Category Archives: 1920s

The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra (1928)

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*. Mr. John Jones (he does have a name before the studio gets hold of him) arrives in Hollywood with a letter of introduction from the Almighty. He “would like to become a motion picture player in Hollywood.”
*. The term “player” had a more innocent meaning back then. Mr. Jones only wants to be an actor. In Altman’s movie a player refers to something else, as does our modern admonition to not hate the player but the game. And yet even in a film from this period there are some of the same negative associations. Poor 9413 may be talentless, but the Star is a vacuous figure who just seems to understand the game better.
*. The Crash and the Depression were still a year away. This was the last good year of the roaring ‘twenties. But the feeling is nevertheless one of gloom. The original title was The Suicide of a Hollywood Extra, and with those bills sliding under the door we get the sense of a man being ground to dust by the system, unable to find employment or self respect.
*. Hollywood was not a town of skyscrapers in the 1920s, but the buildings were symbolic of the commanding heights of the entertainment biz. They also looked good as cut-outs.
*. It has the superficial appearance of a morality play, with 9413 as an Everyman seduced by Vanity Fair before reclaiming his soul. But that’s not how it feels. 9413 is too empty a vessel, with his wide staring eyes and his lips moving like a guppy making baby noises. Do we care what happens to such a creature? And what would be the difference between the vision of heaven here and what’s shooting in the studio hangar next door?
*. Shot by Greg Toland (who would go on to bigger things) and made for under $100. Prints were over half the cost. It’s a mere curiosity, notable for how quickly cynicism and even despair came to Hollywood. What are those twisting cut out shapes in the background? They look like origami scorpion tails.

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The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928)

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*. This is often considered to be the first surrealist film. It’s a fair claim as the imagery has that flavour, it’s based on a scenario by Antonin Artaud (though he was apparently upset or disapproved at what Germaine Dulac did with it), and came out a year ahead of Un Chien Andalou. So then . . . what is a surrealist film?
*. Surrealism speaks in the language of dreams. People always want to interpret dreams because they seem as being full of personal significance. But the science on dreams is still cloudy and we’re still not sure what they’re for or what they mean. Is there a collective unconscious filled with universal archetypes corresponding to something in a common human nature? Or are the images totally random and individual?
*. Some surrealists insisted that their images had no meaning, but I think they were kidding themselves. Nevertheless, they were honestly sceptical of the whole project of interpretation.

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*. And so a door opens and the Clergyman is revealed sitting at a table pouring fluid from a giant seashell into beakers. He then breaks the beakers. This action is repeated. It’s not even clear if it is a consecutive action, filling one beaker after another, or if we’re seeing the same action repeated in an endless loop. The number of beakers on the table in front of him always seems to remain the same, and the pile of smashed glass on the ground beside him isn’t growing.
*. This is how I read the passage: We are driven to interpret our experience of reality, just like that man doing his bizarre experiment. But it’s an absurd activity that doesn’t really take us anywhere: what we get out of our perceptions is what we put into them. Like the Clergyman, we’re only pouring old wine into new bottles. Then the bottles (the experiences) are gone and we do it again. I’ve heard it suggested that this is all our dreaming amounts to: a way of keeping our brains busy at some basic level while our bodies rest.
*. Put another way: Some seashells seem to make a sound like the ocean when you hold them up to your ear. It’s not the ocean, but amplified background noise, including the sound of your own blood flowing. That’s the Clergyman’s blood he’s pouring, or that he’s dreaming of pouring, into those beakers, in an act symbolic of circulation. Then the General comes in and breaks his heart.

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*. There’s usually some sexual, possibly Freudian, angle thrown onto this film. I’m not sure it’s that important. What makes the Clergyman mad at the General doesn’t seem to be anything sexual. The General smashes, or symbolically executes, his seashell, and then usurps his function at the confessional. The Clergyman has to lash out, and does so physically in the long strangulation attempt.
*. Enter the General’s Woman. The Clergyman seems angry at her more than aroused. Even her partial disrobing is violent more than erotic. Later he will imagine strangling her in much the same way as he tried to throttle the General. Is she an object of desire? We’re used to thinking of priests as being tortured cases of repression, but that’s not a necessary reading of what’s going on here.
*. I will confess I find something very sexual about the room full of fetish maids fluffing the Clergyman when he is turned into an objet d’art. But perhaps that’s just projection again.

