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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knives
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#51 Post by knives » Wed Nov 15, 2017 4:35 pm

The Battle of the Sexes
This is quite shocking and not just for finding out that Jean Hersholt was a man. This is quite literally like watching your father dating a prostitute with typically moralistic Griffith going full DeMille for a film that is still a little shocking. The film has a lot of shared DNA with Scarlet Street to the point where every scene with Phyllis Haver is mirrored in both later films. As Griffith plays the first half as pure comedy this leaves the film absolutely rancid and especially in light of abuses of power through sex being the topic of 2017 it looks like at first that the film is a misguided flop. Then the second half kicks in with Griffith's tendency toward the epic and melodrama nicely pay off in a way none of the comparable films ever tried.

Hersholt's effete man of industry in this version is married with children and that comes back to haunt the film powerfully as the movie bifurcates perspectives in the dramatic half. Half the film is seen from Hersholt's perspective and the other half by his wife. Hersholt quickly shows his true colors as these characters usually do, though Griffith ratchet's it up to Nabakovian levels of self delusion and rationalized violence. These characters of course never look good in these films, but the contrast between the harmless idiot of the first half and the violent animal of the second is really unnerving. Griffith is without sentiment and complete with honesty here, not something I'm jumping to say typically, showing the petty jealousies as a real sickness and danger. This is helped a lot by Haver's performance. She handles the slick girl on the street vibe well with an intelligence you'd expect, but the horror on her face when she realizes what this bag of money could cost her wipes that archetype away to reveal a real, mortal human.

The mother, and really by extension the whole family, provides a more typical of Griffith narrative with sentiment and woe, but since in most film's of this story the family is an incidental at best to hang some moral issue on the full throated psychological reality offered her comes as a compelling relief. I came into this expecting it to be bad since Griffith isn't terribly good at comedy and this is so close to the end of his career, but instead it offers an evolved artist who could still make films in his own style that all the same matched the quality of the best of his peers. It's a real shock from this he would make only three more features.

The Golem
The actual, historical Rabbi Loew (spelled without the E here) is a pretty interesting figure in himself and more than worth an actual biopic. For example in his most famous work he describes climate change, essentially, and argues a theological basis for it. In ironic fact to the myths surrounding him his writings show something of a realist rather than mystic set of beliefs always working to some observable solution to fantastic sounding problems. The truth though shouldn't get in the way of a legend, especially one as good as this. It helps that the film itself doesn't seem set on this earth, with expressionist design out of a fairy tale and the Jews having more in common looks and culture wise with Tolkien's wizards than an earthly culture (and the few attempts at weaving actual Jewish culture into the film only makes them more strange such as using the word for name in Hebrew some mysterious symbol). Karl Freud also shoots this in a truly stunning way giving some of his most radical imagery. Just one small example is early on as the Jews of Prague wail and pray he shoots them from above tilted slightly behind them as they move back and forth. This, honestly, abstracts their figures into a geometric sorrow not unlike a Fischinger film or Hans Richter's Inflation.

The film isn't only fantasy though, or rather it is exactly the right sort of fantasy needed both at its time and our own. It is disturbing how much Hitler's future is painted in the film and how close that comes to the current streams of prejudice coming out of the US and some European states. Though this all might just speak to how dully and with a cruel hand history repeats itself. The film mostly deals with the anxiety of persecution rather than directly playing out the real thing which makes the cathartic (yet also bitter) handling of safeguarding the populace a genuine pleasure rather than, say, the grotesque exploitation of Tarantino's film on the subject of Jewish persecution. That isn't to say that the film is particularly deep on the subject, but like the best horror cinema (e.g. the OG Godzilla) it hits at a complex emotional truth that is both intensely particular to the context which bore it and equally unnerving for the relevance that expression has for today.

Cobra
This has the making of a great screwball comedy and had been made a decade later it unquestionably would have been developed with a great Lubitsch sensibility in mind. For a while too it looks like it will make good on that with a funny story of Valentino's debt ridden count on the run from an angry father of a lover with a clueless American thrown in the mix. Unfortunately the film does go to America and becomes another dull melodrama with a vamp at its center. Valentino isn't really up to sniff as a serious protagonist and does so much better playing a humourous rogue that it might as well as count as two separate performances. The dramatics are histrionic to where the only logical response to most of this is that of course it would happen. Get a sex obsessed Italian and a black haired married woman with fangs in a room together and naturally the film is going to go down that track. I just wish it wasn't as boring as the film winds up being. Still, for such a short movie having such an excellent opening does a lot to make it feel good.

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Drucker
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#52 Post by Drucker » Sat Nov 18, 2017 9:15 pm

Le Lion Des Mogols

An esteemed prince is forced into exile, finds acceptance, but is forced back into exile in similar circumstances that led to his first exile. This 1924 film bears a lot of Epstein's fingerprints of the few films of his I've seen, but it stretches out a pretty thin plot further than necessary. My biggest issue with the film is there's very little time actually spent for the Prince in exile to actually spend longing for his homeland. Not until halfway through the film do we get a clear sense of how far he has fallen (with an excellent visual: our protagonist on the ground thinking the woman he's in love with doesn't care for him, and a image of his proud former self). The film spends a decent amount of time setting up the idea that he could permanently end up in his new home, until things go awry in the third act.

It is visually stunning. The moment immediately following what I've described above is superb, with a drunken dinner party and our protagonist sinking into despair. I liked the film, just don't think all of the parts worked as strongly as they could have.

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Sloper
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#53 Post by Sloper » Sun Nov 19, 2017 6:37 am

I watched Le lion des Mogols the other day in preparation for an Epstein write-up, and I agree with your assessment. It's a silly, tedious story, and Ivan Mosjoukine is so mannered as to be almost unwatchable at times. Even on the technical level, parts of the film seemed to me a bit pedestrian - there were moments when it was hard to believe that this was made by the same director as Coeur fidèle, one of the most relentlessly poetic and beautiful silent films I've seen. But then there are virtuoso sequences like the debauched party you mention, and the crazed taxi ride that follows it. Epstein seems happiest when constructing a scene through creative editing of close-ups (Coeur fidèle consists largely of extreme, confrontational close-ups, of which there are comparatively few in this film), or when playing around with the image through the use of clever dissolves, screen-wipes, multiple exposures, layering within the frame (in this case, for example, the obtrusive screen in the foreground that gets carried away to reveal the film-set, or the glass doors of the hotel at the climax, or the streamer-curtains that are let down in front of the party) and so on. By contrast, the long shot of the palace at the start is cluttered and un-focused, and Epstein keeps reverting to it right up to the end of the film, as if trying to get his money's worth out of the (to my eyes, rather naff-looking) set.

