Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Reflections: My First Silent...

...was Metropolis.

No way I’m alone on this one. Metropolis is probably the most famous silent film among people under 60, and they can find it everywhere: on television, tape, laserdisc or DVD; legit or bootlegged, at lengths ranging from one hour to nearly three. I’ve seen Metropolis more times than any other silent film. Metropolis is the only silent film most of my friends have watched. And it seems we’ll all get to see it fresh again: in 2008, a batch of new footage was discovered in Argentina, prompting talk of another restoration.

Metropolis still resonates because of the potent, standalone images it provides. The plot is basic, not terribly convincing, and not even stable, considering the radically different cuts viewers have been exposed to through the decades. It’s the pictures that last, and appropriately, it’s through still pictures that I first came to know the film.

In 1984, in our town library, in the dusty back shelves, was a beat-up science fiction film book. It charted the development of science fiction movies from their origins in 19th century popular novels all the way to the present day—that being the early-60s. (Our library wasn’t blessed with many benefactors when I was young.) The book’s editors mused about the effects a successful moon-landing might one day have on the genre.

I was only eight, and I don’t remember much else about the book, aside from its fatness and photos. It must have devoted space to A Trip to the Moon (1902) and the Flash Gordon serials, and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Forbidden Planet (1956). Those last two are terrific sound films, both of which left us iconic robots:

But I don’t recall Robbie or Gort in those pages. I do remember this:

If you’d asked eight-year-old-me what the future looked like, I’d have held up my plastic Rebel snow-speeder. The future was filled with machines, yes, and great, tall shining towers; but all of it was in colour, and loud and fast. Black-and-white meant old. I’d never seen a black-and-white movie, other than first quarter of The Wizard of Oz, and really, wasn’t the point of that to wow you with what colour could do? And by the way, the future had too many rocket engines and laser guns blasting to ever be silent.

Ask me what a robot was and I’d have set down the snow-speeder and picked up Optimus Prime. To me, the idea of a sentient robot was not strange. Depicting one with feminine form? That certainly was. These pictures were not simply strange to me; they were transgressive. They stepped over the boundaries my pop culture had marked for me. They made the future look old, and in so doing, taught me that the future is a concept informed by the present, not a set of predictable and inevitable developments. Most importantly, they broadened my sense of the age of film. I thought the 1940s were plenty ancient, since they produced my parents. The 1920s? They produced my grandmother, for pete’s sake.

If I’d had access to a World Wide Web in the early-80s, I would have tracked down a copy of Metropolis. But there was no ’Net, nor even a big-box video store where I lived. I closed the book on this film (literally) for many years. About six years, actually. And I owe my re-awakening to pretty base circumstances.

A fourteen-year old boy from a good home in a developed country has few real challenges, but I did have a small one: finding movies with boobs in them. Like any young gentleman in the early, ’Net-less 90s, I had only three options:

1. Porn.
Bootlegged, of course. Rickety VHS tapes were occasionally smuggled between houses, usually without parental crackdown. But urgent, vigorous rewinding diminishes the performances within, and really, these flicks weren’t as erotic as we’d hoped.

2. Erotica.
You couldn’t rent porn from the local indy video store, but you could rent this stuff. Too bad the front counter was always manned. Erotica guaranteed boobage and humiliation in equal volume, forcing every teenage boy to choose between two, temporary masters: Dignity and Desire.

No contest.

For starters, you made sure no one would be behind you in line. If the store was busy, you just wandered around until it wasn’t. This could take a long time. Step two was removal of the tape-sleeve from the rack, to be performed briskly and without halt—same principal as a drive-by shooting. The sleeve was to be held cover-side down, obscuring the artwork between your forearm and thigh. The transaction was to be made without eye contact or small talk of any kind.
I had an extra tactic: I’d rent something classy alongside the dirt. I remember renting Citizen Kane and Wild Orchid on the same day. (It wasn’t a problem to watch them both in an evening, thanks to fast-forwarding.) I thought this made me look like less of a loser sleazebag. I may have been wrong.

3. The third way.
The biggest longshot, but also the least embarrassing. If you could stay up until 1:00 a.m. on a Friday night in my town, you could see one of City-TV’s ‘baby blue’ movies. They were ‘blue’ because they always—always—gave you a sex scene. But you had to wait for it. Plus, City-TV punished you by going to commercial (it seemed) every five minutes, for five minutes, shilling Bad Boy Furniture and Three-for-One Pizza while you got anxious.

The better the movie, the worse it was. The truly gratuitous sex movies at least brought you the goods on a regular basis. But films that tried to elevate the sex (while still giving you gobs of it) usually put you through a first hour of overwrought, way-too-celibate ‘meaning’ that still pretty much sucked. So teens like me, who had no taste but were capable of developing some, learned what times were safest to switch the channel. The ideal time was immediately after a sex scene had ended. And I remember doing just that one night, flipping channels rapidly upward with no destination in mind, when I found Metropolis on the French-language station.

It was well into the third act. The hero and heroine, Freder and Maria, were trapped in the underground city that housed the labouring class. The labourers were above ground, rioting; no one remained in the caverns but their children, and now water was rushing into the caves, threatening to drown them all. Freder and Maria drew the children out of the tenements and up to the highest point they could find. On the surface, the workers’ uprising raged on and its evil robot-instigator was burned alive.

Imagine a fourteen-year old, sitting cross-legged on a hard carpet in front of a small TV, in the middle of the night, with every light in his house switched off, seeing all this. Sexier entertainment had fixed my eyes to that screen well before I found the French station; fear of being caught had tuned my ear to the slightest meaningful sound—creaks, toilet flushes, footfalls on floorboards. No matter how base my reasons, I was absolutely in the right state of mind for Metropolis’ pivotal third act, and it gave me much. I perceived film in a wholly new way

My town had its own Blockbuster by now, so the next day I headed there to rent Metropolis. Blockbuster did not carry it, but they could order it. Six weeks later I marched back into the store, straight to the cashier, and with half-a-dozen people in line behind me, paid for my first silent film. Now, that tape spurred me to watch hundreds more silent films, and eventually, to start this blog. So it seems right to conclude this entry with a thank you to the casts and crews of Under Cover, Animal Instincts, Bodies of Evidence, Sheer Passion, Intimate Deception, Animal Instincts III: The Seductress, and all their colleagues. Without you, I wouldn’t be here.

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