The Wind from Nowhere (1961), Ballard’s debut novel, was hastily optioned prior to publication by Michael Carreras, who had recently parted company with his father’s Hammer Films in order to establish himself as a director and independent producer. Carreras initially intended it as a vehicle for Rod Taylor, but he ultimately turned down the role to star in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).
A chance meeting with Stanley Baker led to interest from Joseph Levine and Cy Endfield, who bought the option when Carreras let it lapse. They were, however, so deeply involved in the production of Zulu (1964) that they somehow forgot about it. Indeed, Baker was unaware their option had lapsed until it was announced that Gregory Peck would produce and star in a version directed by J. Lee Thompson. But it was scuppered by the prohibitive cost of the special effects sequences demanded by the Carl Foreman and James R. Webb’s script.
Producer Michael Klinger returned the project to the UK – one of two sf films he was to make in the late 1960s – and entrusted it to Val Guest, who would later also write and direct Hammer’s When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970) from a treatment by Ballard. He also directed the Klinger-produced Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974), which would in turn lead to the unexpected sight gag at the end of Nicolas Roeg’s High Rise (1978).
Although Guest did not get on with Edward Judd, he nonetheless cast the star of his earlier weather-based sf movie, The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), as Maitland. Jane Merrow, who plays Susan Maitland, also appeared in the other British sf film in which you can tell the apocalypse is here because the weather has improved, Night of the Big Heat (Terence Fisher 1967).
Intriguingly, Judd, who was a couple of years younger than Ballard was also born in Shanghai, but there is no evidence they met each other there – or, indeed, Burt Kwouk, who was also resident there, and plays an unnamed soldier in the private army of millionaire Hardoon (Eric Portman).
I was asked to introduce a screening of Visages d’enfants (1925). Here, more or less, is what I said.
I first encountered Jacques Feyder in 1992 when doing my Masters. He was lurking in the final footnote of François Truffaut’s Cahiers du Cinéma essay ‘A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema’ (1954), which savages the staid-and-not-very-cinematic ‘tradition of quality’ represented by such directors as Claude Autant-Lara. (more of him later). The footnote reads:
In fact, ‘psychological realism’ was created parallel to ‘poetic realism’, which had the tandem Spaak–Feyder. It really will be necessary, one day, to start an ultimate quarrel with Feyder, before he has dropped definitively into oblivion.
I remember not being very clear what it means, or who Feyder was or why he was destined to obscurity even if Truffaut didn’t stick the boot in.
The second time I encountered Feyder was when I was rewatching French poetic realist films in order to write that part of Film Noir: From Berlin to Sin City. Feyder’s name kept cropping up as the director of two less well known but significant early films in the cycle. But I could find no substantial critical engagement with his work (in English, since I am pathetically monolingual), and of course neither Le Grand Jeu (1934) nor Pension Mimosas (1935) were available on video or DVD.
The third time was when I was writing Science Fiction: The Routledge Film Guidebook, and I discovered the DVD boxset that included L’Atlantide (1919). But still no Anglophone critical work. Indeed, unless my google fu and library database kata have utterly deserted me, the couple of pages I wrote about L’Atlantide constitute one of the most sustained Anglophone treatments of any of his films, and especially of his silent films.
(Surely I am wrong about this? There must be more. Also, this is why there are no screening notes for the tonight’s film – we couldn’t find anything to use.)
So I have pulled together an overview of his career, silent and sound, from a couple of online bios, fleeting mentions in about twenty different books, and the half dozen or so of his films I have seen. And I will end with some comments about tonight’s film, Visage d’enfants (1925).
Jacques Feyder was the pseudonym of Jacques Frédérix, adopted when his father discovered he wanted to be an actor and forbade him to use the family name. He was born in Ixelles, Belgium in 1885 to a grande bourgeois family, well-known patrons of the arts with a strong military heritage. He was destined for a career in the army but he failed the entrance exam to officers’ school – and went to work in a canon foundry instead (which is a military career of sorts, I guess). He began appearing on stage in 1908 and became a drama critic, before moving to Paris in 1911 to become an actor.
After several small stage roles, he was cast in Georges Méliès’s Cendrillon ou La pantoufle merveilleuse/ Cinderella or The Glass Slipper (1912), which was followed by more film roles, including episode 5 of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1916). He became an assistant director at Gaumont in 1914, working with Gaston Ravel, who had directed him in Autour d’une bague/Around a Ring (1915); they co-directed Monsieur Pinson Policier (1916), in which Feyder also appeared.
However, it was World War One that gave Feyder his big break into directing – because so many French directors were called up. In 1916-1917, Feyder directed 18 shorts; the only commentary I have found on them is limited to the phrase ‘nondescript little comedies’.
In 1917, he married the actress Françoise Rosay, who became a major collaborator on his later films, and was himself then called up by the Belgian army, in which he served until 1919 – as an actor in a military troupe.
After demobbing, he returned to Paris to make his first feature film: L’Atlantide (1919). Feyder paid 10,000 francs for the rights to Pierre Benoît’s recently published novel of the same name, a highly regarded and popular foreign legion knock-off of H. Rider Haggard’s She (1886).
The film, with a pretty much unprecedented budget of 2 million francs, was shot over eight months in Algiers, including 50 days in the Sahara. Apparently, this mad folly gained a lot of coverage – aka free publicity – in the French press, and as the costs spiralled out of control, the original backers pulled out, selling the rights to the three-and-a-quarter hour film to distributor Louis Aubert. The film was a massive hit, the first of postwar French cinema; and it had a successful reissue in 1928. The contemporary film critic Louis Delluc said of it, ‘There is one great actor in this film, and that is the sand’. I have no idea whether he meant this as insult to the human actors, but it is an astute observation about Feyder’s use of vast desert spaces to render humans insignificant, and to present the desert as an object of desire in itself, as well as a metaphor for the Queen of Atlantis.
Feyder followed this with Crainquebille (1922), an adaptation of Anatole France’s 1901 short novel. A costermonger is wrongfully arrested and imprisoned; after his release, he declines into bitterness and alcoholism, and becomes suicidal – until he is redeemed by the intervention of a young street street urchin, played by Jean Forest, who plays the boy Jean in Visages d’enfants (he was, or so the story goes, a Les Halles street urchin discovered by Feyder to play a Les Halles street urchin).
Crainquebille demonstrates one of the things that perhaps led to the high regard in which Feyder was once held, and perhaps also to the precipitous decline of his reputation since the 1950s. He does not have the distinct or idiosyncratic personal style one might associate with an auteur, but instead has tremendous facility with multiple styles of filmmaking, often combining them in a single film. Crainquebille, shot largely in Les Halles, is dominated by the kind of street level realism one might associate with, say, De Sica’s neo-realist Bicycle Thieves (1948) or even Truffaut’s own neo-realist New Wave debut Quatre cent coups (1959). But it also has an extended expressionistic trial sequence, all nightmarish distortions of scale and perspective; and it dallies with the Chaplinesque, both in the character of the protagonist and in his not-quite-sentimental relationship with the urchin who saves him.
His next film is the one we will watch tonight, Visage d’enfants. Co-written and co-directed with his wife, Françoise Rosay, it was filmed on location in southern Switzerland in 1923, but not released until 1925. Despite favourable reviews, it was not a big hit, and was long thought lost. It was reassembled in the 1990s from various archives and reissued in 1993. I will say more about it in a while.
In 1923, Feyder relocated to Vienna to become artistic director of Vita Film in Vienna, and to direct three films for them; but he made only one L’Image/Das Bildnis (1923), before they went broke.
The opportunity represented by this venture perhaps tells us quite a bit about Feyder. Probably the main critical debate about film in 1920s France was whether film could be an art form. Avant-garde directors, such as Germaine Dulac (who I adore) and Maurice L’Herbier (about whom I am rather ambivalent), would say – and I am paraphrasing here or, more accurately, putting words in their mouths – that films were and industrial product not art (except, of course, for their own films, which proved it was technically possible films to be art). Feyder himself argued that one should not think in terms of art vs. popular culture, but instead set out to mark art as popular film (or popular film as art). Now the greater relative autonomy that a director might enjoy if he were also the company’s artistic director might enable such a project. In a similar vein, Feyder, like like Dulac, L’Herbier, Abel Gance and Julien Duvivier, innovated the director-package system of production. Rather than being employed by a studio, the filmmaker would form a company (of which he would be the director) to produce a specific film, which he himself would direct. The company would obtain funds from various sources, including wealthy patrons, bring together the script, cast and crew, and hire a studio if necessary (or if the budget permitted). This system afforded the director greater control – for example, Feyder liked to rehearse his cast, but would only make decisions about how to shoot a scene once they were all on set or location at the start of the day – but also required a commercial sensibility to ensure the company’s success. Thus, combining the roles of company director and film director produced a distinctive combination of art and the popular.
