Thursday, October 30, 2014

As if the Stars Would Wink Out One by One to Hear it Spoken, or The Five Nosferatus

I.  From the Seed of Belial Sprang the Vampyre Nosferatu

In 1921, director F. W. Murnau, Rosicrucian and screenwriter Henrik Galeen, and producer, artist, designer and occultist Albin Grau perpetrated an act of intellectual property theft on Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, a novel immensely influential on the 20th century both for its newness and in the specific ways it was itself derivative. As with so much, too much, that is of cultural interest from the late 19th and through the mid-20th centuries, Aleister Crowley, the Beast, had something to do with this. The impact of Crowley on Murnau, Galeen, and Grau's Nosferatu was doubtlessly not very direct at all, but it feels important in some obscure way that he was there, even on the fringe.

From a possibly, probably, certainly apocryphal story related by Grau from his World War I days, a story having to do with typhoid fever and the avoidance of it, as well as the transformation of dead father of one of Grau's comrades into an actual vampire, grew the idea to transport the basic concept and general action of Dracula from 1890s London to 1830s rural Germany. Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is sent by his boss Knock (Alexander Granach) to Transylvania to conduct a real estate transaction that would bring Count Orlok (Max Schreck) to their little town of Wisborg, an idea that excites Knock somewhat unaccountably, in a way that seems beyond money. And so Hutter is soon bleeding in front of, and later into, the vermin maw of Orlok the nosferatu. His eventual escape from Orlok's castle may be far too late to stop the plague that is about to sweep down on Wisborg, and on Hutter's wife Ellen (Greta Schroder).

In From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, Siegried Kracauer, who by spending fewer than two pages on it seems to want little to do with what must be deemed the most famous film to ever come out of Germany, regards Nosferatu as one of a group of films that "specialized in the depiction of tyrants"; calling the Germans of that time after the devastations of World War I "a people still unbalanced, still free to choose its regime" Kracauer wonders about what facet of the national psychology could have fed the creation of fictitious tyrants and tyrannies before noting "It is, at any rate, a strange coincidence that, hardly more than a decade later, Nazi Germany was to put into practice that very mixture of physical and mental tortures which the German screen then pictured." Well, yes. Very strange. Still, though completely supportable by the film itself, Kracauer's insistence on slotting Nosferatu into this political category ends up simplifying the film -- it fits but all the edges and corners get shaved off in the process. It is a film of, yes, tyranny, but also one of plague, literally, with the rats that swarm Wisborg, and figuratively, as the real fever and death comes from a supernatural evil. It's a film washed in Grau's occultism, and the symbols overt (Knock's letter from Orlok) and covert (littering the walls the viewer isn't even meant to look at) that in these convoluted belief systems tie all that is good and all that is vile into one cosmic mathematical equation, a system of thought that almost inevitably will lead, or in several decades time, spread, virulently, to those who don't even know the roots of their own paranoia. Nosferatu is a paranoid conspiracy thriller from another plane of existence.

In his examination of the history of horror cinema The Monster Show, David J. Skal quotes critic and Murnau biographer Lotte Eisner as writing:

Mysticism and magic, the dark forces to which Germans have always been more than willing to commit themselves, had flourished in the face of death on the battlefields. The hecatombs of young men fallen in the flowers of their youth seemed to nourish the grim nostalgia of the survivors. And the ghosts which had haunted the German Romantics revived, like the shades of Hades after draughts of blood.

But of course the occultism of Grau and others of the day was a philosophy of a certain optimism, something modern paranoia is anything but. Orlok is a creature to be hated and to be defeated, and defeated he, it, is. At great sacrifice, of course, as ever, but the sun shines again, for most of us. Those who sacrificed themselves will have shovels full of dirt dumped on them. No sun for them. But for us, yes. Sure. For us. For now.

II.  The Curse of Nosferatu

Werner Herzog has said that his generation of German filmmakers had no fathers. The directors from whom Herzog and his peers would under other circumstances have normally drawn inspiration either collaborated with the Nazis or fled them. If they fled, their work took on the textures of the country they immigrated to; if they collaborated, the rejection by Herzog explains itself. As a result, Herzog's need for influence, which he believes, I'd say with some historical evidence to back him up, is necessary for any artist, led him to turn to what he calls "the grandfathers," the generation before the fathers. For him, the grandfather that meant the most was F. W. Murnau, and Murnau's Nosferatu was to Herzog "the greatest film to ever come out of Germany."

