Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 12, 2020 8:21 am 
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A tale of sad gay love

As you run through the Kino Marquee-selected three "queer classics" chronologically, they grow brighter and cheerier but emotionally thinner till the last one, the basis for the 1982 Blake Edwards/Julie Andrews Victor Victoria, is just larky and fun but has no emotion at all beyond pleasure or pique. Michael, which aside from gorgeous sharp 2K restoration images and new font titles, has a chamber music score added and a haunting feeling there, no doubt, all along. Michael is a film that relates to the great German silent tradition, even though Dreyer is Danish. The other two, bright, handsome talkies, are more glittering entertainments.

Michael is a ponderous, touching and enigmatic melodrama of an older man's gay frustration. It revolves around an older artist known as "The Master," Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen), who's successful and rich and lives in solemn imperial splendor. The "suffocatingly sumptuous" sets by production designer (actually architect) Hugo Haring are one of the stars of the show. Michael (Walter Slezak, Hitchcock's Lifeboat) is an attractive young man who submits his drawings to the Master. The Master isn't that impressed but has him stay to pose for a painting. Several result, large, and nude, and one, called The Victor, is praised by critics the best thing Zoret has done. He gives it to Michael. And he gives Michael anything he wants or needs, and when the young man overdraws on his account, the Master covers for him.

In his [url=""]Slant discussion of Michael[/url] Eric Henderson suggests "'gay for pay' is about as much as Dreyer was undoubtedly allowed to suggest, and even then only indirectly." I don't think he suggests anything, except that Zoret adores Michael and will give him anything he wants. Henderson's review is informative, but he exaggerates a bit to jszz things up. I don't think it's fair either to say Walter Slezak, whho plays Michael, "looks distractingly like Eraserhead's Jack Nance." That mnemonic irrelevance set me to thinking who he does look like, and I realized an appropriate comparison is Van Cliburn, the 23-year-old American pianist who became a national hero for winning the Tchaikovsky Award in Moscow, got a ticker tape parade in New York when he returned, tall, cherub-faced, curly-haired, adored by all, and, as it turned out later, gay.

Unfortunately for the older man, the bankrupt Countess Zamikoff (Nora Gregor, star of Renoir's Rules of the Game), shows up to persuade the Master to do her portrait, secretly intending to swindle him out of his money. He agrees to do the portrait, but is indifferent, of course, to her advances. But Michael is responsive, and she proceeds to monopolize him. As soon as they meet, they kiss: no beating a bout the bush.

Zoret does one of his big tall full length portraits (clothed, however) of the Princess - his paintings are made to go with the grandeur of his house. But there's one detail that eludes him: he "can't get the eyes right" and calls in Michael to do them, and he does them right. We may be surprised to learn that by now Michael can paint, and the Master respects his abilities. The film leaves some things out. Gradually we learn Michael has his own apartments, not too shabby either and funded by the Master, no doubt, with his own painting studio there. A scene where the Master is visited by the Baron Eugéne de Klotz, a Paris banker, reveals that Michael has been spending money wildly. No matter: Zoret has another account set up in his name, to cover his debuts. That is, and remains, the pattern.

The Master has a portly, mustached, cigar-puffing close older friend, Kunstkritiker Charles Switt (Robert Garrison) who's an art expert, sort of to him what Henry Geldzahler was to David Hockney, but more than that, perhaps, since he harbors an unrequited love. Switt is jealous of Michael for stealing all the Master's attention, and seems to relish the moments when Michael is out of sight. But he respects Michael's importance at the end because not to have done so would have meant to be cast out. Both older men are patient and repressed.

A beautiful moment is an early evening out in which Michael and Priincess Zamikoff go the the ballet when Swan Lake is the featured event. The audience and the dance are seen in some detail. The small stage framed in lush darkness makes for a jewel box effect. This ranks with the most beautiful theater sequences in the history of cinema. The Master's grandiose digs may also seem drab and depressing at times, but this is nonetheless a splendidly visual film. The importance and specificity of the paintings highlights this, and may encourage us to look at the film itself, especially moments like the ballet, as itself like a series of paintings.

Unhappy with the way Zoret's spoiling of him makes him dependent but unable to break free, Michael steals things, or appropriates them, taking advantage of the Master's quiet adoration. When the countess likes the special "English" glasses the Master has brought in to impress her, Michael later has them transferred to his own digs. Later, he walks off with the Master's highly desirable Algerian sketches, and also decides to sell The Victor, the large portrait of himself by Zoret, having learned from the countess her great secret: that she has huge debts. Zoret learns of the portrait sale when he calls on a notable art dealer to sell his Cesar and Brutus painting and is told it's not a good time, because another major painting of his has just come on the market. Silent film seems to lend itself better to being seen as a series of tableaux.

The Master completes an ambitious final work, a triptych. It's a surprising large painting of himself, reclining, nude, flanked by two smaller paintings of a young man and of a woman, with landscapes from the Algerian trip incorporated into the background. As presented in the film, the execution of these paintings has a facile muralist quality, but their conception is grand and bold. A crowd comes for a viewing and the critics hail this now as Zoret's best work. One woman helpfully declares it's the work of a man who has lost everything. Because at this point in fact Michael has in fact finally broken away, at least verbally, declaring he is tired of being dependent on the Master and wants nothing further to do with him.

After this celebration, Zoret falls ill, never to recover. At this point Michael is keeping his promise and no longer coming around. He's not even been present for the Master's greatest moment of triumph, the public celebration of the new triptych, which has led to his being given a national honor. Things swiftly move toward the deathbed scene, with only Switt present, loyal to the end. Zoret smiles at the end, declaring he is happy because he has known true love, "Ech habe eine grosse Liebe gesehen!" Even told the Master is dying, Michael stays home, in bed with the countess. But the final scene is of him alone, when he learns of the Master's death and we see desolation in his face. At the end, he is shocked and devastated. The game is over. Of course he has known no greater love himself, than the Master's.

It's a thought-provoking film. Everything about it is solemnly grand and beautiful. Of course the events and personalities are writ very large. But this is silent film. A very impressive early "queer" film indeed, though its focus allows some to interpret it as not about homosexual passion at all, but about something else, like envy, loneliness, manipulation, or fraud. There is also an unrelated subplot of the married Alice Adelsskjold’s affair with the Duke of Monthieu, which leads to a duel. This Henderson thinks is designed to "throw more reactionary viewers" off the scent of the homosexual content. The New York Times reviewer was unimpressed, and isn't wrong in saying that the countess "does not screen well" and Slezak's acting isn't impressive. Garrison and Christiensen are, though. Those who see Dreyer's 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc have to see the value of this earlier work, which has trademarks like the use of extreme closeups to convey emotion without words.

Michael, 93 mins., debuted 26 September 1924 at Berlin, and came to London and New York. Viewed on a screener of the recent 2K restoration for the Kino Marquee presentation from June 12-25, 2020 benefiting multiple movie theaters across the US closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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