The Music Box [1932)

This is truly a masterpiece.

It transcends short film.

The piano…

¡Ay, carambas!

This film is all about work.

About having shitty jobs.

The things we do for money!

Stan and Ollie work their asses off.

For nothing, basically.

But it provides us with some much-needed levity.

And one need not be overly-erudite to see Sisyphus in all of this.

Very clearly.

Up the hill.

Over and over again.

Just as things seem ok.

The same disaster strikes again.

And you are back at square one.

Groundhog Day.

Hell.

…but funny!

[only funny if you’re not living it]

But this is comedy.

And so we thank God for Jerry Lewis…and Laurel and Hardy…and Charlie Chaplin.

And all the great comedians who have brought the working man (and woman) the laughter they so dearly needed.

There’s some great mise-en-scène and economy of means here from director James Parrott.

Everything revolves around the interminable stairs.

The steps.

Like Potemkin.

Steppes.

Central Asia.

Oh, Stan and Ollie…

They are at their idiotic best here.

Two gen-u-ine dumbasses 🙂

If I could only remember the name of that rock band that destroyed the piano…

 

-PD

Salinger [2013)

I read every book J.D. Salinger ever wrote.

This was, of course, due to The Catcher in the Rye.

If my memory serves me, it was the first book I ever enjoyed reading.

The first book that ever made me laugh.

[what a concept!]

And so I made it through the other three books published during the author’s lifetime.

None of them made the same impression upon me as had Catcher, yet I knew this was a special, special writer.

One story did, however, stick with me for unrelated reasons.

That story was “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”.

And the connection was Richard Manuel (of The Band)…who died in a similar way (and in Florida, near enough in my mind…city notwithstanding) to the protagonist of that haunting little tale.

But I am not obsessed with J.D. Salinger.

Indeed, I had not given thought to him in quite some time.

His writing affected me deeply, but it was not the kind of stuff that I wished to revisit.

Once was enough.

But still…

Perhaps his greatest work…was his strange, mysterious life.

THAT is what fascinated me!

Long after the books ended.

In my literary pantheon, there is one very small category which holds but two authors:  Salinger and Pynchon.

The recluses.

And so, in the final estimation, Salinger was the consummate artist.

A genius of public relations as much as a weaver of phrases.

Well, dear friends…if you relate to any of the above, then you absolutely must see the documentary Salinger.

What is particularly fascinating is that our author was in counterintelligence.

Yes, by this I mean to infer that Salinger’s self-imposed exile was very much a calculated move from the mind of a trained spook (for lack of a better word).

But there’s more to the story…

Salinger likewise was a soldier.

World War II.

Voluntary.

From D-Day through V-E Day.

299 days (as director Shane Salerno makes wonderfully clear).

But if this has not piqued your curiosity about this mammoth of 20th-century literature, consider the pithy, icy story of how Salinger was jilted, while at war (!), to the benefit of an Englishman [wait for it] living in America…

Yes, his girlfriend married Charlie Chaplin.

While J.D. was seeing men die in France and Germany to push back and defeat the Nazis.

And the cherry on top of that bitter sundae?

His erstwhile girlfriend was the daughter of America’s only Nobel-prize-winning dramatist:  Eugene O’Neill.

This is the kind of stuff any documentarian would drool over.

But likewise, portraying the delicate enigma of Salinger is a task which could have resulted in crumbling failure with any faux pas (in its literal sense).

Shane Salerno (any relation to Nadja…Sonnenberg?) crafted a thoroughly engrossing document of Salinger’s richly-fabriced life.

But the coup comes at the end (and it is not too much of a spoiler to reveal this).

Salinger appears to be the primary source (if Wikipedia is to be even marginally trusted) concerning the forthcoming publication of Salinger’s fruits of reclusion.

We have a timetable:  2015-2020.

40% has come and gone.

You know, I never thought I’d live to see the day when a “new” Salinger book hit the shelves.

And I won’t believe it till I see it.

But one thing is for sure:  I’m buying.

Finally, I owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Salinger.

He passed away in 2010.

What a special gift he had!

What joy he shared with the world!!

It was the real thing.

