Posts Tagged silent cinema

Les vampires (Feuillade, 1915)

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Paris, 1915. A city of darkness, thrown into paralysis by an unusual, uncontrollable epidemic: Vampires. These creatures of the night are not the famed blood-suckers of folklore however (though causing bloodshed is certainly of their essence), but a fearsome gang of cat burglars and criminal masterminds who orchestrate the virtual strangulation of an entire metropolis. So great is their proliferation of French society that even the president of the nation’s Court of Cassation is eventually exposed as one of their accomplices – and somewhat tellingly, he’s seen as totally expendable. Having initiated a wave of corruption that poisons every rung of the social ladder, the key members of this hedonistic troupe retreat into underground lairs and sordid taverns (their destination of choice: a club called “The Hissing Cat”) where they concoct ever greater heists and swindles during raucous bacchanals, all the while plotting the extermination of their primary foes: Philippe Guérande, a self-righteous newspaper editor, and Oscar Mazamette, his happy-go-lucky sidekick; a pair of (relatively) law-abiding citizens intent on bringing the Vampires to justice. The imminence of impending doom reverberates upon both sides of this war, and with the streets of the city curiously shorn of life (a different, greater war is felt in spirit but never once referred to), Paris becomes a shell of its almighty reputation – humiliatingly stripped of its populace as it nervously awaits an inevitable showdown between the forces of good and evil.

Louis Feuillade’s famed ten-part serial is nowadays renowned as one of the high points of cinema’s formative years: a sprawling epic that continues to withstand the hazardous tests of time almost a century after conception. Nevertheless, on the basis of artistry alone, Les vampires can read like something of a disappointment. The director’s construction rests almost entirely upon the long-takes of a stationary camera – a decision that fails to distinguish the film from its innumerable peers of similar, theatrical pretensions. Look again however, and Feuillade reveals himself to be an early master of mise-en-scène, utilising remarkable depth of field to reinforce the tension within his modest set-ups. His is a cinematic world built upon audience uncertainty, induced by actively encouraging the awareness of off-screen space. Thus, although his staging appears conventional, the director frequently bestows atypical prominence to doors and windows, ensuring that they remain centred within his static frames. Given that Feuillade’s Paris is conceived as a labyrinthine series of tunnels and passageways which allow the Vampires ease of access to their victims, his decision has major ramifications upon both his narrative and the viewer’s response to it. Any opening that provides contiguity with the exterior world consequently breeds anxiety, allowing the acrobatic gangsters an orifice from which to penetrate the lives of others; psychosexuality, naturally, simmering beneath all surface action. Additionally, the director’s settings are often more complex than meets the eye, boasting a series of trap-doors, secret compartments and false artefacts that render even the familiar unsafe (as if to reinforce this, one of the film’s more ludicrous scenarios finds the Vampires-as-estate agents letting an apartment with a particularly conspicuous “safe” – whose removable back opens up into their own, adjacent domicile). Alongside the agoraphobia (open spaces are recast as playing fields in which criminals are free to plunder humans at will) and distrust (duplicitous identities are abound and double-crossing is rampant), Les vampires plays out like a full-scale assault on the very notion of bourgeois security.

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Its gumption now apparent, the film’s key problem nonetheless continues to linger: six hours with a motionless camera is a stultifying, archaic experience for the modern cinephile. But alas, Les vampires just so happens to be an exceedingly modern film. For all the innate darkness within Feuillade’s depiction of a menacing criminal empire, his treatment of the material is defined by an airy lightness of touch and a host of moral ambiguities. Accordingly, whilst the aura of unpredictability hangs over proceedings like a dead weight, the director seeks to counter the discomfort by actualising this threat in its most outlandish forms, thereby diverting his narrative into increasingly preposterous directions; a progressive knotting into if ever there was one. In the space of mere nanoseconds: unsuspecting daydreamers can be lassoed from third-storey windows; enormous cannons can appear as if from nowhere; and sizeable ballrooms can morph into luxurious gas chambers – all to the growing bewilderment of the audience. The last of these cited spectacles is both the most exhilarating and, more importantly, the most emblematic. Les vampires, at its gleeful peaks, is a daringly anti-establishment tirade that lampoons Paris’ ineffectual police force and ridicules its pompous aristocracy. When its supposed villains therefore decide to asphyxiate a group of these clueless buffoons, it’s almost with sadness that we discover that the inhalant which they deploy provokes little more than an extended slumber – so successfully does the director glamorise his merry band of thieves. Still, the deaths that are caused by the outfit are notably almost exclusively reserved to members of the ruling classes, and when at film’s end the Vampires meet an overdue demise, Feuillade appears to intimate that its their own accession to these patricians’ vices which causes their undoing.

