Friday, April 29, 2011

Gadzooks, It's Manly Cheesecake #8

Gadzooks. There's a word you don't see much anymore. Remember when everybody used to say "Gadzooks!" when they were surprised, excited or irritated?

"Gadzooks, Martha—I've been drafted."


"That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. Gadzooks!"

Anyway, here are the best actors of 1915. They're not as good looking as the actresses, but let's face it, they never are.

Roscoe Arbuckle

George Beban

Charles Chaplin

Sessue Hayakawa

Marcel Lévesque

Henry B. Walthall

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Cheesecake, Circa 1915

I'm working on another of those mammoth essays, this about the films of 1915 generally, which I am determined to post by Saturday at the latest.

In lieu of content, how about some photos of the best actresses of that year?

Theda Bara

Francesca Bertini

Geraldine Farrar


Anna Q. Nilsson

Clara Williams

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Silent Oscars: 1915—Part Two

[To read Part One of this essay (a review of The Birth of a Nation, click here]

Les Vampires—The Best Movie(s) Of 1915
Almost from cinema's beginning, recurring characters were popular with filmmakers and theatergoers alike. With the actor's persona—Max Linder's comically clumsy bon vivant, for example—clearly established before the film had even begun, audiences knew what to expect and could make their choices with some confidence; directors meanwhile could dispense with character exposition, which ate up precious film time, and get right to the action.

The progression from films featuring recurring characters to films with interlinked stories that starred those characters was a natural one, and the concept was as old as the serialized fiction that was sold in magazines, one chapter per issue, in the nineteenth century.

"Serials extended one story line through a dozen or more chapters," Daniel Eagan wrote in America's Film Legacy, "much like the daily and weekly comic strips that were growing in popularity around the turn of the twentieth century. A film that didn't end but continued on, that required viewers to return to theaters to find out what happened next, seemed like a gold mine to producers and exhibitors."

Typically, any given chapter of a film serial would feature plenty of action, and end with the hero (actually, almost always the heroine) in danger, with their predicament not resolved until the next episode. In fact, so often was the heroine left hanging by her fingernails from a cliff at the end of a given episode, the term "cliffhanger" came to mean a suspenseful situation left unresolved at the story's end.

Unless you want to count the multi-part Passion Play produced in 1903, the first serial may have been Victorin-Hippolyte Jasset's Nick Carter series, which ran in French theaters in 1908. Thomas Edison popularized the concept in the United States with his What Happened to Mary? series in 1912, George B. Selig's The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913) was the first to truly link episodes together into a single plotline, and The Perils of Pauline and The Exploits of Elaine, both starring Pearl White, were among the most popular movies of 1914.

Serials were most popular during the silent era, but continued to be a staple of Saturday morning matinees until the advent of television.

The greatest director of serials—the one who turned genre escapism into lasting art—was the Frenchman, Louis Feuillade. Feuillade (pronounced "Foo-yaad") had already had a big hit in 1913 with Fantômas, five interlinked feature films based on a series of novels about a murderous master criminal, one of film history's first anti-heroes.

Even better was Les Vampires, a ten-part, seven hour serial released in France between November 13, 1915, and June 30, 1916. Not only is it the best serial ever produced, it's on a short list of the best films of the silent era. Inspired by the vicious exploits of the real life Les Apaches and Bonnot gangs that terrorized Paris during the Belle Époque, Les Vampires (pronounced "lay vam-peer") tells the story of a criminal organization, The Vampires, whose reach extends into the highest levels of French government and society, corrupting those it can, terrorizing and murdering those it can't.

With the justice system unable or unwilling to bring the Vampires to heel, an enterprising newspaper reporter, Phillipe Guerande, teams up with a turncoat member of the gang itself, and takes on the Vampires himself, first by exposing its secrets, then through direct confrontation.

"All the roots of the thriller and suspense genres," David Thomson wrote, "are in Feuillade's sense that evil, anarchy and destructiveness speak to the frustrations banked up in modern society. ... Not only has Feuillade's pregnant view of grey streets become an accepted normality; his expectations of conspiracy, violence, and disaster spring at us every day."

The first episode—ominously titled "The Severed Head"—finds Guerande framed for fraud and murder. The second episode sees his fiancee poisoned and Guerande kidnapped and sentenced to death by the Grand Vampire himself.

And this isn't even the good stuff.

Both episodes are slam-bang and lots of fun, but they barely hint at the invent- iveness of the serial which doesn't hit its stride until the arrival in the third episode of the sinister, seductive Irma Vep, one of the greatest characters in the entirety of silent cinema.

Played by Musidora in the style of screen vamp Theda Bara, Irma Vep—which, as a lobby card outside a music hall reveals when it magically rearranges the letters of the name, is an anagram of Vampire—puts the fatal back in femme fatale. Although in terms of screen time, she fills what amounts to a supporting role, Irma Vep is, as Fabrice Zagury wrote in his essay "The Public is My Master: Louis Feuillade and Les Vampires, "the one pulling the strings," using the power of seduction—and murder, too—to bend the putative leaders of the Vampires to her will.

You can't take your eyes off her. It's my favorite performance of the year.