After his Viennese diversion, Feyder made Gribiche (1926), again starring Jean Forest, this time as a working class boy adopted by a philanthropic American heiress, with reputedly amusing consequences. He then returned to literary adaptations, with a location-shot, neo-realist-ish adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen in 1926, and – in Germany in 1928 – an adaptation of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. The latter was considered a masterpiece, and brought Feyder to the attention of MGM, but it is now lost, so we cannot tell.
Before relocating to Los Angeles, Feyder took out French nationality, and made his last silent film in France, Les Nouveaux Messieurs (1929). A political satire in which a theatre electrician and trades unionist who plays a central role in a major strike is subsequently appointed to a ministerial post (cos, y’know, that happens). There, he comes into conflict with a wealthy minister who is the third point of a love triangle involving a not-too-talented ballerina. There were calls for it to be banned for ‘insulting the dignity of parliament and its ministers’ (cos, y’know, parliaments and dignity used to be a thing).
From January to March 1929 Mon Ciné ran a feature asking filmmakers ‘Do you believe that the sound film has a future?’ Jean Renoir was ambivalent, seeing it as a mixed blessing; Marcel L’Herbier said ‘It’s of little interest to me. The faithful reproduction of the words of an actor or the arrival of a locomotive in a station have no real artistic value’; Feyder replied, ‘I believe in the talking picture’. And he went to Hollywood to make them.
Although Hollywood was importing a lot of continental talent – Paramount and MGM had recently gone toe-to-toe over Maurice Chevalier – they did not really consider French directors that important (and should they need a director who understood French, Robert Florey and Jacques Tourneur were already well established there). Indeed, Feyder was one of just two French directors invited to Hollywood in the period – the other being, of course, Claude Autant-Lara, who among other things directed Feyder’s wife, Françoise Rosay, in the Francophone version of Buster Keaton’s Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931). During the transition to sound, it was not uncommon for film’s to be shot in multiple language versions, usually on the same sets at night, with a different director and entirely different or perhaps overlapping cast. That wasn’t why MGM brought Feyder to Hollywood, though.
His first Hollywood movie was The Kiss (1929) – his, Greta Garbo’s and MGM’s last silent film.
But then he did find himself directing alternate-language versions: the French versions of The Unholy Night (1929) and His Glorious Night (1929), both directed by Lionel Barrymore, and of Chester Morris’s The Big House, from which he was removed partway through; and the German language versions of Chester M. Franklin’s Olympia (1930) and Clarence Brown’s Anna Christie (1930), starring Garbo again – in both language versions.
Arguably adding insult to injury, he then found himself directing a pair of Roman Novarro exotic-ish romances, Daybreak (1931) and Son of India (1931).
He returned to France.
His first three French talkies are the films on which his reputation now stands – all feature Françoise Rosay, all were written by Charles Spaak, and have as Feyder’s assistant director Marcel Carné, who would become the major poetic realist director.
The doom-laden foreign legion melodrama Le Grand Jeu (1934) and crime melodrama Pension Mimosas (1935) are the early examples of poetic realism I spent ages trying to track down (the former is now readily available). La Kermesse héroïque (1935), which Feyder shot in French and German versions, is an elaborately staged historical comedy-drama. It includes an open-air set representing a Flemish town in the style of the Dutch masters that is so massive that it is hard to believe it is a set. In 1936, La Kermesse héroïque won the first New York Film Critics award for best foreign film, and Feyder best director at the Venice Film festival. A story of a Flemish town briefly occupied by Spanish troops in 1616, it seems, from one angle, to advocate peaceful collaboration rather than violent resistance, which might explain why the Nazis loved it. However, from another angle, it seems to advocate subtle resistance to and manipulation of occupying forces, which might explain why, after the invasion of France, Goebbels banned it.
Feyder came to the UK to make Knight without Armour (1937) for Korda, a lumbering pudding of a film starring Marlene Dietrich and Robert Donat, unhampered by a single trace of chemistry. Back on the continent, he made the French and German versions of Fahrendes Volk/Les gens du voyage (1938), and the French melodrama La loi du nord (1939).
Feyder and Rosay fled from the Nazi invasion to Switzerland, where Feyder directed one last film, Une femme disparaît (1942), and with Françoise Rosay published a memoir, Le Cinéma, notre metier (1944). In it, Feyder describes himself as an artisan or craftsman, not an artist; but perhaps it was the high degree of relative autonomy he often enjoyed that allowed him to see his work as collaborative – and surely the popular artist, freed from all that guff about solitary genius, is an artisan, and the artisan is not something to be looked down upon.
Feyder died in 1948; Rosay kept working in film until her death twenty-five years later.
His reputation has steadily declined ever since. André Bazin respected his work, but much preferred the kind of realist filmmaking he associated with Renoir, Jean Vigo and Maurice Pagnol (who, he argued, were able to find some kind of spiritual truth in the real just by looking at it long enough and hard enough) to the ‘synthetic décor’ (faked or heightened reality) of Carné, Duvivier, René Clair and Feyder. In 1970, Clair himself observed that ‘Jacques Feyder does not occupy today the place his work and his example should have earned him’. And David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film says,
There was a time when Feyder was claimed as a great realist director, when Kermesse héroïque was thought of as an important French film. … Feyder may be unfairly neglected today just as once he was injudiciously acclaimed.
Visage d’enfants Perhaps the greatest achievements of Visage d’enfants are inventing the youtube cat video and giving an origin story to needing to raise funds to repair the church roof…
It is more commonly praised for its location shooting, which captures stunning alpine landscapes through various seasons, creating a vast natural arena for what is actually a small story its small story of human relationships, of grief and love, of coming to terms and growing up. This is an intriguing contrast to the use of the Sahara in L’Atlantide. There are now-fascinating views of labour – farming, waterwheels, logging tools – and tumble down barn architecture.
The film is also praised for the performance of Jean Forest, former Les Halles street urchin, who plays he film’s young protagonist, Jean. Pierette Houyez, as his little sister Pierette, is also good – adorable, and absolutely fearless when herding livestock twenty times her size. Arlette Peyran, as their step-sister Arlette, is easily the weakest of the three child actors, but her failings of her perfomance also highlight the flaws in the other two – whenever they are required to signify something specific through gesture, they become mannered: you can almost hear Feyder and/or Rosay instructing them off-camera.
The opening of the film fluently contrasts the young Jeans’s attempts to be older than he is, and the younger Pierette as someone playful and full of wonder, and uses her relationship with her cat to model a mother/child relationship. Later, both Arlette and Jean will pray to the exemplary mother, the Virgin Mary. In English, the film is often called Mother – which I think should probably be cried out in your best Anthony Perkins voice. The location realism modulates such melodrama staples as unpayable rent coming due, insurance not paying out, a mother’s death, a distant father, a step-mother and step-sister, a child in peril, another child in peril, avalanches, deadly waterfalls, desperate searches. Indeed, the whole film can be seen as a Freudian case study of bourgeois family formation, but mostly without the foregrounded Freudianism of, say, Hitchcock. Although there are some potentially Hitchcockian fetish moments around a portrait, a broach, a particular dress arranged, far more creepily than the film seems to think, in a mannequin pose (hell, it’s halfway to Vertigo by that point). There is also an important contrast between the image of mother pouring milk and the stepmother milking cattle and bringing milk home. This contrast is picked up on by shots of the waterfall that, thanks to the step-mother’s intervention, goes from perilous to mere bountiful nature.
The film also demonstrates Feyder’s technical mastery of missed styles. There is an expressionism to the design of the graveyard, dominated by a cross that looks like it belongs in a James Whale Frankenstein movie, and to the rapid cutting that leads up to Jean’s collapse. There are inverted shots and superimpositions and an intriguing use of subjective shots: Jean looks at the villagers feet, not exactly Caravaggio exactly, but focused on peasant footwear, and we see his mother’s coffin from his point of view as he follows it at the head of the procession to the graveyard. We see his mother’s portrait come to life, and later to fade – and the portrait is given a reverse shot of him, not as dramatic as Paul Leni’s potrait pov a couple of years later in The Cat and the Canary (1927) but a brilliant key to young Jean’s emotions at that moment. (And, a couple of years before Lang gave pov shots to explosions in Metropolis, Feyder gives them to the avalanche.)
