Lillian Gish with guns

25 February 2012

I’m sure you, too, have days when you need to see an excellent woman shoulder the gun and right some wrongs. Here’s how it’s gonna be, you’ll say, and that dude with “love” and “hate” written on his knuckles will just have to back off.

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Film historians often estimate that 83% of all silent film has been lost, but that’s just a guess-stimate. No wonder we all cheer when we hear good news for a change. Back in August 2011, the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) announced that it had discovered the first three reels of The White Shadow (1923), a film long assumed to have been lost. Even better that this was the first film Alfred Hitchcock played a major role in creating — as assistant director, screenwriter, film editor, production designer, art director, and set decorator, all under director Graham Cutts.

Thanks to the NFPF, the film was restored and given a new score by composer Michael Mortilla. But unless you were lucky enough to see the premier of the restored film in Los Angeles in September, the film might as well be lost all over again. And you know how I rant about access.

That’s where the Film Preservation Blog-A-Thon comes in. Classic film bloggers FerdyOnFilm, the Self-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod are urging all of us to contribute posts on Hitchcock during a May Blog-A-Thon to raise awareness as well as the approximately $15,000 to stream The White Shadow for four months, thus making it available to anyone with access to a computer and high-speed internet. Our combined posts on Hitchcock’s films will further help raise awareness of the fragility of film and the need to make rare films available to all.

Plus, what a great excuse to dive into Alfred Hitchcock’s back catalogue and think about his talents for one intense week.

Want to know how The White Shadow was rediscovered? There’s often a great tale involved when presumed-lost films are found. In 1989 a man named Jack Murtagh discovered a pile of classic film moldering in his garden shed in Hastings, New Zealand and donated them to the New Zealand Film Archive. These three reels were misidentified until recently.

That’s not the only bizarre instance of rediscovery. In 1978, a bulldozer uncovered buried reels of nitrate film during excavation of a landfill in a small town in the Yukon, Canada. This town, Dawson City, sat at the very end of the distribution line for film during the silent era, so when the films completed their runs at the local theater, the reels were shifted to the local library — at least until 1929, when worries about the flammable nitrate film led to their being used as landfill. Stored for 50 years under the permafrost of the Yukon proved to be an extremely effective means of (accidentally) preserving classic film.

How about the time the full-length copy of Metropolis was discovered in Argentina?

Want to participate? Join the Blog-A-Thon by signing up at the three aforementioned blog sites; you can donate at any time by clicking on the DONATE button. In the meantime, happy Hitchcocking!

I’m going to enjoy watching those few, rare, Hitchcock silent films and thinking about their portrayals of women, gender, and sexuality — you’ll be seeing more of this in May, friends.

The scene: an old 1920s theater with Art Deco designs and original (i.e., uncomfortable) chairs. Most of the audience is over age 65. They show us some previews and then the curtains on either side of the screen scoot in a bit, narrowing the view, because The Artist was filmed in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1, just like old movies were. That very shape of that screen — virtually unseen in my lifetime except to watch old movies on TVs that used to be shaped like this (still are, for us old-school types) — makes me feel warm and happy, as if someone has handed me a down duvet to curl up in.

I have trouble understanding the rumblings from anti-Artist critics. This is a post about why.

I giggled from the film’s very earliest silly moments. I found myself so attached to Uggie, the dog, that I considered getting a dog. And I cried: the big melodramatic moment came and I was truly moved, with big affectionate tears running down my face. What a relief: after watching the trailer approximately 30 times, I had fretted the full-length film couldn’t live up.

That’s the thing, you see: director Michel Hazanavicius has created a primer for audiences unfamiliar with classic film, and what he teaches is how to fall in love with cinéma. For the rest of us who already love those early films, it’s a love letter. A very different love letter than the one Martin Scorcese created with Hugo, and one that’s more affecting.

For me, the key to the film is that it understands the central, simple brilliance of early film: The Artist asks only that you to fall in love with the two main characters, and especially to enjoy their falling in love. Peppy Miller (Bejo) lands a role in the new big film starring George Valentin (Dujardin), and she winds up as an extra in a silly scene in which he must dance with her briefly as he makes his way across the room. But as we see in a series of takes, he keeps flirting with her, joking, each time requiring a new take — and each time it’s a little harder for him to get back into character to start the scene again for a clean take.

In short: director Michel Hazanavicius isn’t pedantically telling us about the history of cinema. (I found Hugo delightful but a bit pedantic.) Rather, he’s given us a way to connect emotionally with cinema that most of us aren’t familiar with, and which gives unexpectedly pure delight. Some filmgoing pleasures are old ones, with a few sight gags tossed in.

Hazanavicius’s interviews have been great to read in part because it’s clear he feels his love for old film so passionately. Asked by a reporter for Chicago’s The Score Card about the differences between this and his earlier OSS 117 film, he explains:

The most important change was the absence of irony. There’s no irony in this movie. Quick into writing this movie, I watched a hundred silent movies. The ones who aged the best were melodramas and romances. And even the issue with Charlie Chaplin is that people think he is a comic, but his films are melodramas. Pure melodramas, nineteenth century dramas.

