Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Campanadas a medianoche (Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles, 1965)

On the occasion of Shakespeare's 450th birthday, I'm reposting an old piece:

This post was also part of the Shakespeare blogathon

(Note: plot discussed in close detail)

Bigger than life

What to say about this film? I first saw it on a pirated VHS tape I'd rented in New York back in 1991 (the tape startled me; I had no idea pirated tapes still existed in the USA), and despite the video snow, unstable vertical, wretched sound (not that the actual soundtrack was a model of clarity), thought it was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen. Haunted Theater 80 at St. Marks for the longest time, because I'd been told they have screened it before and might again, but it never showed up. Finally had a chance to see it on the big screen in Detroit (of all places!) at an arthouse theater that served coffee and sandwiches on tables while you watched the screen. There were two screenings, and I went to both; had no reason to change my opinion.

Welles based his script on four plays: Henry IV Parts 1 and 2; Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. I'd seen a published version with annotations noting which line had been taken from which play, and a look at the heavily marked pages was revealing--a patchwork of words ranging from all four sources, mostly Henry IV parts 1 and 2, some early scenes from Henry V, and (far as I can tell) only a few lines from Merry Wives, all held together by excerpts from Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, narrated by Ralph Richardson. Scenes are not only shortened, but transferred earlier or later in the story, changing the flow or feel of the narrative; sometimes two entirely unrelated lines of dialogue from two, even three different plays are married to create an entirely new meaning. 

Many cite Welles' directing and performance in the film, but I can't recall anyone commending his writing. It's quite an achievement, though: roughly sixteen hours of Shakespeare, boiled down into a hundred and nineteen apparently seamless minutes (took him long enough to do; arguably, he's been working on this since his overambitious theater project Five Kings, in 1939). Not just condensed but radically reinterpreted--Shakespeare as raw material for fashioning what essentially is a new story.

The main dramatic thrust of Shakespeare's Henry IV is commonly seen to be the struggle between King Henry Bolingbroke (John Gielgud) and Sir John Falstaff (Welles) for the soul and affection of young Prince Hal (Keith Baxter); the struggle is still there in Chimes, but with judicious use of Holinshed and of style, atmosphere, acting and imagery, Welles alters the landscape on which the conflict takes place.

Near the film's opening the narrator (Richardson) quotes from Holinshed: that Henry is an usurper, having seized the throne from his predecessor, Richard II. In the play, when Henry is informed that Edmund of Mortimer had been kidnapped and held hostage by the Welshman Glendower and Henry complains of having to pay ransom and delay his crusade into the Holy Lands you think: that makes sense--why pay for someone who led a failed military campaign, messed up your timetable and is, in Henry's words, "foolish" and perhaps even "revolted" (with, no doubt, all the meanings that word evokes)? With that brief excerpt from Holinshed, however, Welles puts Henry's stubbornness in an entirely different light: suddenly Henry's indignation acquires a strong note of self-interest. Edmund being the rightful heir of Richard, Henry's argument for not lifting a finger to help Edmund--partial basis for his differences with Mortimer's brother-in-law Henry Percy, or Hotspur (Norman Rodway)--sounds more like a stubborn man's insistence that his version of what happened matters over anyone else's (Henry's guilt over usurping Richard could be prodding him into mistreating and arguing with the Percy family). 

Mind you, Shakespeare's play does mention all this (Richard's usurpation, Henry's true motive for abandoning Mortimer), but added later, through Hotspur who is prodded on by Worcester (hardly--as is pointed out by Henry--a disinterested observer). Shakespeare presents Henry's official story, then complicates matters by introducing other points of view; Welles introduces doubt right off, and has us listen to Henry's words with a mistrustful ear.

Welles elaborates with a few other touches. The credit sequence shows horsemen riding through some landscapes; a soldier walks past scaffolding, the purpose of which is unknown (a hard wind blows his helmet off--prophetic, considering what eventually follows). The credits' final shot gives us the meaning of the scaffolding head-on: soldiers stare straight at the camera, swords swinging in curious slow motion while behind, hanged men twist in the wind. 

