Murnau’s Faust in 5 Frames

Faust (1926) dir. F.W. Murnau

Faust 01“”Faust,” with its supernatural vistas of heaven and hell, is particularly distinctive in the way it uses the whole canvas. Consider the startling early shot of Mephisto, his dark wings obscuring the sky as he hovers above a little village that huddles in the lower right corner.” – Roger Ebert

Faust 02Rembrandt’s etchings are brilliant studies of chiaroscuro, the dramatic interplay of light and darkness in a work of art. An etching is a symbolically-rich form for depicting Faust, the classic, oft-told story of the battle between good and evil for one man’s soul.” – Darren Hughes

Faust 05“.. the film is dominated by [Emil] Jannings’s charismatic Mephisto, made up like a character in the kabuki theatre.” – Philip French

Faust 04“Decades before the advent of digital effects, Murnau was pushing boundaries in terms of visual innovation that still impress and dazzle today. While they may no longer seem photo-realistic, his use of super-imposition, model work, camera movement and other visual storytelling techniques single out Faust as one of the great technical masterpieces of the silent era.” – James Marsh

Faust 03“The cosmos aligned itself through emotion for Murnau—it’s not a substitute for literature, it’s pure cinema.” – Fernando F. Croce

Faust is available to watch on YouTube.

Posted in 1920s, Movie Notes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Funny Games in our minds

Funny Games (1997) dir. Michael Haneke

Michael Haneke’s 1997 Austrian film Funny Games (and the 2007 American shot-by-shot remake) is a horror that constantly asks viewers why they keep watching.

Funny GamesA family arrives at a lake house for a vacation. They chat with their neighbors, but each of the lake’s homes are far apart enough to leave each of them isolated. While they settle in, a stranger comes to the door. He is a young man named Peter, dressed in white and wearing white gloves, and he asks to borrow eggs from Anna, the family’s mother. His accomplice, Paul, soon joins him. Paul hits the father, Georg, with a golf club, crippling him.

Peter and Paul (who refer to each other as “Tom and Jerry” or “Beevis and Butthead”) spend the rest of the day psychologically and physically torturing the family, promising to kill them all.

The violence in Funny Games is a bit of a paradox. Although most of the worst violence is off-screen, it feels more horrifying and awful than most of the “torture porn” that has come out since.

“In general, things that are not shown and that the spectator needs to imagine with his own fantasy can be much stronger than the things that are actually shown,” Haneke told cine-fils magazine.

It is our imagination – and not the movie – that conjures up the most disturbing images.

Funny Games - Plausible PlotPaul breaks the third wall several times during the film. He winks at the camera, says they must keep the torture going because “we haven’t even reached feature-film length yet.” Late in the movie, he even puts it on pause, rewinds and starts again, in order to prevent his victims from escaping.

Funny Games - bloody televisionThis way, Haneke reminds us that everything “happening” in the movie is our fault. We’re the ones wanted to watch a horror movie. If we don’t want to see a family tortured to death, we can leave the theater or turn off the TV. And Haneke isn’t even showing us the real violence — that’s all in our minds.

Posted in 1990s, Movie Notes | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Your Changing Body – Videodrome and Marshall McLuhan

Videodrome (1983) dir. David Cronenberg
McLuhan stand-in Prof. Brian O'Blivion

McLuhan stand-in Prof. Brian O’Blivion

David Cronenberg’s Videodrome explores the disorienting ways that new media technology ruthlessly transforms not only our shared cultures, but also our very bodies and minds.

Videodrome relies of the theories expounded by 20th Century thinker Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan believed “the medium is the message.” The actual content of our media isn’t what changes us. Debates about violence in our movies or politics in our books largely miss the truly transformative power of media.

The demise of the Western as a Hollywood staple is a reflection of cultural memes and interesting to study. But it is trivial compared to the switch from scrolls to the printing press or from radio to television. These changes in medium transformed not just the way ideas are expressed, and not even only the ideas themselves, but the way we actually think and behave.

James Woods as Max Renn in Videodrome.

