The Gold Rush: a fun and clever film of comedy, drama, romance, horror and thriller elements

Charles Chaplin, “The Gold Rush” (1925, revised 1942)

In reality, the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush must have been a harsh, grim and ultimately disappointing experience for many prospectors who flocked to the goldfields hoping to strike lucky and be endowed with material wealth for the rest of their lives. Most people however would have come away empty-handed and even those who did find gold, did not always keep it but frittered their fortune away in gambling and died in poverty. In British-American actor / director / script-writer Charlie Chaplin’s film “The Gold Rush”, his Lone Prospector (played by Chaplin himself) finds quite a bit more than fortune: he finds adventure, a good friend, fame and perhaps lasting love. The film cleverly combines slapstick comedy, drama, romance and even elements of horror and thriller as the Lone Prospector is tested by trying and dangerous incidents before he achieves what he set out to do.

The film divides into three parts, each milked for their comedy potential. In the first part, the Lone Prospector narrowly escapes predation by a bear, being killed by a wanted murderer and the appetite of a fellow prospector, the gourmand Big Jim (Mack Swain). Notable scenes include one in which Big Jim and the crook fight over a rifle, the rifle butt constantly pointing at the Lone Prospector no matter where he runs to, in their cabin; and the shoe-eating scene where Chaplin turns munching on the tongue of his old tough shoe into a sumptuous make-believe meal fit for a king. In the second part, the Lone Prospector goes into town and falls in love with flighty dancer Georgia (Georgia Hale) at a music hall. The little man is bullied by the music hall patrons and made fun of by Georgia and her friends. The third scene reunites Big Jim and the Lone Prospector as they search for Big Jim’s mining concession where by accident they discover a rich lode of gold that makes them multi-millionaires. The ultimate test though of the Lone Prospector’s character awaits him as he follows Big Jim about on the luxury cruise liner posing for fawning paparazzi.

In spite of all the many scrapes and humiliations heaped upon the Lone Prospector, Chaplin’s character carries himself with quiet pride and humour. A number of scenes in the film, notably the scene in which the Lone Prospector waits in vain for Georgia and her friends to show up for a New Year’s Eve dinner and celebration he has meticulously prepared, draw audiences’ sympathy for his lonely and marginalised condition. If there is anyone in the universe of Hollywood silent film most deserving of love, companionship and sympathetic treatment, it should be this little man who, though small and physically weak, nevertheless shows spirit, pluck and quick thinking (and equally quick foot-work!) in all the predicaments that befall him.

At times the plot seems disorganised: the wanted criminal is disposed of in a deus ex machina avalanche and the Lone Prospector’s rival for the affections of Georgia disappears without his sub-plot being adequately tidied up and resolved. How Georgia ends up on the same ship as the Lone Prospector and Big Jim do has to be put down to the need to end the story quickly; the romance feels forced and when the little fellow and his lady love walk off into the sunset, one feels that one of the two will worship money and the riches it buys more than the s/he loves the other in the pair. Romance will not last long and at least one person will be reduced to poverty again.

It’s a fun and entertaining film, and it’s more absorbing than I imagined it would be due to its clever and seamless inclusion of comedy, pathos, tender emotion and even cynicism. The revised 1942 version with musical soundtrack and Chaplin’s narration do not add anything to the film’s plot or the comedy sketches; indeed, the music can be annoyingly intrusive and shrill. Best then to see it as it was originally done, as a silent film with a piano soundtrack.

Metropolis (dir. by Fritz Lang, reconstructed + restored): near-full restoration carries a populist message of fear and conservative belief

Fritz Lang, “Metropolis (reconstructed + restored)” (1928)

I’ve had the opportunity to see “Metropolis” (which I reviewed some years ago) again in its reconstructed and restored version which will be as close to its original 150-minute running time as it will ever be. There are only a few minutes still missing from the original film and they contain material essential to the plot: they explain how the film’s heroine Maria (Brigitte Helm) manages to escape the clutches of mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) after his experiments using her physical appearance to clothe his robot with some kind of hologram that reproduces Maria’s looks and emotions. The reconstructed film as is, is still epic and bombastic in scale, perhaps even more so with more religious scenes; and it moves at a very brisk, almost rushed pace.

