Lulu in Pandora’s Box

“Lulu in ‘Pandora’s Box’”    

Originally posted April 20th, 2011 on Film School Rejects as part of their ‘Criterion Files’

The first time I saw G.W Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, I thought I knew what Lulu, the character played by Louise Brooks, would be like. All I knew was that Lulu destroyed the lives of those around her. I expected her to be a typical femme fatale, with perhaps a bit of the vamp in her; sexy, manipulative, cold, calculating, powerful. I expected her to be a scheming woman with a plan for destruction. Lulu is a very complicated character because she is in many ways the direct opposite of the femme fatale despite the amount of damage she inevitably causes. I chose to write about Pandora’s Box because it means a great deal to me. Most importantly, it introduced me to Louise Brooks. I idolize her for all she had to endure, for never compromising and for the enigmatic personality she brought to the screen which has never been matched.  By looking at Lulu as a character, I hope to give at least a little insight into her performance in Pandora’s Box and the complicated and ultimately symbolic character she portrays with Lulu.

The name of the film immediately gives some indication of Lulu’s character in the parallels it suggests between her and the myth. Pandora was the first mortal woman in Greek mythology. She was made as a punishment for mankind due to the actions of Prometheus because powerful women were seen as destroyers of man. She possessed incomparable beauty, charm and skill. But she opened a box out of curiosity and released all of the evils in the world and by the time she closed the box the only thing left in it at the bottom was hope.

There are obvious similarities between Pandora and Lulu. Most importantly, curiosity was Pandora’s motivation for opening the box; not some calculated plan to unleash evil on the world. Curiosity can be seen as synonymous with naiveté, which is exactly what Lulu has. Lulu is not the femme fatale. She is a naïve woman who is somewhat unaware of the effect she has on people and of the damage she causes whether it is her fault or not. Lulu does not purposely ruin the lives of the people around her and this is a key characteristic.

In the commentary for the film with Mary Ann Doane and Thomas Elsaesser that can be heard on the Criterion Collection edition of Pandora’s Box, Doane make a statement that reveals another important characteristic of Lulu’s. Doane states that “she is a character for who the past holds no weight”. Lulu’s sole motivation is pleasure in the present. She does not mean to hurt anyone. She fails to comprehend that her actions affect others and that other people have their own individual feelings and desires. She does not learn from past mistakes and refuses to compromise or dwell on the past. Additionally, Lulu will not learn from past mistakes and is capable of shaking the past off no matter how traumatic it may be.

An example of this is when she returns to Alwa’s place after she escapes from her trial for Schon’s death. Alwa comes home to find Lulu coming out of the bath. She acts insensitively to what Alwa is going through. She smiles even though he has lost his father; she pokes him and he says “How dare you come here”. She looks slightly confused and says “Where else should I go but home?” She smiles, he shakes a hat into her hands and then Lulu gets violently angry and then throws the hat across the room. She then completely changes moods, smiles and crosses the room to go look at herself in the mirror in her bathrobe. Lulu wastes no time moving on from life-changing events so she can continue pursuing the present moment. The way Lulu acts in this scene is not malicious but simply unmindful; because of this, we continue to care about her despite her blatant inability to take other people’s feelings into account.

Another key characteristic of Lulu that harks back to the natural curiosity of Pandora is Lulu’s childishness. We are the most curious as children and this is what Lulu essentially is; a child. She becomes the most childlike around her “father”/pimp Schigolch. She is the most familiar with him and sits on his lap whenever she sees him. The most extreme example of Lulu’s childishness is the tantrum she has backstage at the revue she participates in. Schon brings Charlotte his fiancée backstage at the revue which Lulu is performing in and shows her around. When Lulu sees Schon, her expressions and mannerisms are that of an upset child. Her brow pushes forward and her lips pout out and Lulu suddenly looks like a five-year old who did not get her way. She stomps off and refuses to perform in the show, pushing people out of her way and makes a large commotion in front of Schon.

