Friday, November 19, 2004

Fritz Lang

My friend Darren at Long Pauses has been perusing long lists of great films, and musing about genre cinema.

I don't know if it's because I grew up in a movie-mad culture (India) on a steady diet of genre movies, but I have a great affection for genre cinema.

That said, most genre movies are pretty darned bad.

But in the hands of a great "auteur", they can become revelatory.

I've been elated this week because Fritz Lang's silent-movie thrillers, Spies and Woman In The Moon, have just come out on DVD. And they are hugely expanded, thoroughly cleaned-up reincarnations of these terrific movies.

Fritz Lang worked in almost nothing but genre cinema all his life. And yet to call him a genre filmmaker would be like saying that the Beatles wrote catchy pop songs. Sure they did, but they did a lot more than that. They used the pop song form as a convenient vehicle for their prodigious creativity and relentless sonic experimentation. And they ended up reconfiguring the frontiers of pop music, becoming an inescapable influence on all future popular music.

Though Lang worked in many genres, his films have less in common with other genre films than they do with other Fritz Lang movies.

His version of Wagner's Die Nibelungen (1924), made in Germany, is an amazingly unconscious sibling to his film noir The Big Heat (1953), made in Hollywood thirty years later with Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin. They are both great movies about the exact same subject--the dehumanizing toll of revenge.

Lang's movies give me a visual kick like nobody else's. Every shot, every mise-en-scène decision, every cut, every camera movement--is all at the unified service of Lang's world-view, his themes, his obsessions. Fate, morality, authority, greed, mania, the cruelty of society--these are his perennial subjects.

And yet this grave, scalding vision of life comes clothed in the comfortingly familiar context of genre cinema. How wonderfully subversive.

Luis Buñuel--himself a pantheonic art cinema icon, and no great fan of genre cinema--tells the touching story of having decided to become a filmmaker after seeing Lang's Destiny in 1925. Fifty years later, he went to Hollywood to accept an Oscar for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and met an 80-year-old Lang for the first time. Buñuel found himself uncharacteristically reduced to a fanboy, doing something he had never done before--asking for an autographed picture. Interestingly, when Lang pulled out a photo of himself as an old man and got ready to sign it, Buñuel hesitated, then blurted out, "Could I have a picture of you from the 1920's, when you made Destiny?"