The Euphoria of Expressionism

I haven’t watched the HBO series Euphoria but I keep seeing raves about it on social media. It is an American adaptation of the Israeli show of the same name. The second season hit this year. The reviews I had seen initially described it as a “teen” show since it follows a troubled 17-year-old who is “a drug addict just out of rehab and likely to end up back in rehab, and her high school friends.

It gets a majority of positive reviews, with praise for its cinematography, plot, score, and performances. The subject matter is mature and somewhat controversial for its nudity and sexual content. Some critics found the nudity and sexual content excessive considering the characters’ ages.

From the German Expressionist silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

What caught my attention this past week was the video (below) discussing the visual style of German Expressionism and its influence on later films and TV including Euphoria.

German Expressionism in films was a movement that used distorted sets and sharp contrasts of light and dark. The movement was initially confined to Germany due to the isolation the country experienced during World War I. In 1916, the government had banned foreign films so with supply down, demand went up for german films. . The demand from theaters to generate films led to an increase in domestic film production from 24 films in 1914 to 130 films in 1918. In American films, it was influential in what in a later movement we call “film noir.” In all instances, it is highly stylized, sometimes surreal, and not a style we often see used today. (Though there are “neo-noir” films.)

Many film historians consider German silent cinema to be far ahead of Hollywood films of that time when it comes to innovations and style. Alfred Hitchcock was influenced by the movement from the very beginning. In 1924, he worked as an assistant director and art director at Babelsberg Studios near Berlin on the film The Blackguard. His set designs for that film are expressionistic. It is also seen in his directing, especially in some of his early, less well-known films. In his third film, The Lodger, Hitchcock used styles that the studio did not want used, such as Expressionist set designs, high contrast lighting, and trick camera work. One example of the latter is a shot of a man walking across a glass floor that is shot from below,

Another classic German Expressionist film is Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (German: Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens), an early vampire film that is an unauthorized and unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. This 1922 silent horror film is directed by F. W. Murnau.

Count Orlok’s shadow on a staircase in Nosferatu

Though not all Expressionist films are horror, most have at least elements of the thriller and suspense, either physical or mental. One later American example is The Night of the Hunter. This 1955 American thriller film is directed by Charles Laughton. The critical reaction to the film at its release was so strong that it is the only film Laughton directed. It stars Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. It is the story of a corrupt minister-turned-serial killer who attempts to charm an unsuspecting widow and steal money hidden by her executed husband.

Expressionist lighting by Laughton puts Gish in silhouette and Mitchum lit in the background

It is a dark film based on a real serial killer. It was a commercial and critical flop at its release, but in the decades since its release, the film has been listed as one of the best American films. It often makes the list close to Citizen Kane, another classic that has an Expressionist style in many ways. The director of photography on The Night of the Hunter was Stanley Cortez, who also shot Orson Welles’ followup to Kane, the 1942 film The Magnificent Ambersons.

Euphoria is not the only example we see today. The new Joel Coen interpretation of The Tragedy of Macbeth and Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley have definite Expressionist elements.

Euphoria is Expressionist in its style of sets and cinematography, but not in its plot.

Here is the short video that inspired me to look back on Expressionism. And it might get me to check out Euphoria.

A short film by Thomas Flight that shows Expressionist influences

Soylent Green 2022

Soylent Green is a movie, and in that film, it is also a processed food that keeps the 40 million inhabitants of New York City and much of the world alive. It is set in the year 2022.

It was the worst of times. Scarcity. 50% unemployment. People living in cars. Women are completely oppressed. The younger and prettier ones become “furniture girls” – mistresses to rich men.

The film Soylent Green was released in 1973. It is an ecological, sci-fi,  dystopian thriller. It was directed by Richard Fleischer, and stars Charlton Heston, Leigh Taylor-Young and Edward G. Robinson in his last film.

The 2022 setting of the film is a world of dying oceans, the greenhouse effect (a term less used today) but the changing climate results in pollution, poverty, overpopulation, and depleted resources. Sound familiar?

Soylent green.jpg
Fair use, Link

It is also partly police procedural about the murder of a wealthy businessman. The wealthy elite citizens live in elegant fortresses with private security, bodyguards and their “furniture. NYPD detective Frank Thorn (Heston) and his aged friend Sol Roth (Robinson) are on the case. Roth, AKA “Book, “is a very intelligent former college professor and police analyst who remembers the world when it had animals and real food.

The murder victim was William R. Simonson, a board member of the Soylent Corporation which makes the food supply for half of the world. Their cookie/wafers include “Soylent Red” and “Soylent Yellow” but their new product is “Soylent Green” which is a more nutritious version and it is in demand and in short supply. It is advertised as being made from ocean plankton. There are supply chain and distribution problems and that causes riots when supplies run out. Rioters are violently removed from the streets by garbage-truck-type vehicles called “Scoops” that shovel up people and haul them away.

Simonson’s “furniture” Shirl begins a relationship with Thorn and helps him. He is told to end his investigation but continues anyway and finds himself being stalked.

It has been a long time since the film was released, so can I give a spoiler about the plot? The dying oceans can’t produce enough plankton to make Soylent Green. The company needs a new source of protein. I won’t say what that source is – though you might guess – and Simonson’s murder was ordered by his own company because he was troubled by the direction of the company.

Roth is disturbed by what they discover that he decides to end his life using one of the assisted suicide government clinics. Euthanasia is an accepted practice in this version of 2022.

The screenplay was based on the novel Make Room! Make Room! which was published in 1966). In the novel, the setting was 1999.

I won’t say it’s a great film but it did win the Nebula Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film at the time. Is it a prescient film? Is it accurate in its prediction of 2022? Thankfully, we are not living in the film’s 2022 world, but there are aspects of the film’s future that are true to today.

I was surprised some years ago when I saw that Soylent (meal replacement), became a brand of meal replacement products. I was surprised because what happens in the book and film is a horrible thing.

In the book and 2012  film Cloud Atlas and in another dystopian novel, Tender is the Flesh, food shortages are solved in a similar way to Soylent Green.

Teachers on the Screen

Mr. Keating

This past week, a friend who is in the education world asked me if I could recommend a movie that shows some teacher:student engagement or student:student interaction.  I came up with these titles first: Dead Poets Society, Freedom Writers, The Emperor’s Club, and Dangerous Minds.

I also came up with a few that are not as serious and not always as positive – but are funnier: Teachers, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Rushmore.

I taught for four decades and in that time saw plenty of depictions of teachers and classrooms on screens big and small that were unrealistic and often downright insulting.

I crowdsourced the request via email to a few fellow educators and was surprised at how quickly they responded and how many I had not thought of right away.  Here’s the list we collected with a few comments and clips. What did we miss? Add a comment.

Dead Poets Society
Freedom Writers
The Emperor’s Club
Dangerous Minds
The Paper Chase


Professor Kingsfield on the Socratic Method of teaching

Mona Lisa Smile
The Miracle Worker
Teachers
Stand and deliver
October Sky
Rushmore
The Wonder Years (TV Series)

Boston Public (TV)
To Sir With Love
Mr. Corman

Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Animal House


School of Rock
Bad Teacher (hmmm…)
The Breakfast Club (more for student:student)
numerous Hogwarts scenes from the Harry Potter film series
The Karate Kid

BONUS CLIPS
Comedy is a good teaching tool.


Jerry Seinfeld plays a history teacher having problems teaching WWII


from Key and Peele – the substitute teacher

Charly and Algernon

Charly
Cliff Robertson as Charlie with Algernon and the maze in the film Charly.

Daniel Keyes wrote and edited some pulp sci-fi and horror magazines and comics throughout the 1950s. In 1958, he wrote a novella called “Flowers for Algernon” about a laboratory mouse named Algernon whose intelligence is surgically enhanced and an experiment with a human subject.

I read that story in a high school English class and it sent me to find his 1966 novel-length expansion. Later that year, I saw the movie adaptation titled Charly. A decade later, I taught the shorter story to middle school students. I like all the versions and students usually liked the story and the film.

The story is narrated by Charlie Gordon. He is a janitor with a quite low IQ of 68 who is the first human test subject in an experiment to raise IQ.

I read some biographical info on Keyes. He was pushed to study medicine by his parents and struggled with the coursework. At some point in his studies, he began to wonder if it was possible to someone make someone by an intervention. He left medicine behind and later taught English to a class of special-needs students. The idea for his story was formed through both experiences.

“Flowers for Algernon” won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960. He was encouraged by his publisher to expand the story into a novel. They also wanted him to write a happier ending to the story. He refused.

The versions of his story have been around long enought that I don’t feel like it is a spoiler to say that the experiment works and Charlie becomes very smart, but the change is not permanent.

The book is written as Charlie’s journal entries and so the writing style, grammar and spelling change as Charlie changes. Algernon is a mouse that was an early test subject in the experiement. In a maze test, the mouse consistentlt beats Charlie in that task at the start of their experiment. But after the treatments, Charlie catches up and eventually is able to beat Algernon.

The story is science-fiction and certainly about experiments in increasing intelligence, but it is also a social commentary on how we treat mentally disadvantaged people in schools, the workplace, and society in general. It always sparked interesting classroom discussions.

The story ends with a poorly spelled note by a regressed Charlie to the reader to leave flowers on Algernon’s grave.

The novel version was published in 1966 and has sold more than five million copies and it has never been out of print. The story has been adapted for stage, screen, and TV several times. The feature film Charly (1968), won Cliff Robertson the Best Actor Oscar as Charlie. 

I also read Keyes’s book The Minds of Billy Milligan which is non-fiction written in novel form. It is the story of Billy Milligan, the first person in U.S. history acquitted of a major crime by pleading multiple-personality disorder. Milligan had 24 distinct personalities battling for control inside him. It’s quite a story.

 

King Arthur Will Return

Arthur and the Lady of the Lake
Tapestry of Arthur and the Lady of the Lake

I was fascinated by books and movies about the legend of King Arthur as a boy and it has continued into adult life. In college, I took a course on the Arthurian legends and we read Le Morte D’Arthur in its 15th-century Middle English.

Sir Thomas Malory’s prose tales of King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table were compiled and modified from French and English sources to make a complete story of Arthur’s life. Malory wrote it while in prison.

One thing that Professor Kellogg told us was that Arthur’s story has been reinterpreted many times in the centuries since Malory. Each interpretation and reimagining of the legend reflects the time the new author lived in and Arthur is seen in a different way, reflecting the time of the reinterpretation. Since there was a 19th-century revival of the legend, Malory has been the principal source.

For example, the love triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot has been portrayed in ways so that each of them is to blame. Arthur is at fault. Arthur is a fool. Arthur is loyal to his friend and wife.

Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur) was first published in 1485 at the end of the medieval English era. William Caxton published it and changed its title from Malory’s The Whole Book of King Arthur and of His Noble Knights of the Round Table (or actually The Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and of His Noble Knyghtes of The Rounde Table).

In 1934, the Winchester Manuscript was discovered and that is an earlier version than Caxton’s. Like Shakespeare and other old texts, there are many different editions that show different spellings and grammar and changes to the plot.

I reread the book recently. It was the first time I had read it since college. I read the new version by Gerald Davis of Le Morte D’Arthur which draws on both the Caxton and Winchester manuscripts.  But the key elements of the story remain.

This is not a 21st Century “reinterpretation” but it is a version written for modern readers. The love triangle that forms when King Arthur’s wife, Queen Guinevere, has an affair with Sir Lancelot. This double betrayal breaks Arthur’s heart but it also starts a civil war and ultimately leads to the end of King Arthur’s kingdom.

My rereading is now overlaid with the many movies, TV programs and other books I have read since college about Arthur. When I read about young Arthur I see the Disney cartoon Arthur of The Sword in the Stone that I saw in 1963 and also the Arthur in the source book by T.H. White, The Once and Future King,  which is very good and not cartoonish or a children’s book.

movie poster

White’s young boy Arthur is tutored by a wizard named Merlyn in preparation for a future he can’t imagine where he will be a king with the greatest knights sworn to chivalrous values, a beautiful queen and he would unite a country as Arthur, King of the Britons.

Arthur is the once and future King because the legend is that he will return when England needs him. Versions of the legend during the period of WWII see him as returning in some form to save England.

Malory writing in mid-15th Century was viewing Arthur saw a change in society that included the end of knighthood. He also would have one of the first books printed in England and reach new readers.

In 1509, Henry VIII, wanted to revive an idealized age of knighthood. He had the Winchester round table of Edward III painted over so that he was on now top as the new Arthur.

During the early 19th Century, Romanticism, Gothic Revival, and medievalism developed, and chivalry was appealing. Alfred Tennyson rewrote the Arthur’s story for the Victorian era in Idylls of the King. His Arthur was the ideal of manhood but he fails because he is human.

My wife brought home The Mists of Avalon in 1982. That novel reimagines the story from a feminist perspective.

Excalibur Arthur

I watched the film Excalibur multiple times with my young sons who loved that Arthur and Merlin. The love triangle kind of passed over them. The film, directed by John Boorman, takes a mythological and allegorical approach to the story.  Arthur is the Wounded King who can only be healed (along with his kingdom) by the Holy Grail. It is the cycle of birth, life, decay, and restoration.

There is some of that in the 1991 film, The Fisher King, starring Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams. (It is one of my favorite Robin Williams’ performances.)

The Wounded King’s realm becomes a wasteland as does the Fisher (or Sinner) King. It is not Arthur or Lancelot who find the Grail, because both of them are flawed and unworthy. They are healed by Perceval.

John Boorman remarked that the Christian symbolism of the Grail is what “my story is about: the coming of Christian man and the disappearance of the old religions which are represented by Merlin. The forces of superstition and magic are swallowed up into the unconscious.”

In retelling the legend of Arthur, writers have acted like Malory and included elements from other stories. Boorman has the sword Excalibur between the sleeping Queen and Lancelet which comes from the tales of Tristan and Iseult. Perceval not only gets the Grail to Arthur but also returns Excalibur to the Lady in the Lake (rather than Bedivere as in Malory) and the characters of Morgause and Morgan Le Fay are made one character.

How would a 21st Century view of King Arthur be viewed? Would it address democracy, manipulation of the story presented to the public, deception, healing, loyalty…? What other stories might be mixed in with the Arthurian legends?

What I Am Listening To: Film and TV

I have posted a few times about What I Am Listening To and the posts are not about music. They are podcast lists. At this point, I have so many podcasts in my app that I have started to do separate posts occasionally about podcasts around a genre or topic.

Here are the movie podcasts I am currently listening to and would recommend if you are a film fan. Since streaming has made the line between films and TV in more of a soft focus, buth appear in these programs. You should be able to find them on any podcast app (I use Stitcher) and some are available on websites if you’re not a mobile listener.

I don’t listen to every episode of most podcasts and I pick and choose people or films that I most interest me.

  1. THE BUSINESS – weekly about the business of show business; news and interviews, hosted by Kim Masters from The Hollywood Reporter.
  2. THE TREATMENT – the very well informed Elvis Mitchell does in-depth interviews with film and TV folks and sometimes with art and pop culture figures.
  3. MALTIN ON MOVIES   “Maltin” is film critic Leonard Maltin, well-known critic, accompanied by his daughter Jessie talking movies with very well known and not so well known people passionate about movies.
  4. UNSPOOLED – this series started with looking at each of the American Film Institute’s 100 Best American films. Hosted by critic Amy Nicholson and actor Paul Scheer, they have moved through those 100 and continue with a variety of others, including ones they would have put on the list given the chance.
  5. YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS – a storytelling series about the first hundred years of the movies created and hosted by Karina Longworth. Each “season” takes on a theme about some aspect of Hollywood history and is carefully researched with voice actors often taking on the roles of some of the story’s characters.
  6. FLASHBACK FLICKS: RETRO MOVIE PODCAST – Ricky and Grayson dig deep and goofily into movie they grew up with, like The Shining, Harry and the Hendersons, King of Comedy, Back to the Future and Ghostbusters.
  7. SLATE’S SPOILER SPECIALS  – the hosts (regularly Dana Stevens) spoil movies – or at least review them with no qualms about giving away spoilers. They cover movies with an occasional TV show or series.
  8. THE MOVIES THAT MADE ME – filmmakers and entertainers talk about movies that inspired them with hosts Josh Olson and director Joe Dante who (like many hosts of these podcasts) know a lot more about movies than most of us ever will know.  You can get the podcasts on their interesting website Trailers from Hell that looks at some B (and a few A) movie trailers. I put two of those on this post.
  9. MOVIE THERAPY – I followed Kristen Meinzer and Rafer Guzman ever since their first movie podcast, MOVIE DATE. In this latest incarnation, they take on problems from listeners and give movie/TV recommendations for what ails folks. Fun and funny and good recommendations.

You can also find many actors and directors talking films on general interview podcasts which I will describe in another post.