Die Buchse Der Pandora (AKA: Pandora’s Box) (1929)

Die Buchse Der Pandora (AKA: Pandora’s Box) – 1929

Director – G. W. Pabst

Starring – Louise Brooks, Francis Lederer, Alice Roberts, and Carl Goetz

There are a whole stable full of directors that you hear about, and see examples from during film school.  You get a bit of a buffet education as it concerns the history of film combined with a bit of the preferences and eccentricities of the person teaching the class. What you don’t get, is a real comprehensive view of any country or movement’s stable of talented directors or actors for any given time period.  Due to a lack of time, and with such a wealth of history packed into the 130 years or so that film has been around, there are bound to be more than a few important names and examples that fall through the cracks.

One such director was G. W. Pabst, a name I had heard on more than one occasion during one or two of my cinema history classes, but nothing that was ever explored in-depth.  As far as Pabst’s rather sizable list of credits, the name that comes up more than any of the others, time and again as one of his best is (surprise, surprise, that’s why I’m writing this review) Pandora’s Box.  So does the most popular film from one of Germany’s greatest directors of the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s deserve more attention in the eyes of the world?  Absolutely, it does.

Pandora’s Box tells the story of the ingenue Lulu, a woman struggling to balance the expectations of the multiple men in her life, while each in turn blames her for all of their shortcomings and misfortunes.  Lulu, the object of each (and presumably every) man’s desire, simultaneously becomes the scapegoat and the solution for each.  It is implied, rather explicitly, that she is a courtesan.  An object to covet, to own, use, and discard as the situation demands.

To Schigolch, the man who turned her out (read: pimp), she is a source of income and security, a commodity to be spent.  To her current keeper, Dr. Schon, she is a trophy to be proudly kept and displayed.  To Alwa, Dr. Schon’s son, she is an innocent to be lusted after and saved.  Each man takes it upon himself to “rescue” Lulu through ineffectual half-measures, later blaming her for their own actions.  Where once she was considered a shining, golden conquest, now she is seen as a home-wrecker, and a burden.

While she doesn’t strictly do anything malicious or wrong per se, Lulu never really learns her lesson and manages to perpetuate the cycle through her own inaction.  She is more than willing to let these people come to her rescue and place her in these gilded cages.  Either unable or unwilling to stand up for herself against her “benefactors”, Lulu continues to spiral downwards into worse and worse situations culminating in selling herself, body and soul.

I have this impression of movies from this day and age as being simply sensational adventures to thrill audiences.  Pandora’s Box, with its contemplation of gender, sexuality, dominance, and castigation, is a different animal all together.  With this film, there is an intelligence and genuine desire to explore different points of view, a challenge to the audience to consider the inequalities facing woman, and illustrating the need for examination and change.  All of this, mind you was taking place in the aftermath of World War I, during the rise of the Nazi party, alongside the economical, and social chaos and turmoil that was Germany in 1929.

Louise Brooks, the American expatriate who plays Lulu, does an exceptional job in the role, embracing the it from her trademark bob-haircut, to her pouty doe-eyed expression.  Many were upset at the casting of an American in what was considered a role meant for a German, but fears were ultimately assuaged and critics were duly mollified upon seeing Brooks’ performance.  Truly, she made the role hers, and she has remained synonymous with the character of Lulu ever since.

Francis Lederer, Alice Roberts, and Carl Goetz provide eye-catching support for Brooks, each turning in roles of a lifetime in their own rights.  Goetz, in particular reeks with a slimy, contestable charm as Lulu’s pimp/father-figure Schigolch, a man who doesn’t think twice about wringing all he can from his young meal-ticket.

The version of the film I saw was the newly remastered version put out by the always fantastic Criterion Collection.  This version was no exception to their rule of providing only the highest quality films, restoration, remastering, and packaging.  If you do get to see this film, I hope it is this version that you decide to watch.  Rent it if you must, and buy it if you can, as the film comes with the usual rogues gallery of special features and a whole book full of essays on the film to boot.

