Tag Archives: evil

Power Trip

[This is my fourth entry in the Blind Spot Series hosted by Ryan of The Matinee.]

Nothing I love more than a truly terrifying villain. Heroes are OK, and anti-heroes can make for morally ambiguous fun. But a villain! Someone who cooks up and executes diabolical plans! Someone who’s ambitious and charismatic, even at the cost of ethical bankruptcy. It’s gratifying to identify with a villain. I’m just a human being, you see. I’m cosmically insignificant, a speck in an indifferent universe. I like to fancy myself “good,” at least in the sense that I exhibit empathy and avoid hurting others. But when I see a villain like Dr. Mabuse, the titular mastermind of Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), I can’t deny his power. He’s fearless, in control, always one step ahead! I may be a “good” person in real life, but in the dream life of moviegoing I can identify unequivocally with Mabuse and suffer nothing but a mild sense of shame.

As he skulks through the Berlin underworld, Mabuse’s authority is total. Foreshadowing director Fritz Lang’s future use of surveillance motifs (M, The Big Heat), he’s a one-man panopticon, using his victims as informants against one another. Mabuse himself, meanwhile, remains functionally invisible. Either he’s wrapped up in one of his many alter egos, or he’s slipping through cracks in the film’s expressionist architecture. He is the master of modernity, ringleader of the Weimar circus. Everyone is in Mabuse’s thrall, and life in his thrall is a waking nightmare. Of course, it takes one hell of an actor to pull off a towering figure like Mabuse, and thankfully Rudolf Klein-Rogge (later the mad doctor in Lang’s Metropolis) is equal to the task. His broad forehead, beak nose, and piercing eyes are accentuated here, making him look like a physical incarnation of a George Grosz grotesque. His swagger, too, is that of an übermensch, a man swollen with megalomania.

But Klein-Rogge, as mighty an actor as he is, doesn’t create Mabuse alone. Every second he’s off-screen, his performance is supplemented by the dark mythology that rises around him. “One of the most dangerous criminals ever,” for example, is how his police inspector nemesis describes him. “He lives above the city—big as a tower!” cries Cara Carozza, a showgirl at the dancing end of Mabuse’s puppet strings. “He is the greatest man alive!” The terror of those in Mabuse’s orbit inflates his evil stature. The film’s duration (4 1/2 hours) works similarly in his favor, since it provides ample time for him to engineer a network of alliances and betrayals. Mabuse ruins the life of one aristocrat after another; he supervises one convoluted heist after another; he bends the masses to his whims. If anything, Mabuse is too thorough of an evil genius, staging increasingly flamboyant ends for his enemies as the police close in around him.

The film’s second half (entitled “Inferno”) begins with Mabuse cocky and drunk, declaring his intent to become a titan—“churning up laws and gods like withered leaves!!” Yet for all this grandiose rhetoric, his empire is a mere hour or two away from crumbling. After a few more subterfuges and one scene of all-out urban warfare, he’ll be cornered and institutionalized, subjected to a system of disciplines and punishments identical to the one he so recently ruled. (This muddying of the cops/robbers dichotomy is another career-long Lang motif.) And in a final irony, he’ll be back in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, leading criminal enterprises from beyond the grave. That’s symptomatic of how Lang envisions his countrymen: decadent and weak-willed, prime targets for a villain of Mabuse’s caliber. Pessimistic? Absolutely. But vindicated by history with chilling precision, and as true now as it’s ever been.

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Disney Revisited: Fantasia

Some thoughts after rewatching Fantasia (1940)…

  • Just as with Snow White, it’s first and foremost a work of art. Each element of Fantasia—its length and scope; its clouds of abstraction, exploding with light and color; even its 15-minute intermission—is calculated to impress its ambition and absolute beauty on the viewer. The language of Deems Taylor’s interstitial narration further frames Fantasia as “a new form of entertainment.” It flaunts its innovation and cultural significance.
  • It’s middlebrow to the core. Fantasia is a utopian, anti-elitist vision of art in the 20th century. It sets out to give everyone (children and adults, rich and poor, college-educated and illiterate) equal access to the wonders of classical music. It’s a book-of-the-month club approach that tries to enlighten and flatter its mass audience simultaneously. However, in the process of rendering its subject matter more accessible, it also erases a lot of context and nuance. (This goes not only for classical music but for earth’s evolutionary history, of which the Rites of Spring sequence claims to be a “coldly accurate reproduction,” and for Greek myth, as witnessed with the Pastoral Symphony.)
  • The whole film is premised on Mickey Mousing—i.e., synchronizing onscreen motion with the rhythms of the music. Superficially, this technique works: it makes the music and image feel made for each other, as if both were telling the same story. But it also strikes me as inherently limiting and literal-minded, suggesting an artificial one-to-one relationship. It allows even Fantasia’s abstractions to degenerate into cutesy anthropomorphism, hopping along to the beat of the music. The film works best when it plays with this schema, using it to draw out invisible parallels rather than for straightforward cross-media mimicry.
  • The Rites of Spring sequence is startlingly naturalistic and brutal. Even within the constraints of Mickey Mousing, its prehistoric world finds room to breathe. Before unifying its dinosaurs against the threat of the tyrannosaurus, the segment glides from one milieu to another, observing vicious, survival-driven animals at work. (One vignette, in which a pteranodon flies into the jaws of a mosasaurus, is especially haunting.) Once the tyrannosaurus has devoured its prey, it refuses to wrap up neatly, but drags on through a drought and ice age. It’s a bleak, unsentimental representation of extinction-inducing cataclysms.
  • Chernebog from Night on Bald Mountain is a masterstroke of character design. Like the Queen from Snow White, he’s a figure of charismatic, confident evil—a mass of dense, fleshy darkness punctuated by a pair of yellow eyes. He’s majestic, even graceful, as he leads the Walpurgisnacht rites. Sweeping across the countryside, raising hell with mere gestures, Chernebog resembles the sorcerer from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And both, in their godlike fashions, call to mind Fantasia’s conductor, Leopold Stokowski. Or another figure who could create worlds with gestures: Walt Disney.
  • The whole film has a quasi-religious aura to it. It’s all too appropriate that Fantasia ends with dawn breaking to the tune of Schubert’s Ave Maria. The segment, and by extension the rest of Fantasia, feels designed to engender reverential awe in the viewer. Going back to my first point about its self-conscious artistry, Fantasia is meant to be vast, overwhelming, more than just a movie. It’s billed as a synthesis of aural and visual art (“Hear the pictures! See the music!” crowed its tagline) and, by implication, as the culmination of both. This, Fantasia seems to say, is all that can be done. It’s as far as you can go. For me, it’s emblematic of Disney’s status as the monolithic representative of all animation. It’s an open invitation to give up, come inside, and worship at the temple of Walt.

(This is part of “Disney Revisited,” my chronological film-by-film exploration of the Disney animated canon.)

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