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Monthly Archives: July 2011

A Silent American Cinema Primer, pt. 1

As I grow older, I am becoming more and more enamored of the silent film era. Even a bad silent movie will typically have a certain “lyrical” quality that I find myself admiring due to the necessity that bound all silent filmmakers of having to tell stories primarily through visual means. The silent cinema in America was a particularly fecund period, in which the rules of “narrative continuity filmmaking” (the predominant mode of filmmaking in the world today) were first invented and popularized; it was an exciting, experimental time when talented directors could improvise on the nascent language of movies in much the same way that Shakespeare riffed on verbal language in Elizabethan England. In Hollywood during the late silent era, this visual language had become almost impossibly sophisticated, as evidenced by films as disparate as King Vidor’s The Crowd, Paul Fejos’ Lonesome and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. After studying – and teaching – this period in depth, I can only concur with the old Hollywood masters who lamented that something was irretrievably lost when the transition from silents to talkies was complete.

The silent film era in America also saw the formation of Hollywood’s studio system, which paved the way for the “golden age” of Hollywood that began in earnest in the 1930s. As with the posts I made about that era, this list (consisting only of feature-length movies), has been supersized to include 26 titles and will be broken into two parts. Part one begins with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat in 1915 and continues through Buster Keaton’s immortal The General in 1926. Part two will be posted next week.

In chronological order:

The Cheat (DeMille, 1915)

Forget what you think you know about the conservative purveyor of stolid 1950s epics and experience the raw power of Cecil B. DeMille’s scintillating “yellow peril” melodrama when the trailblazing director was just beginning his career in the mid-1910s. Edith Harvey (Fannie Ward) is a socialite who embezzles money from a charity, loses it in a bad investment and borrows money from shady Japanese businessman Hishuru Tori (Sessue Hayakawa) in order to pay it back. The film’s most outrageous scene involves the Asian Hayakawa (an ostensible “villain” who exudes more movie star charisma than anyone else onscreen) literally branding the caucasian Ward with a hot iron. The dramatic use of chiaroscuro lighting was way ahead of its time and anticipates the rise of German Expressionism a few years later.

Intolerance (Griffith, 1916)

D.W. Griffith is mostly known today for creating The Birth of a Nation, a film whose unfortunate racism has had the side effect of dissuading budding cinephiles from exploring the director’s filmography in depth. But everyone should see Intolerance, an insanely ambitious, epic movie consisting of a quartet of intercut stories set in different historical eras united by the common theme of “love’s struggle through the ages”. The film’s audacious pageantry and complex structure show off the narrative cinema’s first true master at the height of his considerable powers.

Within Our Gates (Micheaux, 1920)

Oscar Micheaux was the first African-American director of feature length movies and the Chicago-shot Within Our Gates is both his earliest surviving film as well as his best. A convoluted melodrama about a northern woman’s attempt to raise money for a struggling school in the Jim Crow south, this film’s shocking climax contains an extended flashback to a white-on-black lynching and a near-rape that serve as an explicit rebuttal to Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Low-budget and technically crude, this is nonetheless an invaluably authentic look at black life in early 20th century America, one of only a handful of movies about which that can be said.

The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (Ingram, 1921)

In 1968’s The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris listed director Rex Ingram as a “subject for further research” based solely on this masterpiece – an epic World War I/family drama that builds on the innovations of Griffith in its incredible painterly images and dynamic cutting, but which adds a more naturalistic acting style to the mix. Rudolph Valentino, in his first starring role, plays a rich ne’er-do-well who enlists in the French Army to impress the woman with whom he’s having an affair. But, once on the battlefield, he finds himself face to face with his German cousin . . . Sadly, Ingram is still a subject for further research; his movies, including this one, remain virtually impossible to see. Needless to say, this should be viewed at all costs whenever the opportunity arises.

Our Hospitality (Keaton/Blystone, 1923)

Buster Keaton hit his stride as writer/director/star with his second feature, a riotously funny version of the Hatfield/McCoy feud. Not as well known today as The General, this is for my money Keaton’s funniest film and the one with the most impressive physical stunts (the climactic waterfall rescue has never been equalled). Our Hospitality remains the most modern of all silent comedies due in part to Keaton’s hilariously blank facial expressions as actor as well as his beautifully engineered physical gags as director, which he always profitably captures in immaculately composed long shots. One of the best places to start exploring silent movies period.