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*. Along with sex, another constant with surrealism is its antagonism toward authority and its desire to tear down systems and symbols of order and hierarchy. Breaking things is a leitmotif here and if you want to see that as political I don’t think you’d be off course. The British Board of Film Censors famously reported that while the film was “so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable.” I don’t think they were referring to the bare breasts. Instead, the presentation of a violent, unhinged clergyman, and the lack of respect shown toward a military figure were probably more upsetting.
*. Throw in the maids and you have a lot of uniforms in this short film. This, along with their movement, makes the characters seem almost puppet-like. The Clergyman is the only one who doesn’t act like an automaton, even though his stiff, upright running style suggests strings being pulled.

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*. The less clear the meaning, the more work the score has to do. I think I’ve seen this film with three different accompaniments and it seemed quite a different picture each time. I like the film a lot more or a lot less depending on the score, and the music definitely has a role in interpreting the images and supplying a kind of narrative.
*. Indeed, the entire emotional register of the film is set by the score. Is the scene of the Clergyman crawling in the street comic, or creepy? What about the room full of maids? Or the General floating like a balloon? You can read each of these as sinister, threatening, or slapstick.
*. This, in turn, is another indication of how fluid the game of interpretation is. A simple musical cue can change it from horror to comedy.
*. I’d also add that it’s a silent film that’s worth watching with no sound. This leads to yet another kind of experience. One of the first things you’ll note is how much rhythm the images have in their juxtaposition and transitioning. Look at how the smoke billows over the pile of broken glass like a pulse.
*. In general, I think the special visual effects are poor, even for this period. Dulac had an eye, but you can tell she wasn’t always getting what she wanted on screen. Though I’ll admit there are also moments when you wonder if some of the shortfalls are deliberate, a way of drawing attention to their own artifice.

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*. It has the abrupt, fragmented rhythm that is characteristic of surrealism (since dreams don’t follow any kind of logical continuity), but there are at least two moments that last: the fracturing face of the General and the Clergyman crawling through the streets. Once seen, they are hard to forget.
*. But again, if you try and ask what either of those scenes “means” you’re not going to come up with much. Surrealism was the most liberating of artistic movements, and the most limited. Like therapy, it’s something you have to work at. And it doesn’t always produce results.

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The Cat and the Canary (1927)

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*. It’s fun to compare this film with the versions of “The Fall of the House of Usher” that came out at the same time (Jean Epstein’s and the one by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber). For starters, they are all haunted house stories set in weird “grotesque” mansions (each of which prominently features a long hallway with curtains blowing into it for effect).

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*. The Usher films are based on Poe’s classic tale while The Cat and the Canary comes from John Willard’s 1922 stage play of that name. Those different sources give an indication of where the similarities end. Both Usher movies are thick with atmosphere, the spirit of experiment, and a sense of unexplained dread. They are also lyrically silent, with sound effects (rendered visually) but no dialogue. The Cat and the Canary, on the other hand, is one of the talkiest silent films you’ll ever see.
*. I’ve heard people who have seen this movie express surprise when it’s described as a silent film. They remember it as being so full of chatter. Which, of course, it is. And it’s the kind of chatter that’s normally cut from a silent film: often repetitive verbal sparring without any direct bearing on the plot.

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*. Paul Leni is usually tagged with the label of an expressionist filmmaker, but he really dialed that back for this one. Despite all the opportunity for exaggerated and distorted visuals (our heroine is, after all, on the edge of being driven mad) it turns out there’s a perfectly good explanation for what’s going on, and all of the strange happenings are shown to be the result of ingenious but practical contraptions. A very American film, in that way.
*. Film historian Bernard F. Dick says that the style of this film was seen as a popular vulgarization of expressionism, but that this was necessary for the film to appeal to a mass American audience. Caligari didn’t play in Peoria.
*. It was a transition film for Universal: from the days of silent horror films produced by Carl Laemmle, often starring Lon Chaney (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera), to the early sound classics produced by his son, Carl Laemmle, Jr., like Dracula and Frankenstein.

