"The superb dedication of such entities as the Criterion Collection, Milestone Films, and Gartenberg Media Enterprises, to name key players, are making possible access to a wealth of cinematic history, ephemera, and value-added materials."
– B. Ruby Rich, Film Quarterly Winter 2013
With the fall academic semester nearing completion, Gartenberg Media Enterprises has offered a new slate of DVD and Blu-ray publications for distribution to the North American academic community. These digital editions are selected from film archives and boutique publishers worldwide, and represent the entire breadth and depth of moving image history. This current roster of releases encompass 120 years of film history, from the turn of the 19th century actuality film, VIENNA TRAMWAY RIDE (1906) through to Marie Losier's colorful, avant-garde portrait of performance artist Deborah Krystal, BIRD OF THE NIGHT (L’OISEAU DE LA NUIT (2015).
VIENNA 1900. PICTURES OF A METROPOLIS does not represent the canonical “Vienna films” -- the big budget romances and operettas of the 1930s and 1950s -- that provide the focus for this DVD, but rather a collection of rare film documents from the collection of the Austrian Film Museum. These works and fragments were saved from oblivion by the Film Museum's archivists, and offer vivid glimpses of urban life in Vienna during the last decade of the Empire, up to the outbreak of World War I. The coexistence of technological modernization and traditional imperial customs, of spectacle and the vernacular pervades these pictures, shot by international crews and viewed by movie theatre audiences throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire and most of Europe. Seventy years later, in VIENNAFILM 1896 – 1976, Austrian avant-garde filmmaker Ernst Schmidt, Jr. created his subjective collage of Viennese life, using a combination of found footage and newly-shot material.
The First World War and its aftermath saw an increase in the mass migration of Eastern European Jews to the cities of the West, fleeing the chaos caused by the Russian Revolution and the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Mostly Orthodox Jews with distinctive dress, beliefs, and customs, they became a visible foreign presence on the streets of Western Europe. As a result, half a dozen feature films made between 1919 and 1924 in Germany and Austria focused on the plight of the Jews in postwar Europe -- the tensions between tradition and modernity, the problem of rising anti-Semitism, and the issue of social assimilation and interfaith marriage. The most well-known of these movies is DER GOLEM (1919); a more obscure film by a famous director (Carl Th. Dreyer) in this vein is LOVE ONE ANOTHER (1922). Another one of these movies, THE ANCIENT LAW (1923), reenacts an earlier migration of Jews from Eastern Europe to the capital of the Austrian Empire in the 1860’s, through the journey of Baruch Mayer, an Orthodox Jew and aspiring actor, from a shtetl in Galicia to the stage of Vienna’s preeminent theater the Burgtheater. THE ANCIENT LAW is considered to be a kind of precursor to THE JAZZ SINGER (1927), made only four years later but a world apart in Hollywood.
One of the pleasures of curating a line of DVD releases is the ability to help reshape the canons of film history. Very little is known in North America about Portuguese silent film history, and with several new DVD releases, our attempt is to alter this understanding.
MULHERES DA BEIRA (1922) and OS LOBOS (1923) are two examples of films made in Portugal by foreign directors who left their mark on the country’s cinematography prior to the arrival of sound cinema. Both films were directed in the early 1920s and are among the most important works by Rino Lupo (1884-1936), who consummately combined his own well- trained gaze and experience with distinctive local features, such as the Portuguese natural scenery, traditions and literary works.
MULHERES DA BEIRA is, according to film historian and critic Jôao Bénard da Costa, the first film to introduce a form of verismo into Portuguese cinema, because of the way the actress Brunilde Jüdice embodies her role with a combination of devoutness (the large cross around her neck) and sensuality (her cleavage), as well as for the manner in which she is so closely associated with the mountain landscape.
In terms of the plot, she rejects the pure love of a pastor and is seduced by a nobleman, who gets her pregnant. Eventually abandoned, she retires to a convent. Eternally tortured, however, she leaves the convent and plunges to her death atop a mountain. She became, according to the aforementioned critic, the first mythical woman in Portuguese cinema.
As a follow-up to MUHERES DA BEIRA, Rino Lupo was interested in continuing to film in remote Portuguese landscapes (in this instance, the Serra da Estrela). In OS LOBOS, the plot surrounds a seafarer named Ruivo, who, after serving a sentence for a crime of passion, travels to a remote mountain area, where his romantic entanglements eventually lead to his death. The film hints at much more than mere melodrama, however, when one focuses on the poetics expressed through the visual motifs. The film begins where it ends with waves crashing against the rocks; this imagery functions both as a metaphorical and structural element. Other visual contrasts course throughout the film -- water and fire, rocky outcroppings and vast open spaces, the mountains and the sea, the cliffs and the houses carved in the granite rock -- all of which function as striking and precarious elements against which the human dramas are played out the fullest.
Reinaldo Ferreira (1897-1935) was the most famous Portuguese journalist ever. He specialized in crime reporting and in writing all types of sensational articles. Perhaps his imaginative instincts enabled him to use a real-life story as a point of departure for his film O TÁXI Nº 9297 (1927). Reinaldo knew how to turn journalism into narrative and reportage into fiction. O TÁXI Nº 9297 was inspired by the European and American mystery serials; the film dramatizes a case that shook the country and which Ferreira had investigated in several reports: the murder of the actress Maria Alves by her manager Augusto Gomes. The plot is constructed as pure crime fiction. The unfolding events are craftily assembled by Renaldo’s directorial hand into a thread of false leads, creating a mounting sense of suspense as to identifying the murderer.
The director sprinkles the plot with a generous dose of suspenseful details: the white-gloved hand hanging out of the cab window, early on; the handgun that creeps ominously forward from between the curtains, the exciting game of pickpocket in the dark, the rope ladder tossed into Eva’s room, the note slipped under the door, and the feet of the mysterious figure that walks down the hall after dark. He builds a mise-en-scene around obscurity and indistinctness, often choosing a shot scale that is either too close or too distant. From afar, one is not able to make out the identity underneath the disguise, and up close we see the disguise, but not the identity. One of the film’s motifs stands out for its visual force: hands. In this, a wide range of meanings and possibilities is suggested, given that they are signs without a clear referent, in which markers of gender and social class and ethnicity are indistinct – enabling the director to wreak visual havoc.
J. Leitão de Barros’ first feature film is a truly remarkable work, fusing a wide range of aesthetic influences and artistic traditions, namely the European cinematographic avant-gardes (it is consciously within the genre and lineage of “urban symphonies” such as MANHATTA, BERLIN, SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY, and THE MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA).
The film also owes a stylistic debt to Leitâo de Barrios’s journalistic practices. In 1928, the filmmaker had founded the magazine O Noticias Illustrado, a publication that revolutionized Portuguese press because of its pioneering use of rotogravure. The outcome was a layout where the image, more than the text, was the hinge used to put a story across with its emphasis falling on the immediacy and instantaneity of the photographic image to create a notion of authenticity, and employing the formal strategies of montage and collage to express the quick pace of modern life. Many of these features are shared by cinematic modernism, which aimed to reflect as well as to construct the experience of modernity.
LISBOA, CRÓNICA ANEDÓTICA (1930) combines documentary sequences with staged episodes that feature over 40 actors and actresses. During the 1920s, Leitâo de Barrios also worked as a playwright and costume and set designer in some of the major Portuguese theatre companies. Very familiar with the theatrical milieu, he transposed the popularity of these actors onto the cinema screen. These scenes create a time capsule of Lisbon theater during this period, ground the Portuguese audience in a shared cultural universe, and prefigure the domestic film comedies of the ensuing two decades.
LISBOA, CHRÓNICA ANEDÓTICA is perhaps unique among the City Symphony films because of its overall structure as a chronological arc progressing from infancy to old age and back again (rather than from dawn to evening). This theme is accentuated by the film’s opening title, which states “To Be Born, To Live, To Die in Lisbon”, further underscoring that LISBOA, CHRÓNICA ANEDÓTICA posits itself as a film promoting notions of rebirth and reinvention.
Known for a long time as Belgium's greatest explorer, the Marquis de Wavrin was also a writer, a talented photographer and a filmmaker. Using footage shot on his numerous journeys in Latin America, he made successful films such as IN THE SCALP COUNTRY (1931) and AMONG THE INDIAN SORCERERS (1934). This DVD edition entitled MARQUIS DE WAVRIN also includes the recent documentary MARQUIS DE WAVRIN - FROM THE MANOR TO THE JUNGLE (2017), as well as AT THE HEART OF UNKNOWN SOUTH AMERICA (1924), which was reconstructed from unedited rushes preserved at the Royal Film Archive of Belgium. An additional short film, VENEZUELA, LITTLE VENICE (1937), focuses on the indigenous people of Venezuela. Bonus materials are also included. A fascinating and intriguing person, the Marquis de Wavrin left us some extraordinary images of the South American continent.
THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF (1950) was the first independent production of Phoenix Films, the company run by Jack M. Warner, son of Warner Bros. Studios mogul Jack L., and a highlight in the lengthy career of director Felix E. Feist. In the hard-boiled Film Noir tradition, reminiscent of the work of James M. Cain, greed, unstoppable sexual attraction, and betrayal set off a doomed course in which a femme fatale leads a once upstanding citizen down a dark path.
Blinded by love, homicide lieutenant Ed Cullen (Lee J. Cobb, fresh off originating the role of Willy Loman on Broadway in DEATH OF A SALESMAN) goes to great lengths to cover up a murder. His coquettish girlfriend Lois (Jane Wyatt, best known as the mother in the television series FATHER KNOWS BEST) has killed her scheming husband before he could bump her off. John Dall (GUN CRAZY) co-stars as Ed’s kid brother Andy, a rookie on the force who is determined to break his first big case. These accomplished actors are nearly eclipsed by the incandescent star power of San Francisco and especially the world’s most photographed bridge, the Golden Gate. (See also WOMAN ON THE RUN, another Film Noir shot on location in San Francisco).
The extended penultimate scene, filmed to great effect on location at Fort Point, predates Hitchcock’s use of the same locale in VERTIGO (1958). Feist directs the climax almost completely sans dialogue and music, the action scored only by the sounds of wind and echoing footsteps. Feist maximizes tension out of even the most mundane of elements (especially a scarf floating in the breeze), thereby elevating THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF over its B-movie roots, culminating in a kind of visual poetry. Enhancing the overall atmosphere of the film is the work of cinematographer Russell Harlan, who shot the film on location in only 5 days. Over the course of his career, Harlan was nominated for six Academy Awards. He infused with dramatic light and shadow such noteworthy films as GUN CRAZY (1950), BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (1955), WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957), and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962).
Twin brothers Mike and George Kuchar were born in the Bronx. They began making 8mm films in the mid-1950s, and then graduated to 16mm filmmaking in the 1960s. They played an important contributing role to the development of the American underground narrative cinema that emerged during this period. Their films evoked the grandeur of Hollywood cinema, but with bargain basement production values, including hand-drawn main titles, homemade sets and costumes, overwrought acting styles, and dramatic music scores. They pioneered a hilariously campy, lurid style situated between Ed Wood’s exploitation films and Douglas Sirk’s melodramas.
SINS OF THE FLESHAPOIDS (1966) is set a million years in the future, after "The Great War" has scourged the planet, mankind has forsaken science for self-indulgence in all the carnal pleasures afforded by art, food, and lust. Work is left to a race of enslaved androids. One rebellious male robot tires of pampering his lazy masters, and joins the humans in sin.
Marie Losier, a French-born, contemporary New York avant-garde filmmaker, learned from the Kuchar brothers about the art of making 16mm films with a Bolex camera. Through her craft, she has created a unique series of engaging cinematic “dream” portraits featuring key figures in avant-garde circles. Losier often choreographs these on-screen performances with outré, costumed characters. Her movies are imbued with both psychological acumen and effervescent flair, which extends as well to her intimate, feature-length portrait biography film, THE BALLAD OF GENESIS AND LADY JAYE (2011). The films of Marie Losier are the subject of an upcoming retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art (New York) in November 2018.
The compilation DVD of Losier’s work entitled HELLO HAPPINESS! (2003-2015) features, among others, performances by Mike and George Kuchar, Richard Foreman, Guy Maddin, Genesis P-Orridge, and Alan Vega. Tony Conrad is featured on a separate DVD (DREAMINIMALIST, which also includes his own seminal structural film, THE FLICKER).