09 June 2011

Black Legion (1937)

Bad times have a way of bringing out the worst in otherwise normal people, and the Great Depression was certainly no exception. In 1935, a WPA worker in Detroit was killed by members of an organization known as the Black Legion, a northern offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan which was later revealed to have a significant membership across Michigan and Ohio. The sensational headlines that arose in the wake of the incident made great fodder for Hollywood screenwriters -- Warner Bros. adapted the story into a feature film aptly entitled Black Legion, which was released in January of 1937.

Black Legion tells the story of Frank Taylor, a factory worker who aspires to be the next foreman of the shop. Frank is more than a little frustrated, however, when he is passed over for the promotion in favor of Joe Dombrowski, a Polish immigrant with an apparent knack for machinery. Picking up on Frank's resentment, a fellow worker invites him to join the Black Legion, a shadowy organization purportedly out to defend the interests of "real Americans" from foreign infiltration and subversion. Under cover of darkness, Frank and the other legionaries put the torch to the Dombrowski farm and forcibly expel Joe and his aged father from the town. With Joe conveniently out of the picture, Frank is made the new foreman of the shop.

For a while at least, things appear to be going well for Frank -- he finally gets that new car he's been coveting, and his wife Ruth gets a much-needed new vacuum cleaner. Before long, however, Frank's involvement with the Legion begins to interfere with his life at home and at work. The Legion's nocturnal raids keep Frank away from his wife and son, and pressure to recruit new legionaries distract him from his work as shop foreman -- a costly accident occurs while Frank is attempting to enlist a worker into the ranks of the Legion, which leads to Frank being demoted from the position. Mike Grogan -- Frank's Irish neighbor -- replaces him as foreman. Once more, the Legion intervenes on Frank's behalf -- Grogan is dragged from his house in the middle of the night and flogged to within an inch of his life.

Suspecting both foul play and Frank's involvement therein, Ruth takes their son and goes to live with her parents. Despondent, Frank takes to drink and accidentally spills the beans about the Legion's activities to his friend Ed Jackson, who had been concerned about Frank's suspicious behavior for some time. Ed threatens to go to the police, prompting Frank to report him to the Legion. Ed is seized by the legionaries, who intend to beat him into silence. When Ed attempts to escape, Frank guns him down. Frank is overcome with remorse and flees into the night, only to run into the police, who arrest him for Ed's murder.

With Frank about to stand trial and the incident drawing much unwanted attention from the press, a lawyer in the covert employ of the Legion provides Frank with an alibi of self-defense -- and tells him that he'd better stick to it if he ever wants to see his wife and son again. The legionaries even attend the trial to ensure that Frank doesn't lose his nerve. Frank's conscience gets the better of him, however, leading him to confess to Ed's murder and turn in the other members of the Legion. For their crimes, Frank and the rest of the Black Legion are sentenced to life in prison.

Though Black Legion rightly condemns the xenophobia and bigotry it depicts, it does so in a thoughtful manner. Most significantly, the film illustrates quite credibly just how Frank Taylor -- an otherwise perfectly decent guy -- can succumb to the allure of extreme rhetoric, especially when times are tough. While Frank may not be an especially sympathetic character, he is most certainly a believable one. His family life, his professional ambitions and his workplace frustrations are remarkably true-to-life, particularly for post-production code Hollywood. Moreover, Frank's shortcomings ultimately serve to amplify the believability of his character -- most notably, his petty jealousy of Joe Dombrowski's success is the tragic flaw which leads him to join the Legion in the first place. Studio heads initially planned to offer the role to Edward G. Robinson, but for a variety of reasons -- among them the fact that the Jewish Robinson looked a bit too ethnic to really fit the role of a middle-American average Joe -- the role was eventually given to a lesser-known player named Humphrey Bogart. Bogie handles the part of Frank Taylor superbly, demonstrating in this early role the sort of acumen which would eventually land him among Hollywood's foremost stars.

In many ways, Black Legion feels quite similar to others the numerous, gritty "message pictures" for which Warner Bros. became known (it helps that director had many such pictures under his belt after several years at the studio). What sets the film apart from the other message pictures of the day, however, is that while bootlegging and speakeasies are largely relics of the past, the issues which Black Legion addresses continue to be problematic in American society. In one particularly memorable scene, the judge explains to the condemned legionaries that to engage in violent repression against a given group of people in the name of America is an utter perversion of the democratic principles upon which the nation was founded. It's actually one of the better patriotic monologues I've yet heard -- second only perhaps to Jimmy Stewart's impassioned speech before congress in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington -- and its message is one that bears repeating in the face of the current political climate.

