Archive for Masters of Cinema

Princess Diary

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2013 by dcairns

With the kind permission of the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film, I’m reproducing here my article which was handed out to the audience attending THE OYSTER PRINCESS.

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“His life was an uninterrupted ribbon of film.” — unnamed friend of Ernst Lubitsch.

Ernst Lubitsch is best remembered for the sophisticated comedies of his Hollywood career, such as Ninotchka (“Garbo laughs!”) and To Be Or Not To Be: as Hitchcock was known for thrills and DeMille for epics, we was associated with “the Lubitsch touch,” an indefinable continental wit and daring that was exotic yet accessible, risqué yet tasteful.

But he first made his mark in his native Germany, as a low comedian, often playing a naughty (and rather superannuated) schoolboy, but as his career progressed his act grew slicker. By 1919 he had almost abandoned performing, but had preserved his fame while moving behind the camera. Having mastered knockabout farce and broad innuendo, he swiftly began to explore the possibilities of storytelling by suggestion, and the use of design, framing and editing to create films which were beautiful objects as well as machines for producing belly laughs.

In the first ten years of his career, he made a fantastic range of dramas and comedies: he could alternate between vast historical tragedies and bawdy comic romps, but somehow established an accepted public image that encompassed all those things. In his period films, the focus was often on observing behaviour, thus humanizing history; whereas his contemporary comedies came complete with exaggerated sets and expressive décor, making them as sumptuous as the courtly antics of Ann Boleyn or Madame DuBarry.

With The Oyster Princess, he was out to make something giddily strange, broadly caricatured, and very silly. He succeeded!

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EIN GROTESKES LUSTSPIEL — it’s easy to see what the subtitle of this 1919 farce is driving at. Lust and grotesquery figure prominently from the off, even in the way Victor Jansen, his pouchy face like a conglomeration of morning rolls, puffs on a cigar as fat and smouldering as the Hindenberg.

Jansen is going at that cigar, which is clasped by a liveried footman, while dictating to a roomful of stenographers, establishing him as a big-shot American businessman, as such a figure might be viewed in a newspaper cartoon. His face is scarily enormous, but his body has been padded out so that his head sits atop it like an insignificant cherry on a cake. The groteskes lustspiel has begun.

Lubitsch was always amused by the pretensions of the powerful, hence all the Ruritanian kings in his later Hollywood movies (eg The Merry Window), and Jansen is ancestor to all those big but oddly helpless men. To aid in the send-up, the film is staged in palatial yet surreally impractical sets, making every frame an elegant, eye-popping oddity. Lubitsch is out to prove that the grotesque can be beautiful.

The title immediately makes us realize that this “oyster king” must have a daughter, and so it proves: toothsome Ossi Oswalda, who sets about her role with a twinkling savagery that’s hilariously Teutonic. A room-wrecking temper tantrum is immediately followed by an outburst of joy that’s just as elementally destructive. From her spontaneous desire to keep up with her fellow heiresses by marrying a European aristocrat, the story expands to include a matchmaker, and then a penniless prince and his manservant, and so on, until a universe of bizarre types is parading before us.

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The plot, which is relatively simple by farce standards, hinges on arranged marriage, mistaken identity and personal eccentricity, but works mainly as a pretext for fabulously extended comedy moments, most notably the celebrated foxtrot epidemic, in which a dance spreads through the film like an airborne virus, infecting everyone with its insistent rhythm. In Hollywood, Lubitsch would stage similarly ebullient Charleston and waltz numbers, but never with the crazy invention he shows here. It’s probably the highlight of this whole, manically experimental phase of Lubitsch’s long and distinguished career, and it seems a metaphor for the way his comedy starts small and focused on specific details, then expands to envelop the whole of life. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky wrote, “A Lubitsch comedy isn’t just a meal — it’s the table, the cooks, the menu, the friends invited for dinner, the waiters, and even the competing restaurant across the street.”

As Lubitsch himself later told David Niven, “Nobody can play comedy who does not have a circus going on in his head.”

THE OYSTER PRINCESS is available from Masters of Cinema in a box set to which I contributed liner notes on DIFFERENT movies. And if you but it via this link, I get a percentage, which will help keep the timberwolf from the transom.

Lubitsch In Berlin [Masters of Cinema] [DVD] [1918]

In Stores Now

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2013 by dcairns

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News department: Cannes has announced its line-up, and to our disappointment, the film Paul Duane and I made, NATAN, is not featured. This despite our slipping the film to the top man with a recommendation from Costa-Gavras. Yes, Costa-frickin’-Gavras. Oh well.

