Ivan Koval-Samborsky as Arthur Stern and Natalya Glann as Miss Vivian Mend - still (partial) courtesy of Flicker Alley
Feuillade and Perret pioneered the serial film, and even American serials were pioneered by the French. The most famous American serial, The Perils of Pauline (1914) with Pearl White, was produced by the American branch of Pathé Films and directed by Louis J. Gasnier, who reportedly didn’t know English. The Russians famously studied American films, and it has often been repeated that Eisenstein wore out a print of Griffith’s Intolerance to learn about editing. Russians must have studied serials too, as well as popular adventures with Douglas Fairbanks, because there was a brief movement in the 1920s toward “Soviet Americanism,” or the attempt to apply the breakneck style of Hollywood entertainment to the serious problem of educating the masses of the new Soviet state.
The result: the three-part sensation of 1926, Miss Mend, co-directed by Boris Barnet and Fedor Ozep. It’s a breathless, hair-raising story about the international capitalist conspiracy against the proletariat, as foiled by a spunky secretary and some yellow-press flunkies. The first part is set in exotic New York, a land of corruption and labor unrest and train crashes. Then the story moves to the workers’ paradise of Russia, where a deadly plague breaks out on a ship and people start dropping like flies. Can the villains be stopped?
US DVD: 15 Dec 2009
This was based on a novel by a Russian woman who, under the American pseudonym Jim Dollar, cranked out the pulp bestsellers of her day. According to the booklet and the bonus film-essay by two scholars, this blockbuster packed in Russian audiences who didn’t realize they were supposed to be attending the highbrow fare across the street, while official critics sniffed that it wasn’t serious. Its attempts at ideological correctness are certainly curious and startling, as in the two scenes (one in America, one in Russia) where jazz music is both seductive and destructive.
In a capitalist movie, the spunky secretary would finally marry the boss’ handsome son and moving up in the world the old-fashioned way, with true love conquering all divisions, but here class loyalties prevent that from happening as her initially heroic rescuer is revealed as a craven recidivist. More surprising is how the film handles children. Amid the endless chases, rescues and reversals, there’s the death of a bastard by poisoned apple—a poisonous fairy tale indeed. And in Russia, homeless orphans are crucial to the plot. Can such things be in the ideal state? At least the proud tykes boast that they contribute to society by selling papers when they’re not sleeping in the street.
Maybe the masses were exposing their imperfect education in being seduced by all this jazz, but this movie tells us more about its time and place than some of the era’s more aesthetically radical fare. This tinted print on the Flicker Alley label looks beautiful and carries new music by Robert Israel, who discusses the recording sessions in an extra. Rediscoveries like this give us cause to ponder the official versions of film history. In a century, will scholars turn to the Transformers movies or Adam Sandler’s comedies in order to take their most accurate inventories of millennial America?
My Favorite DVDs of 2009
I find it hard enough to recall what I liked last week, but here is an alphabetical list of last year’s DVDs that are now fodder for my personal canon. Assume the items discussed above are on it. If so inclined, try and see how many you can get through in 2010.
Bolt, Up, Kung Fu Panda, Sita Sings the Blues—Delightful animations.
Capitalism: Child Labor—Amazing short film is a bonus on Momma’s Man.
Crank 2 High Voltage—Sadistic, tasteless hitman movie also happens to be an inventive and witty chunk of radical style. I’m not kidding.
The Cremator—Stylish, bleak Czech film with beautiful score.
The Exiles—Poetic docudrama of American Indians in Los Angeles.
Five—Atomic survivors in a Frank Lloyd Wright house.
Forever—This documentary about how we live with death has many touching moments.
Goodbye Solo—Visual beauty, suspense, and delicate character study.
The Great Buck Howard—Witty comedy of a psychic’s rise and fall.
Julia—Tilda Swinton cranks up the suspense.
Last Year at Marienbad, Jeanne Dielman, Made in USA—Gorgeous French landmarks, all from Criterion.
Let the Right One In—Creepy, tender, horrific juvenile vampire tale.
Magnificent Obsession—Douglas Sirk’s Summer Storm also finally hit video.
Man Hunt—Fritz Lang’s classic WWII suspenser, sharp as a bayonet.
Munyurangabo—Elliptical story of the aftermath of Rwandan genocide and how things are left unsaid; a film to watch after reading Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them.
Murnau—A box of six silents from this German director.
Nikkatsu Noir—Five Japanese crime films, leading up to the brilliant A Colt Is My Passport.
One Step Beyond—Season One of spooky TV anthology.
Our Man in Havana—Writer Graham Greene, director Carol Reed, star Alec Guinness.
Pigs Pimps & Prostitutes—Three noisy, messy visions of 60s Japan by Shohei Imamura.
Poil de Carotte, Au Bonheur des Dames—Major silent rediscoveries by Julien Duvivier.
Private Century—Czech TV series on the home movies of citizens who lived through turbulent times.
Repulsion, Simon of the Desert, Wings of Desire—International classics reissued by Criterion.
Samuel Fuller Collection—Box of wheat and chaff.
Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé—Pioneer nature documentaries.
Slumdog Millionaire—Applies the energetic style of commercials and music videos to the melodrama of Charles Dickens and Bollywood. (For what it’s worth, did anyone notice this is the first Oscar Best Picture about a Muslim? Gandhi was Hindu, and Lawrence of Arabia doesn’t count.)
Synecdoche New York—Unbearably sad story masquerades as surreal comedy.
Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu—Wonderful early ‘30s movies about the sadness of life.
Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film 1947-1986, Avant Garde 3: Experimental Cinema 1922-1954—Often amazing samplers.
Waltz with Bashir—Memory, fantasy, documentary and animation.
Zabriskie Point—Restored to widescreen beauty after 40 years, Antonioni’s film shimmers. Try it on a double feature with Jacques Demy’s Model Shop.
I also enjoyed: M Squad (‘50s TV series with Lee Marvin), Chocolate (Thai kickfighter action with Rain-Man heroine), The City (1939 doc with Aaron Copland music), Tell No One (French thriller), Frozen River (US indie thriller), Late Bloomer (handicapped serial killer in Japan), The Lost Films of John Gilbert, Luis Bunuel’s Death in the Garden, Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I, Esther Williams Vol. 2 (especially Fiesta), Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 3 (especially Midnight Mary), Icons of Screwball Comedy (especially Theodora Goes Wild and The Doctor Takes a Wife), and Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection.