Friday, January 13, 2006

SILENCE! - Seven silents and Frankenstein

...with Frankenstein included because it was part of the whole silent-Halloween weekend thing I did between Somerville and the Coolidge. And of course, it was the one I'd wished had been left alone.

As much as I like the Harvard Film Archive, I don't know how often I'd go there if not for silents. The Brattle is the main focus of my classic-movie watching time, and there's often just not enough time to hit both. But the Brattle only rarely shows silents - I think in the seven years I've been here, there have been three series: Harold Lloyd last year, a Chaplin/Keaton/Tati series a couple years earlier, and a Maddin/Brothers Quay series a couple years before that. Other shows are booked on fairly rare occasions, like when there's a new score to debut. When I lived in Portland, I think The Movies on Exchange Street had Nosferatu for a week - and they cropped it to 1.85:1, meaning intertitles and heads were cut off.

Which is fine; silent movies are sort of an acquired taste, and a niche, and I imagine only non-profits can really show them regularly (The Silent Movie Theatre in L.A. is unique, and the first place I'll visit should I ever make my way out there). So it's only academic institutions like the HFA and occasionally the Museum of Fine Arts that show them on the big screen.

And yet, I'd still like more. Part of the charm of silent movies, of course, is that they're not just silent, but old, from the early days of cinema where what you see is very close to exactly what was shot, and where the filmmakers are still discovering how to make movies. But part is how reducing the importance of words and dialog allows these movies to concentrate on the techniques that are unique to film as a medium: Motion, environment, body language writ large. Imagine how great the Star Wars prequels would be if releasing them silent, with only John Williams's underscore, were practical. It's almost unfair that later directors seldom get a chance to work this way.

Heh. This stuff is so niche that half of the films in question aren't even in the HBS database, so enjoy the full reviews for those:

High Treason

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 October 2005 at the Harvard Film Archive (Film Architectures)

I must admit that I have a soft spot for old sci-fi. I love looking at how previous generations envisioned the future and threw themselves into depicting these visions. I feel a twinge of annoyance whenever someone disparages that kind of movie for how it "gets the future wrong" or looks fake compared to new visions that is only equaled by my reaction to when another professes to love them for being "campy" or "cheesy". The first reaction comes of being spoiled and/or ignorant, but the latter is just patronizing. High Treason may be silly, but that's because it was kind of silly in 1928, too.

The movie posits that in the far off year of 1950, "United Europe" and the "Atlantic States" share an uneasy truce. As the film opens, an incident at a border crossing sets the nations at high alert. This is of great concern to the World Peace League, headed by the renowned Dr. Seymour (Humberston Wright), ably assisted by his daughter Evelyn (Benita Hume). Despite her dedication to the cause, Evelyn is currently dating a soldier, Air Force Major Michael Deane (Jameson Thomas), although that alliance may fracture should it come to war. What our heroes in London don't realize, however, is that the situation is being manipulated behind the scenes by a group of arms manufacturers in New York.

A great deal of the fun of this movie is looking at the 1950 that the filmmakers imagined in the roaring twenties, full of skyscrapers, blimps, television phones and ladies wearing form-fitting jumpsuits for a night on the town. It is not meant to be a prediction of the future, of course, but an allegorical one; I imagine that much early-twentieth-century science fiction used the mid-century point the same way later generations would use "the year two thousand", as shorthand for a time by which there would be great change but which the audience or their children would live to see. The design isn't wholly unreasonable, really, when you look at it from the perspective of a generation that had seen cities sprout like weeds in the American West and technologies like airplanes, automobiles, radios, and even motion pictures become ubiquitous since the turn of the century. 1950 London isn't a utopia, but it's a pleasant and exciting place to live, and the realization of it is at time impressive - the model work is crude by todays standards, with visible strings and crude detail, but other bits of effects are impressive. I admit to spending some time racking my brain at how they got the video phones to work in 1928: This is before the blue screen, and the devices weren't always wall-mounted to enable the use of rear projection. If it's matte work, it's darned impressive early use of it.

Speaking of being ahead of the curve, High Treason was actually shot as talkie, although silent, intertitled prints were also produced for the majority of theaters that had not yet installed sound. It is this silent version that was screened, which leads to some odd moments - a nightclub scene where young people dance to unheard music; demonstrators breaking into "the peace song" which is just not effective as intertitles. (Also, the venue's usual piano accompaniment for silent movies was absent, which is kind of nerve-wracking; the brain expects both eyes and ears to be engaged) I'd be interested to see the original, sound version, but I believe prints are scarce and in poor condition.

