Category Archives: drama

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Director: D.W. Griffith

Yeah. THAT film. Today marks the centenary of its public debut. The Birth is film history’s version of the elephant in the room in many ways. If you consider yourself a serious film student, you have to watch it at some point, it is unavoidable whether you like it or not, but no one would blame you for being reluctant to do so (and not just because of the considerable time investment). It still raises a stink whenever someone tries to show it, and no wonder. Even Roger Ebert hesitated over it when it came to naming it one of his “great films”, so far lesser lights like myself can probably be excused for doing the same thing.

But it is a film that needs to be recognised for its position within American cinema history, even if you feel like you need to apologise for doing so; it was an attempt to commemorate the Civil War—which had ended not quite 50 years earlier when the film was released and so was a thing still reasonably within living memory, at least for older people at the time of the film—and to rather consciously elevate the feature film to some new level of artistic prestige. It would be unfair to deny that Griffith did a more than fair job of that.

Of course, it’s not always easy to appreciate the Birth for its historical importance; it’s one of those films where you need to have some context. And that was pretty much what I got when I last saw it back in 1999, as part of David Stratton’s Continuing Education course in film history… in that class we spent the first four classes looking at the earliest films, one-reelers and even shorter films up to 1914 (if I recall rightly, the third class was given over to a selection of Griffith’s Biograph shorts), and then the fifth one was devoted entirely to the Birth. It was staggering. For probably the first time—and I had seen it a few times before that—I kind of understood what an impact it must’ve had in 1915; imagine being an American filmgoer at that time, used mainly to the shorter films and early features of the period up to 1915, then WHAM here comes three hours of war epic and paranoid racist fantasy. Must’ve felt like a bomb going off in the industry especially.

Of course, that paranoid racist fantasy is the other stumbling block to appreciating the Birth these days. Even more so, I dare say, than the context issue. And even at the time it appalled people—not just the NAACP, too—for being a glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, a long-since dead in the water mob when the film came out but whose fortunes were revived by the Birth. Griffith did himself no favours, either, by not really getting why people were upset by it, and the filmed preview he shot for a 1930 reissue in which he claimed the Klan had been a necessary force post-war didn’t help either. Even Thomas Dixon, the racist moonbat whose novel The Clansman and the play derived therefrom were turned into the film’s second half, had enough sense to repudiate the revived Klan in the 1920s when Griffith was delighted to exhibit the thing in Klan-heavy territories.

The Birth is a big film; apart from its three-hour running time, it’s just so determined to be the ultimate example of the sort of thing it is. Griffith had ambitions for this film and made no bones about them, those ambitions are all there on the screen. Indeed, rewatching it tonight and actually looking at the depth of some of the images, the actual amount of space the battle scenes contain within the frame, made me realise just how much is going on in the film at those times (when you can see it through the often unfortunately strong red tint applied to the Kino DVD print in these scenes); Griffith covers a lot of ground quite literally. The whole film is a grand gesture and monument. I think it’s fair to consider it a great film, and certainly the first half of the film—i.e. the character establishing and the actual Civil War action—offers few issues other than a few outbursts of Griffithian sentiment (“the opal gates of death”, anyone?). It’s so nicely played, and Griffith’s performers are eminently charming, and however heavy-handed some of the emotion is, some of it (like Henry B. Walthall’s homecoming after the war) is really quite powerful.

It’s just… the second half.

Being a southerner himself, and therefore from the losing side in the war, Griffith’s sympathies were obviously going to lie that way, and the film’s heroic presentation of the Klan can obviously be seen as a kind of revenge fantasy (“think y’all Yankees can take our niggers away from us? We’ll show YOU! Git off ma lawn now, I got a cross to burn there…”); the fact that most of the black characters in the film are actually whites in blackface of a kind that occasionally makes Al Jolson look understated is just icing on the cake (topped only by the scene near the end where a couple of blacks actually turn out to be whites in black “disguise”). But even in my much less racially sensitive youth when I first saw the film, I still knew there was something weird and nasty going on there. Given how much of part one is based on the detailed historical research—right down to Joe Henabery recreating the rather particular way Lincoln sat in a chair—that the intertitles sometimes cite outright, this bizarre fantasia of the darkies getting out of hand and forcing the eminently superior white man to put on a hood and robe to bring them back into line is just… I don’t know. It’s like the negrophobe Andrew Johnson wasn’t actually the president or something. And part two is as well made as part one—the climactic Klan ride to the rescue is kind of awe-inspiring—it’s a perfectly good piece of filmmaking… if only the content didn’t overshadow whatever other merits it has. And if only it didn’t overshadow the whole first half of the film.

