Tuesday, July 25, 2006

DVD Review: Ellie Parker and Faust

Watts on the job: Ellie Parker

It's common knowledge that Los Angeles is full of actor wannabes and all sorts of other hopefuls flickering about the Hollywood limelight like moths around a lamp until they get burnt-out. As a narrative, the losing side of the game seems to have an everlasting appeal. Stories of the industry's nefarious ways has fascinated audiences since Sunset Boulevard (Dir: Billie Wilder, 1950) inaugurated the genre (see Robert Altman's The Player (1992) or, if you can get hold of, the DV tour de force Ivansxtc by Bernard Rose). Hollywood and the search for fame are the modern-day, silicon-enhanced equivalents of Faust.

Cashing in on Naomi Watt's post-King Kong fame and on her own stories about her many years on the edge of Hollywood fame before Mulholland Drivechanged everything for her, TLA is releasing her struggling-actress-in-distress indie 2001 incursion Ellie Parker, a hand-held DV feature that doesn't exactly add to the behind-the-scenes-in-Hollywood genre since it's more of a personal awakening type of story than an industry satire, but it does provide unflinching poignancy that sometimes verges on the unbearable. It taps into LA's transience and automobile-ridden lifestyle to create the background for a woman in freefall. Watts is on top form. Her comic timing and the way she manages to sustain a consistent performance through the film are quite something to watch.

Watts' Parker is a chronically insecure woman, unsuccessfully doing rounds of auditions and getting her own identity mixed up with the characters she is asked to play for a few minutes, all the while rehearsing them in her car on Los Angeles's highways. Her aspiring musician boyfriend (Mark Pellegrino) provides yet another disappointment when she catches him in bed with another woman (one of the most hilarious sequences in the film). She finds solace in her best friend (Rebecca Riggs), a British aspiring actress who works in an art gallery. A harmless car accident brings Chris (Scott Coffrey, the film's writer/director), a closeted shop assistant, into the fray. At this point the film gets slightly messy, a bit like Ellie, and even Keanu Reaves gets a little cameo with a rock band. Chevy Chase also rings in as Ellie's agent.

Ellie Parker is a Generation X-ish look at the 'struggling actor' archetype. Although at points predictable and contrived, it has a real heart. It really is a story about letting go of impossible dreams in order to find oneself and move on with life. Ellie Parker is an honest, sincere person who is obviously not cut out for the backstabbing, cruel milieu of the film industry and the only way for her to get back on track is to turn her back on it. Which she may or may not do, but in the end you really wish she could find happiness. Honestly.


Now to the real Faust: Here's a DVD release that fans of UFA-produced films should not miss. F. W. Murnau's 1926 Faust has just been re-released as part of Eureka's The Masters of Cinema series. The main attraction of this DVD release is the fact that it contains the original domestic cut that was recently restored. The international version, which used discarded takes, errors, less impressive special effects and human stand-ins for real animals, is the one that has been circulating throughout the world, so now audiences get the chance to see what the Germans saw. The DVD includes a split-screen documentary comparing sequences and this surely will delight people with an interest in montage. The original, domestic cut is often described as more dramatic and tightly cut, which becomes apparent when you can actually see the two versions playing side by side. The package also includes an informative documentary with Tony Rayns, who says that UFA's internationally-casted, special effects-ridden Faust (as well as Fritz Lang's Metropolis) are silent cinema's embryonic versions of what we nowadays call the blockbuster.
Faust was Murnau's last German film, a triumph of visuals over narrative. UFA wanted an international cast and the title role went to Swedish actor Gosta Ekman. Emil Jannings plays Mephisto and Camilla Horn plays Gretchen. But not everyone liked it back then. Frederick Kracauer, in his famous 1947 book From Caligari to Hitler – A Psychological History of German Cinema, a pioneer study whereby films were used as a window on the German collective psyche, did not wrote, "Faust was not so much a cultural monument as a monumental display of artifices capitalising on the prestige of national culture." It´s useful to point out, though, that Kracauer wrote his book right after WWII in an attempt to understand the rise of Nazism with the help of the big screen, therefore his analysis is very focused on a specific goal.

The legend of Faust goes back to the sixteenth century when a doctor called Faust seems to have been a wandering scholar and conjuror who went through Germany claiming to cure the sick and practice magic. His efficiency led many to believe that he was empowered by the devil. These rumours were circulated in so-called 'Faust books' and with the passing of time the doctor transmuted into a noble old scientist who had sold his soul to the devil because he believed it would enable him to alleviate the suffering of the plague victims and enjoy some of the pleasures of youth he had neglected. No wonder early cinema was fascinated with the story.

Murnau's Faust will always remain the definitive cinematic rendering of this symbolic story full of references to Teutonic folklore. The film is a rich tapestry of fantastic costumes, natural elements, fire and wind that fill the screen like a medieval carnival parade for nearly two hours. It is a bewildering display set design and art direction skills and should definitely have a place of prominence on UFA's richly populated mantelpiece of film treasures.

Ellie Parker and Faust are out on DVD now.

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