A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 483 – Metropolis (Complete Restored – 2010 – 148 min)

Metropolis (restored – 2010 – 148 min)

The story of this movie fascinates me. Not the story within the movie, which is mostly a big deal because of when it was told and how it was told, but the story of the movie as a piece of art. Made in 1927, it originally ran at well over two and a half hours. Then it got cut. And cut harshly. Surviving prints ended up around an hour and a half and that’s what people saw for decades. There was a two hour long version out there, but from what I’ve read, each version put out was missing different things. Some countries cut some scenes, some cut others, and what remained was a fragmented work. Until just recently, when versions in Argentina and New Zealand were found to contain a relatively huge amount of what was missing from everywhere else. And so here we are, with everything currently viewable. Yes, there’s still some stuff missing, but we’re talking about eight minutes as opposed to half an hour. That’s significant.

This movie is important for a number of reasons. It’s a well made movie that tells a good story, but it’s also impressive not only due to its preservation and restoration history but also its technical merits. It’s been years since I took a film class, but I remember enough to be impressed by many of the techniques apparent in this movie. Things we take for granted like dolly shots and composites. Composites done now are relatively easy. Then? They involved taking the film and re-exposing it while filming something new. What always struck me about these older techniques is how risky they were. Film stock was and is pricey stuff, and to risk what you had doing shots like that? Amazing. When you think about what was involved in making a movie in the 1920s, then look at this movie, it is simply astounding. Because to put it bluntly, it holds up. It holds up remarkably well.

Oh, sure, it’s silent. No spoken dialogue, reliant on intertitles and the emoting done by the actors on screen. Of course you know right away you’re looking at an older movie. Black and white, silent, that tell-tale silent movie makeup with the ultra pale faces and ultra dark lips and rimmed eyes, and the title cards, obviously. But forget that. Don’t think about the time period it was made in. Think about the story and the acting and the sets and the cinematography. Because they all hold up.

The story is straight up sci-fi dystopia with a message. There’s this amazing city, you see. The city of Metropolis. And it is a wondrous place, full of wonderful people who create and learn and spend all day goofing off. But down below the city, keeping it running and allowing all the people above to do as they please, there is another city. The lower city is full of machines and the people who spend all day every day running them. And reaping no reward for their work. If you guessed that the message here is about the risks of class differences and capitalism, you get a banana sticker. Congratulations. And you know, I get that such an obvious message will turn some people off, but I’m not one of those people. Because I love when a message that’s really pretty clear and obvious is told so well. And the way this movie is told is fantastic.

The leader of Metropolis is a man named Joh Fredersen. He’s very firmly in favor of keeping his two populations separated and maintaining a blissfully privileged life for his son, Freder. But then in comes Maria, a young woman from the Worker City who’s managed to bring a group of Worker children up to one of the gardens. Freder is fascinated by her and follows her when she’s kicked out. And so he discovers a whole new aspect to his world that he never knew existed. Maria is all for a peaceful meeting of the people above and people below, believing that there needs to be a mediator between the two. And that could be the story right there. A simplistic way of telling it would just work with that material, keeping it with Freder, Maria and the two cities. But no, this movie has more.

It would just be an alternate world dystopia if not for the introduction of Rotwang, an inventor in the upper city who has built an automaton. Joh goes to him in hopes of gaining his help in subduing the workers. But Joh and Rotwang have a history involving a woman they both desired and Rotwang wants revenge on Joh for winning her. He kidnaps Maria, transforms the automaton to look like her, then keeps her prisoner while the automaton is sent out to both cities to stir up the people against each other. Because while Joh wants to crack down on the workers, Rotwang wants Joh to lose everything he holds dear. Now that? That is a great way to take the message and wrap it in something more substantial and specific.

I could probably go on for pages telling the story, and one reason I’m tempted to do so is that it really is told well and it’s detailed. Amazingly so for something that depends on intertitles and visual actions. And I’m just so pleased to see so much of what was missing the last time I watched it. The background between Joh and Rotwang is more expanded, as are a few more bits that set the tone for the whole movie. And I love that. Then again, even without the expanded footage this is a wonderfully immersive movie. The sets are enormous, giving a wonderfully deep sense to the underground city. I actually find the worker city underground to be more convincingly done, largely because it’s meant to be contained and enclosed, even when you’re out in the streets. The upper city is supposed to be towering into the sky, but due to restraints on locations to film from obviously most of the upper city scenes are indoors. Lush and expensive and clearly different from the worker city, yes, but I get less of a visceral feel for the city itself. Still, they are amazing sets.