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matrixschmatrix
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#54 Post by matrixschmatrix » Sun Nov 19, 2017 10:15 pm

The Loves of Pharoah

Honestly, despite the huge sets and equally huge acting, this is one of the first Lubitsch films I've seen that just feels... dull. Like, I didn't like The Marriage Circle- which like a lot of the Chevalier movies Lubitsch made, felt rather ugly in its treatment of love and affairs and so on, but it's still recognizably his work, and full of the deftness and sense of sophistication that entails. Madame DuBarry is also a sort of grafting of the standard Lubitsch focus on people making fools of themselves for love onto a historical narrative, but that one felt at least mostly successful; the arc from nobody to near-queen felt relatively understandable, and the logic of power felt well observed.

Here, it just kind of feels like weird nonsense. The grandiosity of the movie- the architecture, the costumes, the way people move- all suggest the immensity of power held by a god-king, an absolute monarchy in a rigidly stratified society. For plot reasons, though, the pharaoh not only falls in love with a slave girl, but goes completely out of his mind for her, with the kind of histrionics that feel like Jannings' specialty. It seems as though there's an intention to make her the sort of only-real-person-in-a-world-of-yes-men vibe, but a.) we don't actually see a lot of yes men- the pharaoh's underlings constantly give him shit, the people run up at him, and the king of Ethiopia couldn't care less about ceremony and b.) she never actually seems to do or say much to him, mostly just cringing in terror, as one would assume most would in the context. It feels unearned both from a character perspective and from a historical one, and her story- which forms a love triangle with another man (also dull) and gets Egypt involved in a war with Ethiopia (more exciting)- takes up the great majority of the film.

It's a ponderously good looking movie, in a Cabiria sort of way, but it's not even as engaging as Cabiria, which is disappointing both given how much later this is and who directed it. I'm disappointed to hear that two of the remaining movies in the Lubitsch in Berlin set are also historical epics, as it really seems to bring out the dullest in him.

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Drucker
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#55 Post by Drucker » Sun Nov 19, 2017 11:38 pm

Fully agreed Matrix. After the first few films in ghat set, the historical epics while not bad, are surely not the reason we usually watch Lubitsch! I caught Pharaoh on TCM a few years ago and fwlt the same way about it as you did. I will say Madame DuBerry does not suffer from these flaws.

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Sloper
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#56 Post by Sloper » Mon Nov 20, 2017 1:08 pm

A quick recommendation, as this one doesn't seem to have been discussed on the forum until now: Epstein's L'auberge rouge (1923), available with English subs here. It's wonderful - very nearly in the same league as Coeur fidèle, which Epstein made immediately afterwards with some of the same cast. A few brief but very effective tracking shots, atmospheric lighting, some really clever editing, and a general sense of accumulating tension and dread.

Is it just me, or is there a slight drop in quality between these two Pathé films and the Albatros phase of his career? Maybe he had more freedom to experiment at Pathé, or just had more talented collaborators?

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matrixschmatrix
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#57 Post by matrixschmatrix » Thu Nov 23, 2017 3:29 am

Kino-Eye

I put off watching this a bit, as pretty much everything I read made it sound like a lesser dry run for Man With a Movie Camera (which I love, but why watch the lesser version?) While that's not wholly untrue- clearly, Vertov was working out a lot of his theories on editing, documentary, and the intersection thereof, this is also very much its own thing, and at least four fifths of it is really playful and delightful, its somewhat lesser ambition countered by a lightness and deftness the other movie lacks.

This one sticks largely to a scout troop in a small peasant village- as such, it's far less machine focuses than Man With the Movie Camera, mostly about kids doing civic tasks around town (ranging from a sort of investigative reporting of the private sector market to setting up their own camp to harvesting crops for a poor widow.) It never really focuses on any of the individual kids enough for you to get to know them, so they feel like a sort of collective force, though also recognizably scouts out to do good and kill time- strikingly, we see boys and girls working together as equals and virtually no adults involved at any point. This also lets Vertov wander around the village to his heart's content, and he's taking incredible joy in playing with cinema throughout- showing the path by which steer becomes meat and grain becomes bread by showing the entire process in reverse, planting the camera under moving trains, playing with the audience through intertitle descriptions of the many things the Kino Eye can do. The progress of the holiday forms a natural arc for the story, so it feels fairly organized, even while it endlessly digresses and follows other threads.

Weirdly, though, this structure disappears in the fifth reel- there's some initial linkage, as we are now following a scout troop in the city, who chastise men drinking and smoking for inviting tuberculosis, which we then follow to the facility where TB sufferers are treated. After that, though, it just kind of... wanders, such that I honestly can't even remember where we wind up, despite having watched the movie an hour ago. It doesn't ruin the movie, but it's kind of a baffling choice- this elegant, beautifully balanced thing just kind of spins off course, and never really returns. I still love it, though.
Last edited by matrixschmatrix on Thu Nov 23, 2017 2:29 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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knives
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#58 Post by knives » Thu Nov 23, 2017 10:35 am

I actually rewatched it for this project and felt similarly. It is a very good film showing Vertov as not just aesthetically talented, but also it highlights a growing artist which I suppose is the main thing.

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matrixschmatrix
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#59 Post by matrixschmatrix » Tue Nov 28, 2017 1:59 am

Lucky Star

I don't know if this, Seventh Heaven, and Street Angel actually have any particular relationship to one another, or if I just think of them as a sort of loose trilogy because they got released on blu ray as one, but nonetheless- this was the third of the three I've seen, and they alone are enough to cement Borzage with the absolute top directors of the decade (and thus really of all time.) I need to rewatch Street Angel (and I want to rewatch Seventh Heaven but all three have a sort of magical quality, a fair tale-ness that I think Jeunet and Wes Anderson both kind of go for but in a more working class model, and a sense of a sort of optimistic version of poetic realism. They're also all characterized by romantic relationships that, fundamentally, work- more than work, they become things that you really root for, that have a preciousness that anchors the movies.

Lucky Star reminds me a bit of both J'Accuse and True Heart Susie- after we see Janet Gaynor playing a kid opposite Charles Farrell as a lineman, and not really getting along, he is called off to war- where, thanks to treachery, he is badly injured and confined to a wheelchair. Upon his return, he and Gaynor (who is now an adult, if only barely) spend time together- the interplay is interesting. She shows up hostile (she's angry because he spanked her for stealing before he went to war, and she's sort of charmingly held on to the grudge) but they bond, mostly because he's lonely and she likes how friendly and engaging he is towards her. There's a lot of business where he sort of helps to clean her up- her home life is pretty ugly, both due to poverty and due to her mother being pretty unpleasant overall, and he still thinks of her as the child she was when she left, teaching her to wash her hands and condition her hair. It feels a little patronizing at first, but there's a bit of nuance that comes up when he is trying to get her to bathe- he asks how old she is, and when he finds out shes 18, his reaction (without title) is clearly deep embarrassment that he's been thinking of her as a sexless child and a newfound sort of charming bashfulness about her. The moment is delicate, but it manages to get the plot past a tricky turn, as it feels fairly clear that rather than say grooming a minor to be a partner, he has been genuinely being a sort of older brother figure to a young woman he likes as a friend; it helps that he doesn't especially push their relationship towards romance.

