Saturday, March 27, 2010

Green Zone

Amongst  mainstream directors, Paul Greengrass is the only true craftsman. This is because he is able to deal out action films that beats Hollywood with its own model. This is to say, he is a master of the short take, having developed his own stylization of this type of shot over the course of two Jason Bourne movies (The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum) and his 9/11 pean, United 93. His latest film, Green Zone, is stylistically no different, and by this I mean it is frequently astonishing. Greengrass has the guts to turn what others would deem a long take in to a series of short takes; hurried tracking shots down hallways and through gunfire are spliced up in to three or four second shots from three or four different angles. He does not believe that a short take is incompatible with elaborate camerawork; witness not just the constant jiggling (it’s hard not to), but also the shots following a soldier walking, before an abrupt pan to another figure who has appeared in his line of vision, all in the span of a few seconds. Short takes don’t single out human expression or dramatic use of space either; faces are seen from several different angles as they react to any given revelation; a short wide shot of a dusty, troop infested Iraqi town center cuts to a close-up of the intelligence report being read by Sergeant Miller (Matt Damon) in that same location. For Paul Greengrass, the short take is not just a flimsy framework by which to make cheap jokes, flaunt sentimentality and excess, and appeal to our only our crudest instincts, as it is in most Hollywood films. They have nothing to do with a short attention span. Short takes consider all sides of the situation (literally) and emphasize actions, reactions and consequence. They keep us abreast of a film’s rhythm 
That rhythm is, obviously, fast and tense, and it should be, considering the work these men are doing. Miller is a military operative assigned to finding WMD sites around Baghdad. Him and his troops aren’t having any luck, so he is called on to capture General Al Wari (Yigal Naor), Sadaam Hussein’s number two general, to tell them where the sites are. While trying to capture Al Rawi, with the help of an Iraqi interpreter (Khalid Abdalla) and many insurgents, he starts to see the inter-army backstabbing going on within his own forces, and meets a journalist who may not have covered her story about WMD’s so well, leading him to believe give up on the whole premise of the war even as he closes in on the brutal general.
(The actual Green Zone)

The story itself is quite typical of the righteous anti-war film, even as the film basks in a haze of constant action and exciting war violence. Yet these are the faults of virtually any movie about war, no matter what the moral viewpoint. The complication arising with Green Zone is that there is a moral point at all. Greengrass, following suite with previous superb craftsmen in Hollywood like Howard Hawks and Steven Spielberg, seems artistically unbiased, willing to take what is offered to him and make something of it. What has come his way this time is a film that pauses sometimes to wax eloquently on American hypocrisy, then keep going with the action, then pauses again to show the how even the Iraqi bad guys are tormented, then keeps going with the action, then pauses to simply state that war is wrong, then keeps going with the war. A moral film by necessity involves reflection; reflection on what is immoral and contemplation of the resolution. We would need to reflect on Matt Damon’s face as he registers what he did wrong and we would need to reflect on the disarray brought upon Iraq in single shots. This would necessarily mean longer takes and a more languid rhythm. In the Bourne films, we saw long-ish shots of Matt Damon breathing heavily, recuperating, alone after an explosive burst of violence, or in conversation with whoever was the key to him remembering who he really was. These slower scenes had longer shots that were there for the purpose of giving us a reprieve. The longer shots in Green Zone are ostensibly there to incite a war of thought and sentiment in our head, but it feels halfhearted each time. How is one supposed to get gushy about war when they’re catching their’ breath before the next short-take jam session? 
Short takes do not speak to our intellect, and they do not make emotional appeals; they speak to our guts and accelerate our practical observations. Green Zone ends, appropriately, on a flash of images of Damon getting back on the job; getting back on the job is what Greengrass should do, too, and it looks like he will. He hasn’t picked the wrong genre and he hasn’t picked the wrong model, but he did pick the wrong story. War, politics, and humanism are worthy subjects, but he doesn’t speak their’ language.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Troubled Souls: Collapse and One too Many Mornings

(Both films reviewed here were shown at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, which I attended, from March 12-14th. Neither are in theaters yet.)

