It was a time of fantasy cinema and its brilliant alternatives. Movies were on a high. This sublime tension should have lasted forever.
Chapter 3 of The Story of Film follows pretty closely on the heels of Chapter 2. The way Cousins transitions from one chapter to the next makes the whole thing surprisingly palatable to marathon as one very long documentary, and in this case, Chapters 2 and 3 seem incomplete without each other. In Chapter 2, Cousins laid out the foundations of Hollywood romantic cinema, as codified by the studio system in the 1920s, and began looking at the rebel filmmakers who challenged it. In Chapter 3, we find out that the realist filmmakers he discussed in Chapter 2 were actually the first of eight challenges to romantic cinema. What is a rebel filmmaker? It’s not difficult to figure out from the documentary, but Cousins helpfully defined it in his interview with Robert Osborne before TCM’s airing of Chapter 3. Paraphrasing a bit, a rebel filmmaker is someone who looks at the way we do things and knows there’s another way to do it. They want to annoy people on one level, but they also want to innovate – to explore other ways to use cinema to tell stories.
Challenges #2-8 to romantic cinema take up the entirety of this episode. First, Ernst Lubitsch. Yep, just Lubitsch all by himself. Lubitsch took the still-Victorian way that sex and love were depicted in the movies and mocked it, making some of the most urbane, witty, and slyly naughty films of the twenties. And the thirties, to be honest. Interestingly, this is maybe the only one of the challenges Cousins identifies that is primarily content-related rather than stylistic. On the other hand, style is content and of course the stylistic things that make up the rest of the challenges also have an ideological element.
The third challenge is impressionism in France, with Cousins using Abel Gance as the example. I haven’t seen any of Gance’s films, but I was intrigued by the clips of La Roue here, which highlight a nervously roving camera, darting from subject to subject much as the human eyes would do. Images flash faster than we can make sense of them, becoming something we sense rather than actually see – an impression, just as the great impressionist painters sought to create a mood and a moment rather than a reproduction of reality. Then I found out that La Roue is four and a half hours long and about a father and son who fall in love with their respective adopted daughter/sister. Yeah, I’m less enthused about that on every level. Still, I’m much more interested in watching Gance’s Napoleon, which uses similar techniques on a biographical subject, than I was prior to watching The Story of Film.
The fourth challenge is German Expressionism, which I’m quite a fan of, as well as of its descendant film noir. Cousins points out that while Impressionism aims to capture fleeting sensory experience, Expressionism seeks to uncover the deeper aspects of the human mind. I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but that makes sense. The most iconic example of German Expressionism is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which uses high-contrast lighting and impossible angular set design to show a highly unbalanced mind. Cousins also highlights a Japanese film from the same time period called A Page of Madness which independently plays with some of the same tropes as both Impressionism and Expressionism. I wish TCM had played THIS film, because it sounds awesome. He finishes up with Lang and Murnau, both of whom were influential in bringing Expressionism to Hollywood. Murnau’s film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen – both Expressionist and Romantic (of course, Romanticism itself is heavily associated with German writers like Goethe). Speaking about Murnau’s untimely death in the early 1930s, Cousins includes an image of his death mask, presented with no comment other than “this is his death mask.” I don’t really even know what a death mask is, but it’s a bizarre and yet strangely compelling inclusion in the documentary.
The fifth challenge is avant garde and experimental cinema in general, including Dadaism, which privileged absurdity and joking for its own sake, and surrealism with its great achievements by Buñuel. Un chien andalou is still a profound experience – nonsensical and shocking after seventy years, and certainly confrontational at the time, when logical, easy to follow and relate to stories were the norm for films.
The sixth challenge came from Soviet filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and Alexander Dovzhenko, who used new forms of editing and ideologically-charged images. The Odessa Steps sequence of The Battleship Potemkin is well-known by any film student, and for good reason. It’s captivating and thrilling every time, even as you’re listening to someone like Cousins explain why each shot has the effect that it does. That said, I rewatched Potemkin a couple of years ago in a rep cinema, and aside from the Odessa Steps sequence and a couple of other parts, it is kind of a slog. Sorry, but it is. I’ve seen one Dovzhenko film, too, called Arsenal. It was about the disillusion of men returning from WWI, but I remember finding it difficult to follow the actual story, as Dovzhenko took time out to focus on images of workers toiling on farms, etc. In an interview, current Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sukorov mentions a scene in Dovzhenko with a man dancing on a country road, then collapsing for no apparent reason. He calls it beautiful. I’m not disagreeing, but it is definitely a noticeable trend among these rebels to romantic cinema that things happen for no apparent reason. Many of the challenges take the form of narrative obfuscation, or at the very least, an interest in other things besides narrative, while narrative remained the primary thing in Hollywood romantic cinema.
