An ongoing column that looks at some of the most intriguing of recent, under-the-radar releases
Ophuls opens his ersatz bio of the 19th-century dancer/courtesan with a circus act that features Montès herself. The big top here is a hot-colored, hallucinatory mix of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and MGM musical, with a ringmaster played by Peter Ustinov, who introduces his glum star as a destructive force now tamed and packaged as a product, ready to be consumed. One might think of playwright Frank Wedekind’s lion tamer introducing his primordial predator in the stage version of Pandora’s Box, but Ophuls’ Lola is no Lulu, but something more modern still: a comestible celebrity like Britney Spears, only with far superior iconographic credentials.
The ringmaster promises that “only the truth” will arise from the tacky tableaux vivants representing watershed moments in the Lola myth, and that the Q&A sessions, where spectators may ask the icon herself to confirm this or that piece of legend, will yield fact. But as the film’s audience, we know from the beginning that the revelations are all part of a contrivance; when a stony, passive Lola jump-starts a memory and Ophuls delivers a flashback, we expect this ringmaster to honor the narrative convention that the flashback will deliver the truth, the “what really happened” version, as a satisfying correction to the falseness of the spectacle. But Ophuls refuses to deliver an easily digested irony that would allow us to go home feeling smarter than the circus audience, duped as they are by Lola’s complicit exploitation.
Instead, the memories prove to be nearly as gaudy and overdressed in romantic fiction as the banal circus of the film’s present. Lola’s first reminiscence is of her affair with Franz Liszt, who, as his girlfriend feigns sleep, composes a waltz in Lola’s honor. While he finishes the scoring, we hear the tune — a distinctively non-Lisztian, sugary confection by the film’s composer Georges Auric — until Liszt shreds the manuscript and it ceases to play on the soundtrack. Both of the lovers know the affair needs to end, and the famous sensualist decides to deny the girl his farewell gesture and the upper hand it would afford her. Before he’s out the door, Lola has him back in bed and thus gains the last carnal word anyway.
By manipulating the soundtrack, Ophuls signals yet another layer of artifice. The memory may be Lola’s, but who’s pulling its strings? Is it Lola, needing to frame her past persona as that of a powerful manipulator of men, or is it Ophuls, who wants this picture’s obsessively pretty surface — and witty deus ex intrusions, like the silencing of the waltz — to keep us at an uneasy distance from “the truth” of Lola’s interior life?
The waltz is not silent for long; we hear it again and again throughout the unfurling of Lola’s memories. Auric’s score, in fact, is in tight partnership with Ophul’s image-making, and much of the music is cloyingly sentimental in a way that seems specific to the director’s sardonic intentions. As made clear by his Ravel-inspired score to Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Auric needn’t necessarily spin aural candy like this, which is arranged to sound like a 101 Strings romantic mood album.
The casting of a mostly expressionless Martine Carol as Lola is another curiosity until we learn from one of Criterion’s supplements that the actress, because of her then current popularity, was forced on Ophuls, who then confided to Peter Ustinov, “the worse she is, the better for us.” Carol is far from “bad,” and the severity of her features gives her a relatively period look, but her performance rarely gives anything away, either sensually or soulfully. Like Ophuls’ gorgeously shot mise-en-scene, the actress is all surface. By the end of the picture, Lola Montès seems as lonely and cryptic as Charles Foster Kane, but with a secret that’s even tougher to crack; there’s no Rosebud here. The director’s final tracking shot leaves her an abandoned, caged enigma swarmed by a monstrous queue of celebrity seekers.
Criterion’s Blu-ray edition delivers the recent restoration of the film (begun in 2006) with startling vibrancy, its colors at saturation point. Two films about Ophuls are included, one a 1965 episode from a French TV show, the other a new documentary by the director’s son, Max by Marcel. Apparently a good friend of Ophuls, raconteur Ustinov pops up everywhere in these films and describes Ophuls, variously, as a “poet of bad taste,” and “drawn to kitsch,” especially that of the turn of the 20th century. Venerated actor/producer John Houseman offers the word sentimentalité to describe the Ophuls touch. Yet neither man seems willing to credit the director with the rarefied sensibility needed to produce a work as perversely, mysteriously beautiful as his Lola Montès.
