The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions (Decade Project Vol. 4)

An ongoing survey of the Criterion Forum membership to create lists of the best films of each decade and genre.
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zedz
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#26 Post by zedz » Thu Oct 26, 2017 5:25 pm

A couple of wonderful Paris city films that surfaced since the last time we did this period:

Etudes sur Paris (Andre Sauvage, 1928) - A feature length wander through the city, with absolutely magical sequences taking place on the canals underneath the city, featuring barges drifting out of the darkness through shafts of light falling from the street above. This is available on a French DVD from Carlotta. I can't recall whether it has English subs, but it doesn't really matter as this is basically a visual poem.

Jeux des reflets et de la vitesse (Henri Chomette, 1925) - And for a radically different take, try this mile-a-minute headtrip. Available on the Centre Pompidou's La Ville moderne DVD.

Also out since last go-round, I believe, Alexandre Volkoff's marvellous serial The House of Mystery (from Flicker Alley), and that essential Epstein set from Potemkine.

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Drucker
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#27 Post by Drucker » Sat Oct 28, 2017 3:46 pm

Tod Browning's West Of Zanzibar is unsurprisingly brutish and nasty. Lon Chaney plays a magician whose wife declares her intention to run away with another man. As he fights with that man, he falls off a balcony and is paralyzed. His wife returns soon after, but dies in a church with her child by her side. Chaney concocts an elaborate, years-long plan to torture the other man's child and ultimately get his revenge by following the other man to Africa.

The film is swampy, ugly, and nasty. Chaney's character is an absolute brute, and the real highlight of the film is the wonderful sets. The film goes by a bit quickly, and there's a few things that could have been better fleshed out, but enjoyable overall.

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matrixschmatrix
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#28 Post by matrixschmatrix » Sun Oct 29, 2017 10:54 am

Häxan

This is one of the first handful of silent movies I ever watched, and I'm only now revisiting it- it really is phenomenal. It's pretty astonishing that this is Christensen's third movie, and immediately follows Blind Justice (which I liked, but which fits pretty conventionally into the Scandinavian film of the time.) This one is much stranger, and feels extraordinarily modern somehow.

The format of this movie is pretty weird to begin with. There's about forty five minutes of connected, narrative story about a world in which inquisitors hold the power to torture and execute pretty much whomever they like, and the unbelievable cruelty that they bring to a community- first destroying an old woman, then all the people whom she hated and whom she names in vengeance when they break her with torture, and then finally a young mother who had the misfortune to have a monk lust after her. This material is handled really heartbreakingly- there are a number of shots that prefigure The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer evidently acknowledged the debt), interestingly mostly of the old woman, who begins the movie shuffling along under about thirty layers of clothes, and ends her tenure in it with nothing to cover her head, back, or shoulders- which are simultaneously heartbreakingly tiny and astonishingly muscular and taut looking, giving an impression of hidden depths of great power. Her performance, again prefiguring Falconetti, gives the same impression- she looks at first vague and somewhat senile, but at the climax of her arc, when she demands of the torturers to know how she can confess of something that is not true, there is a universe of anguish and anger reflected in her look.

This section is sort of the heart of the movie, but it's only actually about half the length- it's sort of wedged into a documentary, and the documentary elements keep breaking out. The movie actually starts with a relatively dry series of medieval pictures and paintings and explanations of the crazy shit they thought witches got up to back then- still photo, text explaining it, repeated several times over. The dryness is productive, though, as these elements will figure into the drama/recreation portion of it later on, with the effect that you get first the claim and then the generation of that claim (and Christensen's anger at the cruelty and marginalization of these victims is magnified by the omniscient position he is able to take- the intertitles become his commentary, and it feels occasionally almost like F for Fake, as much driven by thoughts and personality as by a more objective documentary impulse.) There are recreations of some of the claimed witch's sabbath sorts of things leading up to the narrative section, and these are incredibly fun; Christensen plays the devil, and obviously takes great delight in doing so, but just in general all the masks and special effects and performances in these scenes are a joy to watch- which means that when we get them expanded upon as part of the old woman's confession, later on, the joy sticks in one's throat. It's a tricky tonal balance, but Christensen manages to turn that into a strength of the movie overall.

Near the end of the movie, we get a little more straight documentary stuff- we go on a tour of medieval torture devices, mostly illustrated by medieval drawings, but occasionally demonstrated by the actors (presumably when safe to do so.) The film tells us, in an intertitle, that one of the actresses insisted on demonstrating the thumbscrews, and shows the woman smiling roguishly as they're put on- and the movie, after a long period of sickening real-world horror, cracks a joke about how Christensen won't reveal what he got out of her that way. The movie then wraps up by explaining (with what is admittedly now a somewhat pseudoscientific diagnosis of 'hysteria') what may actually have been going on with some of the victims of 'possession' and extending the central ideas of what was really being done in the witch trials to an attack on institutionalization and marginalization in the then-modern world; ultimately, the anger of the movie is made current, and made a critique of the cruelty of the impulses that allowed such behavior (and of the superstitious way of thought that allowed them to bypass evidence and argument in pursuing it.) It's a movie I've always remembered as primarily fun, because there are incredibly fun parts- as I mentioned, anything in which we're actually seeing the witches go about their witchcraft- but on this viewing, it felt heartbreaking, all the moreso for its capability of engendering delight.

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knives
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#29 Post by knives » Sun Oct 29, 2017 7:45 pm

The Girl with the Hat Box
Before I really begin, credit where it's due. This has one of the funniest sight gags I've seen with the sleeping gambler. That piece of hyperbole out of the way I have to admit I'm not entirely sole on Barnet's virtues yet at least relative to his contemporaries. This though is significantly better than By the Bluest of Seas and it is nice to see a Soviet filmmaker with talent in characterization and narrative as well as theme and aesthetic (though you get both in Medvedkin's Happiness). It also has a much more mature sense of propaganda than a lot of the films from the era (let alone the lows Stalin would bring in). Compared to, say, Earth which while I like a lot more is less intelligent in its propaganda due to a more trivial form of characterization. The plot of this movie is basically to instill in people the idea that cheating the government is bad with the comically villainous landlords with their odd shapes contrasted against the sexy young man. Barnet, who seems to be a good student of American slapstick, is constantly playing with this though by celebrating a sort of comic subversion. The early parts of the film before the fights with the landlords even have them come across as charmingly harmless. Honestly you could see the American version of this film keeping them as dopey side characters as the young couple fall in love through cheating the government (think Peter Weir's Green Card). It's also very funny and makes me want to prioritize Miss Mend, though I suspect the length will keep me away from that.