And there are relatively few intertitles. Feyder used over 200 in L’Atlantide, he grew rapidly to hate them; like Murnau, he thought that you should be able to convey a story visually. That said, there are several which strike me as unnecessary and, late in the film, a pair that really annoy me. The latter of the two explains that Jean, realising the enormity of what he has done, begins to regret what he has done. It is utterly superfluous – all of this is conveyed by Forest’s acting, shot construction, and so on. The former of the pair exonerates Jean from the worst of intentions, disrupting a far more compelling ambiguity about his potential for murderous intentions.
And on that bombshell, the film.
Oh, I should warn you, Antonio Coppola’s score completely misreads the film – chirpy in all the wrong places, and determined to make it more sentimental than it is.
Oh, and the hats. Watch out for the hats. Not Tom Hardy insane, but crazy nonetheless.
Notes  More of Autant-Lara later. I can’t vouch for Truffaut’s assessment of his work since the only film of his I can swear that I have seen (because we watched it for that class) is the Bourvil/Jean Gabin comedy, La traversée de Paris/Pig Across Paris (1956), which, as the title suggests, is about transporting a pig across (Nazi-occupied) Paris.
 Though James tells me he has seen one of them, La faute d’orthographe (1918), which has a brilliant premise and execution. A man applies for a job in a bank, but that night worries he has misspelt something in his application – so breaks into the bank to correct it. He then begins to suspect he has made other spelling errors, and while he pores over the papers, someone else breaks into the bank for exactly the same reason! And then … the final reel has been lost.
 It won the Grand Prize of the Académie française.
 Actually, it does have a synchronised soundtrack, mostly music from Tristan and Isolde, and a few sound effects, including a pair of narratively vital gunshots.
 The fate of the latter was the inspiration for the disastrous Laughing Cavalier movie in Singin’ in the Rain (Donen and Kelly 1952).
Le Quai des brumes (1938), Hôtel du Nord (1938), Le jour se lève (1939), Les enfants du paradis (1945).
 It is, however, worth seeing for her ill-advised gowns in the middle of the civil war, and for Miles Malleson’s turn as an inebriated proletarian commissar.
 He had co-director and supervisor credits one two films just after the war.
 And, I discovered by freak earlier this month, she does have an extraordinarily tenuous Bristol connection. She made a couple of films in the UK late in the second world war, The Halfway House (Dearden and Cavalcanti 1944) and Johnny Frenchman (Frend 1945). In the former, there is a wide establishing shot of Bristol Temple Meads station, labelled as such, and an interior shot of the station back when there was footbridge (rather than a tunnel) connecting platforms. Who knows when it was actually shot or for what purpose? And even if it was shot specifically for this film there was certainly no reason for her to be in Bristol. So, yeah, tenuous.
 She always reminds me of Willa Vy McAbee in Stingray Sam (McAbee 2009), but I don’t think the reference will mean anything to tonight’s audience, which is why it’s down here in the notes.
 Though rather less sexualised than the pornographic montage celebrating automated cream separation in Eisenstein’s Old and New aka The General Line (1929).
 Later, the cross on the roof a church buried by an avalanche will protrude from the snow like a gravestone.
 We also see a lot of shoe soles, which is unusual.
This was a nice gentle week, beginning with watching Passport to Pimlico (Henry Cornelius 1949) and then turning to other matters before discussing it.
First up was some general feedback on the student’s first essays. They all get extensive individual written feedback, but it is good to pool together some more general points, since individual feedback can sometimes feel very isolating – as if you alone are the only person making errors. Overall, though, the class has done pretty well, and we pretty much focused on essay structure, quoting and paraphrasing more effectively, and presentational conventions.
Second, I presented a broad strokes overview of what we have done this semester – it is good to remind students of quite how much ground they have covered, and to make more explicit the connections between weeks, especially if you can also not-so-subtly tailor it towards the upcoming exam in January.
Third, we took a look at the exam paper, ensuring that everyone understood what is required of them – and pointing out that it would be a good idea to ensure they had access to a copy of the film they were going to write about before they go home for the Xmas break.
Then, at last, we discussed Passport to Pimlico – which to my bemusement no-one much liked. So we spent some time off-topic digging into that:
partly it was that it is more of a comic film than a comedy, genial rather than guffaw-inducing;
partly it was the historical specificity of the film and thus of much of the humour;
partly it was that the humour depends so heavily on types which are no longer commonplace, and on the casting of specific actors. For example, if you don’t know Margaret Rutherford, her character is probably quite mystifying, but if you do know her she is a delight to watch because she is up there on the screen being Margaret Rutherford; Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne are only quite so funny because of the way they turn up in yet another film as basically those guys from The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock 1938); and so on;
partly it was a lack of someone to identify with – something I would have liked to have more time to talk about because I am never quite sure a) what it means, and b) why people feel it is necessary to find someone like themselves in a film in order to enjoy it (if that is what it means). It is, however, worth noting that this – whatever this is – is probably compounded by the film being sort of centred on Arthur Pemberton (Stanley Holloway) but dispersing its narrative among an ensemble cast.
It must have all seemed even more baffling when I mentioned that one part of the film – when ordinary Londoners turn up to feed the besieged Burgundians – always chokes me up, the way those I-am- Spartacus moments tend to do (although oddly, not in Spartacus (Kubrick 1960)).
Thank goodness I didn’t get on to talking about the apparent influence of the film on late-60s/early-70s black power sf – Warren Miller’s The Siege of Harlem (1965) in particular seems to borrow a chunk of it – or to pointing out that when imdb trivia says ‘Some historians, for some reason, have considered this to be a borderline science-fiction film’ I think it is referring to something I once wrote.
So, alone in a room full of people who did not even remotely plain love the movie, I found myself thinking, ‘Blimey, I’m a furriner’. And no one airlifted me a pig for company…
Building on last week’s discussion of Bicycle Thieves, we considered the film in relation to postwar experience and to the emerging conflicted programmes of rebuilding bombed cities and slum clearance. The film opens with a lovely bit of contrast and misdirection: a dedication to the end of rationing (which would not end for another five years) cuts to a little bit of Latin nightlife, possibly in Havana – only it is not Havana at all, but Pimlico (actually Lambeth), and the music is only ‘Les Norman and his Bethnal Green Bambinos’ on the radio. So we cut from the exotic to the mundane, to a world not of languid plenty but to a period of austerity languishing in a heatwave. (This contrast is returned to throughout the film: when communal eating is instituted, but takes the form of sidewalk cafés, but they don’t like French cuisine; when Shirley Pemberton (Barbara Murray), out courting the impoverished duke (Paul Dupuis), dreams of the orange orchards where he lives, only for him to point our there is really only a cement factory there now; etc.
One of things I like about Passport to Pimlico and Ealing’s Hue and Cry (Charles Crichton 1947) is their willingness to show bomb-damaged London – unlike, say, The Perfect Woman(Knowles 1949), which opts for the rather fantastical London of a West End farce where it seems like there is not a trace of the war (although it too articulates a utopian vision of plenitude in the midst of austerity).
The Pimlico community, a mix of lower middle class shopkeepers and their more working class neighbours, also contrasts well with the working-class communities of Bicycle Thieves. The community is disjointed, primarily along class lines, as the council meeting demonstrates – Arthur presents his lovingly crafted plan to convert the bomb-site into a swimming pool and park so the neighbourhood kids have somewhere safer to play and the adults have somewhere to relax, but the proposal is outvoted by the local bank manager Mr Wix (Raymond Huntley) and others who wish merely to sell the land to the highest bidder. This kind of conflict between a community’s needs/wishes and the (apparently) easy money to be made off property developers forms a pretty constant current in postwar development, including things such as Lambeth councils recent dodgy campaign against the residents of Cressingham Gardens.
