Blade Runner vs. Metropolis

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Given the chronology this should really be “Metropolis vs. Blade Runner” but most people are more familiar with Ridley Scott than Fritz Lang so I’ve let Blade Runner determine the order of the shots.

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These shot comparisons aren’t exactly news but they’ve become more evident since rewatching the restored print of Metropolis. Among other things, the rediscovered footage yielded a scene with a character reading a newspaper that’s a match for Harrison Ford’s first appearance. The similarities extend, of course, to the thematic: futuristic megacities, flying vehicles, the creation of artificial human beings. Both films also end with a struggle to the death on the roof of a building. The cinematographer for Blade Runner was Jordan Cronenweth; Metropolis was the work of Karl Freund, Günther Rittau and Walter Ruttmann.

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Einstein on the Beach

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Well this was a revelation. Einstein on the Beach (1976) is Philip Glass’s first opera, a collaboration with theatrical producer Robert Wilson, and the only Glass opera with which I’m familiar. With a running-time of almost five hours it’s not light listening, and when many of the pieces consist of little more than slabs of keyboard or choral arpeggios it’s always been evident that visuals are required to augment music that otherwise threatens to outstay its welcome.

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The opera has been revived several times, and in 2012 a touring presentation was staged. Despite it being one of the most celebrated works by Glass and Wilson a complete performance has never been filmed, until this month, that is, a staging at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. The shots here are from a video stream of the entire four-and-a-half hour show, and it’s astonishing to discover how much your appreciation is elevated—and the music enhanced—by the performance and the production.

Einstein’s life is the ostensible subject but it’s up to the audience to interpret the many allusive symbols and motifs that may (or may not) be derived from either the man’s biography or his scientific theories. The libretto is strictly formal and fragmented, and while the score alone may drive some listeners to distraction the visuals change continually, maintaining the interest while the text and music work through their cycles. Philip Glass had this to say about the work in 2012:

The opera isn’t a narrative about Einstein’s life. What connected Bob and I was how we thought about time and space in the theatre. We worked first with the time—four hours—and how we were going to divide it up. Then we thought about the images, and then the staging. I discovered that Bob thinks with a pencil and paper; everything emerged as drawings. I composed music to these, and then Bob began staging it.

Yet the piece is actually full of Einstein. Practically every image comes from Einstein’s life or ideas: trains, spaceships, clocks. And I suggested we have a musician taking his part, because Einstein played the violin—although he was such an amateur musician he couldn’t possibly have played the music I composed for him. (more)

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I’ve seen many photos of Wilson’s designs for the opera in the past but static views do nothing to convey the drama and impact of his designs when you see them coming together on the stage. The same goes for the performers, many of whom are required to be trained dancers as well as actors: several scenes are elaborate dance pieces. It’s been a pleasure to see at last the presentation of the mysterious “Knee Play” sections which separate the four acts. And I was surprised by the similarity—intentional or not—of some sequences to the shots of the slaving workers in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, especially the climactic (and incredible) “Spaceship” scene where the whole stage erupts into light and movement. It’s easy to see why New York’s art crowd were so beguiled by this opera following its first performances in the 1970s, it really is a remarkable piece of work. The streaming version will apparently remain active for a while (there’s also a DVD release planned), and while I wouldn’t want anyone to indulge in piracy I’ll note that there’s currently a torrent of the entire video circulating if you know where to look. If you’ve any time for Philip Glass I can’t recommend this too highly. (Via Metafilter.)

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Uncharted islands and lost souls

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The pulp fiction of the early 20th century favoured remote or uncharted islands as locations for the bizarre and the fantastic; in isolated jungles all manner of savage and grotesque behaviour could take place out of sight of the civilised world. Islands are secure from interference; they can be visited by accident or intention, and later fled from when everything goes wrong. The Island of Doctor Moreau is an early example of the type although Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1874) pre-dates it by twenty-two years. The Island of Lost Souls (1932), the first film adaptation of the Wells novel, is one of a crop of mysterious islands that appeared in the 1930s following the success of the Universal adaptations of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). The recent Eureka DVD/Blu-ray edition of the film is the first UK release to present the film in its original, uncensored form. I watched it this weekend.

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Moreau (Charles Laughton) and Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) at work.

HG Wells famously hated the film, and his vociferous complaints helped to ensure it was banned in Britain until 1958. Even without Wells’ complaints there was enough there to bait the censors who declared it to be “against nature”: writers Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young push the erotic implications of Wells’ story to a degree that would have been impossible in 1896, and would be equally impossible two years later when the Hays Code clamped down on cinematic salaciousness. Charles Laughton’s Moreau is eager to discover whether Lota, the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke), will show any sexual interest in the marooned Edward Parker (Richard Arlen). The bestiality theme continues when Parker’s fiancée arrives on the island and finds one of Moreau’s Beast People at her bedroom window. Add to this Moreau’s declaration that he feels like God (a similar line was cut from James Whale’s Frankenstein), a traditional British squeamishness towards maltreating animals (unless they’re foxes), and the Panther Woman’s skimpy outfit, and it’s no surprise that the authorities collapsed with the vapours.

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Sensationalism aside, this is one of the greatest horror films of the early 1930s, and one which follows its source material with much more fidelity than Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein. The production had been commissioned by Paramount to capitalise on the success of the Universal films, hence the presence of a very hirsute Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law. Cinematographer Karl Struss had worked the year before on Rouben Mamoulian’s excellent Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; prior to this he photographed Sunrise (1927) for Friedrich Murnau. The combination of Struss’s chiaroscuro compositions, some adept direction from Erle C. Kenton (including crane shots), and a tremendous performance by Charles Laughton puts The Island of Lost Souls in a different league entirely to Tod Browning’s stagey and over-rated Dracula. Laughton’s cherub-faced Mephistopheles is a performance that runs counter to the cod theatricals of the period: he’s sly, confident and completely authoritative even if he looks nothing like Wells’ white-haired doctor.

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The Metropolis of Tomorrow by Hugh Ferriss

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Crowding Towers.

The work of architectural renderer Hugh Ferriss (1889–1962) has appeared here before. The Metropolis of Tomorrow (1929) was a major influence on the architectural style I deployed in the Reverbstorm series, together with Berenice Abbott’s photographs of New York City in the 1930s. Ferriss’s hazy proposals for cities of the future are more visible today than they used to be thanks to the popularity of those sites that enjoy outmoded visions of the future.

Flickr has been a good source of Ferriss’s drawings in the past but the Internet Archive recently posted the entirety of The Metropolis of Tomorrow, pages as well as pictures. The book appeared a couple of years after Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and shares that film’s idea of the future city as a kind of superannuated New York. Skyscrapers were still a relatively new idea so this seemed a natural development at the time, as did the concept of super-highways and rooftop aerodromes. Human beings in Ferriss’s future are either ant-like specks or they’ve vanished altogether among the massed ranks of towers which often look more like less like buildings and more like Art Deco spacecraft. Lang’s vision was dystopian only in the way it relegated its workers to the underworld, while Ferriss’s proposals were wholly optimistic. Looking back we’re more aware of the shortcomings of such ideas, and from my perspective it wasn’t so difficult to bring out the latent menace inherent in these megastructures. Ferriss’s metropolis, like that of Fritz Lang, is a fun place to visit but you wouldn’t necessarily want to live there.

Browse the rest of the book here or download it here.

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Overhead traffic-ways.

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Apartments on bridges.

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Evolution of the set-back building: second stage.

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Verticals on wide avenues.

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Dr Mabuse posters

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This picture of a séance in the 1920s circulates endlessly in the Tumblr labyrinth, usually without attribution so many of the people seeing it won’t be aware that it’s a still (or a set photo) from Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922). Mabuse himself originates in a novel of the same name by Norbert Jacques published in 1921, the tale of a Moriarty-like super-criminal at large in Weimar-era Berlin. Lang made three films about the character, the first two of which, Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) feature Rudolf Klein-Rogge as the sinister Doctor, an actor better known today for his role as the mad scientist Rotwang in Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Testament was banned by Goebbels for being subversive. The third film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), was also one of the director’s last but it managed to revive interest in the character at a time when super-criminals were coming back into vogue. Wolfgang Preiss played Mabuse in this film, and in several sequels by other directors.

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I’ve known about the Mabuse films for years, thanks in part to Lotte Eisner’s superb history of German silent cinema, The Haunted Screen (1952), yet despite this I’ve still not seen any of the films. That should change soon with the news that Eureka Video are releasing a new print of Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler on Blu-ray at the end of October, a restored version which will run for 280 minutes. The running time sounds excessive but Eisner points out that the film was originally screened in two parts: The Great Gambler: An Image of the Age, and Inferno: A Game for the People of our Age. In addition to Rudolf Klein-Rogge fixing everyone with his hawk-like glare there’s also Alfred Abel playing a weaker character than his master of the city in Metropolis. Moviemail describes Mabuse as “a criminal mastermind whose nefarious machinations are based around hypnotism, charlatanism, hallucinations, Chinese incantations, cold-blooded murder, opiate narcosis and cocaine anxiety”; how can one resist?

The posters gathered here are from a web trawl so lack the usual credits. The second film evidently had a wider distribution hence the greater quantity of posters from other countries.

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