The last two challenges bring Asia into The Story of Film. The late silent era (the early ’30s in Japan) brought Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi to the forefront of cinema. Ozu made deliberately paced films about ordinary people doing ordinary things, but he did it with a grace and naturalism that makes Cousins laud him as possibly the greatest director who ever lived. He points out things that Ozu did that no one else was doing – giving his films room breathe by including scenes that do nothing but provide a pause and deepen the setting, filming people speaking nearly to the camera rather than from a side angle like everyone else, shooting from hip level instead of chest/eye level. Cousins also highlights Mizoguchi, known in the ’30s for his films about the plight of prostitutes and down-on-their-luck women, but he also used deep focus composition several years before Citizen Kane, which is popularly credited with the technique. Now, whether Welles had seen Mizoguchi before making Kane isn’t something Cousins goes into, if indeed there’s any way to know. He seems less interested in the actual flow of influence than in merely noting similarities and pointing out where the official stories have it wrong. For my part, I am very weak on Japanese cinema in general, but I will credit Mizoguchi for making the first classic Japanese film that I truly loved – 1954’s Sansho the Bailiff.
The final challenge Cousins identifies is China, and specifically the naturalistic acting of Ruan Lingyu. The actress has long been all but forgotten, though Cousins finds people in China who remember her with fondness. This is one of the most interesting and little-known stories so far in The Story of Film, and it’s very welcome after a few episodes that are largely about well-known pioneers and filmmakers. Apparently Ruan Lingyu was so extremely popular that when she died (a suicide after being reamed by tabloids for some scandal), her funeral procession was three miles long and the New York Times called it the most spectacular funeral of all time. You’d think someone like that would be remembered by the annals of film history, but somehow her legacy has been all but lost. I’m glad TCM is managing to play one of her films, and I’m curious to check it out.
I really enjoyed Cousins’ use of modern location footage in this one, showing the homes where people live, even from a modern perspective, and contrasting modern streets in Shanghai with a studio set where movies like those with Ruan Lingyu were shot. I do think that Chapters 2 and 3 work better watched together – as I said last week, inclusions like Dreyer didn’t make sense in the context of a chapter all about the studio system since he was nowhere near it, but in the context of eight worldwide challenges to the style and content of Hollywood cinema, it makes perfect sense. Another possibility would’ve been to have made Chapter 2 only about Hollywood and romantic cinema and put all eight challenges into Chapter 3, but I suppose it wouldn’t have balanced properly that way, given his interest in challenges to the status quo.
The end of this episode is great cinema in and of itself, though. We’ve been talking all this time of the great visual accomplishments in cinema, because movies hadn’t learned to speak yet. And as Cousins points this out, he allows diegetic sound to take over his modern footage, bringing us to the instant realization that prior to this, he’s covered even his modern footage with music. This is a carefully crafted film on its own level, not content to tell about cinema without becoming cinema itself. It’s a great moment, and makes us both excited to see what sound will bring to cinema and fearful of the visual magnificence that may be, and in fact was for a while, lost.
We had very little time this week to watch or rewatch the films TCM played, but many of them are quite familiar to film students or fans of film history. TCM aired Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, a film I’ve been lucky enough to see twice at repertory cinemas and was blown away both times. They showed The Battleship Potemkin, which as I said above has the incredible Odessa Steps sequence and not a whole lot else that remains of interest. They played German Expressionist classics The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis, both of which are simply amazing (especially Metropolis in the newly restored Complete edition).
And they showed La roue and Un chien andalou, both of which we recorded but when it comes down to 4.5 hours vs. half an hour, I think you can guess which we’re more likely to get to. On the other hand, La roue was the only film of this week’s crop that doesn’t seem to be available on ANY streaming service. Even the lesser-known Chinese film The Goddess turned up on YouTube. I’ve seen Un chien andalou a few times, but I never feel like I’ve “got” it – frankly, I’ve decided that’s okay, that there’s nothing really to get aside from a sense of unease and absurdity.
They also played one each from the Asian filmmakers Cousins includes – directors Ozu and Mizoguchi have I Was Born But… and Osaka Elegy respectively, and actress Ruan Lingyu (so far the only actor who is treated as more important than her director(s), who Cousins never even mentions) has The Goddess. I have seen none of these, and am definitely hoping to get to them.
What’s Coming Up Next
For Chapter 4 we remain in fairly well-known territory for film fans, but there’s nothing wrong with that – here we have masterpieces in both American genre film and European art film. In The 1930s: The Great American Movie Genres and the Brilliance of European Film, Cousins looks at the genres that Hollywood popularized, including gangster films, horror, screwball comedy, and the musical, and also at some of the great masters of European cinema at the time. Are these rebels against the system? Perhaps, but more likely they’re innovators within it, especially in the case of Hollywood. Genre filmmaking at the time was not an A-level endeavor, so with smaller budgets and less riding on each film, filmmakers had more room to experiment, to be edgy, and to be risky.
The episode looks to be easily split into two halves, and that’s exactly what TCM has done with their accompanying programming. Monday night will be all about Hollywood, while Tuesday night hops over to France. I honestly can’t remember if Cousins covers more than just France in this chapter, but that’s what TCM is programming – it is true that France was rather dominant in 1930s European filmmaking.
Monday night brings two flavors of musical with Lubitsch’s sophisticated Love Me Tonight and Busby Berkeley’s scrappy Gold Diggers of 1933 (one of my favorites, don’t miss this one), and definitive gangster, horror, and screwball comedy films with The Public Enemy, Frankenstein, and Twentieth Century. There may be better examples of those genres, but not many, and these hold the distinction of being among the first to really define their respective genres. Great choices on TCM’s part here, when there are so many films they could’ve chosen. They’re also throwing in The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a German film that beats out Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for the title of first animated feature film by more than ten years, with a gorgeous shadow cut-out animation that is still one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.
Tuesday night has a pair of Jean Vigo films, Zero de conduite and L’Atalante, both of which are actually on my all-but-abandoned blindspots list for this year, so if I could knock them out as part of this series, that would be great. They follow Vigo up with two Renoir classics, Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, which combine social commentary with sparkling drama like few filmmakers have ever managed. I’m a particular fan of Grand Illusion, but I’ve needed a rewatch on Rules of the Game for quite a while, as my last viewing was in high school. Finally, they have Marcel Carné’s Le quai des brumes, which I haven’t seen, but sounds really atmosphere and proto-noirish. Lots more for my DVR, and I’m nowhere near catching up from previous weeks!
Where Else to See These Films
La roue: Not available
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Netflix Instant, Amazon Prime, YouTube
Metropolis: Netflix Instant, Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube (not sure which version this is; the others are all the Complete Metropolis)
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans: YouTube
Un chien andalou: YouTube
The Battleship Potemkin: Netflix Instant, Amazon Prime, YouTube
I Was Born, But…: Hulu, YouTube
Osaka Elegy: Hulu, YouTube
The Goddess: YouTube
Links are getting more scarce this week, with fewer public domain films in the mix. Most if not all of these are available on DVD via Netflix if you have a Netflix DVD plan or via Amazon to buy on disc, and I’ll include the links to rent/purchase them in stream on Amazon and iTunes if available. I’ll continue including YouTube links when I find them, but most of these from this point on are definitely not legitimate.
Love Me Tonight: YouTube (9 parts)
The Public Enemy: Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), iTunes ($9.99 purchase)
Frankenstein: Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), YouTube ($2.99 rental), iTunes ($3.99 rental)
Gold Diggers of 1933: Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), YouTube ($1.99 rental), iTunes ($3.99 rental)
Twentieth Century: iTunes ($2.99 rental), Amazon Prime ($9.99 purchase)
The Adventures of Prince Achmed: YouTube (this version is 65 min; IMDb says it should be 81)
Zero de conduite: HuluPlus, YouTube
Grand Illusion: Amazon Prime ($1.99 rental), iTunes ($2.99 rental)
The Rules of the Game: HuluPlus, Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), iTunes ($3.99 rental), YouTube
Port of Shadows: not available