1. The Lady Eve (Sturges)
2. Point Blank (Boorman)
3. Citizen Kane (Welles)
4. Bringing Up Baby (Hawks)
5. In My Skin (de Van)
6. Slumber Party Massacre II (Brock)
7. Salt for Svanetia (Kalatozov)
8. Turksib (Turin)
9. North By Northwest (Hitchcock)
10. The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Shub)
Monthly Archives: September 2011
1. The Lady Eve (Sturges)
My post for today concerns two of my favorite horror films – the German Expressionist masterpieces The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror. After showing both movies innumerable times in Intro to Film classes, I’ve come to believe that the awesome power of each ultimately lies in their shared sense of a wacked-out story structure: Robert Wiene and F.W. Murnau didn’t just make films about the supernatural, they made films supernaturally.
One of the hallmarks of the German Expressionist cinema is a keen interest in the supernatural. Incorporating techniques borrowed from Expressionist artists in other mediums (painting, theater, architecture, etc.) the major German Expressionist film directors sought to create a new, more personal form of expression that favored the unknown to the known, the power of the human imagination to knowledge acquired only through sensory experience and a cinematographic style that consciously rebelled against the “invisible” techniques of Hollywood narrative continuity filmmaking. The arrival of Expressionism in movies is usually credited with the 1920 release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a low-budget but revolutionary film written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer and directed by Robert Wiene at the Decla-Bioscop studio. Two years later, F.W. Murnau directed the landmark Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror, the first movie adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for a small outfit named Prana Film (it would be their only release). These two works, which share a startling, little commented upon framing device, provided a shining example, in both form and content, for many other filmmakers to follow.
One of the key ingredients to the success of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is its narrative structure. Wiene employs a framing device so that the chief action of his film is a story being told within a story. This structure provides a wealth of stylistic and thematic possibilities that allow Wiene to bring out the haunting, mysterious nature of his tale to maximum effect. The movie begins with the protagonist, Franzis, telling his story to an old man on a park bench. These shots (and a few rhyming shots at the film’s conclusion) are the only exterior shots to actually be filmed outdoors by Wiene and his crew. The bulk of the narrative is comprised of Franzis’ story, about the sinister goings-on at a carnival, which Wiene presents as a lengthy flashback sequence. All of the exterior scenes inside of Franzis’ story (and there are many) were clearly shot on interior sets in the Decla-Bioscop studio and have a highly artificial, theatrical appearance. The discrepancy between authentic and artificial exteriors is the first subtle clue as to the fact that Franzis is an “unreliable narrator.”
There are several reasons why the framing device is effectively suited to movies involving fantastic and otherworldly elements. First, it provides the director with an ironic juxtaposition of tone and setting. This is immediately apparent in the opening of Murnau’s Nosferatu. The first several shots of the film are title cards, the first of which reads: “an Account of the Great Death in Wisborg anno Domini 1838.” The second warns against speaking the word Nosferatu aloud lest “. . . haunting dreams will climb forth from your heart and feed on your blood.” The third title card is the most curious as it introduces the mysterious narrator: “I have reflected at length on the origin and passing of the Great Death in my hometown of Wisborg. Here is its story: Once in Wisborg lived a man named Hutter and his young wife Ellen.” Incredibly, it is never made clear who the narrator is, or even if he appears physically within the movie, although several more title cards crop up that indicate what we are seeing represents a first person perspective.
The first shots of Nosferatu (following the opening title cards) depict a scene of domestic contentment between Hutter and Ellen in their small-town bourgeois home. Hutter is excitedly getting dressed in front of a bedroom mirror, preparing to go to work for the day. Nearby, Ellen is laughing and playing with a cat and a ball of yarn in front of an open window. The counterpoint of the spectral opening titles – with their gothic font and multiple evocations of the “Great Death” – against this backdrop of newly wedded bliss allows Murnau to establish a mood of foreboding; a feeling of uneasiness has permeated the setting that will soon explode into horror once the narrative proper begins.
