We have now come to that most wonderful of seasons, the October season. And to celebrate, I am going to present a series concentrating on spinetingly-dingly films for your enjoyment. The first of these is one of the great achievements of the silent era, FW Murnau's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror.
Taken together with 1920's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Nosferatu (1922) forms the foundation upon which all horror cinema builds. (And indeed, the two pair excellently as a double feature.) Like Dr Caligari, it comes out of the German expressionist tradition. The film retells in an unauthorized, folklorey kind of way Bram Stoker's tale of Dracula, which I hope I don't have to summarize for you.
The film's most striking feature is its iconic imagery. You have seen the shadow of Nosferatu's taloned hand reaching for his victim; his pale, pointy face in reverse silhouette against the dark. You know what he looks like as he rises from his coffin and as he moves up the stairs. These and other images from the film have been reproduced, parodied, and referenced to one degree or another in almost any horror film you have ever seen. Much more than its cousin Dr Caligari (which sets the par for striking imagery) Nosferatu has remained an essential element of our cultural subconscious. I think this is in part due to the fact that, although undeniably expressionist, the film's real locations (instead of cubist, abstract sets) ground it in a kind of reality that the fever dream of Dr Caligari doesn't reach for. It feels just off-center instead of nearly hallucinogenic.
The other element that takes the film a step beyond Dr Caligari and maintains its amazing influence is its pioneering achievement in editing. Some of its best moments are when it intercuts between the vampire's ship and the separated lovers he threatens. These truncated pieces balance wonderfully with the long, methodical takes that dominate whenever Nosferatu is present to create an agonizingly fatal kind of mood. He is as inevitable as the tide, an ever-present theme in this silent symphony.
Lest I inadvertently plant expectations that won't be met, I should note that in establishing the genre, the film differs quite substantially from our modern horror sensibilities. In fact, I would say that it likely won't "scare" you like you're used to. There are no "jump" moments or even attempts at irony or mystery. What you will find instead is a slow, constant, fully-realized single image, which, as a film, you have as little control over as our heroes do their fate. You and they can both only watch, and hope for a good end.
I should also note that many versions of Nosferatu can be found for free on the internets, and that probably none of them are very good. Film scans used are often incomplete or of poor quality, and the music can either have nothing to do with the film or just be really bad. I recommend finding a proper DVD release, which are usually done by some manner of film preservation society. Their scans are as good as can be found, and the music is usually at least not bad. If you prefer, though, watching it with no music at all is especially ambiential and creepy if you are alone in your room at 11 at night and it is raining. Just saying.
So I say you really should see Nosferatu. It is certainly a great way to start off your October season, and is as foundational and influential to the horror genre as anything out there.
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror features Max Schreck, Gustov von Wangenheim, Alexander Granach, and Greta Schroeder, and is unrated, though appropriate for most audiences.
Written by Henrik Galeen
Directed by FW Murnau
Fan-made trailers, like full copies of this film found online, vary greatly in quality. I suggest watching this with the sound muted, because the music is beyond obnoxious. But it gives a glimpse of the images, as well as the color-tinted filmstock some restorations use.
With Mad Max: Fury Road finally out today (as soon as I'm done writing this I'm off to go see it) I wanted to complete my retrospective with a look at the until-now final installment in the series: Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. While still fun, this film lacks the same precise focus as the other two and suffers a little on the side of plotting. But I will say that if you have been afraid to get into these movies, this one is probably the most accessible (or at least, least edgy) while still delivering plenty of George Miller lunacy to keep you around.
Max turns up in a place called Bartertown in order to reclaim his stolen camel rig. To do so, he strikes a deal with Auntie Entity (Tina Turner) to overthrow the town's energy baron Master Blaster. He also eventually meets up with some Lord of the Flies-style lost children.
I said the film lacked the same kind of focus the other two have, and that comes from the side plot involving the children. The film really doesn't need it. While Max is in Bartertown the movie clips along nicely, giving us a glimpse at the attempt at recivilization. There are the same freakshow side characters as well as the marginally-exploitative duo of Master Blaster. Bruce Spence's pilot even returns, though probably not as the same character (kind of like Lee Van Cleef's character(s) in For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.) I think if the movie stayed in Bartertown the whole time it would have been stronger.
But it doesn't. Max winds up halfway through the movie in the midst of a society of lost children who think he will lead them back to the world. This side plot isn't a bad story in itself; it is just so unrelated to the main plot that it really detracts from where the movie is going. If I had to include it in the movie, I would have put it first, then gone on the trip to Bartertown. As it stands, when Max and some of the children end up returning to Bartertown, the tone has lightened so much that there is no real threat there anymore. If he meets the children before going to Bartertown, then the stakes are raised for him as a hero and there is at least a sense of menace for us as an audience.
By the end, though, the movie has all of its strings picked up again. There is a brilliant chase through the desert with the same level of ridiculous stuntwork we've come to expect. And it ends harmoniously with the other two films. Mad Max was always the man in the desert looking for purpose, and I guess that is why we like these movies. They capture the absurdity of our lives in an oblique enough way to not be confrontational, but they resonate because we have all been wanderers in the desert looking for purpose at one point or another.
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome features Mel Gibson, Tina Turner, Bruce Spence, Angelo Rossitto and Helen Buday, and is rated PG-13 for violent stuff.
Written by Terry Hayes and George Miller
Directed by George Miller and George Ogilvie
Happy Saturday, everybody! With less than a week to go until Fury Road hits, I am continuing on with my Mad Max retrospective with a look at 1981's sequel, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Buckle up, because the crazy really gets turned on high in this one.
After the events of Mad Max, Max is aimlessly roaming the desert, looking for fuel for his car. He meets up with a gyro pilot (Bruce Spence) who tells him of a fortified refinery still producing gasoline, but that is under siege by a band of crazies led by Lord Humungus. If you aren't sold now, I guess you never will be.
There could hardly be a greater difference between the first and second installments of a film series. Where Mad Max had a fair level of emotional grounding driving it on, Road Warrior feels like some kind of waking hallucination. The gyro pilot has weaponized snakes as booby traps and dresses in bright yellow long johns. One of the residents of the refinery is a feral kid who wields a metal boomerang. And Lord Humungus wears a hockey mask and a leather diaper with suspenders.
Director George Miller doubles down on the spectacular stunts and crashes introduced in the first film while scaling back to almost zero any humanity that might have remained. The road sequences are really pretty awesome, all the more so because of the obvious lack of artificial effects and the terrible lack of covering clothes many of the crazies have as they jump from car to car.
All of which is, of course, what makes the film such a bizarre delight. Although we are given something of a backstory in the form of stock footage montage, there is still no real explanation for the behavior of all these riveted-leather crazies. They just are. And in a way, that's all that can really be said about this movie without straining yourself. It just exists. We could say that the film functions as a metaphor and catharsis for the grief Max feels from earlier, or that we are all just as crazy in our own way as either the dedicated refiners looking for a better life or the maniacs trying to get their gas, but statements like that just fall apart.
And so, you will either love it or not care at all. The only people reading this are the ones who care, and as such this is probably a futile exercise, but I am going to write anyway since it is rainy outside and yardwork is impossible. But if it is new to you, I really think you should give it a try. There are lots worse things you could watch this week.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior features Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Michael Preston and Kjell Nilsson, and is rated R for the same thing as the first one, only more so.
Written by Terry Hayes, Brian Hannant and George Miller
Directed by George Miller
Here's the trailer, this time without awful American dubbing.
As you may or may not be aware, George Miller's insanityfest Mad Max: Fury Road is due out here in a couple of weeks. To help you get adequately excited for it (like you need help if you've seen a trailer) I've decided to take a look back at the series leading up to the new film's release.
The little movie that started it all is 1979's Mad Max, staring a very young Mel Gibson. He plays the titular Max, a police officer in a not very distant future where nearly all order has collapsed and crazy road gangs roam the Australian desert. He is moved to vengeance when a gang led by Toecutter (seriously) brutally attacks his partner.
Let me be clear from the get go: Mad Max is not a great movie in terms of story, acting, or emotional resonance. It is, however, as gleeful a post-apocalyptic car chase revenge movie as you could ask for (barring, of course, the next two installments) with some really daring camerawork and awesome crashes. It looks like it was shot for as much money as it took to buy and modify the cars and bikes used. It is low and in-your-face and as utterly unapologetic in its lack of exposition and explanation as it is in its absolute revelry in insanity. It has some really awesome chase sequences throughout, and truly impressive stuntwork considering they are not only jumping onto, say, moving trucks, but doing so like sunbaked lunatics.
This, of course, is what draws you to watch it: there is nothing quite like Mad Max. He is a genre unto himself. Where else can you find such madness for its own sake? In this world there is no answer, no getting better. Everybody in it is as adjusted to it as people working in a boring office for 20 years are to their environment. Violent crashes often elicit no more grief than would, say, running out of toner. Miller creates one of the few post-apocalyptic environments that doesn't feel temporary or foreign; it just looks like rural Australia aged a few years and everyone in charge went on permanent holiday.
For all the crazy going on, Max's relationship with his wife (Joanne Samuel) and son feels super real. Indeed, it functions as the one tether binding him and us to rationality. Even though there are a few kind of tacky "aw" moments between them, Gibson and Samuel make it feel genuine. It provides something like a jolt of reality and is the one shred of the spirit of human endurance that Miller allows into his film.
Although in many ways Miller is just getting his wheels going, Mad Max is still a solid distillation of what will become one of the craziest film series ever. It was a huge anomaly for 1979, and while others tried to do it again, it would only really be done by Miller when he pulled out the next chapter in 1981's Road Warrior.
Mad Max features Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne and Tim Burns, and is rated R for crazy people killing people with motorcycles, etc, and some swears.
Written by James McCausland and George Miller
Directed by George Miller
Here's a trailer for the American release with kinda bad American-accent dubbing. I would find an Australian version of the film if I were you.
Well, loyal readers, I'm back after something of a hiatus. However, I'm back in something of a different context, being in what might be something of a cinematic sequester for a few months, for timely theatrical viewing, at any rate. So for these next couple of months I am going to indulge in some more studied and intentional home viewing, and all seven of you get to be on the receiving end of that.
First up will be a discussion of the two great mythology-beatifying westerns: How the West Was Won, and Once Upon a Time in the West. Both films are stunningly beautiful examples of the totally disparate schools that produced them and obvious high-water marks in the genre. In comparing the two, I want to look at individual merit as well as overall impact on the genre, especially since we live in a largely post-"western" world. First up will be the first of the films to be released, 1963's How the West Was Won.
The film is almost equal parts hubristic passion project and insane National Parks PR campaign, and indeed, the film is almost as large as its subject matter: the West. ALL OF IT. From early expansion in Ohio through the gold rush, Civil War, Indian conflicts and railroad encroachment up to glorious Boomer-era capitalist triumph. It boasts an impressive cast featuring anyone who had ever been in a western, and was co-directed by 3 giants of the genre. It was shot and originally presented using the new panoramic "Cinerama" technology, which used three cameras and three projectors launching three synchronized images onto a huge concave screen for a more enveloping experience. It was a mammoth picture.
And, looking back at it with a few days' insulation, it is the picture's mammoth-ness that most sticks with this writer more than anything else. The photography is a little overwhelming. Of course it is beautiful (as evidenced above) but it is not a film that can really be transferred for home viewing. Because of the original panoramic nature of the projection, when this is seen on a flat screen it is a little dizzying. Sometimes there are two points of focus on the horizon, and almost always more than the human eye normally takes in. After a while one wishes (for the only time ever) for some kind of reduction in presentation ratio.
As a landmark in the western canon, the film functions as more of a toast and tribute than anything else. It celebrates the triumph of good old wholesome American-ness, in an era when such was being questioned and criticized more than ever. And, really, what else could it have been? The western up to that point was never anything less than that, from Stagecoach to High Noon to The Searchers. The film is the culminating statement in the decades-long treatise chronicling the subjugation of all nature and people by the righteous white man. And few films make that statement less ambiguously than How the West Was Won.
Contrast that with Sergio Leone's 1968 masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West. (Yes, it's even better, maybe, than The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Maybe.) It is an operatic fairy tale, incorporating Wagnerian leitmotifs perfectly with Leone's quintessential grit. It is a film of stark beauty and deep melancholy: a eulogy where How the West Was Won was a celebration.
The image that ties the two films together is the subduing of landscape by the railroad. This was the only "spaghetti" western to shoot outside of Europe, and there is some spectacular photography of Monument Valley. Here, the railroad brings corruption, greed, and an end to what innocence the West had notwithstanding its inherent violence. It brings new life as well, embodied by the film's heroine Jill, but she is hardly the kind of Eve found in How the West Was Won. In that film, the railroad was only ever a good thing, bringing together all good and hardy people for the last great colonization of the last frontier. That film ends with a showcase of the railroad's modern technological descendants; Once Upon a Time closes with the departure of the last man of his kind as the train pulls into the station, no longer welcome in his only environment.
But the film, notwithstanding its melancholy and occasional mourning, is not cynical. It canonizes rugged individualism of a different kind than its more patriotic cousin. That film is clean and bloodless in its conflict; this uses grit and dust and blood as its medium to paint a final portrait of the kind of American that no longer is.
So I say that Once Upon a Time in the West is probably the better film, although they are both worthy of viewing. But its artistry is more lasting and resonant, and its impact more appropriate given the landscape of our American west today.
As a bonus, here's an excerpt from Ennio Morricone's overwhelming score for Once Upon a Time in the West. I put it easily in the top 10 film scores of all time. In case you don't believe how seriously beautiful of a movie this is.
by Chase Harrison