*. D. W. Griffith was a pioneer when it came to film technique, but what drove his creativity and inventiveness? Not a mad desire to innovate and be original but rather a populist and sentimental mind.
*. People often point to his breakthroughs in editing, for example, but what end did these serve? More than anything else, they went to making up a great chase scene. Griffith loved chase scenes. You can find one in many if not most of his movies, even these Biograph shorts.
*. But think about how you’re going to present a chase scene without a lot of editing. It’s people running or riding a horse into and out of the frame. Then repeat. Then repeat again (depending on how long the chase is). That’s not how we experience chasing someone or being chased, where our point of view is constantly changing (distances changing, looking around us, behind us, or straight ahead). As long as movies were just filmed stage plays they didn’t need much in the way of editing. But when the action really began to move, so did the pictures.
*. Swords and Hearts is another creaky Griffith melodrama, interesting mainly for how it anticipates The Birth of a Nation, but without the racial angle. The angry mob breaking down the door into the estate house are white “bushwackers.” The conniving siren isn’t a mulatto but a high-station Southern belle.
*. Of course there are racist conventions, with the faithful servant Old Ben hiding the family fortune and looking out for the young master. But these are sentimental conventions, with none of Birth of a Nation‘s bile and fear of miscegeny. That would be unleashed on an epic scale just a few years later.
*. The Civil War was America’s epic, in the words of art critic Robert Hughes, its Iliad and its Holocaust. As such, I think it’s been mined in a superficial and even cynical manner over the years, but for a lot of great artists, especially from the South, it remains a part of the cultural mythology with incredible resonance. D. W. Griffith being one such individual.
*. This story here takes the form of a short gothic tale of horror, and Griffith tells it with great economy. The set up has three musketeer chums heading off to war only for one of them to turn into a “drink-mad coward” and run away. His place is taken by his sister who is then killed in battle. Back home, his mother shutters him inside the family homestead to hide the family shame while a pair of faithful suitors continue to pay visits, thinking that it is the sister who has become a recluse. In the final moments the brother dies and his mother reveals the horrible truth to the suitors.
*. Like I say, it’s a gothic tale of horror. Or at least the final part is (the movie has a fairly rigid three-part structure, with a rousing bit of Civil War action stuck in the middle).
*. I couldn’t help thinking of Misery, what with the trapped young man growing old in his mother’s house, slowly drinking himself to death and going dotty with cabin fever. That’s pretty morbid stuff.
*. Griffith was frustrated by the constraints of one-reelers running ten to fifteen minutes long. Even in a film like this you can sense the different angles to the story he’s not exploring.
*. The sister’s dressing room has the American Biograph studio logo (a stylized AB) prominently displayed on the wall. You’ll notice it appearing in a lot of the Biograph shorts. I wonder how intentional it was. These movies were shot quickly, but it’s hard to miss something like that and the studios were very keen on branding their product with company logos. After he left Biograph, Griffiths would insist on presenting his own “DG” logo as a sign of quality.
*. Christianity, unlike other religions of the book, has always embraced images of the divine (albeit with a few iconoclastic interruptions). This has given rise to a lot of Western art’s greatest hits, as well as an ungodly amount of trash and commercial crap. In the latter category go most Biblical spectacles, and pretty much anything to do with Christmas holidays.
*. That said by way of introduction, this short film isn’t really a “spectacle,” being a one-reeler with a limited budget. Herod’s throne room is particularly unimpressive, undistinguished by anything more than what appears to be a lion-skin rug. And the location backdrops barely rise above high-school set decorations. Those palm trees! That sphinx!
*. I mentioned Western art’s greatest hits. There’s always a tendency for Bible films to be drawn toward this visual tradition. Mel Gibson, for example, consciously mined it in The Passion of the Christ. Here again we’re very much in the world of staged artwork. Without any title cards, or even a title for that matter, you’d still be able to identify most of what’s going on.
*. There is, however, an impressive development of depth of field for a series of what are fairly static theatrical tableaux.
*. Animals are a director’s nightmare. The docile and sleepy sheep in the first scene here are well behaved to the point of appearing tranquilized. I wonder if they were. The camels that bring the wise men to Herod seem more recalcitrant. But camels are like that, aren’t they? Such ungainly beasts out of their native element.
