I guess D.W. Griffith wasn’t to know that 1936 would be his last chance for a comeback, but young John Brahm certainly seized his chance at a debut. What Emlyn Williams (above) thought he was doing was anybody’s guess. Over at The Forgotten.
Archive for the MUSIC Category
I got the job of writing about Mikhael Kalatazov’s SALT FOR SVANETIA for the program notes they hand out at the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema — someone else had dropped out so I stepped rapidly into the breach and thrashed out the following blurbage ~
Soviet filmmaker Mikhail Kalatazov’s modus operandi was to show the problems of life, whether it be the chaos of war (The Nail in the Boot, 1931) or the debauchery of capitalism (I Am Cuba, 1964). It’s an approach which, in the era of Stalinism, got him accused of “negativism” and demoted to a desk job for years. His career is full of lengthy gaps, and showcases a slow evolution from the montage style to a long-take approach which saw his camera gliding up and down walls, across rooftops and rooms, and diving into swimming pools in impossibly unbroken, dreamlike voyages. His final film was The Red Tent (1973), a Soviet-Italian co-production with an international star cast led by Sean Connery. Throughout this remarkable career, Kalatazov blended documentary and drama in striking and sometimes questionable ways…
Early documentary was a very different animal from what we see today. Modern factual films are often driven by strong stories and characters, explored through genuine verité footage. In the silent days, the difficulties of gathering real material with cumbersome equipment and slow film stock frequently led filmmakers to stage their action especially for the camera, and what distinguished the films from fiction work was often a rejection of traditional narratives and central characters. The films are more constructed than captured, more sociological than narrative.
This is the case with Kalatazov’s majestic Salt for Svanetia (1930), made when cinema in the west had already converted to sound, but when Russian movies, still silent, had reached an incredible height of sophistication via the exploration of editing spearheaded by Eisenstein and his contemporaries. Kalatazov travelled to an incredibly isolated region of Georgia to film the lives of the peasants, and to make a propagandistic argument in favour of the progress brought by Bolshevism.
The power of this film lies not so much in the points it wants to score off primitive religion, though much of this material is strong, even grisly, but in its stunning visuals, including scenery you can’t quite believe is real. Stone towers jut like splinted digits from fields curving impossibly up into the imprisoning mountains; Kalatazov’s use of gauzy blurring at the frame’s edge makes the countryside seem like a tiny tabletop model, too small to get completely in focus. The contrast between what we know we’re looking at, and what it looks like, makes the mind reel. We can forgive the movie its artifice, since it seems to be bringing us glimpses of a whole other world, as alien as anything in Interstellar.
Smacking into the scenic tableaux are Kalatazov’s pin-sharp close-ups of weathered locals, which create gigantic landscapes out of creased faces, leathery hands, jagged teeth. A scalp with scissored tonsure looks like a hill tiered with paddy fields. In his attempts to present the life of the Svanetians in as brutal a manner as possible, Kalatazov serves up infant death and bizarre superstition. The slaughter of a bull and the running to death of a horse are also included in graphic detail.
As in so much Russian cinema, the shots are one thing (one incredibly thing), but the ideas are fired at us via dynamic inter-cutting. Robert Graves said that poetry results when you put one idea together with another and get, not a third idea, but a star. Kalatazov’s bold conjoining of images varies between the purely, crassly didactic, an ad-man’s version of Soviet communism (but so forceful it impresses even if it sometimes repels), and a more abstract poetry, created via percussive juxtapositions: as a workman swings his pick into the dirt, dynamite blasts the earth apart. Repeat, and repeat, until a relentless vision of an implacable landscape redrawn by technology and labour is vividly projected into the viewer’s mind.
The event came of brilliantly, with a score by Moishe’s Bagel which correctly broke the film up into musical movements, clarifying its structure and building things to a right old climax. Thanks to Ali Strauss for the gig.
From the Bo’ness Hippodrome ~
Dirty Shirt McNasty is a deceased gangster mentioned in the Colleen Moore vehicle SYNTHETIC SIN, and the mere mention of his name in an intertitle reduced Fiona to minutes of pulsating hysteria. Based on this evidence, I should say that Mr. McNasty is the greatest offstage character ever, shoving Godot back with the shipping news.
