The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (2017)

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Went over to Islington with M on 15 October to watch a live screening of The Cabinet as part of this event series celebrating and reconstituting the church organ. Adam Wiltzie performing a live score with half an orchestra. The space is octagonal, with pews curved round like a lecture theatre; the musicians were not sunken but lit and raised onstage, with a huge projector screen above showing the film.

What immediately became apparent – perhaps unsurprisingly – is that the score would follow not the rhythms and tempos of the individual actions onscreen. Overall it wasn’t far from Stars/Winged Victory territory with the pacing and the interweaving of live and synthetic instruments across swooping peaks and troughs. What AW nailed was tracking the emotional progression of a scene or a section, which sounds like an unremarkably desirable analytical exercise, but it’s actually quite rare in my experience of silent film scores (Nosferatu was a particularly frustrating lowpoint). In this it was productively alternative to the almost Mr Bungle-style generic and instrumental handbrake turns of the colourised youtube version of The Cabinet that M and I watched originally.

The other overriding impression was that the score was in some way not illustrative of the film itself but of our reaction to the film. This is obviously connected to the notion that it tracked our emotions as we received the film rather than the film’s movements as it was broadcast to us. I think it’s also connected to the almost equivalent staging given to the orchestra and the film (the poster above suggests that the film was almost anonymously subordinate to the music, or the composer). Like watching the film with the musicians – I could see the conductor had a tiny screen in front of him that showed the film in sync with the projection, so that he could keep time without craning upwards.

With this effect, points of disjunction between the macro-arced music and the micro-moving visuals frequently became quite suggestive. I remember well the first appearance of Caligari, painted in both a Shakespearean artificial-dramatic sense and a very literal wardrobe one, glowering cross-eyed and painful. The music was near an ecstatic peak; it seemed to be marvelling at the capacity of humans for wordless expression, expressivity which seems simultaneously campy and sincerely sinister today after 97 years. The feeling that the film was reaching out to us across that century was enhanced by a sound that could only be standing alongside us, looking backwards.

The film is great and always has been, but I found myself concentrating more on the score (M and I left babbling at cross-purposes about the two aspects of the performance; she picked out moments of discontinuity from our previous viewing [convincing ourselves that Cesare really did strike down decisively at Jane in her bead {what a scene this is though, with the receding dress like ectoplasm}; noticing new resonances like the chalked X across Cesare’s sweater vs the crossed arms of Francis’ straightjacket]) Still, it was an amazing setting and an unforeseeably satisfying artistic combination.

M made me this framed Caligari printout for my birthday. It’s an original German poster. The figures look more like Gorey waifs than chiaroscuro clowns. The rippling typography gives it a kind of futurist feel, too, above the angularity of the big top and the leaning top-hats. I really like it but she was having none of it.

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Skylark (2010)

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Picked up because of the publisher and the author’s name. Was actually written around 1923.

A surprising little tale: gently comic but with the eerie atmosphere of a faded photograph. First chapter introduces the bustling parents, the thick and blinded reliance on habitual duty which dominates their daily activities. They prepare to see their daughter off on a rare holiday with family, leaving them alone for a week – an almost intolerably irregular prospect. Skylark (apparently the girl, although in fact in her 30s) has the purity of heart but absent passivity of Esther Summerson – derived, however, from her extreme lack of external beauty. At the chapter’s close her father cannot meet her gaze after all the devotion evident in his attentions.

The subject of the novel practically in name only, S casts a shadow over the lives of her parents as they struggle blinking back into the world of the town they had long-since abandoned for the society of their child. She has rendered her father, especially, a ghost: “alive” only “here in the past”, in his private studies of heraldry and national historic continuity (24), looking forward only to “his approaching death” (27). S takes on a Gorey-esque domestic-gothic mythos: she returns to him in his dreams as the subject of disquieting nightmares (35) and later haunts him as an apparition after a drunken spree (165), an accusatory manifestation of conscience like Banquo.

S plays with the tension between the parents’ perception of their child and S’s own self-understanding, which is upsettingly snatched at in an account of her hysterics on the departing train; in the end her ghostly, reluctant appearance in a family photograph – in which “she appeared to be reaching out for protection from something that frightened her” (213) – manifests her outward mysteriousness as a product of this inner turmoil. She exudes human frailty and insecurity, but she’s also small as a character; I think we’re encouraged to read her this way by the faintly ridiculous image of the foppish and failed poet Ijas who “dramatised [his] minor literary disappointment into a more general and deeply rooted fin-de-siècle melancholy” before formulating the image of S and her tottering parents as the subject of a new work.

