Archive for Lotte Eisner

Cinephage

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2008 by dcairns

Arch-blogger Girish (if you don’t know his site, stop reading this and get over there now!) was generous enough to send me a copy of the original, 210-minute French cut of HENRI LANGLOIS: PHANTOM OF THE CINEMATEQUE, which is a superb documentary with a fascinating subject. In archive film, Langlois himself commands attention, shambolically dressed, greasy-haired, bulbous-bodied, his arms two tapering tentacles undulating through the Parisian air, his hands two sub-octopi appended to their tips, each finger a fat sausage tendril, a tiny stub of cigarette wedged between two of these, the hand making darting, almost instantaneous trips to those voluptuous Langlois lips to deliver its precious cargo of life-giving nicotine.

But there was one moment that stopped me dead, and forced me to halt the film while I tried to retrieve bits of my sundered consciousness from around the room. It quite literally BLEW THE BLOODY DOORS OFF my mind.

A snap of Louis Feuillade’s great star, the Irma Vep of LES VAMPIRES, Musidora, fills the frame, and an interviewee remarks, quite casually, some words translated in subtitle as “Musidora ran the switchboard.”

The film’s persistent strategy is to hype the Cinemateque de Langlois as a magical, mystical and impossible venue, a place of anarchy where Lotte Eisner read the tarot cards and decaying nitrate stock summoned spectres of the past. The above one-liner did it for me.

When I had retrieved enough fragments of my mental faculties, I was able to reflect on the irony of a silent movie star working the telephones, and then to decide that “Rosemary, your glamorous switchboard operator” from the Hong Kong Phooey cartoons had damn well better MOVE OVER.

Returning to the splendid doc, which mounts a compelling case for Langlois’ anarchic administrative style, and forms a damning indictment of the bloodless bureaucrats who have fumbled his legacy, it has an ending so transplendently beautiful that I hesitate to give it away, but this blog is never what you’d call spoiler-free, so I’m going to anyway.

A story circulated just after Langlois’ death: a member of staff was sitting in on a screening of a Pastrone epic, when he spotted a minor character who looked just like his former boss. The following night, several staff members spotted another lookalike playing a major role in a Sjostrom drama. And so on — Langlois began turning up in every film, and his staff would congregate in the audience to receive their instructions from the screen.

The fable evokes our impossible dream of the Permeable Movie Screen. Something about that speaks to us, and accounts perhaps for Langlois’ injunction to sit in the front row and “eat” the movie. If you run Woody Allen’s PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO again you find that there aren’t as many good jokes in it as you’d expect from ’80s Allen, and his writing of the Danny Aiello-Mia Farrow relationship is startlingly flat (he doesn’t KNOW these people), but the central premise is so compelling that the film plods its way to the human heart anyway. No wonder the film begins with Fred Astaire singing “Heaven / I’m in heaven,” — to get up there and stand IN a film, as Buster Keaton does, with difficulty, in SHERLOCK JNR, is to enter a celluloid afterlife, occupied by little slivers of time, lovingly scraped from the souls of the dead.

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Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on March 30, 2008 by dcairns

Night Has a Thousand Eyes 

…which brings us back to Fritz Lang. Yes, our Waltz of the Eye Patches concludes with the monocled maestro himself, who suffered an eye injury as a cavalry officer in the Great War, necessitating the monocle which became a symbol of his dictatorial, “Prussian” style of directing in Hollywood. But in later life he suffered from progressive deterioration in the other eye, bringing on the eye-patch years — his bad eye became his good eye, and he now wore both monocle and patch — the belt-and-braces approach to being a crazy film director.

Get your stinking hands off me you damn dirty apes!

I do cherish Lotte Eisner’s story about trying to introduce Lang and Bunuel, but failing because Lang was to short-sighted to recognise Bunuel and Bunuel was too deaf to hear Eisner. Human frailty is a great subject for art and anecdote.

I also admire, in a strange way, the contrasting approaches to cigarette smoking shown in the archival interview clips of Lang and Nick Ray in A PERSONAL JOURNEY WITH MARTIN SCORSESE THROUGH AMERICAN FILMS.

Lang, minus his usual long cigarette holder (possibly his lungs by now were too swampy to get the smoke up the tube) clutches his ciggie Alec Guinness-style between the second and third fingers of his flat hand, and sucks eagerly on it mid-phrase, as if unable to make it to the end of a clause without another wheezing puff of the life-giving cancer.

Ray lets his cigarette hang from his lip, paper grafted to dry skin, bobbing like a sprinter’s erection as he mumbles away, ignoring the clinging coffin nail and only managing to inhale what drifts his way through natural air circulation, passively smoking his own cigarette.

The Big Zapper

Ray, I forgot to mention earlier, is the only one of the five canonical patch-wearers to have suffered injury to the eyeball in the line of duty, apparently bursting a blood vessel due to the stress of making WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN, his final film.

My only other eye-patch-related story concerns another Edinburgh Film Festival, the year of VELVET GOLDMINE as opening film. A perfect film to theme a party around, which may have more to do with opening and closing film selections than anything else, but nobody much minded this choice, especially with Todd Haynes in attendance. (Actually, it’s one of his lesser films, with a half-hearted engagement with narrative but a great deal of visual and aural pleasure to compensate.) Festival director Lizzie Francke wore an eye-patch through the entire two weeks, as a result of a tragic glitter accident during her party preparations. Still, it was another injury in the line of duty, and an eye-patch does in fact make an excellent glam rock accessory.

Eyes Wide Shut