SYNTHETIC SIN was a soundie I think, released in 1929. 30-year-old Colleen plays a stage-struck teenager quite convincingly — and hilariously. I’d seen her in less typical fair, as cockney waifs and WWI French maidens, so to finally catch her in jazz age flapperdom was a revelation. It’s a very intertitle-heavy silent, as if Warners were already ulcerating to be making all-talking, snappy, spicy pre-codes. The gangster content that comes roaring in at the midway point is another pointer to things to come. Director William Seiter would helm numerous minor comedies of this kind in the thirties.
The tone roves ambitiously about, with bloody slayings intruding on the jollity, but I think we’re meant to pretty much yock it up throughout — what’s a little gangland bloodbath to a Warners/First National comedy? The haemoglobin oozing from under the closet door was a pretty macabre touch, though.
Pamela Hutchinson of Silent London presented the film with a fluent, funny and informative intro. Outstanding jazz age accompaniment from maestro Neil Brand melted spacetime to lull and waft the audience back to 1929, and apart from some eyebrow-raising moments of political incorrectness, any sense of quaintness dissipated like dew. But the awkward moments are worthy of address ~
Lots of not-so-comfortable racial humour. Early on, Moore, playing a Southern belle-in-waiting, blacks up to upstage her sister Kathryn McGuire’s Grecian dance with a bit of minstrel-show capering. Neil Brand had described this to me as “very nearly a film-killing scene. You want it to stop after about ten seconds and it goes on for a minute and a half.” Throughout the Hippodrome, teeth and buttocks clenched in horror. Nothing can be said in defence of minstrelsy in general: this particular example of it had a couple of mitigating factors. Nothing could share the stage more incongruously with a high-art interpretive dance than a grotesque “pickaninny” impersonation; and the fact that the leading man declares his intention of marrying Colleen at this point is so downright bizarre I can’t wholly regret the scene’s inclusion.
And then Colleen has a maid, played by Gertrude Howard, who was Beaulah, of “peel me a grape” fame, opposite Mae West in I’M NO ANGEL. (I thought I spotted her also in Buster Keaton’s THE NAVIGATOR, which also features Kathryn McGuire, one of several pleasing synchronicities at the Hippodrome Festival.) I really enjoyed her performance, which covers material varying from the purely uncomfortable to the slightly refreshing. An actor’s skill can sometimes turn a stereotypical role around, and the script very occasionally gave her some assistance. Ray Turner, as the bellhop at the mobbed-up hotel, likewise did his best to break out from lazy/trembling darkie comic relief business to give a more rounded portrayal. The antagonism between the two led to an interesting, distressing, strange intertitle when it looks like Turner is going to leave Howard to carry the heavy luggage. “Tie yosef onto dem bags, Midnight,” she admonishes him. As a lady’s maid, she obviously considers him her social and thus ethnic inferior.
One reason I want to see this again is to identify all the silent stars Colleen spoofs while practicing acting in the mirror here. Gloria Swanson is obvious —*everyone* did HER — see also Marion Davies in THE PATSY — but I missed a few I think.
The final insult is to sexual equality rather than race, as Colleen abandons her dreams of stardom to settle for wifely duties, in an intertitle which produced a good-humoured groan from the Hippodrome audience. They’d had far too good a time to let this bum note, or any of the others, spoil their evening’s entertainment, but it seemed unfortunate. Of course, many films feature a hero doggedly pursuing a dream that proves to be the Wrong Dream, with an 11th-hr Damascene conversion spinning things around in the last act — there’s no place like home — but the chauvinism here was disappointing after the rampant if misapplied girl power enjoyed throughout. But I thought I saw a doubtful look flit across Moore’s face — I have to see the film again to watch out for this — as if she herself wanted to throw into question the sexist tidiness of the conclusion and leave the path clear for a sequel to play out in our respective imaginations, even if it had to wait eighty-six years to happen…