The performances are also wonderful. Yes, they’re exaggerated in the silent movie style, but not in every scene. Freder does a hell of a lot of emoting, as do the rioting workers and rampaging rich folks as well as Rotwang. But Joh and Freder’s good friend Josephat? They’re far more restrained and their performances still work, playing well against the dramatic Freder. Every scene has someone getting visibly emotional and someone holding firm. And then there’s Maria. And not just Maria, but her doppelganger, the automaton who is given Maria’s face and body so she can incite both classes to violence. Brigitte Helm really got to strut her stuff here. She gets to play the sweet and earnest Maria and the sinister automaton (as well as a host of other masked characters – she is thoroughly amazing) and she nails both characters. It’s a truly fantastic set of performances from her and she really does make the movie.

There’s no way to watch this movie without seeing it as a part of film history, so I don’t recommend trying to divorce it from its roots and place. But it’s not just a classic because it’s survived. It’s survived and been restored this much and so much effort has gone into it because it is so amazing. It is an excellent movie and I’m thrilled that we own the most complete version currently available. Maybe some day that last eight or so minutes will be found in good enough shape that we can see them.

June 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Metropolis (Complete Restored Version)

June 26, 2011

Metropolis (The Complete Restored Edition)

It is nearly impossible, watching a classic film produced on this scale and with the weight behind it of this movie, to separate the film itself from the historical significance of it. Particularly a restoration project like this that attempts to re-create a long lost original from bits and pieces found in old records and ancient film archives. To a certain extent I find myself watching the restoration and not the movie.

When I first saw this in the eighties it was as a colorized VHS with a soundtrack by Queen. Even so I knew I was watching an influential classic film that had become a part if the pop culture lexicon long before I was even born. From that first viewing there were certain images that were indelibly burned into my memory. The colossal city-scapes of the towering skyscrapers surrounded by freeways, raised rails and biplanes. The creepy Machine Man being transformed into Maria’s doppelganger and its subsequent bizarre behavior. The denizens of the city below being fed to the machines. The movie might be somewhat overbearing and blunt in its message and some of the visual language of the day might not translate to modern viewers (although it’s impressive to see how much more modern the cinematography is than the Douglas Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad, which we have already reviewed) but there’s no denying how powerful these images are.

This movie is a parable. It’s a tale of a (not too implausible) future where the elite rulers of society live in pampered luxury atop mighty skyscrapers while deep below the earth teeming hordes of downtrodden labourers maintain the colossal machinery that keeps the city running. Think Modern Times but less about the dehumanization of mankind in general and more about the power struggle between the haves and the have-nots.

When the son of the lord of Metropolis, the callow youth Freder, encounters a woman from below who is trying to show the children of the plebes how the other half live he decides to follow her into the worker’s city and is appalled by the conditions he discovers there. He trades places with one of the workers and soon finds himself attending a secret meeting of the proletariat led by that same woman, Maria, he first saw in the city above. She tells the masses that a mediator from above will come to them soon to find a way to bridge the gap between management and labour. (This is a particularly amusing scene to me because the way she explains this to her congregation is by relating a version of the parable of the tower of Babel. It’s a fairly meta scene to have a character in one parable telling another one.) Unfortunately Freder’s father Jon Fredersen witnesses this gathering and commands the fairly mad inventor Rotwang to discredit Maria using his newly manufactured artificial man in her guise.

There’s a lot of big action scenes after this. Rotwang kidnaps Maria and unleashes his automaton to incite both the elite and the downtrodden alike using Maria’s appearance. The workers revolt, destroying the machines that run the city and flooding their underground homes. Maria and Freder, with Freder’s compatriot Josaphat, rescue the children that the workers had absent-mindedly left behind in the flooded city. Ultimately there’s a fight atop a cathedral between Rotwang and Freder which seems forced and cliche to me, but might have been less so at the time that the movie was first released in 1927.

It’s a gorgeous movie. Not just for the time when it was filmed – it’s a beautifully designed movie for any time period, filled with colossal sets and action involving hundreds of extras. Some of the special effects are so far ahead of their time that I simply don’t know how they were accomplished at all. (Like the rings of light during the transformation sequence – were they hand animated – drawn right onto the negative? Were they filmed as an extra element as a second pass on the film? I honestly don’t know.)

