Silent Revelations

The rich world of cinema before the talkies has only begun to be explored, though it’s certainly expanding apace. Kino and Flicker Alley are the labels duking it out for silent supremacy, and the spectator is the winner. Here are two revelatory additions to the silent film repertory on DVD. One set has 75 films on three discs, while the other has a three-part film on two discs.

DVD: Gaumont Treasures: 1897-1913

Director: Alice Guy;Louis Feuillade;Leonce Perret

Distributor: Kino

Release date: 2009-09-01

Image: Treasures 1897-1913

DVD 1: Alice Guy

Until a few years ago, the story in circulation went something like this: Alice Guy was Léon Gaumont’s secretary when he got a cinematograph (35mm camera) from the Lumière brothers. She took it home that day in 1896 and made La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy), at one stroke the first fiction film (depending on what you mean by fiction), the first fantasy film, and the first film to use more than one shot. It had two shots, edited in camera by stopping the camera and starting again. Gaumont made her the head of film production and she was responsible for hundreds of movies thereafter.

Historian Alison McMahan tells a more detailed and accurate version at the website, derived from her biography of this pioneer and her own ongoing efforts to restore Guy’s place in film history. The shorthand account above isn’t far wrong, though. She really did make that film in 1896 and was appointed head of production the following year.

From the evidence of this collection, she spent the first several years refusing to advance on her pioneer efforts, for these one or two-minute wonders merely reflect what else was being done at the time: serpentine dances (women who wave dresses like butterflies), slapstick and variety skits, the old gag about the machine that takes in animals and dispenses sausages. All are performed in a single shot, perhaps even a single take. The first two films here are outdoor projects with guys in swimming trunks, but the other films are mostly indoor studio efforts. One outdoor actuality, Avenue de l’Opèra, runs the image backwards.

Several are trick films indebted to Georges Méliès, based on stopping the film to create appearances and disappearances, most elaborately in a 1903 Faust and Mephistopheles. Another is the oft-told gag about the man who can never finish disrobing because new clothes keep appearing on him. A couple of the films from 1900 retain their hand-stenciled colors; these are films with two women dancing and kissing, one of them in drag as a man.

Two curious films are remakes of Guy’s original effort. A 1900 remake of The Cabbage-Patch Fairy offers a more elaborate set, but its style has regressed to a single shot. Then in 1902, Guy comes out with Midwife to the Upper Class, a full-blown two-shot remake of the same idea and the only film of more than one shot here until 1905. This time, the second shot consists of the midwife producing a series of naked infants (what parents let their babies be rented for the day?) for the shopping couple. Again, half of the couple seems to be a woman in drag.

Méliès had been making multi-shot narratives for a few years, a Joan of Arc in 1900, A Trip to the Moon in 1902. Soon after, 1905 seems to be the year the form exploded, as witness the worldwide success of the British film Rescued by Rover. For Guy too, the films of 1905 are expansive. The Statue is still a single-shot vaudeville routine, but it runs over five minutes. Equally simple is Clown, Dog and Balloon, in which the dog bounces the balloon against the stage-flat while the clown capers; it’s curiously riveting. The Magician’s Alms finally uses editing for a beguiling trick film with a moral point; there are three scenes.

The 10-minute travelogue Spain has many documentary shots, some of them beautiful panoramas the camera turns on its axis, all introduced by title cards. Guy herself is seen in one of them, as shot by her photographer Anatole Thiberville. The cards call attention to her and even use an optical close-up; is this as seen in 1905 or was it altered later? The film closes with two lengthy Gypsy dances. Two lovely hand-tinted dance films, shot in the same courtyard, were probably made on the same trip to Spain. Women did a lot of dancing in early cinema.

If Guy didn’t push experiments in formal grammar after her two-shot debut, she was literally at the center of France’s commercial film industry (along with Ferdinand Zecca at the rival Pathé studio). The entire film industry was obsessed with sound from its earliest days; we now know that Thomas Edison’s very first film, shot by W.K.L. Dickson, was already an experiment with synchronised sound. Guy too participated in soundies, specifically the Chronoscope process patented by Gaumont in 1902.