Although not one of classic Hollywood's most renowned pictures, Black Legion is nevertheless a very good one. Its direction is solid, its acting is top-notch (especially where Humphrey Bogart is concerned) and its social themes are as pertinent today as they were in 1937. As fascinating as it is entertaining, Black Legion is definitely a must.

[Image Sauce]

05 May 2011

Characters I Like, Ep. 3

1945's The Lost Weekend might be the quintessential film about alcoholism. Drunkenness was hardly uncommon in films beforehand -- indeed, booze was a staple of pre-code films and and gangster dramas -- but alcohol was almost universally handled in one of two ways. Drinking was either played for laughs on the one hand or vilified as being symbolic of a greater moral failing on the other. The only sympathetic portrayals that readily come to mind are Lowell Sherman's Max Carey in What Price Hollywood? and Fredric March's Norman Maine in the original version of A Star is Born (given the similarities between the two films, these are almost the same character). What sets The Lost Weekend apart from these and other earlier films, however, is that the story is told from the perspective of the alcoholic protagonist, a struggling writer named Dan Birnam.

Dan Birnam -- played very ably by Ray Milland -- is the sort of character who might make easy fodder for a morality play. He lives with his brother, has no real job and goes on spectacular drinking binges with unpleasant regularity. Dan reveals that he dropped out of college in order to pursue a career as a writer, only to have that career stall out when he was unable to produce a successful piece. Increasingly distraught, he found solace in liquor. Don's story is true to life -- in writing the novel upon which the film is based, Charles R. Jackson drew significantly on his own experiences as a struggling writer during the Depression. This touch puts a very human face on Dan and his alcoholism, thereby making his story all the more compelling. Hardly if ever, one ought to understand, does someone take up serious drinking just for the hell of it; rather, alcoholism is more often than not a coping mechanism of one sort or another which evolves into a chemical and psychological dependency. This unfortunate series of events is precisely what has befallen Dan Birnam.

In one the film's most memorable bits of dialogue, Dan offers up a remarkably eloquent description of the allure of drinking:
It shrinks my liver, doesn't it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yeah. But what it does to the mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I'm above the ordinary. I'm competent. I'm walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I'm one of the great ones. I'm Michaelangelo, molding the beard of Moses. I'm Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I'm Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I'm John Barrymore before movies got him by the throat. I'm Jesse James and his two brothers, all three of them. I'm W. Shakespeare. And out there it's not Third Avenue any longer, it's the Nile. Nat, it's the Nile and down it moves the barge of Cleopatra.
To anyone with a particular fondness for the creature, this sensation described in this passage might seem eerily familiar (it certainly did to me). The painful irony of this is that an inability to write well drove Dan to drink, and yet a few drinks elicit from him a decidedly articulate streak. But when Dan, newly inspired, sits down at his typewriter to begin the book he's been meaning to write for so long, he loses his nerve -- he needs yet another drink to steady himself, which in turn leads to another and another, and further down the slippery slope he slides.

Dan's downward spiral leads him into some rather inglorious circumstances. He is thrown out of a ritzy club for attempting to steal a woman's purse (he wouldn't be able to pay his tab otherwise), he tries unsuccessfully to hock his typewriter for booze money (all the pawn shops are closed for Yom Kippur!) and eventually passes out, only to come to in the alcoholic ward of the local sanatorium. When the staff is distracted by several patients caught in the throes of delirium tremens, Dan manages to escape. He makes his way back to his brother's apartment, only to fall prey to the DTs himself. Dan eventually recovers with the help of his devoted girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman), but realized that he cannot save himself and makes plans to end it all. Helen intervenes once more, however, and manages to convince Dan to try his hand at writing his book once more (as an aside, Helen must have a superhuman quantity of patience, having been with Dan for three years at this point. Most reasonable women, I imagine, would have walked out on him years ago, and quite rightly so).

To the casual observer, Dan Birnam is hardly an admirable figure. Indeed, in some regards he seems much like Patton Oswalt's Paul Aufiero in Big Fan. What sets them apart, however, is that while Paul lacks any significant direction and appears to care for little else but football, Dan aspires to great things but feels he is unable to achieve them. Further, Dan is well aware of -- and decidedly guilt-stricken by -- the drain he poses to his friends and family, whereas Paul was largely oblivious to anything beyond the boundaries of his insular world. Dan Birnam is, at heart, a good guy, and it is this aspect of his character that makes him so believable and sympathetic.

Anyone who has undertaken an ambitious creative endeavor will tell you that there are few things more soul-crushing that to wish to create without being able to. My own experience has taught me as much. I couldn't help but recognize in Dan Birnam's struggles an exaggerated reflection of my own, to the degree that I occasionally got the feeling that while watching The Lost Weekend I was also watching some sort of dystopian vision of my own future. Like Dan, I struggle with writing and, also like Dan, I have a greater fondness for the creature than I perhaps ought to (I hasten to add, however, that I am hardly as terminally dependent on the stuff as Dan is).