The acting, too, is fantastic. My particular favorites are Alfred Abel as Jon Fredersen, with his wise and aloof mien and the great comic performance of Heinrich George as Grot, the head of the labourers and the only one who seems to understand what the result of their revolution will be. Far and away the best performance, in her many roles, is Brigitte Helm. She really gets to act crazy as the evil doppelganger and it’s rather astonishing to watch.

The version we’re watching tonight is the most complete version currently available. The original cut of the film was deemed by many theater owners to be too long and so the only versions available for many years were severely truncated with entire plot arcs missing. (There’s a rivalry between Rotwang and Jon Fredersen over Freder’s mother Hel for example which had been in the script but didn’t exist any more in the footage available up until about 2002.) Then a few longer prints were discovered in various film archives which allowed film historians to put together this version which is only missing two brief scenes. The film quality of some of the restored footage is very noticeably worse than the digitally re-mastered portions of the film which had been restored back in 2002. As a result it’s extremely obvious when your watching bits of the film that are newly re-discovered. I found it both fascinating and distracting. I’m delighted that a version of the film that is almost completely restored to the way it was in 1927 is available now on DVD, but it’s difficult to enjoy the movie for itself when the blend between old and newly discovered footage is so jarring.

This movie is required viewing in most film classes, and it’s clear to see why. It’s an astonishing accomplishment and filled with iconic images that have been often imitated down through the years. It even has a couple unexpected camera moves that must have been experimental and revolutionary at the time. There’s a dolly shot when Freder and his father are talking. There’s a POV push in when Freder sees a discarded piece of Maria’s clothing while he is hunting for her after her abduction. There’s a shot during the escape from the flooded city where the camera swoops madly (because it was mounted on a swing.) Not to mention all the huge vistas, composite shots and special effects. It’s a significant investment of time to sit for 148 minutes of silent movie. You can’t really look away or become distracted when you might miss title cards with essential dialog. But I think it’s an investment well worth making if you can get this version of the film. Academically and aesthetically it’s a fascinating way to spend a couple hours.

June 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 1 Comment

Movie 363 – The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Thief of Bagdad (1924) – February 26th, 2011

I admit it. I had been kind of dreading this one. Not because I thought I wouldn’t enjoy it, but because it is a two and a half hour silent movie. That’s a bit of a challenge, especially when one is in the habit of working on one’s review or idly checking email while watching a movie every night. Two and a half hours. Silent. And I’ve had a cold and been kind of wiped out most evenings. And I admit too that around the middle, during the romancey bits, I got a little drowsy. But I blame the cold, not the movie. Because the movie was lovely. It was absolutely wonderful and lovely and impressed me in ways that I don’t think any modern movie can.

Now, if you’ve read my reviews of some other fantasy epics, like the Lord of the Rings movies (okay, good fantasy epics, not crap fantasy epics) you know I appreciate modern special effects. Okay, even when they’re in otherwise cruddy movies, I appreciate well done special effects. But here’s the thing, that appreciation for special effects is rooted in a theater techie background. I like to see cleverness. I like to see things made magical before my eyes even knowing that it’s a trick. And this movie is full of that. There’s a flying carpet, an underwater scene, armies appearing out of nowhere, magical rope, all sorts of great effects that I know can’t have been easy but still look amazing even a little under ninety years later. That’s fantastic. It makes this movie a joy to watch for someone like myself, who enjoys seeing where some of the things we take for granted now got started.

Effects aside, the story of the movie itself is fun. To be honest, while I felt that some of it ran a little long, it was a tighter story than last night’s, which was a great deal shorter. The difference is in the number of characters you’re supposed to give a damn about. In last night’s version of the story the thief and the prince were two different people, which led to a kind of split in how the movie seemed to want attention paid to it. But tonight we get a swashbuckling thief masquerading as a prince. Best of both worlds! And I’m all for a rogue, especially a rogue who’s so very charming. The thief here, whose name is never really stated (he goes by Prince Ahmed when he’s tricked his way into the palace to court the princess but it’s unclear if that’s his real name since the title cards are fairly scanty – but I’ll get to that), starts out with plenty of mischief. He steals and laughs and runs away in the middle of midday prayers. His introduction is a little long, but it clearly establishes him as a devil-may-care ne’er-do-well. He is the Han Solo of Bagdad but without a blaster.

