Friday, October 31, 2014

The Black Cat

Ineffably silly and serenely surreal, Edgar Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934) is one of my favorite horror films, a film so strange and densely packed that it can not be reliably deciphered.. The movie is dream apparition that seems to carry a powerful, even, profound message -- the problem is that when the dream evaporates, in the clear light of day, the message is no longer legible.  The film's premise is similar to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)or that movie's precursor, James Whale's witty and perverse The Old Dark House (1932).  A naive young couple on their honeymoon finds themselves trapped in a scary, haunted mansion.  The inhabitants of the mansion are sexually perverse and probably criminally insane:  the question posed by these films is whether the young couple will survive their stay at this bread-and-breakfast from Hell -- or, at least, make it through the night with their virtue intact.  Intrinsic to this genre is the implication that either the bride or groom (or both) may well desire rape, or, at least, seduction by the denizens of the haunted mansion.  In The Black Cat, the young couple embarks on an ill-fated honeymoon to a spa in Mitteleuropa, a place a few hundred kilometers from Vienna where they have been married.  They are merrily chatting about eating, an obvious double entendre for the delayed consummation of their marriage and, indeed, about to embrace when who should enter their railroad compartment but Bela Lugosi himself.  Lugosi exudes perverse, world-weary Angst and, of course, his demeanor is that of a vastly fatigued, but still lethal, continental seducer.  Lugosi has just been released from some kind of horrific prisoner of war camp, a place "where the soul is murdered day by day" as he says in his heavily accented, but velvety voice.  The trio, now threatening to become some sort of menage a trois, depart from a railway station with a comically talkative Ruritanian taxi-driver, an incompetent fellow who chats with the couple while looking away from the muddy, narrow road winding through the sinister Carpathian mountains.  Of course, he manages to crash the taxi, kill himself (a death that is ludicrously ignored by everyone), and strand the newly weds at the very threshold of the insane Herr Poelzig's mansion.  Poelzig has erected a starkly modernist chateau atop a bunker left over from the Great War and we are told that the site overlooks a cemetery and a ravine where the war-dead were stacked twelve deep while the "river overflowed with blood."  Poelzig is played by an emaciated Boris Karloff, a sort of walking corpse all the more alarming because he is not made-up and plays the part with no special effects other than the ferocious growl in his voice and his deep-set glaring eyes.  It turns out that Poelzig is a necrophiliac Satan worshiper, a version of the Great Beast, Aleistair Crowley at his most lurid and melodramatic and, in the bunker cellars of his house, he has dead maidens embalmed and displayed on the walls, white columns of luminous gown and alabaster skin wreathed in cascades of platinum hair -- the girls are undeniably beautiful, undeniably dead, some of them suspended by the locks of their hair, and they are like Greek kore figures, mythic presences who enlarge the scope of the film to another dimension:  is Karloff's Herr Poelzig, the embodiment of war, a kind of amalgam of Ares and Hades, the ruler of a dark and sinister underworld to which virgins must be sacrificed in sadistic rites?  It turns out that Lugosi's character, a psychiatrist named Dr. Vitus Wendegast, was betrayed by his commanding officer Poelzig in the Great War, given up to the enemy, so that the devil-worshiper could snatch (and murder) his wife: she's one of the luminous trophies displayed in the World War One bunker.  The women in the film are either inanimate or comatose, sleeping beauties:  we see Karloff in bed with a young woman who may well be a corpse -- she never moves for most of the film, a blonde, lush beauty, we learn that she is Lugosi's daughter by his dead wife, now Poelzig's slave and concubine.  The film's heroine, the newly wed bride is knocked unconscious in the car crash and spends half the film in a swoon.  When she briefly emerges from unconsciousness, medicated by Wendegast, the young woman is overtly lustful, pawing at her husband with unambiguous intent in front of Lugosi and Karloff, a display that only inflames the mad Poelzig's desires.  (The film is pre-code and filled with intensely erotic imagery -- the bride has a wound on her upper breast from the car crash, an injury inspected with great intensity by Lugosi as her physician and, then, groped by the woman's feckless husband.)  Although named after Poe's morbid short story, the movie has nothing to do with that tale and, indeed, very little connection with black cats in general -- at one point, Lugosi, who has a fear of the beasts, hurls a scalpel at a black cat and, apparently kills it (the beast yowls off-camera);Karloff, whose pet has been slaughtered, responds with nothing more than a feline grin.  