The hard-drinking protagonist has become a fairly commonplace trope in the sixty-odd years since the premier of The Lost Weekend, to the degree that heavy drinking plays significantly in a character's coolness factor (the same can be said of other self-destructive habits, smoking in particular, but I digress). Nevertheless, Dan Birnam's whiskey-soaked odyssey retains the same powerful effect it had back in 1945, in large part because it feels so sincere. Ray Milland won the Academy Award for best actor for his role as Dan Birnam, and well-deservedly so -- that Dan is so sympathetic a character is due as much to Milland's affecting performance as it is to the solid writing and direction of the film as a whole (Billy Wilder won the Award in both of those categories, and The Lost Weekend won Best Picture of the year). After only two viewings, The Lost Weekend has become one of my favorite films, and Dan Birnam is easily one of my favorite characters.

31 March 2011

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

1927's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans has the distinction of being the only film in the history of the Academy Awards to receive an Oscar in the category of “Most unique and Artistic Picture.” It is a film quite deserving of that appellation – it is a film that emphasizes atmosphere and theme over plot and characterization. This is not to say that the narrative – or indeed the film as a whole is incoherent or disjointed, only that the film relies on the bare essentials of storytelling to get its point across. The settings and characters remain anonymous, and the themes which the film discusses are hardly groundbreaking. Indeed, Sunrise feels like nothing so much as a fairy tale set to celluloid. It is a rather unorthodox approach, but thanks to the excellent direction and cinematography of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau – most famous for directing the 1922 German film Nosferatu – it is quite effective.

As the film begins, we learn that a Man (George O'Brien) and his Wife (Janet Gaynor) have become increasingly estranged from one another. The reason for their marital troubles is a Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston), with whom the Man has been carrying on a less-than-covert affair. During one of their moonlit liaisons, the Woman asks the Man to return to leave his homestead behind and go with her to delight in the pleasures of decadent city life. As for his wife, the Woman suggests that she be removed from the picture by an unfortunate “accident.” Unable to resist the Woman's seductive temptations, the Man agrees to go through with the plan.

For several reasons, this decidedly Faustian sequence is one of the most fascinating in the film. First off, we are treated to an impressive montage of the sights and sounds of the City – the music, the booze, the dancing and the rest of the hustle and bustle. In a film where dialogue is absent and intertitles are few and far between, such striking effects are a huge positive (for what it's worth, even the intertitles are visually distinctive in this film). Secondly, Margaret Livingston is perfectly cast as the sultry temptress – she is dark and alluring, and at the same time vivacious and full of sex appeal. A rather convincing portrayal, to say the very least.

The next day, the Man offers to take his wife on a boatride, an offer which the Wife accepts, blissfully unaware of his nefarious intentions. Once the boat is sufficiently far from shore, the Man rises and, looming monstrously over his cowering wife, prepares to throw her overboard. Thankfully, the Man realizes that he cannot bring himself to carry out the deed and relents, rowing feverishly for the opposite shore. Understandably, the Wife flees for her life as soon as the boat reaches dry land. The Man follows her, begging her forgiveness. They ultimately wind up in a chapel where, as fate would have it, a wedding ceremony is taking place. So moving is this ceremony – reminding them, perhaps, of their own wedding – that the Wife is able to forgive her husband for the crime he nearly committed, and the two leave the chapel with a newfound appreciation for one another.

Several reviewers take issue with this scene, specifically, the speed with which the Wife forgives the Man for very nearly attempting to kill her (for more on that, see Chris Edwards' review at Silent Volume). It's an objection I find hard to dispute. This is no mere argument over the dinner table; an attempted murder is hardly the sort of incident one can easily sweep under the rug. The Wife would be perfectly justified in making for the nearest courthouse and filing for divorce and a restraining order. That the Man and the Wife are so quickly reconciled seems more than a little improbable. Far-fetched though it may be, however, it is not entirely outside the realm of possibility. The Wife, by every indication, is a simple peasant woman -- her home, her child and her husband likely constitute her entire world. Without these pillars, that world would come apart at the seams. For her, it is better to have a husband and run the risk of running afoul of his violent temper than not to have one -- think, for example, of the battered women who, for reasons that make sense only to them, refuse to leave their abusive husbands. Attempted murder is obviously more grave than garden-variety domestic violence by several orders of magnitude, but it is quite possible that such a mindset is at work here.

