Glee Returns

You may ask yourself why a man of nearly forty is watching Glee in the first place.  Well, the easy answer to that is that a couple of students I was teaching decided they wanted to write an essay on it, and so I watched the first few episodes to get an idea of what the series was all about.  Since then, it has been something of a guilty pleasure.  During the rather appalling third season even the pleasure element disappeared.   Viewing figures tumbled and, at one point this spring, there was even doubts as to whether the series would be renewed for a fifth season.

But last night it did return, and for the first time in a couple of seasons, all eyes are on Glee, if only for the saddest of reasons.  The death of Cory Monteith during the summer will likely result in higher than normal viewing figures for the first few episodes of the new season.  Those who no longer watch the programme may well tune in just to see how the program deals with the situation, which will apparantly be addressed in episode three.  Is the wait until the third episode a heartless attempt to hook viewers back into the series before showing them the episode they’re actually interested in, in the hope that some will stay with the programme once again?  Or am I just a cynic?  Not sure on that one, but reviewers of last night’s first episode have commented on the absence of Finn, the character playing by Monteith, and the fact that he wasn’t mentioned even in passing.  This seems a little odd considering he didn’t feature in either the beginning or end of the last season, and was barely mentioned during those periods either.  Had Monteith not have passed away and simply not featured in last night’s episode, most wouldn’t even have noticed that he wasn’t present.

I have said it before elsewhere and I will say it again: Glee is one of the most infuriating programmes ever to reach TV screens.  One episode can be pure unadulterated joy, and the next can be difficult to even sit through.  Last night’s season opener actually had elements of both extremes.  The McKinley High scenes were generally very good, and those following Rachel’s attempts to star in Funny Girl were rather tedious (with her version of A Hard Day’s Night being really quite awful).  Glee works best when the songs are fitted in around the script, rather than when the script works around the songs.  The Beatles catalogue allowed for a better script on the whole – much better than previous themed episodes centred around the music of Madonna or Britney Spears.

Glee can often switch between surreal, often stupid, humour and saccharine sentimentality and, again, last night’s episode had elements of both.  But there is no doubt that Glee‘s heart is in the right place.  It can still make a grown man cry like a baby when it wants to, and focussing much of the episode on the Blaine/Kurt romance certainly allowed for much tugging at those heartstrings.   As it has previously, the programme touched upon an issue currently very much in the news (gay marriage), and wasn’t shy at making political comment, with a clear dig at Russia’s treatment of homosexuals.  In fact, last night’s episode could possibly be the one most dominated by gay characters and themes in the series’ history and, even in 2013, this is unusual in a programme predominantly aimed at youngsters.   The well-publicised finale was genuinely touching and, once again, Chris Colfer managed to act everyone off the screen.

The opening of season five was, for the most part, a welcome return to form after the rather lacklustre finale to season four.  Only the coming weeks and month will tell whether the programme has indeed found itself a new lease of life, and whether it can overcome the problem that has plagued it since day one: lack of consistency.  If it can, then it might retain some of the rubberneckers who are tuning in just to see how the programme deals with the passing of one of its stars.  If it can’t, then there is little doubt that the series will be axed at the end of the current two-season deal.

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White Frog (2012)

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Q.  You take the stars of Glee, Teen Wolf and Twilight and what do you get?

A.  A very pleasant surprise.

American independent queer-themed films all too often contain poor scripts, inadequate acting, and direction of the level of a first year film student.  Presumably, this is the reason why so many gay indie films seem compelled to present viewers with full frontal nudity and lengthy sex scenes – they need something to attract the audience at just the point when we’re about to turn the DVD off and realise it was another waste of £10.

Bearing this in mind, I came to White Frog without great expectations.  Sure it had got decent reviews, and a solid score on IMDB but, like others, I’ve realised that the high score of most queer indie films are actually due to friends of the actors and director.   However, White Frog really is quite a revelation.  The first thing we notice is that it actually has the quality of a film, rather than the look of a home movie shot on a £300 camcorder.  The second thing we notice is that one of the bigger stars of the film is killed off within around 8 minutes.   The third thing we notice is just how good this script is, and the fine performances from the actors.