The masses, after all, CAN (in the final estimation) tell the difference between shit and Shinola.

And to all the critics who ever panned J.D. out of jealousy, a big “Fuck you” is in order.

One more thing…

This review is dedicated to all those who travelled up to Cornish, New Hampshire hoping to catch a glimpse of the man…

All those who left a note…

All those whose pleas fell on deaf ears…

I know your dedication.

My hero is Jean-Luc Godard.

I know.

I know letters.

I know the long-distance call.

My Cornish, New Hampshire just happens to be Rolle, Switzerland.

But I know.

And I want to make this very clear.

You are not dupes.

You had the open hearts to dream.

And you let an author into your lives.

Perhaps J.D. Salinger was incapable of expressing his gratitude for all of you.

Perhaps out of some kind of self-hate.

But I’m bold enough to speak for the man.

He loves you.

Always did.

Always will.

Else, he never would have given you Holden in the first place.

-PD

Paisà [1946)

Something about the late night.

And a war movie.

Makes me tired of fighting.

The ongoing war.

Identify:  friend or foe?

The Italian partisans were fighting against their own fascist government.

They were fighting against the Nazis.

This will be a little late in coming, but an idea can have a soft opening.

Applied Memetics.

Memetic engineering.

We bombed Sicily.

Clear the beaches.

A daughter-in-law (it is implied) was killed by our bombs.

Boom boom.

And now she cannot even have her wake in peace.

She was an egg for a larger omelet.  That should be remembered both ways.

Disgusting.  And no other way around it.

Warfare in 1943.

Is it a road?

No, it’s lava.

So many misunderstandings in war.

I’m an American.

Me.

The author.

It is the country of my birth.

And I love my country.

The partisans were fighting the fascists.

The fascists were the outgoing government.

More clearly, I defend the pillars.

Free speech.

Push the limits.

USE your free speech.

Get the word out.

Be wrong.

Apologize.

Try to get it right.

Study science.

Drunk in Naples.

Thinking of DeFord Bailey.

Born same day as me.

Harmonica Frank.

Ain’t talkin’.  Just walkin’.

You gonna have to eat those boots if you lose them.

Which is a contradiction.

Maria Michi was such a bitch in Roma, città aperta.

You remember?

We she comes face to face with torture???

And so the OSS fought with the partisans.

Training in explosives.  And survival.  Every possible scenario.

Basics.  Navigation of small boats.

Because poetry is always dangerous.

You might analyze an entire Yankees season in two minutes, but I am large vast, I contain mul,ti,tudes,,,

Improved upon by the collective unconscious.

What?

Well, Maria Michi redeems herself here.

Still a whore.

But a heart of gold.

Straight from central casting (as Webster Tarpley might say).

I believe it was The Thrills.

Love in vain?

Two lights…diverged in a forest…AC/DC

I alternate between direct and oblique.

That was Rome.

Most notable for war is Florence.

The Rucellai gardens…ah.

I haven’t heard that name in a long time—

Wan excrement.

Nick Tosches.

We take up Machiavelli to study war.

Because there is something worth defending.

As faded as it is.

Over five-hundred years ago…they were already lamenting.

It’s nothing new.

What Sean Elliott correctly calls curmudgeon talk.

Will Harriet Medin taste youth one more time?

Because the great painter-warrior seems to be in danger.

Across the Arno.

Putting the Po in poverty.

Lou Reed became Transformer.

The Wolf.  Lupo.

Call me Winston.

That Rosser Reeves should have died in 1984.

Better living through chemistry.

Thank God for mental illness.

Tonight I’m gonna rock you tonight.

Second request.

Uffizi with crated antiquity.

A more high-dollar GoldenEye.

Impenetrable.

We always rebel against our kind.

Youth.

The imperfect circle of mimesis morphed.

And meme.

Daddy-O.

Like watercolors one bleedingintotheother.

Which we would have called word painting for J.S.  In a cantata.  Or oratorio.

Wasn’t a “years of lead” scale attack.  Uffizi.  1993.

But we seem to trace the progression of honorable men (OSS) to bizarre hydra (CIA).

Short sword for thrusting.

