Forgotten Legends

Film history is so massive, that even if you devote a lot of time to journeying through it, it is hard to even scratch the surface. For me, like most other people, many films and directors slip under the radar. Inspired by not too long ago seeing my first Kurosawa film Derzu Uzala (1974), I thought it was time to check out a few films directed by legends who had completely passed me by. Here are my first encounters with three greats of cinema, which turn out to be more interesting that I had perhaps expected, but definitely not for the reasons I was expecting.

Of the three great names of American silent cinema that still reign today, only one traded in drama– D.W. Griffith. Griffith is probably best known for the infamous Civil War, Klu Klux Klan promoting, The Birth of a Nation (1915). Throughout the silent era his productions also pushed the boundaries of scope, in relation to length of films, cost and scale of sets. Broken Blossoms (1919) represents something of a departure from that, being essentially a small-scale tale. And this is the film I chose to be my first exposure to Griffith. As a fan of silent film, and having heard so much about the greatness of his work, to say I was super excited to see this would be an understatement. Similarly, to say that I was grossly underwhelmed would also be an understatement.

The film starts promisingly, with a prologue of sorts set in China. These scenes look excellent and authentic, they made me wonder for a while if they were actually shot on location. They are also promising in that they portray an un-judgemental portrayal of China, the Chinese and Buddhism. Of course, it is impossible to judge the racial standards of a film made 90 years ago using today’s standards. Even so, from this early beginning, unfortunately the caricaturing of the Asian characters is disappointing. The most prominent of them is Yellow Man (you never get told his name, although it is on his shopfront) played by Richard Barthelmess. Richard Barthelmess is not a very Chinese sounding name. Which is apt, because he is not Chinese. Having an American play the main Chinese character in the film is a massive let down. Not just because it is offensive these days, but because it does away with virtually all the authenticity that Griffith has built up in the opening scenes. Barthelmess’ Yellow Man sets out for England in an attempt to spread the peaceful message of Buddhism to that country, because they are essentially violent fiends who need it. But the next time we meet Yellow Man, he has apparently failed in that mission, with his “youthful dreams [having] come to wreck against the sordid realities of life”, and he now works as a disillusioned, opium smoking shopkeeper.

After introducing Yellow Man and his back-story, the film shifts focus to introduce the audience to young Lucy, played by Lillian Gish; and her father, the prize-fighter Battling Burrows played by Donald Crisp. These two provide the best performances in the film. Crisp is perfectly leering and expressive as the violent father, whilst Gish is truly fantastic in a difficult role. She is essentially a victim, and making it even more difficult, she is one of an indeterminable age. The father-daughter relationship is established, with Burrows being physically abusive toward his daughter. The scenes of him attacking Lucy are the film’s most affecting, clearly showing off Griffith’s ability. But the issue in this early part of the film is that not much happens. It meanders on and on. It is not until the film is half over that Yellow Man and Lucy finally meet, which is when the narrative finally actually kicks into gear (but even here not a whole lot happens) with Lucy taking refuge in the Yellow Man’s shop. This lopsided narrative is a fatal flaw of the film for me. It took so long for anything to really occur story wise that by the time it did, I didn’t care. And as mentioned, all the interesting authenticity Griffith builds up disappears. Even once Yellow Man has come to London, Griffith seems to be showing a genuine interest in Asian culture, with opium, musical instruments and dress adding detail. But after about 15 minutes this is all done away with, and all we are left with are generic London locales. For a moment it appears that Griffith is going to establish an interesting, Stephen Crane Maggie: A Girl of the Streets vibe, but this fades into blandness before too long.

I do not want to harp on about the racial aspects of the film. Firstly because I do not want to get bogged down in a discussion of whether or not I should take umbrage with it because of the context the film was made in; and secondly because my opinion of the film transcends this issue. Having said that the film is shrouded in racist terminology and stereotypes. According to the film Yellow Man is sensitive (read wussy) like all Chinese and is often called Chink. At the height of the endearment in their relationship, Lucy affectionately refers to him as “Chinky” You could counter these arguments about racism by pointing to the positive portrayal of Yellow Man, who there is no doubt is the closest thing to a hero that exists in the film. But there is also no doubting that he is still shown to be racially inferior and only looks good in contrast to the piece of scum that Burrows is. I’m not really sure what the critical consensus is to the depiction of race in the film. I think that Griffiths’ is attempting to get across an anti-racist message, the character of Battling Burrows does encompass the sheer illogicality of a racist standpoint. Overall though, for me, these themes were just presented unfortunately and not rammed home enough.