"Musidora," wrote Tom Gunning in his essay The Terrifying Yet Scintillating Origins of IRMA VEP, "clothed in her close-fitting black bodysuit, her maillot de soie, robbed, kidnapped, and murdered, and seized the imagination of a generation. For the devotees of Musidora’s silent films, that fascination survived for decades. The surrealists worshiped her amoral sexuality, and the revolutionary poet Louis Aragon later claimed that Irma Vep’s dark bodysuit inspired the youth of France with fantasies of rebellion."

Indeed, Feuillade consciously subverts the morality of his cops and robbers tale by casting against the alluring Musidora the dullest of dull actors, the blandly handsome Édouard Mathé, as the putative hero, and the delightfully hammy Marcel Lévesque as his bumbling, Clouseau-like sidekick, Oscar Mazamette. Only because you'd hate to see any harm come to Mazamette can you sympathize with the heroes at all.

That Feuillade's criminals were sexier, more intriguing and, perhaps more to the point, more successful than their law-abiding conterparts was not lost on French authorities. Paris police halted production and banned release of the serial on the grounds it glorified crime (which it most certainly does), a decision that wasn't reversed until Musidora herself showed up at the chief of police's office to do a little one-on-one lobbying.

"Surrealists [such as André Breton and Luis Buñuel] discovered in Les vampires a form of subversion that was fully compatible with their own aesthetic designs," wrote Jonathan Rosenbaum in 1987 for the Chicago Reader (reprinted here on his own website.)

It's no wonder the surrealists loved Feuillade—his Paris is simultaneously whimsical and deadly, a place where you can lean out a second-story window and wind up with a lasso around your neck, where every cupboard hides a body, every hatbox a head, and your neighbor's loft conceals a cannon. There's no sense of safety—or sanity—anywhere. People are murdered on trains, in cafes, and even in their own beds. Perhaps that's why I, as a 21st century movie fan, find Feuillade's work so engaging—he anticipated the anxieties that came to define the 20th century and continue to plague us to this day: violence, paranoia, alienation, conspiracy, terrorism.

It also has a wonderfully nutty quality, the sense that anything could happen and often does.

"Feuillade's cinema," said Alain Resnais, "is very close to dreams—therefore it's perhaps the most realistic."

"[T]he orginality of Lang and Hitchcock" (Thomson again) "fall into place when one has seen Feuillade: Mabuse is the disciple of Fantômas; while Hitchcock's persistent faith in the nun who wears high heels, in the crop-spraying plane that will swoop down to kill, and in a world mined for the complacent is inherited from Feuillade." Both Lang and Hitchcock (as well as Buñuel) were directly influenced by Feuillade's work.

Equally subversive in the eyes of its original audience, Zagury points out, (if lost on viewers today) is Irma Vep's ability to move freely between the various classes that make up French society. That Irma can so easily pass herself off first as a chambermaid then as an aristocrat and then even as a man was a direct affront to the ruling elite's faith that it was imbued with special qualities that justified its exalted position in the nation's power structure. (George Bernard Shaw explored a similar theme in his comedy Pygmalion.)

In making my case for the films of Louis Feuillade, I want to avoid the tendency of many writers to simultaneously dismiss the contemporaneous works of D.W. Griffith, whose The Birth of a Nation was released the same year, to argue, as Rosenbaum does, that "Feuillade is as cool and hip as Griffith is overheated and square," or as Thomson does, that Feuillade's camera work is "relaxed, subtle" while "Griffith's is pompous and prettifying."

The fact is, both Griffith and Feuillade were indispensable in defining what we see when we go to the movies, and it took both men to give us, say, Alfred Hitchcock, whose certainty that anything could and should happen on screen was inherited from Feuillade while his masterful use of the classical Hollywood editing style to show us his often surreal action he inherited from its chief pioneer, Griffith. Fortunately, we know (don't we?) that film history isn't an either/or proposition—it's an and/and one. And thus, the choice isn't Griffith or Feuillade, Chaplin or Keaton, or even silent film or sound. It's all of them, and I want to see all of them, and you should want to see all of them, too.

Feuillade continued to direct right up to his death in 1925, including two more masterpieces of the crime genre, Judex, which I have seen, and Tih Minh which I have not.

Like Phillipe Guerande, Feuillade began his career as a reporter, and after he made the jump to movies, he drew on his own experiences to shape his stories. Feuillade was a workaholic, writing and directing over 700 short films between 1906 and 1924, working like a man chased by some unseen demon. "I haven't a minute to lose," he often said while turning down requests for interviews.

Although convinced film was an art form rather than a pure novelty, Feuillade believed his first duty was to entertain. "I consider cinema as a place for rest, cheerfulness, soft emotions, dreams, forgetfulness. We don't go to the movies to study. The public flocks to it to be entertained. I place the public above everything else."

His attitude did not endear him to the generation of French filmmakers who followed him. "The interest of the young filmmakers of the time," René Clair said later, "was diametrically opposed to commercial entertainments made by the prolific author of Judex of which they talk mostly with disdain."

As a result, Feuillade was largely forgotten after his death in 1925 until Henri Langlois—the same film historian who helped make Louise Brooks famous—resurrected his reputation. Along with the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès, Feuillade is now revered as one of the founders of French cinema.

His Les Vampires is also proof that no matter how old, a great movie, like all great art, is timeless.

While The Real Musidora Please Stand Up? Here, by the way, is probably the most famous picture of Musidora, the one that always crops up when people post pictures from Les Vampires on the internet:

There's only problem—that's not Musidora, it's Stacia Napierkowska who plays Guerande's fiancee Marfa Koutiloff in the second episode. She's on screen for maybe five minutes, dancing in a ballet about vampires.