Another function of the framing device is to allow for multiple narrators. The first narrator of Caligari is Wiene himself – omniscient, God-like, paring his fingernails. He is the rational narrator who provides the “frame” for the fantastical portrait of the second narrator, Franzis. Wiene takes care to show the mesmeric effect of Franzis’ story on his listener (the old man) in the hopes that we, the viewer, will become hypnotized too. (The theme of hypnotism next raises its head in this same scene when Jane, the female lead, walks past the two men in a zombie-like trance. This theme will recur throughout the film.) Wiene will not however return to the framing story until the very end of the movie, a device that makes many first-time viewers forget that there even is a framing story. Nosferatu, on the other hand, only has one narrator, the “I” who mysteriously appears in title cards on a semi-regular basis throughout the movie. This suggests that what we are seeing is perhaps the illustration of someone’s diary and, unlike Caligari, we can never be certain whether any of what we see in Nosferatu is “real.”
After Nosferatu‘s opening titles, the narrator’s presence doesn’t crop up again until almost twenty-two minutes into the film, when Hutter has traveled to the Carpathian mountains in hopes of making a real estate sale to the mysterious Count Orlok. After a memorable shot of Hutter crossing a bridge, the following intertitle appears: “As soon as Hutter crossed the bridge he was seized by the eerie visions he so often told me of . . .” At the 38 minute mark, Ellen, at home in bed, is also seized by eerie visions (of her husband in Orlok’s clutches). After a doctor visits her, this intertitle appears: “The doctor described Ellen’s anxiety to me as some sort of unknown illness. But I know that on that night her soul heard the call of the deathbird.” Later, when Count Orlok departs for Wisborg, we see this intertitle: “Nosferatu was coming. Danger was on its way to Wisborg. Professor Bulwer, a Paracelsian who was then investigating the secrets of nature and its unifying principles, told me about it: Caskets filled with dirt were loaded onto the double-masted schooner, Empusa.” What these crucial title cards establish is that, although there may only be one narrator, what we are seeing has been passed through several subjective filters (the narrator’s as well as Hutter’s, Ellen’s, the doctor’s and Professor Bulwer’s).
As in Citizen Kane, what we think of as the “truth” of the events depicted onscreen in Nosferatu is really just the sum total of a bunch of stories that many different people have told to the narrator. The chief difference, therefore, between Murnau’s approach to constructing narrative and that of Wiene lies in Murnau’s self-consciousness in regards to form. While the narrative strategies of the two filmmakers work on the viewer in a similar, almost-subliminal fashion, the repeated intrusions of the unseen narrator in Nosferatu make the construction of narrative itself the subject of Murnau’s film as much as the mass death that Orlok causes to sweep across the German countryside like the plague.
Finally, the most important function of the framing device, at least in relation to supernatural subject matter, is the distancing effect it has on the viewer. When filmmakers set their narratives in the distant past or in faraway lands (as Wiene and Murnau both do), they are, somewhat paradoxically, lending credence to otherwise fantastical tales in the mind’s eye of the viewer. This technique is still common in campfire ghost stories and urban legends today where “Something once happened to a friend of a friend of mine . . .” Because most of us do not experience supernatural phenomena in our daily lives, we are more ready to accept such phenomena when it is packaged in a story taking place outside the realm of our concrete experience. Hence the evocation of “exotic” settings in both of these films: Romania and the mid-19th century in Nosferatu, Italy and the early 18th century in Caligari.
In Caligari, the most obvious narrative function of the framing device is that it allows Wiene to set up his famous “trick ending” (the story Franzis tells turns out to be no more than the ravings of a madman). As disturbing as this conceit is on the surface, it provides the audience on a deeper level with a sense of relief (i.e., it explains why the rest of the film looks so bizarre, it allows us to feel that Caligari’s counterpart, the asylum director, may be able to cure Franzis, etc.). If Nosferatu remains the more unnerving film today, it’s partially because its ending offers the viewer no comparable sense of relief. Towards the end of Nosferatu the narrator informs us, “I have wondered for a long time why it was said that Nosferatu took his coffins with him filled with dirt. I have surmised that vampires can only draw their shadowy strength from the cursed earth in which they were buried.” In other words, Murnau’s narrator is just as clueless as the viewer, merely speculating as to the causes of the horror to which we have born witness. When the vampire is finally vanquished (through the self-sacrifice of Ellen), the abiding tone is one of bleakness and despair. For a country that had just lived through and lost an unpopular war (for which Nosferatu can be seen as an allegory), the end of the “Great Death” was no cause for celebration.
Few movies have proved to be as enduringly popular as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu; Shutter Island and most of Tim Burton would be unthinkable without the former and many key elements of vampire mythology were first introduced in the latter – such as the notion that vampires cannot be exposed to sunlight. As to the reasons for this popularity, some would credit the masterful use of atmospheric lighting, the brilliantly innovative set design, the unforgettable monster make-up or the legendary performances of the villains played by Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt and Max Schreck. Personally, I think both films still resonate today because Murnau and Wiene both illustrated that form is the most direct route to emotion.
