july 8 07 Despite his short career, Bauer is supposed to rank up there with Griffith and Demille, but his work reminds me much more of Wegener in not only the dark subject matter, but also the emphasis on facial expressions. What this has which the others lack is a profound sense of beauty, the shots being set up to be beautiful, the subject matter beauty and its importance. The one shot that caught my attention was the introduction to a nightmare, during which we see Gisetta in bed, to the far right of the picture, and there is a “dolly out” shot, which moves backwards through room until Gisetta is centered through a doorway. Completely uncharacteristic of the film and its contemporaries.
I’m beginning to really enjoy these silent films. I was doubtful of American technical abilities after comparing the stillness of Birth of a Nation with Feuillade’s capacity to make a traditional stage setup seem to come alive, to grow deep and epic in space. Perhaps Feuillade has a more positively raw sense of illustration, sexy and violent and somewhat nihilistic; but Walsh, even in what seems to be working in the classic American version of Socialist Realism (boy loves tractor, boy loses tractor, boy reaffirms party values and regains tractor for all time–being in this case: boy loves girl, girl meets untimely death, girl lives on through the burgeoning notion of Christ in boy, boy loves Christ and lives happily ever after). The gunshot that kills her, unfortunately, gives her what seems to be an orgasm–especially as there’s no blood though she’s shot in the heart. So I was entirely surprised when she died a couple minutes later, after kissing Owen (which we do not see, though who needs to see it after watching her prance around without a bra for the past hour? And that orgasm, oh, and her introduction to us being her lying suggestively in bed? And she’s played by Anna Q. Nillson, who is very, very pretty when she isn’t done up like a typical film star of the era. Seeing someone dressed down–sigh. Let’s get back to business, even though I have a crush on a woman who was born almost a hundred years before me).
I procrastinated watching this film, because I’m beginning to get tired of these things, and the plot seemed a little trite. But almost immediately something caught my eye, something extremely modern, something I have not seen an earlier instance of yet: During an early scene Owen is sitting down at the dinner table, in the center of the shot, with his exploitive neighbors, husband and wife, on either side of him, facing each other. And they begin a messy, violent fight as he sits there, lots of arms and things being thrown about. The camera slowly zooms in to Owen, with all the violence framing his body in the shot, and then the faded portion of the screen encircles his head. Offhand, it’s the sort of thing you’d see a lot of in Babe (the gallant pig). It happens only once, but it draws us into Owen as a person, not simply another character, but a mass of hopes and faults and memories.
Walsh learned the ropes from Griffith, with whom he worked, including a role as Booth in Birth of a Nation. So I’d perhaps expect a Griffith knockoff, and from my only experience of Griffith, that would be characters who fit types rather than having any depth. Owen, in this film, is given a life, and rather than present him first as a gangster amongst gangsters, he is first a child in mourning, then a child exploited, then a child rebelling from his slavish life, and then the leader of the gangsters, who values and enacts justice. And as the story progresses he suffers a dialectic between his gangster ethics of human justice, and the Christian ethics of pacifism at any cost. At the center of the story is Christian charity, and it is reached from two directions: on one side is Owen and the street life of degeneracy; on the other is Mamie Rose and the life of abundance and indifference. But neither fit in their places, and thus they meet in the middle, through Christian love and charity. Mamie Rose sheds her past life by moving into a life of frugality, Owen sheds his leadership of the gang by following his love of Mamie Rose and the goodness she instills in him. Ultimately, because of his difficulty in removing himself entirely from his old life, Mamie Rose pays with her life, a sort of martyr, who is then responsible for Owen’s giving up the last of his way of life, taking up the innocent child we know has remained in him (especially given the scene juxtaposing older Owen drinking beer with younger Owen eating ice cream.) And just as we find a middle in their lifestyles, so we find a middle in their lives, when combined, they lose their former selves and Mamie Rose in her death enters Owen’s heart and soul, so Owen may be called dead, who yields a new, better person.
Honestly, I just have a crush on Mamie Rose.
