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In La Dixieme symphonie, written and directed by Abel Gance in 1917 but
not released until November 1918, music is central. The film is about
the composing of a symphony that is performed in the movie theater, and
at its high point the music takes precedence over the image.
Examining Gance's work in the context of avant-garde, Henri Langlois saw La dixieme symphonie as his first masterpiece. It is basically, though, a conventional melodrama. Enric Damor, a gifted composer, suspects his wife of having an affair with the man her step-daughter wants to marry (she is in fact being blackmailed by him). But this breakdown of family relationships provides a new source of inspiration - art produced through suffering - his tenth symphony, which he performs on the piano for an invited audience of friends and admirers.
A working note dated August 1917 suggests that Gance initially planned to use recorded sound but instead La dixieme symphonie became one of the first feature films to have a specially commissioned symphonic score, composed by Michel-Maurice Levy. The orchestra in the cinema thus reproduces what is supposedly being played within the film. The evident disparity here, between the piano in the image and the orchestral sound in the cinema, is aggravated by the fact that many cinema orchestras could not cope with a symphonic score. The disparity is quickly effaced, however, because what we actually see on the screen is less the performance of the symphony than a series of images that illustrate it. There are locating shots of Damor playing and of the entranced listeners, but the sequence consists principally of tinted images of a ballet dancer superimposed on an idyllic garden setting with a frieze of dancers, flowers, and bunches of grapes sat the top and bottom of the frame. The visual is thus an interpretation of the musical, breaking out from the narrative in which it is held. More precisely, music ceases to be simply the subject-matter of the film; it generates images that are presented as the visual equivalent of the musical.
The importance of La dixieme symphonie is that it achieved within mainstream cinema what was to become one of the great preoccupations of the avant-garde, the liberation of the image from the narrative and the theatrical. It was a move toward non-narrative form, toward the expressive and the rhythmical. The title itself is significant here. Damor is assimilated to Beethoven by superimposition's, but his composition is also subsumed into the film as extension of the Ninth. After the Choral, the Visual. The supreme orchestrator is not the composer but the director: the first image is of Damor with the death mask of Beethoven in superimposition, but the final one is of Abel Gance taking a bow, thanking the audience for their appreciation.
La dixieme symphonie illustrates, then, the extent to which cinema in its aspiration to be recognised as a popular art form was looking toward music as model and guarantee. They seemed to have a similar project, using rhythm, harmony, and tonal contrast as the basis of an appeal to feeling. Lyric poetry could also provide a parallel since it, too, played on the intuitive, but music seemed more appropriate and was more distanced from the literary. For Gance and many of his contemporaries in France, it opened out the possibility of a radically new theory of what cinema might become.
Menilmontant (1926) was, in the modest context of the alternative
cinema circuit, a smash hit. It's great success allowed filmmaker
Dimitri Kirsanov to go on making films, and also helped Jean Tedesco to
stay in business as an exhibitor.
Like Kirsanov's first film, Menilmontant (again starring Kirsanoff's first wife, the beautiful Nadia Sibirskaia) tells a story without the use of inter-titles. It is often said that the filmmakers cinema is poetic, but one must add that in his second film he explored the poetics of violence and degradation.
The story begins and ends with two unrelated, but similarly filmed and edited murders. In each case, the grisly event does not grow organically out of the plot, but seems to surge out of a world welling with violent impulses.
Menilmontant uses practically all of the typical stylistic devices of cinematic impressionism, but it is hard to consider it as in any way representative of the movement. It's overwhelming, virtually unrelieved violence and despair seem to infect its own storytelling agency, upsetting what in other filmmakers' works would be clearly delineated relations of parts to the whole.
The film contains several bursts of rapid editing, for example, but they are not rhythmic in any simple, narratively justified way (in the manner of Abel Gance, for example); their meter is complicated and unsettling, worthy of an Igor Stravinsky. The film offers several notable examples of subjective camera work, but typically these become slightly unhinged, with no absolute certainty as to which character's experience in being rendered.
Menilmontant is, quite deliberately, a film in which the formal center cannot hold, because it is about a world in which this is also true. Although certainly not a Surrealist work, it shares with Surrealism no only a fascination with violence and sexuality, but also a display of forces and transcend, and question the boundaries of, individual human consciousness.
Kirsanov concluded his Menilmontant with a shot of impoverished and exploited young women fashioning artificial flowers in the poorest district of Paris, he provided us the most comprehensive image, aesthetic and social, of this form of cinema. Through a panoply of stylistic experiments and through glorious close-ups of the incomparably fragile face of Sibirskaia, Kirsanov thought he had shaped a harsh milieu into an exquisite flower. But a flower for whom? Menilmontant would become a major film on the cine-club and specialized cinema circuit, but never played to the people of the working class quatier that gave it its title. This was not Kirsanov's public anyway, for he came from the Russian aristocracy. In 1919, having fled the Revolution, he was reduced to playing his beloved cello in movie houses just to be able to eat. He must have been tempted to imagine himself and his music as an unappreciated flower in the crude milieu of mass art.
Seen this way, Menilmontant becomes a personal triumph of art over industry, of the icon of Sibirskaia over the brutal world of plot and spectacle that constitutes ordinary cinema. That triumph is signaled in the miracle of the film's narration, the first French film without titles, a tale told completely through the eloquence of its images. The dark alleys of the nineteenth arrondissment, the streetlights listening on the Seine, and the pathetic decor of shabby apartments are all redeemed by art. No silent film more clearly bewails the fate of art in our century, more obviously appeals to connoisseurs of the emotions roused by artificial flowers.
Jaromil Jires's decidedly dreamlike Czechoslovakian film Valerie and
Her Week of Wonders, takes place in the countryside, as Valerie visits
her relatives at their turn-of-the-century estate, only to find that
they are vampires, engaging in a sort of ecstatic summer orgy into
which Valerie will be initiated. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a
deeply eccentric text, infusing a coming-of-age story with Edenic
concepts of purity and lust, inclusion and banishment, into a sensuous
tapestry in which nothing is as it seems.
Written by Jires, Ester Krumbachova, and Vitezslav Nezval, the films brevity and its seductive mise-en-scene sumptuously photographed by Jan Curik, make the film seem almost an outlaw project, or an act of social criticism designed to "enforce atheism by embracing an anti-Catholic stance, particularly in relation to sexual morality. Yet the films embrace of sexual excess, and the almost fetishistic depiction of bodily fluids, color, light , flesh tones, and gauzy fabrics, bespeaks an atmosphere of absolute sexual license, rather than creating a fantasy world of repression. In many ways, Valerie is very much like Alice in Alice in Wonderland, reacting to the bizarre circumstances that unfold before her.
The film begins with an image of Adam and Eve, and Valerie is often seen eating apples in close-up, her overripe lips lingering over the succulent fruit with undisguised satisfaction. Thus Valerie provides us with an image of feminine desire before and after the fall of Eden but without the attached blame that Eve shoulders in Western Christian mythology. Instead, Valerie is seen by the film as a giver of life, a force of purity too intense to be corrupted, while her grandmother becomes a vessel of corruption. This is a film that is deeply tied to nature at its most gloriously ripe season, summer, and Valerie herself partakes of this lushness with direct and unabashed delight.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders presents a world in which all is allegory, ones relatives may be vampires, and all authority figures are suspect; in the opening minutes of the film, a priest enters Valerie's dazzlingly white bedroom and almost immediately tries to rape her. Valerie extricates herself from the priest's attack but remains justly suspicious of authority for the rest of the film. What protects Valerie, above all other things, is her connection to nature, which preserves her position within the film as a force of hope within a crumbling family structure.
