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“There’s no such thing as bad art.” This was a dictum of the late classical music critic Dimitri Drobatschewsky. He explained: “If it’s bad, it’s not art.” But I have to take exception. There are examples of works that are deeply flawed, yet they stick in our psyches in just the same way as a masterpiece. 

To take an extreme: Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space is often nominated as the “worst movie ever made,” yet, there are piles of other bad movies that have fallen into justified oblivion. Something about Plan 9 wheedles into our brains and lodges there, despite dialog such as, “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future.”

The movie is a peculiar kind of classic and draws viewers every time it is screened. 

And speaking of tin-eared dialog, the 1933 King Kong is full of stuff such as, “It never fails. Some big hard-boiled egg goes goofy over a pretty face, and bingo! He cracks up and gets sappy.” And the acting is often wooden (Bruce Cabot especially; and even Robert Armstrong can’t make this dialog work) and the story line is racist in a way common to its era, but Kong is as much part of our cultural landscape as George Washington’s cherry tree or the Gettysburg Address. 

There is something about these films that buries into our unconscious and lives there like a dream. There is a logic to real life, a cause and effect, but there is an alternate logic to dreams, and that is where Plan 9 or King Kong comes to life. Ordinary rules don’t apply.

There are many better-made movies that are completely forgettable. Shakespeare in Love won an Oscar, but can you remember anything about it? I can’t. But Kong is buried there, in the neurons, permanently, mythically. 

Which brings us to one of the greatest movies ever made, or at least one of the most memorable. in a 2012 Sight & Sound poll of critics, Metropolis was voted as the 35th greatest film of all time, tied with Hitchcocks Psycho and just ahead of Truffaut’s 400 Blows. It also ranked 12th in the film magazine Empire’s “The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema” in 2010 and second in a list of the “100 greatest films of the Silent Era.”

It didn’t achieve such eminence through its plot or acting. The plot is silly and preposterous and the acting is often so over the top as to be laughable. 

All built on a silly and sentimental bromide. 

The film’s director, Fritz Lang, agreed about the moral, telling Peter Bogdanovich in an interview, “You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart. I mean, that’s a fairy tale — definitely.” 

It looks like science fiction, but there’s no science in it. It could be a dystopian future, but it’s not set in any particular time. It is mostly a fever-dream of capitalism, except there are no economics in it.       

Yet, the film has a power that many arguably better films simply can’t muster. Scene after scene in Metropolis bores deep into the subconscious. 

Right from the opening scene, when the factory shift changes and one phalanx of exhausted workers exit the giant elevators, shuffling at half-speed, while the fresh phalanx marches, in step in the opposite direction at full speed. It is a striking bit of choreography, worthy of Pina Bausch, and a clue to how the rest of the movie will unfold. 

In the next segment, we find our hero, Freder, cavorting with a bevy of nymphs in the “Eternal Gardens,” in a set that is actually unnerving.

Scene after scene is unreal but unforgettable. 

While the plot is tangled and confused, the set-up is simple. The city is divided into an upper part, where the rich live in luxury, and an underground inhabited by the workers and the machines that keep the city running. A Romeo and Juliet story intervenes and so does a mad scientist, who makes a robot in the image of our Juliet. Chaos ensues. 

Don’t look for it to make any sense. It doesn’t. 

The film was conceived by director Lang when visiting New York City in 1924. “I looked into the streets — the glaring lights and the tall buildings — and there I conceived Metropolis,” he told an interviewer.  He said that “the buildings seemed to be a vertical sail, scintillating and very light, a luxurious backdrop, suspended in the dark sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotize.”

At the time, Lang was married to novelist Thea von Harbou (who already had published more than 40 books) and they worked out a story, which she turned into a novel. Later, Lang and Harbou translated the book into a script. 

Thea von Harbou and first edition hardcover (l.) and paperback (r.)

(I’ve just read the original novel and it is terrible, grossly overwritten and both silly and sentimental. And it used enough exclamation points to fill an oil tanker. Here is a sample: “Ah! The intoxication of the lights. Ecstasy of Brightness! — Ah! Thousand-limbed city, built up of blocks of light. Towers of Brilliance! Steep mountains of splendour! From the velvety sky above you showers golden rain, inexhaustibly, as into the open lap of the Danae. Ah — Metropolis! Metropolis!”)

Lang and Harbou working on script

Lang began filming Metropolis in 1926 at the Ufa studios in Berlin. It took 17 months to film, with 310 shooting days and 60 shooting nights and went over budget by 310 percent, costing 5.3 Reichsmarks (something like $23 million in today’s money) and nearly sent the studio into bankruptcy.

Brigitte Helm, who played the lead, and the robot Maria, said “the night shots lasted three weeks, and even if they did lead to the greatest dramatic moments — even if we did follow Fritz Lang’s directions as though in a trance, enthusiastic and enraptured at the same time — I can’t forget the incredible strain that they put us under. The work wasn’t easy, and the authenticity in the portrayal ended up testing our nerves now and then. For instance, it wasn’t fun at all when Grot drags me by the hair, to have me burned at the stake. Once I even fainted: during the transformation scene, Maria, as the android, is clamped in a kind of wooden armament, and because the shot took so long, I didn’t get enough air.”

Lang brought in 500 children from the poorest districts of Berlin to play the Workers’ children and had them in ice-cold water for two weeks, as the Workers’ City was flooded.

The film was a financial failure on its initial release, but has become one of the great classics of all time. Its afterlife, though, was inauspicious. The movie was first released at a length of two and a half hours. The studio then cut it down to about two hours, and in the U.S., it was hacked down further, and in 1936, Nazi objections to its supposed Communist subtext, it was reduced to 90 minutes. Since its rediscovery in the 1960s, there have been many restoration attempts, but even today, with 95 percent of the film rediscovered and re-edited, it is still short of the director’s cut. 

And speaking of Nazis, Lang and Harbou divorced as her Nazi leanings became clear (she became a party member in 1933 and worked for the studio under Nazi rule during the war), and as for Lang, it was his bad luck that Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler both liked the film and offered Lang the job as boss of all Nazi film production. Lang took the hint and fled Germany (by his own account, the very next day). 

(An early scene in the movie shows a race in the Club of Sons in which the stadium architecture is astonishingly prescient of Albert Speer’s fascist architecture.)

So, why is this movie, with all its faults, such a memorable film? Unlike most, it doesn’t count on story to carry us through, and certainly not the acting. Rather, it burrows into our unconscious like a dream, with image after image that cannot be forgotten. One after the other, they pile on, right from that opening bit with the workers’ choreography.

The city is the kind of future the past used to project, with its biplanes circling the buildings and the elevated roadways around skyscrapers so tall, we cannot see their tops. In the center is the giant tower called the “New Babylon

Then, there is the Workers’ City, hidden below ground, with its Soviet-style faceless apartment buildings. The social structure of Lang’s Metropolis is a parody of the rich-poor division manifesting itself in the between-wars Weimar Republic — and echoed today. Between the upper and lower levels is the Machine Level, where the workers put in their toilsome hours. 

Our hero, Freder, wanders into this level, where he sees the great machine overheat and explode, scalding and killing scores of workers. He is horrified and hallucinates the machine turning into “Moloch,” devouring its human sacrifices.

He comes across Worker 11811, working a mysterious machine, who collapses from overwork and Freder takes his place. The scene recalls the famous Leonardo drawing of the “Vitruvian Man.” 

The whole underworld is a purgatory, and below the Workers’ City there are the catacombs, where the virtuous Maria lectures the workers about justice — and the importance of waiting for a “mediator.” 

This is not a movie about people, but about archetypes. There is father, son, city, death, all presented almost naked, with little attempt to disguise them as anything real. 

The world is divided, in Nordic and Wagnerian style into an underworld, a middle world and an upper world. The catacombs are deep caves, and the home of religion and myth.

The Workers’ City and their machines are in the middle.

And the privileged world of the elite rides above it all, and depends on all that resides — like a subconscious — below, normally unseen and unthought of. 

The architecture is a strange mix of the Moderne (Art Deco and German Expressionist); the dull efficiency of a Socialist utilitarian greyness; and relics of the Gothic; and prehistoric caverns. 

The main characters are the father, Joh Fredersen, who is master of the city; his son, Freder; the mad scientist Rotwang; and, most central of all, the woman, Maria. 

Fredersen (looking suitably Napoleonic); Freder; Rotwang; Maria

Maria, played by Brigitte Helm, is the central and most interesting character. She is really two characters, and the embodiment of two archetypes: virgin and whore. Rotwang creates a robot in the form of Maria and programs her to undo everything the good Maria has done. Helm differentiates the two personae in a way that they cannot be confused.

The two Marias separate in the very Frankentsteinian laboratory of Rotwang, in one of the most hypnotic sections of the movie, with rings of light rising and falling around the body of the robot, 

until it takes on the visage of the good Maria.

This Bad Maria, or False Maria, is sent to the workers to foment rebellion (why is never really made clear — it doesn’t make any sense, economically, to destroy the whole city), and she turns up in a nightmare hallucination of Freder as the Whore of Babylon, dancing at the Yoshiwara cabaret, doing a provocative dance.

And morphing into a Medieval vision of Die Grosse Babylon — the Great Babylon, from a verse in the biblical Apocalypse.

Which drives the men at the cabaret crazy with desire.

When the film was released in the U.S., Variety magazine’s reviewer commented: “Some sex stuff here and there, and a cooch dancer! Yes, sir, a coocher, in the revigorated mechanical figure, and a pretty good coocher, too, but not so thick around the hips as German coochers generally are. But then you must remember that this young lady was made to order.”

This False Maria persuades the workers to destroy the machines, which automatically floods the Workers’ City (don’t ask why), threatening all the children, and the workers, horrified, burn the False Maria at the stake, where, of course, she turns back into the robot.

Not to worry, Freder and the Good Maria save the children.  

The film is shot through with biblical references, not for theological reasons — there is no actual religion in the movie — but as cultural markers, symbols that will resonate with an audience familiar with the Bible. 

In the catacombs, the Good Maria teaches a lesson about the Tower of Babel, and how the conceivers of the tower failed to teach the workers who made the tower why they should do so, and a rebellion ensues and the tower is destroyed. 

In Freder’s fever-hallucinations, the figures of the Seven Deadly Sins, from the cathedral, step down from their pedestals and the figure of Death comes to life.

And Death approaches Freder with his scythe.

There’s Freder’s vision of the exploding machine as the biblical Moloch

And the movie comes to its climax when Rotwang abducts the Good Maria and chases her to the top of the cathedral, among the gargoyles.

And drags her to the very rooftop, where he fights it out with Freder.

While his father (remember him?) falls to his knees in fear among the crowds in the parvis.

But Rotwang falls to his death and Freder saves the Good Maria, leading to the point where Maria gets the heart (Freder) to mediate (shake hands) between the hands (the worker) and the head (Joh Fredersen) and therefore satisfying the prediction of the opening epigram of the movie. 

It’s rather a sappy ending for so visionary a movie. But then, the plot has never been the point. 

Which is something novelist H.G. Wells didn’t seem to understand when he reviewed the film on its release in 1927. In his piece for The New York Times, he wrote, “I have recently seen the silliest film. I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier.”

His beef was that the film didn’t realistically portray the future. 

How can it, when Rotwang’s Medieval house in the middle of the city is, like the Tardis, bigger on the inside than on the outside?  

Its economics didn’t make sense, Wells wrote. “The machines make wealth. How, is not stated. … One is asked to believe that these machines are engaged quite furiously in the mass production of nothing that is ever used, and that [Fredersen] grows richer and richer in the process. This is the essential nonsense of it all.”

Where are the suburbs? Wells asks. Why, in the future, do all the cars look like the Model T? Where in the catacombs under the city are all the gas mains, sewer conduits and electrical infrastructure? His literal-mindedness is comic.

How can you be literal when the clocks in the film cannot even agree on how to measure time — Salvador Dali must have been their clocksmith.

Wells goes on and on, completely missing the point. Obviously, Metropolis was never intended to be realistic. It is not even meant to be the future. It exists in no time, according to both Lang and Harbou. It is a fever dream, an oneiric fantasy, and the glories of the film are all to be found in its visuals, not in its story. 

You can watch the film on YouTube in decent resolution, and it is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. It is one of the great films of all times, and one of the most memorable. 

Lang went on to make such great films as Woman in the Moon, also with Helm; M, with Peter Lorre; The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, with Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Rotwang from Metropolis); then, in Hollywood: Fury, with Spencer Tracy; Rancho Notorious, with Marlene Dietrich; and Clash by Night with Barbara Stanwyck. And many other great films. But none burrows into the brain in quite the same way as Metropolis.  

Click on any image to enlarge

I came late to film, but early to movies. Even before school age, I watched hundreds of movies on TV. At that age, there is no critical sense. They were just movies and I didn’t have any sense that one might be better than another. They wiggled on the screen and that was sufficient. I watched it all like drinking water from a tap. 