*. Feuillade was still working on developing a sense of film narrative. This is a short film going over a very familiar series of events and yet I still found it a bit hard to follow. There’s no strong link of cause and effect between the different scenes, Feuillade just shows us one thing happening and then another. Perhaps he felt he didn’t need to explain what was going on, but I think it more likely that he just wasn’t there yet.
*. Commerce and religion. Is there a real spiritual sensibility at work here? Is this film an act of faith? Or is it just a much-loved story tricked out with some primitive effects (like the appearance of the chorus of angels at the beginning), in order to take advantage of the public’s interest in the new technology?
*. I’m not sure how you could tell. Spirituality in film is hard to do: the very nature of the medium works against you. (Much the same has been said about making anti-war films.) But there’s more to religion than religious feeling. There are conventions and public rituals and mythologies. What’s interesting, at least to me, is how in early films like this you can already see the affinity between Christianity and a new form of popular art.
*. This is the last of the Fantômas serials and it’s in the worst shape, with lots of gaps where the film has been unrecoverable. Even the opening photo montage of mug shots where we go through Fantômas’s transformations is missing.
*. It’s a shame, because I think this one had the potential to be the best of the lot. The usual elements are all there (like the ambushes from out of the bushes or behind a door, or the nice use of locations), but they’re especially well executed.
*. The jewellery robbery, for example. Of course there had to be a robbery, but the set up here is interesting and well presented, especially with the shot that takes us through the wall between the two rooms. Fantômas’s escape at the end was also very clever. I was expecting some variation on the trap door, but his last letter as magistrate freeing himself in advance took me by surprise.
*. The surveillance and pursuit sequence is also very well handled. It’s hard to present a chase effectively without a lot of editing (this is one of the main reasons D. W. Griffith was driven to pioneer so much in this regard), but Feuillade gives us a chase that is suspenseful and easy to follow. You know Fantomas is going to give those two guys the slip, but you’re not sure where.
*. The bell tower double-cross is another stand-out set piece, though here too you can see Feuillade straining against the limits of what he can do. There’s a nice climbing pan as we follow the one gang member up the ladder into the bell, but he can’t really go beyond this.
*. What happens to the crook in the bell, by the way? Does he fall out along with the jewels when it is rung? Does no one notice him up there? I don’t recall any mention of how he got down, or if he fell, or if he died up there.
*. Why does the magistrate go into the luggage car? It seems an odd place for such a distinguished gentleman to hang out and have a smoke.
*. More time is given over to Fantômas himself here, and I think his limits as a villain are starting to show. His girlfriend Lady Beltham is gone but he still can’t let any mention of money or jewels pass by without it triggering a nervous response that forces him into criminal action, no matter what the costs. Aside from his sinister sense of humour (which isn’t indulged much in this film), there’s nothing else to him.
*. So as I say, it’s a shame we don’t have a full print of this one. Still, given the low survival rate of movies from this period we should probably just be grateful for what we have. And there seems something fitting in our not having Fantômas’s final escape. It’s like he’s vanished again.
*. This is the fourth of five Fantômas serials and you may be wondering if there is some overarching structure taking shape. At the very least, is there a sense that this series is going somewhere?
*. Not really, but that’s the nature of serials. They just keep blowing at a feather to keep it in the air. The plot here is ramshackle and I was never entirely clear on what was going on. Who was the man in the Fantômas costume who is murdered? What is Juve’s role within the police investigation? What was Fantômas’s plan for getting away with the gang’s loot?
*. Such a plot is designed as just a clothesline to peg a number of big scenes or sequences on. The same structure informed Juve vs. Fantômas, for example, where we got the train crash and the snake coming in the bedroom window. But here there are no such moments. The possibilities are there (the bleeding wall, the three Fantômas figures at the ball), but they aren’t well developed.
*. As with the previous film (The Murderous Corpse), Juve’s role is downplayed and Fandor’s built up, which isn’t a good thing in my opinion. Juve and Fantômas should be the great adversaries, like Holmes and Moriarty. Instead, Juve fades into the background. Indeed, so does Fantômas as his gang of “apaches” takes center stage. They aren’t very interesting either, but I do like their appearance as workmen in white coveralls. They look like one of the costumed gangs out of the old Batman television show.
