Cine-tracts [1968)

A beginning, middle, and end.  Not necessarily in that order.

I skipped ahead because I forgot about the Internet.

I disappeared.

And now to write on the sad, hopeful history of change.

To write about the slums of Paris.  There will be slums.

I am not making much sense unless you have read me before.

I can assure you that it is not a put-on.

No, I cannot string together two sentences.

Does that make me stupid?

Of course not.

It’s negotiable.  Relative.  Subjective [ahh…].

This, then, is a film review.  All articles on this site take advantage of this form in one way or another.

Adherence is a matter of self-calibration.

I have found the form for me.  Which is to say, it depends on the film.

And so what is Cine-tracts?

Try the purge function.  Check the deletion log.

Not a very straightforward answer.

Well, these were some short, silent films made by various directors in response to the events of May 1968 in Paris.

The reason I didn’t review this “film” earlier is that I forgot to check the ether for free content.

It’s a bit dodgy.  You never quite know what you’re getting.

On any account, I found about 75 minutes of these cine-tracts and watched the whole, soundless lot.

Jean-Luc Godard’s touch was apparent.  Whether or not Jean-Pierre Gorin was involved at this early stage, I am too lazy to check.  Chris Marker is said to have participated.  That certainly seems plausible given that the mode of creation involves still photos rather than moving pictures.

Ah, but the pictures do move.  Or rather, the camera’s motion creates an illusion that the still pictures are moving.  Indeed, their relationship to the camera is changing.  Distance.  Perspective.  Renaissance.  Light.  Shadow.

These cine-tracts play like what they likely were:  short, encouraging films for the students and workers who were rebelling against the times.

There are some ingenious directorial devices here and there, but generally the message (both literal and symbolic) takes precedence over imagination and invention.  To be sure, the filmmakers involved were politically engaged and apparently zealous in their dedication.

And so now it is hard to recall that Spring of ’68.  I was not there.  I have tried to put myself there.  Because many important currents converge in Paris 1968.

Is it inappropriate to called Cine-tracts a Godard film?  Perhaps.  But the opposite end of the spectrum would deprive us of this diary-like glimpse into the auteur’s mind.  You want to understand Adieu au langage?  Start here.  Or continue here.  Even end here.

There is no shame in being poor.  Scarcity has made it difficult.  A small concern.  Not definitively growing.

The key to understanding Cine-tracts is to be found in everyday life.  Poor, sad routine.  Run-down dross of capitalism.  The ass of capitalism looks strikingly like the ass of communism.

Donkey.  Camel.  BMW.

Yes, the world markets are sensitive to bullshit.  And each magnified ramification comes home to the poor Joe.  Average Joe.  And Jane.

Joe and John Doe and Jane Smith can’t seem to escape the high school algebra problem in which they are frozen like insects.

Joe Schmoe.  A very prestigious family.

And therein lies the problem.  A bunch of nobodies.  All they can offer is a peach.  Or a glass of water.  Or a near-worthless coin.

There’s no movement to join.  Will you start a movement?  In real politics (not the pap which passes for such in the houses of congresses) the only victory is death.  Man does not want to hear an uncomfortable message.  Your type has already, long ago, been profiled.  You don’t fit in this world.  There is no future for you.  As even Orwell seemed to intimate in 1984, a Winston Smith who lives must compromise.

And so what happened to Godard?  What happened to the fire of May 1968–that zeal which seemed inextinguishable?  What happened to the hippies?  What happened to the revolutionary socialists of the ’60s?  Did they merely switch drugs?

To conflate the participants of May 1968 in Paris with American hippies is problematic.  Are there similarities and commonalities?  Sure!  But the cultural backgrounds of the two groups were quite different.  This difference persists.  France and the U.S.A. are further than opposite sides of a common coin.

From the standpoint of language, I am probably more qualified to comment on American hippies (though I am much too young to have first-hand knowledge).  A gross simplification would seem to indicate that the idealism of the American counter-culture gave way to a nihilism (and finally to assimilation and general diametric abandonment of youthful principles).

But history is always open.  That spark…that archetype of socialism…that magical motif can be applied to any political movement…in that history may be all but written, yet it is never more than a pathetic extension of the actuarial tables.  The only insurance of life is to live while alive.

-PD

Easy Virtue [1928)

Justice is just ice…frozen water under the bridge of sighs…

It was a long night.

Night of the long knives.  Knives out.

I had the thousand-yard stare.

Easy Virtue is almost an unwatchable movie for any reasonable 21st century human being.  Watching ants roam in lazy lines is more interesting than this early Alfred Hitchcock picture.

