Friday, October 1, 2010

The 1920s: Puppet emperors, racist talkies and very strong winds

Watching movies from the 1920s has made me realize just how short my attention span really is. In fact it's so short I

As part of my Decades series, in which I examine movies from a particular decade between the 1920s and the 1970s during a particular month, I watched three films from the 1920s during September -- the late 1920s, at that. But I couldn't get through any of them without taking a peek at my laptop -- and two of them were actually really good. (The third one is probably the one that film historians would praise, but I couldn't get into it.)

Looking at your laptop is about the worst thing you can do in a silent film. Since all of the plot information is being communicated visually, you can't just look away and keep listening. It's like trying to watch a foreign movie while you're eating dinner. It just doesn't work. You lose too much information while looking down to make sure your food is securely positioned atop your fork.

But that's a good indication of how much my attention drifted during these movies, and how slow I found their pace to be. I thought I could check an email, play a turn in Lexulous, and still have a pretty good idea what was going on, as long as I kept some of my attention on noticing when the dialogue cards came on the screen, so I'd be sure not to miss any written words. Well, this came back to bite me on the butt on at least one occasion. And without any further ado, let's get to that ...

Storm Over Asia (1928, Vsevolod Pudovkin). Watched: Wednesday, September 8th

Storm Over Asia was on my radar as a film recommended in the massive tome 1,001 Films To See Before You Die. My wife owns a version that I believe is a good ten years old, so it doesn't include the classics from this past decade. But it's a pretty good compendium of what came before. I actually started a project to go through this chronological book and record all the titles in a spreadsheet, to see which ones I had and hadn't seen, and to check them off when I'd seen them. I only got through about 1931, due in part to the fact that this is only about seventh or eighth among my movie projects, let alone other projects. But that meant that Storm Over Asia had entered my awareness, enough for me to throw it on my (now-defunct) Blockbuster queue.

And so when I knew I'd be watching movies from the 1920s, and scanned my queue for ideas, this one came up right away. I was also drawn in by the short length -- it was advertised at only 70 minutes -- as well as the knowledge that Russian cinema from the 1920s is generally considered to be great (the films of Sergei Eisenstein being the most obvious example). As a cherry on top, I loved the director's name: Vsevolod Pudovkin. Fun to say, if I'm even saying it correctly.

It only took about ten minutes for Storm Over Asia to totally alienate me. I started watching it after work on only my second day back following paternity leave, and suffice it to say, it just wasn't the right thing for my brain at that time. I needed something with a lot of laughs or a lot of explosions, and instead I got ... the sociopolitical wranglings of Russians, Mongols and Brits in the 1920s. The story of Storm Over Asia has something to do with a Mongolian fur trader who gets robbed of a fur at a marketplace, fights with a European capitalist and eventually becomes a Soviet partisan. Sometime after that, he's captured by the British, who discover an amulet on him that suggests he's a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. At which point they decide to install him as the puppet emperor for a puppet regime, which doesn't go very well.

However, what I know about Storm Over Asia, I know from wikipedia. When the movie failed to grab me at the start, and I started to wander over to check the baseball scores and other film blogs, I was quickly lost at sea, having missed numerous title cards and (by this point) important plot points. So about halfway through the movie, I read a synopsis on wikipedia and got (somewhat) oriented. But then a terrible thing happened that pretty much destroyed my resolve to do more than half-watch Storm Over Asia. When the story didn't seem to be wrapping up at around the hour mark, I paused the DVD to see that I still had over an hour remaining. That's right, the 70-minute version of Storm Over Asia was just one of its many prints. This print happened to be 130 minutes. Ugh.

To be clear, my negative appraisal of Storm Over Asia has everything to do with my failures as a viewer, both specifically at that time and generally, and not because it's a bad movie. In fact, I'm sure it is a quite good movie. It is certainly grand and ambitious, including breath-taking scenes of battle, and Tibetan ceremonies performed by real Tibetans. And the story, even if stretched out interminably, seems to be somewhat interesting. But my viewing circumstances were all wrong, and I just have to chalk this one up to a loss. I'm not going to sit through it again, so I get credit for watching but not appreciating Storm Over Asia.

The Jazz Singer (1927, Alan Crosland). Watched: Monday, September 13th

I'd say my experience with Storm Over Asia had something to do with my selection of The Jazz Singer as my next movie from the 1920s, except that I think it was already queued up and ready to ship before I watched Pudovkin's movie. However, the possibility of dialogue -- and a definitely shorter running time -- got me excited for The Jazz Singer as a change of pace from what had come before. Besides, the "first talkie" was something I had been meaning to see all my film-loving life.

I put "first talkie" in quotation marks because it is generally accepted that The Jazz Singer is credited with being something it actually isn't. Film scholars talk about how there were numerous previous experiments with synching up dialogue and action in movies, and that The Jazz Singer isn't actually a talkie from start to finish anyway -- it only includes a couple scenes in which the singing is occurring live, and Al Jolson's ad-libbing while singing "Blue Skies" to his character's mother is what we always think of as the first spoken dialogue in film. However, I will say that seeing him speak -- after the film had started out with dialogue cards -- was a rush even 80 years later, as I was easily able to put myself in the shoes of those who had never seen such a thing before. The abrupt return to silence afterward must have been an indelible moment for those audiences -- it was the moment they realized a new era had arrived, and that the reign of the pantomiming silent stars was coming to an end.

