Archive for the 'Experimental film' Category
Since the late 1960s, the Italian filmmaker Paolo Gioli has been employing procedures that are almost frighteningly stripped down. He has made films without cameras. He has devised his own cameras, often without lenses or shutters or motor drives. When he needs a shutter, his fingers, or perhaps some leaves from trees, will suffice. He has embedded images within images without benefit of optical printers, and he has brought photos to frenetic life without animation stands. When he needs a camera, a modest old Bolex or Bell & Howell will do fine. Impresario of clamps and masking tape, he creates extraordinary films with equipment that looks distinctly knocked-together.
The overused term DIY doesn’t capture the eccentric craftsmanship of a filmmaker who starts from the most basic features of cinematic material: film stock, perforations, light. Everything else, even the frame, can be treated as an add-on. These films are hand-made with a vengeance.
Sparse as the equipment and approach are, the results are overwhelming. Gioli’s films can be quietly lyrical or explosively aggressive. Most are fairly compact—fifteen minutes or less—but all are dauntingly dense. Each one’s fusillade of images would be enough for a feature. Skittering and jumpy, emitting a spray of single frames, the most fast-moving ones benefit from being black-and-white and silent: nothing distracts from the swarming images’ direct hit on your eye and brain.
Last weekend, the Harvard Film Archive hosted an event honoring Gioli, his long-time producer Paolo Vampa, and my Wisconsin colleague Patrick Rumble, a tireless advocate for Gioli’s cinema. Head archivist Haden Guest, another long-time supporter of Gioli’s work, timed the gathering with the release of Gioli’s collected works in a three-DVD set from Raro. That collection is a must for anyone interested in experimental cinema. Along with the films it includes Patrick’s seminal essay, “Free Films Made Freely,” and his superb documentary on Gioli’s life and working methods.
I was lucky enough to be present too, thanks to the accident of my having written a little on Gioli way back when. I think it’s fair to say that a hell of a time was had by all—not least because seeing a rich sampling of the work on the Archive’s magnificent big screen made these films, at once rough-edged and precise, even more powerful than when they’re seen on a monitor.
Back to basics–real basics
When the Eye Quakes (1991).
There’s no easy way to sum up the great variety of these films, but I owe you a sense of what they’re like. Start with the ones based on the physical stuff of the medium.
Gioli began as a painter and became both a photographer and filmmaker. He came to cinema as a result of his youthful stay in New York, where he encountered the New American Cinema. It’s not hard to see an overlap with filmmakers like George Landow (Owen Land), Ken Jacobs, and others whose films were based on displaying grain, scratches, perforations, and other physical properties of the medium. But instead of the Cagean repetition of Landow’s Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. (1966), Gioli’s Commutations with Mutation (1969) bombards us with weaving, sliding, rolling strips of film (Super-8, 16, 35), all yoked violently together.
Already one sees a major motif of Gioli’s work, the frame-within-the-frame. The sprocket holes become miniature versions of the frame that can’t contain the agitation of the film stuff spilling across it.
When the film gets more representational, as in According to My Glass Eye (1971), the split screen still suggests two or more films crammed into the same frame. Human faces and figures are wrenched into obsessive symmetries, mirrorings, and embeddings.
The pounding oscillation of this film, made of hundreds of different frames, is unremitting. It’s a sort of anti-Muybridge experiment: instead of decomposing action into bits, the fragments are whipped into a frenzy. The motion is insanely fast, with bodies surging in convulsions as eyes roll and pop terrifyingly. Most Gioli films are silent, but here the aggression is accentuated by driving drum rhythms.
The same primal thrust comes from When the Eye Quakes (1991), one of Gioli’s found-footage efforts. Starting from the woman’s slit eye at the beginning of Buñuel’s Andalusian Dog (1929), we get a sort of pictorial cadenza. Bunuel’s original metaphorically linked eye to moon, cloud to a razor slicing it. In Gioli’s remake, a fly crawls on the eye, the eye is peeled open to reveal a flurry of abstract patterns inside, the gash is stitched shut, and the whole array triggers REMs in another pair of eyes.
The agreeably assaultive side of Gioli’s work finds an emblem in his painting Superficie vasta della sorgente (1970). Here a rectangle serves as the screen, and two trapezoidal paintings mimic the projector beam.
The whole ensemble suggests not only a projector sending images to a support but a torrent of images pumped out to punch the viewer.
A more leisurely found-footage film is The Perforated Cameraman (1979), which stops and restarts shots from a silent comedy. Those images are haunted by yet another variant of the frame: wide-angle rectangles drifting in and out.
One such shape turns out to be a ghostly version of the center perforation of the 9.5mm format. That’s the format of the source movie itself, which is, in another reflexive twist, about the making of a movie.
Paolo Gioli demonstrates one of his pinhole cameras as Paolo Vampa looks on.
Gioli has said that he wants to free himself from cinema’s reliance on “optics and mechanics.” Accordingly, he has reverse-engineered, or rather de-engineered, the apparatus of image-making. Take his various experiments with pinhole imagery. He has pushed the idea of the pinhole photograph (of which he has made many) to another level with pinhole movies.
He started with buttons, using their holes as light-gathering apertures. But since a shirt’s buttons are arranged top to bottom, why not do the same with pinholes? Accordingly, he devised a tube punctured at regular intervals, like a flute. The tube has a chamber for a film strip, with one pinhole per frame. The “shutter” is a hinged strip of metal that opens and shuts to expose the film.
To make the shot the “camera” is held upright. What’s hard to get your mind around is that the frames aren’t exposed sequentially, but all at once. They present varying angles on the subject at one instant.
When developed and run through a projector, however, they gain a temporal dimension. The footage presents an object that seems to slide vertically into view, framed by serrated edges and illuminated by irregular flares of light. Because the first images we see in a shot are those at the bottom of the tube, we may get the effect of a rising camera movement, when in fact there was none. A bowl of fruit in the foreground sinks out of sight as we seem to withdraw from a window.