There’s no winking at you. The film isn’t saying, I know that you know that I know this is all stupid, even if it’s sweet. This is a 21st-century version of a classic silent film.

The closest it comes to a wink is when the film plays with sound. There are a couple of early scenes, designed to get us to laugh, that introduce us to the experience of watching a film with no sound. The subject of sound becomes a prominent theme — whether films will use it, whether audiences prefer it, whether Valentin might be right about resisting the big transition to talking film. Sometimes it’s used initially to prompt laughter, like at the beginning of a dream sequence.

But that sequence quickly turns to eerie nightmare, showing us what Valentin really fears: irrelevance. And somehow that scene is resonant beyond the gag at the center of it — making us viewers feel the threat of sound, and the safety of silence, at least in Valentin’s eyes.

The best melodramas always have dark elements, characteristics that ring true. One of these is Valentin’s hubris. I don’t want to oversell the film’s story — it’s determined to remain light melodrama — but nevertheless I found it surprisingly touching to see how Valentin wrestles with his pride and growing public insignificance.

What made that story so appealing, I think, was the paired tale of Peppy Miller’s rise to stardom and how she experiences her own expanding success as being related to Valentin’s fall — that is, the fall of a man she loves without disguise. Her need for him is something that you almost feel corporeally from those scenes of her very long arms. Again, I don’t want to oversell this story; maybe my appreciation for it is predicated on hearing so many critics accuse Hazanavicius of creating a mere pastiche. Suffice it to say that I believe some critics have underestimated the story’s resonance.

Of course I can see that director Hazanavicius creates a number of scenes by quoting from all manner of earlier movies — Astaire and Rogers, James Whale’s FrankensteinThe Thin Man, even Citizen Kane. Yet again to fly to his defense, I see those quotes as being done out of an abiding love of film and a consciousness of the way film is always quoting from itself. (Remember The Ides of March and Moneyball? Constant references to other films!) If you watch movies purely out of a desire to see something new, you’re depriving yourself of some of the joys of cinema.

So, what’s the difference between “quoting from” other films and “creating a pastiche”? Again, I’d say it has to do with whether the film ultimately seems self-conscious, ironic, winking at us. Maybe some viewers see The Artist as an amalgam of other things, but that wasn’t my experience, and nor was it Hazanavicius’s intention, according to his interviews.

Most of all, I believe Hazanavicius chose silent film, specifically, for a good reason: to teach us something we’ve collectively forgotten. He wants to show what film could do when we had to use our eyes so searchingly. Within a few days of seeing the film — and reading a few more reviewers who called this a gimmick or a form of pandering — I became more convinced that the director may not be a pedagogue, but he certainly wants us to learn something in the course of watching this film.

To wit: in my theater, you could hear the viewers gradually starting to laugh more, to intuit the internal logic of a silent film. Even though most of them were 65+years old, it’s hard to imagine any of them had ever seen a silent film on the screen while they were growing up. They started vocalizing non-words more — with silent film, you don’t need an audience to be silent — so you could hear people uttering things like, “ahh,” “oh!” and “wow” (especially when Jean Dujardin tap-danced). That low-level, unobjectionable audience murmuring enhanced the experience of watching, contributed to the communal pleasure. But it’s something we had to learn in the course of watching it.

I have the teensiest of complaints about ‘s The Artist — that some scenes felt like a mishmash of 1920s, 30s, and 40s influences, and that however charming she is, Bérénice Bejo seemed too tall and twiggy for the era — but my full range of emotions during the course of the film shows the limitations of my small criticisms. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I just burbled with the unmitigated pleasure of watching film, like when I saw the pitch-perfect grizzled face of Malcolm McDowell in a bit part (below). Oh, hang on, I experienced the same when I re-watched Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the frothy Top Hat (1935) on New Year’s Eve.

And oh, Jean Dujardin! He can look beefy during his Douglas Fairbanks scenes, “who, me?” disarming during his William Powell scenes, and fantastically light on his feet during his Gene Kelly scenes; egotistic early on, depressive later. And when he gets himself into a love scene with Bejo … well, he has a gravity, and a genuine sense of surprise and feeling, that makes us feel as if we’re falling in love, too. (In a way, we are.)

It’s strange that I loved the film this much and yet it took so long to express it here — I saw it nearly a month ago. It seems so horribly stereotypical that I, as an academic, would formulate a pile of tedious words to analyze something that’s like a visual soufflé. But there you have it — academics are bound to try to deflate the beautifully, improbably fluffy in order to understand how it works.

Should it win Best Picture and Best Actor at the Oscars? I think its only serious competition is Hugo and, as I’ve indicated, there’s no question for me that The Artist is better. I’ll also have to see Demián Bichir in A Better Life before I weigh in on Question #2. It’s my opinion that the Oscars put up a weak list this year (where is Poetry? where is Higher Ground? why are Moneyball and The Help up there?), and that given those lists, I’m rooting for The Artist. What can I say? Michel Hazanavicius shows us how to fall in love with cinema, and in love with a love story — and I went there with him. I hope you do, too.

