Archive for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

Creating Ghosts

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2010 by dcairns

“It’s not hard to start a lunatic asylum, all you need is an empty room and the right kind of people.”

So says Eugene Pallette in MY MAN GODFREY, but creating lunatic asylums on film has often been a complicated and highly artistic task, from THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI on (is CALIGARI the first?). (What follows is hopefully spoiler-free, even though I must be one of the last to see and write about this film.)

Dante Ferretti’s designs for the new Scorsese, SHUTTER ISLAND, are often stunning — the marriage of sets with Robert Richardson’s lambent cinematography is a thing of beauty (I particularly loved, and wanted more of, the highly reflective ceilings in the night scenes). Although one wonders about the therapeutic value of that Civil Ward fort, a nightmare of iron lattices more calculated to derange the mind than soothe it. But this is a Gothic fantasy as well as a realistic psychodrama, and mismatches like that are practically inevitable.

Opening titles seem to evoke KING KONG, especially as we open on a steamer chugging through fog. 40s horror producer Val Lewton is Scorsese’s big stated reference on this one, so the opening seems apt, as the ship footage from KONG was repurposed for Lewton and Robson’s THE GHOST SHIP. And the opening dialogue between DiCaprio and Ruffalo is as awkward as the shipboard meet cute in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, though in a different way. Here it’s the feeling of green screened background (well-done but still somehow perceptible), the odd mismatches in the editing (Scorsese and Schoonmaker frequently ignore continuity problems but here it’s tricky to see what’s to be gained by some of the rough edges) and the blatant non sequiturs — “Got a girl?” asks Ruffalo, apropos of nothing, although this is one point which does make sense in light of the final revelations.

How fooled were you? It seems to me that anybody with a grounding in storytelling — i.e. anybody who’s heard the term “foreshadowing” — would be asking questions in Scene 1, especially if they’ve heard the hints that an M Night Smymalan humdinger of a final twist is in the offing. And those questions would lead you directly to the right solution, or a big part of it. To their credits, Scorsese, screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis and original author Dennis Lehane throw enough red herrings into the soup to keep us off-balance. Unfortunately, some of the sidetracks we’re invited down seem more promising than the film’s final revelation turns out to be.

Ben Kingsley is Basil Exposition in this one, wheeled on to set up the story at length, and again to explain what happened at the end. We also get a lengthy flashback to help him, although it strikes me that in the name of efficiency alone, it could usefully had substituted for some of his unwieldy spiel. Max Von Sydow is a welcome presence but little more, in plot terms, although maybe it was his being there that made me think that whenever anybody gets around to making FLASH GORDON again, they must and should get Ben Kingsley to don Max’s mantle as Emperor Ming.

Small roles are filled by names like Elias Koteas, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and Jackie Earle Haley, who are very pleasing, but even more satisfying are the less famous players, because they’re more surprising — Ted Levine, who gets a brilliantly strange dialogue in a jeep, my favourite creeping freakout scene in the movie, and Robin Bartlett as the axe-murderess, are great value.

The whole thing is, as Fiona says, a shaggy dog story, which is part of my big problem with it. The movie touches on some of the twentieth century’s most compelling nightmares — Dachau, HUAC, psychiatric abuses — and most of this material is a shoal of red herrings (I won’t say which bits aren’t), raising questions of taste. The film’s true subject is, I guess, madness, a universal fear which doesn’t need this sociopolitical smokescreen for resonance: the holocaust reduced to the status of colourful pageant. Finally, a spoiler — you’ll have to highlight the next bit to read it:

As in THE AVIATOR, it seems to me the story would actually be stronger with a more flawed protagonist. When we learn what Leo’s crime is, it’s pretty understandable, and his estimation of himself as a “monster” seems questionable. If he really did find he’d done something truly terrible, it would be more shocking, but we’d still be on his side because the crime was committed in the past by a version of himself he doesn’t even remember.

In plausibility terms, the idea of Leo becoming completely delusional after committing the crime is highly unlikely, and we have the strange situation of two potential insane murderers in the same household, unknown to each other. A trivial but still niggling issue is that we have only Leo’s word that he didn’t kill his kids. When the authorities showed up and found the whole family dead, and Leo insane, wouldn’t the natural assumption be that Leo killed everybody?

To end: Scorsese has now made three features that seem very much like work-for-hire, although one can’t fault the effort and imagination he puts into them. He hasn’t worked with any of his regular screenwriting cronies since GANGS OF NEW YORK, and he’s not getting any younger. I’ll certainly continue to see his films, but it feels more like his directing is a secondary career compared to his invaluable work in film restoration. On the other hand, I hear Ben Kingsley is playing Georges Melies in the next one…

The comments section, BTW, will be full of spoilers… best avoid if you haven’t seen the movie.

The 7 Wonders of the Pre-Code World #6: Grot

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 22, 2009 by dcairns

Grot!

What visions of splendour that name conjures up! These snaps are all from LITTLE CAESAR, but the production design/art direction of Anton Grot graced countless films of the ’30s (and ’20s, and ’40s). I think visually he may have had more to do with the look of some of these films than the credited director. Certainly Michael Curtiz would have had something to say about the look of DR X or CAPTAIN BLOOD, whether or not anybody understood him, but I could easily see someone like Mervyn LeRoy simply following a storyboard for these great establishing shots ~

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Check those zig-zags!

I first read of Mr. Grot in Leon Barsacq’s nifty textbook Caligari’s Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions, A History of Film Design, which my dad bought me when I was a kid. I think at the time I was kind of disappointed that the book wasn’t really about Caligari and horror films, or film directing per se, but about the speciality subject of film design. And yet, the images in the book stayed with me — I’ve been trying to recreate versions of the Caligari image on the left all through my “career” — there’s even a version of it scripted in one of the feature projects I’m working on right now. The malevolent cross-legged man in the middle of the room!

So thanks, Dad.

Barsacq himself was a distinguished designer, closely associated with Duvivier, Carné and Clair, and his book opened up whole worlds to me — images got embedded in my unconscious, and the tricks of the trade impressed my youthful mind: forced perspective, the Schufftan process, matte paintings and hanging miniatures — THIS was the way to make movies. I don’t recall Barsacq having any particular agenda against realism, but his taste was obviously more attuned to spectacular fantasy and blatant trompe-l’oeil effects. His sensibility crystallized my own.

Veidt Shadows

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2009 by dcairns

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The 1924 original version of HANDS OF ORLAC, from Robert “CALIGARI” Weine, is too classy a film really to fit in with my demented quest to see all the films illustrated  in Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies, but it is in the book, and I did see it, thanks to regular Shadowplayer Guy Budziak. There are horror movies you should see as a kid, and when you see them as a grown-up, you wish you’d seen them earlier (for me, THE BLACK ROOM, CURSE OF THE GOLEM and the silent THE LOST WORLD might be examples), but I don’t think I would have appreciated the lugubrious tone and pace of this one as a kiddie.

It’s also good that I’m seeing it now, since I can connect the stylistic flourishes of German expressionism to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, a student of the German school. This week’s Hitch, NUMBER 17, is a particularly Teutonic crime tale.

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Do you all know the story? Pianist Conrad Veidt plays Orlac, whose hands are smashed up in a train wreck, and is given the substitute extremities of a guillotined murderer. Strange stuff starts to happen, convincing Veidt that his paws retain the murderous proclivities of their previous owner. It’s all part of a fiendish plot by Fritz Kortner, the details of which are obscure enough to keep you guessing. For a while there, I thought that Kortner actually intended to make Veidt murder his own father, by convincing him that his hands were animated by malevolent will.  That plot, worthy of VERTIGO’s Gavin Elster in its twisted complexity, proves to not quite be the case.

Weine here achieves delirious effects without overtly contorted or theatrical sets, although the designs by Hans Rouc and Stefan Wessely are glossy, disconcerting and non-ergonomic. Fiona particularly relished Veidt’s weirdly low hospital bed, which actively compels everybody to loom over him. The best effects are a mixture of lighting (those deep dark jagged shadows, how we adore them!) and performance. Veidt is extraordinary, a floppy-haired stick insect, his brow furrowed into a taut brainscape of clenched convolutions. He does things in this film no actor has ever even thought of doing. I mean, he tries to throw his hands off! He tries to run away from them. Sometimes he literally holds them at arms’ length, as if they’re ablaze, or they smell really bad. At other times they try to crawl inside his face. At one point he looks set to moonwalk. “Michael Jackson!” Fiona cried. “It don’t matter if you’re black or Veidt,” I offered, lamely.

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Alexandra Sorina is Mrs. Orlac, her eyes rolling about like electrified pearls, barely contained by the rings of kohl surrounding them. Actively demented before anything’seven  happened, she does the impossible and keeps pace with Veidt’s physical insanity.

And then there’s Kortner, who has a hard job, appearing as a diabolical villain in such eccentric company, but he has a brilliant strategy — rather than wholeheartedly adopting the contortions and gesticulations of the expressionist style, or merging into the more naturalistic, low-key approach of the supporting players, he alternates between the two, so that you never know what you’re going to get next. Kortner also deploys his astonishing face and body extremely well: he looks like a malignant, pugilistic baby.

Of course, the pachyderm in the parlour is Karl Freund’s Hollywood remake, MAD LOVE, an excellent horror movie (the version to see when you’re twelve) that substitutes a fast-moving parade of grotesquerie and nonsense for the glacial creep of the Weine. The silent movie has nothing that can compare withPeter Lorre’s appearance as the decapitated, reanimated murderer, with black rubber prosthetic forelimbs, fetishistic neck brace, and clockwork cackle, fore-runner to the wind-up Nazi in Del Toro’s HELLBOY.

Lorre, playing a dude, pretending to be another dude — the most balls-out horrific thing in any 30s horror movie.

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But Kortner, deprived of Lorre’s snazzy costume, still does well, moving his plastic-bound arms as if they were stilts, somehow, convincing us that these are foreign appendages buckled to his lardy body. His clunkinessmakes a superb contrast with Veidt’s writhing and slinking.

It’s cinema as spastic ballet!*

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*The phrase “spastic ballet” is copyright Arthur Penn, who used it to describe what he wanted from Beatty and Dunaway when they’re machine-gunned to death at the end of BONNIE AND CLYDE. But on take one, somehow Beatty didn’t get the signal, and while Faye Dunaway spectacularly died in slow motion behind him, Beatty just stood there with a faint, puzzled grin as bits of his head blew off. “I wish I’d kept that bit of film,” says Penn.

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