Guys Reading Poems (2016)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

“WHEN you have tidied all things for the night,
And while your thoughts are fading to their sleep,
You’ll pause a moment in the late firelight,
Too sorrowful to weep.”

So begins “Solitude,” by Harold Monro, one of 32 works that comprise most of the spoken words in Harold Lee Hughes’ new feature, “Guys Reading Poems.”  The mood it captures is tangible, and suggests the ideal state of wistful melancholy from which to appreciate this delicate cinematic creation.

The film tells the story of a boy whose unstable mother imprisons him in a puppet box and builds an art installation around him; to cope, the boy imagines a group of young men who read poetry to him, and these recitations echo through scenes of his past, his future, and his fantasies.  This ostensible premise serves as the centerpiece in a complex jigsaw puzzle charting the reverberations of a traumatic childhood, through which the resulting psychological fallout- fear and grief, anger and sorrow- is evoked both by the masterful language of the poems and by Hughes’ haunting black-and-white visuals.

It’s an ambitious undertaking to pack so much heavy emotional content into an average-length movie; many filmmakers have tried to channel these kinds of demons into some kind of celluloid catharsis, only to fall short of the mark.  Such efforts are often constructed either as overwrought psychodramas which offer trite resolutions for the sake of closure, or else as fantasies which obscure the issues behind mythological tropes and pseudo-symbolic whimsy.

Hughes has taken a middle path; “Guys Reading Poems” is both drama and fantasy- which means that it is also neither.  Instead, it walks a line between realism and artistic conceit; multiple layers emerge from each other as a progression of imagery takes us from past to present to future, through reality and fantasy and places in between.

The storytelling is elegantly simple, and almost entirely visual; a prologue depicting the courtship of father and mother plays like a lovely pantomime of archetypes, and the rift which develops between them later- as well as the conflict it creates in their child- is eloquently communicated by body language and artful cinematography.  As for the reciting interlopers, they may be somewhat disorienting, at first, but soon become a comfortable presence; like a Greek Chorus, they give voice to the soul of the story.  It’s largely due to them that the film’s elevated stylization can yield an authentic emotional connection, allowing both plot and purpose to be revealed like a lotus flower blossoming in a dream.

The array of poems incorporated includes works by Blake, Whitman, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Yeats, and WeHo poet laureate Steven Reigns, among many others; no less crucial, however, is the visual poetry achieved by Hughes and cinematographer Michael Marius Pessah.  Lushly lit and richly photographed, “Guys Reading Poems” is a movie that revels in its black-and-whiteness, evoking a noir sensibility that pays homage to its cinematic heritage and makes every frame feel like a deeply imbedded memory.  Combined with a flair for artistic design and a deft use of symbolism (which avoids heavy-handedness without sacrificing clarity), this results in a movie of distinctive style and beauty which lingers in the mind’s eye long after viewing.

As for the onscreen talent, they face the task communicating complex relationships mostly without the aid of dialogue, and they succeed admirably.  At the center is young Luke Judy as the boy, moving and endearing in a performance as refreshingly natural as any of his adult co-stars; but it is Patricia Velasquez as the mother- brooding and cold, yet vulnerable and tragic- who, appropriately, dominates the screen.  Rounding out the principal cast is Alexander Dreymon as the father; charismatic, and impossibly handsome, he balances tenderness with a hint of swagger as he provides an embodiment of the elusive masculine ideal.

Of course, the movie is called “Guys Reading Poems,” so the true stars of the show are the ensemble of young men who fill those title roles.  Their soulful delivery provides the movie’s beating heart, and gives weight to what might otherwise be nothing but a succession of pretty vignettes.  Each of them provides a differing perspective, standing in for various aspects of the young protagonist’s psyche as he makes sense of his experience- and each of them, like Dreymon, are stunning examples of the male aesthetic.

In fact, the preponderance of maleness, along with an underlying current of unrequited yearning for masculine affection (piercingly established with the departure of the boy’s beloved father), inevitably suggest a gay subtext.  This tale of a boy locked away in childhood provides an unmistakable allegory for a life shaped in the closet; the isolation from family and society, the entwined longing and resentment, the combination of loneliness and self-sufficiency- all these themes have deep resonance within the LGBTQ community, and all are intricately woven into every fiber of “Guys Reading Poems.”  Never overt, but vivid nonetheless, it’s a layer of meaning that makes this a full-fledged addition to the queer cinema canon.

Even so, Hughes’ film has a universal appeal.  By channeling the pain of damaged youth into a unique filmic meditation, he has created a touchstone for anyone who struggles to reconcile these psychic scars within their own life.  It’s an interior landscape that can be recognized by almost anyone, of course; and by treating it with candor, acknowledging its dark beauty, and honoring its inseparability from identity, Hughes has given us a movie which illuminates the path to transcendence.

“Guys Reading Poems” is unequivocally an art film, and as such unlikely to achieve widespread success at the box office; but for those of us who appreciate the bravery required not only to confront these difficult issues, but to explore them in such a public and honest manner, it is a much-appreciated effort and worthy of being sought out.  It deserves to be called essential viewing.

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Anomalisa (2015)

ANOMALISA

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has completed only a small handful of features since his 1999 debut (“Being John Malkovich”), yet despite his relatively sparse output, his name and reputation loom large, particularly among those cinephiles whose tastes run toward the edgy and intellectual.  His narratives, which seem to flow from dream logic rather than dramatic structure, are more like psychological case studies disguised as heavily symbolic brain-teasers, inhabited by figures that feel less like individual characters and more like shattered fragments of a single personality.  His latest effort takes the form of an animated film, but though “Anomalisa” is markedly different in its execution, it is cut from the same unmistakable cloth.

Kaufman’s screenplay is adapted from his own “sound play” of the same title, and, for the second time (the first was for 2008’s “Synecdoche, New York”), he steps into the director’s chair, as well- though he shares it with co-producer Duke Johnson.  It focuses on Michael Stone, a successful self-help author who travels to a Cincinnati hotel in order to speak at a conference.  Though he is an expert on interpersonal relations, Michael is unable to distinguish people as individuals.  Everyone with whom he interacts possesses the same male face and voice- even the women- until he encounters Lisa, a young woman attending his seminar.  She is distinctively herself within the sea of homogeneous banality that surrounds him, and he begins to hope she can at last release him from the boredom and isolation he has felt for so long.

The above description may not read like the synopsis to an animated film, but “Anomalisa” is no ordinary animated film.  Shot in stop motion style, it utilizes puppets partly manufactured by 3-D printing, resulting in a somewhat unsettling effect that is simultaneously stylized and naturalistic.  It’s an effective style for the story being told; the world of the movie seems concrete enough to anchor it in reality, allowing us to forget the animated format as we are gradually drawn into the premise.  Much of the credit for this aspect of “Anomalisa” belongs to co-director Johnson, who supervised the creation of its technically stunning, intricately detailed animation.

The content of “Anomalisa,” while equally as creative as its visuals, is perhaps less innovative- at least to those familiar with Kaufman.  As with most of his work, it’s an observational fable that takes place within a Kafkaesque landscape of psychological dysfunction.  It challenges our ideas about the nature of identity and explores the effects of perception on our experience of the world around us.  It presents characters unable to make the emotional connections they desperately desire, who live in private bubbles of perspective and fumble blindly in their interactions with others.  And then there are the puppets; puppets have always figured prominently in Kaufman’s imagination, and here, they even take the place of live actors.  To say the film revisits Kaufman’s recurring themes is by no means a negative criticism, however.  On the contrary, those themes strike deep and resonant chords; they always yield new insights into our shared human experience, and the writer’s quirky imagination ensures that his work is always full of surprises.

Though the provocative ideas and visuals are the real stars here, credit also goes to the fine work of the voice cast.  David Thewlis (as Michael), Jennifer Jason Leigh (as Lisa), and Tom Noonan (as everyone else) eschew the usual exaggerated vocal styling of animation in favor of a nuanced, naturalistic approach.  Their effectiveness is likely due in large part to the fact that all three performed their roles in the original play, as well.  Composer Carter Burwell also carries over from the stage version (he actually produced it), contributing a delicate, moody score which perfectly serves the melancholy tone of the overall piece.

“Anomalisa” is certainly melancholy, even dark.  In addition to its complex and mature themes, it features profanity, full-frontal nudity, and even a somewhat explicit sex scene.  Needless to say, it is not for children, despite being an animated film.  Many adults might also have a hard time with it; its intellectualism, coupled with its stylistic conceit, creates an emotional distance that may leave some viewers cold.  This is a frequent issue with Kaufman’s introspective creations, but as always, those willing to stick with it will find that it has a lot of heart hiding under all its conceptual constructs.  There’s also a lot of humor in the mix.  Despite the philosophical weightiness of his material, Kaufman never takes himself too seriously; he somehow always manages to be both thought-provoking and entertaining, and it is this that makes him one of the most original voices in American film.  “Anomalisa” is a worthy entry to his canon, and like most of his work, it fully deserves to be called essential viewing.

Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror / Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)

Nosferatu (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror (Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens), the 1922 German film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by the acclaimed and influential F.W. Murnau. An elaborate production, filmed largely on location, it was the first major film to focus on a vampire and has exerted a strong and lasting influence over the 90 years since its release; yet it was almost lost due to the fact that the production studio- Prana Films- never obtained the rights to Stoker’s novel and was sued by his widow, resulting in their declaration of bankruptcy and an order to destroy all copies of the movie. Fortunately, one copy had already been shipped out, and thanks to its survival Nosferatu (as it is now commonly known) was eventually heralded as a true classic, developing a cult following and becoming a cultural icon.