Each tubular camera yields “takes” of more or less constant length; one tube is two meters long, another is only about 50 frames. Assembled (usually in camera rather than in postproduction), the shots arrive in a regular rhythm. Sometimes the footage displays another in-camera montage: Gioli has cut the hinged strip into two parts, so that he’s able to expose the top part of the film in taking one “shot,” then, separately, another strip of frames at the bottom. And sometimes the upper edge of the motif is cropped and it creeps in from the bottom.
The rigid verticality of Film Stenopeico (aka The Man without a Movie Camera, 1973/1981/1989) and Natura Obscura (2013) seems to me another version of the way in which Commutations with Mutation created one long image on the film strip and then chopped it into bits in projection. What has no framelines acquires them during the screening.
In an essay posted on this site, I noted that these efforts toward a “vertical” cinema recalled Eisenstein’s call to repudiate the horizontality of the classic 4:3 frame. It’s also worth remarking that once you know how the pinhole films are made, you’re obliged to think of each film as having two modes of existence: the physical object threaded through the perforated cylinder, and the film as we see it, an upward scan of an object in our surroundings.
Patrick Rumble and Paolo Gioli explain the experiment Land’s Red (2014).
This “double film,” the duality of the physical and the perceptual in our experience of the movies, is there at the start of his career. On the screen, Traces of Traces (1969) vibrates with abstract patterns of contours, edges, and whorls; it takes on a different sense when you learn that Gioli made it by pressing fingers, sandpaper, rubber stamps, and body surfaces against the film stock. As ever with avant-garde cinema, the question What am I seeing? often comes down to How were these images made?
Gioli’s “new optics” makes him interested in perceptual phenomena like visual saccades (exaggerated to a terrifying degree by his frenetic fast motion) and color vision. Fascinated by the oddities of our visual system, he has “operationalized” Edwin Land’s early experiments in color perception. In an important 1959 article, Land considered the sources of color constancy—the fact that an orange looks about as orange in bright sunlight as it does in deep shade. Yet the lighting conditions are drastically different and should yield a different color sensation. Somehow our visual system “knows” to adjust for fluctuating illumination and yields a stable color world.
Land’s experiment filmed black-and-white still photographs through color filters, then displayed them as slides and tinted the projection beams. He discovered that under certain conditions, we can recover a wide range of colors from a combination of pure white light and a red filter. It’s as if our visual system, which is sensitive to three overlapping wavelengths of light, was endowed by evolution with a bit of redundancy. Moreover, color constancy suggests that perception of color is independent of degrees of illumination.
Gioli replicated Land’s experiment with motion pictures by creating black-and-white film loops (Land’s Red, 2014). During his Harvard Film Archive stay, he demonstrated the result, including a close-up shot of a woman with blue eyes and bluish-silver eye shadow. The left image is the double-projection without a filter, the right is the image with a red filter. We’d expect that putting the filter on tints the entire image red. Instead, the filter generates a range of color, from the vibrant lips to the pale blue of the eyes and eye shadow.
Land’s theory involves psychophysical matters I can’t claim to understand. I gather that his account of three wavelengths in our cones’ pigments is now seen as a partial explanation of color vision. His “retinex” theory—the idea that the retina isn’t the only source of color, that there must be coding of the wavelengths in the cerebral cortex too—pointed other researchers toward a computational account of perception. The eye is a part of the mind.
Gioli’s startling demonstration reminds us that experimental science and “experimental” cinema aren’t always so far apart. A lot of avant-garde films, such as those of Ken Jacobs (discussed a bit herabouts) constitute rich, poetic probes into the quirks of our vision.
A past remade
Gioli has quickened photographs through pixillation, creating movement out of stills with an almost childish simplicity. He just snaps frames from illustrated books. Filmarilyn (1992) uses images from a Bert Stern collection to evoke Marilyn Monroe’s flirtation with death. Perhaps Gioli’s most accessible film, Children (2008) is a succinct, somewhat mordant reflection that carries us from Avedon shots of John and Jackie Kennedy, romping with Caroline and John, Jr., to images from Jacob Riis’ investigation of poverty in New York, and then to the imagery of the My Lai massacre.
Gioli has also done a kind of archeology of early film, as in his homage to chronophotography Little Decomposed Film (1986). My own favorite of his works is the lyrical and melancholy Anonymatograph (1972). In some ways it’s parallel to the work of “Structural” filmmakers like Malcolm Le Grice (e.g., Little Dog for Roger, 1966). The principal source is 35mm material of 1910-1930s from an unknown cameraman. The anonymous photographer recorded families and street scenes, both posed figures and spontaneous laughs and yawns. The footage was shot on an unusual Zeiss camera that could take both still images and motion pictures (a machine ideally made for Gioli).
Gioli’s reworking is typically high-strung, with nearly single-frame imagery at various points. Yet it doesn’t seem jittery. Despite the pace, the film proceeds majestically. It’s at once celebratory, showing gorgeous people, grave or gay, turning to or from the camera, and mournful, as the progression of shots takes us toward war and fascism. There are glimpses of “folk porn,” and hallucinatory superimpositions recalling juxtapositions out of Magritte or Paul Delvaux.
Gioli endows these long-dead divas and sturdy gentlemen with graceful, almost tragic unawareness of their place in history. Anonymatograph goes beyond his pure experiments with light, shape, and the skin of the film. It’s a testimony to the subtle power of old pictures and to an artist’s ability to reimagine, without abandoning any of his nervous intensity, the world they captured. No wonder Patrick Rumble calls Gioli “the last of the first filmmakers.”
I haven’t dealt with the full range of Gioli’s work. I’ve neglected the paintings and photographs, and I’ve had to neglect his powerful “photofinish” films (e.g., Slit-scan Figures, 2009). I just hope I’ve intrigued you enough to induce you to explore this unique and unpredictable filmmaker.
Thanks to Haden Guest for inviting me to participate in the HFA event, to Jeremy Rossen for help during my visit, to Patrick Rumble for many discussions of the films, to John Powers of Madison for information about optical printing, and of course to Paolo Vampa and Paolo Gioli for sharing ideas and information.
The Gioli collection is distributed in the US by the far-sighted company Kino Lorber. There’s also a book of essays, Paolo Gioli: The Man without a Movie Camera, ed. Alessandro Bordina and Antonio Somaini (Mimesis, 2014). The official Paolo Gioli website is here.