The film is bizarre and surprising on all levels:  Poelzig's mansion seems built in the best Vienna secessionist style:  it is austere, angular, and appears to be a machine for living something like the famous house designed by Wittgenstein in Vienna, more an icy philosophical theorem than a home.  The bunker contains a towering spiral stairway and a movable turret that forms a kind of nightmare labyrinth -- as it rotates it's door exposes either openings in the massive concrete wall or impenetrable wall depending on the degree to which the metal chamber is turned.  Although the film clocks in at a brisk 65 minutes, people are continuously marching in slow sepulchral processions across the huge sets and there is a bizarre comic interlude with a couple of local gendarmes, one of them a grotesque stage Italian, a vaudeville comedian.  Ulmer was one of the directors of a remarkable German silent film, Menschen am Sonntag (1930), a quasi-documentary about the lives of a cross-section of Berlin young people on an enchanted, summery Sunday.  The Black Cat has much of same tangible, documentary-like emphasis on light and space and people's relationship to their environment:  curiously enough, the photography has an improvised aspect in some sequences, an element that contrasts powerfully with the Expressionist angles and lighting in the horror scenes, particularly the Fritz Lang-style diagonals and shadows in the Black Mass:  the imagery looks like the scene in which Maria preaches to the workers in a catacomb chapel in Metropolis (1927).  But much of the film seems casually realistic -- indeed, a scene in which a bedraggled Bela Lugosi stands among deadly machinery, including the fateful "red lever" that will blow the whole place to smithereens, is curiously understated and prosaic:  briefly, Lugosi looks like the father of the bride at  a Serbian wedding, half-drunk, smiling mysteriously, even a little bit cheerful.  The clash between these two camera styles, something notable even in the stylized Black Mass scenes in which the virgin victim is filmed out-of-focus, gives the movie some of its nightmarish dream quality.  At the climax of the movie, Lugosi takes a paring knife and begins to skin the fettered Boris Karloff alive:  Karloff's stripped torso is shot as if it has already been flayed:  his skin is a death-like alabaster white that reveals in the clinical lighting the precise contours of his muscles and bones.  The image has all sorts of visual overtones and echoes:  it's like the flaying of Marsyas and, even today, the scene packs a powerful, horrific force.  At the end of the film, of course, the honeymoon couple are saved.  The bunker and mansion explode in a quick shot of explosions that looks exactly like night footage of a World War One (or prophetically WWII) barrage.  European culture, it seems, rests on a substrate of massacre, perversion, and evil that can not be repressed -- the nightmare battle between Lugosi and Karloff seems to presage the eruption of ancient hatreds that must inevitably convulse the world again and again.  (The bridegroom is comically unequal to the horrors that he must face:  it's like Andy Hardy thrown into the middle of a Greek tragedy or Hugh Grant forced into a cage-match with Richard III and Macbeth.)  On the train departing the scene of these horrors, the newlyweds comment on the utter absurdity and implausibility of the adventure that they have just survived.  For an instant, we glimpse the bride's weird, crooked and asymmetric smile -- evidence of something hidden in her that may have triggered this whole strange vision.      

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Artists under the Big Top, Perplexed

Alexander Kluge's 1968 film, Artists under the Big Top, Perplexed is neatly summarized on the Facets DVD box:  "Lena Peichert inherits her father's circus when he is killed in an accident, tries to run the show as a kind of politically engaged "reform" circus, and goes bankrupt (twice)."  The summary is succinct and accurate so far as it goes, but doesn't begin to characterize this peculiar, discursive film.  Kluge begins the movie with a few minutes of footage of Nazi rallies, including a parade in which huge statues, ineptly mimicking Greek sculpture, are hauled through the street in the midst of adoring crowds.  On the soundtrack, we hear McCartney and Lennon's "Yesterday" crooned in a language that I couldn't recognize to the accompaniment of a Muzak band that sounds like something you might hear in the lounge of an airport.  Without further ado, Kluge abandons the Nazi footage for beautiful color shots of circus acts.  Then, we get close-ups of fantastically homely circus performers who speak directly to the camera in a strangely inflected, curiously bombastic form of German that seems to have been invented for the film.  Kluge cuts in historical images of circuses, panned and zoomed in the best Ken Burns style, documentary shots of circus animals, and strangely desolate and empty landscapes -- the autobahn at night, a big top tent slowly being deflated for removal from a dark and empty vacant lot.  From time to time, we see the ostensible heroine, Lena Peichert, engaged in transactions that the film's Marxist-materialist orientation renders in pedantic detail.  Peichert buys a hapless-looking elephant for 12,000 DM -- the beast obligingly stands on its head for her.  She has a boyfriend named Dr. Horst, who belabors her with abstract statements of principle that seemed derived from Adorno.  Dr. Horst is completely self-absorbed.  Lena washes his back as he sits in a tub, eating from a tray that discretely conceals his genitals, reading a book with an English title, and, at the same time, watching a show like Bonanza or Gunsmoke on a TV mounted at the foot of his regal tub.  Lena has driven many miles to see him.  Kluge cuts to a shot of the Bahnhof and, then, Lena, whose little car won't start, pushing the vehicle along a deserted and muddy country lane.  The soundtrack is a collage of political statements, speeches, commercials, and florid music that stops and starts apparently randomly, a formal tic that the film has appropriated from Godard's films of the same vintage.  Kluge's movie seems less narrative than a sort of encyclopedic essay, something similar to movies by Chris Marker.  The problem for the audience is discerning the thematic or stylistic principles that motivate the inclusion of material in the movie -- why, for instance, does the movie begin with images of Hitler's festival of culture? (I think Kluge is suggesting that Hitler's politics of spectacle was circus-like and bears a resemblance to the antics presented in the Peichert family circus -- although the comparison is strained, and, possibly, suggested only for the purpose of being refuted; I have the sense that some of the comparisons and metaphors suggested by the film's montage are experimental or hypothetical -- they are advanced only to be rejected.  I come to Kluge through two of his books that I have recently read, both of them about World War Two, and am an admirer of his literary work.  Kluge's writing embodies the montage-techniques of his films:  he splices together apparently discordant and unrelated materials and asks the readers to draw connections -- a project that I think is more readily accomplished in the format of his prose than in the breathless, throw-in-everything-and-the kitchen-sink style of his filmmaking.  The movie is exhausting in its difficulty:  too much too quickly and, in this effect, resembles Godard.  I have the sense that Kluge's film is like Godard's pictures with Anna Karenina -- Kluge seems to be infatuated by his leading lady, Hannelore Hogar, and the camera shamelessly admires her. The film is crammed with huge close-ups of the actress' intelligent, if somewhat angular, face and Kluge contrives pointless episodes to feature Leni Peickert fully nude. (The actress has a nice, trim girl-next-door figure and she is lit to highlight her very slight moustache.)  The movie is a kind of love letter to his hapless heroine, a woman who thinks that she can reconfigure the circus to feature clowns pursuing dolphins through tanks of water and animal acts in which tigers and lions chase "fifty mice wearing yellow stars."  Kluge foregrounds his movie-making technique, shifting between different types of film stock, shooting episodes in fast-motion, and using a variety of narrators to tell the story such as it is.  (Leni fails with her post-modern circus and ends up working in television exactly as her pompous boyfriend, Dr. Horst, predicted.)  There are some lyrical passages showing circuses at night in deserted and poor parts of town, but the film is primarily about the words that are spoken and they are so numerous and difficult that the movie's thematic content is mostly impenetrable.  The film ends unexpectedly and abruptly with one of Leni Peichert's colleagues wondering aloud whether the microphone is operating and, then, struggling to tell the plot of Verdi's Il Trovatore -- why this totally arbitrary scen concludes the film is mysterious to me.  The disc comes with an addition forty minute addendum, even more of a love letter to the leading lady -- The Indomitable Leni Peichert (the German is "unzaehmbar" --meaning "untamed").  This is more of the same and chronicles Leni's work in television -- she gets fired for running an unauthorized film in prime-time and schemes to return to the circus industry.  This is just more of the feature film -- and, one must say, there's quite enough of that to go around without adding another forty minutes of additional material to that narrative. Also on the disc is a really extraordinary and disturbing ten minute short, Electrocuting an Elephant, a movie about the 1903 Edison silent picture with that title -- this little movie is very interesting and intellectually rigorous, although, also, curiously playful.     


In The Sands of Iwo Jima, John Wayne plays a gruff, battle-hardened sergeant who must toughen his young soldiers for combat.  He makes his boys into men and, then, dies heroically in the film's climactic battle.  David Ayer's Fury is curiously retrograde:  it is nothing more than a tank-based version of The Sands of Iwo Jima with foul language, spectacular and gory special effects, and a similar climax:  imitating Leonidas at Thermopylae, Brad Pitt stages a last stand against hordes of German SS men, troops who, apparently, desire nothing more than to die in large quantities assaulting his disabled tank, the titular Fury.  Whether lots of obscenity and better special effects yields a better result is debatable, but, in any event, Fury is nothing more than a standard WW II war film slowed to a crawl, lacking the snappy wise-cracking dialogue of the forties pictures, and tediously morose, solemn, self-important and earnest.  Within the first few moments, an alert viewer realizes that Fury is completely unrealistic.  Brad Pitt's comic-book hero stabs a weary-looking German on horseback through the eye.  (Why is their a horseman on the battlefield?) Then, Pitt called War-Daddy by his admiring tank crew strikes a heroic pose atop his tank.  Of course, in real life, no soldier in his right mind would present such an inviting target to the foe -- indeed, actual combat soldiers tend to scuttle close to the ground like cockroaches or rats.  Fortunately for War-Daddy, there is no one around to shoot him down as he poses dramatically against the smoky horizon.  A few moments later, someone starts a desultory shelling of the battlefield, a few acres strewn with wrecked Sherman tanks.  Pitt orders his men to drive the tank forward, thus, signaling to the nearby enemy that his tank is not wrecked and, therefore, a viable target.  Of course, you want to shout to him:  "Don't move the tank! They think your dead!" But drive forward he does. Survivors of tank warfare always comment on the terror induced by heavy armored vehicles, the roar of their engines and the stink of diesel, the clatter of treads tearing up the soil and the way that the earth trembles as the huge machines advance.  Oddly enough, Ayer gets none of this into his movie.  The tank itself is poorly defined and never filmed in a way that makes any spatial sense of the vehicle's interior.  We don't have any idea how the tank works or where its occupants are located within the machine -- we don't know the roles of the tank crew or how they are supposed to interact in combat.  Ayer wants us to feel that his tankers are always vulnerable, about to be killed in their fragile metal shell, and so he doesn't provide any sense of the fearsome nature of heavy armored vehicles -- by contrast, the big semi-trucks that George Miller deployed in The Road Warrior were frightening vehicles, studded with dangerous sharp edges and spinning parts, equipment invested with real weight and speed; in Miller's film, the trucks had a tangible, menacing presence and were characters in the movie in their own right.  Ayer's tank, which must be vulnerable so that his murderers can be construed as underdogs, seems completely abstract -- an idea and not a vehicle.  (Only one shot in the whole film carries any physical force:  this is the image of the badly wounded War-Daddy withdrawing into the womblike darkness of the tank, clawing shut the heavy hatch of the turret as he drops into the gloom of the vehicle that he calls his home.)  The movie is pointless and, after a fairly exciting duel with a German Tiger tank, the combat scenes have nowhere to go.  There is a long sequence in which War Daddy and his men interact with two German women -- that scene is well-acted, has an undercurrent of dread, and seems fairly poignant, although indulging in every possible war-time romance cliché.  But the sequence ends with the prettier of the two German girls dead and half-buried in rubble, our heroes mourning the horror of it all, and, then, returning to the front and their last stand and so the scene seems, ultimately, completely inconsequential.  The final battle scene is as unrealistic as Mimi's death in La Boheme and lasts as long -- every time one of our valiant tank warriors is gravely wounded, the swarm of German soldiers desists from their assault, withdrawing to a decent distance and ceasing fire so that our protagonists can say their last goodbyes in relative calm and silence.  Logistically, this climactic combat scene is totally ludicrous and makes no sense.  We have seen the Germans advancing in huge numbers about four-hundred yards from the stranded tank -- and, yet, improbably it takes them ten minutes to get within range of our heroes, thus, allowing for some incredibly stupid and implausible tough-guy dialogue.  Then, the bad guys, who are equipped with many Panzerfaust (tank-killing) weapons decide to mount an infantry attack on the immobile but heavily armed Sherman tank -- thereby, allowing themselves to be slaughtered in windrows.  Finally, someone fires a bazooka round into the tank.  The metal shell of the armored vehicle is pierced, a hit that would instantly kill everyone in the tank in a swarm of whirling shrapnel -- armor-piercing projectiles scale off the inside of the tank and rip the crew members to death with metal fragments.  But, in this case, the armor-piercing round merely plows into one of the crew members, blowing him up but resulting otherwise in no damage to anyone else in the vehicle.  And so the battle goes on for a half-hour with long cease-fires so that each of our heroes can die with appropriate and melodramatic histrionics.  The moral of the movie seems to be this:  "Ideals are peaceful," as War Daddy says, "but history is violent."  And this is fully as stupid as it sounds.  War films succeed either by being entertaining adventures or realistic accounts of horror:  Fury fails by both standards. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Christ Stopped at Eboli

Many of Francesco Rosi's films study the Italian Mafia.  On first viewing, the understated, anthropological Christ Stopped at Eboli seems an exception:  the film adapts a memoir by Carlo Levi.  In 1935, Levi was sent as a political prisoner to a remote and impoverished hill-town in southern Italy.  The region is badlands, severely eroded mountain slopes, a place so abject that local people said that when Jesus visited Italy, he "stopped at Eboli" -- that is, refused to venture into miserable territory where Levi is exiled.  Trained as a doctor, Levi was an aesthete, a painter, poet, and man of sensibility.  The villagers are friendly to Levi, instinctively insurgent, an enemies of Rome -- we have always been oppressed, the villagers say, first by Aeneas and his Trojans, then, by the Romans, and, now, by the Fascist government under Il Duce, a regime that the people call "the Piedmontese."  Levi is importuned to treat the sick and dying in the village and, despite his hesitancy, he becomes beloved as a local doctor.  History is remote from the picturesque but ruinous village -- people listen to broadcasts of Mussolini's speeches and we see one boy departing for war in Abyssinia, but, otherwise, life is governed by ancient rhythms of religion and labor.  The radio tells the people that the Italian army is triumphant and has entered Addis Ababa and Rosi marks the occasion with a rapturous extended tracking motion, the camera gliding over the denuded hills and badlands, past black-clad peasants who stand like statues immobile in their small, desolate fields.  Levi is pardoned for whatever offense resulted in house arrest and exile.  (Several sorrowful-looking communists are not pardoned and must remain in exile.)  He says goodbye to the villagers and returns to the North, leaving town on a day when rain and sunshine battle one another, departing in the single vehicle operating in the region.  The narrative is presented as a flashback, as Levi's memories many years later, after the end of World War II, thoughts triggered by the old man looking at paintings that he made of children in the village.  Rosi borrows many techniques from spaghetti Westerns -- the flashback structure creates a nostalgic effect that is similar to the mood in some of Sergio Leone's movies and there are ancient trains chugging across eroded landscapes, huge close-ups of handsome men or eccentrics (particularly noteworthy is a bearded giant -- "the sow doctor") and vast barren landscapes:  Rosi uses shock cuts to flocks of birds suddenly disturbed or flags being unfurled.  The film often is composed, shot and edited like Once upon a Time in the West and this impression is heightened by the lead actor, the remarkably handsome and charismatic Gian Maria Volonte, a leading man who is also featured in many Italian-made Westerns.  Christ Stopped at Eboli is sentimental -- there is a stray dog who accompanies the hero -- and episodic.  There is no overriding theme and the film is constructed from observations as to village life.  The villagers are superstitious -- they believe in mischievous spirits (unbaptized babies) and treat illness with a variety of folk remedies, for instance, a woman manages pain by lying in bed with a coin on her forehead.  The town's mayor is the only other educated fellow in the region and he is a Fascist -- there are long polemical exchanges between the two men that slow the film to a standstill.  The villagers regard New York as the great city of the world and many of them have lived there, praising America as the place where they all would live if possible -- most of the town's men of marriageable age have emigrated to New York and the villagers are mostly elderly men, widows in austere black, and babies.  (Despite their praise for New York, the peasants despise the cold porcelain toilets in America and recall with ecstatic joy an excursion into the countryside where they were able to let down their trousers to defecate in the open air.)  Rosi's film is very gentle -- there is no violence and even conflicts between the Fascists and their opponents are muted, collegial, and non-confrontational.  At one point, the Mayor threatens to have carabinieri shoot down some protestors in the town's wretched piazza, but the conflict is quickly defused by Levi who wants to avoid a massacre.  The town priest, who is a drunk maimed by isolation in the remote village, bravely preaches against the war in Abyssinia -- the Fascists march out of the church enraged, but there are no further consequences; after all, the priest is regarded as a person of ill-repute in any event.  The film is long, elegant, beautifully acted and spectacularly filmed:  it seems inconsequential and exceptionally subtle -- most of what is happening is hidden beneath the surface.  At the heart of the film is a consideration of the local institution of "brigandage" -- that is, banditry -- and it is this theme that links the movie to Rosi's great films about the Mafia.  In this village, improbably studding a high, barren ridge, the only meaningful resistance to oppression is petty criminality -- theft and highway robbery apparently encouraged by the Church.  At the edge of the village, there are three high stakes on which the heads of brigands were once impaled.  The village is like the impoverished landscape where the mafia-bandit Salvatore Giuliano operates in Rosi's masterpiece of that name set in Sicily -- the culture seems to be the same.  Rosi is a great, if baffling filmmaker -- his movies seem universal in their footage of sky and field and peasants marching in the dawn to their work, but they are so intimately rooted in the history and culture of Italy as to be a bit inscrutable to an outsider.