Saturday, May 18, 2013

Lonesome (1928)

Silent film fans, this one included, have a great affection for Lonesome. It’s as sweet a movie as they come. I remember the first time I saw it, three years ago, in Syracuse, New York. I left the theatre feeling startled by how genuine and fresh it was. I was confident I could it show to anyone.

Of course, that would have been hard to do at the time. Until recently, Lonesome was festival film, difficult to see. And when you did see it, what you got was a rather rough-looking print. That has now changed, thanks to the gods at Criterion, who’ve seen fit to bless us with a Blu-ray release of the film. Now, finally, I’ve been able to give Lonesome a second look. But that second look is causing me to question its appeal.

The story couldn’t be simpler. Lonesome concerns a pair of young, single New Yorkers, Mary (Barbara Kent) and Jim (Glenn Tryon) who have never met. Both work hard—he runs a punch-press in a factory; she’s a telephone operator. With the work-week done, and a long-weekend ahead of them, both decide to visit Coney Island. There they meet and fall in love. And then, through a mishap, they are separated. Will these two decent, desperate, lonely people find one another again? That is their concern, and ours, in Lonesome.

I know why the film works. I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, let’s consider what doesn’t work very well—what this story must overcome to win our hearts.

Lonesome drags. Though it runs only 70 minutes, the first fifty are an extended first act; in which the director, Paul Fejos, indulges his desire to film a pretty couple in a remarkable carnival environment, dancing from one happy moment to the next. A good deal of this is necessary—enough that we can view their (possibly) permanent separation as something catastrophic. But we didn’t need as much as we got. Particularly when we’re told so little else about them.

The performances of the leads, though endearing, aren’t exactly good. We know when they’re happy, sad and afraid, but the myriad, subtle in-betweens of emotion—the ones that distinguish us, in the moment, as individuals—are missing. Who are Mary and Jim, besides two people feeling typical feelings?

Lonesome is also a bit of a dog’s breakfast, aesthetically. Made close to the end of the Silent Era in the West, it contains elements intended to appeal to an audience with changing tastes, and they don’t always work. The tinting, for example, can be gaudy—and there is too little of it for it to feel integrated into the film. The soundtrack (mostly music, with the occasional sound effect) is tinny and shrill, as you’d expect it to be. Fejos’ liberal use of double-exposure makes for some impressive scenes, but it’s nothing Murnau and Lang hadn’t already explored and made commonplace in their own films about urban life. While I believe Lonesome belongs in the company of Sunrise, City Girl, The Crowd, and Man With A Movie Camera, I can’t say it’s better than any of them.

The famed talking sequences are also problematic. Lonesome “breaks” its silence three times, the first two being drippy pre-pillow talk moments between Mary and Jim. Scenes like these, occurring in films that are otherwise traditionally silent, are always a little weird—they can feel forced, and they take you out of the moment. Kent and Tryon’s mannered delivery doesn’t help.

But I said I liked Lonesome, didn’t I? And I do, for the same reasons you probably will.

Lonesome taps into the fears we all have about being lost and abandoned. For lonely urban dwellers, this feeling is acute. We are surrounded by people; we assume, understandably, that a relationship, or at least a hookup, is always likely, even imminent. How can we not meet people in a space filled with them? Yet many of us remain single. So what’s wrong with us?

Fejos understood how nice, young, attractive people like Mary and Jim could find themselves in a position like this. Both work long hours at solitary, mechanical jobs that provide them few opportunities for social interaction. Their commutes are rushed and crowded. We see Jim, a friendly guy, unable to make small talk in a subway car because it is physically uncomfortable to do so. We see Mary talking to so many customers in a day that her head must ring by the end. Each comes home to an apartment with no one in it. 

Lonesome smartly shows us how Mary and Jim’s coping strategies fail them. We see Jim, already late for work, still trying to do a set of calisthenics as he rushes to brush his teeth and tie his tie. The moment is funny, but also desperate—Jim needs to stay in shape as much as he needs to eat. And the adherence to routine is typical of someone with little else going on in his life.

Both Mary and Jim have the chance to go out with others. Both are invited to parties after work. But their friends are all coupled off, and so they decline. This seems counterintuitive, but when you’ve been disappointed enough times, you weigh the potential for new love against the greater likelihood of going home alone—and the psychic toll that will take on you, for the rest of the night. Yes, you’ll fail, but at least you won’t feel let down.

And so we root for Mary and Jim. And against the slimy guys that sidle up to Mary; the cop that muscles Jim; the coldly impersonal, blurry Expressionist buildings that loom over both of them; and the thick crowds they’re both a part of and push against. We root against all the things that keep them apart. 

Lonesome works, finally, because we know that these people could be us, or at least were us, once. Our unprecedented level of connectivity can’t save us from stepping on a subway platform a second too slow—missing forever the love of our life sitting in the waiting car. Propriety still prevents us from getting last names or taking pictures the moment we meet someone—in that moment, a person’s link to us is vulnerable. They could still be pulled away, perhaps for good. Yes, there’s always tomorrow, always another chance to meet someone new. But tomorrow could also be like today. And tonight’s looking to be a lonely one.

Where to find Lonesome:
Lonesome is part of the Criterion Collection. The Blu-ray disc also includes Fejos’ 1929 silent, The Last Performance, starring Conrad Veidt, and a reconstructed sound version of his 1929 musical, Broadway.

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