December 31, 2008

simple cinema pleasures

I like:

-low angle shots -- Orson once said something like "I just think everything looks better from down there." One of hundreds of things we agree on.

-deep-field shots -- for simple subjects, long shots are best (anything closer than a medium shot should be used only sparingly), but complex subjects and deep focus are better than everything.

-dynamic, fluid rhythm -- I love a subject, a camera, and (most importantly) an idea in motion; a film ought to ride the wind.

-understatement -- especially in story and character; instead of swelling music, instead of a bold, romantic skyline, instead of a long, impassioned declaration of love, the characters ought to kiss quickly and get on with their lives. One (overstated) example, I could name thousands more.

-a comic sensibility -- when you can comprehend all the suffering and nothingness of humanity, finding something to smile about can be the most difficult challenge of all. Perhaps it is the only worthy challenge of art.

December 29, 2008

Worthless update

I feel obliged to write something, although I have nothing to write about.

I have become more involved with my new viewing project than I had originally expected. Most people write lengthy reviews and opinions while doing something like this, but in my growing distaste for writing and taste I have adopted a no-opinion rule. Doesn't seem that important. So no new writings will come from there, I suppose.

I might try to write something about city films to help me with my project for next semester. Still have quite a bit of research to do.

Otherwise I will continue searching for something to write about. Or a reason to write at all.

December 17, 2008

Esfir Shub

by Aleksandr Rodchenko (?)

December 10, 2008

Scene from "The Dawn Patrol" (1930)

(Testing out Blogger's video upload capabilities; hope it works.)
Scene: A WWI squadron; 7 planes on patrol, 3 of them with men for whom it was their first time going over. 2 of those 3 would never return. The 3rd is tremendously shaken. Leave it to the veterans to cheer him up...

Verses are:

We meet 'neath the sounding rafters,
The walls all around us are bare;
They echo the peals of laughter;
It seems that the dead are there.

So stand by your glasses steady,
This world is a world of lies.
Here's a toast to the dead already;
Hurrah for the next man who dies.

Cut off from the land that bore us,
Betrayed by the land that we find,
The good have gone before us,
And only the dull left behind.
Apparently this was really sung by RFC pilots.

December 07, 2008

A brief complaint against Borzage

My last post might suggest I have nothing but praise for Borzage's films, but that's not true. To be fair to myself, I want to complain about something that bugs me about Borzage: religion.

Because he was working in Hollywood and making movies for a mass audience, his films had to be secular to ensure a profitable run. That's one of the nice things about Hollywood and something I have seen few people comment on. Occasionally, however, Borzage's religious feeling slips through and I can't help at times but feel alienated, frustrated, and offended.

There are minor religious moments that I can overlook--Chico's frivolous re-acceptance of God because of his survival in Seventh Heaven (1927), for instance, or much of the thematic symbolism in A Farewell to Arms (1932). But Strange Cargo (1940) is nearly a sermon on faith that hits enough false notes of enlightenment to make the film an enormous wince in my memory; and The Mortal Storm (1940)... well, these are the lines that close the film: "I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, 'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.' And he replied, 'Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than any known way!' "

The whole of The Mortal Storm is about the persecution a family faces under Nazi Germany, and it ends with a heavy, tragic note. It is a bitter plea for life and tolerance, but that final quote subverts the entirety of the film's message. The Nazis are no more than people of blind faith, believing their leader to be the way to power and enlightenment--after attacking this blind faith for an hour and half, the film openly suggests to adopt another blind faith.

The rest of the film is wonderful, and had the ending suggested "Be a light unto yourself" instead of the blind faith nonsense, I would be drooling over it today. But as it stands, the ending is something of a betrayal, and it makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Undoubtedly it is Borzage's faith that gives him the refined sensibility I spoke of. I can overlook it, perhaps, because that sensibility is not exclusively reliant on faith. In fact, I more often associate faith with a radically different and terrifying sensibility, so it is refreshing to see one who is more genuine than his religious peers. It is when Borzage openly suggests faith that he seems to me his least consistent, betraying his thematic interests, even if he is sincere in this faith.

I must say that I am thankful for a secular Hollywood.

Frank Borzage through "Little Man, What Now?"

The first exchange of dialogue in Little Man, What Now? (1934) is what caught my attention and immediately drew me into the film. It is raining, and camera moves in on Pinneberg, the protagonist, as he waits in front of the office of a gynecologist. On the street, a man is giving an impassioned speech for a small and ambivalent group. A stranger approaches Pinneberg:

Stranger: You like the soapbox orator, young man?
Pinneberg: I can't even hear what he's saying.
Stranger: Ah, just as well. I heard him. He said that the rich are too rich and the poor are too poor. And he's going to change things--he's going to make the rich too poor and the poor too rich. He's going to change God's work!

In its opening minute, the film captures the problems of the outside world and the social conditions of our couple and dismisses it all. "Nothing much wrong happens to the peaceful man," the stranger says in the office shortly afterwards. Although the rest of the film is driven by the problems posed by tough social times, bitterness and aggression are not responsible solutions--social hardship is not important. What is important?:

Love, of course. This romantic solipsism is what so powerfully draws me to Borzage's work and what he is famous for. It is by love that man conquers the world, not by hate. But fostering love is difficult when the world conspires against it--this is the prototypical Borzage theme and wonderfully exemplified in Little Man. Our couple struggles to rise above the social tragedies they face; when Pinneberg is being interviewed for a job, he says this to his potential employer as he pleas for a position:

Pinneberg: I don't want to walk the streets, Herr Lehman.
Lehman: Many are walking the streets these days.
Pinneberg: Yes, I know. I'm afraid of the streets.
Lehman: The streets? Or of yourself?

Poverty breeds hate and malice. It is not poverty Pinneberg fears but the feelings that come with it; he values his love and peace and fears that he will become a man of anger and resentment. This is Borzage's central conflict. Love is our triumph, however low the world may bring us (be it to sewers or shanties). Borzage's world is thus not just a proclamation of love, but a deep understanding of social dilemma and a philosophy of progress. The handling of social issues is something I greatly admire in Little Man. There is a clear sense of morality and tolerance. My favorite touch is the socialist character Heilbutt, who not only gives a passionate and awesomely concise speech in favor of his fellow workers, but who also becomes the savior of our couple at the end as they are simultaneously within their brightest and darkest hour.

Perhaps what most attracts me to Little Man, What Now?, and to Borzage's work, is the sincerity of the characters. Generally, the more characters proclaim their love with words, the less I believe and understand that love, but there is a balance of words and action and an understatement of conflict (perhaps because of the theme of personal triumph) that makes a Borzage love wholly sincere. When Pinneberg and Lammchen are in the woods, or at the carousel, or in the park, there is an overwhelming sense of honesty, a feeling that the conflict, however minor, is real, a liberating knowledge that the connection between them is genuine.

It is innocence. This sincerity is true of minor characters, too; a character's motivation does not need to be continually questioned or assessed. They are straightforward and simple and clear. This is also true of Borzage's filmmaking, and I love it. Borzage's is a rare and delicate sensibility, one that truly believes in love's powers. It is not cynical, it is not ignorant, it is not doubtful, it is not arrogant, it is not overstated, it is not defeated--it is sincere. It is wonderful.

[Borzage box in several days! I will have to wait a few weeks before I can get my hands on it, but having exhausted most of what is available on home video I am ecstatic for this set.]

December 04, 2008

First Live-Blog

OK Lauren. I'm doing a liveblog after your example. It is a very cold afternoon and I have nothing better to do than watch several movies hanging around my comp. I know I should do more with this, but it'll just be a rather dull running commentary on movies nobody is ever going to watch. Useless. But maybe fun.

1. British Sounds (1970)
This will obviously be like all the other Vertov Group agit-prop I have swallowed: long periods of boredom and a drifting mind interspersed with a few moments of wild curiosity, all in a very small, very pretentious package. Let me have it, Godard. Maybe liveblogging will give me something to do while I am bored.

It is a bit past 3 PM. Start.

3:09. Credits. Fist punches through the British flag which has the title (British -Images- Sounds). I am amused.

3:12. Car assembly line. Slow tracking shot. Loud work noises occasionally competing with a narrator spouting Communist lines about workers and the bourgeois. Already bored.

3:18. Some well-expressed thoughts on the worker and communism. But the original shot is still going.

3:21. I wonder if Godard considers himself a worker in the same way the people on this assembly line are workers...

3:24. Oh, I hate it when Godard does this: multiple sound tracks for revolutionary narrators. Guh. But there is a naked woman wandering on-screen now. Hmm... but perhaps the assembly line was more interesting.

3:26. Proletariat vs. Bourgeois eroticism.

3:32. The Pro-Capitalist reporter with the gap in his teeth is quite an artless touch.

3:40. FORD USA = FOR US. Interesting.

3:42. What are these guys talking about? I've been watching them for awhile now. Impossible to concentrate. I suppose that's the point.

3:45. The workers on the car assembly line can't afford the cars they make. These guys are cool, I see.

3:50. Students writing a song about Mao. Hopefully I'll never sink so low.

3:54. 'If a million copies of a Marxist/Leninist film is made, it becomes Gone with the Wind.' Lots of stuff on bourgeois and militant aesthetics. Why all these proclamations about society and cinema? It seems to me if Godard wanted real change, he could've been doing something much more productive...

3:56. ...Instead of singing about communism... I wonder what these students are like now.

3:57. "It doesn't mean bringing films to the people; it means making films from and through the people." There it is, the whole ideology behind the Dziga Vertov Group. I am still not sure what they expected to accomplish aside from self-righteousness (a vile quality!).

4:00. A bloody arm sliding through the earth. Is this symbolic of something? Oh, it's grabbing a red flag.

4:01. Two dozen fists. Two dozen British flags. Two dozen holes. "Mao!"

Self-righteousness is dangerous. The film shows why this is true of the bourgeois. It doesn't much consider that this is true for the workers. Hmm... Workers have it bad. Minorities have it bad. War is bad. The bourgeois like it this way. The workers have to fight the rich. POINT TAKEN. At least it was short.
2. The Moon's Our Home (1936)
Margaret Sullavan and ex-hubby Henry Fonda in a screwball comedy? How awesome is this going to be? Eh, maybe not so great, but should be the perfect palette cleanser to that last viewing.

4:21. Credits. I wish there were some supporting players I liked...

4:24. A picture about pictures. Oh no! "I won't, I won't, I won't!" Is Margaret playing a diva? A brat?

4:25. Nope. Awesome as ever.

4:32. "Anthony Amberton," stealing Cherry's show. Yes, it's Fonda. Romance better start on this train.

4:36. Dual image, back-to-back, Margaret and Hank are whipping on each other to their private helpers, although they have yet to meet. I think this is the first time I've seen this particular technique this early. I like it.

4:38. Aw, brushing each other's teeth right in each other's faces. When will that wall vanish?

4:42. "Movie marshmallow;" I love that term.

4:47. Ah, a respectable-marriage plot. Bring back Henry.

4:54. Fine way to be introduced. More carriages should carry Margarets. Fonda's not too bad, either.

5:04. A snowy countryside. What could be more romantic? "Did Cherry Elope?" Oh, it's a snowy December day in real life, too. I suppose there's romance in that (maybe I should go do something...).

5:10. Sledding is an art. Like piggy-backing? This sort of moment is a romantic comedy staple, certainly.

5:17. How many more times will Margaret get a face full of snow? Lots, I hope.

5:21. Old people sex? My imagination says Yes!

5:27. A skiing lesson; I know what's coming for Margaret...

5:29. ...And Henry's just made it a lot more interesting.

5:32. Best wedding scene. But now where will the story go? A conflict over her identity?

5:36. What kind of wedding night is this? You know, Sullavan and Fonda make a great couple. I wonder what they were like in real life... Uh oh, perfume. Explosion imminent.

5:44. Strange predicament. Absolutely perfect for those comic gods of Fate. Yes, here's the impossible and awesome hand of Comedy. The final scene is set...

5:57. "I'm tired of having my own arms around me." Silly ending, not nearly as satisfying as it ought to be, but the romantic in me is hyped nonetheless.

I had nearly thought my Old Hollywood phase was over, but no, this is exactly what I need. Romantic comic fluff is necessary for my cinematic diet. Love it!
3. On purge bebe (1931)
Renoir's first sound film. I expect it to be a comedy in the manner of La Chienne and Boudu. I'm going to have to rely on my French for this, so I won't understand what is going on. All this considered, I am still excited for it.

7:00. Credits. Michel Simon.

7:02. I see: a stuffy man working who refuses to interrupt his work. He questions the maid(?), confuses her, and then complains about her lack of intelligence as she leaves...

7:05. A woman--his wife?--enters and begins haranguing/teasing him (did she just ask about another woman?). Action is centering around the bucket... yes, I see what kind of comedy this is. I think I'll shut up for awhile.

7:19. Film seems to be keeping a theatrical structure. I suppose reading the play ought to help my understanding. Michel Simon just appeared. Back to being quiet.

7:28. Are those chamber pots these men are throwing? They are made of porcelain. 100 francs a piece? I am greatly amused and curious. I need to learn more.

7:33. Is it the kid that's constipated? I think so. At first I thought it was the wife. I bet Renoir had fun directing these actors.

7:51....Two men purged.

Odd little film. I am going to go research it now.
Yes, those are chamber pots being thrown. Yes, it is the kid who is constipated (the mother is just obsessed with it). Fascinating. Renoir's test to prove his commercial viability and he passed.
End of liveblog. I am proud to have accomplished so little with it.