective camera techniques whereby the camera shot represents the view of the scene from a character’s perspective.

Around 1924,  Hollywood, sensing a rival, started flooding the German market with films.  They also started stealing the German talent,  Murnau was one of the artists who moved to Hollywood.  But there were many and some went on to make important films.

Meanwhile, Germany was recovering from the war and returning to social normalcy. As a result, taste changed, away from the morbid psychological themes of Expressionism and Kammerspiel and  onto die neue Sacklichkeit (the new objectivity).   The new genre was realism, intended to show life as it is, “street” films. 

G.W. Pabst was unquestioningly the master of this new genre.  His film Die freudlose Gasse(The Joyless Street, 1925) was the German screen debut of Greta Garbo.  The film rejects the subjective camera of Murnau and strives to present the grim story of two girls forced into prostitution, all without sentimentality or symbolism.  I’m not certain of the authenticity of this print – it could be the censored version – the only other online choice was a Russian version that had an irritating narration.

G.W. Pabst was also one of the first western directors to be influenced by Sergei Eisenstein's theory of montage.  Which also happens to be the topic of the next blog entry.  


Previous article Scandalous Hollywood -Part 2

First article Before Film

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Scandalous Hollywood - Part 2

Besides being full of scandals due to the “new morality” during the 20s, Hollywood was also full of comedy.   It was the golden age of silent comedy with  Chaplin in front and a slew of other Keystone alumni alongside.

Buster Keaton had a very similar upbringing to Chaplin and he was an equal to Chaplin as an actor but a superior director.  His specialty, mise en scène, or just basically his films looked better than Chaplin’s.  Keaton was a firm believer that all comedy stemmed from a strong dramatic through-line.  Story was important to him, most of his gags were trajectory gags that propelled us through the story.  

In his first film at Keystone he played a Keystone Cop.  But after appearing in a number of shorts as comic characters he soon became as famous as Chaplin.

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a friend and  huge star, quit Keystone in 1916 to start his own production company with Joseph M. Schenck.  We’ll hear more about Arbuckle later but right now what’s important is he hired Keaton to work with him at Arbuckle’s Comicque Studios.  The first of the fourteen two-reel shorts they made was The Butcher Boy (1917).

In 1919 Schenck formed Buster Keaton Productions to produce two-reels starring Keaton.  The home of this studio was the former Chaplin studios.  Schenck gave Keaton complete creative freedom and the shorts that he produced from 1920-1923 alongside Chaplin’s are the high point of American slapstick comedy, such as The Balloonatic (1923).

In 1923 Keaton’s first feature was a parody of Griffith’s Intolerance, called The Three Ages(1923).  Notice the dramatic story is intact and the humour works to further the story.

One of Keaton’s most extraordinary features is Sherlock Jr (1924).  In this metafictional film a projectionist becomes part of a film within the film.  Certainly a bit on the surreal side of the fence. 

Keaton’s masterpiece is considered to be a film called The General(1927) which along with Chaplin’s The Gold Rush(1925) is considered to be one of the great silent comedy epics in cinema.

Keaton’s studio was acquired by MGM in the late 20s and made one last great film The Cameraman(1928) before being cast in a series of witless talkies (which he had no hand in writing) that did so badly profit-wise he was promptly fired by Louis B. Mayer.  His life fell apart and so did his career.

When Hal Roach, the major rival or Keystone’s Sennett, established his production company – he hired Harold Lloyd for three dollars a week.  Lloyd’s specialty, comedy of thrills, in which the hero placed himself in real physical danger in order to get that laugh.  His most famous film is Safety Last(1923).  Here’s his iconic clock  scene from the film.

From the above clip, you’ve probably notice how this scene probably influenced many modern action films.  It seems to masterfully up the stakes.

Laurel and Hardy were also Hal Roach comedians, minor compared to the greats mentioned above but significant because they were film’s first comedy team.  Their first film together was Putting the Pants on Philip(1927).

They went on to star in twenty-seven shorts for Roach.  Probably one of the best of this series was The Two Tars(1928).

