Monday, July 31, 2006

Save Films, Save the World

The single best moment of the eleventh annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival, held at the Castro Theater this past July 14-16, came on Saturday afternoon. Before the screening of Sparrows, a 1926 melodrama about Mary Pickford's efforts to rescue a group of orphans from a Dickensian villain, the crowd erupted in wild applause when Mike Mashan, curator of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress, said “I don't know about you, but I'd much rather have my tax dollars going to support film preservation than war.”

Such bold honesty from one of its priests demonstrates that the church of film preservation warrants faith. At a time when even low-level government functionaries have to swear they'd rat out their grandmother if she wasn't a neo-conservative robot, hearing such words from a man in Mashan's position is like hearing the sermon on the mount. Mashan's brave declaration not only offers hope, it demands action. Those who write the history of the future are without direction if they rewrite the past and condemn the present to ignorance and lies.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have been fortunate to volunteer for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival as a film researcher for the past four years. As such, don't expect an objective approach to this review of the 2006 event. You may expect, and you should demand, honesty. This essay was neither approved nor reviewed by the Silent Film Festival, and does not in any way represent its views or those of its staff and board of directors.

Why is preserving old films a better use of government money than supporting the lords of the military-industrial complex in the luxury they've grown accustomed to? Apart from what should be obvious to anyone who still has a soul – that killing babies is wrong (Hello? Israelis? Any soul left?) – cinema is a record of history that was unavailable prior to the late 19th century. And those, as George Santayana said, “who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (If you don't understand the full import of that statement – and the relevance of cinema as history – go rent David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia [Columbia, 1962], and compare it to current events, rinse and repeat.)

Yes, movies are an inexact record, but so are most of the tools available to historians. Niccolò di dei Machiavelli's The Prince is no more accurate an account of 15th century Florence politics than Bill Clinton's My Life is a faithful record of late 20th century life in the United States. (On the other hand, Homer's Iliad may be a more exact recounting of the Trojan War than any accounts of modern wars as described by CNN, Fox, The New York Times, etc. Go figure.)

More than their historical significance, early films are an art form unto themselves. The progenitor of modern media, silent films demand critical attention as a communication form with unique properties rarely evoked in post-talkie cinema. Silent films were not silent, they were mute. Music and sound effects were common to presentations of these movies, but the actors on the screen had no voice. Intertitles provided essential dialogue, but audiences hadn't come to the cinema to read a story – they'd come for the emotional experience that only moving pictures could provide. The best of these films use intertitles sparingly, allowing the art of the unique art of the cinema – a combination of photography, lighting, art direction, acting, montage and music – to achieve a greatness that was all but obliterated by the arrival of the talking picture. Not that there's anything wrong with talking pictures. One form is not better than the other. Memory wasn't kind to silent films. See Singin' in the Rain (MGM, 1952) or Sunset Boulevard (Paramount, 1950) to get a sense of how the silent era was remembered. Or take a look at Jay Ward's Fractured Flickers, a hilarious 1963 TV series that chopped up silent films and presented them with new voice tracks written and recorded by much of the same crew behind Ward's classic Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. It was extremely difficult to see silent films as they were intended to be seen – projected from film in a theater with live music – for decades. For most, myself included, silent films were limited to TV, usually shown at the wrong speed, and almost always limited to slapstick comedy shorts.

Fractured Flickers is now available on DVD (as are Sunset Boulevard and Singin' in the Rain), and it's worth seeing to appreciate the level of disrespect accorded to silent films. In one episode, the breathtaking performance of Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Universal, 1923), one of the monumental epics of the silent era, is used for a comic tale about a University of Southern California cheerleader. Of course, it's hilarious, but it's important to recognize that today the original movie is also available on DVD. There was no way to see it when Fractured Flickers was first broadcast, unless you had a friend with a print and a projector. If your only contact with this film was via Ward's revisions, you might fail to recognize the value of the original.

There are plenty of opportunities to see tasteful presentations of silent films now. Most Sunday nights, cable TV channel Turner Classic Movies offers a silent film at midnight Eastern time, 9 p.m. on the West Coast. DVDs from Kino, Image, Turner Classic Movies – even Paramount and Fox, who've long pretended they had nothing in their vaults older than 1958 – make many silent classics readily available for home viewing. But this is not enough.

Watching a silent film on a TV, even if it's the latest model plasma screen with a home Dolby 5.1 surround sound system, is a bit like listening to Mozart's Symphony in D on a mobile phone speaker – something almost completely unlike the actual performance and wholly unsatisfying.

