I can’t begin to talk about the last horrible week, with the bombings, loss of life, manhunt, and all the bad behavior along the way. The fact that this took place during a hard week of the semester — and that I teach young 19-yr-olds like Dzhokhar all the time — makes it harder.

Instead, I turn to fable and film magic. I need escape; perhaps you do, too.

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Everyone is going to compare this enchanting film to The Artist (2011) — because it, too, is a neo-silent that gets part of its magic by borrowing from films of the 1920s and shot in the same 1.33 : 1 aspect ratio as films of yesteryear. Fair enough. Our heroine even has a plucky pet — not a dog but an intrepid rooster named Pepe, who blows Uggie out of the water. (And I loved Uggie.)

Rather, this film should be compared to Rupert Sanders’ Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), because both films sought to reinvent the Snow White story as told by Los Hermanos Grimm. Thankfully, this one gets it right.

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The director Pablo Berger seems to have been paying attention to the problems posed by current-day updates of fairy tales — and has found a way around them. Blancanieves isn’t the Snow White; rather, she’s Snow White — she really only gets that moniker after she suffers amnesia (amnesia! I love amnesia stories!) and gets adopted by a troupe of bullfighting dwarfs.

Did you fully absorb all the information in that sentence? Amnesia! Bullfighting dwarfs!

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I could tell you more about the story, but there’s no point, is there? We know there are going to be some key plot points: an evil stepmother, an apple, some sleeping. Berger hits those points while also unfolding Carmencita’s story in ways that take a sidelong look at the Sleeping Beauty fable, and which make it surprising and sort of delightful.

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This Snow White doesn’t live in a woodsy neverland, but rather in a very particular time and place: Andalusia during the 1910s and ’20s, where bullfighting and flamenco help to define the regional culture. (In fact, you find yourself marveling that the dance and the “sport” have a very lot in common.) Watching the hundreds of spectators gather in an early scene at a stadium to watch the great bullfighter — the as-yet unborn Carmencita’s magnificent father — is to gain access to one of those things you hunger for as a filmgoer: a ghostly shot from up high, showing the spectators as tiny figures moving toward the stadium, a shot that seems both awe-inspiring and historical at once.

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When little Carmencita is born to tragedy and her new stepmother, Encarna, installs herself in the household, all seems lost. And Encarna is, indeed, very evil. Played with gusto by Maribel Verdú (well-known in the U.S. for Y tu mamá también [2001]), she narrows her eyes, laughs demonically, and struts before mirrors and cameras like the best of the worst female vamps of old. She’s wonderful to look at: her mouth can twist with just the right kind of cinematic cruelty. She may be the least subtle thing about this film, but she makes a perfect and vivid villainess.

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And as Carmencita grows up into a young woman (Macarena García) in a lovely series of shots, we know she won’t last long on Encarna’s estate. How she takes up with the dwarfs — and ultimately becomes the nation’s newest sensation in bullfighting — is a longer and more twisted tale, but continues to vacillate between the classic elements of the Snow White fable and the more specific Andalusian story that Berger has created.

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I saw Blancanieves three weeks ago and have been turning it around in my mind like one sucks on an Everlasting Gobstopper. Last night we happened to catch a preview for it at our theater, and I was struck all over again by its visuals, its creativity, its memorable score, and that glowing black and white — so much so, in fact, that I whispered, “Let’s see it again!”

1184_2402-width=620&height=385&scale_mode=c_blancanievesWhat more can one say in recommending a film, but that one wants to see it again immediately?

Having just survived a very bad week, friends, let’s do something for our souls. Let’s turn away from the worst parts of the internet, from the bad news and the fearmongering. Let’s watch, instead, a film that feeds our souls. I’m not saying that Blancanieves is a perfect film; in fact, contact me or comment here when you see it and tell me what you think of its ending. But I would watch it again this minute if I didn’t have so much work to do.

blancanieves (1)On second thought, maybe I will go see it again — just to see Carmencita’s hopeful, upturned face, Pepe running through Encarna’s terrifying estate, and the dwarfs’ caravan lit with fairy lights. I could use some mercy now. Couldn’t we all?

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Watch out, Agent 326!

12 March 2013

Spies

From Fritz Lang’s Spies (Spione, 1928), the film Lang made immediately after Metropolis (1927) but before (1931), and which has some of the gee-whiz gadgets and terrific action that you might expect. But best of all is conflicted bad-spy Sonya Baranilkowa (Gerda Maurus), whose elegant, bejeweled hands we see here. Watch out, Agent 326!

And oh, that evil Russian’s clothes. Don’t even get me started.

Nota bene: don’t watch this streaming on Netflix, as you’ll only get part of the film. Look out for the 144-min. or 178-min. versions.

 

Remember last spring, when the Hitchcock “For the Love of Film” Blog-A-Thon was raising money? All our funds went into the preservation of the film The White Shadow, one of the earliest films on which Alfred Hitchcock worked before becoming a director. The work has been completed, a beautiful soundtrack created, and the whole thing — that is, the extant 48 minutes discovered rotting in a New Zealand shed last year — can be viewed at the National Film Preservation Foundation site.

It’s just gorgeous, this preservation work. I particularly love those shots of the risqué Nancy (above), just smoking her cigarette, as the beautiful clouds of smoke swirl around her. In the lead role, Betty Compson is  terrifically unknowable — elusive, eminently watchable.

At the time of the Blog-A-Thon I watched early Hitchcock films featuring Anny Ondra, Hitch’s first blonde, that delightful actor who spanned the gulf between light humor and melodrama so nicely. But Compson is another thing entirely — rich with inner depths. She also made a now-lost film with Hitchcock called Woman to Woman (1924) and starred in a Hitchcock-written, British-produced film called Dangerous Virtue (1924).

Now, on to more important things: what are our long weekend movie-watching plans? I’ll you one thing: there’s going to have to be one film at the theater (but which one?) and one period drama (I’m thinking that recent Great Expectations with Gillian Anderson). Just as important: here’s hoping that my attempt to reproduce my mother’s stuffing succeeds, and that we have enough butter in the house. More soon, friends.

 

I’ve done a piss-poor job of getting into the Halloween mood this year. Being so busy meant I was left to feel dejected by (and envious of) wonderful blog events like Dark Iris’s 31 Days of Horror, in which she writes about an absolutely terrific set of cheesy/scary films in her erudite and always good-humored voice.

Last night was the first time I had the chance to sit down and watch a scary film — TCM’s showing of the beautiful, weird, and scarily effective The Unknown, a silent starring Lon Chaney and a lovely, round-faced (almost unrecognizable) Joan Crawford. It’s directed by the cult director Tod Browning (most famous for Freaks [1932]).

I’ve said it before: silent films have a capacity to rub up against something primal in our psyches, rendering the best of them truly transfixing. Just take Sunrise (1927) or Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). If you let yourself fall into them — don’t let yourself multi-task or watch ironically — they touch something truly terrifying in us. I’m not exactly sure how this works, but I’m willing to wager that the best directors of the 1920s had smarts about the use of light and cameras that got lost in the shuffle toward sound later on.

The Unknown is a good example. Chaney stars as Alonzo, an armless circus performer whose dexterity with his feet made him a star; when he’s not lighting up cigarettes or holding a teacup with his toes, he uses his feet to throw knives at the luscious Crawford to an appreciative public. Secretly, however, this is all a ruse: an accomplished thief with a record, he binds up his arms in a corset when in public because his hands, which have a distinct deformity, would land him in prison.

At the same time, he loves the gamine Nanon (Crawford), and she displays a distinct affection for him, too. Especially because, as she explains, she’s so tired of having men try to paw her that she has developed a powerful antipathy to men’s hands. The circus’s strongman, Malabar, appears particularly clueless in that regard; his flirtation with her always seems to be going well until he reaches forward and Nanon backs away, horrified and traumatized by all those memories of men trying to get something from her.

No wonder she’s willing to pull herself toward Alonzo. He’s perfect: he has no hands. Which is why his secret is so devastating: he can never be with her and let her know the truth.

Watch the whole thing and tell me if this isn’t fascinating — and oh, that contrast of Chaney’s and Crawford’s faces. This is what the movies are all about.

Beware becoming overly attached to movies you haven’t seen yet. Beware investing too much hope in the idea of those movies; the head space you imagine.

A shot from Les Vampires (1915)

When I was a kid I found a book at the Salvation Army that contained the full script of Casablanca (1942), which I read and re-read for about two years before actually getting the chance to see the film. (Ah, the olden days, when local video stores sucked.) Sometimes I even read them aloud to myself — because, naturally, as a kid I had lots of time to cultivate my eccentric persona.

Having that kind of intensive familiarity with the dialogue made me disappointed by the film — I thought the actors breezed through those great lines too quickly, whereas I had been accustomed to letting the dialogue wash over me with slow, methodical pleasure. Even now I have a hard time with some of the best exchanges between Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Renault (Claude Rains), because that expectation of a different pacing still nags in my memory:

Captain Renault: I’ve often speculated why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me. 
Rick: It was a combination of all three. 

Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep, re-creating scenes from Les Vampires

(Don’t worry: it only took a few more viewings before I fell in love with Casablanca just as it is.)

I should know better. But I still catch myself fantasizing about what a movie might be, long before I’ve seen it. It’s like going back to that 12-yr-old place, in which my imagination turns out to be far more active than that of some filmmakers.

An example: a few years ago I saw Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep (1996), a film-within-a-film tale about a manic, hapless crew filming a remake of Les Vampires (1915). I’d never even heard of that latter title, but my serious disappointment in Assayas’ film made me all the more fixated on the early silent.

Now, I can watch Les Vampires any time I like — it’s streaming on archive.org — but isn’t it true that sometimes we prefer to let the idea of the film percolate in one’s mind for a while?

Sometimes I imagine that if I’m ever given the chance to create a film of my own, it will be a tribute to the films I imagined — the narratives and love stories and fantastic voyages and melodramas I constructed in my fervid imagination, just from those tidbits of trailers or stills I came across. It’ll be about phantoms, as if a mad alchemist decided to create gold from the crazy mixture of that final montage of kissing scenes from Cinema Paradiso, a healthy dose of Guy Maddin’s psycho-sexual funhouse style (see here for JB’s great interview with Maddin), those partially decayed clips from silent film so beautifully laid out in Decasia, Christian Marclay‘s dedication to subtle segues, and perhaps a Pixar screenwriter or two.

Musidora (yes, Musidora) from Les Vampires

Fantomas of movies I haven’t seen. Maybe it’s bound to be disappointing, the way the Choose Your Own Adventure books held out all that promise and, most of the time, showed an even more awful lack of imagination than ordinary novels.

But still, doesn’t it seem appropriate that film should address its own phantoms, its unrealized plots?

 

Making a mental note to stretch out those hamstrings today. After all, I’ve got lots of reading to do.

Welcome to the Hitchcock Blog-a-Thon, designed to raise the funds to stream online three reels of the recently rediscovered 1923 silent movie, The White Shadow, for which a young Alfred Hitchcock served as assistant director, wrote the title cards, edited, designed the sets, decorated the sets, and learned everything he could about how to make a film. You’ve heard me rant about access to film before; now’s your chance to put some money toward universal access. Click here to make a gift of any size toward this effort.

In addition, check out the vast outpouring of Hitchcock blogging at three sites: The Self-Styled Siren, Ferdy On Film, and This Island Rod, each of which has taken a turn as blog-meister during this May 13-18 Hitchfest.

*****

Alfred Hitchcock cast a lot of different women as leads, but oh, his blondes. He left no doubt that each was a spectacularly beautiful specimen. Perfect to a fault yet surprisingly willing to initiate sexual encounters — even aggressive. Deliciously unpredictable (and occasionally malicious) for long stretches until, suddenly, she falls in love with the hero and becomes absolutely trustworthy.

Critics have complained bitterly about these women being portrayed as ice queens, absurd male fantasies — which they most surely are. But come on. Remember Grace Kelly’s first appearance in Rear Window? (See here for a clip.)

She enters the dark apartment as Jeff (James Stewart) naps, and bends down to kiss him. Hitchcock filmed it as if we were the object of her desire: that extreme close-up of her perfect face, coming in straight for us. When Hitch transitions to a side view so we can watch her plant a perfect, luscious kiss on Jeff’s lips, all the neighborhood noise drops away, and the shot is almost perfectly silent. Watch it and tell me if you don’t hold your breath while she kisses him/us.

Tippi Hedren, Madeleine Carroll, Eva Marie Saint, Kim Novak, Grace Kelly — via Hitchcock’s lens, these women are transfixing, spectacular, maddening. One might go so far as to suggest that Hitch helped to cement an abiding ambivalence about blondes into our collective psyches.

Which made me wonder how early he manifested this fascination with blondes — so this blog-a-thon offered the perfect opportunity to scour the Hitchcock back catalogue for some of his earliest films. And thus I found Anny Ondra, a Polish/ Czech/ Hungarian actor who grew up in Prague and whose total English-language career consists of these two 1929 films for Hitch: The Manxman and Blackmail, two films bookended by a long career of European films that stretches almost forty years, concentrated most heavily between 1922 and 1938, when she was between the ages of 19 and 35.

She wasn’t Hitch’s first blonde, but she seems to be his first repeat-offender actress. And with her, the die was cast. At the risk of looking backward from his classic blondes of the 1950s to ask whether Ondra possesses some of the qualities that would become quintessential to the Kellys, Saints, and Hedrens, I nevertheless offer that from the very earliest scenes in these two pictures, we know how untrustworthy her character is, how duplicitous. In fact, we’re reluctant to like her at first.

Except that she’s so flighty and girlish we grow more lenient; we come to see that she knows not what she does.

The more we watch her, the more we need to watch her. These films both utilize what now appears to be a ham-fisted cinematographical technique: frequent shots in which the characters break the fourth wall and face the camera directly — at first as a means of introduction, but later on as a way to pause for emotional effect. Ondra flirts at the camera as she torments her two suitors in The Manxman, an operatic tragedy of a love triangle. Clumsy though this technique might be, we learn a lot about Ondra’s true charms in the process, and we suspect that our own growing softness for her character mirrors Hitchcock’s affection for the actress.

Look at those sweet little butterfly lips, that delicate little chin, that over-permed hair. Those large eyes, that could narrow to slits or widen in horror: in sum, she’s adorable. With all those close-ups of her lovely little face, we’re able to watch her flirt, weigh a decision, worry, or fool a man (transparently). She acts the pants off of all her male co-stars, who are negligible, forgettable figures (except perhaps Carl Brisson as the happy-go-lucky Pete in The Manxman, distinguishable primarily for being a Tom Hiddleston look-alike, albeit without perhaps such a massive forehead).

But therein lies the first major difference between Hitch’s later blondes and Ondra’s appearances for him in 1929: Ondra is truly a girl, utterly lacking the cool, elegant self-possession of his 1950s ice queens. No matter that, at 26, she was a year older than Grace Kelly had been when they filmed Rear Window — Hitchcock wanted women for his later films, whereas in these very early efforts he allows Ondra to charm in a different way. Put her in a room crowded with Manx fishermen, and she glows.

And charm she does. I mentioned above that she’s portrayed early on in each film as a deceiver — the thing is, she ultimately becomes the central protagonist in each film. In The Manxman (the earlier of the two films), she steals the film out from under her male co-stars. As she lives through a marriage to the wrong man, she quickly appears as a foolish yet sympathetic girl whose haste in marrying dooms her to unhappiness. Likewise, in Blackmail she simply wanted to have a nice time with a man who gives her more attention than her boring, busy detective boyfriend — only to find herself in a tight spot indeed.

Blackmail has a simplistic storyline, but the added attraction of being a very early talkie — in fact, it sometimes appears almost as if Hitchcock arranged to dub all the sound onto the film later on. Neither is this purely a guess on my part. Ondra’s voice is entirely dubbed by actress Joan Barry, after the filmmaker determined that her accent would distract from tale.

No matter. Even without hearing her true voice in that film, we have preserved via the ever-magical YouTube this delicious little moment: a sound test for Blackmail, in which Hitchcock and Ondra engage in a delightful little bit of dirty verbal sparring. You can see immediately that Ondra is a charismatic little number — and that Hitch didn’t miss an opportunity to tell a dirty joke, and run his eyes up and down his lead actress:

Now, isn’t that enough reason to donate to the Hitchcock Blog-A-Thon — the possibility of being able to see, at your leisure, a gem like this one online? Please consider making a donation to the NPFF, and visit my colleagues’ sites to enjoy the wide-ranging conversation about the many sides of Alfred Hitchcock!