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Salome, the daughter of Herodias, seduces her step-father/uncle Herod, governor of Judea, with a salacious dance. In return, he promises her the head of the prophet John the Baptist. Written by
Jim Beaver <email@example.com>
Alla Nazimova in the silent "Salome" at the Bird's Eye View Festival, National Film Theatre:
The film and accompaniment were much more enjoyable than I'd been expecting -- both from what I'd heard of it and, alas, from last year's precedent of female performers... I can see why it has been described as too long: the whole thing is more operatic than filmic, and I do remember marvelling even at the time over the way that a single line in the Bible story -- "Bring me the head of John the Baptist!" -- is strung out over half-a-dozen shots before the detail of what Salome wants is even disclosed. Never mind the fact that it's repeated five or six times at great length before she actually gets Herod to agree...
But the key to "Salome" is Aubrey Beardsley; apparently Nazimova deliberately set out to create a work of art based on the Beardsley illustrations to Oscar Wilde's play "Salome". As the lady who did the introduction told us: sometimes it's a bit too obvious that the director is more interested in reproducing the original illustrated poses than in any kind of dramatic plausibility!
Now, I don't *know* the drawings for Wilde's "Salome", and even so I could recognise the inimitable Beardsley style. If her main concern was trying to animate the drawings, it's a brilliant job... But I found it quite compelling as an experience as well.
Really it isn't a true silent film at all: it starts off with about six screens of pure text, for heaven's sake! It's a series of tableaux illustrating each utterance as it's given -- more like a ballet than a piece of cinema, only easier to follow the plot of... It's pure spectacle, with a cast of grotesques (the only one I didn't take to was the implausibly hairy Herodias -- I can guess at the sort of illustration that was supposed to echo, but that sort of hair just looks messy in photographs, as opposed to being delineated in wave after wave of close-drawn lines).
But it didn't strike me as too long at all, and that was on account of the music. It was the sort of thing I'd never encounter normally, let alone choose to listen to -- just as I'd never normally subject myself to a heavily stylised, 'arty' film whose acting is about as artificial as it gets. ("Salome" is about as naturalistic as "Beyond the Rocks"... but it's so far over the top that it gets away with it, whereas the Swanson/Valentino picture just sags.) The performer was a young Indian-looking woman credited only as "Bishi", with an impressively long list of achievements and venues which meant nothing at all to me -- evidently we move in quite separate worlds. Her costume resembled that of Herodias, while her golden hairpiece would not have appeared amiss within the film itself.
The music was a 'fusion' of sitar, electronica, live percussion, quarter-tone-sounding vocals and simple Western-style melodic lines to the song; quite indescribable and very alien and exotic to my ears. But for this queer off-beat decadent style it worked amazingly well: unsettling and beautiful in equal measure. Even snatches of English lyric over the action -- let alone over the intertitles! -- worked: the words she was singing were no part of the words on screen, and yet they formed an extra dimension describing the characters, and returned and fitted later, linking back. It was uncanny. During those long, long shots you were sitting there absorbed in the music, and the music and the images fed on one another...
Casting was good. Herod was a loose-lipped tyrant weakling reminiscent of Charles Laughton's later Henry VIII; Nazimova is a tiny slip of a thing who can pass as a child (she must have been pushing forty when she made this, surely?); Jokanaan is an incredible beaky emaciated charismatic, wild and ugly and yet believable as an object of lust. Herodias I didn't care for (and the music didn't work so well where moments of comedy were intended).
Costumes and make-up are... so far over the top as to be an art in themselves. Again, the reference is clearly Beardsley. We don't get to see the severed head, which is a bit surprising -- it's usually the pièce de résistance of the special effects department -- but probably a wise decision, as the idea of kissing one of those smeared drained mutton-like objects is always deeply unalluring! The image of blood seeping over the moon, on the other hand, is uncanny.
Apparently the American press were deeply suspicious of the film on its release, while the English press said it was Great Art... "Salome" is far too static and wordy to be a feature film in the terms of 1923: it's verging on being experimental art (Nazimova supposedly thought of it in terms of a Russian ballet). But in combination with the music of Bishi it's a mesmerising experience unlike any normal cinematic entertainment. I found it still a little stilted at times ("thou rejectedst me"!?) but in its own terms very largely successful.
If I'd known what I was getting into, I shouldn't have gone. But I'm certainly glad that I did!
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