Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sunrise (1927)

Quick trivia question: what was the first Academy Award winner for Best Picture? The official answer is 1927's Wings, directed by William A. Wellman. But in fact, there were two winners that year: Wings won for "Best Production" but F.W. Murnau's Sunrise won for "Unique and Artistic Production." Over time, the dichotomy between those two films has grown even sharper: Wings, a romantic, expensive World War I spectacle, has all but receded from memory - or to be more accurate, is more remembered in name than for its artistic merits. Sunrise, on the other hand, was largely ignored by audiences upon its initial release, but has since become a film school staple and is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Indeed, the greatness of Sunrise lies not only in its importance to film history - for combining the sensibilities of German and American filmmaking, and for its array of innovative visual and aural effects - but also in its sheer beauty. This is not a stuffy old silent film, but one of the most ravishing and lyrical films I know.

To summarize Sunrise is to trivialize it. The film involves three main characters: The Man (George O'Brien), The Wife (Janet Gaynor), and The Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston). The Man is a farmer who begins an affair with The Woman, who then convinces him to drown his wife. The Man brings his wife out on a boat to do the deed, but cannot go through with it. The rest of the film concerns The Man's attempt to repair and renew his relationship with The Wife.

Right down to the lack of character names, Sunrise has the potential for a simplistic, treacly allegory. That it is something more is above all a tribute to F.W. Murnau. Murnau was one of the most significant pioneers of German Expressionism - a bold, exaggerated style that utilized high contrast cinematography, oblique angles, and shadows to great effect. It was a style most famously used in horror (Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and sci-fi (Metropolis); it also provided part of the inspiration for American film noir. Sunrise does not sound like it would need this kind of treatment. But Murnau uses it to explore the dark side of its protagonist's heart.
Murnau's visual style in the opening and closing scenes - looming shadows, canted angles, and dimly lit shots - reflect The Man's estrangement from his wife, and his tortured sense of guilt. At the beginning of the movie, this estrangement is out of choice; The Man chooses to abandon his wife to elope with another woman. By the end of the movie, the two have reconciled, but after a fateful storm, The Man believes he has lost his wife forever. In shots like the one below, Murnau seems to suggest that without his wife, The Man is quite literally a shadow of his former self.Murnau's visual mastery also extends to his use of superimpositions. Several times throughout the film, Murnau uses these layered images to explore the characters' dreams, hopes, feelings, fears, and nightmares. This kind of effect could be cooked up easily today, but in Murnau's time, it was a painstaking process. Whatever the limitations of the technology, though, the superimpositions still hold up today as evocative, sensuous, telling images.
I've barely scratched the surface of Murnau's innovations. I could also point to his roving camera, in an era when cameras were bulky and usually kept stationary. I could mention his use of Movietone, an early soundtrack system, to include not only a classical film score but also numerous sound effects. But the real genius of Murnau's film is how seamlessly these techniques are woven into the fabric of the story. His direction is never intrusive or distracting, and he knows when to simply pull back and observe. During the long reconciliation scene, Murnau leaves most of the heavy lifting to his wonderful, expressive actors.

I'm reluctant to call any film perfect, but Sunrise comes as close as any film I've seen. The movie was initially overshadowed by movies like Wings as well as The Jazz Singer, the first talkie, released the same year. Within a few years, silent films would be all but obsolete in Hollywood. Yet Sunrise reveals all the possibilities of that medium, and achieves a level of purity and simplicity that few films can claim. With silent films as great as this, who needs sound anyway?

Coming soon to the blog: a trio of Nicholas Ray films!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Make Way For Tomorrow (1937)

Upon first glance, Make Way For Tomorrow looks like an awfully treacly, didactic melodrama. The movie opens with a shot of the sky, a bombastic music cue, and a title card outlining the major themes of the movie - the "painful gap" between "the aged and the young." The whole thing caps off with "the ancient words of a very wise man - HONOR THY FATHER AND THY MOTHER." Thankfully, though, this well-meaning but rather overstated opening is hardly indicative of the film that follows. On the contrary - Make Way for Tomorrow is a remarkably subtle film, full of quiet observational grace. It regards its characters honestly, objectively, in all their faults and failings. And yet the movie balances this objectivity with deeply felt empathy. Though the film is 73 years old and tells a simple story of an elderly couple cast out of their home, it is universal in the way that it shows how we all live our lives.

