Wednesday, March 04, 2020

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Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino, 2019

A delight, and not out there to prove anything... but, as skipping through twitter suggests, it nevertheless proves that, as limited in scope and implications as tarantino's nerdy cinephilia might be, it's still richer and much more generous than the strained seriousness swallowing up the rest of film culture.

repeat viewing:

OUATIH was the first Tarantino film since JACKIE BROWN I had a desire to immediately watch again, and I was just as happy with it (in it) the second time around. Everything flows smoothly together, from the Sharon Tate glam to the dog food close-ups.

Müslüm, Ketche, 2018

Stylistically conservative but well-made biopic about the life of a fascinating Turkish arabesque singer who married a former movie star he was in love with as a child and whose fans were known for cutting themselves, and sometimes him. Because they love him too much. This already tells you something about the inextricable connection of music, affect and violence that is played out throughout the film on several levels. (I'd love to read a social history of arabesque or something like that some day.)

People That Are Not Me, Hadas ben Aroya, 2016

Hadas ben Aroya's lead performance is good, escaping the lure of cute quirkiness thanks to an underlying nervously aggressive streak. The film works best in the more intimate and painful moments, the last scene is quite something... The more scripted, dialogue-heavy stuff, especially in the Nir storyline, isn't developed in any interesting way, unfortunately.

Hibiki, Sho Tsukikawa, 2018

A decent youth drama about not one, but two female novelists with a surprising amount of attention given to the minutiae of the publishing industry. The acting is good, although Yurina Hitare's oddball title performance grows a bit tiresome after a while. The true center of the film is not the young, antisocial genius, though, but her desperately conformist friend, played by a magnificent Ayaka Wilson, whose smile makes me think of Setsuko Hara.

The New King of Comedy, Stephen Chow, 2019
E Jingwen is charming enough to make this work despite a lack of true standout scenes. The tone is surprisingly dark, especially for a new year's film that should normally be, as it is said by one of the characters, "bloody and innocent". Somehow, Chow left out the innocence. The first hour is downright depressing, and he manages to infuse even the nominally upbeat, "she makes it after all" last act with a sense of desperation (for example the reaction of her parents when they see her on stage).

The Travelling Cat Chronicles, Koichiro Miki, 2018

Excellent old-fashioned melodrama about a man who never really was part of the world of the living, but who manages to grace a few lifes with his presence; and about his own life being graced by a cat. Takes its time in registering the construction of feelings, simple as they sometimes may be. We only have one life, anyway. ( A dog film could never hit that hard...)

The Nth Commandment, Frank Borzage, 1923
The surviving fragment probably is in terrible shape even in its original, analog version, and the 20 minutes long digital transfer barely has any visual information left. But that was what fascinated me about it: How little information we need in order to "watch a movie", to construct an illusionary world out of a view flashing lights, or, in this case, drifting shadows of whiteness and blackness, because virtually everything else is lost, especially in terms of texture.

Cinema is, this version of THE NTH COMMANDMENT suggests, hairstyle and gesture. Or, at least, hairstyle and gesture is one of several possible minimum definitions of cinema.

The hair lets us differentiate between the three main characters and the gestures (in some of the close-ups, there's a basic level of mimic information, too, mimic that works like gestures) not only bring the characters to life but also enable us to access their space-time.

At least one shot will stay with me: At a skating rink, a clumsy man tries to get up on his blades, but failes to find balance, while around him everyone rushes by, an endless parade of swift, elegant movement, centered by one lonely, damaged subjectivity. On first sight, it might look like a slapstick routine, but somehow Borzage infuses it with an air of eternal, introspective stillness that cannot be easily retranslated into action.

Soon afterwards, the print deteriorates even worse, the haistyles are lost in a white, pulsating fog and only occasionally, the fragments of a gesture shine through the noise.

The Lion King, Jon Favreau, 2019

Despite all the cuteness and gloss a genuinely weird experience. Of course, its point by point retelling is boring and the decision to tone down the melodramatic grandeur of the original turns this into a bland affair on a purely narrative level... but it's still pretty preposterous to call this film aesthetically conservative. The uneasy coexistence of anthropomorphizing and photorealism turns it into an unstable text that constantly pits story against world. A film filled with figures that turn from animals into characters and back again, sometimes several times in close succession. Often, the same rupture is located in a single figure (and in space rather than time): While the body is animalistic, the head is human-like and feels out of place in its surroundings, like a part of another layer of reality. (Additionally, the film plays with our familiarity of domestic cats. The lions are not only "too human", they are also "too cat-like".) It might be interesting to reread Cavell's comments on animated films in light of these images...

While none of the rather few I've seen so far is a real success, to my mind those live-action remakes clearly are the most interesting part of the more recent Disney portfolio.

Lazybones, Frank Borzage, 1925

In its first hour the film doesn't completely manage to emancipate itself from its probably rather obnoxious source material (despite a decent Frances Marion script that always favours small town minutiae over the mechanics of melodrama), but the last act is marvellous. The homecoming scene after the war is especially great, starting with a long shot of Lazybone's home, an unpeopled shot left standing for a few seconds before he enters the frame and starts to inhabit once again the spaces of his youth. He can't enter his own room uninhibited any more, because he is in love, but also because he has, in war, acquired the curse of self-consciousness.

Daddy´s Gone A-Hunting, Frank Borzage, 1925

When Julian, the painter, meets Edith, he swoops her off her feet. Borzage, though, holds the shot until he lets her down to earth again. Soon after, he leaves for Paris in search of inspiration, and finds naked female models as well as mischievous friends. When he returns back home his marriage is broken. Not because he was seduced by the good life, but because he has lost the concept of love, and thereby any meaningful connection to the world. Often, he looms in the foreground of a shot, lost in his own private hell, while around him life goes on. Then he paints a picture called "disillusionment" (the german title says: "Ernüchterung") that everyone loves. "I had to kill love to find myself", he says.

Humoresque, Frank Borzage, 1920

Another Borzage silent about a young man who travels overseas and returns a changed man. Unlike in DADDY'S GONE A-HUNTING and LAZYBONES, though, the focus is not on the returning part, but on the going away part... Indeed, after a nice ethnic comedy build-up the main protagonist enlists for World War 1 and the film slows to a halt for what feels like almost half of the movie in order to work through a series of farewell scenes. He not only has to say goodbye to every family member at least twice (and to his mother: at least ten times), being a star musician he also has to perform not one, but two farewell concertos. The sentimental excess of these scenes creates a weird dynamic: we know something terrible must happen to retroactively justify all these tears... but the ending itself can't, and indeed doesn't, pull much emotional punch, because everything has been felt before. So neither his initial sorrow after returning injured from the war, nor the miraculous last minute healing make much of an impact.

What will stay with me is the sheer intensity of motherly love swallowing up everything else in the film. Even the protagonist's romantic love interest is, despite this being a Borzage film, nothing but an afterthough, a kind of ersatz-mother who might pick of, some day, what is left after the tornado of the real motherly embraces has gone by.

The mother is played by Vera Gordon, whose round, gleaming face is a marvel in itself. Motherly love is, in the end, a superpower, bending the world to its will. My favorite shot is a close-up of her listening to her son playing the violin for the first time. Borzage doesn't cut to the son, but stays at the face of the mother for quite some time, registering her grin growing progressively crazier. It's not about a mother experiencing the talent of her son - but about her producing it.

The Circle, Frank Borzage, 1925

A satirical comedy about the sexual mores of yesterday is probably not the best material for a director much more interested in the sexual reality of his own time. The satirical part especially got on my nerves pretty quickly. Some of the romantic mirrorings going on here are quite interesting, though, and the attention to gestural detail is, once again, wonderful. Eleanor Boardman navigating her various desires and impulses...

A nice idea in the beginning: In order to inform her husband of her leaving him, a woman stiches a note on their mutual son, as if he would be a messaging board.

Nugget Jim´s Pardner, Frank Borzage, 1916

Three broken pieces forming a whole: utopia.

The Lady, Frank Borzage, 1925

Another one of these abysmal Borzage vhs rips and once again, I don't think the bad image quality takes much away from the film's power, at least not from its central power engine: Norma Talmadge's face, often filmed in medium shots or close-ups registering different cadences of agony. Sometimes, there isn't much more to be seen than a white canvas carved by three small black signs: her eyes and her mouth, the nose being a pale shadow at best. She is almost reduced to a cartoon character, and of course those do have the purest, most intense feelings of all cinematic entities.