Decanter?  I thought he was de Rabbi.

God…what we wouldn’t give for a little Chico Marx in this film.  Hell…Harpo would be even more suited to this silent snoozer.

Isabel Jeans looks fantastic…even when she’s taking a tennis ball to the head…dans le Midi.

Sure…there are faint parallels to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari…perhaps a door here and there like Nosferatu or Dreyer’s Vampyr, but this just really isn’t Hitchcock’s bag.

Yes…I grew up to that old adage…people who are bored are boring.  Something like that.  Well, I guess I’m a spoiled Internet-addicted loser with a paunch…and boring to boot…because this here film bores the ever-lovin’ socks off me.

I could make up some excuse or talk about how great Henri Langlois was (he was!)…but it doesn’t change the Britishness of this dire picture.

Dreadfully sorry…  Mercifully ending transmission here.

-PD

Champagne [1928)

Music changes everything.  How do we start?  Mahler.  I doubted myself.  Barber.  But I was right.  It is that one dissonance which should have convinced me.  The notes rubbing against one another.

And then I slipped.  Like Betty Balfour.  Dvorak?  Berlioz?  No, it’s Sibelius.

A music scholar doesn’t need Shazam.  But I’m a shabby music scholar.  Rags to rags.

Betty Balfour gets to mingle with the ragpickers for awhile, but for her it is riches to riches.

This is a silent film.  Which is to say, it is not silent.

That is the history of cinema.  A misconception.

And music changes everything.  If it’s Giorgio Moroder providing the soundtrack for Fritz Lang…that makes a big difference.

I really lost my way at some point.  I thought I was hearing Mozart…

We thought he wrote a requiem for his pet starling.  Perhaps not.

Yes, at some point we became very lost.  Flying over the Atlantic.  Like the Mary Celeste.  Bermuda Triangle.

It wasn’t the Flying Dutchman.  I think we would have recognized Don Giovanni.  Maybe not.

Betty doesn’t know when to stop.  Lots of seasickness in these early Hitchcock films.

There’s no missing Bolero.  Ravel’s worst piece.  Worlds ahead of most music ever written.

But nothing beats the Piano Concerto in G.

When Betty is weightless…remembering the good times…champagne.  And now she is merely a wage slave.  Trading places.

No talking.  Some intertitles.  And prominently (most prominently) that music!  A choice…by someone.  It makes a difference.

Put a murder to the tendresse of Beethoven.  A birth to Schoenberg.

The orchestra makes a difference.  That flat, unwieldy oboe line…

Yes, I know it’s polytonal, but the intonation is rubbish.  Like the Salvation Army rendition of “Abide with Me” at the beginning of Fist of Fury.  Makes Monk and Coltrane sound absolutely polished.

No, I can’t stand it.  Gordon Harker is great…just as he was in The Farmer’s Wife.  Without italics that sounds positively lascivious.  Thank god for capitalization.

Did Hitchcock predict the stock market crash of ’29?  A case could be made.  Yet here it is charade.

Betty falls prey to Bresson’s predecessor…pickpocket filmed from the waist down.  Rage Over a Lost Penny.  Op. 129.  I’m just venting.

Gordon Harker parenting.  Like Gregg Popovich.  Pride in the name of love.

Nothing’s going very well for Betty.  Taken literally, this is a nihilist coup.  But just ask Bert Williams:  nothing don’t put food on the table.  Nobody.

More like “nothing to see here”…  Hitchcock would lament to Truffaut.  Nevertheless, the particular transfer I have (and the Romantic soundtrack) made this an interesting journey.  Most of all we learn that the auteur theorists were right:  geniuses never make bad films.

-PD

Way Down East [1920)

David Wark Griffith.  Perhaps it’s fitting that I return to my mission by way of this controversial figure.  To ease your fears, my mission is cinema.  Things disappear.  D.W. Griffith.  Histories become written on the wind.  Sirk.  Search.  And the stream of consciousness carries us to the precipice.  Will we go over with the orphans of the storm?

Ice floe.  Sloe gin.  Bathtub gin.  Spinning jenny.

It was a different time.  Lillian Gish.  Smashing.  Pupkin.  Will we “go over” like the orphans?  Well, the orphans would have to wait a year.  But what we really have here is the Urquelle (the Q source) for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.  It is a long, sad movie which ends with some of the most immortal celluloid ever printed.  It was like watching La Roue by Abel Gance.  Mercifully, 273 minutes would have to wait till 1923.  Griffith gives us a mere 145.

