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Archive for the ‘ACTING STYLE: SILENT GESTURAL’ Category

Metropolis

06 Dec

Metropolis – directed by Fritz Lang. SciFi. 148 minutes Black And White Silent 1927.

★★★

The Story: In a modernistic city controlled by an oligarch, his son enters the bleak world of the lowly workers to make things better.

~

Fritz Lang is in possession of a reputation for high art which leaves me stumped. When I read David Thomson on Lang, I don’t doubt the enthusiasm of what Thomson is saying, but I don’t see it evidenced in the films. I don’t see Lang as a telling director of actors. I don’t see his working with difficult or timeless subjects. I don’t see a visual style that is ever a narrative force in and of itself. He’s not a bad director, but it seems to me that his reputation stems from his professional associations rather than with his innate gifts.

Lang’s big name comes from his work in Germany — from Metropolis, M, two of the Mabuse films, and several others — from before 1933 when he withdrew his fortune and emigrated to France and Hollywood. The remarkable thing about those films is that they were all conceived not by Lang at all, but by a woman, Thea von Harbou who wrote them. She became his wife, and, both before and after her association with Lang, was the top script writer of German films.

Lang also had to hand various highly skilled technicians, and much of the critical attention to him stems from the presence of the spectacular sets in his work. He also had the creative genius of Gunther Rittau to conceive and execute the filming of the renowned special effects of Metropolis. And he, of course, had a remarkable cinema-photographer, who was to go on to shoot Garbo’s Camille, Pride And Prejudice, Tortilla Flat, Without Love, and Key Largo and end up – and then on to being hired by Desi for his inventiveness with cameras and to film I Love Lucy.  It is none other than the great Carl Freund. What we are seeing, it seems to me, probably belongs to all these people, rather than to Lang.

I feel Lang is a director without a vision and not much heart. I feel he is drawn to the obvious. Jamie Lee Curtis said, with pride, that her mother the actress Janet Leigh took on anything the studios threw at her. I feel Lang did the same, but with a mean streak. He directed because he liked to live well. His subjects are the psychological small potatoes of human life. A large subject, as here, he reduces to a maxim. On the other end of his spectrum for platitude he indulges in conflagrations, which is like someone who can’t get their own way having a tantrum. He sat by the camera, pressed the button, and whole sets would explode.

Metropolis establishes its cliché from the start, just as each and every modern science fiction movie does, by making the Metropolis a dystopia. The drive to hold onto the lineage of the dictator’s dominance is both enforced and undermined by a mad inventor who is able to recreate in a robot the love he lost years before to the dictator. She comes to life as a Duessa version of the Una version of the heroine who wishes to reform the Metropolis, and both of these, in identical dresses, are very well played by Brigitte Helm.

Lang nearly burned her to death in the immolation scene (he was never very good with actors). But he is here and elsewhere served well by his German character people and a zillion extras. However, on all available occasions demanding an impression, his leading man lodges his irises in the middle of his eye sockets and stares vividly, a  one-size fits all technique. He is like many Silent film actors who tend to rely on lots of mascara for their art.

It’s a film worth seeing, for it is felt to be the greatest film ever to be made in Germany, at one with the work of Beethoven and Bach. I don’t see it that way  — after all, it’s science fiction, a genre that forbids depth by very definition. It’s pulp made to appear important with lots of mascara. But you must make up your own mind. If you can face the delirium and live.

 

Seven Chances, The Balloonatic, Neighbors

12 Oct

Seven Chances, The Balloonatic, Neighbors – directed by Buster Keaton. Color and Black And White, 1920 and before.

★★★★★

The Story: A young man will inherit seven million dollars if he gets married by 7 that day.

~

Do you want to owe a debt of gratitude? Do you want to thank God on your deathbed that you used your time well, in one respect at least? Do you want to be the happiest you’ve ever been at a movie?

Buster Keaton is Circle du Soleil all rolled up into one. He was, he remains, the greatest humorist ever to appear in motion pictures. He is the paramount physical comedian to have appeared before the public. He is the muscularly strongest person ever to have acted before cameras.

