Friday, February 17, 2012

What I've Been Watching

Silent Film Edition: Part I

      There is no way I could conjoin, at least with any faithful accord, the words film and connoisseur without examining the silent film era. And not some thumbnail critique, but an honest inspection where the terms zeitgeist and technical efficiency dominate the lexicon. 
      For the obsessively xenophobic moviegoer, whose idea of a movie predicated strictly upon visuals, pantomime, and intertitles inspires loathsome charges of supreme boredom, this feature shall, I can only hope (thank you, Princess Leia), instill in you perhaps a scintilla of affection for the era that gave birth to our beloved cinema.
      The idea of merging sound and image, specifically "motion picture," is as old as film itself, but technical challenges, arising from difficulties synchronizing dialogue, prevented their practical marriage. With the advent of the Vitaphone system, ushering in the first commercially viable, feature-length motion picture with synchronized dialogue, 1927's The Jazz Singer, the prevalent utility of silent film was soon displaced by the commercial predominance of "talkies."  And in 1929, the modern sound film era found its near century-long stronghold; it took another thirty years before the preponderance of color would overtake black-and-white, in large part a result of the emergence of affordable, home-television sets. 
      Now, I do not intend for this post to be neither a history lesson nor a reprimand of today's widespread antipathy for the silent film era. And to be perfectly frank, seeing and appreciating The Artist does not render you an authority. Hopefully, though, it is the impetus that does encourage you to delve further into the era that did inspire Michel Hazanavicius's outstanding homage. 
      Before I undertook this massive task, this familiar song, a staple of perseverance, was flowing ubiquitously through my veins, peering into the imaginative window of my soul like a muse forlorn, thundering loudly in the background that occupies the dormant recesses of my audible mind: Rick Astley's Never Gonna Give You [Yes, you, Silent Film] Up
      The first two silent films I will spotlight are the two seminal works from the preeminent, pioneering American director, Mr. D.W. Griffith. Without further ado, let the Silent Film Party begin. 

The Birth of A Nation (1915) - D.W. Griffith

Griffith is the rare auteur breed: Half-intrepid cinematic force, half-aesthetician. Emblazoned immemorial in annals of film history as "Oh, That Racist Movie," his Birth of A Nation, so aptly named, is a far more luminous picture than the abominable context it's beholden to. Chronicling the diametric, and at crucial times, vacillating ideologies of the North and South before, during, and after the American Civil War, Griffith's epic was a remarkable visual demonstration. As the father of the modern narrative, Griffith conceived a robust visual language, his grammar split between an artifice of prescient cinematic movement and, for the era, technical virtuosity. Eschewing theatrical stodginess, commensurate with the lot of early silent films, D.W. imbued Birth with vitality, wielding an unprecedented cache of visual tricks, chiefly cross-cutting. Tension, suspense, and excitement are, at present time, ingrained in the lifeblood of cinema, but, for moviegoers accustomed to more rigid, formulaic entertainment, Griffith's dynamic action flourishes were revolutionary; Birth's dramatic climax, intercutting a master shot of militant KKK riders with an array of medium shots and close-ups, was a bizarre sensory experience for the unrefined moviegoer. And today, despite the virulent sociological manifesto on which it rests, the climactic action holds up remarkably well. Griffith, an acculturate of a prejudiced upbringing, soon discovered the myopic perils undercutting his derogatory treatise. Intolerance was his apology. Imprisoned by overt discrimination, and reviled as propaganda, Birth should also be remembered favorably as a sterling artistic composition. While a despicable dissection of race relations—polarizing critics now and forever—his most controversial work was also a formidable dramatization, marrying talent and vision, uncommon in silent film's nascent years. Roger Ebert. after accounting for its egregious rhetoric, opined, "It [Birth] can't be ignored.....If we are to see this film, we must see it all, and deal with it all." Willfully subjecting yourself to categorical racism is no easy task, but, if we care to observe history, as Ebert points out, our eyes, ears, and souls require authenticity. Showcasing cinema's remunerative visual powers, Birth of A Nation was, I can decree without bias, an oasis of artistry amid racist demagogy.
9 out of 10

Intolerance (1916) - D.W. Griffith

If Birth of A Nation demonstrated the potential of cinema, as distinct art melding image and movement, Intolerance pushed the boundaries further, establishing a higher aesthetic echelon. Griffith outdid himself, plain and simple. What began as a garden-variety tale of crime and redemption metamorphosized into an epic narrative quartet, dramatizing several centuries of bigotry. Intolerance unites four parallel storylines, consisting chiefly of the "Modern Story," which concerns the lives of an impoverished, happily married couple whose livelihood is compromised by the vulgar interference of a purported "Social Reform" group (The Mother and the Law); the "French Story" documents Catharine de Medici's persecution of the Huguenots; the "Biblical Story" details "Christ's Mission and Death;" and the most effusively praised thread, the "Babylonian Story," centers around the Babylonian Empire's ultimate demise. Griffith links these separate stories together symbolically through the "Woman Who Rocks the Cradle" (played by the effervescent silent film star, Lilian Gish). A massive public outcry, complete with charges of racism, immediately followed the release of The Birth of A Nation. Griffith swiftly conceived of an earnest apology; employing his expertise, Intolerance was his peace offering. Lamenting the rebukes, and cogently redressing the criticism, Griffith designed Intolerance as an evocative atonement, his own personal yet formal confession of guilt. And though the feverish cross-cutting provokes weariness, and the heavy-handed symbolism and frenetic montage invokes certain pretension, Intolerance does ultimately succeed as a deft, highly sophisticated symphony of sound, lens, character, and emotion. Boasting the most elaborate set design of the time, and cultivating style and substance robustly, a dual skill-set foremost in his grasp, Griffith's Intolerance was a peerless spectacle. Frankly any discussion concerning the cinematic titans of the silent film era has to begin with D.W. Griffith, for he was cinema's modern progenitor, codifying visual and narrative cues that contemporary directors and today's moviegoers take for granted. And alongside D.W. in that silent film pantheon is a troika of cinematic specialists, equally responsible for film's affluent growth: F.W. Murnau, Sergei M. Eisenstein, and Fritz Lang. Their films will undoubtedly feature prominently in my segment. *Because Intolerance is in the Public domain and, therefore, freely accessible, I watched the Killiam Shows Version via YouTube.
9.5 out of 10


