Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The NFR Project #54: Griffith's masterpiece, 'Intolerance' (1915)

The final battle in Babylon
Intolerance (AKA Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages, Intolerance: A Sun-Play of the Ages)
Dir: D.W. Griffith
Prod: D.W. Griffith
Scr: D.W. Griffith, Anita Loos, Hettie Grey Baker, Tod Browning, Mary H. O’Connor, Frank E. Woods
Phot: G.W. “Billy” Bitzer
Premiere: August 6, 1916
210 mins., original cut; 197 mins., most existing cuts

Like his other notable epic The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffiths’ Intolerance is an eroded monument, one that doesn’t really live in people’s hearts as Citizen Kane, Casablanca, or The Gold Rush do. In critical estimation, like Nation, it is cherished for its technical achievements but not much else. It’s one of the first “art” films – a label that usually means – it’s brilliant but nobody watches it.

Birth of a Nation, the Civil War saga made by Griffith two years before Intolerance, was a stupendous filmic achievement and huge financial success. However, it was also grossly racist. This sparked an immense pushback from African Americans and social progressives across the country. (It is also cited as singlehanded reviving the white-supremacist terror group, the Ku Klux Klan.) In one of the supremely ironic moments in American film history, Griffith conceived of Intolerance in response to the liberal censure of his openly racist thinking.
Christ preaches
In this project, Griffith literally outdid himself. He dreamed of going far beyond what anyone else had done with film narrative, and he succeeded. Intolerance is structured like an immense musical fugue – different passages that all relate to a central theme. There are four different narratives – a story set in ancient Babylon, the story of Christ, a story of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572 France, in which Catholics slaughtered Protestants, and a ‘modern-day’ story concerning the deadly influence of socially progressive do-gooders. The result: a film originally nearly four hours long, catnip for critics but baffling to viewers.

So what makes it so great? It’s Griffith’s idea that not only was he capable of telling stories this way, but that the viewer is capable of understanding them, to synthesize the stories and relate them to the central image, the recurring image of the Eternal Motherhood rocking a cradle, symbolizing continuity and rebirth (with the Three Fates sitting ominously in the background). It’s a faith in the audience that Hollywood would never test again.
'Out of the cradle endlessly rocking . . . '
 The modern story, “The Mother and the Law,” was in the planning stages even before The Birth of a Nation. It has the most solid storyline of the four, and the wooliest thinking behind it. In it, Griffith indicts the idle rich, the capitalist bosses, the striking workers, the criminal element, but above all the horse-faced biddies whose intolerance of the working class’ simple lives and pleasures leads them to interfere with and destroys the lives of the powerless The titles -- 'Jealous of youth and laughter,' '' We must have laws to make people good" -- lay out his message. All seem to conspire to deny The Dear One (Mae Marsh) and The Boy (Bobby Harron). happiness, their baby, and The Boy’s life. (Griffith prefers his characters as archetypes rather than as rounded personalities.) It a conventional tale, complete with a race to save The Boy from the gallows.

Racing eagerly alongside and amongst this are the other plot threads. The Babylonian sequence is by far the best realized visually, sumptuously designed and innovatively shot (the track-in shot of its mighty, elaborate setting is the best remembered part of the film). Beside these two, the French story seems perfunctory, and the Crucifixion almost an afterthought. The film’s pretentious intertitles don’t help. These, combined with the film’s visual grandiosity, make Intolerance seem hopelessly pompous and condescending.

But if you ignore the words, something happens. Every single frame is carefully and beautifully designed for maximum effect. Every scene is fully inhabited, with hundreds of actors in character and in harmonious action, even in the deep background and at the edges of the frame. The four stories are told with perfect clarity, using close-ups, dolly shots, irises, frame masking, panoramic sweeps, and more – none  used gratuitously, all subordinated to service of the narrative. (The four storylines are even given distinctive tints as a visual aid.) The film’s insane budget of $2.5 million ($47 million today) is sell-used, up there on the screen. Most astonishing is that the script was unwritten, existing only in Griffith’s head and explicated to an army of designers, technicians, crew and cast on a daily basis.
Griffith's scenic vocabulary: from panoramic vision

to excruciating closeup
The most important innovation is the film’s editing. With musical grace, Griffith cuts brilliantly not only within but between the stories, maintaining a hypnotic rhythm that imperceptibly speeds up throughout the film, until all four stories climax in a brilliant rush of imagery that leaps dizzy into the viewers’ laps. This achievement opened the eyes of directors and editors around the world. More than 100 years later, it still looks fresh. No wonder it perplexed many at the time.

Despite the critical praise and success at the box office, Intolerance was doomed never to meet its costs, and the losses dogged Griffith for the rest of his career. He tinkered with Intolerance’s editing for years afterward, even producing stand-alone versions of the modern and Babylonian stories. Today, when “director’s cuts” are all the rage, no definitive cut of Intolerance exists. He went on to make other great films such as Way Down East, Broken Blossoms, and Orphans of the Storm, but never again was he allowed to on as large a scale. Hollywood’s business model would, with rare exceptions, no longer tolerate auteurs.

The NFR Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: The Curse of Quon Gwon.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The NFR Project #53: The first great cowboy hero in 'Hell's Hinges' (1916)

William S. Hart as "the good bad man"
Hell’s Hinges
Dir: Charles Swickard, William S. Hart (uncred.), Clifford Smith (uncred.)
Prod: Thomas H. Ince
Scr: C. Gardiner Sullivan
Phot: Joseph H. August
Premiere: March 5, 1916
64 mins.

