Archive for Pabst

Times Two

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2021 by dcairns

A mystery of the universe —

First, the Discovery. We watched Pabst’s film of Brect & Weill’s THE THREEPENNY OPERA for the first time — I’d only seen his French version — and laughed at the clever, tasteless joke where Meckie is accused of having carnal knowledge of underage twins. “They told me they were over thirty,” he protests. “Put together,” he’s told.

I suddenly flashed on the notion that Billy Wilder had adapted/stolen this gag for my favourite line in KISS ME, STUPID, Dino’s “The Beatles? I sing better ‘n’ all four of ’em put together! And I’m YOUNGER — than all four of ’em put together.”

The Mystery: This led us to rewatch KMS and to my dismay the line wasn’t there. Dino says “I sing better ‘n’ all three of them,” Felicia Farr says “There’s four of them!” and Dino quips “Haven’t you heard? One of ’em got his hair caught in his guitar and was electrocuted.”

I could be misremembering, but I don’t think I could misremember a joke that good. If it’s an alternative take, it’s pretty interesting because it comes as part of a master shot well over a minute long.

The History: I last watched the movie on VHS, in an atrocious pan-and-scan version. The movie loses all of Billy Wilder and Doane Harrison’s beautiful blocking and cutting, but none of its leering grotesquerie. So quite possibly the VHS came from a different source from the DVD. And I suppose it’s just possible that Wilder shot two versions, maybe for censorship reasons. Since this scene shows a putatively single man (Dino is basically playing himself, and was married irl) getting into bed with a married woman, so it’s arguably the most risque in the movie.

A Secondary Discovery: the movie begins in Vegas, with Dino finishing a run and making a run for it — the whole chorus line wants to spend the night with him and even this Italian galleon doesn’t feel up to THAT. Among the women he’s fleeing, we’re told, are “those German twins, Sylvie and Mizzi.” Which feels like Wilder & Diamond giving Brecht credit for the gag they (in my memory, at least) are going to adapt later. Same as when Ray Walston calls his piano student “a male Lolita” — acknowledgement to Nabokov who first recognised and exploited the comic potential of Climax, Nevada.

The Side-Observation: In THE LADYKILLERS, Peter Sellers voiced Mrs. Wilberforce’s parrots, as well as appearing as one of the crooks. KISS ME STUPID started production as a Sellers vehicle (after Jack Lemmon, Wilder’s favourite star and Felicia Farr’s real-life husband, proved unavailable) but was shut down by his heart attack. Wilder recast with Ray Walston. Now, it would’ve been great if he’d recorded Sellers voicing Sam the Parrot (“Bang-bang!”) and then Sellers could have haunted the soundtrack, a ghost in the machine. We listened very closely to that parrot. “Sounds like Ray Walston to me,” said Fiona.

So that’s THAT cleared up, at least.

But does anybody else remember hearing Brecht’s joke in this movie?

Hitting the Wall

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 5, 2014 by dcairns

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Jul 2nd — Mercoledi as they call it in Italy. And I ran out of stamina in Bologna, temporarily.

The day began well with FANTOMAS. I wasn’t completely sure of my ability to take the two-and-a-half hour SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT at 9am, so I opted for Feuillade’s serial, tempted by Ehsan Khoshbakht’s praise for the restoration. And indeed, so clean was the picture that it looked like a modern pastiche. When Rene Navarre looked into the camera he seemed to be RIGHT THERE with you.

In Edinburgh I had met Christoph Huber, curator of the Domenik Graf retrospective. Here he was again, in company with fellow donkey enthusiast Olaf Moller. Christoph wore a golden donkey T-shirt. Olaf, more discrete, had on a donkey pendant. And both made the revolutionary claim that Donkeys Make Everything Better. The donkey is an axiom of cinema.

So both were in ecstasy at the screening of scenes from the Ottoman empire — Turkish travelogues from the teens. Many exciting shots of donkeys, including a donkey photobombing a shot of camels at a trough. The ships of the desert are slurping away, and things are looking picturesque, and then the donkey sweeps majestically into frame in closeup profile, like Charles Bronson in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, and wipes them off the screen.

But for true Donkey Heaven we would have to wait a day…

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After lunch I made, i think, a mistake, dropping in on a Heinosuke double-bill — these early Japanese talkies tend to foreground sound and the voice in quite literal ways — the one I eventually stayed awake for was all about music, and featured a blind character for whom sound was particularly significant. These two, THE BRIDE TALKS IN HER SLEEP and THE GROOM TALKS IN HIS SLEEP were mild screwball comedies in which the voice plays a key role. Anyhow, I lapsed into unconsciousness for the first one and bailed on the second, which was apparently the better of the two. Makes me wish I’d discovered the Italian compendium films sooner, or opted for THE EPIC OF EVEREST, which cause quite a bit of excitement, or MIDNIGHT MARY, which is a SUPERB Wellman. When sleep threatens, you need a certain kind of movie.

I should have gone to see GIANT at this point, but opted for Barbara Steele’s video appearance, which I thought might be live and interactive but proved to be a pre-record. Beautiful Babs was speaking with regard to the Riccardo Freda season and was very entertaining and there is no danger of falling asleep when SHE is on the screen.

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I followed this with DER LETZTE AKTE, (THE LAST ACT, 1955), which deals with Hitler’s last days and is maybe the first big film to do so. It’s directed by GW Pabst and, as Olaf Muller said in his intro, comes from the post-war period when Pabst’s international reputation was and is very low, partly due to some inferior films but mostly because he had failed to get out of Germany during the Nazi era. Not that he ever made anything with pro-Nazi sentiments. The print was pure grindhouse — as Olaf put it (I paraphrase), “After seeing a lot of digital restorations that have all the charm of a hastily-done boob job, we are about to see source material that corresponds more to sagging skin and clumps of grey hair — to my body, in fact.”

The movie was indeed in ratty condition, but that somehow fit the low-ceilinged, oppressive claustrophobia of it. After two hours in the sweaty Sala Scorsese with intermittent, flirtacious air-conditioning, an exhausted simultaneous translator struggling in our earpieces, we all felt like we’d spent ten days in a bunker.

Albin Skoda played Hitler, and Oskar Werner played an obligatory Good German, perhaps not so much a sop to bruised national sensibilities as a sop to commercial cinema, which always feels more comfortable with a sympathetic character around. I was also dubious about whether Hitler really flooded the Berlin Underground to prevent the Russians reaching him by tube, but according to Wikipedia he may have done just that — the movie definitely inflates the resulting tragedy for dramatic purposes, though. I guess the idea of Hitler deliberately massacring the wounded who were sheltering below ground works as a metaphor for what he did to Germany.

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A leisurely dinner and then — carbon lamp projection! Germaine Dulac’s LA PRINCESSE MANDAINE is an elegant slice of exotic comedy, with a very funny camp central performance by either Edmond or Ernest Van Duren (IMDb and the Ritrovato catalogue disagree). It’s got a very slender plot and might not have sustained interest, but the added drama of an ancient projector belching poisonous fumes into the air, illuminated by blasting beams of light, and the resulting smooth, chocolatey picture shimmering on the screen, made up for quite a few deficiencies.

Dulac could be quite cheeky — at the end of his Michael Strogoff-inspired dream, the hero rescues the princess only for her to run off with her maid. “I’ve sold myself down the river for a couple of dykes,” complained Bob Hoskins in MONA LISA, and we were supposed to agree (and not wonder what happened to the girls afterwards). Actually, MONA LISA has one of the worst endings of any otherwise quite-good British film of the eighties. Whereas even my most soporific day in Bologna was a treat.

Intertitle of the Week: Death of the Intertitle

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2009 by dcairns

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The silent movie foresees its own end — from A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR. I watched this again because I wanted to compare the silent Hitchcocks I’ve been screening with a state-of-the-art British silent movie by other hands, to assess Hitchcock’s artistry in comparison with something else.

Anthony Asquith’s film certainly beats all of Hitch’s silents into a (Hitch)cocked hat — but then, it’s possibly the supreme masterpiece of British silent cinema, and better than most films from most places at most times. To enumerate just a few of its virtues will take a while —

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It’s simpler in story terms than Hitchcock’s films, but the simplicity pays off. Asquith knows exactly who his main character is, and how to maintain sympathy for him through some fairly disastrous personal choices. The melodrama is beautifully integrated into the story and style of the film. The movie combines naturalistic settings (although the titular cottage appears as a model shot at one point) with expressionistic framing, striking a thrilling balance between artifice and stark conviction.

The German influence is clearly massive — this is Dartmoor as Caspar David Friedrich might have painted it. Perhaps, as Kevin Brownlow has argued, everything valuable in British silent film of the ’20s derived from Germany, but I don’t see this as a cause for shame — we stole from the best. Perhaps if we’d stolen from France, our apparently in-built obsession with realism could have been expressed more, but I’m glad we kept things Teutonic. Actually, when Asquith’s characters do go to the cinema, things get quite French, with an accelerating montage of orchestra (the first film screened is a silent) and audience that builds to a Gance-like frenzy of inter-cutting. (Elsewhere in British cinema, Hitchcock was being influenced by the Russian montage school, which he sought to combine with German expressionist effects.)

The cinema scene is a brilliant, gratuitous set-piece, designed so that Asquith can compare talking and silent films, somewhat to the detriment of the former, without directly showing what the audience is watching — the talkie is evoked purely by the idleness of the band, who start smoking and playing cards. While Asquith allows the talkie to score a few points — some of the punters are held rapt in the flickering half-light, it’s the silent film which produces laughter and elation. Meanwhile, the stalker hero gazes at his love and her beau, and a paroxysm of inter-cutting whips all the flying emotion up into a stroboscopic explosion.

Asquith’s cast is terrific, with Uno Henning, fresh from Pabst’s LOVE OF JEANNE NEY, at times reminiscent of Buster Keaton on his minimalist expressions of despair or awkwardness. Norah Baring, as the object of his affection, is a unique and quirky screen presence, far more appealing in her slightly gawky oddness than some glamourpuss would be. I’m looking forward to seeing Baring in Hitchcock’s MURDER!, made the following year, although I’m a little wary in case her voice disappoints me.

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Without getting into the sticky grounds of symbolism, we can say that Asquith packs a lot in to his images — tree branches spread out like black fractures in the sky, sometimes spreading from a dark human smudge, as if this were the source of the damage. And it would be tempting to put some kind of queer interpretation on the unrequited love plot (which sees the hero packed off to prison), given Asquith’s rumoured predilections — my friend Lawrie told me “Puffin” would moonlight in greasty spoon transport cafes to pick up truckers, and persistent rumours identify the director (and prime minister’s son) as the notorious “man in the mask”, attending the sex parties exposed by the Profumoaffair in the ’60s, wandering around shoving his meat ‘n’ two veg into a jar containing an angry wasp. Whatever, I guess — although when masochism reaches such levels, I do wonder, “Wouldn’t you be happier if you didn’t have to do that?”

(Irrelevant movie connection: Profumo, the Tory politician ruined by the scandal, was married to the fragrant Valerie Hobson, of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and GREAT EXPECTATIONS fame. When the story broke, she did what Tory wives do, and stood by her man.)

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But most of all, A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR makes one want to fall guilty to the lowest of critical misdemeanours and simply assert its brilliance. If by doing so I tempt others to watch it, perhaps my crime will have mitigating circumstances.