You will see feats that will astonish you. You will not be able to believe your eyes. You will certainly not believe that one person could do all this without stand-ins, stunt men, or special effects. You will laugh yourself sane.

Keaton understood the wit inherent in the two-dimensionality of film, how what comes on from the left goes off from the right, and in between these two events takes place farce. The going, the action, the leaving constitute farce. The thousand deaths of farce are hilarious. For the flatness is death. And it deserves and wins our triumphant laughter at his triumphs.

We face the flat surface of the screen. This is a comedy which is funny because it reflects that part of life which is without dimension. This is comedy without depth. That is its depth. You do not reach into it. It reaches out at you at all times. If you want depth, wait, at some point or other you will see into Buster Keaton’s eyes.

Here he must run around and find a bride before dark. He asks seven. Then seven hundred ask him. What more does one need to tell of such a merriment?

Attached to this full length film are two two-reelers, The Balloonatic in which he goes up on the top of one. And Neighbors all shot on two sides of a tenement backyard fence that splits the screen.

And who will benefit from your watching these gems? Your entire family will. You will. You will be happy and you will die happy for having been so. And I?

It is to me you will owe the debt of gratitude, along with Buster Keaton, for having participated in your dying of laughter.

 

The Temptress

25 Jan

The Temptress  — directed by Fred Niblo. Drama. 117 minutes Black and White 1926.

★★★★★

The Story: A gorgeous woman, married to a jerk, has an affair with a dam-builder from the Argentine, to which she follows him, to dam-busting seismic disturbance for all.

Greta Garbo is the most sexually voracious actress ever to have appeared in film.

Her films are all the same. She has been kept by older men or beset by unwanted suitors, too old, silly, callow, married, dense, young. They come upon her and desire her wantonly. They betray all their scruples for her. She laughs, treats them like children, and doesn’t let them off the hook because they pay for her fancy apartment. She keeps them dangling. Obviously no one is the right one. They appear in uniform, with medals, naked, clothed, in rags. They present her with diamonds, furs, and food. Nothing turns her head. They tire her. She makes her living on them. Until there swans into view some young man, so pure, so devoted, so delicious of aspect and potential, that Garbo, who has spurned Dukes, walks over to this young man, seizes him with one hand by the back of the head, grabs his chin with the other, drapes her body upon him, leans her face down over him, puts her mouth on his, and drinks and drinks and drinks.

This skill as an actress she had when she was twenty, when she made The Temptress, her second film. The vamps, such as Nita Naldi and Gloria Swanson and Clara Bow, were all dark and tiny wild gypsy bitches. Garbo was a lanky blond, and she was not a bitch. She was a master flirt, but also second-by-second sensitive, open to the subtlest influence, inner or outer. She was simply a lone operative in the big-time world of men with nothing but her female wiles to survive on, and an acting instrument strung like an Aeolian harp.

She brought to MGM the caché of class. She was the top money maker there. As Louise Brooks said, as soon as Garbo appeared in films, every other Hollywood actress had to exist in relation to her. She was able to do on screen what no other actor was able to do before or since, and no one knew exactly what it was. When the war came, MGM did not know what to do with her. They had exalted her in their own eyes. This was stupid and unimaginative of them. It was quite simple, for Dietrich and Lamar and Bergman went on playing Europeans in war stories. Garbo was still a big money-maker – her last film, too. The war cut off her European audience, which was huge. And her American popularity in the sticks had waned, in part due to the number of fancy costume dramas she appeared in, and a certain distance she had created for herself on screen and which was created by her studio as well. She drew a circle around herself and acted inside it, as Brando was later to do. Who could imagine actually wooing her and marrying her? Adoring her, yes. Keeping her, or trying to, yes. But who could imagine actually settling down with her? Her eyes had gone private. So to stand next to her and do the dishes?

Stiller, her mentor from Sweden, began this film, was taken off it, and although it was reshot, he may have coached her here into the Garbo we came to know playing these parts. For it does not seem quite yet to exist in her first film, The Torrent. 

Anyhow here, in The Temptress, she is  young woman, not even of age, and already in full possession of her technique, which originated in her lower-middle back and travelled north. She made it up in the shower. She was already That Thing, Greta Garbo. Cary Grant did the same. They made something up and let it respond in accordance with the scene they were presented with. It was indissolubly manufactured and real at once. William Daniels said that Garbo made love only to the camera. True, and we wouldn’t have wanted her to do anything else. It means her real love-affair, her most intimate sexuality, is actually with us.

 

 

Polyester

19 Dec

Polyester – directed by John Waters. Mock Melodrama. 86 minutes Color 1981. ★★★★

The Story: A middle-class American housewife’s husband takes up with his secretary and she takes up with a handsome stranger.

I owe an apology.  I have been reviewing John Waters’ pictures for a time now, and I do not find them funny, appealing, or entertaining. But it is my own fault. For I now realize that is because I have been watching them in my own livingroom, and it is probably true that John Waters films do not belong in anyone’s livingroom.

That, indeed, where they do belong is a movie theatre or drive-in, for they are made with those places in mind. The style of them is the style of masses.

And they probably would work for me if I saw them with a mass of other people. For John Waters’ films do not slap individuals with surprise, humor, and fractiousness, they slap whole crowds. He is writing about crowds. They are made by the same collection of people about a collection of people for a collection of people.

Individuals play the parts, but the individuals who play them play them in the amateur style which is Waters’ earmark and which generalizes them. Amateurism is never specific to the material. After all, there is no such individual as Divine’s Mrs. Francine Fishpaw – for Divine is never real. But there is a “type” of Mrs. Fishpaw, and that is what we are watching. Waters is sending up a whole demographic: The Put-Upon Housewives Of America! And that is why one needs to see them in a crowd of people willing to see such films with other people, that is to say with a demographic.

Here Waters has gathered certain professional actors to his comic mission. But none of them play quieter than a yell, which is the same volume which Joni Ruth White lends to her astonishingly announcement-like line readings. Tab Hunter, a good actor after all, plays the devastatingly handsome stranger, and he alone plays in a natural comic vein. He actually is somebody. And he is just wonderful. But nobody else is anybody. Every single actor in it is a multitude. It is a play performed by the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Balloons.

My error was born in on me when I listened to John Waters’ commentary on the film. He is wonderful, simple, real, and quite funny. He is endearing. He finds things funny. How nice. And so he makes movies about those things. I have read one of his books and one about him, and everything that he says belongs in my livingroom. But not one of his films do.

So go and see them at your local revival house. You will be heartened and capacitated by the collaboration of others in the laughter, I am sure. Or, baring that, just rent the film, but don’t watch it – just watch John Waters commentary about it.

 

A Dirty Shame

16 Nov

A Dirty Shame – directed by John Waters. Farce. The prudes against the profligates in a war of the sexing. 89 minutes. Color 2004.

★★

And so it is!

For if you are not, as I am not, familiar with the works of John Waters on film (I much admire his writings and his interviews), you would have to scratch your head in dumb wonderment as to how this galumfrey might have issued from his rare mind.

What it looks like is a beautifully paced picture with no consistency of style, which is all right, but its also shows no consistency in the quality of the performing of it.

The main thrust is camp. Or supposed camp – camp being the mockery of emotion by the person to whom it is at that moment happening. Chris Isaak as the priapan Pan does well with the style, as do Selma Blair and Johnny Knoxville.

However, Susan Shepherd and Mink Stole, as raging, raving puritans, play in a vein of positive realism, and are a little bit better at it than are the others are at camp – camp, which takes the physical finesse of a Betty Grable. So that’s two styles.

The third style is that of Tracey Ullman, who is the focal figure of this farce, but who seems to be playing in the vein of silent film gesticulation. She throws herself around. She is never as a loss for a grimace. At this she is not very good. She never seems lodged in either her prude or her profligate. She mugs like a chimpanzee but, oh, I wish she were as funny as a chimpanzee. It’s a case of an actor dancing Swan Lake on one roller skate. It’s too outlandish at bottom to be enjoyable. Your sense of humor is swallowed by your pity for the performer and terror at her failing of invention.

We do have in this piece a custard pie in the face for SAA and other sexual recovery groups. We do have everyone in town running around screwing, but no sense that anyone actually does screw. It is as though the entire film, in its desire to deride and overthrow priggishness, is more sexually repressed than the icecap. To laugh at sex addiction as a treatable condition is, after all, a sacrilege against the robust sexual health 12 Step Sexual Recovery Programs strive for.

One senses a certain monkishness in the director, no?

For the corollary of sex for everyone is sex for no one. Sex meaning in these frames the same as going to the bathroom in any toilet you find. As though sexual need were impartial. If it is, it is therefore zero.

 

 

Intolerance

05 Oct

Intolerance – directed by D. W. Griffith. Epic. Four stories in four historic eras interleave one another. 3 hours 10 minutes with intermission. Color-tinted Black and White. 1916.

★★★★★

Once we get over that, except for the historical figures, none of the main characters have a name, but are called The Belovèd Princess, The Boy, The Dear One, The Musketeer, The Mountain Girl, we are willing to go along for the ride. The ride is given a perpetual flat tire by the gestural style of the performances. “Performance” rather than “acting” is what is on view, and hardly anyone spares us the hysterical gesture of the arms thrown up in the air, at all dances, Bacchanals, battles, and anything involving multitudes.

It is strange that this director, for all he brings to us, and it is plenty, was not able to devise a rubric of acting suitable to filmed melodrama. Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson and Valentino certainly discovered the rubric of film acting for us soon enough, and Lillian Gish may have done so even before that. She is present here, but simply as a woman endlessly rocking a cradle. She never gets out of her chair. Also characteristic of the style is the habit of responding to everything four times when one will do. That is to supply the deficiency of sound. I don’t mean the deficiency of words, for I have never read so many placards in a silent picture. However, both Mae Marsh and Constance Talmadge in close-up are quite good. Griffiths evidently allowed his actresses to do as they pleased, and both of them hop around as though they had St. Vitus Dance. But presently our hearts go out to them.

The four stories also all go off the rails in the theme of Intolerance. We are involved instead in three last minute rescues, two of which fail, I won’t tell you which one doesn’t. We are really involved with 1,2,3 Melodrama, or I should say, 1-10 melodrama since each one is long. The Epic style refers to its length and to the interleaving of the periods. And this eventually has its impact, for Griffiths ends it with the chaos of War – and one was raging (one is always raging) in Europe at the time it was made. The Persian (aka the Iranians) invade Babylon, and one sits there in one’s own time and sees the same.

The version (and there are many) I am speaking of is the new Coen/Thames version, with the new score by Carl Davis. There are a number of reasons to see it but one of them is the siege of Babylon. It’s one of the greatest passages ever filmed. It goes on for a good while. It takes place in sets the size of which has perhaps never been matched, with forces that have never been so numerous again. The sets have not dated in their impressiveness. The costumes are so detailed one cannot quite see them, and there are thousands and they are sensational. The expense of the wigs for the men would pay for a modern epic.

But the real reasons to see it are to witness Griffith’s sense of spectacle, which is infallible. And his placement of camera, which is beautiful and gripping – Billy Bitzer filmed it.  And finally to be present at the display of the imagination of Griffith, which seems ceaseless, overwhelming, superabundant. One goes to such films as one goes to visit a pharaoh’s tomb, for its historic curiosity and impressiveness, not for its modern application or vivacity. In this case, however, the last two pertain. I saw it in a picture palace, and that is the place to see it, so catch or schedule it as soon as you can. The picture palace at my matinée was well attended. Join them.

 

 

The Artist

22 Feb

The Artist — written and directed by Michael Hazanavicius. Romantic Comedy. A silent film star falls on evil days when sound comes in, but can a rising female star rescue him? 100 minutes Black And White Silent 2011.

★★★★★

Look around you. Why are there no birds in the trees? Why, it’s because The Artist has charmed all of them off, hasn’t it. And you won’t even notice this as you watch this film because you have been charmed and can do nothing else but continue to watch it. As everyone has already whispered to you, the film is both black and white and silent, and partly because of this it takes us on a ride we were skeptical of enjoying when we started and are thus all the more susceptible to when we find ourselves helplessly in midstream of it. George Valentin is a silent film star along the lines, not of John Gilbert, but of Douglas Fairbanks, whom you would never dream of casting opposite Garbo either. That is to say, George is not a romantic matinee actor but a restless, dancing, chandelier-swinging one, capable of stunning athletic and gymnastic feats, and can toss his head back in laughter of fiery derision at every turn and even oftener. Like Fairbanks, when talkies came in George lost his calling. Fairbanks made a few desultory films, and our George makes a silent jungle epic and it sinks. Fairbanks never drank, but our George does and he goes downhill fast. He ends up with a face like a defeated amusement park. Partnered by his loyal dog, played impeccably by Uggie, and by his loyal chauffeur played by James Cromwell who drives a Packard that will make you swoon with desire, and by the young rising star, Bérénice Béjo, who wants to help him, but a man has his pride. Well, a man does. But is that why won’t he make talking films? Ah, that is the conundrum the film reveals but I won’t. Béjo has wonderful eyes, full of the reality of the power of youth and the reality of the power of flirtation. But it is Jean Dujardin who is our focus, and he has all the ingredients of the matinée idol. Lacquered hair, a handsome head, a long powerful nose, a chin noble in profile, flexible eyebrows, the mustache of a merry cad, flashing eyes, a smile that could convince a cobra to simper, the most beautiful mouth you have ever seen, and a personality so full of itself you have to stand back six rows and let it. Both he and Béjo play in the style of the era, parodying it without mocking it. And because they do the film takes fire as film because film is huge, it is already exaggerated, it is up there on the screen, after all. And we do honor to its capacities by enjoying ourselves no end with them, so generously revealed to us here. When it’s over, sigh with satisfaction, then look about and ask yourself if you can remember to: Are the birds back on the trees yet?

 

 

Tess Of The Storm Country

10 Jun

Tess Of the Storm Country – Directed by John S. Robertson. Melodrama. Will the man in the mansion get rid of that bunch of smelly folks at the bottom of his hill? 118 minutes Black and White Silent 1922.

* * * * *

A full-blown melodrama, nothing omitted but a train wreck. I marvel at what silent film asks of one, for what it asks is one’s imagination. And the way it goes about that is to be mute. So one must interpret, lean forward to hear, pay attention, fill in the blanks. And one is given a lot to pay attention to, a lot to engage with. Mary Pickford is a dream actress, quick, imaginative, experienced beyond measure, and always willing to appear foolish. Here she’s a little hellcat of a fisher shack girl, whose hometown a rich nasty is trying to close down. I have nothing more to say, except watch her fight scenes, and there are a lot of them. And watch her business with the rake. She’s a master. A master actor and a master entertainer. She produced this film. She was the most powerful and capable woman Hollywood has ever known. She founded and personally ran Untied Artists, she wrote certain of her own films and produced a number of them, and some of those of her husband, Douglas Fairbanks. She founded the Academy. She founded the Actors Hospital and Home. She founded the School of the Cinema at UCLA. And she was the superstar female actor in the world in her day. Hooray for Mary! The picture is also accompanied by a first class modern score.

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The Marriage Circle

09 May

The Marriage Circle  — Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Farce. Her husband doesn’t love her so she sets her sights on her best friend’s. 85 minutes Silent Black and White 1924.

* * * *

In 1931 Samson Raphaelson was to write the remake of this shaky farce into Lubitsch’s enchanting musical with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald , and in 1950 Max Ophuls was to perpetuate his Lubitsch style of Viennese sex farce in La Ronde. Here the style is not quite mature because the film is silent and silence lends seriousness in a sex comedy to what it is important to understand is meant to be silly. Or perhaps his leading lady, the beauteous Florence Vidor, had insufficient self-security to have room for a sense of humor. No, that’s not fair: she plays the part perfectly and is perfectly cast as a lady. Or perhaps his leading man Monte Blue was too much of a rube to be fooling around in a tuxedo among the haute bourgeoisie. Certainly Blue is an odd piece of casting for a leading man. He has a face like a ram’s bottom and a talent for falling into violent giggles which, while endearing, is always out of place, as though it were an acting trick ordered in like a performing seal dragged into a wedding. No, that’s not fair either. The part is that of a feckless jackass; you can’t blame him; that’s what it is, and that’s the way he plays it. For the real problem lies with the script, which does not hold the water of probability sufficiently to retain our patience through all the shenanigans. On the other hand we have Marie Prevost as the calculating hussy whose machinations are cause of all the plot, the sub plot, the counter plot, the family plot, and the burial plot. She twists her slinky lips so, that it is no wonder no one wants to kiss them. But she’s a good actress too. She brings a sexual daring to the part that drives the whole thing along right smartly. Her husband is, however, the only one of the principals who belongs in this sort of material and, unlike the others, in no place else, the great Adolph Menjou, an actor of rare sophistication and a talent for wearing evening clothes that is incomparable. He is the only actor of the bunch who survived into talking pictures, in which he played principal parts for years, consummated as his turn in Man On A Tightrope in which Elia Kazan causes this actor, many times voted The Best Dressed Man In America, to lie on a couch calculating destruction and covered with the ash of the cigarette he is smoking. Here his playing the confrontation scene with Blue is priceless. He works with a hat, a cigarette, gloves, and cane, and, aged 34, eyes that know everything. It’s worth the price of admission; it’s worth a lot more than that, in fact. It’s a scene which every young actor in the world might observe and learn from.

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The Twelve Chairs

15 Mar

The Twelve Chairs — Directed by Mel Brooks —— Slapstick Comedy. The jewels of a Russian duchess sewn into the seat of one of twelve dining room chairs are the focus of a madcap treasure hunt. 93 minutes Color 1970.

* * * * *

Frank Langella comes before us fully equipped as that rare creature, a classic romantic actor. Which means he has a big, beautiful voice, is gorgeous, and has the speed, economy, and inner-power-to-spare for the big gesture. The instrument both physically and internally is dark velvet moved by the breeze of circumstance. Here he is young, 32, and quite at home in himself. He seems to know what he is and is not fooled by it. Other actors looking at him, or any audience for that matter, might sense that the parts he plays when young do not either inspire or require his full power, and that he is never operating to the limit of his capacity. But that was not so important as that, still, we know we are getting our money’s worth; he was easily sufficient. The older he has gotten the better he has gotten. The more he has lost his rich thick, glossy black hair the closer he has come to the great actor inherent in him. I remember seeing him at Williamstown in the summer with Blythe Danner and Mildred Dunnock in Anouilh’s Ring Around The Moon, and thinking, “That young man has a great ass; I wonder if he will ever get beyond the prerogatives it grants him.” He has. It would be interesting to see him perform now the great roles in Sophocles or Euripides. Why he has, to my knowledge, never done Oedipus, gives me hope that one day I shall see him play it. Or Coriolanus. Here, as the Russian mountebank, he is delightful, fluid, kind, direct, and smart. And quite impenitent about everything that must be done to secure the fortune. Mel Brooks is hilarious as the peasant servant and Dom DeLuise is amazingly and admirably entertaining as the priest also after the jewels. Ron Moody fares less well because the role wants variety. He is always Drooling Greed. That’s the way it’s written and that’s also the way it’s directed. It’s a part Brooks must have written for himself, so it offers nothing for us to revel in but but the idea that consistent vulgarity of imagination is funny.  The other actors have more scope offered to them, and they seize it, and play it out with silent film frenzy and panache. It makes me want to see all of Brooks’ films. After Blazing Saddles I wanted to see none of them. After Young Frankenstein I wanted to see all of them. Now I shall.

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Destiny

12 Mar

Destiny –– directed by Fritz Lang –– a drama of redemption –– 99 minutes Black and White 1921

* * * * *

A lavish silent picture. The story of a young woman given three chances to redeem her lover from death. She deals with Death himself –– that Mephistophelean figure which the Germans seem to love –– and the three trials send her to foreign lands with the most elaborate sets and costumes imaginable. A beautifully made picture. It’s acted in the style of the silents with broad narrative histrionical gestures, but they work, because they are designed to, and they are needed to tell such a story. Don’t be put off by the style. It’s not old fashioned; it’s just a style –– mimetic, gestural, broad. Enjoy it for what it is and for what it does. Respect it. Lang is working on a mythic level here, and no medium in the world does this better than film –– for film more than any other art medium resembles dream.

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