Watching the film again in its near-fullness after having seen the 90-minute version and another previous restored version is quite a revelation: the (almost) full film is now shown to be the populist, even proto-fascist film it had been all along and which I had suspected, knowing that script-writer Thea von Harbou joined the Nazi Party a few years after its making. The film expresses many ideas and beliefs derived from the German Romanticist movement of an earlier century, and this in itself explains the mawkish sentimentality of the plot and the film’s conclusion. In particular, the notion that emotion and passion always prevail over the intellect and reason, and that people who use their intelligence only end up evil and tyrannical, underlines the film’s plot. (This is related to a pre-Enlightenment view that humans are essentially evil and are incapable of improving and governing themselves, and only respond to strict and severe discipline, order and harsh punishment doled out by autocratic governments.) The film is proto-fascist in undermining and portraying the working-class characters as robotic, simple-minded, irrational and easily led; in depicting the upper-class layer as soft, infantile and debauched; and in asserting that only those whose lives are governed by the heart, with all the emotions and stereotypes associated with it – that is, love for one’s native land and soil, awe and reverence for one’s leaders (who are also one’s betters) along with absolute faith in their abilities and decisions, purity of soul – are best fitted to lead the slave-like workers and the soft and corruptible wealthy urban classes.

The film also has some slight anti-Jewish tendencies in the way it portrays its mad scientist character Rotwang. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the middle class in many European countries had a high proportion of members who were Jewish, prosperous, well-educated, highly cultured and cosmopolitan in their outlook. They readily embraced change and favoured greater equality among people of different classes, religions and ethnic groups. Many Jews were professionals working in medicine, journalism and science. They were seen as rootless and money-hungry by others however and faced discrimination from the societies they lived in no matter what their class or status. Rotwang has some characteristics of the Jewish stereotype: hungering for power over all the Metropolis inhabitants whether rich or poor, resentful of the scientist ruler Joh Fredersen in taking away the woman he (Rotwang) loves, and pursuing a pure Christian woman to corrupt her and steal her essence to animate a robot which he uses to manipulate the workers to revolt and destroy the city and its governing classes. In Europe in the 1920s, the idea that Jews were behind the Bolshevik Revolution, Communism generally, the hedonistic material life-styles of the rich, and increased sexual freedom of women (along with the fear that they were neglecting their children) was strong.

A strong Christian, especially Roman Catholic, theme is present throughout the film: the character of Maria is heavily based on Biblical characters like the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and Eve (or Lilith). The city of Metropolis is closely associated with the Tower of Babel in the story Maria tells the workers’ children and with the corrupt city of Babylon in the Bible.

Even in its current reconstruction, the film’s conclusion still appears mawkish and sentimental after all the intense activity that has gone before. Yes, the conclusion in which techno-plutocracy is reconciled with the workers it depends on through a mediator is the logical conclusion and the main characters themselves represent stereotypes; but the ending looks so pat and so unrealistic that it still irks the senses. The film’s ending suggests that if only the tyrant scientist ruler Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) will be a bit kinder, more of a benevolent dictator, and the workers a bit less concerned about their woeful pay cheques and their terrible working conditions, and more mindful of their children’s well-being, if head and hands come closer together, then love and understanding will somehow blossom through the meeting of all their hearts which peacemakers Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) and Maria will facilitate. There is nothing to suggest in the characters of Freder and Maria themselves that they actually are capable of acting as effective mediators; based on what I have seen in the film, the two are likely to serve as a de facto royal couple ruling Metropolis. Indeed, no-one actually votes for Freder or Maria to serve as mediators, their roles being clearly predestined due to Freder’s social status and Maria’s supposed inborn purity, which does put the reconciliation between Joh Fredersen and his workers onto a bad footing already. The workers might get more time off to be with their children but the culture and social and political systems and institutions that allowed the city to exist and to function, and the assumptions and values underlying them, essentially do not change. Freder’s dad is still in charge and his bureaucrats are still carrying out his orders.

For all its futuristic pretensions, the film is best read as embodying the beliefs and fears of its time. Viewers should beware though that its message is ultimately a pessimistic and misanthropic one.