The plot is more or less familiar to anyone who has read or seen Dracula in any of its more “official” versions, but the setting and the names of the characters have been changed, and several new ideas are introduced in addition to the creation of a significantly altered ending. It opens with idyllic scenes of life in the fictional port town of Wisborg; a young man, Thomas Hutter, is being sent to faraway Transylvania by his employer, a real estate agent named Klock, in order to conduct a transaction with the mysterious Count Orlok, who wishes to buy a house in their town. Though his beautiful and virtuous wife, Ellen, has dark forebodings about the trip, Hutter leaves her in the care of friends and enthusiastically embarks on his journey. Once he arrives at Orlok’s ruined castle, however, he begins to suspect that the reclusive count- a thin, ghoulish-looking eccentric who evokes deep fear in the local villagers- may have darker intentions than a simple change of scenery; after the deal is finalized, the young man is horrified to discover that his host is indeed a member of the undead, a powerful vampire who sleeps by day in a coffin under the castle- but the knowledge comes too late, for Hutter finds himself imprisoned in his room, watching helplessly from a window as Orlok loads several coffins full of dirt into a wagon and departs for Wisborg. Fearing for the safety of his home town- and especially of his beloved wife- he manages to escape from the castle and begins to make his way back to Wisborg, hoping he can arrive in time. The count, meanwhile, travels by ship, concealed below deck in one of his coffins; along the way, he victimizes every port town at which they stop, leaving behind rumors of plague. He also preys upon the crew, killing them one by one until the boat arrives in Wisborg, seemingly a ghost vessel inhabited only by rats- brought on board within Orlok’s spare coffins. Believing the rodents have carried the spreading plague to their town, the authorities warn the citizens to remain secluded in their homes, and Orlok, having moved into his new abode and using the supposed epidemic as his cover, begins to feed upon the terrified population. When Hutter finally arrives home, he finds that Ellen, to his relief, is so far unharmed, but she is consumed by melancholy and terrified of the new neighbor who stares at her from his window at night. Though her husband tries to hide the truth from her, she discovers from his books the true nature of the threat, and learning that the vampire can only be destroyed by direct sunlight, she resolves to undertake a dire strategy by which she might lure Count Orlok to his doom.

The screenplay for Nosferatu, which has received much praise for its deliberate, rhythmic pacing and its pervading air of cool melancholy, was authored by Henrik Galeen, an Expressionist writer hired by the film’s producers for his expertise in the dark romantic style they wished to capture. Though the great Murnau is usually given credit for the movie’s eerie mise-en-scène, Galeen’s script was in fact quite detailed in its meticulous, shot-by-shot description; he included specific instructions for each scene, with directions for timing, camera angles and composition, and lighting, even providing sketches for reference in framing shots. The result is a haunting, dream-like exploration of the primal fears hiding in the dark corners of man’s imagination, given form through the persistent folklore that has resisted the rise of science and reason since the days of the Black Death. Though the vampire myth is ancient and universal, its most familiar and lasting incarnation springs from the superstitious tales of Central Europe, where bubonic plague wiped out whole medieval villages and prompted the survivors to imagine other-worldly causes for its indiscriminate and unstoppable devastation- not only vampires, but werewolves and other insidious monsters of the night became the dreaded scapegoats for this seemingly unexplainable onslaught of death, and legends of their continuing existence endured throughout the centuries as a reminder of those dark times. Galeen’s scenario, borrowed as it may have been from Stoker’s then-still-fairly-recent novel, stirs up all of these arcane fears embedded in cultural memory. Indeed, before Orlok ever appears onscreen there are scenes of a werewolf prowling the night (with a striped hyena- a bizarre-looking and fearsome creature that was largely unfamiliar to most 1922 moviegoers- standing in for the supernatural beast), and memories of the ancient plague are clearly tapped by the tale’s conceit of using the threat of just such a rat-borne pestilence as a subterfuge to mask Orlok’s killing sprees; even the vampire’s makeup, with his large, pointed ears and pronounced, close-set fangs, is designed to be rat-like and enhance the correlation between monster and disease. Though Nosferatu is set in the 1830s and was made in the 1920s, as we watch it in the 2010s our subconscious is undeniably returned to the Dark Ages, when the night concealed forces which we could neither fathom, foresee, nor combat, and safety was an illusion that could only be maintained by the light of day.

As for Murnau, even if he was guided extensively by the wishes of the screenwriter, his genius clearly shows through. His meticulously faithful adherence to Galeen’s directives is infused with his own brand of cinematic poetry, creating a striking visual statement that leaves lingering images in the viewer’s mind. His skill at using light and shadow is here used to great advantage, with his particular gift for capturing the almost tactile properties of both helping immeasurably to build the heightened, nightmare reality of the film. Nosferatu, after all, is pure Expressionist cinema- albeit tempered by the sensibilities of gothic romance- and as such is intended to simulate a sort of dream-state, in which the impulses of the unconscious psyche are manifested in outward form; Murnau’s ability to create this hallucinogenic, psychically resonant feel onscreen is largely responsible for its overwhelming success at this objective. Nor should his efforts with the mechanics of storytelling be ignored; he drives his film at precisely the right pace, neither too slowly or too quickly, but with a strong feeling of inexorability that feeds our cumulative sense of dread and pulls us deeper into the narrative. This effect was neither accidental nor accomplished after the fact through editing; the director filmed each scene with precision timing, even using a metronome to guide his actors, and controlled the rhythm and flow of the movie with such a musicality that its subtitle, “A Symphony of Horror,” is not at all hyperbolic.

The film’s other components should be noted, as well, for they all support Murnau’s artistry by building a cohesive visual unity. The director’s remarkable portrayal of light- such a tangible force it is itself almost a character in the drama- is made possible by the luminous work of cinematographer F.A. Wagner- who, amazingly, accomplished the entire shoot (even the extensive location footage) with only a single camera. Contributing immensely to the visual style, which not only makes heavy use of the theatrical, larger-than-life elements of Expressionism but also draws extensively on older, more traditional influences from Germany’s rich and varied artistic heritage, is the set-and-costume design of Albin Grau. His creations- with the help of Murnau and Wagner’s intricate lighting- evoke paintings by the great masters, but they also lend themselves to the edgy avant-garde milieu of the then-present-day; this melding of the familiar with the jarringly strange is yet another way in which Nosferatu derives its power. Grau was one of the film’s producers, and indeed had first conceived the idea of making the movie, inspired by an incident during his service in WWI, when a Serbian farmer told him that his father was a vampire; no doubt haunted by his imaginings of this farmer’s undead patriarch ravaging the countryside at night, he knew it was the sort of irrational dream material that was perfect for expression through film. It might be said that, more than Galeen or even Murnau, Nosferatu was his film; accordingly, his considerable design contributions, infused with the passion of a personal vision, should not be overlooked.

Though it was, of course, a silent film, music was nevertheless intended to play an important role in Nosferatu. Sadly, the original score composed to accompany its screening, written by Hans Edermann, was long thought lost. As a result, there have been numerous alternative scores created over the years, in styles ranging from lush orchestral romanticism to dissonant avant-garde minimalism. The print I watched recently (available on Netflix streaming video) features a score composed in 2000 by the Silent Movie Orchestra, consisting of a fairly contemporary-sounding ensemble utilizing such elements as electronic organ and heavy percussion; personally, I found it highly effective, but obviously it’s a matter of taste. Many feel that the score for a silent movie can only be appropriate if it is created in the style of- and with the instrumentation available in- the era in which the film was made; others have a more flexible preference, and obviously the majority of casual viewers will most likely find such a question immaterial (though I would venture to say that many of those who claim they cannot enjoy silent films are basing their opinion on the experience of seeing one with a generic, woefully inadequate musical accompaniment- the effect of music on this art form cannot be overstated). There are a number of prints available, with different scores to accommodate every taste, so if this aspect of the film is a concern, you would be well-advised to do a little research before choosing which version to watch. The now-reconstructed Edelmann score is featured on Kino’s restored print, which also offers probably the cleanest video quality available today, complete with the original, all-important chromatic tinting to differentiate day from night (in pure black-and-white, as most silent films were commonly shown for decades, time of day becomes a confusing issue); obviously, watching this edition is the best option, if possible; otherwise, there are numerous other versions available for free viewing online- after all, the movie is in the public domain, at least in the United States.

Whatever musical accompaniment you might favor, if you are a serious cinema aficionado, watch Nosferatu you should. Though many other horror films pre-date it, it is unquestionably the first unqualified masterpiece of the genre, from which all subsequent entries have sprung; not only have Galeen’s screenplay and Murnau’s direction spawned thousands of imitators throughout the past century, their film contains the first bona-fide horror icon (with the possible exception of Conrad Veidt’s somnambulistic murderer in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) in the form of Count Orlok. As embodied by character actor Max Schreck, the count is a nightmarish figure indeed; a far cry from the darkly romantic charm of Bela Lugosi and other later interpretations of the Dracula character, he is utterly devoid of humanity, spectral, repellant and coldly detached. He famously grows uglier as the film progresses, with fangs and talons seeming to grow larger as he becomes more steeped in bloodshed and death. Like an anthropoid vermin, he moves his spindly frame with a grotesque grace and gazes with dull malevolence through his not-quite lifeless eyes; it’s easy to see why Schreck has been shrouded with mystery in the popular imagination, even being portrayed as a real vampire in the fictional 2000 film about the making of Nosferatu, Shadow of the Vampire. For many years, cinematic legend surrounding the film has wrongly implied his surname was adopted for this role due to its translation into the English word “fright,” but Schreck was indeed his birth name, and he had enjoyed a long and prominent career in German theatre and film prior to being cast as Orlok. He deserves full recognition for his performance, a masterful creation in which he uses his physicality to bring the full essence of this loathsome character to the screen; to attribute his effectiveness solely to savvy casting, though Murnau reportedly picked him for his ugliness alone, is to discount the level of commitment this fine actor brought to the role, helping to make it one of the most definitive and influential screen depictions of a horror character ever filmed- an even more remarkable feat considering that he is actually on screen for a total of less than 10 minutes

The rest of the cast, though many of them have much more screen time, are not quite as unforgettable as Schreck- how could they be? This doesn’t mean their work is inferior, however; all of the players provide vivid portraits of their characters, delivering top-notch performances in the accepted style of the day. Gustav von Wangenheim, a noted theatrical writer/director and performer, and film’s true leading actor, is robust and florid as Hutter, a little over the top, perhaps, but more endearing by far than most of the wooden, stiff-upper lip types offered by later incarnations of the story’s parallel character, Jonathan Harker; the stately and beautiful Greta Schröder adds a touch more weight and dignity than expected to the role of Ellen, making her less the helpless victim than the tragic heroine; and as Knock, the psychically-enslaved real estate broker who serves as the film’s version of Renfield, Alexander Granach gives us a comically exaggerated- but still unsettling- personification of the archetypal greedy old man, here driven to the point of lunacy by the influence of his demonic master and presenting an obvious allegory, in his affiliation with the vampire, for the adulation of wealth and power represented by such figures- which gives Nosferatu a suggestion of sociopolitical commentary, in the sense that Knock becomes a scapegoat for the villagers, who blame and persecute him for the onset of the plague, though- despite his eager participation in the evil that besets them- he is, in reality, just another victim, a symptom of a larger malady that transcends political or economic concerns.