Laurel and Hardy were one of the few silent stars to make a smooth transition to talkies (because of their background in theatre).  They went on to have a long career in the movies.

Another minor comedian to mention here is Harry Langdon who worked for Keystone.  He rose briefly to stardom with his charmingly naive character, different though similar to Chaplin’s.  Watch this clip Tramp, Tramp, Tramp(1926) – but don’t be angry with me at the end because it’s all I could find. 

The last comedian to mention here is Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle who also worked for Keystone until he started his own production company in 1917.  His popularity was second only to Chaplin – until one of Hollywood’s biggest scandals struck and the course of movie history was changed forever.

In 1921 he was charged with the rape and murder of a young starlet named Virginia Rappe.  The world watched and waited for the verdict…

But before we announce the verdict – let’s take a look at how film was advancing in other parts of the world.  

Next article Caligari's Children

Previous article Scandalous Hollywood – Part 1

First article Before Film

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Scandalous Hollywood - Part 1

Early filmmakers flocked to Hollywood and it wasn’t just because it never rains in Southern California.  It was because it was close to the Mexican border,  early filmmakers made dodgy deals to get their films made and sometimes they found it necessary to take a sudden vacation.  Hollywood was a recipe for scandal.  

Besides that, arrive in Southern California they did.  The first Hollywood-type studio, however, was called Inceville, built by a producer named Thomas Ince.  Ince started with at American Biograph where he met D.W.Griffith.   They became partners, with another man we’ll discuss later, in a venture called Triangle Film corporation.  When that failed three years later, Ince built Inceville.   Here’s a silent documentary tour of Inceville.

He made a number of films there before he died in 1924. Here’s a brief clip from one his films.  No sound so turn up those tunes.

The third member of Triangle Film Corporation was Mack Sennett.  Sennett was an actor in many of Griffith’s films.  He started directing for American Biograph but he wasn’t given enough creative freedom.   In 1912 he started Keystone Studios  with the financial backing of two bookies, are you ready for that border crossing Mack?

Luckily, Sennett decided to produce comedies, lots and lots of one- and two-reelers and they were popular world-wide.  He liked slapstick and sight-gags.  The hallmark of the studio was the Keystone Cops.

But he also produced and directed several parodies – of Griffith films.   He didn’t direct much after the first two years at Keystone.  Instead, he sat back and discovered an amazing list of comedy actors and directors:  Charlie Chaplin, Harry Langdon, Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Ben Turpin, Gloria Swanson, Carole Lombard, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, W.C. Fields, Malcolm St. Clair, George Stevens, Roy Del Ruth and Frank Capra.

Keystone went bankrupt in 1935.

Charile Chaplin was Sennett’s most important protégé.  Charlie’s most endearing and enduring screen character was the tramp, which he introduced in Kid Auto Races at Venice(1914).

He made a thirty-four shorts and one feature for Sennett but he found the humour expected by Keystone not subtle enough for his tastes.  In 1915 he accepted a contract with Essanay to make fourteen two-reelers.  He continued the Tramp character through those films, the character was extremely popular.  In 1917 Chaplin had enough star power to sign a deal with First National – his most known film there being The Kid(1921).

Charlie’s star power and his irrepressible sexual appetite made him an easy target for scandal as well.   It started during World War I when he continued to make films rather than fight the war with the British army.  He was labelled a coward in his own country.  Then in 1918, he had an affair and then married (perhaps forced to) the 16 year old child star Mildred Harris.  That ended in messy divorce in 1919 with a huge settlement and lots of press. 

It’s rumoured he had an affair with Marion Davies who was William Randolph Hearst’s squeeze.  That supposedly ended in the very mysterious fatal shooting of none other than Thomas Ince.  Hearst pulled the trigger and missed Charlie – or so it’s told.   Among other things I sure this didn’t help the press’ image of Charlie.

After First National Charlie was free to do his own thing once again and he release of number of his masterpieces though a company called United Artists.  He founded UA with Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks in 1923.  His first film with them being A Woman of Paris(1923) then a return to the screen by the tramp in The Gold Rush(1925).  His personal favourite was The Circus(1928).

