Silent Nights: Picking up steam

Posting has been scant these last few weeks, due to a number of factors—mainly my being busy with other things, coupled with a touch of post-awards-season burn-out.  But in my spare time I have been blasting through a fantastic lot of films from the silent era, including Murnau’s stunningly edited and genuinely creepy Faust (1926), Erich von Stroheim’s remarkable Foolish Wives (1922), and the Harold Lloyd classic Safety Last (dir. Fred Newmayer and Sam Taylor, 1923).  I also was thrilled to discover the work of the underseen Lois Weber, who apparently was one of the most successful American filmmakers, male or female, of her day; I checked out three of her most famous features, Hypocrites (1915), Where Are My Children? (1916), and The Blot (1921), all of which are justifiably great.  (Her clever early short How Men Propose [1913] is also worth its five-minute running time.)  

I just finished, though, working my way through Abel Gance’s epic, 270-minute La Roue (1922), a film that’s not as well known to American film buffs as it should be, presumably because until its fairly recent DVD release it had been largely unseen this side of the Atlantic.  (Ironically, Gance’s Napoleon [1927] is perhaps more famous but has never been given a proper DVD release here.)  Flickr Alley has done a bang-up job mounting this incredible film: the print looks, for the most part, quite good, and the new orchestral score by Robert Israel is excellent.  I first heard about this film some years ago while reading Mast and Kawin’s Short History of the Movies, in which they note that it was released in the same year that Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” were published, implicitly hailing it as a modernist masterpiece in its own right.  Cocteau and Kurosawa both claimed it as an influence on their own filmmaking, and according to Mast and Kawin it thrilled its first audiences so much that they gave it a standing ovation and demanded that the projector run the last reel again.  (It is a beautiful ending.)

After reading about La Roue I made a mental note to track it down at some point, though until now I had strategically avoided it, fearing that it would be one of those Important films that everyone respects but no one really likes very much.  Yes, yes, La Roue is a masterpiece—but is this four-and-a-half hour silent movie about the railroad any good?  Actually, it is; some general mawkishness aside (and I challenge you to find a silent movie that isn’t at least a little bit mawkish), the plot is surprisingly absorbing and more than a little twisted (man saves baby girl from railroad accident and raises her alongside his own son; father and son both end up falling in love with her).  And Gance’s use of montage editing, which is really why historians have singled out the film, is sophisticated and energetic enough to keep everything chugging along at a good clip.  La Roue is good for you and it tastes good, too.    

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