Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Red Spectre

THE RED SPECTRE is one of the most impressive trick films, co-produced by Segundo de Chomon and Ferdinand Zecca, in the early years of the 20th century. Released by Pathé and dating from 1908, the film is a visual feast of images that would become iconic in the horror film genre over the following years.

In a fiery pit, a coffin stands itself on end, from which emerges the horrific figure of the Red Spectre, a skeletal figure with horns and cape. The sight of the coffin standing itself on end immediately recalls some of the fantastic stop-motion shots in Muranau’s NOSFERATU. The sides of the cave open up, revealing a small stage area where the Red Spectre uses a wand to conjure up five beautiful women to dance for him. They suddenly transform into small balls of fire that dance through the air. Next, he conjures up two urns in which burn two great flames that are transformed into women. Covering the urns with black tarp, he lays one of the women out across the urns, wrapping her in the tarp. Finally, he causes her to levitate and then disappear. He does this with the second woman, as well.

For his next impressive trick, the Spectre brings out three glass jars on a table, close to the view of the camera, in which three small women appear. This recalls similar imagery in films like HOMUNCULUS and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Next, he brings out a small screen emblazoned with the Pathé cockerel, and as he slowly opens each portion of the screen, parts of the image of a woman holding a flower are revealed.

He then conjures up another screen showing three dancing women, then a closeup of one of the girls, and finally a grotesque comic couple in exaggerated makeup. After making the screen disappear completely, he begins stacking cube-shaped objects which arrange themselves into a stack against which is projected an image of a woman and a dog. Finally, he conjures up a whole chorus of dancing girls, one of whom he tries to lead away under his cape, but who turns the tables on him by pouring a jug of water on him, causing the Red Spectre to disintegrate. Standing over his skeleton, she takes his cape, putting it around herself, and descends into the fiery cave.

By 1908, trick filmmakers like de Chomon had discovered extremely sophisticated means of pulling off the kind of trick effects that impressed audiences so much. While technically a narrative film, compared with the narratives that were being told by films from the Edison Company in the US, for instance, THE RED SPECTRE hearkens back to the Melies tradition of spectacle. Pathé, of course, was known for the high quality of its trick films, and this is perhaps the finest example. Although by 1908 the rise of Nickelodeons in the US provided a place for films to be shown along with other films in a single sitting, it’s not at all difficult to imagine a film like this one being shown in a tent at a carnival or fairground. Certainly in Europe, where the choice of screening venues of films remained a bit more diverse throughout the first decade of the 20th century, it’s not at all difficult to imagine this film as just one more part of an evening’s entertainment; visitors to a fair-ground moving from one show to the other, perhaps a live performer, followed by a ride, followed by this incredible piece of visual trickery – all part of the larger visual arts canvas open to audiences of a century ago.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

David Lean's BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1946)

BRIEF ENCOUNTER is the most erotic movie ever made.

From the opening shot, with a train shooting along the express track of a nocturnal station, smoke billowing from its stack against a stark, black-and-white background, accompanied by the low, rhythmic piano and lush strings of Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto no. 2 in C Minor”, David Lean’s artistry with images and Noel Coward’s artistry with words form one of the most incredibly passionate films in the history of the form.

The affair between Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard) has ten times the amount of sexual energy than any of Hollywood’s empty “romantic” pictures of the last several decades, and of course is far more moving and powerful than any pornography ever could be. By what it doesn’t show, so perfectly internalized in the brilliant monologues delivered by Celia Johnson, the film manages to evoke all of the emotions, frustrations and endless regrets of unrequited love.

The supporting characters are necessarily somewhat limited to “types” due to the scope of the film, which focuses far more on its two main characters, but these supporting characters are remarkably effective and involving, particularly the working class couple played by Joyce Carey and the brilliant Stanley Holloway (two decades before immortalizing himself in the role of Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady).

It is perhaps a tribute to Lean’s skill as an editor that he manages to compress time so effectively and efficiently in this film. Although it depicts events that occur over the span of several weeks, Lean only shows what is absolutely necessary before moving on. At 86 minutes, it’s a briskly- but perfectly-paced film, never feeling rushed. The unique flashback structure is an effective means of arranging time within the film, and the voice-over, always a difficult technique, is used creatively enough to bring us into the minds of the Laura character, without ever feeling convenient or lazy as screenwriting.

