Intertitle of the Week: “What’s this?”

My last post of Shadowplay Year One!

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Comic redundancy in Abel Gance’s AU SECOURS! (HELP!), starring comedy immortal Max Linder.

Here, in a shot borrowed from a Griffith gangster melodrama, a street Apache lurks in wait for the unsuspecting Max, who’s on his way to the club. Cut to:

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This shot milks the audience for poignancy/dramatic irony, since we can see both the lurking threat and the approaching victim, who’s all unawares. Classic split-composition suspense. But, spotting something on the ground, Max stops in the nick of.

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Amusingly, the shadow of the arm with the knife rises and falls like a clockwork automaton at a seaside show (I’ve never been to a seaside show with clockwork automata and you probably haven’t either, but just think of Lindsay Anderson’s O DREAMLAND). The artificiality of the gesture calls attention to the melodramatic tradition that’s being mocked here.

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In the best Hitchcock manner, though Hitch has barely started his career, Gance goes to a closer shot of Max’s reaction, which adds context both to the POV shot, and also to the upcoming intertitle. Mainly, of course, it allows us to observe Max’s reaction, which is concerned, yet still suave.

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The zinger. I’m pretty sure the filmmakers’ are aware of how fatuous it is to spell out the situation like this, and that’s the joke. It certainly works. Looking at some of Gance’s talkies, it’s possible to wonder if he’s in on the joke, but the visual sophistication of his silent work speaks for itself (although he did pioneer incoherently fast cutting, so he has a lot to answer for — but the snowball-fight in NAPOLEON is still vastly preferably to Michael Bay’s TRANSFORMERS, let’s face it).

Asides from lots of lovely moments like this, AU SECOURS! features ghosts, sauciness, wit, daring, ’20s melodramatic stylings, experimental camera techniques, surrealism, slapstick, and amazing work from the man Linder, who goes from dapper man-about-town to sobbing wreck in a manner that’s actually TOO convincing for comedy. The film isn’t hysterically funny, or at least its effects aren’t unified in purpose the way they might be in a Keaton… a lot of the biggest laughs stem from the sheer weirdness and inappropriateness of the imagery, which has the quality of nightmare at all times — moments like the one above contribute greatly, by giving the thing an amateur-dramatics stiltedness which closely approximates the dream-state: see CARNIVAL OF SOULS for more examples of this effect.

Part One:

To Be Continued…

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4 Responses to “Intertitle of the Week: “What’s this?””

  1. I’ve watched the first two segments on YouTube. Must say, I’m impressed. While not truly funny, as you say, there’s a definite charm to it all. Some nice set design, and some striking visual effects. Good stuff.

  2. I found to my surprise that when I show it to a bunch of students it gets pretty big laughs. Partly because it keeps doing unexpected things, and partly because they want to fill the silence, but the rest is down to Linder’s great skill as performer.

  3. It’s interesting that even at this early stage in cinema history the “spend a night in a haunted house and win a bet” story was ripe for parody. The strangest thing is the over-explanatory, defiantly realist ending, which almost seems embarrassed by the excesses of the earlier scenes. Linder’s demented grief when he believes his wife is about to be killed is very, very disturbing, especially in context… I can see how the disjointed strangeness of it could work well with a young audience used to post-modernist highjinks…

  4. Yeah, when an audience is up for novelty and surprise this film is a great success because it’s ALL WRONG. More conservative viewers can just about handle it, because there’s a wrap-up, and good comedy playing, and so on, but it’s a much better experience if you like things that are skewed and unsettling as well as pleasurable.

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