Monday, March 21, 2016

7 Days in May | Tarzan of the Apes and other silent films

I've been slacking off big time on blogging lately, so in the interest of getting back on track and having something here, how about a quick rundown of stuff I've been watching and reading lately? I'm on a silent movie kick, so let's start with what's been on my TV:

What the Daisy Said (1910)

This is a short DW Griffith movie. I've been curious about Griffith and talk about one of his other films below, but I didn't watch this one for him. It was included on the DVD for Mary Pickford's Daddy-Long-Legs that I'll also talk about below. Like Daddy-Long-LegsDaisy stars Pickford, this time as one of two sisters who fall in love with a Romani man.

The movie seems to be trying to make a point about love, but I'm not entirely sure what it is. The daisy of the title is the "he loves me, he loves me not" flower, which seems to represent romantic destiny. The sisters try either to circumvent or second-guess their destinies by visiting a Romani fortune teller, but events punish them for that. So is the movie just about accepting fate? Because that's pretty lousy, but I haven't really found Griffith's other movies (I've seen Birth of a Nation, the first part of Intolerance, and Broken Blossoms) to be especially profound either.

I do like the movie though just for the beauty of its locations. Griffith shoots the action on some sets, but there are a couple of recurring locations - a flower field and a waterfall - that I loved returning to.

Dante’s Inferno (1911)

As plotless as the poem it's based on, but impressive. Basically a series of dioramas that are tied together with intertitles describing the action. They're faithfully and inventively adapted though and use the art of Gustav Doré for inspiration. And in my print, the whole thing is accompanied by a beautiful, haunting soundtrack by Tangerine Dream.

Tarzan of the Apes (1918)

My opinion hasn't really changed since I wrote this review.

Carmen (1918)

I never know how to feel about Carmen. I like her as a character, but I hate what she does to Navarro. I want to say that it's totally on him that he betrays everything he thinks he stands for in order to be with her, but she so clearly wants to manipulate and change him that she needs to be on the hook with him.

I watched the 1921 version with English title cards, renamed Gypsy Blood. I don't know if it's a strict translation or if the titles have been tweaked, but it really does play up the Roma angle more than the other silent version I've seen, Cecil B DeMille's from 1915. It even tries to give it a spooky, "gotcha" ending.

Daddy-Long-Legs (1919)

I wanted to see a Mary Pickford film just because she sounds like such a remarkable woman who was able to write her own ticket in Hollywood. She was a powerful figure in the movie business and co-founded both the United Artists studio and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Daddy-Long-Legs is a cute, but precious comedy in which Pickford plays an orphan girl. The first part of the movie focuses on her growing up in a cruel asylum, but able to keep her own spirits up as well as encourage the other kids. Eventually though, she gets word that an anonymous benefactor is going to support her through college. Not knowing his real name and only getting a brief glimpse of his shadow one day at the orphanage, Judy (Pickford) refers to him as Daddy-Long-Legs.

The movie becomes a romance once she goes to college. She meets a couple of men: the brother of one of her roommates and the uncle of the other. Both fall in love with her, but she's more drawn to the uncle, in spite of their age differences. Daddy-Long-Legs also seems to have an opinion about her love life and manipulates events from afar to drive her towards the uncle.

The revelation of Daddy-Long-Leg's identity is predictable and creepy, but that's not my only problem with the movie. Pickford is cute and funny as an actor, but Judy is overly adorable. The shenanigans she gets into at the orphanage feel like manufactured gags rather than honest examples of a girl making the best out of a tough situation. I didn't trust that director Marshall Neilan was playing fair with me, so I watched at an emotional distance instead of letting myself get involved. In contrast, Alfonso Cuarón's similarly themed A Little Princess was just as manipulative, but skillful enough that I didn't mind its yanking me around by my feelings.

Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

I don't remember exactly how this wound up on my Watch List. I'm guessing I put it there shortly after watching The Birth of a Nation and getting curious about DW Griffith and Lillian Gish's other collaborations. I tried Intolerance at some point and got bored with the heavy-handed moralizing in Griffith's attempt to counterpoint the horrible racism of Birth of a Nation. Unable to handle three hours of that, I probably wrote down Broken Blossoms as an alternative.

As the subtitle reveals, the movie still suffers from casual racism. It's not the aggressive sickness of Birth of a Nation though. In fact, a major purpose of Broken Blossoms is to fight against the Yellow Peril fears that were so prominent at the time. There are plenty of issues - from having white people play the major Chinese characters to the repeated, offhand use of a particular ethnic slur - but like Intolerance, the film's clear goal is to challenge prejudices and encourage kindness.

Also like Intolerance, it does this in a really blatant, melodramatic way. But at least there's a strong, central story and a focus on characters. It's not one that I'll re-watch, but its heart is in the right place and Gish's performance as a tortured victim of child abuse is remarkable and harrowing.

Now for a couple of graphic novels I've read recently:

Violenzia And Other Deadly Amusements by Richard Sala

I'm a big fan of Richard Sala and Violenzia is more of what I love: cute girls and hapless boys trying to survive in a deadly world of madmen and monsters.

As usual, Sala suggests a deeper story than what's on the page with lots of references to mysterious characters and plots that will never be explained. Violenzia herself is an unknowable riddle and that's just the way I like it. With Sala, it's all about the story I'm reading right now. The rest of it is for me to imagine.

Baba Yaga's Assistant by Marika McCoola and Emily Carroll

Lovely drawings. I had a hard time figuring out how to take the story, but it works well enough as a contemporary fairy tale. There are suggestions that it's trying to subvert the genre, but it follows fairy tale logic so much - with its coincidences and thin motivations - that it never actually rises above the genre to comment on it. But maybe that's not what it's trying to do.

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