Pordenone 2007 – day 1 – spaces

October 30, 2007 § 2 Comments

The thoughts:

The program:

(See the diversity here ? And this is only in one afternoon…)

The Way to Strength and Beauty is a kulturfilm that would like to be about how to best keep in shape — only it’s really about how to look nice — and as could be expected it defines nice in non-intellectual, anti-glasses, cliché terms of women in long garbs dancing symbolic dances on unmotivated meadows. The whole aesthetic presentation creates a weird distance for the viewer, as in that football game where they say they’re going to show the Lazio Roma playing: you end up being shown the backs of onlookers (all priests) while the camera is happily oblivious of the action on the field.

Is there something here ? Could one look at how soccer games have been shot over the years ? To compare those distant shots of onfield action with the close-ups of bloodied rugby players one has been treated to recently, there is a distinct contrast: the Lazio game is a distant affair, and what seems important is less what happens than the fact that it does happen — in other words, it’s more important for the film to tell us that we are indeed spectators, just like the real spectators in the film, rather than to show us what happens. It’s about status — and this still new joy of “being there” thanks to the movie camera. Today the editing is complex, and the spectator is not just a priviledged individual but someone whose participation is required. The close-ups help us become referees all of us (video refereeing being only the logical conclusion — it turns everyone in the stadium itself into referees), but they also push us into being supporters. It asks us to be in a rather uneasy position.

But before the Lazio can get anything going you’re on to madcap humor with The Cook and its subtle reminders that in silent movies jokes can also be audio jokes: Buster Keaton as the waiter screams the order to the kitchen and into the ear of the young melancholic woman next to him, who remains perfectly melancholic. Pass the Gravy takes space staging one step further: it creates spaces that function like realistic ones, with none of the asides that mar space construction in early silent films. Here all characters can hear and if one doesn’t want to attract attention, then one should…make signs. I always like it when silent movies turn their announced infirmity on its head and use pantomime realistically. Here the chicken that shouldn’t be eaten but shouldn’t either be noticed is the source of endless pantomimes, the best being probably the egg-laying scene that becomes a football moment. But wait ! The last gag turns this plausible space on its head again: Shultz hurls a small stone on Max’s rapidly dwindling figure in the distance, and implausibly enough, it lands. Funny because implausible, implausible because until then staging had been very careful to construct plausible spaces…

I hope that’s clear. I think there’s something bigger here — indeed that’s part of my research work right now. There’s a whole underlaying aesthetics behind this construction of space, realistic or not, in silent films. And they play with that code self-consciously. The difficulty is for us to reconstruct those codes. In Pass the Gravy, as in many other cases, staging and space construction creates expectations that can be tragicallly met or comically disregarded.

Case in point: Only One Girl in the World. I’m going to make a fool of myself since this was my first Hungarian film ever, but talk about melodrama and realistic staging ! Only the climatic moments in terms of drama are shown, leaving all psychological developments to be deduced rather than experienced: Gyorgy and Kalinka fall in love (when have they met before?), Gyorgy brings a mistress back to the village (when did he get married to Kalinka?), and so on…until the final conversion: Gyorgy becomes all right again for Kalinka thanks to…the title song. And each time, to go with melodramatic story-telling, you have melodramatic spatial staging: one space per scene, unconnected spaces throughout (even when they’re outdoors: where’s that train station?)

Compare this with what followed on the program though it did not quite follow chronologically: The Stolen Voice, 1915, US. So the plot is about a hypnotist who steals a tenor’s voice out of jealousy over the singer’s success with women, notably his. Singer goes to Europe for cure, comes back still mute, finds a job acting…in silent films. Happy end. Now that melodrama travels freely in the modern world: cabaret sccenes, dance halls, boats, cars, phone conversations, film studio, New York and the El…the whole of the modern world is there on screen, and multiple spaces are used in the staging.

Melodrama and modernity (pace Ben Singer). Interestingly, that film shows how films used to be made: archaic. A limited set that moves to the wind and shakes with every door that closes, exaggerated acting — this tells us how cinema considered itself by 1915: a much more naturalistic medium than 3 years before…But here’s another question: when films show film-making in the ’10s and ’20s, do they mostly show archaic film-making ? And is that to make the point that cinema is modern — fast-changing, constantly evolving ?

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