SASY Wrap #3 – Faster, SASY Wrap! Kill! Kill!

Alright, we’ve had the good fortune to make it through another round of 10 films here at Fan With a Movie Yammer — that’s 30 films in total and a tremendous 12 percent of the entire Sight & Sound Top 250. OK, so that really means we still have a ton to do, but we’re pretty pleased nonetheless and eager to jump into our third Sight & Sound Yammer Wrap, covering films 21 through 30. With this last batch of 10 films in the can, we have now put both the 1920s and the silent movie era behind us. From here on out it’ll be sound films only, but thankfully we still have a few decades of glorious black-and-white ahead of us. So join us as we discuss the relative merits of the 10 films we just watched, muse on the unexpected pleasures of silent film, and examine the nexus between politics, economics, and art as revealed by the list films of the 1930s. And because we’ve already been punishing enough, we might even leave poor Scarlett O’Hara in peace during this write-up.

But first, in accordance with tradition we shall reveal our rankings for films 21 through 30:

S.

J.

1. L’Atalante (1934) 1. L’Atalante (1934)
2. Napoleon (1927) 2. Napoleon (1927)
3. City Lights (1931) 3. Metropolis (1927)
4. Bringing Up Baby (1938) 4. Vampyr (1932)
5. Metropolis (1927) 4. Barry Lyndon (1975)
6. Tabu (1931) 6. City Lights (1931)
7. Vampyr (1932) 7. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
8. Barry Lyndon (1975) 8. Tabu (1931)
9. The Gold Rush (1925) 9. The Gold Rush (1925)
10. Gone With the Wind (1939) 10. Gone With the Wind (1939)

J. – I must say, S., I was really surprised by our respective rankings of these 10 films. I pretty much knew for certain we were of the same mind with regard to our top two and our bottom two, but we were well separated in opinion on the middle six. If I had to make a slapdash, blanket judgment of the significance of this variance, I’d say that I am getting sucked in more by the visuals whereas you are placing more emphasis on story and character (which is completely valid). Whatever the reasons, I’m just glad to see such differences emerge, if only because I’d like to see our Top 10 lists (as seen in the sidebar) start to pull away from each other more. I mean sure, we’ve only seen 30 films so far, but it still seems remarkable that our respective Top 10 lists share nine movies. I mean, without more conflict how can we expect this blog to survive?!

But back to these 10 films, and I guess I’ll start with the Top Two. We were both blown away by L’Atalante, and whatever the validity of my visuals v. story and character observation, L’Atalante nails all those elements and many more. Simply put, it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen and the rare film that just insists on percolating in my head weeks after having seen it. I still think about it quite often and it only improves each time I do so. But then, I wasn’t terribly surprised I enjoyed it, given that the film was ranked #12 on the list and had previously held spots in the Sight & Sound Top 10. It was supposed to great, and hey! it was. No, it was Napoleon that shocked the hell out of me. Five-plus hours of silently telling a small fraction of the life of Napoleon — I was fully expecting a grit-your-teeth-and-get-it-over-with kind of film. But it was fantastic. Kinetic and inventive; bombastic, overblown, and jingoistic; but emotionally resonant and often quite funny. That’s how you make a historical epic. It saddens me that the remaining 30 hours of the story never got made.

S. – I really had no expectations walking into L’Atalante, I had never heard of the film before (not unusual for me) and although I vaguely remembered it had a high ranking, the whole Sunrise (#5) experience has been very effective at suppressing any elevated hopes on that basis alone. Yet it was a total delight and now it is difficult to believe that a few weeks ago I was completely ignorant of its existence. It is one of those films that has permeated my thoughts ever since, a sensation that I associate with books more than films. I was hugely affected by its humour, its style and its humanity. L’Atalante is superb cinema and is firmly entrenched in the #1 spot among the 30 movies watched so far. Anticipating Napoleon, on the other hand, I was far more pessimistic. A 5-hour silent film seemed a rather arduous proposition. Yet it was awesome, long but awesome. Unfortunately for director Abel Gance the epic Game of Thrones-style mini-series format had not been invented because a slot on HBO would have made this guy a rockstar. The other big highlight for me in this batch was City Lights. My first Chaplin experience (The Gold Rush) left me fairly lukewarm and quite bemused as to the appeal of the legendary Little Tramp. But City Lights brought all of the elements together into a cogent and amusing narrative with just the right twist of sweetness at the end.

