Archive for German Expressionism

The Monday Intertitle: No Atheists in the Foxholes

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2014 by dcairns


I was wondering, looking at early Lewis Milestone talkies, what made him so kinetic and exciting? The charging camera of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, surging headlong across the battlefields, is the best-known example of this, but the kinetic, fluid and nimble movements of RAIN are extraordinary, and in THE FRONT PAGE he seems to be pushing for the steadicam thrillrides of vintage Scorsese before the technology existed to allow it. In the less celebrated NEW YORK NIGHTS he goes so far as to stick his camera in a dumb-waiter and ride it up to the second floor. Yet my impression was that in silents, Milestone had not distinguished himself with the dynamism of his camerawork. Why did he becomes so willfully fleet-footed at exactly the moment sound technology made the roving eye of something like WINGS almost impossible to achieve?

(The other guy with itchy tracks was Tay Garnett, whose restless visuals in BAD COMPANY paved the way for SCARFACE, no question, and who combined tracking and panning with the Paramount zoom lens on PRESTIGE, with results that seem to echo Visconti or Fulci for ADHD antsiness.)


So seeing TWO ARABIAN NIGHTS, a big-budget WWI romp (a far cry from the anti-war sentiments of ALL QUIET) from 1927, is instructive. It’s true, there are few impressive camera movements, but nor are we stiff or static. Designer William Cameron Menzies is much in evidence, a man who liked to design not just sets but SHOTS, reducing the director to mere drama coach for the cast (here, a pre-Hopalong Cassidy William Boyd and thuggish Louis Wolheim, paired as an imitation of Edmund Lowe and Victor McLaglan in the previous year’s Raoul Walsh smash WHAT PRICE GLORY?). Early on, the two frenemies are fighting in a crater, unmindful of the encroaching Germans. When they realize they’re surrounded, we get two shots which flamboyantly make this apparent, one a low-angle POV, in which the shallow ditch they’re in is suddenly fifty feet deep to afford the best view, and a God Shot looking down like Busby Berkeley in which the bomb-site is a fairly shallow depression, but much wider. The lesson comes from German expressionism, of which Menzies was a student — a different set for each angle gives you the strongest possible graphic impact, which is fine if what graphic impact is what you want.


At any rate, the central mystery remains, and will do until I’ve seen more silent Milestone, preferably with the distinctive influence of Menzies removed from the equation. Unfortunately, I’ve only got THE RACKET to watch, plus FINE MANNERS and THE KID BROTHER, each of which Milestone directed parts of — and we don’t know which parts.

How about a Lewis Milestone Week, everybody?

The Chills #4: “There was a pretty fly…”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on March 27, 2008 by dcairns

Dangerous When Wet 

Simon Kane nominates a sequence for our occasional series, “The Chills,” in which we catalogue the moments that make your BACK HAIR stand on end (or, if you have a hairless girl’s back, I dunno, nipples?). 

“The escape by boat in “Night of the Hunter”.

To my mind another pretty-much-perfect movie. Suddenly, finally, here with the image of Mitchum stuck in the water and the kids heading off into the top right hand corner we’re out of the spiky German shadows and into a children’s story. Everything is made to look as simultaneously fake and as life-like as possible. I can’t explain. I first saw this picture late at night when I was about seventeen and it was as the boat set off that I went from loving it to being in love. I can think of many examples in film of a violent mood-jolt from peace to horror, but no other example of this, a scream that lingers as a lullaby.

“…completely unconcerned with any tradition that I’m aware of. They just go: Hey we can do whatever we like. And then they do it.”

Beautifully phrased! I guess the only film tradition that applies would be one stemming from the silent cinema, from D.W. Griffith (via Lillian Gish) and from German Expressionism, maybe. Plus literary and theatrical influences. The key thing is that they merge together to create something that’s never been seen before or since.

EVERY FILM really should be this kind of hybrid, bringing together whatever disparate influences suit the needs of the makers. Instead we get the FASHION, which is fortunately adaptable and can lead to great work in the right hands — I can’t complain about the fashion for film noir in the ’40s or slapstick in the ’20s. But it should be part of the real film artist’s job to reinvent the medium with every movie. With every shot.

I dunno, am I asking too much?