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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?