Archive for the ‘Surrealism’ Category

Dr. Mabuse

November 11, 2012

Fritz Lang made three films about the super villain, Dr. Mabuse. This character was clearly inspired by Conan Doyle’s Dr. Moriarty, as well as by Allain and Souvestre’s Fantômas. Like these two, Mabuse heads a criminal gang that carries out daring and elaborately planned crimes. (And, like Moriarty, Mabuse is a scientist.) Like Dr. Caligari, he is an expert hypnotist. Mabuse, however, has the added twist that he has the ability to perform telepathic hypnosis, making people do things against their will, sometimes simply by looking at them, even when they have their back turned on him. The character of Mabuse was created by the novelist, Nobert Jaques, but he is best remembered for the Fritz Lang films in which he appears.

The four-hour Dr. Mabuse the Gambler was released in 1922 in two parts. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) uses his hypnotic abilities to swindle wealthy men at card games. With the riches he makes, Mabuse plans to make himself the most powerful man in the world. His activities arouse the suspicions of the courageous, but not overly bright, State Prosecutor Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke). The wheels of justice grind slowly, but they eventually catch up with Mabuse. At the end of the film he goes mad, and the police take him away to an asylum.

In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), the good doctor has been treated at the asylum by Prof. Baum (Oscar Beregi, Sr.). Through a special form of hypnosis, Mabuse begins to control Baum’s mind. Baum then forms his own criminal gang. He identifies himself to his henchmen, who are not allowed to see him, as “Dr. Mabuse”. After Mabuse dies, he seems to completely takeover Baum. Whereas, in the first film, Mabuse’s aims were pecuniary, Baum/Mabuse shows no interest in making money. His crimes are committed merely for their own sake. This time he is opposed by Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), who is a little sharper than State Prosecutor Wenk. Lohmann foils Baum/Mabuse’s plan to release a cloud of poison gas over Berlin. At the end of the film, Baum/Mabuse voluntarily commits himself to his own asylum.

The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960) was the last film that Lang made, before he retired due to failing eyesight. At the beginning, we are told that Mabuse died in 1932, yet a criminal named Mabuse is now operating in Berlin with a new gang. It seems that the spirit of Mabuse lives on and has occupied another body. (I won’t say the name of the actor who plays him, since part of the suspense of the film is that it is unclear which character is actually Mabuse, although the cover of the DVD that I have effectively gives it away.) Mabuse controls the Luxor Hotel in Berlin. There are cameras installed in every room, which he uses to acquire information he can use for crimes. He has set an elaborate trap for Henry Travers (Peter van Eyck), an American industrialist. His aim is to take over Travers’s company so he can build a stockpile of nuclear weapons with which to take over the world. (Yes, that’s right, the hero of this film, Travers, is a nuclear arms manufacturer. That was the Cold War for you.)

It has often been argued that Dr.Mabuse the Gambler anticipates Hitler. At times, Mabuse does express a megalomania that is strikingly similar to Hitler’s. It seems to me that a more plausible explanation is that Mabuse represents a type of cynicism that was common in Europe (and particularly in Germany) following the horrors of the First World War. Hitler’s Weltanschauung happened to be an extreme form of this cynicism.

Mabuse can also be viewed as a Nietzschean, particularly in his attitude towards women. At one point he cruelly tells his lover that there is no such thing as love, only desire. Lang’s biographer, Patrick McGilligan, claims that this was Lang’s own view, even though the screenplay was actually written by Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou. This raises serious questions in my mind about the reliability of McGilligan’s biography.

In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Baum/Mabuse speaks of creating an “empire of crime”. This reportedly prompted Goebbels to ban the film, because he feared that people would see it as a criticism of the Nazis. (It didn’t have its German premiere until 1961.) This makes me wonder: did Hitler, Goebbels, and other Nazis see themselves as creating an “empire of crime”? If so, what does this tell us about the historical conditions that created the Nazis?

