Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin - Von der Schönhauser Allee nach Hollywood (2006)

Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin - Von der Schönhauser Allee nach Hollywood
Director: Robert Fischer
Germany 2006
110 min
Including: Lots of Lubitsch!

I thought I could recommend a documentary on the peculiar but brilliant German director Ernst Lubitsch, who made his most famous and celebrated pictures in Hollywood, of course. However, this documentary focuses on his early years, from how he got into the film making business through acting to his subsequent move/upgrade (?) to Hollywood.

While still being an actor, Ernst Lubitsch poses beside a film poster for The Pride of the Firm (1916).

Although it's not the most engaging documentary, it's pretty clever in it's use of archive footage and scenes from Lubitsch's early works to tell the story of his early career. If one ignores the dry-as-sand film professors (I really have to get my career going so I can liven up the place), other storytellers like Lubitsch's daughter, niece and granddaughter are very entertaining and genuine.

Ernst Lubitsch as actor/comedian in unnamed German short film.

I'll just throw out some screenshots, and you can make your own decision whether to look this documentary up or not - but I recommend it to anyone interested in film history! And how can a German Jew with Russian heritage going Hollywood not be a great subject for a documentary?

Ossi Oswalda, "the German Mary Pickford", starred in several Lubitsch films.

This is a good example of the documentary's great use of film material while explaining the personal style of Lubitsch's film. The first scene, or prologue, of his film The Doll (Die Puppe, 1919) begins with the director picking up pieces of scenery from a box, and starts to assemble what will be the set for the film to come.

Also, the documentary uses the voice of frequent Lubitsch actor Emil Jannings' son to articulate Jannings' impressions on working with the director:

The "spendthrift, glutton and diplomat, that tyrant" is Jannings' description of Henry XIII in Anna Boleyn (1920), pictured above. An audio interview with actress Henny Porten (playing Boleyn) is also used to accompany still pictures and film fragments:

And of course, Pola Negri. In Carmen (1918, screenshot) and Madame DuBarry (in USA released as Passion, 1919, production still):

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hitchcock's fascination with fecal matter

The evil genius with a diabolical imagination, Alfred Hitchcock. Filthy man.

Picture spam posts may be fun and all, but I know that my dear readers crave intellectually stimulating posts every now and then. With my home exam over with and my blasted cold on retreat, I think I am ready to dig into the scatological mind of Alfred Hitchcock. Well, at least dig into the sick minds of some film analytics. I will get to my opinion about them later on. I'm ready now, Mr. DeMille - but are you?

Film analyses can be really interesting to read. Those written by film scholars may sometimes be ridiculous, but still interesting and thought provoking. Other analyses can be really ridiculous and rather laughter provoking. When it comes to Hitchcock, it's well known that he loved food, hated eggs, was fascinated by birds and had a tendency to include bathrooms in his films. (See pictures below for examples.)

But there are people out there, in the dark, that are analyzing these elements like crazy, to the point where it's not fun anymore. Then they dig even deeper, and it's suddenly becomes hilarious. In a frustrating and sad way.

Bathroom in North by Northwest (1959).

Bathroom in Psycho (1960).

Disgusting-looking eggs in To Catch a Thief (1955).

Disgusting-looking eggs in Frenzy (1972).

One such text I read during my last course (I am certain that my professor threw it in as a joke, or at least I wish that he did) is the essay "The Diabolical Imagination: Hitchcock, Bakhtin, and the Carnivalization of Cinema" by David Sterritt. (From the book Framing Hitchcock, which indeed they seem to do.) If we ignore the fact that the writer seems to have thrown in Mikhail Bakhtin's name, "a Russian-Soviet literary philosopher", for us to hopefully take him seriously (in the same manner that he writes "ouvre" instead of art, work, creation or other normal words), the title sounds interesting enough. I will have to cite the text at moments for you to believe me, I am not making this up. Sigh. Where to begin?

