Monday, February 29, 2016

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

February 26, 1920 (Germany), release date
Directed by Robert Wiene
Screenplay by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer
Music by Giuseppe Becce
[No editing credit was listed, not that I could find.]
Cinematography by Willy Hameister
Set designs by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann, Walter Röhrig

Werner Krauss as Dr. Caligari
Conrad Veidt as Cesare
Friedrich Feher as Franzis (some sources list him as Francis)
Lil Dagover as Jane Olsen
Hans Heinrich von Twardowski as Alan
Rudolf Lettinger as Dr. Olsen
Hans Lanser-Ludolff as the old man on the bench
Henri Peters-Arnolds as the young doctor
Ludwig Rex as the criminal who attempts murder
Elsa Wagner as Alan’s landlady

Distributed by Decla-Bioscop

I have heard The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari described as proto-noir, or a precursor to film noir. I am going to use the term avant noir (avant in French means “before”) because it is closer to the beginnings of the tradition of classifying films noir, which came out of French interpretations of U.S. films released in Europe after World War II.

I had seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari when I took film courses years ago in college. Because of my interest in film noir and neo-noir, I decided it was time to see the film again, and I have seen it twice recently, both times on DVD. The first time was a DVD produced from a 35 mm print restored by the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv of Germany. It featured the original color tinting and toning, and English-language intertitles. The second time, I watched a DVD distributed exclusively by IMAGE Entertainment; it also included color tinting and English-language intertitles, and audio commentary by Mike Budd. Mike Budd’s commentary was a great way to learn about the historical and cultural contexts of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and I can’t recommend it enough.

So is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari a horror film or a precursor to noir? I would say that the choice does not have to be either-or. The film does include many noir elements: murder, tension between sanity and insanity, existential dread about facing life’s absurdity, postwar alienation, German expressionism, flashbacks.

I read online (and mostly at Wikipedia) that the film was the creation of two German writers who began to distrust authority after their experiences during World War I. The only difference between The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and any film noir is that the postwar alienation follows World War I and not World War II. Franzis tells his story in flashback to the man sitting on the bench next to him in the opening frame sequence. Later in the film, when Franzis and the doctors read Caligari’s diary, the film cuts to more flashbacks showing what Caligari describes in his diary. Thus, the film incorporates flashbacks within a flashback.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is considered part of the German expressionist movement in cinema, and German expressionism is part of the foundation for later film noir. The sets and the costumes in the film are fantastic and surreal. Dr. Caligari’s costume is purposely odd: black and white streaked hair, pulled back in rows; gloves striped with black that make them look skeletal from a distance. The sets are exaggerated and representational, with angles, shadows, and light painted directly onto surfaces. The scene in the town clerk’s office emphasizes the control that the clerk wishes to exert over everyone who comes in requesting information, and it does so by using exaggerated props. Dr. Caligari is forced to wait, sitting on a short stool, while the clerk perches on his chair, on high, and scribbles away at his desk.

Conrad Veidt portrays Cesare, the somnambulist who is Dr. Caligari’s act at the town fair. He is barely recognizable in all his makeup as the same actor who played Major Heinrich Strasser, the Nazi officer in Casablanca. His portrayal of Cesare waking up during the act at the fair is said to have frightened moviegoers, although I think audiences today would find him a lot less frightening. Maybe seeing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 2016 means that it is easier to see the noir elements in it.
One noir element that’s missing from the film is a femme fatale. Except for Jane Olsen, women do not play large roles. Alan’s landlady, along with Jane, makes the list of characters, but she doesn’t even have a name of her own. Jane’s role is not one of femme fatale: She’s an innocent victim, but she’s not exactly the damsel in distress. To her credit, she puts up a good fight when Cesare comes slinking into her room at night. He finally gets away with her in tow, but he has to abandon her rather than risk getting caught.

(This blog post about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari contains spoilers.)

Mike Budd makes the following points (among many others) about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in his audio commentary accompanying the DVD from IMAGE Entertainment:
• Both the flashback story that makes up Franzis’s story and the frame story are told in expressionistic settings, but the settings in the frame story shouldn’t be expressionistic if they aren’t meant to show Franzis’s psychological state. They should be realistic if Caligari is truly the asylum’s director and Franzis is truly institutionalized.
• The actions surrounding Dr. Caligari’s straitjacketing and the cell where he is placed are repeated when Franzis is straitjacketed and put in the same cell. The difference is that the walls of the cell have been hastily repainted for Franzis, but viewers can still see the design underneath.
• When the iris shot closes on Dr. Caligari claiming to know how to cure Franzis, are viewers really reassured by his pronouncement?

