Monthly Archives: January 2017

January 12, 2017

86. Eisenstein: The Sound Years

2001: 086 box 1


Alexander Nevsky (1938)
Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944) & Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1945, released 1958)

Criterion #86. Once again, this number corresponds to a cardboard box rather than a movie.

It contains two plastic cases, numbered 87 and 88; the former contains one DVD and the latter two. None of this material is sold separately. Thus 86 applies exclusively to the cardboard box.

I do not actually have access to this cardboard box. I cannot directly review this cardboard box. The best I can do is look at pictures of this cardboard box, reconstruct a virtual cardboard box in my mental laboratory, and then review that.

It seems like a pretty nice cardboard box. I imagine it as pretty sturdy.

Our musical selection is once again, as it must be, the Criterion logo jingle:

The next time this will happen is #124. Thank you.


January 6, 2017

85. Pygmalion (1938)

2000: 085-box-1 [OOP 9/2009]
(replaced by equivalent “Essential Art House” edition)

directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard
screenplay and dialogue by Bernard Shaw
scenario by W.P. Lipscomb and Cecil Lewis


Criterion #85.

Streamed from FilmStruck‘s Criterion Channel.

My mode at repertory musicals: trying my skill against theirs with the familiar material; asking “have they aced it?” rather than just watching. Like catty operagoers have done for centuries. I can’t help it. This is what comes of spending too much time with scripts and scores: everything starts to look like scheme and execution instead of pure phenomenon.

Even in that petty light this comes off very well, besting My Fair Lady at its own game.

Bursting into song actually suppresses dramatic pathos; it prematurely resolves all dissonances of sentiment. There is something truly poignant, not just structurally poignant, in this straight version. A full human being has too many feelings for any one song, and the question of what constitutes a full human being is at issue in this story. Pygmalion may be a sort of fable but it is not a fairy-tale.

A 20-second scene in Eliza’s home at the start pays dividends later that the musical misses: we understand that she has always been her own person; she is not Higgins’s creation. Galatea was a stone given soul; Eliza is already a soul, given a new stone setting, one among many possible. Her awakening is not her transformation itself; it is simply learning that she has the ability to transform.

The musical insinuates a Cinderella lust-for-glamour, a priori materialism, which ruins the play’s truly radical message: that all people are already equal and the trappings of class are arbitrary. Fancy dress does not actualize Eliza. Why would it? It is significant that she could not have danced all night; after all, whoever said she wanted to? Her uncertainty about what she wants is at the heart of the play and not to be plugged up for convenience.

The work montage here is far superior: Eliza has no clueless, tone-deaf phase; she’s immediately capable and industrious; the regimen of exercises seems coherent and believable; Higgins’s confidence seems to jibe with his abilities. We see her will and his; the only reason either of them has to sweat is the time pressure. There’s no vague, mysterious block to overcome first. That is to say: the Broadway contrivance of an impasse to precede a “eureka” markedly weakens the message that all that stands between Covent Garden and Buckingham Palace is weightless fuzz. The mysterious block, the sword that must be pulled from the stone, is none other than our projected prejudice: that an ordinary flower girl could obviously never pull this off, but a Chosen One could. (i.e. Audrey Hepburn.) This is not good faith.

Spry, younger-seeming Higgins is much preferable to the standard tweed. Personality comes into sharper psychological relief the less it’s telegraphed by physique and costume; we have to contend with the ways his outlook is available to us, too. Higgins’s attitude, its virtues and sins, becomes the focus of this script. This is the richest vein in the material and surely Shaw’s point of fascination.

His contempt is for the highs as well as the lows, and none of it is felt; in his abstracted way he loves all, he just doesn’t know it. He cavalierly tosses Eliza money that changes her life, because he enjoys the British forms and they include charity. But as he smirks, we hear uplifting church music all the same because the form delivers its substance no matter the spirit. Who’s to say this isn’t truest love?

It is only Henry’s lack of conventional empathy that allows him to genuinely help Eliza’s inner self. By his complete failure to feel her as an individual, he grants her uniquely unconstrained potential to be an individual. Being felt can be repressive. And yet we need it from one another; being a “consort battleship” is nobody’s heart’s desire. His problem is not that he cannot give but that he cannot receive. And everyone needs to be received, to be found. A moving portrait of the true nature of sympathy, and of empathy: each is the price of the other’s power.

