Movies: “The Fall of the House of Usher” … early examples of pushing cinematic techniques

1 11 2010

Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The fall of the house of Usher” has been filmed several times. Two very early examples show how –what then were new — visual techniques are used. Only for the the cinema historians.

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The Edgar Allen Poe short story “The fall of the house of Usher”  (1839) is about two twins — Roderick and  Madeleine Usher — who live in an ancient castle. An old friend of Robert’s is asked to come, to help Robert as he does not feel well. Madeleine is getting successively weaker, and finally dies. Robert is distressed, not sure that his sister is really dead, but finally agrees to her burial. Some time later, one night, a storm breaks loose. Madeleine (or at least her apparition) appears, and Robert and Madeleine fall dead to the floor. The visitor flees the castle, and the castle falls apart and sinks into the lake.

 

Epstein: "...House of Usher" - front cover

Epstein: "...House of Usher" - front cover

 

It is definitely a story in the Gothic tradition. Death, maybe-death, nights, storms, strange signs and indications. Now, Poe is really not a Gothic writer, but it is easy to reinterpret some of his stories as horror stories.

This has been done by the movie industry several times, with different kinds of results. A version quite well-known in its time was the 1960 Roger Corman production, which helped type-cast Vincent Price as “evil man”.

Here we have two early examples of cinematic rendering of the Usher story. They were both produced in the same year (1928), one on each side of the Atlantic,  and with different approaches and fidelity to the original story.

The American film

The American film  “The Fall of the House of Usher” was directed by Watson and Webber, and is a short film (13 minutes) that really does not bother with the story itself. It just picks up a few components (the Usher twins and the visitor; the death of Madeleine; the psychic breakdown of Roderick, the return of Madeleine (dead?, alive?), and the physical disintegration of the House of Usher).

 

Watson&Webber: "...House of Usher" -- interior

Watson&Webber: "...House of Usher" -- interior

 

What the movie does is to offer a portrayal of the psychic breakdown of Roderick, expressed entirely in visual images. Madeleine plays a minor role, as does the visitor. It is all about the state of mind of Roderick. A tormented mind … the pressure that it is subjected to and that it puts on itself … how it looks upon itself and the surroundings … All such things concern mental states, and this is where this film is using novel means to express mental states in images. It has obvious correlations to early German expressionistic cinema in the first half of the 1920s — e.g. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem (1920), Nosferatu (1922), Phantom (1922), Schatten (1923). The horizontal and vertical dimensions are twisted. Corners and angles are unnatural, visual patterns break our expectations, and so on.

 

Watson & Webber: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine

Watson & Webber: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine

 

But there is also a second relationship, namely to European surrealistic cinema as started in the mid 1920s — e.g. Entr’acte by René Clair (1924), La Coquille et le clergyman by Germaine Dulac (1928), Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí (1929), L’Étoile de mer by Man Ray (1928), L’Âge d’Or by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí (1930).

As indicated, this film is not telling a story in the traditional sense. It can be understood in two ways. Either as an attempt to find cinematic means to express mental/psychic states, and just using one perspective on Poe’s story as basis. The other way is to see it as methods looking for an objective. Devising novel cinematic methods that break with traditional cinema techniques, … how can I put them to work, more or less as a piece of art? Yeah, perhaps as in this film. So we could equally well  look at it as a technology/technique demonstration, intended to impress with its novel ways of using camera and supporting optical tools and tricks.

 

Watson & Webber: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine

Watson & Webber: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine

 

At IMDB there are only three cinema items associated with Watson and with Webber, so what we see here was not carried much further by them into the context of movie production in the US. An interesting example, but not much more.

Conclusion

This film is of interest to those who want to see examples of the evolution of cinema … specifically what happened at the “artish bleeding edge”. Could be shown at the museum of modern art as an early example of what we now call “video art”. Now you know what this work by Watson & Webber looks like 😉

The French film

 

Epstein: "...House of Usher" - Front cover

Epstein: "...House of Usher" - Front cover

 

The French movie — original title “La chute de la maison Usher” — is directed by Jean Epstein, a French director that directed movies from 1922  to 1948. The mise-en-scène we look at here is more faithful to the Poe story. Not that it is a literal transcription of the written story to the screen. No, there are many adaptations made, like turning Madeleine into the wife of Roderick instead of a sister. But most literary sources are tweaked when remade for the silver screen, so this is not a criticism of Epstein.

Is it a horror movie? Yes, and no. There are the typical ingredients of the horror movie, like fog, rain and lightning, unpleasant landscape, trees that look threatening, etc. But the film is not about an outer threat. There is no werewolf or such thing. Even the dead (?) Madeleine is not something that really frightens us. It is, again, a question of how we can frighten ourselves, how we may strain our mind so that it breaks.

The starting point of the storyline is that Roderick is obsessed with painting portraits of Madeleine. He is so focussed on these evolving portraits that he does not really notice how Madeleine is physically deteriorating. The portrait is more important … more true. “There is life in this portrait”; “This portrait is life!”. When Madeleine dies, Roderick is devastated, and not sure whether she is really dead. In the 19th century there was much worry about “like death” bodily states, where some such not-really-dead person was nevertheless  buried … so buried alive. This is the concern of Roderick. Is Madeleine really dead? He becomes more and more distressed, and then the stormy night happens, and Madeleine comes back, all goes “asunder”.

 

Epstein: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine

Epstein: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine

 

The visual rendering in this film is quite good for its time. The selection of camera angles sometimes surprises. The positioning of the entites within the rectangular view-port is innovative. But still, much of this film feels aged … a representation of what silent features of its day looked like.

Interestingly enough, Luis Buñuel has writer’s credit for this film. He soon became known (or , rather, infamous) for Un chien andalou and L’Âge d’Or, and much later for his provocative pictures in the 1950s and 1960s. The film “La chute de la maison Usher” is not a Buñuel film. He probably had only minor influence on the final result. But, most likely, Buñuel learnt a lot by being part in the creation of this movie.

Conclusion

All in all, this film succeeds in balancing the Gothic elements with traditional drama elements, and the result is a quite enjoyable experience, if you are willing to ignore a few outmoded acting techniques.

 

Epstein: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine's coffin

Epstein: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine's coffin

 

Data

(1) “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1928). Directed by: James Sibley Watson, Melville Webber. Story by E.A. Poe. Starring: Herbert Stern (Roderick Usher), Hildegarde Watson (Madeline Usher), Melville (a traveller). (Movie at IMDB)

(2) “La chute de la maison Usher” (“The Fall of the House of Usher“) (1928). Directed by: Jean Epstein. Written by: Edgar Allan Poe (story), Luis Buñuel, Jean Epstein. Starring: Jean Debucourt (Sir Roderick Usher), Marguerite Gance (Madeleine Usher), Charles Lamy (Allan, The Guest), Fournez-Goffard.  (Movie at IMDB)

This page: https://whenthenightcomesfallingfromthesky.wordpress.com/2010/11/01/movies-the-fall-of-the-house-of-usher-early-examples-of-pushing-cinematic-techniques/
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Skrift: “Allt som kan mätas är inte vetenskap” — Rasbiologiska institutet i Uppsala

16 07 2010

En kort men hyggligt täckande text om det fristående Uppsalainstitutet som skulle bidraga till svensk rashygien.

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Lundmark: "Allt som kan mätas är inte vetenskap -- En populärhistorisk skrift om Rasbiologiska institutet"

Lundmark: "Allt som kan mätas är inte vetenskap -- En populärhistorisk skrift om Rasbiologiska institutet"

Forum för levande historia har som uppdrag att sprida information om sådant som har med antagonism mellan folkgrupper att göra. Det kan vara allt från dagens diskriminering av sexuella undergrupper i samhället till folkmord i andra länder under tidigare epoker. Ett relevant tema är vad som gjorts i Sverige motiverat med rasargument, och det är här som det Rasbiologiska institutet är en intressant — om än inte så betydelsefull — hörnsten.

Rasbiologiska institutet — “Statens institut för rasbiologi” — fanns till namnet mellan 1922 och 1958, men det var bara under dess första tiotal år som deras verksamhet hade rasistisk grund. Lennart Lundmark — historiker, som mest arbetat med samefrågan — har åt Forum för levande historia skrivit en kortfattad översikt över institutet, med speciell tonvikt på den era då Herman Lundberg var dess chef.

Institutet instiftades genom ett beslut i riksdagen, och medel anslogs. Lundberg tillsattes som chef, baserat på dels hans egen polemiska argumentation om nödvändigheten av rashygien, men även med stöd av ett antal professorer vid välrenommerade universitet som Uppsala och Lund.