The term Subject, should be used strictly in its first three definitions when talking about Collapse, a recent documentary directed by Chris Smith. The first definition: A person under the authority of another. The second: A person subject to a sovereign. The third: An individual subjected to an operation or process*. Michael Rupert, a graying, portly, chain-smoking journalist is all three in this film, and he dominates every heavy-handed frame with the stress that so are we, in world society. Yet one also wonders if Chris Smith himself is not also the person being subjected, by his own subject, to a process that makes one question Rupert about as much as they question they way our government(s) operate.
Michael Rupert enters, with his only friend, his dog, in to a dank garage or basement at the start of the film. He sits down for the interview, not so much politely waiting for a question, as waiting to expose his pain. He mentions in the film that he is “past debating” and his face shows it. Rupert is a former LAPD officer who was fired from his job after refusing to help the police smuggle drugs in to the country, and going public with their secret demand. From then on-- since the late seventies-- he has been an independent reporter who has exhaustively researched energy crises, especially peak oil, and the various scandals and coverups surrounding them. He notes that over fifty percent of his predictions have come true, including the current economic recession, and believes, essentially, that the end of the world as we know it is nigh. The recession is far from over-- in fact, it is just beginning-- and the world won’t ever know the standard of living it is now used to, because in thirty years, we will have used it up. Images of tent cities cropping up in the U.S and massive riots in Greece sprinkle his contention that humanity is just now entering the ‘Anger’ stage of a psychological realization process that will eventually lead to an acceptance that the world’s energy will soon be used up, there will be massive starvation and population decline and people will have to learn how to “build a lifeboat.” The only hope Rupert has how people can survive this transition is for action at a communal level. He continually falls back on the theories of Darwin; that only the one’s who can adapt to changing conditions will survive. “I’m not advocating social Darwinism,” he nearly yells at one point in the film, over found footage of animal species. “I’m witnessing actual Darwinism.” 
One wonders by the end of the film exactly how many apocalyptic notions Rupert believes in; he never mentions the 9/11 truth theories, or the popular idea that the Mayan calendar says the world will end in 2012, but he is the type of person who believes in predictions and elaborate designs of all sorts, so it would not be surprising if he has flirted with such beliefs. But it is not even his beliefs that are so fascinating, or the most disturbing parts of the film. The glimpses we get of Rupert’s personal life paint him as a deeply lonely individual, and his general demeanor suggests a narcissist who does not even think he is somewhat self-absorbed; merely that he genuinely knows what’s going on and it’s too bad that you don’t. He was set to marry a woman who worked for the CIA, but the relationship broke down when he came to believe that she was a double agent involved in drug trafficking. He has no children. He has been shot at and had his office ransacked, by, he believes, the FBI. Nowadays he says he is mainly focused on playing music with his band and walking with his dog on the beach, seeing how many times they can make people smile during their walk. The eventual, inevitable breakdown he has towards the end does not come across as the standard documentary tactic of ‘the-subject-truly-opening-up.’ It comes as a genuine burst of tears from an obsessive and unhappy man who has deliberately removed himself from many of the pleasantries of life; even though he admits that twice he “tried to walk away from it all.” 
So this film ends up playing as an hour and a half pessimistic burst of emotional appeal from a man whom we are not sure we should place our faith in. Smith was right to craft his film in this direction; he stays out of the way for the most part and lets his subject, cloaked in darkness, dominate half the film, while grainy images of doom populate the remainder. The most gripping moment in the film comes during Rupert’s own collapse; the filmmakers do break in, as we see Rupert telling the cameraman that he needs to cut. We then cut to a shot of the continuity guy and boom operator setting getting out of Rupert’s way for the next burst. The film’s method, story and facts are all fluid and alarming; it is the subject who is ruptured and disjointed. He is utterly alarming, not as a subject, but as a person. Rupert wants to make himself out to be the leader of his movement, but his assertions have been predicted elsewhere, mostly by economists, and there are numerous environmental manifestos that have been written in the past few years that are less crazed while presenting all the same evidence. Rupert’s fact-based basement rants should be taken both as serious issues and with a grain of salt. Here is a subject-- unintentionally fascinating, smoking, aging, offering a continuous stream of blackness and personal neuroses-- who nobody will want as their prophet. 