Nosferatu is one of those rare works from the early years of cinema that remains eminently watchable by the average viewer today; there is something about it, perhaps a sense of the dark despair hidden beneath even the brightest promise of happiness and prosperity, which allows it to strike a universal and timeless chord. There are so many haunting and indelible images here: the silhouetted horses fleeing from the marauding werewolf; the spectral coach speeding eerily in stop-motion as it bears Hutter to Orlok’s castle; the ghostly ship gliding inexorably through the night as it delivers the vampire across the waters; the angry mob destroying a scarecrow in its pursuit of Knock; and, of course, every moment of Orlok’s presence, from his first appearance as the sinister driver of the coach to his furtive and decidedly unromantic feeding upon his final victim. The stylized artistry of its presentation, far from making it inaccessible, seems to crystallize it and capture its essence in a form that is instantly familiar. It’s impossible to say, 90 years later, whether the imagery of Murnau’s movie has become integrated into our collective cultural consciousness or if it drew its inspiration from the dark imaginings that were already there; wither way, the effect is the same- Nosferatu is an experience that feels like it is coming from within us, not from without.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0013442/

Lunacy/Sileni (2005)

Today’s cinema adventure: Lunacy (Šílení), a darkly comic 2005 horror film by celebrated Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer; based on two short stories by Edgar Allan Poe and drawing inspiration from the writing and philosophies of the Marquis de Sade, its an odd, quirky and disturbing foray into the horror genre by a director known for his odd, quirky and disturbing movies, featuring his trademark mixture of macabre puppetry and animation as well as his usual surrealist influences.  Like most of Švankmajer’s work, it initially received little attention outside of Europe (and the few remaining “art house” theaters), but it has since found an audience, alongside the rest of his canon, among the ranks of his loyal international cult following.

Though it begins, ostensibly, in a present day-setting, the story is quickly drawn anachronistically into the 18th Century, as its protagonist, Jean, is befriended by a wealthy and mysterious marquis (in full period garb) who travels by horse-drawn coach and is attended by a mute servant.  Jean is plagued by recurring nightmares in which two leering goons accost him in his sleep and attempt to forcibly restrain him with a straight jacket; after one such dream causes him to destroy his hotel room in a somnambulant struggle, the marquis comes to his aid by paying for the damages, and then invites the young man to travel with him to his home.  Jean soon discovers, however, that his new benefactor possesses a cruel streak; during his stay he is subjected to cruel pranks- including a bizarre and secretive nocturnal interment- and surreptitiously witnesses a blasphemous ritual in which God and morality are denounced and a young woman in chains is beaten and raped.  Eventually, he accompanies his host to a local asylum, where he is persuaded to remain as a voluntary patient in order to receive treatment for his nighttime disturbances.  His agreement to this arrangement, however, is in reality spurred by the presence there of the girl abused in the black mass, whom he fears to be trapped within the sinister machinations of the marquis and his friend who runs the institution.  Vowing to rescue her and expose the sadistic purposes of her captors, he sets about discovering the hidden truth of the hospital- a place where the inmates and staff are virtually indistinguishable, where chaos and debauchery seem to rampage unchecked, and where a dark secret lies hidden behind the walls, waiting to be set free.

Švankmajer (who provides a spoken introduction to the film in which he plainly states its purpose and emphatically proclaims it not to be “a work of art”) draws the  inspiration for his narrative from Poe’s stories, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether and The Premature Burial, but the underlying thematic premise is derived from the views espoused by the notorious Marquis de Sade- upon whom the film’s primary antagonist is clearly based.  The argument of both the real and fictional marquis- that man is a product of nature, cruel and carnal by design, and that notions of God and morality are false constructs based in fear and designed to impose control over the weak and foolish- is the central idea which fuels the story, alongside the added intellectual exploration of two opposing methods to governing the insane: absolute control and absolute freedom.  As to the latter, the director states unequivocally in his prologue that the state of the modern world is a combination of the worst aspects of each of these methods, but- apart from this rather glib assessment- his film offers no real support for this theory beyond the extrapolations that can be made from the allegorical elements of the scenario.  Regarding man’s bestiality, however, Švankmajer gives us plenty of meat- literally.  Providing a sort of running commentary to the action are short segments, produced with the filmmaker’s familiar stop-motion techniques, featuring slabs of raw meat animated into performing various activities reminiscent of basic instinctual behavior- such as eating, fighting, and sexual intercourse-  continually reinforcing the idea of humanity as mere senseless flesh driven by primal impulses.  These vignettes, intercut with the main action, also serve to give Lunacy much of its “creep” factor, though as always in Švankmajer’s films, there is good amount of tongue-in-cheek humor that makes us grin even as we cringe.  On a less abstract level, within the narrative proper, the idea of man’s natural urge towards sex and cruelty is illustrated repeatedly in scenes best left for the viewer to discover for himself, with Jean and his enigmatic damsel-in-distress as the only representatives of sanity- as equated to decency, that is.  However, in keeping with the film’s source material, not to mention its creator’s penchant for surrealism, it is never exactly clear that our assumptions are true, and the question of what constitutes sanity- or decency, for that matter- is one which Lunacy leaves unanswered, choosing rather to provide cynical observation on the basic state of humanity.

Švankmajer has built his unique reputation with decades of imaginative filmmaking, blending live action with animation in ways that are at once deceptively simple and devilishly clever.  Influenced by an early career in puppet theatre, he has brought his traditional stagecraft sensibilities into his cinematic language, establishing himself as a genuine auteur with his shorts and feature films that incorporate not only the aforementioned stop-motion techniques, but claymation, a mixture of realistic and stylized scenery as well as puppets and live actors (and sometimes live actors dressed as puppets), and a generally theatrical style possessed of unmistakably ancient roots that stretch back to the Commedia dell’Arte and beyond.  Lunacy, however, like many of his recent works, utilizes a greater proportion of more-or-less straightforward live action footage; indeed, apart from the previously described meat-in-motion sequences, it contains relatively little of Švankmajer’s familiar visual trickery.  This is not to say the movie is short on the director’s usual delight in showmanship; throughout the story are numerous sequences that clearly draw from his love for the stage- the black mass, viewed from the perspective of an unseen audience (Jean peering through a window), is blatantly theatrical, and a tableau vivant of Delacroix’s La Liberté guidant le peuple is later staged by the marquis at the asylum, a nod to the historical de Sade’s direction of plays featuring other inmates when he was at Charenton asylum- as well as to Marat/Sade, the famous avant-garde dramatization of those real-life “productions.”  In addition, the trappings of theatre are scattered throughout the film- costumes, wigs, false facial hair- and the marquis’ entire persona seems to be a sort of performance, as if he is always centerstage in the theatre of his own life.  All of this plays into Švankmajer’s eternal fascination with illusion and the tricks of perception that allow us to be deceived by our own minds, which in turn fits neatly into the Poe-inspired horror scenario, hinging as it does on this very idea; further, the subject matter gives Lunacy‘s theatricality the specific flavor of true Grand Guignol, a style named for the 19th Century Parisian theatre that popularized the staging of horror spectacles, steeped in gore and blasphemy, known for inducing a kind of sexual response to their sensationalistic thrills- which is, of course, highly appropriate in a piece so infused with the spirit of De Sade.

Lunacy is not, of course, a play, and though it borrows much from the theatrical milieu, it also revels in its cinematic nature.  Švankmajer’s understanding of his medium is absolute; he directs with the confidence- even the cockiness- of someone like Hitchcock or Kubrick, delighting in his offbeat style and audaciously presenting his subversive ideas with imagery that is as indelible as it is absurd.  That Lunacy is a self-proclaimed horror film makes little difference in the director’s approach; the choices and tactics he employs are no more horrific than those in any given Švankmajer film, and indeed, he shows considerable restraint here, leaving many things to the imagination that might, with a different director behind the camera, be exploited for their full shock potential.  Providing shock has never been of interest to Švankmajer; rather, he prefers to unsettle us, to disturb the comfort of our psyches by inundating it with the illogical and the impossible, simulating the peculiar flow of a dreamlike consciousness where the contradictory makes perfect sense and the ordinary seems unnatural and menacing.  He creates a hallucinatory landscape in which the demons of our imagination appear before our eyes in all their unexpected familiarity, and because he is so good at doing so, the things he doesn’t show us are all the more potent.

Lunacy, like all of Švankmajer’s films, is ultimately beyond the realm of standard criticism; it exists as a thing unto itself, and to this whimsically macabre visionary’s loyal legion of acolytes, it is one more perfect creation in a body of work that, thankfully, continues to grow.  That said, however, watching his effort at a bona fide horror film (though truthfully, in my view, all of his work could be classed as such) is something of a disappointment.  Given the genre into which he has ventured, one might expect a hitherto unseen level of grotesquery, if not in outright terror and gore, at least in the ferociousness of his approach; but although the film contains several highly effective set pieces (the aforementioned black mass- with its mixture of the arcane, the blasphemous, and the erotic- pushes a lot of buttons for those uncomfortable with such improprieties, and the entire premature burial sequence is a mini-masterpiece of evoking chills with atmospheric story-telling) and it maintains a palpable sense of dread and impending doom throughout, it seems strangely subdued- particularly given its influences from Poe and de Sade, neither of whom could be called masters of restraint. It’s true that the film is meant to be comedic as well, albeit in the darkest sense; but again, this can be said of most of Śvankmajer’s work.  Furthermore, his narrative- despite the anachronisms, non-sequiturs, and other occasionally jarring surrealist ornamentation- is uncharacteristically straightforward, linear, and grounded in a relatively concrete reality (with the exception of the ongoing interpolation of animated meat, that is).  Taken on the whole, Lunacy is less engaging than his Faust, and less disturbing than his Lewis Carroll adaptation, Alice, both of which push the limits of our preconceived boundaries with more enthusiasm and, consequently, linger in our memories far more pervasively.

Comparisons with his other work aside, Švankmajer’s horror film is still an impressively imaginative piece of work, capturing in its unorthodox framework both the delirious psychic instability that makes Poe’s stories feel like a fever dream and the perverse thrill that lies at the heart of de Sade’s nihilistic hedonism.  It’s not terrifying- though parts of it may cause faint hearts to beat faster- and its eventual conclusion is predictable for anyone who even a passing familiarity with the conceits of horror fiction; nevertheless, it succeeds better, both on an intellectual and a deeply primal level, than most of the formulaic, shock-oriented thrillers churned out by the mainstream film industry in its pursuit of teenage dollars.  Of course, its bizarre stylization may prevent many casual audiences from finding it appealing; Švankmajer’s movies are not for every taste, certainly, though in truth, Lunacy may be more accessible than much of his more directly avant-garde work.  As for those with more eclectic tastes, those who are already indoctrinated into the peculiar joys of this Czech master may find, as I did, that Lunacy fails to generate the same deliciously mind-twisting effects as some of his other projects- though doubtless there will be those, with whom it strikes a particular chord, who will quickly adopt it as a new favorite; those adventurous cinema enthusiasts who have yet to see a Švankmajer film, however, are likely to find it a pleasant introduction to a strange and darkly wondrous world unlike anything they have seen before.  It’s as good an introduction as any, and if it leaves you wanting more, you can take comfort in the fact that a five-decade body of work exists, awaiting your discovery.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0407236/

Faust (1994)

Today’s cinema adventure: Faust, the 1994 feature by celebrated Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, a surrealist take on the classic German legend in which a scholar trades his soul to the Devil in exchange for worldly knowledge and experience.  Set in modern day Prague and incorporating the director’s trademark blend of live action with stop-motion animation, claymation and puppetry, as well as his disturbingly textural use of sound, it represents the culmination of Švankmajer’s long fascination with the tale and stands- along with his other highly distinctive work- as a major influence on more well-known directors such as David Lynch, Tim Burton, and Terry Gilliam.

Presenting its own loose adaptation of the familiar morality fable, Švankmajer’s film borrows elements (and, occasionally, entire scenes) from previous versions by the likes of Christopher Marlowe and Goethe, as well as from the early folk stories of its origin, more or less faithfully following the traditional structure of the narrative; but thanks to the director’s surrealist sensibilities, it recasts the tale in the form of a nightmarish hallucination centered around a nondescript middle-aged everyman who stands in for the mythic scholar.  When this hapless protagonist is handed a flyer in the street, upon which is printed only a simple map of the city with a location marked in red, his curiosity- coupled with some unusual occurrences in his apartment- leads him to a mysterious, ruined theatre; there, after donning costume and makeup, he begins to read from a charred and tattered script, setting in motion a hallucinatory cycle in which he enacts the role of Faust.  Assisted- and manipulated- by an assortment of other “actors,” human and otherwise, his own identity merges with that of the character he plays, and it becomes clear that his own fate is being determined by the scripted events of the ancient drama in which he has become enmeshed- in which he strikes a bargain with Mephistopheles, an agent of the Devil, to instruct him in the secrets of the universe and guide him through the pleasures of earthly life for a period of 24 years, after which he will surrender his soul to be damned into Hell for all eternity.

A dark and moralistic story like this one, born of the same dour Germanic heritage that yielded the Grimm fairy tales and other such cautionary parables, could easily be translated to the screen laden with the ponderously heavy trappings of deep tradition and humorless Puritanism; likewise, given the fact that this legend has provided the inspiration for countless adaptations and re-inventions (from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Brian DePalma’s The Phantom of the Paradise), the familiarity of its basic plot and its themes make it challenging, to say the least, for any artist attempting a new version to find a fresh approach that might prevent predictability and redundancy from undermining the proceedings- and the audience’s interest in the outcome.  In Švankmajer’s hands, however, the entire well-known saga is transformed into an audaciously non-traditional package of surprises, each one as delightful as it is disturbing, appropriately dark in tone but laced throughout with macabre, tongue-in-cheek humor, and loaded with the peculiar blend of the cinematic and the theatrical that gives this director a reputation for visual magic that is unlike the work of any other.  A self-proclaimed surrealist, Švankmajer creates a movie that captures the peculiar flow of nonsensical logic one follows in a dream, making the experience of watching Faust feel thoroughly like a visit to the realm of the unconscious; he tells the story clearly and succinctly, but he does it through a deeply symbolic progression of seeming non-sequiturs, building a mass of perplexing puzzle pieces that fall seamlessly into place as the narrative resolves itself.  By transposing the story deeply into a hallucinogenic reality in which rules of plausibility and common sense no longer apply, the director not only allows himself free use of arcane and metaphoric artistic conceits, he manages to frame his oft-told tale in such a way that every development seems completely new and unexpected, giving us the opportunity to discover its hidden meanings and significant themes by discovering them from an unfamiliar perspective.

That perspective, shrewdly, moves the Faust story out of the medieval past and into a milieu more relevant to a modern audience; Švankmajer doesn’t exactly update his drama, but rather rehearses it within a contemporary framework.  Our protagonist is established from the outset as a decidedly present-day figure, emerging amidst a crowd of commuters from a subway station- just another anonymous drone.  He is drawn into the web that will seal his fate by a pair of men passing out flyers on a street corner, a sight so mundane in our modern world we scarcely take notice; this, of course, sets up a recurring theme for Švankmajer, that of the mystical contained within the ordinary, a motif that manifests itself throughout the film and tempts us, like Faust, with the promise of secret wonders hiding just beneath the bland surface of our everyday lives.  In our demystified era of utilitarian buildings and dehumanized masses, we long for the thrill of the unknown, a glimpse of something mysterious behind the mask of our predictable, well-ordered existence; such a revelation, however, is as unsettling as it is exhilarating, a source of terror as much as enlightenment, and therein lies the essence of Faust.  To obtain the key to this secret world, we must be willing to sacrifice our very selves, to give up everything that defines us- our souls, if you will; for to be privy to the secret workings of the universe is to be torn irrevocably from our humanity, confronted with an absolute power that renders our previous understanding meaningless and dissolves our identity by shattering the precepts upon which we build our relationship with the world.  In a modern age full of the smug assumptions and easy explanations derived from centuries of scientific exploration, the idea of an unseen order to things is perhaps even more terrifying than it was to our superstitious forefathers, whose imaginations conjured the tale of Faust to warn against delving too deeply into the hidden mysteries of life.  They feared the cost of knowledge and worldly experience was the loss of the soul, but we who have embraced these things may be more frightened by the possibility that they were right.  Švankmajer’s Faust, then, is about the rediscovery of the soul by modern man, and the disturbing notion that he has already sacrificed it.

That Švankmajer conveys all this in his movie is remarkable; but convey it he does, in a manner which gives testimony to his skills as an artist and a visual storyteller.  How he does it, exactly, is beyond the power of words to describe, and at any rate is best left to be experienced firsthand. Suffice to say that, in order to bring our modern sensibility into the mystical world of his story, he takes us into the last remaining stronghold of magic, the realm of the theater.  By trapping his protagonist into a re-enactment of an ancient text, not only does he provide the obvious metaphor of man’s fate being dictated by his repetition of the patterns of the past, he opens the door for his own use of all the tricks of the trade in the service of creating his goofy nightmare.  Puppets, both life-sized and miniature, stand in for other characters- and occasionally, for Faust, too- and interchange with live actors; painted backdrops appear in naturalistic settings, and vice-versa, patently theatrical objects and occurrences manifest in the real world, and events move freely back-and-forth between the containment of the theater and the expanse of nature, underscoring Švankmajer’s dissolution of the boundary between reality and illusion; dialogue is recited, arias are sung, ballet dancers perform, and an audience observes the proceedings, though most of Faust’s key scenes take place “backstage,” at least ostensibly.  Of course, the director’s familiar techniques of stop-motion animation are directly drawn from this theatrical background, and fit in seamlessly here- particularly effective is his claymation rendition of Mephistopheles, growing from a ball of clay into a vaguely humorous demonic face that then transmutes into a mirror image of Faust’s own appearance, giving us, once again, the mystical inside the familiar.  Throughout the film, Švankmajer utilizes all these devices to draw us along on this metaphysical journey, using his surrealist tactics to provide cryptic images that simultaneously amuse and appall us- an egg baked inside a loaf of bread, a baby transforming into a skull, a severed leg wrapped in plastic, a puppet demon sexually assaulting a puppet angel, and countless other blasphemous delights- and, in the end, achieve their cumulative goal of revealing the film’s underlying mystery.  It’s worth mentioning, too, that Švankmajer also indulges his usual fascination with food, offering us numerous important scenes that revolve around eating; he also provides his trademark, hallucinatory soundscape, a collection of rustling, scratching, rattling noises that crosses the sensory boundaries to make us feel the surfaces we hear- and creeps us out, in the bargain.  The entire film, ultimately, has this effect- it’s something akin to visiting a haunted house at Halloween, in which we want to feel our skin crawl and our hair stand on end, but we want to giggle with glee over the pure silliness of it all.

Jan Švankmajer is something of a national treasure in his native Czechoslovakia, and rightly so.  His visionary work, at once quirky and powerful, represents the kind of purely artistic sensibility that is rarely found in modern cinema; with the personal spirit of a true auteur, he makes certain his films are distinctly his own, and whether or not audiences respond is not his concern.  Though much of his work has been rarely seen in the U.S., thanks to Cold War restrictions and prejudices that impaired his ability to distribute it on this side of the Iron Curtain (and, sometimes, even to produce it at all), he has gained a steady and growing following among fans of animation, surrealism, and cinema in general.  His decidedly adult adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (simply titled Alice) is partly responsible for breaking him through into Western culture, but many of his other films- including this one- have been championed by critics and other filmmakers alike, and the ready availability of the digital age has now made it possible for almost anyone to partake of the disturbing delights he offers.  Since Faust, like all of his films, is virtually impossible to describe- even stills fail to capture it, since Švankmajer’s visual sense is so connected to motion and juxtaposition of images- I strongly recommend a viewing.  I can praise it all I want, but, ultimately, it’s a movie that speaks far more eloquently for itself.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0109781/

Women in Revolt (1971)

Today’s cinema adventure: Women in Revolt, the 1971 Andy Warhol-produced film satirizing the Women’s Liberation Movement and starring a trio of transgendered “superstars.” Notably, it was the last film to be produced by Warhol on which he actually stood behind the camera, though it was directed by longtime associate Paul Morrissey; it enjoyed more attention and mainstream notoriety than many of the infamous artist’s earlier films, largely on the basis of its controversial approach to the subject matter, drawing the wrath of feminists who felt it was a slap in the face to have their cause savagely lampooned and to be represented onscreen by “female impersonators” instead of biological women.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around three women who become involved in the Women’s Lib movement for their own reasons: Jackie is a militant intellectual schoolteacher who believes men are inferior to women and should be relegated to their naturally subservient place in society; her friend Holly is a model who hates being treated as a sex object, although she herself has a ravenous libido; and Candy is a society heiress who longs to break free of the stiflingly traditional role she is expected by her family to play, wishing instead to build a career for herself as a glamorous movie star. When Jackie and Holly decide to form their own protest group- called Politically Involved Girls, or “P.I.G.” for short- they hit upon the idea of enlisting Candy, hoping to capitalize on her high-profile society position to generate publicity for their cause, and more importantly, to gain access to the financial support of her family and the wealthy circle in which they move. A series of misadventures follows in which each of the three activists are revealed to be more motivated by self-interest than by real passion for their cause. Jackie, despite being a self-proclaimed lesbian, spends the organization’s money on a bodybuilding male hustler and becomes the unwed mother of his baby; Holly succumbs to her penchant for drinking and sex, becoming a derelict living in the street; and Candy abandons her friends, her family, and the movement to realize her dream of stardom.

