Extract from Notes on Some Issues Brought to Mind by the Metropolis Screening
tracked by Rubber Inc. 2005
Time has been much kinder to the crowd and factory scenes, which remain much more vital than the dramatic scenes, most of which have become irredeemably hokey with the passage of time. This seems to be a general rule, and not something specific to Metropolis. I don’t think there is any film that ages in the opposite way, ie, with crowd and architecture becoming more hokey and drama remaining vital. I think this is a consequence of the cinematic form and the speed of the times. Contemporary film (like any contemporary popular art form) can ring with absolute truth for its contemporary (literally: “together in time”) audience, because it can speak fluently using all the semiotic systems/languages of their shared temporal horizon: sonic, spoken, visual, sartorial, tonsorial, architectural, etc. In fact, it seems possible that narrative film is not only an art of concrete details, but that its essence is detail itself. However, by this same token, film is also therefore uniquely vulnerable to the damage that time wreaks on those details’ semiotic systems. For example: clothes, hair and speech patterns --channels of information that establish not only aspects like class and profession, but aspects like sincerity, individualism, and outlook -- become, with time’s passing, filled with other information, the information of time. The “right on,” and afro and leather fringes which once established a character as an enlightened nonconformist become filled with “sixtiesness.”
It is interesting that Lang’s film remains most vital where it departed most radically from the visual language of it’s time. I suppose this cannot be a hard rule of cinematic or artistic survival, because it seems obvious that this vitality is a consequence of the historical fact that we continue to explore the avenues he opened up. Science fiction is a living and fertile metaphor for us, who live in an age of accelerating cultural shocks occasioned by technological change. It seems just as likely that radical stylistic departures might open roads that one’s descendants (postdecessors?) will NOT explore, will not find interesting to explore, and to which time will consequently give the appearance of museum knick-knacks.
In contrast to film, something like a script written for the stage is (all other things being equal) much less vulnerable to time, because so much detail remains unspecified. Moreover, it is acceptable that a stage director ignore or even outlandishly violate notes on staging, scenery, and costume. A director replaces Chekhov’s drawing rooms with a couple of white cubes and no-one turns a hair. We accept that he has not violated anything essential to Chekhov, and rightly see dramatic scripts as outlines, in which no detail need remain unchanged. (After all, Chekhov as we know it is all translated from the Russian to begin with. ) In contrast, traditional English speakers view tinkering with Shakespeare with more misgivings, because they believe (are trained to believe) that his language is essential to what is great and vital to the plays. As a speaker of contemporary English, I must say that this idea seems obviously false. It seems clear to me that time has definitely poisoned many of the details of Shakespeare’s language, robbed them of power and immediacy and refilled them with quaintness and even outright incomprehensibility; and that while it is true that I have seen some instances of vital Shakespeare (Macbeth staged by an English theatrical troupe, scenes from Richard III by Pacino) it also seems clear to me that the scenes remained vital in spite of the ornate and creaky burden of the author’s language. They were vital because the actors OVERCAME the text. It seems to me that techniques powerful enough to wrest vitality from Shakespeare could just as profitably be used on a script consisting of pure or nearly pure gibberish. Vital Shakespeare is an invitation to release theater from the confines of lexicography. (You read it here first.) Accordingly, we can derive the following rule of thumb: the chances of remaining vital are inversely proportionate to the amount of detail that is considered as essential to the work. As a rule, recorded performances (of which films are a paradigmatic example) date quickly, as we consider all the recorded details of the performances as the essence of the work, the object. We find it easier to accept tinkering with a script than with a performance. Easier to accept Glenn Gould omitting passages Beethoven wrote than somebody laying some beats on top of Glenn Gould (though even that is getting less scandalous by the second). Scripts and scores, which are nearly all outline, (and which therefore can absorb detail from their surrounds) date more slowly. As a rule. (We should note that not all recorded content has to be considered a recorded performance. Pop musicians often make acoustic demos that serve as scores: as song sketches that the band is meant to fill out in rehearsal)
Further, it seems that certain details are more vulnerable than others, though I would have to watch more samples to be sure, or even to stab at general observations. Of them all, those details that are mobilized for dramatic dialogue seem to age fastest. Perhaps this is the fate of overspecified (overspecified emotion?). Something overspecified is difficult to recontextualize, which is perhaps what updating is all about? The chase scenes, riot scenes, and stylized robot-marching scenes look almost contemporary, and remain particularly watchable, perhaps because they can be read as abstract motion, and are readable as a kind of dance. The dramatic scenes in Metropolis shimmer between the boring and hilarious, though Chaplin’s pathos scenes do not. Is it simply that we apply different standards to a “serious” silent? Or is the difference simply due to the fact that Lang didn’t know what good acting was while Chaplin did? Many questions.
In the light of these considerations, it seems justifiable to raise doubts about the viability of the strategy of “updating” classic cinema by purely musical means. Metropolis has survived as a kind of mosaic of vital and dead parts. It seems inescapable to conclude that any hope of salvaging some kind of emotional power from the drama would have to incorporate some kind of re-editing, which could range from something as minor as using the subtitles as a libretto in an operatic score (as Philip Glass did for Renoir’s La Belle et La Bete) reshooting scenes with lookalikes, to cutting MTVs and trailers (which would be the equivalent of sampling Miles Davis for a hiphop track). In any case, it seems to me an inevitability that the film form will soon suffer the same assault on its inviolability as recorded music, and be sampled, recut and reused, all to the screams of purists, but to the nodding acceptance of the multitudes. It is possible that Moroder’s strategy, these days viewed as an act of artistic butchery, was simply way ahead of its time.