Monday, April 21, 2014

The Largest Crowd is Composed of the Dead: On the Horror of Crowds in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger

When asked why he had never performed the pilgrimage to Mecca, the late Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz replied that he didn’t like crowds.  Which sounds like a reasonable answer, although it likely contributed to the assassination attempt on him that took place several years later, when a Muslim militant stabbed the octogenarian man of letters in the neck.  Luckily, Mahfouz (a) was in the presence of a doctor friend when the assault took place and (b) happened to live across the street from a hospital, so he survived, albeit with permanent injuries.  But when I think of crowds, poor, irreverent Mahfouz is one of the first people who come to mind.

I also think of Elias Canetti, whose study Crowds and Power seems to be the last word on the subject.  For Canetti, crowds are more than the sum of the people that compose them.  They take on a mind of their own, and not a particularly reasonable mind.  Crowds of people, like swarms of insects, are a source of horror, and he grimly points out that the largest crowd must surely be that of the dead, who vastly outnumber us.

Elias Canetti, wondering what the fuck is wrong with you people.
This horror of crowds is on full display in Alfred Hitchcock’s early silent classic, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, a scene of which I would like to explore without giving away major plot details, because it’s the sort of film whose plot twists should be appreciated fresh by first-time viewers.  The movie revolves around a Jack the Ripper-style serial killer plaguing the streets of London, and in one critical scene, a man, who may be innocent, is already handcuffed and on the run from the police.  He ducks into a bar for a quick drink, then leaves, and shortly thereafter the police show up and describe their suspect.  The patrons of the bar recognize the man who just left and, taking the initiative from the police, they flood into the streets to lynch him themselves.  The man comes to a fence and hoists himself over it, but his handcuffs becomes entangled in the spikes that top the fence, and he hangs there helplessly as the crowd amasses above and below and begins to assault him.  It’s a deeply disturbing sight.

Victim of the crowd's fury.
Canetti prided himself on never joining groups, even benign-seeming groups, because all groups had within them the seeds of the crowd dynamic, the dissolution of individual will and individual moral responsibility.  It’s hardly an original point to observe that people do horrible/idiotic things when they succumb to the mob mentality, but it’s a point that gets proven time and again.  Just a few days ago, a crowd at my old alma mater, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, rioted because the school hockey team lost.  Somehow they got it into their heads that: a team affiliated with our school has lost a game, ergo: we should start tipping over cars and assaulting police officers.  Idiots.  The sort of people who would do that can’t be trusted with important decisions that require the valuing of human life.  Because they’re the sort of people who form lynch mobs.  So, take a lesson from Hitchcock (or Canetti) and stay the hell away from crowds.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Falangist Vampires! Notes on Pere Portabella’s Umbracle

Christopher Lee in Umbracle (1972).
In 1969, English thespian Christopher Lee—whose career followed a largely Vincent Pricey trajectory—travelled to Francisco Franco’s Spain to appear in a schlocky Eurotrash adaptation of Dracula.  This was the beginning of the heyday of the shitty European exploitation horror film; Italy would make the most contributions to the genre, but Spain gave the Italians a run for their money.  Lee was in country to star in Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula, but while he was there, he ended up making unexpected appearances in two films by Catalan avant-gardist Pere Portabella.  These films, both dating from 1970, are Cuadecuc, vampir and Umbracle.
Portabella has made a number of very strange films in a career that stretches from the 60’s to the present day.  His films that I’ve seen tend be plotless, expressionistic mindfucks, shot in high-contrast black-and-white.  They call to mind the movies of Guy Maddin and Philippe Garrel, minus any pretense of having a story or characters or anything like that.  Cuadecuc, vampir consists of shots filmed between takes on the set of Franco’s Count Dracula.  Somewhere on the internet I saw it described as a “film beneath a film.” Umbracle, which I watched this evening, has largely severed its ties to Franco’s film, and instead follows Lee as he wanders through Barcelona (I think it’s Barcelona).  These scenes are punctuated with several sequences that have the character of cultural artifacts and which are far more grounded in conventionality than what one became used to in Portabella films (for one thing, they have synchronized sound; Portabella’s soundtracks are usually just silence, or sound effects and audio scraps that don’t correspond to the action on screen).  These cultural sequences include: Spanish filmmakers discussing the censorship of film in late Francoist Spain; extensive clips from a fascist-Catholic propaganda film called Infinite Front (1955); and portions of the act of two musical clowns.  We also see Christopher Lee singing in German and French and reciting Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.”

Now, I said that these movies don’t have a plot but it would be more accurate to say they don’t have a story.  In terms of plotting, or narrative coherence, they follow their own internal logic, but it’s the logic of dreams rather than reality, or the logic of freewheeling erudition, as we might see with Jean-Luc Godard or, why not, James Joyce.  The films rely on the juxtaposition of their various sequences to generate meaning; I suppose all films do this, but Portabella’s films rely upon this method exclusively.  It’s sort of like the Qatsi films of Godfrey Reggio, except more localized.  Because what are the Qatsi movies about, if not everything? Whereas Portabella’s films, dreamy though they may be, have some recurring themes that they address, namely: fascism/Francoism and the peregrinations of recent Spanish history.

Maybe you’re saying to yourself, “Wow, Portabella sounds cool, I’m gonna go check out his movies! Where can I find them?” Well, if you’re resident in the United States (as I am), you’re going to have a real hassle tracking these things down legally.  MUBI used to have a bunch of them, but now they only have one (Umbracle).  I saw Cuadeduc, vampir on Youtube, but movies on Youtube come and go.  I don’t believe Portabella has ever had any DVD releases in the U.S.  So, I’m not going to tell you what to do; follow the dictates of your conscience.  Or hope that MUBI streams more of these films, and maybe they will.  They’ve done so in the past.