So once we know the thief we have to meet the princess. Since there isn’t a pesky prince to get in the way you know they’ll end up in love and having to deal with some sort of villain who wants to keep them apart. The villain here is the Prince of the Mongols, a sinister baddie who creeps our heroine right out. Of course he wants to marry the princess and be the heir to Bagdad’s throne and if he can’t get her to marry him willingly then he’ll take the city by force. Our hero sneaks in pretending to be a prince, meets the princess intending to kidnap her and then oh! A change of heart! But then he’s discovered! But then he escapes! And off they go to the next act where the three princess who are courting the princess and our hero all head off on great adventures to find rare treasures to present the princess with. You will have assumed, I hope, that the thief saves the day, but the way he does it is pretty spectacular, with a box of magic dust that lets him create things, like armies, out of thin air. It goes by quickly in comparison to the rest of the movie, but I think I know why.

A lot of what goes on early in the movie is very dependant on the visuals in order to convey the plot and characters. We spend a goodly amount of time just getting to know the thief. But there are some complicated politics going on in the palace and the movie doesn’t really have that many title cards, considering its length. It is the epitome of showing, not telling. But I think the director, screenwriter, etc. all felt that they really had to spend a lot of time on the subtler things. The emotions, the politics. When you see the slave girl with the princess you might not know she’s a spy working for the Prince of the Mongols, but she is. So we’ve got to show that, in detail. You could put up a title card saying how the thief feels about the princess and his change of heart, and I believe they did, but it wouldn’t mean as much without a very carefully put together visual to back it up. It’s just that each one of those careful plot points and characterizations adds to an already very full movie. But then at the end, when we’ve already established the power of the thief’s magic dust, why, it takes no time at all to convey the creation of an army and why that means he wins. Sad, but true, that the presence of an army is assumed to be easier to understand the implications of than a romantic interlude.

Even with the length, however, I think the story holds up very nicely. Really, the whole movie does. I can see the elements of it that were kept and altered for the 1940 version and I can see some tropes and themes that are still in use to this day. And then too, I think it’s an impressive movie for more reasons than the story and the effects. The cast, for one, features Asian actors and people of color. Pretty cool for 1924. Not that it’s flawless in its treatment of various cultures, but it’s nice to see a positive portrayal of Islam on film, you know? And then there are the sets, which are vast and elaborate and gorgeous. And one of my favorite bits: The tinting. Apparently the original print of the movie featured tinting for each scene. Nighttime scenes are blue where daytime is sepia. The scenes in Mongolia are purple and the quests for the magical items show us green, turquoise and red. We’d wondered if it was a thing brought in for the DVD we had, but some digging revealed that no, it seems this is how the movie was presented. It’s a lovely little detail that I think adds a lot to what would otherwise be a black and white film. It adds tone and flavor to the scene without taking away from the scenery.

Overall I was super impressed with this movie. It was long, it was silent but for the musical score added in (using the original cue sheets), but it was fun and for a film lover, it’s a treat for many reasons. It’s certainly not something to put in for a casual afternoon, but if you’ve got the time to pay attention it’s well worth it.

February 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

February 26, 2011

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

When my family got our first VCR – probably around Christmas 1983 or 1984 – we had very few movies for it. We had a couple dubbed movies provided by my uncles (chief among them being a copy of The Raiders of the Lost Arc which I watched incessantly) but practically no commercial videocasettes. We did have two classic silent movies though. I don’t know if they came from my dad or from his brothers, but I’m extremely grateful that they were there on Christmas day and I watched them both over and over again. One was Buster Keaton’s fantastic action adventure The General. The other was this outstanding and impressive opus.

I don’t have to tell you that a silent film, especially one that is over two hours long, could be a challenge for an eleven or twelve year old boy in the eighties to watch. The style, visual vocabulary, look and feel of these movies is vastly different from the cinema of today. But I’ve always been a sucker for a great fantasy, and this is a fairy story on a vast scale that even today, almost ninety years after it was made, cannot fail to impress.