The most complete versions of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are available on DVD from Kino Video. The most essential critical writing on the German Expressionist movement is Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen.
As a longtime fan of Iranian cinema (I am dedicating my new short film to imprisoned directors Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof), I was extremely disappointed to learn that six more Iranian filmmakers were arrested last week. Chicago’s Facets Multimedia, who distribute many important Iranian movies on home video, has released the following statement:
“The Iran culture minister called them subversives and enemies of the Islamic system. Those arrested include filmmakers Mohsen Shahmazdar, Haidi Afarideh, Naser Safarian, Shahnam Bazdar, Mojtaba Mir Tahmaseb and film sales agent Katayoun Shahabi.
They are being held in Tehran’s Evin prison. The timing of the arrest seems to be in reprisal for the BBC Persian service broadcasting a documentary about Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini.”
In solidarity with film organizations around the world, Facets has created a petition calling for the immediate release of the six filmmakers. Please take a moment to sign and spread the word by clicking here: Iranian Filmmakers Petition.
1. L’atalante (Vigo)
2. The Roaring Twenties (Walsh)
3. Grand Illusion (Renoir)
4. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
5. Zero de Conduite (Vigo)
6. Citizen Kane (Welles)
7. Chicago International REEL Shorts Fest – Documentaries (Various)
8. Mother (Pudovkin)
9. The Shining (Kubrick)
10. The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles)
Warner Brothers’ newly released “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” of Citizen Kane, a magnificent Blu-ray package timed to coincide with the film’s 70th anniversary, is one of the most significant home video releases of all time and a must-buy for anyone who loves movies. Not only is this the definitive presentation of the film widely regarded as the greatest ever made (making up for several previously botched VHS and DVD releases), it also comes stuffed with copious supplemental materials. Some of these extras are admittedly worthless BUT among the goodies is a DVD of The Magnificent Andersons, Orson Welles’ great follow-up to Kane and a movie previously unavailable in any digital format in the United States. This release also provides me with a good excuse to finally blog about a film I’ve shown in the majority of my Intro to Film classes but never actually written about; it seems a daunting challenge to put fingers to keypad when the subject is an ivory tower masterpiece with mountains of published criticism already devoted to it. Nonetheless, here goes . . .
Let’s start by examining the film’s reputation as a colossal work not just of cinema but of twentieth century art and why it has been deemed worthy of the bells-and-whistles treatment from the good folks in the classics division of Warner Home Video. What is it that makes Citizen Kane so innovative and groundbreaking and massively influential? Two things: the visual style and the narrative structure. In terms of style, Citizen Kane is remarkable in that it shows the influence of almost all of the major historical film movements that had received international distribution up to the time of its release (it’s been noted that Citizen Kane was the first movie directed by someone who had obviously studied the history of cinema). And since Orson Welles had travelled the globe as a precocious young man while dabbling in several artistic mediums, he was already well-versed in these international film trends. It is therefore easy to note the influence on Kane of movements as far-flung as:
Narrative Continuity – Welles studied the rules of narrative continuity filmmaking before making Citizen Kane. Specifically, he studied John Ford’s Stagecoach, a particularly beautiful example of a classical narrative movie. While preparing Kane, Welles screened Stagecoach every day for over a month and watched it with different members of his crew each time. Throughout the screenings, Welles would ask his technicians questions to try and figure out how Ford had put his movie together. It was from Stagecoach that Welles learned the basic rules of narrative continuity (how to shoot and edit a scene so that time, space and action continue smoothly from one shot to the next). It may also have been the inspiration for Citizen Kane‘s much commented upon low angle shots, in which the ceilings of the sets are clearly visible, a rarity for the time.
German Expressionism – Citizen Kane features the most artful and self-conscious instances of high contrast and low-key lighting, courtesy of ace cinematographer Gregg Toland, that had ever been seen in a Hollywood film up to 1941. A good example is the scene that occurs in a screening room early in the movie when a group of reporters converse about a newsreel on the life of the late Charles Foster Kane. The contrast between the light and dark areas in the frame of every shot in this scene is extremely dramatic with the faces of each character intentionally hidden by shadows even while the light from the projector behind them is blindingly white. This is also the audience’s introduction to the character of Thompson, the reporter who will spend the rest of the film interviewing Kane’s closest living acquaintances to complete the documentary. Fittingly, we will never clearly see Thompson’s face throughout the movie, a strategy that allows Welles to posit this character as a surrogate for the viewer.
