March 13, 2003

Under the Radar

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Films are essentially a visual medium no matter how many times you quote the entirety of Monty Python and the Holy Grail at your friend. Dialogue can only count for so much (sorry Kevin Smith) because there are only so many ways you can say the same thing. The difference between a decent movie and a good one is more often then not the way it looks, which is to say how the story is told. Pictures are supposedly worth a thousand words, but some speak more eloquently than others. Silent film is in some ways the purest form of the art because it is dependent solely on images. Here are nine of the best and one deserving offspring.

1) Intolerance D.W. Griffith’s unintentionally ironic response to the criticisms of his Birth of a Nation (yeah D.W., we’re the ones being intolerant here) is in many ways the superior film. It consists of five segments unconnected except for the interlude which follows each. Griffith took snipets of Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” and ran them as title cards over the repeated image of Lillian Gish soothing a baby in, you guessed it, a cradle. The scene, which carries with it the implications that the child will one day have to deal with the violence of the world depicted in the rest of the film is deeply moving. The different segments, which explore oppression and persecution of innocents in Babylon, Revolutionary France and elsewhere, are all masterfully shot spectacles.

2) Battleship Potempkin This favorite of first year film students everywhere is pretty much the source for every modern action or crowd sequence ever shot. Sergei Eisenstein rewrote the rules on camera work and narrative filmaking when he invented Russian montage: the practice of cutting quickly between seemingly disparate images to create a sense of contemporaneous action in several places or to elucidate a theme. The justly celebrated “Odessa Steps” sequence has been appropriated by everyone from Brian de Palma to The Simpsons but here Eisenstein doesn’t pull any punches and the baby carriage rolls bloody to the bottom of the steps.

3) Sunrise F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece plays the bucolic setting and beautiful cinematography (along with Griffith, he was the first to realize the power of camera movement) off the dark night of the soul and increasing paranoia of a man who has decided to kill his wife. A rowboat, a meadow and the sun have never looked so threatening.

4) City Lights Chaplin’s last fully silent film is the perfection of his method. It’s all here: the fantastically staged pratfalls, the put-upon, strangely philosophical Tramp, the poverty alternately romanticized and devestatingly real, and the final moment of sweetness. Chaplin shot the city so that the street lamps looked like distant stars, and a blind flower girl so that she looked like an angel.

5) Napoleon It took Abel Gance three screens, over four hours, and the invention of two filmic techniques (triptych camera and color projection) to capture the French Emperor. Some of the best sequences occur at the young Napoleon’s school, where he realizes his genius for strategy in a thrillingly shot snowball fight (Gance borrowed Eisenstein’s montage to great effect) and has a quiet moment of communion with a hawk.

6) Passion of Joan of Arc Carl Dreyer’s depiction of Joan’s trial and execution is spare enough to please adherents of Dogma, but its emotional depth is almost overwhelming. The only title cards he uses contain text taken directly from the transcript of her trial, which means that Joan herself almost never says a word. Dryer used no makeup on any of his actors and shot entirely in closeups and two shots so that the audience is forced into uncomfortable proximity with a saint and her torturers. Falconetti gives perhaps the greatest performance of all time, her shaved head and open face radiating vulnerability, pain, and faith with exquisite subtleness.

7) Der Blau Engel This is the film that made Marlene Dietrich a star, but it is Emil Jennings who delivers a career defining performance in Stronheim’s grimy, common, theater of cruelty. Jenning’s professor falls fatally in lust with Dietrich’s Lola Lola (twice the sin) and allows himself to be dragged to ever greater depths of degradation. Fortunately for us, as things get worse for him, the movie only gets better.

8) Baraka This modern throwback is shot in glorious 70mm in a myriad of ravishing locations. Ron Frike carefully crafts his images to deliver a stunning meditation on the meaning of human existence.

9) All Quiet on the Western Front The Great War in all its soul-killing glory. The dying French soldier, the high school recruiter confronted by one of his past converts and the bumbling high command are all hard to take, but it’s the final shot which most effectively condemns the whole senseless business.

10) Singing in the Rain This Comden- Green tribute to the silent era resembles the subject of its affectionate parody in all the best ways. Donald O’Conner’s insane, graceful dance routine (he runs up walls, falls through doors, and beats himself up) could easily have come out of one of Keaton’s films. The star’s are outsized personalities, required to communicate all emotion, plot, and character through their bodies alone. And in the case of Lina Lamot (Jean Hagen) that’s probably a good thing. But it’s Gene Kelly’s iconic romp through the street which is the true inheritor of the silent tradition. All of Kelly’s posture, movement, and facial expression are devoted to expressing one thing: the pure joy of falling in love.

Archived article by Erica Stein