In many ways Valerie and Her Week of Wonders can be read as a more sexually explicit vision of the coming-of-age narrative, centering on the freedom of youth, than its numerous American and British counterparts. Valerie emerges triumphant at the end of the film, despite all adult attempts to corrupt her, and the purity and innocence of her metaphoric quest is valorized by the film's ambiguous conclusion, in which all the films events are called into question; it may all have been a dream.
Near the end of the silent cinema period, at opposite ends of Europe,
two films were being planned on the subject of money or capital: Sergei
M. Eisenstein's project for a film based on Karl Marx's Capital, and
Marcel L'Herbier's film adaptation of Emile Zola's L'Argent.
Eisenstein's project, unfortunately, never got beyond the preliminary
stage of diary notes, recorded discussions with G.V. Alexandrov, and
the rough outline of a scenario. L'Herbier's project, of course, was
completed and released as L'Argent, in the midst of controversy,
critical condemnation as well as acclaim, and uncertain commercial
success, at least in France.
Undoubtedly influenced by Abel Gance's experiments with camera mobility, L'Herbier turned this very free, modern-day version of Zola's celebrated novel into a series of pretexts for outbursts of striking cinematic excess, creating a strikingly modern work marked by its opulent, over-sized sets and a complex, multi-camera shooting style. The result is a film resolutely split between narrative and spectacle, between straightforward storytelling scenes typically dominated by shot-reverse shot cutting and chaotic, exciting impressionist sequences, as when, at the Paris stock market (shot on location) a camera hanging from a pulley apparatus high above the trading floor sweeps down on the traders. The effect, presumable, means to evoke the irrational frenzy of capitalist from a decidedly right-wing perspective.
If Gance's Napoleon and Carl Th. Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc constitute the apex of big-budget historical reconstruction films in the French silent cinema, then L'Argent certainly can be taken as the culmination of the modern studio spectacular. With a five-million franc budget, L'Herbier was given privileged access to the Paris Bourse for three days of shooting (with 1,500 actors and over a dozen cameramen) and was permitted to electrify the Place de l'Opera in order to shoot a night scene of the huge crowd awaiting news of Hamelin's solo transatlantic flight. At the newly opened Studios Francoeur, Lazare Meerson and Andre Barsacq constructed immense set decors, including an enormous bank interior, several large offices and vast apartments, a dance stage for Saccard's celebration party, and an unusual circular room next to Gundermann's office whose entire wall length was covered with a giant world map.
Many of these studio spaces have smooth, polished surfaces and are stylized to the point of exhibiting little more than walls, ceilings, and floors. This stark simplicity, especially in such monumental designs, undermines any appeal to verisimilitude and tends to dissolve the boundaries differentiating one space from another. The indeterminacy of these decors, although exemplary of the modern studio spectacular, thus specifically functions to further abstract the film's capitalist intrigue. Together withe crowds of extras that often traverse the frame and chief cameraman Jules Kruger's selection of slightly wide-angle lenses and high- and low camera positions, especially for the frequent long shots or extreme long shots they produce a consistently deep-space mise-en-scene and larger than life capitalists. Furthermore, the highly stylized or generalized milieu of the film actually serves to foreground the nationalistic and class-based terms of the intrigue, articulated through the casting, and allows them to read all that more clearly.
The Modernizing strategy that shapes L'Argent's set decors and deep-space mise-en-scene was also governed, finally, by a loosely systematic discursive which many French filmmakers shared in the late 1920s. Generally, the French tended to privilege the specifically 'cinematic' elements of framing and editing - close ups (especially of objects), unusually high and low camera position, extensive camera movement, superimposition's and dissolves, various forms of rhythmic montage, associative editing. But L'Herbier's L'Argent offers another, perhaps even more interesting model for the way its reflexive style ultimately helps to articulate the film's critique of capital.
At least two particular features of this film practice loom large in L'Argent. The first feature as an absolutely unprecedented mobile camera strategy, whose high visibility and extreme dynamism render its effect peculiarly ambiguous. The range and extent of the film's camera movement is unmatched except perhaps by that in Gance's Napoleon (for which Kruger was also chief cameraman). Largely because of such unusual camera movements, in L'Argents space oscillates uncannily between the fixed and the fluid. A second feature of the film's discursive practice is its rather unconventional editing patterns, which sometimes work in tandem with camera movement. There is the uniquely persistent pattern of cutting a stable shot as a sudden camera movement becomes perceptible, which creates a slightly jarring effect in the film's rhythm that ruptures its sense of spatio-temporal continuity and foregrounds the very construction of filmic space-time.
The reflexivity of this discursive practice marks L'Argent as a Modernist text, of course, at least to the extent that the materials of the film medium and their deployment as a disruptice system become an ancillary subject of the film. L'Argents framing and editing techniques, in conjunction with set design and acting style or casting, more closely resemble those of Jean Renoir's Nana or Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, both of which serve to subvert the conventions of another genre, the historical reconstruction. Yet reflexivity here bears a subversive significance that exceeds the genre of the modern studio spectacular precisely because of L'Argent is a story of capital.
L'Argent's achievement, in the end, rests on the correlation it makes between discourse, narrative, and the subject of capital. Capital is both everywhere and nowhere, echoing Marx; it motivates nearly every character in the film and is talked about incessantly, but it is never seen or - as the dung on which life thrives - even scented.
Nevertheless, L'Argent is a beacon of modernity, an over-sized hymn to music of light, where everything is rhythm, movement, and a fantastic spiral of financial manipulations. Even today, the subject is astonishingly relevant.
In 1923 Jean Epstein had his greatest success with Coeur fidele, a
cinematic expression of his theories. Shot on the Marseille waterfront,
Coeur fidele features a "cast" of down-and-out characters, colorful
cafés, and quays. The story is of a romantic triangle, however,
utilized such innovative devices as non-sequential timelines and
flashback sequences. Epstein strapped the camera to a merry-go-round at
one point to provide images of increasing twirling and dizziness.
Coeur fidele is a contemporary romance whose poetry of the waterfront combines a sordid realism with a stunning visual lyricism- the film is early evidence of Jean Epstein's concern with exploring the expressive possibilities of the cinema. Instead of developing the story conventionally through dramatic confrontations... Epstein emphasizes simple patterns of rhetorical figuring and several ambiguous sequences of privileged subjectivity. In addition, Coeur fidele makes use of an astounding and memorable close-up of it's protagonists staring hauntingly through a window. Gina Manes face (as she looks out of the dirty bistro window)- in a stunning and beautiful image that seems to hover over the narrative itself- that floats over the water of the squalid, dismal harbor.
As previously mentioned, Coeur fidele is a love story in which Marie Epstein plays a minor but significant role as the crippled neighbor of the heroine. As the lovers are reunited (enabled by Marie's shooting of the villainous and drunken husband), the heroine's sick child remains in the dingy apartment as Mademoiselle Marice, dazed by her violently provoked action, cradles the infant on the wooden stairs. There are the last images of Marie, inter-cut with shots on the happy couple on the carnival ride that had been the scene of their separation.
The merry-go-round sequence in Coeur fidele has become an accepted "classic" of cinematic impressionism, as many viewers were (and are) greatly impressed by the striking sequence set on the merry-go-round, on which the heroine rides while in a state of extreme mental agitation. Epstein, inspired by Abel Gance's La Roue, experimented in this scene with the editing of very short bits of film in regular, rhythmic patterns. This section of rapid montage and camera movement has been called by Rene Clair "visual intoxication."
