Archive for Chimes at Midnight

A trick of the light

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2021 by dcairns

One thing that fascinates about Fritz Lang’s late duology The Indian Epic — THE TIGER OF ESHNAPUR and THE INDIAN TOMB — is that the orientalist fantasy of its story and cardboard characterisation is so utterly pulp. Lang’s was an inescapably melodramatic sensibility, and freed from the traditions of Hollywood, he returned to the attitudes of his silent work. Even active the contribution of his former wife, Thea Von Harbou, who had perhaps a little more interest in character psychology, is gone. So the last German films may represent Lang in his purest form.

Accepting Lang’s greatness means accepting his focus on sensational literature and comic book narrative style, which combines in him with a dark, weird sensibility and incredible aesthetics. While the Indian Epic falls down in a few places — there’s a terrible weak battle in the throne room of part 2 — evidently, time and money ran out, and the extras could not be induced to struggle convincingly — it fits Welles’ description of “the beginning and end of every shot” in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT’s Battle of Shrewsbury sequence, before editing tightened it: “pathetic in all the wrong senses of the word” — but otherwise, the two films are stunningly lovely.

And there’s a weird blunder early on: the disappearing child. Lang sets up a tragedy — a small child runs out of shot, is pursued by a tiger, and eaten off-camera. While it’s quite possible the ruthless auteur would have been satisfied to actually loose a big cat upon an expendable child, more compassionate heads have prevailed and so the gag is accomplished by having the kid run through frame, stopping the camera, and filming the tiger’s pursuit as a separate piece of film, its victim long removed to safety. The idea would have been to jump-cut the two shots together, the join being rendered invisible or at least non-obvious by the fact that we’re looking at an empty set, nothing in motion after the kid leaves and before the pussycat appears. There are other sequences in the film where tiny jumps are visible, as Lang tightens the pauses between characters’ entrances and exits.

For some reason, a straight cut wasn’t working — possibly the camera got nudged marginally out of position and so the angles matched less than perfectly. So a dissolve has been introduced. This is unfortunate, since cheap lab work has resulted in all The Indian Epic’s dissolves being clunky, the colour changing as soon as the dissolve begins: to save money, only the part of the shot that’s dissolving has been duped, resulting in a very visible and abrupt change of image quality, a jump-cut of colour. Some filmmakers, like Nick Ray in JOHNNY GUITAR, got around this by filming their dissolves in-camera.

But the dissolve has also been ludicrously mistimed, so that we don’t mix from one empty frame to another — we actually begin to dissolve while the child is still in shot. He fades from view, as if some unseen James Doohan is pushing a slider and beaming him up. Pretty poor. Part of what makes Lang so impressive, perhaps, is that not only are his triumphs quite idiosyncratic, personal, unique, so are his lapses. A Langian screw-up is not the kind anyone else would be likely to make.

On rewatching, I notice that the little dog the kid is chasing ALSO vanishes by jump-dissolve, as if the same bit of alleyway always has that vanishing effect on everyone who passes through it. Perhaps one of those chronosynclastic infundibula you hear about.

But that’s a quibble. I really want to talk about the weird spotlights. Throughout the two films, Lang is picking out key elements in his shots with a slightly amber-orange light which has no naturalistic reason for being there. A subtle spotlight or reflector effect might be introduced invisibly, but not if it’s a different colour from the surrounding daylight. It’s attractive and totally theatrical, a lovely idea.

A bellringer up a tower is bathed in his own little sunset.

When Harald and Seetha collapse in the desert, the patch of sand they’re headed for is already neatly picked out for them in an amber glow.

For all I know there was simply a shortage of half-blue filters for the lights on location, necessary to balance electric light with daylight — you get an orange look contrasting with the more blueish surrounding light — there are pitfalls in ascribing intent to any film effect. But you can still admire the effect itself.