The community, however, is brought together by conflict – the film makes very pointed use of WWII imagery, evoking the already-mythologised spirit of the Blitz as much as it does the Berlin airlift. And the film positions us on the side of the community against Whitehall bureaucracy, against jobsworth coppers and customs agents – but also, a little problematically, other Londoners, conceived of as spivs and black-marketeers trespassing on the Burgundians new position of exceptionality and privilege, as too much chaos and disorder, as not-being-from-around-here. Sadly, the film never ceases to be timely in this regard. But on the bright side, a kind of border-defying, working-class internationalism based on sharing breaks out among Londoners (and chokes me up), countering wealth and power, and opening out the Burgundian community once more.
And then it was time for mid-year module evaluation forms, and holiday wishes, and then home for a nice cup of tea (except the central computer controlling the phasing of Bristol’s traffic lights had gone haywire and that nice cup of tea was a couple of hours away).
This week we continued with Conrad’s novel, and also took a look at Hitchcock’s adaptation of it as Sabotage (Hitchcock UK 1936). Our first step was to pick up on a reading exercise left over from last week: in what ways and to what extent do the Professor’s views of society/life (54-6) differ from or coincide with those of Inspector Heat (73-74) and the Assistant Commissioner (82)? [All page references to the current Penguin edition.]
The Professor imagines a world governed by social convention, from which he has separated himself because he is superior to the mass of humankind. To him, society is ‘a complex organised fact’ which orders their lives – even the lives of policemen and anarchists/terrorists, who are similarly bound by it. He describes how Chief Inspector Heat has always to worry about countless things – his bosses, reputation, legal process, being paid, publicity – whereas he himself is capable of focusing on just one thing: building the perfect detonator. He is misanthropic, and has cut himself off from others and, as far as he can, from the needs of his own body.
Heat recognises this social order – he understands thieves. They, like other workers, labour, choosing to risk imprisonment rather than to risk the ‘ankylosis, or lead-poisoning, or fire-damp, or gritty dust’ that come with working ‘in potteries, in coal mines, in fields, in too-grinding shops’ (73). There is a certain honesty to their dishonesty. They are subject to the same morality as him, to the same conventions and demands: ‘Products of the same machine, one classed as useful and the other as noxious, they take the machine for granted in different ways but with a seriousness essentially the same’ (74).
The Assistant Commissioner, who misses the active life of being a copper in the tropics, is discontented with his job (he does not like sitting behind a desk, or having to rely on the underlings he manages) and with his life (his wife, who is from a higher class, insisted on living in Britain). Each night, on the way home, he plays whist at his club with the same three acquaintances, none of whom really know each other – they are ‘co-sufferers’, plagued by the indistinct ‘secret ills of existence’ (82). The club, the game, is a safe haven, a semblance of friendship.
All three accept the existence of a less than satisfactory social order: the Professor would destroy it; Heat is content with it, as long as everyone stays in their assigned place and plays their ascribed role; the Assistant Commissioner does his duty in preserving it, regardless of personal feelings. This is the universe that that iron knitting machine knits without pause or consideration.
Stephen Bernstein’s ‘Politics, Modernity and Domesticity: The Gothicism of Conrad’s The Secret Agent‘ describes the novel in terms of its ‘gothic paranoia and ‘the omnipresence of gothic gloom’’: ‘Everything is ghostly, haunted’ (286) and ‘haunting … is a condition of existence’ rather than merely an isolated location or single individual (287). With this in mind, we looked for gothic imagery of: death, burial, gloom, misery, impoverishment, ill-health, sleepwalking, funerals, existential despair (and clocks).
Verloc’s house is ‘in a shady street behind a shop where the sun never shone’ (205), where the ‘dull brown shelves’ of ‘shady wares’ seem to ‘devour the sheen of the light’ (169). It is in a street where the distant cries of newspaperboys ‘expired between the dirty brick walls without reaching the threshold of the shop’ (162) – indeed, in the ‘darkness and solitude of Brett Street … all sounds of life seemed lost as if in a triangular well of asphalt and bricks, of blind houses and unfeeling stones’ (219). Winnie, when courting another, had imagined marriage as ‘a voyage down the sparkling stream of life’ (191); but when circumstances prompted her to marry Verloc in stead, she found ‘there was no sparkle of any kind of the lazy stream of his life’ , and ‘domestic feeling’ turns out to be ‘stagnant and deep like a placid pool’ (193). Verloc, after Stevie’s death, longs for prison, which ‘was a place as safe from certain unlawful vengeances as the grave’ (186), while Ossipon, on the run with Winnie, curses ‘insular Britain’, which might as well be a prison.
Or we could take Winnie as a key example of the range of deathly imagery applied to characters. When Verloc fails to comprehend the extent of her grief over Stevie, her heart ‘hardened and chilled into a lump of ice’ and ‘her features [set] into a frozen contemplative immobility addressed to a whitewashed wall with no writing on it’ (191). The next page recalls her traumatic childhood, in which she had to protect her younger brother from being beaten by their drunken father, a broken brute of a man. Haunted by these memories, she ‘heard [his] words again in a ghostly fashion’ (192). When she replies to Verloc, ‘it was as if a corpse had spoken’ (196). When she has put on a hat and veil to go out, he complains that it is impossible to ‘tell whether one is talking to a dummy or to a live woman’ (203). She even becomes an inanimate object in a suddenly abstract scientific space:
The veiled sound filled the small room with its moderate volume, well adapted to the modest nature of the wish. The waves of air of the proper length, propagated in accordance with correct mathematical formulas, flowed around all the inanimate things in the room, lapped against Mrs Verloc’s head as if it had been a head of stone. (206)
She looks at the clock ‘mechanically’ (212) – some time earlier, Verloc was described as an automaton:
Mr Verloc obeyed woodenly, stony-eyed, and like an automaton whose face had been painted red. And this resemblance to a mechanical figure went so far that he had an automaton’s absurd air of being aware of the machinery in side of him. (156)
Fleeing the house, terrified of being executed and thus intent on making her way to the Thames to commit suicide, Winnie finds, ironically, that ‘The fear of death paralysed her efforts to escape the gallows’ (214):
She was the most lonely of murderers that ever struck a mortal blow. She was alone in London: and the whole town of marvels and mud, with its maze of streets and its mass of lights, was sunk in a hopeless night, rested at the bottom of a black abyss form which no unaided woman could hope to scramble out. (214)
When Ossipon becomes embroiled in her escape attempt, he takes on the appearance of his own death mask – ‘with a face like a fresh plaster cast of himself after a wasting illness’ (232) – while she becomes like death: ‘all black – black as commonplace death itself, crowned with a few cheap and pale flowers’ (234), and when she lifts her veil, ‘out of [her adamant] face the eyes looked on, big, dry, enlarged, lightless, burnt out like two black holes in the white, shining globes’ (235). Ossipon, who is looking to justify robbing and abandoning her, suddenly see her resemblance to Stevie and, recalling Lombroso’s ‘criminal anthropology’, begins to catalogue her degenerate features. He thus traps her once more in a system beyond her control – like marriage and family and money and class.
Against the broad backdrop of gothic paranoia found in such examples, we turned to chapter eight. The careful reader will have guess already that Stevie died in the explosion, but as chapter eight starts, he seems to be alive and well.
I remember when I first read The Secret Agent (I would have been maybe fifteen, and had already read Heart of Darkness (1899) to try to figure out Apocalypse Now (Coppola US 1979), which I had sneaked into the cinema to see, and not understand, when I was 11, on the same day that I saw Star Trek: The Motionless Picture (Wise US 1979). Ah! my precocious and misspent youth!). I was absolutely caught up by the suspense of wondering whether it was indeed Stevie killed in the bomb blast, and then was completely thrown by chapter eight and most of chapter nine, which do not signal that they are set in between Verloc’s meeting with Vladimir and the bombing. For the longest time I hated those chapters – it felt like Conrad was cheating, just like the bit with the doorbell at the end of The Silence of the Lambs (Demme US 1991) – but now I see them rather differently. Yes, on one level, it remains a cheap trick; but it also effectively extends that pervading sense of death-in-life as Stevie is consigned, like Schrodinger’s cat, to a limbo existence, hovering between life and death. And chapter eight in particular is fabulously rich in conveying Conrad’s gloomy entombing London populated with grotesques.