Around this time Charlie started adding some additional social commentary to his films, having them say more than the story: City Lights(1931), Modern Times(1936) and his first talkie The Great Dictator(1940).    City Lights is often cited by screenwriting books as one of the finest examples of screenwriting during the silent era – people especially liked the end.

In 1943 actress Joan Barry filed a paternity suit against Charlie and even though a blood test proved it was not his child he was found guilty and forced to pay support. Then they tried to charge Charlie with the Mann Act in 1944, he was eventually acquitted of those charges but his reputation was tarnished forever. 

His last two films Monsieur Verdoux(1947) and Limelight(1952) were not received well publically.  Very soon after the release of Limelight Charlie left for a visit to England on the Queen Mary. The U.S. Government almost immediately revoked his permission to re-enter the country and he was not allowed to set foot in the US until 1972.

But there was more trouble brewing in Hollywood during the silent’s heyday – coming up next. 

Next article Scandalous Hollywood – Part 2

Previous article The Russian Revolution

First article Before Film

The Russian Revolution

Before the revolution films weren’t very popular in Russia so there wasn’t much of an industry.  The working class was too impoverished and the ruling class basically didn’t care. 

However, there were some films produced around Moscow.  A few of those are of note and the avant-garde seemed to be the norm.  

Still from Drama in Futurist Cabaret 13Drama in Futurist Cabaret 13 (Drama v futuristicheskom kabare 13, 1913) by futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (Portret Doriana Greya, 1915), The Storm (Groza, 1916) and The Strong Man (Silnyi chelovek, 1917)  by Vsevolod Meyerhold – a very famous Russian theatrical director.      The Picture of Dorian Gray

Unfortunately none of the movies  seem to exist online and perhaps may no longer exist in real life, they would have had to make it through a huge revolution.   These pictures will have to do.  

The last film of note before the revolution was a Yakov Protazanov production of  Lev Tolstoi’s Father Sergius (Otets Sergei, 1918).  I did manage to find a clip from this film but it’s subtitled in Spanish.  Well worth a look though, the film seems fairly intense. 

Cena de "Padre Sérgio" - Yakov Protazanov - 1919 from Luiz Santiago on Vimeo.

In 1917 a new government took over Russia and the Soviet Cinema was born.   The new government believed in the power of the cinema and wanted to exploit this new media.  They immediately abolished censorship and started producing anti-tsarist propaganda.  Only two of these films were produced, however.  After the revolution there were still battles being fought between the Red and the White Soviets – film stock was scarce. 

One person did get a bit of filmmaking in during this period, his name Dziga Vertov.  He was an editor for the newsreel footage shot during all that fighting.   By 1921 he had made three films from that newsreel footage. 

None of those films seem to exist online so I won’t name them. But in those films he experimented with subliminal cuts of one or two frames each and the dramatic reconstruction of documentary events. 

One, an important technique that views film as a subconscious manipulation tool and the other, a technique for propagandizing history or viewing film as a conscious manipulation tool.   

Then Vertov and his group of Kinoki (kino-oki, cinema-eyes)  went around Russia documenting everything – with a propagandistic slant, of course.  From 1922 to 1925 Vertov released a carefully crafted series of newsreels to test out his theories on manipulation.  This series was collectively called Kino-pravda.   This has no sound so turn up those tunes.

In 1924, Vertov released a film called Kino-glaz which used many different camera, lighting and editing techniques and tricks to achieve what one critic called “an epic vision of actuality.” 

What is essential about these films isn’t just their significance to Russian history but their significance to film history -- in that they are all about montages.  An aesthetic that would dominate Russian cinema for years to come.

Vertov’s silent work culminated in a film named The Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, 1928).   Some people consider this one of the most important films of the silent era, it is certainly Vertov’s virtuoso masterpiece. This does not have sound so once again, crank up those tunes.

There’s still more experiments to come from the Soviet Cinema, but first I think a scandal may be brewing in Hollywood.

Next article Scandalous Hollywood – Part 1

Previous article Caligari’s Cabinet

First article Before Film