Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Grass (1925)

A friend asked me the other day if documentaries were common in the silent era. I told him I’d seen a few—Nanook of the North (1922) for one, and Chang (1927), and that Nanook was the most famous. I also told him that silent documentaries differed a bit, philosophically, from what came later.

The qualities by which we judge a documentary successful today aren’t simply artistic ones. We also want a story we can believe in—on more than emotional grounds. If we see staged scenes, for example, we wonder how the real event differed from what we’re seeing. If persons or groups depicted in the film aren’t given voice, we wonder about the filmmaker’s bias. We acknowledge that bringing any story to the screen requires a degree of artifice—that documentaries are art, like other films. But like a well-written magazine feature (for example), they must be delivered with that objective sheen.

The reason my friend had asked me about silent docs was because I’d told him I’d just watched Grass. The film depicts a Bakhtiari tribe’s migratory odyssey from modern-day Turkey to western Iran, in search of pasture land for their livestock. Grass is, by the standards of the decade in which it was filmed, a successful documentary. By today’s standards, not so much.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Mistress Nell (1915)

There is more than one way to appreciate Mistress Nell, and it depends, I think, on how many Mary Pickford films you’ve seen in your life.

I’ve seen a lot of them. Enough to know the prototypical Pickford part when I see it: the plucky, forceful youth, the rough-mannered gem who knows herself and inspires the rest of us. And so I can say with confidence that if you like that kind of thing, and you’ve never seen a Pickford film before, Mistress Nell is a good one to start with.