To each, his own.

The British (like the Catholics) are portrayed as spoiled twats.

[The Catholics (director Rossellini being Italian) are portrayed lovingly as myopic outliers]

Shakespeare would have been appalled by Shakespeare in Love.

And right before the “Fine” a noyade.

Viz. know your history.

I am guilty as hell.

Of being an idiot.

But I have a lust for life beneath this quiet desperation.

 

-PD

Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse [1933)

This might be the one great key of the 20th century.

The skeleton key, so to speak.

We have one of the great directors of all time (Fritz Lang) laying out the operational details of criminal conspiracies.

But perhaps even more, we have the fine line between genius and madness which Hitler was beginning to toe.

It is important to note that Hitler was synonymous with the Nazi party.

He was their God, so to speak.

And yet it seems to me that Hitler was not particularly bright.

A fiery orator?  No doubt.

But not really a criminal mastermind.

No.  There were others.

Things were just getting going in 1933.

We…

become enthralled by intellect.

As our minds are stimulated, we sometimes lose track of any ethical grounding.

Which is to say, intellectuals are the most dangerous.

I would like to fancy myself an intellectual, but I will let the Order decide that.

Yes, dear friends…there is no other way to put it.

Fritz Lang, the prophet, is clearly delineating a criminal Order which would come to rule the world in the 20th century.

His message is far-reaching.

The methods outlined in Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse are perhaps most applicable today.

The 21st century (which began on 9/11/01).

Terror for the sake of terror.

Hidden-hand machinations.

The man behind the curtain.

It is no small detail.

Every detail drives Otto Wernicke to the brink of madness.

He is the portly J. Edgar of this affair.

In Wernicke’s case, his opposition are mad geniuses.

Literally mad.

Goethes of crime.

Rudolf Klein-Rogge sums up the problem.

Knowledge is inextricable from high-level criminal insanity.

Dr. Mabuse has studied too much.

And so he spools out reams of handwritten blather.

He reexamines language.

Hinting at post-structuralism.

Language, year 0.

Whirls and whorls and squiggles.

And slowly the comatose “brains” of the operation finds himself a new body.

Each one well-paid.  And each compartmentalized in their knowledge.

We must come back to Max Weber for this one.

A couple of times the word.  simuliert.

The prospect.

That he could be faking it.

Madness.  To avoid the punishment he deserved.

But it seems rather that the psychiatrists have been infinitely engrossed in the case histories of their patients.  [Which is to say in their patients themselves.]

The psychiatrists have the secrets of the 20th century.

And the science rolls on.

On the one hand, we have Ewen Cameron of Project MKUltra.

On the other we have Dr. Steve Pieczenik.

And it is at this point which we need to discuss the counterintelligence apparatus of the Order:  2-B.

It’s not Abteilung.  Something different.  Less significant.  But tasked with the dirty work.  The cleanup.

Mord.  Murder.  Nipping the stragglers.  There’s no leaving the Order.

And so is it any wonder that Goebbels (or Garbage, as Charlie Chaplin rechristened him) had Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse banned in Germany?

Why?

Because it gave away all the secrets.

The secrets of control.  Each level glued together by terror.

And the controlled chaos.  The buildup of addictions.  The incredibly farsighted chess game of our conspirators.

The reign of crime.  A lusty pronunciation.

Vs. a homicide detective wont to sing strains of Die Walküre here and there.

Germany split in two.

Soon enough.

And something as simple as a love letter.

When one least expects it.

Few films deserve the label masterpiece quite like this one.

 

-PD

#3 The Curse of Mr. Bean [1990)

Just who does Donald Trump think he is???

Answer:  Sam Walton.

It’s the big, goofy, mesh-backed baseball cap.  The ones with the plastic snaps and infinitesimally small corresponding holes.  And then the squishy, peaked frontispiece:  “Make America great again” –or– (alternately) “Wal-Mart”.

That is the Donald’s costume…out on the campaign trail.  It’s bold.  Comedic.  A bit like George H.W. Bush “shopping” for groceries out among the common folk and being dumbfounded by this whole newfangled barcode scanner.

Yes, Donald Trump:  man of the people.

