Archive for Carl Mayer

Intertitle of the Week: Genuinely Nuts

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 31, 2009 by dcairns

“The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness.”

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It can now be confirmed: Robert Wiene’s GEUINE is completely insane. Although, in the truncated form available at present, at least some of its apeshit incoherence may be down to the unwitting juxtapositions wrought by wanton pruning. So much footage has been stripped out that it’s often hard to figure out which intertitle belongs to which character.

Given the violence meted out to Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS, which was not only shortened, with entire plot-lines cast to the winds, but moronically rewritten (to make Rotwang’s robot a “worker of the future” rather than a replacement for his dead wife, for instance), there’s simply no knowing what GENUINE must be like in its genuine form — until I see a longer edit, that is. It may prove to be slow, rational and pedantic. If so, the butchers who hacked it about may have done it a favour, because the expressionist design certainly compliments the narrative frenzy.

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Genuine is some kind of high priestess of a barbaric tribe somewhere or other who gets sold into slavery and brought to somewhere or other by an old Mr Burns type gentleman wearing high heels who keeps her in a glass pyramid in his house —

Then hairdressing comes into it. Hairdressing seems to be quite important in this picture. And everybody has mad, expressionist hair, which makes sense. Oh, except the old gent, who’s bald. He’s the one who has a hairdresser visit him every week. Makes sense.

Genuine escapes from her greenhouse and molests the young relative of the hairdresser. Some other stuff happens. Oh, and it’s all a dream that Peter the Painter is having. Or is it?

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The script is by Carl Mayer, maybe the most interesting of all the writers in Germany at this time (CALIGARI, THE LAST LAUGH, SUNRISE). I love the extracts from German silent scripts that Lotte Eisner reproduces in her books. They’re all like,

The staircase. Dusk.

Now a shadow falls.

He!

Terrific stuff. Check out his IMDb bio for a sad story. I blame the British.

The mutilation of GENUINE is presumably the work of Raymond Rohauer, from whose collection the copy comes. And this week’s Hitchcock, JAMAICA INN, has also passed through RR’s sweaty hands, acquiring some bogus titles at the start — it was Rohauer’s habit to alter films in order to obtain copyright control over them. A slightly dubious character (he also collected images of bloody auto wrecks, for masturbatory purposes, I fear), he nevertheless can be credited with preserving many films that might otherwise have been lost altogether, including the entire directorial output of Buster Keaton.

Messing About in Boats

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2008 by dcairns

“You know, I haven’t been out in a boat since I saw AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY.” ~ Groucho Marx, HORSE FEATHERS.

Irving Pichel, left, plays a strong D.A. with a strange M.O.

Now, thanks to a marvellous man in in Kentucky, I too have seen Josef Von Sternberg’s 1931 film, which I have been simply ulceratingto get my hands on since around the time I saw my last Sternberg-Dietrich. And it’s a pretty good copy, too, recorded off what seems to be The Love Channel(the word LOVE appears in the bottom corner of the screen occasionally, and I don’t think Sternberg put it there, although ANYTHING’S POSSIBLE WITH THAT GUY).

The film had something of a chequered history, what with Murnau and Carl Mayer ripping off a chunk of the plot for SUNRISE (based on this and NOSFERATU, a case could be made for calling Murnau the cinema’s most brilliant plagiarist), Eisenstein writing a screenplay for Chaplin to produce (it never happened) and then Sternberg, on a break from Marlene Dietrich projects, making his film at Paramount, who were then promptly sued by the book’s author, Theodore Dreiser. Read all about it HERE.

Sternberg claims in his dryly hilarious autobiography Fun In A Chinese Laundry that Dreiser, upset that the film misrepresented the book, pointed out several outrageous changes in the movie, which Sternberg then showed to the court were actually faithful reproductions of scenes in the original novel. It seems quite possible.

Plotting a course…for MURDER!

