Friday, August 7, 2009

Writing the City

(This is coming a bit late, but I'm happy to have the extra time... I didn't even get the film until late in July, and am glad to have a chance to work something up about it...)



One of the things that struck me about Hands Over the City was the number of representations of the city that appear. So much of the film is structured around ways of describing the city. We see Nottola's model (above) - we see several maps - we see his office, with a map painting on one wall, huge photos of the city on other walls, as well as windows looking at the city, and the model itself. But the city is represented by more than just images - there are words and numbers about the city, reports, statistics. The archive room is as much a representation of the city as the maps are.



But none of these representations are adequate - they are often quite flawed. The episode discussing the common wall of the house that collapsed is a case in point: the officials explain that they had no way of knowing - the scale of the map would make a meter thick wall 1/2mm wide line - their pens have 1 mm nibs - they can't represent the real width with their tools. It's a common theme - the reports are all accurate, in their way - but all miss things. You see the various officials making excuses and avoiding responsibilities - but their information, their maps, records, etc., are all equally ambiguous. The representations of the city tend to hide it as much as reveal it. Da Vita gets at this, with his all too apt metaphor - everything was by the book, but the book needs to be rewritten...



While most of this misreading and ambiguity is unintentional, Nottola emerges as a character who can exert willing control over things. He is determined and focused, he knows what he wants. And he sees - and he promises a view of the bay to everyone.. He can imagine it, and represent it - hreates the big model - his office is lined with maps and pictures. He is a visionary - he imagines the city as it will become, he sees it when it is not there. He will build it - but before he builds it, he imagines it, he is, rather literally, a writer of the city:



Now it is true, he is as apt to see the profits he can get as the biuldings he can build - he still falls into that class of ambiguous villains, the 20th century developer. There was a nice piece in the New York Times about a new book about Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, her campaign to stop him from bulldozing Greenwich Village for a superhighway, or driving an interstate through Washington Square Park. Nottola is in the same vein as Moses - more of a crook, maybe, but still, someone trying to realize a vision of a city - though a vision that usually forgets about the people living there. Or reduce them to lists of names...



Anyway - it's a good film about a pretty substantial part of 20th century social history - the reinvention of cities. A process still going on - there are echoes of this film in recent films about urban renewal - Pedro Costa's In Vanda's Room and Colossal Youth, or Jose Luis Guerin's Under Construction - complete with the tour of the new buildings - handsome, safe, boring, and priced out of reach of the people who are being displaced...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Crashing Walls and Broken Politics in Rosi's Hands Over the City


"You know what the true sin is? Losing."

Francisco Rosi's Hands Over the City compels the viewer to witness multiple layers of political compromise by creating a mosaic of inevitability. From the very first long shot of the converging city, we get the sense Naples is constructed of surface-level promises, hollow walls, and slick facades. Rosi wants to reveal what's hidden underneath, behind, or beyond the surface, the bottom line of possibility and progress. It's a film of great focus, almost too much so that we sometimes forget about the everyday man and woman hurt the most by the corruption. But Rosi constantly reminds how our surroundings can represent true intentions, both the morally corrupt and the honest, specifically the manmade and natural walls engulfing each dynamic moment in the film.

As Chris stated in his introduction, Rosi's "characters are important only to the extent they represent political positions and power", however each contains a professional/emotional duty complicating their role as a politician. Nottola and his scheming speculations show a self-righteous, arrogant businessman manipulating the political machine to make money. But his posturing about power and role as a councilman mask an infantile desire to build, to construct something large for the entire city to see and admire. De Vita is an engineer first and a leftist second, so his primary concerns are with the buildings themselves - the intricacies and fallacies of these structures and how they will affect they everyday working man. Finally, the Doctor, who not ironically is a centrist, gets torn, abused, and pushed from one side to the next, ultimately siding with his moral authority as a physician to fight Nottola. But each of these characters becomes defined not by their actions or reactions, but by the spaces Rosi creates for them.

Hands Over the City uses walls and textures unlike any film I've seen, paralleling character to mise-en-scene to provide a window into how and why the film is so political. Rosi begins this motif during the opening sequence as he tracks the morning transgressions of a local neighborhood, highlighting a construction site and the pummeling sound of a pile-driver. As two men attempt to get breakfast, a gigantic piece of concrete falls into frame, leading to a series of collapses bringing down an entire building. For the everyday person, identity and hope become crushed by the fabricated walls built by their politicians. Nottola's office on the other hand is crisply wallpapered with an intricate map of the city, covering his walls with a sense of detail and preciseness high atop the city. Later, we see his likeness plastered on the walls outside, like an infection spreading undeterred. Also, every politician's house contains wall to wall paintings, a suffocating indication of wealth, as if these are the only witnesses to the shady dealings occurring before them. In the city council chamber, the walls are cold stone, simple, undeterred. Rosi still sees temporary hope in this space, where Democracy can blossom into something more than a springboard for greed. Later, Rosi uses archival footage during the election rally to show walls of people, angry, passionate, motivated, but hood-winked, a documentary element ripe for consideration. Finally, the outside space of the development project provides a disturbing finale to the film, where so much possibility should grow strong, but in truth more of the same politicking will fester, turning the ground into swiss cheese.

Of course, there are countless more spots in the film where space defines the message and mood of the film, and I'm eager to see if anyone has any thoughts on this motif. Also, Rosi's use of pans, tilts, and zooms could inspire an entirely different thought-process on the film, but one still linked to the issue of space.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

July's Film: Hands Over the City

For this month's film, I wanted to select one I had not seen before but from a director whose work fascinates me. Hands Over the City (1963) is Francesco Rosi's follow-up feature to his debut Salvatore Giuliano, about the Sicilian independence movement. Hands Over the City keeps the focus on the politics of Southern Italy; in this case the narrative revolves around real-estate speculation in Naples and the problem of political corruption.

To call it a narrative, though needs qualification. For starters, Rosi mixes fiction and documentary, less so here than in Salvatore Giuliano, but the project of the film seems at times closer to what we are used to documentary films doing than fiction films. There are at least two ongoing complaints about Hollywood's politics: 1) it reduces all political problems to personal problems; and 2) it uses politics as McGuffin, a narrative hook that is quickly discarded. Hands Over the City is the polar opposite. Characters are important only to the extent they represent political positions or power. Political deliberation is shown unfolding without the normal emotional catharsis we might expect. It's not a difficult film like Straub/Huillet or even a latter Godard film, but it's a different kind of difficult: the detailed and detached approach can overwhelm a novice or casual viewer. Conversely, multiple viewings can be rewarding.

Some questions I have for Film Clubbers:

Hands Over the City is pretty clearly a political film, but I'm wondering how? With whom do with sympathize and how? My gut feeling is that we sympathize differently than in other political films, but I'm still not sure how this works.

What of Rosi's style? It's often considered as part of a realist vein in 60s Italian cinema. What does it share with other art films from the period? What's distinctive?

