Pandora’s Box (1922): Iconic Flapper Louise Brooks as Man-Eating Vamp

I wanted to like this film. And there is a lot to like about it. It is directed by G.W. Pabst, a German director, and it stars American actress Louise Brooks.Louise Brooks was always an iconic flapper

You may not know who Louise Brooks is, but if you see her picture you will be immediately familiar with her startling for its day but now iconic flapper look. Like I said, there is a lot to like about the film, including the participants, the direction (which is amazing) and the incredible use of light and shadow and dramatic imagery. But the film falls apart on the story. It’s pretty maudlin and unbelievable, even for Hollywood, even for the silent film era — and those are its good points.

This is a famous silent film and deservedly so. I can see why. The direction and images, again, are second to none. But the story of a woman who uses her sexuality to get what she wants, and then meets a Jack the Ripper kind of killer in London later on, pales. It could have been a much better story, I think, but whoever wrote it just phoned in the dramatic elements and left everything else to chance.  Pabst, being something of a genius, did the best he could with such third-rate material.

Anyway, that’s how it seemed to me. Sorry, but even though this is a very famous silent film, and Louise Brooks is exceptional, and the direction of Pabst is first-rate, I can’t recommend it at all. Oh, for the record, the music soundtrack blows chunks, too. It often doesn’t match what’s happening on screen. Too bad.

I really wanted to like this one.


Haxan (1922): Superb Horror and Dark Fantasy Painted in Silence

If you haven’t seen this phenomenal silent film then by all means do. It’s a Swedish film about witchcraft and the frenzied denials and condemnations that surrounded it during the Middle Ages, and up until the present. Well, 1922, anyway, which is when this film was made.

The visuals of Haxan are astounding, on a par with any CGI magic you see today. These pics only represent a fraction of what is in the film. It’s an absolutely gorgeous piece of art and seriously, if you haven’t seen it, try. You will not be disappointed.

Sunrise – 1927 (A Review)

I love silent film. I’m not a huge fan of movies per se, but I do love film.  I have seen one several times which I would like tSunrise - A Song of Two Humanso recommend for you. It is F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.

This is a silent film from 1927 with a great score.  It’s the only film I know in which an entire category was invented so it could win an Oscar that year. It’s an Expressionist film, but it’s not Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Expressionism, even though the characters are named The Man, The Wife, The Woman from the City, and they hail from places like The Farm and City.  Very fundamental. But the use of light and shadow, and Murnau’s interest in light as a character in the film, is fantastic. Murnau also directed the original Nosferatu, another silent film you should definitely watch should you get the chance.

But back to Sunrise.  Of course, the woman from the city is a typical man-eating Vamp who smokes cigarettes and likes showing the outline of her legs through her black dress.  She has mesmerized The Man and while they are making love on the shore of the water by moonlight she talks him into drowning his wife and making it look like an accident.  He is tormented. We see scenes of him wrestling with his conscience as ghostly images of The Woman from the City embraces and kisses him.  He decides to go through with the murder.

Everything in this film works, even, I suspect, quite by accident. In one scene, as The Man and The Wife are in a boat headed across the water and come to tie up at a pier, we see a black swirl of water behind her. It’s a spooky metaphor for the danger she’s in, and I’m quite certain it’s real and not a special effect.

Janet Gaynor plays The Wife. Rarely have I ever seen anyone as fragile and innately vulnerable as she appears on screen. She is perfect for the role, as is Margaret Livingston who plays the Vamp.
Torment and love in Murnau's Sunrise
I don’t want to say much else about the plot. I don’t want to spoil it for you. But the search on the water by lamplight (an incredible achievement considering the technology back then) has been copied in a ton of films since.  And for good reason: it’s freaking AWESOME. The play of light on water, the light and shadow on the faces…Wow.

I highly recommend this film. As a writer this film also fascinates me because the story is simple, but Murnau brings layers of complexity to it.

If you ever get the chance I urge you to see it.  You may find your outlook on life changes a little.

It’s that good, and that powerful.


Metropolis (1927) as SF Atavism and Cautionary Tale – A Review

I suppose if you push me I will admit I prefer silent films to any other format. I mean, if that’s the choice you give me. ThThe grinding social furnace of Metropolis consumes humanity....ere are a lot of reasons for this. Mostly, I think, because so many silent films were incredibly groundbreaking in so many areas including writing, direction, artistic quality, and method of acting. You can watch the growth take place right before your eyes. Despite the intervening years since their creation and release, silent films continue to resonate even today.

Metropolis is one example of such a film.

I don’t know how many times I have watched this movie. Every time I see it I notice something new. I am not a huge fan of German expressionism, although I do like it. But Metropolis appears as if it combines story and art on such a high level of genius it is no surprise that it’s considered to be Fritz Lang’s magnum opus.

One of the best parts about the film is how it looks so believable. I think the closest any modern day science fiction film has come to making me truly believe in the futuristic background and culture is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. But Metropolis did it first. It may even be the best interpretation of a futuristic society bar none. I think this might be due in part to the temporal distance involved. We know the names and biographies of the actors in Metropolis, but they have no real connection to our lives in any tangible cultural sense. Whereas when I watch Blade Runner I can’t help but think “Hey, that’s Harrison Ford up there.”Maria as Babylon Whore

Of course, I know some of the names of the characters in Metropolis. But they aren’t culturally tied to me, so I think that gives them a sort of freedom and makes the film itself a tabula rasa for anyone else who comes to it for the first time. When we watch any film, no matter what it is, we always bring our past experiences with us and draw upon them to help us understand what we are seeing, and process it. This is why going to movies, and reading, and attending operas and ballets and other forms of entertainment endure. They demand that we draw upon our past experience in order to interpret them. There is not only a social connection being made but a psychological one, too. I think as human beings we like that process. We understand it, or at the very least feel comfortable with it.

