Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Thoughts on "Metropolis" (1927)




With the exception of my brief look at From Here to Eternity, it's been quite awhile since my last film essay. In my quest to get caught up on some of the silent classics, I recently screened Fritz Lang's 1927 landmark Metropolis. I've long counted his phenomenal film M among my favorite films of all-time, and the beauty of going into a screening of Metropolis was that I knew that I couldn't expect these respective films to be anything but drastically different. M is one of the great crime thrillers ever, whereas Metropolis cleared the path for dystopian science fiction films.

In a review of the Errol Flynn film The Adventures of Robin Hood, Don Druker of "The Chicago Reader" wrote a wonderful closing sentence that can easily apply to any new look at a long-studied classic film. He writes: "Movies like this are beyond criticism." Depending on a given film's depth and layers, this can either be an apt summary or a challenge to find new ways to view said film's messages. I hesitate to use one of my own essays as an example, but last year I studied D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation alongside Stanley Fish's opinions on the nature of principles. While I was awed and impressed by Metropolis, I'm hard-pressed, at least at the time of this writing, to find a new way to analyze it.

The film tells the story of the outer and inner workings of a modern Metropolis, with the wealthy (known as "the head") enjoying splendor and excess in the city, while the workers ("the hands") toil in the depths below the streets, out of sight. The leader, Joh Fredersen, rules from his high-tech office, and, aside from his stern demeanor and unquestioned control, does not function as the stereotypical evil leader. His stoic attitude towards problems works to a much stronger degree than flagrant outbursts and yelling. Despite his rule, his character is given enough room for his inevitable redemption. His son, Freder, sees the beautiful Maria giving a tour of the city to some of the children of the workers. He falls for her instantly and does the unthinkable: he sneaks his way below Metropolis to find her, and therefore becomes (in all likelihood) the first "head" in a long time to see the inner workings below the city. He swaps places with a worker and finds that Maria also functions as a deity of sorts, imploring the workers to have faith that a mediator will communicate between them and the elites. Joh consults with C. A. Rotwang, an inventor, who has built a Machine-Man (curiously, in the form of a woman, with his secret goal to give it the likeness of his former lover). Once Joh realizes that his son is among the workers, he insists that the robot be given the same form as Maria, to spread messages of riots, in order to create chaos among the workers.

This is only a snapshot of the plot, to which I'll return with some theories. The film is easily one of the best early examples of special effects and atmospheric cinematography, courtesy of Lang, Karl Freund, Gunther Rittau, and Walter Ruttman. The influence that Metropolis has on virtually every major science fiction film is easy to detect, and one can imagine the novelty that early audiences would have found, not to mention the possibilities of special effects on film. Nosferatu might be more famous for its use of shadows, fog, and light effects five years earlier, and King Kong's special effects six years later may have been the early culmination, yet Metropolis bridges a gap between those two films, showing that visual powers lie not only in effects, but the basics of storytelling and cinematography. Its striking visuals are a combination of the old and the new. I also could not help but notice the amazing similarities between Rotwang and Max Schrek's portrayal of Nosferatu. If Count Orlock had simply been more animated and kinetic, the two characters would have been even more alike.

I'm not entirely familiar with pre-Nazi Germany, so I'm not attempting to mix up two different films, two different countries, and two different ideologies. However, I also happened to notice parallels between Metropolis and Sergei Eisentein's The Battleship Potemkin. The major difference comes with Metropolis's plea for mediation between the leaders and the workers, instead of the all-out anarchy of Potemkin. Could Metropolis be viewed as The Battleship Potemkin with a 'happier' ending? Both films argue for workers' rights, showing both a chaotic outcome and a better, albeit sanitized ending. I found it amusing that the theme of Metropolis, the notion that "the mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart," is really an insult to both sides. The implication is that the hands don't appreciate the intelligence of the head, and that the head assumes that the hands are content with thankless, backbreaking labor.

The characters of Maria, both the human and the robotic substitute, are curious depictions of women in society. Perhaps it's a nod towards women's rights (in the 1920s) that a woman assumes the role of the peacemaker and positive influence on the working class. On the flip side, the robotic version works as an early precursor to the 'femme fatale,' as her erotic dance late in the film incites the wealthy men into a lustful, rape-intended frenzy. Then again, this can be flipped yet again as a criticism of the men, simply viewing a woman as a tempting sex object. This dance sequence is both unsettling and revolutionary, as the quick jumps between the dance and the aroused men grows faster, along with a terrific shot composed of nothing but eyeballs, a pulsating blob undoubtedly sending the images of her dancing directly to the groin. I haven't seen any documentaries or read any texts regarding sexual depictions in the history of cinema, but the dance sequence is an essential example.

Some of the scenes from Metropolis are lost, yet it's amazing that enough of the film remains to tell a cohesive story (aided with recreated plot subtitles). The influence on future science fiction films is easy to recognize, and overall, this is one of the best films ever, silent or otherwise. However, I feel that my appreciation will be even greater once I familiarize myself with the context of 1920s German society. The social and psychological questions and depictions are quite clear, but as is the case with The Birth of a Nation and The Battleship Potemkin, I'm positive that even more can be gathered when framed alongside the sociology and day-to-day history of the era.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

More Collaborations

Getting myself settled in Chicago has taken a little bit longer than I anticipated, hence the lack of posts in the past two weeks. I'm going to have myself back on track this week, with new essays, writings, and comments on the way. I'm very excited about the readings I have planned, and this should be a very fruitful, productive summer.

For now, I'd like to share a new project that was brought to my attention last week. Jeremy at Raccoon has started a new blog for music, specifically year by year songs for the 2000s. The blog, which can be found here, will run until January 1st, 2010. Here are Jeremy's ideas:

"So here's the plan.


I have acquired a blogspot domain with which we can play—http://aughtmusic.blogspot.com. From June 1, 2009 until Jan 1, 2010, I plan on posting at least few tracks a week (as MP3s) to this blog, along with short appreciative write-ups. I don't intend on writing them all myself, though, or even choosing all the tracks—that wouldn't be very collaborative, would it?


So here's how you can help out:


1) Pick a song you like.


2) Write a short appreciation of it. By "short" I mean that around a paragraph is fine, but longer is OK too. [Note: I'm intending to proceed chronologically, starting with a few weeks devoted to songs / tracks released in 2000, and moving forward from there, finally wrapping up with 2009 around the end of the year. So for now, I'm only collecting write-ups for tracks released in 2000. I'll let you know when we're getting ready to move on to 2001.]


3) Send me the appreciation in an e-mail, and attach an MP3 version of the track. [If the track is too long to fit comfortably as an attachment, or if your e-mail client balks for some other reason, touch base with me—we can work something out.]


4) Repeat as desired.


That's it! I can host the file and handle the back-end leg-work of turning your write-up into a blog post.


Collectively, you form a very eclectic group, but this seemed like a good way that we could all share our opinions with one another, enjoy some camraderie, and end up with a nice collection that celebrates a decade of good music. What say you?"

So anyone interested in the wonderful music from the past decade should check it out, and better yet, contact Jeremy to make your own contributions. I'll have the link posted on the bookmarks to the right of your screen.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Analytic Contradictions



My views and interactions with the writings of Jonathan Lethem are beset by contradictions. I've read only two of his novels, yet I consider him one of my generation's best novelists. So far, I've read only one of his essays, yet "The Ecstasy Of Influence" (a look at plagiarism) is, to me, a perfect example of the complexities and forms of the modern essay. Lethem's written talents are undeniable, and I say this with full knowledge that I'm behind on his canon. So, it's only fitting that when I was about to read "Ava's Apartment," his latest short story (originally published in the May 25th issue of The New Yorker), I was fully expecting a near-perfect piece of fiction, despite (surprise!) that I haven't read any of his previously published stories.

As of this writing, I've read "Ava's Apartment" three times, and there are still contradictions going through my head. I wouldn't consider it one of the better stories I've ever read, but given my admiration for Lethem, I find myself going down every analytical path, trying to give it the benefit of the doubt, and therefore elevate it above my initial reactions. Just as the Vietnam War has been exhausted in film, New York City could very well (in the future--this hasn't happened yet) be exhausted in fiction. However, Lethem is one of the best describers of the city, especially in his 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude. "Ava's Apartment" is no different, with intricate physical details coupled with the long-expressed notion that one can be very much alone in a city of millions.

"Perkus's shoes were, of course, inadequate for the depth of freshly fallen snow. He'd have walked the eight blocks home in any event--the migraine nausea would have made a cab ride unbearable--but there wasn't any choice. The streets were free of cabs and any other traffic. Some of the larger, better-managed buildings had their sidewalks laboriously cleared and salted, the snow pushed into mounds covering hydrants and newspaper boxes, but elsewhere Perkus had to climb through drifts that had barely been traversed, fitting his shoes into boot prints that had been punched knee-deep. His pants were quickly soaked, and his sleeves as well, since between semi-blindness and poor footing he stumbled to his hands and knees several times before he even got to Second Avenue. Under other circumstances, he'd have been pitied, perhaps offered aid, or possibly arrested for public drunkenness, but on streets the January blizzard had remade there was no one to observe him, apart from a cross-country skier who stared mercilessly from behind solar goggles (Lethem 65)."

Perkus Tooth. It amazes me that there are books available devoted to giving tips on naming fictional characters. Lethem pretty much has the monopoly on intricate names for his characters (Sadie Zapping, a character who appears later in the story, is another fine example). His names work along the same lines as Guy Ritchie's film characters: descriptive, bordering on ludicrous, yet absolutely essential all at the same time.

After being snowed out of his apartment, Perkus takes up residence in an abandoned building being used as a dog shelter. He bonds with Ava, a happy, three-legged pitbull whose personality and devotion aid him as he attempts to create a new identity, one separated from his unhappy existence as a rock critic. In a sense, Lethem flips the usual ideals of the "person meets dog" story. Bookstores are packed with tales of people bonding with animals to overcome physical and emotional setbacks. With Perkus Tooth, the intention is skewed; he uses his connection with Ava to distance himself from his normal human interactions. Yes, he's overcoming an emotional setback, but his ultimate goal is solitude with a very social creature.

The story's ending is rife with intentional ambiguity, with Perkus hinting at a return to his "human" life. Perhaps the story does end abruptly, but going back through the major plot happenings in the previous pages, the ending comes at a logical point, given Perkus's ennui with everything except Ava. His quick actions (leaving an acquaintance's house early in the morning, being denied access to his own apartment, going to the rundown animal shelter) could lead a possible theme being "What really constitutes home?" However, I think Lethem is too talented to have that be the only true question raised by "Ava's Apartment." Personally, my main thought was one that goes against the meanings of a given short story. I could not help but wonder how the story would work as a novel. Lethem moves the actions along strictly, with barely any room to expand or look on the reasons why a given action took place. The characters and elements are in place to be given longer, more precise treatment. There's no reason to question why Lethem doesn't give more personal details on the characters, but given his normally wonderful writing, I was left wanting more. In a sense, this is a compliment rather than a criticism. I wanted more details, because I know that in a Lethem-esque novel, they would become so much more.

(NOTE: I'm going to leave the end of this essay alone, but as I searched for the link to the story, I learned that "Ava's Apartment" is indeed an excerpt from Lethem's next novel.)

Work Cited:

Lethem, Jonathan. "Ava's Apartment." The New Yorker, May 25th, 2009.