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If the text is guilty of mild socialist/anarchist leanings, then it’s surely also a progressive pioneer of early cine-feminism. Les vampires‘ most compelling character by far is the notorious ‘Irma Vep’ (a much-noted anagram of “vampire”), perhaps the nascent medium’s first real femme fatale, dependent upon interpretation. Enigmatic yet completely alluring, she assumes a mind-boggling array of disguises throughout the film’s runtime: bank clerk, chemist, hotel receptionist, housemaid, noblewoman, spinster – at one point, she even dons drag in an delightful (though not quite subversive) gender-bending exercise. Of course, her most iconic garb remains the black, skin-tight catsuit worn to scurry across Parisian rooftops by night; a breathtaking injection of identifiable, earthy sexuality (the get-up does an unsurprisingly great job of accentuating her curves). More than any of the film’s purported heroes, it is this bewitching villain who comes to embody its (admittedly limited) emotional core: late into the drama, the instinctive shock that she displays when confronted with an act of genuine benevolence marks the only instance in which Feuillade alludes to a character’s backstory (life has been cruel, to the point where she no longer comprehends what kindness is). Ferocious and independent in spite of the numerous capitulations enforced upon her by male suitors, Irma Vep is a character who honours defiance until the bitter end. After her entire world has crumbled around her, she steadfastly maintains her refusal to submit to the accepted patriarchy – instead, it’s a fellow female (albeit one who’s not half as interesting) who ends up pulling the fatal trigger on her. And even on the verge of death, this anti-heroine finds time to make one final, blazing statement: a clenched fist, raised to the air in fury.

For all its sinister overtones and ideological undercurrents, one needs to remain aware of the director’s primitive, primary goal: to entertain. To this end, Mazamette (one of the film’s two purported ‘good guys’) scampers around the screen like a vaudeville clown, constantly breaking the fourth wall and communicating directly with his audience – primarily by offering a jocular wink every time he senses another triumph/escape. If Irma Vep bestows Les vampires with its substance, Mazamette is designed to comically undermine it at all costs. Wielding a photo of his children and pulling puppy-dog eyes every time he finds himself in trouble, and constantly turning up at opportune moments of crisis in order to save the day, the character’s boisterous pantomime act is very much a product of its time. And yet, although it initially seems outdated, with another lens it’s also quite strikingly ahead of its era. Mazamette can easily be seen as the chief proponent of the film’s meta-narrative, commentating upon on-screen events as they occur whilst simultaneously participating in their development. Moreover, he’s not the only such device in the film – his young son, a juvenile delinquent, turns up in a particularly farcical episode and offers a dastardly imitation of his father (thereby causing a riot as not one but two characters take on this extra-filmic role in close proximity to one another), and even Irma Vep herself offers more than one knowing glare into her audience. Feuillade’s integration of such humour is, if not quite postmodern, then at least somewhat Pirandellian in its design – and he deploys it most brilliantly in an act of self-reflexivity which gets to the very lifeblood of his opus. After an ill-fated bank executive declares that he’s “fanatical about the cinema”, he promptly takes a trip to a theatre called the Gaumont Palace and proceeds to watch newsreel footage of the head Vampires travelling incognito in the forest of Fontainebleau. This simple act at once discloses: an early endorsement of cinephilia; an advertisement of the film’s production company (Gaumont Films – the theatre used was an authentic one); and, crucially, a tribute to a still fledgling medium and its potential to innovate in the field of storytelling. Les vampires may not fully utilise the tools available to it in terms of technical ingenuity, but in its infectious spirit of blissful abandon and unruly escapism it sets an early standard for high-concept cinema – and it’s a standard that’s rarely been equalled in the years since.