A piece of behind the scenes knowledge during the making of the film can also shed some light on how Pabst might have seen Lulu. When she shoots Schon, G.W Pabst told Louise Brooks to react by saying “Das Blut!” meaning “the blood!” Although neither the line nor Brooks’ lips uttering the words make it into the film, this direction is an indication of Lulu’s childlike nature. Instead of telling Brooks to react to the fact that she just shot and killed her lover and her best friend’s father, Pabst tells her to react to a much more abstract thing; blood. A child would unlikely understand the full implications of the death of someone and instead would react to the concrete physicality of the blood. Pabst’s direction of Brooks during this scene suggests that he also looks at Lulu as having childlike qualities.

For all of Lulu’s characterization, her mere presence gives off a sense of symbolic purpose. The connection to the figure of Pandora and the elusiveness of Lulu elevates her to a mythical-like status. This is why it takes a figure like the assumed “Jack the Ripper” to eliminate her; someone with that historical status is the only one who has the ability to destroy her. The way Pabst’s camera depicts the actress, and the meaning that Brooks’ presence and performance give to the film add to the fascination that comes with Lulu, making her a unique character and an iconic presence in film.

Louise Brooks never poses for the camera. It makes her all the more appealing and Pabst uses this to his advantage by adding different lighting techniques, most notably soft focus and expressionistic lighting to enhance her undeniably unique qualities. Using soft focus for close-ups was standard, but Pabst’s use of it veers towards visual poetry. The casting of Brooks, an American among a cast of Germans, gives her an added air of mysteriousness and unfamiliarity to audiences; she sticks out even more so because of it. Louise Brooks plays Lulu with a natural air that has never been equaled. Rumor has it that the reason that Pabst did not cast Marlene Dietrich as opposed to Brooks was because he had said that “’one sexy look and the picture would become a burlesque’”. He needed Brooks’ effortless quality in front of the camera to make the film stand out among others and he knew it.

Brooks’ real life antics make the character of Lulu even more engaging to a modern day audience. She was promiscuous, very much into sex and desire almost to a fault. She and Lulu represented the modern woman who was in control of her life, her sexuality and of the choices that she made. Unfortunately for Brooks, many of these were bad choices; but she made her own life by her own rules. The Hollywood system could not contain her. All of Lulu’s seductive qualities were Louise Brooks. Pabst managed to capture the essence of her. This is not an act; beyond the definite construct of Lulu, I believe we are seeing Louise Brooks herself.

Lulu is a character in cinema that has become an icon, representing desire, eroticism; a woman who seems to be in control of the camera that photographs her, her femininity and her power. Lulu is brought to life by Louise Brooks, a legend in her own right, who is unforgettable as Pandora’s Box. Make no mistake that in the end, for all its other accomplishments, of which there are many, Brooks makes this film. She is sex and desire. She is a curious child. She is living completely for herself. She is mythically symbolic. She is Lulu.


Weekly Screening Log: April 22nd-28th

139. Poetry (2011, Lee): A-

140. In a Better World (2011, Bier): B-

141. Slacker (1991, Linklater): A

142. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives (2011, Weerasethakul): B-

143. Cracks (2011, Scott): B

144. A Girl in Every Port (1928, Hawks): D+

145. The Wind (1928, Sjöström): A-

146. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, Scorsese): A-

147. The Rite (2011, Håfström): D-

148. Scream 4 (2011, Craven): C

149. Blow Out (1981, De Palma): A

List: 10 Creepy Villains from Children’s Films

This list will steer towards the personal, in that almost all of the films on this list made a significantly creepy impact on me when I watched them as a child. For this reason, films like The Dark Crystal, Watership Down, The Neverending Story, Labyrinth and others will not be on here; I saw them all later in life. Only one film here is from the past ten years; the rest are films from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Other films like The Wizard of Oz and The Nightmare Before Christmas are omitted because while they have scary villains, they do not get to me the way these others do.

I was a very odd child and it goes without saying that I am a very odd adult. Very random and seemingly harmless things can scare me. Example: as a three year-old I had a poster of Sesame Street Live on my wall. The image of Cookie Monster on it quite literally gave me nightmares. Another example; a viewing of Citizen Kane when I was twelve sent me into a crippling two-year fear of Orson Welles. Laugh now (I sure do), but I honestly could not enter Blockbuster, it effected my school work, I cautiously turned the pages in books and magazines during that time and went to the school guidance counselor every week for it. Faces terrify me more than perhaps anything else. Willem Dafoe as a theoretically older Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ. Kathleen Byron in Black Narcissus. Fiona Shaw in The Black Dahlia (awful film; great performance). Gloria Swanson in the end of Sunset Boulevard. Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Felissa Rose at the end of Sleepaway Camp . Donald Sutherland and Adelina Poerio at the end of Don’t Look Now. All of these examples are evidence that, oftentimes for me, the scariest thing I can see is a face.

