Wednesday, 17 November 2010
One of the great pleasures of watching cinema’s rich history in chronological order is the ability to witness a great director’s artistic evolution. Swords and Hearts sees Griffith move away from the ‘morality play’ structure of his earlier films Corner in Wheat (1909) and The House with Closed Shutters (1910). Whereas these two films focused on a single theme (greed in the former and cowardice in the latter), thus limiting the dramatic potential of both films, Swords and Hearts sees Griffith adopt a more expansive method of storytelling.
This is an incredibly important development for Griffith, because it allowed him to maximise the dramatic potential of his greatest strength – interweaving storylines. As they are no longer inhibited by a simple moral theme, the characterisation deepens and the narrative becomes more gripping.
In Swords and Hearts, this developed approach to the film’s narrative allows the Griffith to move away from the morality play and into the territory of melodrama. Today, the term melodrama has negative connotations and is associated with mediocre television films; however, the genre can be extremely satisfying.
Sidney Lumet once observed, "In a well-written drama, the story comes out of the characters. The characters in a well-written melodrama come out of the story." Swords and Hearts sees Griffith return once again to the American Civil War – which allows him to create a story filled with class resentment, unrequited love and some extremely impressive set pieces. Although Hollywood would be loathe to admit it, melodrama shares many similarities with the modern ‘summer blockbuster’; Griffith sets a loose template for such films with Swords and Hearts.
A useful way of illustrating Griffith’s artistic maturity in Swords and Hearts is to compare the use of a device which is used both in this film and one his earlier films, the House with Closed Shutters. In both films, we see female characters cross-dress in order to pretend that they are Confederate soldiers. In the latter film, this is done to illustrate the cowardice of the main protagonist. Although it does provide us with the powerful image of the sister being killed carrying the same flag that she was sewing at the opening of the film, the device’s main purpose is to make a moralistic observation.
In Swords and Hearts, the soldier Hugh is unaware that his horse has been taken. Jennie sees the soldiers from the North approaching and steals Hugh’s horse so that the approaching soldiers do not see that he is in Irene’s house.
What follows is the most gripping action sequence that we have seen in any film to date. She is chased by the soldiers, but at such a breathtaking speed that even a modern audience are taken aback by this high speed horse chase. The angling of the camera allows the speed to be heightened; when a gun fight ensues, you cannot help but marvel at the pace at which it unfolds. It certainly adds weight to the argument that CGI and special effects cannot match the effect of action sequences that are shot without any post-production manipulation.
Returning to Jessie’s decision to don the confederate uniform, the importance of this decision serves as both the catalyst for the central part of the film as well as bringing the two protagonists together by the end of the film. Although we now treat sentimental happy endings with an element of disdain, you cannot help admiring the manner in which Griffith brings the various strands of his plot together.
Another stand out set-piece is the burning down of Hugh’s house. The only parallel we have of such a dramatic scene is the burning of the house at the climax of The Story of the Kelly Gang; on this occasion, however, we are presented with footage of the burning house from the inside. We can only speculate as to how dangerous such filming was in 1909, but there is no denying the raw power of this sequence of images. The image of the house being engulfed by flames is as riveting an image as we have encountered to date; the untamed malice of the flames is deeply unnerving.
The film also brings Griffith’s contentious portrayal of African-Americans to the fore. Old Ben is Hugh’s father’s slave and has a pivotal role in ensuring that Hugh maintains his family’s heirlooms as well as bringing Hugh and Jennie together. Unfortunately, he is portrayed in ‘blackface’. His over-exaggerated mannerisms and gestures undoubtedly make a modern viewer extremely uncomfortable, which in turn affects our overall aesthetic judgment of Griffith's oeuvre. I would be interested to learn what effect such crass portrayals of a race had on other viewers...
Tuesday, 9 November 2010
Film's first detective film - 1911 - Le trust, ou les batailles de l’argent - The Trust, or The Battles for Money - Louis Feuillade
Too often, there are works of art that fade into obscurity which deserve far greater recognition. Several months ago, when Film: Ab Initio began exploring ‘Film’s Forgotten Decade’ (i.e. the period between The Great Train Robbery and The Birth of a Nation), we speculated that there would be a good number of films that may deserve greater attention, whether for their high quality or achieving a particular milestone.
As we near the end of this Forgotten Decade, it is clear that there are a good number of films that are at least the equal of any ‘canonised’ film (when we reach the end of 1913, we will return to this topic in a lot more detail). Le trust, ou les batailles de l’argent is a film with several milestones: it is the the first detective film, the first thriller, the first corporate espionage film, perhaps even the first film noir.
It is also an outstanding film that sees Feuillade experimenting with this new cinematic genre that will lead to his classics, Fantomas, Les Vampires and Judex. Given the lengthy running times of these three seminal works (Les Vampires, for example, is six and a half hours long); Le trust, ou les batailles de l’argent, which is only twenty five minutes long, serves as an insightful introduction into Feuillade’s oeuvre.
The film is also notable for its introduction of the actor René Navarre, who plays detective Julien Kieffer and will go on to play Fantomas. His arrival on screen (see image above) heralds the creation of the modern conception of a male movie star. Although we have seen Max Linder dominate the camera with his charismatic on screen presence, his comedic creations serve as a blueprint for the like of Chaplin and Keaton. In Navarre’s suave exterior, immaculate dress sense and dramatic acting range, we can see the precedent for the like of James Cagney, James Stewart, Cary Grant and many others.
Interestingly, the first detective film’s detective is a corrupt, scheming villain who uses underhand tactics to undermine his client’s chief competitor. His subtle dastardliness allows the film to employ several of its key plot devices without descending into melodrama. For example, when he walks into a room with his hat, a cigarette and an exorbitant amount of swagger (see image below), there is no suggestion that his character is about to place a toxic gas in a vase that will render his victim unconscious.
Le trust, ou les batailles de l’argent has a most unusual plot. The film involves the detective Julien Kieffer helping the industrialist Jacob Berwick spy on his rival Darbois in order to steal Darbois’ discovery of a formula to manufacture artificial rubber. This is the earliest example of a film that is based around corporate espionage; surprisingly, the film transcends its plot and proves to be compelling viewing.
This is because Feuillade employs a number of devices that one would expect to find in detective fiction (it is worth remembering that Sherlock Holmes was created in 1887 and that the Golden Age of Detective Fiction is still a decade away). There is cross-dressing, mistaken identity, double-crossing, kidnapping and even invisible ink. All of these are conventions that we anticipate when we encounter a ‘detective film’, but it worth noting how novel such ideas would have seemed to contemporary audiences; the plot is constructed in a fluid manner that allows the film to captivate the modern audience as well.
The film lacks a moral centre, and is all the more interesting for undertaking such a bold decision. Although Darbois and his secretary are the victims of Kieffer’s plotting; the film’s opening shot of Darbois, with his bulging eyes and expensive surroundings (see image below) ensure the audience do not identify either him or his secretary as the protagonists of this film. In fact, the setting reminds us one of the great early cinematic villains, The Wheat King in D.W. Griffith’s Corner of Wheat.
This reference leads us to our first comparison of this decade’s two great directors. Thus far, we have seen that Griffith has an intuitive grasp of iconic visual scenes. Whether it is the rolling barrel in The Adventures of Dollie, the corm smothering the Wheat King in Corner in Wheat or the repeated image of the Confederate flag in The House with Closed Shutters, Griffith has proved himself capable of conjuring some of early silent cinema’s most iconic images.
And if there is a weakness in Le trust, ou les batailles de l’argent, it would be that it is slightly over-reliant on telegrams and letters to move the plot forwars. However, this device is manipulated to give the film its key twist, which may not have been possible without the repeated use of letters and telegrams.
Feuillade though, is also capable of creating iconic scenes and images. In this film alone, the sending of a telegram and particularly the moment where Berwick and his men don their black masks to hide their identity from Bremond (see image below). Griffith has continued the Lumiere Brothers’ exploration of realism, whereas Feuillade has continued Méliès’ exploration of the fantastical.
Returning to the earlier point, although Griffith has proven himself to be a master of creating iconic scenes and images, I would argue that Feuillade has a stronger grasp of plotting and storytelling. Both Le trust, ou les batailles de l’argent and The Fairy of the Surf have a cumulative effect that few films manage from any era.
Availability: Unfortunately, the increasing length of films means that it is less and less likely that any films will be available on Youtube. To compound this bad news, the only place that the film can be found is on the Gaumont Treasures DVD, which retails at $79.99.
I will keep my eyes glued to Youtube - as soon as this film is uploaded I will embed it on this blog post.
Monday, 8 November 2010
Little Nemo functions as a promotional vehicle for the multi-talented Winsor McCay; in fact, the film's alternate title is Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics. The majority of the film involves McCay preparing his ‘moving comic’ of Little Nemo for his sceptical friends.
Before entering the world of animated film, McCay was famous for his cartoon strips (we have already looked at a live action cinematic adaptation of one of his cartoon strip Dream of a Rarebit Fiend). Of his various strips, Little Nemo has proved to be his most enduring legacy:
Simply put, Little Nemo revolutionized the comic strip. At 38, McCay was at the very peak of his talent and the New York Herald had the most talented and creative colour printing staff in the business. Together they crafted a weekly fantasy that week by week revealed Slumberland to be more magical than even L. Frank Baum's Oz (created in 1899) and more wonderful than Lewis Carroll's Wonderland (1865). Books and websites abound praising Nemo far more than I could possibly do in this short bio. Nemo was published in the New York Herald until July 23, 1911. The strips have been reprinted many times. Find them and lose yourself in this masterpiece.
Unfortunately, the strips were not as popular during McCay’s own era:
The strip was not a great popular success in its time. Most readers preferred the slapstick antics of such strips as Katzenjammer Kids, Happy Hooligan, and Buster Brown to the surreal fantasy of Nemo, and other comic strips like Krazy Kat.
Therefore, although some of the contemporary viewers will have been familiar with McCay’s work, others audience members would have been unaware of McCay’s background as a cartoonist. This meant his background was similar to that of his co-director J. Stuart Blackton, who also began his career as a cartoonist. Furthermore, the symbolism of America’s earliest animation pioneer passing the baton to his immediate successor is evident with the co-direction credits for both Blackton and McCay.
One of the reasons the film portrays McCay’s thought process behind his creation of his ‘moving pictures’, is that as well as being a cartoonist McCay was also a vaudeville artist. McCay had begun his vaudeville act five years earlier and the film served as a great promotional tool for his act.
Unfortunately, the weakest part of the film is this lengthy explanation of why and how he went about creating the 4,000 images that began his career as an animator. The section is overtly long, which often undercuts the intended effect of a particular scene. For example, the audience is presented with the fascinating image of McCay surrounded by his thousands of drawings (see image below).
A co-worker or cleaner continually interrupts him and eventually knocks over the majority of the images that have clearly been placed in sequential order. The scene’s unnecessary length stifles the humour of the scene and McCay’s reaction to the spillage further dents any humour that may have been intended. Little Nemo compares unfavourably to the Max Linder film that we just looked at in terms of drawing humour from self-referential scenes in an early silent film.
I also feel that the film missed an opportunity in choosing to evade the question of how the ‘moving images’ were put together. Although we see McCay draw several images and then later witness him in his office surrounded by his images, what would have interested me most would have been to see how he put together the various drawings in order to conjure the fantastical animation that closes the film.
It is the animation that the film should be judged by; under this criterion the film is a great success. The level of detail and the introduction of colour mean that Little Nemo is light years ahead of its predecessors. Although, it does not share the rapid inventiveness of The Hasher’s Delirium or Fantasmagorie, it has no need to do so because the characters that McCay draws are far more concrete and realised.
The scene where a ‘prince’ give his ‘princess’ a rose (see image above) and their subsequent seating in a dragon’s mouth (see image below) is the most breathtaking image that we have witnessed thus far in animation’s brief history. The addition of a multitude of colours provides the animation with a richness that animation craves far more than live action films do.
Little Nemo marks a significant step in animation’s maturation as an art form. Although its live action sequence is arduous and over-long, the brief animated sequence’s concentrated brilliance more than makes up for this earlier shortfall.
Sunday, 7 November 2010
Film's first postmodern film - 1910 - Les Débuts de Max au Cinématographe - Max Linder's Debut As a Cinematograph Artist - Max Linder & Louis J. Gasnier
Much has been made of the recent ‘discovery’ of a supposed time-traveller in the footage of the premiere of Chaplin's 1928 film the Circus. While the theory was swiftly debunked, it was undeniably exciting to see the internet abuzz with discussion about a silent film.
It is a great shame that this temporary mainstream interest in the silent era will not extend itself for a longer period, because the silent era achieved some remarkable time-bending feats. For example, Max Linder’s :
Saturday, 6 November 2010
One of the unique characteristics of the great directors of the early silent era is the sheer breadth of material that their earliest films covered. Both Griffith and Feuillade spent the first few years of the second decade of the twentieth century honing their craft in a variety of genres and topics in order to allow them to both deliver their seminal works half a decade later.
Thus far, we have seen Griffith portray a parable on greed and the kidnapping of a young child. In Griffith’s third film on the Film: Ab Initio list, The House with Closed Shutters, Griffith now tackles the subject matter of his most famous film the Birth of a Nation: the Civil War.
The film tells the story of a confederate soldier who abandons his fellow soldiers in the midst of battle and returns home, only to be replaced by his sister (in what is the first example of cross dressing that we have seen on the Film: Ab Initio list). When she is killed in battle and the soldiers assume that he has died a heroic death, his mother closes her son off from the world to ensure that his cowardice does not shame their family.
Just from summarising the film’s brief plot, it is clear that film is gravitating towards the concept of a steam-lined linear narrative. Whereas in earlier films, the plot is often more dispersed and episodic (see early films like La Presa Di Roma, Alice in Wonderland and Ben Hur), whereas The House with Closed Shutters involves a more ‘straightforward’ story in the sense that we might expect from any mainstream Hollywood film of the last seventy years.
Griffith’s eye for iconic imagery that heightens the emotive intensity of his film making is apparent in The House with Closed Shutters. The strongest example of this is the relationship between the confederate flag and the heroic sister. The film opens with the emblematic image of the confederate flag being sewed by the soldier’s sister (see image above). She is next seen with the flag when she has taken the place of her brother on the battlefield, where she recklessly carries it beyond the soldiers in front of her and is shot down by the opposing forces (see image below).
Griffith’s perceived racism is well documented, but in this instance Griffith must be commended for allowing his female protagonist possess the valour and bravery that the male protagonist lacks. Given that in the US, women would not be permitted to join the military in roles other than nurses until 1940 when the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was formed and that they would have to wait until 1978 to serve alongside their fellow male troops; Griffith deserves credit for making this bold move.
The film’s most impressive scenes involve the complex choreography of the battle scenes. Griffith portrays a carnage filled battlefield with great success; although smoke covers up much of the immediate image as the Confederate forces fire at their enemy, the image of the Yankees emerging from the smoke to viciously overrun their opposing forces is one of early cinema’s most iconic images.
For not only does this scene herald the charge of the Yankee forces, it also symbolises the imminent dominance of American cinema that would go on to be unchallenged for close to a century. Film allows America to indulge in mythopoesis in the newest of artistic mediums, thus allowing American national events of significance, such as the American Civil War, to have a resounding effect on the rest of the globe.
The film’s least enjoyable moments occur in the protagonist’s house; they allow the actors to indulge in overacting and often seem overly long when they are compared to the relentless pace of the battle scenes.
Overall, the film is essential viewing for anyone who is interested in the genesis of American cinema. It is clear that Griffith revels in telling stories about the Civil War, and the high quality of the best parts of The House with the Closed Shutters make it unsurprising that Griffith returned to the same subject matter almost half a decade later.
Friday, 5 November 2010
Unlike many of film’s early adaptations of literary works, the first cinematic adaptation of Frankenstein is the equal of its more famous successors. Rather than allowing the film’s limited reel time to limit its portrayal of Mary Shelley’s gothic novel, the film flourishes within the boundaries of its limitations. The filmmaker manages to translate the original text into the cinematic equivalent of a powerful Poe or Robert Louis Stevenson short story and concentrate the impact of the text’s fable.
The film makes a bold departure from its source by giving the viewer the impression that the Monster may in fact be a figment of Frankenstein’s imagination. As the film draws to a close, this uncertainty compounds the tension of the film’s climactic moments. As the viewer is unsure of the Monster’s existence, our confusion transforms into excitement as Frankenstein grapples with his creation while his wife lays unconscious on the floor; we cannot be sure if he is wrestling with his conscience or actually fighting with his creation.
One of the main reasons for the film’s power is its deliberate exploitation of the power of visual terror. Although Georges Mèliès consistently dabbled in the horror genre with his many incarnations of devils and monsters, they amused more than they frightened. The monster in Frankenstein, particularly when he is being created, is simultaneously grotesque and petrifying (particularly when it expands in Frankenstein’s cauldron (See image below)).
This groundbreaking horror film was presumed lost for close to half a century:
For many years, this film was believed to be a lost film. In 1963, a plot description (reprinted above) and stills were discovered published in the March 15, 1910 issue of an old Edison film catalog, The Edison Kinetogram.
In the early 1950s, a print of this film was purchased by a Wisconsin film collector, Alois F. Dettlaff, from his mother-in-law, who also collected films.He did not realize its rarity until many years later. Its existence was first revealed in the mid-1970s. Although somewhat deteriorated, the film was in viewable condition, complete with titles and tints as seen in 1910. Dettlaff had a 35 mm preservation copy made in the late 1970s. He also issued a DVD release of 1,000 copies.
BearManor Media released the public domain film in a restored edition on March 18, 2010, alongside with the novel Edison's Frankenstein, which was written by Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr.
Although we must be greatly appreciative of the rediscovery of this landmark movie, we cannot help be saddened by the knowledge that many of the other great films of the era will remain lost forever.
Interestingly, the film was also banned after its release:
This was the very first "creation" film. At the time, the religious zealots thought the film was making a mockery of God, so the film was banned very shortly after its release. After that, it was condemned to obscurity...
The film employs the use of a mirror with great success. Cinema’s obsession with the complex relationship between the voyeur and his/her subject(s) really takes off with this film. In the film’s most powerful sequence of events, several characters appear in the mirror in quick succession. In the second of these images, Frankenstein sees the Monster appear in the mirror and is startled by his presence as his fiancé is in the next room (see image below).
But after Frankenstein’s fiancé re-enters the room and he hurriedly attempts to lead her out of that same room, they are now trapped in the mirror’s frame as the Monster observes them from his hidden location (see image below).
The mirror and the camera lens share many similar properties; the complex interplay between these two reflective instruments deepens the allegorical framework of Shelley’s original text. And as the film comes to its gripping conclusion, the mirror plays a crucial role in ‘defeating’ the Monster and implicating that it was in fact a manifestation of the darker recesses of Frankenstein’s imagination.
This brilliant film demonstrates that early silent films are capable of both containing complex, allegorical narratives and frightening modern day audiences.
Sunday, 31 October 2010
King Lear is the third Shakespeare film to be critiqued by Film: Ab Initio; it is also the third Shakespeare film to be produced by a different country (A Midsummer’s Night Dream was made in America and the Tempest was made in the UK). Therefore, in the early silent era of cinema, Shakespeare functions as a prism through which the various countries bend cinema’s white light.
The Italian film company which produced this version of King Lear, Film D’Arte Italiana, placed significant emphasis on both the cinematography and costume design. The stencilled colouring adds depth to both, providing the film with an extra layer of depth. The importance of such details in early cinema cannot be over-exaggerated; for example, when the film is contrasted with Vitagraph’s 1909 film A Midsummer’s Night Dream, the gulf in quality is apparent (unfortunately, the deterioration of the print of King Lear available online is more significant than that available on the Silent Shakespeare DVD) .
For example, just before Cordelia’s death, the camera focuses on both the gentleman in the foreground of the scene and the soldiers who are in the distance, standing underneath a stone bridge (see image below). This stunning image literally expands the space on the canvas the filmmaker has available to him and furthers the separation between film and theatre.
The colouring plays a significant role in establishing the film as a cinematic experience rather than a print recording of a play. The symbolism of the opening sequence, where the fool sits on Lear’s throne before Lear enters the courtyard himself, is enhanced by the contrast in colouring of their respective outfits (see image below).
As modern viewers, we are often surprised when we encounter colouring on such early film. However, according to the commentary on the Silent Shakespeare DVD: between 1895 and 1930, 80% of films were projected in something other than black and white. Although the DVD suggests that this figure may be slightly exaggerated, there is little doubt that much of this colouring has failed to survive. This is because the dyes used were highly mutable and prone to fade.
We have witnessed colouring before in early Méliès films and in Feuillade’s The Fairy of the Surf, but not to the extent that it is on show here. And given the pathos of the subject matter it is often richly evocative; for example, the barren wilderness of the trees behind Lear as he stumbles in his madness add a sense of desolation that make Lear’s pain even more acute.
The cast of the film were renowned theatrical actors, yet they avoid the pitfall of overplaying their roles to compensate for a lack of spoken word. Ermete Novelli’s portrayal of Lear is the largest performance we have seen on screen to date. There are moments when his performance is too grandiose, but such moments are few and far between. The brevity of the film forces a violent shift in his emotions, but his Lear is compassionate, overbearing and deeply endearing.
Perhaps the most tender moment we have witnessed in any film so far occurs when Cordelia is reunited with her father. It may be a moment embedded in the collective conscience of the English canon, but the scene is shot in a cinematic rather than theatrical manner. Novelli’s Lear lies silently as Francesca Bertini’s Cordelia glides towards her father and gently embraces him. The seamless of chemistry of these two actors exacerbates that most painful moment when Lear hold his dead daughter in his arms.
The film focuses solely on the main narrative strand of the play and strings together a more coherent narrative than any of the theatrical or literary adaptations we have witnessed thus far. This is all the more impressive given the difficulty of its source in comparison with much of the more comic material that was adapted to a lesser degree of success by earlier filmmakers.
The only precedent we have of film tackling tragedy is Nerone (another Italian film), which shared similar stellar production values and a compelling narrative too. It will be interesting to observe Italian cinema’s growth over the next decade and witness its tackling of similarly ambitious subject matter.