octubre 2019
« Sep    

Ruth Roses & Revolver . . .

Directed by Helen Gallagher, 1987

David Lynch made this documentation (named after a film by Man Ray) on Surrealism for the British BBC television program Arena. In each program he presents extracts from what he considers films and filmmakers most significant to his own work:


←Entr’acte, Rene Claire/ Francis Picabia, 1924

…Based on a book and with settings by Francis Picabia, produced by Rolf de Maré, and with choreography by Jean Börlin. The music for both the ballet and the film was composed by Erik Satie.
«The greatest influence on my work is the city of Philadelphia. Man Ray was born in Philadelphia…»

• The Cinematic Orchestra …⇒’Entr’acte’⇐

Emak-Bakia, Man Ray, 1926

Vormittagspuck, Hans Richter, 1926
«Things beneath the surface, strange feelings of death, or opposites, or time…How exciting it must have been to have been a filmmaker in the early days of cinema, because not only was it so magical to see paintings begin to move,but they could start altering time…»

Man With A Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov, 1929
Lynch quotes Sergei Eisenstein’s view of Vertov «a visual hooligan!»

Blood of a Poet, Jean Cocteau, 1930
«Cocteau is the heavyweight of surrealism.»

Dreams That Money Can Buy, Hans Richter, 1946
«Films should have a surface story but underneath things should happen – things should resonate.»

The Girl With The Prefabricated Heart, Ferdinand Leger (from Dreams That Money Can Buy Hans Richter), 1946
«Anything that looks human but isn´t looks frightening.»

DiscsMarcel Duchamp, based on his own painting «Nude Descending a Staircase» accompanied by the music of John Cage (included in Dreams That Money Can Buy Hans Richter), 1946

Desire, Max Ernst (from Dreams That Money Can Buy Hans Richter), 1946
«I’m very happy to be a fellow traveller with any one of these guys…»

*          *          *

¤ Dziga Vertov  ⇓  «A Sixth part of the World»  [1926]

An ode to the vast region of the Soviet Union and all the different cultures contained within it. The title refers to the amount of land that is taken up by the newly formed Soviet Union, and the film functions to celebrate and unify the diversity contained within the multitude of cultures. It was commissioned the Soviet Government trade agency as a sort of advertisement for the USSR to be shown internationally. Vertov took the opportunity to turn the film into a sort of poem illustrating his ideas on the power of cinema

Φ  Un Chien Andalou  ↓  [1929]


The New York Times has posted A.O. Scott’s 3-minute look back at the 1929 short film Un Chien Andalou. Scott describes the surrealist classic, a collaboration between painter Salvador Dalí and a very young first-time filmmaker Luis Buñuel, as an “old dog with an endless supply of new tricks.” The short’s procession of seemingly absurd, unconnected images, he adds, does not follow the logic of narrative but rather the “logic of dreams.”

Even though its most famous (or infamous) images — a severed hand, a hand covered with ants, and most finally a hand slicing into a woman’s eyeball with a razor blade —  seem less shocking now than they did 80 years ago, Un Chien Andalou is still a pleasure. Our reality has changed since the 20s. Our dreams, less so.

The film opens with a title card reading «Once upon a time». A middle-aged man (Luis Buñuel) sharpens his razor at his balcony door and tests the razor on his thumb. He then opens the door, and idly fingers the razor while gazing at the moon, about to be engulfed by a thin cloud, from his balcony. There is a cut to a close-up of a young woman (Simone Mareuil) being held by the man as she calmly stares straight ahead. Another cut occurs to the moon being overcome by the cloud as the man slits the woman’s eye with the razor, and the vitreous humour spills out from it.

The subsequent title card reads «eight years later». A slim young man (Pierre Batcheff) bicycles down a calm urban street wearing what appears to be a nun’s habit and a striped box with a strap around his neck. A cut occurs to the young woman from the first scene, who has been reading in a sparingly furnished upstairs apartment. She hears the young man approaching on his bicycle and casts aside the book she was reading (revealing a reproduction of Vermeer‘s The Lacemaker). She goes to the window and sees the young man lying on the curb, his bicycle on the ground. She emerges from the building and attempts to revive the young man.

