Archive for October 24, 2021

The Sunday Intertitle: Faust Person Singular

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Theatre with tags , , , , on October 24, 2021 by dcairns

Having enjoyed Enrico Guazzoni’s quirky UNA TRAGEDIA AL CINEMATOGRAFO of 1913, I decided to check out some of his epic or quasi-epic work. FAUST is from 1910, a year when epics ran short and small to modern eyes: Goethe’s play, credited as the source, is compressed into eighteen minutes here.

Time, that interfering studio executive, has wrought its adjustments to Enrico’s work, adding a weird cyclone of whirling white and black scratches or streaks, roving over the action and occasionally obscuring it completely. Fortunately we can still see the backdrops and costumes — Mephistopheles sports not so much horns as insectoid antennae, and has great fun swirling his cape like a serpentine dancer — and the performances which are certainly vigorous. These, after all, are not just early silent film performers, but Italians. However, they don’t perform their ebullient mimes outward, at us, Keystone-fashion, but at each other. I approve.

Guazzoni uses the story as an excuse for stage-magic puffs of smoke and jump-cuts in the Melies fashion, but his most interesting effect is when, as stated in the above intertitle, “Mephisto shows Faust an image of Marguerite in a magic mirror.” To accomplish this, Guazzoni alternates between two shots:

First, a wide shot of the scene, a cave. Mephisto holds up the magic mirror, which currently reflects nothing but bright light.

Then E.G. cuts to another shot, closer but still pretty wide, with different (dimmer) lighting, and now we can see Marguerite (cast details are sketchy but this may well be Fernanda Negri Pouget) genuinely reflected in the mirror. Once she’s made her impact, we cut back to the earlier angle and she’s gone.

It feels like getting her to appear and disappear in one shot was too difficult, so the director resorted to an unconventional angle change. The interpolation of closeups was barely established as part of film language (Griffith would get into it a year later), so he uses a rather spacious wide, which cuts jarringly with the shots either side of it, especially since the image gets markedly darker too. It feels like we’ve been transported to a whole other cave, though it’s probably the same backdrop from an angle to the right of the original.

But none of the clunkiness matters because it doesn’t feel exactly like an attempt at continuity cutting — it is, after all, a piece of magic Mephistopheles is performing here.

Guazzoni gets up to some other neat business — soon, the painted scenery gives way to real locations, allowing the actors to move from silhouette in an archway to brightly lit in the sun. The transitions from studio to reality are pretty smooth, in part because the sets aren’t always just flats and furniture, but sometimes have real chunky architectural heft to them. It’s actually hard to be sure sometimes if the action is outdoors, or indoors-pretending.

The French intertitles are still spoiler-heavy: the idea that it might be more dramatic to set up, say, the duel with Marguerite’s brother, via title card, but let the outcome be a surprise revealed by the action itself, has not occurred to anyone, or at least not anyone who got listened to. But there might even be a reluctance to shock the audience that way, a feeling they might need a bit of a warning of the impending death. Contains mild peril.

The image of the brother lying prone outside his house resonates peculiarly with me since I just collapsed in my own back yard while taking Momo out for his daily walk. It looked just like this. Low blood sugar seems to be the cause rather than anything more serious, an indication, however unpleasant, that my attempts to reverse my diabetes with a low-carb diet may be succeeding only too well.

Drink plenty of water. I don’t know if that advice would have helped Dr. Faustus, but what the hell, it couldn’t hurt.