Robert Krasker’s cinematography combines the Expressionist noir aesthetic so common of the period, but grants it a kind of soft-edged beauty that distances us from the usual, dark connotations of such high-contrast lighting. What it does retain, however, is the anxiety associated with Expressionist technique. The use of Rachmaninoff’s music is a brilliant artistic decision, creative and influential in its way as any film soundtrack featuring pre-existing, recognizable songs. The film seems to have been a fairly significant influence on Billy Wilder, who used Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto” for comic but instantly recognizable effect in his film of THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH. Intriguingly, Wilder also commented on one of the most ambiguous parts of the film, that in which Alec brings Laura to the apartment of a friend for an illicit tryst, but is interrupted when the friend returns home early. This character so intrigued Wilder that he even wrote down an idea for a script based on this character: “Movie about the guy who climbs into the warm bed left by two lovers”, which eventually became THE APARTMENT in 1960.

There are few other films that reach the levels of conceptual and artistic perfection as that of BRIEF ENCOUNTER. It is quite possibly the most powerful emotional experience ever committed to film.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Mysterious Cafe (1900)

THE MYSTERIOUS CAFE is one of the Edison company’s rare forays into the “trick film”, at least before Porter joined the company. The set-up is quite simple: a comic, elderly couple (referred to as Mr. and Mrs. Spoopendyke in Edison promotional materials) enter a café, taking their seat at a table. The woman goes to take her seat when the chair disappears out from under her, causing her to land on the ground. The re-appears on top of the table, and when the man goes ot help his wife up, she disappears and immediately re-appears seated on the chair atop the table. Leaning against the table, it disappears out from underneath them, causing them to come crashing to the ground. More frantic scrambling ensues as the man, wife, and chairs continue to disappear and re-appear in various positions, with comic chaos ensuing. When they’ve finally had enough, they beat the poor waiter with an umbrella before wrapping him in the tablecloth and beating him further.

Dating from 1900, the film presents a very rudimentary narrative, of the kind that could have been found in a vaudeville sketch. The film adheres to the “proscenium framing” so common of the period, but differs in that it employs a significant amount of editing to achieve its trick effects. However, unlike the effects being employed by people like Melies and de Chomon in France at the same time, the effects in THE MYSTERIOUS CAFÉ are quite crude, and shatter the illusion of magic that the French trick films were able to create through careful planning and precise cutting. Also, the film devolves into roughhouse slapstick toward the end, and ends without a neat-wrap up.

While the Edison catalogue description promises that the film is “sure to provoke much merriment”, it lacks the light, whimsical charm of the French trick films that make those films such a wonder and a delight more than a century after they were made. Blackton and Smith reveled in film’s fantastic properties; in addition to making a number of trick films, they also re-created news events of the period using a series of simple yet ingenious tricks that managed to fool audiences of the time into believing what they were seeing was real. This film uses stock characters – American vaudeville archetypes – and combines them with the aesthetic of the French trick film with mixed results. Watching it, one cannot help thinking of Kevin Brownlow’s point that American films tended to appear drab and rather uninspired in comparison with their European counterparts. When Edwin S. Porter began making films for Edison, he was able to integrate the trick effects more successfully, particularly with the delightful DREAMS OF A RAREBIT FIEND (1906), which ranks with the best of Melies and de Chomon’s work in terms of technical effects if not pure whimsy and a sense of the pre-war innocence and fun that those French trick films convey so well. Perhaps the criticism of THE MYSTERIOUS CAFÉ boils down to the fact that it feels more like a clear imitation rather than a first-rate work of cinematic inventiveness.

The film itself was shot sometime between June 1899 and September 1900. Although it was released through Edison, the filming took place at the roof-top Vitagraph studio in Manhattan that was being employed by filmmakers J. Stuart Blackton and Alfred E. Smith during this period (before the Edison company opened its studio in the Bronx in 1904).

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Recent Trends in DeMille Scholarship

In a recent paper tracing the critical and public response to Cecil B. DeMille's 1915 film, THE CHEAT, I attempted to establish a connection between the promotion and publicity of that film by the Lasky Feature Play Co., and the emergence of DeMille as a cinema showman and "name" director. By examining period reviews, publicity items and promotional art, it became clear that DeMille's "Modern Drama" was a turning point in the director's career, one which would take him to unprecedented levels of recognition for a director.