When I was young, my parents were convinced that too much television would “fry my brain.” However, they allowed me to watch as much PBS as I wanted. McLuhan would argue that Masterpiece Theatre on PBS programmed my life just as The Simpsons (which I wanted to watch) would have.

The lines at the bottom of this page of "The Medium is the Massage" area visual example of the way McLuhan believed the alphabet changed our thought.

The lines at the bottom of this page of “The Medium is the Massage” area visual example of the way McLuhan believed the alphabet changed our thought.

“In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs,” he wrote of the rise of automation.” (McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. 1964. New edition, Cambridge, MA: MIT press, 1994.  7-8.)

McLuhan gave examples of how media has changed thought over time, beginning with Socrates lamenting the invention of the alphabet:

“The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls,because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves… You give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will not be heroes of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing.”(McLuhan, Marshall, Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel. The Medium Is the Massage. 1967. Reprint, Madera, CA: Ginko Press, 2001. 113.)

In order to hammer home the importance of medium over content, McLuhan uses the example of the light bulb.

The lights at Wrigley Field, installed in 1988.

The lights at Wrigley Field, installed in 1988.

“The electric light is pure information. Is is a medium without a message, as it were, unless it us used to spell out some verbal ad or name…Whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference.” (McLuhan, Understanding Media, 8-9.)

For the past ten years, Virginia Tech Professor Roger Ekrich has researched the West’s forgotten memory of a lightless night. He writes that Europeans and Americans used to wake in the middle of the night, and divide their time between a “first sleep” and a “second sleep.” This in between time would be used for study, prayer and sex. The rise of overnight lighting affected our mental and physical health, our sexual, social and spiritual lives, and changed the way we think and live.

This biological transformation of medium is one of the key elements of McLuhan’s work – and at the heart of Videodrome.

“All media are extentions of some human faculty – psychic or physical. The wheel is an extension of the foot. The book is an extension of the eye. Clothing, an extension of the skin. Electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system.” (McLuhan, et al., The Medium is the Massage, 26-41.)

In Videodrome, this idea is taken perhaps only a bit farther than McLuhan intended. The character Professor Brian O’Blivion is a stand-in for McLuhan, claiming “the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain.”

This becomes even more literal in the case of James Woods’s character, Max Renn. Renn views sadistic pornography called “Videodrome” through a scrambled satellite feed. This pornography acts as a rabbit hole to a world of conspiracies and hallucinations.

The conspiracies are impossible to follow and, if analogized as McLuhan’s idea of “content,” aren’t that meaningful. What is meaningful to Renn is that his body and mind are controlled by video and television.

videodrome vhs

James Woods as Max Renn in Videodrome.

He has become one with the media. Renn’s stomach and sex organs become a VCR. His hand becomes a gun – which is directed by whichever television program happens to be able to broadcast into him.

The idea of VHS tapes and television as an all-pervasive, world-controlling technology definitely dates the film. However, the zeerust adds an additional layer of interpretation for contemporary viewers.

McLuhan died in 1980, and Videodrome was made in 1983, just a little too early to experience the mass media revolution that began in the 1990s. Since then, we’ve seen a revolution every few years – personal computers, the internet, laptops, mobile phones, internet speeds fast enough for video, and smart phones.

There has also been an explosion of research inspired by McLuhan.Here are brief sample of the ways these new media – and not their content – have changed our biology:

woman binary“…most of us with access to the web spend at least a couple of hours a day online—and sometimes much more. During that time, we tend to repeat the same or similar actions over and over again. As we go through these motions, the net delivers a steady stream of inputs to our visual, somatosensory and auditory cortices. “The net’s cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing people from thinking either deeply or creatively.” – The Difference Engine: Rewiring the brain – The internet is changing the way we think (The Economist, Aug. 6, 2010)

