The Sunday Intertitle: Eventide

Concluding our short series of silent Italian epics with the mother of them all, CABIRIA.

“It had everything but a plot.” ~ camera assistant Karl Brown’s double-edged review isn’t quite accurate: Gabriele D’Annunzio and Giovanni Pastrone’s script fairly creaks with plot, but it lacks an obvious throughline, since the plight of Cabiria, separated from her rich Roman parents, isn’t the central focus of all the action, and we keep switching to new characters whose importance hasn’t been established. The bit everybody remembers, Cabiria’s rescue by muscleman Maciste from sacrifice to a pagan god, occurs about an hour in and is followed by a whole bunch of new characters appearing and wresting the storyline right off the tracks.

Meanwhile ~ which intertitle do you prefer? I have to deplore the tendency to throw away beautiful old intertitles like the one at top, while adding bland and anachronistic-looking translations. Is subtitling that difficult? The marvelous hand-crafted titles of CABIRIA are part of its overall design. And good design is particularly important here since D’Annunzio’s titles are so damn wordy.

The design also includes things like the spectacular (and uncredited) sets, which inspired Griffith’s INTOLERANCE and its Hollywood Babylon, the special effects by Eugenio Bava (Mario’s dad), including a furiously erupting Mt. Etna, and the gliding camerawork, made possible by Segundo de Chomon’s custom-built dolly, the first of its kind.

The previous Italian super-productions we’ve examined have been both much shorter and much more static, from a camera placement point of view. THE FALL OF TROY provides us with a slow pan, sweeping this way and that to more-or-less follow the action, but Pastrone here attempts something quite new. The purpose of his tracking shots was to explore the sets, which were so big they utterly dwarfed the actors. If you began with an establishing shot, the human figures were practically dots, but a shot framed for the cast would exclude the magnificent backdrops. Pastrone’s goal was to somehow combine an extreme long shot with a more conventional head-to-toe framing (he rarely goes as close as a medium shot).

The effect of the moves is interesting. The settings come alive as three-dimensional constructions (no matte paintings here, just the occasional volcanic miniature) which we can move through, almost like players in a big vidgame. Dramatically, on the other hand, the slow steady drift inwards at the start of almost every scene/shot, and the rhyming drift out at the end, have a slightly flattening effect, making everything seem calm and stately. Even though the plot is three hours of war, torture (much of it censored in most extant copies) and frenetic running around, the mood conjured by Chomon’s steady trundle is one of tranquility.

It was a lesson learned by Griffith, whose chase scenes had often been followed by a car-mounted camera as breathless as the action. Perhaps the Italians didn’t notice that this had the effect of intensifying the mood, since the primary aim was obviously to simply keep the subjects in frame as they motored along. When Griffith made his own ancient world epic, with elephant statues cribbed from Pastrone, he shot Belshazzar’s feast celebrations with two cameras mounted on an elevator, mounted on a track. This prototype of the camera crane allowed him to move in on a single figure amid the cavorting multitude, while dropping from a bird’s eye perspective to one of human level. And the effect has sweep and grandeur, perfectly matched to the emotional mood of the scene.

Nevertheless, CABIRIA was there first, and there’s something interesting and soothing about the way the camera movement reduces the sense of danger that the rest of the film is working to attain. It’s a little like being thrust into CONAN THE BARBARIAN after necking a 10 mg of valium.* And this leads to me to a couple of sweeping generalizations: while American films moved the camera to follow the action and European ones used it to explore space, American films used the emotional power of the movement to emphasize the mood of the scene, while European ones used it to complicate, to add something new. But don’t take that idea too seriously!

*Maciste is at one point tethered to a giant millstone, just like Arnie in the John Milius loincloth extravaganza.

9 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Eventide”

  1. I always wanted to see that. Lana seems like an INSPIRED casting choice for a cheesy epic.

  2. It was a favorite of Frank O’Hara’s.

    Hank Moonjean (who went on to produce such diverse fare as The Great Gatsby and Dangerous Liasons was working as a contract assistant director at Metor back then. One day he was called in for A.D. duty on The Prodigal. Normally he was assigned a specific film (eg. Bwohani Junction) but this time he was called in for a day. It was a seemingly simple scene. Edmund Purdom was lying on a prehistoric divan and lana , in full High Priestess regalia, was hovering over him. Suddenly she sat bolt upright yelled. –“That does it! The Englishman has a hard-on! I’m leaving!” and marched off to her trailer. So the director (Richard Thorpe) turned to Hank and said “Go get her back.” He dutifully went to her trailer, knocked on the door and said “Miss Turner, they want you on the set.” Lana;s replys “TELL THEM TO GO FUCK THEMSELVES!” So Hank wen back and tried again. Same result. “TELL THEM TO GO FUCK THEMSELVES!” Later he found out there was a specified number of “calls” he had to make before the company could lodge a comlaint agains the star. So one last time. The trailer door flies open. Lan is standing there with her tops and headress still on, but instead of gown she’s in her capri pants — half dressed to leave. “Hey,” she says to Hank. “Got any family?” “A sister,” he said. “WELL TELL HER TO GO FUCK HERSELF!!!!”

    Somehow the picture was finished, but happily for Hank he didn’t have to go back for another round with Lana.

  3. I was just looking at that intertitle from Cabiria a few weeks ago – does anyone know where the quote (“the honeycomb has lent..”) originates? I dug around a bit but didn’t have any luck.


  4. No, Google seems powerless to help… it’s just possible that D’Annunzio translated the phrase from English or another language, then it’s been translated back. Or else it was a familiar poetic phrase from some author now fallen out of favour.

  5. David,

    I’ve been doing some research on intertitles for a few years now, and I have some questions for you. If you have a moment, would you mind writing me?


  6. Will do! Don’t know if I can answer them, but I’m up for trying.

  7. […] Bava, cinematographer and visual effects artist of the silent era. Lucas examines the legendary CABIRIA, whose effects are jointly ascribed to Bava Snr. and the great Segundo de Chomon. Chomon usually […]

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