It seems highly unlikely now that William S. Hart could ever have achieved the iconic status he possesses in cinema culture. Even during his heyday, he was viewed by some critics and moviegoers as stolid, horse-faced, with an emotional disposition of slight but disquieting constipation.

However, an aggregation of personal qualities and external circumstances propelled him to the forefront of the national consciousness. In 68 films created over a mere 11-year span (1914-1925), he crafted an authoritative and compelling archetype, and created a moral/mythic context for film Westerns that still defines the genre today.

Hell’s Hinges is his most emblematic film, one whose simple power and apposite impulses transcends its most egregious clichés. It is at once reactionary and revolutionary, a film in which deeply felt piety gives its bearer license to unleash Armageddon – an emblematic American gesture that would find its way into other genres, and even invade the historical realm.

Like many who upheld the mythos of America’s Old West, Hart was an Easterner. He was born in Newburgh, New York, in 1864. His father was an itinerant miller, and his impoverished family traveled widely during his childhood. Some of this time was spent in the West and Midwest, at the tail end of the frontier period.

Though it is likely that his contact with this rapidly vanishing culture was glancing and superficial, the shy, daydreaming youth later inflated these memories, beefing them up into a recalled childhood that teemed with intimate contacts with Indians and famous frontiersmen. Hart would parlay this sense of anointment into a weighty sense of self-importance and authenticity in his work.

Hart spent nearly 25 years on American stages, working himself up into the leading ranks of Broadway performers. Adept at Shakespeare, he eventually made his name as the original, villainous Messala in the first theatrical version of Ben-Hur. Then, in 1905, he filled his first Western role – that of the villainous Cash Hawkins in a stage production of The Squaw Man. From then on, “audiences … associated him with cowboy characters.”

Alfred Hollingsworth as villain 'Silk' Miller, with Hart as a pre-reformed 'Blaze' Tracy
In 1913, Hart was on tour in Cleveland, Ohio, when he saw his first Western film. “It was awful! … I was an actor and I knew the West … The opportunity that I had been waiting for years to come was knocking at my door.” Within a year, Hart set out for California and the movie business.

By the time Hell’s Hinges was made, Hart had appeared in 25 films and captured the audience’s imagination, becoming one of American film’s first genuine stars. In this, he was fortunate to fall in with pioneer film producer, and former fellow thespian, Thomas H. Ince, who applied the techniques of Ford’s assembly line to the nascent movie industry, cranking out a massive amount of product in an efficient manner – presaging the Hollywood system.

Given creative freedom (and grossly underpaid) by Ince, Hart brought new qualities to the Western, which previously had been known best for chases, scenes of gunplay, and the broad emotionalism of actors such as “Broncho Billy” Anderson (another New Yorker, nee Max Aronson). Although the theme of the bad man achieving redemption through sacrifice was not unknown in the Western, Hart’s restrained gravity on screen gave new weight to as-yet-uncliched figure of the domesticated outlaw.

Hart’s subdued intensity was a marked change from the over-the-top histrionics of his predecessors. His practiced skill at manipulating an audience was honed through incessant film work. Though his hamminess breaks through at times, the essential, “manly” stillness of his screen persona would be imitated by countless followers – most notably, John Wayne.

Hart’s performances were also imbued with the sentiments of the Victorian era – giving a strangely stilted, almost Puritanical bent to even his most vicious characters. In the Hart universe, women are either catspaws of evil or vessels of light, to be spurned or worshipped. Children are devices to rouse pity and inspire sacrifice. In Hell’s Hinges, the simple cowboy film becomes a vehicle for an epic confrontation between good and evil.

The actions of men, or their tragic inability to act, dominate here. Hinges opens with the depiction of an anti-hero in unique garb – that of a minister. “Bob” Henley (Jack Standing), seen preaching to an assembly of adoring women, is characterized in the film’s intertitles as a mother-dominated, “weak and selfish youth.”

His superiors see seem as unable to stand up to the harsh demands of a city parish, and decide to send him West, “where the people live simply and close to God.” This is in keeping with the common cultural assumption of the time that the West was a more “real,” elemental place, simpler yet more challenging, a place where Darwinian processes could work themselves out unhindered. (Henley, told of this decision, fantasizes briefly about ministering to some lovely, flirtatious senoritas.)

Accompanied by his not-so-subtly-named sister Faith (Clara Williams), Henley finds himself in, not Hell, but a remarkable facsimile thereof. (The brother/sister relationship eerily echoes Hart’s own life. Frequently engaged, briefly married, he spent most of his life with his sister Mary Ellen, who jealously tended him.) An introductory gunfight, taken in an overhead long shot, emphasizes the chaotic, antlike scurrying of the town’s inhabitants.

As was common in the Old West, Placer Centre – better known as Hell’s Hinges – is dominated by the pleasure palace of Silk Miller (Alfred Hollingsworth), who is characterized with casual racism as part Mexican, part snake. As the town’s Mephistopheles, he will bring all his evil talents to bear on destroying Christianity and its followers.

Hart is Miller’s confederate “Blaze” Tracy, who is indicated as wicked mainly by smoking, drinking, and grinning. (He shoots up a tin can that’s been decorated with a caricature of the new preacher – a nice metaphor for the relative flimsiness of Henley’s character.)

