I promised my former drama teacher and current friend, Kim, that I would start watching more old movies. What I meant was: I’ll watch a half-dozen or so, and if I just can’t get into them, I’ll watch, like, two a year. Kim has good taste, though, and out of the list she gave me, I liked all but one. I hated Bringing Up Baby, and as I watched Cary Grant fall for Katherine Hepburn, I yelled: “Get away from her! She’s totally crazy!” He ignored me, of course, and at the end of the film, after she wrecked a dinosaur skeleton he spent years assembling, the couple end up in an embrace. He couldn’t help but love her; personally, I would have stayed single.
I decided to continue with what I started calling The Celluloid Project, and then, Kim said I should check out some silent films. Oh. Really? Silents? Really? I’ve taken a few film classes, so I’ve seen my fair share of silent movies. I’m sure some people genuinely like them. But even when I watched something entertaining, like Charlie Chaplin, I invariably found myself thinking, “You know what would make this better? Talking.”
I figured it was best to get it out of the way, so I sat down to watch the 1927 Fritz Lang film Metropolis. The theme of the film is that “without the heart there can be no understanding between the hand and the mind,” and the plot pretty slavishly adheres to that idea. There were privileged people who lived in the city (mind) and the people who built the city, yet lived far below it (hands). Along came a girl named Maria and a guy named Freder (heart), who eased the tensions that existed between the two groups. Pretty basic stuff and vaguely familiar if you’ve ever seen Madonna’s Express Yourself video, which was inspired by the film. Admittedly, Lang’s version involves fewer beefy dudes without shirts.
Perhaps anticipating my reluctance to the whole idea, Kim pointed me in the direction of the controversial 1984 version done by Giorgio Moroder, which used original footage but added some hot 80s colors and a soundtrack that included heavy use of synthesizers and a dash of Freddie Mercury. I mean, ideally there would be dialogue, but if that’s not going to happen, at least there’s Pat Benatar and a little Adam Ant. That helps. The whole thing was like a really weird music video, and it got even more awesomely weird when a mad scientist made an evil robot that looked like Maria. (You could tell she’s bad news because she wore a lot of dark eye makeup and did burlesque.) She wreaked havoc while making evil faces and when paired with a great Bonnie Tyler song easily became my favorite thing about the movie. The mix of old and new-ish and Madonna was so surreal it joined the ranks of a handful of films that have made me wonder: Am I on drugs right now? But, you know, in a good way.
A lot of the original footage got lost, so there were some plots that never really went anywhere and a few things that didn’t quite make sense. After two viewings, I was still asking some decidedly odd questions. Are those people marching into the bowels of a giant machine? Are they going to their deaths or just doing a little repair work? And is that guy’s job just randomly moving the hands on a giant clock? That doesn’t seem as hard as they make it look. Then again, what’s the point of doing it all? These are the times when words would come in really handy, no? Yeah….I really can’t seem to get past that last one.
I have a great deal of respect for Kim and also for my old film professor, Dr. Cooper, who made some really great arguments in favor of silent cinema. I wanted to love the film, and I certainly wouldn’t say that I disliked it. It was fascinating in a lot of ways, but I still found myself getting restless at times. The story was a little basic for my taste, which makes sense because plots have to be simple enough to be understood through pantomime, but it still makes for a story that doesn’t leave a lot of room for surprises. I know myself pretty well, and if evil, burlesquing robots and Freddie Mercury don’t convince me to reconsider my feelings about the genre, I’m not sure what will.