Ultimately that’s the film’s dilemma. Ever since 1915, it’s been the second half of the film that’s really caused the stink. It makes me wonder, had the film never included the Clansman material, had it just been the war drama of the first part, how would it have been received then? How would we receive it now? I mean, there’s dubious bits in the first part, but nothing like the second half. Would the film have got people so worked up back then without the “KKK ra ra ra” stuff? Would we care about it now? Would the film even exist now? Plenty of big hits of that period have fallen by the nitrate wayside over the decades… The converse question, of course: would we care about the racism were the film not as well made as it is? If it were, say, on the order of a bad anti-communist propaganda film a la Ron Ormond, we could probably just dismiss it as an unpleasant curiosity at best, too shoddy to actually get worked up about.

The fact that we still do suggests something about the film we may not like to admit, i.e. that it actually must be a great film if its perniciousness still rouses fervour in us, and that we can’t just dismiss it as easily as we might like. To quote Ebert, “it is a great film that argues for evil”, which is an awfully hard thing to swallow; on rewatching tonight, I feel about as far away from resolving that contradiction as ever. Still, I’m sure it’ll outlast me, and though people may get worked up about things like American Sniper (which seems to be the stink du jour) now, I doubt anyone will really care about that in a hundred years time in the way people still care a hundred years after the Birth‘s first release. Or the way I suspect they will still care about it in 2115…

The End of the World (1916)

Director: August Blom

This month, the challenge theme at the ICheckMovies forum is silent cinema, so obviously there’s going to be a batch of that featured here in February (can’t pass it up). However, I’m not entirely finished with the SF/fantasy theme yet, as will be evident from the next few reviews… We start with something of a bang, accordingly. As far as I can tell, this is probably the earliest apocalyptic SF film, revolving around a comet poised to strike the Earth, and though Denmark gave us Lars von Troll’s Melancholia a few years ago, I wonder how many people know it also gave us this thing nearly a century earlier… long before the US could offer the efforts of Bruce Willis to stop the catastrophe, which means yeah, the big glowing space thing does in fact hit. Actually, the film is mostly a bit of a romantic melodrama involving a venal capitalist who owns a mining town, steals the girlfriend of one of the miners to be his wife, and, when news comes of this comet thing, plans to come out on top of things after its arrival. Curious film in some ways, even in 1916 it must’ve seemed a bit… old in its cinematic technique (stiff tableau staging and all that); but the subject matter (which seems to have been inspired by the then-recent fuss over Halley’s Comet in 1910) must’ve been something new at the time (not to mention singularly cheerless, given the conflict still raging in Europe at the time; I know Denmark was neutral in WW1 but even so). And, when the comet does start to hit, it does so with surprising force given the limitations of budget and technology 100 years ago; and though Blom does give us an approximately happy ending (the film’s other nice romantic couple survive, though there’s still strangely little sense that things will be OK somehow), I will admit to being a bit taken aback by his commitment to the carnage. It’s probably a flawed film in various ways from a modern perspective, but let’s give it the honour of its historical position, and thank it for being half the length of Melancholia

Three Colours: Red (1994)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Yeah, I kind of get what Ebert meant when he described this as an “anti-romance”. Red is about as heavy-handed as Blue and White, possibly even more so when it comes to the colour work; each film is full of things that are the colour in each title—blue pool lighting, big fields of snow, etc—and Red seems to be even more overtly full of “red business” than the other two films are of their respective colours. That said, I also felt Red possesses a degree of emotional warmth and resonance neither of the other two films particularly radiated, so that, whatever its issues, this is the one film in the trilogy I actually probably could watch again one day without undue distress. If Blue was about a woman on her own and White about a man on his own, both forcibly separated from their other halves, Red is about a man and a woman on their own but coming together. She’s a student and model who discovers him after she accidentally runs down his runaway dog; he’s a retired judge who spends his time spying on the telephone calls of the people who live near him (including hers). Not the most promising ground from which to grow a friendship, but that’s what happens, sure enough, as the two of them come to more of an understanding about each other; she brings him out of his shell of loneliness and bitterness and gradually comes to learn why he retreated into it in the first place. All played in lovely fashion by Irene Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant. I wish the other two films could’ve been more like this. The storm ending is a bit more melodramatic than anything in the trilogy and kind of out of place, and Red still suffers the problem the other two films do of having stories that could each have been told in about an hour without losing much, but I still got more from this than I did either of the other two films, and given my experiences of those I frankly wasn’t expecting that.