Tracy’s resolve to run the preacher out of town is stymied by his instant attraction to Faith. His poleaxed gaze at her is accompanied by the intertitle: “One who is evil, looking for the first time on that which is good.” At that point, the film’s double set of parallel actions kicks into gear. Henley’s fall is inevitable, as is Tracy’s rise and redemption. Later, in contrast to Henley’s salacious earlier fantasy, Tracy has a vision of the proverbial old rugged cross.

Like a war campaign, the town’s two sides invade each other’s territories. Miller’s soused and rowdy patrons swarm into the barn in which the town’s churchly folk, the “petticoat brigade,” hold their first service – until Tracy forces them out at gunpoint. Later, when Henley is seduced by Miller’s prostitute protégé Dolly (Louise Glaum), the church folk, led by Tracy, march into Miller’s saloon as a body and retrieve their fallen shepherd. (One of the strongest shots in the picture is an angled one of Tracy marching down the main street toward the camera with the unconscious Henley draped over his shoulders.)

The spiritual coterie builds its church, with Tracy’s help – his conversion process is punctuated by a simple, affecting scene of him reading the Bible, cigarette in one hand, bottle of whiskey at his side. Ironically, Henley’s turn to drink renders him a near-imbecile, and when the town rowdies shout, “To hell with the church! Let’s burn her down!”, Henley gleefully snatches up a torch and leads the way.

A pitched battle results in Henley’s death, the expulsion of the faithful, and the immolation of the church – in one of the film’s many powerful images, Faith weeps over her brother’s corpse in the foreground, while behind, smoke boils and hurtles, wind-whipped, from the isolated figure of the burning house of worship.

 “Killin’ mad, and with a gun in each hand,” Tracy, who’s been conveniently out of town during the battle, hears of its outcome from a ragged band of refugees (what happens to the expelled “petticoat brigade”? we are never informed) and returns to settle the score.

His extermination of Miller is offhand – blink and you’ll miss it. Filled with a new-found, (self) righteous vengeance, Tracy becomes a bloodthirsty, vindictive embodiment of both the “social gospel,” a popular 19th-century kind of spiritual Manifest Destiny, and its coefficient, “muscular Christianity,” which basically gave its proponents license to whip the tar out of scoffers, nonbelievers, and those of other faiths.

Rivetingly, Tracy backs the saloon’s ne’er-do-wells into a corner and shoots down the overhanging oil lamps, turning the building into an inferno (“Hell needs this town, and it’s goin’ back, and goin’ damn quick!”) Shooting down those who try to bolt, he holds the men at gunpoint until the last possible second, then allows them to flee. Remaining behind, Tracy then seems to break focus, wandering distractedly, the flames leaping up behind him. Some judicially placed flares of combustible material to the rear give Hart a hellish nimbus. It’s almost as though his descent into violence has temporarily transformed him into a demon as well, later echoed in Eastwood’s similar climax in 1992’s Unforgiven.

An avenging angel
Hart strides out of the building and into the streets, moving toward the camera robotically, a death-dealing machine, like some ur-Terminator. Cowpokes and dance-hall girls scatter amid the swirling smoke, “like vague demons in some primitive hell,” as the entire town burns to the ground. There is redemption for Hart alone, and it’s savage. In a peculiar foreshadowing of the Vietnam experience, he destroys the village in order to save it.

No wonder so many claimed the director’s credit for the film – although Charles Swickard is officially credited, it is generally acknowledged that Hart directed at least most of the film, with the help of long-time assistant Clifford Smith. Ince took credit for helming the fire scenes, but the extraordinary strength of the film’s compositions can probably credited to Colorado-born photographer Joe August, who shot over 40 of Hart’s films and went on to be an Oscar-winning cinematographer of such Hollywood classics as The Informer, Laughton’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Gunga Din. The climactic fire sequence was shot “day for night,” although prints without the colored gels that indicate day and night scenes make this difficult to remember.

At film’s end, Tracy takes up Henley’s body, and Faith’s hand, leading her into the distance. Though there is a conventional happy ending in sight, what’s gone before has tainted it, and thrown the film’s premise out of joint. Slaughter and wholesale destruction is sanctified by religion … or is it? In this wildly popular film, the audience got to have its cake and eat it too – a dangerous addiction that would crop up, for better or worse, again and again in American cinema.

This piece appeared in its original form in the July 2005 edition of Senses of Cinema. The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: Intolerance.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The NFR Project #50: '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' (1916)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Dir: Stuart Paton
Prod: Carl Laemmle, Stuart Paton (both uncred.)
Scr: Stuart Paton
Phot: Eugene Gaudio
Premiere: December 24, 1916
105 mins.

The inclusion of this version of Jules Verne’s epic, pioneer science-fiction novel on the list is due to its technical achievement – the first successful underwater filming for a feature film.

The most famous adaptation of 20,000 leagues Under the Sea is Richard Fleischer’s 1954 Disney-produced extravaganza. And there were a couple of attempts prior to the 1916 effort, and many since. This particular cinematic reworking was financed by the budding Universal Studios, which at the time was just coming into its own and was still known as the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. Led by Carl Laemmle, it was one of the first to break with the Edison-imposed, patent-based monopoly on film production.

By 1915, Laemmle had constructed his studio, Universal City, in California, just over the Cahuenga Pass from Hollywood. The forward-thinking Laemmle immediately opened his studio to tourists, charging them five cents a head, box lunch included – a tradition that continues today, albeit at a higher price point and without the meal. However, this film was shot on location in the Bahamas, on and around New Providence Island.