Parisian Love
For the most part I liked this film from future Reefer Madness director Louis Gasnier, but it's plot is all sorts of gross. Not least among its shocking elements is how the saintly scientist decides to reform the crook by pimping out a woman he know Lot from the bible style. The film seems aware at how horrible most of this is, but not to the extant to give it subversive credit. What prevents this from being an entirely misguided endeavor is Clara Bow who exercises all of her star power into making this a positive experience. She's able to be sympathetic, mean, sexy, and disturbed all at once and in a way that's not as weird as the film surrounding her.

Manslaughter
Perhaps the most interesting thing is that this was scripted by a woman and based on another's novel. In a lot of ways that provides a more compelling way of looking at the film than as another example of DeMille's amusing moral hypocrisy which is charming pretty exclusively for how crass he uses it as a commercial tool. Even how Macpherson supposedly went about writing the script faking a prison sentence at DeMille's behest is more exciting than the auteurist approach in this case.

This isn't to talk around the film, so much as to reject the most obvious reading of it and the one I came in expecting. The moralism seems even more besides the point than usual (though the debauchery is still as fun as ever). Part of this is that the final straw is a genuinely horrific act and one that deserves punishment. The bigger part though is that the film seems built as a way to reject all masculinity (its no shock that this features one of the earliest lesbian kisses). That the film rejects the debauched men of jazz is obvious going in, but how it also rejects the DA and police officer is a bit surprising. Both men undo the protagonist in acts of weakness which they attempt to cover up with moralism. It's understandable in the case of the officer. In another film that seemed more sincere I'd take his martyrdom more seriously, but here it seems to exist to only give her trouble. The DA though is plainly a weasel punishing a woman because he is afraid of his own erection.

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matrixschmatrix
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#30 Post by matrixschmatrix » Sun Oct 29, 2017 8:40 pm

Are we considering Phantom of the Opera one movie or two?

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zedz
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#31 Post by zedz » Sun Oct 29, 2017 9:21 pm

Do you mean the original and the revised 1929 rerelease? I believe all of those kind of situations in the past have been counted as a single film, with the release date of the first released version.

There are examples I can think of that could be argued as exceptions (e.g. Divertimento, which has no footage in common with La Belle Noiseuse) but generally making a distinction just needlessly splits votes (and I think the Julian will need all the help it can get!) and gets swamped in ambiguity if other participants are just voting for the film and not specifying a version.

I guess the big title in this respect for this round is Hitchcock's Blackmail, with its silent and sound versions, and I bet swo already has a ruling in his pocket about that.

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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#32 Post by swo17 » Sun Oct 29, 2017 10:08 pm

This is all spelled out in the first post, but basically if you just vote in general for "Phantom of the Opera" or "Blackmail," all those votes will count together. This is the recommended way to vote, unless you are adamant that you specifically wish to vote for a particular version. Which, you can do, but any such votes will be tallied as though you are casting them for a completely different film.

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TMDaines
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#33 Post by TMDaines » Mon Oct 30, 2017 12:54 pm

Coincidentally, I kicked off my viewing for this project with Blackmail last night. I had briefed the missus that I fancied watching some silent Hitchcock that evening and I was surprised when it turned into a talkie 5-10 minutes in! For some reason I thought I had the silent version and the opening of the film was rather ambitious in its extremely minimal use of intertitles. It's classic Hitchcock, but the talkie version is a tad lethargic and stodgy. Part of this may be due to the lead actress being dubbed - or more precisely, she mimed whilst someone else spoke her lines live on set - which I was not aware of at the time of the watching. There's also a sense of the technology holding the film back. A lot of the scenes feel somewhat theatrical and staged. Some of the best sequences of the film are those that bring to mind M and are happy to be filled with silence rather than noise. I'll be interested to watch the silent version in comparison and could well imagine that being superior.

There's a nice HD copy of the talkie film out there - I'm not sure what the source is - but no dice on the silent version. I'd love to see a Blu-ray that delivers both versions in HD, like the BFI have done with The Informer, which can currently be picked up in Fopp for £6!

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matrixschmatrix
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#34 Post by matrixschmatrix » Tue Oct 31, 2017 11:53 pm

Schloß Vogelöd

This was a disappointment, but I'm not 100% certain whether that's due to inherent weakness, or because the gorgeous art on the cover and the English title translation lead me to expect something else- this is essentially a chamber drama, and it feels like it. There's one (exceedingly guessable) twist, and a lot of comic business that never really takes off (honestly, there are some fun moments in Murnau's American work, but I can never remember outright comedy working in his hands) but mostly it feels like reading a fairly dull turn of the century novel.

There are some genuine highlights though- one of the comic characters has a nightmare of a hand reaching through a window to grab him, and while it lasts all of about a minute, it really does feel like the Murnau stuff his reputation is built on- not just the prop, which is lovely, but the slow, insinuating way it slides into the window, with starkly defined shadows all around it. More germane to the plot, though- late in the movie, there's a shot in which a killer and his unwitting co-conspirator are in a huge, empty room together, standing at either end of the frame, framed by the light coming in through the windows, and the sense of vast emptiness the shot conveys is really marvelous- it's certainly more than the thinly realized story of the thing deserves. There's also a really compelling series of shots of the lead actress coming down this strange stairway, where it's cut off first on the right up top and then the left at the bottom, and she glides ethereally down the center- again, conveying this sense of weight and of hauntedness that the rest of the movie cannot rise to.

