Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Grass (1925)

A friend asked me the other day if documentaries were common in the silent era. I told him I’d seen a few—Nanook of the North (1922) for one, and Chang (1927), and that Nanook was the most famous. I also told him that silent documentaries differed a bit, philosophically, from what came later.

The qualities by which we judge a documentary successful today aren’t simply artistic ones. We also want a story we can believe in—on more than emotional grounds. If we see staged scenes, for example, we wonder how the real event differed from what we’re seeing. If persons or groups depicted in the film aren’t given voice, we wonder about the filmmaker’s bias. We acknowledge that bringing any story to the screen requires a degree of artifice—that documentaries are art, like other films. But like a well-written magazine feature (for example), they must be delivered with that objective sheen.

The reason my friend had asked me about silent docs was because I’d told him I’d just watched Grass. The film depicts a Bakhtiari tribe’s migratory odyssey from modern-day Turkey to western Iran, in search of pasture land for their livestock. Grass is, by the standards of the decade in which it was filmed, a successful documentary. By today’s standards, not so much.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Mistress Nell (1915)

There is more than one way to appreciate Mistress Nell, and it depends, I think, on how many Mary Pickford films you’ve seen in your life.

I’ve seen a lot of them. Enough to know the prototypical Pickford part when I see it: the plucky, forceful youth, the rough-mannered gem who knows herself and inspires the rest of us. And so I can say with confidence that if you like that kind of thing, and you’ve never seen a Pickford film before, Mistress Nell is a good one to start with.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Mabel's Dramatic Career (1913)

Mabel Normand was Keystone Studios’ greatest female star. A comedienne of the first rank, she also wrote and directed, and would be better remembered today if her personal life hadn’t ended her career, and her life, too soon.

For those of us who do know her, the rewards of a Normand performance remain as clear as they were in the 1910s. She had impeccable pacing and natural pathos, and an ability—unmatched, I think, in the silent era—to appear overwhelmed by the chaos surrounding her. This was calculated, of course, and it was a perfect fit for the short comedies Mack Sennett’s studio produced. For those films were fast—sometimes too fast—and populated with comedy grotesques. Normand brought heart, and even sympathy, to the Keystone films she starred in. She slowed the tornado down.

Mabel’s Dramatic Career isn’t Normand’s best work, nor is it one of Keystone’s best shorts. But it exemplifies what Normand’s presence could add to a film. And, maybe, what her absence could take away.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Manxman (1929)

There is no love triangle quite like this one.

I first watched The Manxman years ago, having already seen several of Alfred Hitchcock’s other silent films. None of those ones had overwhelmed. Though they showed touches of the brilliance to come, they were also the products of a youthful director still finding his footing. They were uneven and, by the standards of late-20s silent cinema, nothing to write home about.

But The Manxman? I loved it. Was transfixed by it. My heart broken by it. Could predict not one moment of it. I told people to watch it, promising they’d have a similar experience. A few did, and most of them agreed. But it remains a film few people know about, available in lousy video copies and rarely mentioned even when Hitchcock’s silent films are (rarely) mentioned.

I like to think BFI is changing that. Its 2012 restorations of the “Hitchcock 9” (the surviving nine silents that the master directed—out of a total of ten) lets these films shine as best they can—eliminating, for the most part, the wear of time, and allowing them to be judged, without qualification, on their artistic merits. Some still fall short. The Manxman, in my opinion, soars.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Blackmail (1929)

Yesterday evening marked the start of the Toronto Silent Film Festival’s Hitchcock 9 screening series—an event that will be executed over several weeks. Could you, by chance, be unfamiliar with the Hitchcock 9? You are not alone.

Alfred Hitchcock directed ten silent films at the beginning of his career, nine of which survive. They vary in genre, theme and style, and they are little known today—in part because they are silent, but also because they’ve long been available, on video, in prints of such a quality that Hitchcock could’ve sued for vandalism.

But things are looking up. In 2012, the British Film Institute (BFI) completed restorations of all nine silents, and by all accounts they look gorgeous. I can vouch for only one so far: the opening film of TSFF’s series: Blackmail.