With Marcel L'Herbier's L'Inhumaine, whose sets were designed by Robert
Mallet-Stevens, Alberto Cavalcanti, Fernand Leger, and Claude
Autant-Lara, architecture became a supreme screen of sets. Concerned
with modern ornament, L'Inhumaine would synthesize the design aesthetic
of the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et
Industriels Modernes, for all who worked on this film (including Paul
Poiret, who did the fashions) came to define avant-garde design at the
Exposition in the following year. The architect Mallet-Stevens, who
designed the pavilion of tourism at the Exposition, was the
theoretician of the film set. In his writing on decor, he conceived the
set of a film as a work of draftsmanship and a working drawing. He was
particularly concerned with rendering hap-tic volumetric(s) and depth
and emphasized aesthetic techniques of relief in the design of filmic
L'Inhumaine, a film that turned the architect Adolf Loos into an enthusiastic film critic, opens with an industrial vista of Paris as displayed from the "moderne" villa of Mallet-Stevens. This house is inhabited by "the inhuman one" a woman. Georgette Leblanc, who conceived the idea for the film, plays Claire Lescot. She is a soprano who presides over an international salon of men, hosting dinner parties served by masked waiters in an inner patio that resembles a refashioned impluvium. This particular set was designed by Cavalcanti, who, in his own Rien que les beures, would constantly return to the theme of food, conceiving the urban rhythm as its own metabolic matter.
Claire's salon is frequented by two suitors who battle of her affection. The engineer, Einat, ends up winning he love by showing her the workings of his very modern "cabinet of curiosity." Claire delights in the marvels of this laboratory (deigned by Leger), in which she can futuristic-ally watch her audiences on a screen just as they are able to hear her sing. As the inter-titles suggest, "she voyages in space without moving," reaching visions of artists in their studios, partaking of the bustling life on the street, and following people driving cars and riding trains. In this way, she lives "through the joy and the pain of human beings." No wonder her other suitor becomes jealous and poisons her.
But Einar's laboratory contains residual traces of its genealogy: it can perform alchemy. What is more, it is outfitted with an extra chamber, equipped with a mechanism for reviving the dead. This lab of transformation becomes activated in a sequence that resonates with Fritz Lang's Metropolis. With superimposition's and rapid montage, the laboratory offers what the inter-titles call "a symphony of labor," which brings our voyage-use back to life and to the liveliness of her urban salon.
The film was made by L'Herbier's own production company, who deliberately chose an awkward science fiction plot in which L'Inhumaine serves as the pretext for some virtuoso displays of cinematographic virtuosity, and as the narrative justification for some remarkable decors. The sets are a microcosm of the whole film: they are in very different styles, and going from one to the next produces an almost physical shock. The film was very poorly received, both by critics and by the public, and one can see why. It is arguably the first great example in the narrative cinema of the so-called post modernist aesthetic. For the coherence of a stable fictional world with suitably "round" characters who undergo various experiences, L'Inhumaine substitutes a fundamentally incoherent world of pastiche, parody, and quotation. Its flat characters provide no stability; they are but puppets in the hands of an unpredictable, perhaps even mad storyteller. The film uses many devices from the stylistic repertoire of cinematic impressionism, but rather than amplifying and explicating the narrative, they serve instead to call it into question.
Just Another Blonde directed by Alfred Santell is a love story and
drama, with aerial scenes, about two small-time gamblers and the two
Coney Island girls they romance. The film was also released and
reviewed (especially in and around New York City) under the title, The
Girl from Coney Island. The film stars Dorothy Mackaill as the title
character. She plays Jeanne Cavanaugh, one of the more popular
hostesses at a Luna Park dance emporium. Unfortunately this film exists
in fragmentary form, and reportedly, all of the scenes which include
Louise Brooks (in a thankless roll) still exist.
THE PLOT SYNOPSIS:
"Jimmy O'Connor, employed in a gambling establishment, is so honest that he is offered a banking job at any time; and for his sake, Scotty, his protégé and pal, decides to go straight. The boys go fifty-fifty in everything until SCotty falls in love with Diana, who operates a shooting booth at Coney Island. Jimmy declares that he disapproves of all women- except his mother - and Scotty despairs until he schemes to have Jimmy meet Jeanne, Diana's girl friend. It is only when they expect to be killed in an airplane crash that Jimmy tells Jeanne he loves her, but later he feigns indifference. Jeanne is heartbroken; Scotty explains that he can't marry Diana until Jimmy is safely engaged; and with that both boys are reconciled to their respective sweethearts."
