When the good old democracy of the twentieth century got on in years, it sent messengers in all directions to find the reason for misery in the world. When the messengers came back, they came to know from East and West, North and South, from all computers –the incorruptible, as they say– that democracy itself, good and old, was the cause of all misery in the twentieth century.
Hans-Jürgen Syberberg Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977) Part One: The Grail
This week I was only able to get to Michael Riedel’s Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway, which I reviewed here.
I’ve been toying with the idea of revisiting a few of the enthusiasms (Foreman, Barker) that led me to begin this blog more than ten years ago, and a quick look on YouTube turned one of them up. Next year, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s eight-hour Hitler: A Film from Germany will celebrate its 40th birthday; I first saw the film upon its US release in 1980. At the time, and even now, I consider it one of the great films of the twentieth century and one of the great films about the twentieth century. It’s an intimate chamber play with grandiose Romantic ambitions, and though I found it extremely powerful on the big screen of the Walnut Street Theater in 1980, it may play even better on television or on the small screen of the computer monitor. It pulls together, at one and the same time, the growth of mass communication (especially film), fascism, Richard Wagner, Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin, and of course the title character in an essayistic, mammoth contemplation of history and cruelty. As Susan Sontag described it in an essay about the film:
Syberberg assumes importance both for his art (the art of the twentieth century: film) and for his subject (the subject of the twentieth century: Hitler). The assumptions are familiar, crude, plausible. But they hardly prepare us for the scale and virtuosity with which he conjures up the ultimate subjects: hell, paradise lost, the apocalypse, the last days of mankind. Leavening romantic grandiosity with modernist ironies, Syberberg offers a spectacle about spectacle: evoking “the big show”called history in a variety of dramatic modes—fairy tale, circus, morality play, allegorical pageant, magic ceremony, philosophical dialogue, Totentanz—with an imaginary cast of tens of millions and, as protagonist, the Devil himself.
A few years ago, the Facets company released a DVD of the film, but it is now out-of-print. Below, however, is the first part — titled “The Grail” — of Hitler: A Film from Germany, thanks to YouTube. Try it; 15 minutes, I think, and you’ll want to see the other seven-and-three-quarters hours.
My daughters Goldie and Billie have taken up filmmaking. Their iPads come with an application called iMovie, which allows them to take video that they’ve recorded with their iPad cameras and pop it into the form of a movie trailer, with music and titles; in order to do this, though, they have to select what music and what style of titles, write the titles, then select from the videos they’ve recorded and edit them into a final product. Because all this is somewhat automated, it’s not as creative as it could be (even if it is, to them, great fun to put together and show off), and they’re learning-by-doing the basics of framing, light, photography, movement, gesture, and editing. You should really see their tracking shots as they sweep through the apartment and the outdoors; Martin Scorsese has nothing on them.
Like daughters, like father. In my nonage, about the age of eight or nine, I was in love with film. I was especially in love with the technology of it — the way that mechanics, celluloid, and light threw pictures up onto the wall. I imagine that partly this was some kind of boyish interest in tinkering, taking things apart and putting them back together, and movie projectors were particularly attractive. The added attraction was of course the films these projectors showed.
Back in 1971 or 1972, catering to my boyish enthusiasm, my father bought me a silent dual 8 movie projector, and I still remember it. The GAF 1388, designed for the home market (these were the days of home movies, of course, and you had to show them with something), became a blessed comfort of my boyhood. In the camera department of most department stores at the time, you could purchase little 50-foot silent, black-and-white highlight films of cartoons and movies for a few dollars each; these I would carry back home, thread them into the projector, and watch; when they were done, I’d rewind them and play them again. We made a few home movies ourselves, but they were never a large part of this obsession (and later, in college, I also took an Introduction to Filmmaking course in my freshman year, after which I concluded my talent was for watching, not making). My tinkering extended to the purchase of a little editing machine, on which I could splice shorter movies together to make an even longer one. Apart from the movies themselves, I remember the tactile qualities of the film and the mechanics of the projector, the thin strip of celluloid hard and sharp between my fingers as I threaded it through the machine and watched as the sprocket hook dragged it between the light and the lens of the projector. If you watched the film as it came off the reel, you could just about see, even in that tiny format, the way the picture moved from frame to frame — an early realization of persistence-of-vision.
We couldn’t afford a sound projector, so my early filmwatching years were dominated by silent film. By 1973 or so I’d discovered Blackhawk Films, a mail order house that specialized in 8mm reduction prints of black-and-white silent classics. (Blackhawk has become something of a legend to movie collectors; you can read about the history of the company — fascinating to me if to nobody else — here and here.) Every month or two a thickish catalog printed on cheap newsprint would arrive at the mailbox, and I’d go through it, page by page, circling the films I would want if my meager allowance would afford it. At the time, the most important figure at Blackhawk Films was film historian and Blackhawk Vice President David Shepard, who went on to become a major figure in the preservation and restoration of many silent films; many of his early efforts were released to the home market through Blackhawk, and I purchased as many of them as I could afford, mostly comedies of Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, and Laurel and Hardy. There were many I couldn’t purchase, mostly silent features, but at the time local public television stations used to fill off-hours with series that featured the masterpieces of silent film, and I remember seeing many of these (including many films from the Weimar era) at the time. Blackhawk offered them, but they were far too expensive for me to buy myself.
So obsessed was I with all this that, at the age of 13 or 14, I managed to talk my way into a tour of the projection booth at the Feeley Theatre in Hazleton, PA, where I was living at the time. The Feeley was an old vaudeville house converted to film sometime in the 1930s, and the booth was reached by going up to the balcony, then up a rickety ladder to a small hot room perched from the ceiling. The projection equipment even then was vintage, but the projectionist showed me how the reels were threaded, how the reel-changes were accomplished, and I remember all this even now. After this little tour I went back downstairs to watch the movie (which was, possibly, one of the old Marx Brothers or Charlie Chaplin films that received occasional re-releases in 35mm back in the 1970s, and in which the Feeley specialized).
This had two predictable results. First, as I became familiar with the mechanics of filmmaking and projection and film, movies were in one sense demystified for me. It’s not that I couldn’t see the aesthetic forest through the mechanical trees; I still enjoyed and laughed at Chaplin, Fields, Laurel and Hardy, and the silent films I watched on public television. But some of the wonder of illusion gave way to a critical perspective on the moving image. In short, I knew how the magic tricks worked; my reading about silent film had revealed the trickery of miniature shots, multiple-exposures, framing, and editing on the beat of an action, so when Star Wars was released in 1977 I wasn’t exactly swept away by the spectacle of it, because I knew how the spectacle was created in the first place. Instead of that I could concentrate on the story and ideology it reflected.
Second, as a youth, I gained an appreciation of the silent film and was able to recognize it as an entirely different kind of art form from that of sound film. Far from having merely historic or antiquarian interest, silent film had a language and technique all its own, in a way far freer than that of the sound film, which in most cases seemed bound to synchronized dialogue. Silent film demanded more of the viewer, especially the viewer who came to it from a moviegoing experience founded in sound films. You couldn’t look away for a moment, because dialogue would not cover what you had missed. Silent film’s intellectual, emotional, and philosophical range was extraordinarily broad and deep when it finally reached its maturity in the 1920s or so, especially in the films of the Weimar cinema, and I would rank the best of them with any film of 2016.
I don’t know if Goldie and Billie would share my enthusiasm; they’re children of the 21st century. But I’ve been reading up on silent film and rekindling my interest in it over the past few weeks, and am delightedly finding that many of those silent films I enjoyed as a youth are easier to find and less expensive than they used to be. Film conservation, preservation, and restoration have come a long way since the 1970s, and many silent films considered lost then have turned up here and there (especially the silent features of W.C. Fields, which are surprisingly good; Fields began his career as a silent juggling comedian, and these silent films throw a considerable light on what made him such a popular success in the first place). If this rekindling leads to a small fire, I’ll write more about these, but I am glad that this part of film history will still be there for my daughters to find. There was no guarantee, in the 1970s, that it would endure to inspire the memories of a middle-aged man in the 2010s.