Soviet Montage – Welles was familiar with the the Soviet Montage films of the 1920s (as evidenced by his rapidly edited debut short The Hearts of Age) and Citizen Kane features several impressive montage scenes. The most beloved is probably the exceedingly clever breakfast table montage where the disintegration of the marriage between Kane and his first wife Emily is condensed into a two minute sequence spanning many years. In the first part of the scene, Kane and his new bride are sitting virtually side-by-side and engaging in flirtatious banter. Here, Kane looks like the impossibly young and dashingly handsome man that Welles was. Then, as the scene progresses and the convincing middle-age make-up is piled on, the distance between Kane and Emily, both physical and emotional, increases to the point where the characters are no longer speaking but reading rival newspapers in icy silence instead. The depressing nature of the scene is effectively offset by the wittiness of Welles’ staging and cutting.
French Poetic Realism – Poetic Realism, a movement that defined itself in opposition to Soviet Montage in terms of style, was predicated on long takes and long shots. Citizen Kane has these qualities in spades, which is unsurprising given Welles’ fondness for the films of Jean Renoir (Welles once cited Grand Illusion as his favorite movie of all time); but Welles’ predilection for deep-focus cinematography saw him push the style to an operatic extreme that even Renoir would have never dreamed of attempting. A newly released super-fast film stock allowed for a greater depth of field than ever before and Welles took full advantage by composing images in which important visual information would appear simultaneously in the extreme foreground and extreme background of a shot. A good example is the dialogue scene between Walter Thatcher and Mr. and Mrs. Kane inside of a boarding house in which young Charlie can be observed playing in the snow through a window in the distance behind them.
Documentary Film – Citizen Kane bears the influence of the documentary/non-fiction mode of filmmaking, especially in its opening faux-newsreel sequence “News on the March” (a parody of the “March of Time” newsreels of the day). Welles’ masterful employment of specific aesthetic qualities associated with this mode of filmmaking (jump-cuts, heavily scratched footage, handheld camera shots, etc.) conveys a sense of realism while also greatly adding to the visual wit of the film.
In terms of narrative, Citizen Kane also had a more complex and intricate flashback structure than what had ever been seen in a Hollywood movie up to that point. The bulk of the narrative is taken up by five lengthy flashback sequences. The film begins with the death of its protagonist, Charles Foster Kane, and then skips back over his life in non-chronological order as Thompson listens to (and in one case reads) the reminiscences of those who were closest to him. These recollections serve as the catalysts for the flashbacks, which allow Welles to cleverly introduce the idea of the unreliable narrator. That is to say, none of the five flashbacks necessarily represent the way things “really happened”; instead, they represent the way each character remembers them happening. Notice, for instance, how much more likable Kane is in Mr. Bernstein’s recollection of him than in that of Mr. Leland. Another function of the flashbacks is to allow for abrupt shifts in tone. Throughout Citizen Kane, as we jump from one point-of-view to another, we also jump from one film genre to another. Among the many genres encompassed by Kane are: the biopic (the rise and fall of a great man who bears a strong resemblance to a real life figure), the newspaper reporter movie (a popular genre in the ’30s and ’40s in which a reporter attempts to uncover the truth in pursuit of a story), the mystery (who or what is Rosebud?), the backstage musical (Susan Alexander preparing for her opera debut is similar to the “hey, we’re putting on a show”-type of musicals popular in the ’30s) and even the romantic comedy (a meet-cute involving Kane, Susan and a mud-splattering, horse-drawn carriage).
However, as innovative as Kane remains in terms of both form and content, it also crucially remains a hell of a lot of fun to watch. If it were merely an academic exercise in, say, giving viewers a guided tour through the history of world cinema, it likely would not have achieved the enduring popularity it has enjoyed with both the critics and the public alike. The film’s innovations are all rooted in a sense of excitement and wonder concerning the capabilities of the medium (note the clever logic behind virtually every scene transition, whether visual or aural, in the entire movie). This is no doubt why Pauline Kael said that it may be “more fun than any great movie I can think of.”
