A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Way Down East (D.W. Griffith, 1920)

If Griffith's sententious title cards (e.g.,"Not by laws -- our Statutes are now overburdened by ignored laws -- but within the heart of man, the truth must bloom that his greatest happiness lies in his purity and constancy") don't have some viewers reaching for the remote, then the cornpone comic antics of his stereotypical rustics, such as the toothless constable (George Neville) and the hayseed Hi Holler (Edgar Nelson), certainly will. But stick with it to witness one of the great action sequences on film, Anna (Lillian Gish) adrift on the ice floe, as well as one of Gish's greatest moments as an actress, when she baptizes her dying baby. Yes, it's all hokum -- what do you expect from a melodrama almost a century old? But it's magnificent, enduring hokum, done brilliantly by a director who now seems more than just a pioneer but an artist of stature. And yes, that stature is tarnished by the man's racism in The Birth of a Nation (1915), just as Wagner's operas are tarnished by the anti-Semitism that many see lurking beneath their surface. But we don't have to endorse our artists to appreciate them, and the great efficiency with which Griffith tells a story and keeps us on the edge of our seats -- even when we know that his sentimentality is antique and outworn -- is something to be appreciated. Credit, too, must go to Billy Bitzer and the other cinematographers (Paul H. Allen, Charles Downs, and Hendrik Sartov) who gave us images that seem well beyond the years in which they were filmed. I do admit to some surprise that there are so many scenes in Way Down East that Griffith is content to film as if they were happening on a proscenium stage when one of his great contributions to the art of cinema is providing a fluidity and intimacy that are unavailable in the theater. Perhaps he was trying to do justice to his set designers, Clifford Pember and Charles O. Seessel, whose work is quite spectacular. But nothing before or since has quite equaled the ice floe sequence.