I wasn’t reassured. I wondered if maybe the doctor is still the crazy one, even if he is back in his job as the asylum director. I thought the film was making the point that the boundaries between sanity and insanity are much more fluid than people would like to believe. The writers had just emerged from their wartime experiences: Hans Janowitz lost his younger brother in World War I; Carl Mayer was forced to undergo repeated interrogation sessions by a military psychologist about his mental condition. People in positions of authority had brought Germany prolonged death and destruction, which could be described as madness on a much greater scale. Dr. Caligari, with his manipulation of Cesare the somnambulist into committing murder, is perhaps the same kind of madness, but on a much smaller scale.

I have read—and I just can’t remember where—that the German title of the film could also have been translated in English as The Office of Dr. Caligari, and I have wondered ever since why the word cabinet was chosen. The word office makes a lot more sense to me. The film hints at bureaucratic red tape, showing Dr. Caligari’s dissatisfaction with the way he is treated by the town clerk when he applies for a license to participate in the local fair. Dr. Caligari’s appearance at the fair with Cesare, the somnambulist, takes place in a temporary office of sorts. And both Dr. Caligari and Franzis use Caligari’s asylum office: Caligari to research the somnambulist from Italy, and Franzis to investigate Calgari’s roles in the local murders.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a silent classic and was released almost 100 years ago: I doubt it will go through a title change now. But I am happy to call the film both a horror film and an avant noir. Maybe it will be easier to categorize the film a bit differently than it would be to request another translation—a retranslation—of its title.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is well worth seeing even if you don’t want to research its cultural and historical contexts. The film is amazing for its sophistication, and the story is unsettling in a surprisingly satisfying way. Some details about the human condition are timeless, no matter how much technological progress we make.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Irrational Man (2015)

May 16, 2015 (Cannes), July 17, 2015 (United States)
Directed by Woody Allen
Screenplay by Woody Allen
Cinematography by Darius Khondji
Edited by Alisa Lepselter
Musical Theme: “The ‘In’ Crowd,” composed by Billy Page, performed by Ramsey Lewis Trio

Emma Stone as Jill Pollard
Joaquin Phoenix as Professor Abe Lucas
Parker Posey as Professor Rita Richards
Jamie Blackley as Roy, Jill’s boyfriend
Betsey Aidem as Jill’s mother
Ethan Phillips Jill’s father
Sophie Von Haselberg as April
Ben Rosenfield as April’s friend
Susan Pourfar as Carol

Produced by Gravier Production, Perdido Productions
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics

When I first saw Irrational Man in the theater less than a year ago, I suggested that it might be a film about philosophy that was really a neo-noir. I was met with incredulity. My friends scoffed: How can you categorize a Woody Allen film as a neo-noir? And I suspect that you may be asking yourself that same question right now. I couldn’t convince all of my friends, but after seeing the film a second time on DVD, I am even more convinced that Irrational Man is a neo-noir.

The film opens with Abe Lucas driving along the Rhode Island shore. The setting is idyllic: summer in a seaside small town where tourists flock to enjoy the sun and the waves. But right away, Abe introduces a noir tone. In his internal voice-over, viewers hear: “Kant said human reason is troubled by questions it cannot dismiss but also cannot answer. Okay, so what are we talking about here? Morality? Choice? The randomness of life? Aesthetics? Murder?” Abe mentions murder at the very beginning. It’s on his mind, but why? Viewers know nothing about Abe’s past, and they don’t learn much about it as the movie progresses, and that’s a noir device with a slight alteration. Abe’s past seems to haunt him, as it does for many a film noir protagonist, but viewers never learn the details, just how it affects his actions later in the film.

The film switches to Jill Pollard and her internal voice-over: “I think Abe was crazy from the beginning. Was it from stress? Was it anger? Was he disgusted by what he saw as life’s never-ending suffering? Or was he simply bored by the meaninglessness of day-to-day existence? He was so damn interesting. And different. And a good talker. And he could always cloud the issue with words.” In retrospect, it seems, Jill would call Abe a smooth talker, a manipulator, something that she didn’t notice from the beginning, only in hindsight. And thus this story about murder, deception, and betrayal is told in flashback, and all are hallmarks of noir.

(This blog post about Irrational Man contains spoilers.)

The unwitting agent of fate in Irrational Man seems to be Jill. Jill is the one who overhears the conversation in the West Side Diner about Judge Spangler, and she is the one who invites Abe to listen in on that same conversation. In another sequence, Jill picks a flashlight when Abe gives her the choice of a prize after he wins a game at an amusement park. The flashlight plays an important part, in its own way, as an agent of fate. But it belongs to Jill, not to anyone else.

Jill seems to be the only character in Irrational Man to experience real angst. Jill expresses angst, fear, and suspicion when she hears Rita’s theory about Abe. Abe the philosophy professor spouts intellectual lines about despair and angst. He says that he is depressed from the beginning of the film until the moment he starts planning his crime. Rita doesn’t experience any angst at all. She would go to Spain with Abe whether or not her theory about his role in Judge Spangler’s murder is true. But Jill suffers more than enough angst to make up for Rita and even Abe. She is the one who is most emotionally invested.

Jill worries about her suspicions and her small role in what Abe may have done. She was in the West Side Diner with Abe and invited him to overhear the woman’s conversation about her custody lawsuit to be decided by Judge Spangler. Jill confronts Abe about the judge’s murder: “You can’t justify it. You can’t justify it with all this bullshit. With all this bullshit, French postwar rationalizing. This doesn’t . . . . This is murder. This is murder. It opens the door to more murder, Abe.” Later, in the same conversation, she tells Abe, “I don’t have the intellect to refute these arguments. I can’t argue with you. But you taught me go with my instinct and I don’t have to think about this. I feel that this is no good. This is murder.”

Some of the camera techniques underscore Jill’s angst. Her first kiss with Abe is distorted in a funhouse mirror. When she listens to her father read a newspaper account of Judge Spangler’s death, now ruled a homicide, she is standing behind a screen door, and the camera slowly tracks in to focus on her, looking trapped behind the screen. But even the mesh of the screen can’t hide the consternation on her face.

Earlier in the film, Jill mentions that Abe noted Hannah Arendt’s name in the margin of one of his books. The reference to Hannah Arendt is a reference to the postwar (post–World War II) period and the struggle to come to terms with Nazism and “the banality of evil.” From Wikipedia:

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, by political theorist Hannah Arendt, was originally published in 1963. Arendt’s subtitle famously introduced the phrase “the banality of evil,” which also serves as the final words of the book. In part, at least, the phrase refers to Eichmann’s deportment at the trial, displaying neither guilt nor hatred, claiming he bore no responsibility because he was simply “doing his job” (“He did his duty . . . ; he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law” p. 135). (emphasis added)

Abe justifies everything he does in terms of philosophy, but he never once allows for human emotion. Even his depression is an absence of emotions, and it’s something he soaks in large quantities of alcohol. He feels alienated from the rest of the world, and he mentions this often throughout the film. Here is his interior monologue after overhearing the woman’s conversation about her custody battle (he and Jill are in the West Side Diner, and Jill has invited Abe to hear what she was hearing): “He [Judge Spangler] won’t get cancer. Because wishing doesn’t work. If you [the woman in the custody battle] want him dead, you have to make it happen. But you’d never be able to pull it off, and even if you did, you’d be prime suspect. On the other hand, I could kill him for you, lady, and no one in the world would dream I did it. I could rid you of this roach and end all your suffering. It was at this moment that my life came together. I could perform this blessing for that poor woman and no one would ever connect me to it.”

Abe claims that his actions are based on his existential need to feel alive, but he has a taste for murder and the excitement it brings to his life. This is his internal monologue while he paces his classroom and his students take an exam: “The police had their suspect. Rita Richards, who was never really serious about suspecting me, would see it was another man and that her crackpot theory was crackpot. The morality of letting someone take the rap troubled me greatly, but paled against the hardwiring of my natural will survive. Europe with Rita was beginning to have an exciting ring to it. . . . Only one thing stood in the way. I had a few days before Jill would insist that I clear the wrongfully accused man. Was there a way to keep her from talking? I guess she was right when she said that one murder opens the door to more.” And so Abe is on his way to betraying Jill.

In the end, Jill is almost squeaky clean. Abe was depressed at the start of the film, and his intentions are masked by his depression and the way that he talks about it. Viewers don’t learn anything about his past or why he is thinking about murder from the start of the film. In Irrational Man, “the banality of evil” comes in the form of depression for Abe’s character, and in the beautiful setting—the Rhode Island coastline in summer—for the film. These features make good and evil hard to spot for the characters and for the viewers.

Jill closes the film with her thoughts about her experiences: “Every now and then, I reflected on the whole episode. And with hindsight, gained some perspective about life and love, and who I was. I even experienced, for one terrifying moment, the closeness of death. The whole thing had been quite a lesson. A painful lesson. The kind Abe used to say you can’t get from any textbook.”

So I wonder about the main point in Irrational Man. Maybe the main point is that we cannot really know how we would choose, how we would act, unless we are faced with real choices between shades of gray, not between black and white, not between good and evil. Life is rarely like a textbook example, after all. It rarely offers simple choices that are obviously good or obviously evil. And offering that idea to ponder is about as noir as a film can get.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Act of Violence (1948)

December 21, 1948, release date
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Screenplay by Robert L. Richards
Based on a story by Collier Young
Music by Bronislau Kaper
Edited by Conrad A. Nervig
Cinematography by Robert Surtees

Van Heflin as Frank R. Enley
Robert Ryan as Joe Parkson
Janet Leigh as Edith Enley
Mary Astor as Pat
Phyllis Thaxter as Ann Sturges
Berry Kroeger as Johnny
Taylor Holmes as Gavery
Harry Antrim as Fred Finney
Connie Gilchrist as Martha Finney
Will Wright as boat rental man at Redwood Lake

Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I have seen Act of Violence twice now, and it’s even more moving on the second viewing. It’s a postwar film about ex-soldiers trying to adjust to civilian life. But it’s also about the effects of trauma on the people who love those ex-soldiers. The film doesn’t use the terms post-traumatic stress disorder and PTSD, but it could just as easily be about the problems of returning soldiers in any era. There are no easy answers, and the film doesn’t provide any.

I loved the opening, with the music, the horns, playing over the MGM/lion trademark. I don’t think I have seen this kind of opening, with just “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer presents” and the title card, in any other film noir (the credits don’t come until the end). Then the movie cuts to the beautiful urban cityscape of New York in the background; it is like a painting.

The dark night, the rain, the music, a man whose face we don’t see right away, the gun: all are classic film noir. Then the man (we still don’t know it’s Joe Parkson) boards a bus and we travel with him into bright light, daylight, and a small town (Santa Lisa, California) on Memorial Day, complete with a parade, a marching band, and horns that sound very different from the opener over the MGM/lion trademark. (I’m sure late 1940s postwar audiences would have been painfully aware of the significance of Memorial Day.) Joe Parkson is looking for Frank Enley and for revenge.

(This blog post about Act of Violence contains spoilers.)

Act of Violence doesn’t use any flashbacks. Instead, important plot points are revealed in painful conversations. Frank says to his wife, “Edith, a lot of things happened in the war that you wouldn’t understand. Why should you? I don’t understand them myself.” Later, after Joe Parkson has been to their house, Edith is blunt about what she wants from Frank: “I want to ask you something. When we packed up all of a sudden and came out here from Syracuse, three thousand miles across the country, was that on account of him [Joe Parkson]? Not collecting your terminal pay, dropping all our friends back East? It all was, wasn’t it, Frank? I know you went through some bad times in the war. I know some things must have happened that hurt you. I never asked. But I am asking now, Frank. I want to know.” Frank tells Edith that Joe was the bombardier on his missions. Edith is afraid that Joe will become violent when he returns looking for Frank. She wants to call the police, the army, but Frank stops her: “You don’t know what made him the way he is. I do.”

But Edith learns part of the truth from Joe Parkson: “Did he tell you that I’m a cripple because of him? Did he tell you about the men that are dead because of him? Did he tell you what happened to them before they died? . . . I was lucky. They thought I was dead and left me there. . . .” Edith refuses to believe Joe, but she leaves home in Santa Lisa to look for her husband Frank at the builders’ convention in Los Angeles, and he finally tells her what happened.

An exchange between Edith Enley and Ann Sturges, Joe Parkson’s girlfriend, is also blunt and painful:
• Ann: “Look, I’ve come a long way to stop this. Maybe nobody can. But I’m the only one that has a chance.”
• Edith: “What can you do? I’ve seen him [Parkson]. He’s vicious. He’s a killer.”
• Ann: “Is he? What about your husband? Do you call him a murderer?”
• Edith: “No. He didn’t mean it. He’s been sick with it.”
• Ann: “They’re both sick with it. And I want Joe to be well.”

Frank Enley’s PTSD flashback sequence was filmed perfectly, I thought. He enters a long tunnel, which is lit brightly (odd for a film noir). Is the bright light because he’s remembering clearly, truthfully? He hears snippets of the conversation from his time in the World War II prison camp in his mind. “You’ll find the tunnel in the north corner.” “Don’t do it, Joe.” By the time he comes to the end of the tunnel, he is distraught and shouting out loud in real time: “Don’t do it, Joe!” He heads to the train tracks and attempts suicide but jumps out of the way in the nick of time. From this point, Frank’s life spirals even more out of control (it first started spiraling out of control when he runs out of the builders’ convention after punching Joe Parkson). When Frank makes a conscious decision to set things right, his life seems to fall back into place.

Late in the film, Edith Enley tells her husband that she knows now he has faults and weaknesses. Is learning that Frank is just like any other man another “act of violence”? She describes learning this information as a shock and attributes it to her youth and naïveté. I think this is just one of many acts of violence portrayed in this film. Betrayal is another. Frank feels he betrayed his men; he in turn is betrayed by the Nazi officer in the prison camp.

The opening of this film, with only “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer presents” and the movie title, and the closing credits were stupendous. The letters were composed of simple, clear, white blocks and lines. They reminded me of a white picket fence (a white picket fence can be seen behind the closing credits), of small-town America and innocence, and how that innocence is tenuous at best. Act of Violence is a thought-provoking and moving portrayal of veterans and their loved ones struggling to come to terms with the past. It could be the story of veterans returning from any war and the families they come home to in any era.