Sunday, September 29, 2013

Silent September Quick Picks and Pans

This month's feature title is a misnomer, since there are no pans, only picks.  I deliberately chose to cover films across a broad spectrum of genres, but as is always the case with theme months, I ended up screening more films (including The Passion of Joan of Arc, Bardelys the Magnificent and Three Ages) than I could ever write about.  I was impressed by the overall quality and diversity of the films, but saddened to ponder the fact that they represented the 10% or so of films produced during the silent era that have survived to the present day.  What remains, however is a treasure trove that could take a lifetime of movie watching to explore, a tangible glimpse into another world.  This mere sampling of films reinforced my sincere admiration for those who have chosen to devote their blogs exclusively to silent movies.  I also came to the realization this month flew by far too quickly, and suspect this won’t be my last Silent September.

The Man Who Laughs (1928) Director Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs, based on a story by Victor Hugo, represents a transitional phase, when movie theaters were making the awkward change from silent to sound.  As a result, two versions were released: one as a standard silent print, and another with a music score and limited sound effects.  At the heart of the film is Conrad Veidt’s touching performance as Gwynplaine, a man whose mouth is frozen in a permanent rictus (a role that was originally envisioned for Lon Chaney).*  Ironically, Veidt’s constrictive mouth appliance prevented him from speaking, but his expressive eyes convey a profound sadness about his character’s unfortunate affliction.  Mary Philbin plays Dea, a blind woman who performs with him in a traveling sideshow.  Olga Baclanova (Freaks) is the scheming Duchess Josiana, who takes an interest in Gwynplaine after watching his show, and toys with his affections.  The Man Who Laughs is a memorable tale of injustice, betrayal and redemption, and should be on anyone’s short list of essential silent films.

* Veidt’s distinctive makeup allegedly served as Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s inspiration for Batman’s arch nemesis The Joker.

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD

The Lodger (1927) Alfred Hitchcock established his distinctive voice with The Lodger (aka: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog).  Although my DVD came from a battered print, it was easy to see the influences of German expressionism on Hitchcock’s film, with an emphasis on atmosphere (helped by the enveloping fog), heavy contrasts and bold angles.  The story, based on Marie Belloc Lowndes’s novel and play, shares many similarities with the Jack the Ripper serial murders.  An unseen assailant, known only as The Avenger, targets blonde women as his prey.  Daisy, a fair-haired stage performer played by June (yep, just June), is one of The Avenger’s potential victims.  Her boyfriend, ambitious police detective, Joe Chandler (Malcolm Keen) is eager to stop him before he kills again. 

Ivor Novello is creepy as the enigmatic Lodger, who comes to live in the boardinghouse run by Daisy’s parents.  Hitchcock leaves clues early to suggest the Lodger might be more than he seems, with his aloof manner and secretive demeanor.  By the same token, it’s easy to see why Daisy would be attracted to him, compared to her loutish boyfriend.  The new tenant exudes a quiet sophistication and elegance that she finds irresistible.  Her parents, however, are not quite so smitten, fearing he’s up to no good.  Hitchcock continually plays with the audience, with the quandary, “Is he or isn’t he?” 

Many of what would come to be known as Hitchock’s trademarks are conspicuously on display, with spots of humor to offset the horror, the MacGuffin, and his first cameo (as a reporter).  The Lodger is a tense ride from beginning to end, and is a worthy entry in his resume of films.  Don’t miss it.

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD

The Phantom Carriage (aka: Körkarlen) (1921) Victor Sjöström’s dreamlike The Phantom Carriage (based on Selma Lagerlöf’s novel) shares some similarities to A Christmas Carol and could have easily influenced It’s a Wonderful Life.  The story draws from a Swedish legend about Death’s carriage.  On each New Year’s Eve, a new assistant is chosen to drive the carriage and harvest souls. Writer/director Sjöström plays David Holm, a man who has hurt everyone around him, and on the eve of his death is forced to reflect on his life and all of the wrongs he’s committed.  Astrid Holm is affecting as Edit, a Salvation Army worker dying of tuberculosis (contracted from
David).  She alone is convinced of his potential for redemption, with her last wish to witness him turn over a new leaf.  It’s pretty bleak stuff, but an effective mood piece.  You won’t soon forget the film’s haunting, distinctive imagery of a ghostly carriage riding through the countryside.

