Archive for Metropolis

Three floral arrangements and a Sunday Intertitle

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on January 22, 2017 by dcairns

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(1) WOMAN IN THE MOON (Fritz Lang)

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(2) PASSING FANCY (Yasujirô Ozu)

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(3) ERASERHEAD (David Lynch)

The necessary background: arrangement one has been destroyed, absent-mindedly, by a distraught would-be astronaut during a telephone call; arrangement two has been destroyed very deliberately by a distraught schoolboy in a horticultural tantrum; arrangement three has not been destroyed. That’s as good as it was ever meant to look.

I touched base with the Lynch again when discussing sound design with students, re-watched the Lang for an upcoming project (Fiona, to my surprise, had never seen it) and the Ozu is part of a programme of viewing designed to make me fit for yet another project. Let’s talk about the Lang a little.

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The colossal, industry-busting size of METROPOLIS must have left the Lang-Von Harbou team in a bit of a bind. They wouldn’t want their next film to be an anticlimax, but they couldn’t realistically top what had gone before. Their eventual follow-up sprang from an abandoned idea for the previous super-epic’s climax in which the heroes would finally blast off into space (THINGS TO COME would eventually follow a comparable structure) and allowed them to make a slightly more modest film with a spectacular vertical ascent. So it was something different anyway. The advent of sound would allow the team to take M in an entirely different direction and not worry about gigantism as a goal.

While some compliment WOMAN IN THE MOON for inventing the countdown, I say it deserves more praise for correctly predicting that the first interplanetary travelers would walk the lunar surface wearing chunky knitwear and jodhpurs.

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Whatever that weird experiment was that Lang was performing with his actors in METROP — a range of emotion starting in a kind of feverish hysteria and ending in complete meltdown — he’s abandoned it in favour of a lighter tone and somewhat more naturalistic perfs. Though Fritz Rasp can never be adequately captured by a word like naturalistic. Germany’s leading Backpfeifengesicht, he seems to really exult in being repellent, this time perfecting his gloating smirk from beneath an askew smear of oily Hitler-hair that seems to have been poured onto his scalp like syrup. A pre-echo of Gary Oldman in THE FIFTH ELEMENT.

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Rasp and his hair

The first section of the film has more sweetness than any other Lang of its era, with sentimental sympathy for its outcast rocket scientist and his devoted young chum. (The scientist is introduced hurling an interloper downstairs, just like Professor Challenger in Doyle’s The Lost World.) Then a kind of Mabuseian paranoia takes hold as Rasp and his cohort of shadowy industrialists force their way into the moon mission.

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Complicated intertitular thing: the announcer in the upper left is live action, the rest of the frame is a still image, and the words are animated, flying out from the announcer to vanish bottom of frame: “The spaceship (weltraumschiff) has reached the launch pad.”

Then there’s the launch and the journey — the intentionally juvenile aspect of the story is clinched by the presence of a schoolboy stowaway.

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Then the stuff on the moon, where the team is beset with treachery, cowardice and, yes, lunacy, as well as a violently unstable romantic triangle. Though I’ll never stop boosting METROPOLIS, in its restored version, as a gripping story as well as a historically important epic, a case could be made for FRAU IM MOND as an easier sell if you’re thinking of introducing students or anyone else to German silent cinema.

The Sunday Intertitle: Bava Lava

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2015 by dcairns

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I’m finally reading Tim Lucas’s magisterial Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. I can’t fault the scholarship — few filmmakers are lucky enough to get books as exhaustive and considered and respectful as this. It’s all the sweeter since Bava was such an underrated artisan in his lifetime.

I wouldn’t dare to contest Lucas’ unparalleled expertise in this subject, but one little bit where I think he’s not quite right gave me an idea for today’s piece.

The book not only examines Bava’s directorial legacy, it probes into his work as cinematographer, and also provides as full an account of the career of his father, Eugenio Bava, cinematographer and visual effects artist of the silent era. Lucas examines the legendary CABIRIA, whose effects are jointly ascribed to Bava Snr. and the great Segundo de Chomon. Chomon usually gets most of the credit, and Lucas thinks this is probably unfair — he claims Chomon’s effects “were usually rooted in the principles of stop-motion animation.” In fact, I think it’s going to be impossible to make any calls on who did what, other than that we are told Bava Snr. built the model Vesuvius. Chomon’s imitations of Georges Melies’ style saw him performing every kind of trick effect known to the age, to which he added the innovation of stop motion, cunningly integrated into live action sequences. I think it’s fair to say than any of the effects in CABIRIA might have been the work of either man.

Lucas goes on to focus on one spectacular shot of the erupting volcano, a composite in which the bubbling miniature shares screen space with a line of fleeing extras and sheep (do the sheep know they’re fleeing? Perhaps they’re just walking). Lucas notes that smoke pots in the foreground, placed near the extras, waft fumes up across the model volcano, which makes him think the shot could not have been achieved as a matte effect. He deduces that the volcano was filmed through a sheet of angled glass, one corner of which was brightly lit to reflect the extras.

I would suggest that the shot is in fact a pure double exposure, with no mattes. The volcano is dark apart from the bright lava. The shot of the extras is also dark apart from the extras, sheep, and smoke. Double exposed on the same negative, the bright parts register and the black parts stay black. Thus the white smoke can drift up through the frame, appearing transparently over both the darkness and the bubbling Bava-lava.

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More examples of this effect: at the end of Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE, two characters fly off into the sky. The highlights on their figures cut through the superimposed cloudscape, but the shadow areas become transparent, phantasmal, in a way I don’t think the filmmakers intended; and in CITIZEN KANE, Welles crossfades slowly into flashback, with Joseph Cotten remaining solidly visible long after his background has disappeared, a trick achieved by fading the lighting down on the set while keeping Cotten brightly lit — no matte was needed, and had Cotten puffed on one of those cigars he was talking about, the smoke could have drifted across the incoming scenery, provided a sidelight picked it out of the darkness.

Lucas’s reflection trick, a kind of Pepper’s Ghost illusion, would have anticipated the more refined Schufftan effect by more than a decade (Eugen Schüfftan used mirrors to combine miniatures with full-scale action within the same, live shot on METROPOLIS) and Lucas suggests that Mario Bava resented this claiming of an invention his father had anticipated, and makes his disapproval known by including a character called Schüftan in his movie KILL, BABY, KILL. Since I don’t believe Eugenio anticipated Eugen in this technique, I think we can say that the use of the name Schüftan for the film’s heroine is more of an affectionate tribute to a great cinematographer, effects artist and a near-namesake of his dad.

Quibbles aside, I repeat: this is an amazing book.

The Sunday Intertitle: McTropolis

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , on June 15, 2014 by dcairns

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To St Andrews Square in the heart of our fair city for an outdoor screening (part of Edinburgh International Film Festival’s Film in the City event) of METROPOLIS, Giorgio Moroder version. Don’t ask me why they screened this one. I guess they didn’t have a three-hour slot for the restoration, or they thought this version would go down better with the kids, who are into all that Queen and Bonnie Tyler and Adam Ant stuff.

Fiona quite likes this version because it’s how she first saw the film. She defends Moroder slightly — “He wanted to show the film to a new generation.” But that’s Ted Turner’ colorization argument — you get more people to see the thing, but what they’re seeing is NOT the thing. Still, he did put out a version of the film that restored Von Harbou’s plot, which had been moronically rewritten in English-language territories. (The female robot is presented, in that rewrite, as “The worker of the future,” and the city’s ruler has her incite riots for no discernible reason. Complete nonsense, concocted by some Hollywood Pat Hobby who felt the original story was “silly.”) Moroder’s electronic scoring is acceptable, though I think a little disappointing considering how good Moroder was at film composing when he had a living director to collaborate with. The songs are bloody awful. The tinting is overenthusiastic. The synth sound effects just work as score so they don’t upset me. The end titles that credit Fritz Raspe’s character, “the Thin Man,” as “Slim,” are acceptable. It’s a valid translation, with noir resonances just as strong as the more familiar one…

The Moroder version actually begins with a title announcing that much of Lang’s footage has been lost, “probably forever,” delightfully announcing its obsolescence with its opening frame. Kind of poetic: Lang’s movie triumphs over time, time triumphs over Moroder’s edit. I give Moroder enough credit to believe he’s delighted to be proved wrong on this occasion, so everyone’s a winner.

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Fiona enjoyed the show, I mainly read Raoul Walsh’s autobio, the clouds threatened rain but held off until later, and there was applause when evil Maria’s eyes opened, and when the film ended. So, even under rather odd conditions, Lang’s film still impresses.

Buy the right version (UK): Metropolis [Reconstructed & Restored] (Masters of Cinema) [DVD] [1927]

And US: The Complete Metropolis [Blu-ray]