The Oxford Guide to World Cinema characterizes Rosi's work as "rationalist." Is that a fair assessment, and if so, how does this play out? What is the relationship between Rosi's work and other intellectual, politicized cinema?

These are hardly exhaustive questions, but they speak to my interests in selecting the film. I'm looking forward to see what discoveries others have in the film.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

An Illustrative Film

I don't think it's too much a stretch that documentary studies - and documentary as a general community ideal - has been preoccupied with two questions: the problem of power (i.e. ethics) and the problem of truth. ...No Lies has found such a central place in the academic film canon because it so succinctly and slyly dramatizes these concerns. My only surprise is that it has taken a while for its reputation to grow: it's been taught at Temple University perennially, but I get the feeling that a renewed vogue for reflexive pseudodocumentaries (non-comedic mockumentaries) has given the film a new exposure.

The ethics and reality-effect critiques are front and center, but what interests me is another film theory problem: spectatorship. Of course there are more than two models of spectatorship, but there is one major split in theoretical understanding of narration. One line of film theory tends to think that the positioning of the viewer with the camera's gaze is the main determinant of meaning and even a film's politics. ...No Lies seems to draw from this theory, by suggesting what Peter referred to as the "rape" of the camera in the film, namely that documentary involves not only an unequal relation between maker and social actor but viewer and social actor. Voyeurs, we are all complicit in the grilling the main character receives from the cameraman.

Another line of theory stresses that the emotions, meaning, and politics of a film relies more on intangibles or nonmechanistic ways of communication. Nick Browne's reading of Stagecoach, for instance, argues that the viewer's sympathy is with the person looked at rather than the agency of looking, as spectatorship theory would have it. In ...No Lies, too, the emotional impact comes from our discomfort in seeing the protagonist treated the way she is. The tight framing, the emotions she registers, and the uninterrupted take all contribute to and draw upon conventions of discomfort.

The reflexivity of the film in fact relies on the gap between these two. If viewer-positioning of the camera did not matter at all, the film would have no thematic impact; it would be merely a personal drama rather than a theoretical commentary. If there was no way to subvert the normal viewer-positioning through emotional means, the critique would not be clear. We would merely be implicated in the camera's "rape," not aware of it.

Monday, June 29, 2009

"O.K. babes, You're in the Movies"

The Evolution of a Performance

No Lies is that odd film that has almost as much going on outside the frame as it does inside it. And although this certainly makes Mr. Block’s film unique, especially for its time, it concerns me that focusing on the “trick” this film seems to pull off with the audience, takes attention away from discovering just how exceptional a performance this is by Shelby Leverington.

Because I am so absolutely obsessed with her performance, I feared having access to the rehearsal tapes might change my views on the work. It did in a way, but, oddly enough, for the better.


I found it very curious to see that the basic change in beats (to use an acting term), which sort of change with each room they enter, were established from at least the first filmed rehearsal. I guess that is not a big surprise; even the loosest improve still has to have some structure to follow. But, now I can appreciate how smooth and flowing Shelby and Alec followed each other (from room to room and emotion to emotion) all the while adhering to “the woman’s” motivation to get to her movie, despite the rough and rugged emotional terrain they travel through before she exits the door.

This flow and adherence to her character’s objective (simply to leave and go to the movie) is really what helps make …no lies seem real. In real life, isn’t it so true that these little things like keeping a date with friends, seems to be of so much more importance than finishing an insanely emotional and impacting conversation with someone, one that can literally change your very psyche. Shelby’s character HAS TO go to the movie. (As an almost related aside, one of my earliest memories of television is of Three’s Company. I couldn’t get past the fact that characters would come into the apartment and NOT close the door. It bothered me to no end and completely shattered my suspension of disbelief.)

In the first filmed rehearsal, she recounts the rape incident, at times, with something just short of delight, at one point calling herself an “exposed rape-ee” with a smile and a laugh. It’s really not until “the cameraman” asks point blank “It didn’t turn you on to be raped?” that she lets the joking go completely. Alec wouldn’t dare ask this question in the final version (although he comes close) because Shelby’s tone is not nearly as light at any moment in the final film. She makes light of things, but there is a deep pain present, even in these moments; her smiles are a defense mechanism then, a way that allows her to reveal this stuff with the camera on her. To me it is so interesting to see this actress get to that point, step by step.


Mr. Block tells us that Shelby viewed something called The Rape Tape, which comprised of woman telling the stories of their victimizations, both by rapists and sometimes by the people that were supposed to help them following the rape. With these various details, she was able to develop a composite and apply it to her character. And through her training in “method” work, she was able to link herself to these details and find the emotional connection that made it so powerful and real and create, as Glenn said, “something harrowing we can't quite put our fingers on”. One of these details, which she implements in the filmed rehearsals, but not in the final version, is about her condition just following the rape, attempting to walk up the stairs and being “reduced to the physicality of an old woman, I couldn’t walk more than one step at a time”; a powerful image, and perhaps one that would have added more power to the final piece, but, for whatever reason, was left out.

The most interesting difference between the second taped rehearsal and the final film (which are much closer to each other than the first and second taped rehearsals), is the choice Leverington makes to tell most of her rape story from the bed rather than, in the filmed version, from the chair. The difference is, in my thinking, astronomical. The movement she makes to the bed seems deliberate and does not work in her character’s underling objective, which is to leave and go to the movie. If Shelby thought this movement to the bed was needed in order for the viewer to realize that her character was in a different “place” than when she was putting the makeup on, it is such a relief to see that all the reveal of change that is needed is accomplished, in the film version, simply by her turning around and looking directly at Alec (and us) for the first time in the film. It would be interesting to find out if this was an adjustment made by Mr. Block or if Leverington herself had the instinct to make that choice. I really feel like it would be a much less successful film if this seemingly tiny choice was different.


Glenn calls this performance a “master class of method acting”. Obviously I agree. But I would go even further to say that, just because its viewership is not on par with other great film works, it doesn’t mean that this performance shouldn’t be appreciated as one of the most successful ever put on film. Not simply because this woman happens to pull off something that seems real, and not even simply because she achieves a certain undeniable emotional power in this work, but because a phenomenal truth is reached. Marc asks “Is this the truth of simply never taking cinema verite for granted? Or, more radically, any notion of any single truth?” I can’t put my finger on it. But maybe the answer lies in what weepingsam said: “It retains its power even after you know all the facts - but it makes you think about what it means to talk about fiction telling the truth...” Or maybe it’s the voices of the unheard, speaking through Ms. Leverington; the composite - alive…forever.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

...no lies Rehearsal Tapes

Mitchell Block has given us the great privilege of access into the process of creating ...no lies. Here are two recordings of rehearsals, the first one held at the directors home and the second on the set of the film. Fascinating viewing for anyone interested in how this incredible performance was developed.