Later, the young woman assembles pieces of the young man’s clothing on a bed in the upstairs room, and concentrates upon the clothing. The young man appears near the door. The young man and the young woman stare at his hand, which has a hole in the palm from which ants emerge. A slow transition occurs focusing on the armpit hair of the young woman as she lies on the beach and a sea urchin at a sandy location. There is a cut to an androgynous young woman in the street below the apartment, poking at a severed hand with a cane while surrounded by a large crowd and a policeman.

The crowd clears when the policeman places the hand in the box previously carried by the young man and gives it to the young woman. The androgynous young woman contemplates something happily while standing in the middle of the now busy street clutching the box. She is then run over by a car and a few bystanders gather around her. The young man and the young woman watch these events unfold from the apartment window. The young man seems to take sadistic pleasure in the androgynous young woman’s danger and subsequent death, and as he gestures at the shocked young woman in the room with him, he leers at her and grasps her bosom.

The young woman resists him at first, but then allows him to touch her as he imagines her nude from the front and the rear. The young woman pushes him away as he drifts off and she attempts to escape by running to the other side of the room. The young man corners her as she reaches for a racquet in self-defense, but he suddenly picks up two ropes and drags two grand pianos containing dead and rotting donkeys, stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments, and two rather bewildered priests (played by Jaime Miravilles and Salvador Dalí) who are attached by ropes. As he is unable to move, the young woman escapes the room. The young man chases after her, but she traps his hand, which is infested with ants, in the door. She finds the young man in the next room, dressed in his nun’s garb in the bed.

The subsequent title card reads «around three in the morning». The young man is roused from his rest by the sound of a door-buzzer ringing (represented visually by a martini shaker being shaken by a set of arms through two holes in a wall). The young woman goes to answer the door and does not return. Another young man dressed in lighter clothing (also played by Pierre Batcheff) arrives in the apartment, gesturing angrily at him. The second young man forces the first one to throw away his nun’s clothing and then makes him stand against a wall.

The subsequent title card reads «Sixteen years ago.» We see the second young man from the front for the first time as he admires the art supplies and books on the table near the wall and forces the first young man to hold two of the books as he stares at the wall. The first young man eventually shoots the second young man when the books abruptly turn into pistols. The second young man, now in a meadow, dies while swiping at a nude figure which suddenly disappears into thin air. A group of men come and carry his corpse away.

The young woman returns to the apartment and sees a death head moth. The first young man sneers at her as she retreats and wipes his mouth off his face with his hand. The young woman very nervously applies some lipstick in response. Subsequently the first young man makes the young woman’s armpit hair attach itself to where his mouth would be on his face through gestures. The young woman looks at the first young man with disgust, and leaves the apartment sticking her tongue out at him.

As she exits her apartment, the street is replaced by a coastal beach, where the young woman meets a third man with whom she walks arm in arm. He shows her the time on his watch and they walk near the rocks, where they find the remnants of the first young man’s nun’s clothing and the box. They seem to walk away clutching each other happily and make romantic gestures in a long tracking shot. However, the film abruptly cuts to the final shot with a title card reading «In Spring,» showing the couple buried in sand up to their elbows.

*          *          *

          ¤  Freaks   [1932]

Tod Browning‘s movie is a rarity, a horror film that horrifies rather than frightens.    It was slated on its release in 1932, has been blamed for the downhill career trajectories thereafter of the key players, and was banned in many countries for more than thirty years.  Yet in 1994 it was selected for the National Film Registry’s archives, and now enjoys both cult and canon status.  It is a film both of its time (starring a strata of freakshow performers who no longer exist on a public stage) and ahead of its time, extending the definition of ‘sympathetic characters’ way beyond a 1932 audience’s limits.


The Movie

Freaks begins with a classic enigma – What’s In The Box? A crowd gathers around an animal pen, eager for the latest sideshow marvel, and hears the caution in the tale —

«We told you we had living, breathing monstrosities. You laughed at them, yet but for the accident of birth, you might be even as they are! They did not ask to be brought into the world, but into the world they came.»

The monstrosity remains hidden from view; all we know is that «she was once a beautiful woman», now she elicits shrieks and gasps of horror . What she is now is best left to the mind’s eye, and audiences have an hour to ponder the question before finally being allowed to peer inside the pen, an hour in which all manner of human oddities and deformities, often defying imagination, are paraded across the screen.