After this, we see Gaynor decide to go to a dance- she sneaks out late to Farrell's home so she can get changed. She tells him, in passing, that she's been skimming money from the sales round she makes for her mother to pay for the dance and dress, and Farrell (still somewhat patronizingly) makes her promise that she'll obey her mother in the future. There's a sort of indescribable moment between them, and Gaynor tells Farrell that she wishes she were going to the dance with him- but it's not yet clear if she has developed real feelings for him, or if it's just that he's a pleasant person to be around. At the dance, she encounters the man who betrayed Farrell in the war, whom we overhear two locals saying has gotten another local girl in trouble, and who in the war scenes remarked how much he liked to get women into bed by promising them he'd marry them. The actor bears a passing resemblance to George W. Bush, and he has this sort of horrible fatuously self satisfied smirk throughout the movie- he's intensely hateful. I was badly worried that the plot was setting up a really stupid melodrama here- Gaynor would be seduced by this self-evidently hateful man, and Farrell would prove his heroism by sticking by her after he abandoned her- but it goes in a much more interesting direction; in short, after some contretemps, he seduces her mother into believing that he'll marry and provide for her daughter.

Happily, Gaynor's character knows herself perfectly well throughout the movie, and knows that she has no love for the traitor (and though she does not say so outright, repeatedly defends Farrell to her mother, in a way that makes it clear her affection goes beyond friendship.) The mother will not let it go that Farrell is a 'cripple', and thus, in her view, useless, less than a man, and a waste of time. There's a sort of subtle undercurrent in which Farrell's kindly, patronizing advice- that she must always obey her mother- is shown clearly to be mistaken, in part because he doesn't understand the dynamic between the two, and ultimately Gaynor is trapped, left pinning her hopes that Farrell will arrive in person to debate her mother out of forcing her into a marriage she doesn't want. A snowstorm comes up and prevents him wheeling his way there, though, and a visibly depressed Gaynor limply submits to being essentially abducted by the other man. Farrell, more or less miraculously, wills himself to walk- first unsteadily, dragging himself primarily by arm power and by will, but eventually with enough power actually to fight the other man- and they reunite, creating the sort of transcendant tableau that (as far as I can recall) ends all three of these films.

It's a great movie, but it's also an imperfect one; one of the really appealing things in the early scenes is how real Farrell's disability appears to be, and how dignified the portrayal of it is. He's still a handsome man, still and active and happy one, simply one that can't walk; up until the climax, we never really get any sense that it has made life not worth living for him (though obviously it's a source of regret for the once-vital young man.) The climax, powerful though it is, undercuts this- not so much because he is able to make the walk, as the great majority of it is agonizingly slow and painful, and feels like it represents sheer will more than miraculous healing- but because in the last few moments, it reads as though he's healed altogether, as though he is now a fit partner not because he is a good man but because he is no longer 'broken', implicitly vindicating the mother's view of him. Borzage's movies are beautiful in part because the paradise his lovers achieve is won through pain and horror, and is burdened by that pain- if the disability is lifted from Farrell, it lessens that sense of love overcoming physical limitations even as it literally depicts that happening, as it would show what one presumes to be a future for them without such limitations. I think, though, that one can read just those few moments as still being within the ecstasy of triumph; that Farrell will collapse and need to recover as soon as the camera is no longer observing them. It feels more honest that way, to me, without feeling less magical- a miracle, but one situated in how I know the world to work. That reading in hand, it's a movie I can recommend unreservedly.

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knives
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#60 Post by knives » Thu Nov 30, 2017 9:24 pm

I guess I've been on a weirdly Russia centered run lately. Even my American movies are obsessed with that part of the east! I guess that just goes to show what major figures they were at the time given I'm not actually looking for their films.

Stride, Soviet!
Wow, either Russians are the most insane people ever or Vertov is having a cruel laugh. I don't think I've ever seen so many corpses in a film ever. The film seems to have the theme that though life in the USSR is just as awful for everyone else as it is for you, sometimes worse, things could get worse so vote Soviet. While if I squint the propaganda value of this becomes clear due to it emphasizing that things are working toward improvement it all the same remains the darkest and most disturbing film from this first era of Soviet picture making I've seen with the hope being toward relatively modest goals and acknowledging them as such. In some respects it fits in better with the thawing films of the '70s and '80s given how open it is about the miserable truth to life even when there is innovation and dancing bread. The most horrifying scenes are intended to represent the government at its founding with the later scenes showing the improvements to life in the nearly decade since. Part of the problem with that as propaganda comes from this clearly being shot not over that amount of time, but even the film calling it a utopian hope that has not been realized across the country. Even the scenes of great success though have a very unattractive ugliness to them. Vertov in most of his films does give a beauty through character even when looking ugliness in the mouth such as the hospital scenes in several films. This one though takes a lot of typical Soviet iconography like the man of marble and shows it to be frail, dirty, and pained. This is a utopia that I can't imagine anyone would want to join with.

This heavy theme makes the film extremely talkative, but nonetheless it is probably Vertov's closest film to his own Man with a Movie Camera in terms of aesthetic quality and interest. Vertov seems to be seeing the Soviet ideal of the industrial proletariat a little too literally as he segments and morphs the body so that there is no person, only the parts that develop into the vehicle known as man. What is he a vehicle for? The film answers that he moves toward improving himself which while a disturbing thought when taken to certain extremes it makes for a nicely abstracted view. Man and machine move in sync and undifferentiated as part of a ballet. There are two things, connecting to the above comments on ugliness, which differentiate Stride Soviet though. The first is the presence of intertitles so obvious and without art that they destroy the rhythm of the film. It doesn't help either that they are prolific taking up too much space in the film. You could maintain the film's tempo in a positive fashion by cutting them out while not changing a regular frame. The second is either by choice or not being experienced enough yet the editing is safe by Soviet standards with a workman approach. It is almost like Vertov, a seasoned vet of newsreels and at least one feature by this point, is discovering montage and trying to get a feel for it before just going crazy. The elision of traditional narrative alone must have put him on edge. It's not until the last ten minutes that the film Vertov has been threatening comes out though even then he doesn't go all the way.

The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom
Kino seem to be banking on this one as not propaganda which I guess is technically true, but also strikes me as incredibly dishonest. The film doesn't seem to have a specific purpose for propaganda, but also only makes sense when filtered through Soviet ideology. A fairly simple example of that is Mr. West's role as an other being the only significantly unlikable character. Even the annoying director gathers sympathies in wanting to get the good job done. In a lot of ways the Soviet context of the film is important in the way that the depression and the war are such important context to Preston Sturges. Due to all of that the film does, for me, help to build even further a context for Soviet cinema beyond the three big names that define this era. It clearly has a star system, Yuliya Solntseva who gives a pretty good performance here clearly was a significant star of the time, with a lot of films that would right in with Hollywood if only the ideology they assumed as natural were different.