Aside from the film's obvious technical achievement, there were a couple other things that struck me:

1) I didn't realize it was such a ripoff of The Simpsons. That's a joke of course, but I had no idea before watching that the Simpsons where Rabbi Krustovsky disowns his son Herschel (otherwise known as Krusty the Clown) was an homage to this movie. Really, I had no idea what The Jazz Singer was about at all, except that it was remade as a Neil Diamond vehicle in the 1970s. So when the rabbi father of Jakie Rabinowitz disowns his jazz singing son, later redubbed Jack Robin, shouting (on a title card) "I HAVE NO SON!", I thought, "Wait a minute ..." and looked it up. It was funny to watch the movie with the Simpsons episode as a reference point, as it made it easier to relate to -- though it wouldn't have been hard to follow in the first place, because the story is simple and deliberate, and is broken up by a bunch of really charming musical numbers.

2) I had forgotten that it was a racially controversial film. In fact, I now realize why I had spent a lot of my life thing that Al Jolson was black: In the film's third act, he performs in blackface. (Not that anyone could really mistake a person in blackface for an actual African American, but the perception stuck with me based on information I mislearned at some point in the past). I'm not sure if blackface was a particularly controversial thing at the time, or whether it has been ascribed these unfortunate negative traits in retrospect, but having grown up as a person who thought that blackface was terribly insensitive, I naturally found these scenes a bit hard to watch. The good news is, there's nothing actually negative about black people in his wearing of the blackface -- my sense is that it's simply his character in the show he's performing, at a time when black performers were obviously not permitted on Broadway. It did make me wonder, though -- why are all the big cinematic firsts (Birth of a Nation being another) tainted by some kind of unfortunate racial politics? On the other hand, this film seemed to be sort of progressive as a mainstream Hollywood film -- not only is the main character Jewish, but he performs a role where he's black.

Overall, I enjoyed the story and found Jolson to be an incredibly charismatic performer -- which many other cinephiles have known for decades. I did take a couple peeks at my laptop, but only because I knew I'd be able to keep up.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928, Charles Reisner). Watched: Tuesday, September 28th

Wanting to keep the good variety of films going, I figured a trip (albeit brief) through the 1920s wouldn't be complete without catching a movie from the great Buster Keaton. I'm a bit more versed on Charlie Chaplin films from the era, and had only seen one Keaton film from start to finish: The General. Yet I had a memory of seeing highlight reels of Keaton's physical pratfalls and other stunts, and wanted to catch one of the films that might have some of the best ones. In fact, I happened across the very one I wanted without actually knowing it was the one I wanted.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. was available for immediate streaming on Netflix, and its name caught my attention for the similarity to the Mickey Mouse cartoon Steamboat Willie. It turns out, Steamboat Willie is, in fact, a sort of parody of Steamboat Bill, Jr. -- meaning that Steamboat Itchy (The Simpsons do like their 1920s parodies, don't they?) was a parody of them both.

However, Steamboat Bill, Jr. did not have as much to do with steamboats as I was expecting. Having seen The General, almost all of which takes place on or around the locomotive in question, I figured this Keaton movie would be intensely steamboat-centric. Not so. In fact, while it starts and finishes on the steamboat owned by the father of Keaton's clownish character (hence the "Jr." in the title), there's a lot in the middle that has little to do with that -- a trip to the haberdashery, a sequence trying to bust his father out of jail, and a crazy windstorm that knocks down nearly every building on the set.

And it was this crazy windstorm that I recognized as making up the majority of the Keaton highlight reel I saw. Even if you haven't seen Steamboat Bill, Jr., you are probably familiar with this sequence as well. Keaton starts in a hospital bed, where he has come after getting a conk on the head while trying to bust his dad out of jail. When the storm hits, it lifts the building from around Keaton, leaving only the beds and the floor boards. Snapping to attention, Keaton proceeds to run from building to building, dodging one building as it falls in front of him, another as it falls behind him, and even one -- and this is the scene I really remember -- as it falls on top of him. As a result of careful measuring and some basic understanding of physics, Keaton doesn't have to move an inch as the entire facade falls around him, because he's standing in the one spot where there's an open window. It seems like a dangerous stunt -- that set had to be heavy -- but they pull it off with what looks like ease. As numerous sets turn into so much crumpled paper around him, Keaton deftly dodges everything, and even does one bit where he's walking against the wind with his body at less than a 45 degree angle from the ground. Still don't know how they did that one.

Anyway, this sequence is hilarious, brilliant and thrilling, and makes up for any slow patches and shortcomings in the rest of the movie. Glad I saw it.

Though, speaking of those slow patches, I did have to watch the jail scene a couple times, because I'd again let my laptop distract me. Maybe I need to make a rule about that.

Okay, what will October have in store?

Let's see ... only three decades left.

And after moving backward in time for the first two months, from the 1970s to the 1960s, now we're moving forward in time, from the 1920s to the 1930s.

All the movies will have dialogue, but will they all hold my attention?


Monty Burns said...

Good for you for watching old movies, something I never make myself do anymore.

I hadn't thought about that Krusty/Jolson connection before. I do, however, have that classic looney tunes cartoon burned into my memory banks. You know, the one about owls that is just a direct ripoff of The Jazz Singer? The angry Dad owl wants the kid owl to be serious, but he just wants to sing jazz? "I like to sing-a, about the moon-a and the june-a and the spring-a..." I owe most of my classical film/music/history knowledge to Bugs and the gang.

oh, and his name is 'owl jolson'...

Vancetastic said...

Funny, I remember that song, but not the actual cartoon at all. I guess it would have been too much to make the father owl a rabbi, eh?

Don't worry, now that I've watched my three movies from the 1920s, I'll get lazy again.