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*. It was the qualities associated with subsequent Universal films that we notice more today, in particular the way it mixes humour in with the thrills and displays a more German sensibility in the direction and design. The comic touches make us think of what James Whale would later do with Frankenstein and The Old Dark House, and the settings (designed by Leni and made by Charles D. Hall, who also did the sets for Dracula and Frankenstein) soon became familiar to followers of the genre.
*. This, and the fact that Willard’s play was often revisited (the most notable other version being released in 1939 and starring Bob Hope), combine to give it a contemporary feel. We recognize the fast wisecracking script even reading title cards, and the bit of voyeurism as Paul watches the ladies undress from under the bed would go on to have a long future in horror films.

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*. Noting all this, it’s also interesting to observe the subtle differences with all that came after. The police coming to the rescue as motorized cavalry are remarkable not because of the odd way Susan is carried in front of the officer on his bike (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that done before), but because of the fact that they actually arrive in time to do something. We are used to hearing the sound of sirens in the distance after all of the main action of a thriller is over. Perhaps the police were just more efficient in the 1920s, or moviemakers today are too rigid in conforming to a creaky convention.
*. Another subtle difference is the way the proto-nerd Paul actually proves himself to be a somewhat capable hero at the end. Annabelle is almost a proto-“last girl,” but she’s not ready yet to go it alone. She still needs a man, and she gets one.

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*. I really like the shot when, after the family has begun to turn on her, we see Annabelle isolated in a room that now seems so much bigger and emptier. What happened to all the furniture? The dark spot on the wall where the portrait had fallen down from earlier underlines that same sense of abandonment.
*. Despite its place in film history, and the fact that it’s still quite an enjoyable entertainment, this is a movie that is not very well known today. Perhaps it’s just another case of countless imitations having overwhelmed the impact of the original. If so, it’s time for another visit to the old dark house. I think it stands up pretty well.

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The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

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*. I like experimental, art-house and avant-garde cinema as much as (and maybe a little more than) the next guy, but you have to call them out when they don’t work. As here.
*. Poe’s story has always presented a challenge to filmmakers. It’s a reflective mood piece, whose main plot points revolve around the act of reading. There’s also a suggestion of incest that has to be worked around.
*. Usually, the story is changed or adapted in significant ways, but this time it’s almost unrecognizable. Part of this is due to the absence of any intertitles, and part is the short running time (just under 13 minutes), but mostly I think it’s due to the directors (James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber) not being all that interested in the source. I mean, who is the traveller here anyway?
*. Jean Epstein managed to capture Poe’s melancholy poetry in his version of the story, La Chute de la maison Usher, which came out the same year as this film did. The sound of silence was hauntingly evoked by Epstein by way of visual cues. Here we have words floating on the screen that seem to acknowledge the limitations of the directors.
*. In my notes on Epstein’s film I mentioned how flimsy the role of Madeline is. But Roderick Usher is another story. He’s one of the great originals in all literature, a morbid and dangerous dandy overripe in decadence. He is the distasteful man of taste. You can’t even feel sympathy for him since he’s obviously more than half in love with death.

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*. Speaking of the love of death, I really like the touch of fetish we get in Roderick’s hands gliding down Madeline’s corpse as it’s lain out in her coffin. You almost expect to see him rubbing her back to life.
*. Instead of a story, what we get is a kaleidoscope of strange imagery, seemingly launched by a bout of food poisoning. After Madeline swoons at table before an uncovered dish we enter a world derived from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with sets that are all off-kilter angles and wall scribbles.
*. The other distinguishing visual effect is the somewhat cubist technique of shooting through prisms to create multiple images. This is merely bizarre: it serves no thematic purpose and is done so repetitively that it gets tiring even in a short.
*. The result is mainly just an excuse to throw camera tricks at us. It has a nice shot at the beginning as the traveler approaches the house in silhouette, and Madeline’s final appearance is terrific, distorting perspective in a grotesque way as her oversize and seemingly disembodied hands open wide the door. Aside from that the story has little weight, and the only mood achieved is one of confusion.

