Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Dream City: Metropolis Restored

One of the nicest things about being in Boston for the summer (full disclosure: I'm in Boston for the summer) is being a ten-minute bus ride from the Coolidge Corner Theatre. If you're ever in the area and you have a free afternoon, it's definitely worth your time--it's a gorgeous place, bedecked with beautiful posters and featuring four unique screening rooms, alternately showing old favorites (Dazed and Confused this Saturday at midnight, man) and whatever slice of snoot-buzz survived New York the previous week. As it advertises, it's (sadly) the only independent, non-profit movie house in the Boston area, and any support will be well rewarded.

That's the especially at the moment--Coolidge Corner is playing host to the "restored" version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the sci-fi landmark regularly listed among the greatest silent films (and films, period) ever made. In my own personal pantheon, it places second only to the eternal Jaws, so I was just a li'l excited.

Restored, because Metropolis is perhaps the most famously truncated movie ever made, cut to pieces by Paramount Pictures after a lukewarm premiere showing nearly bankrupted the original studio. Lang's vision of a pristine but deeply exploitative future-city wracked by the political and sexual frustrations of its leading father and son was deemed too bloated and lugubrious for American audiences. Even as the movie became a cult classic, a favorite of postwar critics on both sides of the Atlantic, and ultimately a revered sci-fi touchstone credited as a chief visual and thematic inspiration for the likes of Star Wars and Blade Runner, the gaps in the story remained filled with intertitle cards, spelling out in plain language how the Thin Man intimidated Josaphat and how worker 11811 squirreled away his sudden fortune. As frustrating as these moments could be, they were always fascinating. They offered a glimpse into the sheer scope and ambition of the project at hand, a work so monumental that even such plunging disruptions fail to dilute the film's power and grace. The gaps were also, of course, a little sad, a reminder of the inevitable compromised artifice of even such a monolithic creation, and of how long the (perceived) brainlessness of American film audiences has been perversely used as an argument to make movies brainlessly.

So in between my quakes of fanboy-delight at the new material, I took no small pleasure in seeing the Theatre's biggest viewing room fill up fast, and hearing excitement flow around the room in a dozen languages. It's the best corrective for the kind of grievous mistakes made in the handling of Metropolis: given time to take root, even on reduced terms, the film built a legacy, and an audience, strong enough to support a prodigal return.

But "restored," because no vision of the future can completely keep off the past's bite: the original, gorgeous 35-mm prints, already subject to decades of dust and careless scratching, suffered extensive damage in their translation to modern 16mm format after their discovery and release from a private Argentinian collection. There are still some scenes that had to be swapped out for intertitles; we will still only be told, not shown, how the monk first showed Freder his vision of the Apocalypse. The new scenes don't even try to disguise themselves--they are scratchy and well worn, standing out from the sharp, bright cinematography of the Paramount version. Yet, this obvious mortality fits--these "new" scenes are, in a sense, older than the rest of the familiar film, not having the benefit of years of adoration and influence to cushion age. Viscerally, they feel almost like memories when set against the still-intoxicating futurism of the Paramount scenes. Even while being floored by the rigid, sterile beauty of the opening montage or the Biblical fury of the Machine-Maria's revolt, watching the colors flicker and lines run down the screen while Joh Frederson stares at the monument to the mother of his child adds a depth to Lang's dizzying heights.

Indeed, the new scenes serve less to pile on to Lang's Babel than to accent its edges, filling out the subplots involving the Thin Man, Josaphat, and 11811 that always felt like curious add-ons in the Paramount version. Martin Koerber, a German archivist who supervised the restoration, gushed in a New York Times interview about the restored "balance" and the "ages old" themes returned to the movie. All true, but one line of his stood out in particular: "The science-fiction disguise is now very, very thin."

Disguise? What a curious choice! The word implicates Metropolis, one of 20th-century science fiction's ur-texts, in one of the genre's most common developments (or, depending on who you ask, corruptions): adopting sci-fi tropes as a shiny, audience-attracting layer under which one spins out the same old classic texts. Father-son conflicts, redemption of the rich, prince-pauper switches, the Whore of Babylon...of course, these ideas have become worn clich├ęs for a reason, and Metropolis employs them skillfully and passionately. Koerber's words, however, point to a different understanding of science fiction as a discrete genre.

I've struggled to define it, and my phrasing is certainly unoriginal, but I'm increasingly satisfied with it: science fiction is that which displays the technology itself as a central aspect of the narrative and/or thematic arc of the work, and in which the tools are not fungible (that is, they cannot easily be reduced to metaphorical stand-ins for older products and ideas). Therefore, demonlover is unquestionably science fiction in its very specific examination of digital detachment in pornography. While Minority Report's surveillance seers implicate general questions of divinity and fate, the plot's third-act twist centers around an exploited hiccup specific to the germane technology. And Avatar, much as I disdain it and much as its central technology often comes perilously close to merely representing wish-fulfillment for the crippled protagonist, is still tech-fronted science fiction (its boundary-pushing genesis helps the case).

Whereas Star Wars, the "space opera," would not then be science fiction, in spite of all its technical trickery--unsurprising, given the decidedly mystical nature of the Jedi, who resemble samurai more than spacemen. This definition of science fiction wouldn't serve to necessarily discriminate in terms of quality, but merely to interrogate the various uses of "science fiction:" as a marketing tool, as a revitalization of old-but-strong ideas, or as an artistic method of coming to terms with the technology itself.

Metropolis is certainly both of the last two, and in its restored version, it's taken on the first dimension as well. As such, I can only partially agree with Koerber's vision of science fiction as a Trojan horse for Metropolis' ageless perspective. I agree that the classic questions are there, and wrestled with brilliantly. What I disagree with is the notion that the modernist function of the genre, that third goal, is inherently bound to age as poorly as the technology it discusses. If that were the case, Metropolis would be hopelessly irrelevant, and this restoration a revealingly pathetic indulgence.

It's not. There was a lot of laughter in that Coolidge Corner viewing room, and I happily joined it. The rigid, quick motion common to many silent films takes on a particularly humorous position amidst the flawless machinery at work in Metropolis, and while I maintain that Machine-Maria's violently spastic winking and arm-jerking compose some of the most genuinely frightening moments in cinematic history, they're still pretty funny. Yet all the giggles at Rotwang's mad-scientist histrionics died away the moment he switched on his new "Machine-Man." It rose, and moved, its hips swaying back and forth in perfect time as it steadily walked toward the camera. All the arm-flailing and unabashed mugging put on display by the film's human actors is gone, replaced by a perfectly even motion as disturbingly sensual as it is numbing and terrifying. Such are the movements of Metropolis: fantasy and clarity, perfect vision and marred product, eternal and eternally of its time.

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