Archive for Brecht

Pg. Seventeen IV: The Return of Michael Myers

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2022 by dcairns

Porter rummaged through the stock of Edison’s old films, searching for suitable scenes around which to build a story. He found quantities of pictures of fire department activities. Since fire departments had such a strong popular appeal, with their colour and action, Porter chose them as his subject. But he still needed some central idea or incident by which to organise the scenes of the fire department in action . . . Porter therefore concocted a scheme that was as startling as it was different : a mother and child were to be caught in a burning building and rescued at the last moment by the fire department.

Loading the camera is a simple operation, fully described in any instruction book.

When all this was arranged and we had heard mass, we commended ourselves to God and his blessed Mother, and began our voyage.

Here is a conversation with a child of four who was, in my view, on the way to literacy. He did not know letter shapes but he had a vocabulary big enough for him to understand verbal jokes, rare in four-year-olds. Television gave us a talking point.

His character moved me by its intensely dramatic quality, which I found far more convincing than those personalities which are revealed in the gradual process of human development, through situations of conflict and clashes of principle.

As against the dramatic actor, who has his character established from the first and simply exposes it to the inclemencies of the world and the tragedy, the epic actor lets his character grow before the spectator’s eyes out of the way in which he behaves . . . The actor Chaplin . . . would in many ways come closer to the epic than the dramatic theatre’s requirements. (Brecht, 1964a, p.56)

At first glance this aspect of our discussion may seem a far cry from the role of the camera as voyeur, the image with which I started and which seems to me so important in the evolution of the film medium. Motion pictures brought to the still photograph the only element, the reproduction of motion, that was lacking to simulate life itself. No matter how complicated an art (indeed, a fine art) the film may become, the elementary charm of witnessing life as it happened or may still be happening outstrips in closeness to reality, t life ‘as it is’, any other medium containing representations of the natural world. The visual image is more immediate in communicative terms than the word, either printed or spoken — and anyway, for some time now the film has also possessed the spoken word, absorbed it. As for the visual imagery of the stage, it exists within a literally confined space of which the spectator is always tacitly aware, no matter how many mobility devices are used to create a sense of spatial expansion. The stage cannot hope to achieve what the film achieves without effort: the illusion of being a window opened on the world itself. And not only does the world move; the window also moves in the world.

Seven passages from seven page seventeens from six books abandoned in my office at work and one found at home. I should note that the description of Edwin S. Porter’s methodology seems to me to be probably not quite accurate.

RIP Gavin Millar.

The Rise of the American Film by Lewis Jacobs, quoted in The Technique of Film Editing by Karel Reisz & Gavin Millar; How to Film: A Focal Cinebook by G. Wain; The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz; The Box in the Corner: Television and the Under-Fives by Gwen Dunn; Sculpting in Time by Andrei Tarkovsky; Bertholdt Brecht, quoted in The Brechtian Aspect of Radical Cinema, essays by Martin Walsh; Underground Film: A Critical History by Parker Tyler.

Damon Knight

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2020 by dcairns

Mark Damon, now a producer (MONSTER), then a rakishly handsome movie star big in Italy, stars in Vittorio Cottafavi’s last feature, I CENTI CAVALIERI (THE HUNDRED HORSEMEN, 1964), screened in Bologna in Techniscope and Technicolor, looking fantastic.

After an ennervating start (the traditional bickering lovers turned up to eleven, Italian style) this turned out to be really interesting. Cottafavi appears in Richard Roud’s cinema dictionary alongside Bava, suggesting one who presents as an amusing pictorialist, so it was a surprise to find him quoted in the festival programme describing his Brechtian intentions, and almost a bigger surprise to find them carried out in this jaunty peplum-type historical romp.

The Moors ride into a neutral Spanish town and take over, behaving like Nazis (they’re led by Dr. Mabuse, Wolfgang Preiss). Farmmboy Damon becomes a warrior, aided by his militaristic uncle, the mayor’s feisty daughter, a bandit gang led by a comedy dwarf (verfremdungseffekt!), and a wily priest (Gaston Moschin, of whom we needed more).