Without having read any Dreiser (which, in a pre-Internet world might well disqualify me from writing anything at all about the movie, but hey, aren’t you lucky?), I get the impression that a great amount of incident has been retained from the book, which a more conventional, less faithful adaptation would have discarded. This results in an odd structure and odd pacing, with leading man Phillips Holmes (why “Phillips”, plural? Does he contain multitudes?) in particular barrelling through some amazingly on-the-nose lines. Long sentences are reeled off without pause, one after the other: people don’t make statements, they produce arguments followed by evidence, counter-arguments and conclusions, and whenever one speech ends, another character will barge in with some more. It’s quite a curious effect, and different from any of the familiar brands of “clunkiness” one might expect to find in an early talkie. Sternberg was a tireless experimenter, particularly with the properties of the new soundtrack, and was always finding new ways to make dialogue sound weird. Dietrich was a great help in this, of course, with her bizarre stresses and rhythms, and one only needs to look at SHANGHAI EXPRESS, where the entire cast was drilled to speak in the rhythms of a train engine, to see Sternberg’s peculiar mind at work.

Compare with SCARFACE, also shot by Lee Garmes. Hawks was always stealing from Sternberg! (Compare UNDERWORLD and RIO BRAVO opening scenes.)

One result of the compression of a fat book (I may not have read any Dreiser but I’ve held them in my hands and winced) into a tight 95 minutes is a certain brusqueness to the characterisation. People are always telling each other flat out what they feel, so subtext has no foothold and any actual acting is rendered redundant, since everything is already being expressed verbally.

Holmes makes the most of this by being as flat as possible, announcing his involvement in a hit-and-run accident to his mother as if he was giving her a recipe for crumbly nut roast while in a bit of a hurry. It makes for a fascinating viewing experience, and renders his character’s attraction to the opposite sex quite mysterious. Fiona, who found Holmes quite winning as a helpless sap in Howard Hawks’ THE CRIMINAL CODE, lost all patience with him here: “Why do all the women fancy him? He’s a BORING BASTARD! And he’s CRAP.”

“Women love a crap, boring bastard,” I told her.

Trees are important in this movie. See how many of them YOU can spot.

Not for nothing is Sternberg renowned as a great director of women, and the two contrasting female leads are radiantly photographed and allowed to be more interesting, although the script murders any real feeling of energy or depth. Sylvia Sydney uses her breathtaking smile to great advantage, though, and is so inherently adorable that she creates audience sympathy without any assistance from the film.

And Frances Dee is much more seductive than I’ve previously seen her. Hard to believe it’s the same actress in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. I guess that’s the effects of the Production Code for you. Also, a sign of Miss Dee’s versatility, and Sternberg’s famed ability to bring out the best, or baddest, in a female performer.

My favourite actors further down the cast list were Irving Pichel as the sneering D.A. (Pichel was also a director himself, but his immoderately reptilian performance here suggests a man not in full control of his faculties) and Charles Middleton as Holmes’ defense counsel, the Emperor Ming. I love the fact that most of Holmes’ cross-examination takes place while he’s sitting in a boat in the middle of the courtroom. I love the fact that his lawyer is Ming the Merciless. And I especially love how the two lawyers square off for a bout of fisticuffs in mid-trial, as if to settle the defendant’s guilt with bare-knuckle violence. The most powerful legal argument in the world: face-punching.

Ming for the defense.

Throughout the story, Sternberg provides helpful intertitles, silent movie fashion, to cover the narrative ellipses, some of which may come from the necessary book-to-film compression: “Summer”, “Late Autumn” etc, until the film starts to feel like a bunch of Ozu movies bolted together. But this is another opportunity for Sternberg to emphasise part of the film’s imagery: water. And trees again.

I love all the strangeness of early talkies. Early soundies are great too — where they have music and FX but people still communicate by intertitles. And I go into raptures over PART-TALKIES, where a silent movie suddenly starts chattering away to itself, then randomly STOPS. Beautiful.

Of course, Sternberg being the perverse individualist he was (read his book, it’s like a Rosetta Stone for the films, an illuminating — yet still mysterious — experience unlike any film autobiography I’ve ever encountered) is obviously responsible for a lot of the film’s strange power. It’s not just a function of the film’s age. The strangest thing perhaps is that it DOES have power. The slow plod of the unfolding narrative, the hinged wooden movements of the characters, the utter lack of sympathy engendered for the protagonist, none of these things prevent it having a weird magic. Apart from some scenes of luminously lovely cinematography (from the mighty Lee Garmes, who shot three of Sternberg’s Dietrich movies), there’s also the really soul-freezing moment when the sentence is read out in court and Holmes reacts to the news of his impending execution…