And so who did Rowan Atkinson think he was with Mr. Bean?

Well, that one’s a whole lot harder to pinpoint.

We might know Chaplin.  And Sellers.

But then there’s all these other institutions which don’t quite translate outside of Britain…The Goon Show, Dudley Moore, The Goodies…

Just from whence was Atkinson pulling his stuff?

We want to think it’s all original.  And perhaps it is.

But influence is unavoidable.

And so with the third and final episode of 1990, Atkinson gave us The Curse of Mr. Bean.  [1991 would yield only one episode of the show.]

The curse…hmmm…certainly sounds like an allusion to Sellers’ Clouseau.

Whatever the case may be, Atkinson’s material is all tied together with a very cohesive theme this time:  fear.

Fear of the diving board (afraid of heights).

Fear of public nudity or embarrassment (lost his trunks in the pool).

And finally the orgiastic grand guignol of laughter:

fear of movies.

It sounds like a pretentious art school pop album.

For instance, the Talking Heads’ Eno-produced Fear of Music (1979).

But for Bean, the horror was more of the Freddy Krueger type.

Indeed, by December 30, 1990 (this show’s airdate), there had already been five (yes, 5ive) A Nightmare on Elm Street movies.

Churned out of the dream factory like diabolical cotton candy, they appeared in 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, and 1989.  The series then would recommence in 1991.  Which begs the question, just what was Freddy Krueger up to in 1986?  Laying low?  Vacationing?  The Caribbean?

To wit, Bean is scared witless while on a date (yes, those things where aspiring romantics “go out”) with the absolutely adorable Matilda Ziegler.

For those of you (like me) who can’t live without pithy character names, Ziegler’s role (like my beloved Enid Coleslaw) is that of Irma Gobb.

And Bean, therefore, is the man-child…the everlasting Gobbstopper [sic].

[Which is to say, Ziegler’s character is a reoccurring one.]

Perhaps we need to look further back to find a precedent for Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean…perhaps out of the world of comedy proper.  Perhaps to the Dadaists?  I can certainly imagine Mr. Bean dressed as a sort of human tampon à la Hugo Ball…with lobster claw hands.  Or maybe Bean with a lobster telephone courtesy of Dalí.  Certainly Bean would have a pet lobster to take for walks in the Bois de Boulogne with a ribbon for a leash like Gérard de Nerval.

But we perhaps perhaps perhaps need to look further.  To the wry humor of Marcel Duchamp.  To the childlike fancy and brilliance of a René Magritte or an Erik Satie.  Even, god forbid, the humor of a Mauricio Kagel.

Conductors don’t have heart attacks mid-concert?  Not according to Kagel’s Ludwig Van.

Yet Bean never crosses that line of pretension.

He’s never Anthony Braxton’s Quartet for Amplified Shovels.

No, Bean always remains funny.

And so, perhaps, nothing is more revolutionary than comedy.

This kind of comedy.

Absolutely scripted, miniaturist-perfect comedy worthy of Jacques Tati.

In that sense, we might say that Mr. Bean is like Peter Sellers having Charlie-Chaplin-like total control over a production.  At least that’s the way it seems.

Perhaps we would be criminally neglecting the director of these first three Bean episodes:  John Howard Davies.

But in such comedies, the thing really does speak for itself.

Rowan Atkinson fills every moment of screen time in these gems with his thoroughly inimitable charm.

 

-PD

#1 Mr. Bean [1990)

Ah!

A new decade, a new voice.

A VOICEless voice.

Focused on trigonometry.

Or, oops, calculus.

Pi day.

The first episode of Mr. Bean.

It’s all in the gait.

Shuffle along.

Arnold Rothstein.

Rowan Atkinson had immensely talented nostrils.

Right from the start.

And he was an industrious chap.

As I always say (and the maxim by which I live), if you’re going to be an idiot…at least be entertaining.

Indeed.

Jester of God.

Falling from the sky.

giullare di Dio

Hallelujah!  I know that part!!

Ritardando the fellow.

Yes, a caesura.

Very centered.

A smiley face.

I can’t quite draw what it is I mean.

