Reviews (1,753)

  • I kind of want to read former FBI Director James Comey's autobiographical "A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership," of all obnoxious titles, just to see if he really did, as depicted in this Showtime two-part series, or TV movie, based on the book, portray himself as an idealistic boy scout with all the faux integrity of a Capraesque-wannabe dropout from the Aaron Sorkin school of politics as it has never existed. I mean, talk about what a couple bad "The West Wing" episodes is "The Comey Rule." Its idea of clever banter hardly extending beyond a montage and motif of G-men responding, "say more," to information they receive. They even cast the guy from Sorkin's HBO series "The Newsroom" to play Comey--Jeff Daniels, an otherwise fine-enough actor when not serving as a mouthpiece for the drivel of Sorkinisms.

    What a stupid framing narrative, too, of former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein reading from the book-within-the-book on Comey to the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed bumpkin assistant that's an insulting on-screen stand-in for us, the audience. It's so unbelievably and transparently another device to make Comey, as well as former occupant of Rosenstein's job, Sally Yates, look good by comparison to Rosenstein, who we're supposed to buy as telling a story where he comes across as a tool of a crybaby with poor interpersonal skills. I'm sure we're all now yearning for the warm embrace of a boss who takes the time to ask us what our favorite childhood candy bar was. Get out of town.

    Then, there's the lingering look of a wife in the window as her husband arrives home, standing on the walkway to the door, unnecessary underscoring constant as always, reminding one of a Lifetime movie. That whole family dynamic does. Overall, it's merely a soap opera made out of recent political history. And, maybe that wasn't such a bad direction to take. The political junkies that'll be attracted to the project probably won't learn anything new. I didn't. Let alone fall for the hagiographic attempt at cleansing Comey's public image, an apparent political naif who managed to accomplish the rare feat of bringing people from across the partisan divide together in their loathing of his utter mishandling of investigating the campaigns of the two major presidential candidates of the 2016 election, both which monopolized months to years of entertainment news coverage and for both to mostly just fizzle out. Neither candidate was charged with anything, and there were two impeachments during the subsequent presidential term, but neither were for this.

    It's not only random people who approach the Comey family or that they overhear in scenes in the series, either, who believe the most consequential thing Comey accomplished was getting Trump elected president. That's not to say there's not countless other factors that obviously go into the result of an election, but take his October surprise of a letter to Congress concerning the reopening of the investigation into Clinton's emails out of the equation, and we're probably talking about President Hillary Clinton. Possibly America's most famous political pollster, Nate Silver, for example, has analyzed and written as much on his fivethirtyeight website. Incredulously, too, the most sound rationale presented here for Comey's decision is that the FBI had already leaked this information to Rudy Giuliani, so why not officially confirm it a week away from a presidential election seeming to be the illogic.

    It didn't even matter that he didn't give another grandstanding press conference on the supposed reservoir of trust in the FBI. Are we talking about the same organization derived from J. Edgar Hoover, that historically has routinely violated civil liberties, illegally spied on and attacked American citizens, including against Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, contributed to unrest in Latin America, failed to prevent the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the attack on the U. S. Capitol? But, sure, enormous reservoir of trust there even before--never mind Russian election interference--this nominally non-partisan law enforcement agency of the U. S. government interfered in the election for the most important job in the world. Not only more important than the FBI's reputation, but doing so did that reputation absolutely no favors. The irony that Comey was fired by the man he got elected to be his boss hardly seems so tragic by comparison.

    Maybe the best thing this show has going for it is the curiosity to see how newsmakers are embodied by the actors. Whatever appeal the show has certainly isn't for its TV-levels of poor lighting and production values, ugly color correction, and the aforementioned over-scoring, dull dialogue and derivative narrative devices. Indisputably, the star in this respect is Brendan Gleeson's grotesque President Trump, which under mounds of make-up is both terrifying and comical. It's something to behold, all right. Just as a performance, it's quite mesmerizing, but, again, it's not as though it offers a revealing portrait of a public figure that we're all very familiar with already. It does put to shame how little Daniels looks like Comey, though. Even on the height, Daniels is a fairly tall guy, but he's point-guard in the NBA levels of tall, whereas Comey is the height of a forward--look at the photos of him towering over others--and with a more slender frame than Daniels. That's what in reality made him trying to hide from President Trump before the photo-op handshake all the more funny; people being closer to seven-feet-tall than to six-feet-tall finding it challenging to hide while confined in a room.

    Additionally, I liked Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X in "One Night in Miami" (2020/2021), but his President Obama looks childish. Sure, for a president, he was young at the age of 47 when elected and, still, at 55 when his second term expired, but that's still a good number of years past the early 30s of Ben-Adir, who here looks very much like a young man in his early 30s. A good rule of thumb should be to cast someone who is actually old enough to meet the age requirement of 35 to be president to play one on TV. Otherwise, it looks ridiculous--like something out of a Saturday Night Live skit, especially when Gleeson is out-doing Alec Baldwin in running caricature circles around you. I suppose that's what Gleeson and his make-up artists leaned into and realized more than everyone else here, that "The Comey Rule" is a grotesque exercise in caricature.
  • What an odd confection of Roman mythology and Christian fairy tale in this underworld battle, "Maciste in Hell." The film may also be illustrative of the development of a cinema with a target audience of largely boys, with an emphasis on juvenile fantasy and visual effects that extends all the way to the mainstream of "Star Wars" (1977) and, by extension, the comic-book movies that dominate today's market.

    First, there are two ports of entry here that I'm familiar with, of which this film is a consequence. Directly, there's the 1914 epic "Cabiria," which introduced the Maciste character, a popular personality of Italian silent cinema. Reportedly, strongman Bartolomeo Pagano (actually, he was a stevedore before entering the movie business) starred in thirteen films as this character between 1915 and 1926, and the giant would continue past the silent era with his revival in the 1960s. "Cabiria" was also the pinnacle of the early feature-length spectacle pictures made in Italy in the early 1910s. The sets and sheer grandeur of it had a direct influence on D. W. Griffith's productions of "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) and "Intolerance" (1916).

    The other influence on this is the féeries (fairy films) of Georges Méliès, the original cine-magician who practically invented children's movies, as well as popularizing the early cinema trick effects that still largely comprise the visual effects of "Maciste in Hell," namely multiple-exposure photography and stop-substitution splicing. Méliès also had a flair for theatrical set design, and the production design overall in "Maciste in Hell" is arguably more Méliès than it is "Cabiria," not least because it's simply not that big of an epic.

    What the cavernous hellscape here especially reminds me of, though, is the original 1936 "Flash Gordon" serial (although it was a comic first). I could certainly see Flash riding around on a dragon, wrestling demons and trying to rescue damsels whilst often not displaying any outward sexual interest in them. As many I'm sure know, "Flash Gordon" was a major influence on "Star Wars," and this should be quite apparent to anyone who has seen both series. They're both basically chapter-play shoot-'em-up Westerns in outer space--to a large extent, what the Marvel Cinematic Universe is for today's generation.

    This is otherwise what I found most dull about "Maciste in Hell." It's a simplistic battle of good and evil. Childishly so. Maciste's spell in Hell best illustrates this point. Being a living being from Earth, he can't spend more than three days in the underworld (because decrees, or something--Hades apparently having its own constitutional monarchy and government institutions). That is unless he commit the gravest sin: kissing a woman. A lot of emphasis in this picture on the dangers of female sexuality. I guess it's one way to get pre-adolescent male audiences invested in the suspense of romantic kissing. When Maciste inevitably surrenders to their feminine wiles, he's punished--now, get this--by hair growing in all sorts of odd places on his body. What a laughable puberty metaphor. He also becomes stronger, or super-strong. Essentially, he's a hairy X-Men mutant or that werewolf from the "Twilight" series, which are all silly adolescent allegories, too. I mean, c'mon, what did you think the teenage Spiderman ejaculating silk from his wrists was supposed to represent?

    This isn't "Faust," as Maciste unnecessarily points out--and unflatteringly considering that F. W. Murnau's vastly superior devil-themed film, "Faust" (1926), was released around the same time. Neither is this, regardless of its Italian origins, Dante's "Inferno," which was made into one of Italy's first longer films in 1911. This is also despite the Pordenone Silent Film Festival screening what constitutes a warhorse print by comparison to the other new restorations they program ("Maciste in Hell" being restored back in 2009, as based on one from 1993, and the film already being fairly accessible, including existing in various shapes on YouTube) ostensibly in celebration of the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri. No, this is kiddie stuff.

