March 31, 2015


Pity the poor DVD. Its death has been foretold for years, yet it soldiers on, providing pleasure for those not yet hooked into the HD-everything ecosystem. DVD sales have declined overall, but it remains the lifeblood of boutique distributors like Flicker Alley. Makers of luxe box sets of Chaplin’s  Mutual comedies, Mack Sennett shorts and Cinerama travelogues, Flicker Alley is trying to get the good stuff out there. They’re  our kind of people. But the shift to higher resolutions abandons films that have never had expensive HD transfers, making them cost-prohibitive for Blu-ray. This is the case for a huge number of silent films now out-of-print on DVD. In an admirable effort to get classics out on disc, in good transfers superior to the muddy messes on YouTube, Flicker Alley has partnered with the Blackhawk Films library to release nineteen classics (mostly silents) on manufactured-on-demand DVD – the same route the Warner Archive has gone to plunder their deep library. They plan to add two new MOD titles every month. Flicker Alley doesn’t have the deep pockets of WB to back them, but with the help of a modest crowdfunding campaign were able to get the program off the ground. From their initial slate I sampled D.W. Griffith’s tale of plainspoken rural heartbreak True Heart Susie (1919) and Ernst Lubitsch’s sophisticated urban bed-hopping roundelay The Marriage Circle (1924).


This past December Flicker Alley began an IndieGogo campaign to raise $5,000 for their MOD program, ending up with $7,510. In their initial push, they explained the reasons behind their turn to on-demand DVD: “The unfortunate reality of our current home-video market…necessitates a high initial investment for the mass production of each individual title. These upfront costs mean that Flicker Alley can only afford to mass produce a limited selection of films each year. Meanwhile, more and more previously-published gems of cinema history are currently unavailable.” Take a film like Griffith’s True Heart Susie. It has been released on DVD before, but is now out-of-print. With its market already diminished,along with the fact it’s a lesser known Griffith title,  it would be difficult to release at the minimum numbers required for regular manufacturing of authored discs. But it deserves to be available, for it contains a Lillian Gish performance of sublime tension. She is an innocent country girl playing at being an innocent country girl, believing it to be the clearest path to a stable, comfortable life. But when she notices her presumed fiance eyeing a worldly perfumed woman from Chicago, you can see her crumble and reconstruct herself before your eyes, under the impassive close-ups lensed by DP Billy Bitzer.


It is a performance of impeccable control, the supreme model for what Griffith was attempting when he said, “I am trying to develop realism in pictures by teaching the value of deliberation and repose.” As James Naremore wrote in Acting in the Cinema, Gish employs “a variety of acting styles, creating a complex emotional tone within Griffith’s otherwise simple story. Thus, although Susie may be a ‘true heart’, her identity…is created out of disparate, sometimes contradictory, moments, all held together by a name, a narrative, and a gift for mimicry.” Naremore uses one reaction shot as an example, occurring in the blink of an eye in an early schoolroom scene. There is a spelling bee, and Susie and her boyfriend William (Robert Harron) are competing. Susie looks girlish and oblivious, her head cocked to her right, mouth pursed open in a pose of oblivious boredom (i.e. cute). Then William is asked to spell “Anonymous”, and struggles. In a shot-reverse shot from the teacher back to Susie and William, her expression changes radically. Now her head is held straight, her lips pursed thin, and eyes cocked skeptically at William. In another cut that knowing, condescending gaze is again replaced by cutesy posing. But it is a tell. Susie is constructing herself according to William’s concept of womanhood, letting the mask slip only when he’s otherwise occupied. Tom Gunning has described Gish’s “soliloquy of facial expressions” in moments of disappointment – when William turns out to be less than she had hoped, and when her sturdily built concept of femininity (plainness > perfumed; country > city) is challenged from within and without. Griffith and Bitzer were credited with popularizing the close-up, but it would have been forgotten if not for the gradations of feeling that Lillian Gish could convey with the flutter of an eyelid.


“My desire was to create a story that would reflect life as it is lived by thousands of married couples — just everyday people you meet all around us.” Though it still sounds like him, you are no longer in Griffith country, but with the cosmopolitan Ernst Lubitsch as he discusses The Marriage Circle, his hit comedy from 1924, the second film made in Hollywood. Lubitsch’s conception of “everyday people” differs just a tad from Griffith’s. Instead of rural farm life we get bankers and doctors and their garden parties. Though he operates in a different class milieu, Lubitsch was after similar things as Griffith – he wanted to slow things down and emphasize the presence of his actors. It’s instructive to compare the rather stately pace of The Marriage Circle to the manic machinations of his Berlin comedies like The Doll or The Oyster Princess. Scott Eyman wrote that, “Before, the audience could only see Lubitsch’s characters move; beginning with The Marriage Circle, we can see them think.”


In December of 1923 Ernst Lubitsch viewed Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris and detected something new. He said it was, “a great step forward…It did not, like many plays I see, insult my intelligence. So often in pictures one is not allowed to think by the director. But — ah! — in  A Woman of Paris we had a picture that, as you Americans say, left something to the imagination.” The major action in The Marriage Circle occurs behind closed doors, under the sheets, and between the ears of the characters. It is a minuet of marital dysfunction following two couples: the already miserable Josef Stock (Adolphe Menjou) and his wandering eyed wife Mizzi (Marie Prevost), and the initially lovey-dovey duo of Dr. Franz Braun (Monte Blue) and his devoted spouse Charlotte (Florence Vidor). Their situations are sketched in shorthand by the objects that surround them. One of the first shots is a close-up of the hole in Josef’s sock, his big toe wriggling free. One of the next is an empty drawer filled with collars but no shirts. Nothing quite fits together in the Stock household, a mishmash of parts they bitterly try to match together. The Braun home is one of harmony, with Charlotte playing Grieg’s “I Love You, Dear” on the piano while each spouse’s wardrobe is elegantly, meticulously arranged. Then there is a chance meeting of Mizzi and Franz in a hansom cab, and both couples are enmeshed in a circle of affairs, pseudo-affairs and jealousies that unravel both marriage bonds for good.

The model for every Lubitsch comedy to come after, emotions give themselves away despite the characters’ best efforts to conceal them. There are masquerades, impostors, and impossible coincidences. The world conspires against the Braun’s love – until it doesn’t. Their affection is charged through gestures and objects – in the destiny of a straw hat, the impulsive arrangement of a seating chart, and the refusal to believe in a stolen kiss. Their love is a beautiful delusion, so the Brauns choose to believe what they must to keep it going – and they will be the happier for it.

BEST OF THE DECADE: 1900 – 1910

December 8, 2009


The decade is almost at a close, and a deluge of film lists has started the conversation about who were the vital movie artists over the past ten years. All of them are worth scrolling through to stoke some self-righteous anger or gratifying head nods, but before I pull together my chin-scratcher about the end of the oughts, I thought I’d take a look back at the first decade of the previous century. This is the period where cinematic language was transitioning between what Tom Gunning famously termed the “cinema of attractions”, which favored spectacle over story, and the emotionally motivated narratives of D.W. Griffith.  Consider this list a  work-in-progress, a wish for more suggestions and thoughts on this wondrous period, when the future of the art was up for grabs. I ended up with twelve films of varying lengths and complexity, but all of them are valuable not just for their place in history, but their vibrancy as moving images. These are unranked, in chronological order.


How It Feels To Be Run Over (1900, Directed By Cecil M. Hepworth)

A forty second joke based on an experiment in point-of-view and audience expectations. The camera is set at a low angle on a country road, and when the first horse-and-buggy turns the corner, one expects it to crash right into us, since we’ve been cued by the title to take the POV of the camera. But no, Hepworth, with a dry sense of humor, has it drive right by for a simple actualité, something not out of place in a Lumiere retro. Soon, though, another carriage comes hurtling towards the lens, and this time it doesn’t stop, busting straight over the camera (and us), before one of the earliest uses of intertitles flashes on-screen over our blackout: !!! Oh Mother Will be Pleased.” And it’s the end.

With its misdirection, canny use of the camera as audience surrogate, and slapstick sense of humor, it’s a compact little masterpiece.