It was Billy Bitzer behind the camera for this story “arbitrarily” set in New England.  It is a bit like Ghost World in that it is universal (to a certain extent).  Are we in Chicago or Los Angeles?  It doesn’t really matter.  Anyplace.  But Bitzer, the cinematographer, was actually from this fictional setting.  Griffith was the hick.  From LaGrange (cue ZZ Top), Kentucky.

Lowell Sherman plays the villain.  Lillian Gish is just simply stunning throughout.

The story is transcendentally sad.  Richard Barthelmess is even a sad sack…until he becomes the unequivocal hero.  Burr McIntosh plays the backwards Squire who is required to “see the light” multiple times over the course of this film.  In his character we get glimpses of that stain upon cinema:  The Birth of a Nation.  But we also get the redemption of Intolerance.  Those two films alone (not to mention this masterpiece) display the crux of the problem:  Griffith cannot be written off as a bigot.  Far from it.

If you know D.W.’s work only from that famous racist relic, then you only have a small portion of the plot.  And yet, how do we explain that sad document?  Sure, it was a product of its time, but is that the end of the story?  The Birth of a Nation has endured as Griffith’s most famous film perhaps precisely because it is so repulsive to modern sensibilities.  But once one sees Intolerance, it is as if the man had seen the light.  Way Down East is perhaps the first feminist film.  Yes, Griffith turned it around within his heart to that extent!

Seemingly.  White River Junction, Vermont.  You can go read the backstory.  It is like François Villon‘s ink freezing in the inkwell.  The shooting of this film is the stuff of legend.  I can’t begin to wrap my head around the sets Griffith used in 1916 for Intolerance.  It is nearly inconceivable to me how Griffith made the abomination that is The Birth of a Nation with a clear conscience.  But by the time of Way Down East he had become a masterful humanist director.  As improbable as it sounds, it is true to my eyes.  This is not a biography of Griffith.  I claim no expertise regarding his oeuvre.  I merely urge increased engagement with his body of work.  There is something there.

-PD

Blind Husbands [1919)

Erich von Stroheim, like Lars von Trier after him, was not really a “von.”  Even as early as Josef von Sternberg directors were adopting (through hook and crook) the self-styled nobility of Stroheim in imitative honor.  The pioneer of this trend started his directing career with the film in question.  One wonders whether this movie also began the habit of filmmakers to shoot in (or depict) Cortina d’Ampezzo.  Through the years we would see both the Pink Panther and James Bond franchises gravitate towards the little Alpine village in the Dolomites.

One thing is certain:  after almost 100 years this story (also by Stroheim) feels modern and the direction is equally modern and stunning (especially for a first-time director).  Just two years later, Charlie Chaplin would begin (with The Kid) a string of self-directed features (with himself cast as the lead) which would rocket him to international stardom [the exceptions being A Woman of Paris (1923) and Chaplin’s last film A Countess from Hong Kong].  So one might argue that Stroheim started yet another trend (starring in self-directed features) which became inextricably integral to the development of film.  Later echoes would present themselves in the work of Orson Welles and François Truffaut (to name just two).

There are several innovative uses of the camera in this picture.  One, when Francelia Billington is combing her hair at the mirror, sees the focus go from her to her husband asleep in his bed.  Not content with this coup, Stroheim then has the husband morph into a memory of the young wedded couple in their happier, former days.  Another instance of ingenious directing comes when Billington is having a fevered nightmare ridden with guilt.  Stroheim (who plays The Other Man) appears as a disembodied, grotesque head.  As he smokes lasciviously from his long cigarette holder the dream sequence then cuts to his nicotine-stained hand and a solemn index finger which slowly comes to point at the dreamer.  Such imagery anticipates Hitchcock’s gun sequence from Spellbound (not to mention its dream sequence for which Hitch employed the design skills of Salvador Dalí).

Another poignant auteurist touch comes near the end when Stroheim (as actor) is stranded atop a mountain peak.  His dire situation is reinforced by the birds of prey which gradually start circling, yet we first only see them as shadows against the rock.

Most notably, this film was released just two months after the end of World War I.  Stroheim plays a Lieutenant in the Austrian cavalry (Austria-Hungary being one of the Central Powers battling the United States which was among the opposing Allies).  It was the assassination of an Austrian which triggered the war and the first shots fired were by Austrians on Serbians in retaliation.  Keep in mind that Blind Husbands is unquestionably a Hollywood production (Stroheim having emigrated to the U.S. in 1909).