Within the frame of the screen and the space of the theater, cinema can become a dreamscape, and the best of the late-era silent films, when accompanied by musicians inspired by the form, can create emotional experiences that Stephen Spielberg and John Williams – in all their calculated, manipulative glory – can only fantasize about.
Which finally brings us back to the Silent Film Festival. While there are many causes leading to the current revival, this organization's efforts have, in my opinion, played a major part in opening people's eyes and ears to the form. It certainly opened mine. But that tale's for another time.

Seventh Heaven
The 2006 festival opener was a prime example of the artistic acheivements of Hollywood's late silent era. Directed by Frank Borzage, Seventh Heaven (Fox, 1928) is an improbably melodramatic love story rooted in poverty, dragged through the trenches of World War I, and chock full of overt Christian propaganda. Instead of provoking ironic laughter, the film creates a cinemascape of mythic proportion that makes one believe that love and faith can be the greatest forces in the universe. It takes a lot of willing suspension of disbelief to accept the hunky Charles Farrell as Chico, a lunky Parisian sewer scavenger who dreams of one day becoming a street sweeper. But his grudging rescue of street urchin Diane from her evil sister and her own suicide attempt helps to put the illusion over. It helps that Diane is played by Janet Gaynor, who deservedly won the first-ever Academy Award for best actress for this film (along with Borzage's Street Angel and F.W. Murnau's Sunrise). Gaynor presents a thorougly convincing display of hunger, fear, loneliness and desperation, using her petite frame, big eyes and bow-shaped lips, which could, under other circumstances, resemble those of a cartoon character. Combined with Harry Oliver's astonishing art direction and the cinematography of Ernest Palmer and Joseph Valentine (there's an absolutely breathtaking elevator tracking shot that follows Farrell and Gaynor up seven flights of stairs), plus the beautiful score played by Clark Wilson on the Castro's mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ, the performances of the two leads and the other actors make this improbable saga a fable for the ages.

Bucking Broadway
Bucking Broadway (Universal, 1917), directed by John Ford , was the first western presented at the Silent Film Festival, and made for a perfect Saturday morning matinée. With Harry Carey, one of the first cowboy stars (and certainly among the best – John Wayne later borrowed many of his mannerisms), the film offered a fascinating look at the development of the western, arguably the central myth underlying the American identity. Carey's character, Cheyenne Harry, is sweet on the daughter of the owner of the ranch where he and the other cowboys punch cows and threaten the solitary Mexican vaquero. He shows Helen (Molly Malone) the homestead he's built, hoping that by laying claim to a patch of land, that she'll return his affection, which she does. Harry then sheepishly asks the boss for permission to wed his daughter. This scene is unintentionally comical because Carey looks every day (and then some) of his 39 years, despite his best efforts at fawning like a schoolboy. The action begins when Helen's head is turned by a city-slicker who lures her back to the eastern fleshpots of Manhattan. Naturally, Harry and the rest of the ranchhands rescue the innocent during a rollicking fistfight in the lobby of a grand hotel.

What makes this film fascinating is its place in the creation of the western mythology, particularly its focus on the importance of owning land. Cheyenne Harry wouldn't consider asking for Helen's hand before he's established a homestead. Helen's father agrees to the marriage when Harry tells him about his property and his thrift. Interestingly, the western United States is an empty expanse in this film. There are no Native Americans visible, indicating that there is no struggle with the land's previous occupants. Helen is attracted to the city life represented by her Manhattan suitor, but she learns too late that the city dweller is a hollow man, little more than swagger and bluster, with nothing real, like land, to support him. The final battle takes place in a hotel, an emblem of transience. Helen returns to the west and Harry, both supported by the fixed value of the land. Ownership of land was the bedrock supporting America's western expansion, which had been pretty well completed when Bucking Broadway was produced. The myth continued, along with the subidivisions and the damming of rivers and the watering of Kentucky bluegrass lawns in what had been desert, supported by and supporting a growing population and an economy of consumption. And here we are today, with peak oil use imminent, climate change all-too-evident, and homes being financed by variable-rate mortgages with payments that don't begin to touch the loan principal after 20 years. Ride 'em, cowboy.

Au Bonheur des Dames
A similar economic upheaval is the focus of the festival's third offering, its first-ever French film, Au Bonheur des Dames (Le Film D'Art, 1930), directed by Julien Duvivier from the novel by Emile Zola. A sweeping saga of the displacement of traditional merchants by a cutthroat retail giant, this was the surprise of the festival. One of the last silent films made in France, Au Bonheur des Dames uses every cinematic device developed to its date: tracking shots, crane shots, elevator shots, glamour closeups, Rembrandt lighting, matte paintings, Soviet-style montage, classic editing, entire city blocks created on soundstages, location shooting, documentary images, art deco design, gritty urban landscapes, even the occasional kitchen sink (full of dishes, no less). This is a beautiful film, a complicated film that examines power relationships from many angles and levels while telling a story about believable characters caught in overwhelming circumstances. The orphaned Denise Baudu (Dita Parlo) comes to Paris to find succor with her uncle (Armand Bour), only to learn that his fabric store is being crushed by the department store Au Bonheur des Dames. The youthful Denise takes a job with the enemy, catches the eye of its founder and mastermind, Octave Mouret (Pierre de Guingaund), and is drawn into a titanic tale of lust, dreams and betrayals.

