Saturday, January 16, 2010

Film #3: Sunrise (1927)

Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: none

The Story:

In the early part of the 20th century, a young married man living in a village is having an affair with a visiting city gal. Smitten with lust, he's convinced to murder his loving wife so that he can move to the city with his mistress. He convinces his wife to hop into their little boat, ostensibly for a trip to the city. His plan is to push her overboard and claim accidental death; however, just as he's about to commit the deed, his wife senses his intent and recoils in horror. He is stricken with the notion of what he is about to do, is overcome with crushing guilt, and pleads his wife's forgiveness. Through a series of increasingly lighthearted antics in the city, the husband and wife rediscover their love for each other. On the return boat trip back to their village, a storm sweeps in and sends the couple into the thrashing lake waters. When the man recovers and thinks that he has lost his wife forever, he is sent into a dark rage, nearly killing the still-present mistress. He stops short only because another stalwart villager finds and revives the wife in the nick of time. Love, rather than homicidal insanity, wins out for the second time in the film. Three cheers for love!!

My Gut Feeling (done after watching the film, but before any research):

This was actually an enjoyable little movie. It's just under 90 minutes, so the story is told in a pretty concise way, with no parts seeming to drag too much. Right away, things get hopping as you start with the man-stealing city gal using her slinky black dress to arouse the killer inside "The Man" (another effect I actually liked is that none of the characters is given a proper name - it lends a parable-like air to everything). I think that the narrative beginning was pretty cool since other, more boring films may have wasted at least a half hour with a story of the city dame's seduction of the farmer. In Sunrise, there's none of that. It jumps right to the sinister plot to kill the sweet young wife. In keeping with this quick beginning, you can tell that his wife is a caring, soulful creature who's done nothing to deserve such treachery. The rest of the movie does the same. Through physical attitudes and facial expressions, we can clearly see the anguish and joy that the main characters experience. It's quite effective.

The interesting aspect of this is that, compared to contemporary silent films that I've seen, the actors in Sunrise don't overdo it too much. Sure, things are melodramatic and postures are exaggerated (I'm sure the script had many obvious phrases such as "slouched shoulders" and "body drawn back in horror"), but not nearly to the extent of a film like Metropolis, which came out earlier in the same year. When you look past the more obvious, heavily theatrical moments, there are plenty of very delicate, human moments: gentle touches, kisses, and looks that ring true to viewers in any time. Because of this relative realism, I found that I actually cared about the characters.

Here's an extended clip. Check out the segment from time 8:30 and after, which I find to be pretty powerful:

The juggernaut film Metropolis dealt with characters who had very little flesh and blood - they represented much larger concepts like "The Aristocracy" or "The Soul". In Sunrise, we're given a simple tale of love and it's very effective. When The Man is stalking towards his sweet little wife to kill her (in the previous clip), I was intensely focused on whether he would do it or not (again, I knew nothing about the movie before watching). The film had already shown us the man envisioning the killing, so I knew the filmmakers weren't going to shy away from being too dark or graphic. When the peals of nearby town bells bring him to his senses and shake him out of his murderous state of mind, I felt actual relief. It was the same at the end when we are led to believe that his wife has truly drowned because of a raging storm. I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach, especially when the man finds his mistress and starts to strangle her (another rather dark and realistically intense scene). When his wife is found and revived, I was genuinely pleased. Call me a softy, but after the pair had been through so much, my heart was rather warmed by the feel-good ending. No tears, though, so I'm going to hold on to my "Man Card".

If there was anything I didn't like too much it was the hokey middle-section of the film. Once the man has snapped out of his urge to kill his wife and has worked to regain her trust, they traipse through the city to re-cultivate their childlike love for each other. This, by itself, is fine. The problem is that the filmmakers used gags that I think were supposed to be truly funny and that made the audience laugh with the reborn couple. Maybe this worked well back in 1927, but now they all seem pretty sophomoric. Granted, we are watching a story about two young farmers, so the things that bring them joy may not translate to the modern, urban film viewer very well. All the same, my eyes were rolling a bit during these scenes, which included a broken lamp, a drunken runaway pig, and a woman's falling shoulder straps (the scandal!!).

In the final analysis, I thought it was a good movie. Like the other two silent films that I've watched so far, I don't know that I'd go out of my way to watch it again, but it certainly wasn't time wasted or a struggle to get through. It's also not hard to see why it's lived on in cinema history. I enjoyed its frankness and tenderness, and its ability to connect with the viewer. It's a good reminder that just because a tale is simple does not mean that it necessarily lacks immense power. Sunrise proves this.

Panning In; or, "Why Film Geeks Love This Movie": (a closer look at the film after doing some research)

This particular DVD had a nice amount of extras, the best being the audio commentary track by cinematographer John Bailey. This guy does wander into technical jargon and musings of the lives of the filmmakers once in a while, but for the most part he analyzes and educates on the film. This is really interesting for those who like to "see behind the curtain" and figure out how they pulled off some of the groundbreaking camerawork in the film. What I got most out of his commentary was his pointing out just how beautiful some of the still shots are. More than once he compared such shots to the paintings of Dutch masters like Vermeer, and its not hard to see it. Here's an example:

There are plenty of other, even more beautiful scenes. What I realized after having them pointed out to me is that, to truly enjoy and appreciate such things, you have to be in the right frame of mind. There are some movies that you'll watch and love no matter what your mood (for me, Predator, Heat, The Big Lebowski and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly come to mind. To each his own). A silent movie like this, though, requires a certain relaxed mood and patience to drink in the oft-soothing visuals and allow them to calmly convey the emotion in the story. In short, I probably shouldn't have downed that espresso before sitting down to watch this film. Such high levels of concentrated caffeine tend to make me antsy for a gunfight.

From what I've read, many film critics & historians show an almost forlorn attitude when writing and speaking of this movie. It came out just one month after The Jazz Singer, which was the very first "talkie," and the film that changed popular cinematic storytelling forever. The irony is that, just as it came out, filmmakers were really mastering the medium of visual storytelling, both technically and artistically. As immense and powerful as a film like Metropolis was, Sunrise showed how the same artistry could be applied to a far simpler and touching theme: the love between two people. To many hard-core film heads, Sunrise was one of the last of its ilk, as the coming years would bring in the rapid decline of the silent film and a major paradigm shift in cinematic storytelling.

That's a wrap. 3 down. 102 to go.

Next film on TIME's list: The Last Command (1928):

If we end up facing a nuclear winter, I think this guy is the hard-ass I want on my team. Like Sunrise, I'm going into this one with absolutely no foreknowledge.