The scenario for Women in Revolt– it would be inaccurate to call it a script- is not so much a storyline as it is an excuse for extended on-camera improvisation and trashy bad behavior. This, of course, is the real purpose here, far more than any deliberate social or political commentary. Still, it’s easy to see why genuine feminists would find Morrissey’s movie insulting and offensive; their arguments are put into the mouths of enfants terribles whose grotesquely exaggerated behavior and plainly self-absorbed motives render them meaningless and laughable. Given Morrissey’s right-wing political bent, it’s possible, if not probable, that this was at least part of his intention here; but in truth, the whole affair is so patently ridiculous that it is impossible to take seriously. The political satire is merely a vehicle in which the film’s three stars can indulge in their individual excesses, gleefully breaking taboos and acting out with histrionic abandon. Much of the dialogue is devoted to the kind of verbal bitch-slapping that has fueled drag shows for decades, and for the most part, whoever shares the screen with each of the three central characters is merely there to provide a foil- and the occasional straight line- for their onslaught of caustic camp.

Though this formula, admittedly, provides numerous amusing moments throughout the film, it is also the main downfall of Women in Revolt. The pervading atmosphere of uncontrolled, undisciplined expression hardly makes for concise, coherent filmmaking; the improvisational approach works for fleeting moments, but those are islands in a sea of self-indulgent chatter- often spoken simultaneously, in a seeming battle for dominance, rendering much of its content incomprehensible and more than a little grating. This, of course, is inherent in improv, which is why it is most effective when used as a basis for developing more polished material or edited into a cohesive form by a savvy director; it also helps when the performers have been given clear guidance and, ideally, have received some formal training. In the absence of these elements, the end result usually ends up looking and feeling like a free-for-all, reminiscent of rambunctious children play-acting in a schoolyard game of make believe- which can be effective in short doses, but is perhaps not the best way to sustain the length of an entire feature film. It creates, in fact, the sense that we are watching a movie made by amateurs, and such is the case here; the low budget production values, the clumsy lighting, the choppy editing, and the generally insipid nature of most of the dramatic conceits all contribute to this feeling. As a result, instead of being provocative or outrageous, the proceedings quickly become simply tiresome, with a juvenile sensibility that makes the archness of the film’s tone come off more like shallow snarkiness. In addition, despite a considerable amount of gratuitous nudity- mostly male- and sexual content, the handling of these scenes strips them of eroticism; indeed, sex as portrayed here is a repugnant, degrading act, devoid of charm or subtlety, and thoroughly shocking for reasons that have nothing to do with morality or social acceptability. Like everything else in the world as seen by Warhol, Morrissey and company, it’s just another boring convention to be disdained and ridiculed.

These criticisms, valid though they may be, might be immaterial if one considers that film for Warhol- originally, anyway- was just another decorative medium, a way to produce ever-changing pop art images to be projected on a wall at a party, perhaps- a means to provide atmosphere in the background of a real-life “happening.” The rules of good cinema do not apply when a film is more of a statement in itself than a legitimate exploration of the art form. However, by the time of Women in Revolt, the enigmatic Warhol had stepped away from participation in his film productions, handing over the reigns to Morrissey, who had taken things in a more (or, arguably, less) ambitious direction, focusing on a narrative-driven, mainstream approach. It would be a mistake to classify these later Warhol movies as art for art’s sake, as they clearly aspire towards providing a more medium-specific experience; therefore, it seems fair to say that by any reasonable cinematic standards, Women in Revolt is a terrible film. One might argue that the film eschews traditionally accepted style and polish as a rejection of conventional cultural values, but pretensions of artistic purpose are no excuse for sloppy movie-making, and even if one generously classifies Morrissey’s style as cinema verité, it’s hard to think of a less professional, more careless example of cinematic hack-work. What makes this film so appallingly bad is not its nasty attitude or its banality, but the fact that it is, in the end, a poorly executed, badly assembled mess- and despite the fact that Warhol himself operated the camera for several botched scenes (at the insistence of star Jackie Curtis, who refused to perform without his participation), the fault for this lies solely at the feet of its director. Morrissey’s apparent lack of skill in the creation of his product may have been intentional, a deliberate effort to make a statement about the subjectivity of artistic values or to prove the point that arbitrary notions of bad or good are irrelevant to an audience simply seeking to be distracted; but his work here smacks of fraud, the attempts of a would-be artist to discount the importance of techniques he hasn’t the patience or understanding to master. Whereas Warhol’s genius was in simply setting up the camera and letting it capture what it would, the same approach is Morrissey’s crutch. In other words, Women in Revolt seems the work of a lazy director who wants glory without having to work too hard.

Despite this harsh assessment of Morrissey and his work, Women in Revolt is not devoid of value. For better or for worse, in fact, it is probably a more significant film today than it was when it was originally released, due largely to the window it provides into the miliieu of the Warhol factory and- more importantly- the all-too-rare opportunity it gives us to see the work of its three leading players: Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, and Holly Woodlawn. Each of them were members of Warhol’s famous coterie at the “Factory,” known for their work in previous of his films, and as such were popular- and notorious- fixtures of New York’s avant-garde arts scene. Curtis, unlike his two co-stars, was a female impersonator, who appeared both as a man and a woman in his work, and was successful independently of his projects with Warhol; he was an actor and playwright whose edgy, campy plays were a fixture of New York’s experimental theatre scene, as well as a singer and poet whose work garnered considerable praise and attention from critics of the era. His screen persona- abrasive, outspoken, sarcastic, and sporting a frizzy red wig with glittery make-up- provides many of the best one-liners in Women in Revolt, and whenever he is on the screen he is in absolute command. This is not always to the benefit of the film; many of the shrillest and most confused scenes are the result of Curtis’ aggressive improvisation, in which other performers are drowned out and cut off at every turn in favor of his unscripted outbursts. Nevertheless, it’s a smart performance, giving a glimpse at the potential for brilliance which might have been more fully realized with a little rehearsal and direction. Likewise, Candy Darling, a true transgendered performer, who had worked extensively with Curtis in his plays as well as in previous Warhol outings, reveals the ethereal, double-edged sincerity that allows her, somehow, to rise relatively unscathed above the messy chaos of Women in Revolt; she contrasts Curtis’ brash bullying with her own form of dominance, the cool superiority of a sophisticated and intelligent woman with nothing to prove. She is elegant and truly beautiful, and Women in Revolt is at its best- and most watchable- when she is onscreen, working her magic with the curious blend of earnestness and irony that made her one of the most charismatic of the “superstars.” Rounding out the trio is Woodlawn, also a true transgender, whose fiery Puerto Rican energy bursts from the screen, representing the raw energy of the body (as opposed to that of the mind and spirit, personified by Curtis and Darling, respectively) as she gropes and gyrates her way through the film. Truly sinking her teeth into her role as a nymphomaniac who hates men, she gives a manic, conflicted performance which displays a remarkable gift for comedy and hints- as does the work of her co-stars- at a considerable talent, making us wish all the more for a surer hand behind the camera. The fact that all three of these stars are so obviously gifted is yet another indictment against Morrissey’s infuriating mediocrity as a director; their work continually gives us glimmers of what Women in Revolt might have been. Still, they provide plenty of reasons to sit through the movie- though it requires considerable patience and might be best accomplished in short installments- and even manage to create several moments which could be called classic. Besides these three heavyweights, the film offers brief appearances by other counter-cultural icons of the era, including Penny Arcade and Betty Blue, and Brigid Berlin in a wordless cameo as a decidedly butch bar owner.

The fact that Women in Revolt is an atrocious movie, oddly enough, does not alter the fact that it is a classic, of sorts. Clearly, there are many stalwart supporters of Warhol and his crew that would defend the film staunchly and embrace its many flaws proudly, claiming them as victories in a cultural war and viewing them as medals of honor. There is certainly a weird power to this curiosity of its time, and despite its lack of real ambition it manages to offer up some interesting observations about the power struggle between the sexes- particularly through its reversal of roles in which liberated women treat their men with the same disrespect and contempt they deplore when they are the recipients, and the use of sex as both a bargaining tool and a means of gaining power. It can be argued that the movie was a success in terms of what it set out to accomplish. Warhol neither knew nor cared about the aesthetics of film; he wanted only to present his branded material for the sake of building his cult-of-personality-based empire, and notions of good or bad were of little interest to him. With this in mind, Women in Revolt is exactly what he wanted it to be- a source of controversy and buzz, and another brick in the continually growing monument to his so-called genius. Indeed, given his particular, nose-thumbing stance at conventional society, it is probably preferable that it should be bad; the exaltation of the banal was a major part of what he was all about, after all. Therefore, I find myself in the curious position (which Warhol would have loved) of recommending a movie that I found to be abysmal. I would stress, however, that my endorsement is based not on any sort of respect for the artists behind the scenes, but on my admiration for the ones on the screen. It is beyond tragic that these three were given the treatment they were- exploited by Warhol for their “freak” appeal, they were given just enough cultivation to reveal the brilliance of their underlying talent, then abandoned because the impresario had lost interest. Perhaps the real reason for his fickleness can be surmised by viewing Women in Revolt; it is the talent of Curtis, Darling, and Woodlawn that redeems the experience, and without them it would truly be unwatchable.  Could it be that Warhol feared they might outshine him on their own merits, and take away some of the credit for their own success? It’s a question, sadly, that must be asked, but can never be answered. Darling would pass away of cancer within two years of the film’s release, and Curtis would die of a heroin overdose a decade later; Woodlawn returned to her native Puerto Rico and worked as a busboy until, years later, a resurgence of interest in her former persona allowed her to return to the limelight. Women in Revolt, wretched as it is, is a snapshot of a moment in time, when all three were poised on the brink of success, and maybe, just maybe, could have broken through the barriers of social prejudice to achieve mainstream success. It was not to be, but they paved the way for future generations who continue the struggle for transgender acceptance. That in itself makes this movie worthy of respect- not for the posers behind the camera, but for the real people in front of it.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0129631/

Santa Sangre (1989)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Santa Sangre, the surreal 1989 horror fantasy by director Alejandro Jodorowsky, about a young man, raised in a circus, who is dominated by his puritanical mother and driven by her to exact revenge for the sinful impurity which led to her brutal dismemberment.  Hallucinatory, disturbing, and gruesome, it received only limited release in the U.S. despite its director’s status as a revered avant-garde legend and the enthusiastic reception of critics, but quickly became a cult classic and has since been made widely available for home viewing.  Hailed by many as a masterpiece, it’s a bizarre visual feast, pervaded by a garish carnival atmosphere and a sense of sickly wonder, which offers the guilty thrills of Grand Guignol horror alongside religious, psychosexual, and social themes, providing an unforgettably nightmarish cinematic journey through the arcane and the unspeakable.

