32. The General

The GeneralDecember 22, 1926
United Artists
Directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman

In Seven Chances he was a man who couldn’t stop running. At first no one would talk to him, but as soon as he figured out what to do, no one would leave him alone. They were all after him. Every woman in the town, along with rocks of every size. The mechanisms of the entire world, animate and inanimate, all on his tail, and all he wanted was to find his place.

Well actually, he already has his little place, what he wants is more than that. Unlike Chaplin’s tramp, Keaton plays characters who have a place in society, but are determined to move up. Ascend the social hierarchy. Work the system. But working the social system is always more complicated than it looks, as more and more elements are drawn into the struggle, until our aspiring hero must contend with mastering the physical world itself.

In the General, where his beloved woman, played by Marion Mack, is kidnapped by a band of enemy soldiers hijacking his beloved steam locomotive engine, the mastery needed is speed. He must chase down, overtake, and win back his own engine (and lady). Though many of the death-courting stunts Buster plays on the tracks were thought of on the fly, the movie is perfectly symmetrical. He makes a series of mishaps while chasing the General north (to the left of the screen), and then perfectly executes the same actions escaping south (to the right). At the top and center of this cannonball arc is the moment when he must break his woman free from the Union headquarters. At this single moment of rest, he observes the woman through the cigarhole of the tablecloth. It’s a clear allusion to a camera’s aperture that simulates the cinematic gaze. Through the tablecloth hole, she is all he can can see, and he sees her while remaining unobserved. In this moment, her worth is made so clear and powerful that he can do nothing else but make every effort possible to get her back.

He does, and his daring success wins him the love of his woman and an army commission. He has found his place as a soldier, which is to say his function. For in the Newtonian world of mechanics that provides the ontological mythology of Capitalism, it is not what a something is that matters, only what it does. A man is the sum of his actions. This question of the value of man is the principal difference between Chaplin and Keaton. Charlie’s ethical position is rooted in the Catholic belief in the inherent value of a human despite his deplorable condition. His successes result from accidents and dei ex machinis. Buster is never given that grace. He must always remain industrious, propel himself forward, never at rest.

And it goes for his woman as well. For there was more than physical beauty in that image he stole from under the dining room table. Once rescued, it is she that removes the pin allowing the engine to detach from the train and escape the camp, and she who sets a rope trap that delays the pursuing train for a few seconds. And because it’s comedy, he takes it too far. Tasked with stoking the furnace, she rejects the ugly log with a hole in it and replaces it with dainty sliver. Buster throttles her for a second before remembering himself, and gives her a kiss instead. Their domestic harmony is assured.

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31. Faust

Faust final

October 14, 1926
UFA
Directed by F.W. Murnau

Dr. Faustus was a real person who lived in the early 16th century, and he really did study the occult. In the decades after his death, in a climate of widespread witch-hunts and Lutheran terror, tales about his magical powers and associations with the Devil became legend. Christopher Marlowe’s play was the principal literary source for Goethe, who infused his 1808 play Faust, eine Tragödie with profound philosophical investigations. Goethe’s Faust turns to magic because he has spent his life in a quest for knowledge that has brought him nothing but alienation.

While there’s not a lot of philosophical conversation in the movie, there are plenty of cues to philosophical reflection in the viewer. Created as an expensive prestige picture, the movie is very slow, and you really need to relax and let it unfold at its own pace for it to be watchable. But as long as you don’t lose the story, there are spaces in the luminous sequences to get lost in contemplation of your own life. The themes are all heavy. Death. Aging. The religious path versus the world. The worth of knowledge, of beauty, of sex.

One of the joys of this film is its earthy depiction of a pre-industrial village culture, which here express the full joy and sorrow of being alive. The Easter Parade mirrored by a Burning at the Stake. A visit to the hedge-witch and then a visit to the ale-house. And most of all, the thrall of children’s play that mirrors the adult chase of courtship. Watching adults and children chase each other around, we are reminded of Alan Watts’ comment that Hide and Seek is the proper model for understanding reality. Hide and Seek is the fundamental human activity – it’s a game played in every culture, and infants begin to understand the world through games of peekaboo.

And this movie, this life, is one game of hide and seek. We chase each other, the devil chases us, and we chase him back. We chase after God. We chase after ourselves. The holy spirit is everywhere, but has hidden itself. Because we can’t see it, we pretend it’s not really there. We pretend that we’re not one with God, that isolation and damnation are possible, that we have ruined the lives that were given to us and that we are lost souls. We make believe that we are damned. And we’ve been doing this for so long that we’ve gotten quite good at it. For a hundred lives we seek. And when we find ourselves, when we find God, what is there to do but allow him to hide himself once more, and begin the search again.

Each time you close your eyes for longer, and he hides further away. And you look and look, and think, well maybe this time he did it. He really went away for good. It’s been so long since he was last here. Did it really happen? Am I inventing the memory? I’m alone here, and I always will be, and my body is failing me and I am rapidly approaching death. Forget these foolish notions of God and universal connection. Surely the Earth and power over it is the only thing. After all, you’re on your own, aren’t you? Better make a decision while you still can.

30. Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed

Abenteuer.pngJuly 1926
UFA
Directed by Lotte Reiniger

According to Andre Bazin in “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, photography is a medium whose magic is conjured by the camera’s ability to turn an object of our affection into an image by a mechanical process, as if the very hand of God has saved our beloved from annihilation by capturing her in permanent and holy form. What the Egyptians did with mummies in tombs, the photographer does with photosensitive film.

The cinema director takes these holy images and sets them into motion.

But now we have arrived at a movie that does not conform to this holy Bazinian sense. While this movie is a set of moving photographs, these are photographs of drawings – objects fashioned by a human hand that represent imagined things.

If we don’t think about the fundamental shift here, it’s because animation has now come to define the essential features of cinema today.  In its most immediate form, the cinema exists today as Netflix, a continuous stream of moving images which are for the most part not depictions of real events from the past, but pictures painted on to the screen. Computer-generated imagery has replaced Bazinian photography.

By 1926, animation had been used not just for making primitive cartoons, but also for making avant-garde films, shown in the context of modern art exhibitions. In the days when it wasn’t obvious that cinema would be used to make narratives out of moving photographs, these were both significant genres. Avant-garde cinema, one could say, was the expression of the various paths abandoned when cinema chose the Birth of a Nation as its model.

To my eyes, the most fascinating avant-garde filmmaker of the 1920’s is Walter Ruttmann, who composed a series of Lichtspiel films, where tinted shapes and pattern wash over the screen in dynamic movements of color and energy. The pleasure of these movies is in seeing the actual film – the actual colored light, as if watching an abstract painting where the colors can’t stop swirling and jutting about. As the Lichtspiel series progresses, the shading becomes more sophisticated – the colors gradually change, and the colors begin to flash in visual rhythms. The shapes that form now develop a symbolic power in addition to their rhythmic geometry. There is no human narrative for the brain to interpret, the movie is strictly for the eye to experience the pleasure of looking. To watch the Lichtspiel is to relearn how to look.

Ruttman was Lotte Reiniger’s principal collaborator on Achmed, and while he’s responsible for some of the most alluring visual effects – the hypnotic backgrounds – this is Reiniger’s film. I’ve written before on how women’s role in film history has not just been forgotten but deliberately erased. Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed has found a strange space in the intersection of children’s culture, folk culture, and avant-garde culture where a woman can direct a masterpiece, a film that depicts events that are not really happening, yet are still real images that we can see. The film made at this crossroads was so undeniably great that it could no longer be forgotten or written off, although it has been watched and discussed less than most of the neighboring movies of this story. Achmed does not fit easily into any category we could attempt to assign to it. Many of her innovations were lately credited to the cultural glutton Walt Disney, whose movies as of 1926 are not even worth talking about here. The glowing print that we have today seems to have been saved, not by happy accident, but by a magical charm of protection. It would be quite appropriate if after a calamitous 21st century sends us into a dark age, this were the only silent film to survive.

29. Bronenosets Potyomkin

Battleship Potemkin

January 18, 1926
Goskino
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein

Stachka demonstrated the power of revolutionary cinema by showing the effect workers can have when they organize. Yes, the strike itself ended in annihilation, but it was punctuated by a final command, addressed directly to the audience: Remember, proletarians!

Sergei Eisenstein and his comrades gave them little time to forget. Within a year’s time Bronenosets Potyomkin brought the cinema into its next dialectical stage, demonstrating what can happen when proletarian power is joined by military power. We saw in the German Revolution how the military, which normally operates as the repressive apparatus of state power, has within its organization its own version of proletarian industrial workers, namely sailors. In 1905, when the Russians were being obliterated by the Japanese, a non-Western industrial upstart, the sailors of the ship Potemkin decided to join the revolution their were hearing rumors about and stage a mutiny. The events of this mutiny, largely fictionalized to suit the needs of cinematic narrative, were depicted here as part of a 20-year celebration of the Revolution of 1905.

The film wasn’t a big hit in the Soviet Union, but news spread, and it scared the shit out of foreign governments. Industrial nations were experiencing worker unrest of their own, and it was a very real possibility that they would see their own Bolshevik moment in the months ahead. To those in power, this movie was a manual of how to stage a real revolution. Britain and France banned all public showings. The German censorship office made substantial cuts, including the entirety of the most-famous pram sequence, but ultimately approved the censored version (military personnel were still prohibited from seeing it).

The movie premiered in Berlin two days before Mayday and was an overwhelming critical success. Douglas Fairbanks declared it “the most powerful and the most profound emotional experience in my life.” Bertolt Brecht composed a poem about it. Potyomkin was a bold display of the power of revolutionary political art and an example of the potential for superior cinema in a socialist economy.

The power of a movie that presented all filmmaking under the capitalist mode of production with an artistic challenge presents modern viewers with a different challenge. Potyomkin is almost exclusively watched as a technical exercise. The emotional centerpiece, the famous Odessa Steps sequence, which exploded onto the Berlin screen as a consummate vision of war-as-chaos, has been so institutionalized and academized by countless shot by shot analyses that it can be hard to feel anything when watching it. John Waters, that master of screen chaos, recalls a screening of the Odessa Steps as the moment he decided film school was unnecessary bullshit.

Is it possible to see in this movie with its original revolutionary thrill? Possible for it to excite us with its picture of a new way to live, showing us what is greatest and most important in life, and filling us with solidarity and the courage to defend our brothers and sisters against the dread force of Capital?

Sound may be the key that unlocks this silent film.

Eisenstein himself saw his masterpiece as a sound film. All of his montage tricks, gross or subtle, were to be matched in unison or counterpoint by similar moves in the soundtrack. But the versions I’ve seen on video use those standard orchestra or piano scores that tend to make silent movies a dull, academic experience. A Film 101 class to fall asleep in. A great silent movie is timeless, but the soundtrack is usually not. Many composers and ensembles have re-scored Potemkin, and you should never pass up the opportunity to see it this way. For those playing the home game, I can personally recommend the Pet Shop Boys version, which as of this writing is available here in what is apparently a fan edit. Chris and Neil’s synthesizer melodies soar in solidarity as the skiffs meeting the battleship and sing an understated dirge during the great Steps scene. As the tension of the final showdown mounts, they go into full Hi-NRG. We are your brothers! As we move into our own version of 1926, prospects for World Revolution are once again starting to look up.

28. The Big Parade

The Big Parade vlcsnap-2015-12-27-15h15m58s192.pngNovember 5, 1925
MGM
Directed by King Vidor

The Big Parade is the second war movie in this story, following The Birth of a Nation, and is the only movie in the Silent Age as financially successful. Its budget of $380,000 cost MGM a third as much as Greed and a tenth as much as Ben-Hur, but outstripped both those movies in profit and proved the major triumph the movie factory needed. Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg had created something that, for an initial investment, would make money forever. No one could deny they were both geniuses.

The best scene in the movie is at the beginning of the second half. After spending the first half billeted in a French village and making life bearable for themselves, they are called to the front. After being transported by truck and strafed by enemy planes, they begin the real “big parade” – no proud march but a cautious tread through a forest with corpses on the ground, snipers in the trees, and machine gunners in remote trenches. As suspenseful as it is, the violence always happens at what seems to be an appropriate place and time. The shots and cuts are as even and rhythmic as the steps in a parade. There’s no sense of chaos, or even confusion. Slim dies only after executing a risky maneuver and in general acting like his life is already forfeit. Jim is wounded only after cursing the leaders and making the fateful decision to go after his friend.

As the first title reminds us, this was a movie made with the full support of the U.S. military. The footage filmed from airplanes with the land below in sparkling clarity must have inspired countless viewers to want to be a pilot. But this isn’t the militaristic propaganda of Top Gun. This is a movie about soldiers suffering and dying for a vague cause of “patriotism” that they obviously don’t understand.

But even as we see the senseless suffering, this is not really an anti-war film. War is hell, but there are opportunities for heroism. If not political heroism where one suffers for a country or cause, then at least where one can do good for his comrade. He can save his brother and even sacrifice for his brother. Actually, war provides the ideal situation for a man to show just how far he will go for his brothers. In his foxhole, Jim offers a cigarette to his German victim and refuses to kill him – focusing the entire conflict onto a relation between two humans. And at the end of the scene, it is the heroic action and sacrifice of Jim, Bull, and Slim that allows the Allies to advance through several lines, reproducing on a micro level the vital contribution of the United States to the end of the stalemate on the Western Front.

In The Big Parade, the individual is all. We see the war through the experience of the soldier, but we have no idea about the politics, or even the cause they are fighting for. We know it’s patriotism, sure, but why exactly are we fighting the Germans? Perhaps Mayer and Thalberg, whom we can’t deny are geniuses, saw no need to explain this to an audience only seven years into peacetime.

As of Christmas 1925, the all-powerful United States was in the middle of a fantastic boom period. Americans were content to follow President Calvin Coolidge without becoming too interested in politics. The major political dispute other than the six-year old Prohibition was the Scopes Monkey Trial, where the erstwhile tribune of the people William Jennings Bryan was reduced to a doddering fool defending the inerrancy of Bible stories against modern science. Aside from the booze question and the Bible question, Americans were politically disengaged. The Big Parade was a movie for a public that was ready to revisit the horrors of war and heroism war summons in men, but suspicious of the decadent Europe that had necessitated it, and not ready to think about the current events that might threaten its ugly return.

 

27. The Gold Rush

Gold Rush
June 26, 1925
United Artists
Directed by Charles Chaplin

The Gold Rush has an ambiguous status as a silent movie. After attempting to remove it from circulation in the 1930’s, Chaplin revived it in 1942 with great fanfare. He recorded an orchestral score and voiceover narration and recut the film to match the soundtrack. He then took to hunting down and destroying any other version of the film, claiming this as the director’s cut and only legitimate Gold Rush. The revival was a complete success that cemented the film’s reputation as the Great Silent Comedy in the very moment that Chaplin effectively converted it into a sound film. The Criterion DVD presents both the 1942 director’s cut sound film and a restoration of the original silent version constructed by David Gill and Kevin Brownlow in 1993. Chaplin’s assiduous quest to replace the original with the new version suggests that there is something significant in the schism of these two texts. Is it merely the act of artistic control, or was he trying to rewrite something?

One reason for the triumphant reception of the Gold Rush in 1942 was that it was lauded as a pure comedy, in contrast to the progressively more political work that Chaplin put out between 1925 and 1942 (four movies which we will visit later in this story). The most celebrated sequences are about survival, and we laugh because we are delirious with hunger. Boiling and eating a shoe, being imagined as a giant chicken, performing a dance with rolls for feet. While this is a movie about the fundamentals of survival common to all life, this is not a famine like the one currently ravaging the Volga. These people are suffering the frozen wastes of the Klondike only because they’re looking for gold.

In the end it’s not the tramp that strikes gold but his partner Big Jim. The tramp becomes rich by being in the right place, associating with the right person, and by staying alive. We never really see the Tramp make any effort to find gold. He pawns his pickaxe and wanders into local dance hall where Georgia works, selling dances and other favors to the more prosperous prospectors. Tuned to sources of money, her adoring gaze looks everywhere but at the Tramp. As he picks up a discarded photograph of Georgia, only another bum watches him. To make her boyfriend Jack as jealous as possible, Georgia finally sees the Tramp and invites him to dance, and after a perfect comedic sequence, he falls on his ass and she laughs at him.

They next meet when she and her friends chance upon his cabin, which as opposed to the savage one in those desperate first scenes, is cozy and warm. He’s clearly improved his status a little bit, and she now shows a smile and accepts his invitation in. She finds her discarded photo and flower under his pillow and looks with wonder, stunned to know the effect her beauty has had on one whom she barely considers. As she leaves, she looks affectionately on him and promises to return New Year’s Eve.

She doesn’t return, at least not until she gets the idea to go prank him, along with Jack and her girls. When she sees the elaborate design of his dinner plans her heart changes. She suddenly loses interest in the prank and tries to refuse to kiss Jack. The next day she writes an apology love note to him, but he gives it to the tramp to trick him into thinking he has won Georgia’s love, which of course works. None of this happens in the 1942 director’s cut. In that version the prank is Jack’s idea alone, and the note passed to the tramp is a different one – a straightforward apology from Georgia. A complex emotional affair has been streamlined into nonsense.

In the final scene the tramp is a millionaire, aboard a ship back to California and wearing his old clothes as a costume for a photo shoot. Georgia is aboard the steerage of the same ship, and when she sees him she gives him a full smile and defends him when he caught as a suspected stowaway. Chaplin is now in full delight – he has both money and her love. He announces their marriage and kisses her full on the mouth. Ah, but this is all still just the photo shoot, and we see it through the cameraman’s view! “You’ve spoilt the picture!” the cameraman announces.

The look on her face as this scene unfolds is mysterious, and we must remember Chaplin’s previous film A Woman in Paris, which was a study of the inscrutable expressions of the title character, as well as the fact that this movie cost about $1 million, money spent on endless takes of the same shots that Chaplin could sift through when editing. Her eyelids twitch as she closes them for this kiss. Her smile is enchanting and genuine, but it’s not the  pure joy we read in the tramp. (Of course, no one can express pure joy like Chaplin – next to him, we all look like we’re either faking it or holding back because of some psychic ache we can’t forget even in our happiest moments.)

The kiss, the various expressions on her face, and the photo comment were scrubbed from the final version, leaving an incomplete feeling as the couple merely walks off together. Did Chaplin spoil the picture with the original ambiguous ending? It’s clearly a cynical comment on marriage which is understandable given the fact that Chaplin had been forced to marry the original female lead of the picture, the 16-year old Lita Grey after he got her pregnant. It wouldn’t be fair to say it’s only about the money. Georgia’s affections are real, but her entire emotional register is governed by the marketplace. Whatever our attempts to make our life better, there is no escape from economics.

26. Stachka

Strike
April 28, 1925
Goskino
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein

Work sucks.
Work isn’t working.

It’s Sunday night and my opinion is that work sucks. I’ve been working at the same office job for seven years, where within a three meter radius of my chair sit four other people. Three of whom are in competition for a promotion with me. Even though I’ve been there longer, I think that two of them will beat me, if not all three. I can see how it plays out, and I think I am okay with not getting the job. I am fine with my wife being disappointed in me not getting it, even as I accuse her of not respecting my current job.

Advancing in my career as a means of getting more respect hasn’t been working for me, but I don’t know what else to do to get out of the trap I feel I’ve fallen into. I tried the “get good at a thing” line. I did it – I wrote four chapters for a book that was actually published this year and is now available in three different libraries. But writing is no way to a prosperous career. I know that. My favorite living writers have careers that are uncertain or unlucrative, if they have a job at all. No, my best chance is to win a promotion to a job that is only slightly different from the one I have now.

Because I know my job’s not all that bad. I work in an office, at a computer, and while I sometimes work 9, 10, 11, or even 12 hour days, those days are always punctuated by plenty of food – swordfish, salmon, tilapia, filet mignon, truffle aioli, fresh vegetables cooked and raw and a variety of fruits, not just oranges and apples but  even in the darkest depth of winter. Eggs, sausage, and potatoes every morning for breakfast. Hot dark coffee available at all times. High quality green tea. Beer and wine. Occasional travel to New York or San Francisco where I can dine at any restaurant I want.

None of this changes the fact that work sucks, but I can only barely imagine how much work must have sucked for factory workers in St. Petersburg before the revolution. Seriously, what do I know? I’m frustrated working the same job without promotion for seven years. But for workers to consider a strike in 1890’s or 1900’s Russia, things must have been a total dead end with conditions continually getting worse. You can’t just quit and find a new job. This same factory is where you work forever.

If you must work until you die, then the working conditions must change.

Finally, after all these years, there is a movie about work, for the workers. Their struggle – not man vs nature, man vs man, or man vs self, but man vs Capital. A struggle against a social relation.

But what does it matter? This movie about a radical irruption of the production of Capital is now just a DVD for your personal collection of movies on plastic or instant stream and it’s been cataloged and assigned its due place in the canon of commodities. Except that the processes of commodity production have neither neutered or assimilated it. Of all the movies in this story so far, this one presents the most problems in watching and understanding. I had been waiting to watch it with pleasurable anticipation, but I wasn’t ready for it. I had to restart the movie a few times before I could get even the most rudimentary grip on what I was seeing, and I had to watch the whole thing three times to make any sense of it. It’s maybe the most modern movie yet created. Fuck that. This is most modern thing yet created. It’s utterly bizarre.

We immediately depart from the standard of bourgeois fiction, as first exemplified by the novel, wherein the reader learns about an individual and her problems, conflicts, and journey, and then relates that journey to the reader’s own life. These are the stories you will find in every netflix queue. Here, the characters are always archetypes, and the story is mythic.

The workers work, and it sucks. But they have opportunity to talk, write, and even distribute newspapers among themselves. They share their grievances and discuss their scant options. But the micrometer is stolen and the machinist is blamed. Since Capital holds all the cards and can make whatever demand it wants, he loses his wages for the last three weeks and is fired. Facing his and his family’s immediate starvation, he commits suicide. His fellow workers decide to strike and seize the foundry.

Life on the strike begins to approach the happy state of nature. Men and women reunite. Animals and people coexist. The workers make their demands for a return to production, but the owners are determined to ignore them even as they lose money with each passing day. Neither side moves, and it wears down the solidarity of the workers. The police hires provocateurs from the lumpen-proletariat to start a fire and set off the workers. The fire department arrives to attack them with the firehose. The striking workers are blamed for this incident, and Capital calls in the army.

The ending is not a happy one. The strike is brutally crushed. The final slaughter performed by the military in the interest of preserving property and order is intercut with the slaughter of a cow – a scene of unsimulated carnage with no narrative connection to the story. After a sweeping pan of the bodies in the field, there is a quick close-up on a pair of eyes, and the words “Remember, Proletarians!”

Their action may appear to be a failure, but we must look at it more broadly than the immediate bloodbath. The strike activates the class struggle and makes a claim for power, however unsuccessful. The movie is one step forward. Eisenstein has more to show us. The thesis awaits its antithesis.

The successful one is a prophet of the next generation. The trick is to get the Lord to speak directly to you. Sometimes to do that, you must create a rule, and then break that rule.