Archive for the Mythology Category

The Sunday Intertitle: Quite Wrong

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on December 5, 2021 by dcairns

I always misremember the start of BLITHE SPIRIT — I always imagine that the opening preamble is delivered as title cards, or as VO. In fact, it’s both. Which is a great idea. The title cards are replied to by the author himself, Noel Coward, who had one of the most distinctive voices in Britain. It’s like Cocteau’s handwriting, perfect for introducing one of his works.

“We are quite, QUITE wrong.”

Coward’s father was an unsuccessful piano salesman, so his fantastic posh voice, coming from somewhere behind his nose, was a concoction of his own.

I must find an excuse to introduce my students to him. The younger generation don’t generally know about him, and I’m pretty sure my nine Chinese students won’t have come across the works, let alone the persona.

Impressive that CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? managed to build a plot around his correspondence without having to shoehorn in unnecessary explanations of who he was, exactly. The Americans are good at smooth exposition, a lost art in Britain.

I wonder how Brits processed the Coward persona back in his day. He seems “obviously gay,” and I think this was probably recognized, but we just didn’t speak of it. You could be flamboyant yet discreet and it was sort of accepted. The acceptance was conditional on nobody being forced to acknowledge what they all knew. You can’t quite call it “tolerance.” Well, maybe tolerance of the unstated. As Wilde discovered to his cost — though he already knew it, too — if the love that dared not speak its name were forced to account for itself, the lover quickly found himself beyond the pale. “The don’t ask don’t tell” brigade demand to live in a state of low-key cognitive dissonance, and if their compartments break down they get very irate.

Noel’s skill at navigating these murky depths is evident in BLITHE SPIRIT’s script, which constantly escapes truly facing the scandalous implications of its concept. If there’s an afterlife, then widowers remarrying becomes bigamy. Sure, this movie is a fantasy, but pick at it and Heaven comes crashing down under the weight of its own contradictions. Or at any rate, we’re forced to revise our expectations of it to include the menage-a-trois and more. Or, I suppose, taking into account the “till death us do part” escape clause, we assume all vows are null up there, and a twice-widowed spouse could choose which, if any, of their former partners to remarry. Design for dying.

Interesting to see David Lean when he apparently had no interest in landscape. Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford, sublime) stands at the window and rhapsodises about the evening, but our director isn’t tempted to provide even a single illustrative cutaway.

Old Gods

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2021 by dcairns

Here’s the statue of Moloch in CABIRIA, big old god to whom human sacrifices are rendered.

Joe May obviously admired Giovanni Pastrone’s film, and also Griffith’s INTOLERANCE which was influenced by its gigantism and its mobile camera. For years, cinematographers referred to “Cabiria shots,” meaning any camera move designed to show off the dimensions of a big set. May copied the sets but didn’t pick up on the tracking shots until years later.

MISTRESS OF THE WORLD is May’s super-epic adventure film. Eight episodes, each something like three hours long, I think. In episode three, the heroes journey to the lost African city of Ophir, as you do, and discover the benighted natives worshipping Baal. Although May built super-colossal sets for his super-epic, his Baal is fairly tiny compared to Moloch.

All I’ve been able to see of the possible day-long saga is a few shots excerpted in Brownlow & Winterbottom’s Cinema Europe documentary. I would like to experience the whole thing, which apparently contains revenge, white slavery, science fiction rays, media satire, exotic travel, and tits.

Fritz Lang worked on MISTRESS as an assistant director.

And here’s Moloch again, for the machine age, in Lang’s METROPOLIS. But the way the workers shuffle robotically into his maw is directly lifted from the May film. Although, since it’s a crowd scene, Lang could have been the one who thought of having the extras move that way, in which case he’s only SELF-plagiarising.