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Earth (Dovzhenko, 1930)

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Communism is great. At least, that’s what Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth appears to argue on the surface. Reviled in some quarters as little more than Stalinist propaganda, and dismissed by Stalin himself as not being Stalinist enough, Dovzhenko’s stirring paean to the natural world has found itself the victim of libellous and slanderous claims ever since its controversial release some eighty years ago. Credit the director then, for crafting a film that sustains such accusations despite conforming to its preordained function (a celebratory brochure for the collectivisations that were a crucial component in the First Five-Year Plan). Earth‘s threadbare narrative completes its designated task with aplomb: a straightforward tale of heroes (socialist peasants) vs. villains (capitalist kulaks) that features a solid dose of class warfare and concludes with a triumphant affirmation of communism as an instigator of positive, radical change. The problem therefore lies with Dovzhenko’s presentation of this material, which restyles the text’s Soviet proselytism into a universal, philosophical treatise that ruminates upon the transience of mortality. The director subsequently incorporates the fervent ideological conflicts of his era into a wider, pantheistic framework that exalts Mother Nature as society’s pre-eminent driving force alongside – or, perhaps even above – the Party itself. Today, the film’s propagandistic tendencies threaten to render it an intriguing historical relic, but its numerous aesthetic and thematic nuances offer an alternative outlook: that of Earth as a timeless, essential work of art.

There exists within the discussion of cinema an understandable tendency to lump Dovzhenko’s oeuvre alongside those of his Soviet contemporaries; the formalist inclinations of Eisenstein and Vertov presumably offering an easy point of commonality to complement their shared ‘nationality’. But whilst Dovzhenko certainly utilises the theoretical frameworks advocated by his estimable peers, his Earth finds itself prone to sentimental impulses that enervate such comparisons. Consider the film’s bookending sequences, ripe with images of outstanding beauty: flocculent cloads, rain-drenched apples, windswept wheat-fields – simple, evocative tributes to the wonders of nature that nestle themselves firmly inside the viewer’s psyche. The director draws from the organic allure of such visuals, using them to reorient the film’s introductory death scene to the point of exquisite absurdity: a village elder ends up confronting his fate on a bed of wild fruit, bathed in the gorgeous radiance of the morning sun. Nary has the act of dying seemed so beguiling, viewed here as an opportunity to be absolved directly by Gaia herself. And therein lies the deviance of the Earth‘s approach, for where his compatriots chose to electrify their audiences with the kinetic furore of their editing, Dovzhenko spends much of his time actively tempering the ferocity of this revolutionary spirit, preferring instead to embed his own montages within the cyclical, apolitical revolutions of the cosmos (just as it begins with a death, the film concludes with a birth).

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Not unexpectedly, Dovzhenko embeds some Party policy within this spiritual roundelay in an attempt to appease the powers that be. Accordingly, the emergence of the kolkhoz is viewed through a near-Darwinian lens; an evolutionary necessity, born to nudge humanity further along the road towards enlightenment. Evolution however, can be a painful and elongated process – something which the director explores with surprising depth thanks to the generational conflicts that intensify his subtexts. From the aforementioned opening sequence (which posits the old man’s death against the indifference of youngsters playing in the fields) to the weight that’s afforded to the ideological tensions between a father and son (the former is initially sceptical of collectivisation, whilst the latter is one of its strongest proponents), Earth is brimming with friction between past and present, tradition and modernity. These differences brew to an ire and, erred on by the Marxist doctrines upon which the entire conceit is built, overflow into an obstreperous dismissal of the religious orthodoxy that enfeebled yesterday’s peasantry. The director’s denunciation steers clear of outright hostility however – religion is merely another of those archaic afflictions weaned out by the eternal cycle of natural regeneration. In a society on the verge of industrialisation, the maledictions of hysterical preachers (“Punish them, God! Punish them!”) eventually fade into obsolescence behind a vociferous congregation of class unity.

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Acting as the agent for all this development is an unassuming tractor. Cast alternately as a saviour by the farmers and an adversary by the kulaks for the very same reason (its potential to erase social inequality between the two groups), its messianic arrival is captured in a frenetic montage where the entire agricultural community – livestock included – awaits in fervent anticipation as the vehicle (a surrogate for modernisation) makes its painfully slow encroachment upon the village. In a new, mechanised age, man-made creations assume a disproportionate significance in relation to their masters: “WE WILL PROSPER WITH MACHINES!”, exclaims a villager; “This is the end!”, mourns a kulak. The question therefore arises as to how Dovzhenko himself views all this commotion. Although the jubilation of the peasantry proves well-founded as a result of the increased productivity engineered by their new acquisition, the director’s montages provide scope for ambivalence. For all its anti-clericalism, Earth remains a curiously metaphysical film: a pastoral cine-poem whose rural landscapes are infused with the palpable presence of paganistic wraiths (wheat-fields have never seemed so alive). Dovzhenko, moreover, isn’t above taking discreet potshots at his government, with an early dialogue exchange appearing to query the validity of the Soviet Labour Medal. Thus, the extended sequence in which he charts the tractor’s gargantuan capability to plough offers a cause for alarm, particularly given that it’s contrasted against a farmer wielding his primitive (but comparatively innocent) sickle. The director’s rhythmic editing focuses on the destruction that these new machines can wreak upon the serene, diffident earth, and overtly questions man’s abuse of his symbiosis with nature. An early precursor to current ecological movements this could well be – especially during an extraordinary funeral procession where the branches of apple trees and the leaves of sunflower plants actually caress an embalmed corpse in a credible act of grief – but Dovzhenko’s text is unavoidably as dialectic as it is bucolic: he reveres and yearns for the modest past, but he recognises that a new future must be forged if his comrades are to progress.

