a weekend of silent cinema

There’s a reason why the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is considered one of the premiere film festivals in the city (and the world, for that matter), what with its procurement of luminous 35mm prints from international archives, presentations of commissioned restorations, live musical accompaniment, handsomely produced festival booklets, etc, etc. But with individual ticket prices ranging from $15-$20 each, it is, sadly, no friend to a student budget, and I was only able to afford two tickets this year, alas.

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It was with the awareness that Allan Dwan is currently undergoing something of a critical renaissance (a large retrospective in NYC, a massive new 400-page biography by Frederic Lombardi, the release of an equally substantial free(!) e-book of collected essays and reviews, etc) that we bought tickets for The Half-Breed (1916), an early Douglas Fairbanks vehicle that is also one of the prolific director’s earliest feature films. Fairbanks plays the titular character, a man named Lo whose mixed heritage–his Native American mother was cruelly abandoned by his unknown father white–is not fully embraced by either community and so instead makes the wilderness his home. His personal charisma, athletic prowess, and intimate knowledge of nature, however, make him a magnet for the women of a small wilderness town, and the town’s “respectable” men employ racist social conventions as a cover of their utter loathing of his existence and justify their violent plans to excise him from

Expensively made and ambitious in scope, it was a box office flop, and according to the introductory lecture at the screening, Fairbanks in particular tracked all incoming receipts, and from that point forward always made sure to carefully cater his performances to public expectations. half breed doug fairbanksBecause this is not at all the Doug Fairbanks of the wide grin and broad gestures, but a characterization marked by cross-armed stoicism (Lombardi says its the actor “at his most dour,” which I think is a rather unfortunate and unfair choice of words). Either way, audiences in 1916 weren’t interested in this Fairbanks persona, but it makes for a very naturalistic and extremely dignified performance when viewed today, and all the more interesting because the impassiveness prevents the characterization from ever descending into gross stereotypes. Endlessly utilized by the film as a means through which to point out racial bigotry, religious hypocrisy, and individual and social prejudices of all kinds, Fairbank’s good humor and indignation toward a variety of injustices prevents this from being a one-dimensional portrait of the familiar “noble savage” figure, and instead creates a multi-faceted portrait of a misunderstood man. 

But even more than Fairbanks, The Half-Breed features two excellent female performances, by Jewel Carmen and, particularly, the tragic Alma Rubens, both who shine in contrasting roles that are atypically well-rounded for the era–perhaps the result of Anita Loos’s contribution as co-writer of the screenplay. Also worthy of note is Victor Fleming’s work as cinematographer, with the location shooting taking full advantage of the soaring vistas of the Sequoia National Forest. Despite all of these laudable elements, the financial failure of the film upon its initial led to it being frantically recut, and a number of shorter, re-edited versions ended up circulating for years; a reconstruction has been made drawing from all surviving material, and the restoration work on the image is uniformly gorgeous. It’s not exactly a find that’s going to rewrite cinema history or anything, but I hope it is made widely available, because it’s definitely an interesting film well worth seeing (35mm).

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Another powerful–but extremely different–rendering of complex human emotions and interactions playing against the vast backdrop of nature is Victor Sjöström’s The Outlaw and His Wife (1918). The plot is basic: a man who was compelled by circumstances to commit a criminal act is forced into a life of hiding in the bleak expanses of rural Iceland. Eventually he takes on a manual labor position at a farm of a rich and generous widow, and judging from the title alone, it’s not hard to figure out the trajectory of their relationship. Things get more interesting when the man’s past inevitably comes back to haunt him, forcing him to return to hiding, only this time around with his new wife in tow. Sjöström plays the role of the outlaw himself, and it is rather startling to see the man who is most familiar to American audiences as the frail elderly gentleman of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries here appear as a robust (and extremely handsome) young man who gets a job because he can effortlessly sling a large wooden chest over his shoulder and carry it up a ladder. It is also worth noting that the actress who plays the wife, Edith Erastoff, would in several years become Sjöström’s own.

But if I’ve focused almost solely on the acting and storyline, the most impressive and memorable element of the film is the landscape itself, which constantly dwarfs the human figures both in its scale and its unrelenting harshness, imagesand the interplay between humans and the natural world creates its own sub-narrative to the overall plot. Also crucial to the experience was the musical accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble of the original score composed for the film, and I particularly liked how it emphasized the ethereal qualities of Sjöström’s image’s, and stretches of the film subsequently began to play like a dream. The opening presenter went out of his way to note that it’s a superior score to the one included on the widely available Kino DVD, and I absolutely believe it. Overall I never found the film to quite reach the heights Sjöström achieved several years later with The Phantom Carriage (1921), but it’s an excellent film nonetheless (35mm).

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cries of the heart

A great—and previously unknown to me—achievement of the silent era is Jean Epstein’s La Coeur fidèle (France, 1923), also known as Faithful Heart.  Having recently received a simply awe-inspiring Blu-ray release from Masters of Cinema, the impeccable technical quality of this release spectacularly showcases one of the most visually ravishing and stunningly beautiful silent films I’ve ever encountered.

And for my money, Gina Manès legitimately gives Falconetti a run for her money as the great face of silent cinema, giving a performance that is built and sustained solely through the emotions conveyed through her remarkably expressive eyes.  Otherwise she’s languid to the point of woodeness, though that’s also the case with all of the performances in the film.  Only the performance by Epstein’s sister, who I was shocked to find out is none other than the great unheralded director Marie Epstein, achieves its resonance through any kind of physical action; otherwise this is a film involving turbulent emotions swirling beneath stoic faces and (with the notable exception of the magnificently rendered seascapes) statically rendered, claustrophobic interior spaces.

But if the melodramatic plot is a bit silly and the performances of the type that involve sad-eyed offscreen gazing that sometimes feels endless, La Coeur fidèle is otherwise a directoral tour-de-force, with the intense emotions conjured up through Epstein’s montage editing, juxtaposing beautiful images of churning water, evocatively desolate seaside quays, etc. to slowly build to a shattering and haunting conclusion.  I’m sure this all has to do with Epstein’s own theories of cinema (he was a writer and film theorist before he took up actual filmmaking), of which I hate to admit I’m completely ignorant of at this time.  But I have Fall of the House of Usher (1928) in my possession for viewing, and I’ve been inspired to explore Epstein’s work more fully in the immediate future.

Memories of a Movie:

things that go bump in the night

I’ve realized recently that sometimes the value of watching so-called “canonical” films has less to do with watching a great film than the exhilaration of witnessing seeds be planted that will only fully flower in later, sometimes much better films. Or at least that was how I felt while watching both Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, Germany, 1920) and Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, Germany, 1922) in quick succession, neither which are particularly great shakes as modern movie experiences. But both were and continue to remain important films simply because in them one sees some of the great, enduring images and myths of cinema tentatively but decisively taking shape as the flickering, soundless images of each film unspools. Of the two I would probably call Caligari the “better” film, if only for the angular, now-iconic labyrinth of German Expressionism the film’s creaky plot loses itself in, and also because I was shocked to find how the unexpected “twist” ending managed to throw this supposedly “sophisticated” modern viewer for a complete loop, forcing an immediate reevaluation of what I had written off as a largely inconsequential plot. Murnau’s shameless and wholesale appropriation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula unfortunately and rather unfairly suffered severely in comparison to Dreyer’s Vampyr which I fell in love with last year—Murnau’s reputation had led me to expect more poetry, and alas there was very little to be found among the extremely broad characterizations and rather perfunctory ticking-off of the plot (there are a few dazzling moments however—the macabre beauty of the procession of coffins being slowly carried through the street of the plagued city sent a shiver down my spine). But what is great, what is still so very important about both of these films is of course its “monsters,” the horrible, the pitiful Cesare and Nosferatu respectively. Young Conrad Veidt’s Cesare, all long, lithe lines of the male body clad in black and shadows, who despite being in a somnambulistic state stalks his victims with a breathtaking, ballet-like grace, is revealed to be less a monster than a victim in sad-clown makeup; despite the misshapen, practically mummified body that seems to render him staid and encumbered, I was shocked how the stasis of Max Shreck’s Nosferatu made him shockingly elegant, his sinuous claws slowly unfurling with the languid grace of a sea anemone in water.  Today neither of these iconic screen phantoms are frightening per se, but ensconced in their silent, flickery cinematic states, they remain deeply, almost indescribably eerie, even uncanny, their influence undeniably continues to drip quietly, unceasingly into the modern consciousness…