FANTOMAS: THE COMPLETE SAGA (1913)

Fantômas (1913) is ‘s first crime serial, and probably the best (a fourth serial, 1918’s Tin Minh, has survived and is purportedly on par with the three better known series, but has oddly never been restored or released on home video).

Based on the novels of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, Fantômas, which was released as five separate films (Shadow of the Guillotine, Juve vs. Fantômas, The Murderous Corpse, Fantômas vs. Fantômas, and The False Magistrate), sets the pattern for the Feuillade serials that followed. Despite its age (105 years old!) it is insanely entertaining and the most surreal of the director’s massive body of work. It was among the first films to utilize a sustained narrative plot, to be shot in actual locations (as opposed to being studios), and was one of the first mystery films. As played by Rene Navarre, Fantômas himself was arguably cinema’s first completely unsympathetic, purely evil protagonist with no redeeming qualities. It would take a strong lead to inspire us to root for such a character; with his menacing charisma, Navarre pulls it off in spades. He is probably the best of Feuillade’s genre leads, and collaborates superbly with the director; together they stylishly craft a milieu of intrigue and heightened suspense that revels in amorality. Fantômas was an epic influence on ‘s Dr. Mabuse (whose films we should cover someday). As this Houdini of thieves and assassins goes through his considerable resume of opponents and victims, plotting grand conspiracies, he does so with such suave aplomb that we find ourselves unapologetically rooting for the “Emperor of Crime.” Although marginally science fiction, Fantômas ventures into fantastic surrealism, presenting the arch-villain as a shape-shifting master of disguises (he has a secret identity too, making him a proto-super villain) who will present his victims with a blank card, only to have their name “appear” when…

Naturally, with a do-gooder on his trail—inspector Juve (Edmund Bréon)—we are guaranteed a cataclysmic battle of wits. We are not disappointed. Fantômas plots grand conspiracies, absurdly fantastic escapes, elaborate train robberies, jewel heists, grave robbing, wanton violence, indiscriminate murders (from one-time accomplices to a judge of the high courts, gruesomely dispatched), disappearances and reappearances (largely unexplained), and a bizarre, utterly weird “switcheroo” with a fellow villain who takes his place at the guillotine. Fantômas vs. Fantômas, the aptly titled fourth film, is set in a grand masked ball with no less than three versions of Fantômas —which means triple the mayhem—made all the more kinetically surreal through its outlandishly stylized tableaux.  In an effort to evade an assassin of the night, Juve even gets a queer scene like a 1913 version of Rambo, complete with spiked traps and poisonous snakes. None of it is “believable” for even a second, and you won’t care one damned bit. It’s easy to see why 1913 audiences made this the first genuine worldwide blockbuster smash hit.

Fantômas, always escalating his criminal oeuvre, is never given a motive. He has no Freudian backstory to explain his lack of conscience. He is simply an ambitious sociopath whose life’s goal is to taunt, seduce, craft chaos, sow discord, betrayal, maim, and murder, leaving a trial of broken victims and corpses.

Despite its innovations, being the first of his serials, it is indeed the most aesthetically archaic (the editing is extremely choppy). Yet it’s also strangely contemporary.  All of this adds to its otherworldliness. If you must limit yourself to a single Feuillade serial (although I don’t know why anyone would wish to), make it Fantomas.

It goes without saying that Kino outdid itself in this essential release that includes a documentary on Feuillade and two shorts: one with a disappointingly traditional religious theme, and the other venturing into mild territory (before Browning).

*originally published at 366 Weird Movies

BUNUEL’S “UN CHIEN ANDALOU” (1929)

“Moving pictures merely repeat what we have been told for centuries by novels and plays. Thus, a marvelous instrument for the expression of poetry and dreams (the subconscious world) is reduced to the role of simple REPEATER of stories expressed by other art forms.”–Luis Bunuel

Although Un Chien Andalou (1929) is believed to be one of the first intentionally Surrealist films, its iconoclastic milieu is predominantly subservient to the sovereign elements of systematic realism.

 

True to surrealist tenets, the film’s naturalistic texture is the quintessential ingredient in its theatrical absurdity. In this sense, Surrealist film is antithetical to Expressionist film. For instance, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) utilized distorted set designs to convey dream worlds. In direct contrast, Luis Bunuel conveys the phantasmagoric reveries here through expressive, primarily organic compositions.

In “Sculpting in Time,” Andrei Tarkovsky  locates the pulse of Buñuel’s texture:

The driving force of his films is always anti-conformism. His protest—furious, uncompromising and harsh—is expressed above all in the sensuous texture of the film, and is emotionally infectious. The protest is not calculated. Bunuel’s work is deeply rooted in the classical culture of Spain, born on one hand of a deep love for country, and on the other of his seething hatred for lifeless structures, for the brutal, milking dry of brains. The field of vision, narrowed by hatred and disdain, takes in only that which is alive with human sympathy, the divine spark, ordinary human suffering, which has steeped into the hot, stony Spanish earth.

Andalou‘s cinematography is classic, elegant and traditional. Again, Buñuel utilizes minimalistic compositions (i.e. point of view) to frame complex psychological acts of voyeurism. Buñuel often stated that he was completely uninterested in the aesthetics of filmmaking. While that flamboyant claim might be suspect, this deliberate choice astutely serves his Surrealist agenda.


Extreme close-ups (like the still shocking opening sequence) are utilized only when absolutely necessary. Much of the camerawork is rudimentary and unobtrusive. This allows the viewer to engage with the dialectic thrust between the film’s protagonists and its symbology.

The editing further validates Buñuel’s claim of disinterest in aesthetics. Freudian affiliations, naturally, abound. Dissolves are employed merely to inspire emotional tension. The ants in the stigmatic palm are weaved into a woman’s armpit, followed by the image of a sea urchin. The result is shrewdly discomforting and challenging film poetry. Through editing, Buñuel propels the viewer into an idiosyncratic subconscious mirage.

As a silent film, Un Chien Andalou thinks differently than sound film. ( Charlie Chaplin, when asked near the end of his life, why he felt he was one of the extreme few silent filmmakers who survived the transition to sound, answered: “I suppose because I realized silent film was a different art form.”) This is clear in the use of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” as a soundtrack and a subtext (the music was conceptually there from the beginning, although the sound was only added later). Shot in two weeks on a meager budget financed by his mother, Buñuel could hardly afford a score. However, his choice of music and its context in relation to the film was influential in the “non-writing” of the piece.

Buñuel was an erudite cultural omnivore who raided different art forms to enhance his own art. He was well aware of “Tristan”’s impact and influence. “Tristan und Isolde” boldly introduced dissonance to opera, and the world reacted. Isolde’s “Liebestod,” taking place after the death of Tristan, synthesizes the preceding dissonance through her own transcendental, sensual death.

Buñuel filters this potentially incandescent vignette through a natural, highly lit filter. This serves as a compelling visual counterpart to the narrative context supplied by the usage of Wagner.

Buñuel’s aural editing, again, reveals a psychological rather than an aesthetic choice. Isolde’s immolation gives way to bawdy brothel music. Bunuel’s editing style parallels the traditional rhythmic continuity editing prevalent in the period. Low angles, overhead shots, et. al., employed conservatively, symbolize the relationship between the highly stylized performances and the participatory camera work. Melot’s murder of his friend Tristan is also mirrored by the shooting of Andalou‘s protagonist, rendering Buñuels claim the film was merely a catalog of random absurdities as highly suspect.

Buñuel’s predilection for not so subtle swipes at clerical hypocrisy is already present in this, his first film. He would continue taking such shots throughout his body of work, of course. Some have confused this with anti-religiosity. With a Jesuit education, Buñuel was well-equipped to shock and delighted in doing so, as did Alfred Hitchcock in a slightly more conventional way. (Hitchcock also received a Jesuit education).

Buñuel’s shocking religious imagery here involves a dead jackass and two priests. With dangling cigarette, Buñuel sharpens his razor for the bourgeoisie. Sergei Eisentstein saw Un Chien Andalou as the disintegration of bourgeois consciousness, and Buñuel hoped bourgeois audiences would prove that point by rioting in reaction to the film. They didn’t riot, and naturally, this inspired Buñuel to surpass this clerical mockery in L’ Age d’Or (1930). The government of Spain reacted with banishment.

Salvador Dali, the co-writer who was in some quarters credited as co-director, claimed, after the fact, to have been a more prominent force in the production. While Dali did repeat the infamous eye slicing in the dream sequence he composed for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), Un Chien Andalou is more characteristic of Buñuel’s oeuvre.

GUY MADDIN’S DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002)

DRACULA PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002, Guy Maddin)

“Dracula” is a very old story. The first (and probably best) cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s tale was F.W Murnau‘s Nosferatu (1922) with Max Schreck. Under Tod Browning‘s direction, Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi personified Hollywood’s vision of the character in Dracula (1931). George Melford made what has become known as the “Spanish” Dracula (1931), which was more fluid than Browning’s version, but saddled with an absurdly inept vampire in Carlos Villarías. Lon Chaney Jr., as Alucard (spell it backward), a Count who needs to watch his carbs, seemed to have effectively staked the character for good in Son Of Dracula (1943). However, John Carradine made Dracula as a supporting character in the mediocre monster mash, House of Frankenstein (1944) and the even worse House of Dracula (1945).

DRACULA PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002, Guy Maddin)

By the mid-1940s, Bram Stoker’s vampire seemed as hokey, outdated, and timid as his penny dreadful precursor “Varney the Vampire.” The genuine horrors of the Second World War, Fascism, and death camps rendered a nightly bloodsucker toothless. Dracula (Lugosi for the second and last time) was resurrected, for laughs, in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which by then seemed apt. Since then, celluloid incarnations of Dracula resurface with occasional, albeit brief vitality.

DRACULA PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002, Guy Maddin)

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TOD BROWNING: DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE

Tod Browning

As a child of the 60s and 70s, I grew up reading about Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), but having been banned in several countries, it was never shown on television and remained-for me-something akin to a “lost film,” achieving mythical status. Then, in the early 80s, with the advent of VCRS, video stores, and VHS, Freaks suddenly was rediscovered. Costing $100.00, I ordered my copy. It was the full feature movie I purchased (excluding the 8MM Chaplin shorts we used to order from Blackhawk Films). When a work of art achieves legendary status, it can fail to live up to its reputation. The Ghoul (1933) with Boris Karloff and Ernest Thesiger (both from Bride Of Frankenstein, 1935) was such an example when I finally viewed it after having read about it for twenty years. Freaks was different. It retained its power and became an anthem; a source of identification to a young art school student. I had previously read of Browning’s uncomfortability with sound and agreed that it would have been even more shocking as a silent, but the awkward line-reading of non-actor freaks (Harry Earles, etc) rendered it powerfully authentic. From there, I explored the films of Tod Browning, discovering his body of art that lead to Freaks, lifetime obsessions, and one of the most unsetlling actor/director collaborations in the history of cinema.

Outside The Law (Tod Browning)Outside The Law (Tod Browning)

Although Lon Chaney has two roles in Outside the Law (1920), he is
not the star; rather, the film features early Tod Browning favorite Priscilla
Dean who plays Silky Moll, daughter of mobster Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis). Both are attempting to reform under the guidance of Confucian Master Chang Lo
(E. Alyn Warren). Black Mike Sylva (Chaney) interrupts the reformation by framing Silent Madden for murder. Silky, like Lorraine Lavond in Browning’s later The Devil Doll (1939), now has a wrongly imprisoned father.

Outside The Law (Tod Browning)Outside The Law (Tod Browning)

Silky and Dapper Bill Ballard plan a jewel heist with Black Mike. Unknown to Mike, Silky is aware of his betrayal of her father and, with Bill, she double-crosses her father’s Judas. Escaping with the heisted jewels, Silky and Bill hole up in an apartment and the time spent in such a  claustrophobic setting is awash with religious symbolism, which points to transformation. Browning, a Mason, repeatedly used religious imagery and themes: In West of Zanzibar (1928) Phroso stands in for the self-martyred Christ and calls upon divine justice under the image of the Virgin. In The Show (1927), the sadomasochistic drama of Salome is reenacted and almost played out in the actors’ lives (Martinu’s
opera ‘The Greek Passion’ would explore that possibility to a more jarring, degree). East is East 1929) utilizes Buddhist and Catholic symbology. Priests and crucifixes play important parts in The Unholy Three (1925), Road to Mandalay (1926), Dracula (1931-
possibly the most religious of the Universal Horror films) and Mark of the
Vampire
 (1935).

