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April 25, 2005

Something I Actually Did -- In The Future!

For those of you who know me (i.e. anyone who reads this), you know my dismal rate of follow-through. The more grandiose the scheme I cook up, the more microscopic the chance it will be executed. You're probably suspicious that you haven't heard anything about Metropolis in the last two weeks, ever since I said "I'm going to see it and you're not. Nyah, nyah."

Well, I went to Metropolis. I went all 350 miles, with my sister, who made the drive 350 times nicer than it would have been by myself.

I bet you're wondering what I thought of Metropolis. You'll probably have to keep wondering.

Here's the problem. I saw Metropolis, digitally restored, on the big screen, in a genuine old-time movie palace. With live original music. The movie is already pulp gold, as big as the city it depicts. It's got flaws and oversimplifications, but it's also got vision, panache, and -- most important -- power. To see Metropolis like this -- it was like injecting nitrous oxide into a stock-car engine. Can I tell you what it was like to go 200 miles an hour? I don't know.

In the middle of seeing it, I realized -- I was having a perfect moviegoing experience. Then I ruined it by thinking. Normally, it's rare and wonderful to find myself thinking during a movie. At least, to find myself thinking about the movie, and not about my latest predicament in applied labor relations.

But thinking has consequences. I don't pay total attention to what's going on up on the screen. And then, when I try to write those thoughts down, I end up with a decent high-school English paper. All the symbolism is dissected like a frog, all the fun scooped out of its tummy. Even over the internet, you can smell the formaldehyde. But I will share a couple of the choicest giblets.

To my dismay, I confirmed that this showing of Metropolis was unique and won't be repeated. I was hoping the Alloy Orchestra had extracted permission to tour with Metropolis again, after the copyright restrictions went into effect three years ago -- but no dice. Roger Miller of the Alloy Orchestra told me this performance was a one-time thing. One of the other Orchestra members said something about a cease-and-desist order. I don't know for sure, but they were probably able to sneak in this showing of Metropolis because it was free, done for a University of Michigan lecture series. The commercial portion of the evening's program came later, when they showed Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail.

The Alloy Orchestra has a CD of their Metropolis soundtrack for sale on their website. But it's not the same. The mix is different. The percussion isn't nearly as powerful as it should be. So your attention drifts to the synthesizer...which is, sometimes, undeniably cheesy. At least it's powerful cheese. But it's not the experience you get live.

This is a shame. All the more reason to be grateful I saw it, one last time.

That said, it's worth checking out the new DVD release of Metropolis. Even if you've seen the movie before, you haven't seen it like this. As an experiment, I played the first half of the new Kino release, and then played a 1998 copy from Madacy. Same scenes -- different movies.

From what I've read, Madacy isn't known for the quality of their releases, and this one remains faithful to that tradition. The Madacy copy is an experiment in what happens when someone makes a movie, and then for the next seventy years someone uses it to absorb excess facial oil. It looks like a short-order cook fried it in bacon fat, and then added some class with blood pudding. The only good thing was the soundtrack, or the first part of it, anyway -- a twentieth-century piece that was perfect to be appalled by. I never thought I'd say it, but thank God for the digital age. Otherwise the restoration wouldn't have been possible.

If you see a smeared, flickery release like this, it's easy to think that this is how silent movies look. After all, they're so primitive, darling, the photography is strictly from Woolworth's. Not so. They were beautiful, once. Some still are.

A quick word about the film speed. I've seen a couple of complaints about the sped-up motion of the new version of Metropolis. Anyone new to silent film probably furrows their brow when they see this alien projection speed -- it's easy to mistake for a mistake. After all, these movies were usually shot slower -- why not show them at the original speed?

Walter Kerr makes a pretty good case for why not. In giving up sound, movies in the teens and twenties were free to use whatever speed worked best for a particular sequence. They could speed through sections of pure dialogue and make action look effortless. They could change tempos, like music. Shooting and projection speeds were considered arts, but broadly speaking silent movies were usually shown 30-60% faster than they were shot.

Look at what this means for Metropolis. In the opening, when Freder plays in the Eternal Gardens, the action is sped up to make Freder and the geishas run like children. At normal speed they would have lumbered around like grownups.

Then Maria brings the workers' children to look at the Gardens, and gives that ethereal, unsettling look. The tempo slows. Momentarily. Freder, looking at Maria, is almost still, but you can see his breathing speed up.

Then the old caretaker of the Gardens enters. He scurries around and shoos Maria and the children out. With his beak and thick glasses he looks like a tortoise, so the increased speed adds all the more absurdity to his frantic arm-waving.

Finally Freder chases after Maria. He runs like a child, straight-arming the door before he descends into the depths of Metropolis.

Later, when Freder talks with his father, he identifies with the workers' children as his brothers and sisters. If the film had not been sped up to make Freder look like a child, this would be harder to swallow.

Metropolis is capable of lingering slowness. Look at the second meeting of Freder and Maria. Here, he is no longer just infatuated with her. He has experienced the suffering that is the life of her people. He understands, there's a connection, there's hope.

He can't stay, he has to go, but doesn't want to leave the blessing of her presence. So he doesn't let go of her all at once. He backs away, holding her arm, then her hand, then her fingertips. At this point the film is in no hurry.

I mentioned musical tempo. Metropolis is divided into three movements, like music: Prelude, Intermezzo, and Furioso. I doubt "Furioso" was just an instruction for the musical accompaniment. It was also directed at the projectionist, compelling him to whip the last act into a frenzy.

To sum up -- the increased film speed isn't an accident, wasn't done thoughtlessly. It was a basic tool of silent film. End of digression.

Whenever I see Metropolis I find something new to be impressed by. The scale, the detail, the masterful segues between scenes and locations, the mix of themes, the recurring motifs.

How the Biblical allusion to the Tower of Babel works throughout the film. How the same words, how the city itself, carry entirely different meanings, depending on whether you're on the top of the heap or the bottom. Ask the city's Master about the city, and he'll describe it as a masterwork. Ask a slave, and the words he uses might come straight out of Apocalypse Now: "You're in the asshole of the world, Captain."

How Maria looks like Maria, but says completely different things when she's a robot in the employ of the city's masters. As a human being, she talks to the workers about peace and patience. So why does the robot's reversal, her talk about retribution and destruction, sound like Maria to anyone? Maybe because this is always how Maria sounded -- to the city's masters. To them, anyone bringing any message to the workers, giving them hope or identity outside of what the masters have in store for them, is talking about destruction. Good Maria is their Bad Maria, and Bad Maria is their Good Maria. Like a Tarot card turned upside down.

How even love means different things. To Maria, it means knowing enough about someone not to condemn them. To know the plight of the living whose labor makes your life possible. But to Rotwang the scientist, love is a cyst which has swallowed his heart. Rotwang measures his love in monuments, and ultimately he uses the city and everyone in it as a funeral pyre for his deceased love.

The movie has a radical solution to social problems: empathy for the guy who's on the receiving end of your crap. It's a measure of how bad off we are that the suggestion of tolerance, that we should try to find some common ground with the other guy, comes off as pie-in-the-sky utopianism.

Marxism is implicitly ruled out. Workers can't run things on their own -- they just follow orders. They're too crushed to do anything else. Progress gets rolling when a powerful guy has a great idea. It's a measure of how bad things are that Maria gets more done by having one son of a rich guy fall in love with her, than by having the entire workforce of Metropolis believe in her.

Most of the religious allusions are Biblical, but at least one is eastern. Freder Fredersen, son of the Master of Metropolis. How much he resembles Prince Gautama. All his life, his father has kept him in a palace, surrounded only by the strong and fit, guessing nothing about pain and death. Until he steps outside.

It's hard to know how Freder's father expects Freder to succeed him. His son has no practical skills of any kind. Ultimately he does prove to have enough business acumen for the city not to be destroyed, but not the kind of acumen his father had any appreciation for. Maybe Freder's father thinks of Freder the same way Gautama's father thought of the Buddha. "Such a disappointment. The boy has no ambition at all."

The Biblical imagery gets a little extravagant, but it ties to the larger story and isn't purely for spectacle. As the robot Maria does her exotic dance, Freder dreams she is the Whore of Babylon, riding a beast with seven heads and ten horns. Later, she does rides a beast with no head -- when she leads a mob to destroy the city's machines.

When the mob does this -- or when the Master of Metropolis allows them to -- the workers bring down a flood upon their underground city. Of course this is the Flood, meant to wash away the unwashed. Only later, as the workers are dancing a ring-around-the-rosy like kids at recess, they realize their thoughtlessness has probably drowned their own children. Their future is gone. Then they swarm up to the city for vengeance, looking for all the world like a flood that would drown God, if it could. Only Freder, turning the city into an ark for the children, averts the end for everyone.

But you still get to see an art-deco robot burned at the stake.

So there's my high-school English paper. Questions?

The surprise of the evening was Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail. I hadn't seen any Hitchcock movie earlier than The 39 Steps, let alone a silent Hitchcock movie. The 39 Steps didn't do much for me at the time, and the Internet Movie Database had reviews of Blackmail that called it awkward. So my expectations weren't high.

However, Blackmail was one of those transitional films that exists in silent and sound versions. In 1929 sound was the new big thing, but not every theater in the country had made the switchover. So movies got released both ways, and the versions could be quite different. The silent version of Harold Lloyd's Welcome Danger has at least one character who doesn't appear in the sound version.

Some movies, like Blackmail, were made silent, then retroactively reshot, recut and dubbed. In the case of Hitchcock, this is a crucial point. When IMDB users describe Blackmail as awkward, they're describing the sound version. This isn't the movie Hitchcock planned. As the Michigan Theater's announcer said, Hitchcock worked out every shot in his head -- to the point where shooting the actual movie was almost redundant. If Blackmail was redone for sound, it's not the movie Hitchcock originally intended. I doubt he would have planned dubbing in someone else's voice for the leading actress, who had a German accent.

Fortunately the silent version exists, and it is a beaut. The first ten minutes follows a squad of detectives as they make an arrest, and it's done without a single title card to interrupt the tension. If this sounds surprising, take another look at Rear Window from 1954. James Stewart watches his neighbors play out their lives in nearly silent tableaux. Hitchcock started as a silent director, and he could still play that card when it was useful.

In some ways Blackmail is modest. There is a MacGuffin, but no state secrets or spies. However, there is something you might not expect from a 1929 feature film -- attempted rape. An artist invites a woman to his studio, and the situation turns shockingly bad. When the woman defends herself everything only gets worse. She has no idea what to do, and the entire world seems to be conspiring to rub her nerves raw. Especially one of the artist's paintings -- a truly creepy clown picture, a bloody-toothed mob henchman in drag, pointing and laughing.

The Alloy Orchestra outdid themselves with their eerie score. Roger Miller later said they had played the most contrasting scores in their repertoire: Metropolis had the bombast, and Blackmail had the delicate timing. I hope Image Entertainment issues Blackmail with the Alloy's score, so you can see and hear what I'm talking about.

Actually, at this point I just hope their website comes back. Was it something I said?

April 13, 2005

What information will look like -- In The Future!

I predict that the trend away from investigative journalism, and toward the recycling of a few easily available news pieces, will grow. In the future, news providers will maximize their ROI by eliminating wasteful, labor-intensive sentence construction. Within ten years, all news stories will be one word long.

For example, "Tsunami!" or "Pope!"

If a story is truly groundbreaking, or touches the lives of millions, the word will be repeated over and over.

Furthermore, I predict that one of the mainstream news outlets, CNN or MSNBC, will cut additional production costs by eliminating punctuation. But this scheme will backfire when Fox runs intensive coverage on "ELITISM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!". This will shame Fox's less reactionary competitors into reinstating punctuation, thereby avoiding the trap of reporting news like William Faulkner. Journalistic integrity must be maintained.

My friend and webspace-mate Rory recently speculated on gayness, attempts to avoid the appearance of gayness, and the enshrinement of conventional wisdom on attempts to avoid the appearance of gayness. He got me to wondering.

For my money, sexual preference is completely determined by non-sexual behavioral traits. For example, sometimes I sip my tea with my pinky held out. This either means I'm gay, or else I learned to hold my pinky out by playing classical guitar. But then again -- classical guitar. Sheesh. By itself, that dooms me to a lifetime of fingering other men's fretboards.

Speaking of sticking your M-16 into other men's exit wounds, you know what's not gay? The military. Young, strapping men volunteering to leave their wives and homes, to spend years together stacked in barracks bunkbeds. Nope. Not gay.

In fact, our government is determined that there should be no stain on the honor of this country's fighting men. As soon as the Defense of Marriage Act is safe from violation at the hands of activist judges, this administration will turn its attention to the Defense of Defense Act. In lieu of veteran's benefits or family assistance, our soldiers will be protected by the force of an amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The amendment will read: "The military is not gay."

Some lawmakers, caught up in their zeal to do right by our country's armed forces, are proposing a second amendment to table. Tentatively named the Defense of Offense Act, this new law would state "Everything besides the military is gay."

However, more moderate lawmakers point out that such an amendment would entail that marriage is gay. One consequence might be that only gay marriage would be constitutional. In order for heterosexual unions to exist at all, our men in uniform would have to marry each other. Because, you know, they're not gay.