Warner Brothers’ high-definition digital transfer of Citizen Kane greatly improves upon all previous home video releases. This includes a 50th anniversary VHS edition “supervised” by editor Robert Wise that appeared overly bright and had purists complaining about attempts to “normalize” the film’s radical style as well as a 60th anniversary DVD edition in which fine object detail was lost due to an overzealous “restoration.” The Blu-ray corrects both problems by presenting Kane the way it was meant to look: with blacks rich and inky in the high contrast sequences, with incredible clarity and detail visible in all shots (including a restoration of the rain falling outside of Bernestein’s window that had been notoriously scrubbed off of the previous DVD) and a nice sheen of film grain over everything. The soundtrack is wisely presented only as a lossless rendering of the original mono track. No attempts to create a new 5.1 surround track could improve upon Welles’ glorious, incredibly innovative original mono mix in which a creative use of sound effects, a superb Bernard Herrmann score (his first!), and the mellifluous voices of some of the greatest theatrical and screen actors of all time jockey for the viewer’s attention. It is simply impossible for me to imagine this greatest of American films ever looking or sounding better on a home theater system. If that sounds hyperbolic, well, sometimes only hyperbole will do.
1. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
2. Far From Heaven (Haynes)
3. The Awful Truth (McCarey)
4. Teeth (Lichtenstein)
5. Kiss Me Deadly (Aldrich)
6. M (Lang)
7. Best Worst Movie (Stephenson)
8. City Girl (Murnau)
9. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Yates)
10. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene)
Christa Lang Fuller is an actress, author and producer who runs Chrisam Films, the company she founded with her husband, the late Sam Fuller, in 1981. She got her start acting in movies in Paris in the 1960s, working with such notable directors as Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Pierre Chenal and Roger Vadim. After meeting him in Paris in 1965 she appeared in most of her husband’s films including, notably, 1973′s Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, where she played the starring role.
I developed an online correspondence with Christa when she wrote me to kindly correct some erroneous information I had posted in my blu-ray reviews of Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss earlier this year. The following interview, conducted recently via e-mail, is by far my favorite piece that I’ve ever published on this site. I made no attempts to “normalize” Christa’s incredibly creative syntax and use of capitalization, which I believe accurately reflect the voice and speech patterns of an exuberant RACONTEUR. Anyone familiar with her husband’s work will understand why they were a match made in heaven by reading what follows.
MGS: So how does a young woman from Germany find herself acting in Paris during the height of the French New Wave?
CLF: My attraction to things French came from the fact that my grandmother on my father’s side had been of French Huguenot origin. TWICE a week I went to a French cultural center to study their beautiful language. Then I saw an ad about an au pair girl wanted in France. I left Germany at the age of 17 and remained in FRANCE. In ESSEN I had passed an audition for HELMUT KAUTNER at the theater school in BOCHUM —Arthur Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE, but my mother did not approve of me being an actor. In Paris after various jobs –my last au pair was with the stunning and briliant comtessa MIRANDA de TOULOUSE LAUTREC who is still my friend, I did translations for a textile firm all the while taking acting classes at night. I posed for PAUL BELMONDO, the famous sculptor and MARC ALLEGRET liked my tests and was going to star me in a movie about a GERMAN au pair girl surrounded by the hot actors of the sixties SAMI FREY, JOHNNY HALLIDAY and a big article about Christa Lang in the papers with the bronze bust by BELMONDO got me working with CLAUDE CHABROL in LE TIGRE AIME LA CHAIR FRAICHE —an alcoholic dumb blonde and getting a great review by CHAZAL in FRANCE-SOIR had GODARD ask his friend CHABROL if he could see me for ALPHAVILLE…….I also did a play for many months by SACHA GUITRY called LA JALOUSIE —the director HENRY MURRAY was ANOUK AIMEE’s father and loved to repeat that DA VINCI only made one MONA LISA and that he only made one ANOUK……his real name was DREYFUS and he loved to also repeat with glee how he lifted the grey skirts of Nazi secretaries occupying la belle France and do it to them from behind……….the rest of the story —I let you imagine the rest. It gets really raunchy…….I learned a lot performing LA JALOUSIE by SACHA GUITRY and remember turning 20 years performing in VICHY the day on my birthday…….SACHA GUITRY’s comic genuis can be discovered via CRITERION ===A GREAT BOX SET……..
MGS: Your bit part in Alphaville as the Seductress who picks Akim Tamiroff’s pocket is great. Accounts of how Godard directed actors during this time vary wildly. Do you recall if he was very specific in giving directions or did he let you and the other actors just do your thing?
