July 2013, arsenal cinema

How Film Writes History Differently Frieda Grafe – 30 Films (2)

THE MERRY WIDOW, 1934

"These films have to be watched with an audience," writes Frieda Grafe in a text about John Ford. "Both with those for whom they were made and those who place themselves above their alleged sentimentality and simplicity, for they have never learnt to see form as a prerequisite for content." With so much time having passed, it doesn't get any easier to imagine the sort of audiences for whom John Ford made his films. One thing is for certain though: the second and middle part of the retrospective of Frieda Grafe's thirty favorite films is more American than either of the others (the first part took place in April, with the third to follow from 30.10-3.11.): Ford and Lubitsch, Corman and Mankiewicz, Leisen and Walters. In 1995, film critic and author Frieda Grafe (1934–2002) compiled a list of her favorite 30 films for the magazine Steadycam. It included works made between 1926 and 1986, some of which, such as films by Mizoguchi, Godard and Mankiewicz, were to be expected, whereas other choices were more surprising, such as works by Pagnol, Barnet, Capra, or Langdon's silent movie "The Strong Man" and Roger Corman's "Little Shop of Horrors", the latter of which was shot in just one and a half days. It is the American films showing in June in particular for which music forms the easiest point of entry; it is here that the intention behind Grafe's list comes into sharpest focus. As in April already, all ten films will be introduced by the authors who have written texts on the films for the book being published by Brinkmann & Bose at the same time.

RIO GRANDE (John Ford, USA 1950, 10.7. with an introduction by Annett Busch) "The third of Ford's cavalry Westerns (1. Fort Apache, 2. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), with lots of songs, lyrics and male choirs. Almost a melodrama and certainly a family story. Ireland as embodied by Maureen O'Hara and John Wayne as a military man, overbearing and nasty. There are voices that thus speak of Ford." It's about honor, family, camaraderie and getting your act together when faced with all the challenges of history: north against south, the soldiers and settlers against the Apaches and somehow also young against old. Ken Curtis gives one of his most moving performances as a singer. To return to Grafe: "It's like a preliminary study or appendix to other films by him."

THE MERRY WIDOW (Ernst Lubitsch, USA 1934, 10.7. with an introduction by Klaus Theweleit) "When the operetta he loved stopped being successful," writes Frieda Grafe on Lubitsch, "he incorporated it into a music hall film, a musical. The production design and dance sequences in his MERRY WIDOW are an orgy in black and white like the Hollywood revues of the day." The film is merely one version of the operetta and nothing more, a cover version whose chorus goes against the grain and redefines the idea of the widow. Klaus Theweleit: “To say that Lubitsch does away with the plot is a understatement. He turns it upside down and inside out, changing it in radical fashion."   

THE HONEYPOT (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, USA 1967, 11.7. with an introduction by Chris Fujiwara) A mystery story that is more of a comedy than a mystery. Rex Harrison leads his ex-lovers up the garden path in much the same way as Joe Mankiewicz does so with the viewer. Frieda Grafe writes that, "Mankiewicz was convinced that a new form of writing was created both with and for the cinema which changed the artistic function of language and the sort of relationship to audiences practiced by the novel and the theatre. It assimilated the visual and ideas of staging and addresses the audience directly as a spoken language using genuinely articulated voices that beg for an answer." 

THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (Roger Corman, USA 1960, 11.7. with an introduction by Akin Omotoso) A Frieda Grafe film tip: "This is cinema for those in the know, to be seen of course in its original language and only at a midnight screening." This legendary film, one of Roger Corman's early works, consistently defies categorization. Horror? Comedy? Both? Who even knows anyway? Grafe writes that, "just so you go the cinema with the correct expectations, the horror in this film is somewhat degenerate in comparison to classic Hitchcock." Akin Omotoso: "Shot over two and a half days, the tale of a man ultimately destroyed by his creation."

ANGELE (Marcel Pagnol, Frankreich 1934, 12.7. with an introduction by Nicholas Bussmann) What is theatre man Marcel Pagnol doing on the list of Frieda Grafe's favorite films? She writes that, "as unusual as it was in 1930 for a successful dramatist to turn to sound film, it comes as little surprise that Pagnol would do so if you look at the subject of his plays, the class of people in them and their way of using language. The theater, according to its history, is not the place for the drama of the petty bourgeois' everyday problems to unfold." And "for the Italians, for de Sica und Rossellini, Pagnol started Neorealism with ANGELE."

IT'S A GIFT (Norman Z. McLeod, USA 1934, 12.7. with an introduction by Nanna Heidenreich) "The internal life of a grocer's, the whole silent majority in one person" is how Frieda Grafe describes the character of Harold Bissonette. "Fields obliterates conventional narration by means of language in suitable slapstick manner. He clusters together words into sound effects and changes the meaning of expressions by simple repetition. He bends language to his own personal needs using rhythm and intonation." And Nanna Heidenreich: "… anarchic, disorderly and certainly not socially acceptable."

ORDET (Carl Theodor Dreyer, Denmark 1955, 13.7. with an introduction by Cristina Nord) “Frieda Grafe found a good concept to describe the promiscuous combination of the sensual and transcendental”, writes Cristina Nord, "a term as everyday as the tasks carried out in the Borgen's yard, the repeated making of coffee or the milling of dough: the concept of disorder." And Grafe: "All of Dreyer's films come into existence via the relationship between the visual and the invisible. Their austerity, their rigor in subject and structure, the closed-off quality of their spaces, their insistence on a few sparse objects thus mark the point or boundary at which the imagination demands its rights all the more emphatically."

AKIBIYORI (Late Autumn, Yasujiro Ozu, Japan 1960, 13.7. with an introduction by Alex Descas) Ozu's third last film contains many comedy elements of a comedy without entirely belonging to the genre. Frieda Grafe on the other hand writes more about Ozu's colors than his characters: "Agfacolor enables you to get more than ten different shades of red is how Ozu put it." And "whenever genuine Japanese life makes itself felt, the image becomes more colorful based on clothing alone. Authentic colors have been best preserved in the hotel kimonos at a rural inn."

LADY IN THE DARK (Mitchell Leisen, USA 1944, 14.7. with an introduction by Marcus Coelen) Mitchell Leisen took psychoanalysis on board even before Hitchcock and in a much more colorful way, funnier and with more music. "When someone like Leisen, who was an art director for DeMille", writes Frieda Grafe, "becomes a director – and he's one of the few who made this transition – then it's obvious he'll turn his specialty into the very subject of his directorial career." And  "LADY IN THE DARK (is) a fashion film with unbelievable forties hairstyles, clothes and hats. Leisen uses these to play with Technicolor hues unlike anyone else other than Minnelli."

SUMMER STOCK (Charles Walters, USA 1950, 14.7. with an introduction by Kodwo Eshun) How the musical went from the stage to the barn, or how the barn itself became a stage. "When color came to sound film", writes Frieda Grafe, "the musical was forced to change its style. In this case, this also meant its content. Color entered into the movements and a genre otherwise so unconcerned with reality paradoxically began to look for more inspiration in the everyday." (Max Annas, Annett Busch, Henriette Gunkel)

"How film writes history differently / / Frieda Grafe – 30 films" is a Max Annas, Annett Busch and Henriette Gunkel project supported by the Capital Cultural Fund in Berlin in cooperation with Brinkmann & Bose and Arsenal - Institute for Film and Video Art.