The story centers on Fenix, whom we first see as a patient in a mental institution- naked, animalistic, and uncommunicative, but beginning to emerge from his isolated state in response to the gentle coaxing of his doctor.  Through flashbacks, the origins of his traumatized state are revealed; we see his childhood as the son of a circus impresario and his aerialist wife, performing as a juvenile magician and surrounded by the extreme environment and eccentric denizens of their show-business world.  His libidinous father is enamored of his newest act, a tattooed contortionist whose abused deaf-mute daughter, Alma, has become a new companion for Fenix; his mother is also the fanatical leader of a cult dedicated to the memory of a little girl whose arms were cut off by rapists.  When the authorities close and demolish her church, and she catches her husband with his tattooed mistress, it is too much for mother to take- she attempts to punish the philanderer for his faithlessness, resulting in a tragic turn of events that leads to his death and her dismemberment, a tragedy witnessed by their horrified child.  When the film returns to the present, we see the adult Fenix gradually reawakening to his memories, culminating in his escape from the hospital and a reunion with his now-armless mother; together, they form an act in which his arms become hers- an odd symbiosis which carries over into their strange and secretive offstage life.  It gradually becomes apparent that Fenix’ limbs have become subservient to his mother’s will, and he is forced to do her bidding despite his own wishes- even when it means committing murder.  The situation becomes even more complicated with the reappearance of Alma, now grown into a beautiful woman; his feelings for her threaten to disrupt the twisted bond between mother and son, triggering a final battle of wills in which Fenix must attempt to regain control of his destiny and put an end to his mother’s vengeful reign of blood, once and for all.

This scenario may seem convoluted and illogical, but in Jodorowsky’s screenplay, co-written with Roberto Leoni and producer Claudio Argento, it all makes its own kind of sense.  It is clear from the beginning of the film, when we are first introduced to our damaged protagonist (crouching naked in a white room adorned with only a severed tree trunk, which he uses much in the way of a monkey at the zoo) that we are visiting a universe where the rules of common sense and linear thinking do not apply.  It’s a primal place, a realm of deep unconscious impulses and associations, where every occurrence seems symbolic and yet has simultaneous real-world significance.  In short, it is a dream reality, and one marked by the kind of feverish dread and sadness from which we long to awaken.  Into this soul-sick, delirious setting, the film weaves its epic tale of good and evil, complicated by deep-rooted familial bonds, contradictory moral strictures, and the personal needs of heart, body and spirit.  Along the way it mercilessly exploits our expectations and challenges our sensibilities, forcing us to endure depictions of unthinkable cruelty, incomprehensible depravity, and devastating heartbreak, so that when we are confronted with the grisly violence of murder, it seems almost a relief.  Certainly these scenes provide a kind of cathartic release for all the accumulated emotional saturation to which Jodorowsky’s film subjects us; but this does not mean that Santa Sangre condones or glorifies killing.  On the contrary, these periodic bursts of bloodshed only serve to compound the psychic despair that drenches the movie, until it seems that true evil is everywhere and all the good intentions in the world are powerless to stop it.  This, of course, is the ultimate point of Santa Sangre:  it is not enough to bewail and bemoan the workings of evil, or to regret one’s own unwilling or unknowing participation in them; the consequences may be dire, and the effort may be great, but conquering evil means taking responsibility for one’s own actions and exercising one’s free will by refusing to perform its bidding.  In a film so outwardly monstrous, the biggest shock of all may be that it is, ultimately, about the triumph of good over evil.

In support of his overriding theme, Jodorowsky has assembled a film worthy of his legendary surrealist pedigree.  He fills the screen with a progression of remarkable images, drawing heavily on the filmmakers who have influenced him- particularly Federico Fellini- but infused with his own darkly visionary sensibility.  Over the course of Santa Sangre he gives us a dancing dwarf, an elephant funeral, a pimp who gives cocaine to mentally handicapped children, naked whitewashed corpses rising from their graves, dogs and chickens feasting on human blood, a cross-dressing wrestler, and any number of other fascinating, macabre, unsettling sights and sounds; it’s an inundation of the bizarre that is so perversely gripping that looking away is simply not an option.  Jodorowsky is not merely being outrageous for the sake of shock value, however; every element, no matter how bewildering it may seem, has a concise purpose here.  The theatricality of the early scenes reminds us of the traditional view of the circus as a metaphor for life, but its larger-than-life atmosphere carries over into the film’s “real-world” setting- particularly in the nighttime streets of Mexico City, bedecked with the morbidly cartoonish imagery of Dia de los Muertos and populated with a frightening menagerie of revelers- suggests that the absurdity of life itself requires no exaggerated artistic conceit to expose its folly and decadence; the recurrence of quasi-religious iconography underpins an examination of hypocrisy in a moralistic dogma more concerned with punishment than salvation, more fixated on death than life, and more reverent of representation than of reality; and the heavy use of deep psychological themes throughout- symbolic bird imagery, the multilayered opposition of illusion to unadorned reality, the merging of sex and violence, the conflict between paternal and maternal influences- is carefully accumulated towards the director’s ultimate purpose of peeling back such complications to reveal the truth that choice, in the end, is what defines us.

For those who are just looking for a horror movie, Santa Sangre delivers on those terms, as well.  All of Jodorowsky’s avant-garde explorations are woven around a lurid tale of psychosis, murder, and mayhem that could easily have come from a mind like Stephen King’s.  In keeping with the film’s ironic title, much blood is spilled during the course of its story, in celebrations of gleeful gore managed with the flair of a true cinematic master; the macabre humor with which these killings are played out is worthy of Hitchcock- whose work, like Fellini’s, is echoed throughout.  Indeed, despite its serious agenda, Jodorowsky’s movie is laced with comical moments; part of the director’s style is to capitalize on the absurdity of what he shows us, eliciting laughter in the face of the strange and unfamiliar.  In a similar manner, he finds beauty in the grotesque and joy in the sorrowful, giving Santa Sangre an unexpectedly transcendent quality for such a gruesome saga.

Populating Jodorowsky’s epic is an assorted collection of personalities, some professional actors and many, clearly, not so professional.  At least a half-dozen cast members are relatives of the director, including his sons Axel and Adan, who portray Fenix as a young man and child, respectively.  Both deliver performances to do their father proud; as does the fiery Bianca Guerra as Concha, the unforgiving mother.  Also worth mentioning are Guy Stockwell as Fenix’ über-masculine, contradictory father and Thelma Tixou as his gyrating, tattooed mistress; many of the film’s remaining cast fall into the “where-did-he-find-these-people” category, conjuring memories of Tod Browning’s Freaks– another seminal influence for Jodorowsky’s vision- and providing indelibly-stamped images for the memories of any viewer.  The acting, needless to say, is not always stellar amongst these motley supporting players, though many of them do acquit themselves admirably; but even the most stilted and awkward performances contribute to the overall surrealism of the piece, an effect that is further enhanced by the obvious dubbing of some of the dialogue- a factor no doubt made necessary by Jodorowsky’s inexplicable decision to shoot his film in English, despite its Mexican setting and the fact that most of his previous work was produced in Spanish.

Santa Sangre is one of those film experiences that reminds viewers of the dazzling potential of the cinematic medium.  It transports us to a world that we have never seen, or even imagined, and opens pathways to the deepest, most private places of our psyches, making us aware on a level that erases the extraneous differences in our lives and connects us to the shared consciousness that unites us with the rest of humanity.  It manifests its own, utterly unique style while drawing from a sea of visual influences that includes not only the aforementioned filmic inspirations but such diverse sources as Frida Kahlo, the psychedelic counterculture, and the garish camp of lucha libre.  It’s a pity, though hardly a surprise, that this and Jodorowsky’s other films have remained more-or-less obscure; their edgy, unorthodox visual poetry is hardly the stuff of safe, commercial filmmaking, and the director’s long history and reputation as an iconoclastic free spirit has no doubt kept him distant from the profit-driven film industry establishment.  Nevertheless, the French-Chilean auteur maintains a large and loyal cult following throughout the world, and has enjoyed a long and remarkable career of which filmmaking is only a single facet; he is renowned as an artist, a theatrical director, an author, and a creator of comic books, as well as for his extensive work and research in the field of “psychomagic,” which has included a painstaking recreation of the classic Marseilles Tarot deck and the development of several therapeutic practices drawing on ideas from various so-called “occult” fields towards the purpose of psychological healing.  At the time of this writing, he is 83 and still active, at last report working on a film version of his autobiography, with which his stated goal is “to lose money.”  Perhaps the recent re-emergence of Santa Sangre, lovingly restored on DVD and BluRay and widely available on web-based streaming video platforms everywhere, will introduce the dark wonders of his world to a wider segment of the population and help to create a larger audience for his latest project.  At the very least, it may lead viewers to seek out and discover Jodorowsky’s other works, such as El Topo and The Holy Mountain, so that he may, at last, get the recognition he richly deserves as one of the great auteur filmmakers of our time.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098253/

 

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Today’s cinema adventure: Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 film exploring the dehumanizing, destructive effects of addiction through its depiction of three seasons in the lives of a group of interconnected characters. Noted for bringing the promising Aronofsky to the forefront of attention as one of Hollywood’s hottest new directors, it garnered many accolades- especially for the performance of its veteran star, Ellen Burstyn, for whom it provided a comeback of sorts, and for its powerful musical score by Clint Mansell. It also generated much controversy over its use of graphic drug-related and sexual imagery, receiving an NC-17 rating from the MPAA despite Aronofsky’s protest and appeals. When the director refused to make cuts, the distributor, Artisan, showed rare support by deciding to release the film without a rating; on subsequent home video release, a slightly edited R-rated version was made available in addition to the original cut, ironically missing only a few brief graphic sexual images- evidently, the hardcore drug use was considered less objectionable than the sex.