The reason? The location boasted crystal-clear waters at depth. This was vital to the attempt to film narrative under the surface of the water for the first time. The technological breakthrough that led to this was initiated by sea captain Charles Williamson, who invented an accordion-like apparatus of interlocking, waterproof iron sections that could be supplied with air and lowered to the depth of 250 feet, for aid in salvage and rescue operations. His son, journalist John Ernest Williamson, imagined the possibilities for taking photographs and moving pictures using the device.

The younger Williamson designed and built a spherical viewing chamber with a built-in, five-foot diameter, 1.5-inch-thick glass port. With the addition of an underwater lighting rig, he soon found he could capture usable footage. The gimmick was the linchpin of the production. With his brother George, John “directed” the effective underwater sequences.

The film itself is a passable adaptation. It combines Verne’s novel with its sequel, The Mysterious Island, fudging plotlines and adding a romantic subplot, a lost-child subplot, a revenge subplot . . . . What was once astonishing to filmgoers’ eyes is hard to gawp at now – it’s necessary to consciously wind back our credulity to a state it might have been in 101 years ago. If you can do that, then the fancifully clad undersea figures regain a bit of their totemic power.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: Hell’s Hinges.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The NFR Project #51: 'Civilization,' the anti-war film that got Woodrow Wilson reelected

War displeases Jesus.
Dir: Reginald Barker, Thomas H. Ince, Raymond B. West, Walter Edwards (uncred.), David Hartford (uncred.), Jay Hunt (uncred.), J. Parker Read Jr. (uncred.)
Prod: Thomas H. Ince, Al Woods
Scr: C. Gardiner Sullivan
Phot: Joseph H. August, Dal Clawson, Clyde De Vinna, Otis M. Gove, Devereaux Jennings, Charles E. Kaufman, Robert Newhard, Irvin Willat
Premiere: December 31, 1915
86 mins.

 What do you do when you want people to hate war? You make a war film, of course.

Civilization is a big-budget extravaganza that relates intense pacifist sentiment. It’s an attempt to reinforce the strong isolationist feelings of much of the American public before the country joined World War One. Like its parent cause, the film fails.

Jesus rebukes the warmongering King
The conflict broke out in the summer of 1914, but then-President Woodrow Wilson successfully led efforts to keep the U.S. neutral, even after such incidents as the sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania in May of 1915 (of the 1,198 casualties, 128 were American citizens). The bulk of the American public had no desire to go to war, and those who did were typed as allies of “war profiteers.” In 1916, Wilson was reelected, using the campaign slogan “He kept us out of war.”

Screenwriter C. Gardiner Sullivan was inspired to write the story on Easter, 1915, and pioneer film mogul Thomas Ince thought it was worth a lavish realization. At a reported cost of $1,000,000 (in reality, more like $100,000), it was a huge popular success, and may have helped Wilson win the contest over Charles Evens Hughes, which was decided by the narrowest margin of victory in a presidential election until 2004.

The film is told in that worst of all narrative forms, the allegory. The heavy-handed symbolism is inherently condescending, making pacifism and idealism seem like uncomfortable affectations. An unnamed European power goes to war. Inventor Count Ferdinand invents a fine new submarine, and captains it. When faced with torpedoing a Lusitania-like ocean liner, he balks, destroying his submarine, his crew, and himself.

Then – stay with me – he goes to Purgatory and meets Christ, who commandeers his body for use in the world above. Restored to life, Count/Christ comes back to his native land and preaches peace. The King has him jailed, but a chorus of thousands of anguished women protesters compel him to visit the Count in prison. There, he finds the Count dead, but Christ  (through superimposition) rises out of the Count’s body and takes the King on a Christmas Carol-like cautionary tour of the battlefield, showing his first-hand (spectrally at least) the consequences of warmongering. The King, convinced, declares peace and the unmurdered portion of the soldiery returns home, to great rejoicing.

The production is stilted and undynamic, consistent with the undeveloped film aesthetic of the day. The big battle scenes, captured by multiple directors and cameramen, are unintentionally the most dynamic part of the film. The thankless job of playing Jesus was given to George Fisher, who portrays him woodenly –for how could you invest the Messiah with complexity, especially in an allegory?

The pretentious sanctimony of this early message picture became non grata immediately after Wilson did an abrupt about-face and declared war four months after it opened. The film was pulled, and was replaced by pro-war films just as subtle, like D.W. Griffiths’ Hearts of the World, The Beast of Berlin, and To Hell with the Kaiser! Powerful new techniques of mass persuasion, implemented by government workers drawn from the advertising industry, emphasized the savagery of the Germans and the righteousness of taking up arms, typified by recasting the conflict as “The War to End All Wars.” It was all too easy to turn public opinion from one pole to another.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: the 1916 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The NFR Project #49: 'Regeneration,' the first gangster-film feature

Dir: Raoul Walsh
Prod: Not listed
Scr: Carl Harbaugh, Raoul Walsh
Phot: Georges Benoit
Premiere: September 13, 1915
72 mins.
Raoul Walsh’s first feature film, Regeneration, is considered the first feature “gangster” film as well. More importantly, it signals a leap forward. It escapes the clumsy presentational style of prior film work, getting the camera up and moving, into the thick of things. Tied to clean, clear editing, Walsh’s work is streamlined and compelling. For the first time, American film has a great director who abandons stage-bound consciousness, a filmmaker who thinks filmically.