*. At 90 minutes this is by far the longest of the Fantômas films, and in the opinion of some the best. I find it a time-filler. Juve is in disguise throughout almost the entire movie. Fantômas isn’t given as much to do. Lady Beltham only briefly appears. Most of the action is given over to the detective work of Fandor, who I find to be the least interesting character in the serial.
*. The glove of human skin is a macabre bit of business, and nicely prepared for. We see Fantômas take out his knife to skin the hand of his framed victim and then there is a cut. This makes the sudden peeling off of the glove at the end a grisly climax.
*. No, that’s not much of a search that the police do for the missing necklace. But it’s only meant as a way of showing the audience what is happening, a sort of charade. A “realistic” search wasn’t what people were expecting to see.
*. The crime lab, however, is an early nod to procedural realism. Audiences would find “anthropometry” new and interesting.
*. You have to appreciate the little things when watching early movies. Note the invisible editing in the fingerprinting scene. That’s quite well done at a time when editing was in its infancy. I think they may have skipped a finger in one cut, but you have to be watching pretty closely to catch it.
*. Given the material and the speed of production it’s no surprise to see the series falling into conventions already. Here again we see the plot advanced by telegrams and notes, Fantômas coming out from hiding behind curtains (and stealing a lady’s jewelery right out of her boudoir), and of course an almost fetishistic love of disguise.
*. Meanwhile, the investigation continues.
*. I think I’ve registered before how much I like the authentic details to be found in old films. The horse shit and steam-powered buses we see on the streets of Paris here are great. You can’t do horse shit as stage dressing or put it in with CGI. It just doesn’t have the same texture.
*. Though it was made right after the first Fantômas film (Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine), this second part of the serial marks a dramatic advance. There are a lot more cuts, giving the proceedings a much livelier feel. There is also what appears to be a dolly shot and even a close-up thrown into the mix.
*. Added to the increased cutting is a penchant for scenes involving lots of movement. We are frequently watching cars and trains zoom about, or are on board the same. It’s very different from the first film, which is mostly set bound.
*. The plot is certainly more chaotic than its predecessor, and with that wonderful python entering the bedroom the true note of surrealism comes in. Fittingly, while Juve is pretending to be asleep. I couldn’t help thinking of the engravings in Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonté.
*. The snake is a throwaway bit of plot. I suspect Feuillade had one lying around and wanted to use it. Almost as surreal is Juve’s crazy spiked girdle. That must have been a custom design as I can’t think of any use for such an outfit, even as a defense against snakes.
*. I guess they actually killed the snake later. Sad. That was a magnificent beast.
*. Also new is the comic sensibility at play. The gunfight among the barrels and the business with Juve and Fandor hiding in the furnace vent are both funny scenes, and deliberately so. Fantômas’s return to the club after escaping Juve is also a comic bit. He’s a right cocky bastard, he is. A title card in the next film in the series, The Murderous Corpse, will refer to his “sinister sense of humour.”
*. Identity is becoming more plastic. Now Juve shares the opening montage of metamorphosis with Fantômas, and goes through his own series of disguises in the film. Can we trust the camera any more than the characters? We may be starting to doubt.
*. It takes an effort to look at the “primitive cinema” with fresh eyes. A lot of the grammar of film had yet to be written.
*. In this launch of the Fantômas series Louis Feuillade set a stationary camera in front of simple sets and filmed what was basically a play. There were no tracking shots or pans, few effects, almost no intra-scene editing or close-ups. There’s little to see but the complex plot unfolding.
*. There’s a good commentary on the Kino DVD by David Kalat, but he’s basically just reading an essay without making any reference to what’s happening on screen. I think that’s because so little is happening on screen that needs explaining.
*. Complicating things further is the fact that the plots of these films, which drive everything, weren’t the big draw at the time. The films were based, sometimes very loosely, on wildly popular novels. If you didn’t already know the story, synopses were handed out to the audience. So these weren’t suspense thrillers by today’s reckoning.
*. I think Feuillade was more of what we would today call a producer. He was in charge of Gaumont and was credited with some 800 movies. It was an assembly line, and in the case of the Fantômas novels the authors were equally industrial, churning out the novels at a staggering rate. Like was calling out to like.
*. René Navarre as Fantômas and Edmund Breon as Inspector Juve are solid, but I was most impressed by Renée Carl as Lady Beltham. In silent film the actors usually overplay their parts with a lot of big, body gestures, but all the performers here do a lot with their eyes, and no one more so than Carl.
*. If you read much about these films you’re inevitably going to find the subject of fantasy coming up. Kalat is no exception, talking a lot about unreality, irrationality, and illogic. He sees the proceedings here as “marked by narrative chaos,” without any relation of cause and effect between scenes.
*. The influence of Feuillade on prominent surrealist artists like René Magritte may be the starting point for this sort of analysis. By this way of reckoning Feuillade becomes a kind of proto-surrealist, the Fantômas serial pregnant with dream imagery.
*. And yes, you can find such imagery here (and in his other well known serial Les Vampires). But I don’t see nearly as much of this as others do. The archetypes invoked were conventions. Contra Kalat, the laws of cause and effect in this first film are adhered to. (For a real breakdown of narrative cause and effect into pure dream logic the movie to see is Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr.) The actor Valgrand may feel like he is in some kind of drugged nightmare, but the audience is always perfectly aware of everything that is going on. And finally the plot to break Fantômas out of prison is complicated, but it’s not fantastic or surreal.
*. I think this may be the hardest thing for contemporary audiences to “get” about this movie. It’s not that the plot is slow to develop or poorly paced, it’s that we’re too far ahead of the action. That wasn’t a problem at the time because audiences weren’t looking to be surprised.
*. As a final note, I have to commend a marvelous restoration job. It’s amazing enough that a movie this old even survives, much less looks this good.
*. I guess I should start off by saying that I’ll be talking about the Kino restoration of the 123-minute version, not the fully-restored 181-minute version that premiered at Cannes in 2006, or any of the other versions floating around out there (of which there are several).
*. I have a hard time imagining this film at 181 minutes. I wonder what was cut.
*. Aristotle considered opsis or spectacle to be one of the constituent elements of drama. This is usually taken as meaning, very broadly, everything you see on stage (or mise-en-scène), but I like to interpret spectacle as implying something big or marvelous. And it’s this meaning that, I think, applies especially to film. One of the things that made film a totally new art form was the sheer size of it. The images thrown up on the screen are (or at least were) larger than life. Spectacle was a part of film’s DNA from the beginning.
*. This kind of spectacle is probably what Cabiria is best known for today, father to later Biblical and quasi-Biblical Hollywood epics identified with armies of extras, XXL sets, and supersized heroes (the giant Bartolomeo Pagano here). And yet this movie isn’t carried away by its scale. It knew what Tolkien later knew: while all the big stuff is going on, keep your focus on the little things (an orphan girl, a lucky ring).
*. Given the large backdrops, the exaggerated gestures and dramatic posing common to silent film don’t seem out of place. The characters, so often introduced in shots that present them as sculptural icons (the noble slave, the general, the haughty queen, the scientist), register as both types and individuals.
*. Roger Ebert: “The movie feels old, and by that I mean older than 1914.” I think what Ebert is getting at here is the ancient kind of story Cabiria tells. Pirates, battles, nobles being sold into slavery, frustrated love affairs happily resolved: these were the standard fare for the literature of the Hellenistic Age.
*. Note how the innkeeper dies of fright. Our heroes are not guilty of murder.
*. Was this a political film? It was co-written by Gabriele D’Annunzio, a noted proto-fascist. And yet this isn’t a tale of the Roman Empire but its Republic.
*. The Carthaginians were a Semitic people, so does that make the movie anti-Semitic? The high priests of Moloch’s temple are a recognizable type.
*. Pastrone is often credited for inventing the tracking shot (which was in fact initially known as a Cabiria shot). At times it’s effectively done here, though it’s associated with only a couple of sets. But this is one of those things that you have to appreciate for the achievement it was at the time. Today it doesn’t seem very impressive at all. Like most technical developments it is now interesting only as a historical footnote.