We know Harrison Ford, at least through his modern day work. Most of us like him. We don’t know Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Frolich and others who appear in Metropolis. That distance lends itself to an even deeper commitment of our suspension of disbelief, I think. What I mean is, the characters themselves don’t lurch us out of the film and back into reality because they are, for the most part, completely unknown to us. We come to them somewhat empty and unformed and let them help us fill in the tapestry of tMaria as human avatarhe film-going experience.

From the decimal clocks to the mechanistic and dehumanizing social stratification, Metropolis presents myriad and multi-layered facets. As a writer this fascinates me as well. Fritz Lang is juggling a lot of crystal balls with this movie, and he keeps them in the air and moving in an intricate pattern. It’s an incredible artistic accomplishment given the breadth of the work.

The art direction for Metropolis set the bar. It is phenomenal. Even when you consider the sense-shattering impact of German expressionism, there are so many elements to Metropolis, so much packed into every scene without either the story or the look of the film becoming top heavy, that it just melds together as one entity. As for story, which as a writer I tend to concentrate on above all else, it works, too. Oh, the basic qualities of the story are a bit long in the tooth: a social and economic clash between two distinct classes, blah blah blah. But even old stories gain new life when they are peopled by actors who interpret their characters as three-dimensional beings. I find the actors did an admirable job of this in Metropolis. We’ve seen the basic story before. We have not seen this interpretation before, I don’t think. At least, not played out like this.

Of course, of all the cast, it is Maria, played by Brigitte Helm, who stands head and shoulders above everyone else. From her transformation from Christ-like figure to robot, she is right on target and completely steals the movie. Her image continues to endure right down to today.

Watching the evil Maria Robot I also get the impression a lot of background work went into developing that character. Watch how Maria moves and interacts with the other actors. Watch her facial expressions, her gestures, the small moments she brings to the screen. It is like nothing I have ever seen in any other science fiction film — ever.

Today, when we see robots on the silver screen, they either move in some mechanistic stop-and-go action, or like any other ordinary human being so they can hide among us. Think C-3PO from Star Wars to Number Six in the Battlestar Galactica remake as separate ends of the knowable spectrum. But Helm’s interpretation of Maria is the only truly inhuman robot I think I have ever seen. She moves and acts and gestures like something completely and totally alien to our experience. It is an amazing feat, and it is downright creepy.

To be sure Metropolis is not a perfect film. The philosophy “The mediation between head and hands must be the heart” becomes repetitious and I can’t help but wonder if we are not losing something in the translation from the original German which accounts for its awkwardness. There are also the usual filmatic standardizations and slogging character development that we have to suffer through upon occasion.

But for the most part this film rocks. One of the best parts is fans and collectors are always finding new snippets excised from the original film stock. So over the years they have built and patched the film into the original shape Lang meant it to be viewed in.

I like Metropolis. As someone who works in genre I can’t deny the impact the film has had upon science fiction. As someone who loves film, I can’t deny the impact it has had upon the industry as a whole. It’s just amazing to me how a film can reach higher than itself and become almost atavistic to genre. As if all that has passed since its release must by necessity narrow down to the nexus of its existence and draw creative sustenance.

I think Metropolis does that, at least on a small level, if not large. It reaches beyond itself and becomes something greater, not just in flim but as it relates to knowable human experience. In the process, we are swept along and bounced from crest to wave.

Metropolis is a fascinating ride through the fabric of imagination and culture. Anyway, that was, and continues to be, my experience when I watch this film. If you ever get to watch it, I hope you like it, too. 🙂

Here she comes....

Maria robot as atavistic symbol for progress and humanity

The Vanishing American (1925) movie review

The Vanishing American is a silent film from 1925 that explores the tragic plight of Native Americans trapped by history and fate, and who ultimately become crushed into non-existence by the grinding wheels of racism and modernity. The source material is the novel by the same name written by Zane Grey. The film was good enough I am thinking of maybe running down the novel and giving it a read.

For a film of its time The Vanishing American is uncompromising on all fronts. It pulls no punches whatsoever. If you can look past the fact the main character of Nophaie is played by the white Richard Dix (a not uncommon occurrence, sadly, even today) the film and the story are strong enough to make a real impact.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but the film looks at the Native American down through history up through WWI. We see how Nophaie and his people are abused by government and institutional racism. But the film makes a stand here, too. It does not portray the Native Americans as “strong, silent and noble savages” which itself is diluted racism. No, it shows them as human beings who are oppressed by more human beings. The film doesn’t preach, though to be sure there is a message here — and a strong one.

For me the power of this film, like I said, comes from the harsh light that shines on the institutional racism. At one point an Army sergeant watches Nophaie and his people march off to take part in a war that has gripped the world. He says they are “pitiful and magnificent” for going off to fight a “white man’s war.” Nophaie hopes by taking part in fighting for a country that has usurped his own culture, he will gain political and social favor and win a white woman’s love. When he returns, he must face the ugly truth. Meanwhile, the white woman he has fallen in love with has waited patiently for his return. She loves him in return.  But, since this is a film from 1925 there is no completion of their love. Nophaie dies in a tragic accident during a clash between his people and the Indian agents of the reservation.

The Vanishing American is not a perfect film about racism. Nor is it meant to be. But the voice it lends and the dignity it gives to the story and the human hearts involved in this story cannot be denied. I definitely recommend this film, especially for western writers and people who love a good human story. Its pretty strong, and worth the time.

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