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La chute de la maison Usher (1928)

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*. The old line about the popularity of Edgar Allan Poe in France is that he reads better in French translations. Well, a film is a translation too, and nearly a hundred years later this is still the best version of “The Fall of the House of Usher” we have.
*. But we don’t start out with Poe, or in France. Instead we’re off to Transylvania, as the unnamed traveler stops at an inn to get a ride to Dracula’s castle. Or the home of Roderick Usher. The men at the inn look nervous and say “Usher?!” When the traveler finally does get a ride the coachman will only take him so far and then make him go the rest of the way on foot. This isn’t part of the story. It comes from Stoker’s Dracula, by way of Murnau’s Nosferatu.
*. A lot of -isms have been thrown at this film. It’s variously cited as an example of expressionism, surrealism, and French impressionist cinema. For what it’s worth, I see a bit of the first (especially in the second half of the movie), less of the second, and I’m still not sure the third means anything.

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*. If you like labels, the surrealist Buñuel had a falling out with the impressionist Epstein, apparently over the lack of fidelity to the story. (As if the story meant anything, or Buñuel cared about such things. I think he was just hard to get along with.) I suppose the painting that is a mirror (and in which Madeline is clearly seen blinking) is a surrealist image. Impressionism is harder to pin down but it’s more something you feel in the poetic cerements the film seems draped in.

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*. The key expressionist motif is found in those gnarled trees outside (mentioned several times by Poe). They appear again in the twisted branches of the Usher family tree that the traveler carries around, are later drawn on the walls of the mansion, and can even be seen in the twisted banisters that line the stairway. It’s not quite the Dr. Seuss world of Caligari, but it’s in the same neighbourhood.
*. The story gets shifted around a bit jumping from page to screen, with no real loss. Roderick and Madeline are now married, which is convenient. And I like the invention of having Roderick’s old friend being the perfect complement to his hypersensitivity. The traveler, armed with magnifying glass and ear horn, is nearly deaf and blind. That’s not in the book.

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*. Jean Debucourt is Roderick and looks the part. His towering forehead (in Poe’s words “an inordinate expansion above the regions of the temple”) is a billboard for the aesthetic intellectual. He is nicely adapted too, as painting is not one of Roderick’s hobbies in the story but film needs the visual hook. Especially a silent film.

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*. What a trick that silence is! Poe’s story is all about the effects of sound, and yet here we are unable to hear a thing. But it still works. How? Roger Ebert on this film: “There are times when I think that of all the genres, the horror film most misses silence. . . . in a classic horror film, almost anything you can say will be superfluous or ridiculous. . . . The perfect horror situation is such that there is nothing you can say about it.”
*. This is well observed. Talk in a horror film is usually just whistling past the graveyard, an attempt to rationalize away our fears or just a bit of banality to lull us into a false sense of security. It’s interesting to note how in the other version of this story that came out the same year by Watson and Webber there aren’t even any title cards. The effect is all about creating a mood, that vague awareness of doom that Poe’s narrator senses but can’t explain.

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*. What a ginormous interior. The great hall looks the size of a soccer field.
*. That’s Marguerite Gance, Abel’s wife, as the wilting Madeline. Not much of a role, for any of the women who have played it.

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*. Does interpretation have its limits? I’ve tried to think what those two frogs have to do with anything, and I’ve come up with nothing. Are they merely surreal?
*. I do like how the nodding head of the doctor matches the strokes of the hammer pounding nails into the coffin. That really works, and provides a kind of aural-visual rhythm a silent film needs.
*. The “fall” of the house of Usher is both the collapse of the structure itself and the end of the family line. But the movie emphasizes falling throughout. We see books falling from their shelves, Madeline fall as she swoons to the ground, a suit of armour fall to the floor. All in slow motion. The House of Usher didn’t fall in a day, but gradually collapsed.

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*. It has an interesting structure, splitting neatly in half with Madeline’s death, and Roderick Usher going from artist to necromancer. At the same time there are changes in set design — this is when the house suddenly becomes more like Caligari’s madhouse, with the Usher family crypt being the most bizarre of the sets. We feel we’re entering a different psychological space, with different camera work, the use of multiple exposures and other trickery.

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*. I remember being underwhelmed by this movie the first time I saw it. It’s grown on me. The silent classics take time. It’s not Poe, and yet of all the versions I’ve seen I think it’s the one that best captures the spirit of his story. This isn’t a movie with an aesthetic style so much as a movie about the aesthetic experience. It’s a vision of the soul in turmoil, doomed and obsessed. The traveler’s blindness and deafness are his armour. And yet there are moments when you sense that even he has an inkling of the dangers all around him. Not booby traps, like the house in Roger Corman’s 1960 film is full of (a falling chandelier, a loose banister), but spiritual depths of loneliness and despair, intimations of mortality in something he reads, a dog that runs away when he calls to it. Soon his own house will be falling down, with no one to see it or notice its passing.

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The Three-Sided Mirror (1927)

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*. Film editing jiggles perspective, which is a function of time as well as space. Re-arranging the former can lead to confusion over when it is we are in a story. This movie wasn’t the first to use flashbacks, but its structure is so sophisticated in this regard that it must have confused contemporary audiences.
*. It still confuses me today. Like most such scrambled stories it makes you want to go back and watch it again as soon as you’re done to try and sort it out. But even after repeated viewings it holds on to its mysteries.
*. I’ll mention two of these, as they seem the most evocative to me.
*. In the first place, what is the significance of the shots of the road and what I think are power wires early in the film? Is the Man foreseeing his death, or is it just being foreshadowed by Epstein? Either way it complicates the narrative structure, which is ostensibly about the three women thinking back on their brief affairs with the Man.
*. A second example: What are we to make of the Man’s visit to the fair at the end? Again it seems to have some symbolic significance. Is the Man being shown here in his native element: a player among players, some of whom even stumble about in giant masks?
*. I haven’t read Paul Morand’s story, which is the source for this film. Perhaps it would have helped to explain some things, like if it’s a collision with a bird that causes the Man’s car accident at the end. But I think I’d probably still have a lot of questions.
*. Is that the first parking garage to appear on film? It must be close. And I love the Man’s drive through it. The corkscrew descent (he probably just put the clutch in and rolled the whole way), through alternating frames of light and dark, seems a perfect complement to the design of the plot.

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*. The structure reminds me of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, with three different chapters offering different personal perspectives and then a coda. As such, it’s an experiment in different film styles presented as visual “voices.”
*. We begin with Pearl’s section, which is characterized by a lot of close-ups and multiple exposures. Next, Athalia’s story is marked by a more formal and static arrangement of space. People appear to be posed, and Athalia directly addresses the camera. Finally, Lucie’s section begins with jumpy editing (in what is still a very effective sequence) before adopting a fluid moving camera for the boating passage. With regard to the latter, we can see where critics were coming from when they labeled Epstein an Impressionist. I don’t think he could quote them more directly.

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*. I’m not sure if these different styles have any significance for the individual characters (a subjective form of filmmaking informed by personal psychology), but they do seem to have been conscious decisions, serving to distinguish the different sections. Sticking with the fast editing in the Lucie section, the point seems to be to show how quickly her relationship with the Man becomes routine, the amount of what goes on between them that can be elided without missing anything important. Their affair is only a pattern of repetitive behaviour.
*. My favourite cut is later in the same section when Lucie drops the saucer and it breaks, a moment which ends her flashback reverie and turns into a shot of her bending down to pick up a jug in the time present. If there’s a single better cut in a film from this decade I can’t think of it.