Tanken var att institutet skull bidraga till kunskapsuppbyggnad om vad rashygien är, och stödja offentliga aktörer då de skulle fatta beslut om åtgärder för att befrämja rashygien.

Lundmark  delar in institutets verksamhetsperiod i tre delar. Arbetet under den första perioden (1922 – 26) utmynnade i en bok (“The Racial Character of the Swedish Nation”) som beskrev statistiska mått på svenskars kroppar, mest skallmätningar.  Under den andra perioden (1927-1935) var huvuddelen av institutets verksamhet engagerad i “Lappundersökningen”, innefattande mätningar och  fotografering av samer, och kartläggning av deras släktskapsförhållanden. Allt för att kunna dra slutsatser om att “rasblandning” som uppstått vid giftermål mellan svenska och samer leder till degenerering (fysiskt och mentalt svagare människor, eller åtminstone mindre värdefulla människor). Den tredje perioden (1936-1958) — epoken efter Lundbergs regim — inleddes med en totalomläggning av inriktningen. Den nye chefen Gunnar Dahlberg förkastade den rasbiologiska ansatsen som meningslös och ogrundad, och började istället arbeta med frågor om ärftliga sjukdomar. Efter ett sista verksamhetsår   1958  som fristående institut uppgick sedan verksamheten i Uppsala Universitet som institutionen för medicinsk genetik.

Lundmark ger argument för att Rasbiologiska institutet var ett symptom på stämningar i samhället, men att det inte i någon märkbar mening var en orsak till effekter i samhällsutvecklingen. För det första var institutet litet — mestadels ett halvdussin personer på avlöningslistan — och av dessa var det egentligen bara Lundberg som frekvent yttrade sig i den allmänna debatten. Och det var inga underbyggda rekommendationer om åtgärder som kom fram. För det andra var Lundberg under den andra perioden helt uppslukad av Lappundersökningen, och det gav inga direkta kopplingar till det löst formulerade insatsområdet “svensk rashygien”. Och när den tredje perioden började så blev det rasbiologiska inslaget i verksamheten avvecklat.

Sensmoralen kan uttryckas som att Rasbiologiska institutet var ett kuriöst fenomen i den svenska vetenskapsvärlden, som inte gav några egentliga effekter på svenska botten.

Och det är här som titeln på denna skrift har sin poäng — “Allt som kan mätas är inte vetenskap”. Som Lundmark argumenterar handlade Rasbiologiska institutets verksamhet — så länge Lundberg var chef — om att genom mätningar samla grunddata om fysiologiska aspekter på svenskar. Mätningarna gjordes med tumstock, med vinkelmätare, osv., och sedan gjordes statistiska sammanställningar som bl.a. presenterade proportioner mellan kroppsdelar och vinklar i kroppsbyggnaden. Det går att mäta mycket på människans kropp, men att bara mäta gör ingen vetenskap. Det som rasbiologin saknade var en underliggande teoribyggnad, som uttryckte lagbundenheter, och där lagbundenheter kan verifieras/falsifieras genom empiriska studier (dvs, mätningar). Och detta är en av orsakerna till att institutet var en isolerad företeelse i det svenska vetenskapssamhället. Alla andra humanvetenskaper hade vid denna tid på allvar börjat konsolidera teori och empiri, och resultat från  Rasbiologiska institutet var inte användbart i dessa andra vetenskaper.  Så resten av vetenskapssamfundet ignorerade i stort det som Lundberg & Co gjorde på Rasbiologiska institutet.

Och trots att det i flera länder under första hälften av 1900-talet drogs igång satsningar på rasbiologi som vetenskap, så producerades aldrig några användbara slutsatser från dessa satsningar. I de fall att samhällen institutionaliserade ett rasperspektiv i samhällsformen (t.ex. Nazi-Tyskland, och Jim Crow-lagar i USA:s sydstater) producerades det aldrig några vetenskapligt grundade insikter som kunde användas som motivation för rasistiska samhällsformer. Dessa samhällen klarade sig ändå …  genom att  med demagogiska medel uppelda rasistiskt tänkande i medborgare, som därmed bidrog till en självuppfyllelse av rasismens “sanning”.

Författaren Lennart Lundmark positionerar Herman Lundberg som en av de sista avläggarna av den förenklade humanmätningsansatsen. Den fysiska antropologin drog igång vid slutet av 1700-talet, och där samlade man skallar från världen olika hörn och kanter, mätte dem och tabulerade resultat. En av de historiskt mest kända svenskarna inom denna genre var Anders Retzius som propagerade för skallmätning — i termer av lång- och kortskalliga — som ett medel att kunna indela människor i grupper och raser, och på basis av detta dra slutsatser om vilka grupper som lyckades bättre än andra i kampen om överlevnad och dominans. Så Rasbiologiska institutet är snarast en relikt från 1800-talet som råkade finnas i det akademiskt präglade Uppsala under ett antal decennier under 1900-talet.

(Lundmarks argumentation ger ett bra motperspektiv till de texter som omnämns i “Studentuppsatser: Rasbiologiska Institutet i Uppsala” )

Lennart Lundmark

Lennart Lundmark

Författaren

“Jag är historiker och författare. Under 20 år var jag lärare och forskare vid Umeå universitet. De senaste 15 åren har jag ägnat åt forskning, kulturjournalistisk och föreläsningar, särskilt om svenska statens förhållande till samerna. Jag har skrivit flera böcker i det ämnet samt varit anlitad av statliga utredningar och som sakkunnig vid rättsprocesser.”

Författarens självpresentation på webben

Slutsats

En snabb och givande översikt över det beryktade Rasbiologiska institutet. Offra gärna en timme på denna skrift, för att få lite tydligare bild av vad detta detta institut egentligen var.

Data

Lennart Lundmark: “Allt som kan mätas är inte vetenskap — En populärhistorisk skrift om Rasbiologiska institutet” (Forum för levande historia in Stockholm, 2007) 39 sid, ISSN:  1653-5332 (book at openlibrary.org)

This page: https://whenthenightcomesfallingfromthesky.wordpress.com/2010/07/16/skrift-allt-som-kan-matas-ar-inte-vetenskap-rasbiologiska-institutet-i-uppsala/




Movie: Häxan (1922) — education or speculation?

21 02 2010

The Swedish silent movie Häxan is a curious semi-documentary about witchcraft, made by a Danish director. Surprisingly modern uses of lighting and camera, and mostly good actor performances. But, of course, in our 21st century, this movie is  is mainly for those interested in the history of cinema.

In 1920-22 Benjamin Christensen created the movie Häxan, first shown in Stockholm September 1922. It can be seen as an educational movie, describing what was meant by witchcraft in the medieval times, and how we, using modern (as of 1920) psychology, can see that it is mainly about mental disorders, not supernatural powers.

Häxan poster

Häxan Poster

In several sections of the movie, belief in witches are described and illustrated, In the first section, the beliefs of medieval times are illustrated via medieval illustrations. Then certain specific aspects of witches and witchcraft are described via cinematic re-creations of concrete stories. These are presented as illustrations, and the inter-titles serve the role of the speaker-outside-the-scenes, talking about what the scenes embody. In the second half of the movie, a longer story is told about suspected and accused witches, and how they are captured and investigated by official representatives (i.e., representatives of the church). Finally, an analogy is made between on the one hand women accused of witchcraft in earlier eras, and, on the other hand, the concept of “hysteria” as a mental disability. Hysteria was proposed as a medical concept in the last decades of the 19th century, and it was understood as one example of how scientific understanding of the human body and mind had emerged as practical tools for diagnosis and treatment. The movie argues that the symptoms that women with hysteria exhibit in modern times is quite similar to the behavior of the those women that were suspected of witchcraft. That is, witches in the medieval times may have just been women with hysteria.

This short characterization of the movie should make it clear that this is not what we understand as a horror movie, that is a movie with fictional story intended to scare us. Rather, its objective is to offer information about societal phenomena, in the past and in the present.

There is a clear anti-church morality in the movie. The most systematic and intolerant persecution of witches were performed by the church, as part of the fight against Satan. In those medieval times, it was regarded as permissible — or even recommendable — to use torture to get the truth from suspected witches. And by using sophisticated methods of torture, the witch-hunting priests could easily extract confessions from anyone that they could get their hands on. And confessions often concerned denunciations of other persons as witches, that were then captured and subjected to torture. As the movie says, often one tortured subject can denounce several other subjects, leading to an exponential number of accused and condemned victims. As we now know that there are no witches of the kind talked about in those days, a conclusion of this movie is that the church caused the death of innumerable innocent persons during the medieval times. This aspect of the movie most likely caused it to be banned from public display in most countries, especially countries where the the catholic church has a dominant role.

Swedish movie poster for Häxan

Swedish movie poster for Häxan

As a side remark, one can note that the exponential growth of victims for systematic witch-hunting has a curious parallel in the soviet purges in the 1930s. Peter Englund described in one of his essays that the hunt for “counter revolutionaries” can be seen as striving for increased productivity of the purging process — each suspected person should be forced to denounce at least two other counter revolutionaries. So that purging process had an exponential growth too, and finally had to be stopped, short of causing all soviet citizens to be implicated and convicted.

There is an interesting similarity with Murnau’s Nosferatu (find at imdb).  On a general level, Nosferatu is about how “the devil” (well, at least can be seen as some incarnation of the devil) causes effects on ordinary persons. Innocent people can never be guaranteed to be safe from the devil. He acts in the night-time, but is specialized on blood-sucking. Anyway, some specific similarities can be observed. For instance, the hands of Nosferatu are very similar to the hands of the devil as seen in Häxan. There is also a scene in the final part of Häxan, where a young woman is lying in a bed after experiencing an unwanted visit from some male person or apparition, and the way she is draped on the bed after this visit looks quite similar to how some women victims of Nosferatu ly in their bed. But as these two movies were produced in parallel, there seems to be no influence from one to the other. Rather they either used some common existing visual background material as inspiration, of there was something in the spirit of those times that caused similar visual impressions to be created.

Murnau's depiction of Nosferatu

Murnau's depiction of Nosferatu

The movie was made made just after the first world war. That was a traumatic period for most of Germany, where the old German empire with its clear societal structure toppled over, and was replaced by the Weimar republic, where a new societal order was created. But this was not a full replacement of one structure with another, instead it was experienced as more or less replacing structure with anarchy. This creates uncertainty, insecurity, and a need to find another personal foundation for ones life. Part of this was also the beginning rise of science as a solid foundation for a Welt Anschaung. If politics and society could not offer a guaranteed “true” foundation for life, then maybe science could.

This can be seen as one of the principles upon which Häxan is based. It does try to offer a scientific view on the phenomena of witchcraft, as well as illustrating how certain behavior of the modern society also are as unfounded as the medieval belief in witches. Therefore, the movie can be seen as an educational effort, trying to not only educate us about earlier centuries believes in witches, but also enable us to critically inspect what we ourselves are doing.

Camera work and lighting is quite well done, taking into account that it was made in the early 1920s. Of course, the film material used in those days was not very sensitive, so creating the impression of night-time is a challenge, and creating images of the devil and what witches do at the “witch feasts” need to present a feeling of night-time. This is skilfully done. Furthermore, what we see is a tinted version of the movie, and this should correspond to the version as original shown in public. Two main tones are used — a reddish color, and a blue color.

Most of the shots are full-scale interiors, but there is a fair amount of close-ups on the faces of people. The close-ups capture the unique features of the performers, and this is a clear advantage. The cast of the film mainly consists of amateurs, with no professional acting history. This has an interesting side effect. Usually, all through the silent file era and in the beginning of the sound film era, actors were exaggerating their body expressions and their facial expressions, leading to what we now see as over-acting. That over-acting was the standard, and we can assume that being trained in the movie actor business involved acquiring such performance behaviors.

In this move, Häxan, such over-acting is not very much seen. This can be the effect of using amateurs as actors, amateurs that have not been taught how to vividly express feelings and emotions. Instead these actors do it in a low-key manner, quite similar to what we nowadays regard as good standard acting. So, using amateurs as actors in this movie entailed advantages.

Snapshot from Häxan

Snapshot from Häxan

Finally, one might ask oneself: what is the reason for actually creating a film such as this? It is said to be one of the most expensive Scandinavian silent movies ever made, and there must have been some business reasons behind putting up all that money. But was it seen as an answer to a mass market need for information about witchcraft? Or was it seen as a movie that could make a lot of money by offering images that were beyond what ordinarily was socially accepted? One can argue that there is some substance to this last suggestion, as there is some amount of female nudity evident in a couple of scenes. Embedding such “adult” images in a movie that purported to be a kind of documentary, this could be one way of getting such images to be accepted by censors.

Conclusion

This is an interesting movie for those interested in the history and evolution of cinematic techniques. Others will probably find it uninteresting.

Data

Name: Häxan (find at imdb)
Director: Benjamin Christensen
Cast: Maren Pedersen, Clara Pontoppidan, etc.
Runtime: 87 min
On DVD: “Häxan” (Criterion Collection)