By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” Image Entertainment, 2007]
As we saw a few weeks back looking at Graham Robertson’s greenscreen daydream “Able Edwards,” the lovable neo-form of the all-digital movie comes, at present, with a few inherent handicaps. They may well be temporary, surmountable hurtles on our way blech, gak, ptooey toward a wholly and purely 100% digital future. First, the compositional fauxness flattens the film’s environments into unnatural tableaux not entirely unlike those in pioneering turn-of-the-century film, which took its first formal cues from theater. Second, there’s something fundamentally strange about computer-mustered milieus (think “300” or “Sin City” or “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”), something that leads the filmmakers to comic books no surprise but also to the deep, stylized past. Nostalgia, ironic genrefication, Frazetta-esque pre-civilized history wherever these movies lead us, it’s usually some version of long ago.
So, in terms of both problems, David Lee Fisher’s new, low-budget “remix” of the seminal, all-fake 1920 German Expressionist classic “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” makes perfect sense. The original Robert Wiene film is a still-hypnotizing antique that knocked its contemporaneous audiences’ eyes out, and it remains the most famous and culturally eloquent set design flourish in the history of cinema: lurid, patently fake, illogically abstruse sets full of acute angles, painted shadows and disquieting perspectives. (This was post-WWI Germany, humiliated, bankrupt, indebted, crushed and ready for a lunatic vision of a Godless world.) Fisher’s strategy was simple: scan the film’s sets (digitally cleaned up) onto a hard drive, and then recreate the foreground story with actors in front of a greenscreen. Add ripe dialogue, earnest acting, music and adroit narrative backstory.
Although the new “Caligari” (there have been two other riffs on this gout of artifice, a TV studio modernization in 1962 and a punked-out fantasy edition in 1990) is inherently ironic how could it not be, given the technology? Fisher never camps it up. The movie is both a respectful and insightful homage to a film history monument and a darkling nightmare all its own, abetted to no small degree by a fiercely convincing cast that includes, as Cesare the somnambulist, mime/actor Doug Jones, late of “Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.” Unlike the bigger budgeted films using this filmmaking template, Fisher’s throwback makes a kind of analytical sense as well if greenscreening for the moment is all about appropriating the contextual imagery of the past, then you should begin with Caligari, the movie with which modern movies began, shouldn’t you? If you’re smart about taking the first baby steps into what may become a new frontier, then, like Joyce returning to “The Odyssey,” you return to the source-well of your medium’s ideas, right?
There’s plenty of looking-backward, too, as well as old-fashioned ambition and heart, bristling in Ali Selim’s ultra-indie “Sweet Land,” particularly compared to most other American indies it’s a period film spending serious amounts of time with the Lutheran farm folk of 1920 Minnesota, for one thing. It’s also a parable about ethnocentrism, and a magnificently crafted piece of landscape portraiture, for two others. If that weren’t enough, Selim, in his first feature after decades as one of the country’s most successful commercial directors, ruefully frames the story with contemporary action, looking mournfully back “Sweet Land” almost never stops eulogizing its characters and their agrarian society. The story is familiar in its essentials a stranger arrives in town, upsetting its social equilibrium but the particulars are distinctive: the wild card is a German mail-order bride with no English (Elizabeth Reaser), summoned to the home of a shy Norwegian bachelor (Tim Guinee) only to discover that postwar prejudices prevent her from getting documented and therefore from marrying. With nowhere else to go, she settles in anyway, one way or the other, as the community is rocked by hard times and farm foreclosures.
If the film soothes a largely neglected lobe on your moviegoing forebrain, it’s because Selim cares about his cast (which includes John Heard, Ned Beatty and Lois Smith) enough to let them breathe in their parts, which are generous and fastidiously 3D. Alan Cumming, as a guileless family friend, is finally endurable, while Guinee (an underused and riveting member of the post-Brat Pack generation of the ’90s) is never less than wholly convincing. Reaser is compelled to carry the film with her eyes and smile, and that she manages it without showboating is some kind of triumph. “Sweet Land” is super-sweet and, in the end, dramatically thin, but any film that showers this much visual love on the hard life of preindustrialized farming hardly a sell-out topic demands respect.
“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (Image Entertainment) is now available on DVD; “Sweet Land” (20th Century Fox) will be released July 10th.