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

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström, 1921)

Victor Sjöström and Tore Svennberg in The Phantom Carriage
David Holm: Victor Sjöström
Anna Holm: Hilda Borgström
Georges: Tore Svennberg
Edit: Astrid Holm
Edit's Mother: Concordia Selander
Maria: Lisa Lundholm
Gustafsson: Tor Weijden
David's Brother: Einar Axelsson

Director: Victor Sjöström
Screenplay: Victor Sjöström
Based on a novel by Selma Lagerlöf
Cinematography: Julius Jaenzon
Art direction: Alexander Bako, Axel Esbensen

In commenting on Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) recently, I observed that its ending, in which Arthur and Doreen plan a wedding and dream of a home of their own, almost took on the character of a parody of a movie "happy ending," given their previous behavior and the blighted milieu in which they live. It's almost certainly what Reisz and Alan Sillitoe, adapting his own novel, intended. They were making a drama, which depends on belief, in this case an ironic credibility in which the viewer knows the story of Arthur and Doreen hasn't really ended. If drama depends on belief, then melodrama depends on feeling: a willingness to suspend credulity in favor of a kind of emotional certainty, a feeling that the way the story ends is emotionally, if not intellectually, right. That's why I can't quarrel with the ending of The Phantom Carriage, even though I know that the supposed reformation and redemption of David Holm is scarcely credible in terms of real-world alcoholism and abusiveness. It feels right in the context of a ghost story. Victor Sjöström's movie is one of the acknowledged masterpieces of silent film, notable for its lasting influence, not only on Sjöström's compatriot Ingmar Bergman, but even on a filmmaker as recent as Stanley Kubrick, who copied the harrowing scene in which David takes an ax to the door between him and his terrified wife when he filmed the "Here's Johnny!" sequence in The Shining (1980). This is also one of the few films by an actor-director in which the actor is as successful as the director. Granted, we may quibble about a few things, such as the fact that 50-year-old Hilda Borgström was a bit too old to play the mother of two small children (who never seem to age during the film). Or that the ghost story gets jettisoned in favor of the morality tale: If David wasn't really dead, then who gets to relieve Georges of his duty of driving the carriage? But this is melodrama and it's enough to say that it feels right.

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