Eliza’s Turing Test is the same for all of us; all of society is a Turing Test. If the difference can’t be told, there is no difference.

Consider the handling of Wendy Hiller’s physiognomy. Is it regal beauty or mask-like grotesque? Don’t worry: the movie will decide for you, scene for scene. When she emerges for tea dressed like Pinkie it’s parody, but her climactic presentation as the belle of the ball is quite serious. If the audience is drawn in — and we are — then we are part of the social conditions under critique. I felt a slap being administered to every “taking off her glasses to reveal her beauty” scene in cinema. Who says? The male gaze is just one of a thousand arbitrary frameworks. There’s also the Queen-of-Transylvanian gaze, etc. We can’t stop gazing but we can at least try to remember that everyone is protean.

Hiller is completely excellent. Shaw’s personal choice for the role and no wonder. She gives much more than one is accustomed to seeing given. In the ostensibly comic bathing scene she lets in genuine horror and indignity. This encapsulates the meaning of the whole story.

Apparently Getty allows you to embed images for free.

From the above it should be clear that as regards the ending my sympathies are 100% with Shaw, who disapproved vociferously. Henry thinks “tower of strength” is the highest possible approval; Eliza realizes that to the contrary she is in fact a person and says “goodbye.” That is rightly the culmination of the action and should suffice as its terminus. The sugary tag — invented for this movie and then carried over into posterity by Lerner and Loewe — is just commercial timidity.

In musing on the movie I came across many interesting side channels relating to Shaw, his work on the screenplay, the play’s past and future, etc. etc. etc. Originally I thought to discuss such things here. But the material was so plentiful exactly because it’s all such well-covered ground. Why strain to add to that when I’ve already said my piece?

First Criterion appearance of Koenig’s manometric flame apparatus. And probably last but one never knows.

The image is pretty bad. The transfer isn’t great and the film needs restoration. The streaming and DVD versions are the same.

The DVD offers no supplements. FilmStruck has a 3-minute TCM-style interview-cum-promo, “David Staller on Pygmalion (1938),” which is fine enough for one of those. I certainly admire the craft of the TCM montage team; they can make any old movie look superficially lively and promising. But that’s also the problem: their house style is homogenizing and ultimately condescending to the material. Especially their music. It all tends to feel a bit like in-elevator entertainment at a mid-range hotel. Still, simply as 3-minute propaganda pieces I can’t really fault them.

Now that streaming has entered the building as a viewing option, the supplement situation is likely to become quite complex and potentially sticky. Some of the original disc supplements are available at FilmStruck — but not all. Some supplements have been newly produced for FilmStruck and do not exist on disc. Some films are available to stream in new transfers not yet released on disc (see the title cards in the previous entry for an example). At present I can make no promises about what my policy will be — that is, what will count as having watched a given Criterion release and what won’t — but rest assured we at broomlet take such matters very, very seriously and we have top men looking into it right now.

Arthur Honegger of all people! The Criterion site database includes two other films with music by Honegger but neither of them is part of the main numbered series, so this is it.

I had no idea he had it in him. I knew he did pictorial music but not such genial commercial stuff as this. Though he does sneak in some quirky modern corners and angles. (The striking little oscilloscope cue early on.)

The idea of “My Fair Lady as composed by Arthur Honegger” is amusing to me. Some of the work has already been done:

Not to mention:

Official selection is the main title and introduction:

The tune in the strings starting at 0:45 functions as Eliza’s theme and gets several treatments over the course of the movie. Not that I noticed on first viewing.

The score overall is quite good. Never released or rerecorded. According to a Honegger biography I found, the manuscript is mostly lost. Then again the same biographer wrongly asserts that most of Honegger’s music was replaced in the film — which at first I thought must account for why it didn’t sound like Honegger, but which actually just seems to be a bit of confusion on the writer’s part. MGM made their own American cut of the movie that did indeed replace most of the music with stuff by house composer William Axt, and also re-edited a couple of scenes, but nobody ever watches that version these days, for obvious reasons. Seems like the biographer came across a copy of that and mistook it for the original.

Or else I’m being duped and the music you just heard is really by Louis Levy or someone. But I doubt it.

