Archive for the Mythology Category

Attendant Woes

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2014 by dcairns


Cinema will learn to talk soon, I promise, but for now I’m still mulling over films seen at the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema.

THE LAST LAUGH is one I’d seen a few times but probably not, in its entirety, as often as I should’ve. It’s the kind of film which wouldn’t necessarily compel me to make the trip (which is rather difficult, the bus service being singularly erratic) by itself, but in combination with a bunch of other films I fancied, it made for a delightful extra, if delightful is really the word for F.W. Murnau’s desperate vision.

One smart person with a beard suggested that the film, in which hotel doorman Emil Jannings is robbed of his uniform and its concomitant status when he gets too old to lug suitcases without breaking his wind, could be read as a metaphor for Germany’s post-war enforced demilitarisation*, but I’m afraid my mind was on other things, such as Jannings’ putty forehead, which looks quite real on home video (though the shading in his cheekbones is recognizably kohl, not natural hollows) and becomes a big part of his performance.



Also, I located the movie in the supernatural tradition of German film (NOSFERATU was just two years before) — when Jannings turns up to work and finds another man wearing his uniform, we seem to be in the doppelganger genre first seen in THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE. Seeing one’s double is meant to be a portent of death, and in this case it’s the death of Jannings’ hopes, career, dignity. It’s perfect that he sees the younger version as they both pass through the Atlantic Hotel’s revolving door, so that the new guy seems like a reflection of the old.

When Jannings’ family face him knowing that he’s now a lowly toilet attendant, they react not with pity but horror, and I was reminded of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in which Samsa’s transfiguration provokes only the faintest hint of sympathy from his loved ones, who are more concerned with the practical problems entailed. Jannings doesn’t actually get an apple stuck in his back, but it’s a close thing. (Given his love of wallowing in humiliating scenarios, I’m posi-sure that if Murnau had produced a golden delicious and proposed ramming it under his shoulder-blade, Jannings would’ve shrugged off his undershirt and gotten down on bended knee in a twinkling.)


The film seems, on the face of it, bracingly anti-capitalist, with Russian-style dialectical montage contrasting the rich patrons slurping down oysters while poor old Emil eats his toilet soup in the men’s room. It’s not even HOT toilet soup, as Murnau mercilessly photographs the steam escaping as Jannings is forced to attend to an untimely urinator who arrives during his break.

This is undercut in some ways by the conclusion, a bit of proto-Bokononism in which the film debunks its own happy ending. Jannings inherits a fortune from an eccentric American who expires, offscreen, in his arms, in the loo (the Atlantic takes away but it also gives). With his new-found wealth, Jannings becomes a guest himself, gorging himself suicidally and treating his friend, the sympathetic night watchman (whose kindness has hitherto only made the world seem bleaker) to an equally painful looking repast. Ignoring his disappointing family, Jannings heads off into the city with the watchman. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship, but it doesn’t feel like an indictment of social inequality, exactly. On the other hand, we’ve been told in no uncertain terms that this ending is not the kind we get in real life (the Atlantic gives but it also takes away).

The BFI’s rather wash-out print was compensated for magnificently by a new arrangement of the original score, performed by Sabrina Zimmerman on violin and doorman’s whistle and Mark Pogolski on piano, who created between them a very rich soundscape, one of those accompaniments that really helps you climb inside the film and smell its pungent air.

*The film’s opening title card (absent from the BFI print) gives some support to this theory. “Today you are the first, respected by everyone, a minister, a general, maybe even a prince — Do you know what you’ll be tomorrow?”

Mortis Loch

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , on March 8, 2014 by dcairns


SECRET OF THE LOCH (1934) deserves its place in history as (1) a fairly crummy British B-picture of the thirties and (2) the first film to use an enlarged iguana as its monster. Except that’s not true, is it? The Fairbanks THIEF OF BAGDAD was there first.

Fiona’s been reading a book by a skeptical cryptozoologist, which seems fascinating. We didn’t know there WERE any sceptical ones. Basically, I guess they study animals unknown to science which they don’t believe in (although like any good skeptic they say they’re willing to be convinced). The book patiently explains the colossal impact the 1933 KING KONG has had – there were no newspaper accounts of Nessie until Willis H. O’Brien brought dinosaurs to the screen in convincing detail and lifelike motion.