A simpler way of getting around this problem, however, might be to consider that, at least in the context of this film, reading too deeply into characterization (as I just spent the last paragraph doing) is perhaps counterproductive. This film presents us not so much with fully fleshed-out characters as with representitives of types. Much like the figures in a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, one gets the impression that one need not understand why a character does what he or she does, but only that he or she does (does anyone question why, for example, Jack is gullible enough to exchange the family cow for a few magic beans, or why Goldilocks has no qualms about sneaking into a house while its occupants are out?). This approach would more than likely fail in a talking picture or a stage production, as those are heavily dependent on on characterization and dialogue to communicate. In a silent film, however, the means of communication is almost entirely visual, so this approach to storytelling manages to be effective.

The scenes which follow the reconciliation -- however improbable it might be -- mark a significant shift in tone from the earlier portion of the film. Whereas the buildup to the near-killing feels dark and increasingly suspenseful, the film takes on a much lighter aura in the wake of the cathartic scene in the chapel -- it's as though the audience is privy to the Man and Wife newfound happiness. The Man and Wife eventually arrive at an amusement park, where they cavort like a young couple on their first date (indeed, their first date might well have been here). The scenes in the amusement park are perhaps the most visually appealing in the film -- F.W. Murnau's expressionist pedigree manifests itself in the art direction here, as the amusement park looks like an amalgamation of Asbury Park and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Having had a delightful evening, the Man and Wife return to their boat and set out for home. A fierce storm kicks up, however, and the boat is capsized by turbulent waters. The Man is able to reach the safety of dry land, but the Wife is nowhere to be found -- a search party is organized, but to no avial. Devastated, the Man returns to his house. Meanwhile the Woman from the city, noticing all the commotion, assumes that the Man has carried out her plan and goes to him under cover of darkness. She does not, however, receive the loving welcome she was expecting: ostensibly blaming her for his wife's death, the Man seizes the Woman by the throat, intent on choking the life out of her. The Woman is saved, however, when an old maid calls out for the man -- the Wife has been found, and is still alive. As the sun rises over the village, the Man and the Wife are joyously reunited, and the Woman from the city makes her exit, sulking on the back of a horse-cart.

Although it isn't without its shortcomings in the plot department, Sunrise is a fantastic movie in just about every other respect. The film is beautifully shot, the performances are solid all around and F.W. Murnau manages to cover a lot of emotional ground without it ever feeling too forced. The film was widely acclaimed by critics at the time of its premiere, but audiences were rather less enthusiastic -- in spite of its unique recognition as an artistic success, Sunries was not a hit at the box office. Fortunately for us, a copy of the film has survived in surprisingly good condition, and was added to the National Film Registry in 1989. Sunrise airs on TCM occasionally, and is also available on DVD. However you see it, Sunrise is an extremely worthwhile investment, and is, at least in my estimation, one the best pictures from the silent era.

13 March 2011

Coming Back for More

I have not been in the habit of re-reading books -- outside of books assigned for college courses, the only books I have re-read have been written by Kurt Vonnegut. I read Breakfast of Champions twice in high school, and I just recently finished A Man Without a Country for the second time. Much to my surprise, I found that I enjoyed it even more this time around than I did on the first read-through. This has convinced me that I need to give more than a few of my books a second reading.

If you are a bibliophile enraged at my ignorance, I must ask you to kindly put down that revolver before you do something you will regret later. Hindsight has made it quite clear to me that my erstwhile reading habits sprang from precisely the wrong attitude. Literature is art, and a work of art is not a merit badge to be earned and promptly forgotten. This is a long-standing  objection I have had to the "1001 Maguffins you must Kerfuffle before you Die" series of books -- to experience something merely for the sake of experiencing it cheapens its value, and dimishes whatever reward you might hope to get out of it. It was only recently that I realized that I was falling prey to the same attitude.

You may be wondering why I haven't read the majority of my  books more than once, especially considering that I have watched the same movies multiple times, have listened to the same albums over and over again and have played through many games more times than I care to remember. To be perfectly honest, I have no real answer -- it just never felt necessary to read a book over again. That reading a book -- especially a sizeable novel -- necessitates a considerable investment in time might have been part of the problem, but that really isn't an excuse. The time it takes to experience a work of art really hasn't much bearing on what I get out of it. This is especially true given that I have kept the majority of the books I have enjoyed.

Perhaps it's time to revisit the old favorites after all.

21 February 2011

Pandora's Box (1929)

Once in a blue moon, a director will chance upon the perfect player for a particular role. When such a stroke of luck occurs, the result is often a thing of beauty. One would be hard pressed to produce a better example of such perfect casting than director Georg Wilhelm Pabst's decision to choose Louise Brooks to play the role of Lulu in his 1929 film Pandora's Box. From the moment she appears on screen until the film's final fadeout, this is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Louise Brooks' movie.