Rating: ****.  Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Strong Man (1926) Lesser-known comedy actor Harry Langdon stars in an early film by director Frank Capra.  Langdon plays Paul Bergot, a Belgian who arrives in America to find the woman who wrote him love letters while he was at war.  The film features an inspired gag with Paul using hard biscuits and onions as ammo on the battlefield.  After he arrives in New York, he becomes the reluctant assistant to his former enemy, who runs a traveling strong man show.  In a funny sequence, a shady con-woman trying to evade a detective slips a wad of bills in his coat.  What ensues is an amusing ballet of errors and mistaken identity as she attempts to retrieve her money, and almost murders him in the process.  Eventually, he finds the mysterious letter writer, Mary Brown (Priscilla Bonner), a blind daughter of a minister, living in a corrupt town.  The pacing of The Strong Man, is inconsistent, and the gags aren’t quite as refined as those of his contemporaries, but it remains an enjoyable little romp.  Over the years, Langdon’s work may have been overshadowed by the works of Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd, but it doesn’t diminish his significant contribution to comedic film, nor does he deserve to be a mere footnote.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD (as part of Harry Langdon – The Forgotten Clown collection)

Silent Movie (1976) Mel Brooks’ hit and miss comedy is a valiant effort to combine two styles of filmmaking.  Brooks, Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise star as bumbling filmmakers Mel Funn, Marty Eggs and Dom Bell, on a mission to gather stars for their modern silent film.  Unlike Blancanieves, which faithfully embraced the conventions of silent cinema, director/star/co-writer Brooks uses the silent film format as a gimmick.  True to its roots, Silent Movie doesn’t contain dialogue, and relies on physical rather than spoken gags.  The illusion is compromised, however, by Brooks’ choice to shoot the film in widescreen, color, and in a contemporary (circa 1970s) setting.   While the results are less than satisfying, Brooks’ film is packed with enough fun moments to make it worthwhile.  It’s a veritable who’s who of 1970s celebrities, including Paul Newman, Burt Reynolds and Liza Minnelli, who seem to be having a blast playing caricatures of their public personas.  Another highlight is a great meta-joke, involving the only spoken word in the film.  Fans of Brooks will probably get the most mileage out of Silent Movie, but there’s more than enough to keep lovers of silent-era comedy entertained.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD

The Man from Beyond (1922) The one and only Harry Houdini stars as Howard Hillary, a 19th century Arctic explorer found frozen on a 100-year-old ship.  After he thaws out and miraculously returns to life, he returns to America to explore a world that’s changed.  When he encounters a woman (Jane Connelly) who resembles his fiancé from a century ago, he’s convinced he’s met her reincarnated form.  I suppose it’s intended to be romantic, but Houdini just comes across as a delusional stalker.  Of course, audiences probably didn’t flock to the theaters to see Houdini appear in a love story.  The main draw of The Man from Beyond was to showcase his arsenal of tricks. In one scene, he’s committed to an insane asylum, but promptly escapes from his straightjacket and padded cell.  Even if the film around him is a lackluster, half-baked romance/fantasy, it’s a treat to see Houdini do what he does best (hint: it’s not acting).

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Sunday, September 22, 2013


(2012) Written and directed by Pablo Berger; Starring: Maribel Verdú, Sofía Oria, Emilio Gavira, Daniel Giménez Cacho and Macarena García;
Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: **** ½

“They’ve rescued a part of the silent cinema that used to inspire passion in us…”
– Maribel Verdú (excerpt from interview, The Making-of Blancanieves)

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but 2012’s Blancanieves completely slipped beneath my radar.  It was only a month ago that I read about the film on another blog, and my interest was instantly piqued.  Although I eagerly anticipated adding it to my Silent September roster, I approached the film with a healthy dose of skepticism.  The phrase “modern silent film” immediately raised red flags, since most attempts come across as a cynical, hollow exercise, rather than a satisfying cinematic experience.  It’s a tough line to tread, indeed, trying to re-create a so-called “dead” art form without lapsing into pretentious territory, aping the style with none of the substance.  But Blancanieves (Spanish for Snow White) manages to be none of those things.  Told with sophistication, wit and heart it engages rather than repels, as one of the best retellings of a popular fable