France/1955/114 min./Color/Stereo and in French with English subtitles/2.55:1 OAR. Released on Blu-ray disc and DVD by the Criterion Collection in 2010.
City Girl (Murnau, 1930)
As it survives, City Girl, like Sunrise (1927), is a parable of the human need to conjoin, but without the latter film’s oneiric feel. The story begins in Chicago, which is conjured up by a few realistic studio sets that make no claim to symbolize city-ness as did Sunrise’s elaborate, forced-perspective metropolis. The busy luncheonette where Kate (Mary Duncan) works is a detailed re-creation of a vintage eatery, down to its coffee urns and a solitary fan to keep the flies off the orders. Neither is City Girl‘s country location a nonspecific evocation like Sunrise‘s vaguely eastern European village and stage set marsh; the Minnesota homestead of Lem, the film’s male lead (Charles Farrell), sits isolated in a vast sea of real wheat (actually shot in Oregon), looking very much like the inspiration for the lonely Victorian farmhouse in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) (actually shot in Canada).
The story-line is nearly high concept. Lem, the Minnesota farm lad, travels to Chicago to sell the family farm’s wheat harvest, and at a bustling lunch counter meets Kate, the pretty waitress he feels fated to marry. Oppressed by her job, the meanness of the city, and the stasis of near poverty, Kate has dreamt of an uncomplicated, restorative existence in the country, and this good-looking, kind and attentive boy seems dropped from the sky. Instantaneous soul mates, the two tie the knot and board the train to Minnesota.
Once over the threshold of the family’s starkly furnished farmhouse, however, their bliss is shattered by Lem’s father’s (David Torrence) unyielding resistance to Kate. A domineering patriarch of biblical proportions, he views the bride as some kind of whore/gold-digger and seeks to annul the marriage. When Kate refuses to consider it, he slaps her hard enough to send her across the room,1 allowing the realization, which is just as inconceivable to Kate as the old man’s sudden violence, that Lem’s not yet man enough to stand up against his father. Meanwhile, father orders son to don overalls and work in the fields, while relegating Kate to cook and serve victuals to the farmhands, thereby condemning her to the same drudgery she left behind in the city.
When the father witnesses one of the hired hands, Mac (Richard Alexander), putting the moves on Kate, the old man assumes a betrayal that he wastes no time in relaying to an already emotionally frail Lem. But Mac, a leering womanizer, woefully misgauges his entitlement to the sensual yet pure-at-heart Kate, who, remaining loyal to Lem, waits for her boy-chick to grow up and see through all this macho bullshit — whether it comes from Dad or Mac.2 As in Borzage’s fine film The River (1929), Mary Duncan projects an intense sexuality mixed with worldly wisdom that leans longingly up against the tall frame of man-child Farrell. Because Mary’s so lovely and, in the face of crushing disappointments, giving, we just hope Farrell can get it together before the film’s over.
The catharsis arrives in the form of a hail storm, which demands all the men folk to work together through the night in order to save the wheat harvest. But vindictiveness and retribution undercut the team effort, making this film even more a likely inspiration for Days of Heaven, which, with its plague of locusts, had its nighttime rescue of the wheat also undone by the blood in men’s eyes.
Yet, other than conjecturing influence on the still-active Malick, City Girl represents the end of something, not a continuance. With silent films like the aforementioned The River and Lucky Star (1929), Murnau disciple Frank Borzage seemed to have taken the German director’s aesthetic to heart, but sound would change his direction to more conventional narratives and image-making. In the late-twenties, Murnau himself said that the movies weren’t ready for sound, and he was right — it took Hollywood years to recover from adapting to the needs of the new technology, which sprang up just as silent film reached a zenith of sophistication in putting film narrative across visually, a sophistication of which City Girl is a prime example.