Euphoria #23

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 20, 2008 by dcairns
run fat boy run 
Danny Carr, Shadowplay informant, offered a plethora of marvellous suggestions for our regular Euphoria section, all of them gold-plated cinematic pulse-pounders. He climaxes, metaphorically speaking, with this un-toppable offering:
“Or actually the infectiously brakes-off and anything goes first few minutes of Jules et Jim. has a movie ever been more fun?”
There’s quite a lot to be said about this sequence, but let’s start with Scorsese’s “I had never seen anything so exhilerating” and take it from there.
(No subtitles on this clip: go learn French)
 
Truffaut’s big innovation is to throw together what looks at times like a random selection of out-takes. Organising principles are provided by Georges Delerue’s ebullient bombast on the soundtrack, which the images cut to, and by an ilustrative approach, some of the time: we see the actors as their credits come up, some of the images seem to relate to some of the technical credits. What has been gloriously abandoned is narrative sense: that can come later. I don’t think anybody else had started doing this at the time, although maybe it was happening in T.V. The device certainly became a mainstay of television credits a little later:
Scorsese’s adulation is worth returning to because, though maybe it’s just my imagination, I’m posi-sure (as Dan Dare would say) that the J&J opening had some kind of effect on Scorsese’s approach to GOODFELLAS. Jeanne Moreau’s voice-over on black screen (stolen by me for my short CLARIMONDE), followed by that boisterous theme, seems to be distantly echoed in the Scorsese flick by Ray Liotta’s first V.O., “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” mopving into a freeze frame, with “From Rags to Riches” blasting in on the soundtrack a couple frames later.
 
Scorsese’s use of an unusually FAST V.O. also ties his work to Truffaut’s. Since Scorsese’s major influence on GOODFELLAS was the abrupt cutting seen in movie trailers, it’s natural that he’d have thought of Truffaut, since that’s kind of what this title sequence is: a trailer for the movie we’re about to see.
Another filmmaker who sometimes starts his films with a trailer is Richard Lester, much on my mind at present as I’m teaching a class about him on Friday (plus, he was nice enough to contribute some funds towards the aforementioned CLARIMONDE). Lester, A Truffaut fan, begins A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM with a piece-to-camera by Zero Mostel which climaxes in a fast-cut musical montage of scenes from the upcoming movie. And Harold Pinter’s unproduced screenplay for Lester’s proposed film of Joseph Conrad’s VICTORY, begins like so:
A boat becalmed, far out to sea. The mast slowly sways. Heat haze. Red sun. 
Gulls encircle the boat, screeching. 
Screeching violins. A ladies’ orchestra. Bare arms. White dresses. Crimson sashes. 
A wall of foliage. Bamboo spears pierce the foliage, quiver, stay pointed. 
Camera pans up to see, through leaves, impassive native faces. 
An island. Moonlight. Silence. 
Figures of men seen at a distance at the door of a low, thatched house. The door is kicked open. The sound reverberates in the night. Explosion of shrieking birds. 
Driving rain. Leashed, barking dogs leading men with rifles through jungle. 
One of the men suddenly turns in panic, raises gun to shoot. 
Champagne corks popping. Two men standing on a jetty. Champagne is poured into glasses. In background a freighter leaving. Natives waving, cheering. The freighter whistles. 
A cylinder gramophone playing in a room. Rosalia Chalier singing. 
Moonlight. 
A girl’s figure in a sarong passes, carrying a bowl of water. 
In background a mosquito net canopy over bed. A man’s body on the bed. 
The girl parts the netting, places the bowl on the bed, kneels on the bed, looks down at the man. 
The gramophone hissing. 
A creek. Night. Crackle of fire. Two figures seated in foreground. 
Fire burning. 
Beyond the fire two Venezuelan Indians poking long knives into fish. They eat. 
The two foreground figures remain still. 
One of these raises a hand and wipes it on a silken handkerchief. 
High up on a hillside two figures in the grass. Bright sunlight. 

A girl’s stifled scream.

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I love how Pinter writes the opening montage, breaking every rule of screenwriting and format. The fragmented, snappy sentences are also quite close stylistically to Carl Mayer’s work for Murnau…

More on screenwriting soon!