Tag Archives: art film

Earth – the weirdly compelling silent classic

dovzhenko earth fruitLast night I watched Earth, a Russian silent film that appears on many lists of the all time greatest movies.  When I read that this film, by the Ukrainian director Alexander Dovzhenko, was about the Russian Revolution, I envisioned a film full of action and Russian humor.  Earth is not that.  Earth is, though, strangely fascinating;  I haven’t seen anything remotely like it before.  It’s like a slowly unfolding, beautiful dream with lingering closeups of faces, bodies, machinery, wheat in many stages of use, fruit, horses, cows, and, yet again, faces.  Horses and cows square off.  Horses race away.  Couples stare at the sky.

dovzhenko earth horsesThe storyline is almost like a joke; at first, I was reminded of that early SNL skit, Bad Playhouse, with Ackroyd’s Leonard Pith-Garnell.  Earth displays a ponderous seriousness about, of all things, the arrival of a tractor in rural Russia. I laughed for about a minute and then found myself sucked in to the point where I was unwilling to stop staring long enough to reach for a glass.  What the hell is this? I kept wondering. Why?  What does it mean?  And the film kept defying my attempts to categorize or historicize it.  It became for me an almost hypnotic series of images, even while I would comprehend that I was seeing Russian peasants, Russian farmers, the onset of the industrial revolution, the ways that the Communists used machinery to draw in workers and to propagandize their work, the reasons that peasants might embrace the revolution and its sweeping change, and the violent reaction of the dovhenko earth skylandowners.  What I felt was a vague sense of joy and doom.  As I watched I kept thinking, you poor guys — you Russians of 1930 — you don’t know what you’re in for.  You don’t yet know that Stalin’s purges are going to kick you in the ass.  You don’t know that the loss of your hands-on, rural life will ultimately devastate you.

earth dovzhenko boys in graveyardI’m uncertain about what the director felt about the situation.  The very long, lingering shots of wheat, trees, and fruit — and of those who harvest — might be read as a celebration of the simple rural way of life before the coming of mass machinery.  On the other hand, the film’s cheering of the mighty tractor seems awfully sincere.  The film seems to tell us that both are simultaneously true.  It defies linear, logical interpretation.earth dovzhenko dancer

The allegory of the revolution — the war between the landowning farmers and the workers — was clear to me, yet I didn’t entirely understand it.  Maybe a Westerner in our own time really can’t.  As I watched, though, it was enough to see the images and to wonder where it would all lead.  And at a point, the film develops an absorbing story; there actually is something of a plot, and it is a symbolic one that resonates far more deeply than the simple tale of an idealistic young man killed by his wealthy rival who wants to keep his farm.  I did find it helpful to watch the film more than once; situations that seemed confusing or obscure on first viewing became much clearer, and the dovzhenko earth man and bullsexperience for me became more emotionally moving.

The film’s nature imagery is especially striking, and I felt a personal attachment to it.  I grew up in a rural area, and Dovzhenko perfectly captures the quietness and the slow movement of that.  The juxtaposition of people and animals in a number of montages clearly demonstrates that we are the same.  I very much liked these.  The animals and the humans sense and react to one another, and the humans sometimes inflict a startling cruelty upon them to which the animals seem resigned.  The humans are no less cruel to one another.  Dovzhenko grew up in the rural Ukraine, among the very kinds of illiterate peasants that he depicts, and this lends the picture a lyrical honesty.  He isn’t  judging.  Life is hard and simple.  I felt that I was seeing through his eyes, much as if I were reading a poem.

It is because of its incredible artfulness that the film is still watched today; were it a standard Soviet dovzhenko earth girl with fruit 2propaganda film, we would hardly care.  I was surprised to find that in its day, Earth was controversial, viewed by the government as subversive.  Then, the very art that we so appreciate led to suspicion.  The instances of small rebellions (as with a father who laughs at the younger men’s obsessions with “the party”) got the director in some trouble; he was denounced by the “Kremllin poet” and felt forced to leave the country.  The film’s beauty and its quirky bits (as when a group of men pee into a tractor to put water in the radiator, and some glimpses of full female nudity) were enough to get the film censored.  That these small subversions in what seemed to me to be a strongly Communistic film — a film that denounces religion and embraces technology and the people’s unity — could create controversy shows just how doctrinaire the government had become.  (Not that films weren’t also censored in the States.)  Again, I was reminded that things would only get worse with the growing repression of Stalin’s regime and World War II.  I felt sad for both those thrilled that a tractor would lessen their work and break the hold of the feudal landholding system and for the landowner who tries to literally bury his head in the sand.  Both sides would meet with tragedy, though the director didn’t know this yet.  None of “the people” would win, yet the fruit would return with the season.

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J’Accuse! – World War I in the trenches & at home


j-accuse crosses
J’Accuse, directed by Abel Gance, is a long, intense, & strange exploration of World War I filmed during the time the war was happening. Released in 1919, the film by the early French auteur is a raging look at war and love that uses a romantic story to link the menage a trois relationship between its three central characters with the horrors of the front. One woman (not a very interesting one), a husband (very intriguing brute), and a lover (moony poet) are pulled into an ever-more-horrible situation as war makes victims of all of them. While the story might seem hackneyed and even befuddling today, I had no problem with the melodrama and found myself becoming involved in the ways that their threesome played out.jaccuse couple The long film brings the two men together on the battlefield and continually plays with the questions of who is strong and who is weak; who is ultimately kinder; who is most willing to sacrifice (and what). Back at home, the woman makes sacrifices of her own that impact the course of the story in even more complex ways. This is the plot that ties the strands together. The plot is not important. What matters are the scenes of war and the story of war’s impact; makes them matter is the way J’Accuse is filmed.

