15 July 2010
It would be easy enough to say that the biggest difference between silent films and the “talkies” of the 30s is subject matter. “Pandora’s Box,” after all, offers us the transcendent 22-year-old Louise Brooks as a happy-go-lucky dancer, Lulu, in a series of plot twists that give you whiplash: her fortunes take a turn for the worse when she marries a wealthy doctor, snatching him away from another woman; the film then threatens her with both sexual slavery and Jack the Ripper. Good thing she’s protected by a lesbian, an acrobat, and a drunken dwarf! With that kind of plot, the Hays Code would have squelched it by about 1933 or so (Hitler later banned it as “degenerate art,” and he wasn’t the only one; it was also banned in Finland, Portugal, and Norway).
It’s not that the plot is irrelevant. In fact, it was based on turn-of-the-century plays by Frank Wedekind (who also authored the play “Spring Awakening” in 1891, which Duncan Sheik turned into a Broadway musical over a hundred years later) designed to criticize contemporary perspectives on sexuality and morality. But when watching the changeable Louise Brooks one tends to lose track of a coherent message. One minute, she’s smiling at us adorably and cocking her tiny eyebrows at us to accentuate her enormous black eyes; the next she’s stealing someone’s fiancé and giving the jilted woman a look of utter malice. She moves lightly on her feet like the dancer she was, yet overall her body appears unusually strong for the day, like her long, strong neck. More than any other silent film actor, it is Brooks who has given me a whole new perspective on the Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) character from “Sunset Boulevard” (1950). “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces then,” she pronounces to the cynical Joe Gillis (William Holden). Swanson overdid it a bit to help us identify with Gillis, but now I know she was right.
The director G. W. Pabst (who shot Brooks in “Diary of a Lost Girl” the following year) was so certain that she was right for the part that he turned down Marlene Dietrich at the very last moment on learning that Brooks had agreed to star. And after seeing Brooks on the big screen no one can doubt that the camera falls in love with her. Pabst constantly sought innovative ways of using that luminescent quality of silent film, in which the whites seem almost to sparkle in 3-D, to enhance the mood and show again and again her beauty. In fact, Brooks seems to have been special-ordered to personify the fantasy of female sexual vulnerability. This fantasy is pernicious enough on its own, of course, but it seems tragic to me that so many of her fans (and perhaps even Brooks herself) came to draw an overly tidy equivalence between the character of Lulu and Louise herself, who called her 1982 book of essays Lulu in Hollywood. The headline might be, LULU SETS BACK FEMINISM BY DECADES.
I could go on about the details. The prevalence of the menorah in her apartment at the beginning of the film (is Pabst trying to signal that she’s Jewish?) contrasted with the heavy Christmas morality at the end. The breakneck pace of the scenes backstage at Lulu’s theater as she changes costume and watches the beautiful black dancers onstage — the movement of the props and people is so tight it could be a Buster Keaton comedy in which someone is always about to have a house crash on him. The close-close-closeups contrasting hard men’s faces with Lulu’s. But instead, let’s engage in a little double nostalgia for both Louise and the 1980s band OMD (who clearly believed that one can never, never! over-use a synthesizer):
A final quick note: for those of us convinced of the inequity of the filmgoing experience between places like LA and the rest of the universe, I have to confirm that it’s true. Nothing is better proof of that fact than the existence of the Silent Film Theater in West Hollywood, where they showed “Pandora’s Box” last night with a live performance by the Cabeza de Vaca Arkestra, which performed their original score to the film — a moody, evocative soundtrack that contrasted so sharply with Brooks’ wide smile but foreshadowed the dark turns of plot. (The Silent Film Theater even offers comfy SOFAS.) As if I weren’t already jealous of the fact that old movies are shown outside on the grounds of the Hollywood cemetery on beautiful evenings.