Archive for The Movies Begin

The Sunday Intertitle: Rome Wasn’t Burned in a Day

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on March 28, 2010 by dcairns

NERO; OR, THE FALL OF ROME was a groundbreaking work in its day (1909) –” It’s what I call an epic!” as the lady says in IN A LONELY PLACE. Director Luigi Maggi showered largesse upon his fourteen-minute masterpiece, including producing intertitles in several languages, which is how you can enjoy the movie’s lovely intertitles here in English 101 years later (how time flies!). Incidentally, the Kino copy of this movie on their THE MOVIES BEGIN series is somewhat better preserved than the one I’m taking frame-grabs from here — except it’s missing much of the climactic burning.

We’re in a strange period of film history — most movies are still made in the tableau style, with one big shot per scene, but a few filmmakers are pushing the boat out with interpolated close-ups. Not Maggi! Where he extends the boundaries of film narrative is with his intertitles, which add a layer of sophistication which his gesticulating players cannot attain. But the result is a curiously undramatic form, similar to that in the heavily titled Edison FRANKENSTEIN. Read on…

Maggi’s title cards spell out the basic story beats, which are then enacted by the cast, against a splendid array of multi-perspective backdrops and even an exterior location. This has the effect of making the action of the film a mere addendum to the titles, with the drama a redundant illustration of information we already know. There aren’t many intertitles — the first one tells us that Nero is ditching his wife for Poppea, and then we get three and a half minutes of action showing that this is true. It’s kind of charming, and not like other forms of cinema, but I’m not sure how this innovation could ever be really useful. Trying to find an analogy, I thought of illustrated books, but in a book the sense is carried by the text and the illustrations, perceived by the eye before the text has been devoured, serve as either spoilers or teasers. But Maggi reverses that scheme, with the text as spoiler and the illustration as text.

I’m interested in these Italian epics because they advanced the use of camera movement. Segundo de Chomon, ace innovator, animator and filmmaker, designed the first purpose-built dolly for CABIRIA in 1914, and the Italians used it to explore their gigantic sets. Italian camerawork has arguably been more about exploring screen space than narrative ever since. There’s precisely zero movement in NERO, though. As the films got bigger, the need for the camera to move grew greater. Let’s follow this trend through history over the next few weeks…

Despite featuring no interesting performers, or at any rate no performers who are allowed to register as interesting, and a plot that unfolds in strange spurts of verbiage separated by long passages of unnecessary enactment, NERO is quite entertaining, especially his obscure vision of… what? Hell? The Romans didn’t really have a Hell where the guilty are punished, so I’m not too sure what’s going on here. Maybe that’s Maggi’s greatest, most perverse accomplishment — making a film where everything is explained but major plot points remain quite opaque.

Next week: THE FALL OF TROY!

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