In Memory of Tatiana Samoilova (1934-2014)

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Tatiana Yevgenyevna Samoilova (4 May 1934 – 5 May 2014)

Reading of Samoilova’s death (which I discovered not even 20 minutes ago) has been one of the more surreal moments of my life. In all honesty, I am having trouble starting this post. What prompted me to even search her name, which is a relatively foreign one to Western audiences, was the fact that I had just finished Mikhail Kalatozov’s Letter Never Sent (1959) in which Samoilova starred. To learn from The Moscow Times that she had passed away just 16 hours before I started watching the film is still a lingering eerie moment. And a very sad one, as well.

Beloved Soviet/Russian film actress, Tatiana Samoilova’s success and fame is attributed to only a handful of roles. If you like Soviet cinema (or even have a general knowledge of national cinemas), you have most likely seen or heard of one of her three famous films, two of which were masterpieces from the great Mikhail Kalatozov. The first was her greatest claim to fame: The Cranes Are Flying (1957), a Soviet WWII drama–which is truly one of the most gut-wrenching emotional whirlwinds I’ve ever experienced. This Palm D’Or winner (the only Russian film to ever claim that title) at Cannes in 1958 is in my top ten favorite films of all time. And Samoilova has everything to do with that.

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Samoilova in The Cranes are Flying (1957)

I remember when I first saw Cranes. I was on a bus driving home from college to visit my girlfriend and I happened to watch the film on my laptop. There was something so affecting about the experience. Not only could I suddenly understand Soviet life, WWII life, and human life in general–but Samoilova’s expressions, the reality of her struggles, and the life she brought to the character offered something incredibly overwhelming. She affected me personally, ushering in an uncanny sense of familiarity. I knew the character, Veronica. I truly knew her. It wasn’t even that she reminded me of someone. I think it’s that Samoilova created someone so familiar to all human experience; that Veronica epitomized everyone at once. A wounded, yet wholly tenacious spirit that we long to see in others. And of course, to see in ourselves.

As you can see, it’s hard for me to delve into her legacy without making it very personal. I’ve actually found that type of response to Cranes pretty typical to those who have seen it. It’s one of the only films that I can mention to someone (or they can bring it up) and immediately we just look at each other and understand each others’ vibes without saying a word.

To finish my little anecdote, when I got in from the bus ride, I immediately rewatched the film with my girlfriend. I basically rushed us home.  She would tell you just as anyone…The Cranes Are Flying is something special.

Tonight, Letter Never Sent (1959), Kalatozov and Samoilova’s second film, also made a impact on my mood, and once again, I was absorbed in Samoilova’s presence. While creating a different type of character (a less developed one in the script, I might add), she maintained the same aura. It is as if she was less associated with the plot and more with the audience. She broke barriers by her profound relatability. I cannot begin to describe what it was like to hear of her extremely recent passing only a few minutes after finishing the film. Russia surely acknowledges that they’ve lost a great and beautiful actress today. If it weren’t for the USSR, who refused to let her work in Hollywood, more Americans would be mourning her loss as well.

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Letter Never Sent (1959)

I am eager to see the third film she was known for (and any others I can get my hands on), which came later in her career: Aleksandr Zarkhi’s Anna Karenina (1967). In my mind, she is unparalleled. She was an actress who was never allowed her chance in Hollywood, whose career was constantly stagnated due to the USSR, and who still delivered the most memorable of performances I’ve ever seen.

Her mark on my image of cinema is indelible.

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The Cranes Are Flying

Visions Film Festival and Conference 2014

I’m not gonna even mention the whole “inactivity” thing. What has is it been since my last post, like a month?? Disgraceful.

(There’s a reason all my friends in high school called me “stagnant,” I guess.)

What we are gonna talk about is my incredible weekend up at UNC-Wilmington for their fourth annual Visions Film Festival and Conference. Woo!

Yes, I was honored to be able to attend the conference as an official selection of the scholarly panel (of 8 fellow scholars). I think I’ve written on here before about the paper I submitted, but here’s the official description on their website:

Murders Unavenged: A Brief Look Into the Realism of the Police Procedural

Christopher LeMaire: University of Florida

LeMaire defines the filmic police procedural as a distinct new subgenre, separating it from its roots in mystery/suspense and film noir. A recent 21st century feat, this emergence of the pure police procedural is revealed through two contemporary films: Memories of Murder (Joon-Ho Bong, 2003) and Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007).

Yooo! I feel so official.

Anyways, no, I didn’t win anything. sniff, sniff. But, in my defense, I was the youngest there of all the scholars and filmmakers. Talk about out of place.

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Here’s yours truly delivering an intellectually stimulating speech.


I have several highlights I’d like to just relive here on the Vibes, as Visions took place almost two weeks ago by now.