  1. Wow, this is a very thoughtful piece and a testament to you as a true student and lover of cinema in all it's various forms.

    I remember thinking Birth was the silliest, most ignorant, racist piece of shlock. I rolled my eyes at the blackface and shuddered at how black men were portrayed as ignorant brutes hell-bent on raping white women. I was akso sickened at how the KKK was seen as some heroic knighthood. I found myself too offended to look at it with any kind of distance. Growing up where I did and having the friends I do, this movie will always be reprehensible to me. But, I am very glad that there are people out there like you, who can look at something without bias and see the artistry that is there.

    I have never seen Intolerance and that is probably because I was so disgusted with Griffith's Birth that I did not give this film a fair shake. I try to be open minded, but sometimes my prejudices get the better of me. Perhaps I will give this oe a shot.

    1. Thanks, Mel! I do fashion myself a student of film. And as a student, my appetite for knowledge is insatiable.

      Your initial impressions of Birth are apt. I actually held many of the same complaints, a predisposition to disinterest, to put it lightly; of course, this was before I actually sat down to watch all three hours. In order to appreciate Griffith's vision (which is clearly born from a deplorable dogma antithetical to my own view), I had to understand his context. He was a product of the predominantly racist South, for instance. And ultimately, in acknowledging the error of his ways (by turning Intolerance into an even greater, morally sound epic), I was able to distinguish between the horrendous narrative and the obvious artistic talent on display. It's not an easy proposition. I don't expect others to approach Birth the same way. But that was my experience. I certainly applaud your point of view.

      Thanks for your detailed take, Mel :)

  2. It is hard to imagine any move to provide redemption for 'Birth'. I saw 'Birth of a Nation' with disbelieving amazement. How could such a thing exist? Now, I will look at 'Intolerance' to see if it did redeem such racist trash. Thanks, Matt.

    1. Thanks for entering the discussion, Susan!

      It's not so much providing "redemption" for Birth. Clearly, the narrative is a moral abomination and espouses an ideology I find absolutely irredeemable. But, in order to approach film criticism with an impartial eye, and an awareness of context (knowing when and where this film was made, for instance), I'm required to evaluate its merits and credentials thoughtfully. That's what I did. My opinion rendered, therefore, is a product of earnest inspection. The ultimate take-away: I can enjoy a film which preaches a message I thoroughly dislike and yet still be able to discover genius.

      And you're welcome.

  3. Matthew - Well done indeed. It is incredibly difficult to look past the racist whole of Birth to see the early filmmaking talent on display. I've only seen the film once - watching more to see how the movie was made than what was in it. But kudos to you for getting in there with the objective eye. I have not seen Intolerance - I'll have to give it a try. Now for the question - when are you going to get to the Keaton, the Chaplin, the Lloyd, the Fairbanks, the Chaney stuff? I'm looking forward to those posts a lot! Cheers!

    1. Hi, Craig!

      Yes, it is difficult to differentiate the overt racism of Birth from the demonstration of prodigious talent. But I did. And I am glad because impartiality and objectivity are two cornerstones of criticism. I doubt I could call myself a serious student of film if I severed that age-old precept because of a strong aversion to the story (and message). Film, after all, exceeds the boundaries of entertainment. And thanks for favorably acknowledging my approach.

      Yep, this is only Part I. I've seen a dozen films of Chaplin and Keaton (and will feature one of each in the ensuing segments). But I'm disgraced to admit that I will not feature any films from Lloyd, Fairbanks, or Chaney. The impetus for this Silent Film Marathon was a desire to discover the beginnings of film, and the early flashes of genius (Eisenstein, Vertov, Murnau, Lang, Griffith, Fleherty, Chaplin, Keaton, etc.), so while I enjoyed The Phantom of the Opera, Robin Hood, and Safety Last! (and believe me, I'm not discounting their greatness), I did not deem them indispensable to my discussion. But, who knows...perhaps I'll surprise myself and do a write-up of one of their films, too.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Craig.

  4. I confess I am not a big fan of silent movies, although I have seen and and enjoyed a few, including Metropolis.

    1. Not a particularly revelatory admission, Alex. Most—in fact, the extreme majority—of my friends (non-film obsessed) completely disavow of silent film. I appreciate your honesty. And the fact that you enjoy some, especially Lang's Metropolis, is praiseworthy. That is an astounding achievement; arguably the birth of science fiction in cinema.

      Thanks for stopping by.