Friday, February 26, 2010

Notes on my Favorite Films (Year By Year) Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

1927 was one hell of a great year for film, so it is a particularly hard 12 month period to to pick a favorite movie from. Works like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, Clarence G. Badger’s It and Edmond Goulding’s Love are all extremely influential and distinctive films made that could have gone on the top of my list, along with several others from 1927. For my favorite though, I would have to go with the beautiful and haunting Sunshine: A Song of Two Humans, the legendary first American film from German Expressionism director F. W. Murnau.
I first came into contact with Murnau’s Oscar winning film starring Janet Gaynor, George O’Brien and Margaret Livingston in the early nineties in an otherwise terrible film class I took at college. Long before the days before Blu-Ray and High-Def, we were forced to watch the film via a rather poor VHS copy on a small TV set. My spot in the room that day was worse than usual, and I still remember having to lean in an awkward way in an effort to get a good look at Murnau’s unbelievably unique cinematic vision.
Murnau is probably most famous among modern day film goers for his 1922 production, Nosferatu. I am far from being student of Murnau’s films and will admit that Nosferatu and Sunrise are the only two I have seen. Outside of the fact that both films are such memorable and original creations, I have always been taken by the way that Murnau incorporates nature in both works. Sunrise in particular is as far removed from most of the stuffy shot-in-studio productions of the day, as Murnau makes rather devastating use of the California Lake Arrowhead shooting locations.

Sunrise is also famous for Murnau’s ahead of his time set designs, something harking back to his Expressionism days, as well as for some astonishing long tracking shots. Sunrise is so ahead of its time that even eighty years later you can still see its influence on a work like P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood. It is also an incredibly experimental work and it remains one of the most daring Hollywood backed productions of the silent era.

Going along with the way Murnau incorporates the California landscape in Sunrise, my favorite thing about the film is just how much he lets his images and actors tell the story. Title-cards are used very sparingly in the film, certainly much less than many other films from the period, and Murnau smartly relies of the wondrous Gaynor and O’Brien to communicate the films storyline. It’s a true silent film and a tribute to the power of it.

Sunrise has had a rather frustrating home video history and it remains not the easiest film to come by. Used copies of the limited edition DVD can still be found at Amazon although the 2009 Blu-Ray version has apparently already slipped out of print (actually, check the comments for more info on this matter). Track it down anyway you can though, as it is an unforgettable film from one of cinema’s earliest masters.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Notes on My Favorite Films (Year by Year): Flesh and the Devil (1926)

***Inspired by my friend Jeffrey Goodman's ongoing series at his fine site, I have decided to undertake the rather mammoth job of selecting my favorite film for each year from 1926 to the present. This will take awhile, as I will just sporadically post these little tributes in between my regular posts, but hopefully they will prove interesting. It will also give me the chance to revisit some of my favorite films, which is as far from a bad thing as possible.***

Fractured by her increasing social anxieties and dreadfully homesick for her home in Sweden, 21 year old Greta Garbo had everything on her mind except her upcoming film assignment in 1925. Battling both a raging Louis B. Mayer, who was all but fed up with her, and her upcoming co-star John Gilbert, who thought of her as nothing but an odd looking snob, Garbo almost lost her shot at becoming one of cinema's most legendary stars when she nearly didn't show up for her scenes in Clarence Brown's now legendary Flesh and the Devil.
Of course the behind the scenes stories from Flesh and the Devil are the stuff of legend, and they are especially well-documented in Mark A. Vieira's extraordinary Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy, but they would only be footnotes if Brown's film wasn't so perfectly realized and brilliantly executed. Shot by Brown with the incredibly inventive cinematographer William Daniels, Flesh and the Devil is one of those films that feels like it is creating some sort of strange alchemy. It's a magic act featuring Brown's inventive direction, William's stunning lighting schemes, the unforgettable masculinity of Gilbert and the erotic gaze of Garbo. Flesh and the Devil shocked audiences in 1926 and it has lost none of its seductively poetic pull since.

Viewed today Flesh and the Devil can be thought of as a film about two very inspired pairings. The first being Brown and Williams and the other being Garbo and Gilbert. Vieira noted in his wonderful book on Garbo's Hollywood career that Daniels thought the cinematographer was, "an inventory of detail", who was there to add, "to the imagination of a director with his own scientific skills." Brown turned out to be the perfect director for Williams often startling creations of light and shadow and Flesh and the Devil remains one of the most striking looking films ever made. Watch this wonderous scene for example:

The magic wasn't just happening behind the camera as the once hostile relationship between Garbo and Gilbert took and unexpected turn their first day of shooting together. Crew members noted that it seemed to be love at first site for the two great actors and their on-screen chemistry is still the stuff of legend. Flesh and the Devil manages a real sexual spark in its scenes between Garbo and Gilbert and it's easy to see why it titillated and provoked so many film-goers and critics upon its release in 1926.

Despite everything it has going for it, my favorite element of Flesh and the Devil is Garbo's beautifully precise performance. Vieira notes in his book that Brown was the, "first director since (her mentor) Stiller to see the distinctly cinematic possibility in her technique, the first who was sensitive enough to elicit a subtle performance from her." Garbo's work in Flesh and the Devil is poetry in motion and it is the true beginning of one of the most remarkable careers in film history.

Flesh and the Devil is available in the excellent Garbo Silents Collection from Turner and the Garbo box set. It's a wonderfully provocative and striking film that is an ideal entryway into silent cinema for newcomers, and a potent reminder of the power of true alchemy in cinema.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Behind the Scenes With My Favorite Actors: Eva Green in The Dreamers

"I entered this world on the Champs-Elysees, 1959. La trottoir du Champs Elysees. And do you know what my very first words were? New York Herald Tribune! New York Herald Tribune!"

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Art of the Movie Poster The Shuttered Room (Spanish Version)

The Return of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music

Metal Machine Music, the head-splitting apocalyptic double-LP set that Lester Bangs called "the greatest record ever made in the history of the human eardrum" has been unleashed once again by its creator, Lou Reed, and I wanted to supply a link here for anyone who didn't have it in their collection. Please visit Lou's site here for information on the deluxe vinyl set, the Audio DVD and Blu-Ray versions of Reed's historic 'fuck you' to every conceivable notion of what was was expected of him as an artist, performer and rock star. Metal Machine Music was a monstrous and monumental statement by one of our greatest artists in 1975 and it hasn't lost any of its power to shock and pulverise its listeners into complete submission in the 35 years since it was first released. If you haven't experienced it or, like me, if you are just looking to upgrade your copy then visit the link above.

The Art of the Opening Credit Sequence: Roger Vadim's Barbarella (1968)

Designed by Maurice Bender...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Beck: Morning Becomes Eclectic Link

KCRW's terrific Morning Becomes Eclectic is offering free audio and video downloads of their recent Charlotte Gainsbourg and Beck show. The twenty-five minute program features Charlotte and Beck doing several songs off their incredible new album IRM and contains a nice chat with the two as well. Just a heads up for fans of the two who hadn't seen or heard this.

Also, here is a recent interview with Charlotte where she discusses the new album and her career.