I think Masters of Cinema, in writing about this, described it as being essentially the building blocks of Murnau, the raw stuff from which the real work would come to be made- I think that's a fair assessment. It's worth watching, but the kind of thing I'd be very depressed to see on my list.

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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#35 Post by knives » Wed Nov 01, 2017 10:26 am

Honestly it's one of my favorite of his German films in part because it is so light. I don't think Murnau does heavy well at all. I also love the stylistic conceit which I've only ever seen elsewhere in early Fassbinder wherein you essentially try to extend the frame so that without going full Chris Marker you've created a collection of photographs.

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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#36 Post by TMDaines » Wed Nov 01, 2017 10:33 am

Scherben (1921) was an interesting enough watch, although I’m not sure I’m quite onboard the hype train of its biggest supporters, HerrSchreck for one! I admired the claustrophobia of the piece and appreciated its brevity, although it still feels a long watch even at its circa one hour duration. The pace of the film could never be described as anything else but slow. I saw someone describe the main characters, especially the central family of the film, as a group of somnambulists, and I’m inclined to agreed. On one hand, everything feels a little overly stylised, but still its not not refined enough. At one point, when the daughter is panicing in the corridor of the home, I expected the film to go full expressionist and crazy, but it always held back slightly.

I don’t think the current availability of the film is doing it any justice, but there was something in its essence that still left me admiring rather than loving the film.

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Drucker
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#37 Post by Drucker » Wed Nov 01, 2017 10:57 am

matrixschmatrix wrote:Schloß Vogelöd

This was a disappointment, but I'm not 100% certain whether that's due to inherent weakness, or because the gorgeous art on the cover and the English title translation lead me to expect something else- this is essentially a chamber drama, and it feels like it. There's one (exceedingly guessable) twist, and a lot of comic business that never really takes off (honestly, there are some fun moments in Murnau's American work, but I can never remember outright comedy working in his hands) but mostly it feels like reading a fairly dull turn of the century novel.

There are some genuine highlights though- one of the comic characters has a nightmare of a hand reaching through a window to grab him, and while it lasts all of about a minute, it really does feel like the Murnau stuff his reputation is built on- not just the prop, which is lovely, but the slow, insinuating way it slides into the window, with starkly defined shadows all around it. More germane to the plot, though- late in the movie, there's a shot in which a killer and his unwitting co-conspirator are in a huge, empty room together, standing at either end of the frame, framed by the light coming in through the windows, and the sense of vast emptiness the shot conveys is really marvelous- it's certainly more than the thinly realized story of the thing deserves. There's also a really compelling series of shots of the lead actress coming down this strange stairway, where it's cut off first on the right up top and then the left at the bottom, and she glides ethereally down the center- again, conveying this sense of weight and of hauntedness that the rest of the movie cannot rise to.

I think Masters of Cinema, in writing about this, described it as being essentially the building blocks of Murnau, the raw stuff from which the real work would come to be made- I think that's a fair assessment. It's worth watching, but the kind of thing I'd be very depressed to see on my list.
I actually agree with Knives. I revisited almost all of his films recently after the Masters of Cinema box came out, and I think this one holds up quite well. I think you're right that this is definitely a building blocks film, but it's actually a significant advancement over The Dark Road, which I think is far more guilty of being an average chamber drama than Schloß Vogelöd. I saw a restoration of it last year and while the restoration is absolutely gorgeous (I think this is the only Murnau where the negative survives?) the drama and feelings of dread are mostly emotional, and there isn't a significant visual match to the tone the film is trying to set. I think Vogelöd works in part because the right elements are put in place early to create a feeling of discord and suspicion, and there are enough visually supportive elements to make it worthwhile. Neither of these films rank among Murnau's masterworks for me, and neither will probably make my list but I enjoy this film quite a bit.

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matrixschmatrix
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#38 Post by matrixschmatrix » Wed Nov 01, 2017 11:13 am

I agree that the restoration looks spectacular. I suppose it's just a matter of how much the pieces add up for you- and honestly, I may be punishing the movie unduly for the labored comedy scenes (did the business with the kid on the kitchen have anything to do with anything?) and for making such a meal out of the mystery elements, which weren't all that mysterious.

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matrixschmatrix
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#39 Post by matrixschmatrix » Fri Nov 03, 2017 1:49 am

Phantom

This one, I think, has more going for it, though ultimately it's not a movie I loved. The story feels very much like a Bauer film- a story of obsession, fascination based on a single glimpsed image, which becomes such an overwhelming addiction that it takes over one's life- though this doesn't have a Bauer hero's enduring fascination with death. It has a bit of Vertigo, too, in that the hero tries to recreate that which he cannot obtain (or at least cannot obtain instantly) by pursuing another woman who seems like she could be forced into the shape of the image that haunts him.

Unfortunately, whether by design or not, the lead is just an infuriating dishrag of a man throughout, a Jonathan Harker figure who cannot take action to save himself or others, but just cringes at every decision that comes his way. He's like that even before his obsession, too- nor does he convey the Bauer hero's sense of of a man of great inward depth and power, though I think he's meant to. Abel seems far too old for the part- he seems like he should be a man in his early 20s, still drunk on his own dreams and emotions, still not wholly in command of himself- but Abel appears to be in his forties, at least, with a bad blonde dye job and an awful combover. His carriage and body language suggest not so much a man driven by an enduring fascination as one who is doing his best to disappear, and Lil Dagover's interest in him is almost entirely inexplicable. He seems made to be bullied- he does not defend his sister when she leaps for him in a crowded nightclub and a man starts attacking her (indeed, it's she who defends him) nor does he make any effort to stop a murder being committed in from on him (instead curling up into a ball and bleating no don't over and over.) Even his great follies are mostly the result of him acting on the decisions of others- and when redeemed, he is still like that. Who could love such a man? This is a movie that's tempting to read as autobiography, as it's about an obsessive, socially unacceptable form of love experienced by a man who is a poet and an artist, but even ignoring that it was Thea von Harbou who wrote it, one would like to think that Murnau would give himself a worthier avatar- as autobiography, this would be extremely self deprecating.