The 1905 selections here have several examples of these “Phonoscènes”. One film shows Guy supervising a shoot by attending the recording apparatus next to her photographer. No soundtrack, new or old, is attached to this film, and it’s not clear whether this film was a commercial release or a promotional or in-house document. It seems to show that sound was recorded live to a disc for playback during exhibition, a common technique at the time. These Phonoscènes are allegedly comic songs in French (no translation provided) performed by what are presumably nightclub or variety stars, and which don’t give an illustrious snapshot of the art circa 1905. Those by Félix Mayol come off best, and one is hand-tinted. A film of a crowing rooster isn’t identified as a Phonoscène, but what is it? Was the sound added recently? This set has zero notes or commentary, so we’re flying blind here.

The 1906 batch begins with a genuine landmark, an elaborate half-hour production of The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ, shot in many scenes with a large cast, sometimes with stage backdrops and sometimes in picturesque outdoor locations, and with in-camera superimpositions. This was probably the longest film to date, and it shows Guy getting religion, literally, for the possibilities of cinema. It shows the form that dominated long narratives: every scene, usually in a single shot from a static camera, is introduced by an onscreen title telling us what we’re about to see. Everything is shown proscenium-wise from the middle distance, which is why early films often used stories familiar to the audience. Since the camera usually doesn’t move, scenes are staged diagonally in depth, with people moving from the rear to front.

The camera pans right or left to follow the action in two shots, at Herod’s court and the hill of Calvary. More than half the film is taken up with the arrest and Crucifixion, and the cross-bearing scenes effectively form one long sequence, with each shot carefully labeled. The scene of St. Veronica ends with a sudden medium close-up on the woman holding the cloth with Christ’s image. The entombment and Resurrection is presented, at last, as an unbroken sequence of shots, and the effect is of an apotheosis of film grammar as well as faith. Honestly, modern viewers are unlikely to be impressed (especially since the print is hardly in great shape), but this fills an important gap on DVD. Guy understood instinctively that the tableau style of early film narrative fit the hieratic nature of Passion Plays; you can still see the style at work in Sidney Olcott’s 1912 feature From the Manger to the Cross.

Modern viewers should like the other 1906 films, both slapstick and sentimental. Guy gets closer and closer to the action, and they’re all sequential narratives except for the quaintly absurd A Sticky Woman, in which a bystander at the post office becomes inflamed by the sight of a maid’s tongue. The characters in the amusing An Obstacle Course are perpetually running toward the camera; a century later, we have The Amazing Race–how sophisticated have we become? A Story Well Spun and the inventive A Drunken Mattress also throw things at the viewer. This and several of the comedies feature an athletic woman who seems to be a man in drag. Madam’s Cravings is about a pregnant woman who wanders the streets stealing food, each scene inserting a title card and a close-up in what becomes a formal ritual. The close-ups of her delectation seem to take place in another universe. The surprise finale returns to the cabbage-patch motif.

The tart The Hierarchies of Love is a very French social observation shot in a park. The Cruel Mother is about a widow who remarries and abuses a stepson. The Parish Priest’s Christmas has a superimposed miracle. The Truth Behind the Ape-Man is a silly Jekyll/Hyde gag whose title implies it’s more or less a topical comment on Darwin; at least it demonstrates that cross-cutting between actions is here to stay. The title of The Consequences of Feminism also implies topical satire, but it can be seen as a shrewd observation on gender roles. It presents a world of mincing, gossiping men who take care of the children and fend off the harassments of aggressive women in the street. A variety of clichés are inverted, including the desperate husbands who bring their children into the bar to appeal to the vulgar she-brutes imbibing there. The brief, non-narrative Ocean Studies is a series of arty shots.

