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Scary Stories to Tell in the Wax Museum: Paul Leni’s Waxworks and the Transition Away from Expressionism

The style of film known as German Expressionism was fashionable in the medium for less than five years in the late teens and early twenties of last century, but its influence is still felt today. Beginning with the release of the first true horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in 1919, the Expressionist mode of filmmaking leaned heavily on stylization, projecting the twisted interior worlds of characters onto their surroundings. These worlds often involved painted backdrops standing in for real sets, with buildings leaning at impossible angles, looming over tortuous city streets and dark alleys; the acting style seen in such films may look overly histrionic to our eyes today, but it is intentionally so: each emotion a character has is felt to the highest degree, and is expressed with commensurate ardor. Georgia Tech professor JP Telotte reminds us too that Expressionism is not limited to the visual, as, on a narrative level, themes of disaffection, mendacity, and insanity abound in these films and their predecessors in other arts (Telotte 16). The brief Expressionist wave that began with the end of the War to End All Wars crashed as all waves must, and in spectacular fashion with Paul Leni’s 1924 film Waxworks.
A classic example of an Expressionist tendency towards narratives revolving around some sort of show, Waxworks presents a sort of dark inversion of the old Shakespearean adage “all the world’s a stage”; often in Expressionist films, and especially in Waxworks, we are seeing the interior made exterior, a subject’s mind (generally carrying trauma from the First World War and its aftermath) is usually the only point of view the audience shares. Our protagonist’s world becomes a “stage” only through our intrusion into their mind, laying bare all the ugly truths about their inner life. But unlike the ambiguous mental illness for which the protagonist is locked away in the earlier The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the writer’s mind in Waxworks is presented as not only perfectly sane but brimming with imagination: he even fancies that one of the wax figures comes to life and (in the most visually-stunning sequence of the film) attacks! Telotte’s interpretation of Waxworks leans heavily on principles of spectatorship. He treats each episode in turn, noting how the subjects (in each case one of the wax figures and a couple played, in the writer’s imagination, by the writer himself and the daughter of the wax museum’s proprietor) all attempt to take up and maintain positions where they are observing others, rather than being observed. For the powerful men depicted in the first two episodes, Caliph of ancient Baghdad Haroun Al-Raschid and Russian Czar Ivan the Terrible, the reversals of power that take place are especially harrowing, dragging those despots down to the level of commoners as they are overtaken by their darkest fears and desires (Telotte 21-4). Their stories have the potential to thrill and instruct both the fairgoers in the wax museum and us as the audience in the theater as they explore the corrupting nature of power; it is the only major failing of Leni’s film that he chose to turn this setup into a purely aesthetic exercise.
From this perspective, Waxworks represents a rejection of certain ideologies shared by earlier Expressionist artists, who used the interiority inherent to the aesthetic to essentially X-ray society, using those darkest fears and desires to show the world its own true face. Leni’s film holds no such seriousness of purpose, instead using the principles of the Expressionist mode in what German critic Jürgen Kasten calls a purely “decorative” manner. He continues: “This comes as no surprise in view of the aesthetic development of German cinema and other art forms until 1923. The late completion of the film, and a further one-year delay until its première in 1924, would have all but destroyed any chance for a purely expressionistic film to have a commercial impact” (Kasten 183). Further, the several exotic locales of the story were certainly attractive to Leni, who cut his teeth in the film industry designing sets (Elsaesser 234). By 1924, Expressionism was already becoming passé as it had before WWI in other arts. German film historian Thomas Elsaesser contends that films like Waxworks and Ernst Lubitsch’s earlier The Wild Cat (1921) should be seen as parodies of the form and its rapidly desiccating tendency toward over-stylization (Elsaesser 63-4). Especially given the satirical elements in the first episode presented in Waxworks, we can see that Leni was less influenced by the social commentary of his contemporaries than he was by the visual freedom of the genre.
Waxworks is unevenly split into three different episodes, each presenting a wildly different aesthetic and anchored by bombastic, idiosyncratic performances by three different leads. The film opens on a young writer who, after finding his way through a crowded fairground, enters a wax museum with a classified ad in hand, seeking employment. Engaged to write stories to go along with the museum’s displays of some of history’s most evil personalities, he imagines himself first as a baker, living with his beautiful wife in Ancient Baghdad near the residence of Caliph Haroun Al-Raschid, the first model in the wax museum; a rare “comedic” role for larger-than-life actor Emil Jannings (who later became a Nazi and here represents the whitewashing common to early film history, German or otherwise), the Caliph passes his days with women, food, and a game of chess. With set design that reflects both the Caliph’s portly frame and the fluffy breads produced by the baker, Leni’s vision of Ancient Baghdad succeeds much more in representing the fruit of our protagonist-writer’s imagination than it does in any sense of accurate historical depiction.
The film’s second episode takes on a more somber tone, shifting to Medieval Russia during the reign of Ivan IV, the first Russian Czar and better known as Ivan the Terrible (played by Conrad Veidt, who had starred previously in the above-mentioned The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari). The airy interiors of Baghdad are gone, replaced with low ceilings in claustrophobia-inducing chambers that provide a visual echo to the Czar’s ever-increasing paranoia; while the rounded buildings of the previous episode are nowhere to be seen, we can glimpse their echoes in the opulent cupolas of the Czar’s palace and, more ominously, in the over-sized hourglasses Ivan forces his torture victims to stare at, the falling grains of sand representing the slow draining of their lives as his poison does its work. Such continuity subtly reflects Leni’s visual genius as he seamlessly incorporates Expressionism with other stylistic elements in multiple ways throughout the film, pointing to the future of the dying genre: “the future of both the conventional and the artistic film,” Kasten writes, “was a realistic or near-realistic design to which, occasionally, fantastic elements would be added through special preparation or camera work” (Kasten 184). Kasten’s use of the word “fantastic” here is particularly apt, as most of Waxworks does take place in a world of fantasy, only mixing the real and the unreal in its unfortunately short final episode.
When the writer dozes off over his compositions, the final wax figure, called Spring-Heeled Jack or Jack the Ripper depending on the version of the film (in either case played by the other star of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Werner Krauss), comes to life to terrorize the writer and the museum proprietor’s daughter once again. As Jack chases the lovers through the streets we see the entire fairground come to life at once, with several different attractions superimposed over each other. What this kaleidoscopic flurry of images ends up evoking, as the writer wakes up just before Jack strikes a killing blow, is the last exuberant gasp of Expressionism proper; the legacy of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the war that inspired the movement’s transition from the other arts to film, though interesting fodder for both dramatic and aesthetic practice, is (naively) treated as a thing of the past, the stuff of nightmares and scary stories. As Kasten sums it up: “Not only have the tyrants lost their potential to evoke fear and terror in a kind of ironic alienation effect, but also the night, a frightening symbol of horror where psychopathic tyrants populate the narrow alleyways, has once more been reclaimed by lovers and their activities – even if they only entertain each other with scary tales of horror” (Kasten 182). With Waxworks, Leni produced a masterwork of an Art Film but his commitment to aesthetics over politics prevented a truly good film from being great.

