Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Two Movies

Lest this forum focus entirely on books — there are just way too many online book clubs — I thought I might start things off yapping about movies, because I just saw two good ones over the weekend.

“A Fool There Was” came out in 1915 and is notable primarily for being the famed Theda Bara’s first major work. Although her acting is without flaw — you can certainly see how she became the phenomenon of her era — the plot is so creaky that it takes her strange beauty and magnetism to pull the story along. The vampy costumes they gave her, hobble skirts and all, help the situation considerably. The movie is a nice piece of entertainment; it certainly keeps you amused for an hour and some, but the only thing that makes it a cinematic hallmark is the presence of La Bara. I fell prey to her celluloid allure just as surely as did the clueless protagonist of the story.

Thirteen years later and one ocean away, moviemaking had changed considerably. When “Pandora’s Box” was released in 1928, it emblazoned Louise Brooks forever into the mental marquee of any true cineaste. “Magnetic” is not the word for Brooks; “spellbinding” is too trite. I don’t know what this woman has, but whatever it is, it’s superlative. She was not conventionally beautiful — though beautiful she was — and her acting, while more than competent, isn’t necessarily better than that of many of her contemporaries. The whole package, though...

Before I turn this essay into a Louise Brooks litany, however, I think it’s more important to touch on the story itself. This is surely the finest moment of German film. It entertains on a base level, for the average moviegoer, but transcends into a cruel analysis of human condition. There is no hero, no villain. Nobody does anything really bad; it’s more a situation in which bad things happen to people for no apparent reason. It might be overly simple, but the film essentially gives you a two-hour storyboard narrative — with nifty erotic overtones — that boils down to “shit happens.” By the end of the movie, every last character has been physically and/or emotionally destroyed, and not really through any fault of his own whatsoever. Not, perhaps, the best movie to watch on a grey, cold January afternoon.