Friday, April 29, 2011

The King's Intertitles

I'm a bit of grouch about all this William and Kate business--partly because of my latent republican streak (in the Commonwealth, not U.S.-political, sense of the word). Partly, too, because I didn't know what a 'fascinator' was until today. And partly, I think, because all this talk of Kate Middleton the commoner makes it sound like she was working at some deli when the Prince picked her up. I'm a commoner too, and I ascend to a less exhalted throne, though I try to do so regularly.

But enough griping. This blog's all about silent film and its continued relevance as an artform, and once again, a link to modernity has been found. You may have seen this link already, since it's been zipping through the Twitter stream (I'm @SilentVolume, btw): footage of future-King George VI and future-The Queen Mother's nuptials, and very nice footage at that.

I'm not going to analyze this material, but I will call your attention to one thing. Note that we only see one establishing shot of the interior of Westminster Abbey, with the groom and bride reciting vows, before cutting to this intertitle: "Married." That's it.

Now, the BBC was apparently barred from recording the proceedings for radio, so it's not as though there was no public interest in hearing the vows. (Which is also not to imply, if The King's Speech is accurate, that Bertie wanted his voice on tape that day). Cameras, on the other hand, were allowed in the Abbey, at least briefly. What's the result?

In a silent film, it's often not the words said, so much as the act of saying, and the significance of why they're said, that counts. 'Saying' is itself a message--an act sometimes rendered symbolic, even ritualistic, in silent films, and one that can make those doing the talking seem archetypal and symbolic themselves. That's the effect I get here. What do you think?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Alice in Wonderland (1915)

Some stories beg to be filmed. I’ve seen five versions of Alice in Wonderland—two of them silent—with at least ten more to go. That’s just movies, mind you; not TV. The appeal of the story seems simple enough: a children’s classic with hidden depths; compelling to kids and their parents alike; humorous and frightening in turn… and profoundly weird, in a mostly visual way that leaves f/x pioneers licking their chops, generation after generation. Alice has infinite potential, it seems; so much so that no one adaptation has eclipsed its fellows the way The Wizard of Oz did all others, before and after 1939. There will always be room for another Alice. The 1915 version, alas, makes you grateful.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

What Price Glory? (1926)

There is a space between the film you are watching and you. Great sound films make that space seem to disappear. But great silent films--accompanied by sound that is not a recording of events onscreen, but an evocation of them--can keep us very conscious of our role in the interplay between image, sound, space and time. I’m not saying silents can’t be immersive—quite the opposite. I’m saying there’s a constant give-and-take going on when you watch one, especially a very good one; viewing them, we must often deal with shifts between the literal and the figurative.

There is a point in What Price Glory?, a war movie, where I occupied this mental-emotional in-between ground, and felt under attack. It was during a big battle scene, predictably; a long and harrowing, but not literally brutal succession of moments—violent, but without the blood and entrails of Saving Private Ryan (1998) or Platoon (1986), or even the murderous mechanical pounding of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). In What Price Glory?, the warfare blurred into pure expressionism. Clouds of ash, smoke and dirt filled the screen, punctuated with flashes of light, like smatterings of fireworks, always accelerating. Marching lines of soldiers, in longshot, faded into those clouds: enforced order dissolving into the chaos that was its ultimate purpose. I felt utterly at its mercy.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Glorious Betsy (1928)

If you have a low tolerance for silly plots, silent film is probably not for you. A lot of the greatest silent tales come alive only in the telling—maybe they have to—and if you try to describe them to someone else, you get grins. Try summarizing Sunrise, for example, and see.

Now listen to this one: In the early 19th century, a beautiful Baltimore socialite falls in love with her French teacher. He is handsome and clever; impoverished, it seems, but well-educated and handy with a rapier. What the socialite doesn’t know is that the teacher is not really a teacher, but a nobleman. He is the brother of Napoleon Bonaparte. He is on the run, and the French want to find him. They have a noblewoman they need him to marry. This is Glorious Betsy.

Glorious Betsy is a film in three guises: romance, farce comedy, and a third, not often paired with the second: historical drama. Yes, these things really happened. Kind of, anyway. There really was a Jerome Bonaparte, who really did live in America where, in 1803, he married Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Patterson, daughter of a Baltimore merchant. Napoleon really did have plans for his brother: a marriage to  Catharina of Württemberg, a German princess, and in real life, Jerome’s marriage to Betsy was annulled by brother Napoleon, in favour of the political union. This was the weight of history, and in 1908, playwright and songwriter Rida Johnson Young displaced most of it, creating the frothy stage production upon which the 1928 film was based.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Circus Dreams (2011)

A talkie, courtesy TIFF Bell Lightbox, in Toronto.