That said, there are some nice moments in this- there are repeated fantasy sequences that begin to burst into the Abel's perception as his obsession consumes him- the moment he met her, her face over another's, the world going black around him, all played over and over- expressionist tricks used in what is largely a realistic movie. Near the end, there's a fabulous sequence in which a carriage ride, a shopping spree, and a nightmare all seem to be happening a once, and the walls of the city are folding in on us- for once, though Abel's performance hasn't changed, the world around him has become extreme enough that it feels like there's some kind of meaningful depth to his addiction.

The actual plot mechanisms didn't make much sense to me- his aunt gives him a loan, which she then decides she shouldn't have given him (despite still believing his collateral to be valid) and decides to call it in immediately, on threat of arrest- surely a loan must have a term, and a creditor cannot simply decide they need it back at will? The aunt, who seems alternately hard headed and gullible for reasons that feel more plot-related than character-driven, is herself ultimately quite cruel and callous, so it's interesting that the ultimate moral violation Abel commits is against her- a beat which I like, as it makes the slope he slides down more believable, and lets her be one of the more interestingly multifaceted characters in the movie. Nearly everyone else is either all good or all bad, apart from the hero, whose moral quandaries are the point of the movie, and his sister, whose arc is played in counterpoint to his (though I found her performance rather more compelling- she has a big scene in which she decides to leave home and live the grand nightlife, supported by men, and her mother argues with her about it- and intentionally or not, I thought she came off fairly well in the argument, while the mother came off as somewhat self pitying and manipulative.)

In some ways, I think I actually liked the last Murnau I watched better than this one, though I think this one is the better movie- for one thing, this one is a good 40 minutes longer, and I think would have benefited from a more trim running time (though that may reflect me watching this kind of thing late at night when I'm tired.) And I can see what Knives was saying, about it being a bit lighter- I think the Murnau I love the most, his American movies, Nosferatu, Faust and so forth, all allow their characters some joy at one point or another, which this (apart from an unconvincing epilogue) doesn't bother to do- and in Schloss Vogeloed, people do things, which is always nice.

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matrixschmatrix
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#40 Post by matrixschmatrix » Fri Nov 03, 2017 11:51 pm

Napoleon

Honestly, I'm kind of overwhelmed by this, so it's difficult to put my thoughts together. Despite its enormous running time (I haven't done the math, but I think it's roughly equal to Godfathers 1 & 2 put together) this isn't a movie that feels like it burns through a lot of plot. We get difference scenes from either Napoleon's personal life or the history of revolutionary France, and broadly they play out at length until they begin to dissolve into this sort of ecstatic melange of images, as though there is so much going on that it overwhelms the frame, and tries to exist all at once- superimpositions, 360 degree pans, quick cuts, all these effect that give one the sense that one can't really keep up with what's going on, used not only at the climax of the movie as a whole, but at the climax of nearly every segment within every act.

To the best of my recollection (I had to watch this over several sittings) we see broadly: a pair of scenes from Napoleon's childhood school, a scene of the Revolution taking hold, of Napoleon in Corsica running from a government that wishes to side with the English in the battle for control of the island, of Napoleon winning his first major battle at Toulon, more scenes of Revolution, Napoleon imprisoned by the Revolutionary government, the fall of Robespierre and Saint-Just, Napoleon gaining power over the military defending Paris and successfully defending it against Royalists, Napoleon at a ball falling for Josephine, and finally Napoleon marrying Josephine and assuming command of the French army in Italy. It feels somewhat disconnected; sometimes one thing will lead into another, but more often, one feels unstuck in time, not least because the child Napoleon is represented as a man of destiny, already given to the postures and attitudes that he would later make famous, and already bearing the dignity and tactical mind that would later become legend.

As it happen, the only time we really see Napoleon actually commanding a battle- represented at length, and not impressionistically- is one at Toulon; in Paris, he simply arranges a defense that renders a battle unnecessary, and in Italy, the movie is already fading into history before any shots are fired, and the fighting is confined to a few shots that are totally uninterested in the specifics of who is fighting whom, and for what reason. The movie represents Napoleon as the most military man imaginable- he is almost always in what I would assume in his dress uniform, standing with rigid posture, impossibly dignified and charismatic largely in his alien-ness. The Napoleon we see remains largely unchanged and unknowable; he is obsessed with battles and tactics, and a ghostly intensity about him that suggests both Dracula and Richard III, without ever quite tipping into anything that feels evil, but outside of the crazed rushes of imagery (which one eventually begins to see as Napoleon's own cascading thoughts represented on screen) the movie only really lets us in during the last act- he is humanized by Josephine, playing blind man's bluff with her children (the only time he ever seems remotely to be a truly young man) and pining for her like a besotted teen when he's away from her, and he is given a political dimension that unites the twin strains of the Revolutionary movie and the Napoleon biography in a lengthy scene in which he promises the ghosts of the revolution that he will fight for a universal Republic, in a speech that feels almost consciously like something out of the USSR (and which undercuts any sense of fascism that the extreme Great Man outlook the rest of the movie held.) Though the movie depicts the Terror at some length, and fully buys into the idea that it represented a horrific nightmare of governance, it also retains a belief in the ideals the men held; it's telling that Gance himself plays Saint-Just, who seems at once pirate and dandy, killer and genuine idealist, and who is given both a truly powerful speech in which he recommits to his ideals even as he is being sent to his death and a moment demanding that Napoleon swear to continue those ideals in his forthcoming campaigns.