    That's not to say it's not well made and sometimes entertaining, lackadaisical though the plot may be. Although the trick effects aren't much of anything new, some of them are pretty good and sometimes used as scene transitions. A bit with a dismembered head when Mastice first enters Hades looks good. I especially like the film-within-film visions for the underworld to watch life on Earth, although such visions, too, are a multiple-exposure trick extending back to early cinema. Their use as surveillance is relatively novel, though. The editing, especially early on, is choppy, but that's kind of refreshing compared to the snail pace of little to no scene dissection in the early Italian epics such as "Cabiria." Plus, it's evident the print is pretty beat up, with scratches and cuts and other marks flashing on screen here and there. For obvious reasons, there's considerable red tinting and pyrotechnics.

    As for the underworld battle, there's the Lucifer devil trying to usurp King Pluto, although why the devil brought Maciste down there to fight on the opposing side before starting this civil war seems an enormous blunder. So, it's the old gods versus the new, the two major religions to spring from Rome (albeit both by way of the Levant). Granted, I've read that the film went through some censorship issues over its religious depictions, which reportedly delayed its release in Italy, but I'm just going off the restoration that I saw. Interesting that Roman mythology reigns supreme in Hades here, including guest appearances by the likes of Charon (not just a concierge from the "John Wick" franchise) and Minos, while Christianity seems to have decidedly taken control above, as indicated by the Christmas-theme denouement. Maciste is also decidedly a Hercules figure. Yet, in the end, "Maciste in Hell" specifically frames itself as a fairy tale, alluding to its true origins in those Méliès féeries--the worship of visions on a wall, the church of cinema.
  • The third and final one-reeler of the "Vitagraph Japonisme" program from the online edition of the 40th Pordenone Silent Film Festival, which while watching dated cinematic Orientalism is of historical interest, is something of a relief. It's easy to see too much of this sort of thing in one day. The actresses playing the two leads, a privileged upper-class girl and a poor indentured apprentice, are required to pull double duty on this one. Both obviously Caucasians, they're supposed to be Japanese characters, and the child must act more mature than her age while the women is also playing a man. It's a task that they're both woefully inadequate for, as they rely on broad theatrical gestures throughout--lots of holding their arms outstretched to convey emotion in this one.

    According to Ben Brewster, for the festival screening notes, the woman may be Florence Turner, the early movie star known as the "Vitagraph Girl." Interestingly, too, the girl, Adele de Garde, played the titular boy in another of these yellow-face productions, "Ito, the Beggar Boy" (1910).

    Fortunately, as opposed to "The Love of Chrysanthemum" (1910), chrysanthemums are actually flowers this time. Unfortunately, the girl is named "Morning Glory," which is another flower. It'd be like watching a series of movies based on stereotypes of Westerners where everyone is named Daisy or Rose. Anyways, "Hako' Sacrifice" has the dubious distinction of not only being racist, but also classist, as it's yet another melodrama where the poor character is needlessly sacrificed for the benefit of a rich character--never mind that this sacrifice leaves the poor person is a far worse condition than the rich one would be in if no sacrifice were committed. I doubt it's just me who thinks sacrificing one's freedom to make a child believe they miraculously won a festival contest is an extremely stupid thing to do.
  • The second one-reeler of the "Vitagraph Japonisme" program for the online edition of the 40th Pordenone Silent Film Festival, "Ito, the Beggar Boy" is a bit better than "The Love of Chrysanthemum" (1910) in that the melodramatic scenario at least seems a bit more original to me, although it's a rather generic one involving kids getting caught on a boat during bad weather. As in the other two films in the program, most of the main cast of Japanese characters are played by Caucasians while a few Asians round out the extras. Clearly, too, this was filmed in the same location as "The Love of Chrysanthemum," as the same camera position is used for an exterior that shows the same arch in the background.

    Formerly considered lost until identified in 2016, the surviving print with Polish title cards is interesting for rain that may've been accomplished with visual effects on the negative (I'm not sure), and foreshadowing is accomplished by red tinting--indicating that something dangerous is about to happen. Funny how these early cinema practices are now what seem most foreign to a modern viewer and the dated Orientalism more exotic than the supposed depiction of Japanese customs.
  • The first of three one-reelers presented in the online edition of the 40th Pordenone Silent Film Festival under the headline "Vitagraph Japonisme," "The Love of Chrysanthemum." This one is very much in the tradition of the opera "Madame Butterfly," complete with an American abandoning, for another American, a Japanese girl, named here after a flower (chrysanthemum) instead of an insect (butterfly), who then commits seppuku, or harakiri.

    It'd dated Orientalism with even the main Japanese characters being played obviously, and stiltedly, by Caucasians (an instance of closer camera positions by 1910 not always being beneficial) while some Asians seem to have been added as extras--not unlike, to bring up an unflattering comparison, how "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) segregated main parts for blackface and hired African Americans only as extras. The supposed setting in Japan, too, was obviously filmed at a studio--presumably Vitagraph's one in New York. Historically interesting, but it's derivative racism despite nominally being sympathetic to its tragic depiction of the racial "other," a crosscut away from the suicide to the white couple included. At least dialogue intertitles were rare at this point, so we're spared the offensive broken English of later productions.
  • I wonder what film censors made of seeing this late silent film, "Moral," which is all about exposing--and cinematically so--the hypocrisy of moralists railing against the same materials and performances that they enjoy themselves. Even they must've grasped that the joke was at their expense. There's something inherently paradoxical in proscribing art as objectionable for others to experience in that the censors themselves must first consider its objectionable qualities. The irony being that if one wants to partake in a lot of risqué, filthy stuff, they can't do much better than attaining a position as a guardian of morality. At what point is something such as the MPAA just a gaggle of voyeurs. Heck, the restoration of "Moral" was even aided by contemporary censorship records held at the Czech Archives. And, there's a quip in the film where one of the members of the Morality Society brags about his extensive collection of smut--y'know, ostensibly to guard it from the eyes of others.

    All of this requires highly reflexive filmmaking. So, we have the Morality Society as the sanctimonious coots and self-appointed morality police who, to their own detriment, engage in the matter the actual police, who otherwise are depicted spending their time creeping up on couples kissing in parks. Then, there's the star of the show, the theatrical performer turned piano teacher (although she does very little actual piano teaching), Ninon d'Hauteville, as alluringly and stylishly played by Ellen Richter. Tellingly, in the play from which the film is adapted, it's reported that the character was a prostitute. One of the members of the Morality Society and a married man, to boot, attempts to sexually take advantage of her on a train--including showing her his "Uhu"--and not knowing she's the same d'Hauteville whose theatrical revue performance his group is to disrupt in protest later.

    See, she plays the Courtesan in "The Prince and the Courtesan," wherein the scene the Prince comes out from beneath her grotesquely-enormous hoop skirt. It is at this point that the Morality Society make a bunch of noise and even toss an egg in the actor's eye to shut down the play and which they follow up by threatening to boycott the theatre if such performances continue. Interestingly, they have no quarrel--one of them even suggests such dancing would make for good gymnastics for boys--with the unison dancing of the Tiller Girls, which was in real life a popular dance troupe at the time and predating the Ziegfeld Follies theatrical revues or the geometric expressions of Busby Berkeley movie musicals. It rather goes to a point in cultural and film critic Siegfried Kracauer's essay "The Mass Ornament," that the Tiller Girls weren't erotic as their bodies in motion and high-kicking bare legs might otherwise suggest. Eliding Kracauer's practically unreadable critique on capitalism in the same essay, his observation of the unison dance routines resembling abstractions of mechanical patterns instead of people, which is in turn reflected in the audience arranged in patterns of theatre stands to watch, is keen. The added abstraction here being that we're watching a film, via the mechanical cinematographic apparatus, of an audience watching this play-within-the-play.

    In addition to this, there's a film-within-the-film, the camera serving as surveillance for Ninon to record members of the Morality Society in the compromising positions of them individually coming to her for so-called "piano lessons." This is a brilliant sequence that seems uniquely modern--anticipating the prevalent use of cameras as surveillance nowadays, including hidden ones, as here. That the camera shoots through the masking of a hole in a door not only mirrors the action of one of the moralists looking through another door's keyhole to peep on Ninon dressing, but underscores the voyeuristic nature of visual art and us movie-goer voyeurs peeking at it. That Richter, with knowing looks and smiles, turns the tables such on the voyeur also unsettles any power imbalance of the dynamic of the so-called male gaze (so called by Laura Mulvey's essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema") by Ninon being in control of the female to-be-looked-at-ness. It's all the more intriguing, too, because "Moral" was directed by her husband, and this was his real name, Willi Wolff.

    And, on top of all that, there's a fantastic scene of film censorship by the one member of the Morality Society able to get control of the film-within-the-film, as he tears it bit by bit from its reels and flushes it down a toilet. Indeed, he is censoring himself from the film. That the other moralists ultimately receive their comeuppance is appropriate enough, but the one fault I would nit-pick about "Moral" is how its resolution relies on fairy-tale notions of a noble nobility, the prince being her only client to not be so hypocritical about it (albeit the subplot involves some of the film's humorous editing transitions). This contradicts, too, the semblance of a critique on classism that began the picture on a train, where the moralist solely occupied a first-class cabin with plenty of sitting room as the poors stood in the aisles. It's also rather against the spirit of the Weimar Republic where such productions could flourish--something that would soon not be the case under the worst of dehumanizing censorship regimes, the Nazis. Fortunately, as Jay Weissberg reported in the presentation of the film for the online edition of the 40th Pordenone Silent Film Festival, it was Ernst Lubitsch, one of the first German filmmakers to emigrate to Hollywood, who was able to vouch for Richter and Wolff (Richter, at least, also being Jewish) to flee Nazi Germany, although their film careers were effectively over.

    Rarely if never is censorship actually as fun as depicted in "Moral." Too bad we can no longer see its follow-up, either, with the tantalizing title "Unmoral" (1928), as it's now a lost film. This one, too, is missing some footage, including one scene that's reconstructed with the use of a publicity still and title cards. Nevertheless, what a commendable restoration job for an underappreciated gem of late silent and Weimar cinema.
  • What a delightful little silent film from screenwriters Clara Beranger and Forrest Halsey and directed by Oscar Apfel, who it turns out wasn't just the experienced director who oversaw Cecil B. DeMille's first films, including the dreadful "The Squaw Man" (1914). Indeed, he seems to have had a varied career, from first working for Edison and, later, making a film on the Armenian genocide, "Ravished Armenia" (1919), the same year that he made this light-hearted romance of gender play, and also made the first adaptation of "Bulldog Drummond" in 1922, which features the same star as here, Evelyn Greeley. Her knowing looks and coquettish tomboy antics are a highlight here. "Phil-for-Short" is similar to the later comedy-of-remarriage subgenre, minus the divorce, but where misogyny and making a fool of a man becomes flirting and the prospect of infidelity but foreplay. It's also akin to the sophisticated romantic comedies of Ernst Lubitsch or the sex comedies of DeMille made around the same time.

    The Ancient Greek allusions here are curious. The poet Sappho is the main one, which might ordinarily suggest, especially given how Greeley's Phil, as in short for Damophilia, dresses in masculine clothing early on and where the meet-cute involves the guy running for the trees when he hears "A singing female!" and before he's calmed down by mistaking her for a boy, an emphasis on homoeroticism, but this film is decidedly a heterosexual affair. No man kissing a woman dressed in a tux and whom we're not entirely sure he realizes isn't a man here as in Lubitsch's "I Don't Want to Be a Man" (1918). Regardless, some of the intertitles and much of the plot development seems strikingly modern and sexually suggestive, especially of female sexual desire. At one point, for instance, consistently being reprimanded for her unconventional behavior or feminine wiles, as the case may be, Phil coyly quips, "I've never been taught discipline in my life---help me not to flirt." When the Greek professor and "confirmed woman hater" target of her affections pens an essay concerning how women make fools of men, she steals his glasses and pretends to be her imaginary twin brother to help him write it and, as the plot progresses, actualize his essay by her making a fool of him.

    The picture is a bit slow to start, and I was concerned when we got yet another plot involving a seemingly grown woman being an orphan required to have an evil guardian who has sights on marrying her. Always with the not quite a woman but no longer a child, either, with these film depictions of females. There's also some inconsistent eyeline-match cutting involving a fence and nosy neighbors. But, once the scenario gets going, it's quite entertaining. I especially enjoyed the doubles theme: two Greek professors, two languages, two violinists to her dancing, two marriage proposals from misogynists, her pretending (an actress playing an actress) to be twins, ultimately two couples and, of course, the two sexes. The scenario was even written by a man and a woman, and the film survives in this restoration combining two prints, a 35mm nitrate and a 28mm safety print, both housed under the Library of Congress. Look out for this one when it appears on the "Nasty Women" home-video set from Kino Lorber in 2022; it's a fun one.
  • The supposed humor of this gender-bender farce from Pathé, "Le Ménage Dranem," literally translated as "The Dranem Household," of the disorder of a wife abusing her husband being resolved by him hitting her instead is, safe to say, dated. The irony, perhaps, is that this genre in movies was likely invented by the world's first female filmmaker, Alice Guy, with her "The Consequences of Feminism" (1906) for Gaumont. In 1912 and since running the Solax studio, she remade it as "In the Year 2000" (1912, and now a lost film), which I suppose was quite on the mark as far as futuristic predictions go, of traditional gender roles being largely dismantled, at least in the West. While Guy was at Gaumont, Pathé was particularly willing to steal her scenarios for their own twin films. I suspect, then, that it's hardly a coincidence that Guy remade her satirical critique of feminism not long before Pathé released this title about a wife going out for a day of smoking, drinking and gambling while the husband stays home to sweep, wash dishes and mend socks. Hardy har har, that's the job of the other sex, is basically the joke, which I suppose, if the intent was that women coded as masculine was intended as an offense, qualifies the film as part of the prank-punitive early cinema genre extending back to the Lumière film "L'Arroseur Arrosé" (1895).

    Another gender-swap piece of slapstick dated around the same time and co-directed by a woman that comes to mind is "A Florida Enchantment" (1914), which was directed by the duo that tellingly went by "Mr. And Mrs. Sidney Drew." Also, for the Pordenone Silent Festival, "Le Ménage Dranem" opens for "Phil-for-Short" (1919), which looks like it will be part of a four-disc set entitled "Cinema's First Nasty Women," to be released by Kino Lorber in 2022. Sounds like a fine addition, with an emphasis on the depiction of women on screen that may among other things give a greater sense of how popular such films as this one were, to the "Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers," also from Kino Lorber, and "Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology," available from Flicker Alley, sets.

    Otherwise, one may see how well continuity editing had developed by 1912-1913, including here a keyhole POV shot, some crosscutting, a trucking shot following the wife's bicycling and even the thematic motif bookending the picture of domestic violence.
  • This was a fascinating experience for me, not having seen a Korean silent film before. Long before the days of "Parasite" (2019) being the first foreign-language film to win an Anglophone Best Picture Oscar--and shortly after Japanese occupation during WW2 and before the Korean War resolved in the nation's so-far-lasting division--"A Public Prosecutor and a Teacher" reflects a tumultuous time via a dying, or rather resurrected and anachronistic, art. A film about characters starving made by a national cinema that at the time was starving even for film stock (this one being shot silent on 16mm), relying on the remnants of the industry left behind by Japanese occupation and against the incoming dominance of Hollywood distribution.

    Not only is it a silent film, either, and without a score, but one featuring narration from Sin Chul, the "last byeonsa," the Korean version of the Japanese benshi. Such live lecturers to silent screen images largely died out in Europe and the United States with the rise of permanent movie theatres and the story film wrestling control away from exhibitors and for producers, but continued elsewhere, although silent cinema in general had long since been abandoned for the most part by then, too, with even the last major holdout in the West, Charlie Chaplin, having since transitioned to talkies, as had Japanese cinema. Some of the home videos for the films of Georges Méliès have done especially well to include such lectures. Sin's reading, however, including of what intertitles there are here, is also highly emotive and an extension of the characters we see on screen. It's integral to the diegesis and a performance in itself.

    Another layer in this case is that characters within the film also take on a storyteller role, including two important flashback sequences as narrated by the characters to other characters, which itself is narrated by Sin to us, the audience. Aptly, one of these nested-narrative flashbacks occur within the theatrics of the courtroom stage.

    The actual story is almost secondary except that it, too, emphasizes past-to-present hardships and with a hope for the promise of the future. This is the point of the main story of the teacher providing food and money to a starving student, who in melodramatic fashion grows up to be the prosecutor in her trial. There is also a lot of emphasis on children without parents and characters lamenting the inability to stop time.

    Speaking of which, as Weissberg also says, the Korean Film Archives have preserved only about 25 of the some 230 of the nation's pre-1940 features, which is unfortunately not even all that poor of a survival rate for old films. The most thorough study on the matter, by David Pierce, finds only a slightly better rate for the U. S. features between 1912-1929 when not including the greater number of U. S. films found in foreign archives and on home-projection formats due to Hollywood's vast distribution networks.

    Remade as a sound film in 1958 by the same director, Yun Dae-ryong, this silent version was deemed a national cultural treasure in 2007, as indeed it is.
  • A scenario adapted from a short story by two women, playwright Sada Cowan and book author Beulah Marie Dix, about two women, as played by Dorothy Dalton and Mildred Harris, that a man, Conrad Nagel's part, is variously figuratively and literally blind to, as he is simultaneously obsessed with extravagant productions. How brilliant, then, that the male director of "Fool's Paradise" would be the most blustering of frustratingly inconsistent filmmakers over his long career descent from artsy experiments and sex comedies to nominally-Christian, vulgar spectacles and continued racist tripe. That's the picture, at least, that I've gathered of director Cecil B. DeMille. Jay Weissberg, introducing the film for the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, wasn't kidding in suggesting that DeMille was in need of critical reappraisal. In equal proportions to Nagel's ability or lack thereof to see, DeMille's direction and the scenario work in the opposite direction. It sees when he's blind and is increasingly blind when he sees. It seems unlikely, too, that the screenwriters intended to mock DeMille's cinematic inclinations, as they both would continue to work with him, if not again together, and, perhaps, one shouldn't be too quick to put it past him that DeMille knew very well what he was doing, albeit if not with the same interpretation.

    I don't know, but it's one thing to begin one's career with some striking artistic effects, to make one's mark on Hollywood--much like he had Sessue Hayakawa brand Fannie Ward in "The Cheat" (1915)--and another thing when we're talking about the subsequent DeMille, the profitable producer who made films all the way to "The Ten Commandments" in 1956. "Sunset Boulevard" (1950) put it in stark relief--that the other great Hollywood silent film directors didn't make it that far. D. W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim were kicked out before the end of the 1920s. Buster Keaton was eaten by the moneymen, too, Charlie Chaplin was exiled, and female filmmakers like Lois Weber were marginalized. Perhaps, the only director beginning in the 1910s to have a more impressive streak of longevity in the studio system, because he on the other hand maintained a sense of prestigious artistry, was Ernst Lubitsch (which also explains why his sex comedies are better than DeMille's). When one goes from, say, the experimental psychological examination by superimpositions in "The Whispering Chorus" (1918), continues with flashes of brilliance as in his believed uncredited direction of "Chicago" (1927), and winds up with the hallow mundanity of "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952), it figures that at some point, or rather at a series of points, he sold out. Never mind his political conservatism, it's the increasingly artistic conservatism of it. And, it's as though we're seeing that process reflexively playing out in "Fool's Paradise."

    Nagel's character is already half-blinded, either figuratively or literally, by the concurrent WWI and the introduction to his obsession with a French dancer, as portrayed by Harris. He entirely loses his sight with an explosion both literal and of the stage extravaganza of special effects in the play-within-the-play, an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" fairy tale. This is clever; he literally cannot see how he is manipulated by art and so both thinks he actually loves the actress and fancies himself a poet, too, by writing unpublishable sappy love letters in her honor.

    When he regains his sight, art and life, the stage and the spectator, have merged in an extended episode of Orientalism in Siam, where he doesn't so much deconstruct a temple setting, let alone with an awful depiction of "Living Sacrifice to Living Reptiles" Buddhism, but the artifice of Harris's dancer. The doubles theme is complete when he sees the image of the real woman, of Dalton's character, superimposed over that of the woman of the stage. The irony, though, is that DeMille and company utterly muck up this point by ultimately favoring a last-minute evangelical pitch. "But the ONE who sees Everything--always gives his Blind Children one more chance, to come up into the Light." In the movie, the man now sees, but in real life and in a figurative sense, DeMille went blind. The tragedy is that his true love was right in front of him, too.

    DeMille ultimately succumbing to bigotry, faux religiosity, absurd spectacle and prolonged melodrama, the true film here was in that shack in the regions of El Paso amidst an oil boom, Nagel as blind and Dalton playing off the mistaken identity of her originally mocking imitation of the the Snow Queen, pretending to be the actress. The combination of guilt, pity, sacrifice and love in conjunction with the artistic reflexivity works. Nagel plays blind in the usually inept manner of looking over and past people, but Dalton is impressive. Harris is amusing in a supporting role of making fun of vacuous artists and of the French, the only stereotype in the film (and there are a lot of them) that doesn't entirely come across as obscene nowadays. But, Dalton anchors this. If there were Oscars back then, I'd say to at least give her a nomination. And, credit to DeMille, too. I especially love how he darkened the background for when Nagel's sight is restored; it recalls his pioneering of low-key lighting in "The Cheat." And, boy, that burning house scene is a standout.

    Without Dalton and when Nagel sees even before he loses and regains it, the picture tends to suffer. It begins by making fun of an African-American family attaining wealth from an oil discovery, although the same sort of good fortune will be treated with all melodramatic earnestness when it happens to our white protagonist. Then, there's the knife-tossing, tavern gangster of a depiction of a Mexican, Roderiguez, as played by Russian Theodore Kosloff. And, that's all before the jaw-dropping textbook case of othering in the depiction of Siam (the textbook, by the way and so to speak, being Edward Said's "Orientalism").

    At first glance wildly plotted, "Fool's Paradise" may be the most DeMille film I've yet seen, the most of all the various facets of the filmmaker. It's maybe his best work since his also racially-charged "The Cheat," and more clearly than in some of the other early efforts indicative of the direction of pseudo-reverent spectacle he'd follow from the campy "The Godless Girl" to the pageantry of "The Ten Commandments" films (1923 and 1956). In the end, he may've found himself a failed poet and the artistic dance to oft be an empty spectacle for idolatry, imitation and masquerade, but it was a compelling fairy tale while it lasted.

    (Note: There's a nice reflection shot, too, with a superimposed image as Dalton burns other images and the entire house down but not before looking at herself and her prospects in the mirror.)

    It's a fine print from the Library of Congress, as well, with a score from Neil Brand provided for the festival. I especially hope this one makes it to home video someday--perhaps a reboot of a professionally-done collection of DeMille silents and, as well, early talkies, if that's not too greedy, is in order.
  • I don't know why I bothered; I figured this would be a pointless Anglophone remake of the tense 2018 Danish thriller. I also don't know why this Nic Pizzolatto guy has his own screenwriting credit here when most of it's lifted straight from the original. I guess he's taking credit for the rearrangement of a scene that results in unnecessarily dragging out the resolution so that we may see Jake Gyllenhaal's puke in a toilet, or for adding that 2am phone call to the ex that just makes Gyllenhaal's Joe all the more unbearable, and let's not forget that time Joe gets up to get a cup of joe, and he's displeased there's not enough already made for him. What I've seen from director Antoine Fuqua, too, gives the impression of a hacky filmmaker. The Denzel Washington movies are entertaining enough, because Denzel Washington, but the rest of them.... "Southpaw" (2015), also starring Gyllenhaal, is an overrated melodrama. I have yet to see "The Magnificent Seven" (2016) remake, but I'm not looking forward to it.

    This seems to be sheer incompetence to me, as if they had no idea what worked in the original, and, Instead of adding a novel interpretation, just watered it down with generics. Gustav Möller's picture was a one-man variation on "12 Angry Men" (1957) with an emphasis on sound in the emergency phone calls. An intensely claustrophobic utilization of the artifice of cinema. So, of course, for the remake they begin with a Bible verse and helicopter shots to needlessly attempt thematic grandeur and paint the background with California wildfires. Also unnecessary dramatic scoring to blow the intensity and subtlety of the sound design. Gyllenhaal spends the first part in an enormous glass-filled tomb to International Style architecture with a series of big screen TVs for the wildfire background and multiple monitors for each dispatcher like we're watching a high-tech hacker or spy movie. Saving the spectator the hassle of having to use their own imagination by the movie visualizing what Joe sees in his mind listening to a couple calls is especially inept.

    Oh, and Gyllenhaal can't help himself with the histrionics. It's bad enough they gave him an asthma inhaler to work with. I really miss the beads of sweat rolling down Jakob Cedergren's brow during his pregnant pauses compared to Gyllenhaal's spray-on sweat and crocodile tears as he shouts belligerently and pounds on glass windows. There's nothing that quite lowers one's estimation of an actor than to see him do so much more poorly in the same role performed by another just a couple years ago. Ditto the other filmmakers. At least Washington seemed to realize what he got himself into with with Fuqua in "Training Day" (2001) and "The Equalizer" (2014) and so turned up the acting even more over-the-top than usual to deliver us a bounty of ham.

    I would think that an easy bar for whether a remake should exist would be that it improves on or differs from the original in at least one interesting way. Yet, this one is nonetheless guilty of failing that test. Oh well, at least it got me to watch the Danish original.
  • "The Guilty" is an effective, intense series of phone calls involving an emergency dispatcher. Reportedly, it's inspired by a true story as seen by writer-director Gustav Möller in a YouTube video, which does get at the ensnaring quality of such audio clips--perhaps because we just instantly recognize, being very familiar with them, how it raises the stakes of a situation. That's why "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012) began with just the 911 calls during the 9/11 terrorist attacks against a black screen. There's something both gracious in it, that it spares us from the filmmakers displaying gruesome visuals, and horrifying, in that it confronts us with compensating for that lack of visual depiction in the movies by imagining it ourselves and thus removing even the sense of safety we might have felt in the distance between our eyes and the screen, putting it instead in our heads. This is the first major reason this crime thriller works. It's great sound design. Shortlisted for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, I'm OK with it ultimately missing out on the nomination compared to the tone deafness of not nominating it for the sound awards. I mean, looking over those that were nominated, I like Queen songs and superhero movies, too, but make some room; this is more impressive.

    The other major reason the intensity here works is the claustrophobic camerawork. The antecedent here is "12 Angry Men" (1957), but with the armchair detective in alternating states of isolation between adjoining rooms in relation to the severity and relative hopefulness or hopelessness of the drama--i.e. The worse it gets, the more he's alone. This does largely depend on a compelling performance from Jakob Cedergren, but the camera framing and production design shouldn't be taken for granted. I wonder how much effort they put into getting the beads of sweat rolling down his brow just right, too. It's a heightened situation that is both intensified by this claustrophobia and that calls attention to its artificial parameters, of not only the dispatcher in an office, but of the film style in staying there, as well. There's almost something deconstructive in it--just as the plot twists unravel the narrative. Indeed, eventually, Cedergren's Asger, after constructing his confinement, shades down and isolated in a room, starts deconstructing it by breaking stuff in a fit of anger--just one angry man.

    Time now to see if there's a reason for the 2021 remake besides to serve illiterate Anglophones. (Edit: There isn't.)
  • I'm finding these silent film comedies that revolve around erroneous quarantines for infectious diseases to be ever more curious. Counting this one, "An Old Fashioned Boy," I've now also seen "Cupid in Quarantine" (1918) and "That Ice Ticket" (1921), and although the plot device in movies extends back to at least "The Sunbeam" (1912), I suspect the prevalence of such pictures, of which perhaps I'm just scraping the surface of, is a reflection of the era's Influenza pandemic, the so-misnamed Spanish flu. Indeed, there are other pandemic-related titles released in the aftermath of the real-world contagion, from a sneeze in Mary Pickford's "Daddy-Long-Legs" (1919) to reflections of past plagues in European cinema, such as in "Nosferatu" (1922). Considering that most silent films are now lost and, as I discussed in my review of "The Plague in Florence" (1919), even film historians who have written the book on this period of silent cinema, such as self-acknowledged by Richard Koszarski (in an article in "Film History" in regards to his book in the "History of the American Cinema" series), have neglected to investigate the role of the Influenza on movies. Of course, we're seeing likewise effects on cinema play out in real time a century later, but hopefully this one won't also become a so-called "forgotten pandemic."

    "An Old Fashioned Boy" is otherwise of little interest. I've seen four or so films now for its star Charles Ray, and I continue to fail to see the appeal of his wholesome hick type, and I see why the actor tried to escape such type casting, although it's his investment in producing a costume drama for himself, "The Courtship of Miles Standish" (1923), another lost film now, that's usually credited for sabotaging his career and leading to his bankruptcy. The best of his films that I've seen is probably after that debacle, "The Garden of Eden" (1926), but that's mostly a Corinne Griffith picture. Regardless, in this one, when he was still a big star, involves his old fashioned boy getting engaged with one of, as described in one intertitle, "contrary women," their main dispute being over whether to live in their own house where the woman assumes a traditional position as housekeeper or in one of those apartment hotels that Ray's character cites from a newspaper headline as the cause of much marital troubles. Also of note is that the screenwriter here was a woman, Agnes Christine Johnston.

    When the girl discovers the boy bought a house for them before they were even engaged, she breaks off the engagement over his taking her for granted, as she says. Meanwhile, the wife of his married friend drops off their three kids at this house as she abandons her husband, over his spanking the kids and refusing to buy her a hat, it would seem, for her mother's place, apparently one of those apartment hotels, which don't allow children, apparently. Chaos ensues as Ray tries to make taffy with the children only for them to all become sick with tummy aches. The doctor prescribes an absurdly-intricate pill regimen for this, but Ray being a man supposedly can't make heads or tails out of pill schedules (he also makes a mess of the kitchen over that sticky taffy situation), so he must find a way to kidnap his former fiancée to tend to such nursing and housekeeping matters. What to do? Why fake that the kids have a deadly disease and have the house quarantined with her in it but of course. In this case, it's black measles--another popular name for a contagion that's a misnomer. Things work out predictably enough, but the funny thing is that the kids never are administered those pills.

    I suppose everyone just forgot during all the spastic slapstick antics. I didn't find any of it particularly humorous, but the energy of the thing is somewhat admirable, or at least it helps with the pacing in what's already a relatively short feature-length film. Unfortunately, while the actors are hard at work, running about, the camerawork and editing are pretty lazy. There's crosscutting and inserts to closer views--it's a film from 1920, after all--but most views are long shots, and some of them last for quite a while. The art titles are fine, I suppose, but I'm not a fan of overloading pictures such as this with jokey title cards, either.

    Not finding prosaic filmmaking, reinforcing dated gender norms, or kidnapping romances to be appealing, and only being slightly more interested re increasing rates of apartment dwelling, that leaves the context of the real-world pandemic in which the film was made to be of interest. While it's certainly too small of a sample size to draw definitive conclusions, I'm struck by how lightly these American comedies treated contagion in their narratives. One might even read into them the suggestion that in the real world there was much overblown hysteria--even nonsense conspiracy-theory levels of implications being that the pandemic was fake, although most of them refer to a disease other than Influenza to do so. In this one, the doctor even comes across as a quack. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, from what I've seen, the attitudes could hardly be more different, with past plagues of bubonic nature (and where quarantines are said to have first originated) being extrapolated to include greater horrors of the fantastic and religious variety besides many deaths, of entire civilizations crumbling as a consequence and the souls of humanity being at stake. Curious how little middle ground appears to be occupied between these films, albeit it's a limited sample. I seem to recall that someone once said something about being doomed to repeat forgotten history, but I forget and, apparently, so have others for the ironically oft-misattributed aphorism.
  • I love the international presentation of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. Beginning in France via Denmark and Germany, moving to some mostly Italian short films and continuing with an Australian feature, and that's just the first two days of a week-long program. As one might assume from the title, "The Man from Kangaroo" is a rollicking affair that hops all over the place, but the throughline is its Australian version of Hollywood star Douglas Fairbanks, Snowy Baker. There's the same Western-bound athleticism and promotion of a form of masculinity to largely audiences of boys, rescuing damsels and roughing up the baddies in a series of stunts, all done with a big grin on his face. Snowy even jumps on horses like Doug.

    Casting Baker as a parson who's delighted to hang around young boys who often are barely even dressed (one fighting leaves his backside exposed through torn pants, and the parson shows off his diving skills as other boys sit around in their swimwear) comes across as awkward nowadays in the wake of Church sexual abuse scandals, especially given that after the townsfolk complain about him, he's simply moved to a more "congenial" parish (although he also gives that up for a rougher, Wild West type locale). Moreover, it seems an odd mixture of two types of American Westerns around the time, of the Fairbanks stunt-work variety and the William S. Hart evangelizing sort. One scene, the pastor is a barrel of laughs and the next he's preaching against the ills of the devil's brew.

    The extent to which "The Man from Kangaroo" refuses to pick a lane and stick with it extends beyond the Baker's parson. The film is essentially two loosely-connected short films within one feature. What begins as an idyllic springtime love triangle with episodic scenes with the kids or the congregation and melodrama over the love interest's inheritance, as well as nauseatingly folksy art title cards, abruptly shifts into wild frontier chases on horseback and a battle over establishing a church, as well as another love triangle. Even a beautifully-composed opening shot blocked and framed by foliage eventually gives way to more prosaic cinematography. It's as though the filmmakers quit halfway through their own scenario and started another one all within the same film. And, only the flimsiest of contrivances brings Baker's parson and Brownie Vernon's Muriel together in another plot, both geographically and narratively. See, she arrives in the same town because she's there to visit the Parsons family... yup, not the parson's family, but the Parsons we never meet that just happens to bring her back together with the parson. Not very creative in the writing department.

    Add to this that Baker shows off both his real-world skill in boxing and swimming and diving, and I would think that there's supposed to be some theme of duality underlying all of this, but there's nothing there as far as I can see. There are other things here that make little sense, such as the parson waiting for a man to be clubbed over the head before he intervenes to apprehend the criminals--why not stop what he clearly knew was going to happen before it did? But, such questions seem beside what's clearly the intent here to base a bunch of action and stunt-work around an athletic star and maybe lure some of the same audience that Hollywood Westerns were attracting.
  • This Italian two-reeler from 1913, "Il Giglio Nero," variously translated as "The Black Lily," "The Black Lily Gang" or "The Sign of the Black Lily Gang," is derivative of Louis Feuillade's pulpy serial "Fantômas" (1913). Presented as the last and only two-reeler of five short films restored by La Cineteca del Friuli for the online part of the 40th Pordenone Silent Film Festival, presenter, film preservationist and historian and one of the festival's founders, Paolo Cherchi Usai also cites as an influence the Éclair crime film "Zigomar the Eelskin" (1913).

    It's an overly-elaborate battle of the witless between a criminal gang and the police detectives. In this one, when the gang discovers a detective is on the case, they send a note informing of where they'll be, whereupon they're promptly arrested. Criminal masterminds these aren't. But this is the same group where a robber breaks into a home only to slam a door to alert an otherwise oblivious occupant to his presence. Fortunately for the robber, I guess, instead of using a telephone to call the police, the damsel faints. But, the gangsters did apparently spend a lot of time and resources on a lair with a hidden door and a trap door for a detective to fall into and risk drowning--even though a flimsy set wall isn't too convincing. It seems the filmmakers were no masterminds, either. I usually don't look for such things, but I even caught the filmmakers visible in a shot from a car reflection.

    One of the more interesting things here extends to the entire heist or con-film genre to come. The intricacy of the crimes and their detections is rather the point, to reflect the artifice of the filmmaking process itself--if not always literally as in that car reflection. So, we get both sides dressing in disguises, as actors playing actors, even if there is no logical reason for it in the plot.
  • The fourth of five films restored by La Cineteca del Friuli and presented in the online part of the 40th Pordenone Silent Film Festival, "The Spider and the Fly" is an incomplete Italian stop-motion-animated film from 1913. Basically, it's just a spider chasing a flightless fly around a room via the trick effects. As far as bug-based stop-motion animation goes, I prefer the reflexive "The Cameraman's Revenge" (1912), but this Milano Film production has its charm, as well. As opposed to the other prints presented, there's considerable decomposition in this one. Also of note is that, at least for a frame, the animator's hand may be spotted in arranging the fly and spider. I wonder whether that was intentional or not, as the hand of the animator would and continues to have a long history in reflexive animated filmmaking.
  • The third short film from the archives of La Cineteca el Friuli in the Pordenone Silent Film Festival lineup today, "Bigorno Smokes Opium" is a wackadoodle of a comedic sketch. As oft the case with these things, its seemingly anti-drug message is undermined by all the interesting stuff in the movie arising from someone consuming drugs. It's also mired in Orientalism--never mind the European colonialists were the ones pushing the dope, and, again, the exoticism, along with the drugs, is what makes the film fun. Otherwise, it's just a dull sketch about some guy returning to France from his travels abroad and not about dreams induced by opium smoking that leads its user to wildly break everything in a room.

    Reportedly, Bigorno was part of a series of comedies, but by itself, it's one of surprisingly quite a few silent films to depict drug use in weird ways. Kino released a home video a while back entitled "The Devil's Needle & Other Tales of Vice and Redemption" with such films. Charlie Chaplin got a shot of energy sitting on a needle in "Easy Street" (1917). The earliest adaptation of "The Picture of Dorian Gray" that I've seen, from 1915, rewrites the doomed protagonist as a cocaine fiend. Even tobacco led to "Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy" (1909). My favorite, though, remains the Douglas Fairbanks parody of a hophead Sherlock Holmes, "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" (1916).
  • Another short film streamed as part of the online version of the 40th Pordenone Silent Film Festival and from the archives of La Cineteca del Friuli, the surviving fragment of this "Cinderella," or "A Modern Cinderella," is more of studio tour film, where we see the behind-the-scenes filmmaking at the Italian Ambrosio studio where this film itself was made, which is always interesting.

    What remains of the plot also seems compelling and seemingly anticipates another Cinderella-themed silent, "Ella Cinders" (1926). An ingénue becomes a rising star at the studio by starring in a production of the "Cinderella" film-within-the-film, so she, an actress played by an actress, experiences a Cinderella story twice over. Promisingly meta material for 1913.
  • In the first of the short film restorations from 35mm prints by La Cineteca del Friuli streamed in the online part of the 40th Pordenone Silent Film Festival and as introduced by film preservationist, historian and one of the festival's founders, Paolo Cherchi Usai, "Soap Bubbles" follows the popular early cinema genres of the mischievous boy and the prank-punitive plot established as far back as at least the Lumière "L'Arroseur Arrosé" (1895). Usai suggests a debt to the book "Heart: A School-Boy's Journal" by Edmondo de Amicis, as well. Regardless, in this one, the boy learns his lesson from nested stories visually depicted within bubbles, as from the kit that he stole from another child, of what will tragically happen to his mother if he continues in his errant ways. If you think concern for kids not respecting their elders is a new phenomenon of this or that generation, here's evidence to the contrary; it's been a thing for a while.

    Besides a nested narrative, the matte work for the bubble visions isn't bad, and there seems to be some dolly work in a zoom-in-like effect as the visions appear. Dolly shots had been around for a while, but the Italian epic "Cabiria" (1914) is often credited with popularizing them. Yet, here's another Italian film from 1911 seemingly featuring them, or it could be a matter of bringing objects towards the camera, as Georges Méliès is reported to have done, as with the landing in the Moon's eye gag in "A Trip to the Moon" (1902).
  • One Nordisk Danish production on the first day of the virtual part of the 40th Pordenone Silent Film Festival ("The Joker" (1928)) wasn't enough for me, it appears. Fortunately, the festival's website has a silent stream section of some past restorations that's free (although seemingly not updated too often), and "The House of Shadows," from the 36th Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, as the festival is otherwise known, back in 2017 is one of the uploads at the moment. Fortunately, too, the other two films there, as of this writing, the Italian "The Betrothed" (1922) and especially the Soviet "New Babylon" (1929), are better.

    This sort of old-fashioned melodrama can get excruciating for me to sit through. The depiction of the mentally-disabled Aslak was especially atrocious. I swear if I see another movie that uses a disabled or poor person to sacrifice for a central romance between other characters, let alone couching it in evangelicalism as here, I'm going to... well, be more annoyed. Perhaps the most famous silent film example of such a plot is Mary Pickford's "Stella Maris" (1918), and I hated it there, too. Simply calling it ableism, classism, racism, or sexism, as the case may be, doesn't fully get at how it's just bad, dated writing. And, this is coming from someone who has spent a good chunk of life seeing literally thousands of silent films, hundreds of which I've posted reviews for on this website.

    The plot eventually turning into a whodunit doesn't end up helping, either, as uninterested as I was in the romance of adoptive siblings needlessly submitting to their father's terrorizing concern over scandal. And, not of any scandal per se of siblings marrying, mind you; that's incidental. This is a father who screams into the night sky, fists clenched, inquiring who has brought him dishonor even though he already believes it's the revenge of his dead wife who apparently he drove to suicide. Anyways, about that murder mystery, which I hoped was to be a relief from the melodrama. Alas, an experienced viewer will know very well who's guilty long before it's revealed. I had two suspects, and when everything seemed to indicate the other one initially, I knew it had to be the other suspect.

    So, the narrative stinks, but how about the actual shadows of the Brekanæs House? Well, the interior cinematography is decent. Indeed, it's filled with shadows. I wasn't sure what the business with the harp was about, but the ultimate revelation with the organ is ridiculous. Outdoors, however, the dark lighting is another matter. The landscapes are lovely and play a part in the picture akin to Swedish cinema at the time (and it's set in Norway), but the filmmakers here seemed to intentionally film on cloudy days or well before or after the magic hour, which would seem to be on theme, but it looks bad--more like a film from 1914 than one from 1924. There are long shots of characters with their faces darkened in silhouette that are plain ugly, as well as sometimes not even in keeping with the theme, such as the reunion of the kissing siblings, which isn't supposed to be a gloomy affair at first--at least not until the love triangle forms. The picture's opening with the mother entrapped by the father in that murky house until her pregnancy delivers his son is a relatively strong and horrifying beginning, but things continue to go increasingly poorly thereafter. Oh well, not all Danish silent cinema can be Asta Nielsen and Carl Theodor Dreyer.
  • Ordinarily, even for silent film buffs, an archive finding a few scraps of century-old nitrate might not be considered newsworthy, but when Theda Bara's name is involved, that's a story. We're talking about one of the most pivotal stars in the history of film, credited with creating the vamp trope, of a sexually-alluring woman who preys on men, as derived from and which subsequnetly transformed depictions of vampires and eventually became the characters of the flapper and, then, the femme fatale, and we've only got, what, three or four feature films left. I've seen two of them, one from the beginning of her stardom, "A Fool There Was" (1915), and another from the end, "The Unchastened Woman" (1925). There's an entire body of work in the middle there that's just gone now, and, as anyone who has seen publicity stills and other remnants from those lost films knows, that was some sexy body of work, as featured in characteristically exotic and revealing costumes. So, when even a couple minutes of one of those lost films, in this case "Salome," are discovered, it's worth celebrating. Hearing the news on the first day of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival and only a couple days after the inaugural Silent Movie Day, it's quite the gift.

    The film fragment was found in the National Spanish Film Archive and apparently by an intern, who naturally and deservedly bragged about it on Reddit. Anyways, as for the film itself, as opposed to a chopped off head, so to speak, it appears to be a compilation of shots and title cards from scenes throughout the film like those one might find in a movie trailer. I would guess it might've been a bit of cannibalism for another film originally. Regardless, it's a tantalizing and colorful glimpse. Both a cause for celebration and for mourning the entirety of the film and the many more we no longer have, lost to time and neglect, if not outright destruction, or as in the case of Bara and the Fox studio where she worked, lost in a vault fire.
  • Joaquin Phoenix is unrecognizable here; I see why he won the Oscar. But, seriously, this Danish-German late silent film production from Nordisk studios, by way of adapting an English stage play, and set in Nice, France has nothing to do with American superhero comic books. Although, Henry Edwards as the eponymous Joker here does remind me of a young Liam Neeson, and the Batman comics were inspired by silent movies--namely "The Mark of Zorro" (1920), "The Bat" (1926), along with its talkie remake "The Bat Whispers" (1930), and, for the Joker antagonist, "The Man Who Laughs" (1928). But, that's another story. "The Joker" this time is the first restoration streamed for the online edition of the 40th Pordenone Silent Film Festival.

    A gorgeous print it is, too. The only readily apparent decomposition occurs briefly at the end of the Joker's first scene, as if left there to highlight how beautiful the rest of the film remains. The lighting and tinting especially look good, and there's the backdrop of the Nice Carnival to liven up the melodrama. What I assume is documentary footage of the carnival is by itself of interest, but the rest of the picture looks good, too. This was at the peak and end of the silent era, after all. The narrative is another matter.

    It's a lot of contrived melodrama over a blackmail plot involving love letters from the past of a now high-society married woman. The blackmailing lawyer attempts to extract pearls and, then, a marriage to her sister and the social-class-climbing that would provide in exchange for avoiding scandal. Y'know, God forbid a woman experienced love with another man before marriage. A lot of pearl-clutching and hand-clutching from the sisters here and their heads bowed in shame. The card-playing Joker, who just like Batman's foe employs the Joker playing card as his calling card and, thanks to the carnival and melodrama, has a flair for the dramatic, gets tangled up in this mess and ultimately comes to the rescue from his courting of the sister.

    Ho-hum stuff for the most part. Even the supposed detectives tend to be inept, and there's not actually any mystery to solve. The carnival isn't especially integrated well with the blackmail plot, either, except for that, perhaps, one might say there's a carnivalesque nature to the melodramatic contrivances and absurd scheming of the baddie. Unexpected and unintegrated to the rest of the narrative as it is, I do rather like the meta deus ex machina here of filmmaking itself. That's one way for a lazy screenwriter to solve their plot: just invent another movie to resolve it.

    The sisters are so dull I mixed them up for a while and consequently, for a time, invented a better movie plot in my mind. See, I thought the married sister was having an affair with the Joker, while at the same time trying to conceal a past affair. Letters from the past and a dead man writing the present, with an incriminating photograph in a locket, to boot. But, no, that's not what this movie is. "The Joker" also isn't done any favors by the Colossus feet in a ballroom scene being reminiscent of the superior Ernst Lubitsch film, "So This Is Paris" (1926). Yet, I like to see any quality print of an obscure silent film even if the movie is a mixed bag, so I'll count this as a successful start to the festival--a festival full of streamers from 1928 streamed for another festival in 2021. It's apt at least.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    "The Wind" is a strong case for the visual power of silent cinema. Made in 1927 when the talkies were entering the picture and its release delayed until the end of 1928 when the death of silent pictures were assured, few films illustrate so well what silent cinema could do and what could literally not be done in the early talkies. What especially struck me upon this viewing of "The Wind" was just how well its eponymous visual force of sand-sweeping gales are framed. And, not only because John Arnold's cinematography, shooting in the Mojave Desert and the airplane-propeller-blowing practical effects look terrific, but also how the wind is framed narratively and reflexively. Besides the superimpositions, window motif and that of the final boundary between the domestic and the frontier of the open door, one bit of business especially caught my attention, the stereoscope. We first see these 3D-photographic contraptions in a scene where children are playing with them and showing them to Lillian Gish's Letty protagonist. The second and last time they appear is when Montagu Love's heavy, Roddy, gazes lasciviously upon Letty's photographic representation and then her real self.

    Bo Florin ("Confronting The Wind: a reading of a Hollywood film by Victor Sjöström") is right that the key theme of "The Wind" is "collapsing the boundaries between subjective and objective, inner and outer space," which alone on a formal level makes for an architecturally interesting picture, but a lot more may be read into natural and human forces attacking Letty from the outside and the effect thereof on her inner, psychological breakdown. From the beginning, on the train and with Roddy offering Letty some forbidden fruit, so to speak (and he literally calls over the train's fruit vendor), the winds of Western Texas are associated with male sexuality--in Letty's mind, at least, and thus of the film primarily sharing her perspective. Note, too, that the cyclone, the first intrusion of nature upon the indoor, domestic spaces Letty occupies, occurs as Lettty again meets Roddy and is also approached with marriage proposals from two other men, and she's attacked by another woman who sees her as a threat to her marriage with a fourth man. Unable to afford a trip back home to Virginia, Letty is forced to marry one of the men merely for shelter. Finally, during a so-called Norther, or strong windstorm, Letty is unable to continue to keep this sexual threat as a force of nature from collapsing her personal boundaries and is raped.

    As star Gish relates in the introduction usually accompanying the Thames print, she wrote an outline for an adaptation of Dorothy Scarborough's novel, a script for which was written by pioneering scenarist Francis Marion. Indicative of Gish's clout by this time, she also claims to have selected her leading man, the serviceable Lars Hanson, who was also her co-star in "The Scarlet Letter" (1926), and her director, Victor Sjöström, also the director of "The Scarlet Letter." She couldn't have picked a better director for a scenario where nature is like a character and more of Gish's co-star than Hanson or Love. Sjöström and other Swedish filmmakers like Mauritz Stiller pioneered such cinematic treatments in the prior decade, including in Sjöström's "Terje Vigen" (1917) and "The Outlaw and His Wife" (1918). The added or greater emphasis here associating that nature with sexual threat and other issues may make this his pinnacle achievement in this regard.

    The same may be said for Gish, who had been training as the ingénue threatened by rape or otherwise violation to her body and safety since starring with her sister Dorothy in their first film, one of D. W. Griffith's last-minute-rescue shorts, "An Unseen Enemy" (1912). This took on a recurring racial dimension and a more developed notion of femininity by the time of "The Birth of a Nation" (1915). From there, again and again, the petite Gish served as this notion of ideal, pure and white womanhood. In this respect, too, then, "The Wind" may be seen as a career culmination and problematization of an entire body of work. Moreover, it goes without saying, but I'm going to say it anyway because she deserves it, that Gish is terrific. She continues to act circles around even the most capable cast. Even before her wide-eyed descent into madness, it's commendable how she acts with her entire body. Nearly 100 years later now, and I swear most movie actors don't seem to be able or willing to do this. Her trembling on her marriage night is a standout.

    What you have is a classic when you add to this that "The Wind" is not some simplistic, Victorian morality tale from a Griffith, but a gothic Western based on an anti-Western novel critical of Manifest Destiny, the genocide of Native Americans and issues of class, gender and race as highlighted by the harsh Southwestern state via Letty's traveling from the care of her mammy in Virginia--all issues that even in their arguably diluted form in cinematic adaptation severely complicate and expand those oeuvres brought to the fore by Gish and Sjöström.

    According to Gish and Marion, the supposedly happy ending went against their desire to keep the book's original conclusion of Letty dying. As Fritzi Kramer of the Movies Silently website has convincingly argued, this happy ending must have been planned early on in the production, including it naturally following from the picture's borrowings from the scenario of another film, "The Canadian" (1926), although I have no reason to doubt that Gish and Marion originally argued for the tragic finale. Gish even calls the happy ending enforced upon them by Irving Thalberg to be "immoral." I think there's an argument against that belief, though. The tragic end reinforces a morality that only finds redemption for a rape victim in death. Indeed, as the film borrows from another film in part, this moralistic tragedy in the book may have been borrowing from another book, as Rayond D. Tumbleson ("Potboiler Emancipation and the Prison of Pure Art: "Clarissa, The Wind", and Surviving Rape"), for one, has argued for this similarity in Scarborough's text to that of Samuel Richardson's "Clarissa."

    Granted, the alternative here of a woman seemingly so suddenly sexually awakened and triumphant from a rape hardly comes across as unflawed, either, but I'd argue that's rather the point if we acknowledge that the Hollywood ending isn't all that happy, as it turns out--at least depending on one's and whose point of view. Susan Kollin's reading of the novel, although overly dismissive of the film, is valuable to this understanding. The picture, as with the book, builds a mythology from Native Americans regarding the winds and the association with wild horses (visualized here as superimpositions), but no other trace is to be found of Native Americans in the film, nor of Mexicans, and there's only the one mammy reference to indicate the foundation of racialized hierarchy of Letty's privileged white femininity back in Virginia and that is compromised in the hard work and harsh environs--made all the worse by the poor conservation brought by white settlement--of West Texas and how as opposed to a simple victim of a patriarchal system, frontier women are complicit in this racial order and so-called Manifest Destiny. The film was written by way of three female authors, after all.

    Much of this is indicated in the film if not explicitly or dwelled upon. Perhaps, that's partly a vestigial artifact of adaptation, but it also goes to the film's new conclusion and morality. Note that Hanson's Lige states that the wind-wiped sands of the desert bury justifiable acts: "Wind's mighty odd--if you kill a man in justice--it allers covers him up!" The film, then, is justifying the displacement of native populations for white settlement, of the increasingly-barren landscape wrought by such romantic notions of marriage of loving and working together. Indeed, they work in concert, the winds covering those killed in the psychosexual and otherwise rapacious conquest of the West.

    Which brings me back to the stereoscope. It's not only our protagonist Letty who supports this Manifest Destiny, or the Western writ large, but photographic motion pictures generally. Now, I don't know how how much Gish, Marion, Sjöström or Scarborough intended this, but not only were romantic notions of the West largely codified by such photographic means, including through the Yosemite and San Francisco photography of film pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, by the way, but the stereoscope is also behind some of the earliest, if not the earliest, experiments in the invention of motion pictures. This was a medium that inherently required pairs of still photographs from different positions for its 3D effect. It was from there that the likes of Charles Wheatstone and Antoine Claudet realized the potential for series of sets of photographs and combining them with the synthesis of the illusion of motion offered by Joseph Plateau's phenakistiscope. Jules Duboscq realized this as early as 1852 with the patenting of his Bioscope stereoscopy viewer and a series on disc of posed stereoscopic photographs of a steam engine, itself a symbol of the progress of industrialization and capitalism that would rewrite landscapes and displace their people just as with train as enigmatically captured in Lumiere's "Arrival of the Train" (1896), the Lumieres also being interested early on in depicting the depth of scenery with stereoscopy--even finally reshooting this train subject in 3D by 1934. This is the foundation of "The Wind" and film in general. It's what we're reminded of when Letty is at her most content early on in this new land and when, later, she is to become most distressed. Conquering land and people and turning them ghosts, superimposed mythologies, the Manifest Destiny of photographic motion pictures.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    "The Sopranos" is probably still the best TV series ever made because it was uniquely cinematic. Indeed, its premiere was followed shortly by a theatrically-released movie that came across as its pastiche, "Analyze This" (1999), which merely played the mobster-shrink angle for laughs. It wasn't so much the writing, either, that set "The Sopranos" apart, which while fine, was still necessarily serialized, but the camerawork, production values and acting were worthy of feature films at a time when that wasn't the case with anything else on TV. Heck, they kept ineptly giving out Emmys to "The West Wing," and as much as that politically-idealistic sap has been a guilty pleasure of mine, the show looks tacky by comparison (especially that poor TV lighting masquerading as dark and important cinema). Moreover, "The Sopranos" ended perfectly. I won't say it was ambiguous when it cut to black, as I think it was pretty obvious what happened, and one can easily find it explained in interviews since, but there was none of the episodic junk of the cast patronizingly saying their goodbyes to viewers that you see with most such planned finales.

    Then, this comes along. "The Many Saints of Newark," a theatrically-released (albeit simultaneously streamed, too, as with all Warner movies this pandemic year) prequel. It's almost pure cash-grab fan servicing. It's not nearly as bad as the utterly redundant "El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie" (2019), but it's about as superfluous as "Downton Abbey" (2019), which is shame because "The Sopranos" was far better than that show, which I never even finished it was so dully anachronistic and melodramatic. I'm not saying this movie ruins the legacy of the TV show or anything, either, as I don't believe in that sort of thing, but it is mostly pointless artistically. I suppose to make a good movie based on a TV show, one has to make a break from the series, to become its own thing. The formats really are different in important ways, and that should be recognized. Here, it's not.

    There's occasional narration from a character who died in the show for no other purpose than to play on our nostalgia, as the character only appears as an infant in one scene, which includes an atrocious bit of spiritualist explanation as retroactive foreshadowing--after-the-fact-foreshadowing, or I guess that's merely shadowing--that Tony Soprano will murder him one day. Moreover, Tony is hardly a character here, either. He has no real character arch. There's a scene with a school guidance counselor in lieu of a psychiatrist session. For all the regular characters who would be in "The Sopranos," the interest in them here hardly goes beyond other actors doing impressions of their younger selves. Slightly amusing at best, or a sympathetic ode to his late father in the case of Michael Gandolfini. Otherwise, it's as if the characters are just here because they'll be important in future episodes--like in a TV show. I will say, though, that casting Ray Liotta, most famous for "Goodfellas" (1990), one of those gangster movie precedents for the cinematics of "The Sopranos," is a nice touch, as is having him play twin roles. I'd give this the edge over that "Downton Abbey" movie just for this.

    The actual narrative here, though, involves Tony's uncle Dickie (Alessandro Nivola) and his racial gang turf feud, his Italian mafia versus that of African-American rivals, led by Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.), over who runs the illicit local lottery, or "numbers," in crime speak. All of that is ho-hum, generic gangster movie stuff played against the background of a race riot over police brutality and with the Vietnam War receding ever farther in the background. A bit more interesting, especially given the show's tendency for psychobabble, is that Dickie essentially plays out an Oedipus complex over his step-mother and all the while being blind to the ultimate threat against his life.
  • Along with another Angela Murray Gibson comedy, which in its case is also available on the Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers home-video set, "That Ice Ticket" (1922), this was available for Silent Movie Day on YouTube from the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

    Born in Scotland before emigrating to the United States and eventually settling in Casselton, North Dakota, Gibson ran her own production company, Gibson Studios, which although the program notes on the Pioneers set describe her as an amateur filmmaker, it's apparent that's not a knock on the quality of her films, at least the two shorts that I've now seen, and more of a statement on her recruitment of amateurs for productions, including her mother running the camera. They're competently made comedies with brisk pacing--better than a lot of slapstick from the era. Besides making her own films, Gibson was involved in the Chautauqua circuit and helped provide authenticity to Mary Pickford's Scotland-set "The Pride of the Clan" (1917).

    This comedic short, "Arrested for Life" features Gibson fresh off the train in a new town and looking for work. The gags revolve around her incompetence in performing various jobs. The most amusing is when she delivers a ring and a letter containing a marriage proposal to the wrong woman, and the guy just goes along with it anyways. Inevitably, things escalate into a bit of a chase. Quite good for what it is.
An error has occured. Please try again.