First, I was basically stunned by how incredible the whole production was. Visions is a film festival and conference put on entirely by undergraduate students at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. It is entirely organized, fundraised, judged, and coordinated by undergraduate students. I’ve been interested in their film studies program for quite some time because the school synthesizes film production classes with critical theory…which in my opinion, is the most complete and eclectic approach to studying film. (Here’s me excited that UF at least has one film production class.) To my knowledge, the program at UNC-W is the only undergraduate major in the country that does this, so you can imagine my excitement to actually meet these people.

Turns out they’re even more awesome than I thought.

I’ve never been in such an extreme collective environment where literally everyone has the same mindset: film, film, and more film. I’d meet one person and end up talking about Tarkovsky, then turn to another to discuss Sam Brakhage, and another about Truffaut. They are truly, sincerely passionate. And that’s a very nice change from the film students I’ve met in the past, where film discussion often involves the newest episode of The Walking Dead.

But, as I started to say, the whole production was incredible. A full day of films and presentations from around the globe. It felt like a vacation.

Before I mention my favorite scholars and filmmakers, I would like to brag a bit more about my private tour of SCREEN GEMS STUDIOS. Yeah, it was pretty awesome. UNC-W had us covered.

ImageScreen Gems is the largest movie studios on the east coast (second to LA). They actually filmed Iron Man 3, along with several other big productions.

I wasn’t allowed to take pics inside, but here’s a big hint as to what’s currently on the lot:

ImageNow to briefly go over my highlights of the actual event:

Of the eight scholars, three really blew me away, and here’s the official bios:

Going Around the World in The Lady from Shanghai: Transmedia Adaptation in the Work of Orson Welles

Vincent Longo: University of Michigan

The Lady from Shanghai (1947) is typically considered an archetypical noir film and one of Orson Welles’s crowning cinematic achievements, yet it also encompasses many elements drawn from Around the World, the Broadway musical Welles had staged the previous year. In turn, this presentation explores the similarities and the relationship between these two seemingly polarized productions.

The “Unfilmable” Lightness of Being?

Brandon Konecny: UNC Wilmington

This presentation examines Philip Kaufman’s filmic adaptation of Milan Kundera’s highly idiosyncratic The Unbearable Lightness of Being: A Novel. By considering the film under the stylistic rubric of the essay film, it attempts to reconcile Kaufman’s curious adaptive decisions and suggest that there is more to this work than its surface appearance.

Gaspar Noé & Techniques of Looking

Conor Boyle: Brooklyn College

In his films Irréversible and “We F— Alone,” Gaspar Noé employs technical stylization to challenge patriarchal genre expectations.  This paper examines specific techniques employed and their implications for feminist analysis of the two films.


Starting with the first presentation, Vince’s research has taken him from Michigan, to Indiana, to New York, and to Italy. He basically was the first to discover the similarities between Orson Welle’s The Lady From Shanghai and the Broadway production of Around the World. The play is relatively unknown and found through intensive archival research, so I was in awe. The paper he presented on at Visions (which he’s already presented in 34 locations around the world) was actually an excerpt from a 150 page thesis that he is currently expanding into a book. Unsurprisingly, he took home the audience choice award. It truly was an honor to meet him. So much advice.

Brandon’s essay on The Unbearable Lightness of Being was a complex analysis of the film’s essayist relations to the Czech book. Without admitting that I entirely understood all of it, his presentation was mind blowing. I’m ready to pick up a copy of both the book and the misunderstood film.

Conor’s presentation was on a subject I would never really seek out. I in no way endorse the films, but Conor had the best presentation overall, balancing careful examination with thought-provoking analysis. He deservedly won the coveted scholar award.


On to films…

I can’t believe how much they blew me away. And it was no surprise the accolades pinned on several of them, including endorsements from PBS, third place at Cannes, feature in Cucalorus, winner of a Student Oscar, and a feature in American Cinematographer Magazine.

Starting with the documentary category, the one that certainly stood out was Jon Kasbe’s Heartbeats of Fiji, which actually closed out the night. For one, Jon’s film was simply stunning, from the incredible camerawork, to the simple fact that PBS had him shoot in Fiji. The documentary follows two individuals experiences at Fiji’s Beat Making Lab, which trains youth in the “art of beatmaking.” From my understanding, this is the first episode of a series, so I am excited to see more. Good music, talented individuals, and beatiful visuals. What more does a documentary need?

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Heartbeats of Fiji

As I literally know nothing of the art of animation, Prague filmmaker, Matus Vlzar’s animated short Pandy was one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. Wildly creative and detailed, the short follows a slothful panda trapped in man’s zoo. There are moments of pure hilarity, confusion, and squirming discomfort. It is certainly not a children’s short. I’m just a sucker the type of animation that makes you laugh just looking at it.