One of the reasons that Griffith is considered such a towering figure of film history is because of his technical proficiency. Much of this is on display in Broken Blossoms, and it is used to differing levels of success. Iris shots are utilised repeatedly, restricting what the audience is able to see. But rather than enhance the atmosphere of the film, the effect is unfortunately just disconcerting. Better employed are a couple of innovative close-ups late in the film which work excellently, building a sense of tension and fear. The editing and shot composition is at times intriguing, but more often than not unremarkable. It is disappointing that scenes where Griffiths’ skills gel are all too rare, such as the exciting boxing bout. Just like his technical skills, the performances that the director elicits are likewise up and down. As Yellow Man, Barthelmess is unimpressive not managing to convey anything other than a blank canvas and inspiring no interest in a character that should be ultra intriguing. Donald Crisp definitely takes the honours in the male acting stakes with his bullying Battling Burrows. But it is the iconic Lillian Gish who delivers the best performance. It is her brilliant performance that imbues the early abuse scenes with their terrifying quality. Given the quality of this performance, it is a shame that the film is so poorly done narratively that it is hard to even muster a sense of caring what happens to Gish’s Lucy. The best example of this is the film’s ending which should be utterly crushing, but is wholly unmoving. It is these two latter performances which provide probably the only highlight of the film for me.

I was so bored watching this, and became increasingly disillusioned whilst doing so. There is just nothing of interest here. No drama, no thematic depth to cling onto and no enjoyment. Griffith was a true cinema pioneer who achieved a great many ‘firsts’ throughout his career. Well, with this film he has just earned himself another one. The first film to earn one of these: 

Verdict: Schooner of Tooheys New 

If you want to check out the film to see if you agree with my summation, here it is:

Of the three films I was watching for this piece, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) was the one I was expecting to enjoy the least. How wrong I was.

The film starts wonderfully with Claudette Colbert’s newly married daughter jumping off a yacht to escape her disapproving father. The problem, as it always is, is that she has married the wrong man. This escape pitches Colbert’s Ellie into a bus trip from Miami to New York, where her path crosses with Clark Gable’s Peter Warne. She is the woman on the run, racing back to her forbidden husband, he’s the out of work reporter wanting the exclusive (Ellie is a forever in the news socialite). The long haul bus trip provides the film’s central narrative thrust, and many of its best moments. Having toiled on the odd long haul bus ride (although nothing nearly as long as this one), I had empathy for the plight of these poor passengers. Capra cleverly displays the joys and more commonly the pains of these kinds of trips with the passengers ranging from kind, to loud, to annoyingly flirtatious. The one major advantage of this trip over my usual Murrays service from Canberra to Sydney is that at one point a live band busts out leading the masses in a sing-along whilst a hipflask is passed around for good measure. Yes! – that’s the kind of bus I wanna ride on.

The film is not about wowing you with the beauty of meticulously constructed scenes. The meticulous construction is instead devoted to the dialogue and jokes which derive from the central relationship. That said when Capra wants to wow you, he definitely can. This is evidenced by a number of the night time scenes including a stunning shot of a river, with the moonlight shimmering off the water. And there is no doubt in general that Capra is a technically proficient director. He nicely edits the film together, keeping it ticking along snappily. Wipe fades, the kind of which would come to populate T.V. sitcoms, are here employed nicely, making one scene flow seamlessly into the next. There is much discussion, predominately through dialogue, of the economic class divide which is the core theme explored in the film. At one point Gable’s Peter retorts that “I have never met a rich man who could piggyback.” For a lot of the film there is derision on his part towards Ellie, as he thinks she is nothing but a spoilt little rich girl. The acts and determinants of both snobbery and reverse-snobbery are also examined.

