#102 (tie) – Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), dir. Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid

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Samsara. Maya Deren and Maya Deren sit at a table waiting for Maya Deren to pull up a chair in Meshes of the Afternoon, a circular, surrealist dive into the outer edges of American wartime cinema.

A flower, a key, a knife, a phone with its receiver off the hook, and a mysterious figure in black. It is remarkable what one can achieve with a few stray images and a lot of imagination. This handful of components are remixed and repurposed in an inventive, circular narrative in the experimental Surrealist short Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). Made by the husband and wife team of Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid on a minuscule budget, Meshes is frequently cited as the film that really kicked off American experimental cinema and as a major influence on later filmmakers, particularly David Lynch. Much like Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s avant-garde image-fest Un Chien Andalou (1929), Meshes of the Afternoon taps into the imagery and feel of dreams, but its vision is less confronting and more meditative. It also has something closer to an actual narrative thread: A woman steps into a house and falls asleep in a chair, at which point multiple dream selves enter the same house and encounter different experiences with the five items listed above. The result is a cyclical narrative wherein the story repeats itself in different variations as dream clones of the woman begin to pile up in the house. Meshes of the Afternoon gives the viewer no quarter, drawing you in through its wild imagery and offering no explanation of the meaning of it all — if there even is one. (13 min.) Continue reading

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#63 (tie) – Modern Times (1936), dir. Charlie Chaplin

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Motormouth. Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp gets a taste of the latest technology in Modern Times, the comedian’s slapstick satire of industry and the plight of the working man.

We’ve previously mentioned on this blog that Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 film City Lights very much went against the grain by being a silent picture at a time when sound had become all the rage in Hollywood. By that measure, the comedian’s next feature — Modern Times (1936) — is positively reactionary. Modern Times was meant to be Chaplin’s first foray into the all-talking movie, but he felt (and rightly so) that his Little Tramp character was essentially a vehicle for silent expression. Modern Times technically isn’t a silent film (we’ll get into that), but in most of the essential ways it is a product of the silent era. “Reactionary” isn’t just applicable to the film’s style, but also potentially its content. Modern Times doesn’t offer a story so much as a satirical broadside against the industrialized world — particularly the dehumanization of mechanized production and the pain and poverty experienced by large swathes of society. So, the film can be seen as reactionary in its insistence on the good old ways in a disturbing new world, but its sympathy for the little man and the worker made it revolutionary enough for Chaplin to be branded a Communist in 1950s Red Scare America. Whatever your take, Modern Times absolutely was the last silent film made in Hollywood, and it is appropriate that the Little Tramp would provide the final word — or intertitle — on the form. (87 min.) Continue reading

#50 (tie) – City Lights (1931), dir. Charlie Chaplin

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The rain, the park, & other things. Charlie Chaplin’s tramp and Virginia Cherrill’s blind flower seller form an unusual couple in the influential romantic comedy City Lights, arguably Chaplin’s finest film and his last totally silent movie.

By 1931, Hollywood had fully embraced the talkie. So it was a big risk for Charlie Chaplin to think audiences would still come out to a silent picture. But this gamble by the silent era’s biggest star paid off, and City Lights ended up being a smash hit for Chaplin, even if it was moving against the times. One often hears of silent stars whose careers went in the toilet because they didn’t have the voices to match their on-screen selves. Chaplin had a fine voice, but perhaps an even greater reason to be wary of sound: his clownish on-screen persona the Little Tramp just wouldn’t work in a sound context. Rather than devise a new persona, Chaplin stuck with the format he new best. The premise of City Lights is simple, the Little Tramp falls for a blind woman who sells flowers on a street corner. She mistakenly believes he is a rich man — a mistake the Tramp is happy to let her make. In seeking to acquire the money needed to restore the woman’s sight, the Little Tramp is cast into a series of misadventures including run-ins with a drunk, suicidal millionaire and a boxing match for the ages. Chaplin trafficks heavily in sentimentality in City Lights, but he achieves a tricky balance of romance, slapstick, and whimsy in what is generally considered his finest film. (87 min.) Continue reading

#171 (tie) – Tabu (1931), dir. F.W. Murnau

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That’s a paddlin’. Matahi (left) and other indigenous islanders race out to a sailing vessel in F.W. Murnau’s Tabu, a silent film shot on location in the South Pacific using local people in all of the principal roles.

The maiden sacred to the gods has died and must be replaced; the chief has sent his emissary to collect Reri, the young woman who will become the new sacred maiden. As such she is forbidden contact with all men, and any man who violates the tabu placed upon Reri must suffer death for his crime. Reri and her love Matahi cannot abide by this decision, and so the pair steal away in the dead of night to flee the tabu and the wrath of their people. Tabu (1931) is an unusual American production for its day, in that it not only doesn’t focus on the doings of Western characters but also utilizes non-white actors for all of the principal roles. This was no doubt due to the influence of Robert Flaherty, the early documentary filmmaker most famous for Nanook of the North (1922). The project was meant to be a collaboration between Flaherty and influential German director F.W. Murnau, but as filming got underway, Murnau assumed more and more control of the movie. As such, the film involves an interesting blending of documentary sensibilities with plot elements and contrivances that are more typical of Hollywood dramas. But however Westernized the tale may be, the on-location shooting, native cast, and impressive cinematography make Tabu a unique movie experience. (85 min.) Continue reading

#36 (tie) – Metropolis (1927), dir. Fritz Lang

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Futurama. The prototypical mad scientist Rotwang shows off his mechanical hand and his mechanical-man to Joh Frederson, the effective ruler of Metropolis, the dystopic society created by director Fritz Lang.

Above ground, a towering, glittering city filled with a pleasure-seeking elite. Below ground, the tenement colony of workers who operate the massive machines that drive the city above. Metropolis (1927) is the story of a young man and woman who try to break down the divide between the classes in the name of love and common humanity. But little of that matters, because the film is foremost a canvas on which director Fritz Lang creates some of cinema’s most enduring images and characters. The most expensive silent film ever made, Metropolis represents ground zero for cinematic science fiction — even more so than A Trip to the Moon. Every cinematic dystopia from Blade Runner to Akira to The Matrix owes a debt to Metropolis‘ title city. The novel Frankenstein may have created the mad scientist, but it is the performance of Lang regular Rudolf Klein-Rogge as the fiendish inventor Rotwang that serves as the model for every deranged scientist to come. And Metropolis‘ most famous creation, the Machine-Man, was effectively cinema’s first robot (and served as direct model for C-3PO in Star Wars). In all, Metropolis is a simplistic take on class conflict, but one told on a grand scale and with a visual inventiveness that has kept it relevant and eye-popping for over 85 years. (150 min.) Continue reading

#154 (tie) – The Gold Rush (1925), dir. Charlie Chaplin

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That’s usin’ yer head. Charlie Chaplin gives a boost to his prospector pal as their cabin teeters on the edge of a cliff in The Gold Rush, a “dramatic comedy” set in the snows of the Klondike.

The Gold Rush (1925) marks the earliest Sight & Sound entry by inarguably the most famous figure of the silent era: Charlie Chaplin. More than just a shabbily dressed clown, Chaplin was a true pioneer of early cinema and a rampant perfectionist. He didn’t just write, direct, and star in his films, he got involved in everything, even writing some of the musical scores. The Gold Rush serves as a decent introduction to his most famous persona, the irrepressible loser the Little Tramp, whose waddling gait, bowler hat, cane, and toothbrush mustache are basically synonymous with Chaplin. In this comedic adventure, the Little Tramp makes his way into the mountains of Alaska during the gold rush days of the 1890s. Seeking to strike it rich, he instead runs afoul of a desperate murderer and a surly, burly prospector. Foiled in his mining efforts, the Little Tramp falls for a high spirited young woman back in town, only to be teased and humiliated by her and her friends. But don’t worry, things come together nicely — in a death-defying sort of way. In the opening credits, Chaplin calls The Gold Rush a “dramatic comedy,” and given its strong currents of pathos and romance that serves as very apt description. (95 min.) Continue reading

#144 (tie) – Napoleon (1927), dir. Abel Gance

Napoleon (1927)

Able was I… Napoleon surveys the rain-soaked aftermath of his assault on a British garrison during the siege of Toulon in Abel Gance’s silent epic on the youth and early career of the famed French military commander and emperor.

For a time he was the most feared and powerful man in the world, he gave his name to an era of history, and he was a character in both War and Peace and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But before he would command hundreds of thousands of troops and be crowned an emperor, he would first need to win a snowball fight. At least that’s how it all starts in director Abel Gance’s 1927 silent epic Napoleon. The massive, sprawling film spends over five hours (in the version we watched) documenting the early years of Napoleon’s rise to power, beginning with his days at school and moving through the first years of the French Revolution, the siege of Toulon, the Reign of Terror, Napoleon’s courtship of and marriage to Josephine, and his invasion into Italy. The film features a remarkable array of cinematic techniques and innovations to tackle the incredibly complex story of not just a remarkable man but also the fate of a nation in transition. Perhaps Gance’s most famous innovation in Napoleon was the first use of a widescreen format, which he accomplished by utilizing three cameras which would simultaneously film scenes that would then be projected onto three linked screens. Unfortunately unavailable on DVD, Napoleon is tricky to track down but it presents truly remarkable spectacle on a scale most movies can only dream of. (310 min.) Continue reading