All of which led Herzog, in 1979, to make what he calls not a remake, but a "free version" of Murnau's film.  A minor change, but not entirely insignificant, comes from the fact that because the rights to Dracula had not been secured, Albin Grau and Murnau changed all the character names for their film (this didn't manage to fool Stoker's widow, who staged a campaign to have every copy of Nosferatu destroyed). By the time Herzog was making his film, Stoker's novel was in the public domain, so he was able to insert history's most famous vampire novel back into its most famous, or possibly second most famous, film adaptation. So Bruno Ganz plays Jonathan Harker, Isabelle Adjani plays his wife Lucy (not Mina as in the novel, though there is a Mina who is Lucy's sister-in-law -- I know, it's perplexing), French writer Roland Topor plays Renfield -- still Harker's boss, as Knock, Murnau's "Renfield" was in the original film -- and Klaus Kinski, Herzog's demon, genuine madman, apparently vile slug of a man, stars as Dracula, the role he was born to play.

In addition to Dracula, Kinski also plays pestilence.  Pestilence was of course a major element of the Murnau film -- as ships full of dead men and live rats slide to shore, the citizens of Wisborg become panicked at the arrival of the Great Death, the Black Plague. This is the vampire's cover, and Murnau squeezes much of worth from this idea.  Herzog takes Murnau's dozens of rats and balloons their number into the hundreds.  Among their pack is the Nosferatu, the vampire, Dracula, who Kinski plays as a plague-ridden rodent, a carrier and spreader of the disease. It's a great, queasy performance, one that nevertheless makes room for some comedy -- one of the best moments in the film is when Dracula is serving Harker dinner, and Kinski's face is completely dead, slack-jawed and mouth-breathing, staring openly at Harker even as he pours his water. This is deeply uncomfortable and eerie, but Herzog holds the same shot so long that Harker's barely hidden discomfort becomes funny. Kinski's Dracula is perhaps the first time a film has taken the eternal isolation of the vampire as a theme and then portrayed how centuries of being more than human and therefore alone can transform the social instinct into something dead and gruesome.

So Grau's occultism is gone and the death that's left behind swells to fill the gap. Right at the beginning, it's not mist or shadows or even bats (those will come though) or any other bit of vampiric accoutrement that Herzog chooses to set his mood -- it's the actual mummified corpses of cholera victims that have been preserved in Guanajuato, Mexico. It's this, ugly death accompanied by a Popol Vuh chant, that Herzog's Nosferatu is about.

And on that note, it's strange how it took a recent viewing of the film for me to realize what a cruel film this is.  In terms of story, the biggest change Herzog makes, both to Murnau and to Stoker, is his ending.  Murnau and Stoker, as I've said, favored a gloomy sort of optimism, a victory for good that is made possible by terrible sacrifice.  Herzog keeps the terrible sacrifice, and he keeps the goodness that chose that sacrifice, but he also dumps the bright world that comes after into the grave.  Quite apart from the obvious (the film closes on a shot of beautiful horror), look at the fate of Van Helsing (Walter Landengast). Having driven a stake through Dracula's already dead heart, he is arrested for murder by those who, quite reasonably, don't believe in vampires. On top of that is the fact that Dracula has laid waste to this town, so there's no police, there's no jail, there's no infrastructure to hold this innocent man. In Herzog's film, even reason becomes irrational; even injustice has nowhere to turn.

III.  The Word That Blazed Like a Tongue of Flame Was Nosferatu

The history of film novelizations has yet to be written, so far as I know, but I'm certain it would be fascinating to read.  Traditionally film novelizations -- which in case you don't know are short novels adapted from screenplays for films that hit theaters just around the same time the novelization hits bookstores -- are aimed at teenagers, or right around there. I used to read them on occasion, although the only one I can remember finishing was Batman by Craig Shaw Gardner, based on the Tim Burton film. I also remember starting the novelization for Midnight Run, which might have hoped to grab an older demographic but regardless I didn't finish reading it because it seemed to me that the author had taken out all the film's jokes. Based on evidence I can no longer recall, I thought the author of that novelization was George Gallo, the original screenwriter, but I've recently learned that it was written by Paul Monette. I discovered this when looking up information about Monette, because I found it quite strange that this poet, essayist, and National Book Award-winning memoirist who died of AIDS in 1995 had, in 1979, written the novelization to Herzog's Nosferatu.

In terms of notoriety and reputation, Monette's Nosferatu, the Vampyre has hung on much longer than most novelizations. Not an eternally popular or famous book, it's nevertheless remembered by those who read it, and God knows that in any context a novelization of a Werner Herzog film is at least a curiosity.  Monette wouldn't be the first good writer to do something like this for money (I will admit here that it was disappointing to me to learn that Monette had written other novelizations, including the one for Predator; some of the intrigue and mystery surrounding the existence of his Nosferatu's was gone), but his is probably the only novelization, other than the one written for 1933's King Kong, to actually come back into print decades after its initial publication, and not only come back into print but to be reissued in a deluxe limited edition with a price tag that ran to three digits (that Centipede Press edition has long since sold out, and it is not the one I read).

Novelizations are, naturally, quite faithful to their cinematic parents, and when they do deviate it's difficult to know if what you're reading comes from an unfilmed portion of the script, or if the writer is embellishing. The page for Nosferatu on Centipede Press's website points out that Monette's book "includes many grisly details that Herzog was unable to film." But there are a lot of grisly details here -- did they all come from Herzog? For example, the striking image of Renfield in his jail cell with a dead seagull in his lap, blood gulped messily down by Renfield -- whose was that? Or the destruction of the German village by the vampire plague, which is more wildly apocalyptic than the film?  Whatever the case, the book is an interesting beast -- it's more jarring to read the word "Dracula" in this book than to hear it in Herzog's film, but the novel is full of fine writing. I have no idea what Monette's interest in the genre was (he did later write an original horror novel, but the vast majority of his personal work doesn't seem to have anything to do with it), but it does seem to have flipped a switch in this case. What brings out the best in Monette is the massive evil and enormous power of Dracula. When the vampire arrives on land in the Demeter, Monette writes:

Dracula leapt from the bridge and ran down the deck to the bow. He stood like a figurehead, arms out like a supplicant. For this one moment, he seemed to doubt the success of his voyage, to doubt the queen he had come to marry for all eternity. He seemed to beseech a higher power, though he was the highest power here.

Later, the scope of Dracula's plans, which begin in this seaside German village begin to clarify when Monette writes "he knew that the ownership of every house on earth had begun to pass to him..." He wants not only blood, but he actually craves isolation. He wants a world of empty houses. At one point, when Dracula's passion for Lucy -- the one other person he'd like to keep -- reaches a certain desperation, Monette writes that he had to flee her home and kill one hundred women by morning.

Monette was clearly most taken with Dracula and Renfield; he saves all his best writing for them.  But he was also compelled, perhaps by Herzog's script, perhaps not, to focus a great deal of energy on Lucy Harker. This makes sense, as Lucy is the hero, in Murnau's film as well as Herzog's.  In Stoker's Dracula, the Lucy character (named Mina; again, I know) is a symbol of pure good to be protected. In the Nosferatu films, and again in Monette's novel, she is the only one who can stop what's happening. She's the only one who knows what the real source of the plague is. She even has to convince -- and she only manages once it's too late to save herself -- Van Helsing, who here is not a vampire or occult expert, but a kindly small-town doctor and skeptic. The strongest interpretation of Lucy is in Herzog's film, where Isabelle Adjani plays her with a nod towards silent film performance when the character is frightened or dreaming, but reins it back to a quiet alertness when she begins to realize this is going to all come down to her. Monette lays this all on a bit too thickly, however, and at times his Lucy becomes something of a mouthpiece for a certain philosophy. That may be overstating it, but Lucy's heroism is quite aggressive by the end, as Dracula becomes quite romantic. The Herzog film depicts the death of Dracula as the fate of a weak, lonely, but horribly evil creature who, in effect, finds love to be a fatal poison (a rat poison -- watch how Kinski dies). Monette's Dracula dies trying to protect Lucy, never aware that she's knowingly lured him to his death, and her own.