Unfortunately given how compelling to think about all of this is the movie on the whole is only good to a point. The biggest problem is how at two hours long Zhelyabuzhsky over extends his welcome with none of the plotlines feeling capable of holding their own nor working together to form a film that feels complete (quite the metaphor for the Soviet Union itself). Certain individual elements work in their time, but many gags like the book keeper playing poet at work are over extended and just not amusing.

Tempest
For the most part this is a well handled if rather generic Barrymore romance vehicle. He plays a peasant soldier slowly rising above his station who after a tough beginning falls in love with Camilla Horn's princess. It's directed, told, and acted as it needs to be to gain the bare minimum of success leaving it for the most part an enjoyable trifle. What gives it some flavor is the backdrop of Russia just before the war. A character who is not quite Lenin pops up every now and then to play Barrymore's Jiminy Cricket for instance which highlights a unique political station American films had to play at the time. It also does a good job of allowing the tensions that would lead to the revolution simmer in the background so that while the film isn't about it the revolution all the same becomes a character in the movie.

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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#61 Post by TMDaines » Fri Dec 01, 2017 11:20 am

La storia di una donna (1920): Another diva film from Italy. Only about two thirds of the release version of the film is available in the rip floating about online. The woman's story concerns being orphaned, gold digging, prostitution, unexpected pregnancy, adoption and all manner of woes. It's an archetypal diva film with very dramatic and operatic acting. The focus is on the beauty, cunning and passion of woman, who is constantly downtrodden and mistreated by man. In the 1910s, this would have noteworthy and excellent. A year later, in the 1920s, the silent film evolved greatly. Still one to watch.

Jenseits der Straße (1929): I love the atmosphere of this breed of film from the Weimar Republic: the dark, gritty, seedy streets; the run-down buildings, the glimpses of glamour; the architecture of the city; the water never too far away. The film depicts the struggle between a prostitute, a beggar and an unemployed young man over a pearl necklace found in the street. Once the fence/pimp and the landlady get involved a deadly struggle ensues for this relative source of wealth.

Coincidentally in both these films the protagonist was a prostitute and the narrative is framed by the tale being retold through a diary first, and through a newspaper article in the latter.

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knives
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#62 Post by knives » Sun Dec 03, 2017 2:48 pm

I was pleasantly surprised to find that there's a reasonably high quality Youtube of Ivens' The Bridge. It's really unfortunate that the old Netherlands set is still the best place for so many of his films. The difference in experience between this and other versions I've seen is really night and day.

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matrixschmatrix
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#63 Post by matrixschmatrix » Tue Dec 05, 2017 1:57 am

The River

This is an extra on the French blu of Lucky Star, which was a pleasant surprise, as I think it's otherwise unavailable outside that massive Murnau/Borzage set Fox put out. It's in pretty rough shape- I'm not sure of how long the movie was originally, but it seems like about half of it is lost, replaced with titles and stills, leaving about an hour left- and unfortunately, part of the lost material is the climax. What's left is still pretty remarkable, though, and stands up to the rest of Borzage's work from around this time (which is a really high standard, honestly.)

This one pairs Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan, prefiguring City Girl (and the ties between Borzage's casting and crew and Murnau's around this time are manifold)- and Duncan is playing a somewhat similar part here, a weary sophisticate who might in a lesser filmmaker's hands be dismissed as a vamp. Farrell, though, is playing a total naif- due to the lost material, we don't actually get to see his origin, but the way it's told sounds almost like Sigfried, a figure of innocence and power, raised in isolation (though he totally lacks the attendant arrogance.) He is winding his way down a river, apparently due simply from a desire to reach the sea, when he is blocked by the construction of a dam, where some drama has taken place- one man has killed another out of jealousy over Duncan, his mistress. The man is carted off to jail, and there's a charming meeting between the principles in which she happens upon him swimming- nude- and he bashfully hides in the water. They make friends, and he winds up missing a train he meant to take into the city (he's never been) as the low river level has him forcefully becalmed until spring.

The pair wind up spending the winter together, and Borzage's facility at making couples whom you really pull for does not fail him here- Duncan is clearly sexually interested in Farrell (and honestly, he is gorgeous in this movie) and Farrell keeps failing to notice, a joke that culminates with her archly suggesting that they find a way to while away the time while spending the night together, and him pulling out a set of checkers. The movie never punishes her for her forwardness, though- the conflict between the two, insofar as one exists, is founded more in that she has lost her ability to trust due to her ugly relationship with the killer, and Farrell is simply unable to understand her thinking, particularly when she (in a fit of self loathing) pulls away from him when he finally reveals an interest in her. It's delicately handled- Duncan doesn't come off as soiled goods or whatever, just someone who is emotionally wounded and has lost some of her sense of self, and simultaneous feels that she needs to keep herself safely away from commitment and that she, as someone who has been tainted by the ugliness she has lived in, should not spread the taint to the innocent Farrell.

The plot resolves, and there's some derring-do when the ex-lover murderer escapes, most of which is lost- but the only truly unfortunate loss, from what I can tell, is a moment in which Duncan has been pulled into a literal whirlpool which has been the figurative image for getting caught into real emotional intimacy throughout the movie- and Farrell dives in to rescue her. The reconstruction uses what appears to be an original poster depicting the moment, and it only makes me long for what might have been. The movie resolves with the two united- but rather than any sense of bourgeois morality asserting itself through marriage or settling down, the two simply escape, riding Farrell's boat into the unknown. It's hard to imagine a more perfect ending, and I'm frustrated only that I've run out of Borzage from this period.

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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#64 Post by zedz » Tue Dec 05, 2017 7:06 pm

matrixschmatrix wrote:The River

This is an extra on the French blu of Lucky Star, which was a pleasant surprise, as I think it's otherwise unavailable outside that massive Murnau/Borzage set Fox put out.
It's also available as an Edition Filmmuseum DVD, along with three earlier Borzage films and a DVD-ROM dossier of documentation on the films.

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knives
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#65 Post by knives » Wed Dec 06, 2017 6:48 pm

Piccadilly
Some films just tell you how great they are from the first frame and this is certainly one of them. The opening titles, simple in a way, really say everything that needs to be said about this film which captures this essence of the British underground of the time in such an intimate fashion. A huge part of that of course is the roving and seductive camerawork work carefully framing each moment in a way that can't but elicit awe. The outsized rooms of the era too get their money's work oppressing the characters.

The true bringer of that sense of truth which makes this a great film though is the performances. Saying Anna May Wong is great here is a redundant phrase, but it really needs to be emphasized here as she gives one of the best performances of the era. It would have been too easy to play this too cutely or in a vampire sort of way. Instead Wong gives an experienced woman, tired and smart, who all the same has a human nervousness concerning her daring. The character as written is essentially two archetypes fused in an attempt at realism. That's something that is really open to failure with the wrong actress, but Wong manages to give it that natural feeling to the point where if I didn't know better I'd say she was playing a variant of herself. She is that documentary here. Her three main co-actors are also stunning. Jameson Thomas as the love interest is weirdly forward looking to Liam Neeson in Schindler's List with the cruel and crummy way he exists slowly causing a slip into if not goodness than at least a romantic rightness. He's a masculine hound with Thomas' face suggesting an English gentleman from a Merchant Ivory film, not to mention that David Niven smirk, and yet the posture and body language evoke the rat he could be. Again the actor makes good on a complexity in the script that in lesser hands could have resulted in an overcooked archetype.

I haven't talked about the racial element so far because the film really doesn't either. Outside of a few practicalities you could replace Wong and her family with a white set of actors and basically have the same exact film. The only place where you can get a sense of any sort of racial whatever is in the characterization of Wong's original lover versus Thomas' and even that is probably more a limitation of time than anything else (It already feels like three hours of characterization jammed into 100 minutes). Wong's lover is given the short shrift after the initial hour while Thomas' is a full fledged character developed maturely enough so that she could easily have been the main character in a different version of this film (and that version is honestly the more common plot). Gilda Gray, the lover, has a real Claudette Colbert feel to her with a vulnerability that makes her queen of the world act seem false and the character on the whole highly sympathetic. It helps that under the logic of melodrama she's right in her emotional reality if not her actions. Still it is Gray rather than the script which makes this a film which feels as if it has no villain, no one to root against which is also what makes this such a great film.

The Cocoanuts
This has such a bad reputation that I'm probably overrating it in response. Still, at worst it isn't significantly worse than the other Marx brother films. Everything with the brothers is golden with Harpo in particular producing such deep laughs. The only flaw worth differentiating this one with is that its 90 minutes long rather than the hour the brothers can support. True, there's too much plot with side characters and overdone music numbers, but that's in equal proportion to something like Monkey Business. It's just the extra 30 minutes makes everything feel stressed.

The Red Kimona
This is a fascinating film less so by its own merit than by how it works as a counterpoint to Chicago. Whereas that female written, real life tale of a prostitute killing her lover has invited satire and helped to define jazz era iconography this take almost seems connected to a deeper past showcasing an earnest melodrama more in line with Griffith's early features than most of what came in the '20s. Even stuff that would seem to need a satirical bent like the charity giver is developed mostly as another avenue for pathos by our poor heroine. It's a stunningly cruel plot line which due to its slow yet inevitable end really hooks on the idea that this woman has a scarlet letter on her back.

As one last incidental appropriate to the themes of the film it is the cause of the right to be forgotten laws as the real life subject sued Davenport because the film uses her real name. It's really fascinating that Davenport didn't think ahead on that considering that the film is so much about wanting to slip into anonymity so that she can feel comfortable doing good. The film is a very wise ode to privacy (given Davenport's work of this period I can't help but assume that was an attraction to the story) which makes all the weirder it was made at all.

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matrixschmatrix
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#66 Post by matrixschmatrix » Thu Dec 07, 2017 9:54 pm

The Magician

This was a bit of a let down. I was sold on this on the basis of this scene, which makes it look like Faust or Häxan, something full of beautiful, strange imagery, but that scene turns out to be something of a one off- it ultimately feels more like one of Cheney's lesser efforts, or a precursor to a Lugosi movie in the late 30s. Basically, a rich, pretty young woman gets her spine crushed (under a giant sculpture of a demon she's making, which seemed to promise a more interesting movie than we got) and falls in love with the extremely square surgeon who fixes her (in a fairly compelling surgery scene.) Paul Wegener, whoever, is some sort of sciento-magician with a very Frankenstein goal of creating life... scientifically, through magic? It's odd. Anyway, he needs 'the heart blood of a maiden', and decides that our heroine is his girl.

The movie takes up the first act establishing the situation, the second act having Wegener meet and sort of seduce/sort of hypnotize the woman (which is where the hell scene takes place- it's part of his very strange seduction), and the third with her being absconded with and then rescued from a sorcerer's tower. Apart from the hell scene, there are some very fun parts in the third act- the sorcerer's tower seems very directly to be an influence on the set design in Whale's Frankenstein, with semi-scientific apparatuses combined with an atmosphere of witchcraft and distortion- he even has a hunchbacked aide! The dull surgeon and a couple of other guys storm the tower and save the girl and huck the magician into his own giant furnace, which eventually causes the tower to explode fairly spectacularly (though the explosion seems to be caused as much as anything because one of the surgeon's assistants- a man who had been seeking the book from which Wegener obtained his 'create life' spell at the beginning of the movie- deliberately spreads flammable material all over. It would be more interesting if the movie had suggested he had ulterior motives, but it doesn't, because nobody does.)

Ultimately, I think the failure of the movie- for me- is that Wegener is horribly stiff and ill suited to the part. He's the least sexy man imaginable, in this part at least, and his seduction is creepy without being seductively creepy- he just seems unpleasant, really, which is fatal for the sort of sense of forbidden eros that's needed to put over helpless attraction and hypnosis. I haven't gotten to watch The Golem yet, but it's easy to see where it's a part that would suit him- a sense of stillness and ineffable power would much better suit him than this part, which also calls for him to move his face, which doesn't seem to be a forte of his. I'm not sorry to have watched the movie, but then, I also enjoy the sort of lesser Cheneys and later Lugosis that it reminds me of; it's a programmer with some standout bits, though it's possible that it's one of those movies where I'm not giving it full credit for its innovation because it was supplanted by the movies it influenced.

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Drucker
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#67 Post by Drucker » Sun Dec 24, 2017 5:01 pm

I've had Foolish Wives in my kevyip for about two years and finally watched it today. While it's a good movie, it doesn't hold up quite as well as his likely equally butchered Greed. While the latter film has pacing issues in the second half, it progresses in a way that always makes sense, and it's climax remains brutal and a worthy conclusion.

Foolish Wives, however, is not nearly as focused in the state we have it in. The most intriguing part of the film is the Count's primary courtship with Ms. Hughes. There's a legitimate sense that he is infatuated with her, especially in one of the best parts of the film: the rain storm. Unfortunately, this isn't actually the primary plot. After a decent amount of time bringing up this love story, we are reminded by the Count's cousins not to forget about their monetary needs. The second half of the film does a great job of depicting an absolute loathsome human being (the man we love to hate, indeed), but there is a lack of tension. The climax of the film is resolved fairly quickly and the terror we should feel just isn't quite there.

Even the final title card doesn't quite ring true. We are given the sense that Ms. Hughes was looking for nobility. While I understand that with the connection at the beginning of the film (she is not interested in him until he is publicly called by his title), I much more get the sense during the film that what she actually wants is attention and a "real man." Perhaps I missed other details which clue in the former reading, but when she confides in the Count, she even laments about her husband(paraphrasing) "He's okay I guess and I know he cares about me." The Count scoffs as if to insist of course he should! That should be the bare minimum. It seems she is looking for passion, not nobility.

Even some of the less interesting moments are shot gorgeously, and the role of the maid that goes mad is especially strong in the climax. But it's hard to call the film we are left with a masterpiece as far as I'm concerned.

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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#68 Post by Drucker » Sun Dec 24, 2017 5:47 pm

I have a lot of mixed feelings about The Iron Horse which I've been meaning to watch for years. I found parts of it to be beautiful, romantic, and superb early examples of the things Ford did well. But for the most part, this love letter to the American railroad fell sort of flat for me. In some ways it almost felt like Ford's version of Birth of a Nation: an epic film that takes place over a decade and intercuts American history with the fortunes of a select family. Yet the parts, overall, work better separately than as a cohesive whole.

My primary problem with the film, unfortunately, is the treatment of the building of the railroad, which as you may imagine is a bit of a problem! Ford treats the development of the railroad as a godlike good and America's unquestioned destiny. Pay no mind to the fact within the film itself there are evil men using the railroad to line their own pockets. Pay no mind to the fact that there is a Native population that doesn't want the railroad and is having their land taken from under them. The immigrant population being utilized to fulfill America's dreams are treated poorly and looked down upon even by their own peers. There is such a one-dimensional view of the railroad's construction that it was hard for me to appreciate other parts of the film.

I really, really am not trying to view the film in some 21st century "problematic" lens. I think Ford's films are timeless, and while some material is dated (like the opening to Prisoner of Shark Island, I think thematically it fits in very well with the world Ford often constructs. Ford films are often able to take an appreciative but skeptical view of nostalgia, and celebrate the individuals who are on the right side of history or a given fight, even if they themselves are imperfect. But there is no nuance to the railroad, the men who die building it, or even questioning the humanity of what this "progress" represents. I know the latter is more of a concern of Welles than Ford, perhaps, but I'll reiterate that my favorite Ford films acknowledge the imperfections of their world. The Iron Horse never really does that.

That's not to say the film is a failure or a disaster. It is the longest Ford film I've seen (longest film he ever made?) and there is plenty to enjoy about it. The sense of community is perfectly Ford like, and many of the best scenes feature Davy's gang enjoying each other's company, and some of the shots where community activity occurs on board a moving train are superb. There are dynamic action scenes. And while I felt that the love story was both a bit obvious and feels shoehorned in at times (rather than extend it throughout the film, it seems to come and go, and Davy's mission of fulfilling his father's dream doesn't quite get the attention I think it deserves), it's mostly good, especially in the way that the Davy and Mariam aren't brought together without significant conflict first.

Maybe a re-watch will make me enjoy the film more, but for now I was a bit let-down by this overambitious film.

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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#69 Post by Rayon Vert » Mon Dec 25, 2017 12:25 am

Drucker, I share your mixed feelings but not because of your main problem with the film (something I just didn't think about). My problem with it is more dramatically, though it relates to what you're saying about the work not coming fully together as a cohesive whole. To be more specific, the film’s drama suffers from its overly extended forays into other centers of interest before getting back to the principal story (Davy's). I agree the romantic subplot suffers from a couple of contrived moments – although the films starts and ends powerfully on sweet yet well-played notes. But it is often fascinating to see the almost documentary-like recreation of these “events”, with its cast seemingly of thousands, humans and animals, and multiple locations. And the photography is uniformly excellent and handsome while the extended action sequences at the end are very successful.

(Cheyenne Autumn is actually about 8 minutes longer than The Iron Horse, and How the West Was Won is a bit longer still.)

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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#70 Post by knives » Mon Dec 25, 2017 2:08 am

The House of Mystery
Been away from new postings mostly because of this behemoth which sadly has left me with little to say. This is an excellent and engaging serial with some impressive visual wit, especially early on, and a great sense of character. Due to its amazing qualities it really needs to be said that the plot leaves a little too much dangling with some becoming painfully annoying across Volkoff's epic span, both in terms of its nearly seven hour run time and the 30 or so years this takes place over.
SpoilerShow
The most pressing of these is in the character of the gardener. Simply put what is his deal? If he were blackmailing in some clear way or gaining any advantage with the pictures I'd understand it, but he doesn't really do anything with his blackmail which makes what happen to him seem like an obvious inevitability. What's even more weird is that his character seems to be a sympathetic one making it hard to understand why he doesn't come forward sooner. He's not deriving any benefit from the photos anyway. Even if you were to excuse that though once he has lost the upper hand because of the marriage situation why not just go to the police and have him arrested. Nothing about the villain suggests he would be honorable with the deal anyway. This sort of thing makes the film feel lazier and more inert than it actually is undercutting the joy of genre this team otherwise accomplishes. Though some of the hanging elements are quite interesting and manage to deepen the film's quality. My personal favorite is that Marjory's revelation before his death is never really dealt with and loses its importance almost immediately. Not only does that help with the sense of danger, but gives the world of the film a bizarre Lynchian openess not unlike Glover's cameo in Wild at Heart.
Totally irrelevant to the film's quality, but the fact they don't bother to age the main characters in any significant way is really distracting.

The Garden of Eden
Though the title points to one religious story this bit of screwball hiding as a melodrama really is more a retelling of Ruth with a sensible reason to see lesbian subtext in the mother-daughter relation. That also offers a kind of insight into the film's tone. It's an odd fit as given the material and setting one would expect the Lubitsch touch, but Milestone goes a little closer to earth enjoying what melodrama has to offer comedy even as those elements never carry weight enough to suggest a danger. The film is almost entirely concerned with making fun out of its pastiche. Where the film does maximize its wit though is in the mis-en-scene which produces a lot of fairly good cinematic jokes. Milestone seems to get a particular joy from gags in the background. There's more than one joke about plot relevant events occurring in the background much to the annoyance of a character in the foreground for instance. I don't necessarily associate Milestone as a showman, but this highlights at least his potential for such when he felt it relevant.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks
On the surface of it all this seems like a way of making fun with Soviet concepts of Americans. This comes through mostly in the form of characters rather than events or ideas. There are indeed a lot of characters from the aloof, mechanical, money bags of an eponymous character down to Boris Barnet's (yes that BB) gun slinging, rope tying, cow puncher of a bodyguard. The film really has some of the most out there personifications of Americana I've seen outside of anime. Ultimately though the object of Kuleshov's humour seems to be the more complicated topic of how (Soviets see how) Americans see Soviets. Early on Mr. West gets all sorts of warnings about the Bolshevik character only to be confronted, because this is a comedy, with a whole different set of stereotypes that presumably the Russians more closely identify with. Much of the plot is a group of crooks trying and failing to present these American ideas of Bolshevik life as if that is just too absurd even in this cartoon world. This is a fascinating premise for a short, but even at only 75 minutes Kuleshov does run out of ideas rather quickly. It doesn't help that this isn't a funny film instead being one of those comedies attempting to run on weirdness rather than jokes. Aleksandra Khokhlova as a countess is probably the most successful on this account looking like a dadaist painting with an impossible smile, but not everyone is up to her level as the film just doesn't manage to make good on the promise of its talent and premise.

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Drucker
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#71 Post by Drucker » Mon Dec 25, 2017 1:24 pm

Rayon Vert wrote:Drucker, I share your mixed feelings but not because of your main problem with the film (something I just didn't think about). My problem with it is more dramatically, though it relates to what you're saying about the work not coming fully together as a cohesive whole. To be more specific, the film’s drama suffers from its overly extended forays into other centers of interest before getting back to the principal story (Davy's). I agree the romantic subplot suffers from a couple of contrived moments – although the films starts and ends powerfully on sweet yet well-played notes. But it is often fascinating to see the almost documentary-like recreation of these “events”, with its cast seemingly of thousands, humans and animals, and multiple locations. And the photography is uniformly excellent and handsome while the extended action sequences at the end are very successful.

(Cheyenne Autumn is actually about 8 minutes longer than The Iron Horse, and How the West Was Won is a bit longer still.)
Agreed, RV. Thinking about the film some more last night, I feel that the romantic plot is strong, but by not being the primary focus of the film everything seems just a bit off. The first 30 minutes of the film really made me feel like this was going to be similar to How The West Was Won, with the historical trajectory of the film as the primary focus. I think the film would have been better had that been the case.

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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#72 Post by swo17 » Mon Jan 01, 2018 1:19 pm

For the next two weeks, film club is devoted to one eligible Criterion film: Master of the House

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knives
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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#73 Post by knives » Tue Jan 09, 2018 9:54 pm

Chicago
Of the three versions of this story I've seen this probably works the least for me, but it differentiates itself enough to greatly enjoy all the same. There's two main prongs which cause this to be a wholly new experience even as all of the familiar beats are played. The first is how the story is framed differently shifting genre and thematic focus ever so slightly. The second is an expansion of the story. Some of this expansion seems necessary because of the silent format (it's a lot easy to show the crime than explain it), but there are also seems to be artistic reasons relating to the first change.

Rather than focusing in on the satirical possibilities of the media (though that is here a plenty as well) it instead plays toward melodrama fairly straightforwardly expanding elements of the plot that give a dramatic edge to the proceedings. For example a lawyer nor a reporter shows up to about a quarter of the way through. Urson, or rather De Mille, trains his focus on how and why she committed her crime from the onset. Even after her arrest though a lot of time is spent outside the court room and prison with Roxie's more earnestly played dope of a husband having a few ongoing subplots relating to his own morality. This is probably the source of the deeper characterization I've seen some talk about, but to be honest I found it at least as relates to the husband to make the film less unique and a bit more obvious. How these narrative alterations play with Roxie though is a great thing. If I have to give up media satire the horror and satire of being a woman provided here is great. Obviously that's a part of the other versions as well, but this one emphasizes it a greater deal and gives a better sense of how transactional a woman has to view herself as to survive this world. The melodrama makes it creepy and horrifying in spots because Roxie even as she fights for self preservation is looking at herself, as well as others, as just a tool. This gives the eerie sense that for her and the other women of the prison, killed her baby for not getting married, at least that life is worth preserving only because it is something that I own.

This actually changes the meaning to a lot of scenes such as the lawyer's coaching. Whereas in other versions the main idea to the lawyer is yet another way of manipulating the media for your own purpose here it comes across more like the type of behaviors Roxie has been trained as useful for transactions turns out to be limited. Instead, as a grosser Pygmalion, society wants X behaviors to reward a murderess with life. The idea still is that her crime is irrelevant to if she gets hanged, but less than swaying the media her guilt is determined by what sort of tool she can be for the audience. In perhaps a more post modern or moralistic film you'd get some sort of audience shaming for having sympathies for Roxie. Certainly the Hitchcock or Haneke version would likely have some of that, but this De Mille version is if anything endorsing finding her innocent because she is entertaining.

The House on Trubnaya
Even though the goal of this film is largely to be a silly comedy what's most impressive is just the sense of place Barnet provides. I don't think the film is entirely successful on its own terms, but all the little details of everyday life such as straw for a sponge constantly provide something to be awed by. Unlike any other Soviet filmmaker I can recall Barnet here really provides a sense of this being how people mundanely lead their lives at the time. The film also mirrors Kafka's Amerika in some interesting and peculiar ways that are so specific that I have to assume they are deliberate. That gives a direction to the story even when it meanders a bit in the middle as Barnet just tries to build up her isolation from the revolutionary life of Moscow. Unfortunately the other qualities of the film have a limited charm for me so there comes long stretches of disengagement and the film on the whole feels like it could have cut out a lot and been more satisfying.

By the Law
Cinematic whataboutism and all the more interesting for it. Kuleshov presents a pretty straight forward Jack London adaptation for the most part, but the inserts and certain degrees of emphasis in the acting turn it from a tale of broken souls to one of how vile the west is. After the affectionate parody of Mr West this form of propaganda comes a little shocking as their is a real genuine dislike of all of our characters to the point where a greedy murderer is probably the most sympathetic character in the whole film. In adaptation to all of the digs at the British legal system the film has a never directly spoken, but utterly hysterical in visual expression hatred of religion. If you thought Piper Laurie in Carrie was farcical you probably won't be able to manage Khokhlova's wide eyed mania. As a straight forward adventure film this is an okay movie, but as an insight to the snapshot of one culture this is a pretty great and worthwhile experience.

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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#74 Post by Satori » Mon Jan 22, 2018 9:26 am

I've been diligently working my way through the films I haven't seen from the previous 1920s list project and noticed that Germaine Dulac's films didn't fare too well last time around. I highly recommend checking them out if you haven't seen them. Her three major extant 20s works are all available on youtube, although I'd strongly suggest getting the Flicker Alley blu for Smiling Madame Beudet (in the Women Pioneers set). Seashell is also in the first Kino avant-garde set, which is pretty essential for this project anyway.

The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923)
The first of Dulac’s three 1920s masterpieces is about the interior life of a housewife who fantasizes ways of escaping from her emotionally abusive husband. Her interiority is registered in terms of cinematic invention, placing her husband in the place of reality—and, perhaps more broadly, realistic cinema—while her resistance to reality is to be found in inventive editing, strange angles, and haunting superimpositions.

The film uses constructive editing to render the segmented space of the Beudet home. When Mr. Beudet first comes home, the film cross cuts shot of her sitting with shots of him walking into the room and sitting at his desk, only later giving us a long shot that reveals their positions in the same room. By developing the scene in this way, Dulac makes the sudden realization that he is sitting right in front of her register as a violent reorganization of space in which we, like Madame Beudet, and shocked at this intrusion. The sequence places us off balance, something that immediately turns the space of their house into a strange, frightening place.

Even more impressive are the double exposures through which her fantasies comes to life. Still early in the film, she is reading a magazine and comes across the image of a male athlete who she conjures up into existence so that he can remove her husband for her. But these dreamy flights of fancy are juxtaposed with nightmarish images in which she dreams of her husband coming in through the window in slow motion, one of the most haunting images I’ve ever seen in film.

