Archive for Der Mude Tod

Legit Video Essayist

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2018 by dcairns

This is the complete-to-date heap of discs I’ve contributed video essays to, for Criterion, Masters of Cinema, Arrow and Kino (just the one, on Zulawski’s COSMOS). More are on the way and then there’s some that are purely online, notable the Anatomy of a Gag series for Criterion, which there will be more of soon.

I was quite anxious when I made my first piece for Arrow’s release of Roger Corman’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. I wanted the thing to have a style of its own and not to be just a text essay read out flatly with images from the movie run under it. But I wasn’t sure how to make sure it was more than that. I tried whispering the VO but the producer kindly told me the effect was ridiculous. I had two ideas for all-visual sequences, one where we cut together all the mood scenes where Corman’s camera wanders around the house, and one where we dissolved all the exterior matte paintings of the house together to create a kind of time-lapse image of the mansion by day, by night, in fog, on fire, and finally crumbling into the tarn. And I read in bits of Poe’s source story. The rest of the time it was basically a text essay read over film clips, though they were at least edited to make them appropriate to what was being said.

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT gave me a wealth of material to work from — the film, lots of stills, behind-the-scenes footage shot by the BBC, film of the premiere, clips from later Richard Lester films, and then an audio interview with Mr. Lester which had to be cut in a couple of weeks before the deadline. Having additional material helped turn the piece into a mini-documentary, and the feedback from producer Kim Hendrickson was always helpful, but it was something Lester said that solved my worries about the form. He advised me not to directly illustrate what was being said, but to aim for oblique connections. Or maybe he was just talking about his own preferred approach. But I think it gave him a physical pain whenever I matched an image directly to a word. And I should have known better.

One that’s pretty direct that I still like is when the VO, spoken by Rita Tushingham, explains that Lester never used a shot list or storyboard, he just carried the film in his head, and I accompanied this with a rear view from the BBC footage of Lester operating a hand-held camera, the magazine beside his cranium. That’s pretty close to an illustration — it has FILM and HEAD in it — but I like it because it accompanies an image you can’t literally show photo-realistically, of a man holding the thought of a sequence in his mind.

A good review from the film dept. technician at college.

From then on, I started writing my VOs without regard to what the images would be. If you assume there will be a suitable image, you can always find one. Or maybe you end up cutting a sentence or two. But the editor’s code states, as I understand it, that there will always be a solution to any editing problem. You just need to look hard enough. So an account of C.T. Dreyer’s childhood for the forthcoming Blu-ray of MICHAEL gets illustrated with one of the film’s few urban exteriors (connecting pretty flatly to the word “Copenhagen” even though the shot is probably a wintry Berlin), a face at a window (played in reverse) and a pan across an array of dolls. An anecdote about HB Warner playing Jesus Christ for Cecil B DeMille which I decided was useful for my piece on THE APARTMENT started life with a series of stills from the movie, but when MGM nixed that idea we used a shot from the movie in which a guy dressed as Santa Claus appeared right on cue when the messiah was mentioned. I liked the effect.

I think literal connection is better than no connection at all, but the human mind is always making connections, so the real danger is not a lack of connection but the confusion of false connections. After the new year we’ll be returning to a work in progress where a line about an actor’s early, unsuccessful work needs changing so it doesn’t play over a later, successful one, even though there’s a nice metaphorical link between the image and the sentence.

I showed a bit of the Vertov set (bottom left) to students, and one said, “Is this, like, a legit DVD extra?” in an impressed voice.

Sometimes the VO deals with biographical info and background, if I know it or can research it. That’s sometimes the most fun, because you end up cheekily matching images from the film at hand with facts only abstractly connected to them. Close analysis of the film-making technique presents a different challenge, because often what I say takes longer than the clip at hand, or jumps about in time. Often my long-suffering editors Timo Langer and Stephen C. Horne do the hard work here, subtly changing the timing of the sequence to make it fit the VO, or else we might blatantly rewind, speed up or slow down the footage to make it overt.

I always like to bring in a director’s other work, if we can do it by fair use, or public domain works, or other films the distributor owns. Combined with stills, this can get you closer to the feeling of a true documentary, it enhances the production values.

My pieces for talkies are usually longer than the ones on silents because I drop in lines of dialogue from the movie. This is maybe too much like a TV clip-show, and maybe it can get illustrative again. I’m a little wary of it, but at the same time it can be amusing and I enjoy finding lines to take out of context and give fresh undertones to. What I need to remind myself to do is use wordless clips from silent films in a similar way. I’ve also added sound effects into silent movies, a technique I would generally disapprove of if it were done to the movie itself but which I give myself permission for in video essays. DER MUDE TOD has guttering candles, CALIGARI has creaking hinges. And I got Timo, who’s German, to read a couple lines in for that one also. I got Fiona to narrate DIARY OF A LOST GIRL. I should have got her to do DER MUDE TOD too: her voice sounds more serious than mine.

With CARNIVAL OF SOULS we had a whole array of public domain industrial films made by director Herk Harvey’s company. The trick was to use them amusingly but not condescend to the material too much, not make fun of the filmmaker. I also recorded audio interviews with critic and novelist Anne Billson, cartoonist Steve Bissette, and Fiona again, in her capacity as horror screenwriter. These had to be recorded over Skype, so we alibi’d the audio quality by cutting to radios and jukeboxes from the movie whenever these voices were going to come in. We did the same with Groucho biographer Steve Stoliar for Arrow’s Marx Bros at Paramount box set.

Finally, for a forthcoming piece with Randall William Cook, we worked it so that we both had recording devices going on opposite sides of the Atlantic so both halves of our conversation were recorded well, and just had to be synched up. But then I cut all my lines anyway.

With Bill Forsyth things were technically easier: I was able to record him in the same room for Criterion’s SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, and then Stephen actually filmed some original material indirectly illustrating a story about recording the movie off the TV on audio tape in the days before video. We’ve filmed a few more things since then.

For Masters of Cinema’s forthcoming release of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s HOUSE, I made an animated main title. I haven’t done any animation in twenty years, but I was inspired by a story about Obayashi’s beginnings as a filmmaker. Actually, I just traced the hand-drawn title in different colours with different patterns, and Stephen scanned the pages, flipped them into negative and we cut them together in time with the movie’s soundtrack. I really enjoyed that and I want to do more of it.

But another part of the operation has been Danny Carr, who made titles echoing Lester’s graphics to accompany the A HARD DAY’S NIGHT piece. Then he created an amazing animated title for the SULLIVAN’S piece, ANTS IN YOUR PLANTS OF 1941, in the style of a 1941 cartoon. Since then, I’ve had him disassemble the graphic grids of Ozu’s GOOD MORNING so that the pastel panels slide off the screen like, well, like sliding screens. We’re working on something else now…

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One out of one cats prefers it

Posted in Comics, FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , on November 24, 2017 by dcairns

 

Wondering what to buy the cat in your life for Christmas? (Get that cat out of there!) Why not oblige the kitty with Fritz Lang’s DER MÜDE TOD? This 1921 silent German classic contains, along with the beneficial functional bacteria, all the key nutrients your cat needs, including Omega 6 fatty acids, and an umlaut. Also, the plastic casing seems to provoke some kind of fetishistic sniff/taste response.

I made a video essay for this one with Timo Langer, which I think turned out reasonably well, and you also get a fine Tim Lucas commentary track full of scholarly info. I was pleased to see we didn’t overlap too much, and he didn’t prove me wrong on too many key points, and while I felt he may have included one too many Spider-Man references, I top that in the shame stakes by dragging in the TV show Quantum Leap and the Bill Cosby film THE DEVIL AND MAX DEVLIN.

In Der Mude

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on February 25, 2008 by dcairns

Singalongalang 

I’m still reeling at the concept of a musical version of Fritz Lang’s DER MUDE TOD / DESTINY. If you recall, this was seriously mooted by producer Arthur Brauner as a project for Lang to undertake upon his return to Germany at the end of the ’50s.

Of course, this was the great era of the East German musical, but a West German song-and-dance based on Thea Von Harbou’s original “book” would be quite something. Lang, of course, had musical experience in Hollywood, having directed YOU AND ME, with music by Kurt Weill, and I guess RANCHO NOTORIOUS is pretty tuneful.

But what would a late period musical Lang be like?

I can’t help thinking that it might be something like this:

Enter a Young Woman (Elke Sommer), bereft at her loved one’s disappearance behind a great wall with no doors.

To the tune of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.”

YOUNG WOMAN
I must find a way to the other side,
And get back my missing man!
Perhaps with an overdose of cyanide,
I can execute this plan!

(Takes poison, finds self in new surroundings.)

Now I’m within,
I must just have a look round,
Begin,
To get my missing man found,
I’ll climb this stairway to paradise,
And get back my missing man!

Stairway to Heaven

Enter Death (Gert Frobe), singing to the tune of “Hi Ho”.

DEATH
I’m death! I’m Death!
I’ll take your final breath!
I’ll take you all
Behind my wall
I’m Death, I’m Death, I’m Death!

Segues into “You’re my little Choo-chee Face,” from CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG.

YOUNG WOMAN
Destiny! Destiny!
No escaping death for me!

Hot Wax

DEATH
And it seems to me,
You lived your life,
Like a candle in Berlin…

YOUNG WOMAN
Berlin? You take my breath away!

DEATH
Oh. Okay.

Observant readers will have noticed that these are THE WORST LYRICS EVER. Win unspecified goodies by writing better ones! Remember, DER MUDE TOD has several different storylines woven together, so there’s plenty of scope. You could wax poetic about the field with the 99-year-lease, the Chinese emperor’s fireworks display, or the baby in the burning building.

To make it even easier (not everyone has seen DER MUDE TOD) you can musicalize any Lang film. You could have M FOR MUSIC, METROPOLIS MELODY, or THE DANCING DOCTOR MABUSE (“If you knew Mabuse like I know Mabuse…”).

At least one rhyming couplet is necessary to qualify as a lyric. The German musical is an underappreciated genre, so come on, all you Irving Berliners and Helmut Kohl Porters. Don’t let your candor ebb! You may be a learner but you needn’t be low!

Deadline: one week from today.

Prize: the film of your dreams.*

*Normal dream-conditions apply.