Monday, September 1, 2014

The Yellow Ticket (1918)

Imagine being told you could not go to school because of your last name. Imagine, even, being barred entry into a city—unless you accepted a legal standing that made you part of a permanent subclass.

I’m not referring to current events, although I could be. That’s the thing about bigotry—it’s always a metaphor for, and a callback to, earlier bigotries. And so, while we turn on the news and see (or simply, live through) today’s hatred, we can also turn to the past and see it manifested there. Even dramatized, as it is in The Yellow Ticket.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

La Voz de Los Silenciados (The Voice of the Voiceless) (2013)

Long ago (in the 90s) I fell in love with a video game called Out of This World. The game’s protagonist was a scientist, transported to an alien planet where he could understand neither the language nor the motives of the natives.

Out of This World was unsettling, because its designer, Éric Chahi, sought to make it art. The game featured a character in isolation, but it also evoked isolation through its game play, using music sparingly—often relying on tones, rather than whole melodies, to make a point about how bad the player’s situation had become. Action sequences were intercut with cinema scenes of dough-headed aliens talking urgently but inscrutably. When the player failed a task—which was often—he returned to the same starting point; usually a prison of some kind, from which he had to escape all over again.

Talk to men and women of my vintage about Out of This World and they’ll tell you it was fun. But what they’ll really want to talk to you about is how it made them feel.

One artwork suggests another. I thought of Out of This World many times while watching La Voz de Los Silenciados (The Voice of the Voiceless), a contemporary silent film by Maximón Monihan, an American director with a background in skateboarding and skateboarding films. Here again we are presented with a protagonist plucked from her own environment and placed in a new one both hostile and difficult to understand. Again we have a narrative broken down into a series of quests, bookended by sameness, repetition. And again there is an undertone of horror. But while the game’s hero was lost among aliens, in this case, our hero is lost among her fellow humans. She is displaced not just geographically, but linguistically. Because she is deaf.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Wind (1928)

You can say a thing a lot of ways. That’s why we watch silent films, isn’t it? To see how, when the sound’s taken away, some great artist got his or her point across. To be reminded of all the options.

Imagine, for example, that you’re watching the story of a man and his wife, both young. They were married under pretences the male party now considers false. They’ve grown estranged. Now he is out on a job and she is home. An intruder muscles his way into the house and attempts to take her away. Realizing, finally, that she would rather stay with her husband than move on, she dispatches the intruder. As his heavy body hits the floor, two dinner plates, set askew on the table behind her, slide into an even stack.

There is no intertitle to tell us their marriage is saved. But it is. The plates said so.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Wild Oranges (1924)

There are moments in Wild Oranges when you wonder what you’re watching. It’s a silent film alright, and it looks like one—but this story of a love affair in a secluded patch of Georgia coast, at times, seems plucked from another period entirely. In form, it’s the early-20s, but in content, often, it feels like something made much later.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Lady of the Night (1925)

Lady of the Night stars Norma Shearer in a duel role: as Molly, daughter of a convict, frequenter of bars; and as Florence, innocent socialite, angelic and pure. They spend most of the picture unaware of one another and share only one thing, besides a freakish resemblance: their love for the same man. Upper class, lower class, not so different really. It is as contrived a structure as a story could have.

But it’s not what you have, it’s what you do with it. When I finished watching the film, I turned to a friend and said, “with silents, you can tell if they’re going to be good from almost the first scene. And that one was good.” And it was. Lady of the Night really works; not because of some ham-fisted moral lesson about love and class—or a plot structure that makes it insistent—but thanks to its pockets of delicate melodrama. Its poetic moments, imbuing the characters with tragic quality. Without these moments, Molly, Florence, and their hangers-on would be buffoons. Instead, they break our hearts.