Friday, March 30, 2007

Ten Great Horror Pictures from the Beginnings of Cinema Through World War II

The Black Cat (1934, Edgar G. Ulmer)
The Body Snatcher (1945, Robert Wise)
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, James Whale)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, Robert Wiene)
Faust (1926, F.W. Murnau)
Freaks (1932, Tod Browning)
Nosferatu (1922, F.W. Murnau)
The Old Dark House (1932, James Whale)
The Seventh Victim (1943, Mark Robson)
Vampyr (1932, Carl Theodor Dreyer)

I have limited myself to two Val Lewton pictures (The Body Snatcher and The Seventh Victim), although all nine of his RKO horror films would be clear candidates for inclusion. Universal's monster pictures come immediately to mind for American audiences when thinking of horror films of this period, and I confess a personal weakness for these productions. I have included three Univeral films, although only Bride of Frankenstein falls into the classic monster movie mode. Three silent movies are represented, including two by the great F.W. Murnau, and Carl Theodor Dreyer's first sound picture, Vampyr, is practically a silent as well. Finally, Tod Browning's Freaks, with its unabashed embrace of grotesquerie, may be the greatest of them all.

A second ten:
The Black Room (1935, Roy William Neill)
Cat People (1942, Jacques Tourneur)
The Devil-Doll (1936, Tod Browning)
The Golem (1920, Paul Wegener, Karl Boese)
I Walked with a Zombie (1943, Jacques Tourneur)
Mad Love (1935, Karl Freund)
The Man Who Laughs (1928, Paul Leni)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925, Rupert Julian)
White Zombie (1932, Victor Halperin)
The Wolf Man (1941, George Waggner)

Thursday, March 29, 2007

In Praise of Silence

March provided New York City viewers with an opportunity to watch two meditative, wordless or nearly wordless films, in which the deliberate pacing, uncluttered visuals and long, silent stretches allow the viewer to disengage from the overstuffed world of information consumption, disable rational thought processes and immerse himself in a natural world, although one not unaltered by human presence. This is not to imply that these films ignore the intellect, merely that they engage the brain on a different, less logic-constrained level.

First up was Abbas Kiarosatmi's Five, which screened at MOMA on March 9 and 18 as part of a retrospective of the director's work. The film consists of five long, seemingly unbroken takes, each depicting a different seascape. Except for the first segment, the camera remains stationary throughout. Natural sounds, the roar of the surf, the squawking of ducks and, in one segment, the noise of human footsteps, provide the only soundtrack, with the exception of short, musical interludes between takes. The takes may seem dull and repetitive to viewers expecting a standard sequence of images, but by immersing oneself in the world portrayed on the screen and giving free reign to one's thoughts, the viewer can enjoy a thoroughly satisfying filmgoing experience. The work, too, is not devoid of humor. The fourth segment, which follows the movements of a group of ducks back and forth on the screen had the audience indulging in restrained, but palpable, laughter.

The second film, Into Great Silence, is currently enjoying a popular run at the Film Forum. Detailing the nearly silent day-to-day life of the Carthusian Monks of the Grand Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble, France, the film has a similar hypnotic pull to Kiarostami's work that director Philip Groning sustains for the duration of the film's nearly three hours. Images of the natural world complement shots of the bare interiors of the monastery where the monk's live their ascetic lives. What gives the film its mesmeric draw is the sense of circularity with which Groning invests his work. A full cycle of seasons is observed. The daily tasks of the monks are repeated. Even the various quotations from philosophers and bible verses with which Groning intersperses his work are used several times throughout the film, with the same long quotation beginning and ending the work. As many critics have noted, the film forces the viewer to adapt his own mental pace to the pace of the monks' lifestyle. If he is able to take this step and enter into the reflective, nearly silent, cyclical world of the monastery, he is in for a rich and rewarding cinematic experience.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

An Afternoon with Dumont

During a recent Q and A session at the Walter Reade Theater (March 5), following the screening of his latest picture, Flandres, director Bruno Dumont briefly outlined his aesthetic principles. Chief among them was a Flaubertian insistence on the concealment of the author's artistic signature. Among the stylistic features of his films that Dumont highlighted were the lack of music on the soundtrack, minimal camera movement and the casting of non-professional actors. In reference to his refusal to use music in his films, Dumont decried the manipulative tendencies of a composed score which cues the audience on how to react. With the inclusion of music, he explained, the immediate impact of the film may be greater, but without it the film will engage the audience's thinking for far longer after the initial viewing.

