Thursday, June 19, 2008

Popular (Silent) Film History

Brian has started off the discussion with a detailed and useful consideration of the continuity editing in The Golden Chance. I want to step back to reflect on how we (as cinephiles) approach a film like DeMille's. Popularly, silent film, most of all early silent film, does not fare well; just witness the Netflix stars or imdb ratings. Meanwhile, a popular cinephilia often falls prey to the "Griffith narrative": American cinema fumbled through awkward, one-reeler melodramas til D.W. Griffith refined a more supple film language and invented classicism. I myself have subscribed to this understanding, until I have watched a little more 1910s cinema. Crucially, I have to credit Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell's Film History textbook for breaking me of this lingering historical picture. For they point out Birth of a Nation's importance in elevating the social status but seem to isolate the formal innovations elsewhere, either in Griffith's early work or in other films of the mid-to-late 1910s. And once one starts to look closely, one can begin to draw a different picture.

The Golden Chance
, for example, lacks the epic scope of Birth of a Nation, the tracking shots, or the touches like the activation of off-screen space. But it feels to me closer to the direction in which Hollywood films would follow in the 1920s: continuity editing to give studio sets an illusion of 3-dimensionality (what Noel Burch calls haptic space), true yoking of dual-subplots, and most of all expressive use of artificial lighting. Meanwhile, 20s Hollywood arguably would forsake some of the Griffith traits, such as the schematic, naked parallel editing, a practice to find a more subdued existence. Thompson and Bordwell use The Cheat as an example of this pioneering use of lighting, but The Golden Chance revels in the new effects as well, even from the credit sequence, in which lighting reveals then conceals the drunken husband against the backlit window backdrop.

Also, arguably, while racism and white privilege remained a strong, dominant current, I'd venture that The Golden Chance is closer to Hollywood's key ideology than Birth of a Nation. Crucially, the Cindarella narrative taps into an ur-narrative of class transcendence (conflict meanwhile is external in BoaN). I've always been struck at how often in Hollywood films, to borrow and revise a phrase from Laura Mulvey, the glamorous impersonates the ordinary impersonating the glamorous. What's still missing in The Golden Chance is the complementary class transcendance: in mature classicism, the rich (here the millionaire Roger Manning) would themselves be breaking free of the stifling social roles and class traditions to truly experience life. Undoubtedly, films drew upon popular theatrical, melodramatic, and literary precedents in these narratives and ideologies. I would love to explore this period more, to watch more, and to read exactly what led to Hollywood's ideological formula, which seems established by the 1920s.

Moreover, not being a specialist in the period (and early classical film is really only beginning to get a fraction of the scholarly attention that early and transitional cinema has generated), I find myself asking: is The Golden Chance typical of what an American studio picture of the mid-1910s looked like? Or is De Mille exceptional? Maybe some film-of-the-month clubbers can help answer these questions.


Brian said...

Fascinating line of questions, Chris! One I have for you, though: what do you mean by "activation of off-screen space" in Birth of a Nation? Is this a reference to the parallel editing you mention later?

Chris Cagle said...

I'm referring to something different than the parallel editing: namely, the surprising amount of edge framing in the film, where characters embrace figures at doorways or at the frame's edge. So it's a different kind of activation than continuity editing, where absence is invoked only to be followed by presence. At least that's what I remember from Birth... it's been a while since I've watched the whole feature start to finish.

girish said...

Hi, Brian & Chris -- I enjoyed this film, and your posts have been very stimulating to read. A couple of comments:

-- I was struck by the stark isolating of human figures in the foreground with backgrounds sometimes rendered absolutely pitch black. e.g. at the dinner table in the party scene; or during the first kiss between Mary and Manning.

An interesting variation on the above strategy was to sometimes include one significant detail in the background and leave the rest of the background dark, e.g. the "Beer" sign in the credits above Mary's husband's head; or the vase positioned between the seated and game-playing Hillarys during the credits.

-- The ambiguity of the final image of the film, the lovers not in each others' arms or sharing a kiss, etc., but awkwardly, uneasily together, not touching, looking in opposite directions. A great touch.

Brian, have you seen any other silent De Milles?

Brian said...

I've seen a dozen or so DeMille silents, girish. Out of the fifty-something he made, most of which do survive, it feels like a drop in the bucket. But I guess it's more than the average Joe.

It started when I saw the 1919 Male and Female (which had its plot but not its tone borrowed for Lina Wertmuller's Swept Away) at the SF Silent Film Festival several years back. I was officially intrigued, and haven't missed any of the DeMille films the festival has subsequently brought to town: Carmen (1915), the Godless Girl (1929) and Chicago (1927- credited to Frank Urson but thought by some to have been directed by DeMille, incognito so its jazz-age sensationalism wouldn't spill over onto the pious image he was cultivating while King of Kings was still in roadshow.) All the others have, unfortunately, been only on DVD.

One that I've recently revisited on that format is the Cheat, which employs some "stark isolating" strategies with its lighting very similar to those in the Golden Chance. For example, both films use the same technique of introducing the cast through individual diorama-like presentations of the major characters before the narrative begins, rather than introducing them as they appear in the narrative.

I don't know how common this "diorama" method was, only that I've seen more silent films use the other method. Which brings me to Chris's questions; I don't feel like I'm well-versed enough in the cinema of the mid-1910s to answer Chris's question about whether the Golden Chance was exceptional for its period, or more typical. Reading Don Fairservice has been helpful in granting some perspective on shot construction and editing practice of this period (he does a close analysis of several scenes in the Cheat in a chapter in which he also deals with a film by Thomas Ince and one by William S. Hart), but he refuses to make sweeping conclusions.

However, of the half-dozen DeMille films I've seen from this period, the Golden Chance is unusual in its combination of evident artistry and relative subtlety. The Cheat is perhaps just as "advanced" as the Golden Chance in a progression toward classical Hollywood conventions, both technical and thematic. But it's clearly the more sensationalistic picture.