But the main point is that Mr. Atkinson was/is a bloody genius.

It’s an overused word, but I think only a few have approached in comedy.

Chaplin.  Sellers.  Atkinson.

All English.

But I would add Andy Kaufman.

And perhaps Roberto Benigni.

Actors who could carry a whole production with their funny talents.

Such a rare thing.

An exam.  And church.  And don’t forget the beach.

Very much silent film.

Such a joy!

 

-PD

 

A King in New York [1957)

I once went to rather extraordinary lengths to see this film.

Doing such a thing often makes one appreciate the rarity of the moment.

But now I revisit this testament for the purpose of placing the film in my own history of the cinematic medium.

As you might know, I don’t often review new films.

For what is important to me is not the hackneyed novelty of Hollywood today, but rather the breadth of motion pictures down through time as an art form.

What is attractive about the movies is that they are barely 100 years old.

It is not much of a stretch to say that the seventh art (as Ricciotto Canudo eventually called it) was short of being a mature mode of creation in 1916.

For though Charlie Chaplin was already making important contributions, his first feature as a director and actor wouldn’t come till 1921’s The Kid.

In many ways A King in New York was Chaplin’s last film.  Namely, it was the last in which he both starred and directed.  [He would direct one final effort:  1967’s A Countess from Hong Kong starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren.]

And so it was that with A King in New York Chaplin returned in some ways to the themes of The Kid.

Michael Chaplin (his son) is brilliant as “the kid” Rupert here in the film under consideration.

And Charles (Charlie) is equally timeless as the foil to Rupert’s Marxism.

Yes.

This was a brave film to make.

It was a humane film to make.

And it is insightful even today.

We may no longer have the communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era, but we still have the same brain-dead stupidity (as exemplified by Fox News).

It is quite easy to draw that particular parallel when viewing the newscast which comes on King Shahdov’s hotel television periodically throughout this movie.

And while the hysteria of anti-communist “vigilance” has largely faded into history, another equally virulent strain of bigoted ignorance has taken its place.

Terrorism as religion.

That phrase may sound weird, but let me explain.

When you pick up The Wall Street Journal, you are viewing a religious newspaper.

And the religion?

Terrorism.

When you watch Fox News you are entering an alternate universe in thrall to terrorism.

Terrorism is the manna from heaven for the neoconservative global elites.

They are a one-trick pony (terrorism being their only trick).

But let me illuminate my point.

NONE of the other major American news outlets (print or televised) are any better.

CNN ABC CBS NBC…all worthless.  And let’s not forget the woeful New York Times.

Which brings me to a very important point.

This past week, a PhD professor at Florida Atlantic University in the United States was dismissed from his tenured position for questioning the very suspicious “mass shooting” supposed to have occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012.

I have not read every bit of critique which Dr. James Tracy (the unfortunate professor) has written concerning this “massacre”, but what I have read harmonizes with my own take on the event (namely, that it was a staged, false-flag type psychological operation).

And so Dr. Tracy has become a parallel to all of those poor souls who had to suffer the ignominy of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in May 1960.

Why do I focus on this particular hearing?  Because it was released as an LP album in 1962 by the invaluable Folkways Records (today Smithsonian Folkways).

Find this record.

Listen particularly to Witness #5.

Spotify lists each track as being by the artist “Unspecified”.

This is the same type of recognition which would have accrued to topless mothers in the Sahara singing their babies to sleep (while the tape recorder preserved their performance for all time).

Americans had become nameless.

And so next time someone asks you about your favorite musical artists you can refer to the Folkways catalog and answer, “Well, I’m a big fan of ‘A young girl singing’, but I also like ‘A young woman’.  But then, not much beats ‘Aboriginal Songman’.  In fact, I met him once and I was quite nervous.  I said, ‘Mr. Songman.  Can I call you Aboriginal?  Al???  I would really appreciate an autograph!'”

But I digress…

Dear friends, we can rescue the names from history.  Witness #5 is actually still alive.  He is and always will be William Mandel.

Mr. Mandel took the stand and railed against the bigots in San Francisco on that Folkways LP of the “Un-American” hearings.

