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The works of Puerto Rican filmmakers are not distributed as they should be. Recently I saw "El clown", a fine movie I had not heard anything about since its release in 2006; and now "Meteoro", a title that had never crossed my path, and which originated from an interesting anecdote: in 1978 a group of filmmakers (including Renato Padovani, the cinematographer of "Meteoro") got lost in the Brazilian back-lands while shooting a documentary, and discover the existence of Nova Holanda, a small village that emerged from a settlement created by the workers that were building the road from Brasilia to Fortaleza during Juscelino Kubitschek's government, and a troop of prostitutes. In 1964 the construction was suddenly stopped when the Brazilian army seized power, communication was closed, the workers and whores were abandoned, and they had to use their imagination to survive and grow. Diego de la Texera took this fact and made a beautiful motion picture that, in well-measured doses, speaks of love, social classes, ethnic groups, political persecution and people's dreams. Although the story could be the starting point for one of those traditional leftist diatribes of ideological battering, or for a drama about the social, sexual and sanitary problems (among others) that isolation probably originated, De la Texera opted to tell us the feisty and horny (heterosexual) tale of the community of Meteoro, a place full of fantasy, sensuality and magic, taken from Omar Khayyan, Rismky-Korsakoff, Chaplin, cheap vaudeville and science-fiction movies of the 1950s. (It is true that when Brasilia was built there was frequent talk about UFO sightings, but the meteors and other strange objects in "Meteoro" bring me fond memories of "It Came from Outer Space" and "This Island Earth".) Even when dealing with the military (whether in uniforms or dressed as civilians) as they suddenly break into the commune to "spoil the settlers' party" 13 years later, De la Texera avoids a Manichaean approach, and goes for a more objective strategy. Moreover, I believe -with no intention of being offensive- that Diego is, to a good measure, a son of the hippie counter-culture that instead of acts of violence proposed loving methods of conciliation. As a good "flower child", he was attracted to the story of the commune, and turned it into an attractive motion picture for us the spectators to enjoy, revealing at the same time a few weaknesses of Utopias: on one hand, for example, he shows the virtues of revelry, but also reveals the need for philosophy and training; and on the other, among a group of persons for which property is communal, attachment to matter (specially to human flesh) is still the bigger cause of suffering. The liberating act in "Meteoro" comes from a boy and he does it naively, childishly (with a toy), and beyond the impulses of the grown-ups, to protect his father from the military torturers. In the final balance, "Meteoro" is a film rich with images that lead to reflection, a labor of love that merited better diffusion.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In his fourth film with Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg recovered part of the frenetic passion of "The Blue Angel", and although he did not reach the drama of that cruel tale of obsession, he took his muse away from the parodies of an African adventure in "Morocco", or the Chinese affair in "Shanghai Express", if Marlene still insisted on placing her hands on her hips as a bodybuilder. In "Blonde Venus", she is again a German singer who has been domesticated by her marriage to an American chemist (Herbert Marshall, in one of the victim roles he specialized in, usually with Bette Davis as his nemesis). However she is soon back on stage when her husband gets sick for being continuously exposed to radium, and has to receive an expensive treatment in Germany. After a great and funky musical number in which she first struts around the cabaret wearing a gorilla suit, and later seduces the audience with her singing, Marlene obtains in the night of her debut the moneys for the trip and treatment, from the hands of a young and handsome politician (Cary Grant), with whom she has an intense romance, while the husband is abroad. The main course this time is poor Marlene's decadence and her eventual rebirth: there is a bit of sadism in covering her with glitter from head to toe, and then make her wear torn, cheap clothes; and we are certainly a masochist audience watching such an outrage. Although there are even a few aquatic shots of naked girls in this tale of moral decay, the influence of the nefarious censor Will H. Hays was already felt, so Marlene goes back to Marshall's bland arms and to their little son (the unbearable Dickie Moore), and leaves Grant, with whom she surely had a very good time, but she and Sternberg could not beat the "good customs" of the day. In any case there is a lot here to enjoy, so have a good time, but prepare your handkerchief or buy yourself a pack of Kleenex.
After making remarkable naturalistic masterpieces as "Underworld", "The Docks of New York" and "The Blue Angel", Josef von Sternberg made "Morocco", but instead of the rigorous visual and thematic baroquism that worked so well in his own "The Last Command", he opted for the cheap Hollywood exoticism of long cinematic tradition, before and after this African adventure. First of the American films he made with Marlene Dietrich, "Morocco" is one of those heavily static products made during the first years of sound cinema, when the use of the new equipments was shy, and registering sound prevented cameras from moving as freely as they did during the silent period. But aside these technical restrictions, "Morocco" is a melodrama in the limits of idiocy, with a sure foot on the land of ridiculousness; it is a cult film more than anything else, with Marlene flaunting boas and male attire, sending lesbian messages and singing nonsense, while a young and bony Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou in his typical Frenchified impersonation, revere her, as those who selected this dubious entry to the National Film Registry. Watch it only as curio.
"The Docks of New York" is an excellent Sternberg film, a directorial "tour de force" that resumes in 76 minutes the drama that occurs in 12 hours to a ship stoker (George Bancroft), after he saves a young woman from suicide. The sets evoking the New York waterfront were completely built in studios, so Sternberg was able to fluidly move his camera in a sordid ambiance and among characters stricken by poverty, alcohol, depersonalized sex and loneliness. Two years later, in 1930, Clarence Brown directed Greta Garbo in the film version of Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie", in which she plays a prostitute who comes back to live in New York with her father, an old sailor who has not seen in her in 15 years and thinks she is a virtuous lady. Both films have a similar look, and I would not be surprised if stylist Sternberg's motion picture had an influence on the art directors of Brown's film. Highly recommended.
"The Last Command" is a beautiful and extraordinary film in the best tradition of classic story-telling, with German actor Emil Jannings giving an outstanding performance for which he won the first Oscar for "Best Actor" ever. Based on the life of Russian official Theodore Lodijensky, who ran from the Soviet revolution and worked in Hollywood as an extra in silent films, Jannings plays a general who is chosen for a big historical production by a fellow countryman, a theater director who he once persecuted in Russia, for his subversive activities, and who is now in charge of the film's direction. From the first scenes when the military is selected, when he arrives in the studio, dons his costume and makes up, to the scene he impressively plays in the film-within-the-film (containing one of the most eloquent critics to cinema when turned into a cold industry that makes either films as sausages or limousines), "The Last Command" consists of a long flashback of the general's life in Russia, when he incarcerated the theater director and fell in love with a revolutionary actress. Jannings would work again for Sternberg as the protagonist of "The Blue Angel", seduced by the wicked Lola-Lola (Marlene Dietrich). Highly recommended.
Of the three silent classics made by Josef von Sternberg in the 1920s, "The Last Command" and "The Docks of New York" were declared part of the US National Film Registry, but according to my personal taste and appreciation of film art, the obvious choice for this distinction should have been "Underworld". Sternberg would later meet Marlene Dietrich for the classic early sound film "The Blue Angel" and become the creator of the "Marlene myth"; but in "Underworld" there are already hints of mastery of composition and framing, without the tendency to exotica through the eyes of Hollywood displayed in the Dietrich films ("Morocco", "Blonde Venus", "Shanghai Express", for example), although a couple of them are good. "Underworld" is the fascinating story of the rise, decadence and fall of a criminal (George Bancroft) in luscious black & white: for those who have seen Howard Hawks' "Scarface" (1932), the plot may seem familiar, because both films are based on a story by Ben Hecht, who won one of the first Oscars when there was an Academy Award for "Best Story", for his tale of "Underworld". Closer to Expressionism than Hawks' film, and away from the strident first experimentations with sound, "Underworld" is an elegant motion picture, with seductive silhouettes and aural suggestions, to evoke the climate of violence that determines the story. A must-see film.
I recently saw the 2010 version of "Metropolis", with the additional 25 minutes found in a film museum of Buenos Aires. I have a long relationship with this Fritz Lang's film. I think that I have seen it more than 30 times. In the early 1980s, while working for public television in Panamá, I had to adjust its soundtrack (with a non-symphonic version of its original score by Gottfried Huppertz), and later I had to add Spanish subtitles. This version guided by Enno Patalas, was the official version then, although it was known that there was lost footage. Then I saw the "Paramount version" (1928), a mutilation based on Channing Pollock's prosaic and simplistic reinterpretation of its story. After this I saw Giorgio Moroder's "rock and roll version" (1984), which I found only interesting for the inclusion of a few lost images. Then I had to study the film for a book published in 1995, for which I read about the lost scenes related to Hel, the mother of Freder, the young protagonist of "Metropolis". The reading of this subplot shed light to what I already knew about the story, making it more coherent: loved by the owner of Metropolis, Joh Fredersen, and by the scientist Rotwang, Hel died when she gave birth to Freder. This originated Rotwang's hatred for Fredersen, and his betrayal. When he creates the robot with Maria's face, Rotwang gives her orders contrary to those by Joh Fredersen: instead of encouraging discord among the workers, the robot makes them revolt against Fredersen and destroy the machines. This subplot as well as the complicity between Freder and Josaphat, the worker his father fires, and the destiny of worker 11811 in the hands of the Thin Man, after being replaced by Freder in the machines room- was incorporated in the 2001 version, by using stills and intertitles, until 2008 when Argentinean archivists found a complete version of the film, containing moving images of those lost elements of the story, all shot by Lang. Although this version also confirmed that there were shots different in scale, angle or acting from one version to another, there was no existing footage to compare these new 25 minutes to. With the surviving intertitle lists that the distributor in Norway had submitted to the censors in late 1920s, the correct translation of the Argentinean titles could be made, and so the 2010 version appeared, which is a must for any film specialist. However the new material was in such a bad condition, that it was not possible to make a satisfactory restoration, from which we could derive complete visual or intellectual pleasure: after watching long sections of material in optimal conditions, when the "new", opaque and severely scratched shots are added, the hypnotic effect is lost and we are distracted from the story being told. Instead of being a cinematic trip with ideas, or a science-fiction drama, the experience is turning more and more into a freak show of the film that was, that is no longer there, full of stills and explanatory title cards, and now the dull and scratched Buenos Aires material. It is obvious that this was not the idea of any of the talents involved in this magnum opus, but as Martin Koerber (head specialist of this restoration) declares, it is important to incorporate this material (for now, hoping a better copy appears someday), because it is part of the story of "Metropolis", part of the vicissitudes in the history of Art, of the history of the Seventh Art, of the history of cinema in capitalist societies, where a work of art can be destroyed to make a few millions. In the end, it was registered by Unesco in the Memory of the World catalog, and the original message that was scorned and ridiculed by leftists, is still valid: the heart is the mediator between the brain and the hands. In spite of all the efforts, until all the footage of "Metropolis" has a minimum of visual quality, these intents to restore it will only have archival and cinéphile value, since they generate only a small portion of the fluid and full cinematic pleasure sought by the original version.
Last night I finished watching a series of early films by Carl Theodor Dreyer, with "The Bride of Glomdal", a great contrast after seeing "Michael". (The film in between these two was not available in the library of the film school where I work). For this production, Dreyer went to Norway and shot a story with a certain peasant candor (that would later reappear in "Ordet", in a graver tone) and that for the most part takes place outdoors, as opposed to "Michael", in which the action is confined to the sets designed by Expressionist architect Hugo Häring (who apparently did not work in films again). Dreyer narrates a tale of young love between the son of a poor farmer and the daughter of a rich one, and how the strong young woman fights to be with the man she loves, in spite of the actions taken by her father and another suitor, whose evil actions cause the most spectacular sequence during the day of the wedding, when the groom falls into a river and is swept away by its current, in the midst of floating logs, down to a waterfall. A pleasant and gentle dramatic comedy, "The Bride of Glomdal" does not suggest what was next to come from Dreyer: "The Passion of Jeanne d'Arc".
Of the Carl Theodor Dreyer motion pictures that I have recently seen, the more mature and the one that shows a better knowledge of the film medium, is "Michael" a production financed and shot in Germany, after he made "Love One Another". The obvious mistakes are more related to editing than to "mise en caméra", and even that is not abundant. Dreyer stylishly uses space, light, and the depth and height of the decors, abstaining from the Expressionist frenzy that characterized a good part of German cinema after "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920). Based on the novel "Mikaël", by Herman Bang, this is one of the most impressive studies of narcissism among the films that I have seen, and one of the most moving dramas on homosexuality in old age that I know. I find admirable is that a film from 1924 shows an understanding of human nature similar to a drama as "Happy Together", rather than recent bursts of sweat and semen that have pretended to explain narcissistic delight and homosexual love in epidermic, explicit ways. We should also remember that this is a motion picture from 1924 if it may illustrate ideas that today may seem as prejudice, or whenever we react negatively to the resources of 1920s cinema, in make-up, costumes, acting style, or technical shortcomings yet to be perfected to erase the efforts to convey an impression of reality. Less problematic, I believe, are the direction and especially the writing. Behind the adaptation there is a key name in the history of cinema: Fritz Lang's ex-wife, Thea Von Harbou, who remained in Germany when her husband fled from the Nazis. By 1924 Harbou and Lang had already collaborated in "The Weary Death" and the first two parts of "Dr. Mabuse", and next would come "Spies", "Die Nibelungen", "Metropolis", "Woman in the Moon", "M", "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse" and the diptych "The Tiger of Eschnapur" and "The Indian Tomb". Harbou excelled in adventures, science-fiction and exotic melodramas (genres almost absent in Lang's American filmography), but here she is more than adequate describing a homosexual liaison tinted with economic interest, loneliness and a narcissistic game of mirrors, in the story of a painter and the young male model to whom he gives all his possessions, which are then spent by the boy in an affair with a ruined and unscrupulous princess. The theme of Death is present throughout the tale, and it is duplicated in the story of an affair between a count and a young woman, married to an old man. Besides Von Harbou, "Michael" includes first-rate personnel in other roles: the cinematographer is Expressionist maestro Karl Freund (director of photography of "The Last Man", "Metropolis", "Berlin, Symphony of a Great City" and Tod Browning's "Dracula"), who also plays a art dealer; the painter is played by Danish director Benjamin Christensen (the maker of "The Witch"), and the Italian operatic diva Nora Gregor (leading lady in Renoir's "The Rule of the Game") plays the princess. For the role of Michael, Dreyer used beautiful blond actor Walter Slezak, born under the sign of Taurus, and --as a good son of the bull-- too much attracted to good food and wine. When he reached 30 he had already lost his slenderness and in spite of his big, expressive blue eyes, for the industry he was too a chubby fellow to be a leading man. However, when he migrated to the United States he became an instant sensation in Broadway, winning a Tony award. In films he had a more discrete participation, but he also had other unforgettable roles, as the Nazi sailor in Alfred Hichcock's propaganda drama "Lifeboat", and as Rock Hudson's feisty majordomo in "Come September", turning his boss' Italian villa into a hotel during his absence, except every September. A good work of restoration, "Michael" includes a dense 1993 score by Pierre Oser.
Long time ago I was surprised when I realized that the director of "Bachelor in Paradise", was the same person who made the masterpiece "The Incredible Shrinking Man", and the one behind cult classics as "It Came from Outer Space", "Creature from the Black Lagoon", and "Tarantula"; not to mention fillers as "Monster on the Campus", and hundreds of TV episodes from all kind of series, from "Dr. Kildare" to "The Love Boat". Arnold was not new to comedy: there are indeed comic elements on all the horror movies mentioned above, but moreover, a year before he started shooting this MGM glossy adaptation of a story by Vera Caspary (the same lady who wrote both "Laura", and "Les Girls"), director Jack Arnold --who I guess Andrew Sarris must have classified very low in his Olympus of filmmakers-- had a hit with the British comedy "The Mouse That Roared", with Peter Sellers playing different roles, including the Duchess of Fenwick, the senile ruler of the littlest European country. It is a story of little people and little minds, treated with affection and a kind of humor, may I say, diametrically opposed to what audiences laugh about today. "Bachelor in Paradise" is somehow in the same vein: it is a funny and affectionate view of how little minds react when confronted with different attitudes about sex life, which --up until the days of the reign of the Hays film code-- was treated rather hypocritically in American cinema. Everybody was doing all type of positions and gender combinations, with all kinds of adornments, except "Hollywood creatures". For the early 1960s, thought not as radical as it may sound, "Bachelor in Paradise" suggested sex life was more fun than accepted in regular films, and this was its main attraction, not Bob Hope, Lana Turner, or the new coupling of Paula Prentiss and Jim Hutton. Even I, who was 10 years old and lived in the city, far away from a suburb like Paradise, found it more daring than those vehicles with Doris Day playing a virgin with tired facial tricks, as 1959's "Pillow Talk", which incredibly won the Best Screenplay Academy Award. I have not seen "Bachelor in Paradise" in about a decade... but when I did I found it decidedly proto-Altmanesque, the kind of comedy that Robert Altman would have been doing in the early 1960s, probably with a more acerbic approach. Only the music industry had teased us with multiple releases of the music Henry Mancini composed for the movie. Now people can watch "Bachelor in Paradise" again, restored, in wide-screen, with the flat color cinematography of those years (with few exceptions, everything was as bright and clear as the images in television sets), but it must be seen with a 1961 frame of mind. If you had not been born yet, do a little research. It does help a lot to appreciate a film about sexual mores without showing what people were doing in cars, bedrooms, and bushes, when it was made.
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