I've always wondered at that bit of slow motion--a way to stretch the footage, so we can read Welles' name better? Or a little touch meant to cause the image (the swing of the corpses echoing the swing of the soldier's blade) to linger in the memory, the way it has lingered in mine for years? In this single image Welles summarizes Henry's England--a police state filled with unrest, barely held together by a policy of terrorism, summary executions, and military campaigns in foreign lands.

A look at Henry's court is equally instructive--his castle has cathedral-high ceilings illuminated by shafts of light (you feel like kneeling upon entry). When people talk there's an echo (like a cavern--or better yet, a tomb); vapor from their mouths suggest a wintry chill (to match the owner's temperament?). Henry's courtiers keep some ten or so feet away from him, as if Henry were afraid of assassination, or--conversely--the courtiers might be afraid Henry would have them killed. Only Henry Percy (hot spur indeed) dares to raise his voice to the king.

As played by Gielgud, you can't ask for a more astringent villain. Yes, villain--Shakespeare is too much of an artist not to create a rounded view of characters in his plays, but Welles chooses to underline certain aspects of the king over others, to a more pointed dramatic effect. "My blood is too cold and temperate," Henry complains--this king speaks constantly of wars, of punishing enemies and putting down rebellions, but does so in such a passionless manner you wonder why he even bothers to fight--not for his useless son, certainly (by way of contrast it's clear why Hotspur constantly talks of battle; he enjoys the excuse to expend his boundless energy). When not wearing his crown Henry wears a monkish skullcap--this monarch, you imagine, pores over passages from the Bible before going to sleep; in war he wears gleaming black armor but is never seen wearing his helmet--he may lead his men, but apparently doesn't indulge in actual fighting. 

Welles can't help having Henry parodied at least three times--first by Hotspur, fuming over Henry's decision not to help Mortimer; second by Falstaff, playacting with Prince Hal; third by Prince Hal, reversing roles with Falstaff (Hal's impersonation is best, I think, though Hotspur's is the most startling). Perhaps the most vivid impression I have of the king is his utter loneliness--Welles isolates him on his throne, standing on a high stepped platform, often as not shooting him from a distance; if Henry at all derives any comfort or pleasure from his position of power, we don't see it.

Falstaff, on the other hand, is all about pleasure. As played by Welles he's often shot from a low angle, to emphasize his rotundity. His realm (the inn in which he resides) is visually and dramatically opposed against Henry's forbidding castle--homely wood against hard stone; low-beamed ceilings against high vaulted ones; blanketed hay beds against what (in Henry's room) looked like a sepulcher with sheets (the pillow on which Henry's crown rests is, far as I can see, the only concession to comfort in the place). More, Falstaff is in constant physical contact with his "courtiers"--where Westmoreland and Worcester approach Henry by at most a few steps (even Harry Percy can only appear to charge at him), Falstaff is constantly being pummeled, pushed, bussed, hugged, even lifted bodily up a table by a gaggle of kids while playing king (the table is a nice touch--Falstaff's parody of Henry's raised platform). Unlike Henry, loneliness and loss are not something Falstaff seeks out (they come upon him involuntarily); he does his level best to live life as fully as he can, inviting everyone and anyone to join him.

Shakespeare darkened Falstaff's character considerably--the man is in a struggle with Henry for the soul of the prince, after all, and the prince must be seen to have made the right choice; Welles includes elements of that darker side, but the emphasis again has been changed--the Gadshill robbery, for example, where Falstaff takes money from some travelers is treated as a romp, Falstaff repulsed (by Prince Hal in disguise), the money returned (over the robbery we hear the main theme music, plus another melody, softly played, that will be repeated later on). Falstaff's role in accepting bribes from men who don't wish to be drafted into Henry's army is a far more serious matter, but should be seen in the context of what follows.

What follows is Shrewsbury, where Henry and Hotspur's quarrels come to a head, and Welles stages the only battle sequence of his career--arguably the greatest ever filmed.

