October 15, 2013
For eleven years the Museum of Modern Art has been hosting “To Save and Project”, their international festival of film preservation, highlighting the major archival discoveries and restorations from the past year. An annual reminder of the vital work being done by preservationists the world over, it acts as a preview of the repertory year to come, presenting classic Hollywood titles hopefully headed for Blu-ray (Nightmare Alley) to epics from international auteurs receiving belated stateside attention (Lav Diaz’s Batang West Side). With nearly all of the 75-plus titles being screened on film, it’s also a polemical statement that celluloid remains the most stable and reliable format for preservation.Star
Take for example, Stark Love (’27), a Smoky Mountain docu-drama filmed with non-professionals that was thought lost until the export version was discovered in the Czech Film Archives in 1968. Rarely screened since, this favorite of James Agee approaches North Carolina mountain folk with an artful anthropological eye, displaying the influence of Robert Flaherty. As in Nanook of the North, director Karl Brown aimed for staged recreations of their daily lives, although Stark Love is far more melodramatic than its model. His representation of Smokey Mountain life is paternalistic and not without its exploitative aspects , as their “law of the wilderness” , the inter-titles say, “is expressed in the cruel principle MAN IS THE ABSOLUTE RULER – WOMAN IS THE WORKING SLAVE.”
Brown started out as a cameraman for D.W. Griffith, and Way Down East seems to hold particular sway over the plot, in its tale of an abused young country girl given hope of a new life from an educated young man. In Stark Love Rob Warwick (Forrest James) is the resident nerd, whose reading on chivalry makes him think his community’s attitudes towards women is all wrong. He begins courting Barbara (Helen Munday, a 16-year-old Tennessean discovered in a cafe), but after Rob’s mother dies his father decides to take Barbara as his wife. The two young lovers revolt.
The casting, though advertised as authentically Smokey Mountain, came from all over the South. Forrest was a football player in Knoxville, Barbara a high school student in the same city. Brown was heavily influenced by Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, which recounts his years living among the people of the Hazel Creek region of the Great Smoky Mountains. His images are intensely romantic, using long shots with low horizon lines, the people like underbrush against the grandeur of these landscapes. These are alternated with huge Griffithian close-ups of wrinkled faces, work etched into their brows, ready to be returned to the earth.
It should be noted that the surviving print is the export version, which often used variant, lesser takes. On the NitrateVille message board, film historian David Shephard recalls screening this print for Karl Brown after its discovery, with him dismissing it as “a very poor representation” of what was released domestically. The domestic version will likely never be seen, but even this export print has compositions of breathtaking beauty. One can draw a line from Flaherty and Stark Love straight through to Lisandro Alonso’s influential life of a logger La Libertad (2001, also screening in the festival) and the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab (Leviathan, Sweetgrass, Manakamana), which value the visual and tactile rendering of reality over the verbal recounting of facts.
John Brahm’s Hangover Square (1945) is also an intensely physical film, thanks to the lumberingly sensitive lead performance by Laird Cregar. It is a film noir about the unknowability of the self and the anxiety of creation. Cregar plays young composer George Harvey Bone, who enters a fugue state after hearing a particular tone in turn-of-the-century London. He loses hours at a time, with no memories of his actions. He is finishing a concerto (a grandiloquent, haunting piece composed by Bernard Herrmann) but is pricked by fears he might be a somnambulist murderer in the Caligari vein. Although he is not directed by a mad scientist, but his own subconscious.
Cregar had urged 20th Century Fox to purchase the rights to Patrick Hamilton’s novel, but screenwriter Barre Lyndon altered so much of the story that Cregar initially refused to appear in it. Hamilton’s protagonist was a wannabe golf pro in 1939 London – shifting the job and time frame removes much of the wartime allegory. But the studio suspended Cregar until he relented to appear in it. The changes were demanded by Darryl Zanuck, likely wishing to avoid any political blowback, but also because it allowed them to re-use the sets from The Lodger, which Brahm had just finished shooting.
This was to be Cregar’s first starring role, and his final performance. His weight was a source of agony to the actor, who had instilled a severe diet to get down to leading man weight. He died of a heart attack following abdominal surgery in December 1944, at the age of 31, one month after shooting on Hangover Square had wrapped. Our own Greg Ferrara wrote more about Cregar’s tragically short career back in July.
A visually extravagant film, Brahm uses every inch of his studio London, craning up and into dingy apartment pads and symphony halls. The fugue state is signaled by woozy POV shots, the lens smeared with vaseline. Cregar, with baby fat still padding his imposing frame, waddles through the film like a wide-eyed infant, too innocent and pure to survive in a mercenary world – embodied by gold-digging dancehall girl Netta (Linda Darnell). It’s all too much for his soul to handle, and the film ends in one of the grandest self-destructive acts in the noir canon, banging out the last chords to his composition as the music hall burns. The camera pulls up and away, as if afraid to look such abject depression in the face.