Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Cinema Comes of Age: Two Books on the Early and Late Stages


“Filmmaking is more athletics than art and filmmaking comes from the thighs.” – Werner Herzog, 2011.

Yes, this is an art review, even though it’s about cinema, because although movies are magic, as Van Dyke Parks once sang, they are also the premier art form of the twentieth century. As a visual art critic, I often hasten to point out that from my perspective visual art, and the history of art writ large, must perforce contain not only the aesthetic by-products of the French invention of photography in about 1840 but also the captivating artifacts resulting from the invention of cinema roughly fifty years later. Joseph Niepce, and then later on the Lumière Brothers, who jointly ushered in a seismic shift in the radical creation and revolutionary distribution of images, were visionary frontiersmen inaugurating the dreamlike epoch of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Was it science, fashion novelty, documentary evidence, or artistic medium? Well, it was all of the above. The still camera and the movie camera are now of course considered among the most modern of all modernist devices, but in those early heady days it was unclear how to situate the new technology, what to call it or how to judge its artistic merits. Such questions have naturally fallen far by the wayside in the wake of remarkable photographic artists such as Stieglitz, Evans, Frank, Arbus, Callahan, and Winogrand (to name only a few) as well as the breathtakingly beautiful motion pictures of Keaton, Bresson, Fellini, Kurosawa, Godard, Tarkovsky and Herzog (to mention some of my own personal favourites). 

Such camera artists, using light, motion and time instead of canvas and paint or plaster, continued to nourish our ancient human appetites for two essential ingredients in forming homo faber, what we are as sentient beings: a communal desire for storytelling, myths, narrative fabula of all sorts, in addition to the vast menu of gazing, those optical splendours we use to both distract and edify ourselves in the course of living our lives. Some of these artists emphasized more of the storytelling impulse, perhaps, while others focused more on the visual aesthetic of their image delivery system. The greatest among them, filmmakers such as Eisenstein, Welles or Hitchcock, for instance, manage to do both at once, so seamlessly that we can’t ever truly separate the story from the image, nor would we actually want to.

Like many people, perhaps, I often read more than one book at a time, in my case to ameliorate somewhat the effects of my short attention span and hyperactive nature, but also simply because I often find accidental collisions in unexpected meaning between two or more texts, and insights and alignments, synchronicities even, which I would never have stumbled upon if I had concentrated in a more traditional manner on one book at a time. So I was especially delighted to have recently been sent two new books on film art, one about the early era and one the contemporary, both of them excellent tomes which have seemingly cross-pollinated in my feverish brain in a most pleasant way.

A scene from The Mysteries of Myra (1916), The Wharton Brothers, starring Jean Sothern.

Serial Silent Sensations by Barbara Lupack (from Cornell University Press) focuses on the frenzied era of early short films presented in episodic weekly or monthly formats which drew out a tantalizing combination of love, danger, treachery and triumph (usually) for audiences hungry for fresh entertainment in the first decade of the twentieth century, prior to the age of the single and self-contained feature film. She emphasizes especially the hugely creative contributions to serial storytelling made by the imaginative and innovative Wharton Brothers of New York, Ted and Leo, to what she quite rightly calls the historic magic of early cinema. They reinvented their hometown Ithaca roots in what became famous as “Hollywood on the Cayuga” while grinding out (quite literally) hundreds of films with a connecting tissue of plots, casts, camera teams, scriptwriters, technicians, and themselves at the helm. 

Werner Herzog by Joshua Lund (from Illinois University Press) focuses on the equally frenzied and fabulously imaginative European auteur who rose to prominence in the early 70’s and continues to occupy his own special idiosyncratic niche in the film industry to this day, almost rivaling the brothers Wharton in the sheer number of features, shorts, and, later on, documentaries which have become synonymous with his dry, elegant, cerebral and somewhat manic technique of moviemaking. I was pleased to curate several of his films, which almost have the feeling of serial works, (emphasizing recurring themes and players such as Klaus Kinski and Bruno Schleinstein) into a program I organized for the Cinemathèque in Vancouver called The Cinema of Stillness: Painting with Film

With Herzog, we find ourselves in a terrain of duration that practically bookends the early efforts of the Whartons, not in terms of style necessarily but rather in those of substance and even in the dizzying realms of a shared obsession and compulsion for authenticity and naturalism coupled with a paradoxical and even contradictory affection for the extravagantly surreal and disturbingly uncanny. My only complaint about the Lund book is that I wish he had attached some pithy subtitle to his exemplary tome (as per Burden of Dreams, perhaps, but that was already used), something along the lines of, perhaps, Werner Herzog: Cinema of Stillness and Painting with Film. But that, of course, is a frivolous and mostly tongue-in-cheek complaint about a worthy study in afflicted artistry.  

For reasons that remain elusive to me, as a teenager in the 60’s I was fascinated by silent-era films and collected them through mail order catalogue houses such as Blackhawk and Castle Films, in both 8mm and 16mm formats, which I screened in mini-film festivals on my bedroom walls. I even recall having a few samples of the Whartons’ breathy serials, usually featuring damsels in distress tied to railway tracks or teetering perilously on the edge of jagged cliffs at the end of each of thirteen riveting episodes over thirty-three reels (which was literally the origin of the now common term “cliffhanger”).  

The Exploits of Elaine (1914), The Wharton Brothers (George Eastman Museum).

Little did I know (or perhaps I somehow intuited it instinctively) that I was witnessing a form of art that was not just energetically entertaining but also surprisingly avant-garde. It is in the pages of Lupack’s wonderful book that my odd sensation of their tightly crafted and dynamic presentation of artfully devised delayed gratification ias borne out by this exhaustively devoted film historian. She arrives at her most startling revelations even before her storied saga gets underway, in a preface and introduction that situate the Whartons as true aesthetic visionaries rather than merely or solely sensationalists. She does so by showing us how they literally invented a serial format that was still almost half a century away and wouldn’t fully materialize until the advent of dramatic television experiments such as C.S.I. and Breaking Bad.

They were, in fact, the HBO and Netflix of their era, an age when audiences still dressed up formally to go out to consume their shared box-office fantasies together in public. Their magnificently melodramatic chapter-like films, such as Exploits of Elaine, whose protagonist so weirdly resembles Carrie in Sex in the City, also hark back to their 19th-century literary roots, and Lupack’s captivating narrative (almost as hypnotic as the serials themselves) gives us an aerial view of the significant developments in storytelling via moving images which forged a strong link between the print and film industries. 

They were also the ironic visual equivalent of the earlier century’s serialized fiction craze, installment publications featuring such popular authors as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. And they also presaged the kind of enticing and often lurid entertainments we now take for granted, with stunning blockbusters such as The Sopranos being perhaps the best aesthetic parallel. Thus these seemingly humble tabloid tales also looked far ahead, by creating exciting synergies across multiple media platforms, as Lupack ably demonstrates:

A gang of devil worshippers resorts to mind control, astral projection, levitation and thought photography to tyrannize an adolescent girl in an attempt to steal her fortune. A mysterious faceless villain terrorizes his victims with psychological tortures even more horrific that the actual physical torments he inflicts. As contemporary as such cinematic devices might seem, they actually date back more than a century to the pioneering Wharton Brothers, the creative force behind landmark serials whose sophisticated techniques and special effects helped to establish the language and conventions of a genre.

But here is the vertigo-inducing portion of our story. It is in the breathtaking evolution of motion pictures, from silent footloose exploitation entertainment to high-cultural visual art form, one that traverses the almost unbelievable territorial and conceptual divide between Ted and Leo’s episodic revels and the languorous existential meditations of a Werner Herzog, that we see cinema coming of age as an art-historical medium and also coming into its own as a legitimate form of cerebral technological painting and electronic storytelling.

The melodrama, I should hasten to point out, still remains intact in Herzog, but it is so embedded in gorgeously rendered aesthetic images and thought-provokingly modernist narratives that we might at first glance overlook its glaring presence in the masterful films of such a gifted international auteur. And the best place to recognize this elemental ingredient, apart from the German director’s often abstract sagas, especially in those films where Herzog relied on the exceedingly odd idiosyncratic acting abilities of both the mesmerizing but impenetrable Bruno S. and the mercurial and probably mad Klaus Kinski, is in this book by Joshua Lund. 

Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972).
Arriving with his first twelve-minute film in 1962, Herakles, Herzog made another eleven productions, often also short in duration but long on content, before bursting onto the global scene with his 1972 feature masterpiece, the still totally unnerving Aguirre, The Wrath of God, his first of five movies featuring the utterly certifiable but undeniably brilliant Klaus as a kind of ongoing alter ego, foil and muse. The best place to learn about their astonishing creative collaborations is probably in a documentary film Herzog made in an attempt to come to terms with what both attracted him to and repelled him by the hectic antics of this esoteric actor. My Best Fiend, from 1999, captures the truly gifted yet pathological essence of both artists in an often harrowing chronicle of their feats of cinematic daring together.

From Aguirre onward, Herzog has relentlessly, restlessly, and compulsively released some fifty-five other features, documentaries, and riveting dramas, including many where he served as producer or narrator and occasional as actor. In particular, I’m still recovering from seeing a film-festival screening of his harrowing documentary on the Iraqi war oil refinery bombings from 1992, Lessons of Darkness, with its almost wordless flights across gray smoking skies, where he tells a visual tale that no written script or acted scenario could ever hope to match. It was both mesmerizing and transcendental.

Although it is usually their aesthetic status as profound works of visual art that I generally extol, Lund’s fine study of his complete works to date reminds us of the political significance lurking behind the austere aesthetics, as Luc Vancheri (author of a similar examination of Hitchcock’s iconology and the social politics embedded inside them) has pointed out: “Behind Herzog’s films stands the ghost of America, confronting us with the tragic powerlessness of her heroes and mediating on the historical failure of her cultural-economic model.” And a similar appreciation was offered by Salome Skirvirsky, author of The Process Genre: Cinema and the Aesthetics of Labour: “Joshua Lund’s concerns go to the heart of what is so powerful and disorienting about Herzog’s work itself, and by the end of each chapter one has been lead along an unpredictable path to a fresh apprehension of the films.” Indeed, the Lund book definitely is an exotic map to a hypnotic territory, revealing the cartography of Herzog’s dreams and nightmares, expertly channeled through a vivid and renegade artistic sensibility.

Lund offers us what amounts to the very first systematic, cogent and comprehensive interpretation of Herzog’s America-themed works, illuminating the director’s career as a political filmmaker, a label that Herzog himself rejects. The author takes us on a post-colonial journey through Herzog’s mind and his rarefied artifacts, in order to argue that what he call’s Herzog’s “American” work always confronts us with the circulation, distribution, accumulation and negotiation of power that resides quietly at the centre of all films. 

Bruno Ganz and Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979).
And as the editors of the Illinois University Press series called Contemporary Film Directors, Justus Nieland and Jennifer Fay, point out: “By operating beyond conventional ideological categories, Herzog renders political ideas in radically unfamiliar ways while fearlessly confronting his viewers with questions of world-historical significance. His maddening opaque viewpoint challengers us to rethink discovery and conquest, migration and exploitation, resource extraction, slavery and other foundational traumas of the contemporary human condition.” Such a lofty (but totally accurate) assessment at first appears so far removed from the humble early silent film era embodied with such finesse by the innovative Brothers Wharton and their multi-episode melodramas. But I would argue that, on the contrary, if we closely watch, and listen (via the music score by Popol Vuh), to a film such as Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu, featuring the incomparable Bruno Ganz managing to hold his own in the company of the volcanic Kinski, we are actually witnessing something spookily akin to FW Murnau’s own silent masterpiece Nosferatu from 1922, starring the illustrious Max Schreck, whose performance Kinski and Herzog evoke with a sublime intensity.

In closing I would also provide a personal evocation of my own. It relates to a friendly argument I had with my dear friend and fellow critic, the late Kevin Courrier, in a downtown Toronto Bersani Café one rainy day. It was the first time I had heard the famous D.H. Lawrence dictum, which serves so well as the epigrammatic motto of Critics At Large, used with absolute aplomb by Kevin in the midst of our disagreement. He maintained that Herzog, though he made beautiful films, was a self-indulgent egomaniac who put his own interests ahead of all those around him, even those helping him make his movies. “Precisely,” I ominously intoned, “and that’s okay with me if we end up with a vivid work of art such as Fitzcarraldo!” – the 1982 Herzog film in the production of which several extras died while trying to help him drag that gigantic boat up and over a mountain.

That was when Kevin optimistically intoned the Lawrence quote: “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of the critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.” I must admit, and readily do so, that in the intervening decade and a half or so since our chat, I’ve moved much closer to both Kevin’s and Lawrence’s perspective. But I still can’t help admiring the audacity of a cinematic artist who had his entire cast and crew hypnotized during the making of his 1976 film Heart of Glass, a simple, perhaps strange, but also profoundly prescient device the director used in order to also hypnotize us, his audience.  

The viewing of that film, as of so many of his others, maybe especially 1974’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, is literally crafted to induce in us a palpable state of trance. That technique, it strikes me, was the herald of a time when cinema fully comes of age and turns into something other than mere entertainment, perhaps something even other than art, something akin to an atavistic and mystical ritual suffused by Benjamin’s elusive aura. It’s the kind of surreal artistic audacity to which I will always freely surrender myself, just as I surrendered to the primitive 1914 magic of the Wharton Brothers in episode one of The Mysteries of Myra, entitled The Dagger of Dreams. In that incredible episode, featuring an odd cameo appearance by notorious black magician Aleister Crowley (a.k.a. The Wickedest Man in the World) the Wharton Brothers explored themes of esoteric spiritualism, the occult and the hypnotic powers of suggestion on willing subjects (in a manner shockingly similar to the style of later cable television’s series Stranger Things). But the true willing subjects were their paying customers, the viewers who congregated together to lose their own identities and be collectively spellbound by the magic of cinema. That ritualized power of suggestion, and the cinema’s own power to manifest it in the dark, is at the very heart of these two distinctive books on great film artists.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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