The hackney carriage driver is ‘maimed’, his left hand replaced with an iron hook; his giant ruddy face, ‘bloated and sodden’ (125), almost lights up the ‘muddy stretch of … street’ (124). He is stubbly, dirty, with ‘little red eyes’ and ‘big lips’ that have a ‘violet tint’ (126). His intellect has ‘lost its pristine vivacity in the benumbing years of sedentary exposure to the weather’ (126). His horse is ‘infirm’ (124) and emaciated, its ‘ribs and backbone’ visible (132). The carriage itself is not much better (124). The streets through which he drives Winnie and her mother are so narrow that they can look in the passing windows, which shake and rattle as the carriage goes past, sounding as if they might collapse. Jammed ‘close to the curbstone’, their ‘progress’ is insignificant (126).
When Stevie jumps down from the box to lighten the horse’s burden, Winnie is as ‘white as a ghost’ (125) – later, Verloc will look at her ‘as though she had been a phantom’ (139) – but under the gaslights of the ‘early dirty night’ (126), her cheeks take on an orange hue (127). Her mother’s naturally bilious ‘predisposition’ gives her a yellow complexion – only blushing might turn her cheeks orange (127). The almshouse to which she is moving – barren, unfurnished, just ‘bare planks and cheaply papered bricks’ (123) – has such narrow dimensions that it ‘might well have been devised in kindness as a place of training for the still more straitened circumstances of the grave’ (127).
In ‘the seclusion of the back bedroom’ of Verloc’s house, she had ‘reflected stoically that everything decays, wears out, in this world’ (128); she know she will die soon, and so she must ensure Stevie’ s future by abandoning him prematurely, and this decision – to move south of the river! – seems to be at one with the entropic decline of the cosmos. Later, it will be noted that ‘it may be said that [,] having parted for good from her children [she] had also departed this life’ (135) – and she certainly departs the novel, returning only as a memory, someone who must be told of Stevie’s death yet who seems to Winnie to be so far distant as to be utterly inaccessible.
The cab meanwhile rattles on, jolting so violently as to obliterate ‘every sensation of onward movement’ and create the impression of ‘being shaken in a stationary apparatus like a medieval device for the punishment of crime or’ – and this is a brilliant, deflationary touch, ‘some very new-fangled invention for the cure of a sluggish liver’ (129). A similar ironic tone – evident throughout the novel – can be seen when the cabman examines his payment:
pieces of silver, which, appearing very minute in his big, grimy palm, symbolised the insignificant results which reward the ambitious courage and toil of a mankind whose day is short on this earth of evil. … he talked to Stevie of domestic matters and the affairs of men whose sufferings are great and immortality by no means assured. … A silence reigned, during which the flanks of the old horse, the steed of apocalyptic misery, smoked upwards in the light of the charitable gas-lamp. (131, 132, 132-3)
The continual disjunction between epic phrasing and commonplace life seems simultaneously to say that people should matter this much and clearly do not, and that such illusions might make life bearable, but they are nonetheless illusions.
(This ironic disjuncture exposes the hypocrisy and cant of those who chatter about the ‘dignity of labour’ and ‘heavenly rewards’ by drawing attention to the meagreness of lives here and now and the constraints under which they are lived. Part of me admires that the apolitical Conrad, who believes there is no possible solution to the exigencies of life in a godless universe, never looks for one, and that he refuses to offer any platitudes; but on the other hand, it also frees him from the responsibility of trying to find temporary and partial solutions to real suffering, which kind of annoys me. In this context, Stevie becomes the kind of model liberal subject, incoherently moved to pity and incomprehension – all ‘sensations’ (133), ‘immoderate compassion’ and ‘innocent but pitiless rage’ (134), he cannot comprehend that it is not somehow the job of the police to right such wrongs, but rather in Winnie’s words to ensure ‘that them as have nothing shouldn’t take anything away from them who have’ (138). This is undoubtedly one of those things that, she profoundly feels, ‘do not stand much looking into’ (141). The irony will escalate in the closing chapters of the novel as Conrad gives us insight first into Verloc and Winnie, as their mutual incomprehension grows, and then Winnie and Ossipon, as they talk at cross-purposes, neither perceiving the other, just imputing motives to them.)
The departing cab seems
cast out into the gutter on account of irremediable decay. … Its aspect was so profoundly lamentable, with such a perfection of grotesque misery and weirdness of macabre detail, as it if were the Cab of Death. (135-6)
After Winnie and Stevie return home, the pensive Verloc goes for an aimless walk, leading ‘a cortège of dismal thoughts along dark streets’ (141). On returning home, he stares at Winnie with ‘a somnambulistic, expressionless gaze’ (141) – perhaps like that of Cesar, who we saw in a clip from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari a few weeks ago; later, Inspector Heat will also be described as a ‘somnambulist’ (176). Verloc thinks of his mother-in-law in terms of ‘rats leaving a doomed ship’ (141), and then undresses
with the unnoticing inward concentration of a man undressing in the solitude of a vast and hopeless desert. For thus inhospitably did this fair earth, our common inheritance, present itself to the mental vision of Mr Verloc. All was so still without and within that the lonely ticking of the clock on the landing stole into the room as if for the sake of company. (142)
Conrad moves from sarcastic commentary on Verloc’s melodramatic self-presentation of his situation to the delightful image of the animated ticking of the clock – that would not be out of place in either a Fleischer cartoon or a volume of Marx (who often animates inanimate objects in their relation to human life). The clock will become a recurring image in the later stages of the novel – just a couple of pages later, Winnie will ‘let the lonely clock on the landing count of fifteen ticks into the abyss of eternity’ (144) before responding to her husband, and a couple more pages later we will learn of Stevie’s discomposing habit of sitting in the dark at its foot (147). In Winnie’s dullness after killing Verloc she will be puzzled by the ticking of another clock, one that does not actually tick, and then slowly realise it is the sound of his blood running out (209, 210). She will look at the clock again, assuming it must have stopped since time is passing much more slowly than she thought (212); and she will fear it, half-believing that ‘clocks and watches always stopped at the moment of murder for the undoing of the murderer’ (213). (We have already seen the importance of clock imagery to Fritz Lang’s vision of the modern city in both M and Metropolis.)
In closing, we briefly considered the differences between Hitchcock’s Sabotage and Conrad’s novel, noting among other things how Hitchcock of seems to take small items of inspiration. When the Assistant Commissioner leaves his office, ‘his descent into the street was like a descent into a slimy aquarium’ (117); in the film, Verloc meets his paymaster in the subterranean aquarium at Regent’s Park Zoo. When Hitchcock seems to play up Oscar Homolka’s resemblance to Bela Lugosi, this might also be based on vaguely vampiric imagery in the novel – the comparison of Verloc arriving back from the continent like the influenza (Dracula as a European infection), and the revelation that Ossipon basically conducts his business by night to sleep during the day, and so on. The aquarium, of course, also plays into Hitchcock’s imagery of caged birds and animals – exemplifying gothic entrapment, the snare of circumstances.
Hitchcock also has a rather different, if also black, sense of humour. He shows up the absurdities of common people through attention to the details of mundane life, whereas Conrad’s ironic distancing from his characters often seems like sarcastic mockery of their aspirations and illusions.
There are three main parts to this week’s class: viewing and discussing Chelovek s kino-apparatom/Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov 1929); reading and discussing Tom Gunning’s ‘Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde’; and essay preparation for next week’s deadline.
In my experience, first year students often struggle with Man with a Movie Camera – very few ever seem to grasp it, let alone like it; and then by the time they are third years, and more used to engaging with a wide variety of films, a number of those who were initially quite negative about it come to appreciate it, even like it. So I did a bit more than I usually would to frame the film – especially as the day before on Cultural Value, Literature, Film and Consumption, they had gone from looking at versions of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond to reading Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy and watching Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais 1961).
Drawing on some work on film forms from an earlier week on colleague’s Film Style and Meaning module, I framed Man with a Movie Camera as both
a documentary, but one that does not use language tell you what its subject matter is or guide you through it
an experimental film that requires you to think about the connections between images (one of my favourite gags in the movie depends entirely upon our learned assumptions about narrative and continuity editing: from the right of the screen a football is lobbed into the air; cut to a shot of a man throwing a javelin from the left of the screen – will he puncture the ball in mid-flight?’; cut to a shot of a goalkeeper on the right of the screen – will the javelin impale him?)
a self-reflexive film about producing and exhibiting film – all about seeing and being seen, projecting images, filmmaking as an industrial craft among other industrial crafts, film as an industrial product, film as a leisure activity, film as a constructor and conveyor of illusion
and in relation to
city symphony films, such as Manhatta (Sheeler and Strand 1921), Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Ruttman 1927), Moscow (Kaufman 1927), A Bronx Morning (Leyda 1931) and City of Contrasts (Browning 1931) – one of the students later noted formal similarities to films such as Baraka (Fricke 1992)
film poems, such as The Bridge (Ivens 1928), La Tour (Clair 1928), Every Day (Richter 1929), Rain (Ivens 1929) and Daybreak Express (Pennebaker 1953) – the latter of which they saw a few weeks ago on Film Style and Meaning
We also had some questions to think about while watching the film:
How are shots connected to each other? For what reasons does one follow another?