What I remembered most about this movie before watching it tonight were the jaw dropping sets and production design. The sheer scale of the streets of Bagdad, the Caliph’s palace, and all the other locations featured here is astonishing. There’s one particular set, the enormous gates of the city, that simply boggles my mind. It’s not just the size of it, which dwarfs the actors, extras, donkeys, horses, camels and elephant that pass through it. It also has such a cool look, with four sliding panels that interlock when closed, that captures my imagination. If it were done today it would be in miniature or digitally, but back in 1924 somebody actually designed and manufactured that enormous gate.

Of course I also remembered Douglas Fairbanks and his exaggerated, almost bizarre acting. That is bizarre when looked at from the perspective of a child in the eighties with no prior exposure to early films. When this movie was made films were very much in their infancy, and the feel of them is not at all what we expect in a movie today. It’s not just the lack of audible dialog and the use of title cards – the entire art form was different. As Amanda and I watched this version tonight, which features an orchestral score, we kept commenting on hoe much ti felt like ballet. It’s the broad acting in pantomime that does it. Combined to an extent with the bold stage make-up. Because the complex visual vocabulary of modern film was still in its infancy here these movies have a much more deliberate, simple, feel to them. Maybe it’s the almost exclusive use of stationary cameras. It ends up giving the impression at times of sitting in an audience watching a stage performance. A very intimate performance where you get to stand right on the stage with the actors and the sets are impossibly huge and, in the case of this movie, with a plethora of clever special effects.

The story is presented in three distinct acts. The first act, by far my favorite, introduces us to the thief as he lives his carefree life on the streets of Bagdad. After pilfering a magic rope he uses it to scale the walls of the palace and falls in love with the princess. On her birthday, when suitors from all across the world gather to vie for her hand in marriage he disguises himself as a prince and infiltrates the palace in the hope of abducting her for himself. At this point he is a cad, a rogue, and completely self centered. He takes what he wants and damn the rest of the world. When he finally comes face to face with the princess however he is shocked to discover that just taking everything he wants doesn’t offer him true happiness. He realizes that he wants to earn the right to be worthy of the love of the princess rather than simply abducting her. At the close of the first act he admits his humble origins to her and allows himself to be captured and exiled.

The second act is a very linear quest. The princess, denied the chance to wed the thief, sends her remaining suitors out to find rare gifts for her father to decide which of them she will wed. Ahmed, the thief, goes to a local imam who sets him on the road to collect the most rare an wonderful gift, but first he must overcome a number of obstacles in his way. This should be the most magical part of the movie, because his adventures take him through a series of legendary and perilous realms. He must contend with a valley of flames, a fire breathing dragon, a tree beast in a sinister glen and a giant bat… any number of fairy tale encounters. It doesn’t quite work for me though. Each encounter is too brief to satisfy and it becomes almost monotonous to watch. The exception is when he goes to sea and dives deep under the ocean to retrieve a magic key. This is one my favorite parts of the movie, with a very cool other-worldly feel to it. It’s also the only episode where it feels like there is some peril and that things tie in to the plot of the rest of the movie as he becomes tempted by some sirens and resists them when he is reminded of the princess.

Ultimately Ahmed gets his magic gift – a box full of sand that makes his every wish come true – and starts back towards the princess. In the mean time one of the suitors, an evil Mongol prince, has not only poisoned the princess (so that he can use his gift – a magic golden apple – to bring her back from death’s door) but when that gambit failed he simply invaded and took over all of Bagdad.

The closing act, which feels extremely rushed in my opinion, involves the thief using the magic dust to re-take the city and save the princess. It doesn’t have any tension or emotional power to it, but it DOES involve some simply stupendous crowd scenes and a cast of thousands as he raises his army from the sand to overthrow the Mongol hordes.

Ultimately I have to admit that the fantasy of this version of the story doesn’t capture me like the 1940 version we watched yesterday. The first half of the film is exuberant and thrilling and filled with amazing sights, but the second half doesn’t gel for me and leaves me wanting more. None of that takes away from the spectacle of the movie though. It’s a film filled with astonishing special effects (for the time that it was made) and with sets and production design that is jaw dropping even by today’s standards. I love Douglas Fairbanks’ performance, and I enjoy visiting the fantasy world he has brought to life here.

After watching this movie this evening I went on Amazon and ordered the “complete” Metropolis. So there’s another classic silent film to look forward to. (I wonder if I will miss the Queen soundtrack from the version available for rent when I was growing up.)

February 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment