Friday, August 24, 2012

Chang Cheh is missing: searching out a great, little-known director

We all know who Bruce Lee is, and Jackie Chan. The cinematically literate Americans know of Chinese directors who have made it big in Western markets -- Ang Lee and John Woo.

But who the hell is Chang Cheh?

Sometimes called the “godfather of Hong Kong cinema,” Chang Cheh (1923-2002) was a driven, prolific and stylish filmmaker who spent the bulk of his career with the (in)famous Shaw Brothers Studio. He racked up 95 credits as a director over the course of 43 years – and an astonishing 70 films in 15 years. His work in the genres of wuxia (swordplay) and wushu (martial arts) films helped to promote the eventual crossover success of such movies in Western markets.

Yet it took a combination of happenstance and research back through his layers of influence to find out who he was and what he did. Working in reverse, judging from clues of influence and mentions of dedication (that ultimate cinematic magpie, Quentin Tarentino, gives him a dedicatory shout-out at the end of “Kill Bill Vol. 2”), I found that his work was a wellspring that finds echoes in the work of many.

Before the emergence of Chang Cheh and fellow director King Hu, the swordplay and martial arts genres were relegated to B-movie status, whether they were made in any of the three centers of Chinese filmmaking – the Communist-controlled mainland, Taiwan, or Hong Kong. These productions were formulaic, staid, and plodding, although they attracted a loyal enough following to sustain them. A 99-film (!) series about legendary physician/revolutionary/martial artist/folk hero Wong Fei-hung, starring Kwan Tak-hing, played out on screens across Asia between 1949 and 1970.

Then, in 1966, King Hu’s groundbreaking “Come Drink with Me” infused the genre with top-notch cinematography, wide-screen sensibility, innovative fight choreography, and a fresh approach that allowed for depth and complexity in characterization and plotting.

Hu quickly jumped the Shaw Brothers ship and went on make other classics in the genre such as “Dragon Gate Inn” and “A Touch of Zen,” but his output became sporadic. Chang, however, who had already written and directed plenty of actioners for Shaw, raised the ante with 1967’s “One-Armed Swordsman.”

Taking his cue from the success of more graphic and cynical styles in contemporary Japanese samurai film and spaghetti Westerns, Chang created a film that questioned rather than affirmed the social order. His films ramped up the violence and bloodshed, creating a “bucket of blood” reputation for Shaw films that was decried in the West but sold tickets everywhere else. Unlike Hu, Chang pushed women almost entirely out of his pictures, focusing on male bonding and physiques and the concept of “heroic bloodshed.” (Chang’s purported homosexuality is often, seemingly knee-jerkingly cited, as an influence in this.)

In “One-Armed Swordsman,” Chang made a superstar of former swimming champion Jimmy Wang. Wang plays a disciple of his adoptive father, who heads the Golden Sword school. Wang’s father died protecting the master, and the son inherits only his father’s broken sword.

Continuing the castration metaphor, Wang’s sword arm is later lopped off by the master’s petulant daughter, and our hero is rescued and healed by a simple farm girl, with whom he falls in love. Conveniently, she possesses a revolutionary training manual that was half-consumed by fire . . . leaving only exercises for the left arm. Now Wang’s lack becomes an asset, and his father’s stunted weapon becomes the perfect tool with which to dispense bloody justice.

Meanwhile, a rival sect develops a “sword-lock” that neutralizes the expertise of the Golden Sword school, and the villains behind it use it to decimate the master’s legion of students. Chang presents the dominant order as one unable to adapt to change; even after ample demonstration of the sword-lock’s dominance, the Golden Sword fighters continue to attack in the same way, dying in heaps.

Out of necessity, Wang transcends his master’s technique and saves the day – only to reject society at film’s end and return to his idyllic rural life with his beloved. This blatant rejection of the status quo, expressed with vigor and style, broke open the floodgates and released the genre’s inherent possibilities.

Two key values that Hu and Chang shared were this: the staging of fight scenes as a kind of violent ballet, and a combination of visceral and fantastic elements. Grit and vision coexist most happily in Chang films.

Chang said, “’Martial chivalry’ films were an old Chinese genre. They showed swordplay for its own sake. But King Hu and I set out to make more of fight scenes. We tried to make the fights express ideas and themes. Realism didn't come into it. We explored our fantasies.” The genre could now accommodate thematic weight and vibrant camerawork.

But whereas Hu is more of a conscious aesthete, shooting primarily on location and composing frames with the attention to detail of a Ford or Lean, Chang is a crowd-pleaser. He stages his dramas in the studio, not only to meet the tremendous out put the Shaws demanded of him, but to control the plastic elements of the film to an incredible degree.

Where Hu hides figures in the frame, uses elliptical cuts and relishes ambiguities, Chang stays a crowd-pleaser. He shoots his fight scenes with a stationary camera and so that full figures are seen, much as Fred Astaire insisted his dance sequences be shot. (Chang’s long-time fight choreographer, the legendary Lau Kar Leung, went on to direct and appear in some of the genre’s best films, including “36th Chamber of Shaolin” and “Drunken Master II.”)

Combined with a strong sense of color, Chang’s films resemble nothing so much as Vincente Minnelli’s Technicolor extravaganzas such as “The Band Wagon” and “An American in Paris.” The strong, simple values and archetypes Chang adopted served him well during his incredibly busy career.

Fast-forwarding a decade, Chang’s “Five Deadly Venoms” is even more spectacular – a wonderfully over-the-top tale of mystery and betrayal, culminating in a mind-boggling martial arts free-for-all. If “One-Armed Swordsman” is Chang’s “One-Eyed Jacks,” then “Five Deadly Venoms” is Chang’s ultraviolent “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

Chang’s influence has percolated into the work of succeeding generations. Chang’s assistant director for half-a-dozen films was John Woo, and you can see Chang’s doctrine of balletic violence and noble, self-sacrificing bloodshed translated into the urban thrillers that Woo produced with seeming effortlessness (“A Better Tomorrow,” “The Killer,” “Bullet in the Head,” “Hard Boiled”).in the 80’s and 90’s.

It’s exceptionally difficult to find copies of many of Chang’s movies. There are three factors at work here – the continuing reluctance of Shaw to release its lucrative catalog, the poor preservation of much of Chang’s output, and the lack of international recognition, which might spur a revival of interest. To date, I have tracked down and seen only about 10 percent of his work.

There is yet to be a coherent and comprehensive assessment of his work, at least in English. You can find a nice capsule biography of him here at Senses of Cinema; embedded below is an interesting if short documentary found on YouTube.-- 

As much as we would like to think of the digital age as unlocking our access to anything of value ever created, our ignorance of the wide, wide world of cinema is still breathtaking. Over the course of only 116 years, millions of films have been made. Like Borges’ Library of Babel, we could wander through these for an entire lifespan and not put a significant dent in them. Hopefully, circumstances will accord me and others more than just a glimpse of the elusive Chang Cheh.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Our movie diet: it gets weird

 We are a seriously movie-mad family. I myself am a matchless source of useless movie trivia; my wife can predict the end of any film after watching it for 10 minutes. These radioactive superpowers have been passed on to our cinephile children.

We will watch just about anything, on the principle being that you can learn more from a flawed film than a good one. For instance, a few weeks ago we went to the last existing drive-in theater in region and caught the matchless TRIPLE-feature of “The Avengers,” “Dark Shadows,” and “The Hunger Games.” This bubblegum extravaganza was thoroughly enjoyed by all.

Can we o.d., though, on too broad a palette of cinema? Here’s what we churned through two weekends ago:


Blood of a Poet
Dir: Jean Cocteau

I have my snob credentials updated regularly by periodically refreshing my memories of bizarre avant-garde work such as Cocteau’s Orphic trilogy, “L’Age d’Or,” etc. The kids loved Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast,” but were as stymied as I confess I still am by its meandering beauty.

Here, all of Cocteau’s visual tricks and subversive gestures are isolated from narrative, and they overlap and overcome each other in successive waves. Why does the artist have a mouth stuck on his hand? Why is there a cow with a map on it? Why do the figures slide on, float from, and snatch at the interiors? Just what the hell is going on here? About halfway through, I paused it and we moved on.


“Silent” edit of initial Star Wars trilogy
Dir: ?

A friend of ours has a screen set up in his back yard, and holds a impromptu film festival out there every summer. His taste in films is impeccable, so when he announced a family-friendly feature, we dragged the little ones along.

I don’t know how this phenomenon got started. The idea of knocking George Lucas’ first trilogy of films into a two-hour version, scaling the screen back to the classic 1.35:1 ratio, decolorizing it, and adding intertitles has been used by a recent spate of amateur, online editors. (This was not the best-known Anachronisme version, which contains a tinny, period piano score, but a cut scored with the original film music.)

The concept is interesting; that it would work is not so surprising. Movies being a visual medium, any filmmaker would hope that his or her work could be reduced to its most basic components and still make sense and move forward. This project did, to the extent that a torrential rainstorm only prompted a refreshment break and not an abandonment of the screening.

Best thing about it? Absolutely zero Jar-Jar.


Persian Series 1-5
Dir: Stan Brakhage

The Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art is located near 13th and Canyon Streets in downtown Boulder. As we were visiting the weekly Farmers’ Market, we dashed into the museum to peek about. (Admission to the museum is free on Saturdays and Wednesdays from 4 to 8 p.m., a great promotional idea.)

We were lucky to see the show “Visual Rhythm,” which runs through September 9. It features the work of several film, video and techno artists, most prominently Stan Brakhage.

Brakhage, who taught at the University of Colorado and spent many years in the region, has always been a darling of the avant-garde . . . and someone whose work I couldn’t stand. However, his “Persian 1-5” finally reconciled me to his approach.

The film, projected large on the gallery wall, consists of 15 minutes of film in a loop. The film is hand-painted, and moves in hypnotic linear patterns that range from delicate, light washes of bright colors to heavy swathes of near-black. There is no soundtrack; the whirr and clack of the old-fashioned 16-millimeter projector that shows the film provides a small-scale industrial white-noise background that enhances the trance-like writhings on the gallery wall.

When I gave it a chance, it drew me in. Brakhage controls the rhythms of the revealed visuals in a very musical way, exciting unexpected responses and feelings, at least in myself. Its seemingly endless variety makes it a moving mandala, an action painting in action.

The film itself is on display, in a Rube Goldberg-style contraption. The film feeds from the vintage ELMO 16-CL projector back into an eight-foot-high white box with a cear Lucite backing. The film rests and rotates through 33 five-foot vertical loops, the starting and ending point of which is a single yellow square of splice that moves from top to bottom and left to right, over and again.

This demystifying setup not only makes the material more approachable, but provides its own kind of visual fascination. The passages that play out so fleetingly in the projector’s light are displayed, unilluminated, waiting for the transformative moment to bring them to life, only to cycle back into readiness and potentiality.

Among the other interesting pieces in the show are “Le Region Decentralized,” a so-called “never-ending, self-playing video game” by Rick Silia; Kathy Dove’s “Gondla,” a pastel, pastoral collage; David Fodel and Paco Proano’s “Channel,” Sara Ludy’s “Body Wave,” a brooding landscape of shifting charcoal shapes married to ambient music; and Fernando Velasquez’ “Mindscape” series – a visual kaleidoscope/drumset with which the viewer can play.


La Luna
Dir: Enrico Casarosa

Dir: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell

Of course we had to go see “Brave”; our daughter is eight! Disney, although the curse of my early movie-going life (want to cry hysterically? Go see “Bambi”; want to pee your pants with fright? Check out the witch in “Snow White”) the company’s projects are much better these days at avoiding triggering trauma, and empowering girls as well.

Thrilling? No. Innovative? No. The kitsch of the opening short, “La Luna,” softens us up for an animated time-passer that seems to wander between themes until it reaches the ultimate dust-up, last-minute redemption and happy ending. Your mom's a bear.

We got home that night and I unspooled the end of “Blood of a Poet.” After four days of a smorgasbord of movies, it made no more sense than it had when I paused it. Yet it seemed to sit a little more comfortably in my visual cortex, piled on top of the other thousands of films that reside there.

Perhaps these layers will grow so deep and weighty that they will compress, and extrude some kind of pure insight that I can tap like an oil deposit. Or, maybe, the kids will write someday about how these choices traumatized them for life. What the heck. Next up: Stanley Donen’s “Bedazzled,” Claire Denis’ “White Material,” and . . . “Outland”?