Safety Last! (Newmeyer/Taylor, 1923)

As far as silent comedians go, Harold Lloyd was second only to Charlie Chaplin in terms of popularity. Safety Last! is his most famous film and one that anyone who cares about comedy movies should see. Lloyd plays his famous, can-do “Glasses Character” as a country bumpkin who arrives in the big city and gets a job in a department store. He concocts a publicity stunt to bring in more customers, which involves him scaling the exterior of the high-rise building where he works. This leads to a jaw-droppingly funny and amazingly acrobatic climax featuring one of the most iconic images in all of cinema: Lloyd suspended from the hands of a giant clock face near the top of the building.

Greed (von Stroheim, 1924)

Erich von Stroheim’s nine hour adaptation of Frank Norris’ classic American novel McTeague was brutally cut down to its present two hour and twenty minute running time by MGM executives, who also unconscionably destroyed all of the excised footage. Remarkably, the remaining shadow of Stroheim’s original vision (an excoriating indictment of the destructive power of money about a dentist, his wife and best friend who find their lives torn apart by greed) is still a deathless masterpiece. The powerhouse performances and shot-on-location Death Valley climax are unforgettable.

He Who Gets Slapped (Sjostrom, 1924)

Victor Sjostrom is best remembered today as the lead actor in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries but he also directed a couple of the best American films of the silent era – this Lon Chaney vehicle and 1928’s Lillian Gish-starring The Wind. Here, Chaney plays a scientist who is betrayed and humiliated by his wife and a wealthy benefactor. He consequently resigns himself to a life of self-flagellation by becoming a circus clown whose wildly popular act consists of being repeatedly slapped by the other clowns. Chaney was known for suffering for his art through the application of painful prosthetics but it’s the subtle emotions that play out on his face when he’s not wearing make-up that provide the high points of this awesome morality play.

Isn’t Life Wonderful (Griffith, 1924)

Polish refugees struggle to survive in post-World War I Berlin in D.W. Griffith’s final masterpiece, a deeply moving family drama shot almost entirely on location in Germany. Among the narrative strands is an exeedingly poignant subplot involving the courtship between Paul (Neil Hamilton), a war veteran whose lungs have been damaged by mustard gas and Inga, an orphan played by Carol Dempster (Griffith’s real-life love interest). A prototype of Neorealism, it is frankly astonishing that Griffith could extend such sympathy to the plight of a people who had been a much vilified enemy of the United States only a few years previously.

The Thief of Bagdad (Walsh, 1924)

The greatest of the 1920s swashbucklers, Raoul Walsh’s adventure epic stars Douglas Fairbanks as a thief who falls hopelessly in love with the daughter of the Caliph of Baghdad. In order to win her hand, the thief endeavors to best her other suitors by bringing back the rarest treasure before “the seventh moon.” This allows Walsh, one of the most astute directors of action ever, to execute the narrative as a series of exciting, self-contained set pieces, the elaborate special effects of which still impress and charm today.

The Big Parade (Vidor, 1925)

The highest grossing film of the silent era is King Vidor’s anti-war tour-de-force about Jim (John Gilbert), a callow rich kid who is shamed by patriotic friends into enlisting in the army during the first World War. Leaving his American fiance behind, Jim travels to France where he romances a peasant girl before heading to the front lines. The intense, realistic battle scenes were extremely influential on subsequent war movies (including All Quiet on the Western Front) but the highly emotional homecoming scene remains the most memorable in the film.

3 Bad Men (Ford, 1926)

John Ford’s first masterpiece is an epic western about a cowgirl (the splendid Olive Borden) who recruits the title trio to help her avenge the death of her father as well as find her a suitable husband. These twin plots unfurl, as happens so often in Ford, against the backdrop of a real life historical event – in this case the Dakota Land Rush of the 1870s. The climactic land rush sequence is presented as an exhilarating, fast-paced montage that rivals the best montage scenes coming out of the Soviet Union during the same period.

The General (Keaton/Bruckman, 1926)

Buster Keaton’s best-loved film tells the story of Johnny Grey (Keaton), a Civil War-era engineer from the South who ventures behind Yankee lines to rescue his beloved train after it is stolen by Union spies. Not only a very funny film and one that features Keaton’s amazing trademark stunt work, this is also notable for being one of the most authentic recreations of the American Civil War (influenced by the famed photographs of Matthew Brady) ever committed to celluloid.

To be continued . . .