Three Colours: White (1994)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Never did work out why this was never in the 1001 Movies book with the other two. Ebert characterised Blue, White and Red as anti-tragedy, anti-comedy and anti-romance. I can kind of see what he meant about the anti-tragedy and I’ll be able to judge the anti-romance when I see that one, but what about the anti-comedy? What is an anti-comedy? A comedy that’s not funny? That sort of thing doesn’t take an arthouse master… Anyway, our “hero”, Karol, is a somewhat more immediately appealing figure than Julie in Blue; his wife, Dominique, has dumped his sorry Polish arse in a fairly bitter divorce, and, left homeless, he encounters another Polish man who contrives to get him back to Poland, where, over time, he re-establishes himself and, having done so, sets about taking his revenge on Julie by faking his death and framing her for his murder. OH MY ACHING SIDES! Yes, this is comedy in only a fairly nominal sense as most people would probably understand it; I think the only actual laugh-out-loud moment I had with it was the scene where the airport baggage handlers nick the suitcase he’s been concealed in and find him inside. And even that was more of a mild chuckle than a proper LOL. (Do you have any idea how much I hate myself for typing those three letters in a non-ironic manner like I just did?) I’ve seen the word “droll” used to describe White, and it’s probably the best descriptor of its rather particular humour, more funny peculiar (as the scene just described may indicate) than funny ha-ha, and possessing a distinct undercurrent of unpleasant sourness. I liked it better than Blue, which is not to say that I actually particularly liked it per se; it’s not as dull as Blue, but I did still find it about as cold and not much more engaging.

Three Colours: Blue (1993)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

I’ve always been a bit of a “Three Colours” sceptic, despite only having seen this, the first part of it. Just something about the idea of it, I don’t know… cos Kieslowski evidently knew he would retire after making it (as he did, though I don’t think his death just a couple of years later was expected in quite the same way), and so it was obviously designed as a summation and Defining Artistic Statement (capitals used advisedly). Therefore it had to be Big, and Serious, and stuff like that. A rather deliberate and self-conscious monument. And, frankly, I wasn’t convinced, especially after I actually saw Blue; I missed it at the cinema and saw it later on video, but I obviously knew at the time, even when it was brand new, that it came bearing a vast reputation as this sort of epic pinnacle of early-to-mid-90s European Art Cinema. It was French and it was a Trilogy and you had to love it if you were a Serious Film Lover. And I didn’t. It actually rather bored me, and I never did bother with the other two films, although I’m remedying that now. In between times, I did also see L’enfer, directed by Danis Tanovic but written by Kieslowski (who seems to have left behind a number of scripts for other people to film once he’d retired), and I kind of hated that; it gave me the impression of Kieslowski having decided there was a certain formula to European Art Cinema, that there were certain things it should be about and do. This formula evidently included a certain quantity of ponderous self-serious wank, a good deal of which found its way into L’enfer and made me reluctant to explore Kieslowski further.

Still, you know me and my unfortunate tendency to think “I really need to give so-and-so a second chance in case I misjudged them when I was younger”, which is partly what’s driving me now to give the rest of the Three Colours trilogy a chance at last. Which, obviously, meant revisiting Blue first. And, well, it still bored me to tears all these years later. There’s one IMDB review that acknowledges the lead character, Julie, is pretty impenetrable, trying to cut herself off from everything in her grief, and so comes across as hard to like or connect with, but the film’s rather remote approach is actually more respectful of the audience because it’s not trying to manipulate us. I can kind of see what they mean but I don’t buy it; I think that in trying to depict what that IMDB reviewer calls “emotional frigidity”, the film itself just becomes emotionally frigid, and I don’t think there was ever a point at which I actually did give a damn about Julie’s grief. I don’t know, to be honest, if I was even supposed to; I don’t think I ever felt Kieslowski giving me much to work with. And I found the music hideously overbearing, which is a fairly major problem in a film that is, in some part, about that very music. Not an auspicious start to the trilogy for me at least; I’m sure I’ve seen it said somewhere that Blue is actually the comparatively weak link and the other two are better, and, well, I dearly hope that’s the case…

The Room (2003)