One too Many Mornings 
A more straightforward take on personal neuroses is One too Many Mornings, a minimalist comedy from first time director Michael Mohan. Mohan’s approach is to shoot the film in gray, sun-dappled shades of black and white that recalls the cinematography of Sven Nykvist, the great Swedish Cinematographer who shot Ingmar Bergman’s films from 1960 onwards. The difference is that Nykvist essentially invented this relaxed yet anxious tone of Black and White cinematography, while Mohan is merely using it. Yet Mohan’s film is something of a laid-back buddy picture with an undercurrent of real angst to it, so his approach is justified. The film begins with a head shot of Fischer (Stephen Hale) rising up against a blank gray wall and then bending over to vomit, twice. He is suffering from yet another hangover, having gone on a month-long binge while living upstairs in a church and coaching soccer for school children. His friend Peter has recently fallen out with his girlfriend, after she cheated on him, and decides to spend several days hanging out with his far more outgoing friend. Fischer is determined to get his mourning and introverted friend laid and so they pick up older women at a bar, in a disastrous move for Peter. Later, they try going to a party with a larger crowd of people closer to their own age, and it is here that, just as Peter proves himself capable of grace and charm, Fischer reveals himself to be belligerent and utterly tactless.The film’s title is counterbalanced against the equally true alternate: one too many disastrous nights. 
The film could have easily become a foul-mouthed piece of over-the-top Apatowism, but its low budget and gorgeous imagery saves it. Southern California, where the film is shot, is a low-key and deserted place, full of empty streets, and actual deserts surrounding all inhabitants on all sides. There are contemplative scenes on empty beaches and drives through desert highways. The setting by its very nature gives the film a psychological expression, and remind one of why filmmakers were attracted to this mysterious location in the first place. One too Many Mornings could have been a great landscape film, but it chooses to be a character study. This is not the wrong decision, and in fact the story is handled with more care and less pomposity than the majority of independent films. Each scene is controlled, even if the dialogue is casual and semi-improvised; this is a independent comedy that is resolutely directed. One is left simply wanting more of the backgrounds and a greater exploration of Nykvist-esque photography. If Mohan can recognize this, then he can create films that do not slide in to the drollness or faked irony of the rest of indepent film in the U.S. California and Swedish anxiety helped him out this time.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Motion Studies: Avatar

The blue Avatar form of Jake Sully leaps in slow motion over the hull of an airship in midair as missiles are fired through the clorine-blue sky and dot the lush jungle below with smoke and explosions. He is trying to throw two grenades in to the machine so it’s wings will blow up, causing it to crash. Being a former marine, we take it for granted that he knows what he is doing, even as he grins and practically flies in the most improbable of settings; the planet Pandora. Once he lands, the motion returns to 24-frames per second. However, the idea of 24 frames as applied to this movie must be taken very lightly. What must now be noted is this entire piece of motion was viewed through 3-D goggles. 24 frames-per-second is practically irrelevant. 
Avatar is, to date, the most unconservative movie ever made. It is a progression of cinema to the point that all that is made relevant to our enjoyment of the movie, are the crazy array of colors and the sweeping, technology-empowered sentiment of the whole project. This also makes it a stunningly gorgeous piece of work, greatly enhanced if seen in 3-D. But in terms of pure cinema, there are only a few sustained pieces of moving imagery that thrill our eyes chiefly through their movement; the image described above is one of them. It follows the vague pattern established in the first several images of the movie; a reliance on very wide and fast aerial tracks that either dolly in to, or cut to, a closer image of a face, or faces, or bodies. By the time Jake Sully leaps over the airship to infiltrate the Human army he was once working for, the gimmicks come in; the slow motion is repeated several more times, and each time it makes a dead image. Avatar is filled with dead images and sentimental, predictable motion (this is to say nothing of the plot). 
But the fact that they are dead is also irrelevant. What matters specifically is the way Jake Sully leaps over the top of the airship; the heroic posture he takes that gives the image a greek hero-cum-sci-fi extravaganza tinge. What matters overall is the interaction. The entire film is in 3-D. While it is possible to view Avatar on a regular screen, it seems that 3-D is its natural form. The movie represents the pinnacle in an era of interactive imagery. The story is, appropriately, about interaction. We are interacting with Jake Sully, in motion, form and color, as he leaps across that airship. This trumps everything; the cinema, the dead imagery. Avatar is not so much a film as a grand work of interaction. There is much better cinema out there, but it is the ultimate interactive experience.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Silence in Erlangen