Sterritt begins with explaining that in his analysis Bakhtin's important concept of "carnivalization, the deployment of a festive, parodic often grotesque, ultimately subversive vision of the world" will be central. (Funny, those are the words I might use to describe this very text.)

Anyway, he goes on describing the tired picture of Hitchcock as a decadent maniac who loves to have really bizarre, almost campy, elements in his film. I agree with the last part, but Hitchcock's personality is really not interesting to me when analyzing his films. But that's just me, I guess.

Now, to the juicy stuff! When claiming that Hitchcock loves these film elements that "can be seen as deliberate carnivalizing gestures aimed at reveling in grotesquerie", he rightfully thinks he should come up with a few examples. He begins by slaughtering Rope (1948). Remember that one? It's one of my favorite Hitchcock films, taking place in one apartment only and made to look like it's filmed in one uninterrupted shot. However, at that time they had to change reels every now and then, so they had to conceal the cuts. More about that later. The plot revolves around two young men who are obsessed by the idea of the perfect murder. They strangle a friend, with a rope of course, and hides his body in a chest, on which they serve food for coming guests who all know the victim.¨

Sterritt has decided to molest that film. To be even more high-brow than just referring to a Russian philosopher, Sterritt now brings up Rabelais, a French renaissance writer. We need not go into detail about this (since it's ridiculous), but Sterritt kindly tells us that "[t]he seven series in Rabelais' novel are those of 'the human body in its anatomical and physiological aspects,' clothing, food, drink and drunkenness, the sexual or copulatory, death, and defecation." Yes, we can all agree that all those seven ingredients are the human life, if we are to be factual. Although we ladies never poop, of course. Otherwise, correct. But what about Rope?

Well, according to Sterritt, all those ingredients are visualized in one way or another in Rope. Let's start with the most trivial stuff. "The least important is the clothing series, although even here one may observe the irony of the socially 'correct' clothing worn by the murderers [...]", and of course the thing with the hat. Won't spoil to those who may not have seen the film. Alcohol is served at the party, and weaken the nerves of one of the murderers. With the boring stuff over with, let's move on!

Socially correct clothes worn my the murderers, left and right. About as socially correct as any 1940's/1950's man with a suit. What an irony. Duh.

Drink and drunkenness.

Rabelais' anatomical/physiological human body series is visualized by the close-up of a man dying and his corpse. Dinner is served upon the chest containing the body, "and people will eat while discussing the victim's activities and personality". One of those bizarre Hitchcock situations I referred to earlier. I agree this far, but then Sterritt insults all gay people by writing this: "The men who killed him and provided the dinner are apparently meant to be homosexuals [true] (the sex series) and their murderousness as a metonymic extension of gay perversity."

Huh? Why, oh why, did he write such a thing? Murderers can not be gay without their murderousness being somehow related to their sexuality, or what? I have no words to counter this. But don't worry, it gets worse!

A close-up of a man dying, the anatomical/physiological aspect...

... food...

... and homosexuals.

But Lolita! Where are the excrements you promised? Well, here we go. The following sentence is so bizarre that I will have to cut it up. I do it for your sanity.

Sterritt starts by mentioning that "[t]he defecation series makes its appearance most subtly[...]". Oh, really.  We will just have to look close enough, we know it's there! He continues the sentence: "[...] through anal implications that may be drawn from the murderers' homosexuality [...]" I have to cut that sentence again to catch my breath. Have you caught yours? Okay, going on: "[...] and through what may be the film's most discussed and least-understood mechanism: the 'hidden' splices that link the film's long takes on several occasions [...]" Again, stop the sentence! I guess Hitchcock didn't just splice up his film because it at the time was technically impossible to film in one entire shot, right? He has to have had a hidden agenda, right? I mean, "hidden" agenda. Phew... Now the last part of the sentence. "[...] most frequently by traveling into an extreme close-up of a male character's backside."

Did you get that? The fact that the splices are, as Sterritt puts it, "hidden" by having the camera zoom into a dark area, often while passing a character and making the cut with the camera lens blacked out, is a metaphor for traveling up the characters' asses. Do you want to read the sentence again, now in its entirety? Ready? Voilà:

The defecation series makes it's appearance most subtly, through anal implications that may be drawn from the murderers' homosexuality and through what may be the film's most-discussed and least-understood mechanism: the "hidden" splices that link the film's long takes on several occasions, most frequently by traveling into an extreme close-up of a male character's backside.

He also points out that the two murderers kill their victim from behind, and then discuss how they "felt" when his body "went limp". He also links homosexuality and death in some far-fetched way. Sigh.

Talking about the wonderful feeling of killing just for the sake of it.

Oh, backsides! Anal implications!

Here, the defecation series reveal itself at 11:33 in Rope! What, don't you see it? No poop...? You have no imagination!

I can't believe I've made it this far. And I won't argue this, it's impossible for me to sink to that level of absurdity. I never thought that was possible... And I haven't even come to Sterritt's view of Psycho (1960) yet. Psycho is, in Sterritt's words, "the lower-bodily-stratum film par excellence of Hitchcock's career". Don't pretend you did not notice that yourselves.

Hear, hear! The brilliant deductions of David Sterritt! "Psycho is largely about anal activity, treated metaphorically, and its first symbol for excrement is money - specifically the forty-thousand dollars produced in the real-estate office by a childish (anal-sadistic) client who obnoxiously shows off what he has 'made'."

Oh, please! Don't bring fucking Freud into this mess, too... Did I mention that Freud is the holy god of analytics?

Look, he's even pointing downwards. Clear as day. That's anal implications if anything.

Sterritt points out that the dialogue in Psycho "conjures up the lower bodily-stratum", since words like "irregular" and "private" enter the conversation. I am deadly serious, that's one of his arguments. After Marion Crane has stolen the money and leaves town in a car, she hears voices in her head of what she thinks people may be saying now. One of the lines are "She sat there while I dumped it out." That line, of course, backs up Sterritt's theory.

My favorite part of the poop fest that is this analysis of Psycho is the license plate discussion. I'm sure you all thought about that, huh? "During the same portion of the film we see (in close-up) the license plate of her original car: ANL-709, the letters virtually spelling out the film's most important symbolic key." Sterritt even goes as far as to claim that that moment "confirms the suggestions of lower-bodily preoccupation that have preceded it." My only comment to that is that if Hitchcock noticed that ANL is "anal" with a letter missing, he probably just thought it was funny and didn't mean anything more with it. But my thoughts are so boring compared to Sterritt's!

By the way: the close-up of the license plate and the line about the dumping is not in the same scene. I double checked. The line is said when she is driving another car. Sterritt got owned!

But he doesn't stop with one license plate, oh no! You see, Marion Crane changes cars later on. The new license plate reads NFB-418. Oh, what to do with those letters... Ah, of course! N and B stands for Norman Bates, and the F stands "perhaps for Female". Perhaps? I'm disappointed, I thought he was going to say F for Feces...

Of course there are also references to menstruation. Norman does indeed at one time cry out "Mother... Blood! Blood!", which, according to Sterritt, "reminds us that much of Psycho can be read menstrually as well as excrementally", continuing with "and the imposing presence of the phallic shower head during much of the murder scene."


"Mother! Mother! Oh God... Mother! Blood! Blood!"

"Phallic shower head"? I think Sterritt should let a doctor take a look at his private parts...

No. I give up now. He goes on with The Birds (1963), too. But you get the point. You probably got more points than you wanted. Now, what did I get out of doing this summary of the most ridiculous analysis ever? (That includes the raging feminist Laura Mulvey's talk about castration complexes.)

Well, I now know that while my husband studies to be something useful, I will continue studying dopey texts until I myself become a dopey film professor that can write dopey film analyses. And then, one day, I may meet this David Sterritt and hit him over the head with a hammer. A hammer coated with a weeks worth of feces.