Moving on to 1907, The Race for the Sausage is an example of the absurdly escalating chase; it begins and ends with close-ups of its star pooch. Many early comic narratives are structured on the chase, and escalation is frequently an organizing principle. When the two combine, it’s murder, in a good way. The atavistic The Fur Hat returns to the distant one-shot proscenium, proving the old ways aren’t dead. A Four-Year-Old Hero and On the Barricade are the only films in this set to use title cards in a natural way to explain plot points; previously, cards only showed up in Christ and Madame’s Cravings. Perhaps we cannot be certain that some of the others mightn’t have had cards at one time, but they do fine without them. The Irrisistable Piano is a delightful example of escalation on a literally infectious subject. It’s about the magic of music and its endless demands on the artist. The Dirigible “Homeland” is an actuality or documentary.

Guy and her husband left for Gaumont’s American branch in 1907. Guy continued making films until 1920, sometimes very successfully. She spent the rest of her life documenting her achievements and seeking recognition, finally finding it in her lifetime when she was awarded the French Legion of Honor and made several TV appearances. She died in New Jersey in 1968. The prints on this disc come from different archives and are in various states of decay, but only a couple have really bad moments. The later films on the next two discs are often sharp and beautiful.

Gaumont Palace. Photo courtesy Kino International.

DVD 2: Louis Feuillade

Feuillade is remembered for his thrilling crime serials, such as Les Vampires, Fantomas and Judex. Guy hired Feuillade as a writer in 1905 and rapidly expanded his responsibilities until he was ready to take over her job as artistic director when she left for America. He was responsible for hundreds of movies that he directed or co-directed. As early as 1910, he stated that Gaumont should be able to compete with American films in the realm of historical epics; the Italians dominated this genre and eventually inspired D.W. Griffith. Feuillade was especially interested in two initiatives: the “aesthetic film” and the film of “life as it is,” inspired by naturalism. This information is gone over in the brief extra on this disc, which shows many tantalizing clips from movies not in the set.

Incredibly, The Colonel’s Account (1907) returns us to the style of the proscenium one-shot, albeit interrupted with title cards. It’s a hilarious, perfectly executed riot of an anecdote, thus proving that nothing is outdated when form fits content. Spring (1909) is an aesthetic mood-piece with superimpositions, pagan nymphs, and shapes over the lens to create circles and ovals. More fantastical superimpositions are in the enchanting The Fairy of the Surf (1909), which retains some of its tintings and has beautiful production values. It addresses the issues of human/fairy intermarriage. From the same year, Custody of the Child is one of several items starring actress Renée Carl, and it’s a very sharp print. The melodrama is as carefully paced and effective as one of D.W. Griffith’s Biograph films.

Three films are from 1911. The tinted The Roman Orgy wallows in decadence as well as anything later from Cecil B. DeMille. It’s about Emperor Heliogabalus and lions, enacted in deliberately affected style. Silent acting is gestural and external (as is all acting, as far as the audience is concerned), but this doesn’t always mean exaggerated and unsubtle. Silent acting is still the subtlest, even in talkies, as long as we’re close enough to see the smallest flickers of thought across the face. The camera’s distance determines the level of gesture, and so does genre. The comedies here burlesque every emotion to acrobatic extremes, because that’s a part of the humor. The dramas are generally restrained, using a minimum of gesture in their silent dance, except for some moments of theatrical agitation that were conventional at the time. On the whole, the acting here, while stylized for silence, is closer to today’s sensibilities than you might assume.

The 24-minute The Trust is a clammy, carefully paced tale of suspense and skullduggery in the business world, and its reversals and bizarre touches foreshadow Feuillade’s serials. Each scene is its own shot, interrupted only by cards and telegrams. One brief shot travels beside a moving car.

The 41-minute The Defect is a significant early feature just by its existence; this is the same year D.W. Griffith made the first American two-reeler, Enoch Arden, which Biograph insisted on releasing as two films. Aside from its historical importance, Feuillade’s film also happens to be an intelligently told story, more restrained than melodramatic. It’s the story of a “loose woman” (Carl) who is given a new life by a kindly doctor, and how her past returns to haunt her. The target is that favorite popular theme, the hypocrisy of middle-class morality (those who run a charity society, ironically). The story is told in master shots interrupted by titles, with only a few flourishes: a medium close-up in the middle of the first scene, and graceful panning movements between two parallel rooms in one of the last scenes. Films of this early style have a stately, distanced quality because they still aren’t broken up into close-ups and reverse shots.