J. – And here’s where we start to diverge somewhat. I really enjoyed City Lights a  lot, but beyond the boxing match and the justifiably lauded ending, the movie felt a bit stale to me. I imagine this is partly to do with having recently watched a few Buster Keaton films, which I think have much more vitality. And while City Lights might be famous for its bountiful reserves of emotion, it pales in depth to something like the passionate L’Atalante. (And I think I got more laughs out of L’Atalante too.) In general, the comedies among this batch of 10 weren’t as strong for me as the ones we saw in our first 20 films. The Gold Rush was too unfocused and hampered by a poor romantic subplot; City Lights just feels warmed over after decades of being stolen from, and Bringing Up Baby is a damn funny but ultimately hollow movie that brings tons of excellent energy but not a whole lot of wit or bite. There wasn’t a The General or an I Was Born, But… in the bunch.

That being the case, my affections went toward two films with epic ambition and amazing visual pizzazz: Metropolis and Vampyr. These are two of the most extraordinary looking films ever made, and so idiosyncratic that they remain wonderfully original and awe-inspiring even after decades of being pillaged by other filmmakers. To be sure, both movies have grossly flawed stories and some very questionable performances, but for me their failings only take up any headspace after the final frame has flickered by. While they are playing, Metropolis and (particularly) Vampyr are positively hypnotic and you just roll with it. Metropolis seems to actively flaunt its ridiculousness in the designs of its giant machines, and I think that self-conscious attitude is very ahead of its time and very effective at covering up the faults in the simplistic, moralizing story. But I am curious to see if our next 10 films will put the comedies at the fore, particularly because at least two upcoming entries — Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Duck Soup (1933) — rank as perhaps my favorite screen comedies. I’m really looking forward to writing up a Marx Brothers movie!

S. – Metropolis was incredible! The trite storyline did take the shine off it a little but I was really impressed by the innovative design and the massive scale of the piece. The influence it has had on the movie ideal of a futuristic city is remarkable and makes it difficult to believe that it was filmed 86 years ago. The performances of two of the lead actors was also memorable, I loved the sassiness of robot-Maria and the darkness provided by the archetypal mad scientist Rotwang.

As for Vampyr I am still a little perplexed as to why I enjoyed it as much as I did since the storyline is fractured to say the least and much of the acting is stilted. Yet it was mesmerising. I kept thinking that the pieces of the tale would all come together by the end (they did not) but the combination of stunning visuals and the tinge of weirdness to all of the characters made for compelling viewing. Maybe it was the fact that none of the characters behaved how I expected that held my attention, this could have been alienating but instead continually piqued my interest. For instance the vampire was an elderly woman who didn’t look particularly frightening and the lead actor was more puzzled observer than action hero. What I am sure about is that Dreyer is a fantastic director.

In contrast another visually astute film, Barry Lyndon, did not resonate with me. It is undeniably beautiful to watch (a glance through the stills captured for the yammer leaves no doubt of that) and it follows a clear narrative with fleshed out characters, yet I felt quite unmoved by it. I know you are a massive Kubrick fan, J., and you enjoyed it more than I did. So what am I missing here?

J. – I do love Kubrick, and I think Barry Lyndon is his most impeccably photographed film, just gorgeous on a level I’m not sure any other color film has ever achieved. But I must confess that I consider it a lesser effort in Kubrick’s oeuvre, which is to say that I still think it’s better than most films. Beyond the look of the film, I suppose what attracts me to Barry Lyndon is the precision of the film and its deep cynicism. Kubrick is a very analytic storyteller and he often stumbles when dealing with stories driven by emotion, which is why the second half of Barry Lyndon suffers, but there is probably nobody better at examining the absurdity and darker side of human nature. Barry Lyndon does that in spades, particularly during the merciless fun of the excellent first half. For whatever reason I am really drawn to tales of the absurd — in the Existential sense of the word — and I appreciate how Barry Lyndon pulls away from the standard form of the costume drama to create something dark and subversive while still managing to be powerfully literary (if a bit flippant) in tone — an excellent example being the film’s unconventional omniscient narrator.

But Barry Lyndon is a strange outlier among this batch of films, being a product of the 1970s rather than the 20s or 30s, and I think it’s worth sticking with that earlier time period to discuss a major breakthrough we’ve made in this blog: We’ve seen our last totally silent Sight & Sound film! All told there are 20 silent films on the list (I’m not counting Chaplin’s Modern Times [1936], which does have some spoken dialogue), and I had seen just three of them prior to taking on this endeavor. I have to say, I’m seriously impressed with what we have watched. I don’t think I ever discredited the silent era as something not worth my time, but I certainly didn’t expect to experience the depths of expression and inventiveness that were on display in some of these films. In some ways I’d say the silent films are actually more expressive than sound films, in part because nuance is so hard to communicate without speech that the films move in the other direction, favoring the bold and exaggerated. And at its best — like in Joan of Arc — silent acting can dredge up raw emotion on a scale that I think would be utterly spoiled by sound. And I love the way that silent filmmakers — particularly those from Germany — warped and distorted the sets to make the world itself another character in the drama.

S. – The silent films have been a huge learning curve for me. I had a negative preconception about the pre-sound era being stuffed with hammy over-acting and ludicrously simplistic tales that would seem irrelevant by modern standards. Obviously the fact that 20 silent films made the Sight & Sound list indicated there was more to be found than my grim view forecast but I was still blown away by the complexity and the emotional impact of many of them. Far from falling into a narrow band of silly pantomime they span the spectrum of snappy comedy, intense drama, patriotic fervour and thoughtful studies of the intricacies of human relationships. Film is a visual medium and the absence of dialogue allows a purity of expression that is utterly compelling in the right hands. There is also an egalitarian aspect to this format, the barriers that can be present in foreign language films are removed as you respond only to the input received visually and the accompanying score. Many of the early sound films still hold onto the rich visual aesthetic of the silent films and keep dialogue to a minimum, managing to capture the best of both worlds.

J. – Having watched all of these silent movies I’m now rather thankful that the medium started out as one that didn’t have sound. I can’t help but think that movies owe much of their visual language to the fact that the earliest movies had no choice but to communicate almost exclusively through images. If sound had been there from the beginning it’s quite possible that movies would look and feel very different today, and I’m guessing not in a positive way. I also think it’s interesting to see the silent movie methods that are retained by the earliest sound films — and also how clumsy a lot of the sound work really was even five years after The Jazz Singer (1927). But of course it wouldn’t be long before films got incredibly talky, with movies from the 1930s probably being the most dialogue-heavy and verbally rapid-fire of any era of cinema. But that will have to wait until SASY Wrap #4.

One of the things that I have noticed among these early films is some remarkable links between politics, economy, and cinema. We’ve now yammered about 30 films and all of them come from just five countries: Germany, France, Japan, the United States, and the Soviet Union. And it won’t be until 1942 that another country will make the list (Britain). I think there’s a few interesting things to be drawn from this. First, clearly in the early days you needed a well developed economy or massive state funding to develop a movie industry in the 20s and 30s. Second, it is also possible that the critics polled tend to have a big bias toward European and American films — I mean, there are only three Indian films on the list (all from the same trilogy) and India has long had a massive movie industry.

But what I find most interesting is that Germany and Russia produced many of the most influential filmmakers of the early days of cinema, despite both countries suffering from the aftermath of wars and the Unites States dominating film production and distribution. Of the 30 movies we have discussed, 13 were either German or Soviet films or directed by German-born directors. But both nations disappear suddenly from the list. Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was released in 1933, the same year the Nazis came to power, and it is the last German film on the list until 1972. Aleksander Dhovzhenko’s Earth was released in 1930, just before the Stalinist dictates of Socialist Realism became enforced upon all Soviet art. With just one exception, there will not be another Soviet film on the list until 1966 (And it is notable that the exception — Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible — was partially banned by the authorities). It just goes to show what a profound impact politics can have on artistic production, and that attempts by totalitarian states to rigorously control artistic expression tend to produce — surprise, surprise — bad art.

S. – It is extremely sad that the creative voices in both Russia and Germany were effectively shut down by the political environment in the respective countries and that the repercussions lingered for decades afterward. Film is such an accessible art form and to have two nations that were contributing high quality movies onto the world stage just vanish suggests we have missed out on some fantastic works. I am intrigued that our travels through the early part of the list has only exposed us to the products of five countries. Especially since the silent era offers such opportunity to take the language barrier out of the equation. In fact our next steps forward (should we stick to a chronological order!) may reduce the pool to just two, the United States and France. Narrowing down to a duopoly makes me slightly nervous, in general the movies from the list that I haven’t enjoyed so far tend to have been rewarded for advances in technique over creating a cohesive product. Are we about to experience an arms race between two countries willing to spend money on movie-making? Will it be at the expense of truly captivating films? Only one way to find out….

Previous SASY Wraps:
SASY Wrap #2: Son of SASY Wrap
SASY Wrap #1: Thou Shalt Look Back at the First 10 Films

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