CLF: GODARD was very exciting to work for — he knew what he wanted, but left you free to improvise!!! He was distant, but professional during the three day shoot and even though he acted strange when I met him for the first time, he was fantastic on the set. I love the movie, KARINA, CONSTANTINE, TAMIROFF and the whole vibe of the movie……Godard is really a unique talent.
MGS: You met your husband, Sam Fuller, around this time. In his memoir, A Third Face, he writes very memorably about your first meeting – a dinner date with you and your friend Maria-Rosa Rodriguez, who also happened to be Miss South America. What were your first impressions of Sam?
CLF: He was mesmerising, told us stories and was so genuine a person that I fell in love, but he never went for his actors in a romantic way. “It’s against my religion,” he used to joke. However I seduced him by mentioning RING LARDNER, not knowing that he had been one of his mentors in his adolescence. He promised that he would get me the ENGLISH version at BRENTANO’S. AND HE DID —–he was a man of his word and not some bullshitter like a lot of the men in showbiz —-I was sweating out his call —and he DID call and we started dating………PARIS, mon amour……….
MGS: A Third Face, published posthumously in 2002, is one of the all-time great books about a film director. What was your role in the writing and editing of this book?
CLF: VICTORIA WILSON at RANDOM responsible for many bios including the KATHERINE HEPBURN one, called to talk to SAM about BARBARA STANWYCK since she was planning her bio. SAM coud not talk after his stroke, was very weakened, so I sat in the sun with him and started writing the way he talked and read every sentence like he had written it, which in a way he did —-I had close to 2000 pages when he left us ……..in 1998 my granddaughter SAMIRA was born and from taking care for over three years day and night of my husband, I had now a baby to help nurture. Like GARGAMELLE in RABELAIS: I cried with one eye and laughed with the other……….I had picked Jerome Henry RUDES because he had a good eye and was a minimalist to edit SAM’s almost hundred years on this planet.
MGS: I was blown away by “The Reconstruction” of The Big Red One when it was released a few years ago. The newly integrated scenes, including your scene as the German Countess, make the film a much richer experience. But I know some critics were skeptical of some decisions such as the voice-over narration being retained. Do you think Sam would have been pleased with this version of the film?
CLF: Of course, he would have been pleased………it’s a 90 percent improvement thanks to RICHARD SCHICKEL and BRIAN JAMIESON. The scene of the countess I liked was when SCHROEDER shoots her, her pearl necklace has pearls falling one by one on the floor. Don’t know where those rushes are, but at least the Hitler bad-mouthing countess is back in the picture like they say!!!! And a scene with an impotent Nazi at that, can’t get any better!!!
MGS: Sam’s final movie, Street of No Return, is full of great moments but it was sadly re-edited against his wishes. Is there any chance it too might be reconstructed in a cut that more closely resembles his original intentions?
CLF: SAM suspected JACQUES BRAL of having a hidden mimetic rivalry going on and even though he was kind and polite, to cut and recut a film for a whole year was strange. He is a good director himself………but here we go to what the French call L’espace du NON DIT……….maybe the film will get more or less SAM’s cut again and a new run………
MGS: I’ve managed to track down all of Sam’s movies even though a lot of them are difficult to see in the U.S. What can you tell me about the status of never released-on-DVD titles like China Gate, Run of the Arrow, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, Les Voleurs de la Nuit and the wonderful Mika Kaurismaki documentary that you conceived and produced, Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made? What are the chances these titles might see home video distribution soon?
CLF: AM WORKING on CHINA GATE —-the great song by NAT KING COLE with the same title CHINA GATE is available on itunes —-hope the dvd will be happening soon—-it’s INDOCHINA before it became VIETNAM —LES VOLEURS DE LA NUIT ==have no idea but it was fun to have scenes with the late, great CLAUDE CHABROL, one of the funniest directors ever —it’s not a bad movie at all…….CASSAVETTES liked it a lot when they booed it in BERLIN and he got the golden BEAR for LOVE STREAMS……ten years later we got the BERLIN CRITICS AWARD for TIGRERO, a real crowd pleaser that I am very proud to have brought forth into the light. SAM had shot those rushes of the incredible KARAJA indians in 1955 with the same BELL AND HOWELL camera that he shot the liberation of the camps with in 1945 and in 1975 the birth of our daughter SAMANTHA……….death — adventure—birth………..Returning with SAM, MIKA KAURISMAAKI and JIM JARMUSCH and SARA DRIVER to make this wonderful piece TIGRERO was one of my happiest moments ever!!!! THEY put it out on dvd, BUT NEVER really got behind it, the way they should have. Hoping for a new life of TIGERO as well —the young people should discover the life of the KARAJA INDIANS……Incas who migrated from the ANDES and settled on the foot of the amazon —their language resembles JAPANESE and no linguist can figure it out…….
MGS: I teach film history classes to a lot of young people who may have heard Sam’s name but might not be familiar with his work. What movies would you recommend for them to see to introduce them to the world of Sam Fuller?
CLF: all of the them —he really had to fight hard for most of the movies to retain his artistic integrity……..he loved being with students and they liked him in return, because he was without WAX —-sans CIRE —sincere—–
MGS: Thank you so much for your time.
A continuation of my list of essential Hong Kong movies. This part of the list includes titles released between 1986 and the present.
A Better Tomorrow (Woo, 1986)
With this 1986 action movie extravaganza, John Woo almost single-handedly kicked off the “heroic bloodshed” genre, where the conventions of the period swordplay film are transposed to the mean street of contemporary Hong Kong. This tale of two brothers on opposite sides of the law (one a cop, the other a counterfeiter) has all of Woo’s soon-to-be trademarks: outrageously choreographed shootouts, mawkish melodrama, references to Martin Scorsese and Jean-Pierre Melville, and the charismatic Chow Yun-Fat at his most iconic – sporting sunglasses and a trench coat and with a .45 in each hand. Boo-yah!
An Autumn’s Tale (Cheung, 1987)
Or Another Side of Chow Yun-Fat. While Chow will likely always be most closely identified with John Woo shoot-em-ups, I think his best performance is in this beautiful romantic drama by the relatively unheralded female director Mabel Cheung. An Autumn’s Tale was shot entirely in New York City and charts the exceedingly poignant love story between Jennifer (Cherie Chung), a Hong Kong native who moves to the States to join her no-good, cheating boyfriend at NYU, and her cousin Figgy (Chow), a gambler and wastrel who nonetheless proves to have a heart of gold. The two leads are superb and the deft use of New York locations makes this sweet and touching film a priceless time capsule.
A Chinese Ghost Story (Ching, 1987)
Producer Tsui Hark (often referred to as “the Steven Spielberg of Hong Kong” for his proclivity for big budget fantasy) teamed up with action choregrapher Ching Siu-Tung for this awesome remake of the Shaw Brothers’ 1960 ghost story classic The Enchanting Shadow. Leslie Cheung plays Ling, a traveling tax collector who seeks refuge for the night in a haunted temple where he falls in love with a beautiful young woman (Joey Wang) who turns out to be a ghost! Scary, funny (Cheung is hilarious as the bumbling Ling), thrilling, romantic and with delightful special effects (I’m especially fond of the tree spirit with the killer tongue).
Once Upon a Time in China (Tsui, 1991)
As producer/writer/director Tsui Hark inaugurated a new wuxia boom in the late ’80s and early ’90s with titles like Swordsman I and II, Dragon Inn and the Once Upon a Time in China films starring Jet Li as real life doctor/martial arts hero Wong Fei-Hung. Set in the late 19th century, the first and best of the series pits Wong against the forces of British and American colonialism as well as local Chinese gangs and throws in a taboo romance between Wong and his Aunt Yee (the lovely Rosamund Kwan) for good measure. A serious, intelligent kung fu film with fight scenes as exciting and cinematic as the best dance sequences from the golden age of the Hollywood musical.
Actress (aka Centre Stage) (Kwan, 1992)
Prior to the rise of Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan was Hong Kong’s most prominent art film director. Often distributed under the English title Centre Stage (an ill fit since that connotes theatrical performance), Actress is Kwan’s masterpiece and one of the all-time great Hong Kong films – a biopic of silent Chinese film star Ruan Ling-Yu (Maggie Cheung in her first great performance) who committed suicide at the age of 24. Shuttling back and forth in time, set against a backdrop of political tumult and audaciously including clips from Ruan’s classic films as well as documentary segments featuring director Stanley Kwan and the cast of Actress, this is essential viewing for anyone who cares about cinema.