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HARRY LANGDON: ACTOR RETROSPECTIVE ON THE ANNIVERSARY OF HIS DEATH

Harry Langdon (June 15, 1884 – December 22, 1944)

CAT'S MEOW HARRY LANGDONTHE SEA SQUAWK POSTER HARRY LANGDON

Charlie Chaplin said he “only felt threatened by Harry Langdon.” Samuel Becket wanted Langdon to act in his experimental film, but had to use Buster Keaton after Langdon’s early death. James Agee, Kevin Brownlow, Walter Kerr, Robert Youngson, Harold Lloyd and Mack Sennett were among those who sang high praises for Langdon’s art.

PICKING PEACHES POSTER HARRY LANGDON

Langdon’s characterization expressed the most pronounced silence of the era’s clowns. This is why, despite his fans’ claims (seen on the documentary included on “Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection”), sound proved completely disastrous for him. Langdon’s persona was only suited to the abstract plane that silent cinema offered.

HIS NEW MAMMA POSTER HARRY LANGDON

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FELIX THE CAT 1919-1930

Felix the Cat %22Felix Saves The Day%22 (1922)

In 1999 Image Entertainment released a DVD compilation of “Felix the Cat” cartoons, from the character’s debut in 1919 to 1924. Inexplicably, Image never followed up with a second collection, and allowed Presenting Felix the Cat to go out of print. Naturally, used copies now fetch high prices. This leaves us with another, briefer collection from Slingshot Entertainment, also from 1999, to take up the slack. The Slingshot release can be purchased for slightly less than a McDonalds Happy Meal, and it will not clog your arteries. The presentation is not as extensive as that from Image, but neither edition is ideal.

Felix In Hollywood 1923

Felix the Cat predates Mickey Mouse by a decade but was just as popular in the 20s as Walt’s rodent was in the 30s. There is a longstanding dispute over who exactly created Felix, but he was born in the studio of Pat Sullivan. Sullivan’s animator, Otto Messmer, usually (and probably rightfully) receives the bulk of the credit. Felix shot to stardom rapidly, but faded in the 30s when Sullivan was reluctant to make the move to sound, thus paving the way for Mickey’s meteoric ascent. The Felix character was revived in a weak, imitative TV series in the 1950s, and has appeared in two execrable feature films.

%22Felix In Hollywood%22

Although the quintessential compilation of Felix at his earliest (and best) remains to be released, the still-available Felix The Cat 1919-1930 will have to suffice until then.

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NO MAN’S LAW (1927)

No Man's Law (1927) lobby card

No Man’s Law is about as odd and obscure as it gets. Produced by Hal Roach, it stars Rex, King of the Wild Horses, Oliver Hardy (as a vile villain), James Finlayson,and Barbara Kent. Directed by some guy named Fred Jackman.

No Man's Law (1927) Oliver Hardy

Oliver Hardy is one-eyed, grizzled, no good fugitive cuss Sharkey Nye, prospecting for gold with good guy partner Spider O’ Day, played by Theodore Von Eltz.  James Finlayson, of many Laurel & Hardy shorts, has cute Barbara Kent for a daughter and he is prospecting too but he’s not very good at it.  Rex, the horse, surveying his territory, does not take a liking to Ollie.  When Ollie gets a wee bit too close to a skinny-dipping Barbara, Rex steps in, chasing off Ollie.

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THE STRONG MAN (1926)

THE STRONG MAN (Dir Frank Capra) Harry Langdon

For 1920s audiences, The Strong Man (1926) showed the quintessential appeal of Harry Langdon‘s idiosyncratic child-man persona. It is easy to see why. Langdon was radically different than the hyperkinetic antics associated with high profile silent clowns such as Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. Today, he is considered the “Forgotten Clown.” This is partially because Langdon died prior to 1950′s revival of interest in silent comedians. Another reason is his later ventures into blacker arenas: Long Pants (1927) and Three’s A Crowd (1927) which made (and still make) audiences uncomfortable. Still, Langdon’s risky choices were defensible. With sound around the corner, his stardom would most certainly have been short-lived anyway.

