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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: The triumph of Louise Brooks, the flash...

Screen Grabs: The triumph of Louise Brooks, the flash of Pola Negri

Classics that you can't miss. Plus: Very different family dramas in 'Riceboy Sleeps,' 'The Restless,' and 'Winter Boy'

Though its major annual shebang at the Castro Theatre (yes, still) won’t be for another couple months, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is having a one-off event at Oakland’s Paramount this Sat/6. It reprises one of the most famous movies and stars of the silent era… though neither were actually regarded as such during that era. Posterity did for Pandora’s Box and Louise Brooks what the world of 1929—in which silents were already beginning to seem passe—could or would not do.

Brooks has been idolized for decades now. But in the late 1920s, the ex-Ziegfeld Follies from Cherryvale, Kansas was just one of several celluloid “flappers” alongside Clara Bow, Colleen Moore, Joan Crawford, Alice Joyce, and others flaunting bob haircuts and daringly modern manners. Entering movies in 1925, she soon accrued a fanbase. Still, she thought little of her films, even less of Hollywood, and it in return found her “difficult.” Apparently pursuing a European lover (she was not exactly shy in the romance department), she blithely accepted an offer to make films in Germany with the Austrian director G.B. Pabst, who’d already worked with a very young Garbo, Asta Nielsen, and Brigitte Helm. But she knew nothing about him, or the notoriety of the works by Spring Awakening playwright Franz Wedekind that Pandora would be based on.

Also famously adapted as Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, the movie tells the story of an amoral young woman whose irresistible allure magnetizes everyone from wealthy men and women to, fatally, Jack the Ripper. She is a free spirit, her destructive effect (on those who would possess her) without malice, her own doom inevitable yet somehow without guilt. Pabst nearly signed the pre-stardom Marlene Dietrich, but thought her “too knowing,” while Brooks (whom he’d seen in a US film) had the right mix of sensuality and guilelessness. She was also an astonishing camera subject, a flawless natural beauty sans affectation.

It was a happy collaboration, but neither Box or the subsequent Diary of a Lost Girl (a more conventional tragic-victim-of-fate tale made luminous by Brooks) were well-received in Europe. Heavily cut in the US, they barely got noticed. Most remarkably, perhaps, almost no one appreciated her acting at the time—the naturalism that’s kept these performances from growing dated struck most back then as simply inexpressive or amateurish.

Returning to the US, Brooks found she hadn’t been missed. In fact Paramount, whose contract she’d broken, regarded her as ungrateful and unmanageable. The flapper vogue over, her roles fast degenerated from the punitive to the nonexistent. After obscure decades her star rose again in belated cineaste appreciation, and she became a surprisingly astute writer on the industry she had somewhat despised when part of it. Pandora’s Box, almost universally regarded as her zenith (I actually bend towards Diary), plays in a restored version at 7pm, with a live score played by the fabled Club Foot Orchestra in a collaboration with SF Conservatory of Music. More info here. 

By the time of Brooks’ brief stardom, a prior generation of screen sirens had already come and gone. The “vamps” were old-school seductresses of Cruella DeVille-like wicked sophistication, trailing long gowns and cigarette-holder smoke. Theda Bara blazed their trail in the 1910s, at the end of which decade Polish stage actress Pola Negri had created a sensation in Europe via films made in collaboration with Germany’s Ernst Lubitsch. Naturally, Hollywood soon beckoned, the duo taking that very lucrative bait in 1922. Their careers soon diverged, Negri’s soon peaking in terms of fame, while Lubitsch’s flourished for another quarter-century as the widely acknowledged king of witty adult comedy.

Though she’d live to a ripe old age (dying at 90 in 1987 San Antonio, of all places), Negri proved her own worst enemy to a large extent: She played the Continental diva a little too flamboyantly both onscreen and off, culminating in very public swooning at the funeral of alleged former lover Valentino. Admittedly, her Paramount vehicles were also frequently less-than-inspired, and she further courted overexposure because many of her prior European ones continued to be belatedly released to the US market. Once the talkies arrived, her accent provided another stumbling block. Forced retirement was not a hardship: Unlike many silent luminaries who blew through their fortunes, she managed to remain a very rich woman.

While her name had quickly become (like Bara’s) a synonym for corny “vamp”-dom, Negri didn’t live up to her own stereotype at the outset—those German Lubitsch films really were something, and she was very good in them. Two have just been released to Blu-ray and streaming (on the Kino Now platform) from Kino Lorber. The 1920 Sumurun aka One Arabian Night, in whose stage incarnation she had appeared, is a kitsch “Oriental” potboiler with lots of high melodrama, ornate settings, and racy hijinks involving La Negri as a bewitching gypsy dancer. There’s also the novelty of Lubitsch himself in his final acting role, as the heroine’s horny hunchbacked guardian. It is fun.

