not in our stars, but in ourselves
I have finally made a good life decision. High time! Remember when I mentioned that I had gotten a book called Seductive Cinema? Well, whether you remember or not, I did. And today, after weeks of trying to give Ada or Ardor a chance (I love you, Volodya, but I just can’t read this while I’m gritting my teeth on the commuter rail), I started reading James Card’s love letter to silent film.
And oh boy. I think Mr. Card and I would have been great, great friends.
I am going to post a rather large excerpt from the introduction, and ask you all to indulge me. I also ask you all to take what he says to heart, and watch lots and lots of Weimar-era films. Needless to say, I found myself nodding emphatically as I read the following, and am glad for the sake of my as-yet imaginary book that I’ve found this:
My growing awareness that movies were not solely a manifestation of North American production was heated to a new passion by two events. The first was the appearance in The New York Times of a piece by Kirk Bond. It was titled “Lament for the Cinema Dead.” The article appeared at the time dialogue films were just beginning their struggle to eclipse silent movies. One of the great “dead” films Bond was lamenting (quite prematurely for sure) was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I had never heard of this film before. The very title, in print, evoked a delightful chill. The name Caligari was sinister enough by itself but what delicious terror must lurk in the cabinet of a fiendish doctor named Caligari. That film, all unseen, became a beckoning ideal for me, and if it were indead “dead,” I cowed to devote an obsessive determination to resurrecting it.
The next step in my conversion to international cinema happened in my fifteenth year. Still in high school, I was absolutely dedicated to the motion picture. My circle of film devotees resented the advent of dialogue in 1930 and we tended to boycott the early talkies. But with some reluctance, we dropped in to see All Quiet on the Western Front. The film was far from quiet. It was discussed so much that we had to lower our standards to look at it. The puerile dialogue confirmed our low opinion of movie talk, although much of the action was stirring and magnificently directed. But right across the street the other side of the World War I story was being exhibited. The German view was movingly presented by Georg Pabst’s Westfront 1918, retitled Comrades of 1918 in the United States. The superiority of Pabst, it seemed to me then, was overwhelming. From that moment on, any film made overseas I rated as infinitely better than whatever came from Hollywood.
Such an overreaction to the novelty of the European approach to filmmaking was immeasurably reenforced by the appearance of Paul Rotha’s book The Film Till Now. There were engrossing stills and critical support for the value of films that had been made in France, Germany and Russia. In 1930 that first edition of Rothat became the gospel for every ardent film fan/critic.
In those days, being a film fan was a condition completely different from being a film buff today. There was an emotional involvement with the stars to a degree unimaginable now. Perhaps part of it was the hypnotic effect of sitting in a darkened theatre with only music to support the play of light and shadow and the not altogether human apparitions of the mute actors and actresses, shimmering images reflected from a silver screen.
Before I left high school, the mania to show and share wonderful films became an intense concern. In the National Board of Review Magazine I had read that Fritz Lang’s Siegfried was “too beautiful for words.” Using a theatrical group I belonged to as my organizational base, I arranged an evening showing of Lang’s lovely film in the high school auditorium. I badgered teachers, colleagues and relations to come to see the film, insisting it was the greatest film ever made.
Oh, honey. I’m home.