The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Friday, March 07, 2003
SILENT CINEMA REPORT: Last weekend I finally got a chance to watch the restored Metropolis (1926), Fritz Lang's mad masterpiece of early science fiction. It's a great film whose maker made one serious mistake: He repeatedly spells out his moral ("The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart"), thus preventing us from interpreting his odd mishmosh of social speculation, futurist architecture, radical social commentary, and Christian symbolism as something complex and profound. A nicer way to put it would be that Lang's own feelings were complicated, and that the film frequently reflects this, but that he felt the need to mask these internal conflicts with a tidy little moral. It's a wonderful movie, anyway, whether or not it has anything deep or original to say. It's simply staggering to look at, and has a wonderfully cracked story to tell.

Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927) is another silent masterpiece that was only available, until relatively recently, in butchered form. I watched it over the course of a couple evenings this week, and digested a message even simpler than Lang's: that Bonaparte was a great and noble man. Geez. At least Lang's little piety about head, hands, and heart is broadly acceptable to the viewer of humane sensibilities. Gance's is propaganda for an imperialist butcher.

Then again, the great silent movies of the early Soviet Union were usually propaganda for men even worse than Napoleon, and that doesn't stop us from admiring their visual and narrative brilliance. Gance's epic is arguably the most inventive film of the '20s, with four or more hours -- depending on which cut you watch -- of superimpositions, rapid montages, and an insanely mobile camera, with a climax that is literally panoramic, projected onto three adjacent screens. Yes, the director puts those intoxicating images in the service of a dubious message. That merely means you should watch the film rather than read the screenplay.

Napoleon also contains the single best snowball-fighting scene in the history of cinema. If that sounds like a minor achievement, it's because you haven't seen it.


posted by Jesse 8:11 PM
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