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.


§ 2 Responses to Putting words on the image 03 – “ethnography”

  • Galina says:

    a very interesting observation!

    Could you possibly specify what exactly you mean by “the use of a quote from O’Brien’s 1919 White Shadows of the South Seas”? Is it a literal textual quote or rather a photographic image? Could you provide the original quoted text here?

  • flyczba says:

    thanks for stopping by !

    It’s a literal textual quote, p.116 of the 2001 edition of White Shadows in the South Seas:

    We climbed steadily, jumping from rock to rock and clinging to the bushes. A mile up the valley we came suddenly upon a plateau, and saw before us the remains of an ancient Pekia, or High Place, a grim and grisly monument of the days of evil gods and man-eating.
    This, in the old days, was the paepae tapu, or Forbidden Height, the abode of dark and terrible spirits. Upon it once stood the temple and about it in the depths of night were enacted the rites of mystery, when the priests and elders fed on the “long pig that speaks,” when the drums beat till dawn and wild dances maddened the blood.

    Note how O Brien is describing the scene in the ethnographic past (albeit with a touch of the dramatic, to be sure), while the film locates it in the fictional present.
    Previews of the book are available at books.google.com.

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