To be sure, there were hints of the gangster genre to come in short subjects such as D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) (see this link to my earlier essay, and others below), the real foundation and source of the crime film is the cinema of social concern, exemplified by earlier films such as The Cry of the Children (1912) and Traffic in Souls (1913). Spurred by the Progressive moment of the turn of last century, these films illustrated the plight of the poor, the immigrant, and others members of the disenfranchised.

In these Dickensian “sob stories,” the protagonists are victims in need of rescue. In Regeneration, the hero is an anti-hero – a bad guy with a good heart. In this case, his story is based on Owen Kildaire’s 1903 autobiography, My Mamie Rose, which chronicled the writer’s rise from illiterate, impoverished orphan to respected author.

A fugitive trapped in the shadows.
The film starts much as any socially conscious film of the period did. Owen is orphaned at 10, and taken in by the couple across the hall of his tenement, not so much out of compassion as out of a desire for a free laborer. Exposed to constant drunkenness and violence, an early shot pushes in to Owen’s dismayed face as his adoptive parents clash over his head. For once, there is no magical solution to the child’s problems – he simply stews in the foul environment of the Bowery (and Walsh shot much of the film on its streets, hiring local ne’er-do-wells to fill the crowd scenes).

Rockcliffe Fellowes, who plays Owen as an adult, is known today only for his role as a straight man in the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business, but boasted an extensive career in silent film. Owen leads a criminal gang. He is hard and dour, but also wistful. Unlike his compatriots, there is a glimmer of thought in his eyes. He collides with society girl Mamie (Anna Q. Nilsson, another now-forgotten silent star) at Grogan’s, a tawdry variety hall where the criminal class goes for entertainment. (Owen quaffs a beer, and this shot is intercut with a quick one of Owen-as-child in the same setting, gobbling an ice-cream cone – alcohol as the poor man’s comfort food.) She is “slumming” with her rich friends, escorted by the natty district attorney, who has eyes for her. When Owen rescues the D.A. from harassment in the hall, a spark ignites between the gangster and the debutante.

Soon Mamie is volunteering at the local settlement house. These were the settings for the efforts of a kind of urban Peace Corps of the day, a do-gooder movement that put social-welfare workers in the heart of the slums, living among the people they were trying to help. Gradually, she earns Owen’s trust and he begins to show signs of remorse and a longing for a better, more compassionate life.

Cops and criminals battle it out
The only male missionary in the picture is portrayed as weak and effeminate, but Owen exemplifies the virtues of muscular Christianity. He travels with her, and saves boatloads of children, when the excursion steamer they set out on catches fire – a reference to the General Slocum disaster of 1904, in which more than 1,000 died. He saves a baby from its drunken father. It’s as if Owen is rewinding his own history, and amending it for the good as he goes.

Inevitably, Owen has to choose whether or not to keep living in the gutter (his gang’s H.Q. is literally underground, a filthy cellar sprinkled with mattresses, filled with his men drinking, smoking, gambling, and plotting heists). He abandons his former life, and his one-eyed lieutenant Skinny takes over. When Owen shields him from the authorities after he stabs a cop, Mamie feels betrayed. She seeks him out in his lair, only to find herself trapped by Skinny, who has the usual designs on her.

In a dynamic closing sequence, Owen comes to the rescue. A brawl between cops and criminals fills the screen, and Skinny ends up shooting Mamie inadvertently. Owen’s quest for revenge is stymied by superimposed visions of Mamie reminding him that vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord.” Skinny’s life is forfeit, but his death doesn’t lie on Owen’s head. In a bold move, the film lets the heroine expire, but posits Owen as the torchbearer that will keep her mission alive.

What makes Walsh’s work special is the fact that he wastes none of the audience’s time. He has confidence in the ability of the viewer to follow the story, so he makes his point and moves on quickly, in scene after scene. Though his in-studio shots are uniformly lit in the manner of the day, whenever he gets on location Walsh tries and succeeds in making some incredible and evocative low-light shots that emphasize shadows – an objective correlative to the movement of Owen, a liminal figure, into and out of the light.

Regeneration doesn’t peddle any miracles. The characters’ behaviors spring from a naturalistic source, instead of being imposed from without for the sake of the plot. Owen is not a victim of fate, but a mature personality who makes choices good and bad, and who develops in a complex manner. This kind of respect for the dynamics of character and the unflinching look at contemporary slum life makes Regeneration still watchable. It feels real.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: the anti-war epic ‘Civilization,’ featuring Jesus.

Friday, September 8, 2017

40 disturbing films you should probably watch -- once

What’s up with the appeal of transgression? The impending arrival of Darren Aronofsky’s new film mother! has led to ecstatic reviews – and plenty of warnings about its graphic and disturbing content, currently unknown to the general public.

That’s part of the sizzle, of course – the lure of the forbidden. It’s always been a part of show biz, and film’s unique and overwhelming properties take full advantage of them to transmit transgression. We see these kind films as if on a dare, whether it comes with aesthetic credentials or not. (Re: Aronofsky, some are already voicing analogies to Kubrick, and there is a lot of bloody and pretentious work out there that has been termed “Kubrickian”). Are you tough enough to sit through the movie? Certain films are so intense, so visually wrenching, that their memories burn themselves into our brains, for better and for worse.

