For Reel

Master of the House (1925)
October 25, 2015, 11:46 am
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Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
3.5 Stars
Master of the HouseCarl Theodor Dreyer’s best-known works are characterized by the audacity of their mise en scène (The Passion of Joan of Arc’s close-ups) or their expressionistic focus on creating uncanny atmospheres (Vampyr). Master of the House, then, seems like a radical step behind his later works at a first glance, but it is nonetheless as precise and true to its world as Dreyer’s later films. If the spaces in The Passion of Joan of Arc were distorted and almost purgatorial, Master of the House deliberately creates what a common viewer would associate as a “typical” household. Playing out largely in medium or long shots, the entirety of the house that the bulk of the film takes place in is laid out with incredible precision–one gets a sense of what it would be like to occupy the space, and more significantly the objects that appear in it. Dreyer’s play with objects enhances the realism. The movement of slippers is the physical manifestation of a power play, reflecting the small battles that occur in a typical household. Where the film is of particular interest is in its progressive stance regarding gender, and specifically the destruction of the very makeup of a working class household. The comedy is a bit hard to stomach–regardless of what a wretch Viktor (Johannes Meyer) proves to be, the prolonged humbling he endures begins to feel too obsessively vengeful. Regardless, the film nicely deals with grand drama on a micro scale, and Dreyer’s investment in accuracy creates an uncommonly convincing depiction of a household.

Battleship Potemkin (1925)
January 16, 2012, 10:57 pm
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Director: Sergei Eisenstein

The most famous of the propaganda films, Battleship Potemkin is Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 landmark of montage editing. Having now seen it projected, the film’s tremendous appeal was illuminated to me in a way that it hasn’t been before. There is no way to experience the picture unless its images can tower above you. Eisenstein’s method of earning both the audience’s sympathy and rage is much more advanced than in the forgettable suicide sequence of his first feature, Strike. When a heroic ship worker is murdered, the picture stops to take a breath in order to mourn him with a lengthy funeral sequence. Here, the film introduces a few relatively long takes – perhaps as long as any in the picture – and the way that Eisenstein holds to examine the stillness of the ocean water and the dreary progressional march is terrifically evocative of what can be lost and what needs to be made just in a revolution. Furthermore, the effectiveness of his death is heightened all the more because he is the only named protagonist of the picture, as Eisenstein intentionally addressed characters solely as a collective, with his mass bodies of men serving as a sort of hive-mind. Whereas Strike was pure sensation, in Battleship Potemkin Eisenstein’s call-to-arms is a hugely affecting thesis, a true coalescence between his thematic concerns and his aesthetic sensibilites.

The Gold Rush (1925)
January 9, 2012, 7:28 am
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Director: Charles Chaplin

Note: The star rating is for the 1942 version.

In 1942, Charles Chaplin re-released his 1925 feature, The Gold Rush, with added narration, a new score, and a few cuts. The resulting picture is not nearly as good as the original. Chaplin’s added narration adds little and often works to the film’s detriment. Much of the humor of silent gags is in what is unspoken – by hearing just what a frustrated character is saying when dealing with the tramp, many of the biggest laughs are eliminated. Additionally, in cutting the kiss from the end of the picture (in 1925, Georgia Hale and Chaplin were a couple, and, by the time of the re-release, they had split and the kiss was cut significantly), it takes away from the tramp’s ultimate redemption, ridding the picture of a fully satisfying conclusion to what is otherwise one of his greatest romances. Nonetheless, The Gold Rush is among Chaplin’s most likable pictures, and perhaps only City Lights has moments as heartbreaking as the tramp feeling as though he’s been abandoned on New Years Eve. Additionally, the sense of scale is much more significant than in many of his pictures  – the relatively exotic locale and the use of miniatures distances the feature aesthetically from the rest of his oeuvre.

Strike (1925)
January 8, 2012, 11:58 pm
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Director: Sergei Eisenstein

The first feature from Soviet master Sergei Eisenstein, completed just before his most remembered film, The Battleship Potemkin, Strike is a classic example of the intellectual montage editing familiar of other influential works of early Soviet cinema. Having been accused of stealing equipment by a superior, a factory worker commits suicide and incites the titular strike. The capitalists – in conjunction with the military – massacre the men, women, and children just before the final title card, calling for the audience to remember the tragedy and the importance of collectivism in battling the corrupt paymasters. Typical of its era, the film has no identifiable individual, rather it concerns the efforts of a mass identity, achieving pathos through their unionized agony. Despite the formal achievements – and one cannot discredit the influence that the picture has had both on filmmakers and on those who discuss cinema – the film’s visceral thrills inevitably grow wearisome, even if the crescendo is unforgettable. It is a picture that, through its relentless, excessive brutality, gives the feeling of having been pummeled.

The Freshman (1925)
May 1, 2011, 8:08 pm
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Director(s): Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor

Although The Freshman might be, joke-for-joke, one of Lloyd’s funniest movies, it is also his most devastating. It painfully illustrates all of the supreme humiliation of the schoolyard nightmare we’ve all had – Lloyd, believing to be popular and well-liked by his peers at college, soon learns that he’s actually being mocked. Excelling, like all of Lloyd’s films, as a character-driven comedy, The Freshman‘s use of ethos is profoundly moving and only makes Lloyd’s ultimate conquering all the more substantial. Climaxing with water boy Lloyd (who believed he was a benchwarmer) getting a chance to play in a particularly violent game of football, the film hysterically invents gags on the field whilst creating legitimate suspense as the audience anticipates Lloyd’s redemption.