Moving back to the theme of this film, one senses a shifting, secular morality pervading throughout.  Perhaps Stroheim was “urged” to make the whole thing a morality play, but he sure seems to be enjoying the role of the womanizing dandy.  The end of the film is not convincing enough to deduce that Stroheim really cared one way or another about the moral “lesson” ostensibly conveyed.  The only strange caveat is the shot of him (The Other Man) desperately praying atop the mountain.  That and, in my cut of the film, we never see Stroheim plunge from the cliff after having been attacked by vultures.  Perhaps I am still becoming versant in silent film and the fall escaped me.  Viewers with ADD stand no chance of making it through this “blockbuster.”  Those who have successfully absorbed the linguistic disconnect of Shakespeare from modern English will have a good idea of the patience it takes to delve into lesser known silent films on a regular basis.

-PD

The Manxman [1929)

The Isle of Man has two movie theaters as of 2014.  Alfred Hitchcock’s last silent film was set on this little island between Great Britain and Ireland (though it was actually filmed in Cornwall).  It’s amazing how much a director can improve in one year.  The previous year had seen the release of Hitchcock’s dull “rom-com” The Farmer’s Wife.  Truth be told:  The Manxman is just a much better story.

In simplest terms, it is the drama of two men (best friends) in love with the same girl.  She’s in love with one of them, but unfortunately not the one she ends up marrying.  The whole thing bears a striking resemblance in tone to Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika (1953).  In fact, the more general mood of the film might be successfully compared to Bergman and Dreyer (a Swede and Dane respectively).  This is not going against the history of The Isle of Man.  The Norse began settling on the isle in the 9th century.  The island’s history is tied not only to Norway, but also the Hebrides civilization.

More importantly, the dramatic material is simply much more suited to what would become Hitchcock’s signature style.  The girl (played by Anny Ondra) throws herself off the quayside in a suicide attempt.  She is not successful.  The viewer familiar with Vertigo might rightly snap to Kim Novak plunging into San Francisco Bay (and warming herself in Jimmy Stewart’s apartment after failing to drown herself).

The dénouement comes when Ondra stands before a deemster (name for judge on Isle of Man) for the crime of attempted suicide.  The judge just so happens to be the man she loves (and it’s his first day on the job!).  The courtroom drama nicely anticipates an underappreciated Hitchcock gem starring Alida Valli called The Paradine Case (1947).  Our film ends up in a bizarre admission by the deemster that he is not fit for the bench owing to his surreptitious dealings with Ondra.

The Manxman in question (played by Carl Brisson) is left to deal with the heartbreak of having been tricked from marriage to fatherhood and beyond.  We end up feeling pity for him, but for most of the film we sympathize with the star-crossed lovers (Ondra and Malcolm Keen).  Keen’s surname in the film is Christian (Philip Christian) and we see him struggle with his situation in a way that today might be termed quaint.  Max Weber might call it the Protestant love ethic.

In closing, this film is definitely worth watching.  There is particular anguish and tension (artfully conveyed) in the child custody scene.  Hitchcock’s ingenuity starts coming to the fore in his final experiment with silence.

-PD

The Farmer’s Wife [1928)

This is a painful cinematic experience.  It takes a certain amount of masochism for all but the most rabid of Hitchcock fans to sit through this 129-minute snoozer.  But old Alfred was the auteur of auteurs and he manages to make even this vapid storyline come to life…occasionally.

Samuel Sweetland

might just be

the most inept

womanizer

in the history

of cinema.

The good farmer

would really be

out of luck

in today’s world.

His heavy-handed,

condescending ways

didn’t even fly

in 1928!  Yet,

there is the

good, sweet Lillian Hall-Davis

who sees something

in her boss.

Hall-Davis,

who plays the

housekeeper Minta,

is charming throughout

this sleeper

(and I mean sleeper).

Mercifully,

the comic relief

of Gordon Harker

makes the whole thing

bearable.

Harker plays

the handyman

Churdles Ash.

With his bent,

crushed hat

perched perilously

atop his head,

Harker is the tired,

nihilistic voice

of humor

throughout

(like a slapstick Louis-Ferdinand Céline).

Of particular note is the burgeoning style of Hitchcock and his archetypal use of images.  The two cocker spaniels at the beginning of the film are a cute example of a director truly using pictures to tell a story.  Likewise notable is the relative scarcity of intertitles.

Truly, one must have the intestinal fortitude of a François Truffaut to wade through this unending, Chaucerian version of motion pictures.  Not recommended unless you typically watch a silent film every. single. day.  Murnau and Dreyer were light years beyond this kind of film making.

-PD