Watching J’Accuse is like falling into some slow and deliberate dream (not a nightmare, really). This makes its subjects of domestic violence, trench warfare, multiple betrayals, and pointless sacrifice all the more disturbing. We’re used to seeing random violence in contemporary films to the point that it’s barely noticeable. To see moments of brutality in a silent film that is beautifully composed is  jarring. That they slip in almost unannounced is even stranger. That everyone serves as a symbol, as a representative type, implies vast levels of darkness.

jaccuse face

An example of a quick moment of brutality comes early in the movie, before we even get to the war. This is when the husband, also known as the Brute, maritally rapes his wife. We don’t see the rape. What we see is her quaking by the bed, his hand coming down on her hair and pulling her up, and, for a moment, a glimpse of an exposed breast. That’s all. But I’ll never forget that image. This is only one of such moments in this film. Over and over, Gance juxtaposes beauty with evil and/or death, sometimes quite literally, as in a montage in which a closeup of a flower is contrasted with corpses in a trench.

jaccuse frontAbel Gance briefly served in World War I before being discharged because of his health. He created J’Accuse because of the deaths of so many people he knew and because of all that he witnessed on the battlefield. Filming took place between August 1918 and February 1919 (armistice was declared in November 1918), and some of it took place at the front. He enlisted in the Section Cinématographique and filmed the battle of Saint-Mihiel; this footage appears near the end of the film.  The depiction of trench warfare, however, goes through half the film; recreated fictional footage is juxtaposed with actual images from the front. jaccuse dead march 1 J’Accuse builds slowly to a shocking death march that used two thousand actual soldiers. Surely they knew their fate, and of course we do; this makes this already eerie, disturbing scene particularly unforgettable. Gance said in an interview with Kevin Brownlow, “The conditions in which we filmed were profoundly moving… These men had come straight from the Front – from Verdun – and they were due back eight days later. They played the dead knowing that in all probability they’d be dead themselves before long. Within a few weeks of their return, eighty per cent had been killed.”Jaccuse march

The images in this film are exceptionally beautiful. Many frames can be separated out to create a lovely artistic photograph. To an astonishing degree Gance and cinematographer Léonce-Henry Burel are able to convey myriad meaning in single images or in particular brief scenes. It is why silent film was the perfect mode for Gance’s work; words are not only not necessary, but they actually get in the way. Gance’s career barely survived the silent era, and his sound work was never as good, though he lived for many years after it.jaccuse old people

There are a number of surreal and/or fantasy moments in the film. Sometimes these take place when a character is daydreaming of someone or imagining a situation. Sometimes they involve the dancing skeletons that appear throughout the film. Sometimes they simply come in some kind of startling closeup of an ordinary object when we don’t expect it. I found these to be fascinating even when at times they didn’t quite work. Later filmmakers borrowed from these techniques (over and over again).jaccuse dream woman

The acting in J’Accuse tends to be of the overly histrionic sort that many silent movie performers fall into. The exception was the work of Severin-Mars, who portrays the husband, Francois. His role is the most nuanced (and probably the one that most interested Gance), as he transforms himself from a killer (one of the first images involves him sitting with his dog beside a slaughtered deer) to, well, a sanctioned and heroic killer who comes to a better understanding of his fellow humans. Jaccuse brute It would have been easy to play his character as evil, but instead he becomes almost sympathetic — well, as sympathetic as anyone in the film actually is — as he is shown to be genuinely in love with his wife and very sentimental. I found this realistic, as brutal men often do also have just this type of sensitive side. Severin-Mars was also featured in Gance’s film La Roue, and he died a few years after making J’Accuse. The female role in the film is one of tragic victimization, and although the actress Maryse Dauvray is beautiful, that’s not enough to pull the character further.  To Gance’s credit, though, he at least attempts to address the situation at home for those isolated people who lack knowledge of the fate of their loved ones. jaccuse woman in doorway As for the character of the poet, his fate is not surprising — and, like Dauvray, the actor Romuald Joubé is more eye-candy than good at acting. But maybe this is all to be expected when the characters are fundamentally types placed in an epic scenario.The film was a hit in its day in its native France, giving the lie, I guess, to the notion that art films don’t make money. It did well in Britain, too, although Gance and Pathe Studios had difficulty getting it distributed in the States. Eventually United Artists came through; this was when UA was jointly owned by Pickford, Fairbanks, Chaplin, and Griffith. While J’Accuse was expensive to make, it made back far more. And its wide distribution allowed it to become an influence on countless artists.

Filming J'Accuse on location: (l to r)  Marc Bujard, Maurice Forster, Antonin Nalpes, and Abel Gance

Filming J’Accuse on location: (l to r) Marc Bujard, Maurice Forster, Antonin Nalpes, and Abel Gance

J’Accuse is currently available in a fine DVD edition from Lobster Films in conjunction with Flicker Alley.

 

 

 

 

 

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