The Edwin Land articles are “Experiments in Color Vision,” Scientific American (May 1959), 84-99. and “The Retinex Theory of Color Vision,” Scientific American (December 1977), 108-128. A good biography of this remarkable man is Victor K. McElheny, Insisting on the Impossible: The Life of Edwin Land (New York: Basic, 1999).
Our Lady of the Sphere (Lawrence Jordan, 1969)
Our friends at Flicker Alley have offered three major releases since early October: Masterworks of American Avant-garde Experimental Film 1920-1970 (October 6), Sherlock Holmes (November 10), and Chaplin’s Essanay Films 1915 (November 17). This may seem ridiculously fast-paced, but it is partly explained by a delay in the release of Sherlock Holmes. All three editions package Blu-ray and DVD versions together.
In the move from 16mm to digital, avant-garde cinema was initially left behind. Eventually big boxes and series of DVD releases made a huge number of experimental short films available to audiences who may have had little access to such fare before. In quick succession, Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941 (2005), Kino’s three-volume series Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema 1920s and ’30s (2005), Experimental Cinema 1928-1954 (2007), and Experimental Cinema 1922-1954 (2009), and the forth volume of the “American Treasures” series, Avant-Garde Film 1947-1986 (2009) were released.
Now we have another ambitious set, Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film 1920-1907. Fans of experimental cinema who have purchased all of the earlier sets might wonder if there is room for yet another extensive collection of American films. Won’t there be a lot of overlap? The answer is a definite no. The body of work by important avant-garde filmmakers is extensive enough to support many boxed-sets.
I can find not a single film in the seven DVDs in Unseen Cinema (which takes a rather broad view of what counts as avant-garde) that is duplicated here. The same is true of the Avant-Garde Film 1947-1986 set. The Kino boxed sets (two discs each) are heavily slanted toward international films, and there is a slight overlap. Flicker Alley’s website has a list of all 37 titles included in Masterworks.
It’s impossible to deal with all the films included in the set here. (The film illustrated at the top is one of them.) I’ll just say that I was happy to see Hilary Harris’ 9 Variations on a Dance Theme (1966/67, right). We used to show it in the introductory film course we taught back in the mid-1970s, when Film Art had not yet been dreamt of. It’s a lovely film in itself, but it also might possibly be the clearest way to get across the ideas of form and style that one could find. Starting with a long shot of the dancer in a segment that simply records her movements, documentary style, the film repeats the same music and choreography eight times, with the cinematography and editing rendering a progressively abstract set of images.
Flicker Alley has put together an essential collection of films that will be new and exciting to many fans. The extras include, generously, three other experimental films. A a helpful booklet contains an introduction by Bruce Posner and brief program notes and filmmaker bios.
The Return of Sherlock Holmes
Until recently the 1916 version of Sherlock Holmes, based on the play by William Gillette, was lost. That seemed exceptionally unfortunate, not only for legions of Holmes fans but for anyone interested in late Victorian stage practices. Gillette’s performance as Holmes was considered the defining one, influencing subsequent portrayals. The play, which was produced in the US in 1899, had the cooperation of Arthur Conan Doyle, whom Gillette consulted during the period when he was writing it. The film version was a precious record from the time when the Holmes series was still being written.
In fact, Conan Doyle had killed Holmes off in 1893 in “The Final Problem,” and at the time when he authorized the play, he still had not resurrected his popular character. Gillette’s play influenced the later stories with such additions the character of the young servant Billy, a character invented by Gillette and later used by Conan Doyle.
In one of those happy endings that occasionally happen with lost films, a copy was discovered in the Cinémathèque française. Not just any old copy but the original nitrate negative of the French release version, which was shown as a serial in four parts in 1919. Apparently no footage was lost, and the main difference between the restored version that we have now and the original American feature film is that the new intertitles have been translated from those of the French release.
The original play has four acts, and the film has compromised between maintaining the interior setting of each act for a long stretch of the film and opening it out with brief exterior scenes and cutaways to other locales. One very lengthy section of the film takes place in the isolated house used by the villains to imprison the heroine, Alice. The sets are somewhat reminiscent of the stage, and yet they have been extended forward, and at times we see at least three walls and perhaps part of a fourth. In many cases, the stage-style set is made more cinematic through the simple device of adding some furniture in the foreground (left). In others, the characters are strung out in a line across the playing space, as in the final “act,” which takes place in Dr. Watson’s office (right).
Physically, Gillette makes a convincing Holmes in terms of the way Conan Doyle describes him, and his performance is restrained and usually lacking in expressivity–which works for a character noted for not exhibiting emotion. Unfortunately Gillette added a love interest for Holmes. Doyle, who apparently didn’t care what others did with Holmes now that he was rid of him, gave his permission. This would be bad enough in itself, but Alice is quite young looking, and Holmes is much older than she. Gillette had originated the role seventeen years earlier, when he was 46. By the time the film was made, he was 63, and though he doesn’t look that old in the film, the age difference between Holmes and Alice is obvious.
Given the survival of the negative, the Blu-ray/DVD transfer is impressive. Serpia toning is used in most scenes, while dark blue tinting represents night exteriors, many of which are nicely filmed (see bottom). The music is by Neil Brand, one of the best accompanists in the business.
There are generous bonuses, including some earlier comic shorts based around the character, Conan Doyle’s Fox Movietone interview, and a typescript of Gillette’s play. The set comes with a booklet with short essays on Gillette and his play, the film adaptation, the restoration, and the music.
The Little Tramp takes shape
Jeffrey Vance begins his essay on Chaplin in the booklet accompanying Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies 1915 with this observation:
If the early slapstick comedy of the Keystone Film Company represents Charles Chaplin’s cinematic infancy, the films he made for the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company are his adolescence. The Essanays find Chaplin in transition, taking greater time and care with each film, experimenting with new ideas, and adding textue to the Little Tramp character that would become his legacy. Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies would become his legacy. Chaplin’s Essanay comedies reveal an artist experimenting with his palette and finding his craft.
