5/13/12

Instant 3: Silent Era Cinema (For the Love of Film Blogathon)

Want to help bring a piece of film history back into the world?  Now is your chance, for the love of film, by contributing to the National Film Preservation Foundation through ECSTATIC or one of the many other writers participating in the "For the Love of Film" Blogathon III. The film this time around is Graham Cutt's The White Shadow from 1923, which languished in mislabeled canisters in the New Zealand Film Archives for decades, and, most importantly, contains significant contributions by a young Alfred Hitchcock who worked on the film as an assistant director, and contributed to it as a writer, set designer, and editor.

Alfred Hitchcock
Between Sunday May 13th and Friday May 18th the "For the Love of Film" Blogathon III will be hosted by three incredible film blogs, Ferdy on Film, Self-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod, which you should check out since they are all excellent on their own, but also because you can link to a massive number of other film and culture blogs that will be posting writings, reviews, images, etc., all relating to Hitchcock, Cutts, silent cinema, and film preservation in general.  All of those sites will contain links to the National Film Preservation Foundation, which will be taking donations to restore The White Shadow during that period.  You can donate anything from $10 to 100,000 (come on ECSTATIC readers, I know you can reach deep for the love of Hitch!), and in the end we can all collectively witness that beautiful moment when an otherwise lost piece of history flickers (or flows, maybe?) into the present.

The White Shadow (1923)
On ECSTATIC I occasionally write a capsule review section called "Instant 3" that recommends three films around a particular theme currently available to Watch Instantly via Netflix.  The themes of "Instant 3" over the past year have varied widely--from "Cannes Directors" to "70's Trucker Cinema"--so to add a selection of Silent Cinema classics to this list seems the perfect place to veer toward in the eclectic journey of ECSTATIC, and hopefully an appreciated contribution to the Blogathon.  Remember, the discussion boards are always open at ECSTATIC, and productive comments around anything reviewed here are always welcome.  Also, if you look just above the "For the Love of Film" donation button you will see a place where you can subscribe to ECSTATIC via email.  ECSTATIC is a young blog, not yet a year old (see the first post on Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams here), so if you like what you see please help widen the base of dedicated readers!

Brisson, Keen, and Ondra form a doomed love triangle in Hitch's last silent 
1.  The Manxman (1929) dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock's final silent film The Manxman is an adaptation of a novel by Sir Hall Cane, and may surprise those who are only familiar with the Hitchcock of Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds.  Though The Manxman is a pretty straightforward melodrama compared to Hitch's psychological thriller and horror films, and certainly not as re-watchable as many of those pictures (or even a film that Hitch himself regarded very highly), for those looking to gain insight into the career path and development of the "Master of Suspense" it may prove an enjoyable and enlightening entry.  The Manxman seems to get a bad rap because of its fairly predictable story line, which in the first third of the film does feel a bit a stale, even for the late 20's, as the love triangle between likable lug Pete (Carl Brisson) who works on a fishing boat called "The Manx," his best friend since childhood, Philip (Malcolm Keen), a lawyer aspiring to the position of Deemster, and their mutual object of affection Kate (Anny Ondra) plays out in a fashion reminiscent of D.W. Griffith one and two-reelers from 10 or 15 years earlier.  But, although the plot elements of The Manxman are nothing new, it is obvious that they are being handled by a storyteller at the peak of his craft within the silent era, as Hitch effectively draws the dramatic tension in the film, hooking the audience with the desire to see this romantic entanglement of fates resolved.  But, although some might not associate this film with the more established Hitchcock, The Manxman displays his adeptness at creating an impending sense that the only outcome is decidedly grim, but the tragedy here is one of the soul, not of the disturbed or murderous mind.

Carl Brisson as Pete in Hitchcock's The Manxman
Set in the Isle of Man, Hitchcock's use of the scenic locations in The Manxman are often extraordinary, whether it be the drifting fishing boats that frame the film, or the dark, beautiful passage of Kate's anguished flee from Pete late in the film, the menace of the cold, rainy streets contrasting the earlier scenes of their honeymoon, the couple gorgeously framed and protected by the flames of their home fires.  The two male leads in The Manxman had worked with Hitch before;  Brisson in The Ring (1927) and Keen in The Lodger (1927).  Ondra would go on to star in Hitch's first sound endeavor, Blackmail (1929), but because of her thick Czech accent would ultimately have her vocal performance replaced by another actress.  The transition into the sound era certainly had its share of casualties, and The Manxman is perhaps most interesting because of its position on the cusp of that transition into sound production, reminding us that part of Hitchcock's reign is due to his roots in silent mis-en-scene.  Many attempts to ape the master no doubt suffer from their impulse to simply tell rather than show;  of course, few enjoyed and understood the excitement of "showing" like Hitch.  In this respect, The Manxman succeeds dramatically by the Hitchcock tradition of letting the audience in on the central secret while the characters remain clueless.  The final revealing of those secrets in the courtroom scene are carefully composed, and entirely effective.  Part of what ties that final sequence together so well is another performance of note, that of Randle Ayrton as Kate's father Caesar, who lends a weighty and often humorous supporting hand throughout.