We do have some thrilling news to impart about where the film is showing next, but we aren’t allowed to share it with you yet. It may seem at this point that things are moving slowly, but in fact leaps and bounds have been made…

Meanwhile ~

Every now and then, I like to give you a rundown of all the David Cairns products out there. So far, these consist of DVDs and Blu-rays to which I have contributed essays, but soon I hope to have my name on a line of fragrances, sailor suits, battleships and small boxes of earth from my native country. But until that day…

Available to buy now –

Black Sabbath [Blu-ray]

The Telephone is usually dismissed as the weakest of the three episodes, which is probably true, but it sets up a persistent motif of the other stories: offscreen sound as a source of fear. And aptly, for an Italian horror film, it’s practically a film about dubbing. The placement of one actor’s voice in another’s mouth foreshadows a theme developed through each panel of this cryptic triptych: the frightening mutability of identity, the fatal instability of reality.”

Incidentally, if you click through to Amazon using these links and buy a copy, I get a tiny percentage. And I like tiny percentages, almost as much as I like big percentages. They keep the wolf from the door, or the basilisk from the catflap as the case may be.

Other movies with essays by me –

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? [Masters of Cinema] (Dual Format Edition) [Blu-ray] [1957] (This might be my favourite of my own liner notes)

The Lost Weekend [Masters of Cinema] (Ltd Edition Blu-ray Steelbook) [1945] or The Lost Weekend [Masters of Cinema] (Blu-ray) [1945] (same movie, same essay, but the Ltd Edition Steelbook is only a few pence more expensive, so what the hey?)

“In fact, what suits Milland to the role is his slightly dissolute air, embodied in those hamster cheeks, that double chin; and his officer-class Britishness, which seems to project a weary distaste for whatever he’s acting in (a quality which would serve him well come The Thing with Two Heads, 1972).”

Rififi [Dual Format Edition DVD + Blu-Ray] [1955]

And from America –

Stagecoach (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

The 39 Steps (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

“The shaggy-dog story that gave Alfred Hitchcock his pet name for “the thing the spies are after” but that is of no real importance to the audience may have been told to him by Angus MacPhail, an English screenwriter with a very Scottish name. If so, it’s all too apt, since The 39 Steps(1935), the first Hitchcock film to really crank up the MacGuffin as plot motor, is full of Englishmen who sound like Scots and Scots who sound like Englishmen. It also features two traveling salesmen in a train compartment who seem about to break into the MacGuffin sketch at any instant but never quite do . . .”

And the latest, and most massive bit of film writing I’ve ever attempted –

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“Who is Pierre Étaix and where has he been all your life?

This is the story of a filmmaker who was vanished, banished, skipped over. It’s as if one of those invisible cubicles mimes are always getting themselves shut in dropped from a blue sky and ensnared him. Lips moved noiselessly behind the impermeable seal, passers-by passed by, until finally nobody could see him any more than they could hear him. A hole opened up in film history—a small hole, Étaix would argue, just large enough to fit him into, but a hole nonetheless, weakening the overall structure and preventing a proper vision of the comedy lineage that gave rise to the satirical visual comedy of filmmakers as diverse as Woody Allen and Terry Gilliam, and that influenced such established contemporaries as Jerry Lewis and Blake Edwards.”

Pierre Etaix (Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

Pierre Etaix (Criterion Collection) The ordinary DVD set IS a fair bit cheaper than the Blu, but on the other hand, these are handsome movies…

Peter the Plywood Primate

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on March 26, 2013 by dcairns

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The following essay was a freebie thrown in to accompany Masters of Cinema’s awesome DVD box set of Fritz Lang’s MABUSE films. For space reasons it couldn’t be included on the new Blu-ray edition, which I nevertheless recommend wholeheartedly to you (link below) so I’m offering it up here. Lang’s career has one of the most pleasing arcs of any in film history — he himself may have objected to another Mabuse sequel on the grounds that “The bastard is dead,” but he thought it over and perhaps realized that MABUSE CAN NEVER DIE ~

EVERYBODY’S GOT SOMETHING TO HIDE EXCEPT FOR ME AND MY MONKEY

About forty minutes into Fritz Lang’s The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse, a waiter enters the Hotel Luxor ballroom carrying a toy chimpanzee, and presents it to a delighted guest. It’s a throwaway moment of surrealism, suggesting that Luis Bunuel’s admiration of Lang was not un-reciprocated (although Lang’s encroaching blindness and Bunuel’s deafness had hampered attempts to introduce them at parties, Lang did eventually sign an autograph for his fan).

The chimpanzee’s name is Peter, and he is Lang’s longtime companion. Some have speculated that Peter (perhaps named after the actor Lang made into a star, Peter Lorre) was a kind of son to the childless director, and certainly Lang posed for many family portraits with his little friend. These lovingly posed snaps are Lang’s final works as film-maker. Peter’s walk-on (or carry-on) appearance here marks an early clue to the new direction.

Das Testament Des Dr Mabuse [Masters of Cinema] (Dual Format Edition) [Blu-ray] [1933]

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