Faust (1926), dir. F.W. Murnau


Screening at The Old Rep Theatre, with a new live score composed by Matt Eaton and Gareth Jones, as part of the Flatpack Film Festival in Birmingham

Seeing a a new score performed against a nearly century old film is an indescribably wonderful experience, animating the carnival sensation of life in the town and the elemental forces of the storm, giving the film a new life. It’s a little modern compared to other scores – but it works incredibly well. I could almost feel the music go through me – hopefully I’ll have a similar positive experience when I see John Carpenter play live later in the year.

Faust is a far cry from Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1592), repeated over and over through A-Level English Lit classes. Because Marlowe didn’t have Mephisto mixing cocktails with a woman who would very much like to fuck him. Honestly, I think I prefer Murnau’s rendition of the myth.

Rather than the younger man of Marlowe’s play, ageing for decades before Mephistopheles finally pulls him down to Hell, here Faust is an old man, tempted by Mephisto to reclaim his youth (and by extension a romance with Gretchen.) Marlowe damned Faustus with inevitable eternal damnation, yet Murnau redeems Faust.

Faust never has a sense of the truly irredeemable: Mephisto tricks him, rather than tempting him outright. All Faust wants to do is bring life back to the town he loves in the face of death. He becomes a ‘miracle maker’ in the same vein as Jesus, but is then rejected by society like Frankenstein was when they find he cannot face the cross (because Faust is definitely a vampire.) Gretchen is also ostracised by society, left to freeze to death with her baby, before a group of knights condemn her as a “baby murderer” and burn her to death. Because these are definitely Christian values. Faust seeks power through the wrong means, not entitled to godly powers as a mortal, but he is admirable. He does not want the wenches or the orgies or the crown that Mephisto tempts him with: all he wants is a normal life of good.

The visuals are the other important aspect of this film. Visually stunning, we are entranced within the heavenly battle between an angel and Mephisto; between good and evil. Humanity is reduced to mere ants, able to be wiped out through one storm through the power of Mephisto. The planets become tiny globes. Murnau animates words, coming to life in emphasis. The universal concept, love, stands out, moving towards the screen. Over the mountains, the superimposed Gretchen screams out, to be heard by Faust. Faust and Mephisto float in the air over trees and rivers over to the palaces in Italy – an image that every adaptation of A Christmas Carol (1843) must have taken influence from.

Heart of a Dog (2015), dir. Laurie Anderson


Screening at The Electric as part of the Flatpack Film Festival in Birmingham

Last December, on my first drive back home from uni, a song played on the radio. An insistent, repeating sound. Mum winced. She couldn’t handle the electronic beat, and promptly changed it over to something far less remarkable.

When I got back, I searched the song up on YouTube.

“This is the hand, the hand that takes.
Here come the planes.
They’re American planes. Made in America.
Smoking or non-smoking?”

Occasionally, the words “O Superman” pop up. Laurie Anderson’s song was clearly very personal: a memory of childhood, or an account of motherhood? There’s something remarkable, yet hard to describe.

Dedicated to her late husband Lou Reed, Heart of a Dog is similarly autobiographical. And there’s something very much not like it. It reminds me of works like Alison Bechdel’s graphic novels Fun Home (2006) and Are You My Mother? (2012): simultaneously meditative, hilarious and distressing, yet avoiding convention but also taking advantage of a visual medium.

On one level, it acts merely as a heart-wrenching account of the death of Laurie’s dog Lolabelle, and how it affected her. But this would be too reductive an analysis. I’ve never owned a pet, except a long dead hamster and guinea pig, who live on in memory as the answer to a security question. The sense of intimate connection is something I’ve never forged. As a child, the dog acted as a symbol of fear for me: barking, jumping up right in your face, not a loving companion. Lolabelle forms the crux of the film, but this is only a starting point for an exploration of Anderson’s personality. Lolabelle is a daughter to Anderson – as we see in the introduction of the film, depicting an abstract dream where she gives birth to Lolabelle.

She forges connections between the life of a dog and the life of a human – showing that we are not so apart as we may think. Fear of being prey (in the face of surveillance and aeroplanes); how we treat death; the complication of putting a dog “to sleep”; composing music and painting art. But she makes other connections, comparing data centers to the hieroglyphic data contained within the pyramids of ancient Egypt.

The film’s most powerful sequence, where Anderson accounts Lolabelle’s 49 days in the bardo of Tibetan theology, intercut with shots of rain, gave me probably my strongest existential crisis since Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957).

“Here come the planes.
They’re American planes. Made in America.”

Anderson’s style is decidedly experimental, although one wouldn’t expect anything less from her. Photographs from childhood; recreations with actors; digital video footage of airport security; phone footage of Lolabelle shots of telephone wires superimposed with more abstract shots and the voice of her neighbor. But the film isn’t without narrative – Anderson merges these disparate parts together in a way that works.