Putting words on the image 03 – “ethnography”
June 9, 2008 § 2 Comments
This is so far the earliest example of this rare practise in Hollywood silent films of having titles run on a moving image. It is from Terror Island (James Cruze, 1920), and as the titles dissolve on the shot the image shrinks noticeably:
Clearly an effort to throw a little documentary dust into the eyes of the audience. There really is no mistaking this for what it is, a straight out-and-out melodrama with little to none documentary value: are we in Polynesia or Africa ? What’s the feast about ? What “long pig that speaks” ? This is no “Paepae Tapu”: it’s flat and not a height by any measure — in fact it’s right there on the village center (so much for the “Forbidden” sacred spot). The “ethnic” part of the film is a simple and artificial foil for the hero (Houdini), and nothing more. The use of a quote from O’Brien’ 1919 White Shadows of the South Seas is part of that transformation of the documentary into spectacle that is so frequent in the literature and “documentary” filmmaking of the day.
But the titles dissolving on the moving image stand out: they are a visual quote of more precisely documentary formats, and as such, it’s an interesting little technical twist, almost an aesthetic attempt to give more legitimacy to the scene.