Category Archives: 1920s

The Black Pirate (1926)

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*. Genre filmmaking, and proud of it. The opening titles promise a shopping list of “golden galleons, bleached skulls, buried treasure, the plank, dirks and cutlasses, scuttled ships, marooning, desperate deeds, desperate men, and — even on this dark soil — romance.” Not all of this is delivered, but they come pretty close. It’s Return to Treasure Island!
*. Pauline Kael called it the Fairbanks movie best loved of children, and apparently an eight-year-old Jackie Coogan may have put the bug in Fairbanks’s ear to make it. But it’s gruesome for the kids, isn’t it? In the opening scenario one of the prisoners swallows a ring and the head pirate (Anders Randolph) has one of his men cut it out of his stomach with his knife (we see him hand the ring over to Randolph, his knife dripping with blood). Later we’ll see the same head pirate fall backward on to a dagger planted in the sand, and Sam De Grasse test a stolen sword by stabbing a bound prisoner in the guts.

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*. Acting in silent films, and being a silent “star,” was something different from being a film star in the sound era. It involved other techniques and demanded other qualities. But the main ingredient for an action star hasn’t changed much. Douglas Fairbanks was very fit, looked it, and flaunted the look. He even shaved his chest with a straight razor, saying it was “common practice in the Orient.” Just in case you thought all the buff physiques of today’s manscaped bodybuilders and action stars was a new development.
*. An ability to handle acrobatics was another part of it, but a not insignificant one. I couldn’t help thinking of Lon Chaney swinging his way up the façade of Notre Dame when watching Fairbanks climb all over the pirate ship here. They both knew how to play the monkey well.
*. It was shot in the then new two-colour Technicolor process, which I love, though here it seems somewhat bleached as they were still working out the bugs in the process, which at this early stage involved sticking two layers of film together. I can’t imagine how difficult the restoration was.
*. Fairbanks also consciously wanted to make the colour easy on the eyes, as it was a concern at the time that too much colour would tire people out. Technology is always scary.

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*. Though the colour effects are a bit underwhelming (especially in the night scenes, which even disappointed Fairbanks), the stunts and effects are terrific. Who can forget Fairbanks sliding down a sail that he’s cutting open with this dagger? Or his swinging on ropes through the rigging (a “stunt” that was achieved by simply reversing the film)?
*. The most impressive shots, however, are of the aquanauts swimming in formation underwater to attack the pirate ship. I couldn’t figure out how they did this, given the requirement of awesome amounts of light to film in the Technicolor cameras. On the DVD commentary Rudy Behlmer explains that they aren’t really swimming underwater but are being suspended by a crane and pretending to do the breaststroke against a backdrop, with a foreground of water with bubbles rising from it. Which sounds very complicated, but looks terrific.
*. Tell me with a straight face that you watched the scene where Donald Crisp cuts Fairbanks’s bonds and didn’t laugh. He’s standing behind Fairbanks, with the tip of the dagger sticking out over the top of his belt buckle, rubbing up and down against Fairbanks’ backside. It’s indecent!
*. Fairbanks is really a duke! Hooray! That means he can marry the princess! Because otherwise the classes don’t mix. In Imperial Spain or 1920s America.
*. It’s almost sad the way MacTavish tries to give the pirates’ buried treasure to the royals as a wedding present. Keep it for yourself, matey. They don’t need it.

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*. At the end, after Fairbanks kills De Grasse (in what seems a really awkward manner), he uses the dead body as a shield to block the shot from a pistol that one of the other pirates fires at him. I wonder if this was the first movie to show someone doing this. In more recent years we’ve seen the body-as-shield used to almost comic overkill effect in movies like Total Recall and Payback. James Cagney also did it to Abner Biberman in The Roaring Twenties (1939). But this may have been the first time ever, albeit with a corpse.
*. As a genre, the pirate film has shown itself to be curiously impervious to change: through later films like The Sea Hawk and The Black Swan right up to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Though there are twenty-first century pirates, mostly hailing out of Somalia, you can’t really have a modern or neo-pirate story. Pirate movies are strictly circumscribed in terms of time and place, which means they all look the same: with the same costumes, props, and other genre elements (like those listed in the argument before this film). And so while among the first, The Black Pirate is also unsurpassed.