In the estimable Mr. Mandel we have a parallel to Mr. Macabee (Rupert’s father) from A King in New York.

The trials which inspired Chaplin were to continue (1957 film, 1960 LP).

The trials continue today.  Dr. James Tracy is now a “conspiracy theorist”.  If the New York Times says it’s so, then it must be so.

No.

Until we drop like flies, we will continue to speak out like Rupert.

We will continue to combine art and politics like Charlie Chaplin.

No profession gives one a free pass to opt out of engagement.  Disengagement is a decision.

Chaplin fought back.  The world’s greatest funnyman felt compelled to speak up.

Perhaps Rupert is really 6079 Smith W.

Perhaps Room 101 is betraying oneself.  Being eaten alive.  By cowardice.  Until death.

Occasionally pop art transcends.  Witness Radiohead’s “2 + 2 = 5” from the perfect album Hail to the Thief.  At the height of the Bush junta this British avant-pop band had the stones to dish out a God-save-the-Queen to the slimy bastards dragging the world down.

The late David Bowie made a valiant effort on his best album Diamond Dogs.

We speak, of course, about 1984 and the protagonist Winston Smith.

Orwell’s novel was a mere eight years old in 1957.

Perhaps little Rupert is an evocation of Winston Smith.  And we know that Rupert’s fortitude lived on in the aforementioned William Mandel.

But now we come to a new era.  A new era which is so old.

The lamentable treatment of Dr. James Tracy.

The enshrinement of Terrorism as the new state religion of the United States.

Even for a non-communist such as myself, it is apparent that capitalism must always expand.

When it comes to terrorism (both “foreign” and “domestic”), the Ministry of Truth has spoken.

Our only hope is the voice of opposition.  It is therefore quite apt indeed that Dr. Tracy’s excellent blog (which incidentally led to his thoughtcrime conviction by FAU) should be named Memory Hole… (http://memoryholeblog.com/).

And it is hopeful that said blog has more hits than the Wikipedia page for “Memory hole”.

 

-PD

The Kid [1921)

Sometimes we don’t want to see the same thing again.

I, for example, rewatch movies before writing about them.

I want the impression fresh in my mind.

There’s always something to be said for detached distance from subject matter, but I prefer to experience the film anew if possible.

I had seen Chaplin’s The Kid long ago.  It had impressed me, but something made me a bit wary about rewatching it.

I love Chaplin, but I guess I just wasn’t in the mood.

Today has been a weird day (or “sad and lonesome day” as the Bob Dylan tune in my head has been repeating).

But I went for it.  What the heck!

And I’m glad I did.

I hope I will be able to say the same tomorrow (or sometime this week) regarding another subject.

I am always quite candid here.

I feel it’s my responsibility.  If you study the history of the novel (not that this is a novel) you will notice that writers in the West gradually started to realize the responsibility they had.  I feel that everywhere.  That’s why Facebook is too much for me.  With Facebook I am a howling wreck.  I feel the need to shout from the rooftops anything which might help my fellow humans.  Of course my judgment is not perfect.

But back to my prior allusion.  I made a decision tonight to go see my doctor about changing or adjusting my medications.

Yes, you who might snicker “this guy is crazy” are not totally off the mark.

I have suffered from anxiety my whole life.  Once I recognized it for what it was, my life improved dramatically.  Getting help was a life-changer.

I never had much depression.  Very rarely.  But the last year or so has been different.  For the first time my depression is outpacing my anxiety.

To be sure, I still have significant anxiety issues from time to time, but my depression has been like a blanket of stifling weight.  I feel like a bee drowning in honey.

And so we shall see.  Am I afraid?  Of course.  I’m afraid of change.  Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.  But I’m afraid it is broke.  Me.  I’m kinda broken.

And so I am saying this because I want other people to get help too if they are feeling the same way.  I know that help can be cost-prohibitive, but taking that first little step is a big deal.

We change.  The medicines we take have to change with us.

It’s scary.  But I am lucky.  Many people around the world have much more serious things to worry about.  They don’t even have a doctor.

And so I hope my visit to the doctor will turn out as well as this reviewing of The Kid.  It is a touching story.  Chaplin is great as always, but Jackie Coogan kind of steals the show.  He’s “the kid”.