But the real magic of this star-director combo is more evident in the following year’s The Wildcat. This very funny burlesque of just such heavy-breathing exotic romances as Sumurun has her as a whip-wielding wild child, daughter to a bandit gang living in mountain caves. When love “tames” her, the tone remains just as antic, incorporating some hilarious setpieces (including a bonkers dream sequence) and droll use of technical gimmickry. The gung-ho slapstick comedienne Negri willingly proves here might well have thrown a pie at the laboriously “aristocratic” poseur Hollywood soon made of her.

Neither Brooks or Negri had the kind of screen image (or career longevity) that would lead them to play maternal roles. But parent-child relationships at their most tortuously complex are very much central to three recent movies newly arrived to streaming formats.

Probably the best of them is the Canadian Riceboy Sleeps. At first glance, actor turned writer-director Anthony Shim’s film seems maybe a little too close in gist to 2020’s acclaimed Minari, in that it involves another family of South Korean emigres experiencing culture shock upon moving to a North American backwater—there 1980s Arkansas, here 1990s British Columbia. So-young (Choi Seung-yoon) has moved to a small town across the globe to raise her only child Dong-hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang) in as scandal-free a manner as possible. That couldn’t happen back home, as his father was a troubled soul whose suicide left her unwed. Here, at least, no one blinks at her single-mother status. Nonetheless, it’s a jarring transition, involving unrewarding factory work for her, and unpleasant school bullying (note the title slur) for him.

At a certain point the narrative leaps forward to 1999. Dong-hyun is now a fully assimilated (via dyed blond hair and contacts) if moderately rebellious teen (Ethan Hwang) at odds with a mother who still barely speaks English. She does, however, have a suitor: Shim is a courtly supervisor at work. Unfortunately, it turns out So-young also has something else, a serious health issue she had obliviously let develop until it’s “too late.” This means she has limited time to fix relationships both with her son and the past left behind on another continent. While at the start Riceboy Sleeps’ low-key progress is admirable but familiar, its long final stretch takes the film into a powerful realm of healing poignancy. Screen Media releases it to US digital platforms on Tues/2.

A different kind of parent-child rift occurs in Belgian director Jochim Lafosse’s The Restless, now streaming on Film Movement Plus. Damien Bonnard plays a successful painter living in the country with his antiques-restorer wife (Leila Bekhti) and their approximately six-year-old son (Gabriel Merz Chammah). But this husband and father is prone to mood swings—it takes a while before we realize he’s actually bipolar—that leave him sleepless, manic, delusional, impulsive, and irrational by turns. When his behavior grows so reckless it endangers their child, she has to lay down the law. It is questionable, however, whether our protagonist is willing to give up the highs that provide his artistic inspiration, no matter their cost.

Short on psychiatric explanation, this all-show, not-much-talk portrait of mental illness vividly depicts its burden on not just the afflicted but their loved ones. A high-spirited, somewhat mercurial personality herself, Bekhti’s wife is steadily worn down by her husband’s compulsive excesses, until she’s near-hysterical with stress. And while their son can hardly grasp the situation’s intricacies, he absorbs their impact anyway, and inevitably starts acting out as a result. It’s a strong, well-acted drama that offers no easy solutions.

Last and perhaps least is another French-language tale, Christophe Honore’s Winter Boy. “My life has become a wild animal that I can’t approach without being bitten,” teenaged Lucas (Paul Kircher) tells us at the start, in one of many gratuitous direct-camera addresses. Admittedly, he’s rebounding from trauma, a sudden family tragedy. But this character is so tiresomely self-over-dramatizing, we lose sympathy fast. His response to a grievous loss is first denial, then a sort of unexplained seizure, then all kinds of melodrama, including a pass at prostitution and a suicide attempt. We can understand that he’s flailing. But the film seems to treat all this as grand passion rather than the attention-needy cries of a sexually precocious but immature, rather bratty boy. No wonder his older brother (Vincent Lacoste) is almost constantly fed up with Lucas’ theatrics.

Honore is an erratic talent whose work I’ve sometimes found as exasperatingly indulgent as his protagonist’s behavior here. Winter Boy is one of his more disciplined enterprises, but it still can be maddening, in a peculiarly stereotypical French way wherein characters constantly traverse the gamut of emotions as if hammering out xylophone arpeggios.

This works better on Juliette Binoche (as Lucas’ mother) than it does on Kircher, whom the writer-director seems to have cast in part for his giant pouty lips. His is a glamour of sexy suffering I wish this sporadically affecting film had more perspective on, rather than simply ogling it. For all Lucas’ histrionics, we never get a sense of the person he might become, or why indeed we should care about him now—beyond that he’s sad, and cute. The best things here are good enough that it’s a shame the worst suggest an alternative title: Aria of a Mad TwinkWinter Boy is now streaming on arthouse platform MUBI.

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