Tag Archives: modernism after modernism

Yesterday’s Tomorrow: Metropolis, by Fritz Lang (1927/2010)

by Chris Randle

Last week, I watched the almost-fully-restored new print of Metropolis. It was my first exposure to Fritz Lang’s monumental spectacle, but in truth I had seen large chunks of the film already, filtered through the homages, reinterpretations and outright swipes of eight decades. If you can sample people, these are sampled images.

The sinuously designed, poorly named Machine-Man, iconic after five minutes of screentime; a vast cityscape filling the sky while machines churn below; the precise clockwork movements of those hellbound proles, both anticipating music-video choreography and recalling Marx’s words: “It is not the workman that employs the instruments of labour, but the instruments of labour that employ the workman.” Even the final showdown atop a cathedral seemed familiar, because Tim Burton borrowed it for Batman. As we left the theatre, my friend Catherine said: “That movie had everything!”

Squint for meticulous order in a horn of plenty and you’ll be disappointed. Those aforementioned workers, for example, are shown toiling on one machine with a massive wall of dials and no apparent purpose. For its ludicrous dream that enough coaxing could move labour and capital to literally shake hands and make peace, Metropolis is sometimes called proto-fascist, but it’s hard to picture Mussolini bellowing Lang’s epigram: “The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart.” The film wedges religious allegory and industrial-relations homilies into the structure of a fairy tale, rebellious heir and all; I’m grateful for what little coherence it has.

Some of the politics are so confused that it begins to seem intentional. Brigitte Helm, just 18 years old during filming, plays both saintly Maria (champion of the downtrodden, love interest) and her android doppelganger. The plutocrat Joh Fredersen has the former’s likeness grafted onto the latter, scheming to incite a rebellious prole-frenzy with her jerky gyrations. (When the sexy psy-ops plan actually works, he sends in the security forces does nothing.)

The movie’s juxtaposition of demure protector and Evil Robot Slut is not subtle. But Helm is so obviously delighted by the sheer carnality of her character, vamping it up in Babylonian drag, that I started to think of the original as “False Maria.” She urges the revolution to devour its children with lip-smacking glee. No wonder that android keeps winking.

The new restoration job is impressive – the print’s only missing one major scene. I can’t imagine how earlier versions hung together, though I still have a perverse desire to see the Giorgio Moroder/Freddie Mercury/Pat Benatar cut. The new/old footage is projected at a smaller scale than the rest, and its flickering scratches are a humbling reminder that even radical modernist artworks can become worn and fragile.

Much of the rescued material involves various subplots. One features Fredersen’s creepily fastidious underling, the Thin Man, his face as sharp and toothy as a shark’s. Another fleshes out the mad scientist Rotwang, explaining why he plots to betray his hated master (there was a girl). I was struck by the fact that, in a city split between heavenly towers and industrial caverns, his lair seems far older than either, a snug little church for your next black mass. If the film has a great sight gag, it’s the shot of him fidgeting in a tuxedo at False Maria’s debauched unveiling. Rotwang is on neither side of the class struggle; maybe that’s why he turns out to be the real villain? (In this and other ways, he reminds me of a more oblique Bat-parallel: “I am the hole in things, the piece that can never fit.”)

After nearly a century of allusive references and unconscious transmission, Metropolis retains a strange power. Restored or not, the film can still inspire longing; Owen Hatherley once argued that its soaring skywalks are an example of the better tomorrow we’ve been denied. Though there are minor consolations. On the walk home post-screening I realized that my first glimpse of the movie wasn’t its famous expressionist poster, or a particular filmmaker’s tribute, or even some knockoff robot – it was this animated GIF. (Scions of capital all like to watch, apparently.) I’m not sure the monocled Mr. Lang would approve, but it’s the future we got.

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“A Can-Can on the Tightrope of Logic” (Notes on Eccentrism)

by Chris Randle

Most of the radical modernist ideas circulating in 1920s Russia, whether Alexandra Kollontai’s Soviet feminism or extreme forms of artistic abstraction, were snuffed out scant years later by Stalinist repressions. Eccentrism wilted from lack of interest. I came across the short-lived movement’s hyperactive manifesto last week. In the introduction to that republished edition, translator Marek Pytel writes that its original 1922 printing was limited to 1000 copies; many were destroyed in a house fire. The Eccentrists did find some temporary popularity, or at least notoriety: Pytel describes them “disrupting the performances of ‘academic’ theatres with whistles, rattles and catcalls…they astounded guest speakers rash enough to mention the words ‘sentiment’ or ’emotion’ by smashing every stick of furniture in the place.” Punk rock?

The basic Eccentrist thesis was that Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton represented the truest avant-garde yet seen. Slapstick’s physical impossibilities were a model for political aspiration. I imagine this got a lot of contemporary reactions akin to the early gnostic sect which believed that Cain was Christianity’s real martyr. One member of “the Factory of the Eccentric Actor” (FEKS) wrote: “life requires art that is hyperbolically crude, stupendous, nerve-wracking, openly utilitarian, mechanically-precise, momentary, rapid.” They openly urged “Americanization” of the theatre. The implication was that the masses will be their own vanguard, artistic or otherwise.

The central Eccentric text can be maddening reading – its authors were all young men (a couple still teenagers), and even by manifesto standards their rhetoric sometimes overheats. At one point they declare: “THE 200 VOLUMES OF GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM DO NOT OFFER THE EXPRESSIVITY OF ONE SOLE CIRCUS POSTER!!!” There are several citations of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, a like-minded Italian Futurist whose aesthetic fixation on speed, violence and machinery soon led him to stridently support Mussolini. Not long after the FEKS manifesto was published, Marinetti argued that “imposition of [Italian empire] will be an act of faith-force, a defiant youthful improvisation, a work of art miraculously blossoming.”

But the Eccentrists didn’t turn totalitarian, perhaps because they were too playful for that. Their theoretical writings are remarkably sly and self-mocking; they charm rather than bellow. A typical  slogan says: “Charlie’s bum is more precious to us than Eleonora Duse!” They exalted roller skates over ballet pumps, and declared themselves the children of jazz bands, slang, torch singers, cinema, dance crazes and cheap pulp thrillers – might as well throw Marx and Coca-Cola in too. They once distributed their manifesto by randomly tossing it from a moving car. They’re very easy to like.

Although that original Eccentrist document had little immediate influence, several of its main authors continued experimenting with these ideas in the nascent Soviet film industry. Most of their ’20s productions are lost, and I haven’t watched any of the survivors. But I know that affection for mass culture became a broader intellectual trend over the period. Socialist utopias were explored in literally hundreds of SF novels and “Red Pinkerton” detective thrillers (lone Soviet blockbuster Aelita, Queen of Mars posited extraterrestrial revolution amidst Constructivist sets). Shostakovich wrote the score for one Eccentric-directed picture. Eisenstein shook hands with Mickey Mouse. You could place all this near the beginning of a narrative about shifting notions of cultural taste, one extending onwards to Warhol and camp and music-critic “poptimism.”

If that story doesn’t quite have a happy ending, at least it’s a fruitfully confusing one. Whereas the Soviet experiment congealed into a lethal bureaucracy, for art and so much else, after one chaotic decade. You can see it coming onscreen. From what I’ve read, the Eccentrists’ later films were identifiably Marxist, but in tense, ambivalent and even subversive ways that would soon be absolutely verboten. In 1927 director Abram Room, who knew the Eccentrics Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, made Bed and Sofa. It’s about a revolutionary young menage-a-trois who try to love one another as communists before realizing they can’t. The USSR’s film industry devolved into grotesque spectacles like 1949’s The Fall of Berlin, a WWII epic I stared at for three hours in a class last year; in one scene Stalin tells the lovelorn hero “don’t be afraid of poetry.”

There’s a DC Comics outfit called the Doom Patrol, a trashy superhero team that the Eccentrists probably would’ve dug. Each member was a freakish misfit, maimed, traumatized or alienated from society during the same event that gave them bizarre powers. The characters were relaunched multiple times until a new creative team took over in the late ’80s and infected the series with psychedelia, conspiracism and copious Burroughs.

Their new arch-foes were the Brotherhood of Dada, supervillains with a grudge against “consensus reality,” whose totally irrational schemes included transforming Paris into a giant artwork and mounting a surreal presidential campaign via the lysergic resonance of Albert Hofmann’s bicycle. The Brotherhood’s creator has said that he felt forced to kill them off when they became more popular than his ostensible heroes. I mention all this because it sounds like the logic that Stalin applied to actual artistic eccentrics. In 1949 Leonid Trauberg was fired as director of the studio Lenfilm. His offense? Being “a leader of cosmopolitanism.”

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Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams and George Lewis at the Guelph Jazz Festival, 9/11/10

by Carl Wilson

“Three men enter. Two-thirds of the audience leaves.”

That was the outcome of the cage match Saturday night between three legends of Chicago’s avant-garde jazz scene and listeners at the palatial Riverrun Centre in Guelph, Ont., home of an annual jazz festival that’s extremely adventurous for one in a town of its size. Amid its atmosphere of almost ostentatious open-mindedness, they discovered limits.

The trio was the back half of a two-part headlining show in the festival. Before them came Sangam, another trio featuring the venerable Charles Lloyd, titanic Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain and hot younger drummer Eric Harland. Their sound ambled joyfully and contemplatively, sometimes goofily, through the fields of post-bop, “world music,” free jazz and more, with a strong sideline in esoteric spirituality, all to the rapture of the Guelph crowd.

Then Mitchell, Lewis and Abrams took the stage, looking respectively like a shrunken-suited character out of Samuel Beckett, a genial grandpa and a tough old cuss. You could imagine them together in rockers on the retirement-home porch. Sax, trombone/laptop and piano were their props. Stage positions were taken. An intake of breath. And then an incredible mass of noise.

The teenagers beside me began erupting in uncontrollable giggles. This made it hard to concentrate and find a way into the thundercloud of music that had just advanced at us. But I tried to sympathize: The thundercloud was what their laughter was defending against. I’ve been listening to this kind of atonal, free, chaotic whateverthehell for a quarter-century and I was having a tough time. What were they supposed to do? (They’d clearly been dragged along by the one friend who was listening with steady concentration. When they finally convinced him to leave with them, he rose and made a quick bow toward the stage, fingers steepled in prayerful respect. I wanted to shake his 17-year-old hand.)

I wondered if the programmers had known what they were in for. Usually music this far “out” is at a church hall, an art gallery or some sort of loft space. You’re not in a lush theatre with a state-of-the-art sound system. The result was that there was none of the usual diffusion of intensity by space. I was in a balcony not far from the speakers. At times I thought I might have a panic attack. With rare exceptions the performance was all about timbre and dynamics. Notes, chords or rhythms were rare visitors.

In other words, these three senior citizens were playing the kind of noise set you’d expect from bearded kids in a basement in Brooklyn. It was purist. It wasn’t humorous (except for a few of the sound effects Lewis generated from his Mac, I suppose). It did not have an arc that was building to an intensity, trying to “find the zone” as improvisers often say, because it started from there – as if these three men carry that zone around with them everywhere. Of course they’ve all played other kinds of music, but many audience members might not have guessed this. It was militant.

What it was militant about was, in a way, old-fashioned: It was modernist. It demanded the audience come on its terms. You had to decide whether this was music at all. You had to figure out for yourself, unaided, why anyone would consider it attractive. I had a couple of flashes of a joke Stephen Colbert has done a couple of times when John Zorn or Ken Vandermark have won grants or prizes, and he plays 30 seconds of skronk and starts grinning manically and snapping his fingers as if it were a swing tune.

When the remaining diehards had, defiantly, kept applauding for more, I considered calling it a night. But then Mitchell created a taut structure for the next improvisation – a harsh single note sustained, followed by silence, then again, and again. Abrams jitterbugged chromatic circuits around these poles, while Mitchell’s Mac generated complementary cumuli of static. Then he rose and picked up his trombone (I winced in anticipation of another existential workout), raised it to his lips – and put it down again, the encore falling dead after Mitchell’s stubborn conclusive note. I laughed with appreciation, but also relief.

At points, when the sound wasn’t driving down circuits of muscle and nerve that risked making me burst into tears, I thought it was a museum piece. I still think that if it had been three young guys doing it, it would have seemed absurdly retro. But from these three, who’d had to fight for their freedom on many levels and had built a practical and still-living artistic community on it, it moved me. Integrity trumped superficial artistic “progress.” Yet anger seemed the prevailing electromotive force. Did it have to do with the portentous date? The disappointments of Barack Obama? The yahoo pastor in Florida with his Koran and his lighter fluid? No, it seemed off, somehow, to consider this energy exactly political.

Maybe instead it had to do with the drunk driver who, not long before, had spun out in the rain and plowed into the back of the “jazz parade” that a genial Quebec oom-pah band had been leading from the festival tent downtown, and injured five people (none critically).

Or … not a protest, nor a mourning. No referential content at all. Perhaps it was instead a technique not that far from Sangam’s meditation-and-oneness concerns – a means of fully inhabiting a moment. Can you really let go of suffering, or do you turn on it and annihilate it? Think of shamans who reach higher planes not by dancing or chanting but by whipping themselves, even slashing themselves with knives, or returning from the forest starved and hungry. Not everything worth having comes gently. It is not always generous to be easy on people. You can ask a lot if you’re giving everything.

In the end, while not a lot of fun, it’s a concert I’ll remember, unlike most. It’s a memory burnt black and rain-battered and space-race (race-space) gold as a saxophone in a spotlight. In the “sonic eye” of my mind, it’s the colour of nothing but itself. Itself, and a mountain that can never truly be climbed.

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