I know very little about the rest of G.W. Pabst’s work, but now I’d really like to know more.  So influential in the world of film was Pabst, that he even gets a shout out, and becomes more than a slight plot point in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (a phenomenal film in its own right.  If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and GO SEE THAT SHIT!)  Needless to say, I will be hunting down more of this man’s work, eagerly hoping that Pandora’s Box wasn’t just a one shot wonder, or simply a fluke.  Highly recommended!!

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Super Fly (1972)

Super Fly – 1972

Director – Gordon Parks Jr.

Starring – Ron O’Neal, Carl Lee, Sheila Frazier and Julius Harris

Films the world over are often products of their environments.  The daily input of the culture from which they are borne infuse them with settings, history, and ideals that in equal measure define, inform, and limit them.  The Blaxsploitation movement of the 1970’s is a prime example of this juxtaposition.  These films often held a mirror up to the audience, mixing entertainment, and catharsis with a frank look at the ills and issues of the African-American communities of the day.  Super Fly in particular was a smashing success at the box office, proving that audiences were interested in seeing a confident, self-assured, and strong black presence win in the end, even at the cost of having that presence draped in the somewhat shady trappings of a drug dealer, pimp and murderer.

Priest (Ron O’Neal) is smooth, he’s well dressed, he’s good with the ladies, and he is also a dealer of cocaine, and a bit of a gangster.  Constantly confronted with the notion that today might be the day he ends up dead or in jail, Priest finally gives voice to a long brewing need to escape the drug dealing life that he’s built for himself, and move on to something else.  Something more positive, and something without the scrutiny and control of “The Man”.  To achieve this, he makes the inevitable decision to make one final score (in this case it is a big, one-time buy that will be quickly sold off through many, quick, smaller scores).

Much is made about Priest’s desire to leave the life of dealing drugs, but when it comes down to it, the cocaine affords him a certain comfort and power that is too difficult to escape fully.  Even if he decides to give up the dealing aspect, Priest can never really free himself of his relationship with cocaine entirely, because he snorts it far too regularly.  It’s dependence at a different, but no less fundamental level for the character.

The system is set up so that it draws him back in.  To escape the dealing, he needs more money.  To make more money, he needs to sell more drugs.  To sell more drugs, he needs to enter into deeper relationships with the corrupt, and greedy cops who want him to deal more drugs, increasing their-own profit and status.  He is operating from within a system that wants him to fail.  Even his partners and so-called friends question his desire to get out of the life.  They tell him that this is the best he can hope for, and that he is a fool to throw all that money and potential away.  The quest for freedom, and desire to grow are matched equally by the quest for wealth, and the desire for respect and acceptance.  Each side is working at cross purposes to the other, while at the same time fueling the progress of the other as well.

That same conflict echoes itself back and forth throughout the entirety of the film.  The cocaine that Priest sells, which gains him the power, money and purpose that he enjoys, wouldn’t be nearly as much of a success if it wasn’t illegal   The “man” or “men” that he rages against are the very same people who keep the drug demand high, and essentially keep him employed.  Just by virtue of being the hero who’s gonna stick it to the man, he disrupts the system, and is hurting his ability to continue selling drugs, simultaneously freeing himself from the bonds that trap him, and ostensibly putting himself in a situation where they have the ability to exert more power over him.  It is a never-ending cycle, and it’s more than Priest can take.

The one bright light in his life, is Georgia (Frazier), the woman who stands by him and actually believes in him.  Aside from being someone he goes to for comfort and the occasional night of passion, with Georgia, Priest can finally let his guard down and be something other than the tough, un-caring gangster he is to everyone else.   Unfortunately, instead of realizing this and treasuring his relationship with her, he instead continues sleeping around with other women and disregarding her at almost every turn.  He turns to her to assume a good deal of risk when he makes his move to escape the clutches of his oppressors, but offers her little in return.  It does seem more than a little ironic to me that the simple considerations of freedom from oppression and need for respect that Priest is fighting for in his own life are dismissed by him when it comes to Georgia.

For a movie that seems so concerned with empowering it’s primarily young, primarily black audience, it works very hard to simultaneously hold them back in relation to how they view themselves.  For every assertive step forward, Super Fly, takes just as an assertive step backwards as well.  While it seems a little disappointing, I guess, I sort of understand it at the same time.  I mean I root for Breaking Bad’s Walter White to escape his police pursuers and keep cooking meth, and really is that so different as Priest?  Not by much.

In terms of the cinematography, Super Fly is such a 70’s movie!  Long tracking shots, zooming in and out of the action.  Washed out film stock that bleeds with life despite it’s rather dated look.  While not technically great composition, lighting, or editing, I loved watching it nonetheless.  Costuming, hairstyles, the music (fun fact: Super Fly is one of the few movies with sales out performed by its soundtrack, thanks in no small part to Curtis Mayfield’s instantly recognizable songs), and the sparse acting, all add up to a period piece that had no idea that it was one.  The look and feel of this film, speak to a time that was and never will be quite like this again.  This film had quite an impact in terms of style and substance of not only films, but of pop culture as well.  This if the film that started the popularity of the “Pimpmobile” after all.

Though it has flaws, some of which were glaring, Super Fly remains an important piece of film history, and as such is deserving of its place on the list.  While it certainly isn’t my favorite film on this list, it was pretty fun to watch, and afterwards to think about.  I look forward to seeing Shaft, another blaxsploitation film on this list, and a sort of companion piece to this film.  The only question is, which soundtrack is more iconic, Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly or Isaac Hayes’ Shaft?  More on that once I’ve seen both.

Rocky (1976)

Rocky – 1976

Director – John G. Avlidsen

Starring – Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burgess Meridith, and Carl Weathers

So apparently the internationally known boxing movie, Rocky, which has 5 sequels each also about boxing, really isn’t about boxing after all.  I have it on good authority (mine) that Rocky is actually the tale of a man making good.  Proving to himself that he can drive himself mentally, condition himself physically, to overcome insurmountable odds to live out his dream, or more appropriately prove to himself that he deserves to live out his dream.  Huh.  Who knew.

As you might have guessed, I was under the impression that Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, as if you didn’t already know) was simply a super patriotic, hard-willed, boxing phenom, who gives it all he’s got all the time, always with his head screwed on right and laser focus targeting his goals.  I got this impression from my third-hand knowledge of the film, and it’s super popular sequels (Rocky II, Rocky III, Rocky IV, Rocky V, and of course Rocky Balboa), always showing the titular character with a flag in the background, or doing his best, or even single-handedly defeating the Soviet Union.  It would turn out that I got the wrong impression (of the first film anyway.)

In actuality, Rocky is a bit of a lunk-head.  He has no real future, and lives to brag about his modest exploits in the boxing ring, the most spectacular of which are still pretty mediocre.  Most people who know him seem to have a similarly negative impression of him, as does Rocky himself.  He has set the bar low in his life and whether on purpose or through circumstance manages to live up to those low expectations.

Rocky would conceivably go on living this way if his often voiced dreams of being given a shot weren’t accidentally thrust upon him.  The current heavy-weight champion, Apollo Creed (one of Carl Weathers’ best roles ever) needs a punching bag for what is essentially a staged fight / publicity stunt.  Rocky is chosen because of his nickname, the “Italian Stallion”, and how it would look on the poster, or in TV ads, not for his heart, and certainly not for his fighting ability.  Creed, being a sound business man, is simply trying to sell himself, the prospect of a challenge didn’t even cross his mind.  He isn’t actually trying to give Rocky a chance, but he’s selling the idea of Rocky back to the public that knows him.

It’s not until after the spotlight is focused on Rocky that people come out of the woodwork to support him.   Although, I suppose support isn’t the right word, in actuality they are simply trying to reach for the spotlight a little themselves.  The trainer who scoffed at him, friends and acquaintances from the neighborhood, and even his opponent seek only to use Rocky to thrust themselves, their causes, and their agendas into the forefront.

His only true supporters, are his buddy Paulie, and his love interest Adrian.  It is because of their belief in him, specifically Adrian’s, that Rocky starts to really try to do it for himself.  Rather than simply drifting through with only the momentum that other people are giving him, Rocky really starts to work, testing and expanding his own limits in order to actually give it his all.

At its heart, Rocky is not about winning, it doesn’t subscribe to the notions of patriotism, and honor, and brute strength that the series is famous for, it’s about the real palpable value of a two-way, give and take, relationship between partners.  People working together to make each other stronger.  This is where Rocky (both the movie and the character) really succeeds.  This union between the meek, shy little Adrian, and the puffed up yet vulnerable Rocky manages to strengthen each character, allowing them to assert themselves and rise above the muted lives that trapped them both.

As with Stallone’s other big name franchise of the 80’s, Rambo, the spectacle, pageantry, and glitter of the sequels ends up overshadowing the raw impact that the original has.  The message ends up getting lost the further the series goes.  I’d like to think it was a conscious commentary on the 80’s themselves, but I kinda don’t think so.  To get the full impact of both Rambo and Rocky, each should be judged on the original movies alone.

Strangely enough, Sylvester Stallone actually wrote this script.  On top of that, once he found a buyer for it, he leveraged himself in as the lead as a condition of selling it.  At the time, Stallone was a little known actor who had only done tiny bit parts in semi-exploitation films like Deathrace 2000, The Lords of Flatbush, and the part of a thug in Farewell My Lovely, so his selling his screenplay AND through sheer force of will getting to star in it is a fairly Rocky-esque accomplishment in and of itself.

***Spoilers***

Typically of films of the seventies, Rocky is fairly slow-paced, more interested in character development than the spectacle of the fight at the end, and what’s most refreshing of all is that Rocky doesn’t need to win the match at the end to complete his journey.  The success of the film isn’t the outcome of the fight, it’s Rocky’s calling for Adrian afterwards.  It’s their kiss, and their focus on each other.

***End Spoilers***

Performances in the film are all iconic and as such seem at first to be a little clichéd, but since they were what the clichés are based on it quickly seems natural again. Stallone as Rocky and Talia Shire as Adrian both have roles that play to their talents.  Sly is famous for his physique  but not so much for his acting, so playing a character with the same attributes made the whole performance more believable.  Shire is by appearances very small and meek, so the role of Adrian fits her demeanor very well, and both seem equally well suited to playing against the other.

The one character that is traditionally romanticized to death, and I actually thought he was just a jerk, is Burgess Meridith as Mickey, the trainer.  Throughout the first half of the film, he only acknowledges Rocky by belittling him.  During his hat-in-hand speech asking to be Rocky’s trainer, Rocky gets understandably angry, yells at him and kicks him out of his house.  Mickey totally deserved just that very sort of treatment.  The fact that Rocky took him back and shared his spotlight is, I suppose, a way of reconciling with his past, but is still disappointing.  Granted, it was Mickey’s training that helped him get to the point where he actually had a chance, but still every argument Rocky had against him was true and accurate.

Some minor things aside, Rocky was a very enjoyable film.  Very inspiring because of the fact it didn’t depend on the boxing match, not despite it.  Given that it was such a subdued, subtle, character study, I’m frankly fairly surprised that it became as much of a popcorn fueled franchise as it has, but it’s kind of a good sign that what is essentially an art movie with something important to say can capture so many people’s hearts.  Definitely worthy of it’s place on the top 1001 movies.

“What ever happened to the dog!?” – Ashley

Vampyr (AKA: The Vampire, AKA: Not Against the Flesh) (1932)

Vampyr (AKA: The Vampire, AKA: Not Against the Flesh) – 1932

Director – Carl Theodor Dreyer

Starring – Julian West, Maurice Schutz, and Rena Mandel

When I think of a good vampire story, I think of the grotesque, deformed creature typified by Max Schreck in Nosferatu.  I think of Bela Lugosi’s suave and seductive Count Dracula from the aptly named Dracula.  Hell, I even think of Kiefer Sutherland and Alex Winter as the perpetual, rebellious, angst-ridden teenagers in Lost Boys.  One thing I do not think of, despite it’s clever title, is Vampyr the nearly silent horror story from cinema pioneer Carl Theodor Dreyer.

Firstly, Vampyr is a vampire story in the loosest of terms.  There is an evil, in the form of a person, or people, terrorizing a small, eastern european village.  About halfway through the movie, mention is made of a young woman with a wound on her neck who is acting as if possessed.  It is there that the similarities end.

Now despite it not really being true to the vampire angle, the film does have its moments of creepy, skin crawling ingenuity.  Dreyer’s use of subtle editing tricks to make the shadows come alive pack quite a punch both visually, and in the scare department.  Ghostly shadow figures go about their business against walls, reflected in water, and along the ground, while our main character stares in disbelief.  These effects are used so often in fact that it is more accurate to call the film Shadowpyr than Vampyr.  It is unfortunate for the film, however, that this aspect of the story wasn’t explored further than just as creepy visuals.

Earlier I mentioned that this film was nearly silent, this is because when the film was produced it was still the early days of sound and not much was done other than the occasional section of dialogue or stray sound effect.  In a way, this lack of sound really helps the sections of the film dealing with the shadows.  It seems strange and off somewhat that we are unable to hear the shadow with a peg leg ascend the ladder, or the shadowy gravedigger digging a grave.  All the sections not utilizing the lack of sound in this way are left wanting.  The dialogue is rather garbled and mumbly and doesn’t seem to match up with the actor who is supposedly speaking the line.  This is partially because it is in a language I don’t understand, but it also helped along by the fact that there are title cards with the dialogue even though the film has sound.

By and large this was an interesting film.  Some of the visuals were very disturbing and effective, but this seems more like a footnote in cinema history rather than a benchmark.  Good, but not nearly as good as the director’s earlier work, and if you’re interested in that, start with La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.  If you want a good movie about vampires, try Let The Right One In, or one of the films I mentioned earlier.

La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc (AKA: The Passion of Joan of Arc) (1928)

PassionofJoanofArc

La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc (AKA: The Passion of Joan of Arc) – 1928

Director – Carl Theodor Dreyer

Starring – Maria Falconetti

Quite possibly Carl Theodor Dreyer’s most influential work, The Passion of Joan of Arc owes a lot of it’s notoriety and it’s impact to it’s lead actress, Maria Falconetti.  The fear, and passion thatFalconetti conjures on camera througout the duration of the trial of Joan,  is not merely some plot point to enhance the story, it IS the story.

Staged almost entirely within the courtroom or her jail cell, the story of Joan of Arc is fairly straight forward, so much so that most people know the jist of it even if they don’t know that they know it.  Joan, the famous saint, and girl warrior, is on trial for her alleged heresy (actually she was only officially tried for wearing in-appropriate men’s clothing).  During this trial, everything from her value structure to her manner of dress is drawn into question.  Evidence is forged, and heavy eccliesiatic persuasion is used.  Through it all Joan held to her beliefs, and was eventually sentenced to death.  This is not a spoiler, it’s too well known to have spoiled anything.

From the opening shots of the courtroom, I was immediately struck by how upclose and invasive the camera work seemed to be.  Not invasive of the actors, but of me.  Shot in striking, uncomfortable close-ups, Joan’s accusers seem warped and distended.  Each face (with the exception of Joan’s) takes on a sinister look, frowning, sneering, and conspiring with a simple furrow of the brow.  Joan on the other hand, seems to have a perpetually wet, upturned gaze, similar to a lot of religious paintings.  She is given more room in the frame and as a result, she serves as a respite for us as viewers when she is on screen.

I tried my damnedest to watch it in it’s original silent state, but after catching myself nodding off a bit, I turned on the optional audio track of accompanying music.  Let me tell you…this helps SO much!  The music serves as a balast not only for the dramatic action happening on screen, but for pacing, dramatic effect, and as an additional means of engaging the audience.

One thing I was surprised about when watching this, was the over-all quality of image that this version (the Criterion Collection edition) offered.  I am used to these older films being so grainy and damaged that they seem almost blurry, so it was quite a surpise to find that the print was clear as a bell, with only a few scratches and flaws in the picture quality.  Another final critique, since this story is based on actual documentation of the court proceedings, the reach of the story seemed lacking.  I would have liked to have heard more about Joan’s deeds before her trial, whether or not they were truthful or distortions put forth by her accusers, it would have helped to liven up the story a bit.

By and large, The Passion of Joan of Arc was a pleasant surprise to me.  The image quality in particular, but also the acting, and pacing managed to avoid the trappings (read: length) that many other silent films fall into.  While there were slow moments, the last scene of the rioting villagers being fought off by palace guards was more than enough to smack me across the face.