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*. The Man (played by René Ferté) looks like he’s wearing a feline mask. I think this was deliberate, and would have seemed weird in 1927. His face is a blank screen. He’s an actor. But it’s hard to read what’s behind the artifice of his make-up. Is he a predator? A playboy? A psychopath? Or is there anything there at all? Is he just a cipher for the women to project their own longings upon, a reflection who then disappears into the glass of their memories?

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*. Put another way: what is the Man when he isn’t being looked at? Nothing. Epstein’s film is a poetic, enigmatic, elliptical essay on superficiality and the unbearable lightness of being.
*. Of course a love story, especially a love story gone wrong, is the perfect vehicle for all of Epstein’s experiments in narrative. Love stories have two sides: he-said vs. she-said, before vs. after. Who do we trust? Not the Man, but not this bunch of women either. They also have agendas, not least of which, at least in the first two sections, may be directed at the men listening to their stories. They seem to be moving on, whatever their regrets.

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*. It seems clear to me that Epstein hates the Man, and feel he gets what he deserves when his empty bubble is burst. But the three women are only types as well, and (aside from Lucie, to a degree) aren’t presented in particularly flattering ways, or shown to be entirely trustworthy. What remains then is mainly an exercise in style. It’s a technical tour-de-force, brilliantly conceived and executed, but it’s less a movie about people than it is about ways of seeing, and in particular how people see themselves.

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Rain (1929)

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*. Film is the most fluid of art forms: the image you see on the screen is never fixed, as your eye is always being drawn through the ribbon of celluloid.
*. That’s a pretty banal observation, but in 1929 the movies were still new, and this one is an essay on movement.
*. Rain is defined almost as much by the street as it is by the rain. It’s another ode to the city, part of an early documentary movement that included films like Moscow Clad in Snow, Berlin: Symphony of a City, and Manhatta. This time we’re in Amsterdam, the Venice of the North, hustling through its crowded, rain-slick streets.

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*. The street itself is another riverine image, a sort of paved canal that traffic flows through. When wet, it turns into a mirror.
*. As with most city films, the citizens remain anonymous drudges. The only face we see is the man in the hat who feels a falling drop and looks up at the sky. And if you blink you’ll miss even that.
*. The film tells a story. Joris Ivens shot it over a period of several months but through terrific editing he gives the illusion of a single shower. We first see the wind picking up, registered in blowing tree tops, laundry, and awnings turning into sails. Then the umbrellas start to come out like fields of mushrooms.
*. One of Ivens’s recurring themes has been described as the search for certainty in a chaotic world. That’s certainly the impression we get here. At least since Leonardo water has been associated by artists with chaos, flux, and mutability. That’s what the people are fleeing from in Rain, hiding under umbrellas shaped like helmets, or taking shelter onboard buses.

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*. The rain changes the world by changing our perception of it, turning windows into watery slides, creating melting, running patterns in our field of vision out of its rubbery tracery.
*. And we’re made to feel as though there is a pattern: a seemingly random one like that shifting flock of birds in flight. This pattern doesn’t contrast with the order and pattern of the street so much as complement it, the two blending together as in that eloquent shot of the water surging in a sheet like a camera wipe across the screen.
*. This movie came out the same year as Ralph Steiner’s H20, and comparisons are often made. What strikes me is that in Steiner’s film you’re looking at water and seeing more in it. In Rain we’re looking through water, reality being distorted either through the effect of the rain on windows or by the way puddles and other wet surfaces reflect the light.
*. Photography created anxiety among the avant-garde in the visual arts. How were they to compete with the new technology of film? After all, the camera was more accurate at capturing external reality, and it didn’t lie.
*. But it does, as Steiner and Ivens both demonstrate. It plays tricks on our perceptions, shapes our ways of seeing. And there’s nothing really natural about even the most natural, most essential element of life. Even water can be the stuff of art because when we look into it or through it we are always seeing portions of ourselves.

