Tag Archives: 1929

LOSING LULU

The promiscuous motion picture camera has had many memorable romances: Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Audrey Hepburn, Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor. Yet, the great love affair of the it’s 100 plus year life was also one of its briefest: actress Louie Brooks. Despite, or perhaps because of, that brevity, this love affair has never really been equaled in intensity.

Louise Brooks is primarily remembered for the cinematic masterpiece Pandora’s Box (1929), made with G.W. Pabst. He was considered by some the greatest of all German directors; he was certainly one of the most intelligent. Pabst only made one other film with Brooks, Diary Of A Lost Girl (1929), which although not quite the equal of their first collaboration, is rightly and belatedly being recognized for its own merits. Brooks made a final film of some interest: Beauty Prize (1930) with director Augusto Genina, which together with the Pabst films finished off a feminist trilogy.

Pabst had earlier convinced Hollywood of Greta Garbo’s abilities with Joyless Street (1925), which also featured a remarkable performance by Asta Nielson. He directed Brigitte Helm in The Love of Jeanne Ney (1928) and Leni Riefenstahl in The White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929). Being a certified woman’s director, Pabst virtually invented Brooks’ screen personality. Brooks later confessed in her interviews with Kenneth Tynan that, at the time, she had little clue as to what Pandora’s Box was even about, turning herself over to the director’s hands. In Brooks’ eyes, she was only playing herself. She, and the film, was aided immensely by Gunther Krampf’s illuminating cinematography.  

Pandora’s Box is considered a primary example of Weimar Cinema. Simultaneously expressionistic and naturalistic, Pandora’s phantasmagoric quality inspired the composer Alban Berg, who adapted his libretto, as Pabst did his screenplay, from playwright Frank Wedekind’s “Lulu” cycle. In both cases, the result was a beautifully repulsive work.

Still from Pandora's Box (1929)Pabst initiated an extensive search for his Lulu, testing and rejecting hundreds of aspiring actresses. Upon seeing Brooks’ ravishing portrayal of a femme fatale in Howard Hawks’ amiable, comic A Girl in Every Port (1928), Pabst felt he had found his Lulu. It’s easy to see why. Brooks’ memorable part, though small, registers as a rudimentary prototype of Lulu. Brooks later complimented her Svengali’s perception: “It was clever of Pabst to know even before he met me that I possessed the tramp essence of Lulu.” Brooks’ only other early Hollywood film of merit is William Wellman’s Beggars of Life (1928). For years Malcolm St. Claire’s The Canary Murder Case (1929) was considered lost. Stills hinted at a missing gem. Unfortunately, the film was discovered and released. Perhaps some things should remain lost.

That Pandora’s Box has a lurid plot is a given. Pabst wisely simplifies Wedekind’s source material, concentrating on Lulu’s relationships with her first “patron,” the haggard Schigolch (Carl Gotz), Schon (Fritz Kortner), Schon’s son Alwyn (Franz Lederer), and her lesbian lover Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts). Pabst and Krampf give Pandora’s Box an crepuscular sheen. The girl, with her bobbed, jet black hair contrasting sharply with a white dress flickering like a candle, engages in a balletic promenade. Brooks, the trained dancer, is a naive succubus, flippantly unconcerned with bourgeoisie seasoned Continue reading LOSING LULU

BUNUEL’S “UN CHIEN ANDALOU” (1929)

Further thoughts on the Certified WeirdUn Chien Andalou” (1929)

“Moving pictures merely repeat what we have been told for centuries by novels and plays. Thus, a marvelous instrument for the expression of poetry and dreams (the subconscious world) is reduced to the role of simple REPEATER of stories expressed by other art forms.”–Luis Bunuel

Although Un Chien Andalou (1929) is believed to be one of the first intentionally Surrealist films, its iconoclastic milieu is predominantly subservient to the sovereign elements of systematic realism.

True to surrealist tenets, the film’s naturalistic texture is the quintessential ingredient in its theatrical absurdity. In this sense, Surrealist film is antithetical to Expressionist film. For instance, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) utilized distorted set designs to convey dream worlds. In direct contrast, Luis Buñuel conveys the phantasmagoric reveries here through expressive, primarily organic compositions.

In “Sculpting in Time,”  locates the pulse of Buñuel’s texture:

The driving force of his films is always anti-conformism. His protest—furious, uncompromising and harsh—is expressed above all in the sensuous texture of the film, and is emotionally infectious. The protest is not calculated. Bunuel’s work is deeply rooted in the classical culture of Spain, born on one hand of a deep love for country, and on the other of his seething hatred for lifeless structures, for the brutal, milking dry of brains. The field of vision, narrowed by hatred and disdain, takes in only that which is alive with human sympathy, the divine spark, ordinary human suffering, which has steeped into the hot, stony Spanish earth.

Andalou‘s cinematography is classic, elegant and traditional. Again, Buñuel utilizes minimalistic compositions (i.e. point of view) to frame complex psychological acts of voyeurism. Buñuel often stated that he was completely uninterested in the aesthetics of filmmaking. While that flamboyant claim might be suspect, this deliberate choice astutely serves his Surrealist agenda.

Extreme close-ups (like the still shocking opening sequence) are utilized only when absolutely necessary. Much of the camerawork is rudimentary and unobtrusive. This allows the viewer to engage with the dialectic thrust between the film’s protagonists and its symbology.

The editing further validates Buñuel’s claim of disinterest in aesthetics. Freudian affiliations, naturally, abound. Dissolves are employed merely to inspire emotional tension. The ants in the stigmatic palm are weaved into a woman’s armpit, followed by the image of a sea urchin. The result is shrewdly discomforting and challenging film poetry. Through editing, Buñuel propels the viewer into an idiosyncratic subconscious mirage.

As a silent film, Un Chien Andalou thinks differently than sound film. (, when asked near the end of his life, why he felt he was one of the extreme few silent filmmakers who survived the transition to sound, answered: “I suppose because I realized silent film was a different art form.”) This is clear in the use of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” as a soundtrack and a subtext (the music was conceptually there from the beginning, although the sound was only added later). Shot in two weeks on a meager budget financed by his mother, Buñuel could hardly afford a score. However, his choice of music and its context in relation to the film was influential in the “non-writing” of the piece.

Buñuel was an erudite cultural omnivore who raided different art forms to enhance his own art. He was well aware of “Tristan”’s impact and influence. “Tristan und Isolde” boldly introduced dissonance to opera, and the world reacted. Isolde’s “Liebestod,” taking place after the death of Tristan, synthesizes the preceding dissonance through her own transcendental, sensual death.

Still from Un Chien Andalou (1929)Buñuel filters this potentially incandescent vignette through a natural, highly lit filter. This serves as a compelling visual counterpart to the narrative context supplied by the usage of Wagner.

Buñuel’s aural editing, again, reveals a psychological rather than an aesthetic choice. Isolde’s immolation gives way to bawdy brothel music. Bunuel’s editing style parallels the traditional rhythmic continuity editing prevalent in the period. Low angles, overhead shots, et. al., employed conservatively, symbolize the relationship between the highly stylized performances and the participatory camera work. Melot’s murder of his friend Tristan is also mirrored by the shooting of Andalou‘s protagonist, rendering Buñuels claim the film was merely a catalog of random absurdities as highly suspect.

Buñuel’s predilection for not so subtle swipes at clerical hypocrisy is already present in this, his first film. He would continue taking such shots throughout his body of work, of course. Some have confused this with anti-religiosity. With a Jesuit education, Buñuel was well-equipped to shock and delighted in doing so, as did Alfred Hitchcock in a slightly more conventional way. (Hitchcock also received a Jesuit education).

Buñuel’s shocking religious imagery here involves a dead jackass and two priests. With dangling cigarette, Buñuel sharpens his razor for the bourgeoisie. Sergei Eisentstein saw Un Chien Andalou as the disintegration of bourgeois consciousness, and Buñuel hoped bourgeois audiences would prove that point by rioting in reaction to the film. They didn’t riot, and naturally, this inspired Buñuel to surpass this clerical mockery in L’ Age d’Or (1930). The government of Spain reacted with banishment.

Salvador Dalí, the co-writer who was in some quarters credited as co-director, claimed, after the fact, to have been a more prominent force in the production. While Dali did repeat the infamous eye slicing in the dream sequence he composed for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), Un Chien Andalou is more characteristic of Buñuel’s oeuvre.

117. UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1929)

An Andalusian Dog

“No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of heany kind would be accepted… We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why.”–Luis Buñuel on Un Chien Andalou

Must SeeWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: Simone Mareuil, Pierre Batcheff

PLOT: A man slits open a woman’s eyeball with a straight razor. “Eight years later” another man visits the woman in her apartment and apparently tries to rape her, but finds himself tied to two grand pianos bearing dead donkeys and priests. After further absurd adventures the woman walks through her apartment door and finds her lover on the beach; the happy couple stroll along, though “in spring” they are seen buried in the sand up to their waists, apparently dead.