There has always been a demand for them, as the long history of exploitation cinema shows. We are curious. We slow down to peer at accidents. Death, decay, trauma, crime, pain, loss, all the stuff of horror fills our news feeds hourly, a chyron of provisional grasp on a reality that makes sense running perpetually at the bottom of our screens of consciousness. No wonder we made slasher films the highest-grossing movie subgenre in history. We seem hypervigilant, always tensed for the next dark thing to spring out at us.

Do we need transgressive films? Strict forms of film censorship in various periods in various cultures always led to a coded language, a polite signal system that conveyed forbidden meanings without stirring the censors’ ire. In the hands of intelligent directors such as Sturges, Sirk, and Wilder, they proved that more artistry is coaxed from limitation than license.

At the same time, the collapse of gatekeepers usually triggers an artistic boom, messy and teeming. The rapid succession of New Waves in film, reiterating through decades and across different national cinemas, revealed that it is vital for film to be free to explore every avenue of human experience and dream.

Now for the bad news. The liberation of cinema was rapidly dragged down into lowest-common-denominator madness. I can think of many, many, many transgressive films you do not ever need to see. I just went through a batch of them in research for a book, in one case returning to a movie I’d walked out of in fright 44 years earlier. It was not worth it.

Most transgressive films are their own reason for being, which is not enough. I’m not going to name them. They are something, primarily residing in the horror genre, that feels unstrung, that caters to the voyeur, the sadist, a kind of torture porn, dealing in shock as commodity. Boris Karloff notably remarked, “Horror means something revolting. Anybody can show you a pail-full of innards. But the object of the roles I played is not to turn your stomach – but merely to make your hair stand on end. . . . Shocks . . . should not be forced into a film without excuse.”

So are there fundamentally disturbing films that need to be seen? Yes. I made a joke about a top-10 list, and came up with more than 40, listed below. It’s purely subjective – our deepest fears (and retching points) are Venn diagrams, overlapping here and there but ultimately individual. I am convinced that the filmmakers involved couldn’t have said what they needed to in any other way, and do so brilliantly in each case.

WARNING: This list is intended for the use of mature and thoughtful viewers only. They require a serious attitude, watching during daytime hours, and may take many breaks to get through (I kept a nice stock of Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers handy when watching some of these, for emergency cheer-ups). You are not to watch them with children around – I saw Night and Fog when I was 8, which was about 40 years too early. I never needed to see The Exorcist. Do YOU need to see any of these? Follow your instincts – there is no shame in covering your eyes.

Despite the general contempt for “art,” it is powerful – otherwise why does it cause such an uproar when it proves bothersome and thought-provoking? In a consensus-driven culture, voices that question are vital enemies. Night of the Living Dead, A Clockwork Orange, Life of Brian, and many other films were denounced when they were released, and now they are classics and not such a big deal after all. We are weathered from exposure, inured to new levels of acceptability.

I stuck to one film per director. There are many whose careers are one long transgressive arc – directors such as Bunuel, Lynch, Cronenberg, Gilliam, Russell, and Waters. Most of these films were banned at one time or another, and some are almost impossible to find. I am sure I missed a few of your “favorites” – but maybe they’re not ones I need to see. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to wash my hands and go watch an old MGM musical or something.

Tod Browning
Browning’s repellent masterpiece destroyed his career. He made a film about circus freaks using real circus freaks. On top of that, he makes the argument that society’s outcasts and mutations are the only true humans. It’s still a subversive idea, and one accentuated with disturbing details.

Night and Fog
Alain Resnais
The most impactful film about the Holocaust is one of the earliest ones. Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad, Hiroshima, Mon Amour) helms the documentary using a script by Jean Cayrol, who escaped from the Mauthausen concentration camp. The movie plainly outlines the process by which millions of people were turned into dead things. With music by the great Hanns Eisler (perhaps the only composer to be banned by the Nazis and deported by the United States), it contrasts contemporary footage of the then-abandoned ruins of camps with excruciating documentary footage of what happened there. You only need to see it once because you can’t forget what you see.

Fires on the Plain
Kon Ichikawa
A stroll through Hell. Ichikawa is a master, and here he pitilessly adapts Shoei Oooka’s 1951 novel in harsh Eastman black and white. In the last days of World War II in the Philippines, outnumbered and starving Japanese soldiers resort to cannibalism to survive. The limitations imposed by mankind’s animal nature stands out in sharp relief against a desolate landscape.

Peeping Tom
Michael Powell
Another career-destroying film. A photographer gets sexual gratification from killing women – while he films them watching him do it. Made in the same year as Psycho, deplored and then lost to time for a few decades. Reappraisal has elevated it to its proper status. The villain is a pitiable and abused man, with whom we are brought to almost identify with as the film progresses. What does it mean that we’re peering over his shoulder? We came to see violence, too. What is the extent and nature of our complicity with the horror-makers, and, finally, the monsters themselves? A classic about voyeurism, manipulation and the very meaning of movie-making.

Jigoku aka The Sinners of Hell
Nabuo Nakagawa
In a move away from his long string of successful period ghost stories (kaidan), Nakagawa unspools a contemporary horror story that contains the most terrifying vision of Hell ever put on film. No one escapes the karmic wheel as the hapless protagonist realizes his own part in the sufferings of humanity.

Luis Bunuel
OK, there was this girl who wanted to be a nun . . . It’s difficult to pick one Bunuel film, as he is the original, delightful, and perpetual fountain of filmic perversion. This take-no-prisoners satire of the Catholic faith (you might have to bone up before you watch in order to catch all the blasphemies) blends with Bunuel’s first-generation Surrealist sensibilities to create a cynical masterpiece. A crucifix can hide a switchblade, people are no damn good, and we wind up with an implied three-way. What’s not to love?

