Blindspot: Metropolis (1927)

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There are films with such a history that it’s impossible to ignore it. Metropolis is a film that has been lost and found over time so often that even today we still are not able to find the complete 153 minute version that was first shown in 1927. Three years ago a more inclusive version of the film was released, amounting to 148 minutes, with frame reconstruction and a few interesting editing techniques, including having a section of the incomplete film’s story explained via title cards, where it is obvious was once visual storytelling.

When the film opens we are greeted with the image of the workers of this massive production facility changing shifts. One group leaving work and the other arriving. We follow the group leaving work to see them heading onto a series of elevators to take them to their home, which is beneath the grand city that they’ve built, in the vision of Jon Fredersen (Alfred Abel). The film spends the next two and a half hours showing the distance between the visionaries and the men of action that create and conceive.

Like many times in societal history there has, and will always be, a class separation in existence. We see it in film every week at the theatre. There’s always someone who believes another is below him, because of one ridiculous reason or another. Metropolis begins with an easy narration wherein it’s explained to us that while this separation can exist there should always be an inbetween. A ways of communication between ‘The head and the hands’ and this Metropolis (1)mediator should be the heart. Without it the two ends become disconnected and embroiled in their own problems so much so that the entire body fails to thrive.

The mediator is set out to be Freder (Gustav Frohlich), the son of the industrialist, Jon Fredersen. One day, while he’s in the garden of wonderfully half naked women enjoying himself, he’s interrupted by a striking young woman, Maria (Brigitte Helm), bringing in a group of boys and girls, all sons and daughters of the workers down below. Upon entering the pleasure garden she proclaims to Freder, and the children with her, that “these are your brothers and sisters” before being shunned away. This inspires Freder to find out more of these supposed brothers and sisters he has which entangles him with a few of the workers below and leads him to his destined role of attempting to mediate dealings between the workers and his father to keep the body alive and well.

Before Freder can begin to mediate between these two parties however he is given a few hurdles to overcome. While he grew up in a life of privilege and has somewhat an understanding of that viewpoint he must now ascertain the viewpoint of those “below” himself. With that he assimilates himself into the worker environment to discover that Maria is somewhat of a prophet to the workers proclaiming that this mythic mediator will come to solve all of their problems and make life all better for them.

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Then we meet Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) who has invented the first android, which he calls a “Man Machine”. He and Fredersen colludes together to kidnap Maria, give Rotwang’s Man Machine Maria’s physical likeness and have it sabotage all the plannings of the workers to help Fredersen keep control over the lower class.

If there’s one thing this film doesn’t lack it’s plotting. I’ve even left out subplots of Josaphat (Theodor Loos) and The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp) in my above description. Like many I have seen only a microcosm of what exists in the world of silent cinema and remain always ready to consume more, however this may be the most detailed plotted film I can remember seeing from this era of filmmaking. With so much told visually it’s difficult to pick out a wasted moment on screen or even through dialogue.

The film’s imagery is anything but subtle. There are times when Fritz Lang actually looks to remind us of the themes he wants to portray numerous times through imagery. The same narration that opens the film, of the mediator, is repeated numerous times through Maria’s preaching to the workers and when the finale comes around. The same thing happens with the Babel imagery. Early on when Freder first is inspired to speak to his father about his suffering brothers in the machine room he screams, “to the new Tower of Babel,” and later on the film explains — in almost a scripture like manner — the imagery and meaning of the Woman of Babel who inspires all of these sins that eventually leads to the death of a people only to have the Machine Man version of Marie be placed into that exact same imagery so much so that the film would overlay the presented image of the Woman of Babel when evil Marie appears to remind us. This, in most films are things that I argue of lazy filmmaking and boring storytelling. However, somehow I was able to forgive it and play along mainly because everything else about the movie worked so well. I was so invested in Freder’s journey to do good for his Metropolis (4)brothers and sisters and Rotwang’s own seeking of revenge against Fredersen for what he did to Hel and such that I was able to overlook these niggling narrative moments.

Where this film shines is in it’s special effects. Between Rotwang’s experiment to bring the Machine Man to life and give it the likeness of Marie, to the look of the city which always had this gaudy look and feel to it that it gave me a sense of wonder that I was unsure a film this dated could give me. While effects have come a long way since 1927 it’s no less surprising to see something as simple as those rings appearing over Rotwang’s invention as he goes through the procedure so much so that the simple dissolve from the machine to Maria becomes a brilliant cumulative moment that I loved.

There’s also the great sequence of the flooding city below with Freder, Josaphat and Marie saving the children. While it’s obvious the use of miniatures to  depict the crumbling city under flooding waters it doesn’t make it any less visually amazing.

What do you think of Metropolis?

Blindspot: All About Eve (1950)

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We begin at the awards ceremony as we look on with Eve (Anne Baxter) receiving an award for her year of achievement in acting. As this is ongoing we hear the voices, and see the faces, of some soon to become very important key players in the tale of Eve’s year of potential turned kinetic response to how one gets there.

Flashback to the beginning of Eve Harrington’s story, told from the perspective of all these onlookers and how they all played a part in her rise to fame, we meet her in the back alley of a theatre awaiting the chance to meet her idol, Margo (Bette Davis). With that chance being made true she warms herself into this group of artists and manages to become Margo’s assistant of sorts. With a dash of loyalty and a dousing of innocence Eve is the least to be questioned as to her motivations; but slowly a jealous paranoia develops and we’re questioning whether Eve is a temptress or if Margo is a lunatic?

The hardest part about writing in the blindspot is that the films selected have such monumental reputations that I’m almost sure that they’ve been written about so much since their release (some who’ve had more decades that I’m able to pretend I’ve been conscious for) that I feel redundant adding another thousand (and most tiAll About Eve (2)mes less) words to the conversation that does nothing but heap more praise, but it’s true.

All About Eve is a film that works for so many reasons. Between the acting of Bette DavisAnne BaxterGeorge Sanders (playing Mr. DeWitt, the critic) as well as Gary Merrill (as the director who’s in love with Margo) it’s perfect. The film does suffer from that very old tradition of acting where it feels like people are acting at you as opposed to just being in their own world, however, that complaint is one I barely take note of due to the fact that I tend to find the effect so very charming when it ends up feeling like everyone is being as clever as this. With the film being a cat and rat game of trying to figure out who’s the one that’s crazy, Margo or Eve, there’s a wit about the film that keeps that mystery intriguing throughout. You start out saying that it’s impossible, shifting ever so slightly to saying it could be true but never in a billion years to eventually asking for forgiveness for ever questioning this mad lunatic’s readings of what was happening.

Even when the film reaches its climax and we’re given this cyclical nod with Eve in her hotel room after having accepted her award with a very Margo-like demeanor; very somber and slightly disgusted with her reality it should be cliche and annoying but it works. The worst part of it is that we never feel this as a sign of Eve becoming saddened by the results of her efforts, we see her as accomplished and successful. Not just critically and financially but also personally. She set her sights on a goal, made it, and doesn’t seem to have a lick of regret for it. However, with the same con being played on her (it would seem) now we can do no more than laugh, giggle or even just say ‘hah’ as we hope Eve becomes prey to her own ambition directed back at her.

What do you think of All About Eve?

1001 Films: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

This film is part of my small John Ford Marathon.

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The west, as I’ve seen it, has always been a legally void society. It’s a time when communities were a group of farmers who lived miles away from one another and people lived on their moral code as opposed to any governed law handed down from a president or congressman or whatnot. So when a man with books and ideals comes west to discover his ideas mean little to nothing against a gun it’s easy to empathize and at the same time very difficult to cheer for him.

Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), a Senator, comes back to Shinbone to pay his respects to his friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), who’s recently passed away. Under pressure from the press Ransom is made to tell the tale of how he came to know Tom and his time in Shinbone where he became famous for having killed the local outlaw, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin).

The Man Who Shot Libery Valance (2)When I think about the westerns I love and the ones I have trouble discussing I find the list of ones that give me trouble seem very akin to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. While the ideas of education and progress versus the outlaw wild west are apt — and still very applicable to today’s society in some ways — there are some elements of how Ford chooses to frame this discussion that give me pause. One could point to the idealistic manner in which he frames his characters that some may call static, one may choose to point to how he constantly seems to be injecting some form of cartooned humour into the film to help ease the audience into this disgusting tale of a man who whips, tricks and plays with his prey constantly as he’s the biggest gun in town and it’s only when faced against the only other big gun — John Wayne — that he withdraws from the situation. This tension between Marvin and Wayne, Marvin and Stewart and Stewart and Wayne all over violence as a mode of handling life fuelled the film but at one point ended up feeling repetitive.

Where Ford‘s talent is never wasted is in the visual aesthetic of the film. It’s not uncommon to see a film produced in the 60s being made in black and white, but somehow it’s still amazes me that studios back then seemed (obviously from the outside looking in) more okay with the development of these now defunct and aged technologies in a way that they aren’t today with 2D versus 3D productions. However, we’ve already seen Ford’s cinematography turn out beautifully in films such as Stagecoach and How Green Was My Valley. Here however his use of shadows is striking in a way that purposefully affects you. In scenes where characters come out the shadows in ways that confound the viewer — knowing there was no way for them to be ‘cut in’ — such that it becomes even more shocking when the violence starts after they appear.

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The film is told entirely from the perspective of Stewart’s character as he is retelling it to the press of Shinbone in an full disclosure interview that he decides to tell us. So when the story is over and we return to the present we see the press seated with a pad filled with notes only to have the lead editor pick them up and rip them to shreds to say “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. Legends are the tales we tell our children which are idealized versions of the truth that in their exaggerated ways help guide us through the morally divisive world we already exist in. This moment is a moment that cinema loves, where we admit to the purpose of storytelling (like a film such as this) in such a succinct and  eloquent moment like this. With Ford being known as the ‘western’ filmmaker he deals in legends constantly and I for one am happy to see more legends on the screen always.

What did you think of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?

1001 Films: How Green Was My Valley (1941)

This film is part of my small John Ford Marathon. How Green Was My Valley (3)

This is my fourth film in the John Ford marathon, and if there’s one thing I can say in praise of How Green Was My Valley in comparison to the rest of the films involved thusfar is that it is one of the best filmed movies of the lot. While I hold nothing against the films previously discussed, it seems that a level of detail and production went into this film that surpasses anything previously handed to me and it’s much appreciated.

It’s hard to watch a film like this and not see how it possibly influenced a favourite of mine, There Will Be Blood, to show the passage of time through the eyes of a boy as well as the discussion of religion and business and how it affects a man’s soul to be pulled between the two. We see the story — as told by Huw (Roddy McDowall) — of the Morgan family over the years  in a small Welsh mining community.

The opening fifteen minutes is a period of time in the film where we as an audience are uncertain what we’re about to get. We’re introduced to an unseen narrator — later discovered to be an older Huw — and he begins to tell How Green Was My Valley (1)us this story; however the film seems to be entering a visual feast that is unlike what we’ve come to expect from Ford. We see the hoard of men coming home from a day’s labour in the mine filling the street and singing their songs which creates a moment that while we’re privy to a few more times before the film is over, is so striking it’s difficult to run out of your mind.

The film, when you think of it’s beginning and end, almost feels as if we’re watching the writers play out what would be torture cinema on the Morgans as we watch them — the happy family — be taken through the ringer of life, but somehow I’m left wondering what it all meant. Is the film one in a long line of movies that prove that education is the only way up in life seeing Huw refuse the opportunity for a ‘dignified’ profession only to be drawn into this pitiful life which seems to only end in family turmoil and death. Or if you look at the life that a lot of the Morgans’ live — from the opening scene to the end — it’s a life of many pleasures which is simple but rewards one in ways that no ‘dignified’ profession would seem to.

Even the title of the film How Green Was My Valley is one that brings on nostalgia. As the film opens with a narration which cues us into the fact that we, along with Huw, are reminiscing. We even see in that opening scene — before we are transported back — Huw packing his things to leave his home as if to say that after all is said and done there’s nothing left to keep him here. All those pleasures and simple things have dried up, like the valley that was once so very green.

What do you think of How Green Was My Valley?

1001 Films: Judge Priest (1934)

This film is part of my small John Ford Marathon. Feel free to continue along with. This film can be watched (for free) on YouTube.

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If I was asked to say what this movie is in the most succinct of manner I’d have to say that it’s what a lazy Sunday afternoon feels like. It’s easily taken in, doesn’t ask too much of you and doesn’t require you to try too hard to follow its ideas.

In a small town America we follow the days of Judge Priest (Will Rogers) who’s a man who utilizes his common sense and moral decency to dispense judgements in the South. Priest is constantly at odds with the people of his town as he tries to exist around them, constantly nudging them into a morally acceptable path socially and legally.

There’s one problem that I find whenever I go this far back into the days of films gone by and that has to do with not so much the social perspectives of the time but the smaller nuances as to what society actually was and how the industry used it to limit characters. This is noted Judge Priest (3)especially with the characters of Aunt Dilsey (Hattie McDaniel) and Jeff (Stepin Fetchit) — the only black characters of the film — where they become exaggerated characters where the former is the help who loves to make all those “mmhmmm” fried chicken and such meals and the later being the dumb as door nails servant/anything man who does what he’s told and at times can’t understand his foot from his ass. While films like The Help highlight how things were it always feels okay to take a jab at it now knowing how it’s actually changed over the years, but when you go to then when it was fact it’s difficult to look past the character that these actors were forced (by limitation) to play and how they had to play it. It does nothing but hurts the film as time goes by.

Where this movie’s strength lies is with the character of Priest and Rogers’ brilliant portrayal of him. He never quite pretends that he’s the most important person in the room, or that he thinks he’s the smartest, but at the same time he is pretty important as a judge and always amazingly quick witted and intelligent in all the moments that we’re given. When he uses his intelligence and know-how to push other people into situations it’s always done with a sense of good to it, like when he scares the barber away from the girl next door that his son is interested in. It is notably crazed that it’s okay and if this were a different film made a decade later we could expect a very differing tone of how it all worked out, but in this movie it works for laughs and all the romantic ‘awwws’ that you need in a film like this.

What do you think of Judge Priest?