Flicks

by Chris Dashiell

LANDSCAPE IN THE MIST (Theo Angelopoulos, 1988).

A twelve-year-old girl and her younger brother, having been told the lie that their father lives in Germany, run away from their home in Greece in an attempt to find him. This film has its share of haunting moments and images. In one brilliant sequence, we realize that a rape has taken place without actually being shown. The picture's muted color scheme is a perfect match for the children's desperate circumstances, and it's hard to fault the acting, especially by Tania Palaiologou as the girl. However, the director employs an extremely slow pace which turns the film into an endurance test. I am not against a slow-moving film, if the script and the visual texture require such a rhythm. But Angelopoulos consistently holds a shot way past its effectiveness. When characters simply stop and stare into the distance, and you are staring at them, and the camera just stays there, on and on and on - well, there's a limit. Which is a shame, because the elements are there for a fine film, with only the wise use of an editor's scissors between it and success.

HELL'S ANGELS (Howard Hughes, 1930).

Before he went totally off the deep end, Howard Hughes was an ambitious, eccentric movie producer. This drama about flyers in World War I was one of his rare forays into directing. The plot is absolute rubbish - two brothers, one an honest square and the other a cad, come to grief over a dissolute woman, blah blah blah. The brothers are Ben Lyon and James Hall, justly forgotten - the woman is Jean Harlow. This made her a star, but it's hard to see why - her real talent was in comedy, and here she just whines and acts horribly. But, in spite of all this, Hell's Angels is worth seeing, because of the jaw-dropping special effects. The long sequence featuring a zeppelin attack on England is awesome, and it has a certain grave dramatic quality which brings the film momentarily to another level. The second half features a spectacular bombing sequence, and an amazing battle in the air that puts Wings and almost any other movie about flying to shame. (Hughes' cameras were actually mounted on the planes, so these scenes have an intense, dynamic sense of movement.) There are even a few moments on the ground that are decent - I'm thinking of a well-done scene with the flyers eating dinner and the Hall character speaking out against war. The ending - with the brothers being captured by evil Germans trying to get them to reveal their army's position, is pure hokum - but definitely give Hell's Angels a look. The $4 million price tag made it one of the most expensive movies of its time. The video (MCA Universal) is beautiful, including a Technicolor sequence at an army ball, and even a 10-minute intermission with music.

THE CAT AND THE CANARY (Paul Leni, 1927).

A family gathers for the reading of an old man's will. To the chagrin of the scheming relatives, the fortune goes to an obscure cousin (Laura La Plante), with the stipulation that she must prove her mettle by staying in the old man's house for a night without losing her sanity. This horror spoof, based on a Broadway hit, starts off marvelously, with Leni using inventive camera movement, trick intertitles, superimpositions, and point of view shots which seem rather ahead of their time for the silent era. This offbeat ingenuity promises much, but I must report, unfortunately, that the film wears out its welcome about half way through. The problem is the usual one - overwrought acting. Everything is so exaggerated, so lacking in subtlety, that we soon stop caring what happens, despite a few mildly scary effects. (The comic figure of the idiot Paul, played by Creighton Hale, is the worst of the bunch.) Nevertheless, it had a great effect on the horror genre, and even Hitchcock cited it as an influence.

NANOOK OF THE NORTH (Robert Flaherty, 1922).

It is difficult for a classic, much talked about but seldom seen, to live up to its reputation. In this case, I am happy to say, the film is all it's cracked up to be. This account of the daily life of an Eskimo marked the beginning of the documentary as we know it. The overall conception - a man fighting the elements in order to feed himself and his family - is utterly simple yet sublime. We see Nanook fishing, hunting walrus and seal, and - in perhaps the most memorable sequence - the step-by-step construction of an igloo. That some of the sequences were - by necessity - staged, does not detract from Flaherty's achievement in the face of great odds. The details of Eskimo life are accurate and portrayed with sensitivity and patience. There is nothing dull about Nanook of the North. It is one of the greatest examples of nonfiction film, accomplished outside of the Hollywood studio system and its conventions. It remains a masterpiece which is essential viewing for anyone interested in the art of cinema.

 

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