Monday, September 08, 2008

Movie Review: Cleopatra (1912)

Movies were still in their infancy when this, the second Cleopatra film committed to celluloid was filmed. In 1912, film grammar and shot composition had not been rigorously developed, nor put into place. Compared to the inventive cinematography and roaming camera work commonplace today, the early silent era was that of the more or less static camera. In this period, the camera was set upon a fixed point, the film was cranked, and the action took place in directly in front of the lens, often within the identical relative framework and perspective. Shot lengths extended for minutes at a time and cutting between scenes was quite minimal; shot changes occurred infrequently and were usually used only to introduce new characters or underscore important events. Today's audience might consider these films tedious, which is certainly understandable.

In other words, the potential of the medium had not been fully explored nor realized. Early works like Cleopatra aren't really much more than filmed stage plays. Cleopatra plays for little more than glorified theater, which is evident in the elaborate choreography, costumes, and frequently flamboyant overacting. The camera mirrors the precise location of where the attention and eye of the viewer would be drawn to naturally during the performance, and incorporates none of the modern techniques like cross-cutting, tracking shots, facial closeups, or their ilk. Movies of the early silent era suffer mightily from a lack of synchronized dialogue, particularly because it took several years for directors to transform the "limitations" of the pre-sound cinema into a unique world unto itself. Speaking for Cleopatra alone, even a judicious use of intertitles barely manages to keep the audience from massive confusion--a fast paced plot paired with numerous entrances and exits of major characters begs for spoken dialogue. Subsequent directors and screenwriters learned from this, deliberately keeping the plots of their films relatively simplistic and straight-forward.

In keeping with the nineteenth century style then still in fashion, actors and actresses performed with the exaggerated gestures and melodramatic postures that a contemporary audience frequently finds off-putting and campy. I consider it deeply unfortunate that so many people today assume that all silent film acting resembles this degree of excessive theatricality--they confuse its early days with the true-to-life techniques that had all but replaced them by the end of the silent era. As films became peopled less and less by stage actors and more and more by those who had no formalist training, acting became far more naturalistic. At the beginning, movies were overwhelmingly peopled with members of acting troops and classically trained thespians, but by the end of World War I, the idea of the movie star as we know it was born. Actors and actresses were recruited by studios with the criteria not focused on their experience on the stage but instead on their photographic propensity and unique, individual talents.

Much of this new talent was comprised of the lower ranks of society. With Judeophobia still a potent force in the American workplace, Jews found themselves locked out of a variety of jobs and, because they had few opportunities elsewhere, many took positions with film studios. Work in films was often the best opportunity Semetic peoples could hope to receive. Since cinema was considered a vulgar, base entertainment for the masses--vastly inferior to the stage, and above all not an respected art form (yet), the pioneers who began what eventually grew into a formidable film industry had much in common with one another. Many were were societal misfits, cursed with dysfunctional upbringings and unstable home lives, all running away to escape poverty and abuse for the promise of instant fame and steady work.

For those who wish to have a glimpse at the raw beginnings of what has now become a refined, complex art form, Cleopatra is worth a look. Those disinclined to watch to any degree would do well to avoid it.

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