Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Are Parents People? (1925)

I’ve seen many strained marriages portrayed in silent film, but not once—ever—did any of them end in divorce. Except in this movie. The wealthy, bickering Hazlitts (played by Adolphe Menjou and Florence Vidor) are separating when the picture starts; when they suddenly make things final, we’re told in passing! ‘Following their divorce...” or something like that, then on to the matters at-hand.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Girl Without a Soul (1917)

‘Girl Without a Soul’ sounds like some zombie film you’d watch behind the wheel of your ’56 Bel Air Hardtop. But this rare silent ignores the supernatural, focusing instead on the all-too natural fears caused by emotional abuse. The result is a tightly-packed piece of psychology, unravelled only in the final reel, when things turn out too much like we figured they would.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Silent Mania

Confession: In addition to being the weird kid who liked silent films, I also grew up as the (semi) weird kid who liked professional wrestling. Maybe that's why I enjoy physical comedy so much--the combination of choreography and charisma (and violence, much of the time) really headlocks my attention.

So for me, this is neat:

For those of you who don't like professional wrestling (probably only three or four of you, I'm sure), the man in the wheelchair is 16-time World Champion, 'Nature Boy' Ric Flair. The mustachioed gent is of course Hulk Hogan. The small dude at the start of the clip is AJ Styles, while the big masked dude is Abyss. This clip is taken from a recent wrestling pay per view, which someone has revisioned as a piece of silent slapstick comedy, complete with intertitles. It's pretty convincing, too. The creator is clearly a fan of silent film.

Scheduling update: I won't be adding a new movie article this Sunday, due to travel. However, I'm hoping to deliver one the following day. Try to hold out 'till then....


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Monkeyshines, No. 1 (1889)

Just a test, to see what it can do.

Camera’s ready. You ready?

I don’t know. Make a—
fist? No.
Make like you’re praying. Palm to palm.
It photographs better.
Now give me thirty seconds.


Like you? No, it doesn’t, unless you’re a white blob. But it moves like a person, and that’s what we needed to—
No, I don’t know what it’ll amount to. You tell me.
No, I run the equipment. You’re the one with the imagination. You’re the artist.

But we aren’t the same.
But if we were?
Then, what would I see, in this?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

'What's all the fuss about, Sprocket?'

I've been working my way through Season One of Fraggle Rock on DVD. Which, I guess, makes me like a lot of people, in the sense that I'm fascinated by anything that could be considered formative in my development as an adult. When you reach your 30s, you start to wonder how you got here.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Woman (1915)

You think you know a guy. You follow his work, you admire him—you figure you can predict his every move. Then, one day, you catch a glimpse of what he used to be like. He was a cocky s.o.b., back in the day. He stole. He beat people up. And he dressed in womens’ clothes.

Well, I thought I knew Charles Chaplin, brother. I recognized that stutter-stepping little sneak; the one with a heart of gold, but not much spleen, and no sway with the ladies. But like another famous Charlie—Charlie Brown—this little icon wasn’t always so tame. Travel back, before the maudlin grace of Modern Times (1936) or The Circus (1928), beyond even the measured pace and ample budget of Payday (1922), and you’ll find a Tramp still unfurling himself from the Keystone cloak of violence, sex (and yes) unqualified laughs. In some ways, I like the Chaplin of 1915 best of all.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fixed-camera Fantastico-rama

Fans of this blog know my love of the pre-1915 era—that is, the period of filmmaking swept away by the blockbuster success of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Birth showcased Griffith’s mastery of the moving camera, along with many now-standard editing tactics. Though the film was less a breakthrough than a synthesis of techniques Griffith and others had been discovering and experimenting with for several years, its influence is unquestioned. Thanks to Birth, and a few others masterpieces, such as the Italian epic, Cabiria (1914), silent films of the early-teens look much different from those produced in the second half of that decade, and beyond. The older films are generally shorter; they retain the ‘staginess’ of their aesthetic predecessor, the theatre, and their cinematography, such as it is, assumes an audience fixed in place, as a theatrical audience would be. Close-ups, pans and zooms are rare in these films. Actors, for the most part, appear in medium- or long-shot, and are rarely identified. Limitations abound.

So why are these films worth watching? Well, because I think they’re cool. But more importantly, they’re unappreciated. I reject as incomplete the standard tack presenters take when showing these films today—that is, that they’re an early, naive step toward proper filmmaking. Please. All art depends in part on technology to continue its development, and while these films are certainly ‘primitive’ even by Griffith’s standards, they deserve to be defined by what they do well, not just by what they lack. They are surreal, funny, and at times, psychologically complex. They’re a glimpse into the past, yes; a view of filmmaking in simpler days, yes; but they’re also movies made according to different rules, and with different goals in mind. And if this particular branch of the cinematic tree seems hopelessly old-fashioned, remember that the YouTube generation, with its webcams and brief recording times, is bringing us right back to where it all started.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ (1906)

Can you guess what this one’s about?

At 33 minutes, Alice Guy’s The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ was a healthy length for the time, and probably felt more epic in 1906 than it does now. We might focus on its limitations: the fixed camerawork, typical of the era, and the deliberate stagecraft, which makes The Birth seem like a theatre production with a lens for an audience. God help the viewer who doesn’t know the story going in, since Guy bypasses considerable and complicated details to tell the story in pantomime. We miss some of the best parts, too. We never see his fabled throwdown with the moneylenders, or his admonition against those who would throw stones. In the absence of any dramatic tension (we all know how this ends), it is the writer and/or director’s interpretation of Jesus that makes a film about him interesting. Guy, however, is content to depict—and the man she depicts is one-dimensional, even by mytho-heroic standards.

And yet the film still worked for me. Like many movies of the pre-Griffith period, The Birth’s sheer phoniness inspires an intriguing, and occasionally unnerving, take on a very old tale.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

How's Your April Looking?

If you live in Toronto, your April's looking slushy. But there's a reprieve. From April 6th to 15th, our fair city plays host to the inaugural Toronto Silent Film Festival. I can't wait because, as someone who's seen more silent films than, well, anyone I know, I still find several unexplored gems in this lineup. If you're a silent film newbie, be assured the selections also include big-time, accessible classics like Buster Keaton's Seven Chances (1925). Check it out, and if you see me at the concession stand, by me a cookie.

The programme is here. I will be there. There's no slush in the theatre. What more could you ask for, silent fans?