Archive for Mauritz Stiller

The Sunday Intertitle: Educating Archie

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , on March 8, 2020 by dcairns

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There’s a chance that next year I’ll be teaching a course in film history. This feels like a nice back-to-basics thing to do. When I first started teaching at Edinburgh College of Art there was very little formal structure or supervision to the course — the hippydippy art college philosophy survived into the nineties.

Since it seemed I could do just about anything I liked within reason, I created a series of lectures and, later, screenings, which walked the students through film history from Lumiere to the present. It was very western-centric, but it covered the major developments of film language and introduced them to a few names. Since this was a practical film-making course, this was all a bonus, but my emphasis was on film language. I didn’t care if they mastered the dates and there was no test. Just an attempt to open up possibilities and show them different sources to steal from.

As the course has become more constrained by oversight and broken into individual sub-courses, this whistle-stop tour of film history disappeared, but ironically it’s now coming back, as there’s a need for a single-semester course which can be taken by outside students who aren’t necessarily experienced in practical filmmaking and haven’t been trained on our equipment.

I decided to ask the Twitter hive mind what movies they’d show to exemplify the 1910s, maybe the period I’m least familiar with. Elisabetta Girelli suggested SIR ARNE’S TREASURE, which I hadn’t seen. I should work my way through all the suggestions, though.

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This one has Scottish baddies, which appealed. And, as it unfolds, it feels like THE VIRGIN SPRING is copying from its playbook. Three “ruffians,” a terrible crime, the criminals pass unrecognized among the good folk, divine intervention and revenge. In Bergman the latter two are reversed, and everything’s more horrible and we don’t know quite what we should make of it. But I like the idea of a lineage running so: SIR ARNE’S TREASURE: THE VIRGIN SPRING: LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT.

In terms of film language, the camera movement in SAT is surprising. The first move is a curved track preceding a guard as he patrols a curved corridor. Following someone about is, in a way, the simplest kind of tracking shot, conceptually, but director Mauritz Stiller’s moves have a certain originality.

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When the guilt-ridden Lord Archie crosses the ice, the dolly-shot is a straight line, but something very unusual happens. The ghost of one of his victims appears in double-exposure. The double-exposures here are even better than in THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE. And the tracking shot makes the phantom seem to hover in mid-air and glide across the ice, tied to Archie (I can’t get used to calling him Archie) by supernatural bonds.

Even better, Stiller then cuts to what we have to read as the ghost’s POV, as Archie looks over his shoulder, Like one, that on a lonesome road…

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It’s thrifty, too: Stiller can use the same track for this shot as for the previous. Always a good idea when laying track, to think what else you can use it for… This is the kind of thing I say to turn film history classes into practical filmmaking classes…

(This is a TREMENDOUS film.)

Happiness is no Lark

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2019 by dcairns

Last full day of Il Cinema Ritrovato — I gave it a gentle start with Borzage’s STREET ANGEL at 11.15, entering Fox’s studio “recreation” of a smoky, crumbling Naples — 100% unlike the real thing but unbelievably beautiful. This was with a Movietone soundtrack, which at first seemed to impose a distance between me and the film, though having sat near the entrance I was also getting a distancing effect for free from all the latecomers stumbling in. (Cinema etiquette at Bologna is not quite as exemplary as one might hope.)

But, as with SUNRISE and TABOO, the music and film seemed to come closer together as the film went on, and the miraculous climax saw sound and image in perfect harmony.

Also: I think that was Josephine the capuchin monkey, star of THE CAMERAMAN and THE CIRCUS, nestling in Janet Gaynor’s arms, making this a hat-trick for the celebrated simian.

Lunch was followed by Dick Cavett’s Show — having failed to read the programme, we expected this to be a documentary about the eminent talk show host, but it was actually the episode where John Cassavetes, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara turned into the Marx Bros. to promote HUSBANDS, which was screening in a new restoration. I think the sales tactic didn’t work because we didn’t rush over to the Cinema Arlecchio to see it, instead dropping in to three shorts by Franju, which seemed a nice circular way to more or less end a festival that began for us, more or less with his NOTRE DAME, CATHEDRAL DE PARIS.

I’d seen EN PASSANT PAR LA LORRAINE and found it weirdly boring — being an English-language version and a ratty print didn’t do the uninspired travelogue any favours. Joseph Kosma’s music was the only poetic element.

LES POUSSIERES, a short film about DUST, was not as dry as you’d expect. Jean Weiner, the reappearing pianist of Rivette’s NOROIT DUELLE, provides a spooky, beautiful soundtrack which I want to rip off someday. The subject is broad enough to allow Franju some room to be strange and poetic.