Even without a score, Dumont's images are potent enough to impact the most jaded viewer. Beautiful long shots illustrating the vast expanse of Dumont's native Flanders, shot in 35 mm, contrast with horrific rapes and other atrocities that occur in the course of an unnamed war, in secnes shot in 16 mm in Tunisia. It's debatable whether the film would continue to engage the viewer's imagination for as long if a soundtrack were included, but the power of the images is manifest in either case.

In an era where most films feature non-stop soundtracks, constant cuts and camera movement and a generic visual style, Dumont's insistence on the opposite marks him out from his fellow directors and makes the author's hand more evident, rather than invisible as he claims is his intention. Few would mistake Dumont's films, either in their style or their content, for the work of another director. Needless to say, this is not a negative.

Visually striking, emotionally jarring, Flandres vies with Twentynine Palms as the director's most visceral work. In tracing the character arc of Demester (Samuel Boidin) from inarticulate farmboy, who can't or won't acknowledge his feelings for his lover Barbe (Adelaide Leroux), through soldier passing through the horrors of war, and ultimately to a man capable of saying "Je t'aime" (the film's final words), Flandres may be the most satisfying of Dumont's four films. As the director explained, the whole 90 minutes are leading up to the moment when Demester is able to say "I love you." Flandres is not to be missed.

Monday, March 26, 2007

On the New Mexican Cinema; On the New Tawainese Cinema

One of the ubiquitous cinematic stories of 2006 which was particularly unavoidable during the long buildup to the Oscars was the achievement of Mexican directors Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guillermo del Toro, and Alfonso Cuaron who each contributed a critically acclaimed picture to the Oscar race. Gonzalez Inarritu’s dreadful Babel received a nomination for Best Picture, while del Toro’s vastly over-hyped fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth was among the most universally lauded films of the year. Only Cuaron’s film, Children of Men, was worthy of adulation, largely due to two spectacular set pieces and an assured visual style.

These three films are being heralded as the cornerstones of a new Mexican cinema despite the fact that only one of the three features Spanish as its primary language, while the other two are mostly or entirely in English and all three are at least partly American productions. Perhaps one of the reasons for the films’ popularity with American audiences is that all three films, but most especially Babel, partake of an over-the-top, maximal style of filmmaking which tries to overwhelm the viewer with visual information while insisting on its own significance, not dissimilar to Hollywood’s prestige films of recent years. Pan’s Labyrinth, which may be the most restrained of the three, nevertheless balances its inventive fantasy sequences with a by-the-numbers tale of post-Spanish Civil War oppression, complete with unredeemable villain. Babel, though, takes maximal filmmaking one step beyond. Gonzalez Inarritu keeps his camera constantly moving, instructs his actors to move about frantically and maximizes the contrivances of Guillermo Arriaga’s script. The film allows the audience to feel they are watching a work of great import, while not having to think too much about it. Not only is the significance spelled out for the viewer, but, as in last year’s Oscar winner Crash, the film, for all its bluster, offers no great insights into human nature or the state of modern society. Even Children of Men’s efforts to seem politically relevant, such as a series of images of detainees meant to recall Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, comes off as rather insistent and contrived. Interestingly enough, the year's best film made by a Mexican director is by neither Gonzalez Inarritu, del Toro, nor Cuaron, but by the relatively unheralded Carlos Reygadas, whose Battle in Heaven is far more challenging (and provocative) then the work of the more celebrated trio.

Compare these three Mexican filmmakers with Taiwan’s brilliant trio of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsai Ming-Liang and Edward Yang. Unconcerned with approval in the West, the Taiwanese directors would have little chance of mainstream success with their restrained storytelling, static camerawork, deliberate pace, and astonishingly beautiful images. Hou’s Three Times was one of the best movies of 2006, but, unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, received neither an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film nor any coverage in the mainstream press. Hou's treatment of alienated youth in the film's final segment is far more sensitive than the ludicrous Japanese subplot in Babel, in which a confused young woman (Rinko Kikuchi) repeatedly exposes her genitalia to anyone who will look. Tsai has two movies showing this year, The Wayward Cloud which had a brief run at the Anthology Film Archives in March and I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone which opens at the IFC Center in May, but neither seems to have attracted or is likely to attract any attention outside of small cinephile circles. Edward Yang, though currently at work on his next project, has not released anything since 2000’s Yi Yi, but with that film and 1991’s A Brighter Summer Day, his status as an elite filmmaker seems assured. Without insisting on it, the works of these three filmmakers tell us more about the way we live in the world, or even in America, today than the overwrought, Americanized efforts of the heralded Mexican trio.