“But no matter how carefully Google attends to requests to modify our collective memory, the search engine may have already made its mark on the way individual memory functions… One could argue that this is an adaptive use of memory—to include the computer and online search engines as an external memory system that can be accessed at will.”- Scientific Proof that Google Is Destroying Your Memory (New Republic, June 3, 2014)

child holding smart phoneIt’s not the Angry Birds, streaming videos, emails from your boss, or your Facebook updates that disturb your sleep when you spend an evening staring at your smartphone or tablet… Cells at the back of your eyes pick up particular light wavelengths and, with a light-sensitive protein called melanopsin, signal the brain’s master clock, which controls the body’s circadian rhythms.” – How Your Smartphones Messes with Your Brain – and Your Sleep (Scientific American blog, May 20, 2014)

These are all once-in-many-generational changes that have happened all in just one generation. We went from telephones, television and the printing press to a world where nearly anyone can broadcast their thoughts, sights and sounds to the globe simply by moving her fingers around.

videodrome virtual realityMcLuhan’s 1960s optimism preached that the youth and the teenagers would adapt to the new media. If they simply understood what was happening, they could thrive. But Cornenberg expressed the change in media as body horror. Renn knows how the media works, but that doesn’t do him any good. His identity is constantly and bewilderingly stripped from him, rebuilt, and transformed at speed to which he never has a chance to catch his breath. His body and mind are raped, and he is weaponized against everyone and against himself. His experience of being thrust into the new age is closer to Kafka’s than to the hippie’s.

"The human capcity to adapt to change is being stretched to its limit by the rapid rate of technological change." - Robert Gerzon, Finding Serenity in the Age of Anxiety

“The human capcity to adapt to change is being stretched to its limit by the rapid rate of technological change.” – Robert Gerzon, Finding Serenity in the Age of Anxiety

Also read: Jakub Vémola’s thesis ‘Reflections of Marshall McLuhan’s Media Theory in the Cinematic Work of David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan


and read: Mitchell, W.J.T. “Addressing Media,” MediaTropes eJournal, 2008. 1-18. 

Posted in 1980s, Movie Notes | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Southern Gothic Texas Chain Saw Massacre

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) dir. Tobe Hooper

Critics on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre‘s place in the Southern Gothic tradition:

the-texas-chainsaw-massacre“The profane element of the film is the localization of the cataclysm precisely in the historical situation of the American Southwest in the late twentieth century. This is the same thing as Faulkner situating his novel in the midst of rural Mississippi in the earliest parts of the twentieth century. O’Connor sends Hazel Motes on his blasphemous journey in the wilds of a small town in post World War II Tennessee.” – Christopher Hoppe

“In other words, this banalization of the Gothic may be modern in horror cinema, but in the case of Texas (1974), it clearly follows the literary tradition of the Southern Gothic. The passage from day to night gives way to a more classical Gothic atmosphere…” – David Roche

texaschainsawmassacrehose1“The film suggests that we “discover” something about America as Sally and her friends stumble upon the cannibal household… We witness also the implications underneath the “deliberate regression” to early, primeval culture lauded by Romantic art and so much an attribute of American myth. Hooper’s apocalyptic landscape is Texas, not Wisconsin. It is a desert wasteland of dissolution where once vibrant myth is desiccated. The ideas and iconography of Cooper, Bret Harte, and Francis Parkman are now transmorgified into agribusiness yards of sick cattle, dilapidated gasoline stations and fast-food joints, defiled graveyards, crumbling mansions, and a ramshackle farmhouse full of psychotic killers.” – Christopher Sharrett
the texas chain saw massacre“Finally, the terrible house (whether in Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher,” in Psycho… or here) signifies the dead weight of the past crushing the life of the younger generation…” – Robin Wood

Posted in 1970s, Movie Notes | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dr. Mabuse

Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler aka Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) dir. Fritz Lang
Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse aka The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) dir. Fritz Lang

the cabinet of dr caligariIt is impossible to see any movie made during Weimar Republic Germany outside the lens of the rise of Nazism. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, released in 1920, has been famously interpreted as an allegory. In Caligari, a madman controls a sleepwalker’s every moves, just as Hitler was seen to have later controlled the German peoples’.

The next year, novelist Norbert Jacques drew on themes from Caligari and wrote Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. Director Fritz Lang released his adaptation in 1922.

dr-mabuse-the-gamblerDr. Mabuse is a criminal mastermind, in the vein of Professor Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes novels. But he has the mystically scientific power of mind control, which he uses to secretly control the German economy and society. His plots are the close cousin of other European conspiracy theories popular at the time.

At the end of the film, the doctor is captured. Driven mad from visions of the ghosts of his victims, he is taken to an asylum.

Although parallels between Caligari, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler and the true psyche of 1920’s Germany is debated, the relation between Fritz Lang’s sequel and German politics is undeniable.

During the ten years after Gambler, Germany descended into political chaos. The country’s electoral system forced its centrist parties to negotiate with extremists on both the left and the right, who roamed the streets murdering opponents and – in the case of the Nazis – terrorizing as many Jews as possible. The Nazis won a plurality of seats in July 1932, just before Lang started filming The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.

whatever mabuse writesWhen Testament opens, Dr. Mabuse is locked away in his cell, scribbling furiously. Hospital director Dr. Baum collects the notes, which give instructions on how to commit various crimes. Baum praises Mabuse’s genius mind to a class of students, unmistakably mimicking Nazi gestures.

Joker-billionaire-burning-moneyInspector Lohmann discovers that a secret gang of criminals is replicating Mabuse’s instructions to the letter. The gang is organized in a manner similar to the Nazi Party was. Some gang members wonder about their boss’s plans. Their crimes aren’t making any money. Instead, they seem designed to create fear and chaos. (Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight was inspired by Dr. Mabuse.)

After the war, Lang stated that he made Testament as an anti-Nazi allegory. “Thus I hoped to expose the masked Nazi theory of the necessity to deliberately destroy everything which is precious to people. Then, when everything collapsed and they were thrown into utter despair, they would try to find help in the “new order.”

Although Lang probably exaggerated some of his anti-Nazi activities, (he told stories of a midnight train ride out of Germany after Goebbels offered to put him in charge of the Nazi film program) critic Michael Walker examined the evidence in a 2011 journal article and found Lang’s claims about Testament credible.

dr mabuse cutoutWalker lists many parallels, so I’ll focus only on my favorite. One of the most visually arresting scenes of Testament exposes the Mabuse propaganda machine. When gang members are to receive instruction, they enter a room with a drawn curtain. Behind the curtain is the shadow of “the boss,” who issues orders. They never see the man behind the curtain.

One of the gang members and his girlfriend take a peek. They see a cardboard cutout and a speaker.

During the time of filming, in late 1932, Prussian authorities had banned Goebbels from public speaking. He got around the ban by having recordings of his speeches played instead. This concept of illusory authority – of obeying what seems like a power but is really a false front for insanity – is at the heart of Dr. Mabuse.

testament of dr mabuseTestament was scheduled for release on March 23, 1933 – the day newly-appointed Chancellor Hitler asked the Reichstag to vote him emergency powers in the Enabling Act. Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Goebbels first delayed, then canceled Testament’s premiere, as a threat to public health and safety.

The Nazis edited their own version for release, which added dialogue claiming Dr. Mabuse was Jewish. Lang left Germany for America later in 1933, and divorced his screenwriter and wife Thea von Harbou, who joined the Nazi Party.

Also read:
Des Testament des Dr. Mabuse by Michael Walker, 2011, in Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism
The Empire of Crime: Dr. Mabuse, the Original Supervillain by Christopher Saunders, 2014, for MoviePilot
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), by Tim Robey, 2013, for The Telegraph

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, Movie Notes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Werckmeister Harmonies

Werckmeister harmóniák aka Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) dir. Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky

Werckmeister Harmonies - barIn the opening scene of Werckmeister Harmonies, Janos explains the nature of an eclipse to a group of men in a bar. He begins scientifically, charting out the motions of the heavenly bodies. As the men’s movements turn into an ethereal dance, János ventures into the poetically biblical “And then … complete silence. Everything that lives is still. Are the hills going to march off? Will heaven fall upon us?”