This is a cute story which is fit for the whole family.  It just might be the best way to introduce kids to silent films.  The version in the Criterion Collection has a musical score (which makes a big difference).  The score is, of course, written by the multitalented Chaplin.  It was part of the 1971 rerelease of this film.

Thank you to my readers for bearing with me.  I hope I will be more cheerful in the future.  Best wishes to everybody!

 

-PD

M [1931)

Perhaps we pay too much attention to the story.

We all love a good story.

But the mark of the genius filmmaker may be found in their method of narrative.  The art of how they tell their stories.

To be quite honest, I wasn’t thrilled to return to this Fritz Lang masterpiece, but I’m glad I did.

It is very much how I feel about Hitchcock’s Psycho.  It is a wonderful film, but it’s not something I want to throw on once a week during the course of kicking back.

M, like Psycho, is a supremely tense film.  Nowadays, when we think of Hitchcock, we might reflect on his tastefulness.  Think about it (says Jerry Lee).  In Hitchcock’s day (a long, productive “day”), things which are now shown with impunity were positively disallowed for a Hollywood filmmaker.  Blood and guts…no.  Hitchcock was forced to artfully suggest.

The strictures guiding Fritz Lang (29 years earlier) were even more conservative.  But even so, M is a genuinely terrifying movie.

Terrifying films are rarely relaxing.  They are not meant to be.

But as I had seen this one before, I was able to focus more on the method employed by Lang.  The truth is, M is a masterpiece.  It really is the treatment of a brute subject (murder) with incredible subtlety.

What is most radical about M is its counterintuitive take on crime.

Within this film, crime is divided into capital and noncapital offenses.

In M, a band of criminals exists which seeks to put a serial killer out of business.  It may seem a strange turn of phrase, but this killer is bad for the business of other criminals (mainly thieves and such).

A town in terrorized.  The police regularly raid establishments.  You must have your “papers” with you at all times.

And so those who survive on crime are so desperate as to adopt (temporarily) the same goal as the police:  catch the killer.

It is not giving much away to tell you that Peter Lorre is the killer.  This is not a whodunit.  It’s a “what’s gonna happen”.  That I will leave to your viewing pleasure.

While I am on the subject of Lorre, let me just say that this is one of the finest, weirdest performances in cinema history.  The final scene is one of absolutely raw nerves.  Lorre is not the cute, vaguely-foreign character he would become in The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca.  Lorre is stark-raving mad.

His attacks of psychosis are chilling to observe.  But really, it is his final outburst which tops any bit of lunacy I’ve ever seen filmed.

Today there would likely be plenty of actors ready to play such a macabre role, but in 1931 this was a potential death wish.

That Lorre put his soul into it tells us something important about him.  First, he was capable of being more than a “sidekick” (as he was in the previously-mentioned Bogart films).  Second, he was dedicated to the art of acting.  Lorre was not “mailing it in”.  Playing such a role can’t be particularly healthy for one’s mental state.

But there’s a further thing.  His final monologue is filled with such angst.  Let us consider the year:  1931.  In the midst of the Great Depression.

But also we must consider the country:  Germany.  These were the waning years of the Weimar Republic.  Three important dates would end this democratic republic:  Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor (Jan. 30, 1933), 9/11 the Reichstag fire (Feb. 27, 1933), and the Enabling Act (Mar. 23, 1933).

The era of M (1931) was the era of Heinrich Brüning’s “deflationary” monetary policy as German Chancellor.  I put deflationary in quotation marks because Wikipedia’s current description might better be termed contractionary monetary policy.

As Wikipedia would tell it, Brüning was essentially instating fiscal austerity (that hot-button term of recent times) concomitantly with the aforementioned monetary approach.  This was, of course, the failure which paved the way for Adolf Hitler to take control of Germany.

And so we find that the historian Webster Tarpley is right when he refers to certain modern-day policy makers as austerity “ghouls”.  Either conservative/fascist leaders across the globe have no grasp of history, or they are looking forward with anticipation to the next Hitler or Mussolini.

It should be noted that Tarpley is coming from a socialist perspective rooted in the Democratic Party of FDR.  His opposition, therefore, would likely brand him as liberal/communist and through slippery-slope logic see the policies he espouses as paving the way for the next Stalin or Mao.

And so goes the political circus…ad nauseam.

Returning to film, we must at least consider this situation in Germany.  The country was still paying war reparations from WWI (though this was becoming impossible because of the internal economic woes).

What is perhaps most astonishing is how much Peter Lorre’s character prefigures the Hitler caricature which has come down to us from history.

War-based societies have a compulsion to kill.  Germany found out the hard way that this is not a healthy default.  Sadly, today’s Germany has not checked the most warmongering modern country on Earth (the United States) enough to make any difference.

The United States has, for a long time now, been breathing…seething for a war.  The “masters of war” are all wearing suits.  Only suits want to go to war.  A true warrior does not want war.  Only those who will go unscathed actively invite war.

But there is an insanity in suits.  A compulsion.  Don’t let the suit fool you.  A suit is, for us grown-ups, the equivalent of a piece of candy…or an apple…or a balloon for a child.  A suit advocating war is saying, “Keep your eyes on my suit.  I know best.  Trust in me.  Look at my impressive degree.”

The suits like places such as Raven Rock Mountain.  The suits won’t be on the battlefield.  And don’t let the 10% who actually fought in a war fool you:  they were in non-combat operations.  Their daddies made sure of it.

So keep your eyes open for the M of American cinema.  Who is the next fascist to take the stage?  Hitler had a Charlie Chaplin moustache.  How dangerous could he be?  Trump has a ginger comb-over.  Surely he’s harmless, right?

 

-PD

 

The Circus [1928)

I never learned to write like anybody else.

I only learned my own way.

Maybe, you’d say, I never learned to write.

By writing we mean literary composition.  Style.  Manipulation of prose.

I suppose I rely more heavily on poetry.

But perhaps I’m not a poet.  In the strictest sense.

I learned to write like myself.  Thanks to film.

Each film is a mirror.

I learned to analyze my emotions and thoughts.

And because I loved the films I tried to convey their artfulness lovingly.

I don’t mean to intimate that I’m going away.  Just yet.

I don’t know.  Who knows?

I only mean to express this important realization.

As today I sat down to write a novel.

Tried many times before.  Unfinished projects.  Absurdly obsessive poetry.

But this time was different.

I sat down with literary tools.  MY literary tools.

I have developed my own style (for better or worse).

Developing a unique style of anything (but particularly writing) is a tightrope exercise.

For there are times within the modern novel that the novelist must become truly vulnerable.

We can’t have our cake and eat it too.

And why make this Chaplin film suffer the ignominy of being associated with my self-panegyric?

It just works out that way.

I’m a bum, he’s a bum.

A laughing stock.

A stock character.

But I have captured the world (if only for a second).

Modern life can seem hideous, but we wield power through art.

Set pen to paper like the greats before you and know the writer’s life.

The thinking life.

I am but a shabby philosopher.

The reason why I tack these emotions onto Chaplin’s The Circus is because of my affinity for the Little Tramp.

Nothing of Chaplin’s is as shockingly good (to my eyes) as Limelight, but The Circus certainly must rank among his most laugh-out-loud creations.

Perhaps you have seen stills from this film.

Perhaps you have noticed monkeys.

Yes, it is all very hilarious.

But the best is the tightrope as metaphor.

Some “cheat” with a net (no penalty).  Others cheat with a safety wire.

In life, we really don’t know when our crutch has been removed.

We don’t realize how ridiculous we look.

Our dependence upon a thing.

And when we outgrow it we don’t realize the momentous importance of those first few moments…in which we are flying free.

You might say that I am overthinking a rather straightforward slapstick farce, but I would advise you to ponder how The Circus ends.

There is more than a bit of sad clown.

Pensive.  Reflective.

The carnival has packed up and a little guy comes into focus as the dust dies down.

Wagons rolling…

Apparently Orson Welles didn’t think much of Chaplin as a director, but on the other hand Orson Welles never made me laugh.

That’s not nothing.

 

-PD