Sunday, April 13, 2014

Mabuse on Mubi

I was writing here recently about some of the joys and challenges of watching movies online, noting that while we now have easier access to a greater range of cinema than we could have imagined even a decade ago, it’s not without caveats; the online material is often chaotic, disappearing as quickly as it appeared, and the legal status of much of what you come across is often murky. In recent weeks, I’ve been occupied by another aspect of this: when you approach the dream state of being able, on any given day, to watch almost any film you happen to think of, how do you practically decide? In general terms, I know I want to navigate between revisiting the classics and covering the best of the new material, between English and foreign language, between well-informed choices and calculated risks, but it might take a pretty swanky computer program to channel all of that into a daily optimum choice. So, ironically or not, a lot of what I see is still driven by what’s on this TV channel or that one, just like when I was a kid (except with far more channels of course).


There’s nothing remotely unusual about this; many writers have commented that while technology theoretically expands the choices available to us, allowing items previously buried in the catalogue to come back to revenue-generating life, in practice it seems to be imposing uniformity, with everyone chasing the same blockbuster movies and music, and clicking on the same viral videos (the news media is a pathetically willing stooge in this, covering the latest transient sensations as if you’re somehow missing out if you just don’t care). Numerous writers have also pointed out the declining likelihood (unless you really work at it) of coming across the out-of-the-box cultural experiences that might change your life, given the ease of watching only the things you already know you’re going to like, and with Amazon and YouTube working away to distill the essence of your consumerism and keep it fed with endless suggestions and pokes. I work hard at avoiding this, but then – going back to what I was saying – I worry that embracing diversity becomes just as much of a trap, in the same way that promiscuity might be an empty way of avoiding commitment. That is: nothing is easy.

I mentioned last time that I subscribe to, which offers a rotating selection of thirty mostly somewhat obscure films at any one time. At the time I wrote that article, I wasn’t actually watching many of the selections, but in the last month or so I’ve become more inclined to go with Mubi’s choices, and at the time of writing I’ve watched seven of their current thirty choices (and it might have been more, if I hadn’t already watched some of the others fairly recently elsewhere). These seven include the Palestinian 5 Broken Cameras, Stephanie Rothman’s Terminal Island (notable for its “feminist” approach to the 70’s exploitation genre) and Lars von Trier’s The Idiots, a trio which sums up quite well how the selection covers the bases I described earlier.

The House by the River
Also, as this article appears, you still have a week or so to catch two films by Fritz Lang, one of the greatest of all filmmakers. The House by the River is one of the less-heralded films from Lang’s American period; made in 1950, it’s an increasingly intense tale of a failed writer who kills his maid, pressures his brother into helping him cover it up, and then lets the sibling drown in guilt as he recklessly uses the event to boost his own fame. The picture is full of piercing images, and is ultimately almost overwhelming in portraying a venality and ego so all-consuming that truth itself almost seems to bend in its wake; it remains a “small” film, but might be one of Lang’s most overlooked.

Plainly though, it’s a less necessary viewing experience than Dr. Mabuse: the Gambler, Lang’s 1922 silent masterpiece (leaving aside the fact that the four and a half hour length might diminish the feeling of necessity for some viewers). Mabuse is a prominent psychoanalyst and master of disguise who also heads up a crime network; he’s most drawn however to the underground gambling dens of the time, where he uses his intense powers of hypnosis and mental persuasion to manipulate others into losing, or into humiliating themselves by cheating and getting caught. A public prosecutor tries to put the pieces together, unwittingly enlisting the help of Mabuse himself at one point, but (a not so far from what I just said above about House by the River) the villain can manipulate the prosecutor’s sense of reality as easily as everyone else’s, even as the intimacy of his obsessions slowly undermines his strategic position. Lang would return to the character in the 30’s, and then again in 1960, in his last picture.

Dr. Mabuse: the Gambler

It’s astonishing that the film is over eighty years old, as it still feels intensely modern in many respects. I watched it just as the media hysteria over Malaysia Airline flight 370 was subsiding a bit, with all but the hardcore conspiracy crowd seemingly accepting that the plane did in fact just go in the water. But it seems to me that just as the Internet has channeled and often cheapened our collective cultural energies, it’s also been rocket fuel for paranoia, for eroding a sense of common purpose. The media happily supports the premise that impressions are as significant as facts, perhaps more so for being somehow less elitist. Plenty of people seem happy to believe in the likes of Mabuse pulling our strings (some overwhelming percentage still believes for instance that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone) but it’s hardly necessary, given how we’re happy to jerk ourselves around more ruthlessly and self-defeatingly than an evil genius ever could.

Against this backdrop, Dr. Mabuse: the Gambler still feels intensely modern, and the ways in which it doesn’t – the lack of dialogue, the stylization in many of the performances – only increases its power as a kind of timeless diagnostic tool. Many of us would see Mabuse as a metaphor for cabals and crime rings, their influence winding darkly through the official structures of power and business, occasionally bringing down public figures or planes or towers, as if just to remind us they can. But the real Mabuse arises from individual passivity and submission to the agenda of others; an agenda perpetuated in large part, ironically perhaps, on the same devices via which Mubi does its small daily bit to save us from ourselves.

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