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.

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I’m not going to recommend that anyone hunt down “Diary of a Lost Girl” (“Tagebuch einer Verlorenen”), the 1929 German silent shot by G. W. Pabst.  It’s preposterous soap — an innocent middle-class girl is raped by her father’s employee, bears a child and is kicked out of the house, enters a reformatory headed by a sadistic nun and a Lurch-like assistant who specializes in grabbing the lost girls by their necks.  She becomes a prostitute, marries a count, inherits all her father’s money after all, gives it all away to her evil stepmother … and so on; it’s like “The Perils of Pauline,” except she gets to have a teeny bit of agency in the end.  (The film is, however, available on YouTube for those of us cut off from Netflix.)  But it has Louise Brooks in it.  After stumbling across a library book full of beautiful stills of her, I knew I had to finally see one of her films.

The hair was absolutely brilliant — but everyone talks about that, so let’s focus on her eyes.  No one could use that scowl — a scowl that just hinted at a cry for help — better than Brooks.  She used heavy eyeliner to make them appear even bigger and wider than they already were; no wonder Liza Minnelli lifted a bit of this look for “Cabaret” in the 70s.  Unlike Minnelli, Brooks liked to hide her smile from us most of the time (“Diary of a Lost Girl” doesn’t give her much happiness), but when she did flash it, you see the most beautiful white, straight teeth and wide smile, none of which could be expected in the 20s, even for Hollywood.  I’m not sure whether her eyebrows were really so straight and far apart or if she plucked them to enhance her slightly helpless little-girl visage; either way, they were effective.  The fact that she keeps her smile from us so frequently makes us want her more.

She also had a knack for underplaying her roles, making her stand in sharp contrast to the other screen vamps of the 20s so effectively satirized by Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.”  (“I am big.  It’s the pictures that got small.”)  That naturalism suited Pabst, who was part of the New Objectivity movement to alert the public to the social ills surrounding them.  But while it’s hard to take seriously Pabst’s silly script at this remove, what does come through is that Brooks was working against his social consciousness when she displayed her gradual descent into sexual excess.  The campy melodrama actually seems to enhance our enjoyment of her sexual appeal, none of which she hid.  She held nothing back when she danced; she let her male escort know perfectly well she might be available for something more.  In fact, she apparently cultivated a reputation for a stunningly open sexuality, having numerous affairs with both men and women throughout her life.

She was in Germany because she also had a tendency to burn all her bridges.  Affairs, marriages, and film contracts invariably ended when Brooks ran out on them.  But you can see why they chased her.  Even now, there’s a Louise Brooks Society that keeps a terrific blog and posts surprisingly regular updates about screenings, memorabilia for sale, and other background info about her.    

One of the best scenes in “Diary of a Lost Girl” comes in the middle of the film, when she’s taken in by a kindly madam and her houseful of prostitutes.  Here they dress her in a beautiful new dress; later, in equally hypnotic images, she dances with men and drinks a little too much champagne.  This is a small clip from it.  In the meantime, I’ll recommend that all of you with proper movie rental capability get the Pabst-made classic, “Pandora’s Box” — clips from that film show many more of the same kinds of scenes of her dancing, reclining on fainting sofas, wearing revealing dresses, and seducing the hell out of all of us.

 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.

“Decasia”

10 April 2010

I got my love of film from one of my very odd great-uncles, a lovely man who always regretted the switch to talkies in the 30s.  “They just stood around all the time,” he said, contrasting them with the great action and adventure of the silent era.  Thus, it was a terrible thing during World War II when the only job he could get was in a factory, destroying reels of silent films to extract the silver nitrate for use in the war effort. 

Film scholars guess-stimate that 83% of films from the silent era have been lost forever — and it wasn’t just during the war that old silents were destroyed.  Many companies saw film as so transient that it could be jettisoned after it had left the theaters.  At one point, companies like Paramount and Universal dumped archives of films into the Pacific or blew up old reels for special effects on their sets.  Some of the flammable stock simply exploded on its own; or the celluloid has degraded so much that it’s hard to see what’s going on in the original scene.

That’s what makes Bill Morrison’s “Decasia: A Symphony in Decay” (2002) all the more eloquent.  He took reels of partially-degraded silent film stock and reproduced it in slow motion, tying together loosely-related scenes and backing it with a sometimes-dissonant score.  A boxer appears on one half of the image, throwing punches at what now seems to be an evolving extraterrestrial blob.  Scenes at an amusement park show a monstrous chaos that belches out the cars on a roller coaster.  Whirling dervishes twirl with their eyes closed and, to enhance our understanding of their religious transcendence, the men flash back and forth from positive to negative.  It’s utterly transfixing.

This is so worth watching.  You start out trying to see through the decay to the story onscreen; eventually you start watching the decay itself.  It tells us something larger than a story about film and loss: you can’t help but imagine new narratives emerging from it.  Take a look at a clip, at least.