Thursday, October 29, 2020

The NFR Project: 'Nanook of the North'

Nanook of the North
Dir: Robert J. Flaherty
Phot: Robert J. Flaherty
Ed: Herbert Edwards, Robert J. Flaherty, Charles Gelb
Premiere: June 11, 1922
78 min.

Nanook of the North is the first commercially successful feature-length documentary film. But is it a documentary?

Robert J. Flaherty was an explorer and photographer who decided he wanted to make a film about the Eskimo (Inuit) he had encountered. He shot film for two years, built up a rough cut that was praised – and dropped a lit cigarette onto his original camera negative, sending it up in flames and destroying it. He promptly returned to the Arctic region, spending a year remaking his film, this time centering it on the story of one Inuit family. Except it wasn’t really a family.

Nanook was actually named Allakariallak, and he did not live in a primitive manner. His wives were actually Flaherty’s women. Flaherty got Allakariallak and a cast of other natives to enact traditional hunting and crafting techniques. The natives hunt walrus, fox, and seal; Nanook captures a kayak-load of fish to feed his “family.” The group treks across the icy wastes in their dogsled, kept constantly in motion by the search for food. In the wild, they build an igloo to shelter themselves.

So, is the film invalidated by this approach? Does it accurately record these people’s behavior? The controversy over Flaherty’s manufacturing of a narrative on film continues in serious ethnographic circles. In a contemporary culture in which “reality shows” are rigorously scripted, it doesn’t seem to be such a big deal today.

His work has been classified as “salvage ethnography” – the recording of cultures threatened by modern civilization. He did it without condescension, in fact romanticizing the Inuit struggle for existence. No one can deny its power as a film. It is still beautiful and compelling. Flaherty is deeply in love with the landscape and his subjects, and it shows. We can’t help but emphasize with the film’s subjects; as strange as their existence is, they are recognizably human.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Tom Mix in ‘Sky High’.



Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The NFR Project: 'Miss Lulu Bett'


Miss Lulu Bett

Dir: William C. DeMille

Scr: Clara Beranger

Phot: L. Guy Wilky

Ed: unknown

Premiere: November 1921

71 min.

The output of early Hollywood was primarily escapist fare. But there was also room for “serious” films, many of which were taken from honored books and plays. Such is the case with Miss Lulu Bett.

It’s the adaptation of a 1920 Zona Gale novel, which she adapted into a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. The story is a cross between Cinderella and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. The heroine of the title is a young drudge trapped in a small town, one who works all day cooking and cleaning for her sister’s family in exchange for room and board. When she’s not being taken for granted, she’s browbeaten and belittled by her petty family.

Change comes in form of her brother-in-law’s brother, who comes for a visit and jokingly offers to marry her. She takes him up on it as a means of escape from her circumstances. After a week, though, he reveals that he may be a bigamist. She returns home, scolded into not revealing the truth in order to keep the town gossips’ tongues from waggling. Of course, despite this wag they do anyway, speculating on Lulu Bett’s unfitness for marriage. Fed up with her reprised role as the family servant, she declares her independence and leaves the house. Only after doing so, she gets together with the town’s schoolteacher, who has loved her all along.

Director William C. DeMille was the brother of the famous Cecil B. DeMille, and he was known for his unflashy, naturalistic films. Here he creates a work of quiet realism, keeping his camerawork unobtrusive and focused on “the toils of the commonplace.” The result is a clear-eyed examination of the constraints placed on the women of the day. Becoming someone’s, anyone’s wife was seemingly the only ticket out of the family home.

But Lulu makes a way. First, she saves her niece from a foolish attempt at elopement, then frees herself from mental slavery in a gripping scene. Smashing dishes, spitting dialogue, Lulu renounces her family and packs up and leaves for good. This proto-feminist liberation was in keeping with the times – women were given the right to vote only two years earlier, and the idea of the independent, self-assured woman was just beginning to take hold in popular culture. Though hardly remembered today, Miss Lulu Bett is a hallmark of America’s changing attitudes.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: ‘Nanook of the North’.


Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The NFR Project: 'Foolish Wives'


Foolish Wives

Dir: Erich von Stroheim

Scr: Erich von Stroheim, Marian Ainslee, Walter Anthony

Phot: William H. Daniels, Ben F. Reynolds

Ed: Arthur Ripley

Premiere: January 11, 1922

140 min.