I feel like METROPOLIS, which HG Wells thought a “foolish film,” may have also influenced George Pal’s film of Wells’ THE TIME MACHINE, where the Eloi are hypnotised by a mechanical siren song into walking robotically to their dooms beneath the statue of a sphinx. Tastefully, Pal avoids making his Morlock Moloch a copy of Lang’s. The sphinx DOES appear in Wells book, but Pal and screenwriter David Duncan seem to have developed the really good idea, never spelt out, that the air raid siren that makes everybody go below during WWII and WWIII, seen earlier in the time traveller’s travels, has become a race memory, evoking a Pavlovian response in the poor Eloi. And maybe the whole thing was developed subconsciously from the euphony of the names Moloch and Morlock? And it leads to a really brilliant notion, that of an air raid siren functioning like a mythical one.

The Sunday Intertitle: Faust Person Singular

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Theatre with tags , , , , on October 24, 2021 by dcairns

Having enjoyed Enrico Guazzoni’s quirky UNA TRAGEDIA AL CINEMATOGRAFO of 1913, I decided to check out some of his epic or quasi-epic work. FAUST is from 1910, a year when epics ran short and small to modern eyes: Goethe’s play, credited as the source, is compressed into eighteen minutes here.

Time, that interfering studio executive, has wrought its adjustments to Enrico’s work, adding a weird cyclone of whirling white and black scratches or streaks, roving over the action and occasionally obscuring it completely. Fortunately we can still see the backdrops and costumes — Mephistopheles sports not so much horns as insectoid antennae, and has great fun swirling his cape like a serpentine dancer — and the performances which are certainly vigorous. These, after all, are not just early silent film performers, but Italians. However, they don’t perform their ebullient mimes outward, at us, Keystone-fashion, but at each other. I approve.

Guazzoni uses the story as an excuse for stage-magic puffs of smoke and jump-cuts in the Melies fashion, but his most interesting effect is when, as stated in the above intertitle, “Mephisto shows Faust an image of Marguerite in a magic mirror.” To accomplish this, Guazzoni alternates between two shots:

First, a wide shot of the scene, a cave. Mephisto holds up the magic mirror, which currently reflects nothing but bright light.

Then E.G. cuts to another shot, closer but still pretty wide, with different (dimmer) lighting, and now we can see Marguerite (cast details are sketchy but this may well be Fernanda Negri Pouget) genuinely reflected in the mirror. Once she’s made her impact, we cut back to the earlier angle and she’s gone.

It feels like getting her to appear and disappear in one shot was too difficult, so the director resorted to an unconventional angle change. The interpolation of closeups was barely established as part of film language (Griffith would get into it a year later), so he uses a rather spacious wide, which cuts jarringly with the shots either side of it, especially since the image gets markedly darker too. It feels like we’ve been transported to a whole other cave, though it’s probably the same backdrop from an angle to the right of the original.

But none of the clunkiness matters because it doesn’t feel exactly like an attempt at continuity cutting — it is, after all, a piece of magic Mephistopheles is performing here.

Guazzoni gets up to some other neat business — soon, the painted scenery gives way to real locations, allowing the actors to move from silhouette in an archway to brightly lit in the sun. The transitions from studio to reality are pretty smooth, in part because the sets aren’t always just flats and furniture, but sometimes have real chunky architectural heft to them. It’s actually hard to be sure sometimes if the action is outdoors, or indoors-pretending.

The French intertitles are still spoiler-heavy: the idea that it might be more dramatic to set up, say, the duel with Marguerite’s brother, via title card, but let the outcome be a surprise revealed by the action itself, has not occurred to anyone, or at least not anyone who got listened to. But there might even be a reluctance to shock the audience that way, a feeling they might need a bit of a warning of the impending death. Contains mild peril.

The image of the brother lying prone outside his house resonates peculiarly with me since I just collapsed in my own back yard while taking Momo out for his daily walk. It looked just like this. Low blood sugar seems to be the cause rather than anything more serious, an indication, however unpleasant, that my attempts to reverse my diabetes with a low-carb diet may be succeeding only too well.

Drink plenty of water. I don’t know if that advice would have helped Dr. Faustus, but what the hell, it couldn’t hurt.