Now, I confess that, as a 39 year old man, I know very little about Booboo Stewart other than the fact that he played a regular character in the Twilight films and that I happened to see him in an awful film called Hansel and Gretal: Warriors and Witchcraft.  To be honest, I felt sorry for all those involved.   I confess that I was, therefore, rather stunned by his performance in White Frog as the young man with asperger’s syndrome, coming to terms with the death of his beloved brother and learning of the brother’s secret life.   All too often, such characters can veer into unintentional parody, but this is extremely well done and he expertly carries the film.   In fact all of the younger members of the cast are superb, most notably Gregg Sulkin as one of the deceased brother’s friends.   The adult characters do not seem so well written or, in some cases, acted.   The parents of the two brothers seem painted with just a bit too broad a stroke to be as convincing characters as the teenagers.  That said, Joan Chen’s breakdown scene following the death of her son is played to be perfection.

The script skirts around the typical pitfalls of a queer indie film, avoiding histrionics and soap opera-like dialogue for the most part.  I also feel rather guilty calling this a “queer indie”, for the film is much more than that, and certainly has much more appeal than to just a gay audience.  This is as much a film about asperger’s syndrome and the need to be yourself as it is about homosexuality (more so, in fact).  Considering how rarely film deals with mental health issues (especially films aimed at younger audiences), the tackling of the subject is in itself most welcome.  But, much more than this, it puts a human face on the condition that so many of us know so little about (myself included).   (My lengthy blog post on recent portrayals of mental health issues in film can be found here:   https://silentmovieblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/mental-illness-comes-out-of-the-celluloid-closet/)

White Frog isn’t a perfect film.  The pacing in the first third is a little slow, and perhaps we should have been allowed to get to know Harry Shum Jr’s character a little more before his early demise (Shum is quite brilliant, by the way, despite his minute amount of screen time).   But these are really minor gripes with a film that manages to be engrossing, touching and totally believable.  It’s rather sad that a Google search on the film finds as many articles about the fact that Shum appears with his shirt off in the movie as articles commenting on how good the film is.  This is, after all, a classy little effort dealing with a number of serious issues and being able to do so without a Hollywood studio breathing down the necks of those concerned making sure the film is either commercial or ticking the right boxes for the award season.   Great stuff.

The Land Beyond the Sunset (1912)

 

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Sometimes a film comes along, seemingly out of nowhere, and completely blows your mind.  The Land beyond the Sunset is one such film, and is one of the most beautiful, moving and touching of all silent movies.  I would guess that, prior to the release of the film in 2000 on the Treasures from American Film Archives DVD boxed set, very few people had seen or even knew of the film.  Thankfully that has now changed, and this lovely little film is now being recognised for the masterpiece that it undoubtedly is.

The film tells the story of a young newspaper seller, Joe, who lives in poverty with his grandmother, who drinks and beats him. One day, he finds himself with a ticket to an outing to the countryside with the Fresh Air Fund, a charity that allows children who live in the city to experience country life.  When he arrives, he and the other children are told a fairy story about a mythical “land beyond the sunset” with no hardships or pain.  As everyone starts on the journey home, Joe stays behind, thinking that he has found a way to reach the land himself.

The Internet Movie Database states that this film was intended as a promotional film for the Fresh Air Fund (which still exists) but, if that is the case, this little movie is even more remarkable because of its ambiguous, ultimately downbeat ending.  It has to be said that the final few minutes of The Land Beyond the Sunset are some of the heart wrenching ever committed to film.  The effect is made all the greater thanks to the gorgeous tinting on the version in the DVD boxed set, and anyone interested in seeing what difference tinting can make to a silent film should watch the tinted version back to back with the untinted version that is currently available on Youtube, which is far less effective.