Pandora's Box -- or, if you prefer, Die Büchse des Pandoras -- tells the tale of Lulu, a woman with a dubious past and an irresistible sex appeal. The latter is a potent means by which she procures whatever it is her heart may desire, leaving in her wake a string of ruined men and discarded lovers. She is the archetypal "bad woman" about whom mothers warn their sons. Lulu's escapades take her from the stage of a Weimar cabaret to a dockside gambling house and finally to the slums of London, where she meets an inglorious end at the hands of a serial killer very much reminiscent of Jack the Ripper.

Lulu's story is told in a series of chronological acts that illustrate episodes in Lulu's torrid life (this narrative structure has the added bonus of keeping the story moving at a healthy pace; rarely, if ever, does the film feel as though it's dragging on). Lulu's only constant companions throughout her travails are a crusty old drunkard named Schigolch and Alwa, a young man who is hopelessly in love with Lulu. Schigolch is a particularly interesting character who would hardly be out of place in a novel by Charles Bukowski. Lulu describes him as her "first patron," which leads us to believe that he may be some sort of pimp. Later, however, our understanding of their relationship is muddied significantly when Lulu, in an attempt to save him from one of her lovers, claims him to be her father. This may not necessarily be true, but it is a tempting possibility, as there are a few instances in the film where Schigolch does seem to display some genuine paternal affection for Lulu. Furthermore, Schigolch is the only major character in the film whom Lulu does not screw over (or, just plain screw, for that matter). It's difficult to fathom a father who has no objection to his daughter sleeping around and eventually prostituting herself, but this is just the sort of moral ambiguity of which this film is quite fond of presenting to its audience.

Alwa, meanwhile, is quite possible the most pitiable and sympathetic character in the film. Even though it is painfully obvious that he is little more to Lulu than a boy toy with a well-stuffed wallet, Alwa is much to smitten with Lulu to bring himself to leave her. One can almost feel his soul being pounded into dust as he watches Lulu flirt and philander with other men (and women, as the case might be). The hopelessness of his emasculating circumstances are hardly lost on Alwa -- having fallen with Lulu into the gutters of the London slums, he laments to a curious Salvation Army worker that nobody can help him.

As complicated as are Lulu's relationships with her companions, her relationship with the audience is no less conflicted. Lulu is unrepentantly wicked and undeniably ruthless, yet in spite of that she is also somehow sympathetic. Reviving the theme of moral ambiguity, one finds that one is caught between wanting to see such an unscrupulous character get her much-deserved comeuppance on the one hand, and to see her escape punishment on the other. That such a contradiction is able to exist is due in no small part to the inimitable screen presence of Louise Brooks: here is an instance where one should believe the hype.

As Lulu, Louise Brooks blends a vivacious, girlish innocence with an artful and imperious sexuality -- she is no mere man-trap but a veritable Charybdis of feminine wiles. It is night on impossible to imagine a contemporary actress who could have handled the role as perfectly as Louise Brooks -- in the hands of a lesser actress, the character of Lulu might have suffered, but Louise gives the character such life that she almost seems to be playing herself (it is appropriate, if accidental, that the actress and the character should be so similarly named). Walking out on Paramount might have curtailed her career in Hollywood, but the end result is that Louise's legacy has far exceeded that of any of her more conventionally successful contemporaries.

Pandora's Box leaves me with little about which to complain (a noteworthy achievment, considering how much I like to gripe). To find fault with this film, at least for me, would be to split hairs. This is easily one of the best films of the silent era, and moreover one of the best to be created during the fruitful but all-too-brief flowering of the cinematic artform in the Weimar Republic (German cinema, it seems, can be added to the list of things which the Nazis ruined). Pandora's Box is available on DVD through the Criterion Collection -- a bit pricey, perhaps, but a worthy investment for anyone who enjoys quality films. This one is not to be missed.

20 February 2011


It's been quiet around here, I know. There is, however, a good explanation for it. I want to reserve this blog for more meaningful, long-form writing, so to that end I've decided to get back into the tumblr game. Henceforth, all perfunctory image and video posts will be found at http://terminalsigma.tumblr.com/.

In the meantime, I've been working on another film review and I hope to have it up here in the next few days.

05 February 2011

Intolerance (1916)

D. W. Griffith's Intolerance is one of those films whose considerable reputation precedes it. Indeed, the only thing bigger than the film's reputation might be the film itself. Everything about Intolerance is grandiose, from the film's set design to its ambitious narrative scope. Even the film's subtitle -- Love's Struggle Through the Ages -- has an epic flourish about it. In one leviathan of a production, D. W. Griffith attempts to weave four episodes from human history into a single cohesive narrative, centering on the theme of the ruinous effect of intolerance on the course of human events. That Intolerance represents one of the watershed moments in the history of cinema is well documented, so it isn't necessary for me to give a dissertation about that aspect of the film. More interesting, rather, is the question of how well Griffith's film works as a individual opus. Was Griffith able to accomplish his goal of integrating four disparate stories into a single piece while simultaneously delivering a poignant message about the perils of intolerance? The answer is a resounding "sort of" -- the ambitious nature of the film is one of its strongest assets, yet at the same time, its most glaring weakness.