The unstated conclusion to the series of companies where Chaplin worked during the 1910s is that the Mutual period saw Chaplin’s maturity as an artist. Flicker Alley has now completed its epic survey of all three periods, with copies restored by the Cineteca Bologna and Lobster Films in cooperation with Blackhawk Films and the Chaplin Mutual and Essanay Project. Many archives provided material. For those who first saw Chaplin in worn 8mm and 16mm copies, these prints are a revelation.
Chaplin’s tinkering with his Tramp character is evident in the most famous short in the set, The Tramp. It begins and ends with the character on the road, going nowhere in particular. In between are sandwiched broad slapstick scenes, quieter comic moments, and a big of the pathos that would become increasingly central to the Tramp.
Early in the film he is capable of saving an innocent farm girl with a wad of money from a trio of thieving hobos, then stealing the money himself (above), and then relenting and giving it back. His comic pacing is sometimes off–way off in an overlong scene of the Tramp, who gets a job at the heroine’s farm, repeatedly poking a fellow farmhand with a pitchfork (a pretty cliched gag to begin with). The Tramp’s clueless attempts at milking a cow work distinctly better, as he tries everything, including turning the cow’s tail into a pump handle. That’s the sort of visual punning that would become one of Chaplin’s comic strengths. There are some funnier scenes, as when the Tramp is forced to bunk in with the farmhand and suffers agonies from his roommate’s smelly socks.
Some quietly funny moments are better, though, as when the Tramp, having been wounded in the leg while trying to foil a burglary attempt, sits complacently enjoying his leisure and assuming that the heroine is in love with him. The absent boyfriend, well-dressed and handsome, soon shows up and, recognizing the inevitable, the Tramp removes himself from the triangle and takes to the road once more. Perhaps more than any other image, this one summarizes how Chaplin’s Tramp was thought of for many years and by millions of people.
Bonuses include some films using discarded footage or cutting together scenes from already-released shorts, as Essanay tried to capitalize as much as possible on Chaplin’s extraordinary international popularity. There is also a booklet with Vance’s essay and a set of program notes. Each of these has a brief description of the restoration process, which is a nice thing to see in a supplement.
Sherlock Holmes (1916)
Dad’s Stick (John Smith, 2012).
DB here, from London:
Last week we held another annual meeting of the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image. I think it’s safe to say that a hell of a time was had by all. I hope to file a report on some of what was said in nearly 100 presentations across 3 ½ days. For now I want just to note a conference highlight that deserves special notice.
English filmmaker John Smith has been working since the mid-1970s, originally in 16mm and now in HD video. On Thursday 18 June, several lucky participants got a very substantial sampling of his career’s achievement in an evening retrospective.
In their visual wit and their emphasis on perceptual shifts, Smith’s films owe something to the international Structural Film trend, but they stand out by their wit and their almost classical beauty. I saw affinities with Hollis Frampton, especially in Associations (1975), in which a test of word-associations slips hilariously out of control. But Smith seems to lack Frampton’s interest in poeticizing scientific and philosophical concepts. The work sampled in our session was characterized by sensuous appeals: precise framing, saturated color, image-sound counterpoint, and richly detailed landscapes. The conceptual element entered as teasing jokes or half-formed narratives.
I had seen three or four before. Hackney Marshes–November 4, 1977 wasn’t in the program, but Kristin and I referred to it in Film History: An Introduction, because of its brash editing patterns. More famous, I suppose, and screened on Thursday, was The Black Tower (1985-87, below), with its oppressive rectangle looming over a striking variety of locales. The film keeps cutting among widely different vistas and neighborhoods, each with the tower visible in middle distance. The associations pile up: state surveillance, a prehistoric monolith, a dark temple, or an alien spacecraft. It was a pleasure to see again.
Altogether different is another of Smith’s most famous works, The Girl Chewing Gum (1976). A busy street is rendered strange by the soundtrack, in which a commentary seems to be directing the whole ensemble of passersby and traffic. Quite soon the voice-over turns into something quite odd. I find a whiff of Monty Python in this charming lesson in image/sound interference. (You can watch it on Vimeo here.)
One of the most striking selections was Blight (1994-96). The demolition of a nearby building becomes, through Smith’s maniacally locked-down camera, a study in abstract composition and eerie movement. My stills can’t suggest the way in which apparently fixed timbers and bricks suddenly shift or fall, moved by no visible hand. The music by Jocelyn Pook further “defamiliarizes” imagery of collapsing walls and exposed wiring. And the tattered man above seems to be watching the whole proceedings.
The program concluded with recent work. Flag Mountain (2010, above) elicited much comment. Fixed stop-motion telephoto shots of a mountain in Nicosia become almost hallucinatory in vibrant HD video and rapid day/night alternations. Dad’s Stick (2012, above) is a lovely tribute to Smith’s father, but it’s also a witty game of form. What seems at first to be a voluptuous abstract painting turns out to be something more mundane, but now mysterious in its accidental beauty. As a bonus, you get a good-natured teasing of art critics’ jargon. Part of Dad’s Stick is here.)
John proved a delightful and modest commenter on his work. He points out that the fixity of each image allows him to treat them as discrete items, like letters of an alphabet, so that the cutting has a crisp force. He’s come to like HD video, but yearns to “get out the old Bolex and shoot one last film.” He declines all the standard labels—avant-gardist, experimental filmmaker, maker of “artist’s films.” He thinks that his films can be appreciated by anybody who’s open-minded, and I think we all agreed. Quiet yet powerful, John Smith’s work seems to me to attest to the continuing relevance of artisanal filmmaking.
You can visit John’s website here. A large selection of his work is available on the three-DVD set John Smith, available from Lux here. The discs aren’t region-coded. Every university should have this set, as well as the Cinema 16 collection, British Short Films, which includes work by John and his contemporaries.
Thanks to Tim Smith, Murray Smith, and John Smith (no relation, none at all) for arranging this wonderful evening.
The Black Tower (John Smith, 1985-1987).
Die Nibelungen: Siegfried
For a seventh year running, we skip ranking the current year’s films and instead hark back 90 years.