HARRY LANGDON %22THE STRONG MAN%22

Frank Capra, in his directorial debut, invests his signature stylized charm onto Strong Man. It begins with cannon fire. Paul (Langdon) is a soldier on the WWI war front. Needless to say, he is an atypical soldier. He can’t even knock over a tin can with a machine gun. But, put a slingshot in his hand and he can make the big guy cry (yes, David and Goliath references abound). He gets letters from his penpal, Mary Brown (Priscilla Bonner), who swears love to her long distance Belgian soldier.

THE STRONG MAN 1926 LOBBY CARD HARRY LANGDON

After the war, Paul is employed by the German Strong Man, Zandow the Great (Arthur Thalasso). As they enter several American cities, Paul looks for the elusive “Mary Brown.” He thinks he has found her in a gold digging pickpocket (Gertrude Astory). This “Mary Brown” is actually “Lily of Broadway.” When she tries to retrieve a stolen wad of cash, stashed in Paul’s jacket pocket, it foreshadows several Stan Laurel scenes to come in which a child-man resists being undressed by an aggressive female. Continue reading

TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP (1926)

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp. LANGDON & CRAWFORD

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926), directed by Harry Edwards, was slapstick comedian Harry Langdon‘s first feature for First National. The star was at the height of his meteoric rise and, unknown to him, was a mere year away from his sudden fall. Tramp, Tramp, Tramp is probably the least of Langdon’s silent features, but its merits are considerable.

TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP FIRST NATIONAL AD

A dastardly Snidely Whiplash-type landlord has given Harry’s wheelchair bound pappy three months to come up with the rent: ” Son, I hadn’t told you—we don’t own this place—we’ll be put out soon.”

“Does that mean I don’t get my new bicycle?”

TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP LANGDON POSTER

Harry can’t keep his mind off Betty, the Burton Shoes billboard girl (Joan Crawford). “Stop dreaming of that girl. The money must be raised in three months—it’s up to you.”

“I’ll get the money in three months if it takes me a year.”

Oh, but wait, which way to go? Primrose Street or the Easiest Way? Which way indeed? Hmmm. Harry ponders, makes a step, steps back, ponders some more. It’s the type of scene that will inspire love of Langdon or pure hate. I opt for the former. As for the Landon haters, unenlightened to the Tao of Langdon—they serve as proof that uninformed opinions simply do not count. Continue reading

BLANCANIEVES (2012)

BLANCANIEVES (2012) poster

It has been said the greatest tragedy of silent film is that its era was too brief. It seems Hollywood belatedly agreed with this assessment when they named The Artist (2011, dir. Michael Hazanavicius) only the second silent film to win a Best Picture Oscar (the first was 1927′s Wings, directed by William A. Wellman). The Artist had a somewhat conventionally plotted narrative, clearly patterned after Star is Born (1937, also directed by Wellman), which was perhaps apt, as it borrows silence to portray a silent film. However, its charm and an infectious love of the era won it numerous accolades. Following close on The Artist‘s heels came Blancanieves (2012 dir. Pablo Berger), which did not get nearly the recognition The Artist did, but is the better film. Blancanieves almost feels as indebted to Guy Maddin as it does to the silent era, which may have kept it from attaining the populist status afforded The Artist.

Blancanieves (2012) Macarena Garcia
Fifty-year-old NYU film grad Pablo Berger chose a familiar story: the Brothers Grimm’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” This adaptation came on the heels of Hollywood’s pedestrian Snow White And The Huntsman (which predictably made a gazillion dollars) but represents a much darker, idiosyncratic telling of the tale. Berger grasps an important aesthetic of silent film: its sense of otherworldliness. Berger clearly relishes a hallucinatory texture akin to silent artists such as Tod Browning or Erich Von Stroheim. He transplants the story, brimming with humor and tragically latent left-field sexuality, into and around the arena of Spanish bullfights. The famous toreador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) dispenses of a quintet of bulls, only to be gored by the sixth (the bulls were actually killed, which sparked boycotts by animal rights advocates). Villalta’s pregnant wife Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta) witnesses his maiming, which renders him a quadriplegic. This sends Carmen into premature labor, which proves fatal after delivering her namesake. Villalta’s anesthesiologist, Encarna (Maribel Verdu) sees opportunity and maneuvers to marry the tragedy-stricken celebrity, which puts his infant daughter under the care of her grandmother. Continue reading