Some of the editing in the film is intriguingly associational: my favorite moment in the film (it occurs near the end, so I’ll avoid giving away the specifics) takes a shot of a vase that is about to fall off the mantle and then cuts to a shot of a cat running down the stairs in another part of the house, a perfect graphic match that makes you think for a moment that we are watching the vase tumble down the stairs.

Invitation to a Journey (1927)
While sharing Beudet’s exploration of impressionist interiority, this film moves from the space of the home to a nightclub. While the fantasies of the housewife in Beudet seemed largely escapist—a way of coping with his abuse—this film will use fantasy to explore the possibilities of female desire as it reaches beyond the home. The nightclub itself is a place of freedom, symbolically associated with the ocean through its decorative motifs and later through Dulac’s editing.

The nightclub is contrasted with shots of the protagonist at home sewing, her husband in the chair nearby. At the club, see couples dancing, including an interracial couple, emphasizing the relationships between, music, motion, and freedom in Dulac’s cinema. (One of the few moments of freedom for the housewife in Beudet came at the beginning of the film as she blissfully played Debussy on the piano.) Here the nightclub offers a space outside the home conducive to fantasy and escape. Dulac uses slow dissolves and multiple exposures to overlap images, creating visual juxtapositions between shots of the band playing—particularly the violinist—and the woman listening to the music and later dancing with the man.

The scene in which the man and woman sit beside each other is breathtaking, Dulac perfectly capturing their interactions without the use of title cards. Shots of the sea, a ship, and the rhythm of the waves flow into shots of their faces and a pair of nude breasts. In a closeup of their hands, he notices her wedding ring, which doesn’t deter him, and then a locket with a picture of her child, which does.

My favorite moment comes after he leaves her to dance with another woman and then returns with the second woman in tow. After she realizes that he is presumably more interested in this other woman, there is a shot of her closing her eyes briefly before she gets up to walk away. For me, this act suggests that the real act of liberation is not the possibility of an affair with this man, but her fantasy of the affair. When she closes her eyes, she can revisit the fantasy. It doesn’t matter whether or not they actually sleep together; she has already gone on her voyage. The film ends with her lying in bed as her husband comes home, once again closing her eyes. I think the film is ultimately about the woman learning how to desire.


Seashell and the Clergyman (1928)
While this film is often approached through the framework of surrealism (in part because of Antonin Artaud’s contributions), I actually think that this has limited explanatory potential. I’d agree that the film departs from the impressionism of Smiling and Invitation, however.

I think that one way of understanding the difference between post-Invitation Dulac and the surrealists has to do with the difference between surface and depth. If surrealism dredges up images from the unconscious (the psychological depths) as a way of attacking forms of repression and social control, this film seems more interested in how the body (the physical surface) can experience sensation through the production of images. This focus on movement and sensation becomes especially apparent in her short films like Arabesques (1929) and Danses Espagnoles (1928), in which images function like music.

Similarly, I think this is the crux of her contribution to Seashell. The sexual and religious symbols used in the film (which come from Artaud) can certainly be read in terms of surrealism and one could no doubt extrapolate ideas about repression and sexual freedom in the film. What I think Dulac does, however, is treat this narrative content similar to how she treats the images of nature in Arabesques or the flamenco dancer in Danses Espagnoles: as raw material for the production of music-like visual sensations.

Thus Seashell is a departure from films like Voyage and Smiling not because of Artaud or any surrealist elements, but because Dulac herself is moving away from impressionism and toward a more abstract “pure cinema." The earlier impressionist films still deal with interiority—the subjective experiences of the women in those films—and I thus contain a great deal of traditional “meaning,” particularly in terms of their cultural critique. While impressionism and surrealism have different aesthetic modes and different ways of conceptualizing interiority, I think they both share a commitment to a “depth” model of producing meaning. Something is hidden “inside” the self and must be brought out. They therefore derive more or less from the intellectual traditions of Freud and Marx.

In contrast, with Seashell and the short films of 1928/1929, I think Dulac is moving toward a cinema that is not interested in meaning or anything below the surface, but instead the sheer affective experience of the cinema produced through the use of cinematography and editing. So I personally don’t get a lot out of unpacking the symbolism of Seashell, but I find it utterly captivating as an experience. I think there is still a political dimension to the film, though, especially since Dulac’s politics are always expressed through innovations in cinematic form. It might require that we shift our approach to the film, though.

To give an example: the women in maid costumes sweeping near the end of the film. If we were doing a “depth” reading of the film, we would think about the position of gendered domestic labor and maybe compare it to the religious oppression of sexuality expressed earlier in the film. At the same time, though, these are figures of freedom in movement, not unlike the dancers in Invitation.

I think it’s the latter that is significant. I don’t think this is a film about repression; it’s a film about desire taking flight as expressed through images. These images of desire don’t need to remain tethered to concepts of the unconscious; they are not “escaping” anything. Instead, the images themselves generate desire, they grab us and ask us to experience the world differently. They, perhaps, offer us a cinematic experience that places the viewer in the position of the female protagonists of Dulac’s earlier films who dreamed and fantasized.

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Re: The 1920s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#75 Post by Shrew » Fri Jan 26, 2018 5:37 pm

The Strong Man—So after this, I get why Langdon has been “forgotten.” His persona is the worst man-child-in-love bits of Chaplin with a horror of sex added to idolization of female innocence. His face varies between Keaton impassivity and rubbery mugging. There are some good gags, but many are buried in interminable setups (the worst being the bus ride, though that at least gives both a glimpse of 1920s medicines and a pretty good punchline). At one point, upon meeting his romantic object, Langdon does a standard comic dance which somehow transforms into pacing that looks less like a nervous lover than a prowling tiger.

Still, as underwhelming as I found Langdon’s presence in itself, this isn’t an awful film, and there’s a few interesting moments. Langdon explaining his travails to his would-be lover is the kind of sweet the film is aspiring to be. There’s a great God’s Eye shot of Langdon on a bed being manhandled by the lady pickpocket, parodying the usual romantic use of such a setup. The finale has a better hit-to-miss ration than the rest of the film, but it pales to a Keaton or Lloyd climax.

Long Pants—This is… better? Or at least shorter—meaning there’s less reliance on drawn-out gag routines—and stranger. Capra’s also evolved as a director, and finds comic potential in the interplay between background and foreground (most memorably with the “policeman” and later as Langdon’s back oversees the catfight). I’m still not sold on Langdon, but I found him more tolerable here (the way he goggles about and starts taking off his coat before the two ladies fight is the most I’ve laughed at either of these films) even though he’s playing an incredibly unsympathetic—and downright cruel—idiot. But even then, I doubt anything he produced gets as dark as Keaton’s The Frozen North.

I’m going to finish out the Kino set with Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, but unless that’s an epiphany, I don’t think I’ll bother with more Langdon. Unless anyone has some good argument for any of his shorts or other films?

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