Riddled with ambiguities and complexities that belie its citizenship, Earth is at its most galvanising as an affirmation of the human spirit. “Propaganda” is a slur that befits, but one that refuses to account for the uncharacteristic warmth that heartens the work. Dovzhenko’s socialist anger has a winning sense of humour: consider the peasants who feel compelled to urinate into the tractor’s radiator, or the ridiculous graphic matching that attempts to twin cows with kulaks. Throughout the film, the director displays a commitment to emotional matter that invigorates his class-conscious lyricism; dispensing entirely with establishing shots and relocating his narrative’s momentum to the forthright, honest close-ups of isolated faces. Always, Dovzhenko spares time to outline the human costs of his drama, and never more so than in his corybantic finale which interweaves birth and death, politics and religion, despair and ecstasy into a stupefying montage that belatedly unleashes the revolutionary zeal that he’d previously repressed. It’s a perfectly-executed climax, and a resounding tribute to the potential of cinema itself. Yet the honour of Earth‘s greatest montage must surely go to that which is also its simplest. After nightfall, the narrative’s nominal hero opts to take a casual stroll through his village following a day in which his dream of mass production (and consequently, class parity) became a reality. Brimming with joy and pride, he spontaneously begins to substitute walking for dancing, and then proceeds to caper into the surrounding fields, his feet restless with sheer elation. Dovzhenko captures this impulsion and, in an inspired move, refuses to let go – engulfing his audience in his protagonist’s euphoria, and following his sentimental journey through to its complete realisation; all the while cutting to increasingly distanced vantage points that memorialise his surrounding homeland. This apparent divergence serves as a reminder of the bliss that progressive change can offer, yet it draws its poignancy from the benefit of our hindsight: Earth was filmed in the director’s native Ukraine – once the “breadbasket of Europe”, and the republic which suffered most of all under the Holodomor, an event that occurred as a direct result of the policies that the film exalts. The bitter irony of life after the film’s closing frame is devastating, but rather than detracting from Dovzhenko’s central message, history has done him a favour and movingly eulogised it: once upon a time, there was hope.

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Borderline (MacPherson, 1930)

“If I had my way, not one negro would be allowed in the country!”

– “The Old Lady”, Borderline

“She worked hard and did well, paid off her mortgage and began to put something by for her old age. Then the immigrants moved in.”

Enoch Powell

“…we affirm that non-Whites have no place here at all and will not rest until every last one has left our land.”

Nick Griffin

“2 fkin rite the fkin immigrant bastards go fuk off bak n giv us our country bak n our money ya fuuuuuuuuukers!!!!!”

– “I Was Born in the Uk. So Why Do I Have Less Rights Then Immigrants

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If France was once infected by the cinéma du papa, then the UK continues to be plagued by the cinéma du mama: a cinema whose commercial success and everlasting appeal resides predominantly in the purses of middle-aged, middle-class housewives beguiled by the gratification and security that its features can promise. This is a disease that manifests itself in two definitive strains. First, there is the ever archaic “heritage film” – a nostalgic fashion trend that beautifies the inevitably right-wing national past with its lavish veneration of mise-en-scène, whilst immobilising the viewer’s intellect with a recycled brand of doomed romanticism. Then, perhaps even more disturbingly, there are the attempts to create a stock of British “social realism” – championed by privileged white males who understand nothing of the “gritty” milieu which they sporadically inhabit, and defined by its timid aversion to any meaningful engagement with the problems confronting the disenfranchised groups whom it seeks to represent.

Together, these dominant bloodlines tighten the garrotte around the slender neck of the British film industry. And by their lack of ambition, they compel the admiration of the foreign press, defending the national colours on an awards circuit where they regularly corral nominations and prizes. What use is a picture that panders so desperately to such a vainglorious, rabidly innocuous market? The answer is none. Such inanities do not personify the vestiges of imagination and ingenuity that lurk within the forgotten corridors of our cinema – and yet they dementedly persist in stifling the enfeebled arthouses of the nation with their ill-gotten prestige. Imitators aspire to replicate their success, thereby upholding the un-impeachable tradition of audience nullification whilst maintaining the vicious cycle of vacuity that saturates our passive minds. And thus, the culture of filmic disengagement is perpetuated; reprocessed and diluted until the British “cinema” is rendered nothing more than a British vacuum, vainly masquerading as a purveyor of artistic integrity. Where then, in so mephitic an environment, do the filmmakers of tomorrow (integral to any potential revolt) find the inspiration necessary to emancipate our country from this contemptible beast that refuses to surrender?

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Enter Borderline. Had Kenneth MacPherson’s 1930 feature not itself been strangulated by the consumerism of yesteryear (its theatrical release was never becoming), then perhaps the pestiferous vermin of the mama would be nothing but a creative abortion; a minor blip in the character of a thriving and pioneering national cinema. Instead, it occupies a peculiar hideaway in the annals of film history. An exemplar, and possibly the sole exemplar, of the avant-gardist tendencies that once existed here (and can yet be unearthed), Borderline is relentless in its formalism and shameless in its virtuosity. Taking heed from the Soviet montage school of thought, MacPherson incites action and reaction through a bravura demonstration of editing that wilfully distorts the viewer’s grasp of his visual rhetoric. The film bemuses with its expeditious cutting rates and its excisional framing – the latter’s reduction of human figures to dissected body parts powerfully accentuating the characters’ physical detachment from their internal desires. Together, these core tenets invoke an overwhelming tsunami of kineticism that obliterates the audience’s understanding of the film’s spacial and temporal dimensions until all that’s left for us to cling to is an immediate, raw visceralism; the ultimate purification of the cinematic experience.

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Lest it give the impression of nothing more than a conceited experiment, it should be stated that Borderline is as grippingly radical in content as it is in style. Though it spitefully rejects the post-Griffith developments in narrative exposition, it cogently deploys associative montages to convey the psychological undercurrents of its disturbed characters. Torrents of passion and malice thus satiate the film, exacerbated and inflamed by the presence of that most toxic of evils: blacks. Yes, Borderline‘s real intransigence is a socio-political one – an earnest affront to Western xenophobia, and a valiant dismissal of the tendency to scapegoat minorities in times of turmoil. MacPherson contrasts the decadence of his white characters with the relative dignity of his so-called “negroes” (consider also how carefully he frames them against natural idylls), and emphasises the grotesqueries of racial hatred by recording those that uphold and enforce the status quo at their most repugnant. With this approach, the director audaciously upends the comfort and satisfaction that we seek from our modern, advanced society; his subversive portrait of an Occidental utopia revealing itself as a cutthroat mundania where all those that challenge the norm (the film’s few sympathetic whites are implied to be homosexual) are compelled into a precarious existence, forced to renounce their sense of justice in the name of the majority’s self-preservation.

MacPherson is perhaps too oblique in his approach and too callow in his sentiments to offer a parable of assiduous complexity for the 21st-century viewer. Yet the basic impetus of his tale is one that continues to transcend time (however unfortunately). Eight decades may have passed, but Borderline remains as recalcitrant now as it almost certainly did then: its fundamental concerns with the issues of immigration and integration still unnervingly prescient, and its refusal to pander to the prevailing prejudices of its era eliciting only admiration. Indeed, the film goes so far as to celebrate the very notion of dissimilitude by incorporating our fear of the subject into the form – playing out like the cinematic equivalent of an improvisational jazz piece, infectious in its exaltation of the medium’s possibilities. In the context of our national film culture, it stands alone in its compassion, its foresight and its innovation. A sign of what was to come it definitely was not, but one prays for the day when it can be commended first and foremost as a historical artefact rather than a sui generis of contemporary relevance. In the interim though, the burden lies solely with the present generation of cinephiles – it is we who must embrace progression (however paradoxically ancient) in the same manner in which our superficially-inclined brethren lust after regression. From MacPherson’s example we must draw only hope, for it is now evident that there once was a way forward for the British cinema – and, for as long as Borderline exists, there always will be.

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