All of the familiar story elements from Snow White are here, but the devil’s in the details, as writer/director Pablo Berger re-purposes the components for a different time and place.  Instead of a far-off fantasy land, the setting is early 20th-century Spain, and instead of a mystical kingdom, the bullfighting dynasty established by Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) stands in as the modern-day surrogate.  As in all fables, however, adversity enters Villalta’s world, and the fairy tale existence takes a dark turn.  In a moment of distraction he’s gored by a bull, and his pregnant wife goes into labor.  As his formidable wounds are being attended to, his wife (Inma Cuesta) dies giving birth to their daughter.  Encarna (Maribel Verdú) is a nurse who assists with his recuperation, but she has an ulterior motive.  He re-marries, but Encarna is only in love with the promise of his vast wealth, and the course of his infant daughter’s life is changed forever.

Many recent attempts at silent films often stumble by mimicking the overly melodramatic, histrionic acting styles of the past.  Performances in Blancanieves, however, are refreshingly modern.  Berger likely sensed that modern audiences would not respond as well to such performances, and wisely chose to take a more naturalistic approach with his actors.  Verdú, who was attached to the film early in its development, is pitch-perfect as the wicked stepmother.  Her cruelty toward the wheelchair-bound Villalta and his daughter Carmencita (Sofía Oria) knows no bounds.  Encarna lives in luxury while Villalta spends his days alone in an isolated wing of his mansion, and she forces Carmencita to toil away like an indentured servant.  Verdú weaves a character spun of vanity, selfishness and acrimony, a portrait of pure, unrepentant evil.  Oria is also wonderful in her role as Carmencita, whose innocence is tarnished by hardship.  In one heartbreaking scene, Villalta watches his daughter dance before him, and they share a tender moment together, only to see it torn apart by the vindictive Encarna.

Macarena García plays Carmencita as a young woman, now known as Carmen.  After she survives a failed plot to murder her, she joins a traveling sideshow of bullfighting dwarves (yes, you read that correctly).  While Berger’s version is much darker than Disney’s take, Blancanieves arguably contains the more positive female role model with its protagonist.  Carmen is brave, rather than passive.  Instead of waiting for her prince to arrive, carves out her own niche in the world, and becomes a celebrity in her own right, as a matador.  By the time she enters the ring (in a scene that mirrors the film’s opening) the story has come full circle.  Carmen proves her mettle against her stepmother and has become a worthy successor to her father’s legacy.

In an interview, Berger commented that filmmakers took a step back aesthetically, with the transition from silents to talkies.  He alluded to film as a predominantly visual medium, with sound acting as a crutch to fill in the blanks that our imaginations should generate.  In creating his movie, Berger did more than simply copy the old aesthetics, but shrewdly created a balance between old and new techniques.  He retained the proper 1:33:1 aspect ratio, but did away with the digitally added pops and scratches that are typically intended to simulate a lost silent work.  Kiko de la Rica’s gorgeous cinematography does more to convey a sense of another time and place, than any digital doctoring could hope to achieve.  Each frame is a work of art.  When modern flourishes are added, they enhance, rather than detract from the visual experience.  Digital effects, such as a Zeppelin floating above the bullfighting arena or thousands of cheering crowd members, are used sparingly, to merge seamlessly with more traditional visual elements.   

Blancanieves is the biggest surprise of Silent September.  Instead of being an insufferable “art house” film that’s only fit to be appreciated by stuffy film historians and self-professed cineastes, it’s a delight from start to finish.  Keeping this film a secret would be a crime.  Berger has accomplished a most remarkable feat with his labor of love.  He created a modern silent film that compares favorably to the best of that bygone era by embracing its silent origins, but by the same token refusing to get mired in slavish replication.  Will Blancanieves herald a new renaissance for silent films?  Unlikely, but it’s a reminder of the subtle power of silent cinema, and it inspires this filmgoer to seek out more treasures from the past.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages

(1922) Written and directed by Benjamin Christensen; Starring: Benjamin Christensen, Elisabeth Christensen, Maren Pedersen
Available on DVD

Rating: **** ½

“My film has no continuous story, no plot.  It could perhaps best be described as a cultural history lecture in moving pictures.” – Benjamin Christensen (source: audio Criterion DVD audio commentary by Casper Tybjerg)

The phrase “ahead of its time” has been thrown about so casually to describe anything considered marginally offbeat, that it’s ceased to have much credibility.  One film that manages to live up to such hyperbole is Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages.  It’s an almost indescribable hybrid, relying on equal parts horror, fantasy, history lesson and drama.  Not quite a documentary, not quite a drama, Häxan is a blend of fact and fabrication.  Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen’s somewhat prosaic description (quoted above) belies the film’s ability to shock, inform and entertain after more than 90 years.