Works Cited

Elsaesser, Thomas. Weimar Cinema and After: Germany’s Historical Imaginary. Routledge, 2000.

Kasten, Jürgen. “Episodic Patchwork: The Bric-à-Brac Principle in Paul Leni’s Waxworks.” Expressionist Film – New Perspectives, edited by Dietrich Scheunemann, Camden House, 2003, 173-186.

Telotte, J.P. “German Expressionism: A cinematic/cultural problem.” Traditions in World Cinema, edited by Linda Badley, R. Barton Palmer, and Steven Jay Schneider, Rutgers University Press, 2006, 15-28.

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Three or Four Harveys: Formal Experimentation in American Splendor (2003)

Over ten years after its protagonist’s death and nearly 20 after its initial release, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor remains a stunning achievement in balance. Both a dizzying formal experiment combining fiction film with documentary and a deeply-affecting, yet sardonic, portrait of an artist (and a portrait of that artist’s portraits of himself), the film tells the story of Cleveland native Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti, in a career-defining role) and his meteoric rise from broke file clerk struggling to get anywhere in life to broke file clerk who writes comics about struggling to get anywhere in life. If this sounds like fodder for a weird, existential art film, it is: Springer Berman and Pulcini (who also wrote the screenplay) have crafted Blue Collar America’s answer to European art house giants like Godard and Bergman, injecting a suitably meandering, quotidian narrative with all the ennui and alienation one might find in the bleakest work of those two venerable iconoclasts.

But American Splendor is no mere knockoff or pastiche: anchored by a virtuoso performance from Giamatti (who had only found work as a character actor up to that point), it balances the crushing weight of daily life with a cynical, acerbic sense of humor and a certain looseness in the documentary scenes that completely erases any hint of pretentiousness. The film accomplishes this by casting its main character in triplicate: Giamatti as a young(-er) Harvey Pekar, figuring out life and love, Pekar himself as both narrator and documentary interviewee, looking back on his past with his trademark candor, and an Animated Harvey, who appears as both a stand-in and internal monologue for Giamatti’s character. American Splendor begins (after a brief prologue with a fourth Harvey, 11 years old and refusing to dress up for Halloween) with Giamatti stuck in a dead-end job and heading for a second divorce. The Real Harvey is shown recording his narration, with a backdrop of folding chairs, recording equipment, and a young actor standing in for a recording engineer, all against a jarringly stark white background reminiscent of the construct program in The Matrix (1999). Then we see him discussing the script with the (off-screen) directors, admitting he is more concerned with whether his voice will hold up against the demands of narrating a feature film than whether the film’s screenplay (which he has barely skimmed) will reveal any uncomfortable truths about his life. The Real Harvey’s indifference is perhaps predictable, as the film soon divulges that the comics which brought him recognition are all drawn from his own experiences – anything the movie might say about him he has already said about himself.

The next documentary interview sees The Real Harvey sitting in the middle of a yard sale reconstructed on the same white backdrop and discussing his time collecting and selling used records. In the succeeding flashback, he meets fellow “underground comix” author R. Crumb, noting, “they made a movie about him too,” referring to Terry Zwigoff’s 1995 documentary Crumb. This throwaway line carries a double meaning that is actually highly significant to the experimental aspects of American Splendor, connecting Crumb the artist’s assistance in starting Pekar’s career (he illustrated many of The Real Harvey’s early stories and helped get them published) with Crumb the film’s trailblazing in the documentary world; the massive critical success of Crumb, along with that of Hoop Dreams the year before, was a watershed moment for the form, triggering an overhaul of the Academy’s Oscar nomination process that gave a bigger voice to independent productions, an achievement of which the veteran documentarians Pulcini and Springer Berman certainly would have been well aware, though American Splendor marked their transition into other forms of filmmaking. Additionally, the at-times-uncomfortable intimacy and frankness of Crumb clearly influenced American Splendor, as we see all of its main subjects (including Pekar’s third wife Joyce and his work friend Toby) asked for their feelings on the film and Pekar’s portrayal of them in his comics in real time. To my knowledge, this level of direct access has not been seen before or since actually DURING a film; outside of making-of featurettes and DVD commentary, I don’t know where else you would even see anything even similar.