Lord of the Flies
Peter Brook
Are you kidding me? It’s LORD OF THE FLIES. The source, William Goulding’s 1954 novel, bane of many high-school literature classes, is actually good if you can forget the term paper you had to write about it. The setup is simple – a planeload of boys are stranded on a tropical island, and descend into savagery in no time at all. Every film the avant-garde theater giant Peter Brook ever made is amazing, and this is no exception. He went through 3,000 actors to get his cast; he put them on location and improvised with them for 60 hours, cutting the results down to an hour and a half.

The Brig
Jonas Mekas
Julian Beck and Judith Malina founded The Living Theater, and their avant-garde work blew open the scene with their production of Jack Gelber’s junkie drama The Connection in 1959. This, their second production of huge impact, is taken from a play written by Kenneth H. Brown, a Marine who spent 30 days in military prison for being AWOL. It’s a meticulous, physically punishing recreation of a day in the brig – screamed commands and responses, strict rules for moving, standing, and looking – an illustrated guide to the breakdown of the human soul. Exposing the absurd mechanisms of the system, Mekas’ camera captures men as machines, acting with precision out of sheer terror.

Jean-Luc Godard
A rotten married couple have their murderous plans interrupted by – the Apocalypse. In Godard’s nihilistic vision, all Western, bourgeois values evaporate (or perhaps just reach their logical conclusions) and everyone starts killing and eating each other. For a start.

The Cremator
Juraj Herz
The employee of a crematorium in 1930s Prague begins to believe that his services liberate the souls of the dead, and that murder is the key to the salvation of mankind. He finds his beliefs falling in line with those brought to power by the looming takeover by the Nazis, as madness and official policy reinforce each other. Banned upon release, until the fall of the Iron Curtain 20 years later.

The Devils
Ken Russell
This insanely explicit adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s novel The Devils of Loudon is set in 16th century France, where a battle for political autonomy results in a rebellious priest (Oliver Reed) being framed for witchcraft, then tortured and executed. A horror movie in which society is the monster, it took nearly 50 years for it to be made available to the public.

Johnny Got His Gun
Dalton Trumbo
No one would film Trumbo’ famous anti-war novel, so he did it himself. A wounded soldier with no eyes, ears, teeth, tongue, or limbs roams through his consciousness while lying helpless in a military hospital. With Donald Sutherland as Jesus Christ.

The Ruling Class
Peter Medak
Speaking of the Messiah, Jack, the Earl of Guerney (Peter O’Toole) thinks he is Jesus Christ, and he has the crucifix to prove it. “I found that when I was praying, I was talking to Myself,” he explains. His family’s attempt to control him or commit him makes for a powerful statement about the inability to live according to just about any principles. Jack becomes “sane” in the worst possible way.

Pink Flamingos
John Waters
Another artist whose catalog is transgression. This is the first and most aggressively awful of Waters’ “Trash Trilogy,” starring drag queen Divine as Babs Johnson, “the filthiest person alive.” Her claim to fame is challenged by the evil Raymond and Connie Marble, and the result is an epic battle of perversion. The casual fun Waters has turning reality inside-out transcends his $10,000 budget.

Who Can Kill a Child?
Narciso Ibanez Serrador
A brilliant premise brilliantly executed. The children of the world are fed up with the actions of adults, and so decide to exterminate them. The mental leap required to seeing sweet-faced toddlers as death-wielding menaces is almost impossible to make.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Chantal Ackerman
A single mother cares for her son, keeps up the house, makes meals, and has sex for money. Not much happens, in bland, excruciating detail, for more than three hours. Then something happens that makes the whole film come together and blow the viewer away. The agonizingly slow setup leads to a payoff that makes you question notions of identity and human relations.

Taxi Driver
Martin Scorsese
“You talkin’ to me?” The modern American good guy is a misanthropic, homicidal maniac in Scorsese’s signature film. Steeped in the cesspool of mid-‘70s Manhattan, cab driver Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) sinks into madness and violence . . . or is it heroism?

David Lynch
A grisly nightmare, Lynch’s initial film contains most of the imagery and themes he would spend the next 40 years exploring. The rich, dark black-and-white cinematography makes the horrifying dream realer than real, based in a kind of revulsion at the prospect of physical existence.

Forbidden Zone
Richard Elfman
The Elfman brothers, Richard and Danny, formed the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo in 1972, a multipiece, costumed orchestra that performed Jazz Age music and Danny’s original compositions in the context of an absurd live show. Forbidden Zone is a modified record of it, reading much like a Fleischer Brothers cartoon on acid.

Andrzej Zulawski
Worst break-up ever. Isabelle Adjani doesn’t love Sam Neill any longer, so she creates a strange, octopus-like doppelganger out of the pieces of her murder victims. A fragmented, repetitive narrative is emotionally agonizing and visually disturbing. One of the few films to be both honored at Cannes and banned in Britain.

David Cronenberg
The director’s examination of the links between entertainment, violence, conformity, repression, and voyeurism rapidly takes flight into surreal fantasy as protagonist, TV exec Max (James Woods) finds out he is a foot soldier in the struggle of two factions for control of consensual reality. Disturbing, transgressive, and still ahead of its time.