January 29th, 2010. Germany.
Erlangen is a large town in the north of Bavaria. Nobody would mistake it for a center of film appreciation. It lies just north of Nuremberg, has a population of over 100,000 people and is home to the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg; perhaps its greatest attraction. But when I visited in January, I was attending one of the only silent film festivals in Germany, called StummFilmMusikTage (literally: SilentFilmMusic Days). I now found myself in the middle of a ceaseless winter of the sort most people only know from snow-capped German Mountain Films or Christmas stories. It had been snowing for all three days I had been in Nuremberg, the nearest city, and it seemed to be snowing harder in Erlangen. It was 7:00 and dark. For the purposes of viewing silent cinema, all was white, gray and shady.
It wasn't until I stepped off the train that I realized what I was planning on doing was, by most standards, outlandish. I had come to the town for the purpose of seeing a silent film festival, which I had first read about online the previous summer, and had been following closely, also by internet, ever since. I had called ahead of time-at home in the U.S-- to reserve a ticket for Joseph Von Sternberg's Underworld.  
This was not Pordenone. It was not a well-known or heavily promoted film festival; it seemed barely a whisper even in Germany. Even getting to the Theater Markgrafen was immensely difficult; the street appeared on a map, but a local I asked had no clue where it was. Once I found the street, I had to stop in my tracks and turn around several times, puzzled, before peering through the snow covering a gate to a simple city park and spotting the back entrance to the Theater Markgrafen, positioned just within those gates. Once I stepped inside the Theater, I finally saw a banner advertising the StummFilmMusikTage festival . I had located the entrance to the secret society. 
Yet here was a secret society that could afford film prints exported from oversees, real 35mm projection, guest speakers and a café, which was located on the second floor of the building. True to the principles of authentic silent cinema-- not the silent cinema of Chaplin's City Lights, or of the occasional homage that simply contains no dialogue-the films were projected without sync-sound, as a live orchestra accompanied the images. It was a proper film theater, with a large screen of the sort audiences were once accustomed to viewing films on (in comparison, today's screens look as if they are trying to turn every film into an Imax spectacle). StummFilmMusikTage receives funding from the Bavarian City Council, several local Erlangen organizations and two groups called Areva and Ensemble Konstraste. All this funding has allowed the festival to afford a space in the Markengraf Theater that is several cuts above the Brattle Theater in Cambridge-a venue I'm well acquainted with. It also allowed them to run a prize competition in conjunction with the festival and produce festival T-Shirts and shiny pamphlets.
This made me feel like silent film fans in this country--or at least, in Bavaria-- were more recognized than in America, even though silent film is probably no more popular in Germany. The audience I observed were mostly older, curious folks, mixed with some film-saavy college students; a niche, but a respected niche. I felt like a part of this niche myself, as I walked down the rather un-crowded hall and nearly missed the right turn in to the theater lobby. In my ridiculous German, I told the woman at the reception that I had reserved a ticket for Underworld and fumbled my expired student ID out of my wallet. I took a program and paid for my ticket. I walked in to the lobby, my nerves blazing with the awkwardness of feeling out of place, but just barely; had I spoke the language fluently, and lived or gone to school around the area, I would be able to make instant connections. I may have been crazy, but not on a different planet. It was no matter; I hung up my coat and tried to orient myself. I went back downstairs, found my seat in the screening room, and made my way up to the Oberes Foyer; the café section, where I would hear the British film historian Kevin Brownlow introduce Underworld. I ordered a beer, found a seat and waited.
As it happened, Kevin Brownlow was a no-show. From what I gleaned from the moderator who spoke at the cafe podium, he had to stay home because of a problem relating to his daughter. He had instead sent over a typed script of what he would have said in introduction to the film. It was read-- in English-- by the moderator, while some audience members put on headsets and listened to a spoken translation of his words. 
What Brownlow recounted-- or would have recounted-- was a long mixture of personal recollection and historical summary similar to what I find myself constantly deferring to in my own work. 
He wrote of meeting Von Sternberg, some time ago. The Von Sternberg he met was a curmudgeonly director with a dark sense of humor who told Brownlow that he found it best to despise his actors in order to make a film. Naturally, Brownlow did not quite know what to make of this, but at the time he was reffering to, Sternberg was already a seasoned director who had been through decades of filmmaking, so perhaps he knew what he was talking about. He had come to America from Austria in the mid 20’s. Underworld was his third film; he would later direct The Blue Angel (1930) with Marlene Dietrich, who would become his muse; Shanghai Express (1932) and Blonde Venus (1932) were among their subsequent collaborations. He would eventually stop working with Dietrich and fall out of favor in the forties. But Underworld came before all of that. It was scripted by Ben Hecht, a screenwriter who worked on numerous Hollywood success stories (his later credits included Scarface (1932) and John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) ). It featured silent stars George Bancroft and Evelyn Brent (who resembles Dietricht more than a tad). It was, as Brownlow took painstaking note of, a film that culminated a long line of gangsterism both in films and reality. In the first years of the 20th century, Irish and Italian immigrants formed urban gangs in most major U.S cities. Gangs became a widespread problem by the 1920’s and their activity would only be fueled by the Great Depression and Prohibition. The first real gangster film of quality in the U.S was D.W Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). Underworld, while indebted to this film, was nonetheless one of the early gangster features; the genre would only really take off in the 1930’s with the violent burst of Little Ceasar (1930), Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface. Underworld was poised on two cusps; one was the end of the silent era, another was the beginning of the gangster era. 