I could never figure out how a film could possibly turn the KKK into heroes–I could never imagine that someone really could make a film so sympathetic to the South. Knowing that this film is greatly responsible for the KKK’s second rise (or so I’ve read), I do wonder how much of it has influenced the Southern mind–I mean the “South will rise again” mind. The North looks like a bunch of crooks, and while my whole life I’ve been a big fan of General Sherman and his march, watching a similar episode occur here kinda broke my heart, kinda made me hate the North. Lincoln is pictured well, because he supports the white man, but all those black characters always have their eyes wide and spinning, bouncing around and lusting after power and sex with all the determined appearance of any Disney villain. Meantime, the South is stripped of all its rights as the blacks are placed in control of it, becoming its judges and its juries, persecuting the whites in any way they can, the whites are refused voting rights while the evil blacks vote multiple times, the blacks begin treating the whites like second-class citizens, not giving them even the courtesy of allowing the whites to share the sidewalk with them, as they all quit working in the fields, quit working altogether and spend their time dancing like animals, unlike the civilized ballroom dances we see the white soldiers partake of. There’s no doubt in my mind that by the time the KKK shows up on the scene, I’ll be firmly in their favor. At least for the duration of this film…(I’m only half through…but I had to write this).
My other observation is this: though I don’t know what comprised the original soundtrack, the one I’ve been auditing includes what I seem to recall as Dvořák’s 8th Symphony–for those of you counting, and assuming I’m not mistaken, that’s the one right before his Symphony from the New World–though, unfortunately, also right before his trip to the United States, about which he commented “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.” Though, as I also recall, there’s little evidence of anything but European influence in the work. It would be ironic were the music the 9th Symphony, but not so much as it is…and perhaps a reason to jump with laughter would be if the music was all Scott Joplin, but…as it is…not so much. Except this: if Wagner can remind us of Nazis, Dvořák can remind us of the Negroes (that’s a politically incorrect word, but I wouldn’t say “Cowboys and First Americans” either…it ruins the point.)
The Birth of a Nation did not fail–I found myself quietly urging, shouting, “hurry up KKK! hurry up and save them!” And was grateful when the evil blacks who had overrun the town, its government, its good people, raping and rioting through the streets, were finally put back in their place, their votes taken away, by the good KKK. That’s worth something–that this fine art, still brand new, has the power to take a liberal Jew of modern sympathies, and turn him into an old fashioned white supremacist! That says something else: that the belief system of white supremacy is too weak to bear itself; it takes a film of falsities and melodrama to rally its troops in favor of the cause.
4 May 2007
Reminds me of sitting in that fucking theater, twice a week, through the lengthy art films, trying not to sleep, sometimes sleeping, eating candy, eating candy, eating candy…this one was “murder” to sit through. Hahahahah. No, the last fifteen minutes got me to perk up slightly, and say “ah hah! brilliant, Fantomas!” and then worry for the innocent. So, what did I notice? First, I had a difficult time following the film since it’s in French, and I do know some basic nouns, pronouns, and verbs, and then a few other words that look like English, and a few others I’ve picked up along the way, and I found myself able to generally decipher the meanings–sometimes due to knowing what the detective genre turned into. The acting, of course, was as if on stage, and very descriptive in itself; I even laughed at Valgrand’s expressions as he tried to drink his drugged tea while attempting to remain polite despite the taste. I read this comment on it mentioning “this active space of film no need special effects or even camera travelings”–and, like noticing that The Who’s Live at Leeds doesn’t have hi-hat, it struck me that indeed, the camera doesn’t move at all in this film. There is a scene during which one watches the people step into an elevator, the doors shut, and the elevator moves, and then one watches as the elevator moves past the next floor, and the next, and the next, each with its own cut. I wondered why this was shown at all, and if there were perhaps better ways to show it? First, I thought, perhaps it’s just trying to exploit something a bit fancier than people usually see. Then, I decided that it was the only way to show how many floors high the room was. How else, without sound, without movement? The sets are remarkably like ones on stage: there’s the center, there’s the hidden areas to the left and right and rear, concealed by doors and curtains, and the audience is always in the place of the camera–there’s never any “practical” area of that part of the set. So, in words, I can describe this well, however, it didn’t hold me like Cabiria did–thus I can see now why the epic Cabiria so influenced Griffith, a film so much more animated and mature, and only one year later.
26 april 07
“Two hour silent Italian film” sounds frightening. So I’ve been hesitant to watch it, despite knowing its importance in the film world. But tonight I watched it, and was surprised to enjoy it very well. It moved along quickly enough, though the plot seemed bogged down with excessive motivations and plots. I think I possess a better ability to see these films in context than my parents, for I didn’t seem to be amazed or laughing with them, I found the special effects excellent, I found the caricature expressiveness reminiscent of stage acting, and the epic nature rivals any great epic I’ve known, its great sets, trained elephants and tigers, and above all the temple of Moloch and the ceremony of child sacrifice. Knowing its influence will be clear when I begin watching Griffith’s films, I also know that I cannot recognize the extent of the influence without watching its predecessors–but how far back can one possibly begin? I watch this to understand Griffith, to understand everything after, and finally to understand Godard. So it goes.
13 April 2007