Archive for Edison

The Sunday Intertitle: Rome Wasn’t Burned in a Day

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on March 28, 2010 by dcairns

NERO; OR, THE FALL OF ROME was a groundbreaking work in its day (1909) –” It’s what I call an epic!” as the lady says in IN A LONELY PLACE. Director Luigi Maggi showered largesse upon his fourteen-minute masterpiece, including producing intertitles in several languages, which is how you can enjoy the movie’s lovely intertitles here in English 101 years later (how time flies!). Incidentally, the Kino copy of this movie on their THE MOVIES BEGIN series is somewhat better preserved than the one I’m taking frame-grabs from here — except it’s missing much of the climactic burning.

We’re in a strange period of film history — most movies are still made in the tableau style, with one big shot per scene, but a few filmmakers are pushing the boat out with interpolated close-ups. Not Maggi! Where he extends the boundaries of film narrative is with his intertitles, which add a layer of sophistication which his gesticulating players cannot attain. But the result is a curiously undramatic form, similar to that in the heavily titled Edison FRANKENSTEIN. Read on…

Maggi’s title cards spell out the basic story beats, which are then enacted by the cast, against a splendid array of multi-perspective backdrops and even an exterior location. This has the effect of making the action of the film a mere addendum to the titles, with the drama a redundant illustration of information we already know. There aren’t many intertitles — the first one tells us that Nero is ditching his wife for Poppea, and then we get three and a half minutes of action showing that this is true. It’s kind of charming, and not like other forms of cinema, but I’m not sure how this innovation could ever be really useful. Trying to find an analogy, I thought of illustrated books, but in a book the sense is carried by the text and the illustrations, perceived by the eye before the text has been devoured, serve as either spoilers or teasers. But Maggi reverses that scheme, with the text as spoiler and the illustration as text.

I’m interested in these Italian epics because they advanced the use of camera movement. Segundo de Chomon, ace innovator, animator and filmmaker, designed the first purpose-built dolly for CABIRIA in 1914, and the Italians used it to explore their gigantic sets. Italian camerawork has arguably been more about exploring screen space than narrative ever since. There’s precisely zero movement in NERO, though. As the films got bigger, the need for the camera to move grew greater. Let’s follow this trend through history over the next few weeks…

Despite featuring no interesting performers, or at any rate no performers who are allowed to register as interesting, and a plot that unfolds in strange spurts of verbiage separated by long passages of unnecessary enactment, NERO is quite entertaining, especially his obscure vision of… what? Hell? The Romans didn’t really have a Hell where the guilty are punished, so I’m not too sure what’s going on here. Maybe that’s Maggi’s greatest, most perverse accomplishment — making a film where everything is explained but major plot points remain quite opaque.

Next week: THE FALL OF TROY!

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Intertitle(s) of the Week: a film in intertitles

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on April 5, 2009 by dcairns

One of the many agreeably odd things about the Edison Company’s 1910 FRANKENSTEIN, OR LIFE WITHOUT SOUL, is the way the story is told entirely in a series of intertitles, with the imagery merely fleshing out the textual description. Quite often the title cards contain “spoilers,” describing what we are about to see before we see it, which might seem to detract from any sense of dramatic tension. But this isn’t all that uncommon for the era, an age in which DW Griffith’s RESCUED FROM AN EAGLE’S NEST can give away the ending in the title itself. Of course, involvement in a story doesn’t absolutely require ignorance of what’s going to happen next, otherwise we’d be unlikely to watch narrative-centred movies a second time, and Hollywood’s generic approach to story would be a lot less popular than it is.

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This almost sounds like a cheeky ’80s frat comedy. Starring Anthony Michael Hall as Frankenstein, with Jeffrey Jones as Dean Pretorius. I figure John Landis to direct.

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Probably the finest elision in screen history. Although we see Frankenstein heading out the door in his beanie, bound for Ingolstadt University of Macabre Science, we see precisely nothing of his investigations into the mystery of life. Director J. Searle Dawley has decided that the mystery of life is uncinematic.

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The intertitles not only pre-empt the action here, but they provide plot motivation and moral uplift. It’s kind of a distortion of Mary Shelley’s message, but it’s in the same rough area: creating human life is bad, unless your name happens to be God. We then get the creation scene (a dummy burning, filmed backwards) and Charles Ogle the monster, wearing the makeup that he designed himself (flour, fright-wig: a good look). But you don’t need to see that, when you can have this:

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He knows it’s evil, see, because it’s ugly. A natural though not inevitable pitfall of silent cinema was to portray deformed characters as wicked. Chuck Jones pointed out that in Disney’s THREE LITTLE PIGS, the pigs could all look alike, because they sounded different, and this was a development made possible by sound. I think it was always possible, but less obviously so. In fact, a lot of modern cinema still stereotypes characters based on appearance, not always in a horrible way. Cinema has such a strong visual component that this kind of thing is always going to be tempting. The important thing is to be conscious of it.

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Good composition here, with a lot of action seen in the mirror. Mrs. Frankenstein enters the narrative and becomes a bone of contention between monster and creator. Tragedy is averted when Ogle is appalled by the sight of his reflection, and flees.

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This one is starting to sound like a saucy ’70s sex comedy. Robin Askwith is Frankenstein, the sex-mad scientist, Dave Prowse is his horny sex-monster, Madoline Smith is a busty wench. One can actually imagine Hammer attempting this, perhaps instead of HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, to boost their ailing franchise. And perhaps it would have worked better than the wretched H.O.F.

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A happy ending! Brought about by totally supernatural means, violating the principles of science fiction which Mary Shelley adhered to, even though the genre hadn’t officially been invented yet. Mary clearly thought that Frankenstein’s crime was too great to be forgiven, however penitent he became, and not only exterminates the Baron, but all those near and dear to him. Her gothic novel is practically a revenger’s tragedy. The movies have always been partial to rescuing the creator, but I think for a truly satisfactory ending he has to die: the point of the story is that he’s sinned by playing god, and typically innocent lives are lost because of his creation. This is a remarkably bloodless, victimless version of the tale, so I suppose we can say that Frankenstein hasn’t really hurt anyone. Except the monster.

These intertitles are obviously modern repaired versions, surrounded as they are by crackly decaying nitrate stock. Still, they’re reasonably handsome.

Mental Vampires. REALLY Mental Vampires.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on March 28, 2009 by dcairns

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How is my (insane) quest to see every film illustrated in Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Moviesgoing, you ask? Well, most likely you don’t ask, but safe in my cyber-cocoon I can imagine you asking any damn thing I want. My quest, codenamed “See Reptilicus and Die,” is going swimmingly.

EXTRAORDINARY UNDRESSING (1901) by R.W. Paul is a frabjous trick film in which a theatrically drunk fellow attempts to remove his clothes (strange how many Paul films centre on male denudings, from HIS ONLY PAIR to A WAYFARER COMPELLED TO DISROBE PARTIALLY, which gets my vote for most syntactically contorted title prior to I AM CURIOUS, YELLOW) but is thwarted by a series of jump cuts which see him instantly re-clad in a wide variety of different costumes. Then a cardboard skeleton appears and scares the crap out of him. I’d give it a 5 on my Earlyfilmometer — which means it’s not as good as THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY, but still better than FOR YOUR EYES ONLY.

FIEND WITHOUT A FACE is two-thirds thick-eared sci-fi turgidity, with chipboard actors flailing their shoddly hinged limbs in a script the consistency of porridge, but that last third is a doozy. From the moment a suspiciously-accented “Canadian” (the film is a British production in its entirety) turns up as a drooling loon, having had half his brain sucked out — by “mental vampires” — through the back of his neck (his demented yodelling is both authentically terrifying and very, very funny), things start piling on the oomph.

Stick with it. Amusingly boring at first and then — enter the Famous Eccles!

A crusty scientist (an expert in “sibonetics”) makes a page turn by the power of his mind; an invisible force rips a hole in a screen door; and then killer crawling brains, with wiggling antennae and waggling spinal cord tails are crawling up trees and flying through the air and sucking people’s nervous systems out through the backs of their necks, just as if they owned the place. It’s all down to an experiment in telekinesis that misguidedly leached energy from an atomic reactor being used to power an experimental radar system (WTF?) and if that doesn’t make sense, never mind, because the animated special effects by Ruppel & Nordhoff (who sound like trapeze artists but presumably aren’t) are Lynchian and very gory. Poor Kim Parker, as the busty heroine, who is quite the pluckiest and smartest character, and most alive performer, gets brain leeches on her head TWICE, which is twice more then the average B-movie starlet would merit, but survives the experience and ends the film happily embracing the timber protagonist. Watch out for splinters.

And then I watched the full ten minutes or whatever of the Edison FRANKENSTEIN (viewable here), a lovely experience. Charles Ogle’s monster actually reminds me of both Dave Prowse’s shaggy beast in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL, and a character from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. the film is also striking for the way it is rendered redundant by its own intertitles, which fully explain the entire plot, including many plot developments that we haven’t yet seen. But the mirrorplay is excellent, and the creation scene (a puppet burning, shown in reverse) is eerily creative.