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Beau Travail (Denis)
2. Breathless (Godard)
3. Raging Bull (Scorsese)
4. Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Straub/Huillet)
5. The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Muller)
6. X-Men: First Class (Vaughn)
7. Stagecoach (Ford)
8. Children in the Wind (Shimizu)
9. Chungking Express (Wong)
10. Rear Window (Hitchcock)


My Blog Is One Year Old

It was one year ago today that I launched this crazy blog. Since then I have made 126 posts. 44 of these have been lists of the last ten movies I saw. (This statistic – watching 440 movies in 365 days – is less insane than it might first appear; I have also taught between four and seven film classes a week for virtually every week of the past year – so that’s four to seven movies I saw weekly without even really trying.) The remaining 82 posts have been “red meat posts” (filmmaker and author interviews, film reviews, blu-ray and dvd reviews, historical/national cinema primers, etc).

I’d like to take this opportunity to extend my gratitude to all of my interview subjects – Jesse Wheeler, Mia Park, Seth McClellan, Susan Doll, Melika Bass, Pierre Kattar and Sara Vaux (whose interview is forthcoming) – as well as everyone who has read and contributed comments to this blog. You have made this place what it is. I have a had a lot of fun doing this even though I have occasionally driven my long-suffering wife crazy. (But better that I’m home next to her blogging than out drinking, gambling and carousing . . . right, babe?) I hope to keep this going for as long as I possibly can.


A Serious Talk About American Comedy

Katherine Stuart, one of the brightest of my former students from the College of Lake County, recently asked to interview me for an argumentative research paper she is currently writing in an English class. The topic of the paper is why classic comedy films are better than the comedy films of today. With her permission, I am reprinting the wide-ranging interview in its entirety below.

KS: You used Bringing Up Baby in your class. What characteristics do you think this film has that make it a classic?

MGS: The screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde (who incidentally fell in love while writing it) is very clever and contains a lot of witty banter within a very solid narrative structure, the direction by Howard Hawks is flawless and, most importantly, the chemistry between the two leads (Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant) is palpable and irresistible. I always describe the mixture of their distinctive speaking voices as sounding like a beautiful musical duet. Furthermore, there’s a “wildness” to the film, an element of chaos represented by the leopard, that I think is crucial for a screwball comedy to be effective. The leopard is associated with Hepburn’s independence and untamed sexuality, which is presented in stark contrast to Grant’s frigid fiancé (“no domestic entanglements of any kind”). Plus, it’s just so damn fun watching this woman turn this man’s life upside down.

KS: What do you think are some of the best qualities of classic comedy films?

MGS: For the most part, it’s the screenplays. Look at the scripts for Some Like It Hot or The Apartment: they are completely sound according to the rules of narrative logic and the characters are three-dimensional and highly memorable. Billy Wilder could have made those films as dramas and they might have been just as effective but he chose to make them as comedies instead. Or consider any of Preston Sturges’ films. Those movies are just incredible pieces of satirical writing. It’s what I think Mark Twain would’ve done had he been born in the 20th century and decided to become a filmmaker. Nobody even tries to write comedy like that anymore. Or if they do, their screenplays certainly aren’t being produced.

KS: Why do you like Howard Hawks as a classic screwball comedy director?

MGS: Hawks’ style is completely unobtrusive. It’s invisible. You’re never aware of where he’s putting the camera, when he’s moving the camera, when he’s cutting, etc. and that’s because he’s always making the right choices. He was the consummate professional Hollywood director. The first close-up in Bringing Up Baby doesn’t even occur until 17 minutes into the movie! It’s a close-up of Katherine Hepburn’s face expressing disappointment after she finds out Cary Grant is engaged. She doesn’t say a word and yet it’s an unbelievably effective moment. Hollywood comedies nowadays are slathered with close-ups from beginning to end and there’s no thought behind any of it. It’s just to try and make a movie star’s face fill up the screen.

KS: Do you think that classic comedy films are better than comedy films today and why?

MGS: It seems inarguable to me that the best comedies from Hollywood’s golden age are superior to the comedy films of today. The problem with today’s comedies is that the majority of them are nothing but a long string of jokes from beginning to end. The approach of most of these filmmakers is to throw everything they can think of at the screen and see what sticks. The end result is that even a relatively funny movie is going to have a lot of unfunny moments. (I do love the original Airplane! but I hate most of what it has spawned.) Also, the tone of today’s comedies is almost always uneven. In a movie like Superbad, there are some moments where the dialogue and performances are surprisingly naturalistic but then the next minute something completely absurd and cartoonish is happening. The problem is that the filmmakers can’t get from point A to point B smoothly. The tonal shifts are completely jarring.