The cast is solid enough, given that they're basically playing types: Jameson Thomas is upright and honorable as the soldier who sympathizes with the Peace League but took an oath; Benita Hume is a pretty flapper who has still absorbed her father's hardline stance on right and wrong. Humberston Wright is exactly what the film needs as a man whose very passion can prove to be his undoing - strong and authoritarian, but tunnel-visioned to the point where he might start talking about ends justifying the means.

Of course, as much as High Treason comes down on the side of the pacifists in its words, when it comes down to actions, it does seem to like, well, action. The opening border-crossing incident takes a while to sort itself out, but once it does, generates some good suspense, and the terrorist attack on the Peace League's headquarters yields some nice destruction of miniatures. At other times, the audience can't help but feel that director Maurice Elvey is more interested in showing pretty girls than high ideals, or find that the meetings of the munitions manufacturers are much more thrilling than those of the protesters. Maybe Noel Pemberton-Billing's original play was more honest in its desire to show peaceful means working, but L'Estrange Fawcett's screenplay gives the audience more spectacle and more excitement, even if the message gets a little lost in translation.

Or maybe not completely lost; pacifist doesn't necessarily mean passive. The film's ideas are noble enough even for this day and age, and it does a better job than most of making the presentation of those ideas exciting and entertaining. Sure, it's not as slick as the films that would follow it, but it makes good use of what it's got, with the result being more enjoyable than many later films with more resources.

The Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kino-apparatom)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 October 2005 at the Harvard Film Archive (Imgining the City) (Live piano accompaniment)

The Man with a Movie Camera is exciting to watch, even seventy-five years later. It is, at once, a document of Soviet Russia in the late 1920s and a dizzying work of cinematic artistry years ahead of its time. It is, for people who love film as a medium, absolutely essential viewing.

It's curious to see what a relatively even-handed look it gives the young Soviet Union. Shortly after screening this film, the Harvard Film Archive ran Aelita, Queen of Mars, which has no compunctions about wearing its ideology on its sleeve. Man with a Movie Camera does often seem to attempt to portray the USSR in its best light: The Moscow streets are bustling, filled with cars and excited people. The trips out to the countryside also show a busy people, building the country's industrial base. And yet, we see a fair amount of poverty, too, workers wearing old, beat-up clothes and people waiting in the lines that would come to define the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

More than the location, though, what makes it so essential is the thing that makes its title something of a misnomer - director Dziga Vertov is, through much of this movie, a man with two movie cameras, one shooting everyday scenes in and around Moscow and another filming him shooting everyday scenes in and around Moscow. It's kind of an audacious trick - imagine a stage magician showing you how an illusion is created before doing each trick. That's what Vertov does here, and while it's fascinating to process junkies like me, it's also fascinating to those with less curiosity as to how things are made: Our cameraman is climbing to great heights and bolting cameras to cars driven at high speed; there's a thrill of danger and respect for someone dedicated enough to their craft put themselves in harm's way to get a bit of film.

Indeed, this film shows us moviemaking from start to finish, as some shots show us Vertov setting up a movie theater in an empty hall, actually putting chairs in line, hanging a screen, and setting up a projector, with curious people lining up to see what may be their first movie (and looking bewildered by what they see in this non-linear documentary, actually). I actually found myself thinking of Goodbye Dragon Inn during these segments - where that film at times seemed like a eulogy, mourning the death of people going to film, Man with a Movie Camera is being present at its birth as the subjects gawk at the camera, Vertov figures out how to use it, and people come to see the result for the first time.

The editing is also noteworthy; the film cuts between locations and perspectives almost randomly, and yet the film comes together as a seamless whole. It's avant-garde, for sure, but not in an aloof way. The Man with a Movie Camera is required viewing to be familiar with the history of film, but also an entrancing experience in its own right.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 28 October 2005 at the Somerville Theater #1 (CrashArts Presents the Alloy Orchestra)

The Phantom of the Opera impressed me. That's not particularly hard to do, I admit - I like movies a great deal and tend to be generous in my appraisal if I like any specific feature. What struck me upon watching Phantom, though, was that even though the film is eighty years old, I had of course seen stills of the title character, and the promotion for this restored print and live accompaniment boasted of what was to come, I still found reasons to sit up straight in my seat and make some noise in shock or delight when called for.

The story, of course, is familiar from multiple productions - Chirstine (Mary Philbin), a young opera singer, is tutored by Erik (Lon Chaney), a master who hides out of sight, the Paris Opera House's legendary phantom. The adoring Erik sabotage's Christine's rival to win her a lead role, and eventually abducts his protegé into his realm of catacombs when it appears the surface world doesn't appreciate her beauty and talent, leading her more conventional beau Roaul (Norman Kerry) to give chase.

Read the rest at HBS.

Frankenstein (1931)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 October 2005 at the Coolidge Corner Theater #1 (Halloween) (projected video, live accompaniment)

Universal, of late, has been looking for ways to market its classic monsters to a new, young audience. They've recently announced a series of sequel novels from Dark Horse Press; they've inflicted bad Stephen Sommers movies on us. I can't help but think that the best way would also be the most cost-effective: Get some prints into theaters during slow months, and let the audience see just how good these films are.

It's not a flawless plan; I've got no doubt that there would be a lot of people laughing at the dated performances and talking back to the screen. But that's okay; it gets them in the theater, and gets them paying attention. And even if the audience is initially disrespectful, James Whale's lean, efficient filmmaking will stick with the audience, as will Boris Karloff's immortal performance, which many may only know from stills or parody.

Read the rest at HBS.

Nosferatu, a Symphony of Terror (Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 31 October 2005 at the Coolidge Corner Theater #1 (Halloween) (projected video, live accompaniment)

You know what I hate about most vampire movies? That they make the vampires sex symbols. Please. Sex is a life-giving process, whereas vampires are walking corpses that drink the lifeblood of others, but are laid low by religious icons and the rays of the sun, the ultimate source of all life. They're death. The way I figure it, the more ugly and cadaverous they make vampires, the better. So, it's probably no surprise when I say that Nosferatu is the greatest vampire movie ever made.

Nosferatu is, infamously, an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, with the action transposed to Germany. Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), an apprentice estate agent, is dispatched to Transylvania to conduct some business with the reclusive Count Orlok (Max Schreck). Orlok, a bald, pale character with long fingernails, pointed teeth, and a demonic visage, has some bizarre sleeping habits, and the local villagers won't come near his castle. He takes an interest in Hutter's wife Ellen (Greta Schroeder), and soon is on his way to his new home. Death follows in his wake.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 6 November 2005 at the Harvard Film Archive (World War I on Film)

Wings, as the reader may or may not know, was the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (or "Best Production", as it was called at the time), and is extremely likely to stand as the only silent to win that honor. Were it remade today with roughly the same script and equivalent special effects, it likely would not be considered a contender for such honors, although it would probably still be a huge popular hit.

After all, the public went for Pearl Harbor (at least, more than the critics did), and that film borrows somewhat from this predecessor: Two young men, working-class Jack Powell (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), the son of the richest family in town, sign up to train as pilots during World War I. Both fancy themselves rivals for the affection of classy Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), though in truth she only has feelings for David. Jack, meanwhile, is mostly oblivious to the interest of tomboyish girl-next-door Mary Preston (Clara Bow), though she will also make her way to Europe, joining the army as a driver.

Read the rest at HBS.

Aelita, Queen of Mars

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 November 2005 at the Harvard Film Archive (Film Architectures)

It is a testament to director Yakov Protazanov's craft that someone viewing Aelita can watch and enjoy it for most of its running time without realizing that it's a pretty darn heavy-handed piece of propaganda. That's not necessarily a fatal blow; any time one watches an old movie or reads an old book, it is somewhat necessary to consider the context of the times, and communism's collapse was far from inevitable in the early 1920s (and to suggest otherwise in a Soviet-produced film would be an extremely bad career move). Sadly, though, the propaganda is followed up by the hoary cliché, which is annoying no matter what the ideology of the film (or filmmaker) (or sponsor) may be.

It starts off innocently enough. Los (Nikolai Tsereteli), a construction manager for a project near Moscow, tinkers with rocketry in his spare time. His devoted wife Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi) does clerical work where she is needed. They are fairly happy, though they live in a crowded apartment with one-time aristocrats unhappy with their current lot in life. This is watched from Mars by Aelita (Yuliya Solntseva), the young and relatively powerless queen of an empire whose prosperity is paid for by the blood and oppression of workers living underground. She adores watching the passionate, romantic Earthman, and plots to continue using the telescope even when she is denied access. Things are taking a turn for the worse for Los, too, as Natasha is seduced by the secret meetings of her once-wealthy neighbors. After an action committed out of rage, Los flees in his homemade rocket (with, of course, a pair of stowaways), which is, of course, primed for revolution.

From the viewpoint of twenty-first century America, the rah-rah communist propoganda is kind of amusing, although for the better part of the movie, it's not insulting. Sure, the one-time nobility are the villains, but life in the Soviet Union isn't perfect - the apartments are rather crowded, Los is working long hours and has difficulty finding a place to work on his non-State-Sponsored project, and there's something less than ideal about a society that doesn't have a place for Natasha to look killer in a black dress. The communist ideal is a good one, and Los's belief in it marks him as noble in contrast to the aristocrats bemoaning the loss of privilege that they were born to. It's not until later, when Los is on Mars forging hammer-and-sickle emblems and making stirring speeches about how a civilization should be run, that one feels that maybe he's pushing the point a little hard, and, hey, you ran from this perfect society because it led you to commit a violent crime.

At any rate, it is not the propoganda quality of the picture which leads to its classic status, but its vision of Mars, which is justly famous. Every single detail is immensely impractical, of course, and the Martian living and working spaces look far more like sets for a stage play than anything that someone would actually use. They're beautiful, though, lush in their absurdity, somehow managing to be both open and busy at once. The end result is not nearly as complete a fictional world as Lang's Metropolis, though certain themes are shared in its construction - housing the poor in a dark, underground city has been a staple of speculative fiction for as long as the genre has existed. The costuming is similarly whimsical, in that I can use the word "whimsical" because I don't have to wear it.

The film works, for most of its running time. Both the fantastical and down-to-earth segments are well-shot, and if they seem naive now, they're believable products of their time. And the characters are well-drawn and relatable; even the staunchest libertarian capitalist can identify with the Loses' enthusiasm to help build a country where everyone would get a fair shake, or Aelita's excited eavesdropping on the exciting Earthmen. That's why it's such an unhappy blow when in the last act, they stop being universal characters with flaws and imperfections and become representations of class-warfare doctrine. And the very end is the sort of thing that always drives me bonkers, both erasing the consequences of a character's actions and deflating the fantasy elements.

There are some silent films that hold up no matter what the year, and others that are mainly good for getting an idea of the history of film. This screening of Aelita was part of a "Film Architectures" series at the Harvard Film Archive, which isn't always the dry, academic environment it sounds like, and it tries valiantly to be more than merely educational. In the final analysis, it doesn't quite manage that, but it does at least try.

What's Going on in Beely Circus? (Was ist los im Zirkus Beely?)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 December 2005 at the Harvard Film Archive (Special Event) (Live piano accompaniment)

One of the things I'd always assumed about the silent era was that international distribution was easier and more common; after all, to bring an English-language film to Germany or vice versa, a studio would just have to replace the intertitles or cutaways to written notes with translated versions. No fake-seeming dubbing, and the audience was already expecting to read the dialogue. This does not seem to have been the case, though: Metropolis, for instance, had a terrible time securing U.S. distribution, and the films of Harry Piel are all but unknown to the Anglophone world.

If What's Going on in Beely Circus? is representative, then this is perhaps not a tragedy on the order of the world not knowing the works of Chaplin or Murnau. It's still a remarkable vanishing act; at the peak of his popularity, Biel's films occupied over a third of his nation's screens. Now, he not only exists in obscurity, but much of his prodigious output is simply lost (Beely Circus is the only feature that survives in its entirety). It's a shame, not just because all lost works are unfortunate, but because Piel - called "the dynamite director" after the amount of action scenes included (and explosives used) in his pictures - so dominated the German box office that he could scarcely have avoided being a major influence on a generation of German filmmakers.

In Beely Circus, Piel directs and stars as Harry Peel, a man-about-town secure enough in his wealth that he does not seem to have to either work for it or mention its source. As the film opens, he's reluctantly getting dressed up for a night at his exclusive club. It's a sort of stodgy environment for this man of action, but old friend Robert Jackson (Ralf Ostermann) will be there, recently returned from South America. They barely have time to speak, although Harry will hear from him later that night, calling from a pay phone as he's attacked at the auditorium he had recently acquired. Harry promises Jackson's pretty sister Rose (Ilona Karolewna) that he'll investigate, although police detective Bull (Fritz Greiner) would prefer he left the matter to the authorities.

Harry is a pugnacious protagonist, somewhat in the Douglas Fairbanks mode - handsome, athletic, and clearly ready to buckle any swash that needs it. He's a roaring twenties action hero, overflowing with energy, uncomfortable in the tuxedo he wears at first, and ready to confront any problem he might find head on. Beely Circus is a murder mystery story in form, but Harry isn't the sort of amateur sleuth who cracks a case by looking for tiny clues or asking witnesses and suspect questions where the tiniest detail may be important. He'll occasionally go undercover, but prefers relying on his fists and raw nerve. Toward the middle of the film, he's thrown in a room with a tiger, which most would consider dangerous, but Harry Peel is so tough that he can basically stare it down and then have the big cat follow him around to intimidate people in later acts.

I figure that was the appeal of Piel's films - that Harry was this larger-than-life pulp hero who could handle any problem with direct action. He swings on ropes, tames wild animals, finds secret passages and falls in with the dead man's sister because, in this sort of movie, that is the natural order of things. He chases criminals but still sticks it to the man in his dealings with the police. Pretty simple stuff, but fun in that way. It's a basic meat & potatoes action movie, and though it doesn't feature any huge set pieces, it seldom slows down close to a stop.

Pity so few of Piel's movies survive. Beely Circus isn't going to be one of my favorite silents, but the guy was popular for a reason.

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