Tag Archives: our terrible future

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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Filed under chris randle, movies

Tea With Chris: Cage Against the Machine

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Carl: If you’re ever briefly seduced by techno-utopianism and “post-human” fantasies, here’s a good dose of antidote against “Singularity” hoo-ha by Annalee Newitz, who imagines there’s no heaven and says “the future is a mutated bacteria that you never saw coming.”

Meanwhile, looking back at a kind of cultural singularity, for nearly 50 years we’ve lived in the sonic world remade by John Cage’s “4’33″” – a world in which every sound you hear is potentially a part of an ongoing piece of music, in which composition can be just context. Alex Ross recently wrote a fine piece on Cage and his impact in The New Yorker – here’s his related blog post, with a bunch of YouTube clips and a link to a November, 1964, Calvin Tomkins profile of Cage for the magazine, which is a great read entertainingly and incongruously surrounded with Mad Men-ish Christmas ads. And as a gift to ourselves for Christmas, 2010, a group has started organizing to make “4’33″” the BBC’s official yuletide hit this year – “make it a silent night” – an online effort similar to the one that made Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” the surprise official carol of 2009: The campaign’s name? Of course, Cage Against the Machine.

Later: It’s not officially Friday any more, and a little sacrilegious to revise a Tea With Chris without Chris, but I forgot that what originally got me Cagey was Christian Bök’s tweet about this wonderful list of all the “silent pieces,” some silly and some sublime, people have made over the years, by poetry scholar Craig Dworkin. Also via Christian, this downloadable “audio tour” of how various world museums sound in four minutes and 33 seconds, including Toronto’s own AGO.

Chris: There’s a lot of things to like about this interview with Owen Hatherley, whose new book savages the architectural vapidity and false “regeneration” of Blairite Britain, but this part might be my favourite: “I was originally going to name each chapter after a song from a band in the city I was writing about. Leeds would have been At Home He’s A Tourist, Glasgow Theme for Great Cities, Sheffield: Sex City, a Tindersticks reference for Nottingham, and so forth. The reason why I didn’t do that is because I couldn’t think of anything for Milton Keynes – all the good records about new towns are from snobby Londoners, like ‘New Town’ by the Slits…and also because the Southampton one would be limited to something by Craig David and/or the Artful Dodger, and much as I love ‘Rewind’ that would have had a certain bathos.” I’m hoping to write about A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain on B2TW myself, but lefty polemics are one of several genres I’m not sure where to look for now that Toronto’s best bookstore is closed.

Have you ever wondered how early fossil collectors managed to screw up the reconstruction of their finds so badly? Here’s a little timeline of that “mutant history.”

Margaux: If you haven’t already read this New York Times article about whales, it is really pretty amazing. It was even just useful to remember that whales live for a very long time. The same whale can keep returning to a specific coastal location over a century while the reception from the humans on land slowly, but radically, changes. The article wonders what they think about that.

Man who wrote passionate and persuasive arguments for an end to romantic capitalism and an embrace of 2-D romantic culture was booed at a conference when he admitted to watching 3-D porn (an old story).

The movie I made, Teenager Hamlet, is playing at the Royal Cinema on College St. in Toronto tonight at 7 pm. Home-made movie posters in the movie poster slots!

Today, I saw a tiny squirrel pick up, with its teeth, a giant red apple from under a giant red apple tree and then run down the street with it. This link goes back outside.

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Filed under carl wilson, chris randle, linkblogging, margaux williamson