I’ve been in transit between research locales (and across time zones) and find myself inspired as a result to write about “Wings,” which is still so impressive for its amazing portrayal of World War I dogfights between American and German pilots.  It was so vivid — such a head-spinning documentation of improbably tiny planes whizzing around one another and hurtling down from the heavens — that it roused my fear of heights; I actually had to shut my eyes and grab onto the armrests.  !!  If you have the chance to see a silent film on the big screen with live music accompaniment, just go.  Don’t miss it, no matter how cheesy the film.  Silent films simply do things that later films don’t — and risking the lives of their actors was one of them.

Aside from its gee-whiz plane antics, watching this film reminds you of everything that has changed in the 80-some intervening years.  Let me name the three most prominent:  1) the prominent tale of love between its two male leads; 2) its portrayal of mother love; and 3) its odd ambivalence toward war.  First, on the love between its middle-class hero Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers, on the left above) and the wealthy David (Richard Arlen, right).  Mary (Clara Bow, looking a bit wise to the situation here) loves Jack but knows he hasn’t got eyes for her; the two men start out ostensibly fighting over another girl.  Their animosity comes to blows during flight training camp in a vicious boxing match between the two men, during which Jack knocks David to the ground several times.  But seeing David covered in blood yet still getting up for the last time changes something in Jack’s heart.  “Boy, you’re game!” he cries, and they’re best buddies.  This sounds hopelessly corny — and much of the movie is corny — yet this scene is oddly touching, perhaps because Arlen shows himself in these scenes to be less serious and angular, as he seemed at first, than surprisingly slight and tremendously beautiful.

But then the always-too-beautiful David is injured, and they share a tender moment in each other’s arms.  I remember seeing this scene near the end of “The Celluloid Closet” as an example of queer moments onscreen in Hollywood’s early years and wondering if it had been cherry-picked out of the film.  It wasn’t:  it’s not going too far to say that women are always secondary to the story of these men’s love for one another.  While Mary waits for Jack to come around, the bulk of the film displays his true love for David and their love for one another that goes beyond being buddies.

The audience had been warned that there would be a kiss between the two male leads, but they weren’t ready for the sentimental scene as David bids goodbye to his parents.  As they gaze at him with sorrowful, worrying faces, David kisses his mother on the lips — prompting audible gasps and nervous giggles from some audience members.  It’s a great example of that era’s remaining, uncomplicated belief that a mother’s love was the purest of all human loves — and that a son ought to feel a lifelong debt to his mother for the sacrifice she performed in giving birth to him, as Rebecca Plant shows in her elegant new book, Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America.  It’s so interesting that men kissing one another reads as so much less transgressive than his kissing his mother.  The story of that transformation is fascinating and will change how you feel about your mother.

And then there’s war.  It’s a film about WWI made in 1927, so we can forgive it for its Ameri-centrism — according to this film, the United States won the war singlehandedly — but it genuinely doesn’t know what to do with the philosophical question of war.  At times, it seems to offer the usual kind of critique of war, particularly when faced with death.  The film kills off vast numbers of fliers and shows unhesitatingly the grief of the “gold star” families who lose their sons.  Yet it’s hard to believe that these scenes appeared as anything other than stock in comparison to its gung-ho, glamorous and exciting scenes of darting about the clouds in planes, killing enemies.  Taken together, the bonhomie of the pilots and their heroism in the air seem so appealing that it must have given the Army a huge uptick in recruits.  In fact, the threat of death only serves to enhance the appeal of the pilots’ lives.  1927 America was so far away from postwar Europe, and 1938 or 1939 loomed so far ahead in the future, that Hollywood could indulge briefly in a love affair with war heroism with few qualms.  It’s fantastically productive of thinking to imagine what happens between wars, as culture re-imagines the past and helps to anticipate the future.

