Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Reflections: Primal Cynicism

Short post today, but hopefully food for thought.

I watched my first William S. Hart silent western last night: The Toll Gate (1920). Hart’s movies are not easy to come by today, though I don’t know why. His heyday was the mid-teens to early-1920s and The Toll Gate, if it’s emblematic of his work, does seem to hold up pretty well.

The film explores the redemption of a good man who has done a lot of bad things. Hart’s character is a train-robber—fairly successful, but not nearly as successful as he might have been if he’d had no conscience. His good deeds, few though they may be, end up saving him from trouble no heist could buy him out of. Yes, The Toll Gate is moralistic, like a lot of silent dramas, but it asks interesting questions. It’s a good movie.

The DVD in question pairs Hart’s film with a 1916 comedy short, His Bitter Pill. This short was produced by Mack Sennett (of Keystone Cops fame) and it satires Hart mercilessly. It tells the story of Jim, obese sheriff of a frontier town; a simple man in love with the local girl. Urged on by his mother, Jim proposes, only to discover another ring on the girl’s finger. A ‘book learned scoundrel’ has stolen her heart, and now this moustachioed feller is pressuring her to visit saloons. Following a tantrum (face down on his mother’s floor, with legs kicking), Jim shoots down the city-fied scoundrel’s entire posse.

His Bitter Pill is a great reminder that silent-era audiences were just as complex as today’s. The content of silent melodrama might tempt us to think that pre-1930s viewers ate up schmaltz with a spoon. Which they did; they just happened to be snarky and cynical about it, too. What were people thinking when they watched the Gish sisters wax apoplectic in films like Orphans of the Storm? Were they moved, or were they just moved to smirk? Or could it be both?

I’m no art critic, but I have a strong belief in the power of context. I trust the human mind’s capacity to be equally entertained—and even transformed—by works of art that are incompatible and even contradictory. We are complicated beings, for the most part. Silent audiences had the same advantage.

No comments:

Post a Comment