Well, there’s a lot of dumb comedy and action in this film, but also strange thoughtful moments. As a for-instance: when someone demonstrates a newly invented suit of armour, visor down, a priest speculates that the warrior of the future will be even more unseen, striking at a distance, with civilians, property, whole cities destroyed in this “clean” manner. And before the spirited Robin Hoodery gets going, we pay a visit to a spectacular castle (the scenery in this is Lean-worthy, animated by Cottafavi’s athletic camerawork) populated entirely by amputees, shut away in anticipation of war, lest the sight of their varied mutilations sap the peasants’ martial spirit. This skeptical attitude to war seems forgotten until the climax, another clangorous, Wellesian montage, suddenly plunged into monochrome with chilling effect…

Not as successful overall as DONNE E SOLDATI (the comedy too broad and not often funny — but arguably its true purpose is to disrupt, not amuse) this incredible bargain-bin EL CID is still fascinating and betrays an intellectual ambition utterly lacking in Cinecitta’s usual he-man spectacles.

Fritz bits

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by dcairns

The real Heydrich was NOT shot in the spine, but in the spleen… my guess if, Fritz Lang may have seen images like this when injured in WWI (three horses shot out from under him) and chose to include it…

“Bert” Brecht’s scenario for HANGMEN ALSO DIE! includes a HUGE number of supporting roles, some with only a few lines. Director Fritz Lang fills the dramatis personae with memorable faces and wrings a whole panoply of peppy performances from them. In the lead, Quatermass McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is better than he ever was elsewhere, suggesting by minimal means the moral strain of a man who knows hundreds may die in consequence of his actions. America’s first largely prosthetic actor, not counting Kong, whom he slightly resembles, Donlevy never made a move without his elevator shoes, corset and toupée, but couldn’t do anything about his startlingly short arms, like those of a T-rex. Couldn’t Bud Westmore, who made Harold Lloyd’s special lifelike glove to hide his missing fingers, have knocked together a couple of arm extensions for McGinty?

Really good work from Walter Brennan, cast way against type as a professor — anti-Nazi films always have a professors, it seems, and professors everywhere have beautiful daughters, and so here we have Anna Lee, also excellent. These characters are even more moving in THE MORTAL STORM, as you’d expect with Frank Borzage in charge, but Lang’s harder edge also has its advantages. We also get Margaret Wycherly, looking like a haunted tree™ as usual, and Dennis O’Keefe, whose tendency to turn up whenever his fiance is in what looks like a compromising position, seems like good prep for all those farces he made later in the forties.

But I want to talk about smaller roles. Janet Shaw fascinated me. She played the dead-eyed slattern of a teen waitress in SHADOW OF A DOUBT and was just remarkable. Anytime she shows up in a film, I get fascinated. Here she’s a little TOO perky, perhaps, as a factory worker and patriotic saboteur, her eyes darting vivaciously around the faces assembled at a meeting of the resistance. But she has a great moment later when arrested, spitting fire and defiance at her captors.

See here and here for previous appreciations.

We also get Charles “Ming the Merciless” and Dwight Frye and a defenestrated Lionel Stander, star-spotters!

But the film’s array of Nazis is its best point (aside from Lang’s bleakly beautiful mise-en-scene, of course, and his crisp cutting, many scenes joined together by questions asked in one scene and answered in another, or phrases begun in one place and completed elsewhere. Is this where Welles got the idea for KANE’s scene-linking?).

The decision to have the “Nazis” play their roles as comedy is a surprising one. It doesn’t attract much comment in discussions of the film. HANGMEN ALSO DIE! is far from being a comic film, but its treatment of those running the Protectorate is almost Lubitschian. All the various types of Hollywood Nazi are represented here — and the idea seems to be to refute the German claims of superman status with an insistence on the pathetic, grubby human foibles that make these guys on the one hand, no better than the rest of us, and on the other, considerably worse.