Overall, “Wings” engages in familiar narratives that talking pictures would utilize later on — much more so than some of the other silents I’ve seen recently, like the wonderful “Sunrise” (1927) that won Most Artistic Production at the first Academy Awards ceremony.  But it’s still a surprising and wonderful film that shows why we should be watching silents now.  They help remind us of the jaw-dropping capacity film has — in an era without CGI.  In contrast. “Avatar” looks lame.

 I never know where I’m going with silent films.  Their unpredictability transforms me into an open-mouthed viewer, wondrous in a way I rarely experience with films made later.  Was it the Code that made things more predictable, dictating moralistic and uplifting tales?  After seeing “Sunrise,” I think it was the reliance on dialogue at the expense of pure visual experimentation.

There’s nothing more indulgent than going out for the evening to see “Sunrise” in the theater with a live band at a point in the semester when I really should be grading papers and preparing a lecture.  Directed by F. W. Murnau, who’d filmed the Expressionist classics “Nosferatu” (1922) and “Faust” (1926) in Germany before coming to Hollywood, “Sunrise” is pure fable.  The story seems slight, even dull in synopsis form:  The Man (George O’Brien) is having an affair with a glamorous Woman From The City, who urges him to murder his Wife (Janet Gaynor) by taking her out on his boat and drowning her.  After he finds he can’t do it, O’Brien and Gaynor run off to The City where they find themselves falling back in love while partaking of urban wonders — having their photo taken, visiting an amusement park, dancing the “Peasant Dance” to the delight of the spectators.  They become like newlyweds again — childlike, happy like they used to be.

But if it sounds predictable, there’s nothing easy about it:  it’s Freudian, archetypal, essential, surprisingly raw.  Janet Gaynor has the tiniest little face with a helmet of blonde hair pulled back into a bun, like a doll; hulking George O’Brien’s head and hands appear at least three times as big as hers.  Shots of him protecting her or tossing her as if she’s weightless show us his potential brute power over her; yet her purity and her enormous black eyes seem to hold true power over him.  In the end, “Sunrise” is a fable about love and reconciliation the way that Charles Laughton’s “Night of the Hunter” (1955) is fable about childhood terrors and motherly protection.  The film could melt even a cynic’s heart, but it also leaves you feeling as if you’ve had an unexpected and somewhat painful breakthrough in therapy. 

With a couple like this showing up in The City, you anticipate some kind of city mouse/country mouse narrative — decrying the dangers and corruptions of the city and celebrating the country’s simple virtues.  But that’s some other movie.  In fact, they rediscover their love and childlike innocence in the city.  (And who wouldn’t, with that awesome amusement park — let me just say that I want to play a game in which you throw a ball through a hoop and a real little pig comes rolling down a slide.)  As a viewer you find yourself bewildered by all of this — pleasure in Gaynor and O’Brien’s newfound love, confusion about where the story is going, wonder at urban delights — such that you start to feel like a child again yourself, and you find buried in you a deep, dark fear that somehow their happiness might have to be ruined. 

Murnau made great use of camera trickery — from composite shots to double-exposure.  When The Woman From The City seduces O’Brien with tales of the city, the sky above their reclining bodies transforms into shadowy scenes of decadent pleasure.  When he thinks of her later and thinks about murdering his wife, he is grasped by a ghostly version of her, surrounded by images of her face. 

But, then, “trickery” is the wrong word.  This isn’t a film that delights in the camera for the camera’s sake, or that privileges style over substance.  Rather, Murnau’s eery understanding of what made for a good, memorable shot — and his ability to mix action scenes and moving cameras with quiet, magical closeups of Gaynor and O’Brien — demonstrate an unbreakable focus on conveying meanings through images that transcend words.

Magic.  Seeing “Sunrise” took me out of myself, away from the papers and email and PowerPoint slides.  Oh, that we had more chances to see silent films on the big screen, with live accompaniment, with rapt audiences that whoop at the end.  It’s not just that their narratives are unpredictable (though that would be enjoyable enough).  Silent filmmakers created visual images that tapped into one’s psyche, doing far more than the thin storyline purported to accomplish.