As I grew up, I decided I liked some kinds of movies better than others. First, from before I entered kindergarten, there were the Westerns from the 1930s and ’40s that ran in the afternoons. I loved Buck Jones and Hoot Gibson. When I became older, there were the science fiction movies from the 1950s. I gobbled them all up: The Crawling Eye, Gog, Rodan

And because so many of those I watched were on TV’s Million Dollar Movie, I also absorbed a surprising number of “kitchen sink” movies from England, made during the “Angry Young Man” phase of British cinema: The L-Shaped Room, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Did I know what they were about? No, they were just a fact of life. TV life. “A bit of a plodder, myself,” said Michael Redgrave. (“What’s a ‘plodder,’ ” I wondered, the word not yet in my vocabulary at the age of 7). Later, in my early awkward pubescent years, I became obsessed with classic monster movies, a period in my life that the less said, the better. But at one point, I could name you every actor who ever played the Frankenstein monster — including Glenn Strange.

Not that I understood these movies, mind you, but they were what was on. I may have been five or six and watching The Boy With Green Hair on the Million Dollar Movie, with neither an understanding of what the movie was about, nor the sense that I should understand what the movie was about. I was unaware of taste or choice; I just watched what was offered. 

My earliest memory of a movie is of watching King Kong from behind a chair when I was perhaps in first grade; I was terrified. I would peek out to see what was happening when I dared. My baby brother watched, too, but he just sat there, three years younger than me and I’m sure just happy to see things wiggling on the screen. (He later made a career teaching animation and filmmaking.) 

Nothing like a film education came my way until I entered college. I was young; I was ignorant. 

British film critic Mark Kermode talked on YouTube about the moment he first became fascinated by movies. It was when he was a kid and saw Krakatoa: East of Java, a 1968 disaster film (the volcano Krakatoa is actually west of Java, but you know: the movies). It was shot in Cinerama and starred Maximilian Schell, Diane Baker, Brian Keith, Sal Mineo and Rossano Brazzi. 

It was 1968, a significant year in film, balanced uncomfortably between Cleopatra and M*A*S*H. It was the moment the big studios were dinosaurs and young Turks were meteors waiting to descend. Doris Day and Rock Hudson were leaving the building by the back exit while Dustin Hoffman and Gena Rowlands were breaking down the front door. The studios could still believe that making a Western with Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot was a good idea, but in the wings were Francis Coppola, John Cassavetes, Brian De Palma, George Romero and Peter Bogdanovich. 

I’m grossly oversimplifying, or course. Hollywood continued to pump out high-budget pap in the following years — as it continues to do today in the age of Michael Bay and comic-book superheroes — but by the late ’60s, the studio apparatus was becoming increasingly irrelevant in an era of Easy Rider, Medium Cool, and Alice’s Restaurant (all just a year after Krakatoa). Although, to be fair, in the insurgent camp, there were plenty of well-meaning indie films that have been lost in the passing of their trendiness. Neither all good nor all bad. 

But in the midst of it, there, at age of five or six, was Kermode, blown away by the cheesy explosion of the volcano in Krakatoa. He says that it was then he knew he wanted to spend his life with movies. A single burst of “Eureka.” Kermode admits that he knows others, unlike him, came to movies more gradually. That was me he was talking about. 

(If you don’t know Kermode, he is movie critic for The Observer, the British Sunday newspaper, and counts as probably as close an English equivalent as you can find to Roger Ebert as “national movie critic.” Kermode is in print, on radio and on the tube. It was on the British TV’s The Culture Show in 2006, that filmmaker Werner Herzog was shot, while being interviewed by Kermode; Herzog continued the interview anyway, saying, “It was not a significant bullet.” Ah, Werner. The last time anyone did something like that was when in 1912 Teddy Roosevelt was shot in Milwaukee, only to shrug it off — “It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose” and went on to give a campaign speech for 90 minutes.)

And so, although Kermode knew at an early age that movies would be his life, I only gradually come to an appreciation of the art form. The thought that there was a film grammar, or that there was a crew of professionals assembled to construct the movie, or that there was a financial aspect to the business — the thought never entered my tiny little head. 

Then I entered college and all that changed for me with the film series offered. Unlike nowadays, when college film programs are chosen by students, and tend toward things such as Caddyshack and Animal House (yes, classics of a sort), the series I was given was curated by school faculty and featured Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut. It is where I first saw The Andalusian Dog with its eye-slice, and Birth of a Nation, with its unbearable racism. 

It slowly dawned on me that movies could be as serious an art as poetry, opera or architecture. I had been slapped awake. 

It was also the year (1967) that Antonioni’s Blow Up opened in town, which I watched with my crazy college girlfriend in the commercial theater. Now that was art cinema. We came out into the sunlight considerably more pompous and intellectual than when we went in. I spent years analyzing and decoding the symbolism — that being the defining vice of the young and clever. 

But from then on, film became a significant part of my intellectual life. I haunted the local Janus theater that specialized in art films, and I saw so many: Ikiru, Virgin Spring, La Strada, L’Avventura, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad — I mean, can I get any artier? These were movies to be seen, yes, but then, more importantly, to be talked about. O the symbolism — O the humanity. O Woman in the Dunes

I developed an unhealthy snobbery about cinema and dismissed pretty much anything that came out of Hollywood. I wuz a idiot. But, hey, I was a college student, which is pretty much the same thing.

Years passed, and the veneer of imbecility wore off; I saw thousands of films, from the earliest silents to the most recent offerings at the multiplex. The TV was set by default to Turner Classic Movies. (Just last week, I watched King Kong again, for at least the hundredth time. “How can you watch a movie you’ve already seen?” asked a friend. “How can you listen to your favorite song over and over?” I responded.)

By the early 2000s, I was writing for the Phoenix newspaper and, among other duties, was a backup movie reviewer. The regular critic tended to avoid foreign films, and so he gave many of them to me. Later, in 2006 and 2007, when there was an interregnum between film critics, I served as a temp. I got to see many good films, and many godawful ones, which always gave me the most fun to write: “Earlier this week, the Israeli Supreme Court outlawed torture, so I know one place Love Stinks will not be opening.”

I took shots at art films, too. I really can’t stand the Masterpiece Theater genre of high-toned blather: “Mannequins in rich dresses moving about and pronouncing their words so distinctly that you’d think they were shelling pistachios with their tongues.”

You know, the 500-page classic Victorian novel brought to life (or not) on the screen: “If you’ve ever gotten a shirt back from the laundry with too much starch, you will have some sense of what is wrong with House of Mirth. It creases where it should drape.” 

I have over 200 entries in Rotten Tomatoes. When I look it up, I don’t remember seeing some of the films I reviewed. The were not all memorable. But the run as movie critic gave me a chance to become a juror at the Palm Springs Short Film Festival in 2000, and learned what it was like to be followed, like a magnet pulling iron filings, by publicists. 

It was fun, but there comes a point when you’ve seen too many movies in a week and they all blur into an Eastmancolor smudge. There is something lost with the deeper awareness of cinema. When I was a wee bairn, all that mattered was the story. With increased knowledge, as any honest movie critic will admit, you notice things like editing and foley work. You are paying double attention, on one hand to the story, and on the other, to how the story is told. You can never unknow how Hitchcock turns time to taffy, or how Godard jump-cuts, or how Marcel Ophuls uses camera motion like a ballet dancer. 

With the coming of Postmodernism, almost everyone is now wise to the process. You can’t watch a film by Christopher Nolan or Charlie Kaufman without commenting on it: They foreground the filmmaking and subordinate story. Is this a good thing? I’m not so sure but that films were more immediately pleasurable before we knew that Alejandro Iñárritu filmed Birdman to look like one long, single take. 

I remember when I learned that Stanley Kubrick used a special f/0.7 lens to film a scene by candlelight in Barry Lyndon. When the Steadicam was introduced in Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory. When CGI bowed in on Flight of the Navigator (rather crudely by modern standards). When the crane shot was rendered obsolete by the invention of the aerial drone. Drone shots are everywhere now, and have become a visual cliche. In the old days, a movie ended with the hero riding off into the sunset; you can hardly end a movie, TV show or commercial now without the drone shot sweeping back away from the final scene into a wide landscape. (So now, establishing shots come at the end?)

By now, I’ve seen my thousand movies. I own hundreds of DVDs, perhaps more than a thousand (I haven’t counted recently). Among them are all the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Pedro Amodovar, Werner Herzog and Woody Allen. (At least I think I have all of Herzog; it is impossible to keep accurate track). And nearly all the films of Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir, Erich Rohmer, Francois Truffaut, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa and Agnes Varda. I’ve fallen behind with Quentin Tarantino. I wish I had more of Martin Scorsese, but my DVD purchases have lagged since my retirement (and shrinking of income). 

It’s been a lifetime of watching movies, learning from movies and about them, a lifetime learning to take them seriously. Even when they’re not serious. 

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