Still from Un Chien Andalou (1929)

BACKGROUND:

  • Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí co-wrote the scenario; each of them would reject an idea suggested by the other if they thought it made too much sense. The concept for the film arose when Buñuel described a dream he had about a cloud slicing the moon like a razor, and Dalí countered with a dream about a man with ants crawling from a hole in his hand.
  • Buñuel appears as the man who sharpens the razor in the opening scene. Dalí appears as one of the priests who finds himself surprised to be tied to a piano.
  • Un Chien Andalou debuted as part of an avant-garde double feature alongside Man Ray’s Les mystères du château de Dé. Buñuel and Dalí reportedly hid behind a curtain and carried rocks in his pocket to defend themselves in case the audience rioted, but were disappointed when the movie was well-received.
  • Un Chien Andalou is sometimes called the first “Surrealist” film. Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergymen had debuted a year earlier, but the film’s Surrealist screenwriter Antonin Artaud denounced Dulac’s finished work as distorting his views, and even staged a riot at the film’s opening in protest. Still, Man Ray and Rene Clair had produced films that could easily be called “Surrealist” as early as 1924. There is no doubt that if it was not the first, Un Chien Andalou was at least the most memorable and influential of this small group of experimental films from the 1920s.
  • Un Chien Andalou is widely considered to be one of the most important movies ever made. Roger Ebert called it “the most famous short film ever made,” it is listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, and it tied for #28 in Sight and Sound’s influential poll of the greatest films ever made (1992 edition), among other honors.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We chose an indelible image for every movie that makes the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies, and the choice is not always obvious. Un Chien Andalou is a relief in that there’s no possible controversy over our selection of the eyeball slitting sequence as the film’s unforgettable moment. This is one of the most iconic moments in all of cinema; no one can watch it without wincing. It is also the film’s only obvious metaphor: the razor is Un Chien Andalou and the eye is the spectator, and this is what the one intends to do to the other.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The word “surreal” is thrown about a lot when talking about unusual


Short clip from Un Chien Andalou

films. Un Chien Andalou is the real deal, the original Surrealist sensation whose impact all the others have been trying to imitate to for almost a century. It is the undiluted essence of the pure unconscious spilled onto celluloid like vitreous humor. At a mere 17 minutes it’s the perfect length for a pure Surrealist movie; it hits hard and never overstays its welcome. It’s shocking, disturbing, full of marvels and uncomfortably hilarious; in other words, weird, weird, weird.

COMMENTS: A cloud hits the moon. Eyeball jelly oozes around a straight razor. A man rides a Continue reading 117. UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1929)

CAPSULE: MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA (1929)

Chelovek s kino-apparatom; AKA Living Russia, or the Man With the Movie Camera

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Dziga Vertov

FEATURING: Mikhail Kaufman (cameraman)

PLOT: A plotless record of twenty four hours of life in the Soviet Union of 1929, exhibited

Still from Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

through series of experimental camera tricks.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Man with the Movie Camera is a visually inventive, historically important and formally deep movie that reveals more secrets with each viewing; but, the only quality in it that might be called “weird” are the surreal camera tricks it occasionally employs. It’s a movie that demands space on the shelf of anyone seriously interested in editing techniques or film theory, but as far as weirdness goes, it’s purely supplemental viewing.

COMMENTS: Reviews of Man with a Movie Camera often spend as much, if not more, time discussing the history and philosophy of the production and its influence on future films than they do describing what’s actually in the movie. That’s because the challenge the movie sets for itself—to create a “truly international absolute language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of theater and literature”—is more fascinating than the film’s subject matter (the daily lives of Soviet citizens in 1929). On a technical level, Movie Camera is a catalog of editing techniques and camera tricks, many of which were pioneered in this film but are commonplace or obsolete now. Be on the lookout for double exposures, tricks of perspective, slowing down or speeding up the camera speed, freeze-frames, reversed footage, split screens, and even crude stop-motion animation. One of the most interesting techniques is the amphetaminic editing of Movie Camera‘s climax, which moves almost too fast for the eye or mind to follow (a technique Guy Maddin would fall in love with and use to ultra-weird effect in the Constructivist/Surrealist hybrid The Heart of the World). Structurally, the film flows along as a series of counterpoints, alternating between two sets of scenes to create ironic contrasts (cross-cutting a funeral procession and the birth of a baby), metaphors (scenes of soot-covered workers Continue reading CAPSULE: MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA (1929)

TOD BROWNING’S THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR (1929)

The Thirteenth Chair (1929) is Tod Browning‘s first sound film and a real curio.  Like a lot of early sound films, it is bogged down with wax museum staging.  Chair is yet another drawing room murder mystery, taken from an antiquated stage play, but being a Tod Browning production, the film cannot resist its own latent, deviant infrastructure in the acutely bizarre casting of  Bela Lugosi as the well-dressed Inspector Delzante.

Still from The Thirteenth Chair (1929)In the original play, the character of the inspector had a different name and was played for laughs.  The Thirteenth Chair was an all around testing-the-waters kind of film; a test handling that new invention called sound, which neither Browning nor the production team were comfortably with (all too clearly).  The main test here, however, was for the upcoming role of Dracula, and for that reason Browning grabbed Lugosi, who had made the vampire role a mega hit on the stage circuit.

Lugosi’s make-up, with sharply accented eyebrows, is patterned after the make-up he wore as Dracula in the play version of Bram Stoker’s tale.  His mannerisms are pure vamp, not at all what the role of the inspector originally called for.  His first appearance is shot from the back.  He is in a police station, dressed from head to shoes in white, but when he turns towards the camera, he delivers the lines as only a Transylvanian Count would.  Thankfully, Lugosi is wildly disproportionate to the role and serves as an almost surreal red herring for the film.  This may have been a test project for Browning, but he had to make it interesting for himself, and he did so first with the eccentric casting of the “Living, Hypnotic Corpse” as the inspector.

Lugosi beautifully mangles the English language, as per his norm, but his handling of the Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR (1929)

TOD BROWNING’S WHERE EAST IS EAST (1929)

Like a true auteur, Tod Browning essentially kept remaking the same film. He was a peculiarity in Hollywood. He refused an agent, generally refused assignment scripts and, instead, consistently sought out material that interested him.

Poster for Where East Is EastWhere East is East (1929) was the last of the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaborations, it was the last of Browning’s silent films, and it contained many themes from their previous efforts together.

The heavily scarred, large-feline-monikered Tiger Haynes (Chaney) is an animal trapper who has an uncomfortably playful relationship with his daughter Toya (the bubbly Lupe Velez).   Their relationship alters between games of feline patty cake and overt protection.  Daddy and Toya’s relationship gets thrown its first monkey wrench when Toya acquires a new boyfriend, Bobby (Lloyd Hughes).

Acting like a jealous lover, Tiger refuses to warm up to Bobby, until Bobby assists Tiger in saving Toya from a real tiger. Now Bobby is a real swell and welcome to the pride. While delivering tigers on a cruise to the East, Tiger and Bobby run into Tiger’s ex-wife and Toya’s mother, Mme. de Sylva (Estelle Taylor, the real-life one time wife of Jack Dempsey).  For Bobby, Sylva is the embodiment of oriental fantasy.  She is a true tigress with a jealous, soothsayer-like female servant (hints of a lesbian relationship). Sylva spews her man-baiting poison on the intoxicated Bobby, in order to exact sexual revenge on Tiger and parental revenge on their daughter,Toya. This is a reversal of West of Zanzibar (1928), in which Chaney was the parent exacting parental revenge on a whelp. The incestuous relationship hinted between Tiger and Toya (on Tiger’s part, twice unrequited) is paralleled in Bobby and Sylva.

Sylva enters Toya’s world and repressed, invisible secrets threaten the illusory fabric of Tiger’s world.   Of course, some animals devour their young, and Sylva, one step removed, attempts to incestuously devour Toya.  Unfortunately for Sylva, behind a fragile cage she has a nemesis in a gorilla holding a grudge for secret, past abuses.  It is the savage animal kingdom that will exact revenge.  Chaney, impotently declawed, scowls and threatens Sylva from the sidelines until he unleashes the beast, which will end in paternal sacrifice for the daughter he cannot possess (shades of West again).

Where East is East hands the film to Taylor, who, reportedly, managed her off-screen relations with men in a fashion similar to Sylva.  Luckily, Taylor is up to the part, as is Velez, who conveys innocence, diverse emotions, and energetic sexual charm. Chaney is excellent as usual, in the secondary, castrated role.

One off-screen note of interest: “Mexican Spitfire” Velez and Taylor became quite close after working together in this film. Velez, pregnant and abandoned, spent her last hours on earth with Taylor, before departing her mortal coil with the aid of Seconal. Somehow, in the Browning universe, that is an apt, dark underside to the narrative.

Needless to say, Where East is East does not subscribe to any sort of orthodox realism. It is representative of the blue collar surrealism that both Browning and Chaney espoused and can be best enjoyed with a heaping plate of elephant ears and cotton candy, along with a well-worn copy of “The Interpretation of Dreams.”