Christensen relied on a number of influences for Häxan.  While visiting the United States, he observed operations at Sing Sing prison in New York, which prompted him to consider themes of social injustice.  Margaret Murray’s book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe also provided a key influence for the dramatic elements of his film.  Häxan presents itself as a serious examination of the occult, but it’s much more than that.  The film is structured into seven parts, with the first providing a fascinating and (gasp!) educational primer on sorcery and superstition.  We’re treated to a series of still images illustrating how people have always sought ways to describe and influence the natural world.  The subsequent segments present some rather fanciful depictions of satanic rituals, although the bulk of the film focuses on how individuals suspected of witchcraft in the Middle Ages were persecuted for their practices (or suspicion of practices). 

The witch trial* scenes are disturbing, not simply because they point out the hypocrisy of the era, but the situations are so easily applicable to a modern context.  Society has often been quick to embrace popular conceit and reject anything that might be construed as unusual.  The self-righteous, sexually repressed monks, as presented in the film, were eager to condemn anyone who strayed from the acceptable range of normalcy.  Although men were not immune to the inquisitors’ scrutiny, Häxan clearly illustrates how women, young and old, were the frequent targets of this witch-hunting fervor.  In one powerful scene, one of the inquisitors employs deceit to force a woman into confessing.  He tricks her into revealing her “knowledge” of magic under the auspices that she would be set free.  Persecution, however, rarely stopped at one individual, but encompassed whole families and villages.  

* In his informative DVD commentary, Casper Tybjerg points out approximately 40 to 50 thousand people were victims of the witch trials in Europe, contradicting the 8 million deaths claimed by the film.   

In addition to writing and directing Häxan, Christensen assumed one of the film’s most prominent and memorable roles.  He seems to have had a great time as The Devil, mugging for the camera, dancing and wiggling his tongue.  Another performance worth noting is Maren Pedersen as an elderly woman accused of being a witch.  Her anguished expression speaks volumes, as someone who can’t fathom her unjust imprisonment or death sentence.

Häxan’s stunning visuals are as compelling as its themes. Christensen used every trick in the book to paint a portrait of debauchery, corruption and evil (real and imagined).  His film, which proved to be the most expensive Scandinavian silent, stretched the limits of visual effects of the day, through double exposures, prosthetic makeup and stop-motion animation.  Christensen experimented with various techniques to achieve the desired effect of witches flying on brooms over the countryside.  Hell and its torments were simulated through imaginative sets.  Also contributing to the film’s unique appearance was the director’s decision to shoot many scenes in darkness, and feature prominent close-ups of the actors.

The last segment of Häxan is arguably the weakest, with its attempt to bridge the former segments with the modern day.  Witchcraft and aberrant behavior is linked to the study of psychiatric disorders, which was in its infancy in the early 20th century.  The witch hunts of the Middle Ages are contrasted with “humane” modern treatments and asylums.  Compared to the scenes that preceded the final sequence, everything seems a bit rushed and tacked on.  Christensen later admitted he wasn’t a big fan of the latter portion of his film, but decided to leave it in for re-screenings. 

Christensen envisioned Häxan as the first in a trilogy of films dealing with supernatural subjects, to be followed by The Saint and The Spirits.  Sadly, Häxan would prove to the first and last of the series.  Critical and audience reaction to the film was mixed upon its initial release.  Scenes of overt sexuality, torture and unflattering portrayals of Catholicism caused it to be heavily censored or banned outright in several countries, although it played without cuts in its native Denmark.  Häxan saw several revivals over the ensuing decades, notably in 1968, with a shortened version narrated by counter-culture icon William S. Burroughs, but the 1922 cut remains the definitive version.  Whether you care to categorize Häxan as a documentary, horror, or social commentary, it’s a true landmark.