Intolerance is divided into four stories -- Judea at the time of Jesus, the Babylonian Empire, 16th century France and contemporary America (contemporary, that is, as of the 1910s). In each era, Griffith presents the audience with a different example of social or religious strife, and proceeds to illustrate how it has catastrophic consequences for those involved. In the modern world, a combination of puritanical social reformers and ruthless capitalists nearly ruins the lives of a working class boy and girl; in France, enmity between the Catholics and the Huguenots boils over in the form of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre; discord between followers of Ishtar and worshipers of Bel-Marduk leads to the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great of Persia. As for Jesus, I think just about everyone knows what happened to him. Interspersed with all of this is a recurring image of a mother rocking the cradle while the three fates hover ominously in the shadows nearby. To make something of an understatement, there is a lot going on in this film.

Of the four episodes, far and away the most interesting is the story of Babylon. There is hardly a single shot of this segment that doesn't ooze with spectacle. Perhaps the most enduring image of the Babylonian segment is that of the Great Hall set, rightfully so -- the set was not just a model, and it most certainly wasn't computer-generated, but was a massive structure built to scale. A still image fails to do it justice; to truly appreciate the immensity of the set, one has to see it in motion, with legions of extras milling about it like bees in a gargantuan hive. No less impressive is the epic battle scene between the Babylonians and the besieging Persians, complete with siege towers, swarms of arrows, boiling oil, severed heads -- the first decapitations in film history, perhaps! -- and some sort of Babylonian flamethrower-tank which, despite being of dubious historical accuracy, is awesome as hell none the less. Add to this already potent mixture a few gratuitous scenes of scantily-clad harem girls going about their scantily-clad business (which apparently entails doing some sort of funky Babylonian macarena -- and the result is that D. W. Griffith seems to have captured the essence of Heavy Metal some sixty years before its inception! Finally, the Babylonian sequence also includes the most memorable character in the film: the Mountain Girl, as portrayed by Constance Talmadge. Not only is the Mountain Girl a certifiable badass -- she drives a chariot and launches arrows at the invading Persians during the siege of the city -- but Constance appears to be having the time of her life playing the character (for what it's worth, she actually piloted the chariot herself).

Although not without its highlights, the remainder of the film doesn't quite hold up to this lofty standard. The modern day storyline has a good deal of potential, but jumps the proverbial shark with a chase scene that seems a bit out of place in the film; it might be more at home in a slapstick comedy. There is, however, a particularly notable moment where we see that the trapdoor of the gallows where the nameless protagonist is sentenced to hang is triggered by the severing of three cords --  a timely visual allusion to the three fates of Greek mythology. Despite its drawbacks, the story still hangs together nicely.

Less captivating is the portion of the film which occurs in 16th century France. This segment is not as fleshed-out as its Babylonian and 20th century counterparts, and the acting is occasionally a bit too histrionic at times (King Charles, in particular, chews the scenery like nobody's business). Douglas Fairbanks does will in his role, and the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre is quite effective, but the build-up to the climax just isn't all that compelling. Finally, the biblical portion of the film feels tacked-on, as though it were a means of beating the audience about the head and ears with a religious and moral message (subtlety, it seems, was not D. W. Griffith's forte).

What is unfortunate about all this is that each of the four scenarios presented in Intolerance would likely work quite well if produced as individual feature films. Indeed, the excellent Babylonian segment did receive such a treatment -- Griffith re-released it as a stand-alone film in 1919 as The Fall of Babylon, and in the same year the modern storyline was re-released as The Mother and the Law. With a bit more development, the French scenario could work as the sort of swashbuckling historical adventure for which Douglas Fairbanks became famous. As for the biblical plot, the sheer number of (at least commercially) successful films about Jesus -- from King of Kings to The Passion of the Christ -- is proof that the story holds a wide and lasting appeal. Cramming all these elements into a single production, however, is like tap dancing and building a ship in a jar at the same time -- it's a classic example of trying to do too much at once.

My other complaint lies with the film's ending. In the closing minutes of the film,  D. W. Griffith sermonizes on the importance of tolerance with a series of heavy-handed visuals -- smiling children, prisoners miraculously vanishing from jails, soldiers laying down their weapons and a heavenly host of angels hovering overhead. Rather than allow the common theme of his four stories speak for itself, Griffith opts to beat the audience over the head with the point he's trying to make. It's about a subtle as an axe to the forehead.