We started out with a list that was essentially an appendix to an entry, but soon we were dedicating whole entries just to the list. Our entries for past years are here: 1917, 1918, 1919, 1920, 1921, 1922, and 1923.
These lists are our way of calling attention to important silent films that some readers may have overlooked. In one case here we point out a largely forgotten film that deserves to be better known, in the hope that an archive will take the hint. With the proliferation of silent-film festivals, of DVD and Blu-ray releases with restored prints and supplemental material, and of TCM’s eclectic screenings of foreign and silent titles, there seems to be considerably more interest in these early classics. Herewith our choices for 1924.
For the last few years I’ve struggled to fill out the full list of ten films with truly deserving items. But as I’ve been predicting, the 1924 choices fell easily into place. As usual, some of these are obvious picks, already famous to most readers. Others are less obvious, and a few are unknown except to specialists. Some, though very important historically and artistically, are not currently available on DVD, which is a real shame.
At last, the USSR
Films in the Soviet Montage style make up one of the most important cinema movements of all times. The key filmmakers of the movement, Eisenstein, Pukovkin, Dovzhenko, Kuleshov, Kozintzev and Trauberg, and others began their work later than the German Expressionist and French Impressionist directors. But at last one joins our list, with Lev Kuleshov’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks.
Although Kuleshov’s work has become more widely available, his most familiar work is still By the Law (1926), a grim tale of two members of a gold-prospecting team agonizing over how to bring to justice a colleague who has committed a terrible crime. Mr. West couldn’t be more different. This hilarious and grotesque comedy satirizes American perceptions of the new Soviet Union, as Mr. West, president of the YMCA, comes to for a visit, his faithful cowboy friend Jeddie in tow. They’re terrified of the barbaric land they expect to encounter, and a gang of thieves dupe Mr. West by dressing up in outfits that caricature West’s images of Bolsheviks (above).
In making the film, Kuleshov and his team drew upon the experiments they had been doing in his classes he ran of the early 1920s. Film stock was scarce and all he and his students could do was practice staging scenes and make short editing experiments. They explored the possibilities of “biomechanical acting,” a style based more on gymnastic control and energy than on psychological subtleties of facial expression.
Once the group did get the resources to make a feature, their delight is evident in the lively editing and the exuberant performances. Alexandra Khokhlova, a gangly woman who was married to Kuleshov and starred in most of his films, plays a vamp who tries to lure Mr. West into her toils. Pudovkin, who studied with Kuleshov before going into directing himself, is the well-dressed gang leader who pretends to guide Mr. West away from danger. Boris Barnet, also to become a major director, performs feats of derring-do as Jeddie tries to save Mr. West.
Mr. West is not only a satire on Western fears of post-Revolutionary Russia but also a parody of American serials. (The latter was something Barnet soon tried in an actual serial, his 1926 Miss Mend.)
Mr. West is available on DVD in Flicker Alley’s set, “Landmarks of Early Soviet Film.”
German Expressionism begins to wind down
Last year I was hard put to pick a film to represent the German Expressionist movement in the top ten. I chose Erdgeist but mentioned Schatten and Raskolnikow as runners-up. By 1924 there were fewer Expressionist films released, though the movement would linger on until 1927, mainly carried on by the two greatest directors who had worked in the Expressionist movement: F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. Each of these contributed a classic film in 1924: Murnau’s The Last Laugh and Lang’s two-part epic: Die Nibelungen: Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge).
The Last Laugh isn’t really Expressionist. The sets are mildly in the style, but what really fascinated Murnau at this point was the freedom of camera movement introduced by French Impressionism. He set out to make a character study. Emil Jannings plays a doorman in a large hotel (none of the characters’ names are given). His regal bearing and fancy uniform bring him respect among his fellow employees and from relatives and neighbors in the lower-middle-class neighborhood where he lives. He has aged to the point where he carry large luggage and is abruptly demoted to work as a rest-room attendant.
Murnau introduced what came to be known in Germany as the entfesselte Kamera, the “unfastened camera,” beginning in the opening shot where an elevator with a grill descends, carrying the camera and dramatically revealing the lobby. Murnau may have been directly influenced by one of last year’s top-10, Cœur fidèle, where Epstein put his camera on a spinning-swings carnival ride. Murnau saw other uses for the device. Like the Impressionists, he conveyed drunkenness through moving camera, though in this case he put the actor and camera on a turntable, so that the room spins past behind Jannings, conveying the dizzy happiness of the doorman at a party (above).
Using more imagination, Murnau follows sound with his camera. As the party ends, musicians exit to the apartment-block courtyard, and one plays a final tune under the window. Starting with a close-up, the camera “cranes” diagonally up and backward until the men are in long shot. A cut takes us to the doorman inside, happily listening.
Actually the camera was not on a crane. Murnau and cinematographer Karl Freund affixed a track over the courtyard with a small metal elevator underneath, so that the camera could move both back and forth and up and down. The camera was not literally unfastened in these cases, but it looked like it was.
Murnau wanted to end the film on a grim note with the protagonist seated alone in the hotel rest room. Commercial considerations led to a happier ending, however, with him unexpectedly becoming wealthy. The twist was so outrageous that Carl Mayer, the scenarist, considered it a comment on Hollywood’s insistence on happy outcomes. Hence the English title The Last Laugh. The original German means “The Last Man.”
The Last Laugh got distribution in the USA, but it was not a success. Hollywood practitioners studied it, though, and started hanging cameras from tracks themselves and trying other tricks. The track backward above a long, laden banqueting table soon became a cliché of Hollywood cinema.
Murnau would make two more mildly Expressionist films, Tartuffe (1925) and Faust (1926) before heading to Hollywood to make the ultimate hanging-camera film, Sunrise (1927)
One of my favorite films of the 1920s is Lang’s two-parter, Die Nibelungen: Siegfried and Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache (Kriemhild’s Revenge). An adaptation of the ancient German myth, it mostly proceeds at a stately pace until the final battle scene. Some may find it slow, especially when compared with the lively, suspenseful Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (1922) and Spione (1928). Yet its leisurely presentation is appropriate to the subject matter. Equally important, lingering over images allows us to notice the details of the extraordinary settings and costumes, with their busy decorated surfaces and their startling arrangements within the shot.
