The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Fritz Lang (1933)

Years later, Lang returns to Mabuse. Now the evil genius is locked up in an asylum, but still scribbling brilliant criminal tactics on page after page. His physician collects these outpourings and puts them into motion to create an “empire of crime.” And so the movie was swiftly banned by the Nazis; they well understood what Lang probably, at this point, could only have intuited: the coming structure under which madmen would ejaculate insane orders and reasonable people would execute them. This is a far tighter movie than Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, much shorter and more narratively efficient, but its final passages deliver an even stronger dose of anarchic carnival than its prequel.

I’m too blown away by these movies to say anything too smart about them. They’re dissertation-worthy. But I will point out this one thing. Mabuse never commits any crimes himself. He orders, influences, hypnotizes, bluffs, impersonates, represents, but never acts. As such he seems a perfect representative for how evil is conducted in our age: by proxy.

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Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, Fritz Lang (1922)

More than four hours, and utterly riveting from start to finish. Weimar decadence, fantastic furniture, clever detectives, manipulations of the stock market, hypnotism, flexible sexualities, gunplay, masterful disguises, high stakes card games, buckets and buckets of eros and thanatos, ambition, orientalism, beautiful doomed women, self-loathing, blind counterfeiters, madness, African totems, car chases . . . . I really don’t know where to start or end. Just watch this; you truly won’t regret it. Lang captures his zeitgeist perfectly, and at the same time weirdly seems to capture mine, too. I’d like to put this in a double bill with Wall Street. Heavy-handed, probably, but what the hell.

Woyzeck, Werner Herzog (1979)

Klaus Kinski, man’s best fiend, upsets my dog. Curiously, it’s not the scenes where he’s freaking out that she can’t stand, it’s the long, nearly silent, slow burn passages, where he’s quivering bug-eyed and ready to explode at any moment. She kept leaving the room to avoid his gaze. But she also kept coming back, as though unable to resist him. It was weird.

Woyzeck is based on Georg Büchner‘s unfinished play by the same name. Herzog shrewdly began filming immediately after having completed a long shoot on another film with the same cast and crew, and shot the whole movie in eighteen days, ensuring that everyone would be exhausted and slightly hysterical. The title character, played with nearly comical intensity by Kinski, is a hapless soldier abused by doctors, senior officers, and his lover. As he caroms from clinic to barracks to home in fits of effort to find some dignity, he becomes more and more crazed. Things do not end well.

Herzog’s mise-en-scène here is much flatter than usual, perhaps because he is conscious of the fact that he’s filming a stage play. The spaces and angles are tightly constrained, even in exterior shots; the lighting is theatrically artificial; the depth of field very shallow. The feeling, looking at the screen, is that all the action is happening in a box about three feet deep, as if the TV were a kind of puppet theater.

Not anywhere near my favorite Herzog film, but an archetypal example of Kinski’s style. And my own new best fiend, Sarah Kane, directed a version of the play in 1997, and I’m in a place right now where I’m looking for traces of Ms. Kane anywhere I can find them, because I’m deeply disappointed I wasn’t aware of her work prior to her death. There, I’ve said it, the awful true thing. Herzog is very good at putting me in a place where I can do that.

Car Alarm, The Sea and Cake (2008)

I just found out that my favorite pop band of the last ten years has a new album out. I haven’t even heard it yet, but I already know I love it, because I love all their records. Some are more rocky and some are more trancey but they are all rife with that kind of melancholic joy of a cold spring day or a warm fall one. Here’s one song from the new record.

Stars on ESP, His Name Is Alive (1996)

Long ago, I discovered a quirky little record called Stars on ESP by His Name Is Alive, and loved it well for many years. I always assumed it was a sort of one-off; it had that feeling to it. Come to find out, though, that all those years while I was enjoying the tingly folky haunting but happy jangles of that one record, the band was moving on. Last Night (2002), Detrola (2006), and Xmmer (2007) are all just terrific. They wind around from blue-eyed soul to gothy 4AD synth to bread and butter pop to experimental beeps, but somehow maintain a fundamental coherence. And they’re from Livonia. I’m so proud.

It’s dangerous to provide samples because the group does so many different things, but this is what’s on offer, so here it is. Oh, total bonus: The Brothers Quay provide the visuals here.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Sidney Lumet (2007)

A triumph of formalism and unbelievably dull. I’m not sure if there’s a cause and effect relationship there, or just a coincidental one. Lumet’s so intent on his manipulations of time and point of view (which are, indisputably, hugely clever) that he fails to put any energy into creating three-dimensional characters or believable dialogue. Very Robbe-Grilletish, but not on purpose, I don’t think.

The Blues – Feel Like Going Home, Martin Scorsese (2003)

I heard a lot of grumpy comments about this series of films, which I think Scorsese oversaw for PBS, but this first one, I must say, is enchanting. It is undeniably true that any number of cultural studies dissertations could be written to unpack all the levels of appropriation, voyeurism, etc. in play here — an Italian American director filming an African American musician traveling to Africa so that PBS-watching honkies like me can enjoy speculating about the connections between west African kora music and Mississippi country blues, oy vey — but geez. I’ll admit to any depredations you need me to, but I can’t say I’m sorry to have seen Ali Farka Toure and Corey Harris jamming under a tree in Mali. Absolutely wonderful music in this. Sharp, smart, and funky!