The Bride with White Hair (Yu, 1993)
In many ways the ultimate Hong Kong film – a Romeo and Juliet style love story liberally dosed with fantasy, comedy, over-the-top action and colorful, expressionist sets. Brigitte Lin (a Garbo-esque icon of mystery and beauty) plays Lian Ni-Chang, a girl raised by wolves(!) who works as an assassin for an evil cult. She falls in love with Zhuo Yi-Hang (Leslie Cheung), a Wu Tang Clan commander and the chief rival of her bosses. The conflict both characters face, between professional duty and the desires of the heart, is almost inexplicably moving given the film’s outrageous, absurdist tone. But that kind of off-the-wall genre-busting is what Hong Kong cinema is all about.
A Chinese Odyssey (Lau, 1994)
Jeffrey Lau, Wong Kar-Wai’s more commercially-minded cousin, directed this ambitious and masterful two-part adaptation of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West. Part one is subtitled Pandora’s Box, part two is subtitled Cinderella; both must be seen in sequence to be understood. The convoluted but consistently entertaining plot tells the epic story of how Buddhism came to China courtesy of Joker, a bandit who discovers that he is the reincarnation of the “Monkey King.” Lau’s masterstroke was casting Stephen Chow, one of the most popular Hong Kong actors (and filmmakers) of the late ’90s and early ’00s, in a relatively early performance that is arguably his finest. It is no exaggeration to say that Chow recalls no one here so much as golden age Charlie Chaplin in his flawless blend of comedy and pathos.
Chungking Express (Wong, 1994)
One of the definitive films of the ’90s, Wong Kar-Wai’s refreshingly original spin on the romantic comedy tells two parallel but unrelated stories involving heartbroken cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung) who attempt to get over recent break-ups by becoming involved with strange new women – a counter girl at a fast food restaurant (Faye Wong in her first screen performance) and an international drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin in her last). Wong’s innovative visual style, predicated on handheld cinematography and optical effects that turn nocturnal Hong Kong into an impressionistic blur of colorful neon, ideally compliment the film’s alternately sweet, funny and melancholy tone. The cinematic equivalent of a perfect pop song.
The Mission (To, 1999)
I’m fond of calling Johnnie To the world’s greatest genre director and this film, the coolest gangster movie since the heyday of Jean-Pierre Melville, is the best place to start exploring his work. After an attempt is made on his life, a triad boss hires five professional killers (a who’s who of Hong Kong’s best male actors of the ’90s) to serve as his personal bodyguards while trying to unravel the mystery of who ordered the hit. Plot however takes a serious back seat to character development as scene after scene depicts our quintet of heroes bonding and playing practical jokes on each other. (A personal highlight is the brilliant sequence where the five co-leads engage in an impromptu paper ball soccer match.) When the action does come, it arrives in minimalist, tableaux-like images of meticulously posed characters whose staccato gunfire disrupts the silence, stillness and monochromatic color scheme on which the entire film is based.
Infernal Affairs (Lau/Mak, 2002)
Directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak reinvigorated the cop thriller with this inventive and complex doppelganger story about an undercover police officer (Tony Leung) who infiltrates a gang and his opposite number, a gangster (Andy Lau) who becomes a “mole” in the police force. In addition to the swiftly paced storytelling, beautiful cinematography (Wong Kar-Wai’s longtime DP Chris Doyle is credited as consultant) and Leung’s impressively tortured performance, what really impresses here is the extent to which the film eschews physical violence in favor of old-fashioned suspense based on cat-and-mouse style chase scenes. Deepened by references to Buddhism (the film’s original title translates as “Continuous Hell”), this is far superior to the Hollywood remake (Martin Scorsese’s The Departed).
My short film At Last, Okemah! will be playing as part of the Comedy and Narrative Short Fiction program at the Estes Park Film Festival in Estes Park, Colorado on Sunday, September 18th at 1:15pm. Members of the cast and crew (but alas not me) will be present. More info, including how to purchase tickets, can be found here:
On October 22nd, I will be presenting a midnight screening of James Whale’s The Old Dark House at Facets Multimedia – so mark it on your calendars and come prepared to join the midnight madness! It will be showing as part of “Fright School 3″, a month-long series of horror movies to celebrate Halloween. Any of my students who attend will receive extra credit. Check the extra credit page of your course website for details. More info about the screening, including a description of my presentation and how to purchase tickets, can be found here:
1. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder)
2. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
3. The Slumber Party Massacre (Jones)
4. L’atalante (Vigo)
5. Sweet Sixteen (Sotos)
6. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
7. Bed and Sofa (Room)
8. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
9. Some Came Running (Minnelli)
10. Nosferatu (Murnau)