Take the image at the top of this entry. Brunhilde, having been forced to marry King Gunther against her will, envies her sister-in-law Kriemhild, who has married Siegfried, the man Brunhilde loves. In this shot, Brunhilde mounts the steps of Worms Cathedral to confront Kriemhild and assert her right to enter the cathedral first. We see her from behind and then at the upper left as her ladies follow her, wrapped in their patterned hoods and black cloaks, creating an almost abstract composition. Lang build the enormous stairway outside the cathedral in two stages and then used the set imaginatively to stage several ceremonies and dramatic conflicts.
What makes this film Expressionist, I would argue, is the way the actors and settings interact, as in this moment when Brunhilde pauses by her window and then comes forward through the slightly parted curtain, exiting left. She pauses in the opening, her dress seemingly becoming part of the curtains for a moment.
The similarity and the pause have no narrative function, but it’s a very Expressionist composition. Insistent symmetry and acting also contribute to the style. In the second plot, the Hunnish King Etzel asks for Krienhild’s hand in marriage. She agrees on the condition that he will aid her in exacting her revenge on Siegfried’s killers. Upon her move to the land of the Huns, the style becomes a more familiar sort of Expressionism, with distorted trees and buildings that looks like they were built of mud that settled oddly before drying:
The elements of the German tales are all here: love, betrayal, suicide, revenge, presented in images worth savoring.
Lang was inspired in his approach to the film’s visuals by some illustrations by Carl Otto Czeschka for a 1909 retelling of Die Nibelungen published in 1909. The heavy decoration on the knight’s shields and many other surfaces in the film somewhat resemble this image, for example:
Yet the resemblance is far from exact. Clearly Lang used elements from these illustrations and took them off in his own direction.
Scandinavia’s golden age drawing to a close
During the first half of the 1920s, the Swedish cinema was a victim of its own success. Victor Sjöstrom (who has figured in these lists in 1918 and 1921, as well as in our “Lucky ’13” entry), had headed to MGM, becoming Victor Seastrom. In 1924 he released his first two films in 1924: Name the Man and He Who Gets Slapped. The latter was the newly formed MGM’s first in-house production to be released. It was a huge success, no doubt in large part due to the growing stardom of Lon Chaney, and it put the studio on the map and allowed Seastrom to stay in Hollywood, notably for The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928).
Mauritz Stiller (also a previous top-10 choice) was about to head for Hollywood as well, but his final Swedish film is one of his finest. Gösta Berlings Saga, a epic adaptation of Selma Lagerlöf’s novel, was made in two parts lasting over three hours. Many people will know it as the debut film of Greta Garbo. Fans should be forewarned that she is an important character and appears in the early and late scenes but disappears for a long stretch in the middle.
[December 30: As our friend Antti Alanen points out, Garbo had already acted in a comedy, Luffar-Petter (Peter the Tramp, 1922) and in some short advertisements.]
The film begins with Berling, a drunken pastor in a small town, being relieved of his duties. He ends up being taken in the “Chevaliers” at Ekeby the country estate of Margaretha Samzelius, a tough middle-aged woman who runs a group of foundries she has inherited from a lover. The Chevaliers are a group of hangers-0n, men who can drink and laze about most of the time but who must be charming and entertaining at Samzelius’ many dinner parties. Berling has a number of chances to redeem himself but ends up harming the people around him and sinking lower into despair. He is finally redeemed by the love of the Garbo character, Elizabeth, the new bride of a wealthy neighbor, to whom, it turns out through a technicality–and happy coincidence–she is not actually married.
Hansen and Garbo make a gorgeous couple (below left), but they are upstaged by the great Swedish stage actress Gerde Lundequist as Samzelius:
As usual, the film contains lovely scenes in the Swedish landscapes. There are some impressive night sleigh rides, including a famous scene in which Berling and Elizabeth are chased across a frozen lake by wolves. There is also one of the most impressive fire scenes I can recall from the silent era, as Samzelius’ efforts to smoke the Chevaliers out of the guest house where they live and inadvertently sets fire to the big main house as well.
Unfortunately the film was cut down into a single feature for its release outside Scandinavia. The Story of Gosta Berling was the main version that circulated for many years. The Swedish Film Institute restored it in stages as more footage was found, but the current print, at 183 minutes, is still missing some footage.
Beware picking up an older video release with the truncated film. The restored version was released on DVD in the USA by Kino. The original Svensk Filmindustri release (with English, French, Portuguese, German, and Spanish subtitles), is available here. The same DVD comes in a box set of six Swedish silent classics, which is widely available from the usual online sources.
Carl Dreyer has popped up on this blog several times, usually in passing. Not surprising, since David wrote a book about him way back 1981. Here he makes his second appearance on our ten-best lists (the first having been for his first feature, The President, in 1919) with Michael.
The film centers around a wealthy, aging artist, Claude Zoret. The main room of his house is decorated with several eye-catching pieces of sculpture, notably a mysterious battered head that looms in the background of many shots. Is it one of Zoret’s own works? Is it part of a collection of ancient statues? Much of the action takes place here, which has led some historians to place Michael in the tradition of the Kammerspiel. David calls it a borderline case. There are certainly scenes that leave Zoret’s studio, most notably one in a large theater set.
The film has been hailed as an early treatment of homosexuality. Although there is nothing overtly expressed, it is hard not to read such a subtext into the action. Zoret, wonderfully played by Danish director Benjamin Christensen, has many guests and admirers visit him, creating a little all-male coterie. He has taken in a young protegé, a very beautiful and very young Walter Slezak. Zoret refers figuratively to Michael as his son, but there seems to be another tie between the two. Moreover, there may be a hint that Charles Switt, a journalist apparently writing a biography of Zoret (at the center of the frame above), feels some jealousy toward the young man.
Trouble begins when a princess comes to commission a portrait from Zoret. Although he usually doesn’t do commissions, he is intrigued by her face and agrees. During her visits to the studio to pose, she meet Michael, who is immediately smitten. The affair continues as Michael becomes increasingly inconsiderate to Zoret,borrowing money to continue the affair and missing an important showing of his work. In contrast, Zoret shows unwavering generosity to Michael, despite being devastated by his desertion.
