Archive for Goethe

The Sunday Intertitle: Faust Person Singular

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Theatre with tags , , , , on October 24, 2021 by dcairns

Having enjoyed Enrico Guazzoni’s quirky UNA TRAGEDIA AL CINEMATOGRAFO of 1913, I decided to check out some of his epic or quasi-epic work. FAUST is from 1910, a year when epics ran short and small to modern eyes: Goethe’s play, credited as the source, is compressed into eighteen minutes here.

Time, that interfering studio executive, has wrought its adjustments to Enrico’s work, adding a weird cyclone of whirling white and black scratches or streaks, roving over the action and occasionally obscuring it completely. Fortunately we can still see the backdrops and costumes — Mephistopheles sports not so much horns as insectoid antennae, and has great fun swirling his cape like a serpentine dancer — and the performances which are certainly vigorous. These, after all, are not just early silent film performers, but Italians. However, they don’t perform their ebullient mimes outward, at us, Keystone-fashion, but at each other. I approve.

Guazzoni uses the story as an excuse for stage-magic puffs of smoke and jump-cuts in the Melies fashion, but his most interesting effect is when, as stated in the above intertitle, “Mephisto shows Faust an image of Marguerite in a magic mirror.” To accomplish this, Guazzoni alternates between two shots:

First, a wide shot of the scene, a cave. Mephisto holds up the magic mirror, which currently reflects nothing but bright light.

Then E.G. cuts to another shot, closer but still pretty wide, with different (dimmer) lighting, and now we can see Marguerite (cast details are sketchy but this may well be Fernanda Negri Pouget) genuinely reflected in the mirror. Once she’s made her impact, we cut back to the earlier angle and she’s gone.

It feels like getting her to appear and disappear in one shot was too difficult, so the director resorted to an unconventional angle change. The interpolation of closeups was barely established as part of film language (Griffith would get into it a year later), so he uses a rather spacious wide, which cuts jarringly with the shots either side of it, especially since the image gets markedly darker too. It feels like we’ve been transported to a whole other cave, though it’s probably the same backdrop from an angle to the right of the original.

But none of the clunkiness matters because it doesn’t feel exactly like an attempt at continuity cutting — it is, after all, a piece of magic Mephistopheles is performing here.

Guazzoni gets up to some other neat business — soon, the painted scenery gives way to real locations, allowing the actors to move from silhouette in an archway to brightly lit in the sun. The transitions from studio to reality are pretty smooth, in part because the sets aren’t always just flats and furniture, but sometimes have real chunky architectural heft to them. It’s actually hard to be sure sometimes if the action is outdoors, or indoors-pretending.

The French intertitles are still spoiler-heavy: the idea that it might be more dramatic to set up, say, the duel with Marguerite’s brother, via title card, but let the outcome be a surprise revealed by the action itself, has not occurred to anyone, or at least not anyone who got listened to. But there might even be a reluctance to shock the audience that way, a feeling they might need a bit of a warning of the impending death. Contains mild peril.

The image of the brother lying prone outside his house resonates peculiarly with me since I just collapsed in my own back yard while taking Momo out for his daily walk. It looked just like this. Low blood sugar seems to be the cause rather than anything more serious, an indication, however unpleasant, that my attempts to reverse my diabetes with a low-carb diet may be succeeding only too well.

Drink plenty of water. I don’t know if that advice would have helped Dr. Faustus, but what the hell, it couldn’t hurt.

Teahouse of the Rising Sun

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2021 by dcairns

The great Max Ophuls’ career was not only itinerant — Germany, France, Italy, the US, and back to France — it was very variable in quality. LIEBELEI is a masterpiece, but most of his first European films are either flawed or minor. Then he makes mostly masterpieces in Hollywood and returns to Europe to make four more.

I saw the first twenty minutes of YOSHIWARA, a French pic from 1937, at Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2000, but I had to leave early. Shane Danielsen, curator of the retrospective, warned us beforehand that we’d probably never get a chance to see this film again. Times have changed — Gaumont have released the film on Blu-ray.

The film, based on a French novel, creates a fantasy of Japan in the lead-up to the Russo-Japanese war — intended by the Tsar as “a short, victorious war” to boost his popularity and trumped up for no good reason, it turned into a fiasco which hastened his downfall. This movie presents a fanciful theory of how faulty intelligence led to that outcome. There’s a romantic triangle — rickshaw driver and artist Sessue Hayakawa is hopelessly in love with geisha girl, formerly daughter of a noble house, Michiko Tanaka, and she’s in love with Russian naval officer Pierre Richard-Willm, who’s basically a spy. The Japanese secret service forces Hayakawa to spy on his rival, thus endangering his sweetheart.

A kind of whiplash is introduced by the fact that Hayakawa and Tanaka are real Japanese people and the other locals are played by very gallic impostors. The Russians are all French, and I’m pretty sure Hayakawa is dubbed, unless his French was fantastically better than his English as heard later in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.

The set and costume design is fabulous, the social observation less so: geishas are synonymous with prostitutes in this vision of the east, as a for-instance. Yoshiwara exists behind an unscalable wall with a huge gate, almost like Skull Island (and Kurosawa would import that design, which apparently never existed in real feudal Japan, for the forts in his films such as THRONE OF BLOOD.

Michiko Tanaka was never really a movie star outside of this one film, but she’s startlingly beautiful. Sessue Hayakawa is pretty impressive too, and Willm is striking — I should see LE ROMAN DE WERTHER, his other Ophuls, a sort of farrago of Goethe which Ophuls rather regretted — he died with a copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther by his bedside.

The melodrama is slushy — an imaginary trip to the opera looks forward to the phantom ride of LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, but is embarrassingly gushy and frenetic — but the visual direction is gorgeous. Watching it alongside THE RECKLESS MOMENT brought out all sorts of similarities, including the way the director will follow actors up flights of stairs and along catwalks in unbroken shots. A dynamic chase is staged in a hectic flurry of incredibly precise movements, filmed through swathes of occluding foliage. It’s almost frustrating — Ophuls regularly brought genius to the staging of stories carpentered together with little talent. But I guess it does mean that by the time he got good scripts, he was more than ready.

The Drastic Mr. Fox

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on January 2, 2021 by dcairns


Wes Anderson acknowledged Lasislas Starewicz as a big influence on his approach to animation in THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX and ISLE OF DOGS — LE ROMAN DE RENARD (1937) would seem the most obvious connection.

Starewicz’s work might be better known if his sensibility weren’t so unique. It’s not that he saw animation as being other than the children’s medium it seems cursed to be — just that Starewicz was the Great Un-Disney. I just watched his THE INSECTS’ CHRISTMAS, the title of which alone gives you a sense of his itchy, uncomfortable vibe. A miniature wooden Father Christmas comes down off a tree and gives presents to all the beetles in the snow. It’s sheer madness.

The puppets (or actual bugs, perhaps) move quite herky-jerky in that 1914 short, but in RENARD, which took five years to make (with Mrs. Starewicz, Irene as co-director; their daughter, “Nina Star,” acts in some of their films; it was a family concern) everything seems to be on ones. The motion is smooth as velvet, even when the characters rush about — in fact, the Starewiczs sometimes slip into live action so a figure can vanish in a realistic motion blur.

And these mammalian protags and antags are much closer to child-friendly plush toys than the spiky bugs of earlier films. The trouble is, the story is by frickin’ Goethe, and it’s bloody horrible. Mr. Fox is a psychopath. His trickster activities have a lot of Brer Rabbit about them, but they’re all really nasty. The attempts to render things more comical are extraordinarily creepy.

The King of the Animals, a lion, naturally, is constantly hearing complaints about Renard’s depredations. Like, one time, they bring in a bier. On it is a chicken carcass, a victim of this vulpine Mack the Knife. Staggering around the bones is a little anthropomorphized chicklet, crying for its momma. Just horrible. You can’t not be impressed and depressed at the same time.

At one point, in his defense, Mr. Fox conjures up the fantasy image of his wife and child. The Starewiczs dutifully show the baby suckling at the (humanoid) breast of the mother — and her foxtit moves in a lifelike, fleshy way — I’m assuming the cloth is two-thirds full of sawdust or birdseed or something. Because that detail matters. You can’t make a proper kids’ film if the animals’ knockers don’t move right, just ask Ralph Bakshi.

When Renard spins one of his bogus yarns and describes how Heaven can be accessed via the bottom of the village well, we see the afterlife, populated by a choir of disembodied rabbit heads, each equipped with angel wings. Why do the rabbit heads have no bodies? Because farmers cut their heads off?

There’s SO much visual invention here and yet the movie will mostly make you sad and frightened. Still, the monkey lawgiver who peers at us from a screen within a screen is voiced by Claude Dauphin, also the President of the Galaxy in BARBARELLA, again on a screen of his own.