Are there graphic and/or textural matches/contrasts between successive shots?
Are there traces of narrative?
What thematic connections are elaborated across the film?
Think about binary oppositions: male/female, public/private, work/leisure, humans/machines, cameraman/people, capturing the city/intervening in the city
I had to stay for the start of the screening to check something in the first few minutes of the film – and ended up watching the whole thing again for the second time in less than 48 hours. I love this movie more every time I see it.
The lecture began with some more framing of the film (next year, I need to try to get the lecture scheduled before the film, if possible).
Viva Paci describes the emergence of cinema as ‘part of the euphoria of modernity’. Like ‘other fetish phenomena typical of modernity, such as billboards, posters, expositions and store shelves’, cinema is ‘merchandise that makes itself visible, turning its presence into spectacle’ (126).Last week we saw, in Modern Times, the centrality of the department store to modern urban experience, and Man with a Movie Camera directly addresses some of these other phenomena. For example, in the early sequence of a sleeping woman slowly waking, there are cut-aways to a detail from a poster, which later is revealed as the poster for a film called The Awakening (of a woman).
I outlined some of the ways in which many early actualité films shared the same drive as expositions and world’s fairs to expose mass audiences to new technologies and views/simulations of distant and exotic lands (and as this week is also thinking a little bit more about urban alienation and disorientation, it is not insignificant that the first known US serial killer, HH Holmes, stalked in and around the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair).
Paci also relates cinema to
exoticism (as found in the era’s expositions and in the Paris arcades celebrated by Baudelaire and Benjamin), train journeys (and the new visions of the landscape in movement and the proliferation of perspectives they offered), advances in the faculty of sight (from the air, for example, or with microscopes) and the improvements to fantastic images [that] had already fed the collective imaginative identity extended [and] new aesthetic habits. (125)
Annoyingly, I could not find my copy of The World of Tomorrow (Bird and Johnson 1984) to show off some 1939 New York World’s Fair footage, so instead we focused on the connections to trains and new technologies of vision. An 1861 quote form Benjamin Gastineau best captures train travel as proleptic of watching a programme of short films such as the Lumière brothers first charged an audience to see at Le Salon Indien du Grand Café on 28 December 1895:
Devouring distance at the rate of fifteen leagues an hour, the steam engine, that powerful stage manager, throws the switches, changes the décor, and shifts the point of view every moment; in quick succession it presents the astonished traveller with happy scenes, sad scenes, burlesque interludes, brilliant fireworks, all visions that disappear as soon as they are seen. (Schivelbusch 63)
We spoke about Hale’s Tours (launched, of course, at an exposition – the 1904 St Louis Exhibition) and train films and, of course, Edison’s Railroad Smashup (1904), for which the film company bought two decommissioned trains and crashed them into each other. If we had way more time, I would also have shown the remarkable train crashes from Orlacs hände (Wiene 1924) and Spione (Lang 1928), the sequence shot from the front of the train in Bulldog Jack (Forde 1935) and the opening of La bête humaine (Renoir 1938) to show how this fascination continued on into narrative cinema, and is in some ways the visual precursor of the jump to lightspeed/hyperspace, etc.
For new technologies of vision, we recalled some work from Film Style and Meaning on Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies and Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotography – examples of pre-cinema which also lead to Frederick Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ of the workplace, suggested in both Modern Times and Man with a Movie Camera – and the similarities that can be found in such contemporaneous art as Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, no.2 (1912). And, of course, we watched Cheese Mites (Duncan 1903) and Percy Smith’s The Birth of a Flower (1910) and his juggling fly films to see how microscopes and time-lapse photography could show human eyes things our eyes could otherwise not see. We looked at some views of Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris qui dort (Clair 1925) – aerial views of a kind previously only accessible to people in aircraft and construction workers – and also at Onésime horloger(Durand 1908), in which the protagonist, frustrated that he cannot get his inheritance until he is older, speeds up the Paris city clock: a series of gags are played out, made funny by the accelerated pace of the action; and undercranked footage played back at regular speed sees pedestrians dash through the city, even more harried than usual by the regulation of life by clocks (which, of course, connects back to railroads, factories and other disciplinary institutions). .
We then turned to Soviet montage, and again I was able to connect back to some work on editing and montage from Film Style and Meaning. I began by introducing the key figures and their most important films:
Sergei Eisenstein – Strike (1925), Battleship Potemkin (1925), October (1927), The General Line (1929), Alexander Nevsky (1939), Ivan the Terrible, parts 1 and 2 (1944, 1945)
Lev Kuleshov – The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924)
Vsevolod Pudovkin – Mother (1926), The End of St Petersburg (1927), Storm over Asia (1928)
Esfir Shub – The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), creator of the compilation film – who also fleetingly appears in Man with a Movie Camera
Dziga Vertov – Kino-Pravda (1925-28), A Sixth of the World (1926), Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Three Songs of Lenin (1934), Lullaby (1937)
Yelizaveta Svilova, who plays the editor in Man with a Movie Camera as well as editing it and others of her husband’s films before becoming a director herself in the 1940s (her brother-in-law, Mikhail Kaufman. also shot several of his brother’s films, including Man with a Movie Camera, in which he also plays the cameraman)
A quick description of the Kuleshov effect gave me the excuse I’ve been looking for to show off the actorly range of lardy racist Steven Seagal, before reminding students of Eisenstein’s theoretical discussion of montage and the analysis they had done of the clash of images in the sequence from Strike in which the assault on the workers is intercut with the slaughter of the bull in the abattoir. Plus, some lions.
We then finally discussed Man with a Movie Camera in some detail, picking out moments such as:
the intercutting of the woman rubbing her eyes, the shutters of her window-blinds opening and closing, the camera shutter – associative editing, detecting similarities and differences between phenomena, sketching out relations between organic and mechanical actions
the superimposition of the eye on the camera lens – a kind of cyborg melding of mechanical means and human consciousness, emphasising differences in kinds of vision
the splitscreens in which the cameraman towers over the city – part of the depiction of the cameraman as an heroic figure that runs throughout the film, and of the celebration of the camera’s ability to see anywhere, but also with a hint of surveillance (there is one shot in the film in which the camera is positioned high above the street and seems to move autonomously, like a CCTV camera)
the stop-motion animation of the camera, giving it life – animating it, as the camera/projector does with each still image it captures/projects
the shots which show something hurtling towards or passing over the camera, and the following shots which reveal how it is done
Svilova editing the film, and the later placement of the frames in the film, animated and given a context
industrial footage, especially of rotating devices and interlocking gears that recall the mechanism of the camera/projector – and nice to see a sewing machine included, since the camera/projector borrowed from sewing machine technology the intermittence device that allows individual frames to be held momentarily in place to capture/project each individual image
the skill of manual labour, such as the woman making cigarette packages, but also how machine-like it is in its endless speed, precision and repetition
the obsession with trains and trams, constantly on the verge of catastrophic collision
the shop-window mannequins that wake up and come to life along with the humans, awoken by the presence of the sun (or the camera)
the world being captured unawares vs. people’s reactions when they know they are being filmed – and that film is present in the world not just as labour and recorder but also as projection, cinema, leisure activity
the use of freezeframes and slow motion, recalling the material basis of film (the photogram), the role of editing, and those early motion studies of Muybridge and Marey
The final section of class was about Tom Gunning’s discussion of the cinema of attractions. Early film history used to be told in terms of a tension or conflict between two approaches to cinema that ultimately and somehow inevitably resulted in the dominance of narrative cinema. These tensions were rooted in a distinction between:
Georges Méliès fantastical féerie films (i.e., ‘trick films’ organised around special effects) that, because of the nature of many of his gags and routines, contain some more obvious narrative structuration; see The India Rubber Head (1901) or A Trip to the Moon (1902).
Tom Gunning and others have, over the last thirty years, argued against this view, finding that despite superficial differences both approaches to filmmaking shared something profoundly fundamental in common: a basic exhibitionist impulse to present an audience with ‘a series of views’ that are ‘fascinating because of their illusory power’. Reality/fantasy, actuality/staged, non-narrative/narrative are pretty much red herrings in the first decade of cinema.
We then spend some time working on this long passage to get a better sense of what Gunning means by cinema of attractions:
To summarize, the cinema of attractions directly solicits spectator attention, inciting visual curiosity, and supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle – a unique event, whether fictional or documentary, that is of interest in itself. The attraction to be displayed may also be of a cinematic nature, such as the early close-ups just described, or trick films in which a cinematic manipulation (slow motion, reverse motion, substitution, multiple exposure) provides the film’s novelty. Fictional situations tend to be restricted to gags, vaudeville numbers or recreations of shocking or curious incidents (executions, current events). It is the direct address of the audience, in which an attraction is offered to the spectator by a cinema showman, that defines this approach to filmmaking. Theatrical display dominates over narrative absorption, emphasizing the direct stimulation of shock or surprise at the expense of unfolding a story or creating a diegetic universe. The cinema of attractions expends little energy creating characters with psychological motivations or individual personality. Making use of both fictional and non-fictional attractions, its energy moves outward towards an acknowledged spectator rather than inward towards the character-based situations essential to classical narrative. … An attraction aggressively subjected the spectator to ‘sensual or psychological impact’. … a montage of such attractions, creat[es] a relation to the spectator entirely different from his absorption in ‘illusory depictions’.
And then it was time to discuss the essay due next week.
Incidentally, 20% of the class really enjoyed Man with a Movie Camera, 20% liked specific parts of it, and 60% declined to comment
Recommended critical reading Berman, Berman. All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London: Penguin, 1998.
–. On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square. London: Verso, 2009
Feldman, Seth. “‘Peace Between Man and Machine”: Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera.” Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Ed. Barry Keith Grant and Jeanette Sloniowski. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998. 40–54.
Gunning, Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)credulous Spectator.” Film Theory and Criticism. 7th ed. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 736–750.
Keiller, Patrick. “Urban Space and Early Film.” Cities in Transition: The Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis. Ed. Andrew Webber and Emma Wilson. London: Wallflower, 2008. 29–39.
Paci, Viva. “The Attraction of the Intelligent Eye: Obsessions with the Vision Machine in Early Film Theories.”, The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded. Ed. Wanda Strauven. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006. 121–137.
Roberts, Graham. The Man with the Movie Camera. London: IB Tauris, 2000.
Strathausen, Carsten. “Uncanny Spaces: The City in Ruttmann and Vertov.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 15–40.
Strauven, Wanda. ed. The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006.
Webber, Andrew. “Symphony of a City: Motion Pictures and Still Lives in Weimar Berlin.” Cities in Transition: The Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis. Ed. Andrew Webber and Emma Wilson. London: Wallflower, 2008. 56–71.
Recommended reading Cities are often depicted as so alienating and disorienting that their denizens are driven to madness of various sorts, as in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Double (1926), Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square: A Tale of Darkest Earl’s Court (1941), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) and Erik Larson’s non-fiction The Devil in the White City (2003).
Cities can also offer possibilities for freedom, as in Muriel Sparks’s The Girls of Slender Means (1963) and Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (1952), and for metamorphosis, as in chapters 6–7 of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm (1932) and chapter 11 of Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger (1942), in which trips to London transform rural girls into a glamorous ladies.
Recommended viewing Other city ‘symphony’ films include Manhatta (Sheeler and Strand 1921), Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Ruttman 1927), Moscow (Kaufman 1927), A Bronx Morning (Leyda 1931) and City of Contrasts (Browning 1931). Some film poems, such as The Bridge (Ivens 1928), La Tour (Clair 1928), Every Day (Richter 1929), Rain (Ivens 1929) and Daybreak Express (Pennebaker 1953), are clearly related, as are such contemporary films as London Orbital (Petit and Sinclair 2002), Finisterre (Evans and Kelly 2003) and What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? (Evans 2005). People on Sunday(Siodmak and Ulmer 1930) combines a city symphony with a narrative about a group of young people played by non-professional actors.
Films of urban transformation include Theodora Goes Wild (Boleslawski 1936), Vertigo (Hitchcock 1958), The Apartment (Wilder 1960) and Better than Chocolate (Wheeler 1999).
Films of urban derangement include The Testament of Dr Mabuse (Lang 1933), Repulsion (Polanksi 1965), Taxi Driver (Scorsese 1976) and American Psycho (Harron 2000).
Urban transformation and derangement come together in disturbing ways in Videodrome (Cronenberg 1983), Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Tsukamoto 1989), Tokyo Fist (Tsukamoto 1995), Mulholland Drive (Lynch 2001) and A Snake of June (Tsukamoto 2002).
Pretty much all the commentary so far has been about one of two things.
Critics have been unanimous in their praise of how gorgeous the film looks, from its gothicky design to its fabulous frocks and sumptuous colour palette (it also has some nice irises and cunning wipes).
Or they have echoed del Toro’s own point that it is not really a horror movie so much as a gothic romance, full of echoes and allusions, including: Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’; the several versions of Jane Eyre and Silence of the Lambs; Du Maurier’s Rebecca; Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Notorious; Medak’s The Changeling; The Haunting, and Wises’s; King’s The Shining, and Kubrick’s; the Coen’s Barton Fink; del Toro’s own Devil’s Backbone; and so on.
All of these critics are right, and yet without exception they overlook del Toro’s major accomplishment.
Somehow, he manages constantly to keep this astonishing overblown confection of evil aristocrats, ghosts, forbidden rooms, gramophone cylinders, automata, letters, keys, ghosts, murder, incest, idiosyncratic grim-up-north grimness, peculiarly hardy Cumberland moths, violent assaults and revolutionary mining technology just this side of hilariously funny. And somehow he makes it a constant delight, grand guignol at its most operatic, all logic subordinated to production design.
But it would take just one person in the auditorium to start laughing, and it could all go disastrously wrong.
It is not the first time del Toro has walked this particular line. Much as I enjoyed them, Hellboy II and Pacific Rim edge along a similar tightrope, and are rather less successful in keeping it together.
Early in the film, protagonist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) explains of a story she has written that it is not so much a ghost story as a story with ghosts in it, and that her ghosts are actually metaphors for the past. With the kind of New Weird chutzpah that China Miéville once championed, del Toro’s film takes completely the opposite tack. His ghosts are ghosts, not metaphors.
However, the logic of Miéville’s argument meant that while one should be absolutely committed to treating monsters as monsters rather than as metaphors, this should nonetheless leave their metaphorical potential open and even make for more effective metaphoricity. But with del Toro’s pastiche late-Victorian setting lacking the historical resonances of Devil’s and Pan’s Labyrinth‘s (not unproblematic) Spanish Civil War settings, there is nothing really for his ghosts to gain metaphorical purchase, even if they were so inclined. There is some stuff about aristocrats as parasites, and a whole Blut und Boden thing lying around should anyone want to make something of it, but no one does. And del Toro seems utterly uninterested in the gendered restrictions and sexual repression that seem so fundamental to gothic romance.
It is a film of many layers, all of them on the surface.
On the other hand, I loved every deliriously silly minute of it, and you get the impression del Toro did, too.
We began with a quotation from Anton Kaes’s BFI classic, which describes the film as embodying:
‘the tension between the forces of modernity, with their emphasis on time, discipline, rationality, seriality, law and order and those recalcitrant counterforces – trauma, passion, illness, loss and, finally, death – that defy reason and resist integration’ (76)
Our discussion of these various concepts in relation to the film was supported by a number of clues and questions presented before the screening:
Look out for clocks, files, records, book-keeping, accounts and other evidence of bureaucracy in action.
Look out for communications networks and mass media.
Look out for shop windows and other displays of commodities.
Look out for mirror images/reflections and doublings.
What is going on with the narrative structure? To what extent is this a film about the contest between a protagonist and an antagonist? To what extent is classical narrative structure subordinated to a series of images of the city connected by sound? How are those images arranged? How do they relate to each other?
Pay attention to the ways the film uses sound (offscreen sound, sound from the following shot/scene present in the current scene, unusual sources of sound, silences).
At the end of the film, is there any conclusive evidence of Hans Beckert’s (Peter Lorre) guilt?
Clocks abound in this film (and other Lang films – see the Paternoster Machine in Metropolis for example) – from the child’s game that opens the film with clock-like movement to the pickpocket who calls the talking clock and then corrects all the stolen watches he is carrying; from the cuckoo clock in Frau Beckman’s apartment that signals the time as she waits for little Elsie to return home to the clocktower bells that drown it out. They signify the imposition of clock time on our experience of the world – imposed so the trains could run on time, to organize commerce, to discipline and control labour – and the ways in which this ordering of subjectivity also disorders us.
Building on this, the police investigation evokes the instrumentalisation, rationalisation and bureaucratisation of everyday life – files kept on people, fingerprinting, forensic procedures. The police amass information and process it in an orderly manner, an image graphically captured by the concentric circles drawn on a map to indicate the expanding radii of the investigation around a crime scene. The state panopticon’s vast archives of signifiers are bureaucratic abstractions of actual people – this is, as Foucault would argue, evidence of the growing management of populations by statistics. (Though we didn’t get on to Foucault or the panopticon or biopolitics in class!)
Likewise, the gang of criminals come up with their own systematic means of finding the killer (because he is bad for business) – surveillance conducted by the army of beggars in the street; and then, when Beckert is trapped in the factory/office building, despatching teams of men to work through it in an orderly manner.
This parallel between the police/administration and the criminals/beggars has already been indicated by the sequence which repeatedly cuts between them, in their respective smoke-filled rooms, as they plan their respective campaigns. (And boy, are those rooms smoke-filled – like the studio is on fire or something.)
We also thought about seriality – the children’s game, the serial fiction delivered to Frau Beckman as she waits for Elsie, the ordering of cigarettes and cigars and other objects in the beggars’ hideout, where food prices are listed in chalk as if share prices at a stock exchange. And of course serial killers, that modern and largely urban phenomenon, the US variety of which is typically said to start with HH Holmes in Chicago at the time of the 1893 World’s Fair (the subject of one of Edison’s early phonographs). The early twentieth century saw several notorious examples in Germany (Kürten, Grossmann, Denke, Haarmann), and they crop up in other German films of this period, such as Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924), and The Lodger (1927), made under the influence of expressionism by Hitchcock shortly after his return from Germany to England (and remade in 1932 with sound by Maurice Elvey).
The idea of the serial killer returned us to the anonymity offered by cities – and the film’s recurring idea that anyone could be the killer. An idea that flips immediately into unreason – we three times see groups of people mistake someone for the killer, unleashing irrational violence, twice by mobs. (This is why it is important, I think, that we see no real evidence that Beckert is guilty. All the police know is that they have traced the man who wrote a letter to the newspapers confessing to the crimes – as many others have done. All the criminals know is that a blind man recognised a tune that was being whistled by someone to whom he sold a balloon for a little girl on the day Elsie went missing. Beckert’s own not entirely convincing confession is clearly that of a deranged man. And yet we, too, generally assume that he is guilty, leaping to conclusions.)
Violence lurks everywhere in this film. The streets are populated with men injured in the war: limbs are missing, and the one set of fingerprints we see are those of a man with only four fingers; there are blind people and deaf people, people who fake being blind and a blind man who sometimes wishes he was deaf so as to cut out the constant noise of the city. There are also psychological traumas: the anxiety of parents (shared to an extent by the viewer who joins them in being worried about their children) and the bereavements they suffer. Lang at one point considered including a flashback to explain the origins of Beckert’s derangement in the horrors of World War One; but that would psychologise him, and like Brecht, Lang is more interested here in moving from ‘psychology to sociology, from empathy to critical distance, from organic development to montage, from suggestion to argument’.
This is why the film narrative is decentred into montages of city scenes, without real protagonist or antagonist. It is about the social circumstances which enable serial killers (and other modern urban figures) to emerge, to thrive, to become a media spectacle. This is why we are not permitted – until the final scene – to develop any real sense of Beckert as a person with whom we might sympathise in some way.
We also situated the film in relation to
— expressionist art (Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Paul Klee’s Castle and Sun, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Nollendorfplatz and Self-Portrait as Soldier, Wassilly Kandinsky’s progression from The Rider to Composition 6 to On White II, James N. Rosenberg’s Oct 29 Dies Irae)
— German expressionist film (Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Genuine, Raskolnikov, Hands of Orlac, Martin’s From Morn to Midnight, Robison’s Warning Shadows) – though we only had time for clips from Caligari and the opening of Joe May’s Asphalt, which moves from actuality footage to expressionist images of the city, cuts to a calm domestic space, and then returns to expressionist images of the city (you can see it here.) Unlike Caligari, which films expressionist spaces and performances, Asphalt in places uses the camera and editing in an expressionist manner.
— NeueSachlichkeit (New Objectivity or New Matter-of-factness, New Sobriety or New Dispassion), a post-impressionist movement that tried to get away from subjective expression to a more political art intended to provoke collective action (examples included Otto Dix’s verist Salon, War Cripples and The Trench, and Alexander Kanoldt’s classicist Still Life II and Der rote Gürtel). We also took quick look at some footage from the great New Objectivity film People on Sunday(see it here).
Lang, after all, called M a documentary!
The conclusion that I did not have time to get to included the sneaky reference to Foucault mentioned above, and one to the Adorno and Horkheimer – their argument that in capitalist modernity economics and politics become increasingly intertwined: business interests intervene in the running of the state for their own ends; the state intervenes in the economy to maintain conditions favourable to business. This leads to centralised instrumentalist bureaucracies and administration. As instrumental reason dominates, social life becomes increasingly rationalised.
Which kind of captures a large chunk of what M is up to. As in others of Lang’s German and US films, the city is the site of modernity, and this is what modernity looks (and sounds) like.
Additional information from the module handbook Recommended critical reading – Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Visions and Modernity. London: BFI, 2000. See 163–199 on M.
– Kaes, Anton. M. London: BFI, 2000.
– Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 1, “Modernity and the City Film: Berlin.”
– Roberts, Ian. German Expressionism. London: Wallflower, 2008. Recommended reading The key German expressionist novel is Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). A more accessible vision of Germany in the Weimar period can be found in Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939), often bound together as The Berlin Stories or The Berlin Novels and adapted for film as I Am A Camera (Cornelius 1955) and Cabaret (Fosse 1972). Other serial killer fiction of interest includes Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square: A Tale of Darkest Earl’s Court (1941), Dorothy B Hughes’s In a Lonely Place (1947), Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952), David Grubb’s The Night of the Hunter (1953), Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) and Susanna Moore’s In the Cut (1995). Erik Larson’s non-fiction account of HH Holmes and the Chicago World’s Fair, The Devil in the White City (2003), is also of interest.
One of the innovations of American hardboiled crime fiction was the introduction of the detective who could go anywhere in the city, crossing physical space as well as class barriers – such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, introduced in The Big Sleep (1939) – which enables a similar overview of society as that offered in M. Recommended viewing Other German expressionist films about the city include The Last Laugh (Murnau 1924), Metropolis (Lang 1927), The Blue Angel (von Sternberg 1930) and – made in the US – Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau 1927).
German expressionism visually influenced American film noir, including adaptations of Chandler novels, such as Murder My Sweet (Dmytryk 1944) and The Big Sleep (Hawks 1946). Its impact can also be seen in such British films as Odd Man Out (Reed 1947) and The Third Man (Reed 1949). Point Blank (Boorman 1967), Se7en (Fincher 1995), The Underneath (Soderbergh 1995), Dark City (Proyas 1998), Fight Club (Fincher 1999) and The Deep End (McGehee and Siegel 2001) find ways to create expressionist effects in colour.
Although it has expressionist elements, at the time of its release in Germany M was considered and example of New Objectivism, like People on Sunday (Siodmak and Ulmer 1930) and GW Pabst’s films of this period – Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), Pandora’s Box (1929), Westfront 1918 (1930) and The Threepenny Opera (19321 . The Wire (HBO 2002–08) maps the urban complexity behind crime, from street-level drug-dealing to corporate and political corruption. Spiral (Canal+ 2005–), The Killing (DR/ZDF 2007–12) and Peaky Blinders (BBC 2013 – ) do some similar things, although they are less astute about economics.