In hindsight, there is something eerie about the fact that Mabuse tries to use poison gas as a weapon of mass murder. This is no doubt a coincidence, but one can’t help noting it.

In The 1000 Eyes of Mabuse, made after the Second World War, Lang makes an explicit connection between Mabuse and the Nazis. We are told that the Luxor Hotel was used by the Gestapo, and Mabuse employs secret rooms and cameras that they used. No doubt this idea came to Lang in response to the enormity of what had happened. It makes this film an unsettling diminuendo to what is perhaps the greatest film trilogy ever made.

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The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb

October 24, 2012


These can perhaps be regarded as typical of German movie poster art of the 1950’s.


It was left to the Italians to show them how to do it right.

By the late 1950’s, Fritz Lang’s Hollywood movie career had come to end. There were no more studio executives left for him to piss off. It was at this time that the German film producer, Artur Brauner, approached Lang and suggested he do a remake of his silent film The Indian Tomb, (which had been completed without Lang’s supervision). Lang agreed, and the resulting work was released as two films: The Tiger of Eschnapu and The Indian Tomb. They were two of the last three films that Lang made before he retired due to failing eyesight.

Lang regarded film as a visual art form rather than as a form of literature, so he had no reservations about using “genre” subject matter: science fiction, detective stories or, in the case of these two films, Orientalist fantasy. In this respect, he is similar to such contemporary directors as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron. Unlike them, however, Lang’s films are never coy or campy. He always treats his subject matter seriously and with respect. For that reason, I consider Lang’s work to be artistically superior to that of these other directors.

From the moment one begins watching The Tiger of Eschnapur, one can see right away that this is an example of what the late Edward Said called “Orientalism”. More than once some character mentions that Europeans can never really understand India. (It doesn’t help that most of the Indian roles are played by Europeans in brown face.) This “Mysterious Orient” nonsense was, of course, used to justify Western imperialism. (The “clash of civilizations” is a more sophisticated, contemporary version of this argument.) This film is based on a 1918 novel written by Lang’s former wife, Thea von Harbou, who wrote the silly story for Metropolis and who later joined the Nazi party (although, interestingly, she secretly married an Indian man). One can, however, enjoy these films on their own terms without worrying about the politics of it. It is simply a remnant from a defunct way of looking at the world.

Harold Barger (Paul Hubschmid) is a German architect who has been hired by Chandra (Walter Reyer), the maharajah of Eschnapur, to design public buildings for his kingdom. On his way to Chandra’s palace, Harold meets Seetha (Debra Paget), a temple dancer with whom the maharajah has fallen in love. The carry out a secret affair, which Chandra eventually discovers. Chandra throws Harold into a pit with a man-eating tiger, but Harold manages to kill it. (The tiger is obviously fake. Don’t worry, no animals were harmed in the making of this film.) Chandra then tells Harold that he has until sunrise to leave Eschnapur. Harold, however, has an assignation with Seetha in a temple, and the two of them flee into the desert. There, they are overcome by the heat and dust. Harold deliriously shoots at the sun just before he collapses. A message then flashes across the screen promising that we can see the miraculous rescue of the lovers in the sequel, which will be “more grandiose” than the first film.

The Indian Tomb is, indeed, more grandiose. Seetha and Harold are rescued by a caravan. Shortly afterwards, however, they are captured by Chandra’s soldiers. True love eventually wins out, though not without a lot of people getting killed in the process.

These are not among Lang’s best films, but they are nonetheless entertaining movies to watch. Lang directed them in a beautiful manner, although he clearly had to deal with a limited budget. Some of the sets and costumes are not quite convincing. And some of the special effects are embarrassing, such as the fakest looking cobra you will ever see. On the other hand, Debra Paget gives not one, but two, erotic dances. Paget, an American, was, like Lang, a refugee from Hollywood. She had refused to abide by the rules of the studio system, so she was blacklisted. She had to go to Europe to find work. I’m told that in her later years Paget became a born-again Christian, and she had her own religiously themed TV show. I wonder if she ever discussed temple dancing on her show.

Rampo (The Mystery of Rampo)

October 20, 2012

The Japanese novelist, Edogawa Rampo, is one of my favorite writers, so I was naturally curious when I heard about a 1994 Japanese film that features him as the hero of a fictional story.

The film is set in Japan in the 1920’s. When the film begins, Rampo (Naoto Takenaka) has had one of his novels banned by the government as being too disturbing for the public. In this work, a woman kills her husband by locking him in a trunk and suffocating him. Shortly afterwards, Rampo learns of a recent murder case that resembles the one in his novel. A shop owner has been found dead in a trunk. The police suspect that his wife, Shizuka (Michiko Hada), was the one who locked him in, but they are forced to release her due to lack of evidence. Out of curiosity, Rampo goes to visit her shop. She seems to take an immediate liking to him. She gives Rampo a music box, while refusing to take any payment for it. Rampo becomes obsessed with her, tentatively beginning a romantic relationship with her. When Rampo becomes convinced that Shizuka really did murder her husband, this only deepens his attraction to her.

Inspired by this, Rampo begins writing a new novel. Kogoro Akechi (Masahiro Motoki), Rampo’s detective hero and alter ego, is told to investigate Shizuko (Michiko Hada again), a wealthy widow who is rumored to have murdered her husband. She is now the mistress of the fabulously rich Duke Okawara (Mikijiro Hira), a sometime transvestite who likes to watch bondage films. (Yes, Rampo’s novels are like that.) Akechi manages to insinuate himself into Okagawa’s household, where he becomes romantically involved with Shizuko. At this point, as often happens in a Rampo story, the border between fantasy and reality starts to get blurred.

Rampo (also known as The Mystery of Rampo) is an erotic and strangely moving film. It does a very good job of capturing the dark, brooding flavor of Rampo’s writings. More than a little of the film’s power comes from Michiko Hada’s brilliant performance as Shizuko. She manages to convey an icy strength underneath her character’s seeming vulnerability.

Art Robinson

October 10, 2012


Art Robinson contemplating what kind of bullshit people will believe next.

When I was driving through rural Oregon the other day, I was dismayed to see signs promoting the congressional candidacy of the bizarre cult leader respected scientist and politician, Art Robinson. Robinson’s website is worth checking out. It is a compendium of many of the pea-brained sophistries that pass for informed opinion in this country nowadays. For example, here is Robinson’s discussion of the 10th Amendment to the Constitution:

    Nevertheless, our congressional representatives – all of whom swear an oath to uphold the Constitution – flagrantly disregard the 10th Amendment. They do this largely by using public funds to pay for government agencies that constantly violate this Amendment and by the issuance of “mandates” that dictate “required” state and local actions.

    Robinson lost the 2010 election to Pete DeFazio. Several months later, Robinson began telling people that Oregon State University was planning on expelling his three children, who were graduate students there, as retaliation for his running against DeFazio.

    What excuse do congressmen give for violating the 10th Amendment? Mostly, they just ignore it, without giving any excuse at all. If pressed, some point to the Constitution.

    “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
    ~ Preamble

    The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States . . .
    ~Article 1, Section 8

    Citing the phrase “promote (or provide for) the general Welfare,” they claim that this permits Congress to do anything it decides will be good for general welfare – anything at all! This is bogus.

This is what the 10th Amendment says:

    The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

So, if the Constitution says that Congress has the power to “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States” that means that power has been delegated to it by the Constitution.

Robinsosn has a PhD in chemistry. One can only wonder how a man with such apparently poor reading comprehension skills was able to earn an advanced degree (or even a high school diploma, for that matter). One can only assume that he did it through sheer force of will.