Ultimately Zoret paints his last work, showing an elderly, lonely man against a barren seascape. It is hailed as a masterpiece at a party which Michael does not attend.
The character study proceeds at Dreyer’s usual formal pace, and yet it is never dull. As much as any of his silent films, it looks forward in tone to his later sound ones.
She was nothing but a poor flower-maker
Every now and then I want to put a film on the list which is impossible to see unless you happen to live near one of the archives that has a print and they happen to program it. Still, in the hope of inspiring someone to restore it and make it available, I proceed.
The film is Jean Epstein’s L’Affiche (“The Poster”). Epstein first made our list last year for the much better known Cœur fidèle. L’Affiche is a bit like the earlier film, a simple melodrama made in the French Impressionist style. Its situation is highly conventional, and its plot depends on a massive coincidence.
The heroine is introduced as Marie, one of several women making artificial flowers. On her lunch break she thinks back to a romantic day she spent in the country. There she meets a young man, Richard. The couple go to an expensive restaurant, and Richard seduces Marie, and then abandons her, driving away alone the next morning.
Three years pass, and Marie has a small child, also named Richard. She enters him in a contest for the most beautiful child, with a cash prize, offered by an insurance company that wants to put the winner on their advertising posters. The boy wins, and Marie signs a 10-year contract for the rights to use little Richard’s image.
The child dies, however, and Marie visits his grave. As she leaves, she sees a huge poster with his image. The campaign has begun. Everywhere in Paris she goes, she sees the poster and finally begs the insurance company to end the campaign. The boss, however, refuses. Marie begins tearing down the posters, and she is soon arrested. Epstein handles the arrest scene without an establishing shot but builds it up through close-ups.
Initially we see only the back of Marie’s head and her arms tearing down a poster. There a cut-in to slightly closer framing as a policeman’s hand comes into the shot and touches her shoulder. A third shot shows her turning to the officer and staring in a way that suggests she is becoming mentally unbalanced. Finally a long shot establishes the scene as a second policemen enters to help arrest her.
It’s the sort of gradual revelation of space that Kuleshov was working with at the same time.
The boss of the insurance company is informed of this and sends his son to file a complaint against her. New copies of the poster are being put up all over town. The son is none other than the Richard who seduced Marie years before. Hearing her tale, he asks her forgiveness and takes her home to his parents. The father forbids their marriage, they marry anyway, and eventually (after his own younger child dies!), the boss blesses the marriage and agrees to take down the posters.
Summarized baldly, it sounds like an impossible plot to take seriously, but Epstein’s delicate, understated approach in presenting it and Nathalie Lissenko’s affecting performance as Marie manage to make it a great film. It’s full of Impressionist moments: Marie’s memory of her romantic day with Richard, a dance scene with rhythmic editing, a dream sequence, and plenty of gauzy shots and fancy wipes at transitions.
Earlier this year I complained because L’Affiche was not included in the big new box set of Epstein’s work, despite almost everything else from the period being there. It’s also not on the box set of films made at the Russian emigré studio, Albatros, even though Epstein’s other three Albatros films are there. I don’t whether there are rights problems or there simply isn’t a good enough print.
At least one streaming service claims to have L’Affiche available, but a search turns up numerous complaints about the site.
I should make mention of one other Impressionist film that came out in 1924. Perhaps it should be on the list rather than L’Affiche. It’s Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine. L’Herbier appeared on our 1921 list for El Dorado, and even then I expressed reservations. Most of his films seem cold and by-the-numbers to me, not to mention a bit pretentious. But his films were historically important, and L’Inhumaine was influential in its use of art deco sets. At one time the film was available on DVD, but it seems to be out of print.
Three funny men …
And no, it’s not Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd this time. Chaplin didn’t release a film in 1924. His next would be what many would consider his funniest feature, The Gold Rush.
Over the years I’ve stressed that during the 1910s, the three great comics were working in shorts, honing their filmmaking and working up to their great series of features. By 1923 they had fully made the transition: Lloyd made Safety Last and Keaton Our Hospitality. Safety Last had a simpler plot, structured mainly by the stages of the hero’s climb up a building. Keaton went further with a complex story of a romance blooming between members of feuding families, using multiple locations, a developing causal line, and clever motifs. (We analyze it in Chapter 4 of Film Art: An Introduction.)
In 1924, Lloyd achieved a similar complexity with Girl Shy, one of his greatest films. He plays a bashful young tailor’s assistant who is terrified of women. Yet in secret he writes a guide for seducers, taking on the narrational persona of a jaded man of the world. Clearly he has taken his inspiration from movies of the day. The imaginary scenes from his book dramatize his success in gaining the love of a vamp (see bottom) and a flapper. The publishers decide that the book is so over the top that they will publish it as a comic story. During all this Harold develops a relationship with Mary, a quiet young woman from a wealthy family. When her father tries to buy Harold off, he pretends to spurn Mary. She is about to marry a rich man, but Harold determines to stop the wedding.
There develops one of the most epic chase scenes in all silent comedy, and indeed all cinema, as Harold commandeers all manner of vehicles, from cars and wagons to a firetruck and a speeding trolley (above).
Even Keaton never outdid that one. But from 1923 to 1927, these two each created a string of innovative, carefully crafted, hilarious films.
Girl Shy used to be available in a 3-DVD set from New Line, but that is no longer available–though one optimistic third-party seller offers it, still sealed in plastic, for $399.99). Now the individual releases of each DVD seem to be slipping out of print as well. Volume 1, which contains Girl Shy, is definitely out of print. Be forewarned: Volume 2, which includes the wonderful 1927 film The Kid Brother (look for it on a future list) seems like it’s not long for this world, and the same is true of Volume 3, with For Heaven’s Sake (1926).
