December 2019, arsenal cinema

Magical History Tour - Bodies in Film

THE TERMINATOR, 1984

Since cinema began, part of the fascination of the moving image has stemmed from the way in which the bodies of the people acting on the screen are represented: it’s no coincidence that the first ever film footage shows contented workers, men exercising or boisterous children. It wasn't long until Méliès extended these short documentary scenes by adding cinematic (corporeal) experiments of a fantastical or even drastic nature: images of elegant dancers that disappear as if by magic, images of headless skeletons on the prowl or heads that inflate like balloons and explode. With these two poles as a starting point, the staging of bodies (and body parts) in film went on to become a fundamental means of cinematic expression whose diverse manifestations have had a substantial effect on how we think about human physiology. This month's Magical History Tour presents notable images of the body from 90 years of film history, showing the special physical presence exuded by bodies of longing, objects of projection, foreign or collective bodies, the re-animated and corporeal hybrids.

WORKINGMAN’S DEATH (Michael Glawogger, Germany/Austra 2005, 1.12.) Michael Glawogger’s observational documentary shows the hardest physical labor under extreme conditions at different places around the globe in the 21st century: an illegal coal mine in Ukraine, a sulfur quarry in Indonesia, a slaughterhouse in Nigeria, a steel mine in China, and a shipyard in Pakistan, where men looking for reusable materials take apart huge tankers. An epilogue leads the viewer into the Ruhr region, where leisure complexes have been created from the vast industrial zones of the past and the human body is hardly even a factor any more in the world of work. Free jazz by John Zorn and atmospheric sound design accompany these massive images of elemental power.

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (Don Siegel, USA 1956, 5. & 9.12.) Young Dr. Bennell is confronted with a strange phenomenon upon his return to the small town of Santa Mira in California. Overnight, children no longer recognize their mothers and wives their husbands, although they still look exactly the same on the outside. Bennell discovers that beings without feeling are growing out of mysterious alien seed pods, who seize the bodies of people and destroy their personalities. Don Siegel stages this science fiction classic with a minimum of special effects and considerable acting and psychological effort: a few sparse movements, looks, and gestures are enough to convince one that a person has lost their personality.

BEAU TRAVAIL (Claire Denis, France 1999, 6. & 25.12.) A story of the foreign legions narrated in a series of shimmering scenes freely inspired by Melville’s “Billy Budd” and accompanied with passages from Britten’s opera of the same name and a song by Neil Young. A remote outpost on the Horn of Africa: Galoup (Denis Lavant) sees the new recruits as competitors for the favor of the commander and decides to get rid of them. Beautiful work – the title refers to the recurring images of the foreign legionaries working on their bodies that function as a leitmotif: they carry out their training in a mixture of drill and elegance – lonely foreign bodies in the African desert landscape, trapped in their own lives.

FREAKS (Tod Browning, USA 1932, 8. & 17.12.) Midgets, Siamese twins, living torsos – Browning’s horror melodrama centers on a group of physically impaired people who have the odds stacked against them, exhibited as fairground attractions and exploited and betrayed by their "normal" circus colleagues. Audiences of the time were scandalized at how frankly these “freaks”’ physical infirmities, everyday lives, and longing for love and passion were portrayed; shortly after the premiere, the film was censored for 30 years.

IN EINEM JAHR MIT 13 MONDEN (In a Year of 13 Moons, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany 1978, 10. & 23.12.) RWF's film is often regarded as one of his most personal melodramas, depicting a body as the scarred battlefield of life. The film tells the story of transsexual Elwira/Erwin, who has a sex change from man to woman following a dark childhood spent in a monastery and an equally unhappy adulthood spent working as a butcher in Casablanca. 19 scenes or rather 19 states of suffering form the last five days in the life of the protagonist, 19 fragments of unhappiness and misfortune, rejection and crisis all inscribed onto an increasingly damaged body.

DEVUSHKA S KOROBKOY(The Girl with a Hatbox, Boris Barnet, USSR 1927, 19.12., with a live piano accompaniment by Eunice Martins) Boris Barnet’s blend of slapstick, romance, melancholy, and ecstasy revolves around a young milliner who lives in a Moscow suburb and works in a hat stop in the center of the city. To help a poor student out of his dire living situation, she enters into a fake marriage. Finally, the lottery ticket that her boss forces her to accept instead of being paid wins the big prize, whereupon a cascade of turbulent events is set in motion. A film full of charm, with situation comedy that starts from the physical and is inspired by American slapstick.

THE TERMINATOR (James Cameron, USA 1984, 20. & 30.12.) An android (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from the year 2029 is sent to Los Angeles in 1984 to kill a woman (Linda Hamilton) before she can give birth to the son who will lead the human resistance in the future against the dominance of the machines. With seven Mr. Olympia and five Mr. Universe titles, the most successful bodybuilder of all time had already achieved everything he could in his sport and started an acting career in 1982 with Conan the Barbarian. The role of the cyborg with a body of human tissue and a metal skeleton made Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ascent to Hollywood stardom unexpectedly lasting. The extraordinarily successful film has been followed by five sequels and a television series to date. Of the 17 lines spoken by the Terminator, one even made it to number 37 in the list of most famous film quotes ever: “I’ll be back.”

STORMY WEATHER (Andrew L. Stone, USA 1943, 22. & 28.12.) At a party thrown for African-American soldiers returning from WWI in 1918, the singer Selina Rogers (Lena Horne) discovers the dancing talents of the soldier Bill Williamson (Bill Robinson) and falls in love. Based on the life of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, one of the most famous African-American entertainers of the first half of the 20th century, the plot spans 25 years, linking together a succession of contemporary musical numbers. The black-and-white film boasted an all-African-American cast that featured many of the country's top dancers, singers, and actors and captivates due to its drive, the energy of the music, and the colorful dance numbers (in a black and white film). Fred Astaire said that the artistic finale by the Nicholas Brother to Cab Calloway’s "Jumping Jive" sequence was the greatest movie musical number he had ever seen.

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (Vincente Minnelli, USA 1944, 23. & 25.12.) Vincente Minnelli’s first masterpiece accompanies the Smith family through the summer, autumn, winter, and spring of 1903/04, while St. Louis eagerly awaits the opening of the World Exhibition and the 17-year-old Esther (Judy Garland) falls in love with a boy from the neighborhood. Vincente Minnelli’s family film with its delirious color photography, a successful blend of nostalgia and humorous distance, integrated the song and dance numbers into the plot in a way entirely new at the time.

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, USA 1952, 26. & 30.12.) Hollywood 1927. While silent film diva Lina Lamont struggles with the transition to sound film due to her unattractive voice, the same shift brings friends Don Lockwood and Cosmo Brown (Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor) entirely new career opportunities. Don transforms into a song and dance star, while Cosmo goes from being a pianist to head of the music department. What is likely the most famous musical of all time is also an anthology of the genre. The dance numbers frequently function as a tribute to the milestones of the musical. With a silent role as Gene Kelly’s secret daydream in the form of 20s vamp with a Louise Brookes haircut, Cyd Charisse wrote film history in “Broadway Melody Ballet”. “I like to dance, sings Gene Kelly. What that means is conveyed by this musical so completely that the hardest cinema seat becomes a flying carpet for the viewer.” (Frieda Grafe)

FRANKENSTEIN (James Whale, USA 1931, 27. & 29.12.) In 19th century Germany, young scientist Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) tries to create a living body from parts of different corpses. By using the brain of a recently executed criminal, he creates a monster that duly runs amok (Boris Karloff) rather than his hoped-for ideal person. James Whale’s classic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, formally inspired by German expressionist cinema, was followed by a whole series of sequels and a wave of horror films. (hjf/mg)