The second most popular picture of Musidora isn't Musidora either; it's Maggie Cheung essentially playing Musidora in the 1996 movie Irma Vep:

This is Musidora. You can perhaps see where the confusion arises.

But now you know. Just another in a long line of services we provide free here at the Monkey.

To continue to Part Three, click here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Guest Blogging, Plain Chicken And The Common Cold

While KC is on maternity leave, she's asked her fellow film fanatics to take over her linking duties on a rotating basis. Today's guest blogger is none other than yours truly.

In case you don't follow Classic Movies, every morning KC culls through the hundreds of blogs on the internet dedicated to classic film and provides links to four to six of the day's best. If you think that's easy, you should try it some time—I spent hours on it and in the end mostly wound up worrying about the blogs I didn't link to. It's a terrible responsibility.

Anyway, you can click here to see my choices.

Speaking of linking, here's a link to my niece's blog, Plain Chicken. As I've mentioned before, she posts recipes, easy, fun, tasty meals for people with a fussy palate—ideal if you work and/or have kids.

Plain Chicken has become what we all dream about when we start writing, an avenue to fame and fortune. Or at least an income and some recognition. (the internet version of the Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile and Montgomery, Alabama newspapers) picked up Plain Chicken some time ago and today the Birmingham News print edition published an article about the blog in this morning's paper. (My more tech savvy niece and little brother subsequently sent me the internet link to the article, here.)

Plain Chicken's dad, my big brother, sent a photo:

How about that.

As for me, I am pounding out another of those epic essays I write every now and then, this one about Les Vampires. No, it's not one of those 1960s-era movies about lesbian vampires—it's a 1915 French serial about a criminal organization known as The Vampires. Is it good? No, it's great and it influenced directors as diverse as Luis Buñuel, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock.

But I also have a cold and it's slowing down my already snail's pace, so I'm making no promises as to when it'll be up. But I'll have it for you when I can.

(The Arctic Monkey with a cup of tea is from the blog Loft and Lost.)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Happy Birthday, Charlie

Charlie Chaplin was born on this day in 1889.

I've already written quite a bit about Chaplin—here, here, here and here. So how about a movie instead?

Since Katie-Bar-The-Door and I are going to see The Gold Rush tomorrow with live musical accompaniment by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, I'll show that to you, courtesy of the Internet Movie Database.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Silent Oscars: 1915—Part One

The Birth Of A NationA Deeply Flawed, Would-Be Masterpiece
Not entirely by coincidence, my series on the early silent era has arrived at the year 1915 on the day of the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War. What better time then to review the most notorious Civil War film in history, D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, which premiered in the United States on February 8, 1915.

The Birth of a Nation was the most celebrated film of its era. Critics gushed in their praise, audiences gladly lined up to pay $2 to see it at a time when the average ticket cost a nickel, and when it played at the White House, President Woodrow Wilson was moved to comment, "It was like writing history with lightning."

It was the top grossing film of the silent era, with estimates of its box office take ranging from $10 million to $16 million during its initial run, more than twice that of any other silent film. With its budget of $250,000, The Birth of a Nation still ranks as one of the twenty most profitable films in history.

It's also, in my opinion, the most controversial movie ever made. The film includes sequences—for example, Ku Klux Klansmen riding to the rescue of white women being raped by actors wearing blackface—that are so grotesque in their depictions of race and their distortions of history that you can't believe that you are seeing them. In 1915, its exhibition sparked protests in cities across the nation. Riots broke out in Boston and Philadelphia, and it was banned outright in Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. After allowing the film's premiere in Los Angeles, city leaders banned it there as well. And even where it did play, Griffith was forced to make cuts to get the film past local censors.

The reaction so stung Griffith, he spent the rest of his life apologizing, both through his films and in private.

While films such as Life of Brian and The Last Temptation of Christ generated controversy at the time of their release, can you imagine anyone turning out to protest them a hundred years from now? Yet nearly a hundred years after its release, The Birth of a Nation still generates controversy. In 2000 and 2004, plans to show the film were cancelled after complaints, and as recently as last year in Rome, New York, the film's exhibition drew a crowd of protesters that included the city's mayor.

Let's Pretend—For A Moment
Reviewing The Birth of a Nation is never an easy task and I suspect many film critics and historians secretly (and not so secretly) wish they could just skip right over it and talk about something else. The film's reputation as being virulently racist is well deserved; and its story and its views on race are inextricably linked—every character on the screen is defined by their race and their attitudes about race and most are motivated by racial animus. So to review the movie without reviewing its racism and its distortions of history—always touchy subjects—is impossible

I won't shirk my duty, I promise, but nevertheless, let's pretend, for a moment, that we're visitors from another planet, and that issues of race and history are lost on us.

The Birth of a Nation tells the story of two families, one Northern, the other Southern, torn apart by war and its aftermath; and of a nation torn apart by the "peculiar institution," slavery. Beginning in 1860 with the election of Abraham Lincoln and running through the end of post-war Reconstruction (1865-1877), the movie covers the major events of the era—the South's secession from the Union, the resulting civil war, the emancipation of the slaves, the assassination of Lincoln, the chaotic post-war attempts to ensure the civil rights of newly-freed slaves, and finally, the white backlash that led to a century of segregation.

In the foreground of all this history is a simple love triangle involving an abolitionist senator's daughter (Lillian Gish); the senator's protegee, a free black (George Siegmann in blackface) who will eventually be named lieutenant governor of an unnamed Southern state; and a former Confederate officer (Henry Walthall) who remains unreconciled to the South's defeat. As the film builds to a climax, the senator's daughter rejects the black politician's proposal of marriage, he reacts by unleashing his wrath on whites everywhere, and the Confederate officer forms the Ku Klux Klan and rides to the rescue.

The movie is split into two halves—war and peace—and when it focuses on the former, it excels. The battle scenes play like Matthew Brady's photographs brought to life and those sequences must have seemed like a time machine to audiences in 1915. Indeed, they still rank high on a short list of well-staged combat scenes.

Also worthy of high praise is Griffith's staging of Lincoln's assassination, as well as the film's sets, cinematography, costumes and film editing, all unsurpassed in their day.

The problem with the film lies in its second half, the depiction of the post-war peace. Not only is it racist and an unforgivable distortion of history—a point we'll get to in a moment—it's also essentially ludicrous, because as the film presents it, the fate of the entire post-war South, indeed, the nation, pivots on the rival ambitions of two men—the former Confederate officer and the black lieutenant governor—to get into Lillian Gish's underpants.

The Birth of a Nation was not the first film to reduce complex historical issues to a simple question of who's humping who (although come to think of it, it may well have been), but that the fate of a nation could come down to a romantic obsession with the freakishly coy Gish—who in one scene flinches from a man's smile the way another woman might flinch from a blow—is preposterous.

The casting of Gish should have been the film's greatest strength. She was, as I've said before, the finest actress of the silent era, and her performances in Broken Blossoms, Way Down East and The Wind are as good as any ever essayed on film. But great as she was, Helen of Troy she was not, and while two men's obsession with Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara—essentially a modern flapper in a hoop skirt—could turn Gone With The Wind into one of the greatest romances ever made, Griffith's idealized conception of Gish as a virginal 19th century dishrag was old-fashioned even by 1915's terms.

Thus, without war or the saintly Lincoln or a compelling romance to carry the film's second half, The Birth of a Nation depends purely on its racial politics—and the action related thereto—to supply its forward momentum. And there's the rub: if you don't bring an inate fear of blacks into the theater with you, if the thought of blacks voting, owning property, marrying whomever they want and even, gee whiz, running the country doesn't inherently scare the pants off you, the last ninety minutes becomes unbearably tedious.

I have to admit that even though I'm a veteran of over 600 silent movies, once The Birth of a Nation reached its second half, I found my eyelids growing heavy.

So let's talk about the film's racial politics.

Race And Racism
There's no sidestepping the racism at the heart of The Birth of a Nation, and watching it and claiming not to have an opinion is like saying you only read Playboy for the interviews—you're either a fool or a liar. (Turn-ons: movie bloggers, Netflix. Turn-offs: pan-and-scan.)

There are two types of racism on display in The Birth of a Nation. One you might call "common practice racism," that is to say, the sort of racism that arose from the habitual practices of the day. The use of white actors in blackface, for example, is a prime example. Studios of that era believed that audiences—and maybe more to the point, state and local censorship boards—would object to seeing blacks and whites together on screen, particularly where, as here, violence or sex was involved. So what were clearly white actors in blackface makeup were substituted for black actors.

Too, racial minorities commonly served in film as comic relief, and were most often portrayed—when they were portrayed at all—as ignorant, fearful and subservient clowns. You'll see plenty of that here and while I've argued in the past and will argue again in the future that to ignore every image or performance that a modern audience might find objectionable today would be to present a history of film even more lily white than it already was, I won't pretend that such depictions in The Birth of a Nation aren't as bad as you're ever likely to see.

But ultimately, it's the film's second type of racism, what I'd call "propagandist racism," that is so deeply troubling. For the racism of The Birth of a Nation was not merely an unfortunate, unintentional side effect of the early 20th century's societal ills—it was the point. Thomas Dixon's novel, The Clansman, on which the movie was based, was an unapologetic exercise in white supremacist propaganda, stacking the deck against blacks to foment rage in its intended white audience and garner support for segregationist policies.

The Birth Of A Nation turns history on its head, telling us that after the Civil War a "helpless white minority" lived under the boot heel of black oppression and that the United States didn't become a nation, indivisible, once again until all white people, Northerner and Southerner, Unionist and Confederate, abolitionist and ex-slaveholder, rallied together to combat the single biggest threat to civilization—black men with equal rights.

The film is a white supremacist's wet dream. As history, it's ridiculous. The landed, slave-owning gentry that had led the South out of the Union and into the Civil War may have feared losing its iron-grip on power after the war, but it never feared losing its right to exist; whereas the reality for freed slaves was that their most basic freedoms—to vote, to own property, to walk down the street without fear of being murdered at the whim of a white man—were fragile at best and easily taken away again. The notion that the Klan was the only thing standing between civilization and a marauding hoard of rape-hungry blacks is not only racist, it's a bald-faced lie.

And don't get me started on its views of the Civil War's causes, which are fanciful if by no means unique—meddling abolitionist firebrands, motivated by naked ambition, pious naivete and interracial lust, launch a pre-emptive and unconstitutional war to impose their radical racial views on a peaceful, idyllic South, upsetting the delicate, harmonious balance between benevolent plantation owners and their loyal, contented slaves

In reality, Southern slave owners were more than happy for the federal government to intervene to quash state's rights when it acted in favor of slavery. (I refer you, for example, to the Fugitive Slave Act, the Supreme Court's Dred Scot decision and the Missouri Compromise, among other historical events.) The foundations of secession, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stevens said in his famous Cornerstone Speech, "are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition."

That later some would say the South seceded for any other reason than to preserve slavery would have come as a great surprise to the men who led it out of the Union.

Admittedly, the South presented in Gone With The Wind isn't any more accurate, but that movie never purports to explain the war or its aftermath except in terms of their colossal inconvenience to Scarlett O'Hara. If she could have bedded Ashley Wilkes by freeing all the slaves she would have done it, and if she could have bedded him without freeing any slave she would have done that. Everything else is irrelevant.

Here, race and racism are pretty much the only point. That Griffith saw the film's source material only as a rousing tale that reminded him of the folksy stories his Confederate grandfather used to tell on the front porch of their rural Kentucky home is a testament to just what a blinkered existence the man led. He was a workaholic who lived only to make movies and he rarely walked beyond the narrow limits of the studio except to shoot yet another movie on location.

Well, he's dead now and has thus paid the ultimate price for his sins. No point in my piling on. He wouldn't feel it anyway.

You, on the other hand, have no excuses. Watch The Birth of a Nation if you want—I've seen it three times—but don't kid yourself as to what you're watching.

The Film's Legacy
One of the most cherished myths of film history (or perhaps just its laziest) is that The Birth of a Nation represented a revolution in filmmaking technique, that with it Griffith invented the feature film, basic editing techniques such as cross-cutting, camera shots such as the close up, and above all, exciting action sequences and chase scenes.

As Roger Ebert has written, "[A]udiences in 1915 were witnessing the invention of intercutting in a chase scene. Nothing like it had ever been seen before: Parallel action building to a suspense climax. Do you think they were thinking about blackface? They were thrilled out of their minds."

Except he was wrong. As I have written previously (here), when I traced the evolution of film technique between 1906 and 1914, audiences had not only seen everything Ebert is describing, they had seen it enough that Mack Sennett felt comfortable spoofing it in a Keystone Kop comedy made two years before Griffith directed The Birth Of A Nation, with Mabel Normand barricaded in her house, fending off "burglars" who turn out to be her parents while the world's most inept policeman tries to ride to the rescue in a balky automobile. You don't spoof what you've never seen; you only spoof what you've seen so many times that humor arises from subverting the expectations of the audience. (See it here.)

Ebert's misunderstanding is not unique and I shouldn't pick on him—his was the common (mis)perception among film historians for decades. The error is understandable: until recently, very few films made prior to 1915 were available, and when your film library skips the entire decade following The Great Train Robbery (1903), The Birth of a Nation tends to look more startlingly innovative than it really is.

The fact is, while audiences responded to Griffith's film in record numbers, what they weren't doing, at least not for the first time, was seeing the groundbreaking technical breakthroughs that tend to justify The Birth Of A Nation's reputation as a great film. Yes, all those techniques were there, and yes, Griffith put them all together in epic form to tell the most rousing story yet told. But cross-cutting, close-ups, battle scenes—they were already staples of Griffith's filmmaking style, techniques he had developed while making some five hundred shorts for Biograph between 1908 and 1913.

And if you've seen any of those feature-length films I wrote about yesterday (here), you know that these techniques were shared by directors the world over as well.

Which is not to say that The Birth of a Nation wasn't important. It was a huge box office hit at a time when the jury was still out on the commercial viability of the feature-length film. After its release, there was never again a question about whether an audience would pay to sit through a long-form film.

Even more importantly, The Birth of a Nation woke audiences and critics alike to the reality that motion pictures weren't just a novelty, but were in fact an artistic medium, one that would turn out to be the most important of the 20th century. The film's reception inspired a generation of filmmakers, and as a result, we are blessed now with feature films from Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and many others who publicly acknowledged a debt to D.W. Griffith.

Maybe that's not everything that's been claimed for The Birth of a Nation, but it's not nothing either.

To Watch Or Not To Watch
I've been tough on The Birth of a Nation. It's a film a critic needs to be tough on. But I haven't answered the essential question: should you see it?

The answer, as always, is it depends.

As I mentioned earlier, I've watched The Birth of a Nation three times, and my reaction has been different every time. On the first viewing, I think my reaction was the typical one—I was appalled by the film's racist propaganda. The second time through, I was able to see both the power of the film's action sequences and the tedium of its romantic triangle.

But then I watched it a third time, and found that after I had peeled back the racism, after I had peeled back the tedium, what I was watching was the tragedy of American apartheid—"Jim Crow," we called it—as told through the imperfect, unwitting eyes of a triumphant white racist. Why, that's almost Faulkneresque, an Absalom, Absalom on film, if you will, albeit without the genius of William Faulkner's language or his insight standing between you and the deeply-flawed man narrating the story. That Griffith didn't understand the implications of what he was saying doesn't make the tale any less tragic. It's a little like listening to some ignorant blowhard tell a long story all the time not realizing he's the villain of the piece. You listen to him with a queasy look on your face and think, "You dumb bastard," but his blindness doesn't stop you from seeing glimmers of the underlying truth.

Ultimately, Griffith isn't Faulkner and what you're left with is a deeply-flawed would-be masterpiece. If you've never seen a silent movie before, for crying out loud, don't start with this one. It's hard enough to decipher the unfamiliar storytelling techniques of silent film without also having to struggle with the film's racism.

But if you're an amateur film historian, silent film fanatic, budding critic, Civil War buff, or want to get a sense of just how deeply interwoven the issue of race is with America's national character, then the answer is yes, you should eventually see The Birth of a Nation—once you've become well-enough versed in American history to separate the fact from the nonsense.

And if you're a Saturday night movie fan with only a limited interest in silent movies? I'd say there are a lot of other movies you should see first. Click here for my silent movie starter set, see those, then branch out.

To continue to Part Two, a review of the best movie(s) of 1915, Les Vampires, click here.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Silent Oscars: 1906-1914—Part Five

[To read previous parts of this essay, click the highlighted link: 1, 2, 3, 4a, 4b]

The Birth of The Feature Film
Tentative Steps
After the release of Edwin Porter's classic short film The Great Train Robbery in 1903, the motion picture industry evolved rapidly, but until D.W. Griffith developed a film "language" that made complex storytelling possible (read about that effort here), the change was primarily a matter of quantity, not quality.

In the United States, thousands of nickelodeons—theaters where patrons paid a nickle to watch the latest movie—sprang up nationwide, and with them came a need for something to show in them. Maybe that explains why so many of the early studio moguls—Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, Louis B. Mayer, the Warner Brothers—got their start in the industry not as filmmakers but as theater owners.

The interest of these theater-owners-turned-movie-makers was almost purely about profit, and art only entered into the equation as a means to increase ticket sales. Which is okay with me. I mean, why, for example, should Adolph Zukor, who immigrated to the United States with $40 in his pocket, give away what little money he had in order to entertain and enlighten theatergoers for free? He opened a theater to put food on the table and, I can assure you, nobody else was going to do it, at least not without the same motive in mind.

But the result was a flood of derivative and undistinguished hackwork, and when Porter (and his boss, Thomas Edison) flinched from the high-risk-high-reward proposition of The Great Train Robbery and retreated back into the safe, bland product they had produced before, American theaters saw little else. By 1914 directors such as Cecil B. DeMille, Charlie Chaplin and Mack Sennett would arrive on the scene and along with Griffith catapult American studios to a commercial dominance they have yet to relinguish. But until that time, it was the ambition and artistry of foreign studios that largely defined cinema.

While the best and most successful of the foreign filmmakers during this era were the "entertainers"—Georges Méliès, Max Linder—a handful of filmmakers aspired to tell more complex stories. But intentions aren't the same as results, and while you'll find plenty of adaptations of Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, theater productions and the Bible, these films amounted to little more than densely-worded intertitle cards accompanied by a handful of moving pictures.

Directors needed both a technique to tell stories in a purely visual way, and more elbow room than a single reel (eight-to-twelve minutes) of film could afford. Griffith would eventually solve the first problem. The feature-length film would solve the other.

What qualifies as the first feature-length film depends on what you think of as a feature film. In 1903, French movie-makers Lucien Nonguet and Ferdinand Zecca directed a series of interrelated short films covering events in the life of Christ, from the annunciation through the resurrection and ascension. At a time when individual theater owners had more control over the product shown on the screen than the studio that produced it, La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ a.k.a. The Passion Play was sometimes exhibited edited together into a single 44-minute film.

And then there was Alice Guy Blaché who covered the same subject in a single, 33-minute film, La vie du Christ, a.k.a. The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ. Guy is one of the more interesting figures of the early silent era—the first woman director in history, she started as a secretary at Gaumont, wrote film scenarios because she had access to a typewriter and became a director because the studio had more cameras than people who knew how to operate them. She later emigrated to the United States and founded her own studio at Fort Lee, New Jersey, at that time the hub of the American film industry. Of the 350 films she directed during her career, La vie du Christ remains one of her best known.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences now defines a "feature" as a film over forty minutes in duration. By those terms, most film historians cite Australia's The Story Of The Kelly Gang as the first feature-length film. Released in 1906, The Kelly Gang clocked in at a then-astounding 70 minutes. Written and directed by Charles Tait, the film tells the story of Ned Kelly, an Irish-Australian bushranger who battled British authority and was eventually hanged for his trouble. The film was thought lost until one reel turned up in a Melbourne garbage dump; in 2006, additional footage was discovered in the UK, bringing the restored total to 17 minutes. What's left plays like an extended-length version of The Great Train Robbery—no knock, I assure you.

Europe Takes The Lead
It was the Italians, though, who proved most willing to experiment with the long-form film. Italian filmmakers had come late to the party, with the country not producing its first fiction film until 1905. To distinguish their product from the French films that dominated the early marketplace, they focused on subjects with a distinctly Italian flavor, such as the country's recent unification, well-known historical events such as the last days of Pompeii, and notorious figures from Rome's glory days such as Nero and Messalina.

The first of the feature-length Italian films was an adaptation of Dante's epic poem about a man's journey through hell, 1911's L'Inferno. Over three years in the making, L'Inferno was a spectacle in the tradition of Méliès, Segundo de Chomón and Wladyslaw Starewicz, mixing imaginative costumes, set designs and special effects to create unforgettable visual images.

"[F]ilm historians have overemphasised early silent cinema's technical innovations over its imagistic brilliance," the author of Film: Ab Initio wrote recently. "For there are four or five scenes in this film which are as breathtaking as any I have encountered in cinema." (If you haven't checked out Film: Ab Initio, you really should—it's an audacious project, proposing to watch every major film from the beginning of time in chronological order—and I can tell you from my own personal experience that when you watch movies that way, you see things you would have otherwise missed.)

The film was a blockbuster, taking in more than $2 million at the box office, and encouraged the Italians to continue experimenting with the long form. Between 1911 and 1914, when they would make their single greatest contribution to the silent era, Cabiria, Italian studios released a dozen feature-length films, more than any other country during that period.

Throughout the era, directors explored new methods for telling stories on film—Lois Weber's use of split-screen, tracking and extreme close-ups in Suspense, Harold Shaw and Dorothy Shore's successful in-camera effects in The Land Beyond the Sunset, and of course D.W. Griffith's own experiments in The Musketeers of Pig Alley—and as they did, their output began to resemble what we now think of motion pictures. These innovations reached a critical mass in 1913 and seemingly overnight, directors the world over adopted these new camera and editing techniques as the industry-wide standard.

"[T]hat year," film historian David Bordwell has written, "seemed to be when filmmakers in several countries simultaneously seized upon what they had already learned of technique and pushed their knowledge to higher levels of expressivity."

Once directors had solved the matter of how to tell stories, longer, more complex movies began turning up everywhere—Russia, France, Germany, the United States. In fact, as many feature-length films hit theaters in 1913 alone as had been produced in the entire decade that proceeded it—more than fifty in all.

Among these features were films by some of the most important directors of the silent era. Victor Sjöström and Yevgeni Bauer, for example, were pioneers of Sweden and Russia cinema, respectively (I'll write more about them in the future). Both produced films that in later years would probably have been derided as "women's pictures" (or worse, "chick flicks"). Sjöström's Ingeborg Holm is a tragic look at a woman forced to give up her children after her husband's sudden death leaves her destitute. Bauer's Twilight of a Woman's Soul also focuses on a woman, but while she may be an aristocrat, her life is no happier—raped while volunteering at a homeless shelter, she is shunned by her fiance, a Russian prince.

Although neither film is the director's best—Sjöström would go on to direct The Outlaw and His Wife, The Phantom Carriage and The Wind, while Bauer would direct The Dying Swan before his untimely death in 1917—both made effective use of visual storytelling for the first time in their careers.

One of my favorite of the early silent directors, Louis Feuillade, made a big splash in France with Fantômas, five interlinked feature films (each running between fifty and ninety minutes) based on a series of novels about the eponymous master criminal, one of film history's first anti-heroes. Feuillade alone of the great early directors anticipated the chief maladies of the coming century—violence, anxiety, paranoia, alienation—and even this century's scourge, terrorism. His film serials Fantômas, Les Vampires and Judex directly influenced filmmakers as diverse as Luis Buñuel, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. Throw in the fact that Feuillade's films are extraordinarily entertaining—not just as film history but in a 21st century sense—and he winds up, along with Charlie Chaplin, as my favorite director of the first three decades of film history (1888-1918).

We'll talk more about him when I reach 1915.

The best of the feature-length films released in 1913 was probably Der Student von Prag (a.k.a. A Bargain With Satan, the first noteworthy film to emerge from the fledgling German film industry. Paul Wegener (with an assist behind the camera from Stellan Rye) directed and starred in this adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe short story about a university student who sells his soul to the devil to win the love of a beautiful woman. On a limited budget Wegener and Rye created one of the first convincing horror films, establishing a tradition that would later give us The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Faust and Metropolis. Rye died in the fighting during World War I, but Wegener went on to direct one of the classics of silent German cinema, Der Golem in 1920, and continued to act and direct until his death in 1948.

The most influential film of 1913, however, was one that didn't even make into the theaters until the following year. Giovanni Pastrone's epic Cabiria was a landmark achievement in style and spectacle, and the first truly great long-form film. The culimination of the long-form movement in Italy, Cabiria took two years to film and boasted mammoth sets and elaborate special effects. Its epic scope influenced Griffith's Intolerance and anticipated the pomp of De Mille's later Bible and history spectacles.

"The film was made with limitless scope and ambition," Roger Ebert wrote for his Great Movies series, "with towering sets and thousands of extras, with stunts that (because they were actually performed by stuntmen) have an impact lost in these days of visual effects."

Set during the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage—a subject of great interest to Italian audiences on the eve of World War I—Cabiria is an epic on a grand scale, tracing the life of young woman from childhood to early adulthood against the backdrop of Rome's struggle to establish an empire of its own. The movie opens with the spectacular eruption of Sicily's Mt. Etna, and boasts a tracking shot of refugees trekking across the face of the erupting volcano that rivals any image previously filmed.

"For Cabiria," wrote Cole Smithey, the self-styled "smartest film critic in the world, "Pastrone pioneered the use of deep-focus filming and the since-ubiquitous 'tracking-shot'—two years before D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation would employ similar techniques."

The movie includes kidnappings, piracy, ritual sacrifices, slave revolts and even Hannibal and his elephants. It also introduced the "Maciste" character—the Herculean hero played here by Bartolomeo Pagano in a star-making performance, and later by such actors as Steve Reeves—who proved so popular in low budget sword-and-sandal films between 1914 and the 1970s.

Even though the finished film wouldn't premiere in theaters until April 1914, word of Pastrone's project leaked out of Italy and directors worldwide scrambled to make their own long-form films.

The Americans At Last
According to Turner Classic Movies' series Moguls and Movie Stars, the first American producer to see the value in feature-length films was Adolph Zukor, the self-same Adolph Zukor who started life with $40 and limitless ambition. He believed that movie-makers shouldn't limit themselves to ten-minute shorts and the working class audiences that patronized them, but should instead aim for the same quality, prestige—and paying customers—as the theater productions running on New York's Broadway.

To that end, in 1912 Zukor obtained the distribution rights to Les Amours de la Reine Élisabeth, a 45-minute film about the life of Britain's Queen Elizabeth I. Starring Sarah Bernhardt, the film's success in America allowed Zukor to found his own studio, Famous Players, and commit the company to producing six feature-length pictures a year.

Meanwhile, in 1913, Carl Laemmle a German immigrant who owned a chain of nickelodeons in Chicago, embarked on a feature-length project of his own. Seeking to cash in on the then-current scandal of forced prostitution among the newly-arrived immigrant population of New York City, Traffic In Souls was a sensation upon its release, earning $500,000 on its $25,000 investment and encouraged Laemmle to found Universal Studios.

"[A]bout twenty minutes into Traffic in Souls, [cinematographer Henry Alder] Leach does something extraordinary," writes Daniel Eagan in America's Film Legacy. "He anticipates action, panning the camera from William Powers standing on the shore to Flora Nason and Vera Hansey, two in a crowd of passengers on a ferry pulling into a dock. It was a planned, choreographed shot, one hat predicted the future of cinematography."

Traffic in Souls is preserved in the National Film Archive. (It was the first film to inspire a "novelization," the practice of turning a film into a book.)

That same year, vaudeville performer Jesse Lasky teamed up with struggling Broadway playwright Cecil B. DeMille to found the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Film Company. Reluctantly bankrolled by Lasky's brother-in-law, Samuel Goldwyn, Lasky and DeMille set out to make a feature-length film version of the stageplay The Squaw Man—an audacious undertaking consider that none of them had ever made a movie before.

The Squaw Man is the story of a British aristocrat who find success in the American west after being falsely accused of embezzlement. Lasky and DeMille insisted on filming on location and headed west to film it. The pair stopped initially in Flagstaff, Arizona, but DeMille envisioned open spaces rather than the mountainous, heavily-forested terrain around Flagstaff, so they journeyed on to Los Angeles where they scouted filming locations and settled on a sleepy village named Hollywood.

Legend has it that DeMille and Lasky set up shop in a barn, but legend neglects to mention that the barn already housed a complete movie studio before they got there.

Nevertheless, The Squaw Man was the first feature filmed in Hollywood. It's reception at the box office encouraged both Lasky and DeMille, with the former eventually merging with Zukor's Famous Players to found Paramount Pictures, while the latter went on to become one of the most successful producer-directors in Hollywood history.

Perhaps the most important of the early American feature films was D.W. Griffith's Judith of Bethulia. Filmed in 1913 but released a year later thanks to a contract dispute between Griffith and his employer, the Biograph Company, Judith is one of the earliest examples of what is known as "classical continuity editing" or "classical Hollywood narrative"—the practice of cutting within a scene to make clear to the viewer at all times where the characters are in relationship to each other and to their surroundings, both in terms of the physical space and the chronology of the film story.

Already the most influential director in the world, Griffith's development of classical continuity editing would become the industry standard by 1917 and is the single most common editing style in use by film and television directors today.

The film proved to be pivotal for Griffith, not, however, because it was a financial success. Judith was expensive and Biograph balked at financing additional feature films.

Biograph, wrote Lillian Gish later, "thought that a movie that long would hurt [the audience's] eyes."

Rather than settling for his paymasters' limited artistic vision, Griffith left and joined the Mutual Film Company. There, he directed his second feature-length film, The Avenging Conscience (1914). Not as well known as Judith of Bethulia but perhaps even better, The Avenging Conscience was based on Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" and is a taut psychological drama involving love, obsession, murder and finally madness. Griffith's technical expertise is on full display here, with parallel compositions used to convey parallel emotions, and an increasingly frantic cutting style that anticipates Eisenstein's use of montage a decade later.

With two feature films under his belt, Griffith was ready to tackle the biggest project of his career, The Birth of a Nation, the most lucrative and most controversial film of the entire silent era.

Finally, I'll mention Mack Sennett and the first feature-length comedy in movie history, Tillie's Punctured Romance. I've previously written at some length about Tillie here, but I would like to point out that the film's enormous box office appeal further underscored the commercial viability of the long form.

Shorts and features would continue to compete with each other on an equal footing until the 1920s when comedians Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd began making feature films—not, ironically, because their short comedies weren't as popular as feature films, quite the opposite actually, but because theater owners paid rental fees based on the length of the film. By the time talkies arrived in theaters in the late 1920s, feature films had thoroughly eclipsed shorts, and would dominate the artistic and commercial landscape for decades to come.