As a special Father’s Day treat, I brought my daughters along to the new Metrograph theater on Ludlow Street for a program of old Warner Bros. cartoons, projected in both 35mm and DCP (that’s “Digital Cinema Package” for those of you fond of technical abbreviations). Although they’d seen many of these cartoons on our television set via a DVD, this was the first time they saw them as they were meant to be seen — on a big screen, and, more to the point, via light projected through celluloid, as a film running through a projector.
They loved it, of course; there’s something to be said for seeing comedies in a theater, as members of an audience; the laughter seems to come quicker — maybe it’s the size of the screen, blowing everything up larger than life — and it’s a more communal experience. And they were also happy to humor their dad. But there was something more to it as well. Although this was their first time they’d actually seen film-as-film, they saw it side-by-side with digital copies of these cartoons. As did I. It had been a very long time since I’d been in a movie theater that showed 35mm films; many of them converted to digital at least a decade ago.
The first cartoon on the program was the Chuck Jones classic “What’s Opera, Doc?”, which we’d already seen on that DVD at home. Metrograph managed to snag a 35mm print of the cartoon, though, and some of the differences were obvious to my eye, if not to my daughters’. Apart from the size of the screen, the print itself was not as pristine as the digital copy: there were scratches, dirt particles, and splices absent from the DVD print, so that even when the image was still — for the title cards, for example, or the occasional pauses in the visual action — the movie still moved, those scratches, particles, and splices flickering past the gate of the projector, 1/24th of a second at a time. And what’s more, and maybe more subjectively, I felt that the image seemed warmer, a feeling confirmed when, later in the program, other films were shown in DCP. In those shorts, the title cards and still moments were rock solid, unchanging — and colder. The quality of the light was different, digitally produced rather than analog. And although it is of course absolutely necessary to preserve these films in the “best” format for future viewing, qualities of the original celluloid print were nonetheless lost.
One of those qualities was the feeling that the film, the cartoon, had a physical history acquired over the many times the individual print had been run through a projector. With each journey from supply reel to sprocket claw to film gate to take-up reel, celluloid film acquires damage and deterioration. The next time the print is projected, the print reflects that damage: in some minor, even trivial way, it’s not the same cartoon. It participates in the history of its own life. Famously, digital prints are unchanging; they don’t acquire mechanical damage (though there is something called “bit rot,” which seems a little occult) and can be replayed over and over and over with no visible or audible deterioration to the image or sound — as if nobody had ever seen it before, as if it was being experienced for the first time. But it’s a lie, a lie propagated by digital restoration and reproduction. On some conscious level, you’re aware when watching a celluloid film that it’s acquired its damage through use, through being seen by others. There’s no such awareness when watching a digital print.
There have been a few films that have assumed the deterioration of film as their explicit subject. Bill Morrison’s 2002 Decasia: The State of Decay, with a score by Michael Gordon, meditated on the deterioration of old silent films. But Owen Land (George Landow) may have been the first to sieze on the physical qualities of celluloid in his 1966 Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. Land/Landow’s work is a six-minute loop of an old test film, calling into consideration the way viewers experience film, what they notice and don’t notice once narrative and character have been eliminated from the cinematic experience. Both of these films contemplate history, light, and the way they’re preserved in film; watching these films in their original celluloid format also calls into question what flaws and deterioration were a part of the original film, and what new flaws and deterioration the film have acquired since the print was first screened. It is, in a sense, still “living,” whereas digitally preserved copies can, of course, acquire no new flaws, can’t deteriorate, and are, in a sense, “dead.”
I could, like so many others have done, go back to Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” to suss this all out further, but for the past few years Benjamin’s books have had to make way on my shelves for The Sneetches and Junie B. Jones. This is probably all to the best. But I am glad that I was able to show my daughters what real film is really like; that this art can live in so many ways, and that the mechanical can be just as rich as the digital.
I’ll be writing more about film in the near future — not least because Metrograph will soon be showing 35mm prints of two of my favorite American films, Faces and Little Murders, and in my dotage I’m remembering more about my youthful love affair with film, mostly of the silent type (even more prone than most to deterioration). In the meantime, below is a digitized YouTube copy of Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc., which, for the time being, splits the difference:
Unlike Charles Chaplin, to whom he was frequently and often enough favorably compared, Fields had no worldview. About the great issues of the day — modernism, capitalism, fascism, matters that particularly preoccupied Chaplin at this time — he had nothing to say. His comedy remained specific and highly situational. He was ever the bleakly beleaguered victim of a relentlessly hostile, petty and uncomprehending world. Misunderstood and abused, he might, in the final moments of a film, be accidentally rewarded by the fates, but that did not soften his fundamentally dyspeptic view of human nature, fighting back with what weapons came to hand — a sotto voce wisecrack, a patently false endearment, even an act of physical vengeance that usually failed to land definitively on target. His was essentially the comedy of entrapment. The open road, fresh with optimistic possibilities, which Chaplin’s Tramp so often found at the final shot, was never available to Fields.
Over the past few days I’ve been rekindling my youthful enthusiasm for FIelds with James Curtis’ fine biography (the book that Schickel was reviewing). I was never drawn to the self-caricature of the late Fields — the alcoholic con man and snake-oil salesman of movies like You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man or My Little Chickadee. These movies, made when he was sixty or more, were produced following a bitter year-long illness from which, it seems to me, he never fully recovered.
At his best, Fields was an excellent comic actor, and I treasure the films of his mid-period (about 1933 to 1936) more. In his caustic satires of middle-class America, Fields often played a small businessman, an inept garage tinkerer, or a back-office toady who sought temporary escapes from familial and professional tedium and stress (the purchase of a Florida orange grove or, less ambitiously, just an afternoon at the fights) and was roundly punished by circumstance or something somewhat more malignant for his attempts to find escape. Surprisingly, Fields was also at home in period comedies like The Old Fashioned Way (about a disheveled traveling theatrical troupe in 1897), Poppy (about a petty grifter and his adopted daughter in the late 19th century), and an adaptation of Dickens’ David Copperfield (in which he played a most effective Micawber without even attempting a British accent). In these films there was always an underlying melancholy to his character, never quite resigned to failure but accepting it, believing, perhaps, that it was his fate. Fields could also be quite touching, and the affection his father figures exhibited — especially to his characters’ daughters (Fields’ relationship to his own real-life son was fraught with frustration and dismay) — is profound and moving.
The time is ripe for a critical reassessment of Fields’ career, which hasn’t been attempted since William K. Everson’s 1967 The Art of W.C. Fields. Just this month, Taylor Trade Publishing reissued W.C. Fields by Himself, a 1973 collection of essays, ephemera, and letters by Fields and edited by his grandson, Ronald J. Fields (I devoured this book when it was first published), and last October Universal issued a five-DVD set, the W.C. Fields Comedy Essentials Collection, which collects 18 of Fields’ films from Paramount and Universal, most of them classics (among which I would place You’re Telling Me, The Man on the Flying Trapeze, and It’s a Gift, an unintended trilogy of small-town America satires) and all of them necessary to an understanding of his career. In addition, many of Fields’ silent features, unavailable for years and some previously considered lost, have finally been unearthed and are being restored and distributed.
Fields may not have had the influence on American comedy of other great clowns. He was never as frantic and absurd as the Marx Brothers, never as sentimental or balletic as Chaplin (though Fields, who spent his early career in vaudeville and burlesque as a mute juggler, could demonstrate an elegant physical grace when he had to), and not as slow-witted as Laurel and Hardy. He was not a great, innovative filmmaker like Chaplin or Keaton. On the other hand, without Fields there would be no Basil Fawlty or Larry David, his most obvious descendants. David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm character may be a resident of a much higher income bracket, but he is also buffeted by the same cosmic, metaphysical indifference to his comfort and happiness as was Fields.
But Fields was, in many ways, the most mature, most adult, most linguistically creative of them all. It was recognized as far back as 1935, when Andre Sennwald wrote the below perspicacious appreciation of him for the New York Times. Sennwald’s tongue, admittedly, may have been lightly in his cheek, but not entirely. It ran under the headline “W.C. Fields, Buffoon: Timidly Suggesting That an Affection for Him Is a Form of Confessional” in the January 13, 1935, issue of the newspaper and is reproduced below; below that is this week’s video, the “Mr. Muckle” scene from It’s a Gift, one of Fields’ masterpieces. If I raise this afternoon’s glass of zweigelt at Cafe Katja to Fields, his work, and his memory, it’s no less than appropriate.
The impediment to a sober appraisal of a master buffoon like W.C. Fields resides in the reviewer’s compulsion to be ponderously witty in his discussions of the comedian’s work. Let us drop the elephantine irony this morning and approach a great man with becoming humility and awe. Since it is the function of the funny man to massage the tortured ego of his auditors by showing himself to be even more witless and subhuman in his deportment than they are in theirs, it is natural for his hearers to adopt toward him a falsely inflated sense of superiority. Thus the clown fulfills his divine mission at the moment that his public regards him with amused aloofness. Mr. Fields is a great comedian because he traffics in high and cosmic matters relating to man’s eternal helplessness, frustration and defeat. It is a fitting tribute to his eminence that most of the filmgoers who are privileged to observe him are content to laugh at his brilliantly conceived and subtly executed jocosities. A few, sensing the parable of man’s eternal disillusion which Mr. Fields manages to suggest even when he is most painfully lunatic, are sometimes a little sad in the midst of their laughter, knowing suddenly that they are mocking themselves. Not to be aware of the tragic overtones in the work of this middle-aged, whisky-nosed, fumbling and wistfully incompetent gentleman is to be ignorant of the same tragic overtones in the comedy of Don Quijote de la Mancha. To be of the belief that Mr. Fields is no more than a funny man is to hold the opinion that Gulliver’s Travels is a book for children and that the Spanish bullfight is planned as a contest between a man and a beast.
An applicant for membership in the society of ardent admirers of Mr. Fields is entitled to know that several of the sober items in the master’s career bear a gratifying resemblance to the lunacies in which he deals professionally. There is, for example, the curious situation which persuaded him, at age 11, to flee the family homestead in Philadelphia. It appears that the young William Claude Fields carelessly left a shovel lying on the front walk of the house in such a location that his father, returning home from work, stepped on it and was smitten upon the shin by the handle. It turned out to be the identical shin which had recently been aggravated in an altercation with a buggy. William Claude, without tarrying to discover the extent of the damage, set out immediately for distant parts. The initiate in the cult of Fields worship is also entitled to the information that the master, according to the newspaper files for 1928, found himself embroiled in an impasse which is equally aromatic of the kind of low comedy which Mr. Fields has been known to employ in his fictions. Being teamed on the vaudeville stage with a bearded comedian, he invented a happy gag in which he was to release a canary from his partner’s muff. It happened, though, that the confused canary bumped its head so energetically against the scenery in its efforts to escape that several members of the Humane Society forthwith arrested the innocent Mr. Fields for violation of the cruelty statutes. You are invited to draw your own conclusions.
Even when, as in his new work It’s a Gift, Mr. Fields traverses the screen with not much more in the way of technical assistance than the presence of a camera and a camera man, he is somehow able to illuminate the universal truths with unerring accuracy of intuition and with lavish comic results. In It’s a Gift he presents for our amusement that part of the human composition which is plagued by persistent frustrations, bullied by an inescapable sense of inadequacy, and tormented by the problems involved in complex associations with other human beings. His sufferings at the hands of a nagging wife compose an allegory which, in bewildered and halting moments or revelation, celebrates the misfortunes of the meek, the spineless, the awkward and the spiritually disinherited. When the befuddled griefs of Mr. Fields are submitted to the inspection of the dominant and proud ones, the assured and the successful and the enviably correct ones, they seem to be merely the flattering antics of a fool, who intends you to laugh and to preen yourself in the contemplation of him. But to those who love him best Mr. Fields is the great healer, taking unto himself grievous human burdens and in the same breath teaching his disciples to crucify him with laughter as his reward for purging them of their futilities. His sad and patient conduct as he is harassed by his spouse comes to have a special meaning for all of us who are condemned to be the shamefaced victims of our fellows and the mockery of our friends as a result of persistent lapses from what the world esteems to be sanity and correctness.
This, approximately, is the skeleton portrait of the Fields devotee. Born into a world which is in the habit of shouldering him contemptuously into the gutter, he finds himself the aggrieved and innocent object of assault from every side. He lacks a nice talent for evading the importunities of insurance agents, haberdashery salesmen, panhandlers and magazine subscription salesmen. He is unversed in the art of hanging up the telephone receiver on the shimsical conversations of strangers who desire him to guess who this is. Buttonholed by long-winded bores in corridors and elevators, he is without the audacity to escape. Approached at public bars by unhandsome ladies in their cups, he becomes a patient victim out of cowardice rather than from the absence of a sense of discretion. He wilts before the overbearing and unmannered puling of office tyrants and is unversed in the technique of stifling the outpourings of the braggart. Hastily he adds a nickel to his tip in a restaurant when the waiter skulks ominously nearby, and he is without the moral fiber to resist offering a gratuity to the boy in the barber shop whose meager service is the brushing of his hat. Briefly, he is present in every man and dominant in many. When Mr. Fields cringes before the rage of a bullying wife, scrapes the floor in his hasty salaams to some one who is his superior only in lung power, or asserts his stunted ego in cautious admonitions to unarmed babies, he is distorting a universal characteristic so meagerly that only the fool in his audience is deceived. In short, this sublimated Caspar Milquetoast is holding the mirror up to nature.
Over the past few days I’ve been remembering how much pleasure the films of W.C. Fields and Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy gave me when I was younger — more pleasure than those of Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, although the reputations of the latter have far outstripped the former in recent years. My favorite Fields films were those of his mid-period, in which Fields played a down-trodden member of the American middle class (You’re Telling Me!, It’s a Gift, The Man on the Flying Trapeze) or, in a few very fine period pieces, raconteurs of one sort or another (the leader of a ragged turn-of-the-century travelling theater group in The Old Fashioned Way, a con artist responsible for an adopted daughter in Poppy). He didn’t start in motion pictures until he was in his early fifties, so there’s a surprising amount of physical and emotional maturity in his work that sets him apart from other comedians of the period.
Laurel and Hardy were a slightly different matter. At the center of their films is a strange but heartwarming friendship — “Two minds without a single thought,” as Laurel once described them, and especially in the Hal Roach films there’s a surprising sense of the absurd. But both Fields and Laurel and Hardy disdained the freneticism of the Three Stooges and other comedians of the time. More, they both emerged, unlike Chaplin, Keaton, and the other silent comedians, in an America in the midst of a crippling economic depression. Their comedy is much more slowly paced, more considered, and the absurdity when it comes (and it does come, especially in the Laurel and Hardy films) is that much more comic. And as Dave Kehr wrote in the New York Times in 2011:
[U]ltimately these are comedies of character, not of pratfalls and physical destruction. During a spat in “Towed in a Hole” (1932) Ollie experiences a sudden (and well-known) moment of self-consciousness. “Isn’t this silly?” he says to Stan, who is about to douse him with a bucket of water, “Here we are, two grown-up men, acting like a couple of children.” …
Maturity remains a fluid and frequently elusive concept in Laurel and Hardy, which is certainly one of the reasons they appeal so much to children and remain a favorite of adults, who know how thin such facades can be. But what remains constant at every phase is the unbreakable bond of affection between the two friends, who seem at first so radically mismatched, both physically and temperamentally, but are ultimately inconceivable without each other.
So, just for fun and a moment of surprising grace today, below is a short excerpt from their 1937 feature Way Out West. I find it unutterably charming; maybe you will too.