On the issue of energy, Robinson writes:

    Nuclear and hydroelectric electricity are inexpensive, clean, and safe. Spent nuclear fuel – so-called “nuclear waste” – is easily disposed of by nuclear fuel re-cycling, a method used in other countries but prohibited by misguided government policies in the U.S. Coal, oil, and natural gas are indispensable for many purposes. Solar and wind are expensive and resource-intensive, but useful in remote locations.

Wow, that PhD didn’t do Art much good, did it? Other countries have the same problems disposing of spent nuclear fuels that we do. Art writes:

    Energy development need not cost the American taxpayer a single cent.

Especially since nuclear energy is not economically viable without government subsidies. I’m starting to get the sinking feeling that PhD’s are over-rated.

Robinson is opposed to women’s reproductive rights. He calls for the immediate deportation of all “illegal” immigrants. And he blames government regulations for the poor state of the economy, although it was actually under-regulation of the banking industry that led to the financial meltdown of 2008.

Robinson lost to Pete DeFazio in the 2010 election. Several months later, Robinson began telling people that Oregon State University was planning to expel his three children, who were graduate students there. He initially claimed that this was being done as retaliation for his opposing DeFazio. However, when a reporter asked Robinson for more details, he became mysteriously vague:

    I don’t have definitive proof,” Robinson said. “That is what I believe. Basically, I know what happened. I cannot tell you the motives of the people doing it.

Nevertheless, this shocking news compelled a group of gullible idiots
red-blooded Americans to take action. They held a demonstration at the OSU campus demanding justice for the Robinson children. This was met by a counter-demonstration of students, who did not care to have their school’s reputation impugned by a group of illiterate yahoos
concerned citizens.

This is the type of man who wants to represent us in Congress. Art Robinson: a choice, not an echo.

Good Vibrations

September 27, 2012


Good, clean, wholesome fun. Plus backstabbing.

Just when you thought that the long, tortured saga of the Beach Boys couldn’t possibly get any more surreal, they are back in the news. That’s right, everyone’s favorite dysfunctional California family is at it again. Just recently, Mike Love, who owns the rights to the band’s name, fired fellow band members, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, and David Marks. The reasons are pecuniary. You see, the Beach Boys have planned an upcoming reunion tour. Love explains:

    You’ve got to be careful not to get overexposed. There are promoters who are interested [in more shows by the reunited line-up], but they’ve said, ‘Give it a rest for a year’. The Eagles found out the hard way when they went out for a second year and wound up selling tickets for $5.”

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t even pay five dollars to see the Eagles. Lyin’ Eyes was the most overplayed song of the 1970’s. Seriously, if I ever hear that song again, it’s possible that I might get violent. Anyway, you would think that Love would imagine the Beach Boys to be more popular than the Eagles. I guess he must be a self-effacing guy. He is still planning on having the reunion tour, although he will be the only original member of the band. That’s right, Love will be having a reunion with himself. Several years ago, I saw a reunion of Jefferson Airplane. It had two original members of the band, so I guess it qualified as a reunion of sorts. What Love is doing, however, strikes me as being the musical equivalent of one hand clapping.

Not surprisingly, there has been some sour grapes about all this. Brian Wilson said:

    I’m disappointed and can’t understand why he doesn’t want to tour with Al, David, and me… We are out here having so much fun. After all, we are the real Beach Boys.

So, all Brian Wilson wants to do is have fun, whereas his cousin, Mike Love, wants to make money. Clearly, Love is the more serious person. I suspect that Wilson belongs to that 47% of the population that Mitt Romney says is sponging off the other fifty-three percent. (It’s perhaps worth noting here that Love is a Republican.) You can’t stop progress, Brian Wilson. If you don’t like it, start your own band.

Oh, wait…

(The author is currently working on a biography of the Beach Boys titled, Those Wacky Wilsons. Look for it at a finer bookstore near you.)