Intolerance was a critical -- if not commercial -- success when it was released, and continues to be regardes as one of the most important films ever made. Although I do have my complaints about the film, I cannot disagree about its significance. Intolerance was a paradigm shift in the history of film and in the art of film making. It is not without its flaws and its style may be somewhat dated, but the film's monumental importance makes it required viewing. Besides, the Babylonian sequence alone makes Intolerance worth watching at least once. If, as happened to me, you should find yourself stuck in a blizzard with an afternoon to kill, consider it a golden opportunity to watch one of the most epic pictures ever set in celluloid.

24 January 2011

First in the Talkies

The four Warner brothers (Bette Davis not pictured).
The more films I watch from the early sound era, the more it seems that Warner Bros. had the superior track record in comparison to MGM. Metro may have had the prestige, the star power and the production values, but Warners' comparably modest pictures seem to have aged much better. Much of this, I suspect, has to do with the material the two studios chose to adapt to the screen.

In its glory days, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer gave every indication that it thought of itself as a purveyor of high-minded and respectable material. This approach, if nothing else, was certainly profitable -- it played quite well to the American social mores of the day. To be sure, MGM did make quite a few good films at the onset of the talkies, but as the years have gone by many MGM productions of the time have begun to feel stodgy and antiquated. Many Metro pictures of the day were society dramas, adapted from the stage -- at their core, episodes in the lives of attractive, well-to-do Anglo-Americans with problems,  typically of the marital variety. There are several such films that remain quite watchable to this day, but most feel a bit highfalutin and tedious.

Although Warner Bros. did try its hand at several such pictures, that studio demonstrated a much greater willingness to probe uncharted territories (indeed, it was Warner Bros. who began the talking pictures revolution with The Jazz Singer in 1927). Where MGM stuck with glamor, Warners' took a decidedly grittier angle -- the studio came to be specialize in pictures seemingly torn from the real world of the depression, in the process virtually inventing the gangster film as we know it today. The studio also imported from the theater the right kind of talent for these pictures -- James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell and Paul Muni, to name just a few (a bit later, the studio brought in a guy named Humphrey Bogart; you might have heard of him).

The pre-code crime drama was not the only area where Warner Bros. proved willing to blaze a trail. In 1932, the studio gambled on revitalizing the then-stagnant genre of the musical, beginning production of 42nd Street. The picture was a major success when it premiered in February of the next year, and  Warner Bros. followed up with a series of successful musical pictures.

In both categories, MGM had to play catch-up. Although Metro had cornered the market on musicals by the 1950s, it never did achieve what Warner Bros. in the field of the crime drama. Fortunately for them, Metro's prestige pictures remained wildly popular, and in flux of new talent -- both on-screen and behind the scenes -- allowed the studio to be the only consistently profitable studio throughout the depression. Yet even if its pictures were not as immediately lucrative, the willingness of Warner Bros. to push the envelope has given many of its films a far more lasting appeal.

[Image Sauce]

17 January 2011

Characters I like, Ep. 2

*Jean Arthur not included.
More than once I've wondered what I would do if I were to somehow come into a major financial windfall. My inner cynic suspects that I would probably blow a significant portion of my money on a luxury condominium and a high-end booze (lots and lots of high-end booze), but the better angels of my nature would, I hope, convince me to devote at least as much wealth to some noble act of philanthropy, very much in the spirit of Gary Cooper's Longfellow Deeds.

Longfellow Deeds is the eponymous character in Frank Capra's 1936 picture Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, in which an unassuming guy from the picturesque burg of Mandrake Falls inherits a fortune from a distant uncle in New York. When he arrives in the city, Mr. Deeds is besieged by all manner of spongers and opportunists out to turn a profit at the expense of the rube cynically dubbed the "Cinderella Man." Far from being a small-town dullard, however, Longfellow Deeds is a quirky mix of pragmatism and eccentricity. Put simply, he's the sort of fellow who will insist on hearing the treasurer's report before allowing the Opera committee to make a decision on funding, but on the other hand will slide down the banister of his staircase, chase after firetrucks in hopes of helping to put out a fire, and play his tuba in order to concentrate.