The film's ending provoked a great deal of conversation. As events lead to tragic consequences, with Denise's uncle and cousin dead, and Mouret having been forced out of his own company in a hostile takeover lead by his former lover, Duvivier appears to take the film suddenly to the right. As Mouret bemoans the destruction his folly has wrought, Denise upbraids him, tells him his vision of an all-encompassing retail giant dedicated to endless consumption is the future that everyone must seek. She blames her own family for failing to see the light and holding tight to their outmoded ideals. As she tells Mouret that he must take back his business and redouble his efforts, an image of a monolithic deparment store rising several stories into the sky and occupying many city blocks appears. A biplane lifts off the rooftop runway, flying into a capitalist future.

The post-presentation conversation was dominated by disbelief that, given the classically populist message of most of the film (i.e., big business bad, small business good), the ending must have been forced upon Duvivier by the film's financial backers. I suspect the genesis of the ending is much more complicated, and probably owes a great deal to the economic and political realities of France of the late 1920s. The nation was still trying to recover from the devastation of World War I (1.4 million dead, including some 10 percent of the active male population), and the Third Republic was beset by growing divisions between socialists, communists and fascists, all of whom were paranoid that one of the other groups would seize power in a coup. The rise of the United States during the years of irrational market exuberance (1920s vintage, not 1990s)and the continuance of the British Empire while France struggled to maintain its grip on its few colonial possessions could easily lead one to the conclusion that failure to adapt in a changing world assures doom.

Even more interesting is how this cultural and economic shift was reflected in the fate of the film Au Bonheur des Dames itself. As researcher Laura Horak points out in her essay accompanying the presentation, the film, produced in 1929 was kept from release while Film D'Art added a synchronized music and sound effects score. When it appeared in the summer of 1930, in direct competition with American talkies, its primitive soundtrack acted like a lead weight, and the film sank from view, a victim of its own failure to keep up with changing times.

The Hot Club of San Francisco, a Django Reinhardt-influenced jazz quintet, provided a very effective score for Au Bonheur des Dames, strumming, plucking and fiddling furiously throughout the film, always in synch with the emotion and the action.

Charles Rosher is one of my all-time favorite cinematographers. His use of lighting and composition is never flashy, but always effective and evocative of the correct mood. Murnau's Sunrise, one of the most beautifully photographed films of all time, was one of Rosher's, along with the German Karl Struss. He was Mary Pickford's favorite, until she sacked him when he interrupted the shooting of a scene during her first talkie, Coquette (Pickford/United Artists, 1929), because a shadow crossed her face. Flustered by the demands of the microphone and unaware of Rosher's reason for halting the filming, Pickford lashed out and lost the best photographer she'd ever know.

Rosher's eye is evident throughout Sparrows, the fourth film of the 2006 Silent Film Festival. With help from Struss and Hal Mohr, Rosher shot a spectacular set by Harry Oliver, who literally built a swamp, complete with quicksand bogs and alligators, from the ground up. Pickford is charming as Molly, the eldest of a band of orphans trapped in a Southern baby farm operated by the Dickensian Mr. Grimes, played by Gustav von Seyffertitz with an obvious nod to Max Schreck's portrayal of the vampire in Murnau's Nosferatu (Jofa-Atelier, 1922). Director William Beaudine and scenarist Winifred Dunn deliver a well-paced adventure story and morality play, with lots of Biblical references that help propel the story rather than derail it into the swamp of solipsism.

Sparrows offers something that producers of modern “family films” choose to ignore: that innocents can suffer without good reason. Among Molly's charges is an infant. Denied nourishment by Grimes, the baby dies in Molly's arms. Beaudine and Rosher create a dreamscape in which Christ appears, tending lambs. He takes the infant from Molly, and returns, adding it to his flock. The landscape vanishes, replaced by the original clapboard wall, and Molly awakens to discover the dead child. A harsh lesson, no doubt, for a nation that has worked very hard to hide all evidence of pain and suffering from its elite. Ironically, as this film unspooled in San Francisco, Israel was unleashing a rain of bombs on many innocent Lebanese children, with the blessing of the United States government.