Miniature expressionist sets are the real star of Life & Death of 9413:
A Hollywood Extra (1927), & render this partially a work of animation.
It's on the National Registry as a work of cultural significance.
The thirteen-minute story symbolically criticized the maltreatment of Hollywood extras.
Our naive hero, John Jones (Jules Raucourt), arrives in Art Deco Hollywood all smiles & dreams.
He has a letter of introduction that gets him hired by a casting agent (Robert Florey being quite antic in the film he wrote & co-directed).
As an extra he's known thereafter as 9413, the number being printed right on his forehead. Now begins the endless wait for his number to come up.
Other numbers become automatons with fading dreams, but 9413 struggles to remain an individual.
Earning no money, falling deeper in debt for his rent, he is slowly starving to death, while imagining he is surrounded by scorpions.
At last he dies, but continues dreaming even in his coffin. He dreams he is ascending to heaven, or perhaps he really is ascending in the form of a heroic paper cut-out silhouette. In the firmament he becomes a shining star, with wings.
Reportedly filmed for $97.00, one reason it looks so incredible is thanks to cinematographer Gregg Toland, who went on to such amazing camera work on films like Citizen Kane.
A fifteen-minute Impressionist film somewhat in the manner of
Expressionism, The Love of Zero (1928) tells the tale of Zero
(pantomime artist Joseph Marievski) who falls in love with Beatrix
They live a blissful life upon a stage of abstract furniture & trapazoid windows & doors, with Zero periodically serenading Beatrix with a trumbone while perched on his highchair.
Gloomily parted by fate when Beatrix is recalled to the castle, Zero falls into a forlorn pose.
After long loneliness he finally falls for another woman (Anielka Elter), but she mistreats him with laughter & disdain, leaving him for two other men.
News arrives of the death of Beatrix. Thus there is no chance of Zero ever recovering his lost happiness. The world has become dark, ugly, irksome. Demons surround him, & he is finally destroyed, like a doll snatched away from a toy stage by the hand of a child.
This little film was famously made for only $200, pretty cheap even for 1928. The filmmakers got plenty for their money, too, as this is visually a masterwork, thanks in the main to the gorgeous set design by William Cameron Menzies.
King Baggot began making films for Carl Laemmle in 1909 and was a major
star from 1910 to 1916. Baggot then gained renowed as a director in the
1920s and developed a reputation for making Universal's young female
stars "look good". He had performed this service for Carmel Myers,
although she was not considered a "starlet," but a very good actress.
He had done the same for Marie Prevost, and was later assigned to
direct Gladys Walton in both The Lavender Bath Lady and A Dangerous
Game, The Lavender Bath Lady was certainly no "jewel," but a
lightweight romantic comedy. At this time, Walton was working very hard
for the studio. She made eight films in 1921 -- but with titles like
All Dolled Up, High Heels and Short Skirts, there was some indication
that she was more object than actress. It was apparent that the studio
considered her window dressing -- and her role in All Dolled Up was,
indeed, that of a window dresser. However it was a good story and the
reviewers said so.
In a trifling but amusing story, a charming flapper, Gladys Walton, plays a humble salesgirl, she comes to the rescue of wealthy Florence Turner when the latter is victimized by pickpockets and blackmailers. Literally pummelling the crooks into insensibility, Walton earns a million dollar reward. Though she rises to the top of the social ladder, she remains as likable and down-to-earth as ever. All Dolled Up was the sort of fare that was eagerly lapped up by all the shopgirls and clerks in the audience, who believed that "There but for the grace of the screenwiter..."
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