And, towards the end of the second film, it suddenly transforms from a theatrical image into a quasi-naturalistic one. Our hero, architect Harald Berger, the strongest man in India, has been imprisoned in a dungeon dark, dank and donk. A villain appears at a high window to look in on him by torchlight. And the familiar spotlight hits Harald, only this time it has a plausible alibi.

Tom Gunning suggests that the architecture in Lang’s films often acts as a kind of “destiny machine” — like the “propitious rooms” collected by Michael Redgrave’s architect in SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR, his spaces create the actions of his characters, channelling them towards the most dramatic outcome. So it makes sense that a lighting style already present in the film should eventually link arms with the physical shape of a scene.

Oh, and the set-up is also one we’ve seen before: when Harald spies on the forbidden temple ceremony in film 1, he occupies a high window from which to look down into the big space, exactly like Gustav Frohlich spying on the religious meeting in METROPOLIS, and exactly like a projectionist looking through his little window at the audience and film below.

I’d also add that, while the city/palace of Eshnapur here does indeed behave like a classic “destiny machine,” the titular tomb is an even better example — it’s a tomb being built for a living person, and the completion of the tomb will signal the execution of its intended occupant. It’s the most propitious, Langian building imaginable, rising stone by stone as a structure of death, like the sand accumulating in the bottom of the Wicked Witch’s hour-glass.

The Big Mouth

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2021 by dcairns

I was curious about Errol Morris’ AMERICAN DHARMA, about Trump advisor and Breitbart exec Steve Bannon, but not apparently curious enough to see it when it was new. I finally checked it out.

Essentially, it conforms to the conclusions I’ve already drawn about Morris’s filmmaking. When he was making documentaries about ordinary people, he had an impressive ability to get them to open up. When he switched to people like Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, he was suddenly dealing with people who had decades of practice obfuscating and outright lying and who were not about to change the habits of a lifetime. If David Frost couldn’t open up Richard Nixon, a barefaced crook, in three hours of television, Morris wasn’t going to get any damaging revelations out of these creeps in the space of a feature film. So all his films do is humanise the monsters. This, in some circumstances, might seem worthwhile in itself — monsters are human too. Understanding them can be useful, salutary. But McNamara’s technocrat logic and Rumsfeld’s nauseating folksiness are really just masks.

AMERICAN DHARMA does a number of things with Stephen K. Bannon (as he likes to call himself): it makes him look good, by filming him in a reconstructed set from Henry King’s TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, and in hero poses on an airfield, and by flattering lighting and angles — we all know Bannon as a grubby unshaven carcinomic schlub wrapped in excess shirts, a kind of fleshly embodiment of Trumpian excess and corruption. Here he looks, at times, positively noble.

The Bannon emerging from the film is contradictory, which the real Bannon probably is too, but I felt I understood him less at the film’s end than at the beginning. Without feeling I’d been wrong in any of my derogatory opinions about him before. The onscreen Bannon’s most appealing characteristic was his admiration of Morris as a filmmaker and tearful-kitten-emoji eagerness to have Morris’ respect and affection. He genuinely didn’t want Morris to see him as a racist, white supremacist, mean bad guy. So the things he said were calculated to portray him otherwise. Morris was able to use film clips to show Bannon being less cautious elsewhere. When he instructed his audience that when they were called racists, they should “wear it as a badge of pride,” it definitely opened up a schism-chasm between affable Steve the interviewee and his public persona elsewhere. But it seemed, despite a 96 minute runtime, that there just wasn’t any opportunity to get into the nitty-gritty of how exactly it is possible to wear being called racist as a badge of honour, if you’re not a racist. Maybe getting a political figure to approach the truth about himself is going to take much more than an average/minimum feature length. Maybe it can’t be done. Maybe, if that’s true, it shouldn’t be attempted.

Of the varied slithery shitheels and war criminals Morris has allowed to wriggle free over the years (remember how he concluded that the Abu Ghraib torturers were only following orders?), Bannon ought to be the easiest to pin down. He’s not as clever as he thinks he is — I’m not at all certain he’s using the word “dharma” accurately, and certainly the line “we hit them with an enormous fuselage” (rather than “fusillade” — and this guy was in the military?) is laughable. And here is an apparent Breitbart headline, which will reward you for more attention than the copy editor gave it:


As we know from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and other places, Bannon is a man who likes to talk, and while that other jovial fat fellow of sinister motivation, Caspar Guttman, says that talking can only be done judiciously when practiced regularly, it is not certain that talking constantly can ever be judicious, especially if you have crimes to conceal. Bannon not infrequently says the quiet part out loud, because he just can’t bear the thought of there being a quiet part. So it’s actually surprising that Morris, emerging from behind his Interrotron™ to appear as a sort of CKANE Thompson interlocutor, can’t pin down his subject more meaningfully. I guess Morris could argue that, since I didn’t like Bannon better at the film’s end, he hadn’t glorified, glamourised, flattered and platformed a dangerous nutjob — but I have never felt Bannon’s craftiness, sadism and bigotry LESS keenly than I did watching him preen here.

Morris does catch Bannon in one flat-out lie, his assertion that Trump wrote his own inauguration address, which is followed by a slow blink so transparently bogus in its movie-sincerity that Morris’ cry of “Oh come on!” is hardly necessary. And his juxtapositions of archive news footage and doc interview occasionally get at the cruelty underlying the Trump administration’s every action, but living through those years made all that much more visible if you had eyes to see.

I once read that the left cares about human welfare and doing no harm, and the right cares about values, which felt true-ish. So that driving abortion underground, causing more harm, would seem perfectly reasonable to a rightwinger, since all that matters is not endorsing abortion. The death penalty needn’t work as a deterrent, it needn’t save money, it needn’t be humane, it just has to serve as the ultimate statement of a society’s values: there are certain things we feel are so bad that we get to kill you for them.

Suddenly, or not so suddenly, with the Trump administration it seemed like the cruelty was the point. The religious right could overlook Trump violating every commandment ever chiselled, so long as he hurt the right people. Morris mentions this cruelty, but he never follows up on it. When he asks “How is this helping anything?” he’s missing the point. It was never supposed to help anybody or anything, it was just a statement of identity: This particular kind of cruelty is the kind we like. As always with Trump-era wingnuttery, it’s all projection, so when the right accuses the left of identity politics, they’re confessing. Their politics is ALL about identity — their own.

Bannon is, at least, a better movie critic than Trump, who no doubt only chose CITIZEN KANE because it’s “the greatest.” I am undecided if Morris cut that piece together to conflate both Mrs. Kane’s because he assumes Trump doesn’t remember there’s two of them, or just because he wasn’t taking care. Bannon’s reading of CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT is possibly smarter than Morris’. But less humane.

Two-dimensional chess

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2021 by dcairns

Raymond Bernard’s original THE CHESS PLAYER beats Jean Dreville’s remake hands-down, even though the remake has Conrad Veidt and is ace. It’s not because, unlike Dreville, Bernard understands the left-to-right rule and can apply it. But many of the bits of the remake that are faithful to the original but don’t quite work, like the intercutting of two climaxes, work like gangbusters in RB’s silent.

Veidt is a great uncanny presence for Dreville, but Bernard has Pierre Blanchar and Pierre Batcheff, a cheekbones-and-chin combo that could kill at a distance. Plus the creepy Charles Dullin, far less ingratiating than Veidt but very effective in his stealth sympathy. And Édith Jéhanne, very lovely and more interesting than in her other big film, Pabst’s THE LOVE OF JEANNE NEY.

As in the later LES MISERABLES, Bernard breaks out the hand-held camera for his battle scenes, a technique that seems to have been part of the French cinematic pallette — see also LA MERVELLEUSE VIE DE JEAN D’ARC — only to be forgotten until Welles reinvented it for CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT.

Almost certainly the best film about automata and Polish independence.