Mihály Víg’s sublime score rises to meet János’s prophecies. The piano chords bring the bar into the world of the transcendent.

But the bar is still also a bar, and we are not to forget it. The shuffling of the men’s boots and coats is as loud as the music, and their shadows block the lamp hanging overhead. They move in and out of frame, and the dream is ended when the bartender shows János the door.

János’s uncle complains about the work of 17th Century music theorist Andreas Werckmeister. He believes Werckmeister’s harmonic scale is idealistic, utopian and disconnected from the natural order of things.

Béla Tarr has consistently denied that Werckmeister Harmonies was allegorical. But it is set near the end of the Soviet occupation of Hungary and is full of mystical images, so viewers are unable to help themselves but to invent analogues for the scenes and stories. The dead whale as capitalism is the interpretation I see the most.

Werckmeister HarmoniesApart from politics, the whale is one of the contrasts between speech and reality we see in the film. The whale is not the exciting attraction its circus advertisements promise. The mysterious “prince” may not even exist. And although János can think about the stars above the sky, he must still walk home alone, in the cold.

Posted in 2000s, Movie Notes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dancer in the Dark

Dancer in the Dark (2000) dir. Lars von Trier

Dancer in the DarkThe film’s defenders say the big musical numbers fall flat, and the plot seems more like it belongs to a 1912 melodrama than a 21st Century art film. Its critics are even less kind – The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called it “perhaps one of the worst things in the history of the world.”

But Dancer in the Dark still won the Palme d’Or at Cannes where it premiered in 2000, and is listed in the ranks of the greatest movies of all time. What happened?

In the 1990’s, von Trier and other Danish filmmakers embarked upon the Dogme 95 movement. Taking an approach similar to modern artists before them, they sought to strip film of elaborate “gimmicks” like special effects and a musical soundtrack in order to focus the audience on the purer values of cinema.

Dancer in the DarkVon Trier really only made one film that came close to adhering to the rules set down by Dogme 95, 1998’s The Idiots. But he continued the lo-fi approach into Dancer in the Dark. He shot it on handheld DV cameras, and allowed natural light to dominate many of his scenes, in contrast to carefully controlled flood of lights moviegoers are used to. The lack of light in particular adds artificial grain to the digital image, giving it an aesthetic that is more similar both to film and to home video than to Hollywood blockbusters.

This contrast between “real life” lighting and overproduced Hollywood lighting works beautifully in Dancer in the Dark‘s musical numbers. In the film, Björk plays Selma, a Czech immigrant to the United States. She is going blind, and saves pennies from her factory job for an operation to save her son’s eyesight. Her only escape from real life is Hollywood musicals. Her reaction when confronted about her blindness is heartbreaking irony:

Selma loves musicals and joins a local production of The Sound of Music - a conceit which sets up a death row parody of positive thinking as biting as Life of Brian‘s is funny:

Von Trier’s simplification works. Dancer is the Dark is unburdened by the unnecessarily complex storylines or overproduced looks of Hollywood. It uses its differences not only to show off von Trier’s cleverness, but also to accentuate its purpose in critiquing Hollywood.

dancer-in-the-darkMany non-Hollywood productions – especially in the west – seek to  differentiate themselves by taking on a cool, understated tone; i.e. Mike Leigh. But von Trier has never seen much value in understatement. Film’s power comes from its capacity to overwhelm us with emotion. Dancer in the Dark‘s soap opera plot, as Roger Ebert pointed out the review linked to above, “is a brave throwback to the fundamentals of the cinema–to heroines and villains, noble sacrifices and dastardly betrayals.”

No one went to the movies in the 1910’s to see a subtle performance by Lillian Gish, and I doubt many people go to the movies in the 2010’s for similar reasons. Von Trier understands that if we’re going to spend 2 hours doing anything, we want it to leave us ready to laugh, cry, fight or all three – and we want to leave it feeling like it meant something. Learning lessons from the time when the movies were the most successful seems like a brilliant idea.

Posted in 2000s, Movie Notes | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment