Archive for Seventh Heaven

Custom Made

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 6, 2020 by dcairns

GUO FENG or GUOFENG or NATIONAL CUSTOMS (1934) is one of the tiny number of silent films still extant. The rarity of these films, and the resulting work they have to do in representing a whole culture’s cinema output, makes them a little tricky to assess. It’s right that festivals like Pordenone and the Hippodrome are showcasing these movies as they become available, and it’s understandable that their programme notes accentuate the positive — they want people to see them, after all, and people SHOULD see them.

This is still the one to watch.

All the Chinese silents I’ve seen — four of them, by my count, which is more than most of us, I reckon — are heavily flawed by unsubtle propaganda content. Even THE GODDESS, which is rated a masterpiece by many, has a fair bit of crude, disfiguring material which goes beyond the didactic into the finger-wagging. THE RED HEROINE is the film least guilty of this, but THE RED HEROINE is a largely ludicrous movie, though of definite interest. All the Chinese silents I’ve seen are made watchable by their visual invention.

GUOFENG, as Pordenone has decided to call it, consists of about 75% civics lesson/propaganda — a prolonged attack on western-style modernisation, women wearing makeup, men wearing ill-fitting suits — to 25% story. The film-making is extremely deft, but at the service of fairly dumb and rigid content.

The acting is of interest, because it avoids anything resembling the erroneous standard idea of silent movie performance, but falls into another trap: it’s extremely reminiscent of modern soap opera acting. The gestures and expressions used to telegraph “concern,” “anger” or “distress” are sort of subtle, in that they’re not HUGE, but they’re all from stock. Each character has only one characteristic, and none of them really develop. so the combination of one-dimensional figures repeating tired gestures in a simplistic storyline which makes the same point over and over is not exactly rich.

There are lots of snazzy transitions and smart storytelling devices. Still, I don’t think it’s quite right of festival director Jay Weissberg to praise the “fluidity” of the camerawork. What most people will notice is the clunkiness of all the movements. The filmmakers obviously didn’t have the benefit of a smooth dolly and a geared head for the camera. But they tried anyway — the praiseworthy quality here is not fluidity but ambition and creativity. The camera is a busy and active part of the narrative, indeed it’s by far the more appealing character.

I could be wrong about all of this — perhaps I’m applying the wrong standards to the films, acting like some fellow who has only seen, say, modern American cinema, and is suddenly confronted with RASHOMON or METROPOLIS and can’t cope with the differences of performance and technique. But I don’t THINK so. With so few Chinese silents in existence, it would be really staggering if what was left was all masterpieces. If you reduced Hollywood’s silent era down to a few titles, choosing at random, you’d be unlikely to end up with SEVENTH HEAVEN or SUNRISE on your list of survivors. So it’s impressive that China can give us FEN DOU, which displays the clear influence of Borzage’s stairwell shots in 7TH H.

There are so few Chinese films left, we can’t generalize and say propagandistic elements dominated the industry — maybe it’s these elements of social content that helped determine which films survived, or which are being made available? All we can say is that by our own standards of sophisticated storytelling, it’s arguable that the films we’ve seen so far tend to be lumbered with crude patriotic messages.

I’m not running a film festival so I can say what I like: GUOFENG is a terrible film. But fascinating, and worthy of study.

Return of the Kings

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2020 by dcairns

New edition of Forgotten By Fox over here! Looking at Fox’s remakes of silent classics: DANTE’S INFERNO gets a look in, just so I can post video of the hell sequence which is mind-blowing, and then we’re on to Henry King’s talkies of Borzage’s SEVENTH HEAVEN and Griffith’s WAY DOWN EAST, which also get clips to give you an idea. Some of Simone Simon’s close-ups in the former may take the sting out of quarantine for those indoors.

WAY DOWN EAST stars Tom Joad; Jessie Pullman; Irving Pincus: the Wicked Witch of the West; Pa Joad; Link Appleyard; Penny Sycamore; Susan Paine; Aunt Milly; Whitey; Mr. Herman Shimelplatzer; Mrs. Carol Stark; Mary Todd Lincoln; and Michaela Villegas.

SEVENTH HEAVEN stars Irena Dubrovna Reed; John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson; Dr. Paul Christian; Max Fabian; Mrs. Manette; Miser Stevens; ‘Pap’ Finn; ‘Concentration Camp’ Ehrhardt; Frau Berndl; Napoleon Bonaparte; Malita; Lo Tinto; and Dr. Leonardo.

The Sunday Intertitle: Lamplight

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2018 by dcairns

Incredibly beautiful.

I ought to be binge-watching Borzage for a project. Feels like I’m a bit behind. LUCKY STAR (1929) is one of the masterpieces Frank B. made at Fox as the silent era ended. Most famous is SEVENTH HEAVEN but STREET ANGEL and this one probably deserve to be right up there. Along with THE RIVER, which survives only as a fragment. The original titles of LUCKY STAR are lost also, so we have simple, tasteful reproductions which are probably a good deal less elaborate but at any rate don’t look jarringly anachronistic like all too many attempts to fake up authentic cards. And the film itself is in terrific shape. I’m just over half its age and I don’t look nearly so good.

Now check this out.

As Janet Gaynor hands over a lantern in this shot, you can see an electrical cable trailing from it (through the lower left window pane). But rather than get hyper-critical about the artifice (this whole film is studio artifice at its height), we should be impressed that they’ve figured out how to light a scene with a lantern, even a jerry-rigged electrical one. The great Nestor Almendros once pointed out that, for all the beauty of Murnau’s SUNRISE (1927) when a search party roves through the night carrying kerosene lamps, the lamps do nothing but glow faintly, far too weak to actually light the scene. Of course that film’s cinematographers, Rosher & Struss, could hardly have had a half-dozen power cables trailing from those prop lamps, since the search party are on boats. Even the lack Health & Safety culture of Hollywood’s Golden Age had to draw the line somewhere. But for LUCKY STAR, DoPs Chester M. Lyons (praised already here) and William Cooper Smith have worked out a way to have a convincing moving light source.

That lamp is obviously INCREDIBLY bright in order to light the interior: Gaynor has her eyes almost closed, trying not to be blinded, and she seems a little scared of this high voltage death-trap in her hand. Don’t blame her.

As you can probably tell, I’m not very far into this film yet, but I am impressed so far.