As I brainstormed for this list I discovered something quite surprising. There were films that sprang to mind that were not applicable. Why? Because it was the films themselves that scared me, not the villain in them. There are many children’s films that have a very unsettling feeling about them; it is almost impossible to put into words. There are several films on this list that fit this category. Examples of films not on the list that apply are The Brave Little Toaster, The Secret of NIMH and James and the Giant Peach are examples.

Now that you have a brief idea of where I’m coming from, here is my list. Again, this is based entirely on what I watched as a child and my experiences with them. I would LOVE to hear your own picks so be sure to comment!

10. The Beldam – Teri Hatcher (voice) – Coraline (2009)

Here is the only villain on the list from a film made in the 2000’s. This would have been guaranteed a higher spot, had it not been for the absence of specific traumatic childhood memories. As it is, director Henry Selick has always known how to be creepily effective when he needs to be. This is no different; he really delivers the goods here and the strong source material gave him plenty to work with.

9. The Spirit – Jackie Burroughs (voice) – The Care Bears Movie (1985)

Laugh if you will. It has been…about fifteen years since I last watched The Care Bears Movie. It is hard to remember back and pinpoint what specifically was so frightening about this. Doing research, I noticed that many others cite this as a film and character they were scared by. It should go without saying that The Care Bears Movie is not going to actively scare any children, even very small ones; apparently not.

8. Hexxus – Tim Curry (voice) – Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (1992)

Ferngully as a whole unsettles me (not in a way that takes away from the film); again, it is hard to pinpoint why. Maybe because it has Robin Williams voicing a fruit bat. Surely much of it is because of Hexxus who is given an effectively eerie voice by Curry. The way Hexxus slinks, slithers and seeps into and out of objects is what makes him frightening. Also, he turns into an oil demon that breathes fire. Enough said.

7. Doc Hopper – Charles Durning – The Muppet Movie (1979)

Doc Hopper’s obsession with Kermit the Frog and his legs is just a little creepy. The man kidnaps Kermit and attempts to BRAINWASH him. Durning plays him as this fantastical and outlandish Colonel Sanders archetype, and its his purposely caricatured performance that resonated for me as a child watching the film.

6. The Wheelers – Various – Return to Oz (1985)

This is another example is a film that sufficiently unsettles in its entirety. After recently seeing it again, it holds up as being even creepier than I remember. Mombi could have easily gone into this spot too, but characters that have a specific mobility trait tend to stick with me more. This goes for Hexxus and The Wheelers. They come in packs and they move, well, it’s all in the name.

5. The Coachman – Charles Judels (voice) – Pinocchio (1940)

…..yeah. The picture says it all. The Coachman’s inclusion is meant to also represent the entire Pleasure Island sequence. The outright sadism of this character is a bit jarring to see as a child because his satisfaction is easy to comprehend and process. This is the scariest thing Disney has ever done.

4. Miss Trunchbull – Pam Ferris – Matilda (1996)

Pam Ferris annihilates with her performance in Matilda. It is completely over the top, but it never feels like its too much because of the world director Danny DeVito and author Roald Dahl have separately created. All adaptations of Roald Dahl films creep me out on some level, with the exception of Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. DeVito loves the fish-eye lens and extreme close-ups; he tries very hard to give the film the same feel that Quentin Blake’s illustrations have. The way Trunchbull is shot, in addition to the feeling of the entire film and finally because of Ferris herself, this gets a high spot on the list. Can we just take a second and reflect on the mere concept of The Chokey? Or the scene when she makes Bruce Bogtrotter eat an entire chocolate cake? Or the sequence when she discovers Matilda is hiding somewhere in her house and ruthlessly hunts for her?

3. The Grand Duke of Owls – Christopher Plummer (voice) – Rock-a-Doodle (1992)

Remember when I mentioned some of these films creep me out entirely? Nowhere is that more relevant than it is here. Honestly? I don’t even know if I could watch this again; that is how hesitant I am. Every single frame of this film disturbs me. And it sucks to boot. It’s an outright shitty film and for whatever reason, it unnerves me more than any other animated film in existence. This includes the “Grand Duke of Owls”.

2. Judge Doom – Christopher Lloyd – Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

I feel like this is an inclusion everyone can agree on. Something like the “Grand Duke of Owls” is more specified toward my own odd relationships with certain films. Others like Judge Doom, are simply universal. He is terrifying at the outset. Who among us can recall the suspense during the “Shave and a Haircut” scene? His very controlled and unpredictable demeanor. Those gloves. Those sunglasses. His desire to WIPE OUT AN ENTIRE RACE. Then we reach the climax, which takes everything several steps further than expected.He gets run over by a STEAMROLLER. The sound effects by Lloyd as we SEE THIS HAPPEN are completely fucking disturbing. Then, in the scariest resurrection since Michael Myers in Carpenter’s Halloween, the villain, now a flat and wobbly toon rises and re-inflates himself as his EYEBALLS POP OUT. His voice transforms into a helium-possessed freakshow as he simultaneously reveals he killed Eddie’s (Bob Hoskins) brother. It’s a two-for-one plot twist; it remains shiver-inducing. His eyeballs become animated knives. He bounces across the warehouse. It’s fucking brutal.

1. Grand High Witch – Anjelica Huston – The Witches (1990)

Unlike Rock-a-Doodle, which I won’t rewatch because I know it’s crap and it will not be worth the likely trauma, The Witches is a film I am fairly certain I would like if I rewatched it again, but am cowering in fear at the very notion of it. This is the most disturbing live-action children’s film bar none. It is very telling how much of this film I remember even though it was not a childhood favorite of mine. For all I know, I have only seen it once. I just know the impact it had on me. Not coincidentally, this is another Roald Dahl adaptation. The Grand High Witch is just plain disgusting, but so is everything about this.  The work Jim Henson and his company did on this film is nothing short of stellar. This is the kind of work that is not done today if it does not have to be. There’s not much to say about this villain, as I cannot recall her specifics; just the reveal that this is what she actually looks like. That I remember. To top it all off, Nicolas Roeg directed this! This accounts for a lot of the film’s tone and has convinced me to revisit it soon. As soon as I work up the nerve.

Weekly Trailer Round-up #1

School is winding down which is making me rethink how I want my blog to be. I know consistency is my big issue and my main goal to work on that. Writing does not come as naturally to me as it does for many others out there, so time is a factor. I’d like to do a weekly trailer post as well as a weekly commentary post sharing my thoughts on a piece of film news. My weekly screening posts will have musings as well.

Trailers are usually about prepackaging a film into a definitive set of criteria. For the most part, people want to know what to expect when they walk into a movie theater. Will they be scared? Thrilled? Laugh? Cry? Trailers boil down the expected emotions. Or they purposely misrepresent the film in efforts to gain more viewers. It goes without saying that trailers are a form of advertising. They are meant to sell the film. So while they always have to be taken with a grain of salt, they also are a great indicator on whether or not any given film will be ‘for you’.

30 Minutes of Less (B): The material looks little more than average, but the comedic pairing like Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari looks very promising. Eisenberg is one of the best young actors today and Ansari is one of my favorite stand-up comedians, so it would be a shame if this doesn’t pan out they way it theoretically should. Eisenberg’s character seems to have a lot more confidence than the types of characters we are used to seeing from him. It is not hard to see the slightly different air about him, making him, dare I say it, even more attractive? Yes…I believe I dare say it. In short, hopefully the film itself will match the potential of the cast and not depend too much on the line deliveries of the actors.

The Change-Up (C-): Another take on the ‘Freaky Friday’ concept, this time with two actors who seem incapable of portraying the other convincingly. At least, that’s the sense one gets from the trailer. Isn’t the entire point of a film like this to see all the fun ways the actors portray their characters post body-swapping? When Ryan Reynolds, a womanizing bachelor, and Jason Bateman, a domesticated family man, switch bodies it is nearly impossible to tell the difference. This may be because we do not stay with a scene long enough to get a sense of the performances, but uninteresting material aside, it looks like it’ll be hard to fully buy these performances.

The Help (C+): I have been meaning to read The Help, but now I’m not so sure if I want to. This looks a lot more light-hearted than I thought it was supposed to be. Packaged into the epitome of a heartwarming crowd pleaser, nothing about this trailer feels real. I’ll read the book because it is absurd to not read a book because the trailer for the movie adaptation is disappoints, but the fact remains…this looks overcooked.

Submarine (A): I’ve been looking forward to this ever since hearing about it, and the trailer exceeded my expectations. Has a Rushmore vibe about it (one of my all-time favorites; as innovative in 2011 as it was in 1998), yet it looks like it has its own identity and does not feel forced or unoriginal.  The film looks quite beautiful to boot. Unfortunately, I’ll be missing this at IFFBoston next week, because I am opting for Green instead.

The High Cost of Living (D+): Everything we hear Zach Braff say in voiceover during the first third of this trailer sounds like dialogue that could have come directly from Garden State. Nothing about it looks worthwhile; a somber romantic drama laced with some half-hearted humor. The only question left hanging is whether or not the lead female will accept Braff for his actions. I don’t care to know the answer. The tagline, the music, all of it; no thanks.

Another Earth (B): The concept of Another Earth certainly has potential, and it looks like the outcome can go either way. Low budget indie sci-fi cannot help but recall last year’s Monsters, and that was a near disaster in execution.

Circumstance (A-): Try not to be captivated by this. My hope is that it can give legitimate insight on Iranian youth culture, and not just be a titillating tale of victimhood.

Terri (B-): This is certainly something I’ll see but outside what looks to be a great performance by Jacob Wysocki and the ever-reliable presence of John C. Reilly, nothing sticks out. There are so many trailers for these kinds of indie films, and it is unfortunate that they are always put together to convey the same exact tone and feel, despite the wide range of identities these films carry.

L’Amour Fou (B+): Biographical documentaries are an immediate hook. Plus, lots of stunning fashion. Plus, this kind of high-profile auction is something that fascinates me. Also; a few shots of Saint-Laurent remind me of Crispin Glover. Weird.

Brother’s Justice (D): This looks like a thoroughly pompous project. Nothing is funny in this trailer. Appearances by Ashton Kutcher and Tom Arnold are terrible selling points.

Weekly Screening Log: April 14th-21st

I am going to start posting grades for my weekly screening posts. They are meant somewhat arbitrarily and not as a declaration of worth. It is mainly to keep track of my general initial response to the films I see. Once school gets out, I plan on keeping up with my one paragraph summations.

134. Day for Night (1973, Truffaut): A

135. Topsy-Turvy (1999, Leigh): A-

136. Time of the Wolf (2003, Haneke): C

137. The Girl who Leapt Through Time (2006, Hosoda): A

138. Jacob’s Ladder (1990, Lyne): B+

Poll: Most Anticipated May 2011 Release?

The Summer 2011 season will officially begin in 11 days. Superhero films, reboots, remakes, sequels and even a few original big-budget films will be in theaters everywhere for the next four months. The indie and international market will continue their output through the blockbuster season. Some of these will be good, more of them will likely be bad and a few might even be great; this goes for both sides. Kicking off the summer season, there are a lot of anticipated films to choose from. Most notably, countless people’s most anticipated 2011 release finally comes out this month: Terrence Malick’s endlessly hyped The Tree of Life. Count me among those most excited. After seeing The Thin Red Line, his existentially broad and all encompassing film, May 27th cannot come soon enough. It looks to be even more broad and all encompassing and the question is; will it be as masterful as everyone already assumes it will be? I certainly hope so. Also, Thor has been getting quite the positive feedback from early screenings and premieres. I debated putting in Hobo with a Shotgun because everyone has already seen it through On Demand, but its official theatrical release occurs this month. Personally the films I am most anticipating this month are The Tree of Life, The Beaver, Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, Louder than a Bomb, City of Life and Death and Kung Fu Panda 2. The question is: what are you most looking forward to? Results will be posted on May 1st.

Weekly Screening Log: April 8th-14th

128. The Verdict (1982, Lumet)

129. Mildred Pierce (2011, Haynes)

130. Shadows (1959, Cassavetes)

131. Equus (1977, Lumet)

132. Sansho the Bailiff (1954, Mizoguchi)

133. Performance (1970, Roeg)