The most famous part of the movie, the triptych section, is entirely confined to around half of the last act, and is used first in a way that anticipates war movies and westerns to come- giving a sense of these enormous vistas and great masses of men, the sheer size and scope of an army and the centrality of Napoleon in changing it with the power of his charisma and dedication- and then as an extension of the ecstasy of the earlier climaxes of the movie, as the frame ceases to be contiguous and becomes three divisions marching in different directions, or a battle with Napoleon's eyes glaring between two scenes, or (finally) a crazed combination of Josephine, the world, the battle, his own face, his own past, an eagle, and dozens of other images, playing out too quickly to be taken in in any detail, surging over a glorious future defined by the formative events we have seen, but still alien, still not fully allowing us in. I think Gance had said he intended this to be only the first of a series of several movies about the man, and it makes sense- one can imagine the portrayal darkening and rotting, the way Eisenstein did in Ivan the Terrible, as there are seeds of contradiction and failure sown even in the movie we see, or one can imagine every entry representing Napoleon as this giant of history in the same way this one does; to some degree, I think the open possibilities left by this movie is preferable to any particular direction. It's such a large movie, so much so that I've written nearly a thousand words despite not really feeling like I could say anything about it or do it justice, and despite not fully understanding my own thoughts on it. I dread trying to rank it, but I think I would recommend seeing it to virtually anyone who has the ability to do so.

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Tommaso
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#41 Post by Tommaso » Sun Nov 05, 2017 10:23 am

Souls For Sale (Rupert Hughes 1923): A young woman, Mem, gets cold feet about her marriage and escapes from a train, ending up alone in the desert, where she is rescued by an oriental camel rider... hang on, this is set in the US, isn't it? Well, of course it is. The camel rider turns out to be a movie actor in an outdoor shooting, and the film itself turns out to be one of the earliest examples of a film about filmmaking. Because the rescued Mem goes to Hollywood, where she slowly works her way up to become a star.

This film came as a great surprise for me, as Hughes only made a handful of films as a director and was probably much better known as a scriptwriter. Given that it was made so early, this "Motion Picture about Life in Hollywood" offers some rather unsparing disclosures of the realities of the dream factory. Not only are the intertitles in general quite ironic, making fun of the predictability of a lot of Hollywood pictures ("The usual sheik crosses the usual desert with the usual captive", to give just one example); the film feels rather modern in other respects, too: there's one young actress who finds it unavoidable to "sell herself" in order to make a career. Not that anyone doubted that the 1920s also had their Weinsteins, too, but I find it surprising that it was thematised so clearly in a 1922 film already. At the same time it is of utmost importance to "Beware of a scandal!", as is said at another point. Mem's slow ascent to stardom eventually leads her to take part in super-productions, in which she "gets paid for taking the kisses", and in which an actress who has an accident on the set is ruthlessly replaced because the producers don't want to lose any money because of delays. And in the end a 'real-life' disaster after a thunderstorm is ruthlessly used by the fictional director to shoot footage which could be used in a forthcoming film. Strong stuff, and probably exactly how things were (are).

Talking about directors, btw. I guess most people will be delighted to see some actual documentary footage of Stroheim (directing "Greed"), Chaplin (probably at work on "A Woman of Paris") and Niblo inserted into the film, which likely greatly helped the audience of the time to believe that what they saw here was indeed how Hollywood was like. But apart from its look behind the scenes, the film also convinces by its inventive camerawork and fine directoral choices. For instance, the marriage imposter's attempt to get away from the police is 'choreographed' as a ballet of feet, while his later arrest in Cairo (the crook gets double-crossed by a cleverer lady crook) looks exactly as if it were a scene from a Hollywood movie (which of course in the end it is, but the film quite nicely plays on 'reality' and 'filmed/imagined reality' here).

As a film about filmmaking, Souls for Sale might be seen as a companion piece to Asquith/Bramble's Shooting Stars, but given that it was made three years earlier, it is perhaps even the more important film (and it's every way as good). Whatever, a wonderful tinted and restored TCM/Warner Archive print and very fine new music make this even more of a gem.

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knives
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#42 Post by knives » Sun Nov 05, 2017 12:00 pm

Undoubtedly the film had to have been inspired by the then fresh Arbuckle scandal, no?

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Tommaso
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#43 Post by Tommaso » Sun Nov 05, 2017 2:32 pm

Didn't think of that, but historically that would make sense. However, in the film it seems clear that 'career pushing' through 'selling oneself' to producers or directors was a regular, perhaps even mandatory occurence, not an 'isolated' case of (alleged) rape as with the Arbuckle affair. Isolated in the sense of it becoming publically known, of course. Or were there other, similar scandals at that time?

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domino harvey
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#44 Post by domino harvey » Sun Nov 05, 2017 2:41 pm

The Fatty Arbuckle case was the first big one to get attention, and along with several other scandals in short order, a major contributor to the idea of Hollywood as a land of sin-- as was the death by heroin overdose of Barbara La Marr, star of Souls For Sale, a few years later

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Tommaso
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#45 Post by Tommaso » Sun Nov 05, 2017 2:57 pm

Hah, La Marr was actually the reason why I checked the film out, as I recently read that Hedy Kiesler was turned into Hedy Lamarr by Louis B. Mayer on a whim as some sort of 'tribute' to the earlier actress. Souls for Sale was the only film easily available with that other La Marr; it seems most of her more important films are lost. Well, La Marr plays an actress called Leva Lemaire and is characterised as "the screen's best hated vampire" (now, is that a nod to Stroheim, a la "The girl you'd love to hate"?) but appears to be quite friendly in the film's 'real life', behind the scenes. Her part isn't very big, though, and the main female part is played by Eleanor Bordman, who is probably best known for her roles in Borzage's The Circle and Vidor's The Crowd, but I found her really convincing here, too.

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matrixschmatrix
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#46 Post by matrixschmatrix » Mon Nov 06, 2017 1:22 am

Varieté

First- the MoC blu is an incredible presentation of the movie, which looks exemplary, as beautiful as anything I've seen (and this is a movie for which that's important!) I started with the Tiger Lillies score, as I generally quite like modern scores on silent film, but that lasted maybe two minutes- long enough for someone to sing, in English, that an old man was in jail, as we watched an old man in jail- before I switched to the piano one. The piano one is very good.