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H2O (1929)

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*. 1929 saw two short experimental films studies of water. One was Joris Ivens’s Rain. The other was Ralph Steiner’s H2O.
*. Rain is a movie with a brief narrative: rain comes to soak the streets of Amsterdam. H2O has no such complicated story to tell.
*. We begin with images of water as power. We see it shooting forth from taps, being made to do work, roaring over ledges.
*. But then something happens. It turns into an entirely non-progressive film. The movement we see registers on a flat surface, the images almost totally abstract. It becomes a movie that’s more about the play of light and the illusion of texture than the ability of the imagery to represent anything: an exercise in camera doodling, throwing up animated Rorshach blots that give us little hint what we’re looking at.

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*. The vibrating images have a visual rhythm that, I think, works better without the soundtrack. At least I find it more suggestive that way. If you add music to a series of abstract images, the music takes over, setting the imaginative tone.
*. I have this movie on the Kino DVD of avant-garde, experimental cinema from the 1920s and ’30s. The label made me wonder: just how avant-garde is this movie? I don’t think visual effects like these were that special in 1929. And it seems to me that a lot of more mainstream filmmaking from this period was just as daring and experimental. Indeed, almost all filmmaking in the 1920s had to be experimental, as the medium was still so young it was constantly in the process of inventing itself.
*. This point made me think of Eric Hobsbawm’s short book Behind the Times: The Decline and Fall of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Gardes. In brief, Hobsbawm describes the visual arts of the early twentieth century as consumed with anxiety over the way traditional representation had been overtaken by mechanical means: the painter’s easel replaced by the camera. The avant-garde’s answer was to make the visual arts less directly mimetic, more abstract. In this, however, they failed, as “whatever the avant-garde tried to do was either impossible [i.e., to communicate meaning or express their times through pure abstraction] or done better in some other medium.”
*. Steiner was using the new technology of film in this sense of being avant-garde. What makes H2O different from other “experimental” films of the time is that in eschewing narrative and representation it presents itself as a distinctly artistic experience. You’re not watching a film like this for anything as vulgar as a story, or for scenes drawn from contemporary life. What that leaves us with is a visual concept poem that reads like an exercise in technique. It’s interesting (I won’t say pretty) to look at, but at the end of the day all you’re going to see in those jumping Rorshach blots is whatever’s inside your own head.

The Hands of Orlac (1924)

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*. The story comes from a trashy French source, but we can’t hold that against it since almost all the great horror archetypes — from Dracula and Frankenstein through The Phantom of the Opera and many others — had similar low origins. But what is it that has given this story legs?
*. I mean, it hasn’t gone away. This was the first film version I know of, but it was subsequently remade many, many times. Among the most notable versions are 1935’s Mad Love, The Hands of Orlac (1960), and The Hands of a Stranger (1962).
*. I think the symbolic point being made is how the body is often in revolt against the will. The only other horror archetype with a similar theme is that of the Wolf Man, but in this telling of the story the rebellion is limited to the hands. These hands have a mind of their own. Orlac is a decent man, cultured and refined, but he carries with him a fallen (evil) human condition in the form of his murdering paws.
*. Typically there’s a scene in these films where Orlac (or whoever) holds his hands up in front of his face, staring at them in disbelief, as though they can’t really be a part of him. It’s the “phantom limb” syndrome in reverse.
*. Are the hands a stand-in for another part of Orlac’s anatomy? Of course. Orlac and Yvonne share a hand fetish and the screenplay works to emphasize this creepy business. The way his hands seem to lead Orlac around underlines the way he’s “thinking with his hands.” His hands represent the passions, his irrepressible id, and they’re in the driver’s seat. The instructions given to the maid to “seduce his hands” has an obvious literal meaning in this regard.
*. The Orlacs get into financial trouble because, as Yvonne explains to Paul’s old man, her husband can no longer play piano. But it’s announced at the beginning of the movie that he’s given his final concert. In Mad Love they get around this point by throwing in a line about how expensive the surgery is, and making Orlac younger.
*. Another matter left unexplained is Orlac Sr.’s hatred for his son, which is especially odd since Paul still inherits the estate. Mad Love again had an explanation, however bizarre (young Orlac chooses to become a concert pianist rather than work at his father’s shop).
*. Robert Wiene and Conrad Veidt are reunited, but in a very different film than The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Of course Caligari is very different from almost any other movie ever made, but I think it’s worth pointing out here how different this film is since it’s usually just lumped in with Caligari as another example of German Expressionism.
*. It’s a far more restrained film, most obviously in the set design. There’s none of the warped staging of Caligari but rather a use of oversized sets which are the opposite of the cramped and crowded look of that film. In his piano room Orlac looks like he’s in the belly of a whale, surrounded by darkness.
*. Those giant sets help with the use of lighting throughout the film. Often it has a spotlight effect, with large expanses of the screen cast in darkness. That cone of light over the table in the basement bar is a good example.
*. A different kind of lighting, equally effective, informs the train wreck sequence, with phosphorescent billows of smoke, torches that look like sparkling match heads (some of them are in fact flares), and blinding beams of searchlights that the running men stand out against.
*. Veidt’s performance as Orlac is a standout. The part obviously calls for him to make his hands into characters of their own, holding them in front of him, stretching them out, rubbing them together, even sticking them in his mouth and seeming to eat them, or curling them on his forehead like devil horns.
*. I wonder if the plot point of the rubber gloves based on a wax cast made of Vasseur’s hands was borrowed from the Fantômas film The Murderous Corpse, where the false-fingerprint gloves were actually skinned from the dead man.
*. The ending is unfortunate, being talky (something always to be avoided in a silent film), confused, and rushed. This last point is especially jarring in a movie that up till then had been quite deliberately, even slowly paced. Still, for Veidt’s performance alone this is one worth tracking down.