The stereotype of the early American film director is that of a harsh egomaniac equipped with a monocle, riding crop, and megaphone. Erich von Stroheim invented it.

Von Stroheim started off simply as Erich Stroheim, born in Vienna in 1885. He added the “von” and a fabricated noble background when he immigrated to America in 1909. By 1914, he was in Hollywood, working as one of D.W. Griffith’s many assistant directors on the epic Intolerance. During World War I, he began taking up the many villainous roles that cemented him in the public consciousness as “the Hun you love to hate.”

Finally established as a writer/director, Stroheim produced turgid and costly melodramas such as Blind Husbands and The Devil’s Passkey. He hit the jackpot with Universal, getting them to fork over more than a million dollars to make his Foolish Wives.

Stroheim as a filmmaker was doubly frustrating for producers that tried to rein in in. He wanted to create on an epic scale, but he was also obsessed with detail, spending recklessly to recreate the gilded pleasure spot of Monte Carlo in the studio confines of California. Fighting with the studio, the director managed to record hours of footage from which to make his final edit — which ran for six hours. The studio cut ruthlessly to get it down to normal feature length.

In Foolish Wives, Stroheim stars himself as the bogus Count Karamzin, a spendthrift grifter who seduces wealthy women and extorts money from them. His portrayal is perfectly despicable. The film illustrates his attempts to claim another victim, the wife of a U.S. ambassador. He is ultimately unsuccessful and brings on his own comeuppance.

It is difficult to see now where the money went, as we are used to films sporting large casts of extras and elaborate sets. At the time, however, such extravagant and detailed settings were unheard of. Stroheim would continue in the same vein until the studios finally got wise to his shenanigans and removed him from directorial duties. Meanwhile, Foolish Wives stood as a monument to what unlimited resources could create in Tinseltown.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: ‘Miss Lulu Bett’.


Friday, October 2, 2020

The NFR Project: 'Cops'



Dir: Eddie Cline and Buster Keaton

Scr: Eddie Cline and Buster Keaton

Phot: Elgin Lessley

Ed: Buster Keaton

Premiere: March 11, 1922

18 min.

Cops is a perfect little film, taking the premise of the comic chase and blowing it up to epic proportions. It’s the 12th of 19 shorts that Keaton starred in and directed between 1920 and 1923. I already wrote about his first significant short, One Week, here.

Buster Keaton was the greatest pure filmmaker of all the silent comedians. In Cops, he uses geometry and perspective to make his gags work, and to play tricks on the viewer. Here’s he’s the oblivious young fool who creates havoc wherever he goes. In the opening shot, he’s behind bars – but he’s not in prison, he’s stuck outside the gates of his beloved’s grand home (she’s the mayor’s daughter). She won’t respond to the plighting of his troth unless he becomes "a big business man.”

In short order, he steals money from a cop, and is in turn defrauded by a sharpster who sells him furniture that’s not his to sell. He loads the goods into a wagon (the furniture’s real owner thinks Buster’s a moving man, and helps him load up, to Buster’s quiet amazement). He has some fun with the slow, old horse that pulls the wagon – he stops and gives the horse an injection from goat glands (the Viagra of its day). Rejuvenated, the frisky animal pulls Buster into the midst of a police parade.

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While stopped in front of the parade grandstand, Buster reaches for a cigarette but can’t find a match. Improvidentially, an anarchist tosses a bomb that lands right next to Buster (it’s the stereotypical round shape with a long, sputtering fuse). He calmly lights his cigarette from it, then tosses it away. The subsequent explosion, comically tattering the uniforms of the marching men, sparks the chase.

What’s funnier than one cop chasing a hero? Hundreds. As Buster dashes to and fro, he finds swarms of cops on his tail. He nimbly avoids being collared time and time again, and eventually traps all his pursuers in their precinct house. However, his girl spurns him again, and he sadly unlocks the doors and allows himself to be swallowed up by a sea of clutching hands. The grim final “The End” title card is shown on a gravestone topped by Buster’s porkpie hat.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: ‘Foolish Wives’.