Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Wings (1927)

Three days ago, The Artist won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Picture. And so, we celebrate.

It may be a long time before another silent film pulls this off. It was 83 years between The Artist’s victory and that of the only other silent to win it: William Wellman’s Wings. If you’re a fan of this blog, you probably know a bit about Wings, which pops up in Oscar trivia all the time. The film won for two years, not one; it was Best Picture before the award was so named. It was a gargantuan popular hit in its own time, and yet, has been hard to find on video ever since, until this year.

The following is not based on a viewing of the (purportedly spectacular) new Blu-ray edition of Wings. Instead, I saw the movie live, on film, in a Toronto theatre—on the day of the Oscars, appropriately enough. I’m glad I went. This is a big flick, and it needed the space to move around.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Spirited Away (2001)

It must be difficult to be ten, but I don’t remember it that way. For me it was a comfortable time. I was an only child, just like Chihiro, the little girl in Spirited Away. Like her, I had two parents who loved me; I wanted for little, including attention, and was given the space to think for myself and study what interested me. But Chihiro faces through one experience I never did, and it’s a big one. And it doesn’t involve gods, demons or magic spells.

Chihiro’s parents moved.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Your Best Pick for Best Pic

You never see ratings on Silent Volume, and you rarely see ranked lists. But lists can be good things. The exercise of ranking one film above another forces you to make decisions based their merits; and that, hopefully, means you’ve considered both the films, and yourself, in some depth.

Below are my humble opinions on the nine nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture. I hope you’ll take time to read them, and respond. Agree or disagree, we’ve got something to talk about.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Special Flight (2011)

It isn’t about politics, or race. It’s about the fence.

The fence that appears in scene after scene in Special Flight, whenever the detainees of Frambois—the Swiss holding centre where those destined for deportation reside—venture out from their quarters into the sunshine. It isn’t made of thick bars, nor is it just a point of relief between high walls. It is a lattice-work of separate fences, pushing out from the detainees’ compound in successive layers, toward a parking-lot they cannot reach.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Polish Dancer (1917)

I’ve heard it said that the working partnership between Pola Negri and German director Ernst Lubitsch succeeded because of Lubitsch’s eye. Specifically, his ability to “frame” Negri; containing her energy and redirecting it, so as not to sacrifice the whole to her part.

To claim Negri’s performances—her Negri-ness—needed framing is to say much. It is to acknowledge, first, that she cannot be ignored; and second, that her magnetism created artistic limits on-screen. Leave Negri untouched and everything around her disappears. Which is not so good, if something around her was worth keeping.

Aleksander Hertz, director of The Polish Dancer, did not have this insight. At least, not in 1917.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Mabel's Busy Day (1914)

I’ve seen nearly every silent film Charlie Chaplin appeared in, from Making a Living (1914) right through to Modern Times (1936). So when I tell you that Mabel’s Busy Day is one of the strangest Chaplin films there is, I do so with some authority.

It isn’t just Chaplin’s film. It belongs equally to Mabel Normand, Keystone Studio’s biggest female star; a gifted comic in her own right, as well as a director. Normand may have directed herself in this film; or it was Keystone boss Mack Sennett who did it—my sources dispute this. But whoever’s responsible created something memorably strange. Surreal, in fact, in a way Chaplin rarely was, even once his growing creative control let him try anything he wanted.