(from Underworld, 1927)

The film was also, due to its subject matter about the seedy urban underbelly,-- the “Underworld” the title implies-- not appreciated by the censors at the time of its release. Paramount shelved the film at first, then gave it only a limited release. And although the film would become popular, even leading to Hecht winning an Academy Award for best screenplay, it would disappear. Underworld was lost the public until 1987.
Looking at the film now--or, as I saw it then, on a big screen with musical accompaniment by a jazz group called the Helmut Nieberle Trio, clearly enjoying themselves-- it does not look like the kind of film anybody would want to repress for a sixty years. It makes the Paramount of old look like a bunch of party-pooping prudes. The violence is timid by today’s standards and the mild sexual innuendoes, perhaps surprising in a mainstream picture at the time, are nonetheless just mild. But the film is so lavish, so giddily over-the-top, one can feel the whole time the frustration of a director who can’t wait for sound to come along and kick his films in to a higher degree of lunacy. Sternberg has his fun anyway; there are scenes with a bookcase that wheels around to reveal a secret hideout (later, a genre cliché). There is a montage at a party that gives us close-ups of drunken, laughing faces intercut, quasi-symbolically, with a title card ascribing the words“drunkenness-hate-lust” to those faces. The memorable climax features images of tommyguns firing at the windows of Bull Weed’s apartment building, riddling the bricks along the windowsill to pieces. These scenes are decadent, elaborate and trashy; both in the sense that the film tries to create as much on-screen trash as possible, and in the most obvious sense.
Holding all this insanity together throughout is a performance by George Bancroft that is all twisted facial expressions and heavy-handed suggestion. A more demonic Jim Carrey could take the character to great heights. Bancroft plays Bull Weed, a smooth gangster with a lovely girl (Evelyn Brent). One night he decides to help out a drunkard (Clive Brook) by handing him a decent sum of cash. This drunkard becomes, in just a few years, a prosperous gangster in his own right, calling himself “Rolls Royce.” Rolls Royce falls for “Feathers” McCoy-- the nickname of Bull Weed’s girlfriend-- who herself seems to be a two or three-timer amongst the world of Chicago gangsters. Evelyn Brent is unfortunately not as good an actress as Dietrich; her seductiveness is communicated mainly by the ruffling of her fur coat. She becomes torn, simultaneously, between Rolls Royce, Bull Weed and a rival of both, Buck Mulligan. The testing of Rolls Royce and Bull Weed’s friendship escalates through the film in tandem with the escalation of outrageous scenes. What Sternberg may have meant by “despising” his actors was that he treated them not as people but as archetypes to put through any situation for the sake of entertainment. 
Sternberg manages to keep a firm rhythm going all the while-- he loved close--ups of faces and objects, But it is a more consistent rhythm than many later gangster or action films were able to establish. It ends with Bull Weed, as he is trying to decide whether to turn himself in to the police who have surrounded his townhouse, or go ahead and kill Rolls Royce, huddled in a corner with Feathers. It almost ends on a close-up of Bull Weed’s face, as he swaggers towards the camera. Then he changes his mind and decides they were meant for each other. He walks down the stairs, remarking that he has learned the most important lesson he can hope to learn. Does this ending suggest that, after all the bullets and trash and alcohol and close-ups, gangster films are really films about friendship? 

With its strangely moralistic ending, Underworld set up a paradox which is perhaps what really bothered the executives at Paramount. Even as it visually celebrates gangsterism, it condemns gangster acts, and implies that there are certain moral codes that even the toughest criminals do not break. This combination of moralism and sensationalism sounds uniquely American. But sensationalism is prevalent in films from Germany’s expressionist era and moral codes can be unearthed in the hearts of each of its great films, too. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) suggests that madmen are burdens on society, and if they are in powerful positions, will not hesitate to manipulate and kill. German authorities forced director Robert Wiene to change the ending of the film to show that it is in fact the narrator who is insane and not Dr. Caligari, but the existing ending feels obviously forced; the original morality is expressed in the bulk of the film. The Last Laugh (1924) shows that the downtrodden, laid-off worker is deserving of our empathy. Metropolis (1927) shows, in it’s own words, that “The mediator between the hands and the mind must be the heart.” Nosferatu (1922) stresses the abstract sentiment that good will prevail over evil. But the true contribution that German Expressionism made to cinema was, simply, its expressions; those intense visual stylizations of madness (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), social disorder (The Last Laugh) and coming apocalypse (Metropolis) that Lotte Eisner wrote represented “an extreme form of subjectivism.”1  This is what Von Sternberg morphed in to sensationalism for his American films. Murnau stylized evil in Nosferatu with a low-angle shot of Count Orlok creeping around the parameter of a ship’s hull in a black coat, his nails outstretched. He stylized good by showing rays of sun bursting through the window of Jonathan and Lucy’s house towards the end of his shadowy, pale film. Wiene stylized madness in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with the wild, zigzagging sets that also showed a society in total disorder. Fritz Lang embodied the apocalypse in the form of salvation with the robot in Metropolis. Von Sternberg un-melded the expressive and the moral; he added a heavy hand to both. He had more in common, at least in this early period, with his countrymen back home than is immediately obvious.
(from The Last Laugh, 1924)

