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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Erich von Stroheim | Queen Kelly



the swamp
By Douglas Messerli

Erich von Stroheim (screenplay), Marion Ainslee (titles), Erich von Stroheim and other uncredited individuals (director) Queen Kelly / 1929

I am sitting at my computer on an overcast and cold day in Los Angeles, perhaps the perfect weather in which to write about the tragic career of the Austrian-American director, Erich von Stroheim—with a particular focus on the film which might be described as ending his directorial career, Queen Kelly.
     Actually, there is no film titled Queen Kelly—at least as directed by von Stroheim. The work he had finished was never released in the US, and what was shown in Europe was only the first part with actress Gloria Swanson's mindless tacked-on ending. The original film was planned to be five hours long!
     Clearly, von Stroheim may have been mad to even attempt such a project. He had certainly failed grandly on other occasions. His 1919 film The Devil's Pass has been lost. He was fired by Irving Thalberg while attempting to film Merry-Go-Round; and his greatest project, Greed, based on the Frank Norris novel McTeague—originally 10 hours in length!—was finally cut down to two and a half hours, the remaining footage destroyed by a janitor. To this day it remains one of the greatest losses of Hollywood cinema.
     What delusions, accordingly, to attempt such a project with a new producer, Kennedy patriarch Joseph, who was having an affair with the leading lady,  Swanson. Swanson had just filmed Sadie Thompson, based on the Somerset Maugham story, "Rain," about a prostitute who is gradually forced to abandon her career in Pago Pago to return as a reformed woman in San Francisco. It is clear that, from Stroheim's description of his new project, which he called The Swamp, that she thought it similar in subject and location to her previous film.
     Von Stroheim, moreover, was not a reasonable man in any sense of that word. He was described as tyrannical on the set, demanding retake after retake, swallowing up time and money with his meticulous attempts to turn American cinema into a serious art. His project was clearly doomed from the start.
      Queen Kelly, by conception, is a film in two parts, mirror images of each other, as the heroine, Kitty Kelly (Swanson), a young convent girl caught up with the romantic image of Prince Wolfram (Walter Byron), soon to marry the brutally insane Queen Regina V (Seena Owen), actually meets her hero one day while walking with fellow students. Unfortunately, her under-drawers fall at the very moment he passes, and angered by his comments, she takes them off and hurls them at him—already a kind a scandalous act that may not have passed the Hays board. The Prince, however, is so charmed that he is determined the very same night (although he is to be married the morning after) to visit the young girl in her convent. He and his friend easily find their way into the convent, but have no concept of how, among so many rooms, to find the girl. By lighting tapers that create large plumes of smoke, and breaking in the fire alarm, the girls come to him, as he scoops up his prize.
      Back in the castle, he offers her platters of elegant food (she has been denied supper for her actions of the morning) and, most disastrously for an innocent young girl, champagne. Before long she almost passed out on the couch, the Prince hovering over her, she enraptured (a suitable word in her childish thinking) by his attentions. The Queen, however, is on the prowl, peeping through the Prince's windows where she sees the couple. Entering his suite, she demands that he remain in his room like a bad school boy as she sends the young girl, dressed only in her nightshirt, into the hall. After attending to her consort, she stops Kelly, beating her with a whip and sending her off into the night.
     Kelly, overwrought by the beating and fearing to return to the convent, jumps from a nearby parapet into the river, saved by an observant guard.
     So ends what might be described as Part I, the story of a romantic but dissolute Prince who falls in love with an innocent child.
     Yet, it was only the starting point of von Stroheim's quite shocking tale. When returned to the convent, Kitty receives news that her aunt (Florence Gibson), who has paid for her convent education, is dying and wishes her niece to visit her where she lives in German East Africa in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The very ridiculousness of the location is perhaps what makes the rest of his project so fascinating. Clearly Hollywood had become enchanted with exotic locations.
     From the one scene that we have of that world, we discover that the aunt heads a brothel, and is determined to marry her niece to the horrific Jan Vryheld (Tuly Marshall), a crippled monster who cannot contain his tongue-smacking leers after being introduced to the beautiful young girl. Dressed in mosquito netting and wreath stolen from a smashed wall hanging, the girl is led to the African priest who officiates, in Latin, the wedding vows over the aunt's death bed. It has to be the most perverse wedding ever conceived. Nothing can quite match Swanson's horror, as the nasty, crutch-swinging Vryheld licks his chops as he moves in on her, crunching her makeshift veil under the stomp of his crutches, a bit of tobacco juice dripping from his mouth on her pale white hand. Despite her horror, Kitty agrees to the union, upon which her aunt breathes her last.
     There are no other scenes intact, only stills, costume shots. The tobacco juice disgusted Swanson, who asked Vryheld about it, he reporting that von Stroheim had ordered it up. So appalled, if we are to believe reports, was Swanson about the whole enterprise, that she quickly called Kennedy, who immediately closed down the production. $800,000 had already been expended.
      We have no other completed scenes, only stills, but we can fill in much of the story. Fending off Vryheld, Kitty takes over the brothel, intermingling with the cook and prostitutes, as she becomes quite clearly a powerful if somewhat frightening figure who they jokingly dub, Queen Kelly—everything, in short, that she was not in the first part. There are clearly numerous adventures to be faced before she once again encounters the handsome Prince, who, after the death of Regina, has been asked to return to the castle and rule the country.
      Swanson and Kennedy used others to create new scenarios, ultimately tacking on a final death of the repentant girl. The film was a failure wherever it was seen. It truly had become a kind of "swamp."
     There is something almost gothic about this series of events, particularly when we watch Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, where Swanson plays a slightly crazed former silent film actor, cared for by von Stroheim, who serves and protects her up until the instant of her mad descent, as he pretends to film her grand return to cinema. Together the two even watch a scene from Queen Kelly. How von Stroheim endured that role is almost incomprehensible. Perhaps he just needed the money and was willing to accept it even playing across a woman who had stolen nearly everything, 22 years earlier, from him. After all, her career ended soon after his! He may have simply loved the aging actress, just as he, playing her former husband, did in the movie. Certainly, the very irony of his (and her) performance must be seen as the greatest nose-thumbing in the entire history of Hollywood filmmaking. That alone may have been enough!