This cycle of interview and staged flashback continues throughout the film, with other minimalistic “sets” and the real-life counterparts to its characters filtering in and out around The Real Harvey, all against the infinite white backdrop. Is this room The Real Harvey’s brain, shifting its focus constantly as he processes his memories? Is it an empty panel of a comic strip, waiting to be filled with his life? Or is it just a convenient dramatic device, a liminal space between our protagonist’s idiosyncratic mind and the filmmakers’ interpretation? In a traditional documentary the so-called “talking head” setup is used ostensibly to allow the subject to tell their own story. It completely effaces the off-screen presence of the documentarian(s); we almost never see them in-person or hear their actual questions, only the subject’s answers, implying an unmediated presentation of objective Truth. In American Splendor on the other hand, there is no such pretension to objectivity, only The Real Harvey’s perspective. His often freewheeling recollections of his past, accented by a jazzy score from Mark Suozzo (Metropolitan [1990], The Notorious Bettie Page [2005]), are the only point of view we are given, and really the only one that matters. With three or four Harveys on-screen reflecting the many different illustrators he collaborated with over the years to bring his comic persona to life, we see a sharp contrast between the form and content of the film: all we hear from The Real Harvey is that he’s just being honest, that he’s not a phony, but the true brilliance of what Pulcini and Springer Berman have accomplished here is that American Splendor, as it was in comic book form, is not reality as the documentary elements of the film imply. It is no more and no less than his reality, and we the audience are invited to take a look regardless of whether we’ll like what we see.

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I Read the Book First: Merchant-Ivory’s The Remains of the Day (1993)

Having spent the last month reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, I spent the afternoon today with The Remains of the Day, starring two all-time greats in Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. This was my first experience of a film by the duo of producer Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, most famous now for a certain aesthetic of film production involving stately period pieces, often literary adaptations set in England or colonial India; The Remains of the Day, along with Howard’s End (1992) and A Room with a View (1985, both adapted from novels by E. M. Forster), is both a classic example of their style and a beautifully understated, if flawed, drama in its own right.

Surprising precisely no one, Anthony Hopkins completely owns this movie, to the point where it’s fair to say he is one of a small handful of actors who could have pulled this role off at all; his stoicism and intense, lofty bearing fully embodies the assumed mantle of dignity the butler Stevens wears. Though the novel’s several digressions on the nature of that dignity are compressed in the film into one conversation among the servants over dinner (in a sequence hampered by poor editing), Ivory’s camera captures Sir Anthony’s performance as Stevens throughout the film in a way that perfectly fulfills the old adage of filmmaking and other arts, “show, don’t tell”. Hopkins brings the same practiced stillness and decorous repression to this role that he did in his Oscar-winning turn as Hannibal Lecter three years earlier, though boiling just below that surface this time is seriousness of purpose and blind devotion rather than murderous intent. Though he didn’t win an Oscar this time out, he was nominated with perhaps the greatest group of all time in the Best Actor category, Laurence Fishburne in What’s Love Got to Do with It, Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List, Daniel Day-Lewis in In the Name of the Father (also featuring Emma Thompson, who accomplished a rare feat that year by being nominated for both Best Actress in The Remains of the Day and Best Supporting Actress in In the Name of the Father), and the winner, Tom Hanks in Philadelphia.

Ivory’s direction also falls short in other ways from the “show, don’t tell” perspective, spending an unfortunately small amount of time indulging in the pastoral beauty of the English countryside through which Stevens travels on his vacation, despite explicitly referencing it as one of his main reasons for taking the vacation in the first place. The vibrant color and leisurely pacing its setting lent to Ishiguro’s novel was almost completely abandoned for the film, likely deemed an acceptable necessity of the process of adaptation; while its 134-minute runtime is already plenty for most audiences, The Remains of the Day surely would have benefited from taking the time to allow us to literally and figuratively stop and smell the roses.

I don’t intend here to delve too deeply into the differences between the novel and the film (and I can’t stand it when people get uptight over their perceptions about the “faithfulness” of an adaptation), so an episode lifted almost word-for-word from Ishiguro seems appropriate. When Stevens’ original employer, Lord Darlington, is entertaining a few guests and debating the merits of democracy with them, one of the men poses to Stevens several purposefully over-specific questions about international politics which the butler, of course, is unable to answer. Trying to prove that the common man is too ignorant to be trusted with any power in world affairs, the guest then considers his point well-made. Despite the straightforwardness of its dialogue, this brief occurrence speaks volumes through Hopkins’ performance, as he contains his character’s understandable embarrassment within an unblemished veneer of servility; he maintains his outward sense of dignity while enduring the indignity of outrageously classist abuse. It is a little muddy (someone more generous might say “ambiguous”) in both the film and the novel whether we are supposed to approve or condemn this action, or lack thereof, as both Stevens and Lord Darlington consider it wholly in keeping with his duties to take such degradation in stride (Darlington goes further in the novel, apologizing to the butler for the unwarranted attack on his intelligence), but by the end of the film Stevens comes to realize his faith in his employer was misplaced and there may be more to life than work; one may admire Stevens for his dedication and dependability but there are a few too many times throughout The Remains of the Day that his professionalism makes him almost inhuman.

The Remains of the Day is currently streaming for free with ads on PlutoTV but I honestly would rather have paid the $3 to rent it on Vudu or Amazon Prime because GOOD LORD I had to sit through the same three ads every time a scene ended.


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Miyazaki’s 80th: Howl’s Moving Castle

In celebration of Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki’s 80th birthday yesterday (January 5th), I finally got a chance to watch Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), his tenth film as director and follow-up to the universally-acclaimed Oscar winner Spirited Away (2001). As a fan of all of Miyazaki’s (and by extension his Studio Ghibli’s) films, I’ve always considered Spirited Away to be the most overrated of the bunch and seeing Howl’s Moving Castle at last confirmed that suspicion. Growing from the gravitas and fierce protest of Princess Mononoke (1997) and the whimsy and delightful side characters of Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Howl showcases Miyazaki at the height of his powers, having transcended his origins as a high-quality children’s entertainer with a big heart (not that there’s anything wrong with that but his regression to it in Spirited Away is, still, regrettable) to a serious activist-filmmaker. Unlike the earlier Mononoke, which presented a more nuanced picture of a war between humans and spirits with “good people on both sides”, Howl roundly and unequivocally condemns all forms of aggression.

Equal parts YA steampunk dystopia and allegorical high fantasy, Howl’s Moving Castle gives an outsider perspective on the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, though the novel on which it was based came out in 1986. The Japanese point of view on this act of aggression is perhaps unique in the world, and its divided loyalties are reflected in the film’s main character, the reclusive wizard Howl; Miyazaki would have seen these divided loyalties develop in real time over the course of his life: born in Japan in 1941, he was entering adulthood as his country’s military alliance with the United States was coming under its harshest criticism for dragging Japan into numerous conflicts during the Cold War. In the film, Howl has cultivated wizarding personas with both warring kingdoms and refuses to fight for either when they demand it, sabotaging the efforts of both sides while protecting innocent lives. Allegorically speaking, this is unfortunately more of a wish-fulfillment fantasy as reactionary elements in the Japanese Diet during the 1960s were able to (sometimes physically) remove opposition to the military alliance and keep Japan embroiled in US Imperialism for the second half of the twentieth century. Standing in for Japan, Howl’s use of violence to oppose violence ends up nearly turning him into the worst monster of all; only love, of course, is able to save him.

Films with astounding visuals have been a Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli trademark from the beginning, and Howl’s Moving Castle is no exception. Stories abound of Miyazaki hand-painting, or at least hand-checking, every frame of each of his films (at exactly two hours, Howl would have about 172,000 frames); the legendary care this master takes is evident throughout, especially in the movement and design of the wizard’s castle and several impressive sequences of Howl himself transforming partially or fully into a monstrous bird. The film’s score is also deserving of special mention here, another masterstroke from frequent Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi. It struck me during this viewing (having seen several other Miyazaki films scored by Hisaishi) that Hisaishi’s composition overall had the triumphant, epically melodic feel of a John Williams score but with none of the latter’s overbearing pomposity. A haunting solo trumpet melody counterpoints a watershed moment in the film’s final act, perfectly accomplishing the task of film music: enhancing a shot without overshadowing it.

Perhaps the only real flaw of Howl’s Moving Castle is also its most predictable, a romantic subplot in which Sophie, its strong female protagonist (another Miyazaki staple), falls for the brooding, emotionally unavailable, selfish Howl, destabilizing but not completely undermining the feminist appeal of the film. Sophie’s journey or, more accurately, tumble down this particular rabbit hole is full of lessons for its young target audience, as she learns to be her authentic self by embracing the old and ugly appearance she is cursed with and learns to be forthright in pressing the other denizens of Howl’s moving castle (a mouthy fire demon voiced by Billy Crystal and an apprentice magician voiced by a young Josh Hutcherson) into service cleaning and maintaining their home. Perhaps it would have been better for Sophie and Howl to go their separate ways in the end.

Howl’s Moving Castle is currently streaming on HBO Max in its English-dubbed form only.

(Academic) Year-End Wrap-Up 2012/13

            This academic year has been an interesting one for movies. The last quarter of 2012 saw the nick-of-time release of some of the biggest Oscar contenders, including Les Miserables, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Argo, as well as a slew of lesser pictures. 2013 has gotten off to a sputtering start, film-wise, with Texas Chainsaw 3D, the atrocious Movie 43, and Stephenie Meyer’s latest turd, The Host. Here, Otwo looks back on the good and bad from month to month.

            September kicked the school year off with a salvo of audience exploitation, seeing the (at the time) latest in a long line of 3D cartoon re-releases with Finding Nemo paddling crookedly back into our hearts (or is it back into our crooked hearts?). The best actor of all time, Nicolas Cage, jumped into the Taken trend with Stolen, teaming up once again with Con Air director Simon West. The iconic Sylvester Stallone dystopia, Judge Dredd, was remade as simply Dredd, and in 3D, because why not? Perhaps worst of all, Rian Johnson’s Looper took an excellent premise and intriguing story and tacked on such a sentimental ending that the film ruined not only itself, but time travel flicks for years to come. That is not to say September was a complete failure, with The Master and Amour reminding us that art still happens once in a great while on the silver screen.

            October was again a mix of good and bad. The usual Halloweentime horror of the scary-bad Paranormal Activity 4, the umpteenth Silent Hill, the disappointing Taken 2 and the unmentionably-terrible Here Comes the Boom accounted for the bad, while Argo and Skyfall both achieved that rare combination of near-universal critical acclaim and massive profits. November might have been the biggest month of 2012, with Oscar fodder Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Life of Pi as well as box office juggernaut Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 all being released in an intense three-week period. November’s success was tempered by the troubling racism and overall awfulness of the Red Dawn remake and the didactic last half-hour of Flight (for which, in any other year, Denzel Washington would have won the Oscar easily). 2012 ended with a whimper, as the over-hyped The Hobbit (which also debuted still-unproven High Frame-Rate cinematography, shooting at twice the normal speed), This is 40, and Les Miserables all failed to be half as good as their marketing would have you believe. The torture-porn just this side of Hostel that was Zero Dark Thirty also received plenty of acclaim that was as troubling as it was unwarranted. The lone bright spot was the equally-controversial Django Unchained.

            2013, as mentioned above, got off to a slow start. 3D refuses to die (Texas Chainsaw), as does Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Last Stand). Interestingly though, Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s latest release, The Grandmaster, initially released in China on January 8th, has been getting some international attention and, while it’s unclear right now whether a martial arts revival is on its way, the spirit of those films, it seems, is not dead after all. January also brought the release of Gangster Squad which, like The Grandmaster, was a stylized revival of an old genre, this time 1930s Hollywood gangster films. While Gangster Squad had its problems, such as flat characters, forced diversity, and Sean Penn’s accent, it was nevertheless an entertaining flick that knew exactly what it was doing and did that well.

            Two more careers escaped the icy grip of death in February, with Sylvester Stallone (Bullet to the Head) and Bruce Willis (A Good Day to Die Hard) both releasing new pictures. Though “new”, in this case, refers only to chronology, for both were (shockingly) desperate rehashes of past glory. The film world lost one of its greatest scholars that month too, as Donald Richie passed away at the age of 88, having done much to bridge the divide between the cultures of Japan and the West. Speaking of tragedies, Top Gun was re-released in 3D and Uncle Vernon died.

            Though 2013 has had a rocky start as far as new films are concerned, it might be picking up steam, as March saw the release of I’m So Excited and Spring Breakers, new, challenging features from Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar and American indie weirdo Harmony Korine, respectively. Likewise, Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem hit theatres here in April and we can look forward to Iron Man 3, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and The Great Gatsby (kind of) in May. Of course, you’re on your own if you go see Pain & Gain this month or May’s trilogy of stupid, Tyler Perry Presents Peeples, Fast and Furious 6 (SIX?!), and The Hangover Part III.

            I hope everyone has enjoyed going to the movies this school year as much as I have. Even though there’s been plenty of good and even more bad, movies are still, as ever, vitally important to our society and culture. Directly or indirectly, They show us who we are, who we think we are, and who we could be. Entertainment is great and, of course, has its utility for society. But it’s also important to remember that, from the most esoteric art picture to the most innocuous explosion-festival, each and every movie is a window into the culture, hearts, and minds of both those who made it and those who watch it.

It’s been real, UCD. Thanks for reading.

Leap of Faith: Chatting with Director Kieron J. Walsh

People grow apart. New doors open and others close. Fate plays a large role in our lives, even against our own will. This all comes together on New Year’s Eve in Kieron J. Walsh’s existential odyssey, Jump, which hits Irish cinemas on April 26th. “We’re all kind of the same when we’re about 13,” says Walsh, “and then we get into the late teens and early 20s and begin to realize what we want out of life and we grow apart, and that’s what’s happened between these three girls.” The girls are the suicidal Greta (Nicola Burley), reckless Dara (Valerie Kane), and Marie (Charlene McKenna), who is caught helplessly between her loyalties to both as Greta wants to (one way or another) get out of Derry forever and Dara is just looking for a good time. Enter Pearse (Martin McCann), whose drug-dealing brother has been murdered by the henchmen of Greta’s mob boss father, Frank Feeney (Lalor Roddy). Walsh says of Greta, “when she sees Pearse and how he lives his life and how he’s driven, it makes her think differently about her own life.”

            That might be the key to the whole film, as Greta is literally on the brink of suicide when fate intervenes in the form of Pearse, freshly bloodied from an encounter with Feeney’s goons. Pearse forces Greta to rethink her decision to jump off the Derry Peace Bridge, admonishing her (rather morbidly) to think about the poor soul who will find her in pieces at the bottom. It is also Pearse’s fierce determination to find those responsible for his brother’s disappearance, a mission undertaken for the sake of family ties, that inspires Greta to strike back at her own dysfunctional family. As Walsh puts it, “Her mother ended up probably killing herself, [Greta] suspects. She certainly didn’t want to live anymore and Greta believes it’s her father that forced her into that situation. Her father is good to her in material ways, but doesn’t have much obvious love for her. He would disagree, he would believe that he does everything a good father does for her but clearly it’s not enough for Greta.” The pair decide to steal a large sum of cash from Feeney and run away to Australia together, a plan Greta had originally made with the oft-disappointed Marie.

            Jump is Walsh’s second feature film after 2000’s When Brendan Met Trudy, with a considerable body of television work in between. While Walsh prefers not to distinguish between the two with regard to his own output, he finds TV to be a much more fruitful source of entertainment. “I went to see Zero Dark Thirty in the cinema recently and I remember sitting there and I couldn’t help thinking ‘you know what? I’d just love to be home watching Homeland’ because it’s far better,” he told me, “it’s challenging times for the feature film business.” This has been an increasingly common occurrence, he said, and he doesn’t see it changing anytime soon: “Would I like to go and watch the latest Tom Cruise film or would I like to watch the next episode of Breaking Bad? Give me Breaking Bad any day.”

            The subject of Breaking Bad also brought up the current division in the entertainment industry over the merits of digital video versus celluloid film stock (Breaking Bad is shot on 35mm film). Walsh is firmly in the former camp, saying “I want the films I make to look exactly how I want them to look, so if there’s any chance of something getting scratched or a color changing, I’m not very happy… What I see when I’m on the set, on my monitor, is pretty much what is going to end up on the big screen, particularly if it’s projected digitally. Normally it’s exactly what you shot and I think the control of that is very very good.” This is in stark contrast to the “fetish” others have for celluloid. Walsh mentions directors like Quentin Tarantino, who find a certain charm in those imperfections that give Walsh himself fits. “I think eventually they’re going to have to change, there’s no two ways about it.” Walsh says of such fetishists, “They’re not going to be projecting films on film in the foreseeable future… they’ve stopped making film stock so I don’t know what these guys are going to do.” Fully embracing the digital age, Walsh’s future, unlike that of physical film, is looking bright.

            He’s recently signed with Gersh, a Hollywood-based talent agency whose clients also include Kristen Stewart and Jamie Foxx, and he hopes this new partnership will expand his horizons beyond our corner of Europe, though he is adamant that he still loves working here, as evidenced by his forthcoming pilot for SkyTV. “I love making films in Ireland, I love making films in Britain, but I’d love to make a film in America,” he said of the move, “it’s really about opening up opportunities.” Without the reputation of a Martin McDonagh or a breakout success like John Kearney’s Once behind him though, Walsh expects to have to battle his way up the ranks of American cinema. “America is a huge country and Irish films are tiny in that place,” he says, “Unless you are extremely fortunate and happen to make something like Once which captured the hearts of the world really, but particularly America… you really do have to struggle.”

            Jump is sure to at least set him on the right path, with its innovative storytelling and talented young cast supported by a deft directorial hand and cinematography that is at once stunning to look at and unobtrusive. The film, though, is still dependent on word of mouth, “because there’s never enough money to publicize Irish films. They can’t really complete with American products, or British products really in terms of publicity,” so Walsh simply asks for a “leap of faith” and that moviegoers “take time to go and watch Irish film rather than immediately go and see a blockbuster.” You won’t be disappointed.

The Prophet and the Prostitute: Andre Bazin’s Uniquely Christian Conception of the Western

French critic Andre Bazin was not only instrumental in the acceptance of the study of film as a serious academic discipline, he was also a key figure (if not the key figure) in the development of cinematic grammar and language as we know it today. Though he never made a film himself, Bazin worked tirelessly, championing American and Italian films to French audiences and mentoring the young critic/directors at the magazine Cahiers du cinema, working with them to develop the epochal politique des auteurs (The Auteur Theory, which holds that the director is the singular creative force behind a given film) and the equally influential French New Wave. Bazin was also a politically moderate, devout Catholic. While it would short-change his legacy to confine its definition to this single aspect, his faith nevertheless informs a good deal of the moral and philosophical worldview evident in his critical work[1]. This angle is nowhere more evident than in his treatment of that quintessential American genre, the Western.

In his seminal essay on the genre, The Western: or The American Film Par Excellence, Bazin wrote that “the western does not age”. This simple statement encapsulates what is perhaps the greatest virtue of this genre and why the first five decades of cinema (the sixth as well, but Bazin had, unfortunately, died in 1958) witnessed a steady stream of Westerns, unequaled at the time or since. This seemingly-undying relevance (both popular and critical), for Bazin, proved that the Western was, as his title suggests, the highest achievement of American cinematic output. He points to other genres such as the comedy and the gangster film that had essentially been exhausted. What, for example, could one do in the gangster genre that Josef von Sternberg and Howard Hawks had not already done in Underworld (1927) and Scarface (1932), respectively?

His respect for the Western well-established, Bazin turns his attention to specifics, and this is where we find the most palpable expression of his Christian ideology. Bazin first examines what he calls the “pure young woman,” an archetype marked by, among other things, her status as a virgin. This quality immediately calls up various Catholic associations, including the Virgin Mary and the sacred importance of a woman’s purity. Bazin later postulates that this characteristic was inevitable in the genre, saying “the actual sociological conditions obtaining in primitive western society” placed the woman as the embodiment of the moral qualities to be imposed on the Wild West. This societal imperative comes full circle and exerts influence on the drama of the Western, necessitating a threat to woman’s virtue (Indians, bandits, etc.) and a hero to defend her and nascent civilization from that threat.

In addition to the Ideal Woman, Bazin defines a second female archetype, that of the Fallen Woman, the saloon girl, often (though this tends to be only obliquely referenced), a prostitute. Like the ideal heroine, she too is in love with the hero, and it is this love that leads her to sacrifice herself for him, thus “the god of the screenwriter” removes the problem of “one woman too many”, paving the way for the happiness of the morally-correct couple, heterosexual, monogamous, pure of heart, and ready to populate the West with more of the same. This sacrifice has two additional consequences, Bazin argues. First, it redeems her in the eyes of the spectators, absolving her of whatever sins are in her shady past; we no longer care that she is a prostitute or had perhaps broken the hero’s heart years ago. Second, it reinforces Bazin’s (Christian) moral view of the women of Westerns as the embodiment of the immutable values instrumental to the founding of a new civilization. As he says, “the distinction between good and bad applies only to the men. Women, all up and down the social scale, are in every case worthy of love or at least of esteem or pity”. This socially-inclusive viewpoint has a direct parallel in the bible of Bazin’s religion, in the character of Mary Magdalene. A former prostitute redeemed by her devotion to the Messiah, she embodies a direct analogue to this archetype of the Fallen Woman.

Another important Western trope Bazin mentions is the classic struggle between good and evil, order and chaos. He notes, “the Indian, who lived in [the wild west], was incapable of imposing on it man’s order. He mastered it only by identifying himself with its pagan savagery. The white Christian on the contrary is truly the conqueror of a new world… He imposes simultaneously his moral and his technical order”. It is not, of course, always the savage that threatens white Christian moral order. Equally dangerous are the white bandits, lawless men seeking to exploit the equally-lawless virgin land of the West for profit, or simply to hide from the authorities back east that would hang them. These villains live violently, leaving the hero but one option for subduing them: they must die violently as well; “Thou shalt not kill” is not extended to those that would stand in the way of the civilizing forces of Christianity.

With these archetypes and associations in mind, it is not difficult to see why Bazin and his disciples at Cahiers du cinema held up the work of American director John Ford as a key example, alongside that of Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, of their blossoming Auteur Theory. Though it was certainly not the first of its kind, the success of Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) meant that it set many of the standards by which Bazin and other critics judge the cinematic Western. Seven years later, Ford made My Darling Clementine (1946), a picture that conforms perfectly to Bazin’s formulation of the two women of the Western. The titular Clementine Carter is the Ideal Woman, a sophisticated lady from New England. The Fallen Woman is Chihuahua, a singer in the local saloon and a prostitute.

Bazin considers these basic principles to be the kernel of the drama of the Western, a stance exemplified by the plot of My Darling Clementine. Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) takes the job of town marshal in Tombstone, Arizona, in order to find the infamous Clantons, the men that killed his brother and rustled his cattle, forming an uneasy alliance with Doc Holliday. Clementine, Holliday’s former lover from his days back East, arrives in Tombstone and Earp falls in love with her, as Chihuahua falls in love with him. Culminating in the famous Gunfight at the O. K. Corral, the plot resolves according to Bazin’s specifications[2].

This violent climax is Doc and the Earps’ last resort; the Clantons refuse a peaceful solution and must be dispatched. They, like many other savage forces before them, stand in the way of the formation of a new world in Christianity’s image. Interestingly, though, the heroic Doc Holliday also does not fit into this world. Like John Wayne’s characters in Stagecoach before and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) after, he is a violent man, a coarse, if noble, remnant of the old world. The cleansing fire of justice purges the good and the evil alike, if they are unwilling or unable to conform to the new standards of righteousness and peace. And Bazin saw that it was good.


[1] It is also convenient at this point to note that I do not intend to imply Bazin is trying to hide any of his Christian leanings from his readers.

[2] It may be more accurate to say Bazin’s specifications were formed by this and other films like it.

Frankenweenie (2012) Review

     Revisiting the 1984 short that got him fired from Disney, Tim Burton’s latest stop-motion feature is the movie he wanted to make back then before budget difficulties forced him to shoot it with live actors. Backed by Disney again and armed with an enthusiastic group of stars and promising newcomers, Frankenweenie showcases Burton’s unique vision at its most nostalgic.
     Set in a suburb seemingly identical to that of Edward Scissorhands (1990), Frankenweenie revisits and pays homage to the various expressionist and classic horror films that influenced Burton’s singular cinematic style. References abound, from the Bride of Frankenstein hair on a poodle to shadows climbing stairs, posed like Nosferatu. Though this pastiche will certainly fly high over the heads of the film’s target audience, the era to which Burton pays tribute lives on in his distinctive aesthetic.
     Burton’s stop-motion animation is nothing new (several puppets are even recycled from his older movies, such as a giant rat from Nightmare Before Christmas) but it lends a certain tangibility to the almost alien, stylized world of New Holland. The small town misunderstands young Victor Frankenstein’s “science project” that resurrects his dog, marking him as an outcast when all he wanted was his dog back. Victor’s alienation and the mob mentality of the townspeople, fueled by Danny Elfman’s (a frequent Burton collaborator) exaggerated score, lead to a Frankenstein-inspired climax.
     Another Burton favorite, Martin Landau, stands out as the Vincent Price-like science teacher Mr. Rzykruski who inspires Victor to experiment with the electricity that eventually brings his beloved dog back to life. His character gives the film its moral center in a brief line of dialogue, basically saying that small minds like the convenience afforded them by science, but fear its questions. Landau’s character then disappears from the film, but his words live on as a prediction of the mob scene at the film’s climax. Landau, coincidentally (not), won an Oscar for his portrayal of another horror icon, Bela Lugosi, in Burton’s Ed Wood (1994).
     The supporting cast of Victor’s schoolmates adds plenty of Burton’s trademark creepiness to an already eerie film. The fat kid, “E. Gore” the hunchback, the Japanese stereotype, crazy psychic cat girl, and the Eastern European could stand in for various aspects of horror history if we wanted to give the film the benefit of the doubt. The characters, however, generally cross the fine line between clever and annoying that Burton likes to flirt with. Like an unfortunately large amount of his work, they are simply creepy for creepy’s sake.
  
 In a Nutshell: It is what it is. Fans of Burton’s other work that will get the references will be satisfied. Everyone else will just be unimpressed. 

Director: Tim Burton

Starring: Martin Short, Martin Landau, Catherine O’Hara

Hyde Park on Hudson (2013) Review

     Ghostbusters 3 might not be happening but at least we can say we saw Bill Murray play one of America’s greatest presidents. Though it’s Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (Laura Linney) that narrates the story of her affair with the ailing Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the eve of World War II, Murray’s turn as the president is the real core of Hyde Park on Hudson. Through Daisy’s eyes, we watch as Roosevelt receives King George VI (Samuel West), the first British monarch ever to visit U.S. soil, at his mother’s country estate. While this was mostly a visit of diplomatic goodwill, its deeper purpose was to court American popular support for the British cause as they prepared to stand up to Hitler’s conquest of Europe. It is a testament to both FDR’s brilliance as a president and the subtleness of Roger Michell’s filmmaking that the impending conflict receives only passing mentions. Hyde Park is, along with Daisy herself, Roosevelt’s retreat where he can, as he says, “forget the world”. The film’s conflicts stem more from the Queen’s (Rosemary Cross) misinterpretation of the president’s casual attitude as disrespect than from fears of Nazi annexation.
     It is precisely this casualness that makes Murray the fantastic centerpiece of an otherwise dull film. Stricken with polio nearly twenty years before the small slice of time depicted by Hyde Park, FDR is shown to be almost cavalier about the resulting physical disability, allowing himself to be carried around like a baby and cracking jokes at his own expense. His relaxed attitude extends to his interactions with the king and queen as the film asks us to let ourselves loosen up as its characters do. We can bond with them on a human level, not as leaders with the weight of the world on their shoulders but as men with flaws and emotions.
     The film’s female characters, on the other hand, are nowhere near as deep or well-drawn, which is puzzling given FDR’s proclivity for dynamic female company. It is especially telling that we have no good reason to care about the woman that is actually telling us the story. It almost seems like Michell would have to have gone out of his way to make Daisy so flat. She gets dragged along by her own story, falling for the 32nd president with a speed that would make most romantic comedies jealous, seemingly bringing nothing to the table in that relationship. The queen may be even worse, as she appears to have come to America with her husband to do nothing more than complain and tell him what his brother would have done differently. She does, however, provide one of the film’s running jokes at the expense of British stereotypes as she learns that hot dogs will be served at the president’s picnic, which fills her with a comedically overdrawn sense of dread.
  
 In a Nutshell: Worth it for Bill Murray’s performance, but anyone who doesn’t love him as much as Woody Harrelson’s character does in Zombieland should stay home. 

Director: Roger Michell

Starring: Bill Murray, Laura Linney

Jump (2012) Review

     With a slew of television work between it and his feature film debut, the Roddy Doyle-scripted When Brendan Met Trudy (2000), Kieron Walsh’s Jump shows that he has grown significantly as a filmmaker over the intervening years. Where that first feature, made during the height of the Celtic Tiger, suffered due to its reliance on the tropes of many similar “fish out of water” Hollywood products, Jump is highly conscious of its cinematic precedents, cleverly manipulating its own continuity to assemble a bloody mosaic of its characters’ lives.
    Set in contemporary Northern Ireland (specifically Derry, its second-largest city), Jump makes no explicit mention of The Troubles or any other part of Irish history, and this may be the film’s only real failure. Remnants of the conflict are visible at two points (a “Free Derry” sign and a crude chalk mural) but the film quickly bypasses these ugly bits, treating them more as scenery or background, in an effort to position itself in a “post-conflict” era. Much more relevant to the lives of the characters at hand is the presence of gangs involved in drug and gun trafficking.
     Greta (Nichola Burley, leaving behind her unfortunate credit in the horrendously generic StreetDance 3D), the first character we meet, is the daughter of Frank Feeney, a kingpin of the Derry underworld who has been robbed by Pearse Kelly (Martin McCann) the older brother of a small-timer who was killed by Frank’s men. After Pearse saves Greta from committing suicide (by jumping off the Peace Bridge, no less!), the two decide to run away to Australia together. Pearse, however, has second thoughts after Greta reveals who her father is. Such coincidences abound in the film, and it is only thanks to Walsh’s deft filmmaking that the device never induces the cries of disbelief one might expect as the twists of fate pile up more and more as the film goes on.
     Jump also follows two of Feeney’s thugs who are hunting down Pearse and two of Greta’s friends as they kill time waiting for her to show up and celebrate New Year’s Eve with them. The intermingling of these three storylines is the film’s major success, and credit must go to Walsh’s screenplay (written in collaboration with Steve Brookes, making his first foray into features) and direction. That is not to take anything away from the actors, however, as the mostly young cast turns in performances that indicate both freshness and future promise. McCann deserves special mention for his turn as Pearse, allowing the character’s inexperience with Derry’s seedier parts to show on his freshly-battered face while at the same time balancing considerable helpings of both fear and hope for the future.
  
 In a Nutshell: A film that stands above similar works thanks to the cleverness of its construction and a promising cast. 

Director: Kieron J. Walsh

Starring: Nichola Burley, Martin McCann, Charlene McKenna

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