USA/1930/90 min./B&W/silent/OAR 1.19:1. Released on Blu-ray disc by Masters of Cinema in 2010.
The Constance Talmadge Collection: Her Night of Romance (Sidney Franklin, 1924) and Her Sister from Paris (Franklin, 1925); The Norma Talmadge Collection: Kiki (Clarence Brown, 1926) and Within the Law(Frank Lloyd, 1923)
Now, a disclosure. Ever since experiencing Constance’s performance as Mountain Girl in Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) — in which she was all of 18 and commandeered a real chariot — I’ve had a crush on Connie, so I’m biased. Her self-professed forte was romantic comedy, and just from Kino’s sampling you can see a genius of generosity at work, which seems more a natural projection of her own personality than the skilled pantomime practiced by the finest silent film actors. In an interview, Constance drew this comparison between herself and Norma:
My sister could cry real tears over two sofa cushions stuffed into a long dress and white lace cap, to look like a dead baby, and she would do it so convincingly that 900 persons out front would weep with her. That is real art, but my kind of talent would lead me to bounce that padded baby up and down on my knee with absurd grimaces that would make the same 900 roar with laughter.
Long-limbed and often coifed in a short, elegant bob, Connie is sexy in a way that flirts with flapper-era androgyny. Her eyes — gleaming with private laughter — make her something of a girlish provocateur, a tease perhaps, but I say go ahead, tease me. Paired in these two films with a thirty-something Ronald Colman, Constance’s most chronic expression is one of wide-eyed alarm, and I never tire of it. Both films — featuring multilayered, convoluted misunderstandings between the sexes — are very funny, charming farces, winningly directed by Sidney Franklin, with Colman’s dapper self-containment a perfect foil to Talmadge’s spunk.
On Norma’s disc, we again have co-star Ronald Colman in one film, Kiki, a comedy and thus a departure for the elder Talmadge, who most frequently played victimized females in “women’s” pictures, a good example of which is the second feature included, Within the Law. In Kiki, which takes place in Belle-Époque Paris, she’s the title character, a street urchin with show-biz ambitions and a desperate crush on suave theatre manager Victor Renal (Colman). Giving her a chance as a chorine in one of his revues, Renal finds himself falling for the gamine Norma, and all hell breaks loose when his girlfriend, Paulette, the show’s headliner (a mannish and rather scary Gertrude Astor), intuits the mutual attraction before he does.
Unlike Constance’s, Norma’s physique is short and compactly round, her delicate features framed, in this picture anyway, by a frizzy mane. And while her eyes are not the deep pools of her sister’s, her command of them as a tool of expression is virtuosic, confirming Constance’s assessment of Norma’s talent quoted above. Here, she works with her whole body, even on one occasion shaking her ass at the camera. Kiki may be the vulgar guttersnipe, but with her resourcefulness and fey mannerisms, she’s a sister to Guiletta Masina’s plucky little streetwalker, Cabiria.
Toward the end of the picture, Kiki feigns catatonia in order to keep herself ensconced in Renal’s apartment, and Norma and Colman do some terrific physical comedy together. Wanting to make her comfortable in her unconscious state, Renal begins to fidget with Kiki’s comatose body, which Talmadge manages to make stiff as a board. First he lays her awkwardly across a chair’s arms; then he deposits her in a bed, all the while oblivious to an impatient Paulette, who finally says, “Are you going to play with that all night?” Indeed. Clarence Brown expertly directs these goings-on.
Her Night of Romance (US/1924/B&W/silent/85 min./1.33:1 Music composed and performed by Bruce Loeb.) Her Sister from Paris (US/1925/B&W/74 min./1.33:1 Music composed and performed by Judith Rosenberg) Kiki (US/1926/B&W/96 min./1.33:1 Music performed by The Biograph Players)Within the Law (US/1923/B&W/105 min./1.33:1 Music composed and performed by Makia Matsumura. Released on DVD in 2010 by Kino International.
Black Snow (Xie Fei, 1990)
Assuming the time period to be that of the film’s production, i.e., the late eighties, when the Chinese student freedom movement came to grief, we see young Liu Huiguan (Jiang Wen) returning home after being released from a labor camp. In the half-light of dusk, Xie Fei’s hand-held camera follows Lui through a maze of hovels in a Beijing slum, his homestead a deserted shack, its dark interior coated with a heavy layer of dust. Wordlessly, the film makes it clear that Lui’s mother has died during his internment and that, despite his mature, tough-guy exterior, Lui is really just an adolescent in arrested development, sent down the river when he was boy.
With the exception of a neighboring aunt, who operates long on manipulation but short on nurture, Liu finds himself ostracized from his former life; especially hurtful is the harsh rejection received from the family of a friend who’s still serving time. To them, he’s a non-person, like their son. But Liu stoically tries to adapt and play by the rules. At great cost to his pride, he’s cordial and ingratiating to the local cop, who’s got his eye on him, ready to pounce at the slightest infraction. But the best Liu can do for employment is to street-peddle knock-off clothing and sneakers supplied to him by a local gangster — a risky enterprise for which he is temperamentally ill suited.
At the film’s emotional core is Liu’s painfully awkward courtship of a young singer, Zhau Yaqiu (Chinese pop star Lin Cheng). Initially, they’re well matched. When Liu first lays eyes on her, she’s an innocent flower of a girl, a reedy-voiced teenager trying to break into the entertainment scene by singing for peanuts at a local club. When he’s tapped to escort her home after a gig, Liu eagerly accepts, and you realize that for this rough-hewn, semi-literate man, who is probably pushing thirty, this constitutes his first date. Bursting with tenderness for the girl, Liu manages little more than monosyllables, until near the end of their last walk together, he responds to Zhau’s curiosity (over what lies beneath his tough-guy exterior) by saying, “I’m not a good man.”
That seems to slam the door, but Liu tries to open it again. When he next catches up with Zhau, she’s catapulted herself into minor stardom, after first abandoning her adolescence by strategically sleeping with Liu’s gangster buddy. Liu finds heartbreak — and so do we — when he confronts a hardened, glammed-up Zhau with the depth of his feeling for her, only to receive in return the hollow and dismissive good cheer reserved for bothersome fans. Following this scene, Xie Fie shoots a close-up of Liu, alone in the back of a taxi, as a single tear emerges from beneath his sunglasses to course down his cheek.
Jian Wen’s minimalist performance is a wonder. Ever protective of his emotional innards, Liu tries to maintain his face as the impassive mask of a hipster thug, and it’s through the actor’s ability to let slip the mask — with the smallest of facial gestures or a fading of light from his eyes — that we glimpse Liu’s essential humanity.
Second Run’s disc includes a marvelous 30-minute interview of the director (2006), who spent many years teaching at the now defunct Beijing Film Academy, from whence he himself graduated just before the onset of the Cultural Revolution. Xie Fie’s manner is sunny and avuncular as he explains he only wants to make art films not tied to the demands of the marketplace, the driving force for so many contemporary Chinese filmmakers.
I’m thrilled to see that Second Run has promised an edition of Xie Fie’s A Girl from Hunan coming soon.
China/1990/99 minutes/color/in Mandarin with English subtitles/1.33 OAR/PAL. Released by Second Run in 2010.
Permissive (Lindsay Shonteff, 1970)
Newman sees these films as a corrective to the cumulative repressiveness of British mores. Yet, with all the newfangled nudity and mannerist editing displayed in the mix, at least a couple of the films in the series, Shonteff’s Permissive and Peter Watkins’ Privilege (1967), take a decidedly dour stance on ’60s hedonism. Watkins, who eschews nudity and fancy cutting altogether, views the whole pop music scene as a corporate/government ploy to enslave youthful hearts and minds, while, for Shonteff, freedom’s just another word for joyless, soul-deadening sex.
In Permissive, pale, mousy Suzy (Maggie Stride) arrives in swinging London to hook up with old friend Fiona (Gay Singleton), who’s become groupie queen to a folk-rock band called Forever More. The band mates come off as a group of pre-verbal dunderheads, who, throughout the film, merely grunt, mumble, slouch — but these being the actual members of an actual band, maybe the idea was to give them as few lines to blow as possible. After a gig, hordes of pretty young things, some looking underage, storm the dressing rooms for the privilege of going down on one or more of these guys, and Shonteff certainly makes the most of his location work in what look like verifiably real backstages and hotel rooms.
With Fiona’s help, Suzy gets a ticket to ride. Once firmly part of the retinue, she instantly sheds her schoolgirl timidity and boffs every band member like ducks in a row, including the road manager, until she finally nails the lead singer, played by future Average White Band front-man Allan Gorrie. Forgetting a cardinal rule of groupie-dom, Fiona has assumed exclusive rights to this lanky singer with elfin facial hair, and tragic consequences ensue. As commentator I. Q. Hunter points out in BFI’s booklet, Suzy’s ascension to star groupie has a decidedly All About Eve (1950) ring to it, but neither Maggie Stride nor Shonteff can convincingly bring off Suzy’s transformation from clueless ingenue to coldhearted bitch, and the story’s grim denouement feels gratuitously pessimistic.
There’s plenty of naked flesh on display in Permissive, yet the most provocative thing about the film is that it’s not much fun. Why the long face? Maybe taking a few cues from the nihilism of Easy Rider (1969), Shonteff’s film is a tawdry downer, but it doesn’t quite earn its ugly take on the sexual politics of liberated youth. Here’s a cautionary tale that lacks the good sense to revel a bit in the thing it’s cautioning against. Experiencing the film feels like spending an hour and a half in a stuffy hotel room smelling the characters’ b.o., bad breath, and stale funk.
But it’s this dreary specificity that gives BFI a valid reason to resurrect a film like this and market it as a “document” of its time. To call Permissive evocative of the waning of the sixties is an understatement: the squalor, the stoned stupor, the pale discarded flesh of yesterday’s girl, the sticky veneer of cheap hotel room furniture — it all seems exactly right, and much closer to pop culture’s underbelly than the more enjoyable but artily pretentious Performance released that same year. But you wonder, did Cammell/Roeg and Shonteff all go to a screening of Easy Rider together? As pointed out by Hunter, both British films utilize the same flash-cut device employed by Dennis Hopper to “confuse chronology.”5 Hopper may have been doing a lot of acid at the time, but for Roeg, the device became something of a fetish in films like Walkabout (1971) and Don’t Look Now (1973). In the latter, Roeg uses it in much the same way as Shonteff does in Permissive, to flash images of death foretold.
BFI’s platter includes a couple of short films, one of them, Bread (Stanley Long, 1971), about a group of rather doltish hipsters who decide to plan a rock festival all on their own. In contrast to Permissive, it’s breezy and slight, with a fair amount of bumptious, but agreeable, T&A.
All these low-budget, grainy films, on BFI’s Blu-ray edition, look way better than you’d expect them to.
UK/1970/color/90 minutes/ OAR 1.33:1/1080p/24fps Released on Blu-ray and DVD in 2010 by BFI.
The Italian Straw Hat (René Clair, 1928)
As it debuts on Flicker Alley’s joyous DVD release, Clair’s The Italian Straw Hat is laugh-out-loud funny in a way that I can’t imagine any stage revival of the play could be. In PDF format, the disc includes an English translation of the comedy by Eugene Labiche and Marc Michel — entitled, oddly, A Leghorn (i.e., Livorno) Hat — and a perusal of it, after watching the film, is revelatory of Clair’s achievement.
Of interest to all commentators is the director’s moving the action of the play to 1895, the year in which the Lumière brothers first held a public screening of their films and charged an admission fee, thereby effectively establishing the birth of French cinema. Clair’s sun-drenched Parisian streets, with their urchins, passers-by, hurdy-gurdys, and junk peddlers, seem modeled on the Lumières’ brief encapsulations of everyday, mostly bourgeois, French life. The film’s performers wear their period costumes as Keaton’s do in The General (1926) — that is, like they live in them.
Clair directs and builds The Italian Straw Hat with verve and an unerring wit. With a mere 32 inter-titles throughout the film, it’s Clair’s genius as an adaptor to turn the play’s zippy dialogue into a steady stream of inspired visual gags that sometimes do double duty as exposition. The play’s plot, although simplified, remains the same — but the film allows us to witness the setup, i.e., the horse eating the hat.
Ferdinand (Albert Préjean), a bridegroom on the way to his wedding, leaves his carriage unattended for a few seconds only to find his horse chewing on a fancy straw hat dangling from a shrub. Investigating the roadside flora, he finds the hat belongs to a very pretty lady, Anais (Olga Tschechowa) in dalliance with a soldier, Lieutenant Tavanier (Vital Geymond), who immediately begins to put up a fuss about the compromised hat, which, if not replaced with its exact duplicate, will compromise the lady. When, later, the soldier and the lady confront the groom in his nuptial chambers, Ferdinand learns Anais is married but not to the soldier.
The Lieutenant threatens mass destruction of Ferdinand’s furniture if the hat is not replaced ASAP, but Ferdinand needs to attend his wedding, an entire day’s worth of ceremony and celebration. The comedy pivots on the bridegroom’s harried, divided attention throughout the day, during he must which absent himself periodically from the wedding party and his bride in order to find the hat and save his furniture.
The film’s cast works smoothly as an ensemble, led by Préjean, who greets and troubleshoots each impending disaster with a suave composure that barely hides his incipient panic. When not swooning in despair, the gorgeous Russian émigré Tschekowa is superbly petulant, her boundless sense of entitlement to a replacement hat the hinge to the utter ridiculousness of Fardinand’s quest for it. As Beauperthuis, Jim Gérald exhibits the best slow burn this side of Oliver Hardy. Each wedding guest is individualized, some through a struggle with an article of clothing, like an uncooperative necktie or an ill-fitting pair of shoes. Or a malfunctioning ear trumpet.
Flicker Alley offers two musical scores to accompany the film, both by preeminent practitioners who never fail to deliver. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra is a small ensemble headed by Rodney Sauer, whose arrangement here is a breezy mix of Offenbach, Nicholai’s overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor, and popular dance tunes of the day. As much as I enjoyed Sauer’s score, Philip Carli’s solo piano has its own delights, especially during the extended dance sequence at the wedding reception. Precisely in step with the genteel quadrilles, Carli keeps the beat as, in rhythmic cross-cuts of accelerating violence, Ferdinard imagines the wholesale destruction of his property.
The disc also includes two short films, one a visual hymn to the Eiffel Tower composed by Clair in 1928, the other an anonymous, early comedy from 1907, Fun After the Wedding, which is said to have inspired the look and feel of Clair’s 1927 masterpiece.
France/1927/105 min./B&W/Silent/1:33:1 OAR. Released on DVD by Flicker Alley in 2010.
- The feeling that this violence comes too soon and abruptly to be credible is supported by Murnau’s letter, which suggests the slap occur later in the drama. [↩]
- Another of Murnau’s proposals to Fox was to have the scene between Mac and Kate play out with more of a risk that Kate might surrender to Mac’s blandishments. [↩]
- Actually, Constance, by 1929, simply didn’t want to bother with a film career anymore, and just chucked it. Norma, however, hired a vocal coach and gave the talkies a shot. Her few sound films all bombed. [↩]
- Along with Newman’s brief survey, the disc also includes three well-chosen short films from the era, the most interesting being Carousella (John Irvin, 1966), a slyly prurient documentary on the lives of a few London strippers. [↩]
- In an article on Hopper in the New York Times, 4/11/10, Manohla Dargis posits that Hopper’s “eye-thwacking edits” had their origins in the work of Bruce Conner, an avant-garde filmmaker, collagist, and friend of the actor/director. [↩]