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Pandy

Last up is the narrative category. Not only did the filmmaker, Zach Wechter, take home the Visionary award (first place of the entire festival and conference), but his film closely related in genre to my presentation. So, this 25-minute “short” film, Straight Down Low, was definitely the highlight of the day for me. An accurate excerpt on the Visions website summarizes: “Straight Down Low is a neo-noir set in the inner city. A shrewd high school detective must solve a curious gangland crime to protect the girl he loves.” A well-executed modern day neo-noir. What could be better? On the film’s facebook page, I think Zach lists Brick (2005) as an inspiration, which is a beautiful example. The film is perfectly casted, scripted, stylized, edited, and shot–basically everything I could ever want in a short film. I’ll be looking for his name, I’m confident there’s much more to come.

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Straight Down Low

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I guess this explains why he looked familiar.

 


Totally awesome, unexpected weekend that I am honored to have been a part of. And, definitely the highlight of my semester. I look forward to seeing how the Visions programs expands in the future. Thank you to all who were involved.

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Q&A Session Left to right: Me, Vincent Longo, Caleb Ward, Dallis Covey, Tyler Davis

Week-end (1967)

What a rotten film. All we meet are crazy people.

The dialogue here, conscious of its filmic existence, puts into words the repulsive reality of Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-end. Surreal, grotesque, and fundamentally, absurd, Week-end is a degradation of society. A journey through the primitive heart of man. An exploitation of a masochistic humanity. It is a film made to insult, annoy, and attack. And as an ultimate call for revolution and a declaration of the “Fin de cinéma” (“End of cinema”), Week-end is perhaps one of the boldest statements ever made on film.

In all honesty, I thought I’d review the film this week just to talk about vibes (which would be a breeding ground for such an approach). But, after seeing it, there’s just way to much to talk about. I’ve never seen something so utterly strange, yet generally irritating (and believe it or not, I am actually quite familiar with Godard and his other New Wave films). Week-end is a very difficult film to watch. I’d say it’s easier to write about it than to sit through it. That’s saying something

As far as brief background, there’s a few different aspects I need to hit before we can start talking about the absurdity onscreen. For starters, there’s Jean-Luc Godard. Often credited with beginning the French New Wave (a French experimental and revolutionary film movement) with Breathless (1960), Godard was at the peak of his directorial status by 1968, the year this film was made. He also was heavily involved in the “Dziga Vertov” (an early Marxist filmmaker) group that urged an ideal Marxist cinema and supported the proletariat. Thus, Week-end is both an artistic and political exploitation. It is also curious to note that the film predates a political outburst just by a few months. Whether he succeeded in leading a revolution is unlikely, but one cannot blame people for being at least superficially affected by the grotesque portrayal of consumer culture.

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I think this speaks for itself.

Now, I’m no history major, so I’m not going into Marxist revolution. That being said, the film does cause me to recall Sergei Eisenstein, a politically-driven Russian silent film director. Eisenstein (no, I’m not going to get into montage and editing), used film as propaganda. Although as less of a Marx purist (less interest in historical reflexivity), Godard homes in on Eisenstein’s approach–even down the theories of effect vs. emotion. To grossly simplify, this type of political filmmaking avoids showing emotion onscreen, and instead focuses on characters’ immediate reactions. This strips actors down to merely physical beings whose movements and actions make up all that is seen. It is then for the audience to ascribe meaning and emotion to the movements, which is supposed to more dramatically affect the viewer by actively engaging him or her. In this case, I like to think of it as tricking someone into having a communist epiphany.

To throw some terms at you, research Constructivist and Eccentrist cinema for a more complete description. Today, such an approach is so foreign that exposure to it leaves us frustrated. As modern viewers, not only are we more privy to pick up on political agendas, but we also hate empty characters–which is what Week-end employs quite successfully.

Moving on to the film…

Originally intended to be called “Weekend or The Odyssey,” Godard’s film is a couple’s journey through a French countryside, as a violent, apocalyptic revolution breaks out. Best described as a collection of nightmares, Week-end‘s aimless narrative clings to a distorted reality. One early unsettling (famous) early scene involves the couple’s departure out of their hometown through an extensive traffic jam. The camera patiently follows the car as it snakes between traffic. Godard infuses a sense of humor in this scene by extending its length to a ridiculous 7+ minutes, until he reveals a massacre of bloodied bodies as the source of the chaos. The couple’s irritation with the situation and general nonchalance about the victims is one of the first most chilling surprises of the film.

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From here, bodies and flaming cars litter the countryside. The couple continues to show contempt for all civilization and even each other. Another discomforting scene involves the husband’s back turned to his wife being raped.

To call it satire is a gross understatement.

The traffic sequence is not the only lengthy scene that holds severe dramatic effect. One impressive shot consists of three complete revolutions around a man playing a piano for a group of indifferent people. Another involves a narrative interruption of two garbagemen who deliver a monologue about colonial exploitation. If nothing else, it seems Godard wants to test our patience. I’m sure there’s some critical point he wants to make about the average viewer who cannot even bear to consume the film they paid for. But then again, who really cares, anyway?

Author Gary Indiana wrote an excellent essay for Criterion on the film. He points out that “virtually every scene reflects the unraveling of Rousseau’s social contract and points to an inevitable disintegration into tribal atavism,” but in reverse. Where civilization is always moving forward out of its primitive state, Godard proposes the end of the cycle when society’s decadence ultimately destroys itself. This, of course, is only seen through a materialist worldview –Materialism not as in modern consumerism, but as in Friedrich Engles’s economic foundations. Simply put, all humanity, belief, and philosophy hinges upon the economy. When the economy becomes too capitalistic, all hell breaks lose. Well, according to Godard, anyway.

In the final act of the disjointed narrative, we have cannibals–the ultimate realization of Godard’s harsh portrait of consumerism. As the film flows with a certain fantasy vibe throughout (there’s even deceased historical figures and fictional characters running about), the cannibal sequence has a certain seriousness. It still feels like a nightmare, but the black comedy that carries the film is lost.

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Horrific cannibal scene

It’s hard not to expect anything else, since Godard believed so heavily in his cause; but, it makes the film virtually unwatchable as a modern viewer. It’s difficult to study and embrace the film’s technique, imagery, and artistic achievement when the communist vibes are so urgent and saturated.

When every image is solely purposed by a cause now lost to a modern worldview, the film becomes so dated the horror is nothing more than irony.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel is yet another sensory overload by a filmmaker who falls somewhere in between status as a bold visionary and trite methodologist. Well-paced and sprinkled with moments of pleasing quirkiness, the film unfortunately loses footing when it becomes too enamored by the grandeur of its own universe. In other words, this is another Wes Anderson film that ultimately becomes too pleased with itself.

Alright, before we move on from here, I have a confession to make. The three sentence introduction you’ve just read was part of my own personal experiment. I actually wrote it on the way to the theater, before I saw the film. Call it bias or cheating, but I told myself I’d leave it in the final review to make some kind of point. Whether I’d prove my assumptions fair, or demonstrate the errancy and pretensions of cynicism, it was going to be a win-win.

Ah. What a complete mess.
It made sense in theory.

In the end, I just couldn’t really choose a side. After scrubbing the last Moonrise Kingdom from my mind, (I mean no disrespect to all the heartfelt followers), which I personally could not connect with, I tried to view The Grand Budapest Hotel as if I was seeing the inside of Wes’ mind for the first time. I’m not sure if I was successful in this, but I found myself actively intrigued, yet constantly unsatisfied–alienated, in a sense, by a colorful, yet detached reality.
Why the alienation? I suppose I can’t get it out of my subconscious a sense of the filmmaker’s self-indulgence. Yes, it’s an impressive, creative, beautiful world…but why? Is it for us to share, or simply because you can?
The plot is often so ridiculous (do we really need a summary?), full of just utter nonsense (am I really brining up deus ex machina again?), that it’s almost bland…(I admit I write this completely questioning my sanity in calling a Wes Anderson film bland)
Yet, this doesn’t exactly prove my preconceived notions correct…because this time, it’s all so darn funny. I feel like finally, the world onscreen is allowed to be not just odd and quirky, but silly and downright hilarious. (This, of course, involves many well-known actors participating in silliness, in both real roles and cameos.)

Grand-Budapest-Hotel-1Harvey Keitel embracing the silliness.

I guess I should be more specific and actually talk about the film. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson creates a fantasy world presumably set in the 1930s, that involves everything from a false hotel to a made-up country (whose name I at first tried to remember, yet suddenly felt ridiculous in doing so). Told in true Wes Anderson narration (I think there’s something like three narrators before anything even happens), the film follows an ambitious lobby boy who is taken under the wing of an eccentric concierge at the world renown Grand Budapest Hotel. Throw in murder conspiracies, art theft, legal discrepancies, Nazis (only referred to as fascists in this fantasy world), snow sledding, a prison break, a secret society of hotel concierges, Willem Dafoe with vampire teeth, and young men who sleep with 85 year old women, and you have the weirdest, most inappropriate children’s movie you’ll ever see.

6a00e554e97d5c883401a73d6b1a5b970dEdward Norton’s fascist regime.

Excuse me while I pause to try to get some sort of grasp on these vibes. So…funny, weird, intriguing, alienating…oh, and pretty.

This is unarguably Anderson’s most beautiful and technical achievement. I read that a lot of it was shot on 35mm (imagine that) with several old school 1930’s camera techniques. There’s also everything from distorted fish eye lenses, to super-symmetrical framing, to speed zooming, and a whole lot of other technicalities I can’t think of or don’t know what to call. Even the CGI was pleasant, adding to the surreal aspects.

Here’s some pictures I’m sure you’ve already seen of the incredible colors, set design, and cinematography:

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Incredible, incredible imagery. If nothing else, see the film for the visuals. My theater, for some reason crowded with the elderly, was full of wide eyes.

Ugh! Anyways, see what I mean! My mind is as scatterbrained as Anderson’s world. Cant I just leave it as: it’s complicated??

(If you’ve noticed, I haven’t even rated the film in my title. 1 star? 5? 3? It’d be like judging a made-up world based on its own made-up standards. Stars have no business here, especially where all sanity is absent.)

I’m just going to start concluding here before I lose you (probably already have):

Back in highschool my friends and I used the name “Wes Anderson” as a verb. “Hey, Ryan, can you Wes Anderson that shot?” “Yeah I’ll Wes Anderson the angle and make it super clear and artsy.” It’s become a method, almost. A technique.

For better or for worse, Anderson has inspired a lot of filmmakers (or copycats), that’s for sure. But when that individual’s style is almost too distinct, the finished product becomes easily predictable. It’s not to say I question Anderson’s creativity…but…instead of trying to top himself, couldn’t he surprise us? Why not give us something new entirely? Because I keep coming back to this, I guess I’d have to end up agreeing with my intro, naming him a “methodologist.”

The Grand Budapest Hotel certainly works as entertainment. I’d consent that the good vibes outweigh the bad ones, however barely. But the whole concept of walking into a theater with an introduction already written…well that’s the problem. No other film would have prompted me to do that. The fact that I feel okay with leaving it as my introduction, sort of settles the debate for me.

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Please Mr. Anderson.
You’re already so good at what you do,
now show us something new.

The Naked City (1948)

Okay, I really don’t want to be that film blog that only posts about old B&W films that the average person cares nothing about. In my defense, I have progressed. The last film I did was from 1924. The Naked City came out in 1948. Almost a 25 year jump! Hey, at least this one isn’t silent…

The Naked City assumes a curious place in film noir history. Were it not for its release date, coming in towards the end of film noir, personally, I’d hardly identify it with the movement. Not only is the thematic sense of hopelessness and isolation pretty much absent, but the film nearly abandons all “dark screen” techniques. It doesn’t rely on high contrast lighting and shadows to convey drama. In fact, despite some instances of detached, obscure camerawork, the film is basically devoid of stylized technique (which we’ll take about later).

The-Naked-City-25498_6This iconic image is the only real visual connection I made with noir.

This isn’t to say The Naked City is an isolated film amongst a sea of film noir. But, it’s possibly not in favor of the movement either.

I’ll admit I haven’t yet done my share of extensive research on the topic (I’m in the middle of a final term paper at the moment), but Criterion graciously released an incredible interview with the DVD (which reminds me, release the blu ray already, Criterion!). In it, NYU film professor Dana Polan reveals a film that opposes film noir. Polan argues that The Naked City is a rebellious film that restores order to the criminal world. Where film noir works so hard to focus on the individual, and his or her (mostly his) struggles with a chaotic, isolating world, the The Naked City establishes a collective homicide squad that works as a unit to counter this universe. Note how the squad is made up of people that all having a working part in the homicide investigation (the subject of the film). There is no estranged, lonely individual.

And the film praises the collective society. Polan points out that being normal (which in the film world, is to be bland), is a good thing. Notice how all the investigators are happy individuals who not only work harmoniously with each other at work, yet also enjoy their domestic lives.

Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 4.04.42 PMThe homicide detective comes home to his almost laughable sitcom-like wife and home.

With this understanding, The Naked City is far removed from film noir. It’s as if the film makes the statement that life is good and makes sense by accepting one’s place in society.

The standardization of the characters (despite some subtle characterizations in each case) brings us to a new genre altogether, one of which I have done the research on: the police procedural. A subgenre of the detective film, the procedural from a modern standpoint is the removal of all dramatic characterizations of film. In my essay, “Murders Unavenged: A Brief Look at the Realism of the Police Procedural,” I propose a newly revived subgenre, whose aspirations to portray the realistic aspects of police work group a handful of films together. These films do not avoid monotony. Characters fade into the background, as the progression (or lack of progression) of a specific case becomes the subject and ultimate source of focus.

Interestingly, The Naked City was one of my key films used in the historical background of the police procedural. I propose that the the film was the first real attempt to honestly portray investigative police work.

This of course brings us back to the collaborative aspect of the police work in the film, and the removal of stylization. I guess I haven’t really explained the plot all that much, but it is basically a focused police investigation of a single murder. Characters only exist in the context of the case, ultimately pushing the actual police processes to the forefront.

This is not to say the film avoids dramatic plot devices inherent of the detective and crime films; but, the most major aspect of the film that lays the groundwork for the modern police procedural is its relations to Italian Neorealism.

Italian Neorealism is relatively easy to explain for those unfamiliar: an Italian filmmaking style (mainly attributed to Victorio De Sica…think Bicycle Theives) that relies on actual urban locations and a relatively shoestring budget. In a time where film production was basically stuck in the studio, this group of Italians showed, much in the spirit of Dziga Vertov, that films could be made in their very streets.

bicycle-thieves-imageBicycle Thieves (1948)

The Naked City proudly opens with a startling narration by the producer that: “[The Naked City] is a bit different than any picture you’ve ever seen [...] It was not photographed in a studio. Quite the contrary. [The stars] played out their roles in New York, itself.” Besides the obvious modern sense of unfamiliarity with the opening introduction, it is doubly shocking for the 1940’s moviegoer for a film to take place in their own reality of existence.

This sense of realism, combined with a diversity of characters and a documentary-like narrative approach (that I’m not going to get into), was a very early foundation of the police procedural. (Although, the collective order and harmonious themes will one day be lost once again.)Maybe one day I’ll make a more full post about the arguments in my essay. It’s actually the one being presented at UNC-W Visions film festival and conference this year!

I guess I never really said anything too positive or negative about the film. So, REAL QUICK:

The Naked City is an enjoyable film. It seems dated, just because of the current fascination there has been with murder investigation over the past-what-70 years?! TV hasn’t helped the film’s case. But personally, I liked it simply because it is very important to these two genres: film noir and the police procedural.

I also enjoyed the subtle nuances of each character. It actually adds a lot. Polan includes in his argument that adding minute personalities to each character further glorifies collectivist society, for even in a group, people can still be individuals. ^Perhaps that’s was thrown in because of the stigma of Marxist anxieties.

Nevertheless, after watching both the film and the interview, I felt the Marxist vibe. There’s just so many connections you could make between the film and Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (he was a staunch communist revolutionary).

Anyways, I’d recommend this director’s (Jules Dassin) Rififi before I would The Naked City. It’s a French crime film with the best jewel heist sequence you will ever see in your life. Criterion actually just re-released it on blu and its high up on my wish list.

Rififi-1Rififi (1955)

Annnnnd, I think that’s it..

The Last Laugh (1924)

I’ve taken a considerable interest in F. W. Murnau these days (one of the prominent German directors of the silent period), particularly with his melodramas, after watching the famous Sunrise (1927) and now, The Last Laugh (1924). Did you know that Sunrise, his first American project that is often considered one of the best silent films ever made, was basically a complete disaster at the box office? Considering that he was basically begged by Hollywood to take the trip overseas to make American films, it’s shocking to realize how uninterested the general population was. I am reading probably the most well known book on the filmmaker, aptly titled Murnau, and Lotte Eisner points out that even William Fox himself “went round everywhere introducing him as the ‘German genius.'” Hollywood went crazy over this guy, and took extensive lengths to finance his ravenous artistic ambition.

The Last Laugh, originally called The Last Man in German, was the film that really sparked Hollywood’s interest. Eisner says that “it was almost a universal decision of Hollywood that this was the greatest picture ever made. Yet it was not a successful picture.” Not even in Germany! There is a very informative article on German cinema by Joseph Garncarz, entitled “Art and Industry: German Cinema of the 1920’s,” that describes the context from where these German artistic achievements, including most of Murnau and Fritz Lang’s early films, were being made. Basically, Ufa was one of the largest of the German studios that really valued cinema as art, and thus, gave these directors full artistic control. That’s great for us today (we get to stare in awe at the pure work of true auteurs), but for Ufa, it was not so much a wise business decision. I suspect this is the type of issue that made the auteur an eternal subject of controversy, since Murnau failed financially both in Berlin and Hollywood, after being generously given full control in both nations.

Directors are not as business-minded as producers are. Nor do the artistic visions of an auteur appeal to a real mass of people. So, I suppose it makes more sense as to how Murnau can win the Oscar in 1927, yet nearly bankrupt the studio in the same breath.

Thankfully, we do have films like The Last Laugh. Which, in my opinion is one of his most ambitious films. I like how Eisner puts it: “movie fans are not much interested in plots about old men.” Yet, it is the exact project that Hollywood envied.

What an interesting state Hollywood was in. Some of the greatest films ever made came out of this divide: a time when the industry truly valued art, ambition, vision. It was only a matter of time before they realized they couldn’t really cash that in.

Well, I haven’t really even started talking about the film yet. I suppose I am just as much interested in Murnau and The Last Laugh as I am in the vibrant film history of the 1920’s. It is truly a crucial time period.

Anyways, The Last Laugh opens with a proud, jovial doorman working at a hotel in Berlin. He basks in the perceived “glories” of his job, nearly skipping around to help travelers and familiar clientele. When he is suddenly demoted because of his old age to the job of bathroom attendant, his entire world shatters. It may seem odd to call this a King Lear story, but Murnau’s incredible ability to create drama out of thin air makes the story one of the most tragic silent films ever made (if you have seen the film, I know what you’re thinking…we’ll talk about the ending later).

Murnau’s superior melodramatic techniques stem from his roots in German Expressionism, a dramatic artistic movement that had a profound effect on German cinema (think Metropolis). Murnau’s high contrast lighting, complex angles and compositions, subjective and mobile camerawork, well-timed editing and juxtaposition, and intricate set design/costumes all relate to this Expressionist approach that create almost a surreal version of Berlin. The city becomes an entity of itself that poses as both an ally and threat to its character.

This is the most technically advanced and impressive silent film I have ever seen, apart from, well, Sunrise.

The old man’s tragic disconnect from the city (his life purpose as a doorman) depicts the consequences of being removed from modern Berlin. In Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), a non-narrative montage of a single day in the city, Berlin is depicted as a machine (symbolizing urbanization). Through juxtapositions of objects and people, everyone and everything has a purpose, contributing to the city as a whole. The Last Laugh imagines the anxieties of losing one’s place from this modern entity. Murnau seems to suggest that modernity lacks a function for the old, a common concern of the time.

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927)

Substantively, I was fascinated by one strong, crucial detail in the film:

The Last Laugh‘s fixation on the doorman’s uniform.

When the old man is demoted and forced to give up his ornate garments, his quest to return to status does not manifest in reasserting himself as capable for the job, but instead in the pursuit of the uniform. I found it pretty extreme for him to break into the offices at the hotel just so he could steal back the coat and feel the illusion of status again. Murnau is making an interesting point here. Did the coat really put him of higher status in the first place? Let’s not forget the man was only a doorman, after all. That the man has no other greater aspiration other than to simply wear the uniform again, employed or not, draws attention to the uniform itself. It becomes not a symbol of status or even an object, but a personal self-fulfillment. The doorman defines himself by his uniform, and without it, he loses his identity.

Eisner very famously asserts that: “[The Last Laugh] could only be a German story. For it could only happen in a country where the uniform (as it was at the time the film was made) was more than God.”

This isn’t some modern satire Murnau is painting about consumerism. The uniform itself is what really matters. I think it is easy to watch the film and assume Murnau is criticizing society on a symbolic level. No, Murnau is depicting a real mentality.

Roger Ebert chillingly suggests a foreshadowing of the Nazi regime from this obsession with the uniform.

What do you think?

Now, I have not even mentioned the most well-remembered and incredible aspect of the film…Murnau tells the story without a single intertitle slide! That’s right, not only is the film silent, but it needs no commentary to tell the story. The images and editing explain itself. I can imagine this was what really drew in a Hollywood producer like William Fox. It is basically the goal of every silent director: to let the medium speak for itself. Murnau was one of the only filmmakers to successfully accomplish this.

Okay, I said no intertitles. Not entirely true. But, this has to do with the ending I said we’d get to. There’s basically two endings. One leaves our doorman empty and despairing, destined to finish off his days in isolation in the hotel bathroom. Suddenly, in perhaps the most obnoxious break of diegesis in cinematic history, Murnau slaps on a intertitle. I’ll let you read it for yourself:

The man comes across a massive fortune by true deus ex machina (What wikipedia defines as “a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object”). It is truly the most ridiculous ending you will ever see.

Not only does it contradict the man’s true desires from before (to simply wear the uniform), but it also reduces the film to a “modern commercial fairytale ending” (Eisner). Eisner attributes the ending to Ufa demands to please the masses. That would explain Murnau’s ludicrous approach to ending on a happy note. It is easy to pick up on an aura of sarcasm.

Who had the last laugh now? (I’m so sorry.)

What Ufa should have realized was that the film was destined to fail anyway. A tragedy about a doorman who loses his job could have been a serious warning sign.

Perhaps, the ending is still brilliant in terms of portraying the hopelessness of modernity. For, the forced attempt at satisfaction has the opposite effect. The story becomes even more bleak. Consider that there were multitudes of despairing people struggling with urbanization in the 1920’s who could have related to the doorman. Deus ex machina intervenes in this relationship, creating a divide between the character and the viewer. It seems the old man becomes a part of a story–a classic fantasy.

Imagine feeling a connection with someone who is as isolated as you are, but they end up being saved by an improbable stroke of luck.

I would think that would be even more devastating than the realistic ending intended.

Bottom line:

Historically, cinematically, and socially important, The Last Laugh is a key film of the silent age. It is a real image of an urbanized Berlin and a testament to the true superiority of Murnau.

Weekly Tribute–Cecil B. DeMille

DeMille was an obvious choice for this first tribute for a couple of different reasons:

1) with Darren Aronofsky’s Noah just around the corner, and Ridley Scott’s Exodus close behind, it seemed only fair to honor the man responsible for adapting the Bible into a cinematic epic spectacle; 2) I recently wrote a paper on DeMille’s influential silent era career, and all that enthusiasm and appreciation of the filmmaker are still fresh on my mind; 3) and more personally, DeMille’s synthesis of entertainment and Biblical truth is especially valued by my aspirations to be a scholar, filmmaker, and of course, moviegoer.

But, before I want to get into any of that, I found some real gems on IMDB. Truth or half truth, I think one can still get a good idea of what it was like to work with him by these anecdotes:

  • DeMille welcomed a new assistant to his private bungalow on the Paramount lot. “This is an old building,” he told the young man. “You’ll notice the floor slants down and to the left. I’m placing you in the left side office at the end of the hall, so you can watch the heads as they roll by.”
  • DeMille was sitting in a Paramount executive’s office, discussing a film he wanted to make. The climax of the film would be yet another huge battle sequence, requiring thousands of extras. When the studio executive complained that it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay all the extras needed for the battle, DeMille smiled wickedly. “I’ve got that covered,” he said. “We’ll use real bullets.”
  • My personal favorite: DeMille was on a movie set one day, about to film an important scene. He was giving a set of complicated instructions to a huge crowd of extras, when he suddenly noticed one female extra talking to another. Enraged, DeMille shouted at the extra, “Will you kindly tell everyone here what you are talking about that is so important?!” The extra replied, “I was just saying to my friend, ‘I wonder when that bald-headed son of a bitch is going to call lunch.'” DeMille glared at the extra for a moment, then yelled, “Lunch!”

Apart from the humor, his strong organizational and leadership skills seen here, although rough around the edges, are responsible with gracing us with some of the most amazing spectacles ever to hit the big screen. In searching through some New York Times archives, I found a review by critic Andre Sennwald, written in 1935 about the release of DeMille’s The Crusades:

“On his clamorous screen you will discover the most impressive mass excitement that the screen has offered in years. Once you have granted him his right to exaggerate the significance of Miss Loretta Young and the amorous instinct in the wars of the cross and the crescent, you are his prisoner until the show has ended. Mr. De Mille has no peer in the world when it comes to bringing the panoplied splendor of the past into torrential life upon the screen.”

There’s about five more paragraphs of pure praise and sincere excitement. Imagine if critics still wrote like this–so childishly in love and impressed with their beloved medium! I cannot help but imagine him a Méliès, or Lumière brother, or Edison–a man who entertained people with what Tom Gunning calls the “cinema of attractions.”

For some of his masterpiece spectacles, check out The Ten Commandments (1956), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), or Samson and Delilah (1949). Tell me they don’t have the ability to capture your astonishment even to this day, even if only by the sheer amount of extras.

The Ten Commandments (1956)

But DeMille’s career did not start here. Maybe it will ring some bells if I quote a certain line from Wilder’s Sunset Blvd.: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” Yes, as Norma Desmond would tell you even to this day, DeMille is, and always will be, the face of Hollywood. As a silent director, he revolutionized both the art and technicalities of filmmaking.

In my term paper, “Cecil B. DeMille, the Melodrama, and the Language of Cinema,” I identify three key contributions he made to the Hollywood movie format: lighting, spatial manipulation, and acting. Oh, and all of it is done in a straightforward analysis of one, six-minute long scene from The Cheat (1915):

Lighting
In this scene (which I won’t describe because you need to go watch the whole film right now!), DeMille uses lighting as a crucial dramatic effect. Not only was light not really important to the drama at that time, but also almost all films were being lit with natural light (a technique standardized in the 1890’s)! I do not think we credit DeMille enough for his innovative use of Rembrandt lighting (studio lighting). Although he did not invent it, DeMille was the first to utilize its possibilities. So all you film students out there learning the three-point lighting system can thank him!

Spatial Manipulation
With no reason to get real technical here, what I mean by space has to do with DeMille’s framework–the way he traps characters in frames, keeps tight shots, and makes large spaces feel like a prison. It is easy to go unnoticed by the modern viewer because we’re so used to it. But, DeMille was putting the camera up close in actor’s faces at a time when the camera acted like the fourth wall of theater. No more excessive wide angles!

Acting
Acting also relates to DeMille’s efforts to separate film from theater. Watch any silent film and you will know what I mean. Actors were extremely over-dramatic, from the way they moved their eyes, to entire body spasms. The Cheat offers an interesting contrast here that I would love to more extensively research and write about, as it was only about a page long in my paper. Basically, Fannie Ward’s performance is a more typical performance of the time, while Sessue Hayakawa (a Japanese actor) delivered perhaps the most progressive performance of the era. His natural and fluid acting was decades ahead of its time. To attribute it all to him, or to DeMille’s direction, would be the subject of a very interesting research project.

Forgive me if I’m rambling. There’s so much to say, as I try my best to keep it brief. Not only am I so admiring of DeMille’s legacy, but this is also my first tribute! Exciting stuff.

One last proclamation and then I’m done.

On DeMille’s legacy page, easy to find on google, there is nothing more inspiring than reading, “Raised with a love for and knowledge of the Bible, DeMille saw the screen as a universal pulpit.” As an aspiring Christian filmmaker, I cannot help but praise his mentality. As much as I am looking forward to seeing Noah’s endeavor on the arc or the Israelite exodus out of Egypt blown to epic proportions on the big screen, it is saddening to think of them as Hollywood commercialization. Not that DeMille’s Biblical epics were any different from an industry standpoint, but he still believed in his projects as Biblical truth. Controversy regarding Aronofsky’s green message in Noah or Ridley Scott calling religion the biggest “source of evil” in an interview about Exodus, just dampens my excitement.

I am thankful for DeMille and his great legacy. He did more than just masterfully tell the stories–he believed in them.  

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