And so we get Milton Rosmer’s film, which borrows freely from Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, but substitutes Inverness for Doyle’s South American plateau. Seymour Hicks, famed for his stage and screen Scrooge, plays the irascible/demented Professor Heggie, a crustier version of Doyle’s Challenger, and Frederick Peisley plays the callow journalist hero. Most surprisingly, Gibson Gowland, hulking protagonist of Stroheim’s GREED, is on hand as a celtic henchman, or “henchmon” if you will.


“The monster doesn’t scare me, I’ve worked for Von Stroheim.”

While KONG established the correct pattern for monster movie success, making the audience pant through an opening act with nary a sign of monstrosity, then wheeling its creation on and having him dominate the proceedings until the dying moments, Rosmer’s lightweight farrago does what innumerable cheapjack exploiters would do, holding off any sight of its star creature until we’re in sight of the fadeout. But Nessie is not Harry Lime, and this kind of super-delayed entrance may save on the effects budget but it’s untenable as a narrative device, since any cretaceous eruption into a contemporary drama must happen early enough or risk being rejected by the host body.


There you have it — the monster’s existence  is attested to by the Daily Mail. “…the watery depths harbour some fantastic and abnormal creature, probably of Polish origin. Heil Hitler.”

Film history being full of ludicrous surprises, this movie was edited by David Lean. The poor young cutter has terrible trouble building a climax out of the footage he’s been handed, where they seem to have rather struggled with their rear projection. If Peisley isn’t standing in front of the iguana, blocking our view, he’s standing on the wrong side, making the beastie seem shortsighted as it advances implacably off to his left, intent on some offscreen tidbit. Still, the science of interpolating footage of actors in deep-sea diving apparatus with blurry lizards padding amiably towards the lens must have been major addition to the budding filmmaker’s palette. Whether one regrets that he never included an enlarged herbivorous lizard in BRIEF ENCOUNTER or DOCTOR ZHIVAGO depends upon one’s personal taste, and upon whether one is a raving idiot.

Trouble in the Glen

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , on March 5, 2014 by dcairns


I had this distant memory of a film, and I never knew what it was. I suspect everybody has something like that. I actually have fewer than most, having tracked so many down and worked out what they were. But one that stuck in my brain involved a knight fighting a spectral figure who kept vanishing in a cloud of stoor, and then he somehow was underwater, and the whole thing was very spooky.

This was a short film screened as support for a feature, but (a) my family arrived halfway through the film so we never knew what it was called and (b) over the years I forgot which film was the main feature, so it became impossible to research. I asked on the odd message board, describing the short as best I could, but nobody could help.

Well, now the film has turned up, and I was able to see it with Fiona at Edinburgh Filmhouse in the presence of the director, Roger Christian. It’s called BLACK ANGEL.


Christian had been an art director, working on THE FINAL PROGRAMME and ALIEN and MAHLER — good stuff. He would later direct cult film THE SENDER and despised Scientological sci-fi BATTLEFIELD EARTH.

What was exciting was (1) to discover that BLACK ANGEL was shot in Scotland and (2) that it has all the creepy atmosphere I remembered seeing it with THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Christian had been influenced by Kurosawa and Tarkovsky and myth, and the resulting film is elusive in plot — well, downright messy at times — but extremely stylish and beautifully photographed by newcomer Roger Pratt (BRAZIL) and scored by Trevor Jones with electronic additions by Paddy Kingsland. The acting is mainly adequate, but its the mood that counts. Christian’s lack of experience shows in the writing, but what he writes with the lens is often beautiful. It’s actually really nice to see the zoom lens used subtly but insistently. The slight lack of clarity in the storytelling actually means that the experience of seeing in as a fortysomething was remarkably similar to seeing half of it as a teenager — you can’t quite work out what it’s all about, but it lodges in the mind’s less rational back room.


According to Christian, the film was funded by the old Eady Levy, which took a portion of cinema earnings to support new talent, and got the support of George Lucas, who liked it so much he borrowed the step-printed action sequence technique for a moment in EMPIRE. I always hated step-printing, actually — when not part of the plan, as in Wong Kar-Wei’s FALLEN ANGELS, it tends to come across as a cheap alternative to proper slomo. RC freely admitted that the fight scene wasn’t impactful enough and his film was running a couple of minutes too short, so it was kind of an act of desperation. The epic soundtrack sells it.

I’m interested in hearing about your half-remembered, nameless films. Maybe we can ID them.


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