Half the battle is in the preparation, they say, and it's no less true here: armored knights are lowered down from tree branches onto their horses; racked spears point directly at the screen, as if ready to fire upon the audience. We have preparatory slapstick from Falstaff--the knight, clad in what looks like a potbelly stove and wearing what looks like a thundermug on his head--is raised by a team of men; his gravitas too much for them, they release the rope and he crashes to the ground. The unmounted knight contents himself with waving his sword in the direction of the enemy, urging the men forward.

The battle itself gives the impression of chaos, but a chaos with an underlying progression--cavalry charges to the right and left indicate attacks by Henry and Hotspur's men, respectively; when the soldiers meet the distinction between the sides is quickly lost. Armored men on horses swing swords at fellow armored men; a knight with lance charges at a man with spear, and when the lance hits Welles cuts to a gorgeous long shot of the spear flying through the air. The action degenerates into a slaughter--unarmored infantry pull knights off their horses and bludgeon them; soldiers with swords wander about, stabbing the wounded. The men ultimately end up tumbling over each other into the mud, struggling in slow motion; at one point we see a pair of legs atop another pair, both sunk in mire, parodying the sex act. Throughout all this Falstaff runs comically, ineffectually, from one side of the screen to the other; if he shows any real allegiance, it's to the surrounding shrubbery, which offers him protection.

Welles' sound--remember he started in radio, and has been a great innovator of film sound--is at least as important as his visual effects and editing. The thunder of hooves gives way to the clash and clang of sword on armor (the sound of shrieking metal suggesting more weapons than is actually on display onscreen), gives way to the brutal thud of club on flesh, gives way to the repulsive sound of squelching mud. This, in effect, is war: a devolution of trained and coordinated soldiers into mindless crustaceans, all spiky armor and wavering antennae, groping in the primordial muck. At a certain point we recognize the music full of mournful voices: the same tune that had played at the Gadshill robbery. It's as if Welles were inviting us to compare the activities of Henry and Falstaff--whose is more honorable? Whose results in more deaths? Up to this point we see Falstaff's antics--his refusal to take part in the battle and his earlier impromptu catechism on 'honor'--as a sort of comic counterpoint to all the violence. "What is that honour?" he asks; "air. A trim reckoning…therefore I'll none of it." His cowardice comes to seem less like cowardice and more like a lonely beacon of sanity shining in all the madness.

Falstaff's taking credit for Hotspur's death from Prince Hal (a radical reinterpretation from the Shakespeare) is crucial to the story--we need an ostensible reason for Hal to turn on his friend (though the prince has already been preparing us in a series of asides, telling us he's only pretending to cavort with Falstaff). A despicable thing to do, except that in Falstaff's eyes honor is important only for what it can give him--a promotion, perhaps--and not valuable enough to risk life and limb to acquire (as many of the dead in the battlefield behind him have done). Stealing credit is no big deal for Falstaff, no more so than robbing roadside travellers, or taking bribes from draft dodgers (ordinary folk with no more stomach for violence than Falstaff does).

The earlier scene where Falstaff plays the prince and the prince his father seems to lie at heart of what Welles is saying (or rather, part of it--more on this later). At a certain point the play stops being play; Falstaff, confronted by a pretend king who one day will be crowned, accused of iniquities and threatened with banishment, suddenly finds himself begging for clemency: "banish not him thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's company--" His final plea is haunting in its pathos (all the more for the way Welles tumbles the words out, throwaway lines that contain the very meat of the speech): "--banish plump Jack, and banish all the world." Falstaff is the world, not just in size but also flaws, heart, appetite for life; that his equating himself with all of humanity does not at this point seem altogether inappropriate is a measure of Shakespeare and Welles' (both actor and director) achievement.

Contrast this to the film's climax--Prince Hal's coronation as Henry V, with Falstaff presenting himself loudly and openly to the new king. In the earlier scene Shakespeare's Falstaff makes an eloquent case for his nobility and against his banishment, to which Baxter's Prince Hal has a short but serious answer ("I do, I will."); this time it's Falstaff's plea that is short and Hal--now King Henry--who delivers the sermon ("
know the grave doth gape / For thee thrice wider than for other men")

If Welles has a rebuke to this scene and to Hal's eloquence, it's found in the expression on his actors' faces. Baxter's king chides Falstaff in slow, measured words--much in the same manner as the older Henry, only this time Hal is not doing a parody. But Hal's voice trembles at certain lines, and his eyes are wide and staring; he seems fully aware of the horror of what he's doing, honoring his blood father while deliberately condemning his spiritual father to exile. As Welles plays him Falstaff has an even more poignant response: he kneels wordlessly, looking up at what in effect is his son with undisguised pride. Baxter in a recent interview describes the "tremendous bond and affection" he had with Welles; I think that bond, the severing of it (in terms of the story and in real life (it was towards the end of the shoot)) and Welles' acceptance and forgiveness of that, shines through.

Henry IV in dying had earlier bequeathed to Hal not just his crown, but advice: "Be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels." Hal takes the advice to heart, and in a later scene (which Welles takes from Henry V) initiates an adventure in France that, following Welles' viewpoint, will inflict great suffering--on the French this time (shades of Bush using 9/11 as justification to wage war on Iraq for the next nine or so years). Falstaff leaves his own legacy--in the same scene Hal pardons Falstaff (again, Welles borrowing lines meant for another offender in the same play), suggesting that the youth has learned from both fathers, and will perhaps do better with his reign (perhaps not--the final image is of Falstaff's enormous coffin being carted away, human carnality disposed of as inconvenient garbage). Exeunt Falstaff; enter police state, part two.

What more can I say? Not much, save that for my money Chimes is Welles' masterpiece, is the finest film ever made from Shakespeare, and is one of the greatest films ever made. 


Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Messiah (Roberto Rossellini, 1975)

(Plot discussed in detail--though it's hard to imagine anyone unfamiliar with this story. Film is not available on Netflix or Amazon in DVD form, but is available on youtube (though I don't feel I should include a link))

Promised man

"In the beginning was the Word," so began the Gospel of John, and so begins Rossellini's treatment on Christ, his last narrative feature--only I remember when I first saw the film it began so far back in biblical history I had to check the title again to make sure. 

Rossellini starts a thousand years before, with the Israelites' arrival in Canaan, all sunbleached vistas and dusty tents (the sand-and-rock palette providing a subdued background against which the occasional red cloak or robe pops out of the screen). A child digs a hole in the ground with a stick and pisses in it; a shadow looms over him and he turns; a Philistine soldier whirls his sling, cuts loose--the child cries "No!"--and Rossellini cuts to a shot of the child lying on the ground, the blood on his forehead as startling a scarlet as any we've seen in this desolate landscape. 

Rossellini cuts to a meeting of tribal elders, in front of their tents. He zooms out (to establish location), glides around (as if trying to find the best vantage point), zooms in (to focus on this or that speaker). 

The camera pulls back in a flat arc from an anguished elder declaring: "We want a king, Samuel, as all nations, a king to judge us and lead us!" Continuing its arc the camera catches an old man--Samuel--rising to his feet. "My brothers, there is no king for our king for Israel, because the king of Israel is the Eternal, Who freed us from slavery."

The Israelites insist however, which is how the country got to anoint its first king: Saul, a bellowing tyrant hard on his countrymen and even harder on their cattle, at one point whacking a bull in the head with an oversized mallet (What did Joseph de Maistre once say? "Every nation gets the government it deserves"). Rossellini establishes the style and demeanor of Israeli kings to better contrast with the style and demeanor of the coming king, but establishes at the same time the historical and political context from which the line of rulers arose: the Israelites demanded a king, a military dictator, in effect, because they wanted the safety and relative stability of such a king--which wasn't quite what happened (Samuel: "You shall know what meaneth to be subject to a king's will!"). They may have also prayed centuries for a messiah, but wasn't prepared for when he finally came, or what he had to offer.

It's startling to realize just how much Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ borrowed from Rossellini--the baptism (with its shallow stream surrounded by rocky bluffs) could have been rear projected directly into Scorsese's picture (all that's needed is for Andre Gregory to do a walk-on cameo). A hut of straw and tree branches standing behind Christ (Pier Maria Rossi) as he tells the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds might have been dismantled right after shooting, then reassembled fourteen years later for Willem Dafoe's honeymoon with his not-so-blushing bride. The camera follows closely as a cup is passed from Rossi's Christ to disciple after disciple after disciple, and with a little judicious splicing might pass right back to Dafoe's Christ. 

Scorsese is an admitted admirer of Rossellini, but doesn't overtly adopt (despite all the borrowed images) much of the filmmaker's visual style. You often catch Scorsese indulging in visual flash--gold coins spinning in the sky; a recreation of Hieronymus Bosch's Christ Carrying the Cross; a camera lashed to the top of the cross as it's lifted up into the air (a tribute if you like to a similar shot in Nicholas Ray's King of Kings). 

Rossellini's film might have influenced Scorsese and was probably influenced in turn (to cite yet another brother-in-Christ) by Pier Paolo Pasolini's earlier The Gospel According to Matthew--like Rossellini's film a low-budget feature and an angry rebuke towards Hollywood-style Christ extravaganzas. There are no name stars, no elaborate sets or costumes, no production values whatsoever--there isn't even any color. Pasolini took a page from neorealism (of which Rossellini was one of the establishing master), but did it his way: edgy editing, casual handheld shots that on occasion shoved the lens in the actor's face, a high-contrast black-and-white palette. His soundtrack is eclectic--Mozart; Bach; a traditional African-American spiritual. A leper's misshapen nose bulges into the big screen as he whispers "make me clean;" Christ (a no-nonsense Enrique Irazoqui) declares: "you are clean" and Gloria from the Missa Luba blares out from the soundtrack.  

Rossellini doesn't use much music; a kind of suspenseful shiver here, there (the child's murder, Herod's death), developing into a honest-to-goodness if modest melody in the film's final two minutes. His editing is anything but aggressive; instead he pieces together sinuous long takes that come close enough to the characters to register as medium shots (but otherwise keep a discreet distance). Unlike Pasolini he doesn't forsake color; he seems to acknowledge that color is a part of a man's normal view, that black-and-white is (especially nowadays) an extreme form of stylization. Where Pasolini is severe Rossellini is chaste; where the former denies himself the pleasures of period filmmaking the latter shows a reluctance, a sense of restraint--the difference, I think, being in attitude and tone.

I've tried describing Rossellini's style before, and was unhappy with the results; possibly it's easier to describe what he's not instead of what he is. He's not into displays of virtuosity like Scorsese, though there are shots that betray the pure craft of a master--a group of children chanting and clapping, for example, the camera climbing up to catch soldiers marching the ramparts of a high wall, then pulling back to reveal Christ transfixed on his cross (the contrast between the children's singing and Mary Magdalene's soft sobbing being more emotionally devastating than anything in, say, Mel Gibson's laughably overheated Passion of the Christ). His film's austere, but not in the in-your-face manner of Pasolini; he doesn't use Pasolini's alienating manner of presenting us  Christ the Lecturer, his profile head-on, no frills or music or movement or lighting effect of any kind (save the setting sun, and the occasional lightning flash)--daring us to stay focused on the words' inherent wisdom and the image's flinty beauty (not to mention Irazoqui's piercing eyes), despite our faltering, all-too-human interest. 

Rossellini for his part does something more audience-friendly, yet at the same time interesting on its own terms. His Christ is busy repairing one of the apostles' fishing boats--he's about to send them on their own teaching missions. A disciple asks "what should we bring with us?" the camera coming up close as if to better hear his reply (and along the way underline the importance of his reply). Christ answers: not much--just what you have. "Behold the birds of the air," he points out, noting that they do nothing to provide for themselves yet are somehow cared for; at which point the camera pulls out, as if taking this insight and looking at the world through a new attitude, through differing eyes, the camera frame restlessly framing and re-framing image and questions and answers in relation to each other.  

And--for me the breathtaking part--Christ runs with the idea, or rather his people do. Rossellini cuts to one disciple, then another repeating Christ's parables (said parables--stories with a philosophical point--being easier to remember and understand for these mostly uneducated men and women). It's not all about him, Rossellini seems to be saying; Christ won't save the world all by himself--he's using them (and by extension us) to put words into others' ears, and into practice in everyday life (in a way Rossellini's suggesting a sequel to his mid-career masterpiece, The Flowers of St. Francis, where at film's end the master orders his disciples to spin around till they stumble, then go in the direction they've fallen). He's using communal effort--a key concept of communism if you like (and remember that Rossellini's politics leaned decidedly to the left)--to spread his ideas far and wide. 

It's not as if the film were totally bereft of humor--there's funny here, if you look carefully. Or perhaps not; one glance at the Pharisees wearing their ridiculous horns--a bizarre little cube of wood strapped to their foreheads--and right off you can't help but chuckle. The Pharisees may represent established authority, or entrenched hypocrisy, or the interests of the powers that be (which may include Hollywood and its equivalent in Italian cinema); Rossellini has about as little respect for them as Christ does, mercilessly depicting them as largely helpless in the face of his radicalism, until they concoct a cowardly little plot to accuse Christ of political subversion against the Romans (he's subversive, but not in that sense). 

It's not as if Rossellini's film is determinedly secular--there are miracles but (unlike in say Pasolini's) they're even further de-emphasized, we don't actually see him performing them (though we do on occasion see the aftereffects, as in the miracle of the loaves of bread). The miracles aren't Christ's strongest selling point, Rossellini seems to suggest, or at least he seems to feel they're mostly gimmicks that distract from Christ's ideas, and can safely be performed offscreen.

It's not as if Rossellini's film is bereft of lyricism either, or visual poetry: one of the loveliest passages in the film is of Rossellini's camera lingering over this man or that hard at work, then zooming in on Christ hammering on what looks like a partly assembled plow (unlike most other onscreen Christs, Rossellini's seems to be always busy plying his trade). He talks of who will or will not enter the Kingdom of God, asks what is the Kingdom of God--

--whereupon Mary takes over, explaining to a child that the Kingdom is where "milk and honey will flow," stressing that this Kingdom will come about when everyone works for its coming--

--and Rossellini's camera moves away from Mary to wander among people sweeping, cooking, milking, bricklaying, and so forth. Mary might talk of a heaven to come, but Rossellini seems to suggest that heaven might already be here in the form of a worker's paradise, if we so choose to recognize it. 

At one point Christ is asked a blunt question: how to gain eternal life? His reply is equally blunt: love God, and each other--clarifying and simplifying and above all distilling thousands of years of Jewish theology in two sentences (or at least that's how Catholics feel about it). In a way that's what Rossellini seems to be doing--to have actually done: clarify and simplify and above all distill the Christ of the Gospels (in particular Luke) in a single hundred and forty minute film, as cogent a case of form following content as is humanly possible, from a master of Italian--of human--cinema. 

Easter Sunday, 4.20.14

Friday, April 18, 2014

Terror is a Man (Gerardo De Leon, 1959)

(On the occasion of Gerardo de Leon's ongoing Centennial Celebration, The Society of Filipino Archivists for Film (SOFIA), in cooperation with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) screened Terror is a Man at the Tanghalang Manuel Conde at CCP, April 12, at 4 pm. 

The film is available on Amazon and Netflix, respectively)

The Island of Dr. De Leon

Let's get expectations out of the way right now: Gerardo de Leon's Terror is a Man--about a scientist (Dr. Charles Girard) who surgically transforms animals (well, one animal; the production budget presumably couldn't afford any more) into human beings--isn't very frightening. Oh, some extremely sensitive adults and a handful of impressionable kids might have been swept away back in 1964 when Hemisphere Films reissued it under the less evocative title Blood Creature (it was a commercial failure when first released as a Lynn-Romero production back in 1959--an account nicely outlined in Scott Ashlin's horror blog 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting), but there isn't much gore compared with, say, the shocking bright blood of the Hammer films. The horror here recalls rather the Universal classics of the '30s: Todd Browning's Dracula, or James Whale's Frankenstein films or The Invisible Man, films that favor suggestion over splatter, their most distinctive attribute an atmosphere of lyrical dread. 

On the surface a no-budget adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau with a surprisingly literate screenplay from Paul Harber (whose career included only two more--one for an Eddie Romero kidnap drama, the other for an episode of Hawaii Five-O--plus a lifetime of television acting), the film could be a fascinating companion piece alongside Erle C. Kenton's classic The Island of Lost Souls (1932). Where the earlier version had a more emphatic tone--lush oversized sets evoking Moreau's jungle to great (if expensive) effect, Moreau himself played with half-sane intensity by the inimitable Charles Laughton--De Leon's adaptation is set in the languor of the real tropics (shot, if IMDb is to be trusted, in Corregidor Island, off the coast of Cavite), his Moreau (played with a lightly ambisexual note by Francis Lederer), a decidedly more subdued figure. 

It's instructive I think to compare the way Moreau explains his methods to Pendrick (the novel's protagonist/narrator) to the way Laughton's Moreau explains to the '32 Pendrick to the way Girard explains to our film's Pendrick figure, William Fitzgerald (a stolid and rather bland Richard Derr). Wells' Moreau goes to some lengths to point out historical parallels to his work--the torturers of the Spanish Inquisition; the "mediaeval practitioners who made dwarfs and beggar-cripples" described by Victor Hugo in The Man Who Laughs; the Siamese Twins (a covert operation, he claims). Along the way Moreau's brutally frank language suggests a man so monomaniacally devoted to his field of study you daren't question his motives (he devoted his whole life's energy to it, so he must be right). Laughton's Moreau updates his methods to include "plastic surgery, blood transfusions, gland extracts, ray baths" (Ray baths? Similar to tanning beds, only more radioactive?); to Moreau's monomania he adds a winking smirk (isn't this amusing? Aren't you entertained by all the nonsense?).

De Leon dispenses with the horrorshow, the electric moment (in Wells novel) when Moreau drives a penknife into his leg, the even more vivid moment when onscreen Moreau presents one of his subjects on an operating table, howling in agony and terror. Girard and Fitzgerald instead have a discussion in the office, and Girard in the manner of a dull lecturer explains how he worked up from "skin and bone grafts" to "alteration of major organs." And as medical science has advanced since the '30s (having in turn advanced from the time of the novel's writing) he points out that "the real difference is in the brain," and proposes a chemical (taken from gland extracts, of course) that can "bring about an alternation of the individual cells, cell division and cell growth." Girard's methods seem more recognizably like our own partly because the science isn't so very far from our own, partly because De Leon's MD training helps ensure authenticity (you see it in the handwashing, the surgical instruments, the working autoclave in one corner), but also partly because Girard seems so calmly reasonable (where Wells' was insanely focused), so serious (where Laughton's was playfully coy) that we're halfway sold by his earnestness. This isn't Moreau the madman we're faced with but Moreau the progressive intellectual, the dedicated humanitarian, who can't think of one reason why he shouldn't be doing what he's doing--one reason why what he's doing is wrong. 

(A sidenote: Francis Lederer (Girard) who changed his name from the more German Franz Lederer (he was in Pabst's great '29 film Pandora's Box) was actually born Frantisek Lederer in Prague, the birthplace of the Golem and the word "robot" (from Karel Capek's classic play R.U.R.), and a major center of Czech puppetry--appropriate, considering Lederer plays yet another manipulative fabricator of artificial beings)

That's script and man, in a way more disturbing than the figure found in either novel or classic film because he's more persuasive--invincible, almost--in his solemn conviction. 

Then there's De Leon's camera, which in sequence after wordless sequence undermines Girard's words with quiet effectiveness. 

The first hunting sequence, for example, early in the film--the camera in a parody of the famous shot in Murnau's Sunrise pushes through leaves and branches to peer at a sleeping village. A native sits by a fire, watchful--he senses something lurking out there, isn't sure what. Cut to a shot of the camera approaching the man's back, as we belatedly realize: this the creature's point of view; growls and cries and sudden lunge, the actual death elided over with cuts not unlike the sudden transitions found in dreams. Cut to a wide shot of the entire village, to the sound of screams as the bodies are found, and the camera in a perverse inversion of Murnau (and anticipating Hitchcock's retreating shot in Frenzy by some thirteen years) pulls back into the surrounding jungle.

Then there's the creature itself, hidden not just by camera angles or deep shadows, but by layer after layer of surgical bandages. De Leon the MD probably asked why the creatures in Kenton's and James Whale's films don't spend more time under wraps--Whale's is studded with long stitches that don't bleed out, the stitching never once tearing no matter how violently it moves. A practical question, but looking at the creature, at the tear-brimmed eyes peering out from the reeking gauze, and all questions of plausibility fall away. This is a creature in agony, capable of doing anything and everything just to make the suffering stop. 

Unmentioned yet plain as bandages is the subtext of racism: Girard is the imperialist white man attempting to remake the Malay 'beast' into a civilized being (the story is set in a South Pacific island named La Ysla de Sangre (Blood Island)). Seated at a table and surrounded by Malay servants (one boy waves flies away with a whisk on a pole), having just been served a presumably Western meal, Girard's wife Frances (the well-endowed Greta Thyssen) gratefully toasts their guest for reminding them they "can still be civilized on occasion." She adds that she's "forgotten we have good china or silver, or the manners to use them." Girard's native-born assistant Walter (a sensually sinister Oskar Kesse) mutters the hope that he can get "that black devil back where he belongs"--presumably strapped to an operating table, shrieking (the sharp ear might catch the pronoun he used, an implicit admission that the creature is an equal). Girard contemptuously dismisses the natives on the island as "superstitious" for leaving just because an 'animal' was on the loose (though to his credit he thinks New Yorkers would probably act the same way). With every sneer and suggested condescension we Filipinos can't help but bristle; with every unthinking line of dialogue the Western actors affirm their superiority over the natives (us) and over the creature himself, coded to be the most native inhabitant of all (a supernative, if you like).

Then there's fraternal hatred: the creature kills several of the natives, the rest flee in fear; when it--he--encounters Frances, he spares her. Why? A Filipino's immediate unthinking (kneejerk) response: "oho, he likes white meat." Doesn't matter if actress Lilia Duran, who plays one of the victims, is a fresh-faced beauty--the fact that Thyssen is white (and top-heavy) trumps that. One of the uglier subtexts of the '33 Kong (which none of the remakes managed to mitigate--and which in fact is exacerbated in the Jackson version) is that Kong clearly prefers the white blonde--the first he's ever seen--over any number of black women offered (the latter he kills; the former he takes with him to Skull Mountain, presumably for an evening of date rape). De Leon's creature seems to unthinkingly follow this pattern--

--only he knows her; she took care of him over two years and countless surgical procedures. Where Girard would often inflict pain, she would often take it away. Where nearly everyone  in the island (natives included) regard him as some kind of stalking evil, she doesn't. She fears him but doesn't hate him--if anything, she pities him. Frances is both Girard's wife and surgical nurse, and nurses often represent compassion, mercy, a surcease of pain--and the creature recognizes that. Racist? Perhaps not. 

Final bit of business (skip this paragraph if you intend to watch the film!): Harber has Fitzgerald say to Frances: "I want to help you;" later Walter says the same thing, then attempts to rape her (Fitzgerald at one point finds bruises on Lilia Duran's arm--if we go by De Leon's lexicon, Walter is the pervert found in many of De Leon's films who arrives at sexual gratification through sadism). At a certain point the word "help" acquires a sarcastically obscene connotation, as she turns down aid of all kinds from males of all sides. When she finally ends up in a beach watching the dying creature float away in a rowboat, she casually remarks: "he wanted to help me." All sarcasm is gone from her voice: instead there's a bizarre yet poignant longing--as if she recognized the genuine nature of the 'help' the creature offered, a once-in-a-lifetime offer that she was very possibly a fool to reject.  

First published in Businessworld, 4.11.14
TopOfBlogs [Valid Atom 1.0] BlogCatalog