As the film begins, the elderly Lucy (Beulah Bondi) and her husband Bark (Victor Moore) gather their children to make an announcement: they have lost their home to a bank, and need to move out in a few days. None of the children claim to have the resources to support both parents, so as a "temporary measure" Lucy stays with their son Robert (Thomas Mitchell), while Bark goes with their daughter Cora. The children assure their parents that everything will work out, but as Bark is quick to mention, "It never has worked for any one else."

The film picks up with the parallel stories of Lucy and Bark trying to cope with their new separate lives. Robert, ever the devoted son, looks kindly after his mother, but his wife Anita (Fay Bainter) and daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read) see her as little more than a nuisance. Bark, meanwhile, makes friends with a local Jewish storekeeper (Maurice Moscovitch), but otherwise feels neglected by his own family.

And so Make Way for Tomorrow proceeds - moment by moment, dealing in insightful observations rather than dramatic revelations. The story may sound slight, but the film's profundity lies in its details - in the embarrassed looks exchanged by the children in regards to their parents, in the way that Bark and Lucy withhold their emotions from their children, in the way actress Beulah Bondi delivers simple lines like "Don't worry about me" while suggesting so much more. Every scene of this film is full of such moments - details of family life that are so honest and observant that they can be painful.

The cast (largely unknown, but uniformly strong) and the writers certainly deserve praise, but at least equally important is the man behind the camera: Leo McCarey. McCarey is not remembered today; perhaps he worked in too many genres to be easily pinned down as an auteur. Moreover, McCarey follows the classical Hollywood tradition of invisible style: the camera shows only what needs to be shown, and the style never draws attention to itself. Still, this is surely one of the film's assets. Not a shot is wasted, and the whole movie unfolds with economy and precision. McCarey always knows where to place the camera. Consider an early scene, when Lucy loudly talks on the phone to Bark, interrupting the bridge game of Robert, Anita, and friends. For most of the scene, McCarey uses two camera set-ups, cutting back and forth between the two. The first shows Lucy in the foreground, with the scowling bridge players in the background. The second is a reverse-shot, isolating Lucy in the background while placing the others in the foreground.Those two shots are deceptively simple. McCarey is actually breaking one of the fundamental principles of continuity editing: the 18o degree rule. In doing so, McCarey creates a tone of awkward embarassment, revealing how oblivious Lucy is to her surroundings. But he also allows us, literally and emotionally, to see both sides of the scene. In the shot of Lucy in the foreground, we see Lucy's excited expressions, hear the happiness in her voice, and as a result empathize with her. In the second shot, we realize just how loud Lucy is, and how she is disrupting the game, and thus empathize with the bridge players. That seemingly simple camera setup is really a microcosm of what makes the film great: an ability to be objective about the story, to understand multiple sides of an issue.

As mentioned earlier, McCarey largely adheres to the invisible style of Hollywood filmmaking. But within the boundaries of that tradition, his shots are often rife with meaning. This ironic shot shows Lucy and Bark gazing at a window display with the advice, "Save While You Are Young" - exactly what they both failed to do.

That shot takes place near the end of the film, when Lucy and Bark are reunited in New York. They spend a few precious hours together - walking in parks, going to restaurants, visiting a hotel they both stayed at, talking about the past - before Bark must leave on a train for California. He is to move in with another son there; Lucy will be sent to a rest home in New York. It is in this final passage that all of the movie's themes become clear. "I figure that everyone is entitled to just so much happiness in life," Lucy tells Bark. "Some get in the beginning, and some in the middle, and others at the end. And there are those who have it spread thin all through the years." Lucy and Bark get one last day of happiness together, and then Bark leaves. In the final shot, Lucy gazes after the departing train, watches it go, and turns to leave the frame as it fades to black.

The studio tried to impose a happy ending, but McCarey refused. As it is, the ending is devastating but perfect. A happy ending would have been a betrayal of the movie's themes. It is a movie that contains great love and joyous moments, but more importantly it is about life's little disappointments, about how bad things can happen to good people for no reason. The title, I think, is ironic. This is not a cautionary tale about preparing for the future. In fact, the movie seems to say that we cannot prepare for what will happen. Tomorrow makes way for itself.

After years of being unavailable on video, Make Way for Tomorrow was released on DVD earlier this year as part of The Criterion Collection. It's certainly well worth your time to catch up with this neglected classic.