Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Eat My Lederhosen, Peter Jackson

It may be hard to believe that today's bombastic, special effects-laden spectacles have bloodlines that go back any further than, oh, 1999, but I can assure you that they certainly do. That's why certain film snobs (like me) sit back and watch Peter Jackson's work, amused at the awe it inspires. Everyone knows that "King Kong" was a remake, but do they really let that idea set in? It was 1933 and we already had giant apes climbing skyscrapers to fight off biplanes. I'm sure that people at the time wondered, just as we do today, how things could get much more over the top.

I must admit that I've never seen the original "King Kong," but I have seen plenty of epics that are of equal or greater age. The thing with most, if not all, of these classic films is the fact that they feel like classic epics; they've aged like any state-of-the-art film would. There is one film, however, that draws rave reviews today, even from those who would otherwise laugh at the prospect of watching a silent, German film.

Fritz Lang was already well known when he released "Metropolis" in 1927, but that didn't spare him the ire of contemporary audiences. His film was thought to be overlong and was watered down for its release abroad. Some of the criticisms are warranted. The film's simplistic thesis on politics is laughably earnest. Yet melodrama was par for the course in much of silent film, and "Metropolis" is hardly dumb. It communicated the repercussions of unchecked national wealth and power more vividly than any film that has followed it. The truths "Metropolis" brings to light are what has ensured that it will always remain relevant.

That, and the absolutely incredible visuals. It's a silent film and, although this may seem obvious, I feel the need to point out that the visuals are what really tell the story here. Silent film, because it is deprived of such luxuries as extensive dialogue and ongoing narration, is inherently more abstract than sound film. Critics often say that the introduction of sound set the art of film back by decades, and watching "Metropolis," one can see why. Concepts that would otherwise be fleshed out with long-winded verbal debates are expressed here with shocking brevity through visuals. Even today, most filmmakers' visual vocabularies pale in comparison to Lang's, undoubtedly because it is easier to say than to show. Thing is, if a filmmaker is saying everything and showing nothing, why is he or she a filmmaker at all? I suppose it's because there is no longer any money in radio.

I digress. Perhaps I should heed my own rantings and simply show you the technically and artistically powerful visuals of "Metropolis." Check out a trailer for the film below.

"Metropolis" was made at the height of the German Expressionist movement, meaning that it used very exaggerated images to convey its ideas. Todays epics are generally exaggerated, to be sure, but few have such solid ideas at their heart. It doesn't help today's films that the special effects in "Metropolis" still hold up extremely well.

The actual, physical film, however, did not hold up. For decades now, the only remaining copies of the film have been the heavily cut international versions. Because of this, we have been left to parse through an incomplete masterpiece. The reason I write about this film today is that I, along with many others, was surprised and elated to hear that the complete, original version has recently been rediscovered.

It may be years before the complete film is restored and released to the public, but there is no need to wait to see "Metropolis." Kino Video has an excellent DVD featuring the theretofore most complete version of the film and the epic 1927 orchestral score. I understand that the film may still not be on top of your "What to Watch" list, but I assure you that it is worth it. At the very least, you could come away bragging that you know what the term, "German Expressionism" means.


Matthew said...

Matt, I know what the term "German Expressionism" means.

Heck,I've even watched portions of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Another silent film classic we should watch sometime:


My dad has the DVD; I'll have to bring it in.

Yes, I want to intellectualize Edmonds Hall.

On a slightly lower artistic level, I'm looking forward to your thoughts re: The Dark Knight.


Matthew Hollis-Lima said...

Matt, I know you know what "German Expressionism" means, but I like to think that more than one person reads this blog. I'm delusional like that. (That was humility, not sarcasm.)

Anyway, if it's good enough for Criterion, you know it's good enough for me. (Slight sarcasm. You know why.) So bring "Jeanne d'Arc" on.

And, Batman will get reviewed at some point. I, however, am feeling a bit ambivalent and would like to see it again first.