The film’s interwoven plot follows the fate of four Brooklyn-ites: Sarah, an aging Jewish widow whose life is mainly occupied with watching television infomercials; her son Harry, whose recreational drug habit is funded by the repeated pawning of his mother’s TV (which she promptly buys back, every time); his girlfriend Marion, an aspiring fashion designer supported by her wealthy parents; and his best friend Tyrone, who dreams of living up to his mother’s high hopes for him even as he slings drugs on the street. When Harry and Tyrone decide to go into the heroin business for themselves, using Tyrone’s connections as a source and planning to use the profits to open a shop for Marian’s designs, the future starts to look brighter for the three young people; meanwhile Harry’s mother is notified that she has been chosen to appear as a contestant on a game show, giving her a new lease on life, as well. However, the promise of these new developments quickly sours: Tyrone is arrested after being caught in the middle of a drug gang assassination, requiring Harry to use most of their profits to bail him out; and in her desire to lose weight for her impending TV appearance, Sarah becomes dependent on prescription amphetamine diet pills. To make matters worse, a heroin shortage forces Harry and his companions to resort to desperate- and progressively more degrading- means in obtaining the drugs to support their own worsening addictions, and Sarah is plagued by disturbing hallucinations as her sanity begins to deteriorate rapidly. With their dreams of a better life now hopelessly out of reach, there is nothing for any of them to do but spiral deeper into their private hells, driven by their addictions and haunted by the memories of what might have been.

Adapted from the novel by Hubert Selby, Jr., the screenplay, co-written by Aronofsky and the author himself, paints a bleak and harrowingly realistic picture of the horrors of drug addiction; despite this, however, the film is not so much a polemic against drug abuse as it is an exploration of the very nature of addiction itself. Each of its characters uses escapism as a salve to ease the pain and monotony of their lives, whether it be heroin, food, sex, or mindless TV programming. The drugs which ultimately destroy their lives are merely a metaphor for the so-called “American Dream;” the film’s ultimate purpose is to expose it as a lie, a fabricated ideal of success which obscures the real human experiences of family, love, and community. In the pursuit of an unattainable goal, such tangible rewards go unappreciated and ignored, and are eventually lost; each of the film’s four central characters are inherently likable, essentially good-hearted individuals who embrace an illusion as a means to bring them the happiness they are sure will follow when they achieve their goals- but the means itself is a destructive, uncontrollable force which creates chaos, pulling them ever further from the fulfillment for which they long. It’s a powerful message, and the disturbing form in which it is delivered suggests some very uncomfortable questions about the level of addiction- in all its guises- permeating our society. Through the joined tales of each protagonist, we are shown the ease with which an average person can make the journey to becoming one of the millions of broken, lost souls from whom we quickly look away, terrified of being reminded of the nightmare existence which goes on between the cracks in our culture’s cheery, prosperous façade.

Jolting as the screenplay may be, what makes Requiem for a Dream such a ferocious and unforgettable film experience is Aronofsky’s audacious and hallucinatory visual style. The director keeps a clinical distance from his subjects, discouraging the formation of a sentimental connection by way of his constantly shifting perspective and his use of camera-and-editing-room trickery. He alternates between omniscient long distance shots and intimate extreme close-ups, underscores ironic parallels and repetitive patterns with rapid-fire cuts (known, incidentally, as “hip hop montage”), highlights isolation and disconnection with extensive split screen effects, heightens the surreal atmosphere with time-lapse and slow-motion photography, and takes us into the psyche of his characters with the use of lenses which recreate the grotesque and distorted imagery of their delusional perceptions. With all these visual elements in play, he still manages to build the pace steadily with progressively shorter scenes and more rapid and frequent intercutting as the movie moves towards its conclusion. It’s a visual thrill ride worthy of the Coney Island setting which provides a backdrop for several of its scenes, and a display of technical mastery that leaves no doubt of this director’s prodigious cinematic talent. More than that, though, the carefully maintained emotional detachment facilitates an empirical quality to his film, allowing him to place the emphasis on observation rather than drama. As his characters move through their experiences, Aronofsy lets the circumstantial developments of the plot serve merely as a means to elicit reactions from them, focusing instead on their behavior and psychology; he pays particular attention to the ritualization of their addictions, the fantasies and associations that arise from the situations in which they find themselves, and the ways in which they blind themselves to their own vulnerability. It’s an approach which sometimes makes us feel like a voyeur, with the characters as objects for our perusal and study- specimens instead of the more conventional vehicles for transference of audience sympathy.

It’s not all flash and style, however, and the solidly intellectual and aesthetic approach to the subject does not make for a cold film. Though Aronofsky maintains his artistic aloofness throughout, taking care not to sugarcoat his characters or their obsessions and making sure the absurdity of their fantasies never threatens to become overtly comic in tone, Requiem for a Dream is far from being devoid of humanity. On the contrary, the depth of emotion which each character experiences is given full scope and attention; it’s fair to say, in fact, that the real story lies more in their emotional journey than in the outward circumstances of their experiences. Certainly the full power of Aronofsky’s film derives from its emotional weight, and the detachment with which he depicts their struggles somehow has the effect of bringing their poignancy into stark relief, making us feel their misery far more keenly than if it were portrayed in a Hollywood-style, sentiment-drenched narrative. It’s not empathy, exactly, an effect Aronofsky works so diligently to avoid, nor is it pathos; rather, it is a form of psychic horror at the level of desperation to which these damned souls are driven to sink in their quest for gratification, something akin to the overwhelming sense of nameless loss experienced when we witness a tragic accident or a cataclysmic disaster.

Requiem for a Dream, as Aronofsky clearly understood, can only work so effectively upon us with a strong cast breathing life into the subjects under its director’s microscope. Jared Leto, as Harry, is a worthy leading man, providing a solid, grounding energy that makes even his most misguided actions seem like a reasonable idea; he gives his character intelligence and a genuinely good nature, making him the most likable figure in the film and making his deterioration the most heartbreaking to watch. Jennifer Connelly, as Marian, exudes the confidence and elegance of privilege but adds a palpable layer of little-girl insecurity; and Marlon Wayans, as Tyrone, exudes easy-going charm and a sincere warmth that makes it clear his intentions are as good as he says they are. The most unforgettable performance, however, comes from Burstyn, as Sarah; her unflinchingly honest portrayal is the centerpiece of the film, capturing us from her first moments onscreen- locking herself in the bedroom while her son steals her television, yet again, for drug money- and taking us on the ups and downs of her journey to hell without ever once resorting to cheap sentimentality or self-conscious mannerism. Her work in the final third of the film is particularly remarkable, giving it a tragic power that belies its disaffected style. It’s as real a piece of screen acting as you will ever see, fully deserving of all the acclaim it garnered for this magnificent performer; and, as a bonus, there is an added resonance in the scenes of her psychotic episodes, later in the film, which is unavoidably derived from memories of her iconic role in The Exorcist.

Aronofsky’s film benefits greatly from the work of these fine players, as well as from that of other actors in smaller roles- the criminally-underappreciated Louise Lasser, Mark Margolis, Keith David, and the grinning, unctuous Christopher MacDonald, as banal infomercial host Tappy Tibbons. There is also the gritty-yet-luminous cinematography of Matthew Libatique and the aforementioned score by Clint Mansell, performed by the Kronos String Quartet, giving the film a distinctive tone which is at once majestic and ethereal. Ultimately, however, the success of Requiem for a Dream- and it is very successful- lies with its visionary director. It is he who has taken all these elements and brought them together to serve his purpose here; in doing so, he has managed to make a film which is simultaneously beautiful and horrific, scientific and operatic, and above all, indelible. His cinematic sensibilities have since been proven repeatedly, but never more definitively than with this film, which remains his best work to date- less formulaic than The Wrestler and scarier than Black Swan. Perhaps it is because of the universality at its core; though most of us, hopefully, will not succumb to the ravages of drug addiction, we can all see ourselves reflected in the four doomed people he shows us, choosing the quick and easy way to relieve the pain and monotony of our lives- fantasy, chocolates, television, movies, the internet, or whatever we may choose- just to give us, as Sarah puts it, “a reason to get up in the morning.” It’s not a cheerful movie- though, admittedly, there are some darkly ironic moments which might bring a morbid chuckle or two- and it doesn’t offer much in the way of hope or answers to the difficult questions it raises; but, of course, that’s what makes it so great. If Requiem for a Dream wrapped itself into a neat package, assuming a comfortable, morally appropriate stance or suggesting some false-ringing glimmer of light at the end of its characters’ respective tunnels, it would be easy to process it, set it aside, and forget about it; but I guarantee you, whether you love it or hate it- and there are many on both sides of that issue- you will never be able to erase it from your memory. If that’s not a sign of a great movie, I don’t know what is.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0180093/

Vampyr (1932)

Today’s cinema adventure: Vampyr, a 1932 French/German horror film directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, about a young man, obsessed with the occult, whose wanderings lead him into the dark troubles of a remote countryside manor, where the owner’s mysteriously ill daughter may be in the grip of horrifying powers from beyond the grave. Dreyer’s first film using sound, it was also his first effort following The Passion of Joan of Arc, a feature which, despite enthusiastic acclaim from critics, had been a box office disaster. With no studio willing to take a chance on the basis of his artistic promise alone, Dreyer found private financing from Nicolas de Brunholz, a young Baron who was a fixture of the Parisian social scene, known for his extravagant parties and his patronage of the arts, who would later become a prominent fashion editor for such magazines as Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue (and a mentor for designers Bill Blass and Calvin Klein, among others). De Brunholz’s condition for backing Dreyer’s film was that he would be its star; under the pseudonym of “Julian West,” assumed to assuage his prominent family’s disapproval of his acting ambitions, he portrays the wispy focal character of Allan Grey, and though his acting abilities were decidedly limited (and wisely un-stretched by Dreyer’s demands), his tall, slender frame and his handsome, elegant appearance set a distinctive tone at the center of the movie, aptly suggesting a strong spirit that has perhaps found himself over his head in a situation beyond his grasp.

Nevertheless, despite the support and participation of one of Europe’s most prominent society figures and the attendant buzz which surrounded it, Vampyr proved to be a worse flop than Joan of Arc, booed at its debut screening and, this time, even derided by the critics, who found it slow-moving, incoherent, and/or laughable; for many years it was widely considered Dreyer’s worst film, falling into such neglect that all but a few damaged original prints were lost. Indeed, produced to capitalize on the popularity of such American horror films as Dracula and Frankenstein (though it was initially conceived before these films had been released), it had such a marked difference in tone and style that it is easy to see why it perplexed and disappointed movie-goers of the time. The film’s failure contributed to Dreyer’s declining financial and emotional stability, which led to a nervous breakdown and kept him from making another film for another 11 years. It was only after his subsequent career and the retrospective appreciation of a later generation that reassessment granted it a status more deserved by its innovative and unique contribution to the horror genre and to cinema in general.

Ironically, many of the elements which made Vampyr such a flop are the reasons it is considered such so significant today. On a superficial level, it is one of the first horror films to feature a female vampire (and an elderly one at that) as its main antagonist, having been partly based on the short story Carmilla, by L. Sheridan La Fanu, a popular 19th-century fiction known for its decidedly lesbian overtones- some of which carry over into the film. It was also one of the first times the obvious sexual implications of the vampire myth were explored more overtly; though there is no explicit reference or depiction of sex, the metaphoric connection is clear, particularly in the decidedly romantic manner in which the young heroine is seen being victimized by her attacker. The film is also notable for its re-imagination of the standard, Dracula-based formula seen in most vampire movies; although it features most of the key archetypes inherent to the story, many of the familiar stock characters are absent or significantly changed, and the locations, though suitably grim and antiquated, are not the gothic staples of our expectation- the village is an idyllic, sun-scaped riverside town, devoid of torch-waving mobs, and in place of a foreboding castle for the vampire’s lair, we are given a decrepit flour mill.

More important, however, is Vampyr‘s visual and thematic style, and the underpinnings of its influences from dominant artistic movements of the time. Dreyer’s artistic sensibilities, while distinctly his own, were clearly influenced by his involvement with the French art scene, resulting here in a movie reminiscent of works by his more directly avant-garde contemporaries such as Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau. His stated intention with Vampyr was to take the art of cinema in a new direction, using a vehicle which lent itself to imaginative treatment by nature of its supernatural content; in realizing this goal, he blended his own passion for realism (enhanced by his use of natural lighting and authentic location photography) with the heightened theatricality and Freudian overtones of Expressionism, the seemingly nonsensical and dreamlike imagery of Surrealism, and the piecemeal construction of Impressionism. The resultant film glows with an ethereal beauty, combining a variety of cinematographic techniques (exquisitely executed by Rudolph Maté) that range from the sharply defined to the gauzy and murky; the narrative is deliberately cloudy and illogical, filled with non-sequiturs and credibility gaps, creating the feeling of a dream or even a delusion, an effect bolstered by camera trickery that gives us such jarring elements as shadows moving independently (or in compete absence) of their owners, and otherwise commonplace actions occurring in reverse; deeply symbolic or arcane iconography is everywhere, and the screen is filled with a rich and varied texture of design- mostly the result of decor and objects inherent to the actual shooting locations; and finally, the overall effect of Vampyr is created by a cumulative process in which the broad and vivid strokes of its seemingly disjointed progression combine to form a complete picture that is unified and harmonious- if somewhat unsettling.

Adding to the hallucinatory feel of Vampyr is its primitive use of sound. The European film community was behind the curve with the new technology of talking pictures, and the location shooting of Dreyer’s movie only exacerbated the difficulties, as did his plan to shoot the film in three separate languages- French, German, and English, though the existing print was restored from surviving copies of the former two versions and there is no evidence that the latter was ever completed. The problems were surmounted by a screenplay (co-written with Dreyer by Christen Jul) containing a minimum of dialogue, mostly cryptic exchanges that were overdubbed in a studio after the fact by actors other than the ones onscreen; however, the inclusion of aural elements was an integral part of Dreyer’s technique here, and he utilizes a wide variety of eerie effects, not only to underscore the action (along with an elaborate and effective score by Wolfgang Zeller- a pioneering inclusion for early sound films, which were mostly devoid of musical accompaniment), but also to aid in telling the story, with several key scenes relying heavily on soundscapes to convey important events that are taking place off-camera.

However, even with full appreciation for the skill and artistry with which it was made, watching Vampyr is hardly a thrilling experience; with its emphasis on atmosphere and its artistic conceits, it fails to concern itself with such usual priorities as pacing or continuity, and in spite of the macabre crisis it depicts it is largely lacking in suspense or action, contenting itself instead to create a series of elegiac encapsulations of mood and concept. As it approaches its ending, however, Vampyr suddenly shifts gear and delivers a pair of sequences that transform it from an intellectual exercise into a genuine horror movie. First is an extended set piece in which its protagonist has a premonition of himself lying wide-eyed in a windowed coffin, being prepared for and carried off to burial. Through the use of first-person perspective, Dreyer creates a highly uncomfortable, claustrophobic identification of the audience with the corpse, forcing us to imagine our own death and experience the ominous finality of these moments, as well as conjuring the universal fear of being buried alive. Continuing to capitalize on the latter, we are shortly afterward given a scene in which one of the characters, trapped at the bottom of a storage shaft and surrounded by the cold sterility and inhumanity of ominous industrial machinery, is slowly submerged in a cascade of sifted flour until his desperate cries for help are silenced by death. These sections of the film distill its underlying theme into a direct and palpable form; for Vampyr, at its core, is ultimately a meditation on the inescapable reality of death, the fear of which, as Dreyer rightly understood, is at the base of all our obsessive fascination with the dark mythology of our folklore and fiction. When we cringe at the imagined threat of the undead monsters or unspeakable diseases that haunt our shared nightmares, we are really responding to the shadow of our own mortality; and though an iron spike through the heart may end the vampire’s reign of terror, and an emergence from fog into a sunlit clearing may temporarily provide the comfortable reassurance that all will now be well, we know that staving off these supernatural horrors can only delay the inevitable fate which awaits us all. The power of Vampyr derives from its recognition of that fact; and though much of the film expresses the concept of death through motifs and moods that impress us without involving or exciting us, it blindsides us in its penultimate scenes with these visceral evocations of our most primal fear, rendering hollow its obligatory happy ending and leaving us with an indelible sense of the bleak hopelessness summed up in the familiar words inscribed on the lid of our hero’s hallucinatory coffin: “From dust are you made and to dust you shall return.” It’s an uncomfortable reminder, and one which Vampyr provides more vividly than the vast majority of gruesome splatter-fests that represent the horror film genre of today.

http://www.imdb.com/9/title/tt002364

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari/Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the 1920 cinema cornerstone that established enduring conventions for the horror genre- indeed for cinema itself- and for the general public at least, has become one of the most recognizable representations of the German Expressionist movement.  A bizarre tale about a mysterious carnival magician whose hypnotized slave commits a series of murders at his bidding, this landmark film was first conceived by its writers, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, as a way to demonstrate the effectiveness of film as a medium for Expressionist art, and also to establish a definitive look for German cinema that would distinguish it from the growing influx of American movies to their country. The resulting work is one of the most distinctive visual experiences ever produced, featuring wildly distorted scenery (abstract, asymmetrical sets with sharp, jagged lines, obvious and elaborately theatrical backdrops with painted-on shadows) highly dramatic lighting, and a heightened acting style that seems exaggerated even compared with other silent films of the time; it was an experiment which only took place because the writers persuaded producer Erich Pommer that making the film in this style would save considerable amounts of money.  These creative pioneers- including director Robert Weine, who was brought on board when rising wunderkind Fritz Lang was unavailable- believed that their bold new approach would change the art form forever; however, though Dr. Caligari met with enthusiastic response from audiences and critics alike, and stirred much excitement in the world’s blossoming film community, it failed to lead the industry away from the more mundanely representational style in which it remains more-or-less grounded to this day.

This is not to say that the film had no bearing on the future of cinema.  Its visual conceits and thematic elements have provided immeasurable inspiration for filmmakers from F.W. Murnau to Tim Burton and beyond. Its macabre tone and gruesome content influenced not only the future of the horror genre but the entire film noir movement as well.  It set the precedent for using cinematic embellishment to suggest altered states of consciousness: virtually every film depicting dreams, delusions, or drug-induced hallucinations can trace its heritage back here.  Most important of all, perhaps, was its establishment of numerous structural conventions that have been in continuous use ever since: by constructing its grim story as the remembrance of a young man who is ultimately revealed to be a delusional patient in a mental hospital, Dr. Caligari became the first film to feature a framing device bookending its main narrative, to rely on an unreliable narrator, and to surprise its audience with a twist ending.  None of this is to say that later filmmakers could not have made these innovations on their own- but Caligari went there first.

All this film class trivia is well and good, but how does The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari  hold up today for the casual viewer simply seeking entertainment?  Probably not well: the world is a much different place than it was in 1920, and we have been inundated with stories and images much more shocking and terrifying than those in this film- which, ironically, opened the door for all of them.  The conventions of fiction observed within it seem quaint and unsophisticated by our jaded modern standards, and the performances, with their jerky, unnatural physicality and their often-seemingly-inappropriate facial expressions (to say nothing of their histrionic, over-the-top style) seem unconvincing and inaccessible to us.  To top it off, its outrageously artificial visual style is so alien and disconcerting that it only serves to distance us further from the events onscreen, ensuring that we will never become viscerally engaged in the proceedings.  Of course, it’s true that these qualities were present even when Dr. Caligari was made- deliberately included as part of the Expressionist form intended and carefully crafted by its creators- but historical context has no bearing on our contemporary requirements for suspension of disbelief.

Before concluding, however, that Caligari has no value for any modern viewer who is not a film buff or an art enthusiast, it might be wise to look past the obvious sensibility gaps created by its distance from us in time.  It was never meant to be a purely escapist experience, even when it was conceived nearly a century ago; rather, it was- and is- a vivid and fully realized vehicle for Expressionist themes such as paranoia and the unreliability of perception, and an impressive presentation of the movement’s distinct visual style, comprised of crude, primal imagery that works on the subconscious to elicit a strong emotional response.  Its effectiveness is even keener in its restored form, which not only returns sharpness and luster to the once-faded print but also recreates the original hand-tinted colors, helping to clarify the story by differentiating day from night, and polishing up the intertitles with a font and style coordinated with the bizarre content of the story they tell.  A viewing of Dr. Caligari is hallucinogenic enough on a small screen, and though I’ve never had the opportunity to do so, I suspect that seeing it projected larger than life in a darkened theatre would be akin to experiencing a full dream state.

It’s also worth mentioning that although the stylized acting is hard to assess fairly from a standard modern perspective, Werner Kraus and Lil Dagover, as the mad magician and tragic damsel, respectively, have become iconic as personified archetypes of the collective consciousness; and as Cesare, the tormented somnambulist, Conrad Veidt is electrifying, using his remarkable physical skills and his expressive face to transcend both genre and style, and delivering perhaps the first truly great film performance- one which continues to inspire and influence actors to this day.

So although The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may not offer the kinds of thrills and chills sought by the average viewer looking for a lively horror film, it certainly offers many other rewards.  There are good reasons why it has been celebrated, emulated, re-invented, re-adapted, saluted and parodied so many times over the decades; it is part of our cultural makeup, and if that is enough to get you to watch it, you may find yourself enjoying its twisted pleasures in ways you never expected.

 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0010323/