From 1912, The Heart and the Money takes a step forward. The scenes aren’t single shots anymore; they are whole sequences made up of several shots. Two brilliant scenes use split-screen to illustrate a character’s thoughts. Not only does this eloquently convey a character’s memories or fears, it literalizes the idea of being mentally elsewhere, since we see the person in both halves of the screen at once. This is a highly pictorial narrative, often in natural locations; the abrupt ending is pure melodrama. This print is tinted with greens and blues and often looks lovely. (All this visual flair is probably explained by co-director Léonce Perret, discussed below.) These films aren’t as highly edited as some of Griffith’s films, but they already seem modern enough in style not to discompose today’s viewer, especially the viewer who watches today’s masters of the middle distance and the long take, like Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Jim Jarmusch, or Abbas Kiarostami. And these films emphasize composition and movement in depth, so they don’t feel static.

From the same year, The Obsession dramatizes the sensational news of the day, the sinking of the Titanic (using models that surely looked inadequate at the time). The focus is on the psychology of a woman who has been warned of disaster by a palm-reader. Alas, the climax is missing.

The last three films are from 1913. Tragic Error uses a film-within-film device, like the Thanhouser movie The Evidence of the Film from the same year. The husband goes to see a Gaumont comedy starring the comedian Onésime, and spots his wife walking with a man in the background. This includes suspenseful cross-cutting (not as extensively as Griffith would) between a runaway carriage, as shot from the back of the carriage, and the events at home. Bout de Zan Steals an Elephant belongs to a series about a moppet who mugs for the camera, though here a pachyderm upstages him. The half-hour The Agony of Byzance is a lavish exotic spectacle about the fall of Constantine’s Byzantium to the Muslim army of Muhammad II. Since it gives equal time to both rulers, one can perceive the story as a defeat or a victory, though the French audience must have regarded it as a thrilling tragedy. The emphasis on the spectacle of women being rounded up and sold as slaves implies at least as much interest in titillation as history.

DVD 3: Léonce Perret

As explained in a bonus that shows mouth-watering clips from many films, Perret was hired by Feuillade and quickly became a director as well as an actor, eventually helming over 250 films. When Feuillade left Gaumont during the first World War, Perret took over as the studio’s artistic director. Like Guy, he later worked in America. He is the least known of these major figures, yet his films were the most aesthetic and pictorial, and already postmodern. He often made films about making films, or even about watching films, as witness the gloriously melodramatic 43-minute thriller The Mystery of the Rocks of Kodar (1912). Under the creaky inheritance plot, it’s about madness and the movies. The heroine’s catatonia is treated by showing her a film that re-enacts the traumatic event.

Perret liked stylised acting and imagery, but his most famous thriller uses a more natural approach, The Child of Paris. This 1913 feature runs two hours. Consider that little more than a generation ago, some references were still claiming that Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1914) was the first feature-length movie (it’s not even the first American one). The so-called primitive era of cinema is looking richer and more complex all the time.

This film is about a little girl (Suzanne Privat) whose fortunes go downhill. At news of the father’s death, the mother takes to her bed and is prescribed cough syrup, morphine, and ether. It’s not surprising that she doesn’t last long either. The events that befall the child for the rest of the movie come straight out of the Victorian handbook of orphan horror, the subject of parody by Edward Gorey and Lemony Snicket. We’re asked to swallow some curious notions, such as the fact that a whole year passes while she’s kidnapped, even though she never gets older.