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The Phantom Carriage (1921)

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*. Sentimentality has a genealogy. It got its start in the eighteenth century as a heightened emotionalism grounded in an excess of empathy (then known as “feeling,” or “sensibility”). It had its merits as a literary movement, but always walked a thin line, in danger of slipping into mawkish, melodramatic tears and pity.
*. Today we live in a far harder-hearted world. We are deeply suspicious of tears, seeing them as a sign of weakness not to be indulged in an environment of constant Darwinian struggle. We look back upon the popular fiction, theatre, and film of yesteryear and smile and shake our heads. Do we cry over the death of Little Nell today? And Chaplin, isn’t he a little much?

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*. The Phantom Carriage is based on a novel by Selma Lagerlöf. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, but is largely unread today (which is indicative of that shift in sensibilities). The Nobel committee praised her writing for its “lofty idealism,” which, by ours standards, would have really been saying something in 1909.
*. The screenplay, however, seems to owe more to Dickens’ Christmas Carol. And Chaplin thought it the greatest film ever made. So there’s the genealogy of sentimentality playing out. This is a pre-modern, nineteenth-century film despite its tricks and scrambled narrative structure.
*. Nothing dates like sentiment, not even the science of filmmaking. The technique of multiple exposures used here to present the ghosts was impressive at the time, but it soon came to seem an easy gimmick and clichéd convention.
*. The most sentimental works of art also contain their opposite, as the other side of the melodramatic coin. The Phantom Carriage is a movie filled with human evil and brutal squalor. The cinematography is beautiful, but it gives us interiors that recall the urban photography of Jacob Riis. And could you find a worse piece of wreckage than David Holm, who even threatens to infect his children with his tuberculosis as a way of getting back at his wife (and the world)? But then even his wife plans on killing the children when she takes her own life. Sentiment spreads its roots in the ground of dirty realism.

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*. I don’t mean to suggest by any of this that The Phantom Carriage is a bad film. In fact, it’s a great film. But there are reasons why it isn’t well known today. It describes an alien time and sensibility, one we feel little sympathy for. Just the notion that a monster like David Holm can be redeemed strikes most of us as false. Who really believes in his spiritual evolution/transformation? People like that don’t change. Of course the film is a fantasy, but its moral is fantastic as well.
*. Then there is the bizarre love triangle between David, his wife, and Edit. There’s no denying the sexual element here, and the psychic bond David and Edit seems to share only amplifies it. They belong together, and I don’t mean on a spiritual plane. This gives the ending a rather odd flavour, as it’s a let-down that David is reunited with his family. He should have moved on. He’ll be back drinking again soon.

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*. I think the other reason it isn’t watched as much today is that the things it does really well are things that are no longer that important. I think the performances are very good silent film performances, managing to be understated in a way you don’t often see. I think the fact that Victor Sjöström was such a large man helped. He didn’t have to play the role big because he already was: a big face on a big frame.
*. The other element that stands out is the photography I mentioned earlier. Not, however, the ghost effect, which I didn’t much care for (and which in the case of the drowned man is actually kind of funny). But the bedroom and tavern scenes are wonderfully lit and have impressive depth of field, shooting through doorways and such. I imagine being able to shoot at a brand new, state-of-the-art film studio helped, but all the various tricks of the cameraman’s trade are here invested with artistic and emotional weight.
*. It all adds up to a movie that I respect a great deal, but one that seems too much like a historical artefact now. Not all art is timeless.

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Häxan (1922)

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*. The allure of the odd. At the beginning of his audio commentary on the Criterion DVD Casper Tybjerg describes Häxan as “a film like no other.” And it wasn’t just unique in its day; it’s never really been imitated.
*. Is it sui generis? Tybjerg spends some time discussing whether or not it can be considered a documentary (making it one of the first). I wouldn’t apply that label. It seems to me more like a historical drama with a scholarly introduction and other asides. But I’m not sure the labels matter anyway.
*. Writer/director Benjamin Christensen claimed he wanted to present “a cultural history lesson in moving pictures,” and I think he may have been sincere. In the early days of any new medium you’ll usually find expressed the dream of a popular form of entertainment that will be used to educate the masses. It is a dream with a long history: through radio, film, television, and now the Internet. We’re still waiting. The masses seem less interested in instruction than delight. They don’t look to a new medium for its potential to educate. They don’t want cultural history lessons.

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*. Can we call it torture porn? That may be going too far, but it’s easy to forget how sadistic, violent, and even gory early films were. They were as nasty and shocking as they could be given the censors of the time and technical limitations. In the first dramatic sequence here, for example, we have a witch snapping a finger off the hand of a thief’s corpse (a scene that was cut from some prints).
*. The prurience is also undeniable. The meaning of the devil pumping away on his butter churn is kind of hard to miss. Christensen justifies showing nudity by saying it was the custom in the past to sleep naked in bed and for witches to travel about in the nude. So he’s just being historically accurate! As also when he points out that it wasn’t just ancient crones who were accused of being witches. Pretty young women were hauled before the tribunal too!

