July 21st, 2009


Film Fest In July

Although those wacky sunspot minima are giving us May in July (with the occasional side trip to April) weather-wise, my film schedule has briefly resembled October, or "Film Fest Plus Halloween Month," as I like to call it.

Two Fridays ago was Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945), which may have been one of the most gloriously crazy domestic noirs ever filmed. Edward G. Robinson is a shlub who falls for a smokin' hot Joan Bennett. She and her madcap thug boyfriend Dan Duryea ("I'll go with ya, honey. I wouldn't want ya ta get run over by a street-car.") mulct Robinson for cash, and then exploit his painting hobby for more. Like a true noir, everything in society is suspect: marriage, banks, love, art, the police, and journalism. Here, though, Lang (or the source play) takes the extra magical step -- almost to the fifth act turn, you almost believe that Robinson can win. But like I said, noir. And I haven't even alluded to the most jaw-dropping fourth-act reveal ever. "The coal barge unloaded on a banana boat headed for Honduras ..." There's a whole other post in here about noir as black comedy -- so much of it is built on anti-social love, contrasted with the social love of the Aristotelian/Shakespearean comedy. Talking of Shakespeare, though, Scarlet Street makes Troilus and Cressida look like Emma.

The next day we reconvened for a rare showing of Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles, 1965). I so very desperately want this to come out on a legal American DVD -- just watching it once was immensely frustrating, as there was so much going on in every shot as Welles and Shakespeare fought it out for global dominion. It would be nice if the DVD digitally cleaned up the sound, too -- the print we saw was more than a little muddy. I have to put myself on the other side from the Falstaffolators, as far as the drama goes, but Welles (for excellent, if obvious, reasons) makes Falstaff the center of his filmic Henriad. (Although Harold Bloom chooses an interesting, even noble, approach when he engages in a Falstaffian rant in defense of Falstaff in The Invention of the Human, I am not convinced.) All that said, while Welles is (of course) tremendous (heh) in the part of Falstaff, the real fireworks are in the emotional bullfight between Keith Baxter's Hal and John Gielgud's Henry IV. The Battle of Shrewsbury, meanwhile, may be the best battle scene ever filmed; it's absolutely the best one on a per-extra basis. Welles' choice to frame virtually the whole movie as a flashback from the grim, depressing Henry IV, Part Two is just one of the genius touches that re-lights things in entirely unexpected ways, no matter how well you know your Henrys.

Last Friday, meanwhile, was the silent masterpiece that was Faust (F.W. Murnau, 1926). (We saw the restored German version, not the one Murnau recut for the American market.) Although much praise is rightfully given to the set design and set-piece productions -- Mephistopheles wrapping the city in his wings and sending forth the plague is still scary today -- the acting was absolutely stellar. There were whole stretches where I forgot the film was silent. We saw the film on the Big Screen at the Portage Theater, where it accompanied a smallish exhibit of prints of German silent film posters, and some art by Dave McKean, who introduced the movie. Among the McKean pieces, a tribute to Dr. Caligari, and one to Faust -- and one that we thought was based on Val Lewton's The Bodysnatcher but turns out to be based on the German silent that Lewton was homaging.

Which led us into Saturday, which was a bunch of Dave McKean shorts and Mirrormask (Dave McKean, 2005), a film that I quite frankly thought superior to Pan's Labyrinth. McKean's visual imagination is at least the equal of Del Toro's, and his fantasy film, unlike Pan, does not carry the message that fantasy is oppressive. To be sure, it's quite reactionary ("obey your parents and stay in your place"), but so are all proper fairy tales. There were parts that were a little bit groaningly obvious -- having one's parents show up in Neverland surely can be put back on the shelf or at the very least restricted to J.M. Barrie for the next fifty years or so -- but the sheer invention on display more than made up for it. And in Gaiman and McKean's defense, they explained it. I'm not sure I liked it as well as the original Labyrinth, of which it is something of a redress, but I'd probably have to watch them both again to be sure. But who has the time?