But how gracefully done it all is, thanks to the palpable pathos of the child and the craft of photographer Georges Specht. There are brilliantly composed chiaroscuro effects, judicious pans and close-ups, and passages of lyricism (e.g. the blue-tinted sequence of Nice at night) amid the perfectly modulated suspense. As in The Heart and the Money, there’s a split-screen moment reflecting a character’s thoughts. Modern viewers may find one young man’s passionate attraction to the girl creepy, but he’s presented as a heroic character. If the girl weren’t a passive figure for most of the picture (often conveniently asleep), I’d call this the first great French film about childhood, but the story doesn’t quite focus on her.

By the way, the contents of this box seem to be drawn from a seven-disc box released in France, Gaumont, Le Cinéma Premier (Volume 1, with Volume 2 released in October 2009), which Ramsey Campbell chose as one of his favorite releases of 2008. He wrote in Video Watchblog: “Two [discs] represent the early career of Alice Guy, the first female film director, who proves to have made great silent comedies: try LA COURSE A LA SAUCISSE, a four-minute chase that becomes increasingly surreal, and the 1907 LE BILLET DE BANQUE, which in eleven minutes manages to prefigure Chaplin’s tramp, Hulot’s dogs, Renoir’s Boudu and even (in the moment when the tramp finds a rosary in his pocket and chucks it on the floor) Buñuel, as well as being genuinely hilarious.” The first title he mentions is here as The Race for the Sausage, but the second title isn’t. He also mentions another Perret feature, La Roman de Mousse, again not here. The Kino set presents editions carefully prepared with English title cards. Clearly there’s a lot more where this came from, and I hope there’s more in store for Region 1 types.

Miss Mend & Much More

Ivan Koval-Samborsky as Arthur Stern and Natalya Glann as Miss Vivian Mend – still (partial) courtesy of Flicker Alley

Miss Mend

Feuillade and Perret pioneered the serial film, and even American serials were pioneered by the French. The most famous American serial, The Perils of Pauline (1914) with Pearl White, was produced by the American branch of Pathé Films and directed by Louis J. Gasnier, who reportedly didn’t know English. The Russians famously studied American films, and it has often been repeated that Eisenstein wore out a print of Griffith’s Intolerance to learn about editing. Russians must have studied serials too, as well as popular adventures with Douglas Fairbanks, because there was a brief movement in the 1920s toward “Soviet Americanism,” or the attempt to apply the breakneck style of Hollywood entertainment to the serious problem of educating the masses of the new Soviet state.

The result: the three-part sensation of 1926, Miss Mend, co-directed by Boris Barnet and Fedor Ozep. It’s a breathless, hair-raising story about the international capitalist conspiracy against the proletariat, as foiled by a spunky secretary and some yellow-press flunkies. The first part is set in exotic New York, a land of corruption and labor unrest and train crashes. Then the story moves to the workers’ paradise of Russia, where a deadly plague breaks out on a ship and people start dropping like flies. Can the villains be stopped?

DVD: Miss Mend

Director: Fedor Ozep;Boris Barnet

Distributor: Fliker Alley

Release date: 2009-12-15

Image: was based on a novel by a Russian woman who, under the American pseudonym Jim Dollar, cranked out the pulp bestsellers of her day. According to the booklet and the bonus film-essay by two scholars, this blockbuster packed in Russian audiences who didn’t realize they were supposed to be attending the highbrow fare across the street, while official critics sniffed that it wasn’t serious. Its attempts at ideological correctness are certainly curious and startling, as in the two scenes (one in America, one in Russia) where jazz music is both seductive and destructive.

In a capitalist movie, the spunky secretary would finally marry the boss’ handsome son and moving up in the world the old-fashioned way, with true love conquering all divisions, but here class loyalties prevent that from happening as her initially heroic rescuer is revealed as a craven recidivist. More surprising is how the film handles children. Amid the endless chases, rescues and reversals, there’s the death of a bastard by poisoned apple–a poisonous fairy tale indeed. And in Russia, homeless orphans are crucial to the plot. Can such things be in the ideal state? At least the proud tykes boast that they contribute to society by selling papers when they’re not sleeping in the street.

Maybe the masses were exposing their imperfect education in being seduced by all this jazz, but this movie tells us more about its time and place than some of the era’s more aesthetically radical fare. This tinted print on the Flicker Alley label looks beautiful and carries new music by Robert Israel, who discusses the recording sessions in an extra. Rediscoveries like this give us cause to ponder the official versions of film history. In a century, will scholars turn to the Transformers movies or Adam Sandler’s comedies in order to take their most accurate inventories of millennial America?

My Favorite DVDs of 2009

I find it hard enough to recall what I liked last week, but here is an alphabetical list of last year’s DVDs that are now fodder for my personal canon. Assume the items discussed above are on it. If so inclined, try and see how many you can get through in 2010.

Bolt, Up, Kung Fu Panda, Sita Sings the Blues–Delightful animations.

Capitalism: Child Labor–Amazing short film is a bonus on Momma’s Man.

Crank 2 High Voltage–Sadistic, tasteless hitman movie also happens to be an inventive and witty chunk of radical style. I’m not kidding.

The Cremator–Stylish, bleak Czech film with beautiful score.

The Exiles–Poetic docudrama of American Indians in Los Angeles.

Five–Atomic survivors in a Frank Lloyd Wright house.

Forever–This documentary about how we live with death has many touching moments.

Goodbye Solo–Visual beauty, suspense, and delicate character study.

The Great Buck Howard–Witty comedy of a psychic’s rise and fall.

Julia–Tilda Swinton cranks up the suspense.

Last Year at Marienbad, Jeanne Dielman, Made in USA–Gorgeous French landmarks, all from Criterion.

Let the Right One In–Creepy, tender, horrific juvenile vampire tale.

Magnificent Obsession–Douglas Sirk’s Summer Storm also finally hit video.

Man Hunt–Fritz Lang’s classic WWII suspenser, sharp as a bayonet.

Munyurangabo–Elliptical story of the aftermath of Rwandan genocide and how things are left unsaid; a film to watch after reading Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them.

Murnau–A box of six silents from this German director.

Nikkatsu Noir–Five Japanese crime films, leading up to the brilliant A Colt Is My Passport.

One Step Beyond–Season One of spooky TV anthology.

Our Man in Havana–Writer Graham Greene, director Carol Reed, star Alec Guinness.

Pigs Pimps & Prostitutes–Three noisy, messy visions of 60s Japan by Shohei Imamura.

Poil de Carotte, Au Bonheur des Dames–Major silent rediscoveries by Julien Duvivier.

Private Century–Czech TV series on the home movies of citizens who lived through turbulent times.

Repulsion, Simon of the Desert, Wings of Desire–International classics reissued by Criterion.

Samuel Fuller Collection–Box of wheat and chaff.

Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé–Pioneer nature documentaries.

Slumdog Millionaire–Applies the energetic style of commercials and music videos to the melodrama of Charles Dickens and Bollywood. (For what it’s worth, did anyone notice this is the first Oscar Best Picture about a Muslim? Gandhi was Hindu, and Lawrence of Arabia doesn’t count.)

Synecdoche New York–Unbearably sad story masquerades as surreal comedy.

Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu–Wonderful early ’30s movies about the sadness of life.

Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film 1947-1986, Avant Garde 3: Experimental Cinema 1922-1954–Often amazing samplers.

Waltz with Bashir–Memory, fantasy, documentary and animation.

Zabriskie Point–Restored to widescreen beauty after 40 years, Antonioni’s film shimmers. Try it on a double feature with Jacques Demy’s Model Shop.

I also enjoyed: M Squad (’50s TV series with Lee Marvin), Chocolate (Thai kickfighter action with Rain-Man heroine), The City (1939 doc with Aaron Copland music), Tell No One (French thriller), Frozen River (US indie thriller), Late Bloomer (handicapped serial killer in Japan), The Lost Films of John Gilbert, Luis Bunuel’s Death in the Garden, Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I, Esther Williams Vol. 2 (especially Fiesta), Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 3 (especially Midnight Mary), Icons of Screwball Comedy (especially Theodora Goes Wild and The Doctor Takes a Wife), and Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection.