23 September 2009

L'arroseur Arrosé.

The first fully staged film of course (of course!?). It's also the first film comedy. What happens when you re-enter an academic or instructional view of film is that you find yourself watching early short films again. And it's very exciting, because here you are in this classroom where all love is being directed towards the one great thing you love. And everyone wants answers to basic questions like who is the gardener (he's the gardener!), and "What do you think people felt when they saw this?" The latter question being the most elemental emotional question, and the fulfillment of the question starts everyone down the path to the necessity of filmmaking and the privilege of narrative and the versatility of the human mind and heart.

I remember why I love film when I am in a room full of people wanting to rewatch L'arroseur Arrosé. Giggling over L'arroseur Arrosé.

20 September 2009

The White Hell of Pitz Palu and Leni Riefenstahl.

The White Hell of Pitz Palu is apparently a single example in a genre of German films that dealt with the perils of mountain climbing. Arnold Fanck was the director of the exterior scenes and had directed a handful of mountain films prior. G.W. Pabst directed the interior scenes. The exterior mountain scenes take up the majority of the film. Leni Riefenstahl's career began by acting in these types of films and she had worked with Fanck previously in this vein. Riefenstahl would direct one mountain film herself three years later in 1932, The Blue Light, reportedly because she could find no other director, and this would be her directorial debut.

A young engaged couple prepare for a leisure-type trek of a mountain when a doctor enters their cabin. The doctor's misery involves an ice casket and a lover's unrecoverable corpse. The White Hell has fantastic body-in-ice-casket scenes. The young couple is convinced by the doctor into convincing themselves by sentiment and pity to join the doctor on his journey for discovery of his lover's lost corpse. The body is buried on the north side of the mountain, the most dangerous side of the mountain, and it's apparently the last chance to climb this area because summer approaches and temperatures rise, causing avalanches and proportional risk increase. Other people are climbing this side of the mountain too, on the same day.

They all die. The entire other group of people climbing the north face of the mountain. Their bodies are recovered though, unfortunately, and none of them receive the reward of a badass ice-casket. But anyway if I have to tell you I will: the young couple and the doctor endure all sorts of avalanches and personal injury and become lost on the mountain. The two men are gravely injured. There's a sensational and beautiful sequence of attempted rescue, by the local people, involving midnight blackness and torches through snowy tunnels. The emergency crew only finds the other group of dead people. C'est la White Hell of Pitz Palu.

Later a friend in an airplane spots them. He's flying around the mountain face looking for them: he loops and flips his plane and throws parachutes with informational material. It's a critical moment for the stranded group: the engaged man has gone mental owing to head injuries and the reality and implied doom of their plight pressing upon his mind, he's tied to a rock, and the group has been in the gelid environment without food for a number of days. I won't tell you what happens but you know someone gets a badass ice-casket.

That's the movie. When I watch it I think mainly of Leni Riefenstahl. What was on her mind? She's three years away from seeing Hitler for the first time. What are her passions now, and is The White Hell one step toward artistic obsession culminating in Triumph of the Will and a contentious legacy? She smiles a lot. There are close-ups of a snow covered Riefenstahl throwing back hair from her face and she's intensely movie beautiful in these moments.

On the Kino dvd there's an extended interview with a 100 year-old Riefenstahl from 2002 (that means she was born in 1902 - no prob). The interviewer is kind of vicious I think. She probes Riefenstahl not only on her connections with Hitler and Nazism, something you can sense she's had to explain 1,000,000 times, but she also challenges her on details of her sexual history and the merits of an old lady re-entering filmmaking. Riefenstahl was promoting her 2002 film Underwater Impressions, a film that's only 45 minutes long and was filmed by Riefenstahl herself while scuba diving. It's a grandma film, don't you think, is what the interviewer seems to be saying. Sometimes I want to choke the interviewer because I feel so bad.

I feel so bad in a lot of ways. It's very difficult for me to separate and identify the sins of Leni Riefenstahl, a woman who held hands with Hitler on the beach. A woman who sent him a letter that said, "With indescribable joy, deeply moved and filled with burning gratitude, we share with you, my Führer, your and Germany's greatest victory, the entry of German troops into Paris. You exceed anything human imagination has the power to conceive, achieving deeds without parallel in the history of mankind. How can we ever thank you?"

The accusation is that Leni Riefenstahl glorified Hitler in her Triumph of the Will and created a strong, effective, and lasting propaganda tool for his hate machine. The counter-accusation is that Triumph of the Will is a beautiful and amazing cinematic revelation. Both are true. There's an opinion that they can't both be true. My personal sympathy goes to Riefenstahl, whose greatest work can never be discussed without a series of caveats. And I wish Olympia wasn't public domain or someone would pay for a great transfer so I could really see the film the way it was intended to be seen.


Do 20 year-olds review silent films? I feel like I'm talking from the outside. But here I'll go, and I apologize for all self-references. I want to omit self-references from my reviews as much as I can. I feel it's a part of the this review however. I came to this filmmaker through James Whale, who was apparently a Paul Leni fan. This is the beginning of Leni's career on dvd. It's as beginning as I can get. He'd made a number of films by this time and he was 39 years old. Douglas Fairbanks would see Waxworks and be inspired by it for his same-year The Thief of Baghdad, according to Kino, which offers convincing visual evidence through excerpts of the Fairbanks film. Leni's next film would be for Carl Laemmle at Universal Studios in Hollywood.

They (the obvious references) call it three stories in one film. It's two mostly. It's four kind-of (was my 83 minute version the full print? I'm not sure). They (the casual referrers) call it The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-lite. I've seen The Cabinet and don't agree. Or I think it's too easy to say. Some people call silent dramas boring. I fell asleep the first time I watched it, which happens to me too often with silent dramas I'll admit, but it was to my advantage that I decided to give it another go before returning it to Hollywood video. It's not at all boring that was my bad. This review will begin with the assertion that Waxworks is not boring in any way.

In the first story there's a moment where a guy jumps off a building. Others are pursuing him. He lands on a tree and the tree bends, and the bending allows him to escape freely to the ground where he can continue his flight. It takes place on a single set with all the buildings shown together in certain scenes. This happens often in the first long sequence. The character's house/workspace (he's a baker) is also on a similar set, and there are long shots and close-ups which reveal the set for its major and minor details. It convinces me as a viewer of the reality of the scenario. The believability is based on the set design. Waxworks is a German Expressionism film, or a child or a product of that movement, and in German Expressionist films the set is the total reality of the film. In Waxworks the reality blends cultural and fictional aspects in order to enhance the experience of spectatorial immersion: when the guy jumps off the building, I believe in the tension of his movements and the context of their motivations. It's very gripping and very filmatically convincing.

The second story is more drama-heavy. In it Ivan the Terrible looks like Ivan the Terrible from Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible. It's not the same actor. I guess that's what Ivan the Terrible really looked like. I kept thinking of Eisenstein's film because of this visual similarity, and it also made me think of Eisenstein's penchant for visual repetition. That was pretty cool and enhanced what was otherwise a much duller second story. There's a scene where Ivan fears an assassination attempt, owing to a prognostication, and asks a visiting noble to disguise himself as Ivan and they switch places in the carriage and also exchange clothing. It's the best scene. After that some unnatural narrative propulsion culminates in a bizarre loveless escapade with a female that leads to an hour glass fixation I can't explain in under 200 words.

It's bizarre other-worldly and faintly exotic material. I think the cultural differences are exaggerated, combined with the set design, in order to achieve this effect. That seems typical for the period and certainly links Leni with Whale, Tod Browning, Fritz Lang, etc. The dramatization and aggrandizement of cultural behavior works to energize the narrative and also archaically tints the film. It's nothing I expect from reality. That's kind of cool shit too, because the film attempts to deal in true emotional currency inside of this melodramatic framework and it grants an ethereal quality to the film. It's sight and spectacle at its most fundamental, but it's executed so earnestly and elaborately that it enriches the effectiveness. You want to believe: you want to believe your eyes, you want to believe the story, you want to feel the characters. As a 21st century man I still feel the meaning of that want. It's the bedrock of an entire future of filmmaking. This is a root.

16 September 2009

Love Liza.

Wilson Joel: Do you have the yellow pages?
Cashier at Pancake House: Customer copy out of the phone book.
Wilson Joel: It's all torn to shreds.
Cashier at Pancake House: I apologize, but that's our customer copy.
Wilson Joel: Can I use your copy?
Cashier at Pancake House: Sorry, convenient store next door might have one.
Wilson Joel: But, you have one.
Cashier at Pancake House: Sir, I'm sorry. Try next door.
Wilson Joel: I just got finished eating your bad pancakes and got my plane stolen out of my car in your parking lot.
Cashier at Pancake House: Want me to call the police? I can call the police.
Wilson Joel: No, I just want to see the yellow pages.
Cashier at Pancake House: What are you looking for?
Wilson Joel: Planes.
Cashier at Pancake House: Planes?
Wilson Joel: Yea, model planes. You know remote control planes?
Cashier at Pancake House: Toy Planes?
Wilson Joel: Yea, toy planes.
Cashier at Pancake House: You're not gonna find anything like that.
Wilson Joel: Let me look... let me look.
Cashier at Pancake House: You're not going to find it.
Wilson Joel: Haha, yea you see that? You see that? One of your fucking friends stole my plane. Somebody who eats the bad food in this place all the time. That plane is going to ruin this whole place.

04 September 2009

The Guatemalan Handshake.

I want to call it an indie comedy filmed as an art film to the pitch of a Harmony Korine film with shades of David Gordon Green, but I don't know what that means and it sounds like I don't know what I'm talking about. I don't know what I'm talking about. Maybe I'm throwing in Green because The Guatemalan Handshake dvd comes with a essay by him, and he gushes over the film and says something like it evokes the sadness behind a fart joke.

The film is a bizarre mixture of a lot of emotions and characters and scenarios. It's tender and sometimes hilarious and oddly daring. And it juggles these things often within a single scene. It has some creeping motifs and some creepy scenes. It's unique and untidy: just the way I like my films.

I want to watch it again and let my thoughts grow. I watched it as a double with The Brown Bunny and together they reminded me of the many things that are often smoothed over when films are made. The filmic barrier that exists between most cinema and the actual breathing world. You can tell right away when a film itself is going to breathe.

Do many contemporary screenwriters, following QT's lead, attempt to eradicate all 'bad lines'? While I was writing today I wondered if I should erase a bad line I had written that I thought was really truthful but wouldn't make good dialogue. Would a line that was completely honest and revealing and contextually appropriate be a bad line? No. That's a horrible way to think of a script. It's the same as the idea that a character has to be sympathetic.

There were two or three characters in The Guatemalan Handshake that probably should have been left out in a conventional sense, who if had actually been left out wouldn't have allowed the film to work the way it did. That's important to me. It's important to me that filmmakers make those personal decisions and it's important to me that I can be reminded that it can work. I think Todd Rohal in time, given the opportunity, could become an absolutely amazing filmmaker. All the evidence is in The Guatemalan Handshake.

This is a quote from David Lowery's blog that I think he himself transcribed from the Japanese Brown Bunny commentary that he himself ended a blog posting with a little while ago and I dragged up to use myself:

"What, what exactly do I get out of making these films? I mean, I don't make any money, I give up three years of my life on each one, I make a lot of enemies because I'm bossy and pushy and crotchety, and I get old and crabby and my back and my neck and everything hurts now, and I didn't go on any dates. What do I get, this weird satisfaction that I was able to put something in the world that now exists that most people don't like anyway? I don't know, this is just a sick in the head move. But at the time it seemed like the most important thing."

01 September 2009

Summer Hours.

In the first scene of Summer Hours I expected the mother to die. She doesn't die then, but she dies later. The mysterious tension that lurks in the framing and pacing of Summer Hours is similar to Irma Vep and maybe indicative of Assayas (these are my first two), and certainly what Irma Vep said about the film industry Summer Hours says about the family. It shares messages of transience and ephemerality, and a sadness that's tactile but always looming, always arriving but never arrived. Or maybe arriving and then departing. At any rate there's motion in the emotion.

There was a moment in which I was sure the house was going to catch fire. I was actually positive. It's beyond my personal fatalism: Assayas purposely lingered the sound of hissing gas from the oven over the entire scene. It could and does make other statements about the scene, but I know Assayas wanted me to think there was going to be an explosion. He's plugged into a sense of cinema in the best way. He can read the audience and perform for them.

He's also a patient filmmaker, but one who delivers. If there's an ambiguity to these two films it's not because of a fractured utterance. And the narrative is elliptical but predictable. It cuts off right when it should and right when Assayas has completed his thought. It explores its layers to an appropriate degree and reveals each character as an architect for its design. For example in Summer Hours there is the child who wants to keep the estate, the child who needs to sell the estate, and the child who wants to keep and sell the estate. And they each kind of want to keep the estate because it's their mother's estate, a part of their family's history, an irreplaceable monument of their upbringing, and a sentimental part of their French nationalism. They don't keep the bulk of the estate (a few items to remind them of mother), and the value of the estate is translated into pecuniary terms. The eldest brother is an economist and he and the film make sure you understand how important that is. Except you can't disagree with the son who wants to finance his burgeoning career in China, really, can you? And what about the daughter who simply won't be around to appreciate the estate any longer? Well that's what Assayas asks.