Los Angeles, November 18, 2011
Reprinted from International Cinema Review (November 2011).

Josef von Sternberg | The Blue Angel


the angel meets his devil
by Douglas Messerli
 
Carl Zuckmayer, Karl Vollmöller, Robert Liebmann, and Josef von Sternberg (screenplay, based on the novel by Heinrich Mann), Josef von Sternberg (director) The Blue Angel (English version) / 1930

Alright, I will admit that Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings), the teacher of Literature and English at a boy’s Gymnasium, a college preparatory high school, in Weimar Germany is not truly an angel. A strict disciplinarian not unlike the failed schoolteachers mocked in Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct, Rath cannot even protect his best and favorite student from the bullying actions of the others. Apparently Rath cannot even properly teach, given the inability of some of his students to pronounce the English word “the.” The only thing Rath can offer by way of learning is repetition, and when that does not work verbally, it becomes a kind of punishment as he forces his entire class to write out the word in their notebooks hundreds of times.
      Certainly Rath does not comprehend the libidos of his testosterone-filled boys, who are nearly all in love with the cabaret singer Lola-Lola (an English-speaking Marlene Dietrich), and believes he can terminate their nightly trips to the local Blue Angel bar by simply showing up and gripping them by the seat of the pants.
      In his bourgeois bullishness, accordingly, Rath is a true innocent, a figure who at least believes in the highest ideals even if he cannot himself represent them. One of his few pleasures of life, the song of his caged bird, is stolen from him in the first scene in which he appears, and his absolute incomprehension of its death, as he lifts the dead body into his hand in order to inspect it, is an act that immediately reveals his inability to perceive the world around him—throughout the film Rath is comically presented with unlikely objects (a pair of Lola’s underwear, a native monkey-doll, a postcard in which Lola is dressed in feathers, etc) that requires his spectacles before he can even recognize what he holds out before him. If he is a fool—and he is—he is a fool as Erasmus describes it, a saintly believer not unlike Christ.
      
