Archive for The Merry Widow

Martedi

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2014 by dcairns

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Martedi, in my Il Cinema Ritrovato program, seems to correspond to “Tuesday” in English time. But time at a film festival moves in mysterious ways.

I met somebody who had a chronological day — starting with FANTOMAS in the morning, following that up with a Wellman pre-code, moving on to Italy in the fifties, and so on — stopping around 1964, because there’s no sense in getting too contemporary, is there? There’ll be time enough for that later. We spend most of our lives in the moment, it’ a relief to escape.

I didn’t manage a day like, that, preferring to jump around crazily like I do on Shadowplay, but I did frequently start the day in 1914 or 15.

Three Chaplins, ably accompanied by Antonio Coppola. I’d never sen Chaplin on the big screen, incredibly. This was part of a retrospective of CC’s Essanay productions, which allowed him more time, money and control than Keystone had, but do not reach the dizzy heights of the later Mutual films. HIS NEW JOB, which is set in a film studio called Lockstone, co-stars Ben Turpin, and showcased some interesting directorial touches — Chaplin moves the camera precisely three times. In each case, it’s while the camera is rolling on a scene within a scene — in the first instance, he slides in to exclude the hand-cranking and focus on the actors, as if we were entering the world of the movie. The second time, he simply glides sideways, animating the action with an Altmanesque drift. It’s as if he’s saying, “Movies have tracking shots — the movies you’re used to seeing. But my movies only use those kind of things in inverted commas.”

A NIGHT OUT was plotless knockabout in the Keystone tradition (with Turpin again) but THE CHAMPION was something fairly special — the boxing match at the end is a real tour-de-force, anticipating the one in CITY LIGHTS and actually almost as good — also, for maybe the first time Chaplin is working on our sympathies — not for sentiment, exactly, but just to get us on his side. In A NIGHT OUT and HIS NEW JOB he’s a nasty little thug, but he opens THE CHAMPION by sharing his last sausage with a bulldog.

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RAZZIA IN ST PAULI (1932) was my first Werner Hochbaum, though I’d had DVDs of some of his films in my possession for ages. Great Weimar grime, with ladies of the night, fugitive crooks, and late-night jazz musicians as protags. Hochbaum downgrades dialogue in favour of ecstatic details and establishers, weaving a city symphony into his tale of Hamburg low-life. Very atmospheric, and the heroine has sexy sharp shoulders, something I’d never thought of particularly as a turn-on before.

Crossing the hall from the Sala Scorsese to the Sala Mastroianni, I caught some more musical shorts. This program opened with a Dulac short illustrating a song, and also featured FOUR INDIAN LOVE LYRICS, starring Wheeler Dryden, half-brother to Charlie and Sydney Chaplin. Wheeler is the idiot brother par excellence, having failed to capture any of the talent genes before his quasi-siblings snapped them up. But maybe he was a nice guy, who knows? Charles wasn’t always the most affable of men, and Sydney was a rapist and a cannibal.

The after lunch slot typically offered the most mouth-watering choices, driving festival-goers crazy as they tried to balance entertainment value — THE STAR WITNESS, Wellman — with novelty value — Italian compendium segments — with the latest restoration — LE OLYMPIADI DI AMSTERDAM — with an exciting program — early Japanese talkies… I plumped for the short feature on this screening, a documentary on Japanese movie studios, full of moronic narration (at one point, during the shooting of a samurai action scene, the VO guy flatly intones, “Look at them.”) — I enjoyed it, and it was certainly rich in historical interest, but I do feel bad about missing most of the Japanese season.

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I ducked out of this one and headed for DRAGON INN, a King Hu swordfighting flick which proved highly entertaining. And, shamefully, I’d never seen a KH joint, let alone on the big screen, so it was educational too. A heroine in drag who wouldn’t fool anyone but fools everyone — endless berserk action — impossible leaping — and an asthmatic villain. As a fellow wheezer, I liked seeing one of my own kind given enough respect to serve as an action baddie.

I could have stayed in my seat and seen the restored A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, but I was feeling virtuous and wanted to avoid movies I already knew well — I marched back to the Cinema Lumiere and took in a bunch of Germaine Dulac newsreels with one of her rarer features. The shorts were nice but the main movie, ANTONETTE SABRIER, was a snooze — romance and high finance, with only traces of impressionist technique and subverting of sexual mores.

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I was feeling kind of tired and nearly missed the greatest event of the fest — THE MERRY WIDOW. A valuable lesson — when your body tells you it’s had enough movies, DON’T LISTEN!

One of the supreme cinematic experiences of my life

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on July 2, 2014 by dcairns

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THE MERRY WIDOW, “personally directed” — personally! — by Erich Von Stroheim, in the Piazza Maggiore, under the stars, with an audience of thousands, and music by the Orchestra del Teatro Communale di Bologna, conducted by Stefanos Tsialis, the Franz Lehar themes recomposed by Maud Nelissen.

I don’t really have to explain the title of this piece, do I? But look — I’ve never really seen Stroheim’s work. I tried to watch the “restored” GREED years back, and found it heavy going — all those still photographs — but I never doubted his importance. My picture of him was formed by the TV series Hollywood, whose co-creator I met yesterday, and by that groovy doc THE MAN YOU LOVED TO HATE, and by his acting performances. So I knew the legend. Seeing the work, and in such staggering circumstances, is something else again. I will try to write more when I’ve processed it.

At the end of the evening, Michel Ciment breezed past, and Ehsan Khoshbakht only realized it when Jonathan Rosenbaum told him. And Ehsan declared that Ciment’s book on Francesco Rosi, translated into Farsi, was one of the first important film books in his life. “Go after him,” I suggested. I’d seen Ciment at Edinburgh years ago and formed the impression that he’s a decent gent. So Ehsan said hello to The Great Man. And I’m not the most thoughtful man in the world — ask my wife — I did, after all, steal David Robinson’s seat at the closing gala of his own film festival — but I proposed taking a quick photo of the two generations of cinephile. And Ciment is indeed a gent.

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And look at Ehsan — that’s a happy man! And after THE MERRY WIDOW, in which John Gilbert stares soulfully, Roy D’Arcy grins evilly, Mae Murray makes googly eyes and Tully Marshall ogles girls’ feet, so was I. Along with REAR WINDOW at the Dominion and PLAYTIME at the Lumiere (both Edinburgh) and CRY FOR BOBO in Milan, this was one of the landmarks. I may be coming down with a cold — so I very nearly didn’t go. I would have missed something really unique.

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]

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