Criterion film a day, day 2: Pandora’s Box

I am a very ill-disciplined film buff. To fix this, I’m spending the next thirty days plumbing the depths of the Criterion Collection, the if not definitive than certainly standard film collection of the important touchstones in the world of film. Each day I’ll pick a Criterion film from a different decade, starting from the nineteen-teens and moving up to the 2000s, then starting again, as available.

Pandora’s Box, German Director G.W. Pabst’s 1929 film is a much more fitting celebration of the silent cinema era than W.C. Fields’ Pool Sharks. The sophistication of the shots, the mise en scene and the editing would fit in any modern movie today. The soundtrack is at points strangely happy when murder is about to take place, but is an excellent work of accompaniment.

When sound films took over, the development of film (intended puns can go to hell) stalled for decades. The big, heavy cameras weren’t capable of the dynamic shooting that directors were able to explore in silent film. No more dolly shots or boom shots, only boring stationary cameras, with actors entering and exiting as if it were a stage (it was a soundstage).

Sound also heralded the real birth of Hollywood. Films now had dialogue that could not be translated as easily as title cards could be replaced, so foreign films had a much greater barrier to leap to reach the American audience. German and French Film, aided by the wars, collapsed. Though these industries were re-established, the gap between “foreign” and Hollywood was established.

This film is a testament to the sort of open-border filmmaking–a German director with predominantly german actors in a film anchored by an American star from Kansas, Louise Brooks.

She plays Lulu, a showgirl/probable prostitute who is suspiciously unaware of the effect her looks and…”friendliness” have on those around her. It’s unclear how much of what happens to her and her associates is meant to be blamed on her or on the men. She’s self-absorbed, to be sure, but the men around her are, for the most part, dogs.

It’s an examination of “pretty girl syndrome” in that she is constantly stymied in her attempts to lead her own life by the attention and focus put on her by the men. The catalyst for her demise comes in the form of a jealous, violent lover. At the same time, the way she provokes jealousy is hard to defend. In a brilliant bit of acting, Brooks always toes the line with her flirtation: At points it is over-the-top and deliberate, at other times, it is a much grayer zone.

The film’s tragedy plays out in eight acts, and allows the complications of her beauty to be seen in several distinct moods, from the haughtiness of beauty, to the infuriation with its burden, from jealousy, to pure stupidty, and always questioning the idea of respect and self respect.

The final note of interest is how frankly it deals with one lesbian crush. It’s 1929, but the film makes no bones about one woman’s dedication to the lovely Lulu. Not only is this gay relationship included, but it is not a caricature. Its a minor relationship, but the emotions, reactions and concerns of Lulu and her would-be female lover are distinct from any other relationship in the film.

The film does drag towards the end (it’s well over 2 hours), and the ending seems somewhat thrown together, but it’s well worth the watch. Highly recommend it.

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About Big Adam

A NYC doorman, a community organizer, wannabe ape, sometimes blogger, sometimes writer, always crossword puzzle incompleter, I will ride bicycles with your papa, dance Bhangra with your mama, take you on dates that cost nada.
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