So kids, if this all comes up in therapy later? Sue me.

Monday, April 2, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: "FilmCraft: Cinematography"

FilmCraft: Cinematography
By Mike Goodridge & Tim Grierson
Focal Press, 2012

What the hell is a d.p.?

That’s a director of photographer, or a cinematographer. One is given an Oscar each year for his or her efforts. Sounds impressive.

Yet, what do they do? Doesn’t the director make the film?

Most of the people who write about cinema don’t really know a damn thing about how it is done. Including me. I was very lucky, then, to get a chance to review “FilmCraft: Cinematography” recently.

This work is a perfect example of what I call the painless textbook – you enjoy yourself, and discover later that you know a lot more than you did before you read it. It’s an easy-to-read, fast-paced, compelling series of verbal self-portraits that explain the subject better than anything I’ve ever looked at – at that includes the excellent 1992 documentary “Voices of Light.”

The cinematographer, it turns out, occupies that space between the director and that which is to be recorded. They mediate the picture itself – not merely a film’s look, but its total presentation – what the camera sees, how it moves, how the performers relate to it.

Theoretically subordinate to the director and producer, the cinematographer must ensure that a story is told, and told convincingly. This means many times working with impossible budgets and deadlines, location restraints, and the whims of chaos. Somehow, all these must be transcended to at least gather enough visual evidence from which to assemble a movie.

Thankfully, authors Mike Goodridge and Tim Grierson avoid the prescriptive route entirely. We are not given a historical discussion, or a tedious technical exposition. (OK, there’s a glossary, but it’s in the back, and rightly so.) Instead, 16 artfully conducted, in-depth interviews, with the questions excised, with top-notch cinematographers with widely differing sets of experiences, temperaments and techniques dominate the book, including Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now”), Caleb Deschanel (“The Right Stuff”), and Barry Ackroyd (“The Hurt Locker”). These are punctuated by five “Legacy” profiles of landmarks figures in the discipline – James Wong Howe, Raoul Coutard, Jack Cardiff, Sven Nyquist and Freddie Young.

By letting the subjects focus on concrete experiences rather than theory and eliminating the back-and-forth of conventional interview-writing, Goodridge and Grierson let the book take the shape of a long, relaxed and friendly conversation that gently grazes across the topics needed to understand the work involved. Surprisingly, a subject that seems intimidatingly complex is humanized. We learn how working relationships with directors are formed, how the cinematographer serves as the actors’ first and sometimes only audience, and just how improvisational much of a day’s work is, even when big stars and enormous budgets are concerned.

Despite their differences, all these interviewees have a few commonalities – desire for a strong story to serve. Ellen Kuras says, “There’s a big difference in making imagery – just doing the shot – and telling the story.” All of those who speak here recognize and respect the collaborative nature of cinema. And, all of them take pride in their ability to get the job done.

A key phrase, “writing with light,” surfaces here, and really clicks the reader’s brain over to the idea that every image in a film should be necessary, full of information, compelling.

There is some talk of aesthetics here, but the subjects speak primarily to problem solved and challenges overcome. There is a bit of forward-looking discussion, too, about the transitions in approach made necessary by digital shooting, small-screen presentation and 3D filmmaking.

The result is an honest, huts-and-bolts look at this craft that will serve as an excellent primer for the ignorant, a guidebook for the aspiring professional, and a source of insight and anecdote for everybody else. I can’t recommend “FilmCraft: Cinematography” highly enough!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Earlier ‘Hunger Games’: The bloodsport movie subgenre

"Battle Royale" -- is "Hunger Games" a ripoff?
Of course, I’m getting on the “Hunger Games” bandwagon. It’s the most highly pimped movie of the year, and so far reviews are by and large favorable. The adaptation of the first of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of young-adult dystopian adventure looks as though it will be a hit, regardless of its inherent merit or its faithfulness to its source material.
Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Games."
Collins has been given some guff for her book’s remarkable similarities to Koushun Takami’s 1999 novel “Battle Royale,” and the immensely popular film version directed by Kinju Fukasaku the following year. (The film, although it is one of the top-10 highest-grossing films in Japanese history, took 11 years to be distributed in the U.S., and is still largely unknown here.) Read Neda Ulaby’s NPR report on the controversy here.