It was difficult to choose between Keaton’s two major releases of 1924, Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator. I chose the former mainly because of its perpetually astonishing transition from the frame story of a small-town projectionist unlucky in love to his dream of himself as a sophisticated detective. His dream takes the form of a movie, and the sleeping projectionist walks through the theater and into the onscreen action. With extraordinary precision, Keaton maintains a long-take framing of the pianist and audience in the auditorium while the hero onscreen undergoes a series of unexpected shot changes. In each he is in the same pose and position within the screen, but the backgrounds change arbitrarily, as when he begins to dive from a rock into the ocean and finds himself landing in a snowdrift:
The result is a marvelously convincing technical feat, giving the illusion of being a single shot as far as the theater is concerned and on the movie screen a character wandering through an appropriately dream-like series of edited shots. In general, Keaton was the most adept of the three great comics at using cinema technology to create gags, and this is his most elaborate attempt. (Though see also his short, The Playhouse, in which multiple exposures, flawlessly managed in-camera, create Keaton clones that play all the roles.)
The plot of the dream emerges after this virtuoso transition, and it remains hilarious throughout. The chase, while not quite as dazzling as the one in Girl Shy, has considerable variety of vehicles (one wonders if the two comics were consciously trying to best each other), including a passage where the hero rides the handlebars of a speeding motorcycle, unaware that the driver has fallen off.
The third funny man was Ernst Lubitsch. The Marriage Circle was his second Hollywood film, and one of his best. Lubitsch had started out as a comic in silent shorts in Germany, but unlike the famous Americans, he entirely gave up acting to direct. Not that he directed only comedies, but his best films, including Lady Windermere’s Fan, Trouble in Paradise, and The Shop around the Corner, fall into that category.
The Marriage Circle is a light romantic comedy, following a chain of flirtations and misunderstandings. Prof. Stock has realized that his pretty young wife Mizzi has begun to neglect and nag him. She is soon attracted a newlywed, Dr. Braun. Mizzi happens to be an old friend of Braun’s wife Charlotte, which gives her opportunities to flirt aggressively with Braun. Charlotte is in turn admired by Braun’s medical partner, Dr. Mueller, though she laughs off his attempts to woo her.
It has often been pointed out that Lubitsch is a director of doorways. That’s not always true, but The Marriage Circle is built around visits. The five characters visit each other in various combinations, and the string of attempted seductions and jealousies builds. Stock encourages Mizzi’s pursuit of Braun, since he wants an excuse for a divorce. Charlotte naively pushes Braun into visiting Mizzi at home when she plays sick.
The sets and especially the doorways play a big role. Characters pause in doorways to take in a compromising situation they have interrupted. At one point Mizzi comes to Braun’s office. Mueller spots them in an embrace, but Braun claims he’s hugging his wife. Eager to alienate Charlotte from her husband, he opens the office door to reveal Charlotte in the waiting room:
This is the first film where one can see the “Lubitsch touch” in action. It’s an ability to use film techniques to hint at something naughty. Here the innuendos are aimed at the characters. We know more than any of them does, and the humor arises from watching them misinterpret what they see and hear. When they finally learn of their mistakes, they end the “circle” of the title.
The Marriage Circle is available to rent or buy in digital form on Amazon. I know nothing about the source or the quality. The only DVD easily available is a region 2 French one under the rather blah title Comédiennes. The print is distinctly soft (as the frame above suggests) but acceptable until a better one becomes available.
… and one not so funny
Greed is often spoken of as the film that historians and buffs would most like to see rediscovered. Part of it survives, of course–about two hours out of the original eight or so. Its producer, MGM, had it was edited down into a reasonably coherent feature, mainly by cutting out a number of characters and their subplots. I won’t say much about the film here, since it is already quite well-known.
The film is an adaptation of Frank Norris’ novel McTeague done in a naturalistic style, which was unusual for Hollywood films of that or any other day. It follows McTeague, an unlicensed dentist, who steals his friend Marcus’ girlfriend, Trina, and marries her. Their luck fluctuates, as Trina wins a lottery and McTeague is thrown out of work for not having a license. Trina becomes an obsessive miser, and McTeague, by now an alcoholic, murders her and flees to Death Valley with her money.
I find a lot of Greed heavy-handed and obvious. (I prefer the simpler Blind Husbands, which made our ten-best list for 1919.) It has an interesting style, however, with a lot of proto-Wellesian deep focus and low angles, complete with, in the case of the frame above, a hint of a ceiling. The final sequence in Death Valley is also very effective.
Apart from being 75% lost, Greed has never been released on DVD. (See Indiewire for comments on this.) In 1999 Turner Classic Movies edited a four-hour version, inserting production stills to suggest the missing scenes. This was reasonably effective, but it seems impossible to find a print of it that is not washed out and fuzzy. We’ve tried taping off TCM, as well as buying the VHS and laserdisc releases of that version. They all verge on unwatchable. I hope that the situation is not left where it is and that a true restoration is eventually done. My frame above comes from an archival 35mm print, so clearly better material exists.
The lost film that I would most like to see discovered is Lubitsch’s Kiss Me Again (1925). Given that it was made right before Lady Windermere’s Fan, there’s a good chance that it’s a masterpiece.
One of a kind
Last year I put Man Ray’s experimental short, La retour à la raison, on the list. Comparing experimental shorts to fiction features, though, seems unfair. This year I’m separating out the experimental category and will try to choose at least one film each year.
This year it’s Walter Ruttmann’s Opus 3, the third of his four films done with abstract animation.
All of the Opus films plus other Ruttmann shorts are available on a DVD set with Berlin, die Sinfonie der Grossstadt and Melodie der Welt. If you want to sample just Opus 3, which is about four minutes long, it has been posted multiple times on YouTube. Although a bit dark, this is the best copy I’ve found, and it has a nice, appropriate score by Hanns Eisler.
Bernard Eisenschitz made the connection between Lang and Czeschka in his massive Fritz Lang au travail (Cahiers du Cinéma, 2012) , pp. 38 and 42. Czeschka’s Nibelungen illustrations can be see along with the entire book on the Museum of Modern Art’s website, with a page-turning feature and the ability to enlarge the pages considerably. Individual illustrations can be found with a Google Images search on “Czeschka” and “Nibelungen.”
Thanks to Jonah Horwitz for a correction.