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A Movie a Day, Day 12: Metropolis

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A Movie a Day, Day 12: Metropolis

The newly restored print of Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s gorgeous, disturbing, and sometimes absurd silent masterpiece is a revelation. (It’s due out on DVD and Blu-ray later this year.) Part Romeo-and-Juliet love story and part science fiction, it’s also about class warfare, alienation, and exploitation in the capitalist Machine Age—but that’s the muddled part of the story.

It’s not one of my favorite movies, yet its iconic, beautifully composed images, and almost laughably intense expressionistic acting suck me in every time I come across it on late-night TV. The plot and message strike me as incoherent and fascistic, but some people find it profound. Maybe its lack of clarity is part of its power, since it leaves the movie open to interpretation.

Metropolis is a huge city created and ruled by one man, Joh Fredersen (played by Alfred Abel, whose restrained, naturalistic performance sits like a rock in the middle of a fast-flowing river of emoting). Fredersen is a grim control freak, but his son, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), is a softie, an idealist who wants to befriend the workers who live and toil in a whole separate underground city beneath the glamorous one where the ruling class lives. When Freder catches a glimpse of Maria (Brigitte Helm), a demure blond goddess from the workers’ world who has emerged for a moment into his, he’s a goner. Like Theseus and his friend in pursuit of Persephone, he runs after Maria and gets all tangled up, trying to protect Maria as she’s threatened by personal vendettas and political upheaval.

Like an Ayn Rand novel, Metropolis is too enthralled by its own symbolism and big ideas to pay attention to trifles like character development or logic. Fredersen and the other autocrats who rule the city, we’re told, are its head, and the workers who keep it alive are the hands. The gulf between the workers and the overlords seems unbridgeable, so Maria, a kind of secular saint who preaches to the workers in an underground cave, calls for mediation. In title cards that are studded with exclamation points and often in all caps, she declares: “The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart!” (Huh?)

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Rotwang the wild-haired inventor, the granddaddy of all mad movie scientists and a sworn enemy to Freder’s father, creates a robot woman who looks just like Maria. He sends her out to mislead the workers, inciting them to bring down the city. There are also a lot of muddled Christian references, including more than one warning of the coming Apocalypse, and an ambivalent message about machines, which are seen as both taking and saving the workers’ lives. The view of the workers is muddled too: Sometimes idealized as brothers or sentimentalized as helpless victims of oppression, they’re ultimately portrayed as mindless and childlike, pathetically easy to turn into a bloodthirsty mob.

The streets of this great city feel oddly dead and deserted, since you never see people going about their daily business. But then, daily life does not interest the filmmakers. The organism that fascinates them is the city itself, and that is presented in God’s-eye view shots that must have been thrilling when the film debuted. The new version revives these images so completely that you almost feel as if you were watching parts of the movie live. In a few spots the image is obscured by those streaks that can make an old film look as if it were shot through a heavy rainfall (these may be part of the 25 minutes or so of new material, since the print these came from was badly damaged), but most of the footage is stunningly clear, free of the cloudiness, flickering, scratches, and tints that often make old movies look old. It’s as if Metropolis were restored from past to present tense. The original orchestral soundtrack has also been restored and provides an aptly bombastic background.

Some of the new content fleshes out the story, adding back subplots that had been lopped off. Some add detail and drama to scenes that were shortened. And some lengthen reaction shots, restoring the film to the slower rhythms of its pre-ADHD era (it was released in 1927). The new footage was part of a 16mm copy of the original director’s cut discovered two years ago at the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. It was digitally restored and integrated into a meticulous earlier restoration of the film, creating something close to a brand new director’s cut. (This article by Glenn Erickson provides some interesting details.)

This movie has been copied so much in the past 80 years or so that many of its images feel as if they’ve always been part of our DNA. Majestic aerial shots of a forest of high-rises bisected by elevated highways and train tracks so high up that they cross paths with biplanes and blimps reminded me of Blade Runner and The Fifth Element, but you may have an entirely different set of references. The workers so welded to their machines that they moved like mechanical parts, in a terrible/beautiful mechanized dance, were echoed in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and who knows how many other movies. The transference of Maria’s essence to Rotwang’s robot in a room filled with bubbling, steaming, lighting-up machinery and crisscrossed by miniature lightning bolts and the mob that chases Maria bring to mind all those Frankenstein movies, and aerial shots of mobs flowing in mesmerizing patterns rhyme with Busby Berkeley’s high-camp choreography of showgirls. And so on…and on. (Matt Zoller Seitz put together a slide show of references over at Salon, if you want to see more.)

Some of the visuals in Metropolis resonate strongly with current events, like the way the false Maria uses sex to distract and divide the masses so she can impose her creator’s will, or the waters that pour into Metropolis’s underground, flooding the area where the poor people lived. Others are stained, maybe permanently, by historical events that were still in the future when the film was released. I couldn’t stop thinking, while watching all those scenes of mobs mesmerized by a crazed sociopath, that they were shot in Germany less than a decade before Hitler’s rise to power. In fact, Lang’s wife, who wrote the screenplay for Metropolis (the couple developed the story together), became a fanatic Nazi in 1933. The Nazis loved the movie too, which doesn’t surprise me: Its unclear but urgent message, overheated emotions, and stirring visuals are as good a recipe as any for the fascist propaganda that played such a big part in Hitler’s rise. (On a side note, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Nazi connection were the reason this print was discovered in Buenos Aires, since Argentina sheltered so many Nazis after the war.)

But Metropolis outlasted the Nazis, so it can no longer be bent to their will. With this new print in circulation, it should last a lot longer, its meaning open to interpretation by generations to come. I have a feeling it won’t ever stop feeling surprisingly relevant.

Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.

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Watch: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Gets Teaser Trailer

When it rains, it pours.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

When it rains, it pours. Four days after Quentin Tarantino once more laid into John Ford in a piece written for his Beverly Cinema website that saw the filmmaker referring to Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as Tie a Yellow Ribbon, and two days after Columbia Pictures released poster art for QT’s ninth feature that wasn’t exactly of the highest order, the studio has released a teaser for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film was announced early last year, with Tarantino describing it as “a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, at the height of hippy Hollywood.”

Set on the eve of the Manson family murders, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tells the story of TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they try to get involved in the film industry. The film also stars Margot Robbie (as Sharon Tate), Al Pacino, the late Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, and Bruce Dern in a part originally intended for the late Burt Reynolds.

See the teaser below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Scf8nIJCvs4

Columbia Pictures will release Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on July 26.

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Watch the Stranger Things 3 Trailer, and to the Tune of Mötley Crüe and the Who

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence.

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Stranger Things 3
Photo: Netflix

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence. On Friday, Jeff Tremaine’s The Dirt, a biopic about Mötley Crüe’s rise to fame, drops on Netflix. Today, the streaming service has released the trailer for the third season of Stranger Things. The clip opens with the strains of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home,” all the better to underline that the peace and quiet that returned to the fictional rural town of Hawkins, Indiana at the end of the show’s second season is just waiting to be upset again.

Little is known about the plot of the new season, and the trailer keeps things pretty vague, though the Duffer Brothers have suggested that the storyline will take place a year after the events of the last season—duh, we know when “Home Sweet Home” came out—and focus on the main characters’ puberty pangs. That said, according to Reddit sleuths who’ve obsessed over such details as the nuances of the new season’s poster art, it looks like Max and company are going to have to contend with demon rats no doubt released from the Upside Down.

See below for the new season’s trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEG3bmU_WaI

Stranger Things 3 premieres globally on July 4.

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Who Killed My Father Is Heartbreaking but Prone to Pat Sociological Analysis

Édouard Louis’s latest is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts.

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Who Killed My Father

Author Édouard Louis’s father has been an important figure in each of his previous works, even when he’s never seen or mostly at the periphery (as in The History of Violence). With his latest, Who Killed My Father, Louis finally turns to directly examining his most important, damaged relationship. Both in his previous books and interviews, Louis has repeatedly acknowledged this broken relationship, largely stemming from the author’s open homosexuality. Alongside this, Louis’s prior works have circled around a number of themes to which he returns here: the French political and working classes, the small-town prejudices that surrounded his upbringing and drove a closeted homosexual boy to escape to more cosmopolitan Paris, and the role of state power in producing social and physical illness.

With Who Killed My Father, Louis invites inevitable comparisons to Abdellah Taïa, another talented French writer who’s also gay and largely estranged from his place of origin, and also primarily an autobiographical novelist. Like Louis, Taïa incorporates his complicated relationship with a parent into several of his books. Taïa also connects that relationship, his writing, and his experience with the society he left behind in Morocco and the one he found in France. But what distinguishes his writing in, for example, Infidels or Salvation Army from that of Édouard Louis in Who Killed My Father is a strong sense of meaning. Taïa incorporates his relationship with his mother, M’Barka, to convey something more meaningful and developed.

Louis begins down this same road before clumsily inserting a political tract at the end of Who Killed My Father that doesn’t knit as effortlessly with parts one and two. The book situates Louis’s relationship with his father front and center as compared to his previous work. It’s clear that he’s exposing the painfulness of their relationship for the purpose of speaking about political power and its physical and social toll on those who don’t possess it, but Who Killed My Father stumbles in conveying its message adequately.

Louis’s account of his father’s suffering and violence toward those around him is both painful and sharp. Who Killed My Father is strongest when Louis is demonstrating his father’s most private acts of kindness, as when the father gives Louis a copy of Titanic for his birthday after trying to convince him to ask for a more “masculine” gift. After Louis realizes that his carefully planned tribute to the pop band Aqua at a family dinner has embarrassed his father, the man reassures Louis that “it’s nothing.” In the book’s first and strongest part, Louis expounds not only on the relationship with his father, but also excavates what might have made his father the man he grew up with. At one point, he recounts finding a photograph of his father in women’s clothes—undoubtedly some adolescent joke, but also inconceivable from the man who insisted to his son that men should never act like girls.

Regrettably, part one ends with a trite conclusion that says everything and nothing at the same time. In part two, the story attempts to braid together all the malignant threads of Louis’s family narrative. Louis recalls igniting a violent outburst between his father and older brother as a result of his mother shaming him for acting too much like a girl (“faggot” is what some others in the neighborhood more precisely call him). The insinuation hurts and angers him so much that he betrays his mother’s confidence on another family secret, setting loose a new wave of violence. Part two is short and important to moving Who Killed My Father toward some wider evaluation of the questions Louis begins the book with, but it ultimately fails to find its footing by pivoting in part three to an unearned polemic against the political classes.

Who Killed My Father is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate (except in brief moments of tenderness) through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts, but the book at its weakest when trying to ham-handedly force this narrative into some broad theorizing about power and society and structural violence. Part one aligned beautifully with a narrative of meaning more comparable to Taïa at his best. Unfortunately, the story quickly falls apart when Jacques Chirac is indicted for destroying Louis’s father’s body through changes in health care coverage. It’s not that the questions Louis ends with aren’t necessary and important ones; it’s that there’s so little threading the narrative together into anything cohesive. What was the point of the first two-thirds of the book? His father was cruel, occasionally loving, but never mind because the state is killing him? The life of the poor is one of abject powerlessness against an unremittingly powerful and callous “ruling class”?

Louis deserves credit for the attempt to tie it all together into some grander commentary on the political class and its ambivalence, but the conclusion is simultaneously glib and condescending. Perhaps Louis didn’t intend it, but the book’s conclusion drains away responsibility for the cruelty and bigotry of those like his father, and patronizes them as with a quick How could we expect any better of the noble, working poor? Is it the state’s or the ruling class’s subjugation of his father’s body that’s somehow also responsible for his inability to sympathize with gays or immigrants? Of course, the poor are subjugated by the rich and Louis has written more meaningfully about the implications of that relationship elsewhere. But in Who Killed My Father, he inadvertently demonstrates that the answer isn’t to sanctify them any more than it is to demonize them.

Édouard Louis’s Who Killed My Father is now available from New Directions.

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