“The Most Benevolent Show On Earth.”

What a lousy banner that would make. Imagine it strung over the main street of your mid-sized American town one summer. The circus is coming, and it’s a Good thing—would you buy a ticket?

Maybe, but that’s not why. You’d buy your ticket, and tickets for your kids, because this circus—Circus Smirkus—blows your socks off. Who cares if it’s a circus made up of youth performers? Never mind that it seems a place of belonging for them—so much so that they weep when its seven-week annual tour is done. It’s the end-product that sells. And here’s how you get to it.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Faust (1926)

Of Faust’s dozens of memorable images, big and small, comic and tragic, harrowing and absurd, it is for me the looming, bat-winged shadow of Mephisto over a medieval town that means the most. In terms of plot, this is the moment when the king of demons (Emil Jannings) unleashes Plague upon the town; a scourge intended to be so virulent that it will drive the town’s foremost wiseman, Faust (Gösta Ekman) to bargain with the Devil for help. This is really Mephisto’s game to lose. If Mephisto can corrupt Faust (so claims his angelic opposite number), then the Earth is his.

 From an aesthetic standpoint, however, it is this scene which establishes director F.W. Murnau’s vision for Faust: An overly-dramatic, excessively costumed being, impressing its will over what appears to be toy buildings—a scene of almost impudent fakery. So obvious is the artifice in Faust that I doubt it will wholly draw you in—it never has me, with the exception of a single scene late, late in the film. But Murnau does entrap us, in a way. Through the tricks of his craft, he takes an operatic tale and buries it in a dismal, soundless basement, and us with it. His Faust is a claustrophobic experience, even by Expressionist standards.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Chungking Express (1994)

A talkie, courtesy TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto

People fantasize every day, often about love. I believe that’s a healthy thing to do, and practical. So long as we can conceive of better things, we’ll continue looking for them in the vast, perceptible space beyond our heads and homes. Our only other choice is to close down, settle, and get weird.

Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express is about four single people coping with loneliness.  Two are young, their fantasy lives still freshened with hope, and two are older, wiser in some ways but narrow-minded. They form two pairings, told in two stories that barely intersect. All are lost in their own lives.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"It" (1927)

I love Clara Bow. Love her looks, love her charm; love her little bit of everything a man might want. I love her confidence, I love her jokes. I love her fiery centre, burning down the ingénue roles around her, exposing them as paper. In every film of hers I’ve seen, Clara Bow’s in three dimensions; a laughing, crying, fully fleshed, dynamic being, pulling your eyes from the silent archetypes surrounding her.

Love her, love her, love her.

“It” is Bow’s most famous film today, though she made many. She was an enormous star in the late-1920s; a flapper writ large. She was scandalized, sometimes fairly, often not; she was propelled to stardom by a studio that also exploited her. She came from nothing, rose to the top, broke down, came back, and broke down again. She died alone, in front of her television set.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Beloved Rogue (1927)

In the opinions of at least two eminent men, John Barrymore’s performance in The Beloved Rogue isn’t very good. One was Orson Welles, who said, regretfully, that his friend John was ‘not at his best’ in the role of medieval French poet and adventurer, Francois Villon. The other eminent, John Barrymore himself, agreed.

I don’t.

Barrymore’s a piece of ham in this film, I know. He flits through scenes on tip-toes and keeps a look on his face that I might have had at the age of five, before ripping the paper off a birthday present. That he’s dressed like Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood—in wintertime Paris, no less—is no help. But The Beloved Rogue is not really an actor’s movie to begin with, despite Barrymore’s and co-star Conrad Veidt’s statures and talents, so it’s better to measure Barrymore’s success in terms of how well he meshes with director Alan Crosland’s exceptional visual space.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Jack-Knife Man (1920)

Last night the Toronto Silent Film Festival presented a very rare film, screened for the first time in this city since 1920 and for the first time, anywhere, in 40 years. We sat gleeful in our seats as The Jack-Knife Man began. It could have been a disaster and we’d have kept watching, just to say we'd seen it. But it was great. Last night was a good night to be a fan.