Alphaville

August 14, 2012

Jean Luc Godard’s 1965 film, Alphaville, is a mixture of film noir, science fiction, and surrealist fantasy. At some time in the future, Lemmie Caution (Eddie Constantine) is sent as a secret agent to a city called Alphaville. Although Alphaville is located on another planet, Caution is able to drive there in his Ford Mustang (identified as a “Galaxie” in the film). Caution’s mission is to find a man named Leonard Nosferatu (Howard Vernon) and bring him back to Caution’s home planet. This task turns out to be harder than Caution anticipated, for it turns out that Nosferatu, who has changed his name to Prof. Von Braun, has taken over Alphaville, which he runs using a super computer called Alph 60. Von Braun has outlawed emotions such as love, as well as art and poetry. The government is continually eliminating words from the language, so it has to continually issue new dictionaries without the proscribed words. Von Braun believes that he is making the people of Alphaville into a “superior race”, who will be able to conquer the universe. Caution meets, and falls in love with, Von Braun’s daughter, Natacha (Anna Karina). She ends up risking her life to help him.

Alphaville is Godard’s protest against what he sees as the coldness and cultural vacuity of modern life. It is also an attack on totalitarianism. (These three things are apparently interrelated in Godards’s view.) The talk of a “superior race” is clearly meant to remind us of Hitler. The outlawing of words is meant to remind us of Stalin. (It’s also similar to Orwell’s notion of “newspeak”.) Von Braun is obviously named after Wernher Von Braun, the engineer who designed rockets first for the Nazis and then for the United States. He was seen by many people as the epitome of the amoral technocrat. For Godard, such a person acts an enabler for the political and social forces that are destroying our world.

My one criticism of this film is a lack of continuity in the character of Caution. In some scenes, he behaves like a cold-blooded killer, as well as a bit of a misogynist. Yet in other scenes, he talks about the power of love and of poetry. This inconsistency may due to the fact that the film was largely improvised.

Alphaville is prescient in some ways. Randianism, which calls for a world of self-interest without human connections, is becoming the unofficial philosophy of the U.S. ruling class. Welcome to Alphaville.

The Oregonian

October 26, 2011

Oregon has a reputation for being home to some, well, odd people. (Here is one decidedly odd person. Here is another one. Oh, and there’s this guy). I suppose it was inevitable that somebody would make a film that’s basically about meeting strange people in Oregon.

Calvin Lee Reeder’s new film, The Oregonian is billed as an “experimental horror” film. Aside from some faint echoes of Carnival of Souls, however, there is not much horror in it. It is actually a surreal fantasy. A young woman who is identified only as “the Oregonian” (Lindsay Pulsipher) is living on a farm and involved in an abusive relationship. One day she gets into a car accident on a lonely country road. Although she is injured, she can still walk, so she goes looking for help. She never finds it. Instead, she wanders through a deserted town and meets some strange characters. These include a creepy old woman, a man who urinates in different colors and who obsesses over making omelettes, a man wearing a furry green frog costume, a group of hippies who drink gasoline, and various women who scream for no apparent reason.

Some parts of this film work better than others. The scenes of the Oregonian arguing with her husband are unconvincing and only detract from the trippy feel of the rest of the film. At times the film seems to be making fun of hippies, although I’m not sure that was the intention. (I know I’m not supposed to say these things, but this might be a good movie to watch when you’re stoned.)

The Oregonian has gotten a hostile response from some people. I’m told that at its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, a quarter of the audience got up and walked out. The main complaint made against the film is that it doesn’t “mean” anything. Well, I would argue that it isn’t necessary for a film to “mean” something. Andre Breton once defined surrealism as: “Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.” That certainly describes this film. I found this movie interesting enough to want to watch it all the way to the end, which is more than I can say of some critically acclaimed films (for example: Chariots of Fire, Forrest Gump, Never Let Me Go).

People who don’t like this movie need to, as we say in Oregon, chill out.