KS: Who are some of your favorite classic comedy directors?

MGS: From the silent era, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were geniuses. Their humor is entirely visual and is therefore universal and timeless. Their best movies are just as funny today as they ever were. The reaction of students in my Intro to Film classes (the majority of whom have never seen a silent movie) is proof of that. In the sound era, Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges are my favorites. Sturges was the best comedy writer who also knew, as a director, how to get the best out of his actors. Everything William Demarest says in a Sturges movie sounds hilarious. Lubitsch’s movies are just so elegant and so damn effortless. In addition to being very funny, they are actually beautiful. No one tries to make comedy beautiful today. Also, the early Marx brothers’ movies at Paramount are among the funniest – and most insane – movies ever made, especially Duck Soup, which was directed by the great Leo McCarey.

KS: What are some of the characteristics of comedy films today?

MGS: Most comedies today fall into one of two subgenres: the gross-out comedy, which is aimed at male viewers and the romantic comedy, which is aimed at female viewers. The gross-out comedy is a more explicit, contemporary version of the “teen sex comedy” that was popular in the 1980s. It is characterized by humor involving bodily functions and fluids and was first popularized by There’s Something About Mary and American Pie in the late Nineties. The less said about contemporary romantic comedy, the better.

KS: Who are some of your favorite directors of comedy films today?

MGS: I think Woody Allen is still the best comedy director working in America today. His output might be hit or miss but I thought Midnight in Paris was a terrific movie. The premise of it was so clever and the tone of it so refreshingly sweet. I’m not surprised that it’s his highest grossing movie. Richard Linklater is a great writer and director of comedy. I especially like Dazed and Confused, Before Sunset and School of Rock. I like Harold Ramis a lot. Groundhog Day is probably my favorite Hollywood comedy to be released in my lifetime. The Coen Brothers do comedy well even when they’re not making official comedies. I like the Farrelly brothers’ early movies. And I like a bunch of random comedies that you might say succeed in spite of who directed them – like Office Space and Borat.

KS: Are there any modern screwball comedy films that you think are not as good as classic screwball comedy films? What characteristics do you think it lacks?

MGS: I would say that almost all contemporary films that try for a screwball tone end up not measuring up to the classic screwball comedies of the Thirties and Forties. Most of the contemporary examples (e.g., Runaway Bride, Along Came Polly) are too tame, cutesy and formulaic. They lack the anarchistic spirit of the originals. Also important is that a lot of the original screwballs were about class difference and therefore contain a certain amount of social criticism as subtext. Contemporary Hollywood isn’t interested in doing that. The Coen brothers probably do screwball the best and yet, interestingly, the times when they’ve tried to work purely in that mode (The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty) resulted in what are probably their least successful films. They’re better at marrying aspects of screwball to other genres. Also in that vein, The Social Network, which is of course a great drama, does contain a surprising screwball vein in Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue and in the delivery of the performers.

KS: As the expert, what do you think I should know that I did not ask you?

MGS: A couple of things: I do think comedy is alive and well in America, just not in the movies. Nowadays, most people get their comedy from sketch comedy shows, stand-up comedy, Comedy Central or even YouTube. None of those things existed during Hollywood’s studio system era. One could argue that there’s less of a need to laugh at the movies today because we’re surrounded by comedy everywhere else we go. Also, I’m not a reactionary; I don’t think that movies in general are any worse than they’ve ever been. But almost all of my favorite American films of the 21st century are dramas (Zodiac, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Mulholland Drive, Letters from Iwo Jima, A History of Violence, There Will Be Blood, The Hurt Locker, etc.) It seems that if you’re a serious, intelligent, artistically ambitious filmmaker in America today, comedy isn’t a genre that you’re going to try to get into. Therefore, as a filmmaker, I am naturally pursuing comedy.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Long Goodbye (Altman)
2. The Thin Blue Line (Morris)
3. Mr. Thank You (Shimizu)
4. Bicycle Thieves (de Sica)
5. Le Samourai (Melville)
6. The Social Network (Fincher)
7. Ruthless (Ulmer)
8. Breathless (Godard)
9. Street Without End (Naruse)
10. How Green Was My Valley (Ford)


July Film Festival Screenings and Lecture Alert

My short film At Last, Okemah! will be screening twice at the Music Box Theatre’s Summer Music Film Festival. It will be playing as part of “Shorts Program A,” a compilation of music-themed short films that will screen on Monday, July 25th and Wednesday, July 27th. Both screenings will be held at 5:30 PM and admission is only $5. I will be attending the Wednesday night screening. More info can be found on the Music Box website here.