Still, it's a strong novel, unusually so given its genesis. It may just be that writing about the good in people interested Monette less than writing about unnatural wickedness, which from a certain point of view can seem beautiful, and holy. About halfway through the novel, Renfield is incarcerated. Monette has already established that even a glancing contact with Dracula's power can drive a person to immediate suicide. A man is guarding Renfield, and from inside his cell Renfield hears the man cry out. Monette writes:

The guard had drawn his sword and thrown himself upon it.  Blood seeped out and covered the floor like a blanket. As the silence grew, Renfield came off the bed and crawled -- soundlessly, soundlessly -- to the door. He crouched to the crack of light at the doorsill, put out his tongue in the dust, and waited for the stream to reach him. The room was full of glory.

IV.  Under the Sway of the Nosferatu

But what about Murnau?  Why should he have been lost in all this shuffle?  A strange thing to wonder about the director of one of the most famous films ever made, yet it feels as though he has, though, doesn't it, in a way that Bram Stoker never has (but Stevenson and, to a lesser degree, Shelley have) even as his creation stomped over him on its path towards immortality.  Given the way Murnau (Albin Grau, really) ripped off Stoker, this might seem fitting to some, but that's as long as I'm going to spend on that notion. The cliché "casts a long shadow" might as well have been created to be applied to Murnau and his long-shadowed film, so impossibly influential has Nosferatu been, but Murnau didn't wear the makeup Max Shreck wore, and so in the popular imagination, which recognizes Schreck even if it doesn't realize it, Murnau is nothing. I was startled, in fact, to learn recently  that the last major biography of the filmmaker, who of course has at least a good handful of hugely important films to his credit apart from Nosferatu, was written by Lotte H. Eisner in 1973, and is currently out of print. Among cinephiles, Murnau is not at all an obscure figure, so how is this possible?

In 1998, this slack was partially taken up by Jim Shepard who didn't write a piece of nonfiction, but rather a novel about Murnau. He called the novel Nosferatu (in the UK the book was retitled, more novelistically but somewhat less boldly, Nosferatu in Love). Though you'd have to say the novel falls somewhere under the umbrella of "historical fiction," a genre generally known for its bloat (which, despite the pejorative sound of that, is really a "for better or worse" situation) and it does cover the majority of Murnau's life, beginning in his late childhood and ending with his death in 1931, Nosferatu is a short book, barely cracking 200 pages. This brevity is a byproduct of Shepard jumping through time, focusing on the major events, such as Murnau's time as a fighter pilot in World War I, the making of Nosferatu and The Last Laugh. When the book's second section, "Berlin, 1910," ends, Shepard provides none of the traditional connective tissue or even much in the way of exposition as the third section, "Verdun, 1917," begins.

There are two constants in Shepard's Nosferatu: Murnau, and Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele. The novel begins:

He first noted sleeplessness in his journal in May of 1907. That year he turned eighteen, passed his Abitur in Kassel, and moved to Berlin-Charlottenburg to study philology. There he got to know Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele, who was first a schoolmate and then a soulmate. Their friendship made a poet out of Ehrenbaum-Degele, and a filmmaker out of Murnau.

That word "friendship" is deliberately more coy than Shepard is in the rest of the novel. Murnau was gay, and apparently this was a secret to nobody. Shepard writes about his homosexuality as though, outside of not advertising it during his military service and other such circumstances, even in the 1900s through the end of the 1920s it was not such a big deal (though the age of some of his lovers may have been) -- if it went that way for Murnau in reality, this was no doubt due to the circle of artists in which he traveled for most of his life. At any rate, Shepard writes Ehrenbaum-Degele as the love of Murnau's life, a feeling that is reciprocated. But when Murnau is unfaithful, and shortly afterwards both men enter World War I (which of course causes them to be separated), Murnau's life is blown apart. Though I haven't found a source that specifically categorizes him as such, Ehrenbaum-Degele was a classic "war poet" (a term not often applied to Germans, to be fair) like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (both of whom were also gay), though unlike them not much of his writing seems to have survived. Like Owen, however, Ehrenbaum-Degele was killed in action, in the latter's case just four days after his 26th birthday. In Nosferatu, when Murnau receives word that Hans has been killed, Shepard writes:

That day Murnau's company was standing down, waiting to be resupplied. He was temporarily relieved of his duties. He remained in the dugout.

How had it happened? Were they sure he was dead? He called through to Hans's unit from the captain's field telephone. The voice on the other end said that they'd identified his torso. He'd been given a field burial.

Murnau returned to his dugout. He cracked his head going down the steps.

Ideas jarred one upon the other. Over the course of the afternoon, fellow officers dropped in to offer condolences. Words ground on. His jaw felt dislocated. His hands were filthy with mud from the floor.

In hospitals, he'd seen men beat their heads against the wall in grief. On pickets, he'd seen a guard dog refuse to eat or sleep because its companion animal had been killed. He cried his way into coughing fits.

If my quoting of that passage seems excessive, it's because I wasn't sure when to stop.  This is Shepard at his best, expressing all the perfect details with simple poetry. From here, a number of things begin for Murnau: a morose isolation even when surrounded by others, never-ending guilt, and, from his experiences as a pilot, a fascination with images, the cockpit windshield as camera lens, which evolves into a fasciation with cameras, then filmmaking, and finally an ambition to make a film using a camera that moves.

In subtle ways, Shepard displays an interest in the metaphorical birth of the 20th Century (a subject I'm quite keen on myself), though he never makes a big deal about it. Still, how else am I supposed to take the moment when Murnau, in the early stages of making Nosferatu, realizes that the factory from which he's getting his camera equipment was used to make airplane parts during the war? If anything, it's almost stunning that Shepard doesn't do more with the idea that camera technology and war technology combined in the imagination of one man (Grau, Stoker, and the rest be damned) to create the first vampire film. But Nosferatu is not quite that book. However much you can extract from it, Shepard's novel is very much, and very literally, the story of F. W. Murnau, as Shepard interprets it. The central metaphor is not about the world around Murnau, and his effect on it, or even, exactly, its effect on him -- it would have an effect on everybody, after all, so Murnau simply exists in it too. But for all Shepard's sympathy for Murnau, it is crucial to what Shepard is after that it be understood not only that he was a deeply flawed man, but that he realized he was a deeply flawed man.  Late in the book, Murnau recalls Hans saying to him "Is it really so hard, every so often, to sustain a thought for somebody else?" Selfish, isolated, taking from others (the book is also told partially as Murnau's journal entries, a choice that intentionally recalls the epistolary nature of Stoker's Dracula) -- Shepard succeeds in making Murnau his version of Nosferatu -- a very dubious leap, on the face of it -- by never actually trying to do so. He calls his book Nosferatu, and that's enough.

And there's a lot about the filmmaking. A surprising amount, actually -- it is at times a very technical book in this regard, and part of what Shepard achieves by this is to lay out what a film director does in practical terms, supporting auteurism before there was auteurism. Shepard is very smart about it, too. I don't know if this is something Murnau said which Shepard found in his research, but good filmmaking, and specifically good horror filmmaking, is summed up rather beautifully in this one brief passage:

For the vampire's arrival: lack of movement makes the eye impatient. Use such impatience.

V.  Look, Nosferatu! Blood!

It shouldn't be surprising that eventually it came to this.  In 2000, a fictional film about the making of Murnau's Nosferatu was released. It was called Shadow of the Vampire, and the big idea behind it was that Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), the actor who played Count Orlok, was in reality an actual vampire. Murnau (John Malkovich) knew this, and indeed that's why he lured Schreck to take the role by offering him Greta Schroder (Catherine McCormack), the actress playing Ellen, who, in the film, sacrifices herself to Orlok to save her husband and village.  The film was brought to us by writer Steven Katz and director E. Elias Merhige.  Shadow of the Vampire was Merhige's first studio feature, after a series of short films and a bizarre underground feature called Begotten. That film is reasonably notorious, and once see it's easy to understand why, even if the bulk of it is just as easily forgotten. But level of accomplishment and potential aside, this situation was not unlike David Lynch being hired to make The Elephant Man on the strength of Eraserhead.

And what's the outcome? It's not as though the idea of making Schreck a real vampire to whom is forcibly sacrificed the actress playing the heroine who chooses to sacrifice herself in the film they're both starring in is a bad one. It's also not as though a complete fidelity to the historical record is necessary in a film like this (Shepard's novel is fiction too) -- especially a film like this, which lives on its fantastical plot. So when the opening title card explains that it was Murnau who failed to acquire the rights to Dracula and therefore simply changed the names and etc., knowing that this was really Albin Grau's doing shouldn't matter terribly much. However, the problems do begin with those opening title cards, which go on to call Murnau's Nosferatu the "most realistic vampire film" ever made.  As a description of an expressionistic silent German vampire film, "realistic" is almost ruthlessly bizarre.  "Beside the point" doesn't begin to cover it, so it is therefore quite obvious that Katz and/or Merhige chose it merely to justify their outlandish, though intriguing and I believe workable, premise. That in 2000 a film about the making of Nosferatu would not have a sincere thought about Nosferatu in it is a fact the sudden understanding of which utterly failed to make me spit out my drink.

Not giving a shit about Nosferatu (this is underlined by the way Merhige recreates, or rather doesn't bother to recreate, Murnau's work) leads Merhige and Katz to not give a shit about Murnau (or Grau, played by Udo Kier, or cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner, played by Cary Elwes, or...).  The gay man who was a teetotaler because of severe kidney troubles is here portrayed as a straight (but kinky!) drug addict. And though there's no evidence to support the notion, Murnau is also depicted as a callous tyrant on the set. A generous sort might interpret this choice as having been inspired by Katz reading Kracauer, but it's a lot easier to believe that the cliché of the tyrannical artist was simply a lot easier to slip into the rigid premise that is Shadow of the Vampire than a portrait of Murnau that wouldn't allow for easy judgment.

Why should Murnau be kicked? What did he ever do? The final moments in the film that are meant to show Murnau at his most cold-hearted are almost laughable in their seriousness. What do Merhige and Katz think they're revealing about the nature of artists? That some of them are mean? Even if that's it, and even accepting Shepard's portrayal of Murnau as selfish -- and accepting that is tantamount to accepting that Murnau was human -- Murnau evidently wasn't one of the "mean" ones. So what is it? Why should the ending of Shadow of the Vampire make me gasp or shake my head or wonder about the downside of the creative impulse? The brainlessness of all this is also foreshadowed by the scene where Schreck interprets a scene in Stoker's novel as revealing the loneliness of Dracula. The problem here is Stoker already revealed that by writing the scene in the first place. What Katz has Schreck do here is not interpret, but restate.

Merhige's Begotten is a film that is all "edge." This is not a compliment. His is the sort of invention that when faced with the task of being irreverent towards Nosferatu winds up turning in a film whose edges do nothing more make it look like something soft and easily broken up when set next to the work of Murnau. Or Herzog, or Monette, or Shepard.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Undead

This Is Not That Kind of Movie

Listen, I know. The outtakes for that frozen peas commercial Orson Welles did, the one with the copy he said was "unrewarding," and he said that you can't begin a sentence with the word "In" and emphasize it, as I say, that audio is funny. And yes, I realize that by the end of his life he was pretty fat. And I know that he was doing commercials for cheap wine to pay the bills and to fund film projects he never finished. But why does nobody choose to sympathize with Welles in his later years? I mean, sure: that he finished so few movies in those years is a Real Shame. But the way he earned his living, and the life he was leading (which evidence suggests was not uneventful, but never mind), why is it only laughed at? "Because he did it to himself" seems to be the common excuse. Yet that frozen pea thing, isn't part of the reason it's so funny is the belief that, harsh though that "depths of your ignorance" bit might be, Welles is actually right? That his frustration is by no means coming from out of the blue, but is rooted in a justified despair? "Crumb, crisp coating?" In July? I wouldn't direct any living actor in Shakespeare like that either!

Oh, hello. You might be wondering what brought all this on. Well, I'll tell you. I just rewatched F for Fake, the last film that Orson Welles completed and that was released to the public (Filming Othello was finished, but outside of film festivals and special screenings has never been shown publicly or released to video). This was 1973 that F for Fake was released, three years after the frozen peas debacle and five years after his previous film, the 60-minute The Immortal Story, made for French television. His career at this point was not robust. And Orson Welles, one of the great geniuses in the history of movies, had to do a frozen peas commercial. Did he live to see those outtakes enjoy a fuller life than F for Fake did? I don't know the timeline of that, but he certainly lived long enough to see John Candy parody the commercial on SCTV. That sketch is very funny, of course, but at that time, and by the time of Welles's death in 1985, where was F for Fake? Nowhere much. It finally received a home video release ten years after he died, and wasn't reissued again until Criterion put it on DVD in 2005. That's another ten years, and now, nearly another ten years, Criterion has upgraded that release to Blu-ray. Nothing yet on any sort of bump in quality on that frozen peas business.

But how it must have stung, because F for Fake is a work of genius. A sort of mix of documentary, essay film, con job, and ode to the physical attributes of his girlfriend Oja Kodar, F for Fake is the kind of film that begins with a consideration not only of watching beautiful women in the street, but the filming of the men who do it, and even, briefly, a potential criticism of filming those men without their knowing, then moves to Welles doing sleight-of-hand magic for a young boy in a train station, then more magic with Kodar in an airport, a cameo by Laurence Harvey wearing startling sunglasses, then to footage from 1950s science fiction movies, footage of flying saucers, and then, let us not settle down at all, this is that kind of movie, jumps into what this is all sort of in aid of. Which is the art forger Elmyr de Hory, with whom Welles socialized at roughly this time in Ibiza, and the writer Clifford Irving who would initially make his name, after some time of failing to sell his fiction, with a non-fiction book about de Hory and his amazing forgeries of Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, and so on. It's about, F for Fake is, art and expertise -- a big question in the film, a great question, such a great question that everybody has chosen to ignore it, is if de Hory's forgeries could so consistently fool the art world's top experts, what can "expertise" actually mean? What can it provide to the non-experts? Plus, while that was going on, all, again, within Welles's vast social circle, Clifford Irving decided to write a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes that he at first successfully passed off as the real thing before eventually being exposed, in no small part by Hughes himself, who came out of seclusion, or anyway his voice did, just to blow the lid off Irving's hoax.

Along the way, Welles will tell a number of stories, jokes ("First, steal an egg" is pretty solid) and anecdotes, as well as consider his own not inconsiderable experience with perpetrating (sort of) hoaxes, first when he lied on his résumé to begin his theater career (or anyway that's the way he tells it) and later, and famously, with his infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast. All of this stuff, plus more, is put together in a mad jumble of editing that is nevertheless a jumble of precise order. It's a manic film, full of fast cutting and freeze frames, meaningless but perfect digressive shots of Irving's pet monkey. When I say F for Fake is "that kind of film" I of course mean that it is unlike any other film.

If the tail end of Welles's life and career was littered with proof that the man had lost whatever it was he'd once had, as the popular story seems to go, how then did F for Fake happen? What seems to have happened is that the films, mainly the early films, retained the respect they deserved, but the man who'd made them lost it, not through some terrible moral failing but because he was willing to do things he didn't want to do for money. And he was fat, damn him. This is the way of it, though: what's easily mocked is more quickly scooped up and displayed than the things we could not accomplish ourselves. As far as films made by has-beens go, F for Fake is a pretty good one.

Plus that coin and key trick Welles does in the train station. He's wearing thick gloves when he does it, and for the real up-close stuff there are no cuts. I'm not a magician myself, but I would have to guess that doing a trick like that with thick gloves on has to be several times more difficult than doing it bare-handed. So there's that, too. But yeah, the frozen peas thing: pretty funny.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Artist

There have been a number of post-sound era silent films, but the three that are best-known are probably also the most traditional. In 1976, Mel Brooks released Silent Movie, a film that was undeniably ambitious but is also, even more so than other classic Brooks films, kind of a goof.  In 2011 Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist became one of the biggest films of that year, winning the Oscar for Best Picture, among other awards.  That film, too, strikes me as being kind of a goof.  In between those two more popular movies is Sidewalk Stories from 1989. Written and directed by Charles Lane, who also stars, Sidewalk Stories, while a comedy, does not seem like a goof. In a curious reversal of the norm, by placing his influences right up front, Lane separates his film from similar ones that seem to exist because someone was dared to make them.

Sidewalk Stories which Kino Lorber recently released on DVD and Blu-ray, is about a poor sidewalk portrait artist (Lane), who sets up his public studio just outside Wall Street.  An early altercation with another portrait artist (Tom Hoover) stemming from who has the right to work this patch of sidewalk, sets the tone early, and also, in the physical comedy and given the way Hoover towers over Lane, immediately signals that Charlie Chaplin is the major point of reference here.  In fact the whole film is a kind of remake of Chaplin's 1921 film The Kid (it gives me no pleasure to admit this, but I feel I'd better: I have never seen The Kid). What plot there is to be found in Sidewalk Stories  revolves around Lane's character taking into his protection a little girl (Nicole Alysia), after her father (Darnell Williams), a gambler and all-around hustler, is murdered. Lane's artist, who lives in a hovel of an apartment, is reluctant to involve himself -- initially he thinks his conscience will be clear if he simply wheels the little girl in her stroller out of the alley where the murder occurred and leaves her out in the open where someone else, someone who isn't him, will find and take care of her. But he can't do that, and soon the girl is living with him, eating his cereal, and as he tries to track down her mother the two inevitably bond.  Along the way, a wealthy store-owner (Sandye Wilson) who first has an awkward encounter with Lane's while getting her portrait drawn and then later catches, but does not expose, the artist stealing children's clothes, toys, and etc. from her store, becomes enamored with the motley pair, and suddenly the artist sees possible happiness within his reach.

Obviously, there are a lot of technical challenges inherent to making a silent film in the sound era (I suspect it seemed less daunting in the 1920s), but Lane eschews the most time-honored crutch: intertitles, the cards of text so familiar to those who watch and make silent films, and which Mel Brooks used in Silent Movie as an opportunity to cram in more jokes. Sidewalk Stories has no exposition or dialogue presented in this way, however, a choice rare enough that Arthur Robison's otherwise not terribly well-known German Expressionism classic Warning Shadows from 1923 is actually known for this same absence. So it's not common, is what I'm saying. It doesn't impede Lane, though, who is able to tell his story, and communicate everything about his characters he needs or wants to, entirely through facial expressions and gestures. It's so impressive that it's easy to miss that he's even doing it. Lane's own performance, not surprisingly, is especially sharp in this regard, and he's a rare actor who is able to -- never mind actually want to, because he thinks it's a good idea -- deliver a naturalistic silent performance. Another actor who could do that was Chaplin, and suddenly you begin to see the inspiration more clearly. Nicole Alysia, the little girl, helps, though I don't know if you can call this a performance -- she is just a little girl being a little girl. I mean, boy, she's sure great at it, but the work in this arena is again done by Lane, who doesn't try to draw a "performance" out of her. If he had, the film would've been sunk.

I must say, though, that I don't believe that Sidewalk Stories is especially funny. In this film, Lane delivers a very good performance, but doesn't offer much in the way of comic inventiveness. Chaplin was one of the great comedic innovators in film history, and all Lane does is borrow from him. The showdown between Lane and Hoover early in the film is a standard-issue Chaplin bit to which Lane adds little, and another moment that features Lane clumsily pushing the girl's stroller and kicking his leg out to one side, is begging the audience to make the Chaplin connection. The laugh comes, if it comes, from recognition, not surprise.

By the end of Sidewalk Stories, it's pretty clear that Lane admires Chaplin for lots of reasons that have little to do with comedy. A curious feature of a lot of modern silent films, including Silent Movie and The Artist, is that they often feature some small amount of spoken dialogue. In Silent Movie this comes in the form of a reasonably funny gag; in The Artist it functions as the last in a series of "movies are magical" sentiments. In Sidewalk Stories, Lane uses sound to make what he no doubt views as the most vital link between his film and Chaplin. Chaplin was a great filmmaker and comedian, and he often used these talents to make a political or social point.  That's what Lane is after too, to join the pure cinema of silent film to politics. In some ways Lane's message is always there in Sidewalk Stories, but at the end, when the sound kicks in, it becomes the movie. It's an effective moment, helped along by the fact that, with one possible exception (the line I'm thinking of seems a bit much, but I think this is arguable), the dialogue we now can hear is not didactic. To explain any of this would be to ruin the moment, and I feel like I shouldn't do that. At any rate, that moment becomes the whole movie, which you can't say about Chaplin, even at his most political. He was too inventive, and Lane could have used more of that. But you also can't say, or I can't, that Lane's Chaplin references become the whole movie -- Sidewalk Stories feels more like an act of picking up the thread Chaplin left behind, rather than one of mere homage.

Since Sidewalk Stories, Lane has had trouble getting films made. He made another comedy a couple years later called True Identity, and since then nothing much. Apparently he's currently working on a film called Resurrection Man about Grandison Harris, a slave bought by the Medical College of Georgia in 1852 and tasked by them to rob graves to supply the college with specimens. A film further away from Sidewalk Stories would be difficult to imagine, and as an opportunity to flaunt his own creativity it must have Lane feeling incredibly impatient. I hope he gets it made.