 Similarly, in this English-language version of von Sternberg’s 1930 film—shot in both German and English, the latter version long believed to have been lost—Lola-Lola does at first not at all appear to be a “devil.” Certainly, she is a flirt, a woman aware of her powers over men, but in general she is far less course than her fellow singers, and even protects the ridiculous professor when he enters her room, defending him against the others, while gently toying with his confused state of mind. If nothing else, Lola is unperturbed by anything that happens in the comically-controlled chaos around her, and in that she is almost dispassionate, realizing her loving nature—not only being a woman in love, but always in need of love. But like so many Wiemar beauties, she cannot connect her desperate need “to fall in love again” with any personal responsibility. Don’t blame her, she warbles, if men get burnt by her flame.
     
  In short, Lola’s gentle calm, even her somewhat incredulous agreement to marry Rath, does not emanate from any empathetic-feeling, but is aroused by her total selfishness. She is the center of her world, and Rath brings with him, despite his being fired from his teaching position, enough money to help her survive a few more months.
      In that sense, as a woman that demands her men give up everything at her shrine, Lola is a true devil. And Rath not only sacrifices his job, his sense of being, and his self-respect, but is forced by Lola and her players, fake magicians and clowns, to become one of them, an even greater fool, a man who tries to pawn a few postcards to customers and ultimately is transformed into a kind of absurd dolt in the magician’s routine, clucking like a hen while Kiepert (Kurt Gerron) pulls eggs from Rath’s nose. The shock of these scenes, beautifully played by Jannings and brilliantly conceived in von Sternberg’s great direction, is almost unbearable, with Rath playing both a kind of cuckold (Lola having simultaneously invited into her room the handsome strongman. Mazeppa)* but representing a kind of sad Pagliacci, forced to play out his degradation in front of his hometown ruffians at the Blue Angel of the early scenes of the movie. Indeed, “the comedy is over,” as he lurches into Lola’s room, attempting to strangle her.
     At least that might have strangely redeemed his life. But in The Blue Angel, Rath, tied up until he calms down, is released—a release not just from love and its diabolical constraints, but a release from life itself. With no identity left and nowhere to go, Rath lurches through The Blue Angel’s expressionist streets to return to the school where he had once taught, ringing for the night porter and, pushing him aside, returning to the classroom where he once taught. There the caretaker discovers him at his former desk, dead, his icy hands already locked in a grasp of that desk as if reclaiming his rightful place in a world that he has abandoned for the devil. If Rath is not exactly an angel, he is, at least, a kind of tormented saint, deserving not just our pity but our respect.

Los Angeles, March 29, 2013
Reprinted from Nth Position (April 2013).

 * Mazeppa is a name that immediately reminded me of the stripper on July Styne’s Gypsy.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Michael Haneke | Das Schloß (The Castle)



impossible imperatives

Michael Haneke (screenplay, based on the novel by Franz Kafka), Michael Haneke (director) Das Schloß  (The Castle) / 1997, USA 1998

Originally made for Austrian television, Michael Haneke’s retelling of the Kafka novel is faithful rendition that even ends, as does Kafka’s book, in mid-sentence. But Kafka’s fable, in the hands of this masterful director, is transformed into a more grimly absurd work by the qualities of verisimilitude lent to the fiction by the medium of film itself. While one can read Kafka’s brilliant work as a kind of parable, actually seeing the distressed land surveyor K (Ulrich Mūhe) having to face the dozens of dispassionate authorities and other bureaucratic functionaries of the small, isolated town infected by the machinations of the unseen Castle, provides this work with an eerie sense of dé-jà vu. We have seen just a world in the German and Russian dictatorships—but after the fact of Kafka’s telling. And the strange displacement of that realization emphasized by Haneke’s theatrical presentation of the tale—including complete blackouts after each scene( as if imitating the book’s original chapters) dark, often blurred, and obscured images, and the perpetual sense of the characters’ walking which takes them nowhere. This is a world where no one quite knows what’s going on, and where some simply obey without even understanding entirely what has been requested of them.
    