But the tradition of a coerced hero or heroine forced to kill or be killed, especially in the context of providing vicarious thrills for onlookers, is as old as gladiatorial combat. The high-noon showdowns of the American Western are a variant, and many of the hundreds of pepla (Italian sword-and-sandal film epics of the period 1957-1965) give us oiled-up body-builder protagonists – Hercules, Maciste, Samson, Goliath, Ursus -- who must fight monsters, destroy entire armies, and dethrone despots.
The list of more specific precursors to “The Hunger Games” is surprisingly long. Most of these films are simply formulaic subgenre exercises, focusing on graphic violence and retribution. But the social commentary that enriches “Battle Royale” and “The Hunger Games” can be found in select examples, some of which we’ll dial through below.

The first and most important influence is the 1924 short story by Richard Connell, “The Most Dangerous Game” – required reading for most schoolchildren, and possibly the most anthologized short story of all time, save for the equally gruesome “The Lottery,” also a distinct influence on the genre.

In “Game,” a big-game hunter, Rainsford, falls overboard at sea and finds himself on an island dominated by a master hunter, Count Zaroff, who has grown bored hunting animals and now hunts men instead. Rainsford finds himself elected as the next prey. It doesn’t spoil the pleasure of reading it to know that evil is defeated in the end.

In fact, one of the great pleasures of the genre is the liberation that self-defense grants to the hero in these stories. Once it’s been established that he or she must act ruthlessly in order to survive, the audience members can completely give themselves over to the vicarious satisfaction of seeing rough justice done, without a whiff of guilt.

The story has been adapted more and far less faithfully nearly two dozen times; the best version is the first --

The Most Dangerous Game
Dir: Irving Pichel, Ernest B. Schoendack

The next major development in the idea came from Robert Sheckley, whose 1953 short story “Seventh Victim” became the Italian sci-fi film “The 10th Victim” a dozen years later. Now the game of human hunter and hunted is big business, a globally popular entertainment that has proved so satisfying that it has effectively eliminated war. The antagonists, played by Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress, of course have conflicted feelings about each other, and the camp value is deliberately high.

The 10th Victim
Dir: Elio Petri

Peter Watkins is a radical film and television directors whose projects criticize the system in all its aspects – and specifically attacks the media’s complicity in preserving the status quo in the following two features:

The Gladiators
Dir: Peter Watkins

Punishment Park
Dir: Peter Watkins

Paul Bartel’s ludicrous “Death Race 2000,”based on Ib Melchior’s short story “The Racer,” definitely takes the low road . . . so to speak. Still, the dystopian theme and the idea of bloodsport as a nationally followed pastime is there. Brought to us by the inimitable Roger Corman! With David Carradine! And Sylvester Stallone!

Death Race 2000
Dir: Paul Bartel

And the same year’s “Rollerball.” Ah, yes. Ridiculous – and one of my favorite guilty-pleasure movies ever. Rich people blow up the few remaining trees for fun, corporations control everything – and I cried when they killed Moonpie.

“Corporate society takes care of everything. And all it asks of anyone, all it's ever asked of anyone ever, is not to interfere with management decisions.”

Dir: Norman Jewison

Another Sheckley story, “The Price of Peril,” written in 1958, eerily predicts reality shows. “Le prix du danger” is the first adaptation of it.

Le prix du danger
Dir: Yves Boisset

Oh, dear. Stephen King’s take on the template became one of Arnold Schwarzengger’s worst films, including the worst death-puns in recorded history.

The Running Man
Dir: Paul Michael Glaser

The most searing and pointed of these films, and the most successful to date, is “Battle Royale.” Its bleak vision of society, and its focus on the teenage victims of its contest, makes it almost impossible to think that Collins did not derive something from it.

Battle Royale
Dir: Kinju Fukasaku

Another worthy mention is “Series7: The Contenders,” starring Brooke Smith, best known for her role as Buffalo Bill’s final, would-be victim in “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Series 7: The Contenders
Dir: Daniel Minahan

In all these films, the central figures have to fight not only others, but an oppressive system that uses violence as entertainment. Maybe the question here is not whether Collins is a plagiarist, but why this very specific kind of fantasy is so prevalent in the zeitgeist. State-sanctioned killing, a rigged system, murder turned to righteous and even revolutionary ends, compulsive mass passive participation – and of course, the irony that the watchers of any of these given films is an echo of the complicit onlookers inside the films. Perhaps these movies are sketches for realities that haven’t been invented yet -- or are just an encoded revelation of how we live right now?

