Wonders Beyond Sound: Favorite Silent Films, Continued

Cinema in Full Bloom: Alexander Dovzhenko's "Earth"


6. Man with a Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov)

Truth be told, I used to think this was just a feature-length cinematic demo reel by a precocious Russian showing off everything he could do with his camera and editing gear. Maybe because the initial experience of watching this is so overwhelming, images of life endlessly richocheting with each cut, it takes repeat viewings to get into its innumerable intricacies, both thematic (the initial image, a cameraman setting up on top of — another camera! — orients the film as a cinematic construction, not just a guy shooting random stuff on the street) and cinematic (the middle montage intersplicing a dozen different types of work activity still threatens to make eyeballs explode). Fortunately, this has been the year for me to come to terms with the eternal bleeding-edge greatness of this film, thanks to a video essay I co-produced with Steven Boone for Roger Ebert, and a spate of Vertov coverage inspired by his ongoing retrospective at MoMA. But no matter how we try to catch up, this film will forever be ahead of its time.


5. Scenes from Under Childhood (1967-1970, Stan Brakhage)

Forty years before The Tree of Life, avant-garde Brakhage issued his own visionary reflection on life seen through a child’s eyes, drawn from years of filming his own children. It’s nothing as crude as a literal re-enactment of a child’s point of view, but something much more vivid and disturbing. The film opens with a series of red screens, suggesting light filtered through closed infant eyes, before launching into lightning flashes of white: a nascent gaze opening to the world and hardly able to take in its brilliance.  This traumatic sensation is the underlying emotion that runs through the film’s four chapters, and it’s a marvel how Brakhage’s panoply of images – progressing from the abstract to the very literal – can be such an emotionally affecting account of how children come to perceive the world.  Mostly shot in handheld with the flickers and jumps one expects of Super 8, the film has been described as the greatest home movie ever made: children playing in a yard bathed in impossibly beautiful tree-dappled light and a close-up the upturned carcass of a dead wasp on a bathtub lip strike the heart of uncanny experiences all but forgotten by adulthood.  But there’s little that’s nostalgic about this kind of wonder: some scenes are interspersed by recurring fades to a haunting, ghostlike formation of undulating crystals, suggesting human cells regenerating feverishly.  At times the gaze is simply blank, looking at nothing or noone in particular, focusing more on negative spaces than objects, the indeterminate time of childhood with no purpose but to be.  A soup of memory, liquid and light, churning with life.

Yasujiro Ozu's "I Was Born, But..."

4. I Was Born, But… (1932, Yasujiro Ozu)

The masterpiece of Ozu’s early career, like most Japanese silent films, was intended to be screened with live voice-over by a benshi narrator. But it works stunningly well without sound, because Ozu’s unparalleled sense of visual rhythm, choreographed movement, and humor keep one’s eyes dancing in delight. The story concerns two brothers who fight their way to gain status and respect among local bullies, only to realize that their father is a bottom-feeder among the adults. It’s loaded with acute observations of pre-war Japan, stoked by Ozu’s subtle but potent criticism of a society that seems to operate on innate injustice (made plain in the ingenious title). For people used to the “slow” Ozu of the 50s, the brisk, often staccato rhythms of this film will be a revelation, inspiring speculation as to how and why he changed a style that already had achieved mastery. But the trademark Ozu empathy with his characters is already in place, especially with the two boys and their hilarious rite of passage into the grade school pecking order.

3. Sunrise (1927, F.W. Murnau)

F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise"

A film that makes you realize how exciting it must have been in the early decades of filmmaking, when innovations were waiting by the dozens to be made by filmmakers with the vision and courage to discover them.  The themes are pretty basic: city life, love, and triumph through tribulation.  But Murnau takes them as a starting point to compose brassy, boisterous image sequences that often seem to leap from the screen in spontaneous bursts of inspiration. When the male lead, a farmer, is seduced by a city vamp with dreams of urban escape, visions of fancy cars rolling down city streets, towering skyscapers and jazz bands playing under flashing lights swirl in an orgy of visual music.  Even words seem to scream out, sometimes leaping from the designated black intertitles to land among the images. Murnau was one of cinema’s supreme innovators, leaving behind a lexicon we now take for granted: an unforgettable shot of lovers walking through an onslaught of traffic makes seminal use of the narrow lens and is as stunningly effective now as it was 70 years ago. There are dozens more moments in this film who may yet have their chance to impact the movies of the future.

You can watch another of Murnau’s masterful attempts at purely cinematic storytelling, The Last Laugh, on Fandor.

2. Earth (1930, Alexander Dovzhenko)

Earth could have been just another Soviet propaganda hack job, this time to promote new initiatives in agricultural technology and collective farming. But Dovzhenko, always eager to outdo his mentor Sergei Eisenstein, created a work that conveys as much technical brilliance as Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin or Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. Where it exceeds both is in its soulful evocation of peasant life and its meditations on the interactions between technology, man and nature, both for good and ill.  A ten-minute sequence blending images of working peasants with machines processing food brilliantly illustrates this paradoxical, conflicted relationship between the mechanical and organic, one that gets to the very essence of cinema. This is a film as full of life and emotion as Sunrise, and for my money exceeds Murnau in merging images, ideas and emotions into something achieving the purity of music.


1. Les Vampires (1915, Louis Feuillade)

Louis Feuillade's "Les Vampires"

When I was living in New York during 9/11 and the years that followed, this film’s evocation of terrorism hidden in plain sight spoke to me on a more thoroughly everyday level than anything contemporary media had to offer. Not only did it reflect the instable, insecure sense of reality that had suddenly pervaded my surroundings, it made that existence bearable; dare I say it even allowed me to find fun in facing all of the world’s dangerous unknowns. Like his equally good follow-up Fantomas, Feuillade’s crime serial is compulsively watchable, events unfolding in such a relentless succession of hidden trapdoors, unmasked identities and sudden bursts of violence that most of the time viewing is spent in eager anticipation of what’s to happen next. There’s a sense of sheer joy in both storytelling and filmmaking that glows onscreen; one gets the sense of a handful of half-crazy French people running all over Paris with cameras and costumes on their backs, furiously figuring out what they want to do on a scene-by-scene basis. There’s also a sense of life thriving at subterranean levels beyond our view, leading to sudden shifts in reality, the very antithesis of the clean, straight, downright un-mysterious filmmaking of D.W. Griffith, and opening up endless portals of wonder at what lies beyond our field of awareness. One of the truly ageless films of the silent era, and one that can easily serve as a sourcebook for future generations of inspired filmmaking.


Kevin B. Lee is the Editor of Keyframe at Fandor. His email is kevin *at* fandor *dot* com.

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