The two leads deliver fantastic performances (even more notable given the shoot was apparently an unhappy one).  Lillian Gish lookalike Claudette Colbert knocks it out of the park with her wonderful presence, more than matching her more esteemed male colleague. Clark Gable struggles early, mainly because his character is extremely strange tonally. He quite viciously snaps at Ellie with next to know provocation which gets him off on the wrong foot with the audience. But when Gable’s character settles, his acting ability really shines through and he aces both the dramatic and comedic aspects of his character with aplomb in a brilliant performance. The third excellent performance comes from Walter Connolly as Ellie’s Wall St bigwig father who is a crack-up. He delivers both a wonderful performance and encompasses a wonderful character, two very different things. The film benefits from a wonderful script bearing perfectly judged and written dialogue. The dialogue is funny and snappy, imbuing the film with the ‘screwball’ dynamic that Capra was so identifiable with. Every comedy writer should be made to sit and listen to the banter between the leads before writing a feature film script. The film features some pretty overt, forward sexuality in both dialogue and action. The two leads, one a single man, the other a married woman, share a bedroom on a number of overnight stays. The room is divided by the ‘Walls of Jericho’ a tactically hung sheet, but we all know what happened to those walls in the end. I seem to always be mentioning how forward old films are. Maybe movies were just more forward than I expect them to be. Narratively the film builds to an eventual, inevitable emotional confliction. Despite this though, even though you know it is coming, it manages not to feel stale. There is genuine tension as to just how the film will end and character’s true colours (both good ones and bad ones) are laid bare during the final sequences.

Dialogue wise, this is as good as films get. Many scenes rise to iconic status merely through the verbal banter going back and forth between the two leads. Notably these include an in-depth discussion of the art of dunking doughnuts, and another about the art of hitchhiking. This film was just the light, funny tonic I needed after the let down that was my first meeting with D.W. Griffiths. It’s a classic which you should hunt down. 

Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter 

Jumping further forward in time, and slightly to the east brought me to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). Unfortunately it also brought me back to the sheer, unmitigated boredom of Broken Blossoms, this time with pretension as an added bonus. I know I’m meant to like this Soviet art-film; Tarkovsky is a favourite of hardcore film buffs worldwide. But all this film brought about in me was the desire to sleep.

The film goes for almost 3 hours. Even the DVD menu on the copy I watched was bloody slow, taking forever for me to be able to select anything. Right from the start, you can see why it takes so long, with the credits announced at a snail’s pace.  There is no dialogue for the first 10 agonising, but beautiful, minutes (I know this because it took me this long to realise I was watching it dubbed and needed to change the settings to subtitled). And this first 10 minutes is symptomatic of the 150 or so that follow it. This is essentially an art film.

I would like to think that I am able to appreciate the merit and ‘art’ in all kinds of film, from Judd Apatow comedy to Marvel comic book flick, to Terrence Malick art house film. But for me, this just dragged. Nothing happened, and just as importantly, it was just not that impressive to look at. In relation to genre/narrative you could say that this is a very strange odd couple (actually threesome) road trip. The film concerns ‘The Zone’, a mysterious place where people who enter generally do not return from. The film’s protagonist is a Stalker, one of the few able to enter this place, and navigate his way out. He is accompanied by an ideologically confused, inspirationless, alcoholic writer and a professor looking to make his name based on what he can learn inside The Zone.

The film is meditative, but seemingly on meaningless or ordinary things, the painstaking preparations for entering the zone for example. Upon entering the zone both sound and cinematography are used to demarcate the zone from what lies outside. The cinematography shifts into colour Wings of Desire (1987) style and the soundtrack becomes filled with industrial buzzes and whistles. The Zone is a place that rumours swirl around, that there is a place in there where wishes come true being one example. Out of the overall blandness I was able to discern a cautionary environmental tale about man’s ability to destroy the zone and some sort of spiritual dimension to the Stalker because he was a Stalker… or something. I may have been asleep when I thought that. Because, even though as far as film reviewing points go it is about as unsubtle and nuanced as it gets, this movie bored the shit out of me. By about an hour in I couldn’t care less about what was happening onscreen and what may possibly happen to the characters populating it. All I could think about was the seemingly interminable amount of time I still had to trudge through. And I did trudge through it, despite the urgings of my girlfriend to just give up on one of my frequent, whining snack breaks. I kept thinking that surely it was going to get better, more engaging. Nope. 

I assume this film is a metaphor for life… probably. At least I assume that was what was with the endless philosophical mumbo-jumbo. I didn’t see any metaphor. All I saw was a film that was unable to hold my attention or interest like no other on this 1001 list with my mind wandering endlessly outside the world of the film. I will grant that the last shot is fucking cool though.  Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. 

Verdict: Schooner of Tooheys New

Progress: 50/1001

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