Street Angel, Frank Borzage, 1928

"I want to shut our happiness in..." So the outside, the world has to be shut out. This is already evident in the opening minutes, in those magnificent long shots of the bustling studio Naples totality, with the camera's scanning motions, closing in on someone descending a staircase or looking out of the window, then backing off again, tracking the swift movements of Janet Gaynor's delicate, but also almost troll-like figure. Exposed to this kind of all-seeing visual brutality, everybody would get hurt sooner or later. So you have to flee toward another gaze, the gaze of love.

It's also clear form the beginning that this is, at heart, not at all a morality play: When Gaynor looks down from her window at the prostitute, she almost without hesitation hits the street herself, trying to imitate the gestures and movements she has observed just now. Body language trumps morality. Her "downfall" pretty clearly also is a first step toward erotic transcendence.

The last half hour, when the more baroque, Murnau-like aspects finally take over completely, is pretty strange, probably also because Charles Farrell, wonderfull as his boyish excitement is in the love scenes, is a much flashier actor than Gaynor.


Souls made great through love, adversity and art forgery.

7th Heaven, Frank Borzage, 1927

Not a good idea to watch STREET ANGEL first and 7TH HEAVEN second, because the latter is the blueprint, the former a baroque variation. In this case, the blueprint is the even stronger film, because it focuses more on Gaynor and Farrell growing into a life together, into love. Live before love is, once again, a nightmare, especially for her, haunted by eager, hungry camera movements and the whip her terror sister never seems to let go of. He, on the other hand, could probably chill in the sewers forever - his awakening is a strictly psychological affair.

But then, they ascend together, floor by floor, an appartment building, and in tracking them the camera gaze turns into a soft, gracious cushion. Up there, they create their own world over the roofs of Paris, cut off, but pitted against the rest of the world and history (walking over a tiny footbridge high up in the air, while under them, in the same frame, soldiers are marching through the street). The way she offers him first his coat and then his sash, the way he swirls into her arms, leading to what might be the most romantic wedding scene in film history - a promise made directly before god, but not at all before society...

Ein Tango für Dich, Geza von Bolvary, 1930

The second of four films Willi Forst, Walter Reisch, Robert Stolz and Geza von Bolvary made together in 1930. This is the rarest of them all, the only available version is almost as abysmal as the Borzage silents I watched lately, but now and then I find a perverse joy in seeing films as if through multiple layers of unwashed linen (there's a bit more texture here than with Borzage, but, in compensation, at the top of the frame the image is grotesquely distorted, completely eating away, in some instances, the heads of the characters).

The bad image quality is especially annoying because this is the only Reisch / Bolvary film I've seen so far that features somewhat elaborate dance choreographies (plus another Willi Forst tapdance attempt!). A few shots might even pass as distant Berkeley echos, with the reason for the distance commented on in one of the, as always, very nice songs: " You are beautiful like Greta Garbo / It's only that you do not have as much money" (it really does sound smoother in german).

The film itself is a delight, if maybe a bit more low-key than the rest of the group's 1930 output. Willi Forst is joined by Karlweis again, but, unlike in ZWEI HERZEN IM 3/4-TAKT, he already is the undisputed star of the show, maneuvering himself through the paper-thin mistaken identity plot with a downbeat cockiness somewhere between the madcap zest of DER HERR AUF BESTELLUNG and the melancholy of DAS LIED IST AUS. He is part of a show act, and while his mostly female colleagues are a bit underused, there's a thread of showbiz cynisism (again: shades of Berkeley) running through the film, starting with the beginning, when a few showgirls chatter about a famous singer and one starts to calculate his earnings in royalties.

Dios, diverse, 2019

"Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe." - It's not as simple as that anymore.

Die lustigen Weiber von Wien, Geza von Bolvary, 1931

Starts a bit slow, and also it's downright stenched in all the vienna operetta klischees the other von Bolvary / Reisch films use much more tentatively. Forst is just a bit too obsequious this time and his whole schtick is affected by it: when he leans his upper body forward, this no longer reads as flirtatious, but just as overzealous. As soon as he starts courting Lee Parry, the film is back on track again, though, and when the big Oskar Sima show arrives toward the end I'm once again in paradise.

Der Raub der Mona Lisa, Geza von Bolvary, 1931

The last collaboration of Forst, Reisch, von Bolvary and Stolz ditches, for the most part, the slapdash farcical style of the previous films the team did together. There are a few remnants, like a wonderful "Adieu mein kleiner Gardeoffizier" rehash called "Du dummer kleiner Korporal" but primarily this is an intricately plotted melodrama about the necessary artificiality of feelings, with Forst especially cast against type (and thereby setting the scene for his own directorial works). The heist plot the title suggests is played out over several long, talky scenes and it features an impressively creepy Gründgens, but in the end all of the procedural stuff is just a ruse, a psychic shield established by Forst who never quite manages to differentiate between the painted Mona Lisa and the real woman living next door.

Das Lied ist aus, Geza von Bolvary, 1930

I didn't remember just how wonderfully quirky Liliane Haid is in this.

Song o´ My Heart, Frank Borzage, 1930

Sound filling the air and slowing down the images, to sometimes touching effect. Two love stories, one pointed toward the future (Maureen O'Sullivan, wonderful, in her second role), one toward the past (Alice Joyce in her last role), one acted out through plot, glances and dialogue, the other almost completely through McCormack's singing, culminating in a long concerto sequence that lends the film an almost abstract quality.

Borzage centers many scenes around a hedge arch that, again and again, frames characters entering or leaving a scene, momentarily isolating them from their surroundings, defining them as whole, self-sufficient subjects.

Leise singen meine Lieder, Willi Forst, 1933

A favorite of Ozu and (as I just learned) Kurosawa, but, of course, completely neglected in stupid Germany. Hans Jaray is an inhibited, delicate Schubert, dreamily composing away on the school dashboard intended for clear-cut arithmetics. When he plays the piano a complete orchestra soundtrack sets in, but here, this is no cheesy stunt, but a magical trick that leaves the whole world transfixed. Caught between two blonds, pragmatic Luise Ullrich and irreverent Martha Eggerth, Jaray choses, unwittingly but without much resistance, the already proven Willi Forst path of self-denial. The cornfield scene Ozu quotes in HITORI MUSUKO is the first step toward another realm, a timeless space of pure, fleeting, disembodied affect, finally fully achieved in the shameless, but also absolutely marvellous Ave Maria ending.

Young As You Feel, Frank Borzage, 1931

Will Rogers, under attack from modern art and in need of relaxation in general, meets Fifi D'Orsay who is his equal as a creature of good-natured caricature. Soon, he's living the champagner life, and an air of precode irreverence abounds woth several self-proclaimed "hussies" hanging around but the charme of the film has less to do with anything risque than with Rodgers' childlike delight in trying out a new self.

Borzage gets through with the plot as fast and unobtrusive as possible and leaves the rest to Rogers and D'Orsay, which is exactly the right kind of apporach for a film like this.

Doctors´ Wives, Frank Borzage, 1931

Probably as dull as a Borzage melodrama can possibly get. Bennett hasn't grown into her cool yet and Warner Baxter doesn't seem to know what to do with his badly written role, even his pencil mustache looks lukewarm. Their love story begins rather promising, in true romantic extremism Borzage style (plus there's a nice scene with a monkey), but when the complications set in all the tension evaporates. It's all about beating Bennett into shape now, but the film doesn't even commit to this tired program.

In the end, the most interesting thing about DOCTORS' WIVES is Victor Varconi's character. He plays, with rather random intensity, Baxter's assistent who has set up a sinister looking laboratory right next to his bosses medical office. So there might be a looney little b-movie living next door to a misguided melodrama. Unfortunately, we are only allowed two or three glimpses of it.

Good Boys, Gene Stupnitsky, 2019

The well-calibrated cast makes it work on a scene by scene level. Brady Noon is especially wonderful, his high-pitched shriek surprised me anew every time he brought it on. Still, it fosters my growing frustration with mainstream comedies, because like many others in the last few years it is a stealth action comedy, with a random, gadget-based, point-and-click-adventure-game-style plot suffocating a lot of what might be interesting about it. Those kind of narratives are not necessarily new, but they used to be afterthoughts, applied after the fact to the main attraction of the film, a star performance or a genre setting. Now all too often, the plot mechanics take center stage, with character and setting only filling in a few blank spaces. Realizing that the old modes of control, genre and star system, are slipping away, hollywood doubles down on structure, resulting in images that feel both overdetermined and disposable. Fittingly, the best part here is the ending, the kissing party and its aftermath: when the plot is out of the way, we finally are allowed to have fun for a while.

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