Other entries: a miscellany

Dir: Newt Arnold

Dir: Peter Manoogian

Final Round
Dir: George Erschbamer

Hard Target
Dir: John Woo

Surviving the Game
Dir: Ernest R. Dickerson

Dir: Maurice Devereaux

Reality Kills
Dir: Rafal Zielinski

Dir: Esben Storm

Battle Royale II: Requiem
Dir: Kenta Fukasaku, Kinji Fukasaku

El Nominado
Dir: Nacho Argiro, Gabriel Lopez

Dir: John Irvin

K.Y.E.: Kill Your Enemy
Dir: Max Law

The Condemned
Dir: Scott Wiper

Dir: Simon Hynd

Dir: Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor

The Tournament
Dir: Scott Mann

Sunday, March 18, 2012

"People on Sunday": the first New Wave film

Christl Ehlers in "People on Sunday."

"Kiki with African Mask," Man Ray, 1926

People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag)
Dir: Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer
73 min., 1930

Thirty years before Godard's "Breathless," the first New Wave film was completed. A gaggle of Berlin twenty-somethings, starting from scratch and working with few resources, created something remarkable -- "People on Sunday."

It has been referred to in countless textbooks and histories, and I have searched for it incessantly for decades. Finally, the Criterion Collection has come to the rescue, producing a disc last year that reveals the incredible 1997 restoration by Martin Koerber of this hybrid masterpiece.

The gang of largely amateur movie men who put this piece together went on to fame and fortune, by and large. Co-directors Robert Siodmak and Edgar Ulmer went on to create such Hollywood classics as “The Spiral Staircase,” “The Killers,” and "Criss Cross” (Siodmak) and “The Black Cat” and “Detour” (Ulmer). Co-producer and scenarist Kurt Siodmak, Robert’s brother, codified the Wolfman in the popular imagination, as well as “Donovan’s Brain” and other significant sci-fi and horror scripts.

The film’s photographer, Eugen Schufftan, was the most well-known of the group at the time, having developed the optical-effects process that still bears his name, and having already worked on “Metropolis” and Gance’s “Napoleon.” He would later serve as cinematographer on classics such as “Port of Shadows,” “Eyes Without A Face,” and “The Hustler.” His assistant on the shoot – Fred Zinneman, who went on to direct “High Noon,” “From Here to Eternity,” “Oklahoma!” and “A Man for All Seasons.” Not too shabby.

And the script credit itself? There was input from Siodmak's brother Curt, but credit went primarily to Billy Wilder (“Sunset Boulevard,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Double Indemnity”). It would be simple to say that all this genius gathered together is responsible for the film’s success . . . but in fact, all these men faded in and out of the production process as it stumbled along, and they disputed each others’ roles in the creation of the film for decades after. All of them used it as a calling card to further their careers. All of them found themselves in flight from the Nazis shortly after its completion.

So, what makes this film so amazing? First, it’s a seamless blend of documentary and scripted techniques (it proudly declares on an opening title card that it is “a film without actors” – not quite true, but indeed none of the five principal actors are pros). An opening montage of busy Berlin on a Saturday gradually takes us into the orbit of a stylish young man (Wolfgang von Walterhausen) who starts a conversation with a pretty young thing (Christl Ehlers) on the street.

The camera hangs back, shooting from across the square; we have to work hard to pick these two characters out of the mass of oblivious humanity that swirls around them. The film seems to have grasped onto them at random, in the context of the city’s life, and in sympathy we project ourselves into the lives of these unknowns.

Second, the camera is, save for once, never stagebound. It’s alive, unmoored from the tripod. It moves, it tracks, it pursues, it pans restlessly. In sharp contrast to Teutonic stereotype, and the controlled look of a studio-bound style, "Sunday" is loose, letting random seep in.