The beginning section prior to the departure is understated and slips by without much fanfare, but the reintroduction of the couple into the world of the town is intoxicating and quite poignant. Food is a central theme, internalised attitudes to luxury challenged by sights and smells. The mundane world is that of the “warm, sour milk” and grumbled complaints of the local market (37) which nevertheless blooms with colour like a Netherlandish communal scene. The town itself bustles with a teutonic regularity – as in the itinerary of appearances in the square (101) – while each character sings their own tarot identities like the types of Russian fiction (this Hungarian/Serbian world does seem an interesting confluence of western and eastern influences, which is reflected in the tastes and prejudices of the townsfolk). At the centre of the community is the King of Hungary restaurant, whose menu entices the couple into health:

Ákos straightened his back and breathed the air deep into his lungs. A sudden warmth spread through his limbs as his digestive system set to work. The food he had eaten was already filtering its fortifying goodness into his circulation. (51)

It’s as if they’ve been wound into clockwork life, ready to rejoin the rhythmic parade of the town (there are rebirth metaphors too, as in “the old man sucked at his cigar with all the voraciousness of a baby at the breast” 72). Á still interprets his desires as sin, though, as in a brilliantly amusing section of food fantasies (61) like blind Pi on the boat. The most indulgent, sensational residents of the town are like the actress Olga Orosz, drunk on the decay inherent within decadence:

Her flesh was powdery and voluptuously weary, as if tenderised by all the different beds and arms in which it had lain. Her face was as soft as the pulpy flesh of an overripe banana, her breasts like two tiny bunches of grapes. She exuded a certain seedy charm, a poetry of premature corruption and decay. (94)

There’s a generous, falstaffian humour throughout, as in the wry observation of the grace of the drunkard: “A drunkard never walks where he can fly … Nor shall the inebriate come to any harm, for the blessed Virgin carries them in an apron. But opening the gate was another matter.” (154)

The drunkard is also outside of time, time which appears to represent the world of labour: the temporal fixing of the opening description of manual preparations returns as an “inexplicable melancholy” after Á is reminded of his frivolity, late in his wild evening, by a glance at a clock (140). This runs in contrast to a kind of cultural deep time, invoked in the card game Taroc (“its roots reach way back into the past” 136) and traditional music (the landowner crying despite his wealth; “who could tell what ancient memories of wedding feasts and long-abandoned reveries the music stirred within him?” 143) This temporal shifting and sliding increases the sense of S as an expansion of Bloom’s night out in Ulysses: this is 1899 and forever, a modern moment in which life and death are at risk on personal, national and human scales. DK’s overriding preoccupation is, though, with death, and the return of S signals an “insidious” autumn (208) and a reminder of that decay lurking inside every pleasure.

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The Lodger (1927)

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The turning point in the narrative of Hitchcock’s career, at which he develops the blueprint for the modern thriller and establishes himself as a household name in Britain.

“A story of the London fog” is less visual a description than I anticipated. Sense therefore of harking back to Bleak House and The Secret Agent. Former in the interesting class dynamics. (the wealthy lodger under suspicion, from his working-class hosts, of preying on their impressionable daughter) Conrad intriguingly reverted: here a focus on the press (wheels turning in the opening sequences) which has the power to swell interest into a momentous mob that almost enacts frontier justice. Also inversion of the “domestic drama”: slow process of revelation rather than suppression and then eruption. L good on overlapping layers of dramatic irony.

Clear influence from Murnau as well as Lang creates striking visuals: the Caligari jagged light through windows onto the high walls; stalking behind a curved bannister; edgy closeups. The interiors are shot square like staged plate photographs, a Keaton flat world. Urban movement too: bobbies on the beat; reverse-shot escape from the crime-scene.

Ivor Novello is excellent as a sort of public-school Pinkie Brown, anaemic and unassuming, conflicted with his amorous attachment to victims. Emerging out of the ether like a spirit materialised from London’s thick atmosphere. (This must be where The Wrong Trousers comes from, surely) H does well to keep his biography to an absolute minimum. (until The Reveal)

On that ending: frustrating. (although admittedly I had a theory that was quashed) Twists and turns imply a payoff that doesn’t come, and the focus of the film accordingly takes a lurch as awkward as the alternate ending to I Am Legend. Abandons the patiently established creepiness of N; irony that the studio insisted N could not possibly be a villain, forcing H to rewrite the ending of a film that would project his popularity past that of N anyway. If he had to rewrite it, why change only the very ending? Interesting question of the legitimised, insidiously leering possessiveness of both main male characters too. (though this plays out over an especially hapless and credulous damsel)

(Note that I saw the 2012 remaster, which looks great [with sepia interiors and Conradian submerged blue streets] but sounds terrible. Nitin Sawhney’s new score for the BFI’s H retrospective is inconsistent in its visual application, tonally all over the place, erratically and ineffectually referential to later H work, and features two awful vocal pieces that are bad a) on their own terms, with vapid and irrelevant lyrics; b) in relation to the concurrent visuals; and c) in relation to the rest of the score. Avoid. [Score is for the film as total experience])

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