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*. Apparently his other idea for a documentary at the time was something on hermaphroditism and sex hormones. One can scarcely imagine how that would have turned out.
*. Of course there are pitfalls when it comes to doing something a little different. A movie imagined as a mosaic, with no single coherent narrative, no heroes or heroines, no spectacle and no suspense, was going to have a hard time finding an audience.
*. I’m not sure how popular Häxan was, but I don’t think it made money. It was very expensive, but not because of anything you see on screen. According to Tybjerg there were massive costs associated with the Swedish backers buying Christensen’s old film studio in Denmark (where the film was shot) and completely refurbishing it for him. Christensen also had a nocturnal working schedule that required lots of overtime for his crew. Why he thought it was somehow appropriate for such a film to be shot at night when he was shooting in a studio anyway is beyond me. I think he probably just liked working at night.
*. It is a very dark film, visually. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t think Christensen makes full use of the frame very often.

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*. So despite the big budget this is not a historical epic filled with massive sets and a cast of thousands, and doesn’t even feature much in the way of special visual effects (compare Murnau’s also very expensive Faust just a few years later). Instead it recycles the same handful of actors and small sets. That may have hurt it as well.
*. There’s Pazuzu! We wouldn’t see him again on screen until The Exorcist.

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*. As already noted, some material was cut by censors. I’m not surprised. There are some pretty crazy scenes here, what with babies being tossed in stew pots and women lining up to kiss the devil’s ass. I think the freakiest bit though is the woman giving birth to the demons. It made me think of that maggot-birth scene from David Cronenberg’s version of The Fly.
*. It’s impossible not to see the influence on Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in all of the close-ups, particularly with the tear-streaked, uplifted faces of persecuted women. Tybjerg is good on the background here, pointing out how the close-ups were seen by the censors at the time as indecent. You just weren’t supposed to see faces that big.

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*. Many people see the final section, set in modern times, as a let down. I wonder if that’s because we’re more familiar with the argument being made, that mental illness explains a lot of what was considered to be black magic in the bad old days. Psychiatry was still a new field in 1922.
*. The burning witches is an odd image to end with, isn’t it? It yanks us back out of time present into the demon-haunted world, with no explanation. Tybjerg doesn’t comment on it. Perhaps Christensen just wanted a strong visual and he couldn’t come up with a contemporary one. Or perhaps the burning figures are deliberately juxtaposed with the woman entering the healing shower in modern times.
*. Christensen aspired to do something different, but in doing so I think he also wanted to lay out a path to a different role for film than just cheap entertainment. No one followed his lead. Cultural history lessons are not best taught by moving pictures. You can always learn more from books.

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The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra (1928)

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*. Mr. John Jones (he does have a name before the studio gets hold of him) arrives in Hollywood with a letter of introduction from the Almighty. He “would like to become a motion picture player in Hollywood.”
*. The term “player” had a more innocent meaning back then. Mr. Jones only wants to be an actor. In Altman’s movie a player refers to something else, as does our modern admonition to not hate the player but the game. And yet even in a film from this period there are some of the same negative associations. Poor 9413 may be talentless, but the Star is a vacuous figure who just seems to understand the game better.
*. The Crash and the Depression were still a year away. This was the last good year of the roaring ‘twenties. But the feeling is nevertheless one of gloom. The original title was The Suicide of a Hollywood Extra, and with those bills sliding under the door we get the sense of a man being ground to dust by the system, unable to find employment or self respect.
*. Hollywood was not a town of skyscrapers in the 1920s, but the buildings were symbolic of the commanding heights of the entertainment biz. They also looked good as cut-outs.
*. It has the superficial appearance of a morality play, with 9413 as an Everyman seduced by Vanity Fair before reclaiming his soul. But that’s not how it feels. 9413 is too empty a vessel, with his wide staring eyes and his lips moving like a guppy making baby noises. Do we care what happens to such a creature? And what would be the difference between the vision of heaven here and what’s shooting in the studio hangar next door?
*. Shot by Greg Toland (who would go on to bigger things) and made for under $100. Prints were over half the cost. It’s a mere curiosity, notable for how quickly cynicism and even despair came to Hollywood. What are those twisting cut out shapes in the background? They look like origami scorpion tails.