What Happened on 23rd St. New York City (1901, Edwin S. Porter and George S. Fleming)

Another documentary scene that then explodes into fiction. On 23rd St. near the Flatiron Building, New Yorkers pass by the camera and look in sheepishly, or glance quickly and then scamper away. It again has the feel of an early Lumiere brothers picture. But Porter, the pioneer of narrative filmmaking, couldn’t help but slip in a little slip of a story: thus, the dangers of the air shaft are proven underneath the billowing waves of a young woman’s skirt. Yes, she steps over the shaft and shamefacedly shows the world her abundant undergarments. A direct ancestor to Marilyn Monroe’s scene in The Seven Year Itch:


Jack and the Beanstalk (1902, Edwin S. Porter & George S. Fleming)

Another early triumph from Porter, this lucid re-telling of the fable displays adept use of double-exposures and theatricalized space while maintaining continuity from shot to shot, in one of the earliest instances of sustained storytelling. But the joys here are beyond such historical accomplishments. There is real unpolished magic in the hop-skipping cloth cow, whose exuberant jig tips over a prop rake before he’s sold down the river. There’s a delight in performance here that’s impossible to resist . Then there’s the set design, which goes from cardboard cut-outs to densely layered fantasy in the final shot, a child’s paradise of sailboats, pinwheels, and dense (plastic) jungle undergrowth.


A Trip to the Moon (1902, Georges Melies)

No more words need be spilled on this immortal work of film magic, just watch and awe at the moon’s grimacing face. There is no cinema without Melies.


The Great Train Robbery (1903, Edwin S. Porter)

Essential to view with the proper tinting and coloring, but even in sub-par YouTube versions, it’s essential. My favorite scene is in the dance-hall, where a group of locals whoop it up, even employing a revolver or two to goose things along. It has the ritual feel of the dance sequences in John Ford’s work.


The Georgetown Loop (1903, American Mutoscope and Biograph)

Ladies and gents wave their hankies at the camera as a train wends its way through Colorado. Absolutely hypnotic, for the undulating lines of the camera, which piggyback on one of the first “tracking shots”. The passengers are brazenly, confrontationally happy, thrilled with the advances of technology and the nearness of their hankies, which they wave out of the window with reckless abandon. The patterns these fluttering white blobs create is often breathtaking.


Coney Island at Night (1905, Porter)

Sensing a theme here? Porter rather owned this decade. This is one of the documentary subjects he churned out, but it also just happened to be uncannily beautiful. Tracing the arcs of the lights in Coney Island in pitch-blackness, the camera slowly pans around the flow of electricity. A serene, melancholy oddity of devastating effectiveness. It presents Coney Island in an abstracted, incredibly pure state: just a blast of illumination to bring us all back to our childhoods: pure dreamland.


The Consequences of Feminism (1909, Alice Guy)

A raucously funny comedy of the sexes, in which gender roles are reversed and the woman walk around with machismo sweating out of their pores. They drop their kids off with their husbands before heading the gentlewomen’s club to talk stocks with their tight knit pals. The ending reverses field, restoring the role of man and undercutting Guy’s social commentary, but the sheer joy in which she depicted these super-virile women gives her true motives away.


Le Printemps (1909, Louis Feuillade)

An oddity from the king of serialized conspiracies and violence, this is a cutesy short symbolizing the coming of spring in a variety of forms: from woodland sprites to cherubs to plain ruddy-faced angels. Shot with an oval masking so the film’s frame looks like a lover’s pendant, it contains stunning nature photography, verdant and shot through with dew.


Princess Nicotine, or the Smoke Fairy (1909, J. Stuart Blackton)

Totally bonkers, this  short finds a belligerent smoker conversing with the fairies living in his tobacco stash. One ducks under the cigar box, the other in his pipe. With ingenious use of gigantic props to convey the size difference, along with a mastery of special effects (double-exposures, split-screens, etc.), it’s  perhaps the first film to show the dangers of smoking – or at least the dangers of fighting with tobacco-nymphs.


Those Awful Hats (1909, D.W. Griffith)

A timeless subject – the evils of elaborate hats worn at cinemas – is turned into a delightfully surreal short by D.W. Griffith. A parade of flowery-hatted women enter a rather ratty theater, when the patrons get jumpy at their blocked view. It’s not until a jaws-of-life type deus-ex-machina disposes of the offending headwear that things start getting weird.


A Corner in Wheat (1909, Griffith)

A masterclass in parallel editing, as Griffith compares the plight of the poor wheat farmers as compared to the capitalist wheat king, whose stock speculations have sent his net worth soaring. With sterling cinematography from Billy Bitzer of the hard bitten life relentlessly cut with debauched parties with wide-eyed bozos, from breadlines to cocktail lines, it’s no surprise this finely tuned cinematic machine springs a trap for the spiritually poor Wheat King. A beautiful and devastating piece of work – and achieving a level of suspense far beyond Porter’s more linear technique.