There’s Heydrich himself, Hans Heinrich Twardowski (from CALIGARI) in a big rubber Mabuse nose, conforming to the stereotype of the Nazi pansy (usually Martin Kosleck’s department). This isn’t an accurate depiction of Heydrich, but the goal is partly just to INSULT, using exactly the terms we assume would be most offensive to the Nazis.

There’s the spotty Nazi (Tonio Selwart), with a big set of Marcellus Wallace sticking plasters on the back of his neck and a gleaming chancre on his brow, later seen lovingly squeezing a pluke in the mirror — an undreamt-of image in Hollywood cinema or anywhere else — I equate this to Dennis Hopper picking his nose in LAND OF THE DEAD (which I equate to stuff like Paul Wolfowitz caught licking his comb on camera) — a concentration on the undignified, messily human aspects of the supposed superman.

There’s the lightweight sadist (Reinhold Schunzel, THE THREEPENNY OPERA), not an imposing figure, more like a mean schoolteacher, but one with a whole state apparatus backing him up. He tortures an old woman using only a loosely assembled chair, and the power behind him. Personally, he’s a buffoon, with a Sig Ruman-like delivery, cracking his fingers as he gloats behind his desk. Without a desk and armed guards at his command, he’d be pathetic. He IS pathetic. Time will tell.

And then there’s the detective (Alexander Granach, the Shadowplayer from WARNING SHADOWS; Knock, the gibbering Renfield figure from NOSFERATU), the most competent figure we meet on the enemy side. He frequents whores and is addicted to Czech beer, so again, his lack of “purity” and his vulgarity and human frailty are front and centre. But he’s a worthy opponent. The big trick staged by the resistance in the film’s third act would never work if he were around to study it. His innate shrewdness and unerring mental leaps (signalled with a pantomime snap of the fingers) means he’s only ever a step or two behind the heroes, and frequently a step or two ahead. Thwarted for the moment, his finger-snap is exchanged for a first pounding into a palm. Very theatrical, but with all this comedy Lang is not only making a satirical point, he’s finding a way to leaven the  film’s grimness.

Lang wasn’t too great at comedy — the jokes in WESTERN UNION, with Slim Summerville slowly starving, seem sadistic and depressing. Sometimes, laughs can spill out into places they don’t belong, as in the campy, though still compelling, HOUSE BY THE RIVER. Lang is a harsh, heavy filmmaker and humour isn’t his element — but this kind of nasty wit seems ideally suited to his temperament and, crude though some of it is, it’s very effective because it’s so surprising in this context.

A lot of American films made fun of the Nazis — it was understood that they would hate this, and its was felt better to despise them and sneer at them than to be afraid of them. James Harvey in his book Romantic Comedy points out how strange it was, in this context, that Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE was thought to have gone too far. He identifies the problem being located in one line from Sig Ruman to Jack Benny, his insulting review of Benny’s acting: “What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland.” The joke turned auditoria ice-cold at the time, apparently — other attempts at humor by the Nazi characters are deliberately rather gross, but this one asks us to laugh at the effect it has on Benny. In other words, the Nazi wins this round, though he doesn’t know who he’s talking to. Audiences at the time were not prepared to laugh at the thought of Nazis winning anything.

Lang is on safer ground — the humour is present merely in how the Nazis are portrayed, by artful, expressionistic actors, whose style contrasts elaborately with the simplicity of the Americans playing Czechs (plus one Brit, Anna Lee). So there’s a satisfying (Brechtian?) distance between how the Nazis see themselves — superior, in a word — and how both the performances and the plot encourage us to see them — as nasty buffoons.

Or, as Fiona put it, it’s like a long episode of ‘Allo, ‘Allo!

It’s also defensibly close to reality — though the film omits the massacre of Lidice, it surprises by showing the Nazis murdering all the hostages they had promised to release, a smaller but dramatically equivalent atrocity. Lidice, in fact, boomeranged badly, becoming the signature crime used in propaganda to denounce Nazi Germany. The Nazis handed the Allies a club with which to beat them. It’s not funny, but it’s certainly oafish.