For my untenanted location still, I had to chase the editor all around; he didn’t seem to want to let me have one. Last time I was so stymied was Brief Encounter, and lo and behold, the editor of Pygmalion was David Lean. I guess he must have made it a real point of principle that there should be human activity in absolutely every frame.

Almost settled for a frame with a sliver of person in it but then finally found this one. Whew.


January 5, 2017

Game log 12/16

Only two games played this month. My head was elsewhere.

Continuing with “Humble Indie Bundle 9,” purchased 9/23/13. Six games remain.

Mark of the Ninja (2012): Klei Entertainment (Vancouver, BC) [13 hrs]

As I’ve said before, game genres are defined in dumb ways. Here we have an example of the “stealth” genre, which basically means any game where you hide a lot. Could be a 2D game, could be a 3D game, could be based on puzzles, could be based on story, could be based on fighting, doesn’t matter. It’s one of those “genres” defined by its attitudinal emphasis, like “horror” — which nonetheless get listed in uneasy parallel alongside genres like “1st-person shooter” and “graphic adventure.” (Could there be a “stealth 1st-person shooter”? Sure; there are plenty. Mix and match.)

I actually wish there were more attitudinal genres in circulation — like “anger” games, and “power fantasy” games. If Steam tagged such things I would be grateful for the guidance. They do sometimes indicate “exploration” games, which is my cup of tea. I would also seek out “fantasy of clarity and order” games. I guess that’s most games.

Anyway, according to the Steam tag system, Mark of the Ninja is a Stealth • Platformer • Ninja • Indie • 2D • Action • Singleplayer • Side Scroller • Adventure. It seems like “Stealth” (or, I guess, “Ninja”) was the conscious intention, and the rest of that stuff is just what fell into place reflexively. Basically, an animated ninja hangs from ceilings, hides behind things, and quietly impales people when they walk by — or doesn’t: your call. (I didn’t like seeing people get impaled so I tried to keep it to a minimum.)

The basic mechanical ideas are compelling — throw darts to break light fixtures and darken rooms so that you can move around unseen; make noises to distract patrolling guards, then get behind them and duck under floor gratings before they turn around, etc. etc. — but the level design is pretty monotonous. Most of the pleasures that the system has to offer have been used up by the fourth or fifth level. Then there are eight more levels.

“Give me experiences, not systems!” I shout yet again. A system is always a means to an end. Seems like these designers worked hard on the means and then just threw an end together. I suspect that pressure to make the game long enough to sell for $14.99 was also a factor in making it feel so drawn out. (Even at 10-20 hours it’s still considered a “short” game.) As a latecomer who only spent about $0.70, I personally would have been much happier with a dense, satisfying 4-hour version. Plenty of time to see all the goodies and do each trick a couple times.

Also, this is a game by the same people who made Shank, and it has some of the same hollow-shell ComicCon feel to it; the commitment to being kickass grotesquely outpaces the commitment to the characters and the story. These are artists fundamentally driven by a compulsion to be derivative. This too is a greater sin over 13 hours than it would have been over 4.

Eets Munchies (2014): Klei Entertainment (Vancouver, BC) [played for 1 hr]

This is exactly what it looks like: yet another cutesy-poo iteration on the old Incredible Machine and Lemmings ideas from 25 years ago, with fake Django Reinhardt to hammer home the point that this is a classy joint and a good time is being had by all.

It comes from the same studio as the last game; I imagine they threw it into the bundle as a way of advertising it… FOR YOU SEE this is actually an iPad game, and the bundle only included a computer version. If I really liked it and wanted it on my iPad where it belongs, I’d have to buy it like anyone else. Sure, you can play it on a computer — my one hour is proof of that — but it’s like eating bread with a spoon. I already addressed all this when I got Splot in an earlier Humble Bundle, which was the same thing.

At the time of purchase this was just a “beta” but within a year the full game had been released. It’s also a remake of a game from 2006; presumably these guys saw the success of Cut the Rope in 2010 and thought, “hey, we made that game already! But ours wasn’t as big a success, I guess because it wasn’t as slick-looking. Okay, let’s do it again but slick-looking.” But of course you can’t retroactively be the ones to strike gold. Cut the Rope is still the big winner, not this thing.

Cut the Rope is also more elegant and satisfying in every way. The puzzles I solved in this, the first 50 or so, weren’t that hot. If this looks like fun to you, check out competing best-seller Cut the Rope!