Invocation of My Demon Brother: not an essential film to see for Kenneth Anger fans

Kenneth Anger, “Invocation of My Demon Brother” (1969)

If like me, you’ve already seen a considerable number of films by Kenneth Anger, this one won’t add much that’s new to your knowledge: Anger creates what’s basically an extended rock music video with scraps from another film “Lucifer Rising”, shots of bikers, a group of people smoking from a skull and a Satanic funeral ceremony for a cat. Filming techniques such as the layering of images (a constant Anger motif), film speed distortion, placing the camera at odd angles and juxtaposing shots drawn from different sources to suggest a narrative and create unusual connections are combined so as to extract maximum shock and horror, and disturb viewers with intimations of occult evil. Bold red shades are emphasised to invoke Western stereotypes about devil worship. A multi-lens filming approach so as to suggest an insect’s point of view adds an extra sinister impression.

Some viewers will obviously find this film very dark and frightening, especially in scenes where a Satanic high priest flourishes a flag with the swastika symbol: this could very well be Anger in a cheeky mood, knowing that (in 1969) Western audiences were sensitive to the horrors of Nazism and Nazi flirtation with pagan religion and the occult, and so he uses a Nazi symbol in the context of an occult ritual to shock people. The joke is that the ritual is in honour of a dead cat! – in this way, Anger plays with images and their sequencing, and the cultural associations they have for Western viewers, to create a spectacle that makes fun of people’s fears and the things they avoid without understanding why they do so.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the soundtrack, composed on Moog synthesiser by famous Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger: it ain’t much to hear, to be honest, but it’s probably the most significant work of solo music he’s done in nearly 50 years.

The film is not essential viewing: you’re best directed to Anger’s other works “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome”, “Lucifer Rising” and “Scorpio Rising” if you want a psychedelic experimental film experience with occult themes.

Tolerantia: a plea for religious tolerance and diplomacy over war

Ivan Ramadan, “Tolerantia” (2008)

An animated 3D short made in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2008, “Tolerantia” is a plea for religious tolerance. Set at the end of the last Ice Age (or the next Ice Age perhaps when the planet is done with the ups and downs of global climatic change), the film is completely silent save for necessary sound effects. A Shrek-like character thaws out of a block of ice and immediately sets about finishing off his personal stone ziggurat which he had planned and started to build countless millennia ago before the Deep Freeze set in. Completing the job with a shrine to the sun, he begins his worship but is rudely interrupted by another fellow who has also just completed his solar-focused pyramid and is irate at being overshadowed. In those days, folks couldn’t apply for council development applications that would restrict overshadowing so the two prehistoric (or post-historic if you will) chaps start the mediation and negotiation process their own way, tossing rocks at each other until they achieve a sort of stalemate resolution.

It’s pretty obvious that if the guys had engaged in jaw-jaw rather than war-war, the sun would have proved quite generous in sharing its bounty between the two and viewers are to assume that if people worshipping different religions could just sit down together and talk, a lot of the pain and dislocation caused by religious intolerance leading to war could be overcome. I do not know how much this is true of Bosnia-Hercegovina in recent times if it is; much of the conflict in that country must also be attributed to resurgent nationalism among the Croatians and Serbians spilling across borders after decades of being suppressed or unresolved under Yugoslav Communist rule.

The reality beyond Bosnia-Hercegovina is that more often than we realise religion is used as a cover for other causes leading to a breakdown in communication among two or more different religious communities and a resort to violence. How does one explain the situation in parts of the Middle East where for centuries Jewish, Christian, Muslim and other religious communities co-existed and co-operated more or less peaceably and it is only during the late nineteenth century and onwards that these communities started experiencing inter-faith conflicts? If we take each major conflict and dissect the causes behind each and every one of them, we will find the causes are much more complicated and often (though not always) involve interventions by foreign actors intent on playing one religion off against others. Current conflicts in Iraq and Syria, two countries with long histories of major and minor religions co-existing side by side in the same communities, turn out to have been stoked and encouraged in part by forces outside those two countries, in particular Britain, France, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States.

Apart from all my rambling about its theme, the film is well made with slapstick humour, considering that Ramadan did pretty much everything save for the music, composed and done in traditional Bosnian folk style by Mostar Sevdah Reunion. The message is simple and very straightforward, the story structure builds up steadily and the conclusion is at once devastating and blackly humorous.

Blancanieves: silent Gothic melodrama of a brief summer of shining innocence before a long winter of fascism

Pablo Berger, “Blancanieves” (2012)

In the style of old 1920s expressionist silent films, Berger’s “Blancanieves” is a witty, layered and lavish Gothic retelling of the fairy-tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Set in southern Spain in the 1920s, the innocent beauty becomes Carmencita, the daughter of famed matador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and his beautiful flamenco-dancing wife Carmen (Inma Cuesta). The child’s birth is attended by tragedy: Villalta becomes a quadriplegic after a goring by a bull (because he was forced to look away by a thoughtless news reporter flashing his camera) and Carmen dies during childbirth. Enter the gold-digging nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdu) who marries Villalta and banishes Carmencita (Sofia Oria), who is brought up by her aunt (Angela Molina). Unfortunately Aunty dies while the child is still young so she is sent to the Villalta household where Encarna promptly banishes her to the servants’ quarters. Carmencita manages to find her father in his room and learns basic bull-fighting techniques from him. After his death, she (Macarena Garcia) is banished from her rightful inheritance and is nearly killed by Encarna’s chauffeur lover; traumatised, she suffers from amnesia when found by a troupe of bull-fighting dwarves(!) who welcome her into their nomadic way of life and christen her Blancanieves. Freudian psychology and nature-over-nurture racially based inheritance will out: Blancanieves finds her calling as Spain’s first female toreador, culminating in acclaim and recognition as Villalta’s heir in the prestigious Seville corrida. However, the wicked Encarna has found out about Blancanieves from a fashion magazine and plots the girl’s demise.

The film uses a maximalist expressionist style to tell its nuanced story: the excellent and camera-friendly Verdu camps up her role as the evil stepmother and several wonderful scenes in the film highlight Encarna’s depraved nature and fashion sense. The only thing lacking is evil cackling, as this is a silent movie. Berger employs several experimental filming techniques typical of a number of arthouse films from the early 20th century: Dziga Vertov (“Man with a Movie Camera”), Jean Vigo and Luis Bunuel are obvious inspirations. Alfred Hitchcock is also an influence in many scenes of voyeurism and the Villalta mansion, complete with Hitchcockian staircase which also becomes a murder weapon, might be a nightmare labyrinth from one of Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories.

Scenes are shot from different angles and the corrida becomes a microcosm of gladiatorial battles between life and death, youth and old age, and innocence and the kind of sophistication that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing, embodied by both Encarna and the bull-fighting agent who cunningly takes advantage of Blancanieves’s naivety by tricking her into signing a contract that allows him to exploit her bull-fighting talents and eventually everything else she has. Berger brings a self-reflexive dimension to the reworked fairy-tale: the news media and the cult of celebrity are always present in some way, whether through the reporter’s gaffe that sets the train of tragedy, the fashion magazine as the substitute for the mirror on the wall or the freak-show exploitation of Blancanieves as she lies comatose in her glass coffin while the ghoulish queues of Prince Charming hopefuls line up to pay for the privilege of kissing her; and there are motifs of the eye-as-camera and voyeurism. The dwarves know the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and with Blancanieves bill themselves as such: the fact that they’re missing a seventh dwarf bothers only one of their number but no-one else, least of all the public.

At times, the film trembles under the weight of the plot and the multi-layered symbolism and the narrative denouement does not hold up too well under the high tragedy of Blancanieves’s downfall and the creepy freak-show fade-out.

The film’s highlight is its rousing and passionate music soundtrack which includes heavy yet glorious doses of flamenco and militaristic music appropriate to a bull-fighting ritual. Something of the pagan nature of bull-fighting and its probable origins as a fertility rite and test of masculinity makes an appearance.

The subtext is perhaps obvious and banal: the character of Blancanieves represents a life-giving force that is continually thwarted by forces of evil in capitalism: the cult of celebrity, materialism and selfishness, exploitation and competition expressed through various support characters. It seems appropriate that Blancanieves should fall victim to Encarna’s wiles just before the Spanish Civil War breaks out; one presumes that she will have to sleep through General Franco’s rule to 1975 at the very least before she will finally find her Prince Charming.

