Monday, November 17, 2014

The Manxman (1929)

There is no love triangle quite like this one.

I first watched The Manxman years ago, having already seen several of Alfred Hitchcock’s other silent films. None of those ones had overwhelmed. Though they showed touches of the brilliance to come, they were also the products of a youthful director still finding his footing. They were uneven and, by the standards of late-20s silent cinema, nothing to write home about.

But The Manxman? I loved it. Was transfixed by it. My heart broken by it. Could predict not one moment of it. I told people to watch it, promising they’d have a similar experience. A few did, and most of them agreed. But it remains a film few people know about, available in lousy video copies and rarely mentioned even when Hitchcock’s silent films are (rarely) mentioned.

I like to think BFI is changing that. Its 2012 restorations of the “Hitchcock 9” (the surviving nine silents that the master directed—out of a total of ten) lets these films shine as best they can—eliminating, for the most part, the wear of time, and allowing them to be judged, without qualification, on their artistic merits. Some still fall short. The Manxman, in my opinion, soars.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Blackmail (1929)

Yesterday evening marked the start of the Toronto Silent Film Festival’s Hitchcock 9 screening series—an event that will be executed over several weeks. Could you, by chance, be unfamiliar with the Hitchcock 9? You are not alone.

Alfred Hitchcock directed ten silent films at the beginning of his career, nine of which survive. They vary in genre, theme and style, and they are little known today—in part because they are silent, but also because they’ve long been available, on video, in prints of such a quality that Hitchcock could’ve sued for vandalism.

But things are looking up. In 2012, the British Film Institute (BFI) completed restorations of all nine silents, and by all accounts they look gorgeous. I can vouch for only one so far: the opening film of TSFF’s series: Blackmail.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Sex (1920)

The act of sex—the physical joining of at least two persons for erotic purposes, to put it in the least-sexy way possible—is neither a moral nor an immoral thing. It is a biological thing. Almost all organisms are equipped to do it, to some degree; almost all species must do it to persevere. Sex is a fundamental part of being an animal, and we humans are animals like all the rest.

But we are also social creatures. And the complex societies we build are sustained in part by our ability to define, codify and control our fundamental drives. Thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not skip out on thy wife. Breach the bounds of society, polite or otherwise, and you’ll face the consequences.

Sex is a celebration of those consequences. Released in 1920, it looked ahead to a decade of flappers, Jazz and gin-soaked sin that would push against convention a little harder every year—an attitude the wholly opposes. Despite its provocative title, Sex is the most conservative movie I’ve seen in a while—more conservative than many silent films, including some that predate it.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Yellow Ticket (1918)

Imagine being told you could not go to school because of your last name. Imagine, even, being barred entry into a city—unless you accepted a legal standing that made you part of a permanent subclass.

I’m not referring to current events, although I could be. That’s the thing about bigotry—it’s always a metaphor for, and a callback to, earlier bigotries. And so, while we turn on the news and see (or simply, live through) today’s hatred, we can also turn to the past and see it manifested there. Even dramatized, as it is in The Yellow Ticket.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

La Voz de Los Silenciados (The Voice of the Voiceless) (2013)

Long ago (in the 90s) I fell in love with a video game called Out of This World. The game’s protagonist was a scientist, transported to an alien planet where he could understand neither the language nor the motives of the natives.

Out of This World was unsettling, because its designer, Éric Chahi, sought to make it art. The game featured a character in isolation, but it also evoked isolation through its game play, using music sparingly—often relying on tones, rather than whole melodies, to make a point about how bad the player’s situation had become. Action sequences were intercut with cinema scenes of dough-headed aliens talking urgently but inscrutably. When the player failed a task—which was often—he returned to the same starting point; usually a prison of some kind, from which he had to escape all over again.

Talk to men and women of my vintage about Out of This World and they’ll tell you it was fun. But what they’ll really want to talk to you about is how it made them feel.

One artwork suggests another. I thought of Out of This World many times while watching La Voz de Los Silenciados (The Voice of the Voiceless), a contemporary silent film by Maximón Monihan, an American director with a background in skateboarding and skateboarding films. Here again we are presented with a protagonist plucked from her own environment and placed in a new one both hostile and difficult to understand. Again we have a narrative broken down into a series of quests, bookended by sameness, repetition. And again there is an undertone of horror. But while the game’s hero was lost among aliens, in this case, our hero is lost among her fellow humans. She is displaced not just geographically, but linguistically. Because she is deaf.