Manhatta (1921)

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*. It’s a cliché to speak of a city or a place as being a character in a story or film, but here that’s obviously the whole intention. Indeed, Manhattan (the “Manhatta” was an affectation of Walt Whitman’s) is not just a character but the only character.
*. This is a movie of facades (“tall facades of marble and iron”), not faces. The people have little identity. They wear hats and are usually seen from a high angle and at a distance. They are a “million-footed” beast who are admitted to the canyons of Manhattan in the morning, work, and then leave at night. We get the feeling nobody actually lives here.
*. Do they work in the city, or for the city? The sense I have is the latter. The ant-like workers perform a necessary organic function within the larger structure, but they are not part of it. They are akin to those little tugs steaming away at the side of the Aquitania: they exist only to service the giant, or to act as scale models.
*. Is there a political message in this? Robert Hughes found one in co-director Charles Sheeler’s “Precisionism,” a movement he identified with the absence of nature and individual humanity. As Hughes says of the Sheeler of Manhatta: “His vision was dour and romantic at the same time. You often feel, in Sheeler, the presence of an artist who wanted to submit himself to structures and ideologies larger than himself, as though — whatever doubts he might have had about them — they promised security. And the ideology of American managerial industrialism underwrote that promise. So he set out to become its artist laureate.”

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*. What sort of a political message is “managerial industrialism”? Despite the direction later taken by Strand’s work, not to mention the humanistic vision of Whitman’s poetry, it seems dark and authoritarian to me. People are only featureless cogs servicing the machine. It’s no big leap of the imagination to see in the crowds disembarking from the ferry an only slightly less disciplined and uniformed version of the factory workers in Metropolis. And, of course, after that Riefenstahl.
*. This movie is usually compared to other “city movies” like Moscow Clad in Snow, Berlin: Symphony of a City, and (to some extent) Man with a Movie Camera. It certainly shares their formalism of image, but it’s this de-emphasis of the social and human qualities of a city that sets it apart, for good or ill.
*. I can’t say this is a favourite film of mine. It’s undeniably beautiful, but quite static, with nothing particularly interesting about its editing and (limited) camera movement. What’s more, its abstraction is a dead end. We might want to question how a city imagined this way makes its citizens feel, but they’re not heard from, and finally we’re left to wonder if Strand and Sheeler are all that interested.

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