It's always interesting to trace the reception of DeMille's work and of DeMille's image as a major Hollywood filmmaker, arguably its first "superstar" director. With the amount of film scholarship written on DeMille in recent years, it's worth revisiting some of the recent trends in this writing as to how DeMille and his status in the Hollywood film industry is represented. I will be presenting responses to a number of critical evaluations of DeMille's work, including Bob Birchard's Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood and Scott Eyman's Empire of Dreams.

I wrote the following piece on April 21, 2008, in response to a book review by Richard Schickel that appeared in the previous day's edition of the LA Times. Schickel was ostensibly reviewing Simon Louvish's Cecil B. DeMille: A Life in Art, but in the process, revealed far more about his own prejudices toward DeMille's complex, often contradictory body of work:

The problem that any critic faces in attempting an objective evaluation of DeMille's work is that it's nearly impossible to sort out the political and popular baggage that his carries, just as it is almost impossible to attempt objective criticism of Steven Spielberg, or even Hitchcock and Kubrick. Their names alone evoke many pre-conceived ideas that make it difficult to step back and look at the films on an individual basis.

My response is not so much to the Louvish book (which I have not yet read), 
but rather to Schickel's condescending review of the book, in which he trots 
out a parade of tired cliches and criticisms about DeMille that are hard to 
support when one actually takes the time to watch his films. Louvish is not one of my favorite writers, but he does write with enthusiasm about his 
subjects, and I applaud him for tackling the vast career of Cecil B. 
DeMille, one of the most spectacular figures to ever work in the medium. I would disagree that DeMille "lost whatever claim to artistry he might have 
made" when he turned to the spectacle film. Although he didn't become 
associated with spectacle until at least "The Ten Commandments" and "The 
King of Kings", and more fully with his sound-era historical epics, 
DeMille's work was rooted in Victorian theatre where he had his first stage experience. As for the image that DeMille perpetuated on and off the set, it 
was merely a continuation of the showmanship that was an essential part of 
Victorian spectacle (and, specifically, the work of DeMille's mentor, 
producer David Belasco). Far from being a joke in the industry, DeMille was 
one of its supreme masters, dating back to even his very first works. 
Perhaps even before Griffith, DeMille was recognized for his groundbreaking 
skill (granted, some of this may have been due to this theatrical 
background). "The Squaw Man", "The Cheat", "Joan the Woman" and a number of 
his other films from this period stand out among the works being done by 
other directors.

When Schickel talks about DeMille being "laughed at" behind his back, he is, 
of course, projecting his own superior attitudes toward DeMille's 
undoubtedly old-fashioned but immensely successful popular spectacle. This 
kind of thinking is what is precisely tired and worn-out. The DeMille model 
is still alive and well in today's spectacle, only it isn't being done as 
well anymore precisely because today's filmmakers are afraid to go to the 
lengths that DeMille was willing to in order to create the largest scale 
possible. Today's CGI-models and non-entity performers cannot compete with 
the scale sets and larger-than-life performances that DeMille offered, no 
matter how hard they try. It's easy for Schickel to take this dismissive 
tone toward DeMille's work, but ultimately, I think, too easy. DeMille's 1956 version of "The Ten Commandments" stills draws 'em in every year 
when it is shown on TV. I popped in my DVD of "Unconquered" several months ago, just to check 
out the image quality, and instead of just watching a few minutes, I 
immediately put aside my plansfor the evening and watched the entire 2 1/2 
hour film, as I could quite literally not tear myself away from the spectacle and 
adventure of it all. My favorite period of DeMille's work is his American history cycle from 1937-1952, in which he tackles the American West, the 
building of the railroad, World War II, and even the American Circus in "The 
Greatest Show on Earth", possibly the most clear continuation of Victorian 
spectacle that directly paralleled DeMille's work in cinema. Rather than describe DeMille's films as "elephantine works crumbling in the 
desert", Schickel should instead see that DeMille is more relevant than 
ever. He bridged the artistry of filmmaking combined with popular appeal to 
create grand spectacle of the highest order.