     Arriving in the small village after having, somewhat inexplicably, given up his previous posts and having spent nearly all of his funds in response to the request from the Castle for a land surveyor, K. is greeted with suspicion and disbelief. He is offered little, just a corner in which to sleep in the local bar, and even then is told by an authority that it is illegal for him to stay there. Two ridiculous assistants, Artur (Frank Gierling) and Jeremias (Felix Eitner), evidently appointed to serve him by government bureaucrats, arrive without equipment or any experience. He spends much of the rest of the work in comically trying to get rid of them. Despite a call to the castle to confirm his appointment, he is told that there is no need of a land surveyor. Yet a second call accedes to the fact that he has been called for, which allows him, at least, a partial night of sleep. Another strange, but likeable figure, Barnabas (André Eisermann) visits him as a Castle messenger. Yet when queried he has never been in the Castle, and, although he promises to return K’s message to the Castle, he returns to his own home, K trailing after him and discovering within two sisters and a mother all perfect willing to serve him. When one sister, Olga (Dörte Lyssewski) reports she must go to another inn for provisions, K follows her, discovering that her real intention has been to sexually entertain the crude underlings of a man associated with the Castle, Klamm. There also he meets the bartender, Frieda (Susanne Lothar), Klamm’s mistress. Whether K becomes attracted to her for her beauty or because of her links with the Castle, we never know, but before the night is out, and despite further attempts by authorities of trying to track down K and expel him, he and Frieda engage in a frenzy of sex.
     So K becomes involved in the life of a village under the somewhat resentful yet serf-like thrall of the Castle. Other underlings come and go, each giving their own strange orders, warnings, and messages. The city’s Council Chairman, with whom K. ultimately meets, explains, seemingly quite rationally, that it has been a long-time mistake, that the community was ordered a land surveyor for whom they had no need, with, over years of paperwork and messages to and from the government the confusion has led to K’s unintentional appointment. But having fallen in love with Frieda and having given up all former positions, traveling the long distance, and spending his savings, K. has no choice but to remain. He is appointed as school janitor, but even his night in the schoolhouse with Frieda—wherein the couple, nearly freezing, break into the woodhouse and are plagued by the appearance of the Artur and Jeremias in their bed—ends in disaster as the school master and students arrive while the couple are still asleep, naked upon their mattress.
 
     Despite Barnabas’ messages to and from the Castle, there seems to be no real communication, and others of the village are shocked that K has visited the young man’s house, which seems to be associated with the daughters’ shocking sexual behaviors. When Frieda finally leaves K, determining that despite her love for him, he has merely used her in hopes of connections with the Castle, K returns to the inn where she has previously worked, attempting to meet with authorities, but only finds another Castle representative who, luring him to sit upon his bed, explains his inability to intercede.
     As I mentioned, the film, just like Kafka’s work, ends mid-sentence with K’s intent to seek further intercession, a suggestion perhaps, as Kafka’s friend and executor, Max Brod, had argued that Kafka intended to have K remain in this ghastly village, sent on the day of his death, a message that, although he was still illegally there, he had permission to remain. Perhaps Kafka had no intention of completing the work. It hardly matters, for what is clear, particularly in Haneke’s powerful rendition, any further action in such a perverted world, would have had no further meaning for K’s life. Like the later Jewish, Gypsy, and gay prisoners of the German (and Russian) concentration camps, for those deemed as outsiders whom the authorities had determined to destroy, the only option was to pray for survival; acceptance, joy, love, comfort are impossible imperatives. Although we never see the Castle, its feudal shadow looms large over this cold and frozen village where everyone is a harbinger of suspicion and hate.

Los Angeles, March 22, 2013
Reprinted in International Cinema Review (March 2013).

