Wednesday, December 22, 2010

the shop around the corner as horror film

For Sally's holiday blogathon (12 bloggers for the 12 days of Christmas, a rather nifty idea) I chose The Shop Around the Corner, a seasonal favorite directed by Ernst Lubitsch in 1940.

I haven't had much time to watch films lately, and when I have it has generally been time spent trying to fill gaps in my modern viewing. Thus when I sat down to watch the film after a number of years, I discovered something absolutely terrifying. More frightening than the fact that there is a holiday song devoted entirely to fruit cake. I'm not talking about how surprisingly depressing I found it this time around with its characters constantly worried about job security, so apt at the present time, or how it seemed more a parable for the perils of internet dating....

I was seeing it through modern eyes.

It seems a silly thing to say, but as much as it pains me for the first time I felt that alienation that quote "normal" people my age may experience when they watch an old film. Limited cutting, rather claustrophobic studio spaces. Even some of the stamped style similarities of old films are absent. There are no passage of time montages, nor is there any background music. For a film touted as a holiday favorite its sparsity cuts like a knife, its actors left to depend solely on each other to create a small world.

My God, the horror.

Instead of losing touch, losing the magic (for it slowly but steadily came back as my young eyes adjusted) it brought a new appreciation of the long take. Not at its showy best as in Citizen Kane, but as a strange collapse. After awhile I felt that I could inhabit the shop, walk around in the film space's shoes. I felt the same thing recently re-watching Remember the Night. There is a scene where Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck et al sit around a Christmas tree, singing songs and enjoying each other's company. The camera mostly just sits still in wait, a strange mirror of my own pose sitting next to a Christmas tree enjoying the company of friends. It was like we were all in the same room, enjoying the holidays together.

And I began to wonder if this is part of the otherworldliness of old film, if the lack of cuts makes it easier to 'experience' a film rather than feel strangely detached from it. An especially strange sensation given current preoccupations with making films 3D, making games more interactive. All the attention paid to bridging that gap. This is not to say that one way is better then the other, just as editing pace can be far too ADD these days it can also be far too slow depending on the situation. But there is something about that old quiet. Letting things lie just long enough for the viewer to settle in, but not so long as to become stilted. I've always thought of Lubitsch as an effortless comedy master, but here he simply lets things float gracefully, teasingly out of reach.

I feel like running through old streets like George Bailey reunited with old haunts that feel refreshingly new. My own unexpected Christmas miracle.


  1. Great review, Meredith! I haven't seen this movie in years, but I want to see it again - especially after reading this.

    I like your observations on the way films are cut today as opposed to the days of the studio era.

  2. Thanks so much! I hope you do, it's definitely one to revisit and an interesting exercise to see if/how your perspective changes as the years go by.

  3. Great stuff.
    You make a very interesting point about editing. It's rarely the first thing people hit on when they try to explain the differences between new and old films but I think it's one of the most decisive. When people say older films are slow, for instance, what they are often missing is not narrative pace as such but freneticism in the cutting.
    I don't go to movies when I'm in a hurry, I like to relax and let it all wash over me, but I do see the skill and effectiveness of the modern ay of doing it. I think it does represent another stage in the evolution of the film editor’s craft. (Perhaps the most unsung of all the craftsmen whose input is vital to the overall effect of a movie, then and now.) It’s slick and it’s MTV, but suspicious as I am of the motive, I can’t knock the effect. It gives real dramatic rhythm.
    I do miss the sedate pace and theatrical set-ups of classical Hollywood, but then, I miss everything about classical Hollywood. At least here the replacement justifies itself artistically, not just commercially.
    I'll stick with the old, but there are many things I hate about new movies and this, at least, isn't one of them.
    Thanks for this, Meredith, it got me thinking. Merry Christmas to ya!

  4. Interesting observation on the long take. I think as you said, it's one way to ease the viewer into the space of the film and really inhabit it.
    I'll be watching out for the editing the next time I see The Shop Around the Corner.

  5. Matthew-wonderful response, thank you. I definitely agree that editing has changed in ways that make it a more artful profession overall, something I appreciate greatly as someone who hopes to go into it (looking at a progression here for American film, different world cinemas seem to have embraced this earlier and why hollywood didn't jump on the bandwagon is one thing I wonder about) and while it isn't always to my taste music videos really are fascinating in the way they have taken editing and made it part of the musical rhythm. But the thing that I think a lot of editors (or directors, or whoever is making these final decisions) these days seem to unnecessarily fear is letting the camera linger unless it's some intricate steadicam long take, the general complaint that staging instead of cutting makes it "theatrical." Something generally said with disdain. And while there is some truth to that the reverse problem that this creates is unmotivated editing for the sake of switching shots. It's part of why fight scenes are completely possible to follow these days and not always the most effective choice. The example that always comes to mind for me is a scene at the beginning of Babel when Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are eating together. They're clearly having marriage troubles and at a climactic moment they decide to use two cuts, one on Pitt and one on Blanchett as they turn their heads away from each other. All it would take is for them to have stayed on the shot of the two of them and see how their bodies recoiled from each other in the same space, something that for me would have been far more effective.

    Sorry for writing this novel. haha. It is really something I'm passionate about! Happy Christmas to you too, Matthew.

    And thank you, Cee! I'm very glad I've been able to draw a little more attention to editing. It's quite a powerful and overlooked part of the process.

  6. Wonderful post!! Excellent and fascinating point about editing. Everything in today's movies is so fast-paced. On the one hand, I like it. On the other hand, I really do miss the more easy-going nature of old film editing.

  7. thank you, sally! and thanks for letting me participate! :) it is a rather bittersweet improvement.

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