Archive for March 8, 2009

Intertitle of the Week: Death of the Intertitle

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2009 by dcairns

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The silent movie foresees its own end — from A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR. I watched this again because I wanted to compare the silent Hitchcocks I’ve been screening with a state-of-the-art British silent movie by other hands, to assess Hitchcock’s artistry in comparison with something else.

Anthony Asquith’s film certainly beats all of Hitch’s silents into a (Hitch)cocked hat — but then, it’s possibly the supreme masterpiece of British silent cinema, and better than most films from most places at most times. To enumerate just a few of its virtues will take a while —

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It’s simpler in story terms than Hitchcock’s films, but the simplicity pays off. Asquith knows exactly who his main character is, and how to maintain sympathy for him through some fairly disastrous personal choices. The melodrama is beautifully integrated into the story and style of the film. The movie combines naturalistic settings (although the titular cottage appears as a model shot at one point) with expressionistic framing, striking a thrilling balance between artifice and stark conviction.

The German influence is clearly massive — this is Dartmoor as Caspar David Friedrich might have painted it. Perhaps, as Kevin Brownlow has argued, everything valuable in British silent film of the ’20s derived from Germany, but I don’t see this as a cause for shame — we stole from the best. Perhaps if we’d stolen from France, our apparently in-built obsession with realism could have been expressed more, but I’m glad we kept things Teutonic. Actually, when Asquith’s characters do go to the cinema, things get quite French, with an accelerating montage of orchestra (the first film screened is a silent) and audience that builds to a Gance-like frenzy of inter-cutting. (Elsewhere in British cinema, Hitchcock was being influenced by the Russian montage school, which he sought to combine with German expressionist effects.)

The cinema scene is a brilliant, gratuitous set-piece, designed so that Asquith can compare talking and silent films, somewhat to the detriment of the former, without directly showing what the audience is watching — the talkie is evoked purely by the idleness of the band, who start smoking and playing cards. While Asquith allows the talkie to score a few points — some of the punters are held rapt in the flickering half-light, it’s the silent film which produces laughter and elation. Meanwhile, the stalker hero gazes at his love and her beau, and a paroxysm of inter-cutting whips all the flying emotion up into a stroboscopic explosion.

Asquith’s cast is terrific, with Uno Henning, fresh from Pabst’s LOVE OF JEANNE NEY, at times reminiscent of Buster Keaton on his minimalist expressions of despair or awkwardness. Norah Baring, as the object of his affection, is a unique and quirky screen presence, far more appealing in her slightly gawky oddness than some glamourpuss would be. I’m looking forward to seeing Baring in Hitchcock’s MURDER!, made the following year, although I’m a little wary in case her voice disappoints me.

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Without getting into the sticky grounds of symbolism, we can say that Asquith packs a lot in to his images — tree branches spread out like black fractures in the sky, sometimes spreading from a dark human smudge, as if this were the source of the damage. And it would be tempting to put some kind of queer interpretation on the unrequited love plot (which sees the hero packed off to prison), given Asquith’s rumoured predilections — my friend Lawrie told me “Puffin” would moonlight in greasty spoon transport cafes to pick up truckers, and persistent rumours identify the director (and prime minister’s son) as the notorious “man in the mask”, attending the sex parties exposed by the Profumoaffair in the ’60s, wandering around shoving his meat ‘n’ two veg into a jar containing an angry wasp. Whatever, I guess — although when masochism reaches such levels, I do wonder, “Wouldn’t you be happier if you didn’t have to do that?”

(Irrelevant movie connection: Profumo, the Tory politician ruined by the scandal, was married to the fragrant Valerie Hobson, of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and GREAT EXPECTATIONS fame. When the story broke, she did what Tory wives do, and stood by her man.)

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But most of all, A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR makes one want to fall guilty to the lowest of critical misdemeanours and simply assert its brilliance. If by doing so I tempt others to watch it, perhaps my crime will have mitigating circumstances.

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