Such personality quirks are an essential part of the reason why I identify with the character like I do. Just as Longfellow's tuba-playing is cited as evidence of his being "pixilated", I too have a few unconscious tics that manifest themselves when I am thinking about something (these habits were once mistaken for symptoms of autism when I was a kid). Another aspect of Longfellow's personality to which I can relate quite well is the fact that he is no suave lady-killer -- the slightest attention from a pretty girl causes him to act like a big dope. This is most perfectly illustrated by a scene wherein Deeds, following a successful date with girl reporter Babe Bennett (played memorably by the inimitable Jean Arthur), is so excited that he runs down the street at full speed, only to crash headlong into a garbage can. Undeterred, he gets right back up and charges around the corner (at which point we hear him plow into another trash can as the scene fades out). It's precisely the same sort of oafish thing I would probably do (if I ever had occasion to, anyway). Along similar lines, I can't help but appreciate his seemingly out-of-place sense of chivalry -- specifically, Longfellow dreams of rescuing a lady in distress. I don't know that I've ever held such romantic delusions, but I can certainly understand the sentiment.

As Longfellow Deeds, Gary Cooper nailed the "average schmuck" angle so perfectly that it allowed him to virtually reinvent his screen persona. Previously primarily a dashing hero of western and adventure pictures, Cooper came, in the wake of Mr. Deeds, to typify the everyman protagonist (not that he wouldn't return to the Western hero well a few times in his career). Indeed, he and director Frank Capra  reunited five years later for a similarly-themed film entitled Meet John Doe. To make a tired point, it's virtually impossible not to like Longfellow Deeds as Gary Cooper portrays him, and it's very nearly as difficult not to identify with him in a least some way. Even if Gary Cooper hadn't brought him to life so perfectly, the character of Longfellow Deeds would still be an agreeable one -- I find it hard not to like a guy who has a left hook like Jake LaMotta and yet plays the tuba to help himself think.

08 January 2011

Pink Floyd - The Division Bell (1994)

As the years have gone by, my tastes in music have evolved and changed drastically. To give but one example, in 2007 I was very much into Black and Death Metal, whereas nowadays I am much more likely to listen to Benny Goodman or Starship Amazing than, say, Deathspell Omega. Yet amidst the ebb and flow of ever-changing musical tastes, there have been a few bands, albums and even songs that have stood the test of time. Foremost among this select few may be counted Pink Floyd, one of the most enduring bands in the history of Rock music. When pressed to name a favorite album of, most Pink Floyd enthusiasts will pick either Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here. These are certainly difficult choices to argue against -- although I am curious as to what degree these choices might be influenced by nostalgic recollections of listening to the albums on 8-track tapes whilst hot-boxing the back of a van -- but I would have to go with a more unorthodox option: 1994's The Division Bell.

This is perhaps a difficult choice to justify. Despite achieving double-platinum status in a matter of months, The Division Bell was panned by critics upon its release. Much of the bellyaching seems to revolve around the fact that The Division Bell sounds so very different from other Pink Floyd albums. This is an understandable complaint -- much of the music here seems more like experimental Space Rock than the sort of Classic Rock prevalent in Pink Floyd's earlier work (indeed, one critic dismissed it as "New Age noodling"). It should be remembered, however, that this was not the same Pink Floyd that recorded Dark Side or Wish You Were Here. Roger Waters had ended his association with the band nearly a decade earlier, and his absence is audible on The Division Bell -- put simply, the album just feels much different from its predecessors. Why, though, should that be such a bad thing? The Division Bell deserves to be judged on its own merits.

Those merits, it turns out, are considerable. With David Gilmour at the helm, the music here has a decidedly introspective and meditative character about it. Throughout the album there is a recurring theme of human communication, on various scales, whether it be a song of two humans, a cacophony of nations or a single man's alienation from the world around him. The point is perhaps made most manifest by none other than Stephen Hawking who, in one song, reminds us that "all we need to do is keep talking." Some critics have claimed that Gilmour's guitar work is somehow uninspired in comparison to his earlier work, but to perfectly honest, I just don't hear it. The musicianship on The Division Bell is no less impeccable as any of Gilmour's work before or since.

Although every track on the album is enjoyable, "High Hopes" would have to be my favorite. All at once it feels like both an overture and an encapsulation for the album as a whole. It is also the most personal song on the album, written by Gilmour from an autobiographical perspective. The song feels very epic -- not merely because it is long, but because it carries with it so much weight. More than any other song  on the album, "High Hopes" is highly evocative of images. It's difficult to explain, but give it a listen and I'm sure you'll get what I'm on about.

The Division Bell was the last studio album ever released by Pink Floyd. It may not be as critically acclaimed as earlier entries in the Pink Floyd catalog, but it is nevertheless a great album in its own right, and a worthy concluding chapter to the history of one the most influential bands of the last century.

04 January 2011

Musical Interlude: Солдатушки

You know what we haven't had around here in a long time (besides much of anything)? Why, a musical interlude. Let us rectify this situation in style, with a Russian marching tune that dates back to the days of the Napoleonic Wars.