As for the movie- I think it's great one, though I have some reservations. It starts out with five or ten minutes of visual pyrotechnics that had me thinking this was going to be something like Metropolis, just an endless stream of images that I'd find unforgettable; the expressionistic utter darkness of the jail cell, with the lonely, stooped old man, a man with no face, reduced to a number, shuffling along, and then after a few intertitles we're launched into a flashback of riotous fairground activity, lights and faces and performances swarming in front of us, the camera swinging merrily along, barely able to contain itself for the joy of cinema. The whiplash between the two scenes make both all the stronger, and the movie really gets off and running.

It doesn't maintain that, though- while there are a few more explosions later on, mostly during scenes of acrobatics and performances, the meat of the movie is about looks, endless faces conveying things with a stare. The things they convey are generally cruel, too- Jannings (almost uncognizable, both in appearance and in restraint) glares angrily at a dripping faucet, at his wife's homely clothing, at a world that has not given him what he thought it might. He's a retired acrobat who'd broken both legs and been forced off the stage, running a rinky dink sideshow fair (expressed in part by a somewhat cruel, if amusing, montage of bathing beauties represented as being rather third rate and bedraggled) and living in a cramped home with a jealous wife and a tiny child. A new woman comes into his life- she's taken off a ship after her mother dies, and appears to be more or less handed over to him- and is able to seduce him without much effort (though he does appear to resist at first, he seems more confused and frightened than morally torn, and gives himself wholly to her within what seems like a few hours of meting her.)

After he reinvents himself as an acrobat and he and his new woman join a successful acrobat in an immediately celebrated act, the other acrobat begins to scheme to sleep with the woman. Here, my reservation comes in: the man rapes her. It's very clearly an act of rape- he locks the door after tricking her into his room, and the movie shows how carefully premeditated every element of doing so is; she is upset and frightened, trying to get away, and we get a cut back to Jannings blithely playing cards until after whatever happens has happened. It's a harrowing scene, appropriately upsetting- but afterwards, she's in love with the acrobat. Or at least, wants nothing more than to get away from Jannings and spend time alone with the man. Were it a seduction, this would be reasonable- she's obviously not overly concerned with fidelity as a virtue, and she seems sexually hungry enough that it would be plausible that she wouldn't really see a conflict. But given what we've seen, her attitude is difficult and unpleasant to try and handwave away, particularly as there's literally no moment of transition; she goes directly from fear and horror to adulterous (well, sort of) schemer.

It's all the more mysterious because when Jannings finds out and goes to kill the man, it's very consciously rhymed with his act of rape- Jannings closes the door and removes the key in a gesture that reflects his own, earlier, and the acrobat breaks down and sobs in a way that suggests a role reversal. The movie implies that Jannings is a man who can be redeemed- he chooses to murder the acrobat and turn himself in, and to do so after offering the man a chance to defend himself, rather than just letting him die safely and unprovably during the high wire act, presumably because we're meant to see him as having a sense of honor, and the killing of the acrobat feels morally just largely because of how monstrous his actions were. But her actions remain difficult to explain- it's not even that she's a traditional vamp, as she apparently gets herself killed throwing herself down the stairs after Jannings, which wouldn't really fit the mold. Perversely, their relationship was actually quite charming; there's a highly fetishistic scene in which he sews her stockings for her, and the attraction between them seems very mutual and adult, very likable were he not a dude who'd run from his wife and son.

At any rate, this movie is super worth watching (presuming the scene in question is one that won't be unbearably upsetting) and I should probably just mark my discomfort down to, like, this movie was made in 1925, and simply assumed that rape and seduction were interchangeable- but outside of that woman, the rest of the movie has a sense of real emotional realism that makes that explanation hard to stomach. There's a cruel but compelling scene in which everyone else in the troupe is mocking Jannings behind his back as a cuckold that felt particularly true to life- it's a movie with very little room for pity. I meant to talk more about how the power of the look is used throughout, but I'm not really sure of what to say about it, except that it reminds me almost of Leone- the closeups feel that extreme, even though they aren't, and one can read Jannings' mind as he stares. There's also a brilliant piece of makeup work or something, when Jannings is reflecting on what he has done, and turns into this Mabuse-like ghoul, without seeming to change at all. And a scene of literal fireworks, and some delightful dancing. It's full of good things.

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Sloper
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#47 Post by Sloper » Tue Nov 07, 2017 10:54 am

The logic of the rape scene and its aftermath is indeed perplexing. Like so many rape narratives, it seems to be grounded in kneejerk misogyny rather than psychological authenticity or, you know, basic human empathy. I suspect this is how we’re meant to read it: Berta-Marie is an amoral seductress (she’s so relentlessly feline she might as well just be a large cat) who has coldly snatched Huller away from his family, so she deserves punishment; she doesn’t want to have sex with Artinelli, so the rape constitutes a kind of just retribution; of course she falls for him afterwards, because that’s the kind of tramp she is; and if she kills herself by falling down the stairs upon learning that her lover is dead, so much the better. As you say, the film is really more interested in Huller’s trajectory, his inner struggle, his sense of honour, his redemption, etc., although even he is rather under-developed as a character.

While this aspect of the film leaves a sour taste in the mouth, I do think the story is a little more interesting than it seems at first glance. For one thing, the picture we get of Huller’s home life is more complex than you suggest. Yes, he is clearly bothered by the dripping tap, but not all that bothered; and then, when he sees that his baby son has wet himself, he laughs indulgently, and seems very happy taking care of the child. The mother, by contrast, shows no interest in or affection for her husband or her son. It is while Huller is cleaning up the baby that Berta-Marie is brought in – she is vulnerable, recently orphaned, and swaddled up in a cloak. Huller allows her into his home, not because he is attracted to her, but because he is a natural carer and provider; his wife resists, perhaps not (at this stage) because she feels threatened, but simply because she doesn’t want another mouth to feed. Berta-Marie first tries to attract Huller by showing an interest in the baby, but she cannot perform this ‘motherly’ role, the baby starts crying, and Huller pushes her violently away. Then she appeals to him as if she were a child, and he the angry parent: ‘don’t be angry with me, please tell me you’re not angry’. It is by throwing herself on his mercy, and by needing protection from the leering men in the audience, that she lures him into her clutches.