Wolf makes a date for Sunday with Christl. We move to an interior sequence with his friend, taxi driver Erwin (Erwin Splettstosser) and his girlfriend (Annie Schreyer). Here is the one sequence in which the camera settles down inside a lit set.

Erwin and Annie arguer over whether her hat’s brim should be up or down, which leads to them staying in for the night. As Annie pouts and then dozes, Erwin and Wolf play cards, share beer and cigarettes. In the morning, unable to wake Annie, Erwin joins Wolf and Christl, who has brought along her “best friend” (Brigitte Borchert). The impromptu foursome takes the train out from the center of the city 12 miles southwest to the popular Wannsee lakes recreation area.

Throughout, the film is focused on the mundane. We are, like the characters, subsumed in the particulars – cigarettes, beer, food, money, love, sex, music, sunlight. The concerns of the day and those only.

With an exquisite sense of rhythm, the film keeps interpolating documentary sequences with scenes that advance the simple story, blurring distinctions between the real and the imagined. The quartet play in the water, eat, nap in the sun. A wind-up gramophone distracts them. Wolf flirts unsuccessfully with Christl. Erwin clowns, dozes. Wolf and Brigitte make love.

No sequence stands out dramatically, even the love scene that is discreetly panned from and onto swaying tree branches, a pile of picnickers’ debris, and back to the post-coital couple. None of the young protagonists have marriages, children or connections to weigh them down, and they move from mood to mood with the brisk insubstantiality of the silver clouds that race above them.

“People on Sunday” catches the universality of that brief, ungrounded period of the lives of singles, the sensual emphasis that dominates before irrevocable decisions are made – a microcosm of the larger loss pending in the characters’ surroundings. The summer being filmed, 1929’s, was the last normal, peaceful and prosperous one Germany was to enjoy for more than half a century. The Depression, the Nazis, the Holocaust, the Second World War, the Cold War blues, all swept away everyone and everything you see into their maws.

The camera moves in close to these faces. Ignoring the usual close-up, middle-distance and long-shot framings that were already industry standards, the camera drinks in the expressions of the players. It sits low, dangerously close to the surface of the water they splash in. It winds through the undergrowth – in fact, the Criterion cover till of Christl’s sleeping face, framed by Wolf’s hand, and the sunlit shadows of the shore’s grasses, seems as iconic an image of that time as Man Ray’s 1926 “Kiki with African Mask.”

The only narrative commentary in the film takes place right here. We cut back to the apartment, where Annie still sleeps, and a crumpled newspaper on the table near her displays the headline, “ . . . and so you spend your fleeting days . . .”. The tension is never broken – nothing earthshaking takes place – the day ends, the players part, and they are lost in the crowd. The camera pulls back again and surveys the larger scene, and the final title cards state, “Four million waiting for next Sunday.” For everyone you see, the age of peaceful Sundays is about to vanish forever.

The Criterion release has, of course, impeccable image and new, improved English subtitles. The silent film is accompanied by two scores to choose from – one by Louisville, Colorado’s Monte Alto Orchestra and one by Elena Kats-Chernin, recorded by the Czech Film Orchestra. Gerald Koll’s illuminating “Weekend at Wannsee” documentary covers the filming process; a 1931 short from Schufftan, “Ins Blaue hinein,” is on the disc as well.

A missing piece of film history is here at last, and it stands the test of time.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Check out the big list on Brad: Essential American film comedies, 1963 -- present

" . . . that, as much as anything else, led to my drinking problem . . ." Robert Hays as Ted Striker in "Airplane!"
Lists are addictive. What started as a handful of recommendations turned into a comprehensive search. There are a lot of idiosyncratic choices here, many of which I'm sure people will not find agreeable. There are a lot of filmmakers and films left out as well (no apologies to Jerry Lewis, teen sex comedies, Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, most of Adam Sandler's work, and others I just can't stand).

Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau in Edwards' "Panther" series.
A Shot in the Dark
The Return of the Pink Panther
The Pink Panther Strikes Again
Victor Victoria


Take the Money and Run
Love and Death
Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex
Play It Again, Sam
Annie Hall
Stardust Memories
Broadway Danny Rose
The Purple Rose of Cairo
Hannah and Her Sisters
Radio Days
Bullets over Broadway
Mighty Aphrodite
Sweet and Lowdown


The Producers (1968)
Blazing Saddles
Young Frankenstein


The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother
The World’s Greatest Lover
The Woman in Red
Haunted Honeymoon


The Graduate
Carnal Knowledge
The Fortune
Working Girl
Postcards from the Edge


A Wedding

"Harry and Tonto"

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
Alex in Wonderland
Blume in Love
Harry and Tonto
Moon over Parador
The Pickle


Real Life
Modern Love
Lost in America
Defending Your Life

Steve Martin in "The Jerk."

Oh, God!
The Jerk
The Man with Two Brains
All of Me


This is Spinal Tap
The Princess Bride
When Harry Met Sally . . .

"Hot Shots: Part Deux."

Airplane II: the Sequel
Ruthless People
Big Business
Hot Shots!
Hot Shots Part Deux
The Naked Gun Trilogy


The Groove Tube
Tunnel Vision
The Kentucky Fried Movie

"The Last Detail."

The Last Detail
Harold and Maude
Being There


Multiple Maniacs
Pink Flamingoes
Female Trouble
Desperate Living
Serial Mom


Animal House
The Blues Brothers
Trading Places
An American Werewolf in London
Three Amigos
Coming to America

Bill Murray as the immortal Carl Spackler in "Caddyshack."

Groundhog Day


She’s Gotta Have It
School Daze

"Melvin and Howard."

Melvin and Howard
Something Wild
Married to the Mob


Kindergarten Cop


Used Cars
Romancing the Stone
Back to the Future trilogy
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Death Becomes Her


Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure
Ed Wood
Mars Attacks!


Eating Raoul
Lust in the Dust
Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills


Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Johnny Dangerously


Cannibal!: The Musical
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
Team America: World Police


The Americanization of Emily
Silver Streak
The In-Laws
Outrageous Fortune


The Reivers
Cinderella Liberty
Harry and Walter Go to New York


A New Leaf
The Heartbreak Kid


What’s Up, Doc?
Paper Moon
They All Laughed


Night Shift


Raising Arizona
The Hudsucker Proxy
The Big Lebowski
O Brother Where Art Thou?
Burn After Reading
A Serious Man


Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
What About Bob?


The Flamingo Kid
Frankie and Johnny


Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back


Flirting with Disaster
Three Kings


There’s Something About Mary


The Addams Family
Addams Family Values
Get Shorty
Men in Black
Men in Black II

Tin Men
Wag the Dog


The Big Picture
Waiting for Guffman
Best in Show
A Mighty Wind


Bottle Rocket
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou


Being John Malkovich


Office Space


Super Troopers
Club Dread


Old School
The Hangover


Citizen Ruth
About Schmidt
The Descendants


The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Knocked Up
Funny People


Shaun of the Dead
Hot Fuzz


Reality Bites
Tropic Thunder


Human Nature
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


After the Fox
It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World
Dr. Strangelove; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Cat Ballou
What’s New, Pussycat?
The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming
The President’s Analyst
The Longest Yard
Murder by Death
Slap Shot
Heaven Can Wait
Funny Farm
Up in Smoke
Breaking Away
Love At First Bite
Zorro, the Gay Blade
Mr. Mom
Strange Brew
Repo Man
The Stunt Man
All Night Long
Nine to Five
Stir Crazy
The Stunt Man
Steelyard Blues
Man Friday
My Favorite Year
A Christmas Story
Better Off Dead
Student Bodies
Prizzi’s Honor
Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins
Big Trouble in Little China
Broadcast News
Big Top Pee-Wee
Bull Durham
I’m Gonna Git You Sucka
She’s Having a Baby
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids
Major League
The Freshman
Joe Versus the Volcano
City Slickers
Honeymoon in Vegas
A League of Their Own
My Cousin Vinny
Wayne’s World
Dazed and Confused
So I Married an Axe Murderer
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
The Ref
The Brady Bunch Movie
A Very Brady Sequel
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
George of the Jungle
The Man Who Knew Too Little
Galaxy Quest
Mystery Men
SLC Punk
Pootie Tang
Wet Hot American Summer
Scary Movie series
Old School
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Orange County
Hamlet 2
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Synecdoche, New York
"Hamlet 2" --the "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus" number.