Friday, March 22, 2013

Shōhei Imamura | Erogotoshi-tachi yori: Jinrulgaku nyūmori (The Pornographers)



the carp leaps out of its tank

Shōhei Imamura (screenplay, based on a novel by Akiyuki Nosaka), Shōhei Imamura (director) Erogotoshi-tachi yori: Jinrulgaku nyūmori (The Pornographers) / 1966

 
 Loving companion to an ailing woman, Haru Masuda (Sumiko Sakamoto), and a kind of adoptive father to her two children, Koichi (Masaomil Kondo) and Keiko (Kelko Sagawa), Yoshimoto Ogata (Shōichi Ozawa) desperately tries to make ends meet by leading a kind of double life: pretending to be a salesman—to keep both police and the mob off the track—while shooting two pornographic movies each day, selling them (much like a salesman) to wealthy businessmen. To justify his occupation, Ogata declares that he is only serving a social cause, giving men what they need in order to survive—as important as food and finances. The problem, of course, is that in the post-World War II Japanese society in which he lives, the blue films he makes are illegal and the mob is only too ready to demand their share of any meager profits. Despite some few successes, accordingly, by film’s end we see just how much of a failure Ogata is at his strange profession.
      More importantly is the effect of his skewed perspective of the world on his own family. The woman he lives with, Hara, refuses to marry him, having been warned by her husband—who inhabits the body, she believes, of a large carp she keeps in a bedroom tank—despite the sexual thrill she feels by his attentions. The family history—revealed in out of sequence, cuts, each further cut revealing more than the one that proceeded it—also demonstrates the resentment of the two children for their mother’s sexual involvement with Ogata. Even as a young child, Keiko reacts to the “stranger’s” intrusion upon their lives, rushing away from his arms into the path of a bus. The elder son, Koichi shows his detestation of the “father” by demanding money to get into college; he is a poor student, and so must pay his way in with a bribe.
     Despite the relatively restrained sexuality of Ogata’s earliest films, in his own home life, things are much more suggestive, as Koichi jumps into bed with his mother, declaring he is cold, and, later, demands her gentle ministrations (a mix of hugs and leg-rubbings) for the same reason. Ogata, attracted to the school-girl Keiko, plays out one of his film scenarios with a retarded girl dressed in Keiko’s own school uniform, and simultaneously demonstrates a sexual interest in his “daughter.” Becoming pregnant, Haru becomes ill and is hospitalized, during which time she suggests that if she were to die, Ogata should marry Keiko. All of this, moreover, is represented by Imamura in a series of scenes shot through cracks in the wall, peeking in through windows, peering into crevices, and, as in the discussion with Ogata and Haru in the hospital, with others overhearing. If Ogata’s films are rather straight-forward, giving his customers what they desire, his and his family’s lives are lived out in a much more prurient way, belonging more to pornography that his blue movies. Keiko even participates in a large group orgy.
     At an even uglier level, moreover, is the way the entire society, sweeping up both Koichi and Keiko, perceives everything it terms of money. With everyone he knows, his friends, even some of his clients, the mob, and his “family” constantly demanding money, there is no way Ogata could ever succeed no matter which avocation he might have chosen. In a strange way, Ogata, despite his abuse of actors and his literal rape of Keiko, is the most innocent figure in this darkly satiric work. At moments it is almost as if Ogata, in perceiving his films as being of social value, thinks of his work as an art, not unlike that of the director of this film, Imamura. But in such a greedy and selfish world in which he lives, he will never be able to develop or better his “art.” He is born to failure.
     Working throughout with a cinematic partner, a misogynist who eschews all women, a man who declares they are dangerous and even unclean, Ogata finally comes to a new perspective: instead of dealing with “real” members of the opposite sex, he will create a machine to salve his sexual needs. A bit like Tommaso Landolfi’s character in his story, “Gogol’s Wife,” Ogata, after Haru’s death and Keiko’s rejection, moving to a small houseboat works to create a latex doll to fulfill his sexual desires, shifting from a kind of filmmaker to a kind of sculptor. With his work nearly completed, Ogata, in a sense, is freed from the restrictions of his previous world—is released from the confining sexual mores, the financial demands, and the greedy and selfish ploys of other beings. The boat breaks loose from its moorings and is quickly taken out to sea. Film-critic Donald Richie describes it as, “a scene of mysterious beauty, he sails, all unknowing, through the canals of Osaka and out into the Pacific Ocean—presumably never to be heard of again.” Perhaps one might rather say, however, Ogata sails into a world where he will never again have to hear from the closed and truly pornographic society in which he has previously lived.

Los Angeles, March 21, 2013E