They say our snow will turn to rain later on, but right now it’s perfect — just enough to feel snug and wintery. Enough to make me think that what we all need is 20 minutes of silent comedy — nay, not just any comedy, but the gymnastic antics of Buster Keaton. Top on the list of things to love about One Week (1920, in which he builds a house from a kit alongside his new bride) is the fact that she’s so game to participate in the manic house construction (and gymnastics), too. Cheers to Sybil Seely.

(Is it just me, or do those jaw-dropping scenes make your mouth open wide, and laugh out loud?)

from Holiday Inn (1942)

My Facebook feed is full of people speaking optimistically about the new year, so I am driven to be perverse about it (it’s an election year, after all).

Which puts me in mind of a nice line from the BBC series Luther, spoken by the best character in the show: Alice (Ruth Wilson), the psychopathic serial killer. “People lie to themselves about three things: they view themselves in implausibly positive ways; they think they have far more control over their lives than they actually do; and they believe the future will be better than the evidence of the present can possibly justify.”

I do love a sardonic, serial-killing buzzkill. But don’t worry, friends: there’s a Masked Avenger here, too.

from The Gold Rush (1925)

New Year’s is so overdetermined. We’re trained to believe that we’ll kiss that special person at midnight (just like in When Harry Met Sally!); that singing Auld Lang Syne can only bring a sweet melancholy (what IS that song about, anyway?); that we don’t look stupid when we dance; that we’ll look gorgeous in our sequined gowns and black ties; that we’ll remember that night forever. That it will be a turning point toward happily ever after. If Wilson’s Alice were here to scour us with her cruel eyes, we’d feel much more acutely the folly of that wishful thinking.

from After the Thin Man (1936)

So instead I’m going to show you a few other images from Hollywood’s New Year’s Eve Past. For example, the party thrown by Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in her grand Sunset Boulevard (1950) mansion, intended to be a romantic event just for William Holden and herself. At least she had a great time, at least for a while.

A sweeter memory: Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) recovers from her suicide attempt and returns to C. C. Baxter’s (Jack Lemmon) miserable little place on New Year’s Eve in The Apartment (1960). “I love you, Miss Kubelik. Did you hear what I said? I absolutely adore you,” he says earnestly. “Shut up and deal,” she replies.

And finally, the sweetly anticlimactic conclusion of Radio Days (1987), when the Masked Avenger (Wallace Shawn), Sally White (Mia Farrow), and other radio stars file off the roof as the snow begins to fall. “Beware, evil doers, wherever you are!” the diminutive, funny-looking Avenger says to the world out there, as he shuffles downstairs.

That’s how I want to start this New Year: Beware, evil doers, wherever you are. (And that means you, GOP candidates.)

A little trans love for today.

Katharine Hepburn, always reliably mannish

Josephine Baker, dontcha know.

Gladys Bentley

Marlene Dietrich, who I could look at all day

Garbo as the eminently queer Queen Christina

Some days just call for women in suits. And why not a day when I hear all manner of nonsense from/about my former university. To use spelling shamelessly lifted from Comradde PhysioProffe (whom I secretly want to marry in spite of my obvious trans love and because of his excellent spelling, accuracy on sports issues, and cooking panache) in order to express my utter outrage at all things university/administration/department bullshitte:

fucke you too, with your goddamn motherfucken sanctimonious displays of “importance” shitte. The only thing you goddamn fucken white motherfuckers do is stabbe people in their backs, even better if they’re helpless grad student shittes. I know you do this bullshitte because you are fucken afraidde all the fucken time and that you have sought out the easiest motherfucken targets. In the meantime congrats on your displays of power, assholes. I can only trust in karma.

I’ve fallen so deeply in love with this trailer that I’m afraid I can’t possibly love the real film as much — whenever I manage to see it. The Artist: it’s a silent film about the silent film era! Could there be anything more delightful?

(Don’t you just love his Thin Man-style wire-haired fox terrier?)

It stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, the excellent actors from OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (the French James Bond spoof, also directed by Michel Hazanavicius), in which Dujardin was so fabulous that he was nominated in the Best Actor category for the César Awards — a rare commendation for a goofy comedy. Both stars and the director have already earned a pile of prizes and nominations for The Artist, including a Best Actor win for Dujardin at Cannes last summer.

I was delighted with OSS 117 back when I watched it one Saturday afternoon with popcorn, and was especially impressed by Dujardin’s innovative, expansive talents. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve now watched this trailer, marveling over his tap dancing chops and light physical comic gifts that never seem too corny. Excuse me for gushing — and believe me when I insist that my effusive love is strongly mitigated by anxiety that the full-length feature can’t possibly live up. Note to self: this is why many professional reviewers don’t watch trailers first.