Also, I will be presenting a day-long seminar on “How to Teach Classic Hollywood Movies” as part of Facets Multimedia’s Summer Film Institute on Friday, July 29th. You can read a description of the Summer Film Institute on the Facets Features blog here.


Wong’s Hong Kong (A Photo Tour)

This fall will see the return of a grand master when Wong Kar-Wai releases his new movie The Grandmasters. The world’s most romantic filmmaker directing what is promised to be a “real kung fu film” (with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai playing Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s teacher) is a mouth-watering prospect. The fact that it is Wong’s first movie in over seven years to be made in his native Hong Kong has raised anticipation and expectations even more. Although working slowly has since become his modus operandi, in the mid-1990s Wong was synonymous with the frenetic urban energy and unique East-meets-West flavor of Hong Kong after releasing Ashes of Time, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels within an astonishing span of just 13 months.

In 2006, I travelled to Hong Kong and visited many of the iconic locations featured in the delightful Chungking Express / Fallen Angels diptych. Here is my own personal photo tour of Wong Kar-Wai’s Hong Kong:

The central location of the first half of Chungking Express is Chungking Mansions, one of the oldest and most famous buildings on Hong Kong’s Kowloon side. (This is where Brigitte Lin’s character, the Woman in the Blonde Wig, recruits the Indian drug smugglers.) The first floor consists of dozens of retail shops, some of which are no larger than phone booths, with the upper floors containing hostels that cater to international travelers. (This is not an endorsement. It is reportedly an unsafe place to stay.) Watching Chungking Express is even more fascinating after having visited this location, as one can really appreciate the accuracy with which Wong captures the building’s singularly grungy poetic quality. Especially impressive is the way the film evokes what it feels like to wander around the first floor – with different ethnic music drifting out at anyone walking through the maze of myriad shops. This is also where Takeshi Kaneshiro’s mute character, He Zhiwu, lives with his father in Fallen Angels.

Outside of Chungking Mansions:

In a dilapidated corner of the building’s interior:

“The Woman in the Blonde Wig” inside of Chungking Mansions:

The central location of the second half of Chungking Express is the fast food restaurant Midnight Express. This is where Faye (Faye Wong) serves black coffee to heartbroken Cop 663 (Tony Leung) every night. The restaurant also makes a cameo in Fallen Angels when He Zhiwu briefly works there. By 2006 Midnight Express, located in Lan Kwai Fong (the nightlife district of Hong Kong Island), had closed and the space was being used as a tobacco shop. From what I understand it has since been converted again, this time into a 7-11.

Faye and Cop 663 in Midnight Express:

Outside of the First In Tobacco Shop (formerly Midnight Express):

In Chungking Express, Cop 663 and Faye make a date to meet at the California Restaurant. Any Wong Kar-Wai fan visiting Hong Kong for the first time will probably be amazed to learn that it is on the same block as Midnight Express (but on the opposite side of the street) – a much closer spatial relationship than one would ever deduce from watching the movie.

I drank a beer inside of California Restaurant (I particularly like this shot because it looks like it could be from a WKW film):

But unlike Cop 663 I didn’t talk to any empty bottles:

Cop 223 eats a burger outside of a Tsim Tsha Tsui McDonald’s (Kowloon side) in Chungking Express. This is also where Leon Lai’s hitman meets Blondie (Karen Mok) in Fallen Angels:

Outside of the same McDonald’s 12 years later:

Next to Wong Kar-Wai’s star on Victoria Harbour’s Hong Kong “Walk of Fame”:

The above photos of me were taken by the great Mia Park

Update 01/14/12: Of all the old posts on this blog, this one has remained the most popular because of the number of people constantly looking for information about the locations where WKW shot his films. Someone even linked this post to the official Wikipedia entry for Chungking Express. Therefore, I’m going to provide more detailed information about the addresses of the locations discussed above.

Chunking Mansions is located at 36 – 44 Nathan Rd. in Kowloon.

California Restaurant is located at 32 – 34 D’aguilar St. in Central.

Midnight Express is now a 7-11 and is located at 3 Lan Kwai Fong, a very short walk from California Restaurant.

The basement McDonald’s that figures in both Chungking Express and Fallen Angels is located on Salisbury Rd. in Kowloon. I don’t know the exact address but it’s easy to find.


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