Ichthys: a caustic commentary on institutional religion

Marek Skrobecki, “Ichthys” (2005)

For once I didn’t need to look up an English translation for the title of this Polish animation short which uses animated puppets. A man rows a boat to a distant shore, gets out and enters a cathedral. A waiter shows him to his table and the man orders the fish of the day. What follows is an amusing exercise in patience and frustration as the man waits a life-time to be served. Reward does eventually come but it carries consequences that can be interpreted on different levels relating to the nature of Roman Catholicism, spirituality and the search for meaning to life.

That the castle resembles a cathedral and the waiter a priest is no accident: the restaurant represents institutional religion which promises a great deal if people think and act in certain ways but which ultimately delivers either very little or delivers with even more conditions incumbent on individuals that they can’t refuse or avoid, or which condemn them to even more existential anguish and torment. The hungry man’s wait is torturous: as his clothes wear out and holes develop in his elbows and knees, the man’s face and body waste away and he literally falls apart: he tears off his face and his arms drop out of his sockets. He looks hungrily at the fish in the fish-tank but the creature ends up dying a natural death. When eventually the waiter returns, the customer is practically dead. The fish of the day revives the poor man but he does not realise that by taking the dish, he will be the butt of a malicious cosmic joke.

In spite of the often gorgeous colours that appear during the film’s duration and the promise of light and all’s-well-that-ends-well, the feeling that a huge con is being played out is never far away. Anyone who is familiar with Polish animation (and the animation of some other eastern European countries such as the Czech Republic) will know that Polish animation often carries a very sly black funereal humour and just when you think everything will turn out well and everybody will be happy, darkness and melancholy are never far away at all. So it is with “Ichthys”.

The animation is very well done with good pace and timing; the man’s facial contortions and comic if pathetic behaviour capture his anguish and torment. His actions are all the more pitiable when the reward is revealed and he receives it gratefully. Some viewers will anticipate what happens to him next and suspect that the waiter has known all along where the man ends up as he takes the customer’s hat and throws it into a room full of … other customers’ hats.

An excellent if very biting and sarcastic comment on the nature of institutional religion, what it demands of and extracts from people, and how it traps people in a never-ending cycle of debasement and purgatory, “Ichthys” is highly recommended viewing.

The Red and the Black / The Horse: two little oil paintings in continuous motion

Witold Giersz, “The Red and the Black / Czorwane i Czarne” (1963) / “The Horse / Kon” (1967)

I was held spellbound by these two very visually beautiful short animations which use animation of oil paintings done on cardboard or glass, and that exploit the possibilities that the characteristics of oil painting can offer. In the first cartoon, “The Red and the Black”, whose tongue-twisting Polish name offers opportunity for word play, a red matador and a black bull duel within the corrida and outside it – and even outside the painting, to the consternation of the “painter” who did the picture! The second cartoon is also a duel, this time between a wild horse and the young warrior who wants to tame it and ride it into war – but this is a much tamer affair that experiments more with colour than with breaking boundaries: one can only toy around with viewers’ expectations and spring surprises on people once.

The two shorts might be portraying the eternal tug-of-war between Human and Nature, and all that is symbolised by those two concepts: Human as symbol for a rationalist view of the universe and Nature as synecdoche for the organic, non-logical and unstructured forces of the universe. During the Communist period (for Poland, this was from 1945 to 1989) the conventional interpretation of “The Red and the Black” was that one side represented the forces of freedom and democracy and the other, those of Communism and authoritarian dictatorship, but my opinion is that the short is a light-hearted playful one and should not be assumed to symbolise two political polarities and their conflict.

The  visual style resembles the bright colourful Fauvist painting style that was briefly popular in France in the first decade of the 20th century, and there may have been influences from Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and the French Impressionist school as well in the preference for broad painterly brush-strokes in the movement of the figures. The animation in “Horse” is particularly good: the portrayal of the animal’s movements, in particular its galloping and the way it turns and flicks its tail, shows how closely Giersz must have observed the movements of horses as the animation is accurate and captures the rhythms of its flowing gait.

There is much humour in the narratives of both shorts: both matador and warrior are outwitted by the animals throughout. Even when matador and bull are literally bottled up, their essences still animate their prisons which threaten to upset the painter’s studio. The warrior appears to lose hope of ever capturing his steed as he fades into the black background.

If I were showing a group of animation students a series of cartoons to watch, I would definitely include these two little masterpieces of breath-taking originality.

Son (dir. Ryszard Czekala): a solid, powerful short about rural-urban and generational division

Ryszard Czekala, “Son / Syn” (1970)

This short silent animation piece is one that Polish animator Ryszard Czekala is best known for and it’s easy to see why: its themes of rural-urban divide, generational separation, isolation and abandonment are universal. A rich businessman from the Big Smoke visits his parents on their remote farm: the elderly folk are glad to see him come back and serve him the best meal they can offer but the son spurns their humble lifestyle, reads his newspaper at the dinner table and races back to the city as soon as he is done with visiting. The parents are puzzled at his behaviour but resume their tilling and other work.

The animation looks dark and heavy but carries a sure solid power especially in scenes in which the farmer and his bullock are dragging a plough through heavy soil. The farmer and his wife have tired, worn faces and hands and fingers used to heavy labour over many years. I have the impression they have waited for a long time, years stretching into decades perhaps, for their son to return. Return he does but the long-awaited reunion is a disappointment. The film briefly touches on the couple’s bemused expressions and for a moment I think they are perhaps glad to see him leave, having observed his shallow and supercilious behaviour, before they pick up the rhythm of their lives again.

No dialogue is needed to convey the psychological and cultural chasm between the parents and their son as all that we need to know happens in their actions and in a small scene in which the son knocks a piece of bread off the table but fails to pick it up, expecting his parents to do so as if they were servants. They do so but not because they are his servants; every bit of food is precious sustenance.

It’s a paradox that sometimes the most powerful messages are delivered by short silent films such as this little work. Makes me wonder why I still bother to watch feature-length films sometimes.

Montparnasse: an affectionate survey of a famous artistic and intellectual Parisian district in the 1920s

Eugène Deslaw, “Montparnasse” (1929)

Come take a tour of Montparnasse as it was in 1929 with Eugène Deslaw to guide you. At the time, this district in Paris was the centre of French artistic and intellectual life and Deslaw captures this aspect of Montparnasse very well, emphasising a number of famous cafés, clubs and streets frequented by famous writers, painters and philosophers from around the world, particularly the United States.

The film begins with unusual bird’s-eye views of traffic  in Montparnasse from some distance: the camera is often held on the side as well as from above and at one point in the introduction, it shyly peeks from behind a vehicle. The camera takes in a number of streets by their street-signs and quickly settles on landmarks that would have been known to artists, intellectuals and the general public alike. Soon our gaze is lavished on street life: people walking in the streets, children playing with toy boats in the ponds and fountains, women traders in street markets, and gentlemen studying pictures in a flea market on the street. Close-ups of pedestrians, including some famous artists of the time like the Japanese painter Fujita, the Spanish film-maker Luis Buñuel and three Italian futurist painters Russolo, Prampolini and Marinetti, are included. Deslaw prefers to hone in on the unusual, like a flock of goats being herded through traffic and pedestrians, or a display of five wistful-looking dolls on a table, or a machine claimed by its advertisers to read fortunes in people’s hands. He has an eye for street art, African tribal art, visual pornography of a tasteful kind and city architecture in which geometric patterns or exuberant baroque swirls might be found. The last couple of minutes in the film focus on people at an outdoor café and their activities: people-watching, writing, conversing with friends, playing finger-shadow games.

In the space of 15 minutes, we probably see much more of Montparnasse than many modern tourists might of the district in one day: the film flits very quickly with quick editing from one spot to another. Certain motifs such as nude art or particular architectural patterns become the basis for a collage of images that’s quickly replaced by another collage based on another theme. The camera rarely lingers for long on any one particular shot. Some unusual filming techniques such as a pan-around that turns dizzy might be used but on the whole the film relies on linked linear sequences of shots done fairly quickly.

It’s an affectionate survey of a particular part of Paris as it appeared to Deslaw in the 1920s and for that reason has historical value for students of Parisian culture and intellectual life. The film does not linger on particular landmarks or streets so any distinctive Montparnasse atmosphere is not obvious to viewers. There is little shown about the less glamorous and perhaps seedier, more rundown parts of Montparnasse; no suggestion that there might be the odd gangster or two, or a political dissident trying to flog Marxist texts to impassive passers-by, lurking in the district. Such inclusions would have made the area much more interesting, complex and historically important as viewers would be left to ponder how the vibrancy of a district or city is influenced as much by its underbelly as its artistic, intellectual and cultural life, and the tensions between these sub-cultures and the mainstream culture of Paris.

Most of the music soundtrack consists of songs or instrumental pieces popular during the 1920s and I think I recognise a few tunes from old Warner Bros Bugs Bunny cartoons of my distant childhood. Apart from this and some early traffic noises, the film is silent. For some modern viewers, that will be a problem as the film carries no title cards to indicate which parts of Montparnasse are being visited and why they and not others are the subject of the film’s interest.

Un monsieur qui a mangé du taureau: slapstick comedy film short with a possible ulterior message

Eugène Deslaw, “Un monsieur qui a mangé du taureau” (1935)

We all know of people who spout a lot of BULL but what happens to people who accidentally or deliberately swallow some of that BULL? This is the premise to a silent film made in 1907 by a film-maker unknown, to whose film Deslaw added some introductory titles and a voice-over commentary by French comic artist Bétove. The film I saw did not have the commentary. The film demonstrates what happens when you eat the flesh of some exotic animal whose nature you know nothing of.

With a total running time of seven minutes, the plot is simple: a lady serves her guests the flesh of a bull. While relaxing after dinner with some cognac, cigars and a few jokes, one of the guests takes down some bull horns from his hostess’s wall, puts them over his head and instantly transforms into a raging taureau. After headbutting the other guests who scramble for safety onto furniture which then promptly falls over or off the walls, the maddened guest terrorises the neighbours and runs out into the streets attacking passers-by and the local gendarmes. The panicking authorities place a call with Paris Central Police HQ who transfer it to Madrid Central Police HQ who in turn promptly despatch a team of matadors and toreadors the same day. (Ah, how efficient French and Spanish police were in those pre-EU days! Ah, how wonderful and speedy was Samuel Morse’s telegraph technology, faster than the Internet!) Meanwhile our Raging Bull takes on a man dressed as a donkey and the two, erm, monkey around quite a bit before going on their separate ways. When los señores de la corrida arrive by walking into town (as you do: the Pyrenees obviously were no trouble crossing over) from Madrid, they promptly do battle with the gentleman. They successfully “subdue” him – for once, I won’t spoil the ending by giving it away – and the police promptly march him off into the sunset. Olé!

It’s a wonderful piece of pure slapstick comedy based on the notion that you literally are or become what you eat. Maybe there is an ulterior, perhaps rather racist premise insinuated here: don’t absorb yourself too much in other people’s culture (especially if it’s a Third World culture) in case you become like them and go savage. The original film is self-explanatory and hardly needed an additional commentary or titles from Deslaw and Bétove. I imagine the commentary as a sarcastic send-up and criticism of the racism that might be implied in the film’s premise: that French people should beware of adopting aspects of other people’s cultures lest the exotic values of such cultures degrade French culture itself and turn French people into savages. Considerable acrobatics are involved with people, ladies especially, somersaulting over cupboards and street furniture. The bull horns end up quite bloody and one shudders to think of the carnage and the blood trail left along the way. I didn’t see anyone actually being poked or prodded or pin-pricked to death by the horns but the agility of the actors to avoid such a fate is nothing short of dazzling. The action is quick, the editing sharp and no-nonsense, and the whole story is wrapped up in five minutes.

I’ve heard the voiceover commentary actually demeans the original film so it’s just as well I didn’t experience Deslaw’s superfluous additions. Usually with silents, there would be piano accompaniment so viewers can add their own musical or voice-over accompaniment if they wish! Perhaps this would be an amusing film to show as part of a film festival with a vegan or vegetarian theme.