And because they sacrifice themselves so that we might live free.

April 06, 2005

And now for something less gruesome.

"Do you mind if I have another idea?" -- Stan Laurel, Way Out West

Tomorrow night, I'll be in Ann Arbor, watching the restored version of Metropolis. With live music.

You know, being a movie freak is like being Rip Van Winkle, for two hours at a time. You go to sleep. You wake up. You discover that your friends and competitors are two hours further along with their lives and accomplishments and lack thereof. Your beard and lawn are two hours shaggier. While you haven't gone anywhere.

But what dreams you've had.

Movies are remarkable dreams. You can share them with someone else. Even dead people can tell you their dreams. Brought to life, of course, by the living.

I have to admire the ingenuity that silent cinema has displayed in adapting itself to our times. Not everybody sees this. Even people who write books about silent film, and love it, talk about it as something finished. I'm not so sure. Here's why.

Silent movies were never only visual experiences. They were musical experiences too, in a way only approximated by a recorded soundtrack.

In the twenties, movie theaters tried to move beyond the tinkly-piano phase of their development. Many theaters at the very least acquired an organ. And if they were even a little ambitious, they had an orchestra. The truly ambitious theaters employed up to seventy musicians.

However, few silent movies came with complete musical scores. They might have a specific theme or two, but mainly they had cue sheets. These described the type of music to play during each scene.

But what music? A theater like the Rialto in New York might have a library of up to twenty thousand scores, indexed by type and mood, to pull out at a moment's notice, match to the cue sheet and work into a film.

But when the sun of synchronized soundtracks rose over the land, theater orchestras evaporated. If they were lucky, they got hired by a studio. Otherwise, exhibitors were happy to dispense with all those mouths to feed, and the public was happy to hear the charming patter of Jimmy Durante as he browbeat Buster Keaton to death. Silent movies lost their audience and their voice.

But now some people are saying, Hey. We might have dissed this silence thing a little too hard. Let's take another look. But when they look, what do they listen to? Those seventy-piece orchestras and giant music libraries can't be threaded through a projector and made to play again.

Enter modern musicians, like Richard Einhorn or the Alloy Orchestra. They compose or improvise scores for films that, until now, haven't had any special music to accompany them. And the results can be really something. Watch the Kino release of F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh, with Timothy Brock's new score. The movie is silent and has exactly one title card, but the cello gives it the only voice it needs. Or, if you prefer something that will make your head vibrate for days, watch Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc with Richard Einhorn's score, Voices of Light.

But even the magic of contemporary technology, making music out of one and zero, can't reproduce the experience of real notes reaching your ears from real live musicians. Sometimes, to catch what's going on in a silent film, you have to use your ears. And your ears need all the help they can get.

Enter, again, the Alloy Orchestra, and others like them who perform live with films. Tomorrow, in Ann Arbor, the Alloy Orchestra will perform their score for the restored version of Metropolis.

If the movie looks anything like the Kino DVD of the restored version -- but even bigger and clearer -- and if it had no other additions, no music or sound of any kind, this movie would be something to remember for years or decades. It's that gorgeous. It looks new.

But then they went and did more. The Murnau Foundation scraped together all the lost sequences of Metropolis they could find: all the story elements deemed expendable for the American cut. Compare and contrast...

The American Release:

The Master of Metropolis: Mad scientist, why did you build a mechanical woman?
Mad Scientist: Because I'm mad, I tell you! Mad! Bwahahaha!
The Master of Metropolis: Fine. Let's kill the workers and call it a day.

The Restored Version:

The Master of Metropolis: Mad scientist, why did you build a mechanical woman?
Mad Scientist: I have my reasons, which are more compelling than those presented in the American release of Metropolis, and which provide clearer motivation throughout the film. However, I shall keep my secrets until you see the film for yourselves.
The Master of Metropolis: Fine. Let's kill the workers and call it a day.

Somehow, in the Kino release, even the acting is different. Before, it was easy to see all the performances as histrionics directed at the deaf grandma in the last row, by actors who were forgetting they'd be eighteen feet tall onscreen. Not to mention mute. But in the restored version it becomes clearer what's going on. Partly, Metropolis is a parable, and everyone in a parable has a distinct role to play. The acting distinguishes each role. Further, it's not so over the top. Watch Alfred Abel as the Master of Metropolis. What a magnificently icy performance. The smaller the flick of his finger, the greater the frenzy of fear and obesiance he inspires in those around him.

The performances are a kind of human architecture, to go with the monumental architecture of the city. Everyone poses grandly but precisely. Brigitte Helm, in particular, required a contortionist's skill to play her role as the robot.

But then there's the music. Live music. Something you will never hear in a multiplex, unless you sneak in your slide whistle.

As I mentioned, few silent movies came with complete original scores. Oddly, Metropolis was one of the few. But the score was hardly ever used because so much of the movie's running time got cut.

Tomorrow night, the original score is not on tap. But the Alloy's own score brings out some powerful flavors. There's nothing like the scene where Rotwang chases Maria through the catacombs, to the accompaniment of seat-shivering percussion. Since there's nothing like it within 350 miles, I'm driving to Ann Arbor to see it.

This is how silent movies are coming back from the dead. What's on the screen is pretty well set in stone, but as musical canvases they are wide open. Musicians with time and even a little imagination are making music with the old masters. Turner Classic Movies is even holding a contest to see who can write the prizewinning score for Souls for Sale. It's all going down, right here and now.

But please, let this be our secret. Don't tell Hollywood. Or, next thing you know, the Alloy Orchestra's score will be optioned for the remake of Metropolis, directed by Tim Burton and scripted by authentic circus clowns.

The remake will be called Metropolitan. It will open on the Masters of Metropolitan, riding rich and carefree on the roof of a clown car. But then one of them will fall through the sunroof, and discover the dark world of drudgery that existed just beneath his giant clown knickers. Driver clowns, forced to cram themselves into the Metropolitan for ten hours a day. "Greaser" clowns lubricate the engine with the greasepaint on their faces, while "piston" clowns drive the engine by having trick cigars explode in their face hundreds of times a second.

When the workday is over, the clowns slog home to the trunk.

The remake has several key differences from the original. For instance, there is no robot. But there is a guy with scissors for hands, illustrating the inhumanity of cutting appliances.

Don't let this happen. Instead, support Kino and the Alloy Orchestra wherever you find them. Like in Ann Arbor.

Want to come?

April 01, 2005


Tonight, Turner Classic Movies was playing a bunch of Laurel and Hardy movies. Now, I'm what you might call a freak for old movies. But I've read a lot more about Laurel and Hardy than I've seen of them. I wasn't in a hurry to. Not because I didn't think I'd like them, so much as because I resented them for making a successful transition to sound film.

My rationale was -- their silent work had nothing that couldn't be carried over to sound. So they came over just fine. While others, who had brought a unique flair and kinesis to silent movies, were now forced to stand stock still and flap their lips like everyone else. Sound was the Tower of Babel, and it turned everything that had been clear into noise. A little softer...a little louder. Noise.

But so. TCM and its Laurel-and-Hardy marathon. I decided to have a sit-down and see what was what.

Their style was never what you'd call laugh-out-loud. You -- and they -- could see the joke coming a mile off. The fun was sharing their disbelief, at each other or at the rest of the world, as they observed how far people could dig themselves into a hole without stopping to check what they were doing.

But there were wonderful things out of the blue. Way Out West had them doing an innocent little step-dance in time with a cowboy song. And Sons of the Desert had Laurel as Hardy's neighbor, constantly forgetting which door was his. He was like a balloon, being sucked by the eddy of Hardy going into his own door, and following right behind. Then, when Laurel would try to leave, he'd come back for his hat, and get stuck there as if by static charge.

But in the middle of Sons of the Desert I left for a little while. I came back to see Laurel and Hardy in fezzes, chuckling madly about having fooled their wives about where they were.

Something about the fezzes. Something about Hardy's frantic amusement with his own cleverness, chortling grainily on the mid-thirties film soundtrack, made my stomach turn over as I realized they were dead. Everyone in this movie was dead. Everything they had ever done or liked or loved was dead. It was so dead that to even look at their work like this, on an antiseptic cathode-ray device at twenty-odd frames a second, was to look into death. Not as an ending, not as memories or legacy for the future -- but as something so unrecognizable, so irrelevant to the living, that if anyone showed them these movies there would be no flicker of recognition for anything human.

Dust in the shape of men.

That's what it's like to love old movies.

Maybe it would have been better to let the old nitrate negatives deteriorate into dust, as they literally do -- and did, before meddling ghost-hunters saved them. Thinking to find something for the living. A catch, a hook. Bait to catch the living for the dead.

Looks delicious. Want a bite?