randy_byers: (2010-08-15)
The past week has been quite a dose of culture. Last Tuesday Samuel R. Delany gave a reading at the downtown Seattle Public Library as part of this summer's Clarion West festivities. Delany is a terrific reader, and he was in fine form for this. He read from his latest novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, and he also read from Phallos -- a novella that has recently been rereleased in an expanded version. (All of Chip's work is seemingly constantly under revision.) He introduced himself as our favorite dirty old man (the house was packed with enthusiastic folks), and both readings were blatantly sexual, although part of the joke in Phallos is that it's about a pornographic novel of uncertain provenance in which the sex has been censored to make it safe for the internet.

In many ways the Q&A session after the reading was even more entertaining. Somebody asked a question about "Aye, and Gomorrah," which won a Nebula Award in 1967. I can't even remember what the question was, but Delany called the politics of the story "trogdolytic" in its portrayal of queerness as something tragic and lugubrious, in short nothing like the life he was actually living in those pre-Stonewall days. He launched into a wonderful story about how he'd made his first trip to Paris in 1966 with two straight friends and had immediately run into a man masturbating in the Tuileries Garden and went home with him. This man was a medical student from Senegal, and the next day he and his friends (all of them gay Africans) invited Chip and his friends over for dinner. Well, it was all very much like a scene out of one of Chip's later stories, and it was completely delightful.

I confess that Chip's sex-drenched and socially-expansive stories left me feeling very wistful that evening. I've been in a mild funk since Westercon due to a new confrontation with my own sexual and social disabilities. Nothing very profound, just some ancient frustrations and confusions that I've long lived with. My life as an anxious introvert, I guess. I envy Chip the carefree attitude he projects in public.

Anyway, on Friday I went to SIFF Cinema Uptown to see the silent version of Hitchcock's 1929 film, Blackmail. (It was simultaneously filmed as his first sound film.) This was part of a traveling show called the Hitchcock 9, which features the nine surviving silent films by Hitchcock, all of which have been restored by the British Film Institute. Blackmail looked absolutely amazing. Hitchcock was already an accomplished visual stylist by this point (the influence of Murnau and Lang is plain to see), and this print (or digital file) was taken directly from the negatives, looking very sharp and pristine. The story was prime Hitchcock material: a Scotland Yard detective's girlfriend (played by Anny Ondra, who reminded me of Fay Wray in her mannerisms) goes out on a date with another man behind her boyfriend's back. The man tries to rape her, and she kills him. Another man knows she did it and tries to blackmail her. The layers of guilt are properly convoluted, but the story sags a bit in the middle when Hitchcock doesn't seem to know what to do with the characters except have them brood and leer at each other. Still, it was gorgeous to look at, and if it comes out on DVD I'll pick it up. I also enjoyed the minimalist, almost ambient accompaniment by the Diminished Men at this showing.

My plan coming into the weekend had been to catch another of the Hitchcock 9 on both Saturday and Sunday, but then another option presented itself to me. My neighbor's boss offered her a pass to the dress rehearsals for the Wagner Ring Cycle that the Seattle Opera is about to put on. My neighbor couldn't use it, so she offered it to me. I've always wanted to see the Ring, but never strongly enough to actually, you know, go. Here it was, handed to me on a platter. After examining the schedule, however, I wasn't sure I really wanted to devote that much time to it. The first opera in the cycle, Das Rheingold, is two and half hours long, but the other three are all over four hours apiece.

Well, I decided I'd go to Das Rheingold on Saturday at the very least, and so I did. I also went to Die Walküre on Sunday, and am now leaning heavily toward seeing the other two as well. Suffice it to say that I'm enjoying it so far, although not without some reservations. But there's something very thrilling and epic about it that cannot be denied. As a production, it is absolutely spectacular, with amazing sets and special effects and costumes. It also feels like a blast of our culture. It connects to so many different things, from the modern heroic fantasy genre to Star Wars to the music of Mahler and Schoenberg that I've been listening to in large doses lately. Listening to the music I can hear the echoes in so many things I've heard before. Last night at Die Walküre I was hearing the music from the 1939 Wizard of Oz, for example.

I liked Die Walküre better than Das Rheingold, although there was plenty of music in Das Rheingold that I really, really liked. There was singing in both of them that I didn't care for very much. (I think I like the singing in Italianate operas better than Germanic ones in general.) As much as I liked Die Walküre, I didn't care for the third act very much. My biggest problem with these operas so far is probably that there's too much declaiming of exposition, as the characters explain things to each other at great length. This leads to some strange staging as secondary characters move around aimlessly and strike poses just to try to make it seem like something is happening when nothing is really happening except exposition.

But then a magical moment will arise: Brünnhilde appearing to Siegmund in the moonlight, or Loge and Wotan tricking Alberich into turning into a frog in the dark gold mines. I can't begin to describe how splendid the sets and the production are. They've created the most beautiful forest sets! In the opening scene in Das Rheingold the Rhine maidens are "swimming" in the air -- essentially wirework in realtime, swooping up and down and floating across the stage and doing somersaults in midair. Simply amazing.

I could go on and on about things I've liked (much of the music, although not all) and haven't liked (some of the more emphatic, thumping music, for example), but I also want to talk about how much fun it has been going to the opera house. I wore my suit on Saturday, only to reacquaint myself with the fact that the slacks need to be taken in. So on Sunday I wore a shirt and tie with jeans. I've been admiring the women in their finery. It's like going to a costume ball. Because the tickets are first come first serve, you're advised to show up an hour and a half early. That has given me time to sit in the bistro and drink wine and people watch and read a book (Banks' Surface Tension, which coincidentally opens on an opera stage). The crowd is very enthusiastic. There's a lot of excitement in the air. People wonder aloud if Tolkien based Lord of the Rings on the Ring Cycle. (I refrained from telling them that Tolkien was influenced by the original mythology and actually detested Wagner.) And I hadn't been to McCaw Hall since it was remodeled, and it is quite a beautiful building itself. It's all a great deal of fun just as an event.

Meanwhile, on top of this epic flood of culture I'm also painting the backside of the house. I have been a very, very busy boy, I tell you. The weather has been brilliant, and I'm sure I've been flooded with Vitamin D as well as with culture. The physical activity has left me feeling energetic. To hell with mild funks and old frustrations. I'm having a ball!
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The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)
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Alias Jimmy Valentine (1915)
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Alice Terry in Scaramouche (1923)
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Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)
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Making a Living (1914)

This isn't Charles Chaplin, but someone who's about to chase him. Chaplin's first film. I love the deep shot of the city street.
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Voyage to Metropolis (Die Reise nach Metropolis, 2010)

The theater where Metropolis premiered in Berlin in 1927. Voyage to Metropolis is an extra on the new Kino DVD.
randy_byers: (machine man)

Metropolis (1927)

This screencap is from the recently restored footage, which is from pretty badly damaged 16mm film stock, thus the poor quality. It's from a brief montage representing the Yoshiwara District in Metropolis, which is essentially the red-light district (named after a district in Tokyo/Edo where prostitution was legal until 1958). When I first saw this montage at the SIFF Theater show, I read all three faces as female, but now that I'm able to take a closer look on DVD, it seems to me that the gender of at least two of them is ambiguous. More Weimar sophistication?
randy_byers: (cesare)
Roland West is one of the earliest American directors to show the influence of those Weimar films of the '20s with a dark, shadowy, gothic, dreamlike style that is frequently referred to as German Expressionism. He's not very well known today, but his old dark house film, The Bat (1926), was credited by Bob Kane as an influence on the Batman. I've seen four of his films so far, including his 1930 talkie remake of The Bat, The Bat Whispers, and the 1929 crime film, The Alibi. All four are visually stylish (two of them with marvellous sets by William Cameron Menzies), although all are also on the creaky side.


The Monster is another old dark house movie, based on a play by Crane Wilbur. It opens on a dark and stormy night. We see a monstrous figure in a roadside tree setting up a trap to cause a car to crash. From an underground lair another menacing character emerges to grab the unconscious driver. After this effective mood-setter, we switch to daylight scenes in town where we are introduced to a comedy love triangle, including a goofy shop clerk named Johnny Goodlittle who is trying to learn how to be a detective from a correspondence course. The comedy is all a bit aw-shucks cliche and tiresome. Eventually our love triangle is dumped into the supposedly-abandoned sanitarium in the woods, where we discover that it is actually inhabited by the scary Dr. Ziska (Lon Chaney Sr) and his trio of menacing hoods. The usual old dark house combination of comedy hijinks and thrilling mystery ensues.


This movie isn't nearly as good as The Bat, which gets off to a corker of a start and never lets up, but it's still plenty entertaining once it gets past the set-up scenes in town. Chaney is given only a secondary role, but he is perfectly oily and serpentine as the mad scientist. The sanitarium is turned into a labyrinth of secret passageways, chutes, cells, shadowy statues, attics, rooftops, trapdoors, and stairways. In an old dark house story -- as in classic gothics -- the house is a major character, so an effectively creepy house can make up for a myriad of narrative and character sins. The action builds to a satisfying climax involving an electric chair and derring-do on a powerline. Dr. Ziska's evil plan, when revealed, is suitably twisted and science fictional.

What's on the slab

I'm not sure what other Roland West films still survive, although I surmise by the fact that F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre is the only reviewer of the science fiction film The Unknown Purple (1923) on IMDb that it is in fact lost. West stopped making films in 1931. He was in a relationship with the actress Thelma Todd when she died in 1935 under mysterious circumstances at the Pacific Highway roadhouse (and popular gangster hangout) they ran together. Many have suspected that West killed her, and he is said to have confessed as much on his deathbed in 1952. Nothing has ever been proved.
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The Monster (1925)

"A strange case -- but I deal in strange cases!"
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The Dream of an Opium Fiend (Le rêve d'un fumeur d'opium, 1908)
randy_byers: (machine man)
Metropolis is packing them in eighty years later. Last night I saw the latest restoration at the SIFF Cinema with Denys and [livejournal.com profile] holyoutlaw and there literally wasn't an empty seat in the house. A huge box office failure in 1927, Metropolis has become one of the most popular and influential silent films of all time, and based on the response of the crowd last night it hasn't lost any of its power to excite and inspire.

The new restoration, incorporating footage from an almost complete 16mm print found in Argentina in 2008, is as close as most of us have come to seeing the original cut of the film, which after its premiere in Berlin in 1927 was hacked down by both the American studio Paramount and separately by the German studio Ufa. The restored footage can't, of course, fix the sophomoric Big Important Themes and Symbols of the movie, but what's fascinating about this long cut is how much more textured and layered and structured the story is. The 2001 restoration was a revelation in bringing out the story of Joh Fredersen and Rotwang's love for the same woman, Hel, which gave a psychosexual underpinning to the class conflict at the heart of the story. Now this aspect of the story is fleshed out even further, and we see that Rotwang has not only invented the artificial human, the Machine Man, to replace his lost beloved, but that when he gives the Machine Man the face of Maria in order to destroy Hel's son by Fredersen, Freder, he himself comes to confuse the real Maria with Hel. Through all this the monstrous Rotwang, a predecessor of many filmic mad scientists including Dr. Strangelove, becomes a more sympathetic, more human character.

This version also restores two threads that were still mostly missing from the 2001 restoration, involving the worker Georgy 11811, who for a brief time gets to live in Freder's shoes in upper class paradise, and Josaphat, an employee of Joh Fredersen who gets fired and is rescued by Freder from a life in the working class underworld. Both of these threads flesh out Freder's growing compassion for his brothers in the oppressed lower classes, and the bonds of loyalty and love he forges with the oppressed. They also take us deeper into the pleasure world of the Yoshiwara district, where the upper class parties and riots to oblivion like it's Weimar Germany in the '20s.

Beyond the narrative elements, however, this new version, which appears to have been substantially re-edited as well, reveals how much Lang is communicating with sheer rhythm -- a fact that was underscored by the percussion-heavy live accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra last night. Lang overtly structures the movie as a musical piece, dividing it into sections called Prelude, Intermezzo, and Furioso. The rhythm of the movie builds and builds until the final sections brings all the threads together in a frantic crescendo that moves upward in space as well as pace until it plummets finally back to earth. The orchestration of images is incredible, and that's something that had disappeared in the old truncations of the film. Even on the level of ham-handed thematics, there is careful layering and counterpointing going on, as when the workers learn that their children have not been drowned in the underground warrens after all just as Joh Fredersen discovers his own child teetering on the precipice of destruction above.

Well, it actually made me curious to see earlier versions again to see what all has been changed. I can watch the 2001 restoration on the DVD I have, but it would be fun to see the Moroder version again to be reminded how it played in the years before even that level of restoration had been reached. Metropolis has always been a problematic movie because of its dumb politics and banal preaching, but seeing it in its original form is a revelation. Deeply flawed, but a work of monumental achievement, if only structurally and visually. See it on a big screen if you can. It still works as eye candy after 80 years.


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