LE THEATRE NATIONAL POPULAIRE was a bit flat by comparison, but we got to see an extract of Maria Casares playing Lady Macbeth — every bit as intense as you might expect, and a revelation to me since my main references for the role are the Welles and Polanski film versions. In the hands of a powerhouse professional, the role is transfigured.

We SHOULD have stayed in our seats for SANGEN OM DEN ELDRODA BLOMMAN, a 1919 Mauritz Stiller with Lars Hansen, but we were fading, so we went out into the blazing sun, ate at the flat, and separated, Fiona finally managing to stay awake through WAR OF THE WORLDS (not an easy one to fall asleep in, you would have thought, but then have you experienced Bolognese weather?), me heading to the Piazza for LE PLAISIR, a favourite Ophuls now magnificently restored — the grain was imperceptibly fine, the images radiant and impossibly detailed. Each time I see it I’ve seen more French films, so actors like Gaby Morlay, Madeleine Renaud and Paulette Dubost mean more to me.

This was sort of the last Piazza Maggiore screening of the fest, so I forgave the loquacious Gianluca Farinelli his tendency to talk, untranslated, for twenty minutes at a time. A movie like LE PLAISIR makes up for a lot.

The Sunday Intertitle: Love is a Battlefield

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2011 by dcairns

Now honestly, is that a proper question to ask of Pola Negri?

The film is Rowland V Lee’s BARBED WINE —

Sorry, BARBED WIRE. We shall overlook the forgivable calligraphic entanglement. It’s not primarily about WWI trench warfare though, but about a POW camp set up at Pola’s farm, where she falls in love with prisoner Clive Brook. The movie, being silent, feels free to cast Polish Pola as a Frenchwoman, English chin Clive as a German, and Bavarian Gustav Von Seyffertitz as a Frenchman. Which isn’t any kind of problem here: what’s odd is that Hollywood continued with this kind of counter-intuitive national casting after sound came in, and still occasionally does it.

Big Head of Pola. This gorgeous moment may be the work of an uncredited Mauritz Stiller.

Despite the melodrama surrounding her, Pola is admirably restrained here — gone is the kohl-smeared vamp of yore, performing via an admixture of violent semaphore and demented facial calisthenics. Her solemn, muted work in this movie is a revelation. Brook, the chin of England, comes pre-muted, but apart from a weeping scene which initiates some ghastly mugging, he’s a good match for Pola’s dignified turn. Her teary moments show her abandoning glamour altogether and becoming convincingly distraught, which is to say unattractive. This was, and still is, unusual. As Juliette Lewis once complained, “There are some actresses who do crying scenes and they still look pretty. Like, you could have sex with them while they’re crying!”

Christmas behind barbed wire — the tinsel on the tree is easily explained (you simply shred several spent cartridges with a potato peeler and voila!) but where they got the false head for the contortionist Santa Claus is a mystery with deeply sinister undertones. I kept anxiously checking out the prison guards to see if any of them had got suddenly shorter. So disturbing is the satanic Santa that he fully earns the German name for Father Christmas, Weihnachtsmann, which sounds like some kind of boogieman, as likely to steal your child’s eyeballs as to stuff his stocking.

Credited director Rowland V Lee is a curious case. His SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is arguably as camp and hysterical as James Whale’s BRIDE, and there’s a striking moment when Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi enter a room, talk for a moment, then step forwards and Rathbone expresses surprise at the presence of the monster, comatose upon a table, revealed by a tracking back of the camera. Since the monster must have been plainly visible to Rathbone since the moment he came in the door, this is a vivid and surreal illustration of the principle that things which are offscreen exist only provisionally in films, sort of like Schrödinger’s cat. But in BARBED WIRE his filming is eloquent and expressive, the only really goofy moment being a flashback to something we just saw five minutes earlier, but even that is explained by the filmmaker’s understandable desire to show the audience what a character is talking about. But the really sublime stuff is probably Mauritz Stiller’s — I don’t know the story behind his partial involvement, but I guess it’s a typical example of the shabby way he was treated in Hollywood.

In Micheal MacLiammoir’s memoir Put Money in thy Purse, he reports Orson Welles adopting some Mitteleuropean director’s name for the close-up: “Big Head of Pola.” Since Hitchcock also used the term Big Head for the same reason, I vote this excellent expression be revived and given pride of place in dictionaries of film terminology. After all, “close-up of Pola” is clearly a vague and ambiguous expression, since it doesn’t specify which portion of her the camera should focus on. I mean, there’s a dazzling choice.

In a stirring (silent) speech, Mona’s brother evokes a great march of the war’s fallen. His assertion that post-war bitterness, if not replaced by love, could result in another war to end all wars is horribly prophetic for 1927…