Mashan and the Library of Congress brought along an additional treat: rejected effects shots of the infant's death scene. The double exposure/matte combinations featured different interpretations of the infant being taken from Molly by an angel. As effective as they were, the scene used in the final movie was more effective. Interestingly, the angel outtakes were remarkably reminiscent of the final scene from David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (CiBy 2000, 1992), when the spirit form of incest and filicide victim Laura Palmer finds comfort in the visit of an angel.

Pandora's Box
Saturday ended with one of the iconic films of the silent era: G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box (Sud-Film, 1929), the signature Louise Brooks movie. Pabst knew Brooks was destined to be his Lulu after seeing her portrayal of a voracious and cold-hearted femme fatale in Howard Hawks' A Girl in Every Port (Fox, 1928). After a succession of largely forgettable turns as either a flapper or a vamp in Hollywood, Brooks took the opportunity to work with the noted strassefilm director during the waning period of the Weimer Republic.

Pandora's Box is a revelation – and not necessarily a welcome one, at least according to one friend of mine – for those familiar only with the classic still images of Brooks. Those languid eyes staring out from underneath the bangs of the oh-so-modern 'do, the shapeless chemises that accentuate her lithe figure – these have become conflated with the mythical flapper – the “liberated” sex toy of the Roaring '20s. The trouble is that Lulu is no flapper. She is a force of nature, the very essence of desire embodied in one woman who, like Pandora, releases forces from within herself that she can not control and which ultimately consume everything they touch, including her. If you want flappers, check out Clara Bow in It (Paramount, 1927) or Joan Crawford in Our Dancing Daughters (MGM, 1928). Pandora's Box is Greek mythology for the early 20th century.

Pabst delivers a remarkably dark film that questions the very concept of sexual desire while reveling in the debauchery that defined the Weimar era. Brooks is nothing short of brilliant. Her performance is understated and engaged. It's as if she is working out the conundrum of her Hollywood persona – the flapper who is also a vamp – in the only environment that would allow such an exploration. Pandora's Box is one of the great achievements of the silent era, and it is an enduring pity that Brooks would make only one more film in Germany, then be wasted in a string of decreasingly important roles in decreasingly important Hollywood films until her retirement in 1936.

Organist Clark Wilson delivered a suitably dark musical score for Pandora's Box, providing just the right amount of tension and despair. The print, from the George Eastman House, was excellent, but there is apparently an even newer, improved print on the way.

Thanks to the utterly amazing and incredible Stacey Wisnia, the Festival's operations and festival director, Pandora's Box was introduced by artist and experimental filmmaker Bruce Conner, who grew up in McPherson, Kansas, the same town that Brooks had been raised in, and the place she returned to when she left films. He spoke about how he desperately wanted to meet her, and to take dancing lessons at her studio, not because he knew anything about her films, because he'd never seen any, but because she was: a.) a movie star, and b.) someone his parents didn't want him to meet. Frankly, I just got a kick out of the man behind A Movie (1958) and Crossroads (1976) [] being a guest of the Silent Film Festival.

Next, Part two of the 11th Annual Silent Film Festival: Amazing Tales From the Archives, Laurel and Hardy, The Girl With the Hatbox, Lon Chaney in The Unholy Three and Marion Davies in Show People.

Copyright 2006 by Richard Hildreth. All rights reserved.


Anonymous Laura Shapiro said...

Great review. I loved Au Bonheur so much -- it really blew me away. I wish I could share your enthusiasm for Pandora's Box, but I'm too much of a cranky feminist. Also: ow, it hurts.

BTW, we watched Ring of Terror last night. P. was aghast at the total lack of plot, something I hadn't realized during any of my previous viewings.

12:39 PM, August 01, 2006  
Blogger HildrethR said...

Pandora's Box is a difficult movie (it is German strassefilm, after all -- it's supposed to hurt), but Ring of Terror is much harder to get through. For some reason, my memories of that MST3K experience were much fuzzier than the reality encountered on seeing it again recently. Paul has to remember MSTie rule #1: NEVER WATCH THE MOVIE! Watch the MSTie instead.

10:02 PM, August 01, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'The Girl with the Hatbox' was also one of my personal favorites this year- along with 'Au Bonheur des Dames' and 'The Unholy Three'.
I would also add a nod to the Balka Ensemble, who, I understand, had not previously scored a silent film, and yet more than sustained the frenetic pace of the Soviet comedy musically, and added slapstick sound effects. They offered yet another example of how excellent live musical accompaniment can help already excellent films cast that silent film spell on an audience...
-Erica Sweetman.

12:33 PM, August 07, 2006  

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