Leaving the crowded screening room, I felt like Von Sternberg in reverse. He had come to America to find cinema; I had come to Germany to find cinema. The major difference was that he had brought German stylization with him and turned it in to Hollywood excess. What exactly would be the reverse of that? I did not expect to make films in Germany anyway; I had left my videocamera at home deliberately, due to an incident of bad luck I had overseas with a camera once. But I wondered if I did attempt to make a film there, if that would make me feel like even more of an outsider. I wondered if Von Sternberg felt like an outsider in America at all. What would he think of my travels? Would he be surprised? I waited in the long line to get my coat and decided not to think about it.
Anyway, it seemed that matters of nation and origin were not of major concern to the festival organizers at StummFilm MusikTage. About half of the films that screened in fact came from America, and only Underworld was from a director born in a German-speaking country. Buster Keaton’s shorts were screened on the Saturday following Underworld, and the film Sadie Thompson, also from the U.S, followed on the same day. On Sunday there were screenings of various silent shorts from Britain, France and the U.S. The entire festival was topped off with Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler(1922), late on Sunday. The most practical point of the StummFilm MusikTage festival was to celebrate silent cinema. Any event with this broad objective is commendable, especially if it gives a sampling of silent cinema that is hard to see or has been forgotten. The StummFilmMusikTage lived up to this goal with Underworld, as well as the rare shorts program. I must confess, though, to hoping that the program would be limited exclusively to silent German films. But of course, this would be pandering to a niche within a niche, even within the country of Germany. I recall the woman who read Kevin Brownlow’s speech mentioning that she hoped he could make an appearance in 2013. Does this mean there will be no StummFilmMusikTage in 2011 or 12? Are they at a lack of funds, like anybody else who c ares about cinema’s ancient images? I still do not know what the story is. My greatest personal regret was only being able to stay for one night; the day after the screening of Underworld, I was whisked away to Hungary. Although I’ve seen most of Keaton’s famous shorts, I wish I could have caught a glimpse of them on a big screen, and have yet to see classic German films like Asphalt or Dr. Mabuse. I don’t have unlimited time.
Germany today obviously does not resemble the Germany of the Weimar Republic and the Expressionist eras. It is one of the most environmentally friendly countries in the world. It is in a continuous process of atoning for the sins of its past; I could easily observe this in Nuremberg, where the Nazi’s held their rallies and established headquarters. There is now a popular museum detailing Nazi atrocities and the city is known as Der Stadt der Meschenrechte; the City of Human Rights. Germany’s history puts its current cinema in the inevitable place of reflecting on it’s past-- in films like The Lives of Others (2006), The Baader Meinhoff Complex (2008) and The White Ribbon (2009)-- and dealing with hot-button issues of politics and multiculturalism-- in Fatih Akin’s films Head-On (2004) and The Edge of Heaven (2007), for instance. These films vary in quality, but all are a far cry from the silent period. But is there a nation with a current cinema that isn’t a far cry?
My second most cinematic experience that night was my walk back to the train. I stepped out of the Theater Markgrafen from the same secluded doorway I had entered. The snow still fell wildly. All around me was silence. I shivered with each step I took. I removed the damp, crumpled city map from my coat pocket and examined it; I took a left and kept going. The street was shadowy, with occasional bursts of light from a pharmacy or restaurant. The shadows looked like they belonged to Erlangen and only Erlangen; the silence felt the same way. The few people I passed by seemed cheerful, as if they had accepted the general expression of their town long ago. The buildings looked rural and picturesque, as if they were still-functioning relics. Yet at the same time, the imagery on all sides never gave the impression of being a thing of the past. I made it to the station, and thought I heard a snippet of American English as I walked inside. With shaking hands, I bought a ticket to Nuremberg. I got on the train fifteen minutes later. I rode home in the silence.
(Erlangen today)

Some information from:
Let’s Go: Germany on a budget; Estes, Adam (editor); St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY, 2009
1. From The Haunted Screen; Eisner, Lotte; University of California Press, 1974 (originally 1952).
provided invaluable assistance for this piece.