Pordenone diary – day four

October 21, 2008 § 2 Comments

A word on D.W. Griffith’s Drums of Love (1928), which was shown in a 16 mm print, and which I take as a case in point about the problematic acceptance of melodramatic forms by the late 1920s. I’m more and more convinced that the problem with late Griffith films is less that they’re outdated, but rather that they’re irresolute. Griffith by the late 1920s is going in two directions:

  • one is his old stock-and-trade melodramatic store of hyperbolic titles

(we’re here treated to a description of Lionel Barrymore as a “super-dwarf”–I kid you not)

and punctuation of scenes by frontal long shots that have long been superseded in American cinema, by that time, with more dynamic editing and more kinetic shots (look for interrupted tracking shots in this film, as in other late Griffith films, as a clear sign that D.W. doesn’t quite know what to do with the new idiom: the camera starts moving forward, but stops in mid-flight without accomplishing, without revealing anything).

  • the other direction is decidedly more modern, and ought to put to rest any notion that Griffith is just out of touch. 

Go back to the love scenes here, slow though they may be. Griffith (and indeed, photographer Karl Struss) is here pairing down the number of signifying elements in the staging (a candle, shadows, one look), or the number of emotions shown (there seems to be a consensus that Don Alvarado, as Count Leonardo, is just not acting at all), in a strategy that seems so anticlimatic (where’s the passion) as to be worth a reconsideration, it seems to me. What if purposefully Griffith is slowing the lovers down so the sexual tension builds up ? I’lll admit this sounds rather goofy if you read Scott Simmon’s assessment of the film in the festival catalog

The Drums of Love comes close to being a fascinating film – if we weren’t forced to spend so much time with the two lovers

or if you read what “Penrod” has got to say about it over at The Bioscope. But to me the repetition of love scenes (we got it the first time around, why repeat if not to further the pleasure of dealing with unexpressed passion), the leg-massage that Mary Philbin gets just before her big midnight rendez-vous, the business on the sofa, as languid as they come, are signs that there’s a something that Griffith is trying to tell us, and that something is a bit more modern that the ol’ melodrama: desire !

My partiality to these love scenes, slow, long shots, repetitive, toned down, may be due to the accompaniment that was provided, that day, by none other than the irrepressible Gabriel Thibaudeau — and I was sitting right next to the piano, too ! In those scenes, instead of playing the action (slow, drawn out), Thibaudeau, as he so often does, played the sentiment (wide, passionate, exuberant). The dissonance was very moving, the music taking you to heights of passion that the film refused to go into, providing the dark, unuttered subtext of their love. But at moments like this the distinction between the film and the music is largely irrelevant: the “accompaniment” is the film. 

In this sense the double ending is a symptom that the two trends cannot be reconciled. None of the endings is satsifactory: one just piles on corpses in an orgy of sacrifice that is utterly disgusting, and that even Struss’s mysty photography cannot do anything for; the other mechanically gets rid of the only hindrance in the way of romantic love for the young couple by having Barrymore and the court jester kill off each other. There was a “Bancroft” direction that this could have taken (I’m thinking of Bancroft in Thunderbolt: Thunderbolt, the great big bad gangster, accepts his own sacrifice and execution on the chair to make room for the lovers), when in the second ending Barrymore throws all literary conventions (honor, revenge, etc.) off the window by a simple

who knows ?

But the jester remains a creature of the melodramatic world, where revenge once sworn must take place, and attacks him there and then. So no self-sacrifice here à la Bancroft, but rather a hodge-podge of inconclusive lines. What to choose ? The modernity of desire, the religious sacrifice line, the conventional young romantic couple, a more elaborate Beauty and the Beast moment ? Human, or conventional ? Seems like Griffith just couldn’t decide.

And now a question on Douglas Fairbanks’ Modern Musketeer: has anyone studied out there how Fairbanks sells Fairbanks in his films, how the films are large advertisements for the ”Fairbanks lifestyle” ? Note here the characters who are spectators, too, of the bouncing Doug. And another hint at why Fairbanks was so popular: he turns gold into mud, and lives to smile about it

Golly, what a gully !

(that’s his take on the Grand Canyon – but check out his interactions with the Indian (“How” – “Scrambled!”), or….anything he touches turns to, well, just a joke.)

The next day, day five !, is when Jean Darling, again, descends upon us in her show-biz glory.

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