Rehearsal Tape 1

Rehearsal Tape 2

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Your Eyes Never Lie: Wells of Subtext in '...no lies'

As per Peter's advice, I read nothing about Mitchell W. Block's short film ...no lies before viewing it, and I too initially thought it was non-fiction.  I wonder how anyone going into this film cold would doubt its validity as real life? ...no lies creates such a strong, improvisational candor through its subject that the viewer feels as if they are witnessing something they shouldn't, watching as a woman delves into a dark place she swore never to visit again.  Waves of emotion rush forward through the eyes of the Woman (played by Shelby Leverington in a master-class of method acting), dancing with the camera back and forth as if looking for some sort of lifeline. Does she find it? A troubling question, and this push pull relationship makes ...no lies a fascinating experience.

At the beginning of ...no lies, the Cameraman films the The Woman preparing for a date, gazing at her in the mirror as she puts on makeup. The Woman's eyes focus on the task at hand, avoiding the gaze of the camera, even going so far as to say how uncomfortable the mechanism makes her feel. Then The Woman moves into her bedroom and the camera follows, as if calmly pestering her in the way a seasoned paparazzi would a tenured movie-starlet. She puts on earrings, tells of an uncomfortable meeting with her mother, and still avoids the camera, which films her via another larger mirror. When the woman tells the Cameraman about the rape, her tone stays the same, casually laughing and making light of the situation as if giving in to the pressure of the camera, possibly hoping it will now leave her alone. But of course, this confession only ups the ante, and the Cameraman keeps pushing the Woman into various stages of revelation and fear. During this progression, her eyes gradually begin to latch onto the camera, forcing the viewer to listen as the details of her experience unfold. By tracking the eyes of the Woman, we get a sense of the devastation deeply rooted inside. It's no surprise the film ends on a close-up of the her eyes, tracks of tears ruining the makeup on her face, imbedded seemingly forever. 

Throughout ...no lies, Block uses multiple long takes to situate the performance in a familiar reality, forcing the viewer to assume some sort of realism is being represented. But the impact comes from how Leverington's eyes avoid this relationship between form and function, deconstructing the idea that everything the camera sees is undeniable and tangible. Her eyes create a performance outside of the film's scope, something that reaches far beyond that apartment, into a subtext that tells a disturbing truth about our own expectation, something harrowing we can't quite put our fingers on.  

- Thanks to Peter and Mr. Block for allowing us to discuss this film.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

"Ask me no questions..."

(an interview with Mitchell W. Block)

Mitchell W. Block's short bio on his blog (found HERE) doesn't mention the work that brings him to the Film of the Month Club, "...no lies". He's had a long successful career as a Distributor and Producer of hundreds of films and is the President of Direct Cinema Limited. But don't think he's forgotten about his film school gem.

I reached Mr. Block, via telephone, in his Santa Monica office.

Peter Rinaldi: What was your reaction when you heard that I wanted "…no lies" to be the film of the month?

Mitchell W. Block: I thought it was a great idea. It was perfect timing because I’ve been trying to find ways to put my films up so people could see them.

What was your reaction when it got into the National Film Registry?

Well, it had been up before, so I was pleased when it finally made it past the bureaucracy.

When in the course of this film’s life did it start to be used as a public service tool?

Immediately.

Did you ever expect that to happen?

No. Because I was, like most film students, in a program, like virtually all programs, which never talks about how a film is used, or how films make money. You make films without regard to audience or market. When the film came out, a number of very smart film distributors said “This is a classroom film that can be used for training.”

That’s really ironic considering, and I don’t want to make any assumptions here, but I am assuming you made it with the intention to kind of throw the audience off once they realize it was not real.

No.

No?

No, I had to make a movie to get an MFA. And I only had seven weeks of prep time. So, I’d been a producer for a long time and if you think about it, the easiest kind of picture to make is a film with one location, two actors and so on. So the form was very much the function of being just a smart producer and the content was trying to figure out what I could do with the form. So it’s like all my pictures, where I work backwards, because my brain works that way.

Surely you must’ve realized, after the film is made, that what you have here is something that people might take to be not so much fiction, as, perhaps, a moment caught on film that was real. That really wasn’t the goal? To cultivate these performances to make them appear, for lack of a better word, “real”?

Well, they are real. I mean, the performance, everything about it, is real.

Well, (laughs) this could turn into an interesting discussion, but what I am trying to say is that, yes, she may have been playing “herself”, but the situation certainly wasn’t real.

Well that’s the joy of making a fictional movie. You create something on the screen that, because of the form, people read as real, when in fact it is fiction shot to make it look like it is vérité.

What was the reaction when it first screened? When it played at someplace like the Flaherty Film Seminar, where everyone expects a documentary, was there controversy?

Well there generally is controversy because people get pissed off at “the cameraman” for treating a woman like that. That’s inappropriate. And people get pissed off when they find that they were fooled.

So they are pissed off at the cameraman and then, when they realize there is a “filmmaker”, they are then pissed off at you.

Yes.

I read that Shelby Leverington watched rape victim tapes to get some back-story material to work with, but what kind of work was done to help her get into the place she needed to get into to sustain this performance through these long takes?

The back-story was something she used to help create that character, which is really a pastiche of her. I mean she’s really that character, who had not been raped, and, being very much a trained New York actor, could draw upon her Method approach to pull that performance together. The other thing is that Shelby and Alec (Cameraman) were very good friends and remain so to this day. So we have the benefit of that relationship already being there, which is almost like a boy/girl relationship between them, which is the idea of the film-- this guy that has a girl “friend”, which is not necessarily a date, and he has this camera and he has to do a cinematography assignment and he sets up the equipment in her place and she says she’s going out with friends to see a movie, “I’ll let you shoot me.” He says “Okay, I only have one magazine, one load, ten minutes, so just let me film you getting ready”, etc.

There is a fine line between a good film with great performances (that no one actually processes as having been an actual moment that was captured in reality) and a film like this that most people, having no preconceptions, would, due to the level of performances, process as being a “real” moment captured in reality. For this reason, this performance, to me, is something beyond just exceptional. She reaches a truth that people find a hard time processing.

We’re looking at an actress who came out of method acting in New York. Her whole approach was to be the character, to be real. So Shelby simply succeeded in creating this 15 1/2 minute character that people read as real. And you have to just say “What a good piece of work”. And it was done in multiple takes, just like a movie. So there’s no magic, it’s just being professional.

You relayed the story of the police captain that asked you for the name of the police officer who interviewed the woman in the film because he believed it to have actually occurred. When you see a reaction to the film taken that far—

That’s not a surprise. People used to contact Robert Young for medical advice. I think the audience reacts to any program and believes there is a transformation of the actor into that character. And that’s not at all surprising.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"...I'll tell you no lies"

(an introduction, and the story of my own introduction, to ...no lies)

My name is Peter Rinaldi, I am a filmmaker from New York City. I also have a film blog called SIN-E-FILE at The Boutros Boutros Follies.

(If you are about to read this having NOT seen the film
...no lies
, I would advise you do so before reading further. Watch it below.)


In 1972, Mitchell W. Block was working as the Line Producer on Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. This left him little time to complete a full-scale film of his own, which was required to get his MFA from NYU. As he writes in The Truth about NO LIES, he thought he “should do a work that would be ‘easy’ to make. Limited locations, interior practical location, a short shoot, few actors, low shooting ratio, no period costumes, no score, etc. Keep it really simple.” The result is sort of a cinematic miracle.

In the spring of 1995 I was in a similar situation. I was a film student at the School of Visual Arts in New York. I had just completed my third year project, a film that seemed to polarize the class and faculty. Having had little money and not enough sufficient time to devote to a full scale production, I conceived an idea that involved basically a woman against a wall.

I showed it to my boss at the time, documentary filmmaker George Nierenberg. When it was over he didn’t have a lot to say about it, instead he starts to scan his towering piles of VHS tapes in his living room. “You have to see this documentary”, he tells me. “Documentary” is what he calls it. He doesn’t tell me anything more.

When
...no lies was over, I was so shaken by it that I hadn’t noticed the credits. George and I started talking about it. When it became apparent to him that I hadn’t seen the end credits, he told me what they said(the woman played by Shelby Leverington, etc.) and I didn’t believe him. He replayed the tape. Okay, “The filmmaker put that there so as not to embarrass the woman”, I concocted. There was no way this was acted. I couldn’t believe it. Once I watched it again, knowing now that this was, indeed, a performance, I was blown away.

Is it really necessary to go through the process of thinking you are seeing a moment captured on film that occurred in reality, and then, at the end, realize that it was manufactured like most films? How much does this play in its potential appreciation? This can be a point of discussion, but, regardless, it is how I experienced it, so it is, in turn, how I presented it to people when I showed it, on a VHS tape copied from George's.

I showed it to everyone in my life. “I have a documentary to show you. It is only 15 minutes.” I don’t remember all of the reactions but once in a while, it knocked someone out. What was it about this film that impacted us?


Alec Hirschfeld (L) Shelby Leverington (Center) and Mitchell Block during NO LIES shoot


When the Film of the Month Club started, I dreamed of being able to present ...no lies, but I knew that it wouldn’t be worth it if we didn’t get Mitchell Block involved. I reached out to him and he graciously granted my request to put the film online so it would be available to us and he agreed to an interview.

In our interview, which I will post later in the month, I tried to find out from him if he intended to trick the audience from the beginning or did he realize, after it was made, that he had a fiction that looked impeccably like fact. After all, there is nothing in the film that leads the audience to the understanding that what they are about to see is real. Block doesn’t outright lie, like other fake documentarians do, by presenting written or spoken documentary style, fact-like information (like Peter Greenaway’s
The Falls). Even so much as a date at the beginning would imply non-fiction. Some, however, might consider the title to be the written info that puts the viewer in the mind-frame of “fact”. So, can Block really be called a trickster simply because of the title? What is even leading us to believe that Block’s intention is to fool the audience at all?

Well,
...no lies played at the 1974 Flaherty Seminar, a place where people generally expect to see a documentary. It caused controversy and discussion on what “real” is in film and the emotions wrapped around such notions. If Block didn’t conceive the film as a trick, it certainly was one now. As George Nierenberg and others have theorized, there are three “rapes” that occur with ...no lies; the offscreen rape of the woman, then the figurative one inflicted on her by the “cameraman”, then we, the audience are taken advantage of by Mitchell Block. I would take this a step further and say that Block can’t do the act alone. In my case, Nierenberg himself helped in the violation by calling it a documentary, the Flathery Seminar too. Perhaps if you simply found this film somewhere and watched it, you wouldn’t feel like it was trying to trick you into thinking it was real...or would you? Wouldn't you just think, if you appreciated it, that the actors were just doing their jobs well?

Let’s forget for a moment about Mitchell Block’s “trick”. This film is (and is about) a performance. Shelby Leverington. Once this performance was made know to me as such, it became, in my mind, one of the greatest I had ever seen on film. Nuanced and complexly structured so as not to appear so, I can write (and just might) a moment by moment analysis of it. Its success does not rest simply on the fact that people think it is not a performance; its authenticity runs much deeper than that. She manages to haul her character through varying emotional terrains with no sign that the “vehicle” is on pre-laid tracks, and in such a limited amount of time. Mitchell Block is also planning on giving us the added honor of viewing the “Rehearsal Tapes”. Would it be weird if I said I am thinking about NOT viewing them? I don’t think it's right. Like reading a first draft of a masterpiece; rewarding on one hand, and forever damaging on the other. As a filmmaker, I am tremendously interested in the work it takes to get to something this successful. But as a viewer, in this case, I'm obsessed with this performance, not with the process.

Last year, No Lies was accepted into the National Registry, an honor bestowed on only a handful of films from each year. Here’s what the press release said:

Done in faux cinéma vérité style, Mitchell Block’s 16-minute New York University student film begins on a note of insouciant amateurism and then convincingly moves into darker, deeper waters. Opening with a scene of a girl getting ready for a date, the camera-wielding protagonist adroitly orchestrates a mood shift from goofiness to raw pain as an interviewer tears down the girl’s emotional defenses after being raped. One of the first films to deal with the way rape victims are treated when they seek professional help for sexual assault, "No Lies" still possesses a searing resonance and has been widely viewed by nurses, therapists and police officers.

Yes, the film has had a life as a tool to train police officers and others to better assist rape victims. Block has marketed the film for such public service use since its release. A police captain actually asked Block for the name of the officer who interviewed the woman in the film. To reprimand him in some way? We can assume, I suppose. Did he not see the credits? What about the pretty obvious cut? The looped bit of dialogue? Maybe there is a mysterious quality in their performances that reached something that, even if they gave a bow at the end, some would not waver in swallowing as some kind of truth. Mystically, Ms. Leverington speaks a truth for victims that can't speak, or have been hushed. Is this the "fact" that we want to believe?

Indeed, in many ways this film is a lie, but can you think of a film that has this much truth? That is, I think, what makes great film art. And
...no lies, to me, is just that. And I'm excited to know what you think.

...no lies, verite and feminism

Many thanks to Peter for introducing me to this film and for doing the work in making it available to us. It is a great little film, I think, and I'll glad I got the chance to see it and try to think it through. This may not make total sense if you don't recognize some references, but it's the only way I could really describe my reaction.

First of all, even though I came to ...no lies with no prior knowledge, I could not watch it "pure"; this is because I had already encountered this approach before in the great feminist work Daughter Rite (Michelle Citron, 1978). It certainly seems that Citron was influenced by Block, although I'm not sure if Citron would have seen it (I'm guessing she might have, since she was writing criticism for Jump Cut before becoming a director). Citron's film is about 50 minutes, and features a number of verite-style situations involving two sisters. The most powerful moment occurs when one of the sisters describes being raped by one of her mother's boyfriends when she was a young girl. However, at the end, we are informed that we had been witnessing not a documentary but rather a fictional construct.

The reasons why Citron chooses to do this are very much contextual. Feminist filmmaking in the 1970s begins through the use of cinema verite, talking heads documentaries that allow women to speak in their own words about their own experiences. However, this was quickly challenged by feminists who wanted to break with this idea that cinema verite realism could produce an objective truth. The call was for a documentary practice that joined with a cinematic materialism – a concern with the form of cinema’s signifying practices – and a political materialism – a concern with the concrete social practices that underpin ideology. Citron’s film can be seen as an example of this kind of feminist approach to the documentary. Her problem was trying to make a film about relations between women in the family without producing a simple cinema verite confessional or a fictional portrait of a representative family. Citron’s strategy is to reconstruct and juxtapose different forms: cinema verite, soap opera melodrama, home movies and journals. Citron thus problematizes identification itself – its false and easy notions of truth. Citron replaces more conventional and unitary REPRESENTATION OF with multiple, overlapping and contradictory RELATIONS TO: a polyphony of female voices in relation to the issue of mothers and daughters within patriarchy. Thus if the film is feminist, it is also post-structuralist to some degree, although certainly not to the degree of a Derrida or a Foucault: there is still a feminist foundation.

Likewise, I thought about Block's film within its context. The other film that came immediately to mind was Jim McBride's David Holzman's Diary (1968), one of the first extended questionings of verite and the notion of cinematic truth. But Block is up to something more, I think, something quite radical in its view of cinema and reality. That he chooses to use the subject matter of rape is not at all surprising and not without precedent in modernist explorations of cinema. Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad (1961), as Lynn Higgins has convincingly argued, is very much about the seduction/ rape as a metaphor about the elusive nature of storytelling and fiction. Block uses rape here at least partly because as a crime it hinges on who is telling the truth. Or, so we think. As Peter points, there is more than one rape here: he mentions the camerman's rape of her and the director's rape of us. But, I think more important is the rape by the police, especially the man asking her for details of the crime. And here's where I would qualify the statement about Block "raping" the audience: I think if this wasn't fiction, if I was in fact "real" or we were made to think it was, it would be more of a rape, especially of the woman we see filmed. At that point, wouldn't we be victimizing her just as the policeman, wanting to hear the sordid sexual details of her ordeal?

I would consider ..no lies a work in dialogue with feminism, or at least useful for feminist appropriation, but not really feminist itself. I think this is because there is no real foundation here. I would draw an analogy with feminist like Judith Butler drawing on Foucault. Citron drew on Block's film to make a more complex feminist film than the tradition before it, but still stayed in that tradition. ...no lies seems to me a more open work, but also one that feels bleaker, more despairing, almost verging on the nihilistic. What perhaps mitigates this is the amazing performance Peter mentions. But even so, as Peter says: "Mystically, Ms. Leverington speaks a truth for victims that can't speak, or have been hushed. Is this the 'fact' that we want to believe?" This seems to speak to a pessimism around truth that is the dominant mood of the work, very different in this respect from something like Daughter Rite, which for all its deconstructing of verite never questions the women's stories and situations (hence its feminist foundation). Nevetheless, Peter also states that it is a film that contains "so much truth". Is this the truth of simply never taking cinema verite for granted? Or, more radically, any notion of any single truth?

Monday, June 8, 2009

...no lies

Film of the Month for June.
...no lies
a film by Mitchell W. Block

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Three Half-Ironies

I didn't feel an immediate "in" for a post on Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, so I thought I'd take a page from Nicholas Rombes and freeze the film at the :10, :40, and :70 minute marks...




In themselves, these stills evidence a fairly deliberate widescreen composition and cinematography. Still #1 to me captures the distinctive aesthetic sensibility of the film... it is at first glance the kind of vista landscape shot we associate with the New Hollywood Western/road movie, but it's actually a composition exploiting foreground and the diagonal. Shot #2 is perhaps a textbook rule-of-thirds illustration. 

Beyond the formal traits, the shots exemplify three facets of the theme. Glenn gets at the crux of the theme when he notes the "lyrical clash between classic Western genre traits and 20th century progress." Like many of the 70s American films, Thunderbolt and Lightfood combines genre and allegory; in this instance, the genre film seems sandwiched in between and exposition (a preacher who turns out to be a criminal) and resolution (a schoolhouse preserved as a hollow marker of History) with weighty allegorical dimensions.  In the above stills, however, we get the bare genre elements with larger meaning: the car (which Peter so well diagnoses), the male buddy-couple, and the gun. The thematic project of the film seems to be to take each of these and repurpose it, infuse it with irony. 

The cynic in me thinks the film actually says less about violence, masculinity, and mobility in American life than it conspicuously shows that it is saying something about these things. Or perhaps, it is sincere in its ironic critique, but that the critique is so close to other films (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, $, Jeremiah Johnson, etc.) that it's hard for me to take it as something other than second-order seriousness.

It's particularly worth pointing out the gender politics of the film. This is the sort of film that would be (and perhaps was) a prime target of a certain era of feminist (Molly Haskell) and gay/lesbian (Vito Russo) criticism. My first inclination would be to move beyond the contemporaneous gender critiques, but in sum I think they're spot on: there's a misogyny and homophobia that hides behind the half-ironic pose of critique: the narration allows us to know that these anti-heros are flawed (because of homophobia and misogyny) while not ever putting the spectator in empathy with, say, the women of the film. Or else, these elements are written off as the generic part of the film, while the "real" auteur film hiding beneath is about more high-minded truths. I bring this up in part because the contradiction so pervades the film (the almost-gay kiss, the drag, the prostitutes, the youth making out) and in part because it gets to the genre-auteur contradictions of the New Hollywood.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Grand Theft Cimino (Random impressions: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot)

It used to be that if someone asked me to name the ultimate 'car film', Three Lane Blacktop would pop into my mind first. But not anymore.

There is not nearly the same level of car fetishism in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, but Cimino is definitely trying to say something with autos. The title characters are in seven different automobiles before credits roll, four of them they stole. And even though they are always moving, they don't seem like they get anywhere.

Even a plan is worked out by drawing on a car.


Parallels to the Western genre are no clearer then when the cars are "taken to water".


There are so many scenes where the cars are not on any road at all. It is really strange and yet, because of the scenery, oddly beautiful and familiar. Replace the car for a horse and we have a period-piece.

It feels like, in the hands of another, less sincere director, the off-road abundance would approach tacky; the connections with the Western would be heavy-handed. Instead it comes off subtle and grounded in a reality that masks it. It wasn't even affecting me on the first viewing.

Jeff Bridges brought such an energy to this performance, a playfulness and spirit that worked so well with the material. When an actor makes choices that so totally create an understanding in the viewer that the words are spilling right from the character's mind, it's magic.

The sorrow and pain that Lightfoot has is only revealed cryptically, and contrapuntally to Thunderbolt. Like in the scene where Lightfoot talks about how he started on the road, after meeting a woman on a train. "Now you can't stop" Thunderbolt interjects. Lightfoot looks at him. It's a full shot, but we can still see, through Bridges' look, not just an acknowledgment of that truth, but a sadness in it as well.

Maybe someone can help me understand the significance of Thunderbolt having the white convertible Cadillac in the end, which Lightfoot revealed is his goal in the beginning of the film. Did Cimino simply want him to die a "hero" in his dream car?

Once again, the FotMC is blessed with another interesting and rewarding selection that fell under my radar all these years. Looking forward to other discussions. Thanks Glenn.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Pearls of Wisdom: The Death of Friendship in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot



The New Hollywood of the early 1970's merged their love for European Art House cinema with traditional home-grown genres (Western, Noir, Musical), challenging cinematic forms and expectations to establish new possibilities within narrative storytelling. Hopper, Penn, Rafelson, and Bogdanovich laid the foundation for Altman, Scorsese, Spielberg, and Lucas. But these filmmakers either descended into artistic obscurity or ascended to blinding mainstream stardom. Somewhere on the fringes of these polar opposites resided a few filmmakers keen on blurring even the most standard aesthetics, forcing the viewer into an uneasy and fascinating cinematic space. This is the realm of Michael Cimino. 

On the surface, Michael Cimino's debut film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) appears to be a standard Clint Eastwood vehicle, co-starring Malpaso regulars George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis along with a young and spry Jeff Bridges as the titular Lightfoot. It's a heist film with comedic trimmings and road movie ruminations, all framed by a changing view of the West. However, looking at it in historical context, when American audiences were still reeling from the devastating social and political conflicts of the 1960's and early 1970's, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot presents an uncomfortable and complex clash of ideals between a naive, empowered youth and a disgruntled old-guard. Ironically, these altercations often take place in golden fields of wheat, or alongside rivers flanked by angular mountainsides, often framed by cloudy blue skies; or Anthony Mann country. Cimino and Eastwood see this power struggle as a key factor in certain harrowing situations, and it's no accident characters are left with the tragic results alone and uncertain. 

As far as debut films go, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot makes an astounding impression. The lyrical clash between classic Western genre traits and 20th century progress formulates a deceptive pattern of shifting tones, where comedy and tragedy are flip-sides of the same stubborn coin. Each character defines themselves based on this tension, ultimately complicating the traditional master/disciple relationship by revealing a deep sense of longing and regret. In the end, the pearls of wisdom sprinkled throughout the film take on an unsettling resonance when the very idea of friendship becomes smothered by greed and jealousy. 

I'm eager to see what everyone else makes of this poetic and haunting film. 

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Mabuse Wrapup

Before we move on to May's selection, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, I want to thank the club for the chance to host this month's film - and for an excuse to keep rewatching Mabuse The Gambler (and The Testament of Doctor Mabuse) for a month... That was a major motivation for choosing this film: I found it fascinating, full of things - stylistic, thematic, structural - that I thought were there but wasn't quite sure - but without some kind of external pressure, I'm not sure I would have put the time into it.

I'm certainly glad I did - the Mabuse films are as rewarding a batch of films as I've watched in a while, and they are films that lead me out from them as well. I hope I manage to continue working through Lang's filmography; I hope I get the chance to go backwards to watch films like Fantomas and other Feuillade (and others - maybe Joe May) series'. I hope I get some more posts out of these films - one of the things I most like about writing on the internet is that it doesn't quite have to be finished - you get to work through ideas in public, a bit, posting drafts and revisions and sketches, in ways you can't really do in other forums. The chance to keep coming back to the idea is a valuable one...

Anyway - I hope I haven't bored you all to death, and sorry for picking such a monster of a film. It could have been worse, I suppose - I could have been inspired to write about Berlin Alexanderplatz. I have to credit Eric Rentschler for this fascination with German film: I am taking a class with him (at the Harvard Extension School), and it has been very inspirational. And for Lang, it is hard to beat Tom Gunning's book...

And now - I'm looking forward to Glenn Heath's discussion of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.... Before I turn into Mabuse myself...

Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Note on Pacing

This month has gone too quickly for me - I wish I had more time to spend on this film. It's been a while since I have tried to dig into a film in depth like this - it's gratifying... though with the opportunities for dissecting films afforded by modern technology, it can start to get out of hand... Anyway - before the month is up, I wanted to get at least one more post up, about one striking element of Lang's style in Mabuse - his manipulation of the pacing of the film. He works consistently with a kind of alternation, fast and slow - though always tending, both within sequences and in the film(s) as a whole, to speed things up as he goes. And he develops these contrasts both between shots and in shots - still shots alternate with bursts of action to create another layer of of the pattern.

And of course - he alternates between the two halves of the film. Part 1 starts with the kinetic train robbery and Mabuse's dazzling tour of the city, before slowing down for later scenes; Part 2 starts with most of the characters still - usually brooding, haunted, maybe drunk... And much of the early part of the second film retains that slower pace - slow action (lots of talk), slow movement, slow cutting... These are interspersed with action - and of course the the action comes more frequently as the film progresses... a pattern appearing in most of the segments of the film.

Take this sequence near the beginning of the second film: starting with Count Told visiting the state prosecutor, telling him his story (cheating at cards, his wife has left him), cutting to Mabuse's place and the aftermath of a drunken party, then to the Countess, Mabuse's prisoner - Mabuse visits her and threatens her - but Told calls Mabuse, seeking psychiatric help... The sequence I'm thinking of lasts about 5 minutes - but shows, in that five minutes, the variations in pacing, and general acceleration I mean. In fact - thanks to the magic of iMovie - we can see the cuts (you may have to click on it to see it clearly), see the shots getting shorter as the sequence progresses:



Basically - we start with a 35 second shot of Told and Von Wenk, followed by a 22 second shot of Told (including an inserted dialogue), then a series of somewhat shorter shots - 12 seconds, 3, 11 - of the countess waking up and Mabuse's party; then a 52 second shot of the party, 44 seconds of Told and Von Wenk (including dialogue, though always cutting back to the basic two shot), then a series of shots of Mabuse and the countess, many of them involving movement, as he chases her around the room - 7 seconds, 17 (more on this below), 3, 4 (Mabuse), a 6 second dialogue card, 4 (shot of the countess - which is exactly the same length and the preceding shot of Mabuse), 8, 2, 3, 2 - another dialogue card (3 seconds) - 6, then a 17 second shot of Mabuse coming to the phone...

That's the overall pattern of the sequence - starting long, with slow movement, no action, then growing faster, both cutting and movement, before slowing down as the next sequence begins. The same pattern occurs within the shots, during the direct confrontation between countess and Mabuse. She has been unconscious - she wakes up in his house, locked in a room. He comes in from his drunken bash, thinking to molest her, she fights him off, tries to escape... The centerpiece of this sequence is a 17 second shot that recapitulates the overall pacing of the sequence: starts slow, explodes into action, stops - then explodes again. Here it is:

It starts, as many shots do, with a very quick dissolve:



This reveals Mabuse leaning over the countess - they hold this pose for about 5 seconds:



Then the countess makes a break for it, and Mabuse grabs her:



They struggle - and come to a halt, and hold this position (a very tense, violent pose, actually, Mabuse basically pinning her there) for a few second:



...before she makes another break...



... which leads to the cut - to a blank door, and the countess bursting into the frame:



It's a powerful effect - the alternation of long and short shots, of slow, deliberate movements and gestures and quick, violent movements; integrated with the variations in shot scales - long shots and closer shots alternating, shots of big spaces and tight spaces; even the varying transitions - short dissolves, longer dissolves between shots, alternating with abrupt cuts; and the variations on how the cuts come - cuts to empty spaces that people jump into, say... Everything aimed at generating tension, and doing it...

Monday, April 27, 2009

Mabuse contre Fantômas

A note on the "character" of Mabuse.

Who is Dr. Mabuse? This is a difficult question. Mabuse is the Great Unknown. It's impossible to define his character on its own. Mabuse always needs an opposition. His defining characteristic is his role as an antagonist; he only exists when there is someone trying to find him or defeat (which is distinct from thwart) him. Mabuse is just a name for a certain evil; he's a folk tale. So, in order to be able to write anything longer than a sentence about the character of Mabuse (not really a character at all--a something rather than a someone), we always need a comparison. Mabuse is always "this and not that," but never a particular characteristic that stands on its own--the only things we have with any certainty are his name and his villainy.

Fantômas, on the other hand, is always there; he escapes as often as Mabuse seemingly dies, and his actions stir society to find a solution (for this reason, perhaps, Juve and and Fandor are generic--they could be any policeman or any journalist, and are therefore closer to Mabuse in conception that Fantômas; it's maybe for this reason that they serve as Fantômas's antagonists in every film, whereas every Mabuse movie needs new heroes). There are a thousand Mabuses, but only one Fantômas.

So: Mabuse and Fantômas. Both originated in popular novels and then found their way into silent serials, returned in the early sound era and then in the 1960s. Lang started a small Mabuse craze with his last film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, and it continued through the decade with a series of spin-offs, the best of which were directed by the krimi expert Harald Reinl. Fantômas had been in a few films in the early 1930s and late 1940s (his absence during the Occupation is conspicuous), but he returned in full force in the 1960s in a trio of brightly-colored capers starring Jean Marais. Both characters are popularly associated with the major directors (Feuillade and Lang) who originated them, and both have been reinterpreted by later, equally distinctive filmmakers (Pál Fejös's Fantômas talkie, Claude Chabrol's 1990 remake of Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, Dr. M). Historically, they're no so different. But history's just a footnote. Fantômas is vindictive while Mabuse is vengeful. The specificity of Fantômas means that his presence has weight (there's always a surprise when we discover that someone is really Fantômas in disguise), while Mabuse's shifting identity and clairvoyance means that his presence is always assumed. While Fantômas is a villain, Mabuse is an evil.

Monday, April 20, 2009

1, 2, 4, 8, 16...

Despite my rather slow output of posts about Mabuse, the fact is, there are endless things to say about it. I mentioned style in a comment to Peter's post - the way it seems to blend older types of film styles - tableau staging, slow pace, exaggerated poses and so on (many of the things raised by David Bordwell in his writings on 1910s cinema) - with the faster, analytical editing of classical cinema... Having watched the film a couple times, in fact, I have to say Lang's blending of these styles - especially, his control of the pacing, of everything in the film - the speed of the action, the actor's movements, the editing - is absolutely extraordinary. There's a post there, that I hope I get to before the month is up... And building on that eclecticism - one of the daunting elements of the Mabuse films is how much is in them - realism and expressionism; serial crime stories and modern, self-contained stories; technology and magic; entertainment and art films; tight story telling and broad, documentation of the world as it is... So much.



For now though, I want to take a look at one element of the film's world - the use of doubles and parallels, in characters, situations, and so on. The double is one of the great themes of German films - it's obviously not limited to German art, but it's probably not an accident that we use the German word for a doppelganger. Doubles and Faust figures - which is a variation on the double: the devil who grants power and wishes in exchange for the soul... The two combined in Student of Prague, one of the foundational German films - with a Mephistophilis figure taking the student's reflection as his price....

Mabuse is also something of a Faust story, though with Mabuse playing all the parts... But it also contains, within it, a fairly elaborate system of parallels among its characters. Mabuse himself has a double in state prosecutor Von Wenk - the film alternates between them, they are matched adversaries - Von Wenk dons disguises, like Mabuse, trying to move, undercover, through the underworld... Around them, the other major characters are arranged in pairs, sometimes loose, but usually fairly explicit. Cara Carozza, the dancer, loved (once) by Mabuse and now by Hull the playboy, is echoed in the figure of the Countess Told, caught between Von Wenk and Mabuse, replacing Carozza in Mabuse's love (or lust, or desire, or whatever it is); both women end up prisoners, and the countess identifies with Carozza... Hull the playboy, meanwhile, is doubled by the Count - both are rivals with Mabuse for a woman; both are ruined at cards by Mabuse's hypnosis; both draw Von Wenk into the story, and lead him closer to Mabuse. Both die, at Mabuse's orders, but both deaths contribute to Mabuse's own fall.

Meanwhile, the film itself is a double - released in two halves (like Kill Bill, or Che!), with scenes and situations repeated between the two films (sometimes within one half of the film). Scenes, games, situations, shots, are all repeated, replayed, with variations. Here, it will be easier to show than tell:

Here for example, are two shots, one from the first half, one from the second, of the Countess Told: in the first, she is at a gambling den, where she watches, uninvolved, curious - in the second, she is a prisoner of Mabuse, held in a room by herself.... She is unconscious in this shot, and helpless - a prisoner (itself a parallel, at that point in the film, to Carozza, who is being held prisoner by Von Wenk...). The shots are almost mirrors of one another - she's in a similar position, facing the opposite direction - with the color schemes almost reversed (dark covers, white covers - or look at how her dark dress in the second shot rhymes with the white feathers in the first one):




Or another parallel - both Mabuse and Told haunted by ghosts. Told is ruined by Mabuse hypnotizing him to cheat at cards - he sinks into madness and drink, seeing visions, pursued around his house -



only to end up forced to play cards with his own ghost:



A situation Mabuse repeats, almost exactly. Pursued by ghosts -



Forced to play cards by ghosts - who accuse him of cheating - as Told's ghosts accused him... (and notice the screen directions of all these shots: Told on the right, looking left, as he's pursued, then on the left, facing the ghosts during the card game; and Mabuse on the left during the pursuit, on the right for the card game...)