 Come and See
Elem Klimov
The title is taken from the Book of Revelations. This saga of one Soviet boy’s buffeting by the storm winds of World War II is the most realistic portrayal of combat ever filmed. Ostensibly an anti-fascist film, it’s so uncompromising about the physical, mental, and emotional devastation of war that vicarious exhaustion saps the viewer.

 Grave of the Fireflies
Isao Takahata
An anime about a brother and sister dying of starvation in Japan at the end of World Wat II. Yep.
Brian Yuzna
An extremely pointed satire of rich and poor. As in John Carpenter’s They Live, Society’s rich prey on the lower classes – but here they literally feed on them, melding their bodies with their victims and devouring their substance in an obscene parody of a cocktail party crossed with an orgy. The practical effects by Screaming Mad George (aka Joji Tani) are incomparably disturbing.

 Jacob’s Ladder
Adrian Lyne
An amazing journey that takes decades and a moment at the same time, it features Tim Robbins in his first starring role, as a Vietnam-Era soldier trying to understand the hallucinations that begin to affect him and those around him. A seemingly impossible weld of spiritual and political content, the film was originally 20 minutes longer but it made audiences too upset so Lyne cut them.

 The Rapture
Michael Tolkin
What if evangelical Christian theology is the literal truth? Michael Tolkin, who also wrought the screenplay for The Player and the criminally under-regarded The New Age, gives us a sincere convert who undergoes a crisis of faith when the End Times turn out to be real. It’s not a movie that makes fun of religion in any way, but it asks brain-shattering questions about the nature of God, faith, reality, heaven, hell, and all the rest – and provides zero answers and no closure whatsoever.

 In the Mouth of Madness
John Carpenter
Carpenter’s ultimate horror statement invents a horror novel that manifests a terrifying universe that grows stronger every time a person reads it, driving them mad. Insurance investigator Sam Neill seeks the elusive author, driving into the landscape of the writer’s dark imagination and watching his world fly to pieces and double back on itself. Carpenter shows how thin the membrane between sanity and chaos can be.

 Funny Games
Michael Haneke
Two nice young men knock on the door a rich family at their summer home. Can they borrow some eggs? What follows is a bold indictment of the horror audience’s expectations. The two casually and leisurely torture and kill the family, all the while breaking the fourth wall, cracking jokes, and even replaying a scene if it doesn’t work out to their liking. The victims are doomed, and we are forced to ask what our part in this is.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa
A brilliant film that asks if evil is communicable. Normal people kill randomly, united only by their contact with an amnesiac who may be a master hypnotist. Koji Yakusho is fascinating to watch as the determined detective with secrets of his own, who unravels as forces he doesn’t understand begin to control him. Kurosawa’s subtle and deliberately paced direction ratchets up the tension to unbearable levels.

 Battle Royale
Kinji Fukasaku
This impactful horror film came from old avant-garde filmmaker Fukasaku in 1999 – Battle Royale, his last completed film, adapted from Koushun Takami’s novel. In it, a group of school-age teens are forced to fight to the death in a televised national entertainment. Sound familiar, Hunger Games fans? Its tone is vastly more savage and cynical than its imitators’.

Spike Lee
Spike Lee’s most offensive film is the Producers-esque comic saga of a black TV producer who crafts the most racist program he can think of in order to get out of his contract. The result, The New Millennium Minstrel Show, is of course an enormous hit, crammed with blackface, watermelon, and all the other trappings of racist imagery. It tells you everything you need to know about how American culture works.

 Requiem for a Dream
Darren Aronofsky
Of course, I had to include Aronofsky, the inspiration for this story. Requiem for a Dream is the best anti-drug film ever made, chronicling the downfall of four individuals in what is surely the most depressing film ever made, making Leaving Las Vegas seem like Singin’ in the Rain by comparison.

The Cell
Tarsem Singh
The most visually sumptuous horror film ever made. A psychologist (Jennifer Lopez) must invade the mind of a schizophrenic, comatose killer in order to save the life of his latest victim. The representation of the psychic contents of an evil person have never been delineated as vividly as this. Singh’s dazzling style is unmatched, and the casting is perfect.

Lucky McKee
“If you can’t find a friend, make one!” This horror movie about a murderously insane but pitiable protagonist is unexpectedly moving, with the most riveting closing moment of any film I’ve ever seen.

Terry Gilliam
Alice in Wonderland crossed with Cronenberg. Gilliam’s freakish imagination gives life and heart to this dark fairy tale of a young girl trapped on the Texas prairie with her father’s preserved corpse, exposed only to a couple of local eccentrics.

  The Last King of Scotland
Kevin Macdonald
How do you portray a mass murderer? Forest Whitaker won the Oscar for his performance as Uganda dictator Idi Amin.

Steve McQueen
McQueen’s debut feature is ruthless. A depiction of the Irish republican hunger strike in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison in 2008. Whether the viewer is an adherent of the republican cause or not, the illumination of the brutality within the system is unforgettable. In the end, the hunger strikers chose to refuse the cooperation of the only thing under their control – their own bodies.

Fish Tank
Andrea Arnold
The best film ever made about being 15. Unfortunately, the 15-year-old in question is a girl trapped in poverty with an alcoholic mother, whose boyfriend wants her as well. The depiction of underage sex is enough to set off alarms, but the real tragedy is the depiction of a world in which people are only worth what can be gotten out of them.

Escape from Tomorrow
Randy Moore
Filmed surreptitiously in Disney World, this surreal horror film enters on a typical dad who finds out that the Happiest Place on Earth is a corporate laboratory, and he’s an experiment.