Director: Tommy Wiseau

So the challenge theme at the ICheckMovies forum this month was “cult/drive-in/grindhouse”, which, it must be said, is a large part of what’s finally drawn me back into blogging after the quietude of the first five months of the year, and that’s why I’ve been making my way through a bunch of older films on the Drive-In Delirium list. Tonight, though, I decided it was time to go a bit more contemporary and take on what is arguably the cult film of the 21st century so far… The Room has attracted a reputation for spectacular awfulness, and the first thing that needs to be said about it is that this reputation is WHOLLY deserved. I have a vague taxonomy of bad films, whereby the REAL “worst films ever made” aren’t the cheap and cheerful genre (usually SF/horror) films made by people without resources and/or experience; it’s the serious, straight dramas made by people who do know what they’re doing and who you’d expect to know better, but that are so flawed in some fundamental way that their aspirations to serious art just implode. Admittedly, this film doesn’t quite fall into the latter category, in that by all accounts Wiseau had not a fucking clue about what he was doing, but he did seem to be trying to make some sort of serious statement anyway. At least, that’s what everyone else in the film says; ever since the film started to be hailed as an unintentional comedy classic, Wiseau’s said he was trying to make a consciously idiotic black comedy, but I don’t think anyone really believes him.

Personally, I dread to think of the amount of alcohol I’d need to consume to enjoy The Room on that level; I just found it utterly abysmal rather than “so bad it’s good” (which, as I’ve said before, is a critical formulation I normally abhor but there are some films whose sheer awfulness does make them entertaining to watch). At the broadest level, the story (boy loves girl and is going to marry her, girl no longer loves boy and starts to fall for boy’s best friend instead) is not terribly original but still OK, but the execution of same… the writing is shit (although some of the lines achieve a kind of transcendence in their stupidity), the music is shit (particularly those godawful R&B slow jams over the numerous sex scenes), the acting is unspeakable (Wiseau is probably the worst offender—he is genuinely stunning—but Carolyn Minnott as the girlfriend’s mother is not far behind), to say nothing of the film’s many and varied narrative problems (unexplained subplots and other things that don’t make sense), technical problems (the infamous green-screen exteriors), and other behind-the-scenes issues making their mark as well. It’s just woeful in pretty much every respect. Wiseau’s co-star Greg Sestero has since written his own book about the whole baffling experience, which has itself been optioned for a film which I imagine will have to be better than this atrocity; as I said, it undeniably lives up to its shit reputation, but that didn’t make it watchable…

Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? (1932)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

The first notable difference between this film and the others in this set is that the print quality is quite stunning; it makes you lament that the surviving prints of the other films are so rough by comparison. Second difference: this time I could actually identify Chishu Ryu in it. He’s in the others but only in very small parts; here he actually had a featured character. JESUS CHRIST, I thought he was young-looking in Ornamental Hairpin nine years after this; I actually would barely have recognised him here if I couldn’t have pinned the specific character on him. I said of that film that it could be the dictionary definition of “bittersweet”, and Dreams of Youth is only even more so. That’s the third notable difference: it’s a lot darker than the other films in the set. It starts out with a similar degree of levity, the group of college chums scamming their way through school and exams and so forth; but when one, Tetsuo, gets word of his father’s illness and has to assume control of his company, things change between all of them… especially when the economic crisis bites and the other three ask Tetsuo for work. The old relationships are complicated thereby, especially once romance with the girl Tetsuo fancied back then rears its head. Although there’s still humour in the later parts of the film (the deputy director, Tetsuo’s uncle, curses him for frustrating his efforts to pair him off to another girl five times, Tetsuo tells him it’s actually been six times), the general tone is more serious, culminating in a climactic confrontation that I don’t think has any parallel in Ozu’s other work (not that I remember); Tetsuo laments the way their old friendship is no longer, and perhaps can never again be, what it used to be, and it’s a kind of violent lament. Definite and clear resonances of the later Ozu in this one; powerful, emotive stuff.

The Manxman (1929)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

The second feature in Madman’s silent Hitchcock double bill; buggered if I know why it’s taken me two years to see it after I watched the first one, but there you go… Anyway, Hitchcock himself was pretty down on this, his last silent film (I know Blackmail technically counts as that, but never mind), dismissing it as “banal” and not a “Hitchcock film”. And both of those statements arguably have some truth to them; the plot essentially boils down to a love triangle melodrama of a not terribly Hitchcockian sort. Mind you, at that point Hitchcock had yet to really become “Hitchcock”, if you know what I mean, in any case; either way The Manxman is still better than he’d admit. The three points of the triangle are Pete the fisherman, Philip the magistrate’s son, and Kate the innkeeper’s daughter, the woman they both love. Kate’s father thinks Pete the poor fisherman is too poor a catch for his daughter, while Philip’s mother thinks Kate’s unfit for her son who’s going to follow the family trade. Anyway, Pete sets off to make his fortune in Africa and is later reported dead, which would seem to clear the way for Philip and Kate whether or not his mum objects… except that Pete isn’t dead, and complications obviously ensue. If you think this sounds like it’ll end badly, you’d be right; I was impressed by Hitchcock’s refusal to cave in with an even remotely happy ending. The basic niceness of the cast only makes it worse somehow; Carl Brisson is particularly charming as Pete, and I was amazed to find his career (which had barely started by then; he also starred in The Ring for Hitchcock) was pretty much over within a couple of years. He was Danish, so I wonder if his accent was a problem in the early days of British sound films (his co-star here, Anny Ondra, would be famously problematic for that reason on Hitchcock’s next film, Blackmail). The scenery on show might be Cornish rather than Manx, but it’s beautifully photographed either way, and the whole film is generally nicely turned out, demonstrating that Hitchcock had a pretty solid technique for silent films even if he was meh about this one in particular. No masterpiece but still pretty good.

Gribiche (1926)

Director: Jacques Feyder

I did something with Gribiche I almost never do while watching a film: I fast-forwarded through some of it. Not proud of myself for that, but I had to do something to make it a bit shorter. Anyway, by 1926 Albatros had lost quite a lot of their existing talent to other studios like the other Russian mob at Billancourt, so chief Alexander Kamenka took a plunge on rising Belgian director Jacques Feyder. Despite the latter already having accrued a reputation for budget blowouts, Kamenka reined him in and the end product seems to have been a box office success at the time… it just singularly failed to connect with me tonight for some reason. Gribiche is a young lad of impoverished background, who does a good deed when he returns a lost purse to its owner, a rich widow who repays the favour by adopting him from his own widowed mother (thus also allowing her to remarry, to a man who doesn’t want a stepson) to give him a chance at life, education, being the sort of well-meaning upper class bore she is, etc. Needless to say, the boy’s natural youthful working-class high spirits don’t react well to the new regime… Now, this central plot idea is not an inherently bad one, I’ve read one other review earlier this evening comparing it to screwball comedy, and played as such it could be quite amusing. Instead, however, Feyder plays it for sentiment; as the film progresses it starts to become obvious that the rich woman has adopted the boy more for her sake than his own, and she’s the one who ultimately receives the education. If you’re into thickly laid-on morals, you’ll probably dig this; what I got most out of from the film was Lazare Meerson’s production design, which is great. Look, it’s nice, the performances are good and all that, and I’m perfectly willing to concede I may just have been in the wrong mood for this sort of thing tonight. Did nothing much for me either way.

The Late Mathias Pascal (1926)

Director: Marcel L’Herbier

I have a tendency to talk about what I call the narrative economy of older films, their ability to do a lot of stuff in a (usually) relatively short time span. This is not an example of that tendency, sprawling as it does over nearly three hours to tell a story that could probably have been told in about half that time (Rosenbaum, in this old review of the film—which he apparently likes more now than he did back in the mid-70s, is crueller, describing the source novel as a 300 page “anecdote” that could’ve been told in ten). Another thing it isn’t, whatever IMDB might say, is a horror film; one kind of hallucination and a séance do not add up to horror! I can only assume whoever entered it into the database saw it was called The Living Dead Man in America and decided it must have zombies or something. Um… no. Our “living dead man” is of an entirely different order. Mathias is a young man living an unenviable life; screwed out of an inheritance, married to a woman whose ghastly mother lives with them and turns her against her husband, stuck with a crap library job that mainly involves trying to kill rats. Family tragedy strikes, Mathias goes to Monte Carlo to get away from it all and miraculously wins a shitload of money. Learning that his death has been wrongly reported in his home town, he realises he’s got a golden chance to start afresh. But is “death” everything he thinks it’s cracked up to be? As I said, it take an awfully long time to tell a not terribly complicated story, and it might be telling that a remake a decade later only ran 90-odd minutes instead of 170. Mind you, I rarely felt it dragging as such, curiously—L’Herbier’s pace is stately but doesn’t feel protracted somehow—and Mosjoukine’s central performance is a solid, compelling anchor for these tragicomic shenanigans, particularly in the second half (which I thought was actually more interesting than the first). This was, in fact, Ivan’s last film for Albatros before heading off to another Russian emigre studio at Billancourt where Abel Gance was working on a little film called Napoleon (though he wound up making the latter without Moz). I enjoyed this more than I initially thought I was going to. Still not convinced it really needed to be 170 minutes long, though.

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