Mabuse, though, is different from the rest. He may be part of the system of doubles and parallels, but he is outside it somewhat as well. The simplest reason is that he is his own double - he keeps replacing himself. And here, as in some aspects of the structure of the film, the doubling principal becomes a serial principal - he is not a double so much as a series. And a series that, as the film goes on, and especially as we move to the sequels (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, and onwards), becomes a mechanically reproduced series - first through words, but then through machines (loudspeakers and recordings) and so on. Copies of copies of copies, disembodied, dissipating into words, sounds, images... copies without originals... pages scattered on the floor.






Sunday, April 19, 2009

I'm trying to not get hypnotized by Dr. Mabuse

Once again, an incredibly interesting and exciting selection this month. Thank you Weepingsam. This film falls right in the cracks of my film history knowledge. And, once again, the FotMC has presented me with a film that I might never have gotten into on my own. Now, if it only wasn't this overwhelming!

To be honest, I was having trouble even following it in the beginning. I was not prepared for the way the story was playing out. I ended up putting on the commentary by David Kalat (I have the IMAGE DVDrelease. The KINO edition doesn't have this commentary but it is a much better restoration. Ironicly, the image is signicantly worse on the IMAGE release). He has a few strange moments in the way he presents information at times, but overall it is a tremdously insiteful and entertaining track. And, most importantly, it put me in the proper mindframe to take in the movie in a benificial way. So I am going to have another go at it. It is still an potentially overwhelming film. There are a lot of ways to approach this one.

I wanted to post this because I am seeing that the posts aren't happening yet and we're in the last third of the month. Maybe others had the trouble with it that I had. Maybe not. But I felt the need to express my experience with the film(s) so far. Yes, this is a difficult 4 1/2 hour silent work, but it is not only important, but extremely exciting too, and I am very happy that it was selected.

I hope to have more to say before the month is out.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Mabuse and his World

Hello again. I hope I can get a couple posts up this weekend, to get into Mabuse.... I will start with the basics. I'm afraid this is likely to be a rather dry and schoolish post, but I want to lay out some parameters first - I'll try to move on to aesthetics in upcoming posts. What is this film? A very long, almost 5 hours, story of Mabuse the Gambler, master criminal. It owes a clear debt to serial thrillers, from Lang’s own Spiders to Feuillade’s films - the length, the type of story, the structure (it’s still organized in 20 minute chunks, basically) - though stitched together more carefully, and designed throughout as a single, unified work. It’s a fantastic looking film, Lang’s eye already well developed, and German studio technology was humming along as well. Stylistically, it is an interesting hybrid - it carries on some of the older, tableau style sets and shots of 1910s films, alongside some very crisp editing, and a strong sense of pacing, space, the emotional weight of style. The contrast between tableau style shots and the more “modern” dynamics of editing and staging seem quite intentional: Lang seems uses the different sense of time and space for expressive effects. I will return to that - his alternation of pacing (of action, editing and so on) is a fascinating effect.

The film proclaims itself a “Picture of our time” and part 2, a "Play of People of our Time.” It is a product of its time - 1922, the inflation, when German currency was spinning out of control. It's made fairly early in the worst period of inflation - a dollar was worth around 300 marks in early 1922 - 7500 marks in late 1922 - 4.2 trillion marks in November 1923. But Mabuse, especially in the stock market scheme that opens the film, represents the kind of speculation and manipulation that contributed to that disaster. It's a record of the society of the early 20s in Germany - the chaos and violence, the decadence, the sense of despair and inertia in Germany, the cynicism that came out of WWI. It's also a record of a moment in modernity - it's a record of Berlin as one of the key cities of the modern world. Berlin was a newer city than it might seem - doubling in size between 1910 and the 20s (from 2 to 4 million people*) - and technologically new. It is a world of trains and phones and newspapers and movies, of information and movement, and this is all front and center in Mabuse.



Let me get to Mabuse the character: Mabuse, the "Spieler" - the player. In German too, the two meanings work, play to gamble, play to act - Mabuse the actor, then. Lang wastes no time establishing that parallel, beginning the film with shots of Mabuse going through cards with head shots, equating his disguises with the game. Mabuse is an odd kind of gambler - he doesn’t leave much to chance. His criminal schemes depend on careful and precise manipulation of time, space, objects, information - look at the dazzling opening sequence, a train robbery timed to the second, involving a mugging, dropping a package off a bridge from a moving train into the back seat of a moving car that passes a telephone pole at a precise time, with Mabuse following along at home, with his watch, able to know to the second when his phone will ring. And that opening theft itself is the beginning of an elaborate scheme to manipulate the stock market - which does not depend on the stolen information, but on manipulating the information about the theft. As a gambler, it’s the same - he doesn’t leave anything to the turn of the card - he doesn’t even cheat: he hypnotizes his opponents so they misplay their hands to lose. And he does it with the gaze - a deadly stare into their eyes - or the back of their head, if that's convenient - or by playing with things, a pair of Chinese glasses, say... but always, with the eyes...



In the end, he is as much a director as he is an actor or gambler - he operates by telling people where to go, what to do, making them do it if they don't want to; everything is timed and precise, he leaves nothing to chance. His schemes are played out in the film as vignettes - where his manipulation of the people, things, spaces, is mimicked by Lang's manipulation of the same - that opening sequence, say, times everything just as carefully as he does, and leaves even less to chance - since its edited together.. and since Lang gets to use trick shots.



But this ties back to Lang's interest in the world of his time - in the ways modernity has changed space and time. Mabuse manipulates space and time, and uses the technology of space and time (trains and cars and clocks and telephones, all the ways people move and communicate differently now), to run his schemes. He's a media creature, and a manipulator of the media, as he manipulates the game. He depends on the game continuing, on the stock market continuing, on the trains running on time. When people are late, or leave early, or kick up a fuss over losing, he is thwarted...

That is one aspect of the character - there are more. Readings of Mabuse the character add another significance to the ideas of Mabuse as man of a thousand faces - he has many precedents and parallels in German film and culture. (I hope to return to this in another post, as well.) I commented on my blog, a month or so ago, about the similarities between Mabuse and Faust - that relates to the question of modernity, I think, though also, obviously, that of power and evil. Mabuse is a Faust figure who serves as his own Mephistophiles. For Siegfried Kracauer, Mabuse was one of a series of tyrant figures in Weimar cinema - representing power and chaos, together... Kracauer linked him to Nosferatu - another tyrant, with hypnotic powers, a creature of shadows (though not of disguises, unlike Dracula and Mabuse) - another creature of 1922 Germany. And the questions about identity raised by Mabuse are extended out from him - he has 1000 faces - he also has his very own doppelganger/stalker, in State Prosecutor Von Wenk. The doubling of characters and situations in the film (which after all has two parts) is an essay in itself...



* I know this from Anton Kaes - this essay specifically, though I think he mentions it in other contexts as well... "Leaving Home: Film, Migration, and the Urban Experience." New German Critique no. 74 (Spring/Summer 1998): 179-192.