Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Hit Me With Your Best Shot. Pandora's Box (1929)

In this series, we look at movies from all over the cinematic time line and select a shot that particularly resonates with us, be it for aesthetic, thematic or for simple eye candy reasons. Join us!

This week we gaze lustily at...


This is not a sex scene but a temper tantrum.
okay okay, it becomes a sex scene.

It's an easy thing to do. I've seen this 1929 silent (the original title is Die Büchse der Pandora) four times now and each time I'm startled anew at its carnality. It's one of the most erotic movies ever made and not just for the provoactive subject matter which follows the gradual undoing of one Lulu (Louise Brooks), a wild thing who marries up before bringing everyone down; director G.W. Pabst and cinematographer Günther Krampf partner with Brooks in continually fetishizing Lulu's porcelain flesh, painted lips, and erotic abandon.

In fact, there are so many vigorous closeups of men grabbing at Brooks' smooth arms or shaking her with a closeup of barely clad breasts and still more long shots which make her all legs or break up her body with visible obstacles (usually men) that the film runs the risk of dehumanizing her. She is doll parts. But Brooks saves the film from any exploitative quality with the full humanity of one of the all time great silent performances. The Look she gives her eventual husband's fiance when they're caught in the act, is one of the most salacious things you'll ever see. Brooks understands that Lulu is capable of self awareness and smug ownership of her inner floozy. But Brooks is not, to the film's infinite benefit, content to play merely one horny or bitchy note. She makes Pandora, excuse me Lulu, a treasure chest full of contradictions, emotions, and often curious or self destructive impulses.

this is not a sex scene but a death in progress.
it was meant to be a sex scene (wedding night)


Because of the time frame in which Louise Brooks performed, she's often discussed in conjunction with the Garbos and the Swansons. But one of the things she does with Lulu is more in keeping with what Marilyn Monroe was so famous for, despite the two actresses being nothing alike in shape, persona or acting style. She believably gifts her character with both fully developed sexuality and surprising innocence.

There is so much to say about Pandora's Box -- one could write a book! But like the movie men in her thrall, I can't look away from Brooks for even a second to delve into them. Her starpower is so overwhelming one merely succumbs. Brooks is exhilarating, Lulu is exhausting.

this is not a sex scene but a farewell.
the farewell is on account of it not being a sex scene.

Even her step son Alwa is pussy whipped. He just collapses into her lap on her wedding night. It's my choice for the film's best shot. It's gorgeously lit, capturing the sensual beauty of flesh, satin gowns, manly curls and erotic connection. Lulu loves Alwa, too... in her way. This is also a key moment in the storytelling. Lulu's husband (and Alwa's father) is about to enter the frame from the left with a gun in hand. The husband/father has already shown an odd habit of passing Lulu on to his son while warning him against her. We're only 40 minutes into the movie and this odd dynamic is about to occur again

Like many noirs that followed Pandora's Box into cinemas over the next two decades, the movie can be read as a nightmare sexist parable about the dangers of female sexuality. But Pandora's Box is modern enough in content and star performance and complex enough in mise-en-scène to offer up alternative readings. There are so many disturbing shots of men fondling and chasing money with as much fervor as they pursue Lulu, that you could just as easily read it as a nightmare parable about the dangers of insatiable male greed.

Again, you could write a book. If you haven't seen the movie, I can't recommend it highly enough. A

Lulu's Other Men
  • Against the Hype, who has been a passionate and faithful participant in this series, celebrates Lulu's impulsive behavior and utter inability to predict the future. I can predict the future: Colin will have a great experience at college seeing all the amazing films he's jotted down.
  • Pussy Goes Grrrr even uses Lulu as their longtime banner beauty
  • Serious Film stares and stares at that salacious look I described earlier and ponders its prismatic wonder. It's a beautiful write-up on the power of star acting.
  • Movies Kick Ass looks at Lulu twice, the static painted Lulu and the ever-changing physical version. Pabst uses art in such interesting ways in this movie. Again... you could write a book!
  • Stale Popcorn can't choose but gladly jumps backwards in time for the " 'classic' because it's good, not 'classic' because it's old" Hit Me With Your Best Shot films.
 Other Films in This Series

13 comments:

Glenn Dunks said...

Well, I, er, sorta did mine. :)

What a gorgeous movie.

Jose said...

That shot you chose is so beautiful. I love how maternal Lulu is to Alwa in it and we never see this warm quality of hers in the movie.
It's as if she embodies EVERY female archetype ever, from Madonna-whore to femme fatale to tragic heroine (because she is a heroine in a very Flaubert-ian way).

Louis said...

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ferdi said...

Masterpiece. Louise Brooks gave one of the best performance in movie history.

NATHANIEL R said...

Jose -- actually I think we see it again in the climax (i don't wanna spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it yet). I just love that her impulses can't easily be pinned down to sexual or maternal or good-time-seeking. There are so many facets to her personality.

ferdi -- i think so. I wish more people would see this. I love Metropolis but it really does seem to be the only silent that ever gets any play or heavy viewership and there are several other expertedly rendered silents that are just as cool or surprisingly modern.

JA said...

I wasn't able to participate last night but I did give love to pretty pretty Franz Lederer a couple of months ago. Pretty.

The film pisses me off in the end but I agree that LB's performance is so strong that she manages to outdo what the film's undoing with its ultimate pious bullshit.

NATHANIEL R said...

JA -- see i didn't see it that way. I mean, it can be read that way. but i think the abandonment at the end is just right since everyone has already abandoned her essentially (they're all content to live off of her flesh but none of them actually care about her do they? they're like parasites.

i love this movie.

JA said...

I very well might come around to your POV once I see it again, Nat; I have only seen it the one time. It did seem to me that Pabst's camera celebrates Lulu's feistiness up until then, and it felt incongruent, that turn at the end, so there probably is more to see to it than I noticed on one go through.

NATHANIEL R said...

JA -- p.s. Franz Lederer. I definitely would.

Andrew R. said...

This movie was Oscar eligible in 1929. Look at who won. *headthump*

I have three shots. One is an iconic shot, one is fairly well known, one is not remembered at all.

Iconic Shot: http://www.siffblog.com/LouiseBrooks2-thumb.jpg

Not Quite As Iconic: http://www.franksfilms.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/02/pandora-2.jpg

Unappreciated: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_dXvGSWAPHOE/SxScxzQib6I/AAAAAAAABM0/U-3s5pR6-ik/s1600/LouiseBrooks.jpg

NATHANIEL R said...

andrew -- i love the underappreciated one. God, she's just so effin watchable.

Andreas said...

I'm a whole day late, but I have a contribution, for what it's worth:
http://mendthiscrack.wordpress.com/2010/09/17/opening-pandoras-box/

I totally agree about being able to write a book - I'll have to revisit it sometime just to wrangle with all the gender issues and weird quasi-incestuous love triangles. What a beautiful movie (and actress).

felled said...

Every single week I get my hands on the movie and forget to actually watch it. I RESOLVE to watch Se7en on time.