Archive for Asphalt

Traveling Matte Finish

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2021 by dcairns

Joe May’s career has a curious shape. From detective series starring Anglophone-sounding heroes called Stuart Webbs and Joe Deebs, he graduated to epic adventure films starring his wife Mia, then sold his studio and went to work for UFA, reaching an artistic pinnacle with HEIMKEHR and ASPHALT. When sound came he turned his hand to musical comedy, and kept at that as he emigrated rapidly through France and Britain and wound up in Hollywood where he made another, MUSIC IN THE AIR.

His American career was patchy, and declined rapidly to B-pictures, but these are not terrible. He never made a little classic like his protege E.A. Dupont’s THE SCARF, but he never made THE NEANDERTHAL MAN either, so there’s that.

During his speedy passage through France, he managed to make three films, and two of those he made twice: PARIS-MEDITERRANEE (1932), for instance, was shot in French, and again in German (as ZWEI IN EINEM AUTO). Presumably the French contacts helped May get out of Germany the following year. The French version was a Pathe-Natan production, and I got hold of a scrappy off-air recording of it back when we were making our documentary NATAN. Somebody subsequently made very good subtitles for it, and Fiona and I just watched it.

Charmant! Annabella is lovely as ever and her then-husband Jean Murat essays a totally convincing English accent throughout. Scenic views of the Riviera. All very fuzzy, with an intermittent sound problem that makes everyone like they’re snorting helium at the bottom of a well while wrapped in vinyl sheets.

The movie is nothing remarkable, except that the early sound musicals are full of invention, even when the stories are souffle-light and not particularly memorable. This one ends, for instance, with the two comedy relief idiots hanging off a tree over a cliff on the Riviera, with the jealous Spaniard (José Noguéro) biting the buffoonish accountant (Frédéric Duvallès) on the bottom. It’s not exactly LE REGLE DE JEUX.

More big thick matte lines for us to enjoy, though! Tricky to be making a romcom road movie a year before the Translux scene was gifted to the film industry by its inventor, Yves Le Prieur, making rear-projection a vastly more effective technique, and making KING KONG possible. If the film had been silent, May could have filmed the car stuff for real, but a talkie needed to be filmed in the studio, so we get Jean Murat and Annabella haloed with wavering jagged white outlines that keep biting off portions of their heads you would not think they could do without. Excellent stuff. Even if the film were not as charming as it is, that kind of thing could make it endlessly diverting. Elsewhere May rapidly cuts together real car POV shots with our heroes outlined against a perfectly blank whiteness, as if driving into Jimmy Stewart’s nightmare limbo in VERTIGO.

The Long Walk

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 17, 2021 by dcairns

Gustav Frohlich walks home from the war in Russia in Joe May’s HEIMKEHR (HOMECOMING, 1928).

Really striking super-low-angle tracking shot — the path Gustav’s on is ABOVE the camera — with miniature backgrounds matted in, creating the effect of a cross-continent odyssey. The matte effect is shonky as hell but kind of attractive. Those little thin flickering matte lines on expensive effects films always looked ugly, nobody realised that it would be better to make the matte lines like a foot thick.

Gorgeous film. Frohlich is, like everyone, crazy-wild in METROPOLIS, but wonderfully natural in ASPHALT. This one’s in between — he has great bits and bits where he seems demented. A shame, because the weatherbeaten Lars Hanson (Large Handsome) and sultry Dita Parlo are incredibly good and utterly consistent. Joe May’s best film, maybe?

Amazing miniature landscapes, straight out of FAUST, and even the film decomposition adds to it.

Traffic cop

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2021 by dcairns

ASPHALT has a great charcoal look and is not quite a great film, I think. Because the story moves slowly without surprises. But it’s a curious cross between a Kammerspielefilm (literally, “room-talk-film”, I think) and an epic city symphony, only most if not all of the film’s Berlin is a studio construction.

Director Joe May pulls a strange trick early on: after we meet rookie cop Gustav Frohlich (wonderfully natural and boyish, a stark contrast to his hysteria in METROPOLIS) and his family, May creates an ambiguous splitscreen out of the domestic caged bird and the street traffic outside. After a fast montage of Deutsch-tilted streetcars and regular cars, he repeats the composition with Frohlich’s traffic-cop hand in the centre.

The suggestion that Frohlich resembles the bird is sort of clear — a suggestion of innocence and vulnerability? But the placement of the bird amid the traffic at first seems completely opaque in meaning. I suspect the film’s original score (this is 1929 so I imagine a big film like this would have a score written) may have created a musical connection — tweet tweet from the birdie, then toot toot from the car horns. Karl-Ernst Sasse does a great job with the film’s modern score, it’s really lovely, hire him to do your movies, but the aural connection hasn’t occurred to him.

The other thing I want to say about this film relates it to CONFESSION, probably May’s best Hollywood film, discussed here. The movie is a shot-for-shot remake of Willi Forst’s MAZURKA, except for the last shot. Now it turns out that May also stole the last shot, but from his own film, more or less. Here’s ASPHALT and CONFESSION, side by side:

ASPHALT is the more beautiful, with the foreground figure offsetting the symmetry and single-point perspective, but both shots show the heroine going off to jail, nobly. There you go, two spoilers in one!

I read a bit more about CONFESSION’s derivation. Supposedly it’s not only shot for shot, but each shot was timed to match the original, a crazy idea. Given that the films were made in different languages, matching the length of a dialogue scene with Pola Negri to one with Kay Francis would require a translation of the dialogue that comes to the same duration, or else Kay would have to speak faster or slower than Pola had. Which would make for a different effect on the viewer, whether the shot was the same length or not.

Where did the idea come from to match shot lengths? It seems like a producer’s idea: smart on the surface, dumb underneath. Not because producers are all dumb, but when they get to thinking about problems that are more naturally directorially, they can be. The reverse is also true. Joe May was a producer and a director, so it might be his idea — thinking directorially with his producer head, or vice versa. Or it could be Hal B. Wallis, a very smart guy but prone to smart guy mistakes, or Jack L. Warner. I’d like to know. The idea was new, experimental. And obviously it was discussed, maybe used in publicity, because it’s come down to us as a thing that is known. And maybe it’s not even true, just ballyhoo — I’ll need to run the two films alongside…