As you say, their relationship doesn’t look much like a torrid affair. It’s almost a picture of domestic bliss, with Huller doing the cooking, cleaning (earlier we saw his wife washing the dishes) and darning – we see him putting Berta-Marie into the bed, echoing the way he put his son to bed at the start. That’s the problem with their relationship, of course. He’s rescuing and infantilising her, and she’s using him. As an acrobat, he’s known for being a great ‘catcher’, and this might help us to complicate our picture of Berta-Marie as well. She uses Huller because she needs someone to take care of her, but it’s not a particularly sexual relationship. When Artinelli rapes her, this triggers a kind of sexual awakening – as in the similarly horrifying rape scenes in Boudu Saved From Drowning or Gone With the Wind – and I guess we could see the ring and bracelet she receives from Artinelli as evoking sexual imagery, suggesting his potency as compared to Huller. From then on she longs for the sensual pleasures that he can provide and Huller cannot. But of course, what Huller lacks in sex appeal he makes up for in physical strength and strength of character, hence his habitual role as a ‘catcher’: at the end, he can hold his liquor better than Artinelli, and easily reduces this lothario to a quivering wreck before killing him. You noted the way this scene mirrors the earlier rape scene, and the camerawork underlines this: when Artinelli is overpowering Berta-Marie, the camera moves around rapidly, struggling to keep them in the frame, evoking her frantic attempt to escape and showing it to be futile, because she is trapped in this predicament (by the frame as well as by her rapist); now, a similar camera movement is used to represent Artinelli’s point of view as he staggers drunkenly in front of the rock-like Huller, who stands in front of the door and from whom there is no escape. He is as trapped and helpless now as Berta-Marie was then.

With all this in mind, it’s a real shame the film doesn’t portray her in a more layered, sympathetic way. More emphasis could have been placed on her sad plight at the beginning, and her need for protection; the obvious step would then have been to show her getting bored with Huller, longing for excitement with Artinelli, and entering into an illicit but consensual relationship with him; and then there might have been more pathos at the end when, upon learning of Artinelli’s death, she pleads with Huller and clings to his back, causing him to drag her along the floor – an ironic comment on the nature of their dysfunctional relationship. But as it is, it’s hard to know what she’s pleading for here. Is she begging him to forgive her and take her back? Or is she distraught at Artinelli’s death? It’s almost as if we’re not supposed to care.

The film rewards repeat viewings because it’s so brilliantly shot and directed – as you say, it’s full of good things – but it also feels like a frustrating missed opportunity because the story and characters are so under-baked. Take the dolly shots just before the rape scene: first, the camera glides towards Artinelli’s ear as he listens out for Berta-Marie, then it glides down the corridor with her as she approaches. This is a very effective way of creating a sense of menace and momentum, a feeling that we are moving towards some climactic moment, in a scene that might otherwise have seemed pedestrian and static. Similar camera movements in The Last Laugh andMichael (also Karl Freund jobs) evoked the movements of sound and information, the accumulation of gossip, or burgeoning sexual tension. But in those cases, the technical brilliance of the film-making was working in the service of well-told stories. We knew precisely what that tenement gossip would mean to the doorman, or what was happening between Princess Zamikow and Michael as he painted her eyes (and what this relationship would do to the oblivious Zoret) – we understood the characters, and knew what was at stake. In Varieté, there are some potentially interesting clues along these lines, but overall the human story is very muddled. That might also be why Jannings, at least to my eyes, is not as impressive here as he usually is. In any given shot, you can see him doing subtle things with his face and body, but without a clearer sense of his feelings and motivations, it’s hard to respond to his performance on an emotional level.
matrixschmatrix wrote:There's also a brilliant piece of makeup work or something, when Jannings is reflecting on what he has done, and turns into this Mabuse-like ghoul, without seeming to change at all.
I think I know the bit you mean – it’s when he’s just found out about the affair, and is staring at Berta-Marie and Artinelli together. It is kind of Mabuse-esque, because his eyes start glowing. What’s great about this moment is that it picks up on one of Jannings’ great strengths, his piercing, burning glare. His performance in The Last Laugh could be a textbook illustration of how much an actor can do with just their eyes. Or just their shoulders, for that matter.

One other moment I really liked in this film: after the (fantastic) party scene, when the three main characters are saying goodnight in the corridor, they sway drunkenly back and forth as they shake hands, but the camera remains still. We see Artinelli, then he sways out of the frame and pulls Berta-Marie into it, then she sways back and pulls Artinelli into view, then without missing a beat he sways back again, this time with Huller attached to his hand. It’s another really clever, witty moment that belongs in a film with a much more carefully worked-out love triangle...

Also, I strongly recommend re-watching this with the Johannes Contag score. Stephen Horne is very good, but Contag is better at evoking the queasy, decadent, transgressive 1920s carnival atmosphere, and at suggesting the links between the setting and the characters’ psychology (what there is of it) – and just at building narrative tension where appropriate. I found myself thinking of the use of discordant, jarring music in films like Sunset Boulevard and Sawdust and Tinsel, or in Carl Davis’ score for Greed.

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matrixschmatrix
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#48 Post by matrixschmatrix » Tue Nov 07, 2017 12:08 pm

You're right about the moment of Jannings' face I was remembering- I'm not sure of why I'd remembered it as later in the movie. I actually quite liked him in this overall, in part because he underplays the role enough that those moments stick out more than they would in, say, his work with Von Sternberg, where he comes off occasionally as something of a ham.