It is interesting looking back at magazine and trade journals from the time the film was released to find that it is barely mentioned at all.  In The Moving Picture World, the film is referred to as a “real kiddie story” (Sargent, 1912: 450), despite the fact that this really isn’t a children’s film at all. But, apart from a three-line comment in that journal, and a synopsis of the story within another edition of the same publication, the film seems to have been released virtually unnoticed – something which is all the more surprising considering it came from the Edison studios.  There are certainly no comments on the worth of the film itself, which seems almost bizarre considering the praise being lavished upon it a hundred years after it was made, and the fact that is was selected for preservation by the United States Film Registry in 2000, being recognised as “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.  Arguably, the film falls into all three of those categories.

Finally, very little seems to be known about Martin Fuller, who plays the central character of Joe.  What does seem certain is that at least part of the IMDB filmography is incorrect.  Trade journals of the period make it probable that there were two actors on screen at this time with the name “Martin Fuller”.  Considering the boy in Land Beyond the Sunset is probably no more that twelve or thirteen, it seems highly unlikely that he is playing a Civil War veteran with rheumatism in the same year’s A Doctor for an Hour!  The confusion between the two actors may well have been the reason for the name change to Marty Fuller in 1913 but, alas, after that year this talented young actor appears to have left films entirely.

 

(Adapted from the forthcoming e-book Beyond ‘The Artist’: 101 Silent Films for Beginners)

From “Supreme Dramatic Artiste” to “repulsively ugly”: Asta Nielsen in America

 

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Over the coming decade or so, large chunks of early film history are going to be rewritten.  Information we always thought of as “facts” are going to be revealed to not be facts at all.  And the reason for this?  Well, that’s all down to a wonderful resource which went online a couple of years back called the Media History Digital Library, which is a collection currently totalling around 800,000 pages of film, radio and TV fan magazines and trade journals which is now searchable.

Anyone who has carried out research that centres on this type of material will know how thankless the task has been up until now – sitting in a dark, airless room staring at a microfiche on screen and literally moving from page to page hoping you will catch sight of a mention of the person or film you are researching.  It is a thankless task, not least because, after an hour or so, your brain seems to forget what it is looking for anyway and you miss half of the articles you were hoping to find!  To be able to now go online, type in a search term and be presented with pages of hits within seconds is a huge step forward.  Just as much of a step forward is the range of material now available to us.  Whereas we might, in the past, have centred research on magazines such as Photoplay or Picturegoer because they were the ones available in the archives near to us, the world is now our oyster, and we have access to magazines and trade journals we would have had to fly halfway around the world to examine.

I realise that some people will say that this has taken some of the fun out of research, and that there is enjoyment to be had from that dark, airless room and a long search to find what you are looking for.  And I can see their point.  I feel the same way about what the internet has done to record collecting.  In the past we would search the second-hand shops and record fairs for years for those elusive items, whereas now we can go on Ebay and buy a copy from some far-flung corner of the world whenever we want.  But surely the good far outweighs the bad and, most importantly, cuts research costs dramatically.

However, having this type of material available to us is causing problems.  We no longer have to rely on what others have told us about these magazines, for we can look at themselves ourselves – and find out that what we have been told in the past is often incorrect or wrongly interpreted.   As an example, Kirsten Drotner wrote in 1998 that “internationally, The Abyss became by far the most popular of Danish films prior to the First World War”.  This would suggest that the film was a success all over the world.  Drotner’s source is from a 1957 article.  However, an examination of the magazines and trade journals in the Media History Digital Library show that The Abyss (retitled as Woman Always Pays) was not a huge success in America at all, and the star of the film, Asta Nielsen, never became a big star in America either.  While both film and star might have been international sensations, that didn’t extend to the USA.

Despite this, no-one could ever suggest that the distributors of Nielsen’s films didn’t try their hardest to sell her films.  The pages of Moving Picture News, Motion Picture World, The Implet and other publications were filled with advertisements for Nielsen films and encouragement for cinema owners to show them.  Advertisements for the aforementioned Woman Always Pays included one which told exhibitors that “you will see some of the most wonderful acting of your life, for the leading roll (sic) is assumed by Asta Nielsen, now regarded as the greatest Moving Picture actress in the world, barring none” (Moving Picture World, March 30, 1912, p.1197).  Another advertisement tells us that “Asta Nielsen’s name in German and Danish speaking countries means as much as the name of Mrs Patrick Campbell means to English theatre-goers”.  Of the film, well “nothing like it has been seen in America.  It is sensationally strong in plot, acting and staging” (Moving Picture World, April 6, 1912, p.4).  In a review of the film, we are told that “the services of this lady are so much in request as a moving picture actress that she recently turned down a lucrative offer from this country to come and pose in American-made pictures” (Moving Picture World, April 13, 1912, p.146).  Presumably she would have had to act as well as pose, but let’s not split hairs.  While all of these glowing comments may appear to show Nielsen doing well in America, we need to remember that Moving Picture World was a trade journal for exhibitors and cinema managers, and not a fan magazine.  The distributors went further in trying to kick-start Nielsen’s American career.  Throughout 1912, editions of the Cinema News and Property Gazette carried small adverts at the bottom of its pages advertising her films and encouraging exhibitors to show them.

 

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So, during 1912, Nielsen was not only advertised as a big film star about to conquer America, but there is also the sense that she was being promoted in a way that would somehow legitimise cinema itself.  Advertisements were comparing her to great stage actresses (and stage was, after all, a far more respectable a medium in 1912 than cinema).  She wasn’t just a film star, she was a “supreme dramatic artiste”.  However, by 1914, we see clear signs that this attempt to push Nielsen as the next big thing to American audiences had not worked.  It’s almost as if the 1912 campaign had exhausted the distributors, and by 1914 she was simply “the German talented actress” in an advert for Behind Comedy’s Mask, and “the most artistic woman in filmdom” in another advert which couldn’t even spell her name correctly.  In 1917, Nielsen visited America in person, but by this time Motography, a trade journal, had to explain just who Nielsen was, writing “she is as well known in Europe as Charlie Chaplin is here” (October 13, 1917, p.789).  In 1922, Variety reviewed her film Miss Julia and wrote that “Asta Nielsen in the title role has her good moments, but at times, especially as the young girl, is almost repulsively ugly”  (March 31, 1922, p.42).

By this point I realise you might be feeling a little bit sorry for poor old Asta who had gone from “supreme dramatic artiste” to “repulsively ugly” in a mere ten years.  Even Kevin Costner’s career didn’t fall quite that far.  However, there is some good news, folks.  For a brief time, the New York Times took Asta to heart.  The review in the newspaper of Hamlet (1921), in which Nielsen plays a female Hamlet disguised as a man, was positively glowing, with the anonymous writer declaring: “The Woman can act.  She acts.  That’s the thing.  She does not just pose before the camera, nor does she rant and tear around violently.  She impersonates a character, she makes it live and have a meaning, a hundred meanings” (November 9, 1921).   However, a few months later, the newspaper was asking why just one of her films (Hamlet) had been shown in the United States (August 6, 1922).  This, in turn, is why the digital library is such a great resource.  Anyone researching just the New York Times would assume that no previous Nielsen films had been shown in America, whereas we now know this was far from the truth, and a long line of them reached American shores from 1912 to around 1915 or 1916.

So, are there any clues as to why Nielsen’s popularity in America never really took off?  Well, a 1912 article in The Implet does provide us at least with a starting point.  It reads: “Asta Nielsen, the greatest motion-picture actress in the world, has excited great interest all over the United States.  It has been reserved for Denmark to produce an actress of commanding excellence, whose methods are peculiarly adapted to the needs of the moving-picture screen.    The film is unique, in so far as American audiences are concerned; unique as regards the settings, which show the characteristic beauties of urban and rural Denmark, which brings the manners and customs of life there vividly before one” (April 13, 1912, p.6).   Perhaps Nielsen’s films were just too different in 1912 for American audiences used to one-reel Griffith films and Mabel Normand.  OK, I admit that’s a gross simplification, but these imported films were much longer in length and far different in tone than anything being produced and/or shown in America at that time.  While the article in The Implet emphasises the uniqueness of these films within the American market, it may well be that they were just that bit too unique for cinema audiences of the time to warm to.

(This post is adapted from a paper given at the Northern Studies Virtual Conference, August 28, 2013)