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The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928)

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*. This is often considered to be the first surrealist film. It’s a fair claim as the imagery has that flavour, it’s based on a scenario by Antonin Artaud (though he was apparently upset or disapproved at what Germaine Dulac did with it), and came out a year ahead of Un Chien Andalou. So then . . . what is a surrealist film?
*. Surrealism speaks in the language of dreams. People always want to interpret dreams because they seem as being full of personal significance. But the science on dreams is still cloudy and we’re still not sure what they’re for or what they mean. Is there a collective unconscious filled with universal archetypes corresponding to something in a common human nature? Or are the images totally random and individual?
*. Some surrealists insisted that their images had no meaning, but I think they were kidding themselves. Nevertheless, they were honestly sceptical of the whole project of interpretation.

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*. And so a door opens and the Clergyman is revealed sitting at a table pouring fluid from a giant seashell into beakers. He then breaks the beakers. This action is repeated. It’s not even clear if it is a consecutive action, filling one beaker after another, or if we’re seeing the same action repeated in an endless loop. The number of beakers on the table in front of him always seems to remain the same, and the pile of smashed glass on the ground beside him isn’t growing.
*. This is how I read the passage: We are driven to interpret our experience of reality, just like that man doing his bizarre experiment. But it’s an absurd activity that doesn’t really take us anywhere: what we get out of our perceptions is what we put into them. Like the Clergyman, we’re only pouring old wine into new bottles. Then the bottles (the experiences) are gone and we do it again. I’ve heard it suggested that this is all our dreaming amounts to: a way of keeping our brains busy at some basic level while our bodies rest.
*. Put another way: Some seashells seem to make a sound like the ocean when you hold them up to your ear. It’s not the ocean, but amplified background noise, including the sound of your own blood flowing. That’s the Clergyman’s blood he’s pouring, or that he’s dreaming of pouring, into those beakers, in an act symbolic of circulation. Then the General comes in and breaks his heart.

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*. There’s usually some sexual, possibly Freudian, angle thrown onto this film. I’m not sure it’s that important. What makes the Clergyman mad at the General doesn’t seem to be anything sexual. The General smashes, or symbolically executes, his seashell, and then usurps his function at the confessional. The Clergyman has to lash out, and does so physically in the long strangulation attempt.
*. Enter the General’s Woman. The Clergyman seems angry at her more than aroused. Even her partial disrobing is violent more than erotic. Later he will imagine strangling her in much the same way as he tried to throttle the General. Is she an object of desire? We’re used to thinking of priests as being tortured cases of repression, but that’s not a necessary reading of what’s going on here.
*. I will confess I find something very sexual about the room full of fetish maids fluffing the Clergyman when he is turned into an objet d’art. But perhaps that’s just projection again.

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*. Along with sex, another constant with surrealism is its antagonism toward authority and its desire to tear down systems and symbols of order and hierarchy. Breaking things is a leitmotif here and if you want to see that as political I don’t think you’d be off course. The British Board of Film Censors famously reported that while the film was “so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable.” I don’t think they were referring to the bare breasts. Instead, the presentation of a violent, unhinged clergyman, and the lack of respect shown toward a military figure were probably more upsetting.
*. Throw in the maids and you have a lot of uniforms in this short film. This, along with their movement, makes the characters seem almost puppet-like. The Clergyman is the only one who doesn’t act like an automaton, even though his stiff, upright running style suggests strings being pulled.

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*. The less clear the meaning, the more work the score has to do. I think I’ve seen this film with three different accompaniments and it seemed quite a different picture each time. I like the film a lot more or a lot less depending on the score, and the music definitely has a role in interpreting the images and supplying a kind of narrative.
*. Indeed, the entire emotional register of the film is set by the score. Is the scene of the Clergyman crawling in the street comic, or creepy? What about the room full of maids? Or the General floating like a balloon? You can read each of these as sinister, threatening, or slapstick.
*. This, in turn, is another indication of how fluid the game of interpretation is. A simple musical cue can change it from horror to comedy.
*. I’d also add that it’s a silent film that’s worth watching with no sound. This leads to yet another kind of experience. One of the first things you’ll note is how much rhythm the images have in their juxtaposition and transitioning. Look at how the smoke billows over the pile of broken glass like a pulse.
*. In general, I think the special visual effects are poor, even for this period. Dulac had an eye, but you can tell she wasn’t always getting what she wanted on screen. Though I’ll admit there are also moments when you wonder if some of the shortfalls are deliberate, a way of drawing attention to their own artifice.

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*. It has the abrupt, fragmented rhythm that is characteristic of surrealism (since dreams don’t follow any kind of logical continuity), but there are at least two moments that last: the fracturing face of the General and the Clergyman crawling through the streets. Once seen, they are hard to forget.
*. But again, if you try and ask what either of those scenes “means” you’re not going to come up with much. Surrealism was the most liberating of artistic movements, and the most limited. Like therapy, it’s something you have to work at. And it doesn’t always produce results.

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The Cat and the Canary (1927)

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*. It’s fun to compare this film with the versions of “The Fall of the House of Usher” that came out at the same time (Jean Epstein’s and the one by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber). For starters, they are all haunted house stories set in weird “grotesque” mansions (each of which prominently features a long hallway with curtains blowing into it for effect).

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*. The Usher films are based on Poe’s classic tale while The Cat and the Canary comes from John Willard’s 1922 stage play of that name. Those different sources give an indication of where the similarities end. Both Usher movies are thick with atmosphere, the spirit of experiment, and a sense of unexplained dread. They are also lyrically silent, with sound effects (rendered visually) but no dialogue. The Cat and the Canary, on the other hand, is one of the talkiest silent films you’ll ever see.
*. I’ve heard people who have seen this movie express surprise when it’s described as a silent film. They remember it as being so full of chatter. Which, of course, it is. And it’s the kind of chatter that’s normally cut from a silent film: often repetitive verbal sparring without any direct bearing on the plot.

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*. Paul Leni is usually tagged with the label of an expressionist filmmaker, but he really dialed that back for this one. Despite all the opportunity for exaggerated and distorted visuals (our heroine is, after all, on the edge of being driven mad) it turns out there’s a perfectly good explanation for what’s going on, and all of the strange happenings are shown to be the result of ingenious but practical contraptions. A very American film, in that way.
*. Film historian Bernard F. Dick says that the style of this film was seen as a popular vulgarization of expressionism, but that this was necessary for the film to appeal to a mass American audience. Caligari didn’t play in Peoria.
*. It was a transition film for Universal: from the days of silent horror films produced by Carl Laemmle, often starring Lon Chaney (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera), to the early sound classics produced by his son, Carl Laemmle, Jr., like Dracula and Frankenstein.

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*. It was the qualities associated with subsequent Universal films that we notice more today, in particular the way it mixes humour in with the thrills and displays a more German sensibility in the direction and design. The comic touches make us think of what James Whale would later do with Frankenstein and The Old Dark House, and the settings (designed by Leni and made by Charles D. Hall, who also did the sets for Dracula and Frankenstein) soon became familiar to followers of the genre.
*. This, and the fact that Willard’s play was often revisited (the most notable other version being released in 1939 and starring Bob Hope), combine to give it a contemporary feel. We recognize the fast wisecracking script even reading title cards, and the bit of voyeurism as Paul watches the ladies undress from under the bed would go on to have a long future in horror films.

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*. Noting all this, it’s also interesting to observe the subtle differences with all that came after. The police coming to the rescue as motorized cavalry are remarkable not because of the odd way Susan is carried in front of the officer on his bike (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that done before), but because of the fact that they actually arrive in time to do something. We are used to hearing the sound of sirens in the distance after all of the main action of a thriller is over. Perhaps the police were just more efficient in the 1920s, or moviemakers today are too rigid in conforming to a creaky convention.
*. Another subtle difference is the way the proto-nerd Paul actually proves himself to be a somewhat capable hero at the end. Annabelle is almost a proto-“last girl,” but she’s not ready yet to go it alone. She still needs a man, and she gets one.

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*. I really like the shot when, after the family has begun to turn on her, we see Annabelle isolated in a room that now seems so much bigger and emptier. What happened to all the furniture? The dark spot on the wall where the portrait had fallen down from earlier underlines that same sense of abandonment.
*. Despite its place in film history, and the fact that it’s still quite an enjoyable entertainment, this is a movie that is not very well known today. Perhaps it’s just another case of countless imitations having overwhelmed the impact of the original. If so, it’s time for another visit to the old dark house. I think it stands up pretty well.

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The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

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*. I like experimental, art-house and avant-garde cinema as much as (and maybe a little more than) the next guy, but you have to call them out when they don’t work. As here.
*. Poe’s story has always presented a challenge to filmmakers. It’s a reflective mood piece, whose main plot points revolve around the act of reading. There’s also a suggestion of incest that has to be worked around.
*. Usually, the story is changed or adapted in significant ways, but this time it’s almost unrecognizable. Part of this is due to the absence of any intertitles, and part is the short running time (just under 13 minutes), but mostly I think it’s due to the directors (James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber) not being all that interested in the source. I mean, who is the traveller here anyway?
*. Jean Epstein managed to capture Poe’s melancholy poetry in his version of the story, La Chute de la maison Usher, which came out the same year as this film did. The sound of silence was hauntingly evoked by Epstein by way of visual cues. Here we have words floating on the screen that seem to acknowledge the limitations of the directors.
*. In my notes on Epstein’s film I mentioned how flimsy the role of Madeline is. But Roderick Usher is another story. He’s one of the great originals in all literature, a morbid and dangerous dandy overripe in decadence. He is the distasteful man of taste. You can’t even feel sympathy for him since he’s obviously more than half in love with death.

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*. Speaking of the love of death, I really like the touch of fetish we get in Roderick’s hands gliding down Madeline’s corpse as it’s lain out in her coffin. You almost expect to see him rubbing her back to life.
*. Instead of a story, what we get is a kaleidoscope of strange imagery, seemingly launched by a bout of food poisoning. After Madeline swoons at table before an uncovered dish we enter a world derived from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with sets that are all off-kilter angles and wall scribbles.
*. The other distinguishing visual effect is the somewhat cubist technique of shooting through prisms to create multiple images. This is merely bizarre: it serves no thematic purpose and is done so repetitively that it gets tiring even in a short.
*. The result is mainly just an excuse to throw camera tricks at us. It has a nice shot at the beginning as the traveler approaches the house in silhouette, and Madeline’s final appearance is terrific, distorting perspective in a grotesque way as her oversize and seemingly disembodied hands open wide the door. Aside from that the story has little weight, and the only mood achieved is one of confusion.

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La chute de la maison Usher (1928)

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*. The old line about the popularity of Edgar Allan Poe in France is that he reads better in French translations. Well, a film is a translation too, and nearly a hundred years later this is still the best version of “The Fall of the House of Usher” we have.
*. But we don’t start out with Poe, or in France. Instead we’re off to Transylvania, as the unnamed traveler stops at an inn to get a ride to Dracula’s castle. Or the home of Roderick Usher. The men at the inn look nervous and say “Usher?!” When the traveler finally does get a ride the coachman will only take him so far and then make him go the rest of the way on foot. This isn’t part of the story. It comes from Stoker’s Dracula, by way of Murnau’s Nosferatu.
*. A lot of -isms have been thrown at this film. It’s variously cited as an example of expressionism, surrealism, and French impressionist cinema. For what it’s worth, I see a bit of the first (especially in the second half of the movie), less of the second, and I’m still not sure the third means anything.

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*. If you like labels, the surrealist Buñuel had a falling out with the impressionist Epstein, apparently over the lack of fidelity to the story. (As if the story meant anything, or Buñuel cared about such things. I think he was just hard to get along with.) I suppose the painting that is a mirror (and in which Madeline is clearly seen blinking) is a surrealist image. Impressionism is harder to pin down but it’s more something you feel in the poetic cerements the film seems draped in.

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*. The key expressionist motif is found in those gnarled trees outside (mentioned several times by Poe). They appear again in the twisted branches of the Usher family tree that the traveler carries around, are later drawn on the walls of the mansion, and can even be seen in the twisted banisters that line the stairway. It’s not quite the Dr. Seuss world of Caligari, but it’s in the same neighbourhood.
*. The story gets shifted around a bit jumping from page to screen, with no real loss. Roderick and Madeline are now married, which is convenient. And I like the invention of having Roderick’s old friend being the perfect complement to his hypersensitivity. The traveler, armed with magnifying glass and ear horn, is nearly deaf and blind. That’s not in the book.

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*. Jean Debucourt is Roderick and looks the part. His towering forehead (in Poe’s words “an inordinate expansion above the regions of the temple”) is a billboard for the aesthetic intellectual. He is nicely adapted too, as painting is not one of Roderick’s hobbies in the story but film needs the visual hook. Especially a silent film.

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*. What a trick that silence is! Poe’s story is all about the effects of sound, and yet here we are unable to hear a thing. But it still works. How? Roger Ebert on this film: “There are times when I think that of all the genres, the horror film most misses silence. . . . in a classic horror film, almost anything you can say will be superfluous or ridiculous. . . . The perfect horror situation is such that there is nothing you can say about it.”
*. This is well observed. Talk in a horror film is usually just whistling past the graveyard, an attempt to rationalize away our fears or just a bit of banality to lull us into a false sense of security. It’s interesting to note how in the other version of this story that came out the same year by Watson and Webber there aren’t even any title cards. The effect is all about creating a mood, that vague awareness of doom that Poe’s narrator senses but can’t explain.

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*. What a ginormous interior. The great hall looks the size of a soccer field.
*. That’s Marguerite Gance, Abel’s wife, as the wilting Madeline. Not much of a role, for any of the women who have played it.

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*. Does interpretation have its limits? I’ve tried to think what those two frogs have to do with anything, and I’ve come up with nothing. Are they merely surreal?
*. I do like how the nodding head of the doctor matches the strokes of the hammer pounding nails into the coffin. That really works, and provides a kind of aural-visual rhythm a silent film needs.
*. The “fall” of the house of Usher is both the collapse of the structure itself and the end of the family line. But the movie emphasizes falling throughout. We see books falling from their shelves, Madeline fall as she swoons to the ground, a suit of armour fall to the floor. All in slow motion. The House of Usher didn’t fall in a day, but gradually collapsed.

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*. It has an interesting structure, splitting neatly in half with Madeline’s death, and Roderick Usher going from artist to necromancer. At the same time there are changes in set design — this is when the house suddenly becomes more like Caligari’s madhouse, with the Usher family crypt being the most bizarre of the sets. We feel we’re entering a different psychological space, with different camera work, the use of multiple exposures and other trickery.

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*. I remember being underwhelmed by this movie the first time I saw it. It’s grown on me. The silent classics take time. It’s not Poe, and yet of all the versions I’ve seen I think it’s the one that best captures the spirit of his story. This isn’t a movie with an aesthetic style so much as a movie about the aesthetic experience. It’s a vision of the soul in turmoil, doomed and obsessed. The traveler’s blindness and deafness are his armour. And yet there are moments when you sense that even he has an inkling of the dangers all around him. Not booby traps, like the house in Roger Corman’s 1960 film is full of (a falling chandelier, a loose banister), but spiritual depths of loneliness and despair, intimations of mortality in something he reads, a dog that runs away when he calls to it. Soon his own house will be falling down, with no one to see it or notice its passing.

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The Three-Sided Mirror (1927)

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*. Film editing jiggles perspective, which is a function of time as well as space. Re-arranging the former can lead to confusion over when it is we are in a story. This movie wasn’t the first to use flashbacks, but its structure is so sophisticated in this regard that it must have confused contemporary audiences.
*. It still confuses me today. Like most such scrambled stories it makes you want to go back and watch it again as soon as you’re done to try and sort it out. But even after repeated viewings it holds on to its mysteries.
*. I’ll mention two of these, as they seem the most evocative to me.
*. In the first place, what is the significance of the shots of the road and what I think are power wires early in the film? Is the Man foreseeing his death, or is it just being foreshadowed by Epstein? Either way it complicates the narrative structure, which is ostensibly about the three women thinking back on their brief affairs with the Man.
*. A second example: What are we to make of the Man’s visit to the fair at the end? Again it seems to have some symbolic significance. Is the Man being shown here in his native element: a player among players, some of whom even stumble about in giant masks?
*. I haven’t read Paul Morand’s story, which is the source for this film. Perhaps it would have helped to explain some things, like if it’s a collision with a bird that causes the Man’s car accident at the end. But I think I’d probably still have a lot of questions.
*. Is that the first parking garage to appear on film? It must be close. And I love the Man’s drive through it. The corkscrew descent (he probably just put the clutch in and rolled the whole way), through alternating frames of light and dark, seems a perfect complement to the design of the plot.

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*. The structure reminds me of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, with three different chapters offering different personal perspectives and then a coda. As such, it’s an experiment in different film styles presented as visual “voices.”
*. We begin with Pearl’s section, which is characterized by a lot of close-ups and multiple exposures. Next, Athalia’s story is marked by a more formal and static arrangement of space. People appear to be posed, and Athalia directly addresses the camera. Finally, Lucie’s section begins with jumpy editing (in what is still a very effective sequence) before adopting a fluid moving camera for the boating passage. With regard to the latter, we can see where critics were coming from when they labeled Epstein an Impressionist. I don’t think he could quote them more directly.

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*. I’m not sure if these different styles have any significance for the individual characters (a subjective form of filmmaking informed by personal psychology), but they do seem to have been conscious decisions, serving to distinguish the different sections. Sticking with the fast editing in the Lucie section, the point seems to be to show how quickly her relationship with the Man becomes routine, the amount of what goes on between them that can be elided without missing anything important. Their affair is only a pattern of repetitive behaviour.
*. My favourite cut is later in the same section when Lucie drops the saucer and it breaks, a moment which ends her flashback reverie and turns into a shot of her bending down to pick up a jug in the time present. If there’s a single better cut in a film from this decade I can’t think of it.

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*. The Man (played by René Ferté) looks like he’s wearing a feline mask. I think this was deliberate, and would have seemed weird in 1927. His face is a blank screen. He’s an actor. But it’s hard to read what’s behind the artifice of his make-up. Is he a predator? A playboy? A psychopath? Or is there anything there at all? Is he just a cipher for the women to project their own longings upon, a reflection who then disappears into the glass of their memories?

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*. Put another way: what is the Man when he isn’t being looked at? Nothing. Epstein’s film is a poetic, enigmatic, elliptical essay on superficiality and the unbearable lightness of being.
*. Of course a love story, especially a love story gone wrong, is the perfect vehicle for all of Epstein’s experiments in narrative. Love stories have two sides: he-said vs. she-said, before vs. after. Who do we trust? Not the Man, but not this bunch of women either. They also have agendas, not least of which, at least in the first two sections, may be directed at the men listening to their stories. They seem to be moving on, whatever their regrets.

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*. It seems clear to me that Epstein hates the Man, and feel he gets what he deserves when his empty bubble is burst. But the three women are only types as well, and (aside from Lucie, to a degree) aren’t presented in particularly flattering ways, or shown to be entirely trustworthy. What remains then is mainly an exercise in style. It’s a technical tour-de-force, brilliantly conceived and executed, but it’s less a movie about people than it is about ways of seeing, and in particular how people see themselves.

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Rain (1929)

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*. Film is the most fluid of art forms: the image you see on the screen is never fixed, as your eye is always being drawn through the ribbon of celluloid.
*. That’s a pretty banal observation, but in 1929 the movies were still new, and this one is an essay on movement.
*. Rain is defined almost as much by the street as it is by the rain. It’s another ode to the city, part of an early documentary movement that included films like Moscow Clad in Snow, Berlin: Symphony of a City, and Manhatta. This time we’re in Amsterdam, the Venice of the North, hustling through its crowded, rain-slick streets.

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*. The street itself is another riverine image, a sort of paved canal that traffic flows through. When wet, it turns into a mirror.
*. As with most city films, the citizens remain anonymous drudges. The only face we see is the man in the hat who feels a falling drop and looks up at the sky. And if you blink you’ll miss even that.
*. The film tells a story. Joris Ivens shot it over a period of several months but through terrific editing he gives the illusion of a single shower. We first see the wind picking up, registered in blowing tree tops, laundry, and awnings turning into sails. Then the umbrellas start to come out like fields of mushrooms.
*. One of Ivens’s recurring themes has been described as the search for certainty in a chaotic world. That’s certainly the impression we get here. At least since Leonardo water has been associated by artists with chaos, flux, and mutability. That’s what the people are fleeing from in Rain, hiding under umbrellas shaped like helmets, or taking shelter onboard buses.

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*. The rain changes the world by changing our perception of it, turning windows into watery slides, creating melting, running patterns in our field of vision out of its rubbery tracery.
*. And we’re made to feel as though there is a pattern: a seemingly random one like that shifting flock of birds in flight. This pattern doesn’t contrast with the order and pattern of the street so much as complement it, the two blending together as in that eloquent shot of the water surging in a sheet like a camera wipe across the screen.
*. This movie came out the same year as Ralph Steiner’s H20, and comparisons are often made. What strikes me is that in Steiner’s film you’re looking at water and seeing more in it. In Rain we’re looking through water, reality being distorted either through the effect of the rain on windows or by the way puddles and other wet surfaces reflect the light.
*. Photography created anxiety among the avant-garde in the visual arts. How were they to compete with the new technology of film? After all, the camera was more accurate at capturing external reality, and it didn’t lie.
*. But it does, as Steiner and Ivens both demonstrate. It plays tricks on our perceptions, shapes our ways of seeing. And there’s nothing really natural about even the most natural, most essential element of life. Even water can be the stuff of art because when we look into it or through it we are always seeing portions of ourselves.

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