Our freak’s story begins when she was «once known as the Peacock of the Air», a fêted trapeze artist, and we segue into the backstage world of the circus. Notably, the circus acts are never represented onscreen, freak or normal, the action remains resolutely out of the ring… We’re plunged straight into sexual intrigue, as Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) the trapezist, flirts with Hans the midget (Harry Earles), much to the chagrin of Frieda (Daisy Earles), his equally diminutive fianceé.

«When I get a chance, I like to take them into the sunshine.»
Without pausing for breath, Browning introduces a whole gallery of freaks, harking back to his old carnival tendencies for sideshow display. We meet Madame Tetrallini and her clan of Pinheads (actually microcephalics), out picnicking with the dwarf Little Angelo, and Johnny (played by Johnny Eck, the Astounding Half Boy). A growly peasant tries to get them evicted by the landowner («There must be a law in France to smother such things at birth»), but when Mme Tetrallini pleads for her «children» to be allowed to stay, (channelling Snow White by gathering the little people in her skirts), the gruff lord of the manor relents. In the first half of the movie at least, the Freaks are usually represented as childlike, harmless, more frightened of strangers than strangers are of them. Back at the circus, normal performers indulge in bandinage with Jospeh/Josephine, the hermaphrodite, and we meet Roscoe the stuttering clown.

It’s a good ten minutes in to the 62 minute running time before the sympathetic normal characters are introduced; Venus the seal trainer (Leila Hyams) and Phroso the clown (Wallace Ford). Venus has been co-habiting with the Strong Man, Hercules (Henry Victor); we first meet her gathering up her possessions from his caravan and slinging insults as she departs. Phroso is immediately on the alert, and immediately offers his sympathies, but Venus is on her high horse and turns on him: «Women are funny, ain’t they? They’re all tramps, ain’t they?» This is a familiar enough scenario from melodramas of the day to allow the audience to relax a little. Regular people, having regular arguments. But, just as Venus is beginning to warm to Phroso («You’re a pretty good kid»), he reminds her never to judge by appearances («You’re damn right I am. You should have caught me before my operation.»).

Respite over, we meet Daisy and Violet, played by the Hilton sisters, aristocrats of the freakshow world. Siamese twins (they were fused at the pelvis, shared blood circulation but no major organs). Browning presents them as flirtatious and coy, managing to conduct separate courtships with two very different individuals. The freaks as a group have normal relationships in this world – the Bearded Lady gives birth, and her husband, the Living Skeleton, hands round cigars like any other proud papa. The only jarring note in the middle of all this harmony is Cleopatra, as she entices the newly-single Strong Man into her caravan with a line worthy of Mae West: «Feel like eating something?» «Always,» replies Hercules.

Horror seems a very long way away as the narrative meanders through a series of vignettes showing the domesticity of the freaks; they eat, drink, and peg out laundry, unremarkable everyday acts made remarkable only by the lack of arms, or legs, or even both. Browning frames freakish bit players as absolutely normal, such as Frances O’Conner, an armless blonde, sipping tea with her feet. The audience is bombarded with many so-called monstrosities, none of which present any threat whatsoever. The only menace stems from Cleopatra, plotting with Hercules and duping poor Hans into buying her furs and jewels. Whilst the freaks (and Venus and Phroso) are gentle and courteous towards one another, Hercules and Cleopatra mock Hans, calling him «the little polliwog» (an antiquated English term for tadpole), with the Strong Man threatening to «squish him like a bug.» Kind, loving Frieda can only watch as her beloved becomes more and more besotted with the trapeze artist, and eventually asks for Cleopatra’s hand in marriage.

Browning introduces the second half of the movie with a title card: The Wedding Feast. This marks an absolute change in pace, tone and mood. Gone are the child-like behaviour and tender domesticity previously displayed by the freaks as they carouse after the wedding. Koo Koo the Bird Girl shimmies her hips on the table; it’s crude burlesque for an adult audience, and the freaks roar drunken approval. The only people not to have noted the change in temperature are Hercules and Cleopatra, who kiss passionately, and then mock the simmering resentment of the new groom. Cleopatra jeers at Hans, calling him «my little green-eyed monster.» However, the freaks are prepared to overlook even this indiscretion, and toast Cleopatra with the ultimate honour —“We accept her as one of us. ”

Little Angelo passes a Loving Cup around the table, but when it comes to the bride’s turn to quaff, Cleopatra, horrified at the prospect of shared saliva, screams «You dirty slimy freaks!» and tosses the cup back in Angelo’s face. Equally horrified, the freaks, including a tearful Frieda, can only watch as Cleopatra hauls her new husband onto her shoulders and proceeds to galumph up and down cackling «Must Mama take you horsy back ride?» This is the ultimate humiliation for Hans and the closest he will get to wedding night sex.

From here on in the gloves are off. No longer innocent and infantile, the freaks peer through windows and from under caravans, keeping constant watch on Hans, whom Cleopatra is, rather obviously, attempting to poison. We never see the freaks plotting, but from the moment Hans spits out his «medicine» it appears that a cohesive plan has come into play. Part of the terror of the final is the sense that events are heading towards an inexorable conclusion; the freaks will not be denied satisfaction once they choose to reach for it. Who came up with the plan? Who is the freaks’ leader? It doesn’t matter — they act as a unit, preying on those, like us, who might have been fooled by their child-like exterior. «Offend one and you offend them all.» Cleopatra’s doom is sealed.

As the circus ups sticks and prepares to trundle off to its next destination a storm gathers. So do the freaks, scuttling unseen under the caravan wheels to an assembly point, dividing into teams, those who will wait in grim-faced vigil in one caravan, and those who will stand guard over Hans. Even sweet-faced Frieda is part of the plot, warning Phroso that Hercules plans to attack Venus. When Cleopatra comes to give her husband his «medicine» she is un-nerved to discover a panpipe-playing Little Angelo, plus friends, watching over the sickbed. Hans confronts Cleopatra, demanding that she «give me that little black bottle». Angelo never misses a note of his spooky pipe lament. Faced with the unforgiving freaks, Cleopatra cannot lie, cheat or charm her way out of her lies. For the first time, she is helpless at the hands of her diminutive husband. And his switchblade brandishing friends, who, if it weren’t for their short stature, could be straight out of a Warners gangster pic.

Meanwhile, Phroso intervenes to save Venus from attack by Hercules. The plucky clown doesn’t fare so well against the Strong Man until he is aided by a knife throwing dwarf. The freaks seem to be everywhere at once – presumably they haven’t left Olga and Hans alone in their caravan? – and advance relentlessly through the rain. Even the jolly pinhead Schlitze, previously represented as giggling in delight at the slightest joke, threatens violence with a blade. The armless, legless Prince Randian slithers through the mud towards the wounded Strong Man and it’s clear Hercules’s number is up.

So too is Cleopatra’s. She runs, screaming «Help Me!» into the rain, pursued by freaks, agile and inexorable, including a fierce-looking Hans. She is never seen in normal form again. She is the thing in a box, now revealed to be another form of ‘Bird Girl’, a squawking, legless imbecile, her beautiful face and form ruined. This is both revelation and relief, like all good sideshow freaks she is not as terrifying as she might be, she doesn’t quite live up to the hype of the barker and our imagination.

Instead of leaving us with some Jacobean morality tale, Browning adds a coda, designed to humanise the monsters once more. Phroso and Venus take Frieda to see Hans, who has fled the circus and become a recluse. The full-sized lovers leave the midgets alone, for Hans to express regret and for Frieda to absolve him from all blame. «You tried to stop them, it wasn’t your fault,» coos Frieda, as she takes her former fiancé in her arms. The final words of the movie are «I love you», repeated twice. Frieda is back where she believes she belongs. Perhaps Cleopatra’s hideous fate was her doing all along, after all, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, even when that woman has the face and dimensions of a cherub.

•  Afterburn

The studio was very unhappy with the result, and tried three alternate endings on preview audiences. When it was finally premiered, in San Diego in January 1932, audiences were horrified, rather than frightened. The backlash against the movie came from the public and critics alike, and it was quietly withdrawn from theatrical release. Browning made a couple more movies (including the excellent Devil Doll in 1935), but between Freaks‘ reputation and his alcoholism, he was finished. Several of the freaks, in particular Olga the Bearded Lady, regretted their involvement in the movie, which they saw as exploitative.

It was banned outright in Britain and other countries, and languished in vaults for more than thirty years until it was premiered anew at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim. A new generation had claimed the word «freak» as their own, and the film found new life on the counter-culture arthouse circuit, where it has remained a staple for years. The film has been read in varying ways — as a commentary on the studio system that treated all its talent like sideshow performers, as trashy exploitation, as a poignant fairy tale, as a grim morality play — but it is truly one of those few films that once seen, is never forgotten.

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