Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Things to Come: The Birth of Sci-Fi Cinema at the Brattle

The Brattle Theatre is doing a year-long series of series for science fiction film this year, which is quite obviously a Thing I Am Excited About, enough so that I hunkered down for most of a series for the first time in months, perhaps longer if festivals like BUFF and Noir City Boston don't count. I'm looking forward to many more; if there's one per calendar, I figure on seeing 50/60s red-scare stuff in March, the weird and fascinating 1970s and early 1980s in May, shaking a fist as I miss independent/foreign voices while I'm at Fantasia in July, the mainstream blockbuster era in September, and the new group of international/independent voices that China, streaming, and digital effects have enabled in November. Maybe a Japan/animation series in there somewhere. Ned will surprise me.

Of course, one has to admit that the early years are kind of thin, for a number of reasons. The series starts with Georges Méliès and H.G. Wells, but what's inescapable is how, between Méliès's short fantasies and the re-emergence of the genre in the 1950s, there's not much. Lang did some great silents in Germany but never was able to make that sort of pulp when he came to America, and there were a fair number of "Fantastik" films coming out of the Soviet Union during this period (Saturday's program paired Aelita, the Queen of Mars and Metropolis), but there are relatively few silents and almost no talkies coming from the big American studios. I suspect that the mainstreaming of the movies had a large effect on it - just as women had their creative roles reduced as film became seen as big business and more than low art, genre work that was mostly the thing of pulps in print and which required resources that couldn't easily be reused wasn't seen as a great investment. Even what is arguably the biggest sci-fi film from the early talkies, King Kong, had lots of material reused for/from The Most Dangerous Game, while the films like Frankenstein and other works featured during Sunday's "Mad Scientist Marathon" were horror and from what was then called "Universal International Pictures", which I believe was more a scrappy upstart at the time than the major studio it became later (I mean, look at that name doubling down on insisting what a big deal they are!).

Plus, there's Just Imagine, Tuesday night's show, which was the sort of huge bust at the box-office that had the major studios shying away from the like afterward. It's a shame - while this wasn't good, it had some amazing work in it, the sort that makes one wonder just what production designers and costumers inspired by the first generation of pulp illustrations, not filtered through years of reappraisal and irony, might have made of the genre if they'd been given the occasional chance to spend some money and time on it. Heck, even this one was only available on the sort of print that has Ned coming on-stage before the show to not necessarily apologize for it but remind the audience that this is what a 90-year-old movie that hasn't been considered important enough to preserve often looks (and sounds) like.

Imagine Fritz Lang coming to Hollywood and making a big-budget space opera with clear parallels to what was going on his native Germany at the time. It would have been glorious. It's a crying shame that we can only imagine it.

"Une Voyage dans la Lune" ("A Trip to the Moon")

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 January 2020 in the Brattle Theatre (Things to Come: The Birth of Sci-Fi Cinema, DCP)

Is there more to say about this than what I said before? Probably not; it's a pure fantasy and trying to read too much into its explorers defying the stuffy scientific establishment who present themselves as wizards or the way they just run roughshod over the native life they find at the moon likely says more about how shallow my knowledge of turn-of-the-twentieth century Europe than anything really clever.

Still, just look at this thing. Consider that it was made at the dawn of cinema, and feels both freewheeling and dense, a few minutes of fast-paced mayhem that had to be planned precisely. It's partly happenstance that the man in the moon with a rocket in his eye became the image that defines early cinema to people, but also wholly reasonable, as this is something that burrows directly into the imagination.

What I thought of a Méliès "Ciné-Concert" a few years back

Things to Come

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 January 2020 in the Brattle Theatre (Things to Come: The Birth of Sci-Fi Cinema, digital)

Time has been kinder to Things to Come than it might have been; a modern viewer can see an unfortunate believability in its villains and an arrogance to its utopian visions that were perhaps not intended at the time. The future we live in is strange and not what most envisioned, the types of progress that H.G. Wells and the filmmakers extolled has been revealed as a mixed blessing, and the film is lucky to be well-enough made that some of that emerges from the details.

Some things have come back around, though. The filmmakers' fears of an all-consuming conflict are likely darker than most in 1936 would allow themselves to imagine, and its idealized future feels real enough in terms of lived-in details, with one of he nicer bits of "grandfather explains old world to grandchild" bits. The anti-progress orator comes across as a strawman, but, well, look at 2020. The effects work shows some seams, but the design is nice and most of the execution is excellent.

It's dull, though, more so because there is often such bombast around the boring characters that the film cycles through, sometimes with the same actors playing descendants who don't differentiate themselves. There wasn't much like it at the time, so filmmakers likely had to go slower, but there's seldom the feel of a story being told, history being related, or a point being made, just a movie that lands slickly but uncomfortably between all the things it could do.

The Man They Could Not Hang

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 January 2020 in the Brattle Theatre (Things to Come: The Birth of Sci-Fi Cinema, 35mm)

The Man They Could Not Hang is the sort of b-movie where it's very difficult to tell "moral ambiguity" and "sloppy writing" apart, which I suppose is inevitable when such things are cranked out the way these were. In 1939, the question that kicks this movie off, the willingness to risk and sacrifice lives in the name of scientific progress, hadn't yet run head-long into Mengele and Tuskegee, but to a certain extent that doesn't matter; this is the sort of movie that sees this sort of ethical question as a way to motivate a villain, rather than something to mull over and make the audience squirm.

So the filmmakers do a bit of everything - science fiction, courtroom drama, killer picking people off one-by-one - crammed into a mere 65 minutes, which isn't much time for any of them to flourish. It doesn't help that they have few resources besides Boris Karloff, who is terrific in his channeling fine mad scientist arrogance and rage. He's a hissable villain whose charm and self-certainty never makes him sympathetic, and I suspect that, while it makes the scenes where he's off-screen less enjoyable, there's something to be said for not having a hero that's his equal The villain has to feel larger than life, and ordinary people need to band together to stop him.

The Boogie Man Will Get You

* * (out of four)
Seen 27 January 2020 in the Brattle Theatre (Things to Come: The Birth of Sci-Fi Cinema, 35mm)

"Oh, no," Jay thought as the bouncy music started under the titles, "this is going to be zany."

And it was, a screwball farce that ties its jokes together in very casual fashion and, not having people good at nuance (aside from genre stalwarts who will put in a professional day's work for a paycheck), instead goes for big and loud. It's amiably stupid, at least, with Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre both more consciously relaxed than usual. Lorre regularly did stuff that seemed casual in this way, but absent-minded Karloff seems a little more off - not quite fun enough to impress you with previously-unseen range but not bad enough to stand out. I don't think the filmmakers knew where they wanted to go with a joke half the time they came up with it, and there's lots of genuinely weird slapstick and gags that feel like they'd be a lot funnier if the people making it had an idea for arranging them in some sort of order, instead of tossing them into a pile.

At least it's short, finishing up well before "WHEN is this going to END" kicks in. Peter Lorre brings a kitten with him everywhere he goes, because why wouldn't you, and it's a clear case of how him going through a dumb movie at half-effort is often more entertaining than his co-stars really trying.

Just Imagine

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 January 2020 in the Brattle Theatre (Things to Come: The Birth of Sci-Fi Cinema, 35mm)

I found myself whispering "don't laugh, don't laugh" at the first bit of special effects in Just Imagine, as J-21 (John Garrick) clambers from one hovering plane to another, because yes, it looks silly, but it's also kind of awesome, and you've got to meet these things halfway. This was nominated for an Art Direction Oscar, so parts of it were pretty good in its day, even if it bombed badly enough that there wouldn't be another big-budget science fiction film made in Hollywood for twenty years.

It probably deserved to; the cast is not exactly the sort that can make good scenes out of bad material (although, hey, baby Maureen O'Sullivan) and it often stumbles desperately between mostly forgettable song-and-dance numbers. It's vaudeville in the future at times, kind of interesting for how it's not timeless in the least - there's jokes about Prohibition and Henry Ford's anti-semitism, and probably a dozen other bits that are a lot more obscure ninety years later (with the movie itself set in the far-off future of 1980). It's not the raciest pre-code thing you've seen, but it's not exactly wholesome in its ogling.

It is, on the other hand, gloriously weird, especially during a trip to Mars which seems like a whole B movie compressed to twenty minutes with the wackiest parts kept in and the boring explanations cut to the bare minimum. That opening plane bit is something I downright adore, an insane combination of carefully extrapolated aviation and utterly lunkheaded activity as J-21 apparently just decides to casually wing-walk to chat with his girlfriend hundreds of feet in the air. On top of that, this is a movie that apparently feels the need to spend ten minutes prepping a mainstream audience for the very idea of a story set in THE FUTURE and then has people named LN-18. At least the costume designers and set decorators clearly had an absolute ball.

And there's something to be said for being the real thing, however peculiar and sometimes ill-considered that may be. This is arguably what every retro-futuristic thing made in the past half-century is trying to be, but it's sincere even when being deliberately silly in a way that those things can't manage.

"Paris qui dort" ("At 3:25")

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 January 2020 in the Brattle Theatre (Things to Come: The Birth of Sci-Fi Cinema, DCP)

Does it say something about René Clair that, upon discovering the entire city of Paris frozen in its tracks, all those protected from the effects of this phenomenon by how far from the ground they were at the time are far more interested in stealing than investigating, succumbing to boredom in a few days before an answer is dropped into their lap? It's a cynical vision, though I suppose one that has them interacting with the people standing stock-still for a unique visual rather than proposing theories to each other.

That's the main draw of Clair's creation, and as a silent short, it's a unique, striking experience, one where you can marvel at visual jokes, people standing stock-still no matter what madness goes on around them, and peculiar situations before and after things change. It makes the ending a bit unsatisfying as he's got nothing to resolve, but by then, he's done what he set out to do in terms of showing the audiences of 1924 something they likely had never seen, and the story is secondary.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 January 2020 in the Brattle Theatre (Things to Come: The Birth of Sci-Fi Cinema, digital)

This king-sized silent is brilliantly designed but unfortunately quite dull, even once you reconfigure expectations for a different time and place. It probably wouldn't have a story worthy of its cavernous sets and visual imagination even if the "hero" (Jaque Catelain) wasn't kind of a creep trying to teach an independent woman (Georgette Leblanc) who spurned his advances a lesson. There's a better story in there about a performer reconnecting with an audience, digging into how the "inhuman woman" of the title lost touch and was able to find it via a new, intimate piece of technology, but it gets buried behind a fan faking his death to get a woman's attention.

Its numbing overall length also means one can feel kind of checked out when the climax comes and all of the rapid-fire Expressionist stuff starts to work. It's genuinely cinematic then, doing all sorts of fast cutting and visually inventive things that would go out of favor with the arrival of sound - people started expecting more realism then - enough to make one wish it was as exciting on the way there. I'm mildly surprised that I can't find any instance of a clever French director who has recreated its sets in a more interesting movie as an homage, because I bet they would still pop today and the folks who see it could feel really clever for recognizing it.

Mad Love '35

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 January 2020 in the Brattle Theatre (Things to Come: The Birth of Sci-Fi Cinema, 35mm)

Peter Lorre's first American film may just be his best English-language role, in large part because it's so unrepentantly sleazy in a way that's uncomfortably familiar: His Dr. Gogol is arrogant and entitled, the thinnest veneer of sophistication over base creepiness, with an ultimate descent into madness that is gloriously unhinged. Gogol is one of the nastiest monsters he played (in a career that wound up specializing in them) because he's not exactly something that men hide and can deny, but an example of things that force us to confront just how flimsy the things holding people back from being their worst selves are. It's all the better because Frances Drake makes the object of his affection seem genuinely uncomfortable around him from the start, and the filmmakers never mess around with acting like psychosis is an acceptable trade for genius.

It's not just Lorre, though; there's a twisted delight in seeing Colin Clive with Frankenstein scars on his wrist, for instance; there's no particular reason for this film to wink at Frankenstein (and it doesn't), but the audience can do the wink themselves. The script is surprisingly tight, in that while this 70-minute B-movie is often pretty crazy, it has room for seeming digressions which come together toward the end in a way that's kind of wild but not really cheating. The creation and staging of Gogol's disguise in the last act is brilliant; Gogol walking through his house, halfway through taking it off, feels genuinely deranged and symbolic even as it looks plausibly improvised.

Mad Love is lurid and kind of nuts and has a lot of short-cuts that B movies take, but it revels in the macabre and the nasty in a way that also feels real and genuinely disquieting; it's one of the best examples I can think of where a movie like this is able to balance the human desire for nasty thrills while also looking at them unflinchingly.

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