Randle Ayrton as Caesar in The Manxman
The British Film Institute recently started a campaign to Rescue the Hitchcock 9 that focused on restoring the films of his silent period, of which The Manxman offers a unique perspective.  Even more exciting is the prospect of tracing the arc of Hitch's craft from the lost reels of The White Shadow to this picture, so remember once again to give a click and donate!


Kathryn McGuire and Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. 
2.  Sherlock Jr. (1924) dir. Buster Keaton

How many films strike so perfectly a combined note of parody, surrealism, slaptsick, and meta-cinema, all topped off by a surprisingly profound statement on the power of the cinema to instruct, as well as its tendency to conceal?  Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. is perhaps my favorite film from this icon of silent comedy, particularly because of its unique combination of outrageous comedic physicality and its underlying nature as a meditation on the Cinema-as-dream-state.  The stunts in Sherlock Jr. are astounding, and remind us how risky, precise, and inventive a comedian Keaton was.  But, those aspects can be found in equal measure in many Keaton pictures, perhaps reaching their peak a couple of years later in his feature-length masterpiece, The General (1926).  What Sherlock Jr. manages is an exaggerated comedic tone, at times cartoonishly pitched, as in a billiards scene (from the film within the film...within the film?) involving poisoned drinks, decorative battle axes rigged to drop, and exploding pool balls, that is offset by a rather sweetly played tale of budding romance, and ultimately a somewhat dense exploration of the ontology of movies.  In the past, when I have screened Keaton and Chaplin for film students, a few may have played the "too-cool-to-laugh" game with The Tramp, but Keaton always manages to create a spontaneous reaction.  Like Chaplin, his expressive skills as an actor are often overlooked, and in this picture his ability to weave in a bit of an essay on the relationship between Man and the Movies plays like a precursor to Godard.  The final image of the puzzled countenance of Keaton's projectionist is profoundly subtle, and expansive in its implications.


Un Chien Andalou  
3.  Un Chien Andalou (1929) dir. Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali

One of those films whose influence is always looming at ECSTATIC, Un Chien Andalou is still the most complete expression of the film-as-dream experience, but with much more radical and aggressive intentions than the likes of Buster Keaton (but, as in the shot above, still tremendously funny at times).  It's difficult to recommend Un Chien as a home viewing experience, because it's not a film one should approach casually, its notorious opening sequence still carrying the capacity to shock, but more importantly, prefacing a long history of visual liberation that has unfolded in its wake.  Still, it's a film that consistently surprises, and one of the first to overtly fracture any expected cinematic construction of chronology, a technique which translates today with surprising novelty.  The notoriously banned film is still unsettling in its more lewd moments, and presents itself at times as a wholly subversive exercise in bad taste, gleefully so.  I suggest that if you take a few Keaton bits, fold in the macabre voyeurism of Hitchcock, and combine them with the subversive tendencies of Surrealism, you might get something that looks like Bunuel and Dali's seminal experimental short.  Although available to Watch Instantly on Netflix (also here, along with a translated version of Bunuel and Dali's original shooting script) the ideal viewing experience for this one may still be the British Film Institute restoration, paired with the equally glorious and crazed follow-up by this dream duo, L'Age D'or (1930), which would be their only other film together.  But, to bring things full circle, if you are curious about other Dali contributions to film, check out his amazing collaboration with Hitchcock in the psychoanalysis thriller from 1945, Spellbound.

Hitchcock/Dali scene from Spellbound






2 comments:

Joe Thompson said...

Jason: The Instant 3 is a good idea. I haven't seen The Manxman yet, but every still I see looks wonderful. I'm sure I'll be thinking about Sherlock Jr and Un Chien Andalou when I see it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Jason Hedrick said...

Very different movies across the board, for sure - considered together, I guess they're a pretty good example of how dynamic the cinematic possibilities were in the 20's. Glad you like the Instant 3!