I like your analysis of the opening scene, and of Jannings' ensuing relationship with Berta-Marie (her name seems like such an odd detail- is it just so they can establish her as non-specifically foreign?) The moment when Jannings seems first annoyed by the baby peeing, but actually delights in cooing over it is a fascinating character detail- it seems briefly to snap the aura of domestic tension the scene otherwise builds. However, Jannings' clear desire to go back to his performing days, and his wife's refusal to countenance the idea, brings it back, though his tension seems not so much to be boredom with having a family as perhaps an artist's misery at being bottled, a flyer's at being grounded- there's a confused combination of sexual lust, lust for one's youth, and parental guardianship in his attitude towards Berta-Marie, as though he's transferred every sensation in his home to her at once. I think too one can read the climactic murder as being in part an honor killing- but his utter disinterest in her afterwards makes somewhat less sense.

His wife and child standing by him through his prison sentence also seems like an odd detail- what had he ever done to earn such loyalty? He has a few moments of guilt, near the end, but as far as I know he never communicates them to anyone.

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knives
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#49 Post by knives » Tue Nov 07, 2017 10:09 pm

The Nut
Fairbanks plays an unredeamably awful person that the film thinks we should like because I don't know. This is a movie that thinks flop sweat alone is funny never making real jokes and treating with sincerity its most absurd concepts. I'm going to be surprised if I see a worse movie for the rest of the year. What a terrible way for Fairbanks as comedian to go out.

Timothy's Quest
It's quite unfortunate that this film is insistent on some of the cutesy naivity in performance and story that are so common to films about children from this era as besides that this is one of the best (and earliest great example of) kids' film. Though cleaned up and played a little too much to the audience this has an honesty up to the level of Sandy MacKendrick's films and seems like a clear blueprint for Night of the Hunter's much darker and more stylized take on orphans roaming America. The performance by the boy in particular seems unusually sophisticated to where you can feel him as an actual slum rat naively trying to break away from the horrors of reality (there's at least one real nasty beating here). The movie also leaves a lot of stuff open ended in a way that develops a complete and unseen world. The nature of the kids' parentage is never fully confirmed for example and the little helper at the beginning works like if Chekov's gun never fired. I'll probably end up liking this more as time goes by because on reflection so much of it is brilliantly handled.

Our Dancing Daughters
This is fairly interesting to look at as a piece of catharsis. It gives a lot of vicarious living, but also pretty strongly says that life among the wealthy is full of neuroses, weird societal rules, and all manner of things that makes you not actually want to live as these people. Those two strains pulling against each other, wanting to be wealthy if just for 90 minutes and not wanting to actually live among the wealthy, creates all of the conflict here. It's not an unusual conflict for the precode era, but Beaumont and the actresses (the men are mostly useless sexy planks) emphasize it as the main text in a way that really forces at least this one audience member to consider the conflict like never before. Though it's equally likely depression era audiences just wanted to see boobs.

The Hollywood Revue of 1929
Makes you glad for the death of vaudeville.

Throw of the Dice
For the most part this is a fairly simple and familiar epic romance that also functions as a modern romance. It's pleasures are on the surface and provide significant fun as such. I suspect the reason for its popularity in the west though has to do with its origins as such a pristine preserved film from India's early cinematic history. I slightly wonder if the presence of a German director also makes it comparatively more comfortable for western audiences. That ultimately doesn't matter though as the film remains even under a political glance enjoyable primarily as well executed fluff.

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matrixschmatrix
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#50 Post by matrixschmatrix » Sun Nov 12, 2017 11:24 pm

The Devil's Circus

I haven't seen the movies Christensen made between this and Häxan, so I can't fully chart the arc of his artistry, but this feels like a pretty shocking retrogression- and given that Christensen wrote the screenplay, it seems as though the blame falls pretty squarely on him. To be fair, the only way I could find to watch this was on an ugly, VHS quality youtube video, so there may have been grace notes to the cinematography or filmmaking that I literally could not see, but in terms of the aargument the movie puts forward, and the way it relates to the people in it, it feels backwards compared even to his first two films, much less his masterpiece.

The story of the film has a lot of the same elements as Varieté- intersecting love triangles and infidelity at a circus, with an act of rape at the heart of it. Here, a street tough, just out of prison (and fresh off picking a pocket by lighting his cigarette on the cigar in a rich man's mouth- an interestingly homoerotic gesture, even as it is an excuse for theft) brings a naive country girl, fresh off the train, into his home. After he gallantly declines to attack her (much) she falls in love with him- a love strained by her difficult life in the circus she joins, where she is unendingly harassed by the man who will eventually attack her, and hounded by his jealous wife. The tough gets busted after a failed robbery motivated by his desire to provide for her, and she gets maimed when the jealous wife sabotages a trapeze, dropping her into a pit of lions. WW1 happens, and then the lovers reunite, and find that God has helpfully punished the other couple for them, rendering vengeance unnecessary.

It's an oddly hokey movie, particularly coming from the maker of a cuttingly intelligent critique of religiosity- its big concern is whether our leads believe in God, and it at one point goes so far as to have a sweet little girl overhear the female lead saying she has lost her faith, which causes the little girl to run around asking people if God is real, in a moment that wouldn't be out of place in a latter-day Kirk Cameron movie. The ending is pretty shocking, too- basically, the male lead finds the rapist, and chooses not to shoot him because he was blinded in the war! His wife, who was responsible for the attack on the female lead, also shows up, and explains that she did five years for her assault, and is now forced into prostitution. This is literally held up as a justification for faith. It's pretty gross.

I will say it's somewhat less gross in it's treatment of how the female lead reacts to being attacked than Varieté was (a low standard, to be sure)- her behavior is depressive and self destructive, and she can't bring herself to keep writing the male lead in prison out of a sense of misplaced shame, but I think the movie is reasonably clear that this shame is misplaced, and that she was solely the victim of a matched set of horrible crimes. It's not much- it's basically the other bad rape narrative- but at least nobody falls in love because of it.

The place I think the movie suffers the most from the crummy print is in the scenes of the actual circus performance, which looks cool but is difficult to make out. There's lots of neat glass shots which make it appear that the trapeze are hundreds of feet above the ground, and some odd sort of Broadway-y choreography that seems out of place but is fun to watch. The movie on the whole isn't awful, but it's an undistinguished melodrama to come from someone who was demonstrably capable of far more.

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