Friday, August 26, 2016
No Audio Audient: Broken Blossoms
This is the eighth in my series No Audio Audient, in which I'm watching one silent film per month in 2016.
When I first started this series, one of my concerns about silent films in general was how they don't make good apples-to-apples comparisons with modern films. I wasn't talking only, or even primarily, or even at all about the fact that they have no spoken dialogue and are black and white. No, I was talking about their length. I can compare almost any dissimilar dimensions of films, but length was a real sticking point for me. Simply put, I had a hard time considering a 45-minute moving picture to be a "film."
As soon as I saw Sherlock Jr. in February -- a 45-minute film (yes, film) I gave five stars -- I basically dropped that concern.
And now I want more.
At 85 minutes, D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms is kind of exactly the movie I was looking for when I started this series. It's a significant movie from the era while also having a run time that meets my idea of what a movie is. While also not being too long.
Except Broken Blossoms really is too long. It would have been much better off at 45 minutes.
I had a weird moment where I looked up at how much time had passed in the movie and saw it was 55 minutes, and felt that the movie was only just getting to its semblance of a plot. How is that possible? Where was the other time spent?
The story, such as it is, involves a Chinese immigrant to London (Richard Barthelmess) who does not find the welcoming home in the west he thought he'd find. (He "dreams to spread the gentle message of Buddha to Anglo-Saxon lands.") He has a shop in a wharf area, where one of the neighborhood girls (Lillian Gish) is beaten by her father, a drunken prizefighter (Donald Crisp). When one of his beatings leaves her seriously injured and wandering the streets, he takes her in and nurses her back to health. When the prizefighter discovers her whereabouts, all his instincts as a brute and a racist kick in to try to punish both the "Yellow Man" (ugh, that's how he is referred to) and the girl.
I imagine this seemed progressive at the time. There is no overt romance between the "Yellow Man" (also sometimes referred to as "the chink," and sometimes by his name, Cheng Huan) and Gish's Lucy, but the mere suggestion of an interracial affair between them would have likely been a pretty big deal. Unfortunately, knowing what we know about Griffith, it's difficult not to see elements of his racism here -- even when the movie is overtly fighting racism. I suppose referring to him as the "Yellow Man" ("chink" is usually reserved as an epithet used only be nasty people) would have been a fairly inoffensive crime in 1919, but nearly 100 years later -- and taken in combination with the values put forward by Griffith in Birth of a Nation -- it doesn't play particularly well. Then there's the fact that Cheng Huan is played by a white actor, which is probably obvious but is no less troubling, since they had to give him what we might call "yellowface" in order to make him look Chinese. (We would only use that term to play off the existing term "blackface," of course.)
But let's set that all aside and give Griffith the benefit of the doubt. One of the biggest problems with this movie is its slow pace and its scarcity of plot. This was again part of the style of the time, but things that seem like they should take place in a matter of ten or 20 seconds take more like a minute or two on screen to transpire. The whole movie is elongated in that fashion. One of the most comical is an interaction between Huan and the boxer, named Battling Burrows, where the two stare each other down for about two minutes, exchanging disdainful and suspicious looks. It reminded me most of the recurring bit by Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, where he and an adversary look each other over suspiciously from a distance of about two feet away from each other, for a period of maybe 30 seconds. Imagine that but taking two minutes.
The elongation of action is problematic in many other ways. I suppose before I tell you about them I should give you a spoiler warning, especially since I want to reveal one of my other problems about the movie and the only way to do that is to spoil it. So, SPOILERS ahead.
At the end of the movie, Lucy dies, because her father has raged so hard against her and beaten her so hard that the life simply escapes her body. We are meant to believe this is the result of her father's drunkenness and therefore is some kind of unpremeditated crime of impulse. Yet after the father corrals her at the end, there are two to three minutes of yelling, making threatening motions, raising and then lowering a whip, and muttering "Why I oughta" with the proverbial raised back of the hand before he actually descends upon her. If we are to believe that this father was so out of control that he was capable of killing his daughter, shouldn't we also believe that he'd be incapable of several minutes of preamble in which she is pleading for mercy? I suppose some of this can be excused by the melodramatic storytelling styles in fashion at the time, but not all.
And let's talk about this boxer. He is the epitome of the over-the-top silent movie villain. Would that the had a moustache to twirl. When I was watching the film, I failed to understand that he was actually the girl's father, which makes his behavior both better and worse. She calls him "Daddy," but I thought that was used in the way that you call your sugar daddy "Daddy." I thought this was a girl who was under this guy's thumb for some reason -- not that he was her pimp I guess, but someone he had the right to claim as his property. I thought his behavior was that of a jealous lout. Reading the wikipedia synopsis afterward, I discovered the actual blood relationship between the character. That he's actually her father makes his moral claim over her at least righteous -- a good father would want to save his daughter from being misused by someone -- but makes it far more unlikely that he would beat her to death. (And not seem to care that he had done so.) He's just so damn evil that it strains all credibility.
Then there's the movie's message. Huan's philosophy throughout has been that that he believes in peace and non-violence, even when confronting his enemies. By the end of the movie, he pulls out a gun and shoots Burrows. (Which leads to a hilariously prolonged chest-holding and staggering death.) I suppose this is Griffith's point, that he has come to such a state of despair the he has lost his core philosophies completely. Yet that point doesn't translate with any certainty, meaning that it seems more like carelessness and confusion on Griffith's part.
Technically speaking, the film does seem to have a few advances worth noting. In that prolonged scene before Burrows administers the fatal beating to his daughter, Griffith uses a close-up on both faces that's very effective, to illustrate the intensity of their interaction. The image also seems much clearer and in focus at this depth, and more use of it would have helped me become more involved in the film. But filmmakers were not yet ready to consistently shoot at a depth closer than mid level. I guess there are certain things I need to be patient on.
Gish is worth a special mention. She's quite good here, and it's easy to see why she became an icon whose acting methods engendered an entire legacy of acting for the screen. She does have some moments of silent-movie exaggeration, as Griffith would have directed her to do. But her more subtle instincts shine through, and she's heartbreaking.
I did find myself just a wee bit moved in the last few moments of the movie, when in spite of what I said earlier, I did recognize Huan's sacrifice and loss of idealism. Griffith is not an ineffective filmmaker. He just could have been more effective in this one, I thought.
Also, I'm still annoyed about how he includes his initials at the bottom of each of his title cards.
So having been exhausted by Intolerance (but rewarding it for its ambition) and with Birth of a Nation being what it is, maybe I'm just never going to be big into D.W. Griffith. I feel like I should watch Orphans of the Storm before reaching that conclusion once and for all, and that was a film I was considering seriously for this series. But it's two-and-a-half hours long, and really, I think I'm done with him for now. Two in this series is enough. That'll probably already be one more than anyone else gets, even the classic comedians like Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd.
Instead, in September I will watch the 1925 film The Big Parade, directed by King Vidor. This was on my radar from the You Must Remember This podcast, where it was mentioned briefly. Vidor is on my radar from a film of his I love, The Fountainhead, which I probably need to watch again now that I know more about Ayn Rand, to see what I'd think about it nowadays. But for now, The Big Parade.